Caution... Thick Prose Alert... Proceed at your own risk...
In one sense, it can mean pushing on to the end with your best effort, not slacking off, but enduring in spite of difficulties.
Let me count a couple of other ways…
If music is, as John Cage opined, “sound organized in time,” it is a given that starting and finishing well are important. The beginning and the ending of any piece of music are critical, of course (including one that takes years to finish, like this one — wiki here and more here), but so, too, are interior demarcations, like separate movements in a multi movement piece. As you parse each piece of music into smaller sections, eventually you get to the phrase, which, especially for any musician singing, or playing an instrument that depends upon breath, is one of the most important organizing principles.
Too many times, it seems, musicians seem to settle for just getting the notes right (the latest example I heard of that was a recent, yet stupendously boring recorded version of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, and no, I’m not going to tell you who was involved). Everything starts out ok, but then, note after note proceeds and there is no real end…the music just comes to a “last chord” and then — even in many worship services — you know it is finished because people applaud.
Finishing a phrase (or a movement) like a pro means that the music which led up to the end of that phrase is, well… finished. It isn’t raw material. Some decisions have been made as to shape, color, volume, interior articulation, cohesion, subtext, and more…much more… In concert (by which I mean that more than one musician is playing or singing the same musical line) those decisions need to be, on top of everything else, synchronized.
OK… enough of the technical talk. What does that mean in practice? In essence it comes down to intention and execution. The intent must be determined, and then it must be executed.
Why am I talking about this in the context of church music? Because when there is intent to finish well, and it happens due to execution, the musical difference is astounding. I’ll use two well-known hymns to make my point…sing along in your head, with the commas indicating the end of a phrase:
Holy Holy Holy Lord God Almighty
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God Almighty
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God, Almighty
Amazing Grace How Sweet the Sound that Saved a Wretch Like Me
Amazing, Grace, How Sweet the Sound that Saved a Wretch, Like Me
But that’s only part of the story, because I can’t explain how each of those lines above finishes, because, textually, there is more to the hymn (or arrangement of the hymn) that follows. Plus, it becomes more complicated if there are multiple lines going on at the same time, and each of those lines do not, by design, phrase together.
Here’s the bottom line: a “pro” looks at all the possibilities, and makes decisions about how the phrase should go — start to end. Then (and this is the important part) the pro finishes well. That may mean exerting breath control; it may mean holding back, and then applying extra energy on the final consonant; and/or it may mean subtly manipulating the “time” part of the music in order to make sure that the end of the phrase is properly finished. Or, as Davy Crockett said: “make sure you’re right before you go ahead” (or was that Fess Parker?).
But I said a couple of ways.
Let’s take a step back from music for a minute. Every ministry has a start and an end. Every leader’s career does too. As a leader, it is all too common to focus on the start, and be unprepared for the end (I’m speaking partly from experience here).
I’m also talking about more than the “where do you want to be in 5 years?” master plan. Times and seasons in leadership and ministry are like phrases. Cumulatively, they produce a piece of work. If you look back over your time at a leadership position, did you finish each time and season like a pro, or were you too busy moving on to the next, or planning ahead?
Eventually, whether that is in 6 months or 60 years, every leadership position comes to a last chord. Do you know what that is is going to look like for you? If your leadership tenure ends as a result of conflict, will you be prepared to finish like a pro? If it ends in applause, is that because you provided a professional final cut off?
I’m interested in hearing what consumes you in your musical preparation and your leadership arc. Are you in the arsis or the thesis of a leadership phrase? How will you finish like a pro?
Do me a favor. Take a look at your schedule. Right now. Spend 5 (or 15) minutes thinking about one piece of music you are preparing, and what leadership task most occupies your time. What do you need to do to finish that piece and that task like a pro?