(This week is the 18th installment of the book, “The Band Director’s Lessons About Life”, which TCRN is publishing as a series during 2020. This week, band director and spiritual author Donald Lee relates a parable about constantly striving to do your best. For a complete listing of previous episodes in this series, click here.)
(American inspirational writer and speaker)
“Okay, Owen, can you play it for us?” I asked. Owen sat up straight, adjusted his music stand, and checked his saxophone reed. “Would you like me to count you in, or would you rather just start on your own?”
“I’ll just start on my own,” he responded.
He got off to a good start: nice alto saxophone tone and correct notes, rhythm, and articulation. He was almost all the way through the test passage when he hit an A instead of a G. I led the grade-eight band class in applause.
“Well done, Owen,” I said emphatically. But Owen wasn’t happy.
“I played it perfectly at home,” he complained.
“That’s so frustrating, isn’t it?” I agreed. “It’s hard to play your best when you’re nervous. But the extra pressure of playing in front of an audience is part of the learning process. We need to experience performance anxiety to gradually learn how to handle it. It never goes away, but we slowly get better at playing in spite of our nervousness. We need to feel the fear and do it anyway. You did a fine job, Owen. I’d call that nine out of ten.”
“Now it’s your turn, Landon.”
“Naw, I’ll just take a zero,” Landon muttered.
“That’s not an option. I know you can play it. Just show me. We’re not looking for perfection. Just try your best.” I am always disheartened by the way some students simply give up in the face of even a mild challenge.
So Landon played the little musical passage—poorly.
“There. That’s good enough,” he said as he stopped partway through. It was a thoughtless, “throwaway” performance.
“Don’t be satisfied with sloppy work, Landon,” I said. “If you are careless in what you do, you will never develop skill. Always do your best, and your best will always get better. That’s how we improve at everything. The only performance that is good enough for you is your best performance. Anything less is not worthy of you.”
“What does it matter? Nobody cares.” Landon was despondent but mostly wanted to get off the hook. He knew he wasn’t a very good player. I sensed that he felt bad about that, but it was easier to save face by feigning indifference than to sincerely try and appear incompetent.
“That’s not true,” I countered. “I care. Even if youdon’t. I care about you. I care about your performance. I care about what you’re learning. And what you are learning is far more than just how to play the baritone saxophone. You are learning about life—about how to be a mature, responsible, capable person. These things are very important.
“Whether or not you make musical errors is notvery important. But trying your best isvery important. So would you please play the passage again and do your very best, even if you make mistakes?”
Landon made a long face, looked away for a while, then pulled up his saxophone to give it another try. He played somewhat better this time. He stumbled in several spots, had to start over, fell out of time, but finally came to the end of the passage. Once again, I led the class in applause.
“Thank you, Landon. I know it’s not easy to try when you’re not fully prepared. But I hope you can appreciate that there is a more important lesson here than just the music.
“Notice how I said earlier, ‘Play your best,’not ‘Play perfectly.’ No one is perfect, and no performance is perfect. We seek a musically artistic expression that will be meaningful to you and to your listeners. Perfection doesn’t matter; meaning does.
“So it is with all of life. You will never achieve perfection in anything. But I sincerely hope your life is full of meaning—meaning-full. It certainly will be if you always do your best.”
Part of making our lives meaning-full is to always do our best at whatever we know to do. As employees, we know to show up for work on time and do our best work, being cordial and helpful to all. As bosses, we know to treat our employees fairly, just as we would want to be treated. As spouses, we know to treat our spouse with the same respect and consideration we did on our first date. We already know to treat everyone with love because we are Love.
But familiarity breeds contempt, and we save our worst selves for those closest to us. Just like Landon, we have within us both our best performance and our worst performance—our best self and our worst self. We bring out our best self on a first date or at a job interview. But in the rough and tumble of daily life, we sometimes get defensive. We make assumptions about other people’s motives. We think they’re bugging us on purpose or that they’re out to get us. We bring out our worst selves when we think we’re being attacked.
Here’s an idea. If we practice seeing all people as souls, like us, if we practice feeling love for all souls, if we practice imagining that all souls love us in spite of their behavior, we can show our best self to everyone. Then our best self will constantly get better.
Be your best self for those you love. And love everyone. Let Jesus be your model in all your relationships. He really showed us the “best” that all of us should strive for.