Friday, November 27

Finding God in Music

Most kids my age struggle with finding out who they are, what their place is in the world, what they want to do with their lives, et cetera...

While I certainly can't take any credit for this, I'm lucky enough to have at least part of my life puzzle in place already that some people take years to work out.

I'm a musician. Music is what I love, and the more I experience it, the more I love it. Music puts our emotions on display in the most raw and vulnerable way possible.

I'm not a very "out there" kind of person (even though I used to think I was). I really don't like to talk about my thoughts or feelings because I just don't think that people will be interested. In music, however, I have a way to express pure feeling without even the obstacles and limits that words impose, in such a way that anyone can relate.

For example, I'm listening to a Liszt piece as I write, and throughout the different sections of the piece I hear a portrayal of pure innocence which gives way to feelings of betrayal, followed by unbridled anger which then morphs into determination, perseverance, and eventual triumph. This piece honestly gets me every time because for me, it's so much more than just notes and cool sounds. This piece is about making a decision to seek after beauty and truth with determination regardless of how ugly life can be sometimes.

"Music begins where the possibilities of language end." - Jean Sibelius
Music is very powerful and incredibly important on many levels, both physical and abstract. I can't imagine my life without music because it's how I relate to the world, and it's through integrating my personal experiences in the world into my music that my existence is made relevant (on one level, anyway).

But "musician" is not the only label that I've claimed. Even more importantly than my identity as a musician, I am a child of God and thus am identified with Christ; therefore, it is my reasonable service to honor Him and obey Him.

Growing up in church, I heard my fair share of verses reminding Christians that whatever we do should be for the glory of God, so I knew all along that whatever I ended up doing with my life, I would be doing it for God's glory and not my own. But once I started becoming more serious about my music and realized that I want to be a classical musician a few years ago, I've since then struggled a lot with how one can make music for the glory of God outside of singing sacred songs in a worship setting. It was easy to say that I wanted to honor God through my music, but I was at a loss as to where exactly God fit in to classical music.

As I started studying music in college, I really had to start thinking about how to differentiate my music from anyone else's, and to do this I started exploring how I connected to music personally, both in listening and performing. Not surprisingly, I found that my connections to music are almost exclusively emotional, so I concluded that music does indeed come from the heart, as many people have said before.

I was kind of frustrated because it didn't feel like I had made any kind of progress in my search for how to be a God-honoring pianist. All I had discovered was that music comes from the heart and touches your emotions, and that was nothing new.

There was a pretty basic disconnect happening in my thinking, though. I was making music greater than God and implying that He had to just let the music happen and find some way to be glorified in it. After all, it came from my heart and there was really no way for me to control what happened with it. 

But I was getting things terribly out of order.

People in the music world can be really awful - everyone just wants to get their big break and make their name, no matter how selfish they have to be to attain to those things. They are willing to fight their way to the top with no regard for how they affect others along the way. Those people are completely missing the point of music - to bring people together and touch their emotions in a way too beautiful for words. There is no room for selfishness in music. We should seek only to better people and offer them new perspectives.

It took seeing several selfish musicians perform for me to see just how vital it is for me to be sincere and to have pure motives behind my playing. Music is a gift from God, and to keep it to ourselves or use it only to advance ourselves would be a terrible waste. The best music comes from people who play sincerely from the heart, because they love music and love others. Despite all of the politics and nastiness that happens backstage, when you actually take to the stage to perform, the only thing that matters is whether or not you actually have the substance to back yourself up.

I found these verses earlier today and I think that they sum up pretty well what I believe is the key to being a God-honoring musician.

For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, 
full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. (James 3:16-17)

Like with so many other similar issues that I've struggled with relating to how I can possibly please God, it seems that it all comes down to one question: What is my motivation in doing this?

If music comes from the heart, then the most important thing for me to do as an aspiring musician (except for maybe my scales and arpeggios) is to make sure that my heart is right before God, and then to play passionately with love and sincerity from a pure heart.

Thursday, November 12

Perfectly Imperfect

I was watching the sunset tonight, which is not at all an unusual thing for me to do. What was unusual though, was that I was feeling quite melancholy staring up at the beautiful, rosy hues in the sky.

Sunsets always bring a flood of memories for me. They've usually been pleasant, sometimes with a hint of sweet, naive longing. Tonight was different, though. The memories were painful and overwhelming to the point that all I could do was cry. The colors in the sky blurred together like a watercolor painting as my eyes filled with tears. Still I watched the sky, holding on to the hope that I always feel when watching sunsets. The picture was unclear, but still beautiful.

Have you ever noticed that the most beautiful sunsets are not the ones with perfectly clear skies? The most beautiful sunsets - like tonight's - are the ones that are clouded and have some dark places. Tonight, the sun's rays lit up the underside of the clouds, illuminating even the darkest of clouds with a stunning golden light.

God can do the same thing with the dark places in our lives if we just let Him. There's no shame in being real and admitting that we're broken and confused and hurting - the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.

As I looked at the perfectly imperfect sky tonight, it made me think of my life right now. The past has some dark places and hard memories, and as I look ahead with tears in my eyes, the future is unclear. But my life is one of God's creations, and because of that I can know that it's going to be beautiful.

Wednesday, November 11

An Austen Man is Hard to Find

I'm pretty sure Jane Austen was a time-traveler.

How else could her stories be obviously 18th century and yet still so accurately reflective of our modern-day dramas?

Consider Mr. Elton from Emma. Haven't we all known that I'm-God's-Gift-To-Women guy who just can't imagine why you wouldn't be honored – no, indeed, flattered – to go out with him? were just being nice? What? You're not interested? Oh well, no big deal, he'll just keep hunting until he finds a female desperate enough to accept his – Oh look! He's already changed his relationship status on Facebook.
And surely we've all known a Lydia Bennet – she is the 18th century definition of a basic white girl. I can guarantee if Pride & Prejudice (to ampersand or not to ampersand?) were set during modern times, Lydia would have an on fleek Instagram feed covered in the latest Starbucks fraps and just crawling with adorable officers for every last #mcm. And heaven forbid she would EVER miss Selfie Sunday.

I often find myself relating to Knightley when he learns of Frank Churchill's happy situation after playing with everybody's emotions and being dishonest to all: “He has used every body ill – and they are all delighted to forgive him. He is a fortunate man indeed!”

Sigh. Life seems really unfair sometimes, doesn't it, Knightley?

The list goes on and on.

I don't know if this is just me (I certainly HOPE it's not just me), but every time I read an Austen novel or watch one of the film adaptations, I find myself comparing all of the characters' conflicts and squabbles and relationships to ones that I know in real life, and vice versa. The closeness of the comparisons is sometimes almost scary. Normally I do it just for entertainment and I'm able to keep it fun and harmless. However, in one aspect I have discovered that comparing my life to a Jane Austen novel can be very, very dangerous.

Because what do you do when Darcy turns out to be Willoughby?

One of the things that makes Jane Austen's novels so enjoyable is her ability to create most excellent male protagonists – the heroes (or villains, in some cases).

Austen men are ruggedly handsome, chivalrous, kind, well-dressed, eloquent in speech and writing, and most importantly – single and in possession of a good fortune. (Or at the very least, some combination of at least two of those qualities.)

Unfortunately, my bestie Jane apparently had her share of encounters with boys who are just downright not nice. From the players to the snobs to the even worse snobs, she has all these guys pegged.
Fitzwilliam Darcy is possibly the most famous of all of Austen's male heroes. I'm honestly a little confused as to why he's so popular, because obviously Frederick Wentworth is far superior a man. But I digress; either way, Darcy is considered to be sort of the ideal brooding stoic. So I'm not sure if all the girls who go on and on about how wonderful he is are just blissfully ignorant of that or what, but let's just say that I doubt Darcy would deal well with “Babe, we need to talk.”

But at least Darcy realized his mistakes and fessed up to them. He managed to set his pride aside and admit that he was wrong and that he had used Elizabeth ill. Even though Darcy's first priority initially appears to be himself, it soon becomes clear that his duty is to honor first of all. He may have made some mistakes, but he made them while trying to do the right thing, not while trying to further advance himself.
Let's switch books for a second and go to Sense and Sensibility and John Willoughby. Willougby was once described to me as simply “a cad.”

I couldn't possibly come up with a better description.

Willoughby swoops in on Marianne, who is the epitome of naive romanticism, and woos her with sweet words and promises of a future together. But then, out of nowhere and with no explanation, he disappears, abandoning Marianne and breaking her heart. Eventually we find out that Willoughby's family was unhappy with his attachment to Marianne and forced him to break it off so that he could find someone with a larger dowry. True to form, Willoughby fails to acknowledge his wrong to Marianne, choosing instead to avoid her, leaving her confused and questioning if he still has feelings for her, if he ever had feelings for her, and what she could have done to change his feelings so drastically. His situation finally becomes clear when Marianne unluckily happens to see him being romantically associated with a silly and foolish – but rich – girl at a ball. Apparently Willoughby's family is less concerned with the actual character and depth to a person and more concerned with outward appearance of good status (when really they haven't seen the true form). A lot of people feel bad for Willoughby because they think he felt like he was stuck and had no choice. Personally I feel bad for Miss Grey, his betrothed, because she thinks she's getting a prize, but sooner or later the truth about Willoughby will come out, and she's going to feel like a fool.

One positive thing about Willoughby is that it cannot possibly be denied he truly did care for Marianne at one point. However, he really had no business pursuing her when he knew that it couldn't work out, so that really only shows his immaturity and a lack of self control. Willoughby's actions show his true character, and it becomes clear that his dashing demeanor and grand speeches of romantic adoration and old-fashioned chivalry were just a facade to cover up his inner cadness.

Marianne should take heart though, because as Mr. Knightley so wisely said,

Willoughby clearly has no sense.

As bad as it is just to have had to deal with Willoughby alone, it's a whole lot worse when you think you're dealing with Darcy – someone who might appear arrogant and condescending but is really noble and honorable and can be trusted to do the right thing – and you end up dealing with Willoughby – a selfish, pathetic cad with no backbone, easily turned by shallow distractions when things get hard.

Talking about being honorable means nothing when you then turn around and compromise all those standards you claim to hold yourself to just so you can have some easy fun. Someone who will so quickly depart from things that are good and honorable doesn't deserve to have anything better.

So I've given up on Mr. Darcy, and heaven knows I'm not interested in Willoughby. Maybe there's still a Knightley or a Wentworth out there for me. Who knows? A good man - an Austen man - is hard to find.

One thing I know is true though, as long as I keep my holding myself to higher standards of character, there's someone out there for me who does the same for himself – truly and consistently, not halfheartedly just so he can fool most people.

Even if your Darcy turns out to be a Willoughby (or even an Elton, heaven forbid), hold fast and know that good things come to those who wait. Very rarely did the Austen heroines end up with their perfect man without much time and heartache.

And no matter what happens, we can all be glad that we don't end up with Mr. Collins.