When You Wish Upon a Star

It Doesn't Matter Who You Are...

From time to time I get on a soapbox, but most of the time I try to write stuff designed to be both an encouragement, and a look at "real life" aspects of leadership. The context for what you are about to read comes from my own experience, but the common thread is that, as a leader, you are "on stage," both literally and figuratively, all the time.

Being a performer, however you define that, is not always easy, and what the audience sees on stage --or the worship platform -- is akin to the tip of an iceberg: the stage lights are only on so long, but there is a relentless sense of pressure -- and motivation -- on a performer. You have to have some amount of talent, you need to keep your "chops" (the ability to do the job when the lights are on) in shape, and you have to juggle -- and perform at a high level -- a myriad of tasks that have nothing to do with the actual performance. But without tending to the "behind the scenes" stuff, your time in the spotlight can be short.

Few people end up being household names in every corner of the planet. But in every town, in every industry, people can be leadership stars. No matter what your talent level, you have to put in the time (I can tell you that my experience shows that Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hour" rule is a very good guideline) and the effort. You have to be willing to learn things from people who have "been there and done that."

And, perhaps most importantly, you have to develop your own voice --your own particular way of doing things. In my experience, most performers start out by imitating someone else whom they admire. There might even be a teacher-student or master-apprentice aspect to this imitation but it seems to be a necessary step in the process. If you are fortunate, you will find a mentor who can help you along your life journey. If, like me, you aren't so fortunate, you often have to learn the hard way...and make lots of mistakes.

Mistakes are part of the star-making process too. That, and a thick skin. The ability to get up after being, figuratively or literally, knocked down, is critical to finding your own voice. That's where most of your 10,000 hours will be spent, it turns out: learning by watching, studying, and, most of all, by doing.

But at some point, if you want to be a star, you have to quit reading and studying, and just go out and be a star. Or at least be what you think being a star is. Over, and over, and over. That process refines your talent, and hones the other skills it takes to be on the leadership stage. Until one day, you find that the pieces have fallen into place and you begin to have that moment in the sun -- on an actual stage as a performing artist, or however that plays out in your chosen field.

As an academic, I regularly taught general introduction to music history courses. On the first day of class, I would hand out a syllabus of what the course was about, with an outline of what we were going to cover. Then I asked if there were any questions. Every single time the first question was the same: "What do I have to know to pass this class?"

I came to view this as one of the most insidious statements in the human vocabulary: by asking it, the student was telling me that they wanted to know the bare minimum amount of effort it would take to "pass" and move on to whatever was next.

The question assumed that what there was to learn about the subject I was teaching was not important, and that the student had already decided that there was nothing to be gained by investing any effort beyond the required minimum. The question also assumed that I would be complicit in this process of "passing" the student on to the next subject...that I, the "expert," would accept the student's viewpoint about the value of the subject matter as accurate, and valid.

On top of that, there was always a palpable shift in body language among a certain percentage of the class. They were going to find out just exactly what they needed to do as well. I found that I could predict the percentage pretty accurately after a while, and it never varied by much over the course of 10 years of teaching those classes. Fully 30% of the students who attended on the first day would drop the class when they heard, in answer to that first question: "You will need to know everything in the book, everything I say in class, everything in the music library, and everything new that comes up between now and when the final exam is held."

Why is this story important? Because in life, as in my classes, 30% of the people, no matter what their talent level, don't bother to show up when presented with an opportunity to learn how to be good at something. So if you are reading this, you are already ahead of all the people who just wish about being a star. You do care enough about to show up. Day after day, hour after 10,000 hours.

Wanting to be a "star" and being one is not just about wishing and hoping, or settling for a passing grade. Few people are discovered at a soda shop by a talent agent, and fewer people understand that being discovered is only part of the story. Without the ability to perform, you become a "one hit wonder" and your star burns out rather quickly.

But I said at the beginning that I try to write about both real life and encouragement. Here's the good news: In every single one of those classes, there was always at least one student that performed above and beyond all of his or her classmates. Often there was more than one. In many cases it was not the person I might have expected, either. In my classes, as in life, I saw that there are no real barriers to being a star performer on the leadership stage -- not gender, or age, or race, or body type, or any of the other politically correct things I could add to that list. The only true barriers are lack of effort, lack of understanding, and lack of motivation.

Now I can hear you saying, "But what about talent? Isn't a lack of talent a barrier?"

I was not present when the following, which was told to me by a person I respect, happened. On the other hand, knowing the person at the center of this event, who shall be left anonymous, I am absolutely certain that it happened.The scene is one of those high school choir contests. You know it, or know about it. One or more adjudicators listen to a performance, and then offer what now might be called an American Idol critique, which can include a bit of work with the group to demonstrate something that might be improved upon.

I've done this many times, and it is generally understood that students' egos can be fragile (and so can the parents' egos, as they sit in the audience waiting to see and hear you bless their children's efforts). An adjudicator is encouraged to be truthfully encouraging, even if the best thing you can say is "That was one of the most interesting interpretations of that song I've ever heard." (read that over and tell me what it means...I'll wait...)

So at one of these contests the adjudicator, a well-known personality, and known for being a bit curmudgeonly in general, gets up from the table and walks to the stage, going straight to the director of this particular group. The adjudicator brings the director down to the front of the stage, with everyone in the room expectantly waiting to hear the verdict. The adjudicator says: "I have just one question for you. Do you have any hobbies, or things that you enjoyed studying in school? Because you clearly have no talent for music." Then the adjudicator walked back to the table and waited for the next group.

Talent, in my opinion, is a misunderstood thing, and it is often used as an excuse. I know what the dictionary says, and yes, a "natural" talent for something is an important aspect of being a star performer.

The problem is that most people look at talent in the context of the entertainment industry, whether that be music, film, theater, or athletics. This view takes its lead from the account of the descent of the Holy Spirit in the Bible. It is important to remember that the Holy Spirit didn't show up until after the teaching, learning, and doing (with sometimes humorous results) by the disciples -- the apprentices -- had been going on for years.

For many people, talent is an "I wish" proposition, just as my students wished that they could do minimal work and "pass." Talent, in this world view, is not something that can be learned or developed. In my experience, nothing could be farther from the truth.

To be a leader, and perform on the leadership stage, part of the process is understanding that not everyone can be a superstar entertainer or athlete. But everyone, no matter your talent level, can be a leadership star. As Gladwell says, though, you may only have some idea about how good you can be after about 10,000 hours, and you have to put in the time to find out.

Part of the responsibility of being an academic is teaching students about life in addition to the subject matter in which you are an expert. In a music department, it is common to find many students who are there because they think it would be nice to do music, or because a relative told them they had talent (grandmothers seemed to be the most influential among the students I taught), or because they can't think of anything else to do for the rest of their lives.On more than one occasion I told students that they should not decide upon music as a career unless they could not NOT do it.

It is so difficult to be a performing artist, and by extension a "star" at anything in life, that without the fire in the belly the road is longer, harder, and more filled with twists and turns. The most talented student I ever taught decided he would rather be a farmer, and he was a great farmer...and one that could throw off Oscar Peterson licks at the piano at will.The most driven students I had ended up with very successful careers in music -- one as a solo performer, and one as a music professor. As an aside, both of those students were leaders in and of their church's music ministry.


Final Thoughts

I'm assuming you are reading this because you've figured out what you really want to do. I'm here to remind you that even on the week after the week after Easter, you need to show up, and show you are a leader. You have to put in the time, but you can't settle for a passing grade.The worship platform is like a hybrid car: it is a stage and it is not a stage. Sometimes it is easy to get seduced by the "star" part of your platform responsibilities, or to be intimidated by them. Either way, though, you are a leader. Go out and be one right now.

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3 Replies to “When You Wish Upon a Star”

  1. Lynn Webster says:

    Once again, I appreciate the MME posting! I’ve now been a MOM about 10 years (after 10 years of teaching and 20 years in night club entertaining in my other life)and feel that the “10,000 hours” are kicking in…along with much dependence on the Holy Spirit to help put the worship services together. The years of pop entertaining may have influenced the “star time” on the platform, but I’m grateful for several resources who “analyze” the role of music in “worship,” including CM/MME and numerous books on worship. There is a tacit feeling that while worship is our primary goal, without talent and a degree of “stage appeal,” there won’t be much of a congregation for long. I’m at a church that is thrilled when it has 100 in attendance…and I keep praying that the music part of the service will be an spiritual encouragement to those in attendance and that the level of musical quality will encourage continued attendance. Thanks, again, for your shared insights and unique contribution to church music! Lynn

  2. Randall Reeves says:

    I agree, not that you need me to agree, but I have been in “full-time” music ministry (i.e. leading worship, choirs, orchestras, etc.), for 37 years, so I guess I’ve long passed the 10,000 hours. What I know is this: If God has called you, then give the same 100% the Monday morning after that major Easter musical that you gave the day before. Bottom line: God demands and deserves our best. So just “Be faithful.” Randall

  3. Vern Sanders says:

    Thanks for the comments, Lynn and Randall, and especially for the encouragement for what Creator does, Lynn. Some of what I talk about above is semantics (as in some churches don’t want to hear the word performance in relationship to worship, others think it is all about performance in order to be worship), but my bottom line is that if you are willing put the time in, and continue to grow as opposed to be satisfied, then my experience and observation is that your ministry will continue to prosper.

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