When I was in my undergraduate years, I studied music rather seriously, and completed a degree in jazz guitar and vocal performance. That degree, along with a Metro card, will allow you to ride on a New York City subway. But I learned a great deal about life through my study of jazz.
I was especially influenced by my teacher for two years, the brilliant guitar player and pedagogue, Linc Chamberland. (Google him, he’ll blow your mind.) This morning in a prayer session with the lovely Angela, I remembered my conversations with Linc long, long ago about the relationship between practicing music and playing it.
During my two-hour lessons Linc sure put me through my paces! We’d start a song like Stella By Starlight, tamely executing the chords and melody together in normal 4/4 time in the standard key of B-flat. Then, he’d call out, “OK Ruth, now modulate to the key of G-flat.” Or, “OK, Ruth, now in 5/4 time.”
What?! Now? Just like that? Surely you’re kidding, right?
I’d stumble through, feeling like I was on a wickedly devised obstacle course, painfully banging my head and stubbing my toes all the way. It was humiliating at times, and he knew it. But he would just laugh and say, “You don’t come here to play, do you? You can play on your own time. I thought you came here to work!”
Linc cautioned me about getting distracted in my practice time at school or home as well. He knew well the temptation to stop running scales, arpeggios, chord cycles, or rhythmic exercises—the fundamental skills I was seeking to develop–and to start noodling around and playing tunes. He told me to make sure that when it was practice time, I was really practicing.
But Linc also cautioned me against practicing when it was time to play. When I had a gig, or even an opportunity to jam with friends, I was to let go of my fixation on the technical elements, and just be a musician. He believed that as a player I had my own unique sound and message, and he didn’t want me to miss out on the joy of expressing that.
I think that’s the best thing Linc taught me: how to practice, and when to let go of practicing and simply play what you know.
There is such a distinct parallel to other parts of life. As a counselor, I have something called a “practice” where I minister to my clients. Why is it called a practice? Maybe because it is a context where we work together on fundamental life principles, skill sets, belief systems, and resiliencies that make life more purposeful, peaceable and joyful.
I’m always looking and listening for the day when clients reveal that they have internalized the things we’ve been “practicing” together, and they’ve become more wholehearted, free, and alive. They tell me in one way or another that life has begun to offer moments that feel more like playing than practicing. That is the day when I’ve worked myself out of a job, and I rejoice in that.
We never fully stop the training and practicing process, in music or in life. As disciples, we can always expand our capacity to love God and others the way Jesus does. The spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, giving, resting, studying, etc., are tools that help us to develop spiritual health and fitness.
But there is a time to step back and enjoy the fruits of God’s constant, sublime grace, and allow ourselves the freedom to play. This is when we stop to notice that we are more joyful than we were yesterday, and we can’t explain why. We notice the pink flowers blooming in the middle of February. We are filled with gratitude because although strawberries are not necessary for our survival, there they are to enjoy in all their lusciousness.
We see the amazing, diverse, lush beauty of all that God has created, formed and made, and we marvel. Our worship overflows. We forget about practicing for a while and let a sweet song flow from our lips or strings.
I believe this song reaches the ears of God, and he smiles and taps his feet with pleasure. Maybe even dances.