The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Artistic Formation through the Public Forum

Beatitude Sunday is probably not the best day to play Prometheus. Unless you enjoy tragic irony, that is.

I have a lot of friends who are closet artists of all kinds. One major lesson I have taken from my 6 months as Music Director of a church is how crucial it is to just get out there and put your art in a public setting. This is true for any art form--music, prose writing, you name it.

It has taken the last 6 months--2 Masses each week, practices and a few Holy Days--before I've been able to more fully stretch out on the guitar. If you are counting, that's at least 50-60 live "performances" with at least as many practices either with the whole choir or individual cantors.

I could play all sorts of intricate songs at home, but put me in front of a crowd in a formal setting, expecting me to lead a full choir and congregation through my playing, and all sorts of problems arise: My fingers suddenly have all the flexibility and dexterity of telephone poles. For months, the only thing that has worked was chugging my way through simple chords. It was the only thing I could do that was strong enough and confident enough to actually lead in an adequate way. Folks asked for more intricate intros with the melody so they could follow the tune better, but it was all I could do.

It has only been in the last couple of weeks that I have been able to play more elaborate finger-picking songs at Mass. I've been having a blast coming up with my own arrangements of popular songs, and the congregation has responded to it. The big lesson was realizing how long it took to do something in public that I could have easily done at home.

There's nothing like a public showing of your art to point out where the gaps are. A little hesitation while playing at home may not be noticed until it throws off the entire song at Mass. You also need to be twice as good in private in order to play half as good in public, when you factor in nervousness, crowd distractions, and sound system issues that are all poised to throw you off when you least want it.

Part of the problem was just finding a comfort level with the microphone and sound system. Artists often forget how important it is to navigate the technical doo-dad's and gizmotrons that are part and parcel of their craft. It takes a while to find the right settings and to get comfortable with placement of the mic so that it rings out the way it should. Even purists who abhor electronic amplification still have to adjust to each room they are in and factor in how the temperature, humidity and crowd size can impact the resonation of sound. These lessons are just as important as learning the notes on the page.

The public presentation of art is also crucial for garnering critical feedback. Many original ideas that work well in the privacy of your own living room just can't hold water in public. Some just need slight--but essential--tweaking. In Catholic liturgical music, I would argue that it should be darn near mandatory that all pieces are done at Mass before any attempt is made to seek publishing. Each piece needs to be sung and played and sung back to you by a congregation. They need to be part of the life of the Church, and the people need to be on board.

In addition, a choir needs to give feedback to chop an inflated song down to its essential core. While my choir is experienced enough and technically sophisticated enough to sing just about anything, it is often good when they struggle or wrinkle their noses at a new piece. If a piece can only be done well by the most avant garde ensemble, then it just might be missing something important, especially since I'd rather craft tunes you can whistle while you wash dishes. The public forum can be frustrating, and you have to know when to push for something new and stick to your guns and when to let the masses who are often resistant to new things push back. A lot of "cute" ideas aren't really that cute. A solid church choir won't let you get away with much, and your art will usually be the better for it.

You can put something together that you think has all the t's crossed and the i's dotted, but then an editor takes a look and brings it back to you smothered in red pen. That is not a moment to be discouraged, as the editing process is an essential part of the craft. It is not something that only "bad pieces" go through, every piece should be edited by people far a wide--for technical issues or to discuss the vision. Any good artist has a team of such people--whether formally assembled or otherwise--that serves this role. You should expect that a significant portion of what you create will not leave the cutting room floor (and you can always keep that stuff in the back of your mind to use again later).

Since my guitar playing has been going well lately, perhaps I tried to over-reach this Sunday and make a bit of a show of myself: I originally planned to do the opening song on banjo, the offertory in an open turning, the Psalm and Alleluia on piano and the rest on a second guitar in standard tuning. The problem was that the choir just struggled. No matter how prepared I thought I was, they just couldn't get into the pieces, and I'm still not sure why. I shelved the banjo to try to help, as I was a little awkward with it, but Saturday was still disappointing. We did close out Sunday singing strong, but my lesson had been learned by that point.

I will also admit something unfortunate: I only picked the song for Offertory because I was super-excited about an arrangement I came up with. I borrowed Erin's guitar and had a blast working on it in an open tuning. The problem was that the song had no bearing on this Mass at all. We were talking about the beatitudes, and this was a song about the centrality of the Crucifixion to our faith. As a good theology student, I can build a systematic case as to how and why those two themes are related. "Blessed are the meek" is, after all, not that far removed from the paschal sacrifice--the less becomes more and the sacrifice becomes a gain. Still, I didn't feel comfortable with it and my motives were not theological. Normally, I go to great lengths to pick music that is liturgically appropriate, but this time I let that slide a bit.

I keep getting reminded that slow-and-steady is what will win this race. Yes, it is good to stretch out and reach for more, but I reached too far and got burned this time. I also didn't reach with my feet on the ground, and that is probably the most significant issue. I picked at least one song for the wrong reasons, and probably had my focus off center on some other pieces. As a result, I'm not surprised that it just didn't work. I had too much of my focus on my own playing without giving enough thought to connecting to people through the music.

Seek the Lord all you humble of heart. As this passage from today's readings suggests, being meek doesn't mean we are passive or inactive. We need to seek the Lord, but through humility. We need to seek goodness and seek artistic fulfilment. You see, Prometheus wasn't wrong for reaching for more--he was wrong because of his motives for reaching.

* * *

This is part 2/5 of the series "Strategic Goal Setting."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Thank You, Motter’s Music!

I dread going into music instrument mega stores. I’ll even have an anxiety episode when I walk into a Guitar Center or Sam Ash Music. Those places are set up to attack you and over-stimulate your senses with all the packaging, loud noises and all the rest. People are friendly, but there is an undertone of arrogance and aggressiveness there. I wasn’t even sure how I was going to shop for a guitar at all under these conditions.

So that is why I was so pleased to happen upon Motter’s Music Boardman, which is, strangely enough, in Canfield, OH. It’s a small mom-n-pop shop that I just decided to go into on a whim. As soon as I walked in there, I had a sense of calm, even though the store was also chock full of instruments, books and accessories. That made for quite a pleasant shopping experience.

I browsed through their line of guitars. I saw a nice Yamaha that had potential. I also discovered the brand Seagull Guitars, a make out of Canada I hadn’t heard about before. They sound great! After a bit of trial-and-error, I settled on a beautiful blonde maple guitar, which was, naturally, the first one I tried out. For finger-picking, it's sensational.

For folks who have known my guitar tastes, this one is a new direction that you might not have expected, but I bet you’ll be impressed, as I am, too.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Time of Day and the Creative Process

I've always been an out-of-the-closet night owl, and I have worn that badge with pride. You can imagine that I was shocked and amazed to discover that I'm far more creative and write better in the first few hours after waking up. I was actually in denial about this for a while, because I didn’t even want to think of myself as a morning person!

I had an epiphany when I realized there was a huge time-of-day component to writing, for me. The best times are somewhere after coffee and before breakfast. I naturally sit down to start blogging or work on a song. As soon as I eat a big meal, blood goes to the belly and it’s all over.

Being a procrastinator means that I rarely wrote in the mornings during college. Each day, I took advantage of every distraction until I found myself staring at the computer screen at midnight, attempting to squeeze out a gold nugget or two. I now realize I was always writing during times that were less-than-ideal at best, and absolutely contrary to my body's rhythms at worst (with procrastinitis on top of that)! I was often working against my own grain. Looking back, I remember there were a few times when I wrote pages almost effortlessly in the AM that would have taken true grit later in the day, but I didn't fully appreciate why until much later.

There is a hierarchy to creativity for me, I’ve noticed. The deepest levels of creativity are best accessed in the morning—putting something on a blank piece of paper. It doesn’t matter if it’s writing music or songs. The rest of the day is certainly not extraneous, though, as other forms of creativity take center stage. Editing is perfectly appropriate for later in the day and so is what I call "secondary writing"--tying up loose ends, closing out scratchy paragraphs and adding essential dimension and color.

I actually do much better with music performance and improvisation in the afternoons. For example, I play guitar at Mass much better Saturdays at 4:30 PM than Sundays at 10 AM. I can crank out a better guitar solo later in the day. That could possibly be because my body has had time to loosen up during the day, too. However, any public presentation is better for me later in the day. I'm more jovial and creative in conversations as the day progresses, too. I become more of an extrovert as the day goes on. I'm much more present to people.

I finally had writing papers down to a science when working toward my Masters degree. Even on days when I was running behind and had to make every hour count, I would still subdivide my work in the following way to maximize my output and still work within my body's parameters:

First 3 hours of the day (or as long as the juices keep flowing): Writing!--Especially anything from scratch.

Next: Editing, joining disparate sections, rounding out pieces.

Afternoons: Reading, note-taking and research. Note: Taking notes provides the occasion for any later-in-the-day creativity to come out, as those notes often become the building blocks for later sections in a paper. Summarizing another author's ideas is a good writing exercise for this time of day.

Burning the midnight oil: If I need to stay up late, the best tasks are the most technical--adding citations, sculpting a bibliography, tinkering with layout & graphics.

After midnight? I used to have breakthrough moments sometime around 3-5 AM. I don't do this to myself anymore, partly because it's not kind, and partly because my body simply cannot hang in there long enough for this to happen anymore even if I wanted it to.

By adhering to the above schedule, I make use of my body's peak times. I also spread out the different types of work throughout the day. In a pinch, I can be productive nearly all day, because I don't over-tax any one area of the brain.

You can always go against your grain and attempt to force yourself to operate contrary to your body's natural rhythms. What I have found is that by doing that I would often just end up staring blankly at the screen for several hours, attempting to gather momentum via endless rounds of the latest time-waster games (that meant Minesweeper or Tetris in college; today that means Farmville). These days, if I have time to spare, I don't even try to write if my body won't cooperate. That time is best spent sleeping with the goal of hitting it early in the AM.

Keep in mind that the way I subdivide the day is relative to the individual: "Morning" is the time after waking up, it has nothing to do with the clock. My natural morning is around 10 AM, when I don't have commitments that force me out bed earlier.

Knowing this brings to mind a somewhat sobering fact: I can't do all things at all times. I have limitations. But this also means I have important information to make decisions about my day. I've been endlessly frustrated when working 9-5, knowing I am squandering my best creative hours doing something else. Even when immersed in the world world, I'd often find myself scratching down notes for a blog post or paper in my head, because it was simply in me to do during that time of day. Lately, I've been blessed to have a work schedule that is more conducive to my creative ebbs and flows. If my goal is to write, I have to find a way to orient my lifestyle around that, not give my writing the leftover scraps of weekends or occasional days off.

There are other factors that affect my creativity. Eating a protein-based meal helps significantly, while carbs make me feel more scatter-brained. I also have come to respect and know that creativity often comes in spurts, so when it's there I need to give it free voice and not just assume it will be there at a later time when I want it to be there. This is especially true when conducting research--if a particular passage sparks an idea, I need to write about it right at that moment and not assume I will be able to find that passage later, re-read it and have the same spark to comment on it.

Do you have a natural cycle for creativity like this?

* * *

This is part 1/5 of the series "Strategic Goal Setting."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sympathy for Insurance Companies

I can sympathize with the plight of insurance companies. In a purely capitalist system, there isn't much incentive not to be total assholes. As soon as you have one do-gooder business insuring people with cancer (like me), the sooner they'll be out-competed by the assholes on the block who aren't doing that and be put out of business.

One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel. Capitalism left unchecked tends toward the lowest common denominator.

That is why that argument is so clear for universal health care. If we all just get together and decide to share the burden and get 'er done, we can do it. Companies acting alone with no reward for taking on a financial burden won't insure the people who actually need it. They will sit up late at night trying to figure out ways to exclude people, which isn't a very good exercise for any human being to be involved in. Nobody should put themselves in a position where their job is to figure out ways to deny coverage for the people who most urgently need it.

The government shouldn't run health care, it just needs to remove barriers for people who need access to it and/or increase incentives for companies to do so. The government can help level the playing field so that business people who want to do good are not penalized for doing so. Let's help create a society where it is easier to be good, as Peter Maurin suggested.

I'm not saying capitalism is all bad. I'm just saying that there are some decisions that are best left to individuals to fend for themselves against market forces, and then some decisions are better left to large groups (like nations) to decide and enact en masse. Few people are trying to bring about socialism in America, and few are truly trying to bring pure capitalism (which is really another word for anarchy). The only question in American politics is agreeing on what we do individually and what we do collectively--either way it is still capitalism. Nobody is forcing the government on anybody if we all democratically decide that we would rather do something as a group than as individuals.

I'm glad we don't leave it up to the free market to determine how to drive on roads. I'm reasonably happy to know that when I drive on the road that anyone coming in the opposite direction is going to stay on the other side. Laws like this just make life easier, not more difficult. All these people spouting about how the "least government is the best" haven't seen how the business world works when left unchecked.

However, opponents like to throw out words like "socialism!" to scare people. Few people will do the relevant research to unpack all that loaded language. This is especially true in a nation where technical training is up but we have very little stock in educating people about logic and rhetoric (once pillars of higher education).

* * *

There's another argument for universal health care that few people are talking about: Entrepreneurism. How are we gonna dig our way out of this economic malaise? One surefire way is through innovation. Innovation is proven growth element in any economy. Any economist will tell you that the best way to encourage that is to reduce risk. Let's support an environment where people have fewer barriers to trying new things and let them take us to the next level.

I'm an entrepreneur. I'm ready to start my own business. I'm a director of a nonprofit organization. However, we need some time before we can turn it into an operation that can support salaries and insurance packages. The jump from a standard, off-the-shelf job into this is too steep right now. I'd have to fly without health coverage for a while. That's simply not an option. So instead of boldly going where no one has gone before, I'm looking into being a barista just for the health care. The availability of health care coverage is the biggest governor slowing down the whole process. Here I am, an excited and motivated citizen, ready to bring innovation into the economy, and I'm halted by a flawed health care coverage system.

The biggest problem is that our health care is all tangled up with employment. That needs to be unravelled. Perhaps it made more sense 40 years ago as many folks worked for large corporations like the Big 3 Auto and job transitions were more rare. Nowadays, there are many self-employed and other entrepreneurs, but the current health care infrastructure does not support their occupation choice.

Decades ago, companies found that they instead of paying higher wages, they could offer "wages plus benefits" to employees as part of their compensation package. It was a win-win: Companies could negotiate lower group rates so in a sense the employees were getting more bang for the bucks that the companies were spending on them. The problem is that we ended up with this convoluted system where health care is tied to employment. In our modern world where job transitions are higher than they ever used to be, the current system does not support our current work culture.

I Built Your Skyscraper, Now Where's My Dime?

I've always been sympathetic to some of the folk songs from the labor movements of decades gone by. However, I have to admit that sometimes I found their arguments to be less-than- convincing.

I never thought I'd be singing (for real) Brother Can You Spare a Dime? by E.Y. Harburg & Jay Gorney. The Weavers had a great version.

I used to think the song was well-intentioned, but still corny and melodramatic. Now I realize it is the cold, hard truth. Some realities in life we don't fully understand until we go through them ourselves. That is why Dorothy Day and many others have advocated for a lifestyle of intentional poverty, because if we are ourselves poor, vulnerable and at risk we will react differently to injustice. We'll be more urgent and more passionate.

In our current society, many have reasonably-solid health care coverage (or at least think they do), many don't. This divide makes it hard for one side to understand the other.

These words really ring true to me now in a way they didn't, before:

They used to tell me I was building a dream,

and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear,

I was always there right on the job.

They used to tell me I was building a dream,
with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line,

just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, made it run,
Made it race against time;
Once I build a railroad -- now it's done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower to the sun,
Brick and rivet and lime;
Once I build a tower -- now it's done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once, in khaki suits, gee, we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodle de-dum;
Half a million boots went sloggin' through Hell --
I was the kid with the drum.

Say, don't you remember, they called me Al?
It was Al all the time.
Say, don't you remember? I'm your pal.
Buddy can you spare a dime?

Aetna used to call me "Frank." It was "Frank" all the time. When I applied, they told me they couldn't wait until I joined their family! Anthem wanted to be my friend. Now it's "Dear Mister."

My own current insurance company (Aetna) has already refused me once when I attempted to go off the group policy into an individual policy. I'm in the process of applying again. I helped build their skyscraper. The only thing I did "wrong" was get laid off.

It's amazing how we as a nation don't honor the debts of those who have contributed. We take their earnest and naives contributions and leave them out in the cold on some technicality when they are no longer useful.

We do it to our troops. We do it to our laborers.

Insurance companies were glad to take my money when I didn't have a "pre-existing condition." Folks are scared not to have coverage if some tragedy strikes, so they pay in even when they aren't getting paid back. Now they are looking for loopholes to turn me away.

The song may have been crafted to make an argument for social security. Indeed, how do we as a society take care of each other? Are people only worth anything if they are fit and able to contribute? What happens when they grow old, sick or disabled, do we just turn them away? People deplete themselves working to build up our society. Yes, they got their paycheck, but we all benefit from their contributions. Are they only good when they can contribute then left to be cast aside later?

What about soldiers who are done with their service who find their needs still remain? What about laborers who worked to build up our nation who are now too old, sick or disabled to work? Right now, we just provide health insurance for those lucky enough to fall into a sweet benefits package and disregard those who fall through the cracks.

Not only are they our sisters and brothers, but they also helped build up the wealth and the world we live in. We are living off the sweat of their backs. But they're out in the cold, asking for a dime.

So many people try to denounce universal health care and social security as some kind of government "handout." This song helps illustrate the fact that we are inter-connected. If I'm going to risk my life and future in your army, if I'm going to risk my health building your skyscraper, then that demands that we have a longer-term relationship than just paycheck-to-paycheck.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I Keep Getting Dumped

Insurance companies have not been very bashful about telling me the reason why they are turning me down. Well, let me amend that--their detached electronic correspondences have not been very bashful.

It goes like this:

I have cancer, so therefore I don't have the option to have insurance through their company.

No joke. No exaggeration.

In other words, I don't have the option for health insurance because there is a high likelihood that I'll actually use it.

Now, I'm sure all these insurance companies can cite all their financial woes and show me charts about risk management. Call me crazy, but isn't there something fundamentally wrong about a system that is not meeting the need it is intended to meet?

That's like saying we won't spend tax dollars to build roads in a part of town with high traffic--too much risk that the roads will take a beating. That's like saying we can't put a police station in a part of town with high crime.

Maybe the Amish should only agree to build barns for people who live in the cities who, well . . . don't need barns.

My mom and dad have been especially insistent all my life on the importance of having continuous medical coverage. Don't ever go without it, they say. You gotta have health insurance, don't have gaps.

I bought into the whole idea that if I just did my fair share and kept myself continually covered, that companies would also do their fair share and continually insure me. That's the honest man's deal we all made, right?

I don't even like to mention that last point, because there are all sorts of very understandable reasons why someone may have a lapse in coverage. But that doesn't need to enter this discussion, because I've never had a lapse.

I should demand that I get my money back from all these insurance companies to whom I've paid considerably more than they have ever paid out for me over the years. By their logic, that would make sense, right? It goes like this: If they won't cover me because I'll use it, then they should pay me back for the times when I haven't. That would be the honest solution, don't you think?

So let's say I go without health insurance and neglect follow-up appointments and procedures for my cancer condition. Let's pretend for a minute that that doesn't scare the living shit out of me and affect my actual life. Let's just look at it in financial terms. Perhaps my condition will worsen being left untreated for several years. If/when I do get into an insurance policy, then my medical bills will be through the roof, much worse than if I had just maintained preventative care. Maybe at that point they will wish they had been continually covering me. Actually, they might try to deny me coverage for having a period of time without insurance. Now wouldn't that be ironic?

It's time we just recognize that health care is a value we all share, and we'd all like access to it. The current system is not working. Well, let me amend again: The current system is not working for me, even though I am one of the people who helped build it up.

I once built a railroad -- now it's done.
Brother can you spare a dime?

Would you like to live in a society where you had to pay a hefty fee every time you called the police and pay out-of-pocket for the officers who protect your home and business? Just imagine firefighters sending you a bill for services rendered! No, we recognize that police and fire protection is something we all want, even though some may need it more than others, often through no fault of their own. We share the financial burden because life would be absurd otherwise.

Whether it is police protection or health insurance, you can complain if some people are getting more out of the system than they are putting in. Or you can just consider yourself blessed that you don't need their help as much as others.

Health insurance is probably the best example going that capitalism by itself does not yield a beneficial result, and it certainly doesn't bring out the best in human nature.

I'm glad I'm not a person at an insurance company denying coverage to people. I'm sure they have built many walls within themselves to rationalize this. I'm sure the responsibility is spread out among so many people that no one individual feels like they are doing the screwing, they are just "following along with the company policies." Regardless of blame, the result is ugly.

It really isn't financially prudent for individual companies acting alone to insure a whole population without looking for ways to pick and choose. This is where some collective action as a group is important, because if we all act and pay together as a nation we can share a burden that no one (or perhaps no corporation) could (or would) handle on their own.

Health care is not much different than police, fire, public education, roads and other infrastructure--it permeates into every nook and cranny of everyone's life. Yes, health care is individual, but it is also very public (the statistics are quite good showing the relationship between individual health and societal cost). Life is just simpler and more humane if we all just take it on together, quit playing the have's against the have not's and quit rolling dice with our lives.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Medical Insurance: Denied

Insurance should be a beautiful thing.

Insurance should be like Amish barn raising--we all rally together to collectively share a burden that might be impossible to endure by ourselves. We all know it could happen to any of us at any time.

Yet, from a purely financial standpoint, it makes sense that a company would want to do what it could to provide insurance coverage for the people least likely to use it.

But if they're in the business to cover people, then shouldn't they be better at finding ways to cover people? What good is insurance if it is only for "healthy" people? That defeats the actual purpose of having it.

You could argue that I have no right to complain if I've been denied medical coverage. Who am I to expect that total strangers in some corporation miles away should be obligated to pay my medical bills?

To that I would say that I wish there was a way that "healthy" people could not feel trapped to pay into a system that would do everything in its power to block them out if they needed the system to pay out.

I could even somewhat understand why a company would hesitate to provide coverage to people with unusually reckless behavior--although even raising that question opens a very explosive can of worms. It can be a cruel exercise to figure out where the line is between privacy and the community's right to judge behavior as being worthy or not. Let's not even go there.

Certain jobs provide medical plans that accept just about everybody, regardless of their conditions or history. It isn't too hard to imagine that such a system could exist regardless of whether people obtain certain employment or not. In other words, why is unconditional coverage tied to employment? That makes no sense, especially as our society is changing and there are more and more self-employed people, contract workers, etc. I can get car insurance and it has nothing to do with my employment. You would think health coverage could function the same way.

I'd say that the deck seems stacked in favor of insurance companies right now. There are many policies in place to protect companies from individuals who would take advantage of them. They make sure that people can't go around without health insurance and then immediately buy into it when an illness occurs. You need some history of continual coverage. But there doesn't seem to be an equal and opposite level of responsibility for companies.

In all my 36 years, I never never had a lapse in health insurance. I've taken care of myself very well. I do have existing conditions. Yet, as I work as an independent contractor now, I've been turned down twice. I don't have all the answers yet as to why.

People are ranting and raving about the new Obama health plan. Yet, all it does is reduce some of the barriers that exist so that people can get coverage.

Like Obama asks,

Would you want to go back to discriminating against children with pre-existing conditions? Would you want to go back to dropping coverage for people when they get sick? Would you want to reinstate lifetime limits on benefits?

People: Is that really too much to ask?

If it is, then I'm truly perplexed. Where is the rage and the resistance to this coming from? I think misinformation is big. You hear lots of warnings about "socialized medicine." But. That's. Not. What. The. Plan. Actually. Is.

The good news is that if I can hang in there a bit longer, the new Obama coverage should make it harder for companies to refuse me--if I can wait a few years until it is all rolled out. And if the plan isn't repealed.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

On Being a Church Music Director

I’m having a great time lately as a church music director, but it is taking a long time to find my footing. As soon as I prepare for the Masses for one weekend, within a couple days I need to be ready for the following week--and then another one and another one and so on!

I just can’t overstate how much of an adjustment it is keeping up with the rhythm and pace of it all.

In my final Masters in Theology course, we spent weeks preparing for a public presentation. We rehearsed several times, got lots of feedback, and when the time came it was an all-or-nothing shot. We could gather all our wits, energy and strength in preparation for a single moment, holding nothing back. Being a regular church musician playing twice a week requires me to allocate energy within myself in a whole different way. I simply can’t “peak” twice a week, week after week, month after month. There will be some good days and some days that are just good enough.

I’ve read a lot of bios of musicians, and in them I would often hear complaints about a rigorous touring schedule. I’d also hear people express surprise and admiration that some bands can continually bring in new material on a regular basis. I have a new appreciation for all of that. It is emotionally quite difficult to be “up” and “on” week after week, day after day. And while the choir does have an established repertoire of many songs and Mass settings, it still takes quite a bit of work rotating in 4 different songs each week, plus Mass settings that need to change regularly. Throw in holy days and the children’s choir and I’m tapped out!

I know, I know, tell all this to the guy schlepping kitty litter in a warehouse 40 hours a week and see how sympathetic he is. Still, each occupation has its crosses to bear, great and small. I feel like I’ve been in an emotional whirlwind the last several months, and I am only beginning to feel like things are settling--and even then I am wary because when I relax too much I find myself falling behind, again.

As church musicians, our goals are different than if we were preparing for a Carnegie Hall performance. Our goal is not to be perfect, but to be credible song leaders. Our goal is to compliment the liturgy and help the congregation in their singing, not to put on a show. This is true even if we have in common many of the same skills and experiences as showpeople.

Don’t get me wrong: I am thrilled to be doing this work. It is a wonderful way to spend my time and earn my bread. The parish community I work in is just tremendous. This has been an opportunity to be creative, develop skills and gather experience working in a parish environment. I regularly put in full-time hours for part-time pay.

I see my role in ministerial terms. Yes, I am the guy playing piano and directing the choir, but ultimately what I’m trying to do is facilitate the musical life of the parish community. I’m always on the lookout for nurturing new talent and interest. I’d love to involve more of the parish in the planning of the music. I feel most connected to the liturgy when I take the time to plan the music, because that is when I meditate on the Scriptures the most deeply and see the ways they are inter-connected. I’d love to share that experience with others. I do believe strongly that participation in the best way to build up a community, and I’d be glad to help that in any way that I can.