Performance vs. The Gospel

When you go to music school in college, you enter a world of evaluation based on performance. There are no points given for effort. You can either play or you can’t. I entered the University of Tennessee as a freshman terrified of my professors, the upper classmen, and my peers. Music school is often the place that people end up after a few years of gigging or investigating other fields. As a result, some of my “peers” were actually much older than me and had a few years of playing under their belt. I was an anomaly: a true freshman as they would say in football. There were so many guitarists entering the program when I started that I almost did not get in to the guitar major. However, by the end of my freshman year, all but about three of us had dropped out of the program. They could not perform.
My guitar teacher during my freshman year seemed to be given the task to weed out the people who were not really capable or committed. We spent the entire year working on “sight-reading” which is the ability to play notes on a page in real time without memorizing them first. Like reading out loud, it’s something that comes easily for some people, but for those who can’t it is terribly embarrassing. I would spend hours and hours practicing for my Monday morning lesson, and with fear and loathing I would make the long walk to the music annex where a few measures of sight-reading would brutally remind me of my inability to perform.
At the end of the fall and spring semesters, there is a final exam for applied music (guitar lessons) called a jury. Preparing for juries was like packing your bags for a trip on the Titanic. It was certain to end badly. Juries: I walked into a tiny room where the entire jazz faculty was crammed in so close that I had to be careful to not whack one of them with my guitar neck. Juries: in a few moments an entire semester of mind-numbing practice would be determined to be productive or a waste of time. Juries: a page of lines and dots were placed in front of me and a computer would count off the time and in a matter of 30 seconds I would attempt to perform in a way that earned the credit I needed to graduate.
Performance is a huge part of music in schools, but performance is not isolated to just the educational spheres of music. Even the most road-dogged, blues-bar musicians or the three chord strumming street musician playing for quarters in the subways lives or dies based on their performance. Performance is common outside of music as well. Anybody who has worked for a living has had to earn every dollar with the quality of their performance.
The gospel is not based on performance. The gospel is a gift. The gospel is not based on the merits or demerits of the person who receives it. The gospel is founded and established on Jesus Christ and his performance. The gospel is not performance.
Musicians: be freed from the tyranny of performance. Be renewed by the riches of grace lavished freely on you. Be embraced by the Father who loves you as sons and daughters. Your skill cannot win any favor from God. Your technique cannot bridge the gap to be worthy of His holiness. Your intonation, time, phrasing, speed, range, and any other performance ability can do nothing to change your standing before the Lord.
Play with excellence? Of course! Pursue perfecting your skills? God gave you those skills, so He wants you to use them. But, where is your heart and where do you invest your confidence and hope. If it is in your skills, then you have turned a good gift from the Lord into an idol and idolatry is always slavery. Slavery to skill looks like the terror of my first year in college. Trust me; I know from experience that it will eat you alive.

  1. #1 by katiek on October 11, 2006 - 1:26 pm

    This is a great post Kirk. Not only do I love reliving the terrors of your first moments as a music major, poor kid, you were so stressed out! But I also am extremely moved when you compare it to grace. I really need to be reminded of this over and over. I think it’s in me when I work, but the world and sin so easily entangles me into thinking I am not good enough and I have to do more more MORE! I feel great relaxation when painting, and I think that the results always astonish me too. I am always thankful to God when I perform well. I often times get on my knees when something looks just right. I know it wasn’t me that did it, it was God.

  2. #2 by Rob Hatch on October 11, 2006 - 2:27 pm

    I’d like to hear your comments about performance in worship. I know I struggle to play well when leading worship (nothing like the terror of recitals or a sadistic teacher – but struggle none-the-less) and there are often cases where standards and expectations make it difficutl to be a free feeling church musician. But God’s grace is greater than that. How to reconcile those two?

  3. #3 by Heidi Vincent on October 11, 2006 - 2:50 pm

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. What freedom we have!

  4. #4 by Mandy on October 11, 2006 - 3:42 pm

    I’m glad you wrote about this, Kirk. I too am a product of demanding music programs and nothing can suck the artistry out of music like the “weed-out” process. Being part of the worship team has been more of a challenge for me than I thought it would because I’ve still not fully recovered from my classical roots. The performer in me wants to polish and nuance and perfect. I really struggle with flexibility, spontaneity, and just leading. It’s hard for me to shut off that performer part of my brain that wants to show how impressive I can be. I have to constantly remind myself on worship team that I’m there serving the church, not the art.

  5. #5 by Archie on October 16, 2006 - 5:24 pm

    I just want to say how much I resonate with your comments on church music vs. performance. I come from the other side, never having any formal training, yet the pressure to perform, i.e. not mess up in front of people, is still present. Fortunately, I have a worship director that loves to preach musical grace (or “making memories” as he like to call it). Lets keep our eyes on the Why, not on the how.

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