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Thoughts from a Musician's Heart

WHO STEERS? WHO ROWS? by Carter Johnson

The classical music industry can be a tough and unforgiving business. Just combine the

extreme levels of competition, a relatively small audience pool, and the enormous

artistic and emotional demands on the musicians (not to mention the sheer hours of

practice required) — is it any wonder that we often get discouraged?

Over the past few years, I have been spending a great deal of time doing professional

piano competitions, and anyone who has ever done a music competition knows that there are

few places more ripe for discouragement than here. You prepare for a competition for

months, sometimes even traveling to the other side of the world, only to be eliminated

after the very first round because a couple too many jury members didn’t like your

ornamentation in the Bach (or some other such reason)! Yes, the intensity, challenges,

and highs & lows of competitions are sort of an exaggerated version of what navigating

the classical music world is like as a whole, which has led me to ask the question — how

should we as Christian musicians approach these experiences?

Thankfully, the Lord provides ample wisdom for us on the subject. I would like to

present two general truths I have found to be helpful, illustrated from the book of

Proverbs — ones which I believe need to be balanced like two reins in the hands of a

stagecoach driver.

The first one is that the scriptures absolutely extol the virtue and value of diligent, hard

work. One verse we recently taught our children is Proverbs 6:6 —“Go to the ant, thou

sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” Or a couple more — “The soul of the sluggard

desireth, and hath nothing: but the soul of the diligent shall be made fat” (Proverbs

13:4). “Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings; he shall

not stand before mean men” (Proverbs 22:29). Surely the Lord means to tell us that we

simply need to work hard, and then all will be provided for us. Right?

Well, perhaps not quite. Before I am attacked with anecdotal objections, I must clarify

that the book of Proverbs is a book full of general truths and wisdom, not absolute ones.

You may know colleagues with less talent and drive than you who you feel are more

successful... or the reverse may be true! These things are a real and inevitable part of

life. So while it is true that hard work is meaningful, profitable, and brings glory to God,

he often has plans that may seem out of step with this. And this is where we come to

trusting and resting in God’s providence, regardless of circumstances. Take Proverbs

19:21 — “There are many devices in a man’s heart; nevertheless the counsel of the

LORD, that shall stand.” Or, how about Proverbs 16:33 — “The lot is cast into the lap;

but the whole disposing thereof is of the LORD.” Want to talk about how selection for

competitions, school and orchestra auditions, and faculty positions often seems to be

“random”? Sure, but even something as seemingly random as the casting of lots is

governed by the Lord. And since God is a good God, we can trust that in his wisdom he

is working out everything to its proper end, for both his glory and the good of his


So, on the one hand, we are to do our best and work diligently for God’s glory, but on the

other hand, we are to leave the results to God’s providence, and trust in his goodness

and wisdom. As one quote I recently found on the internet put it (for which I can’t locate

an author), “God will steer the boat, but you must row.” Or, even better, a scripture

which summarizes this balanced ideal of what our attitude as Christian musicians

should be is Colossians 3:23 — “And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and

not unto men.”


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