First of all, I would like to extend immense gratitude to my friend and Sister in Christ, Barbara Kavanaugh, for encouraging me to write a “blog” about the intersection of the worlds of Christian and Classical Music. I took quite a while to settle on a topic, but it is one that I have struggled with for quite some time. I only hope that my own perspective can bring healing and comfort to someone else who may have a similar situation.
A few weeks ago, I was doing my devotions. On that particular day in Eugene Peterson’s The Message: Solo Remix - An Uncommon Devotional, it was Day 60, and the reading was Esther 5-6, specifically Esther 5:9-13 (below, in the English Standard Version).
“Haman went out that day pleased and happy, but when Haman saw Mordecai in the king's gate, and that he did not stand up and tremble in his presence, Haman was furious with Mordecai. Haman restrained himself, went to his house, and sent for his friends and his wife Zeresh. Then Haman told them about his splendid wealth, the number of his sons, all the ways the king had honored him, and that he had promoted him above all the other officials and ministers of the king. Then Haman said, "Even Queen Esther brought no one except me with the king to the banquet that she held. Furthermore, I (along with the king) have also been invited by her tomorrow. But all this does not satisfy me every time I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king's gate.”
In this case, Haman, despite access to the King and Queen, splendid riches, a healthy family, and a place to live, Haman is preoccupied, if not obsessed with, Mordecai’s refusal to pay homage to either the King or to Haman himself.
1. How many times have I (or anyone) walked into a situation with a certain preoccupation? Has it ever helped, and how can I identify it?
Throughout my conservatory training (Oberlin, Westminster Choir College, and Eastman), perhaps the focus of the training is one’s development on one's instrument, normally through intense daily practice and weekly private lessons with a teacher-mentor. This was the norm for all three of my degrees. Daily practice, and then the next “deadline” was the weekly lesson.
I don’t know how many weeks per year (and the above education was a full ten years) I planned my entire week around when my lesson was, how to practice for it, what to bring, how to improve, and how to implement what my teacher had said.
This is all well and good. However, I could have been easier on myself by focusing on my strengths first, instead of being preoccupied with what still needed attention. During undergraduate, I felt that my technique was behind some of my classmates. That, combined with nerves while playing from memory, led to some regular doubts of self and some performances that could have been better. As my technique continued to solidify through my training, and I gained more experience, I simply found other ways to preoccupy myself, including:
a). How will my teacher like this on Tuesday?
b). Is this better than last week?
c). Is this good enough to get into _______ summer program, ____________ scholarship, ___________ fellowship, etc.
d). Is this degree going to be “worth it” (will I get some sort of job after it, will it bring me fame and fortune, etc.).
e). Am I getting worse?
For my first two degrees, social media hadn’t been invented yet. For my time at Eastman, I purposely stayed “off” of Facebook, and in fact, didn’t have internet at home. I can’t imagine the ingrained social pressure which is built into conservatory and degree programs now with social media as prevalent as it is.
2. How is my preoccupation or worry hurting my everyday life?
I would posit that *some* amount of concern helps to avoid crisis or unnecessary problem. I do check my online bank balance once a day, to ascertain that a card hasn’t been stolen in my travels (I travel fairly frequently) nor that I’ve forgotten something which could lead to a short-term problem. I put gas in my car the minute the gas light goes on. And because I hate rushing, I start packing for trips now about 2-3 days in advance.
However, preoccupation can’t help when “things happen.” The best preparation for a concert in the world is still not 100% insurance for either a memory slip or a bad review. It can certainly help. But being preoccupied on where a memory slip can occur instead of practicing to the artist’s strengths and the architecture of the piece are much better ways to ensure a solid performance.
3. How can I replace one habit with another?
I can tell the minute I go from “present” to “preoccupied.” I can feel physical changes in my body and mind. Do you know when you are taken out of “presence?” We all have individual “tells.”
One thing I would advocate is finding something immediately that is 100% honest and for which you are grateful. Some examples could be:
I keep a practice journal which is for notes about my own practice, and then any notes I may have taken during a rehearsal that I am running, assisting, or somehow a collaborating partner. In this, I used to just use it as a “to-do” list, but now I list it also as a list of accomplishments - what I did that particular day, and what I’m celebrating in that moment.
4. What things should we like to be preoccupied with?
Make a list of things that would feel “good” to be preoccupied with. Anything from having a completely cleaned-out music bag with sharpened pencils and everything in one place, to a fully charged tablet for your next gig, or not worrying about how to spend your last $50.00 in your bank account.
In conclusion -
The mind will always look for something to do. If you don’t assign it a job, it will find one. It is likely you will be less happy with the job it chose than if you assigned it one. This all takes practice, and I am a practicing person of faith in myself and my artistry as well as “on things above” (Colossians 3:2). If I can be of any help to you in your journey, please don't hesitate to contact me - firstname.lastname@example.org / www.kristinditlow.com