It’s Okay to “Go Through the Motions”

Several times in the past few weeks when I have asked students how they could have improved their performances of various playing assignments I have heard responses something like “Well, I could have put more emotion into it.” To be sure, their playing did lack the expressive qualities inherent to great performances, but I am always quick to caution these students that depending upon some mysterious reserve of deep feelings to magically generate emotive content is foolish. As I noted in a post last year on a similar topic, in performance often the most powerful emotions being experienced by the student on stage are fear, anxiety, and apprehension. Drawing upon those feelings will not yield the desired expressive performance, except in the unlikely event that those negative emotions are the ones that the player desires to communicate!

Instead of depending upon manufactured emotional hype, musicians are better served by ensuring that their playing fundamentals are solidly maintained, and then by considering in advance the musical devices (especially variances in tempo and dynamic level) that will best communicate the desired expressive content of the pieces being performed. In other words, I encourage students to plan and program the feelings they intend to convey. This ends up being a little bit like acting, with the musician conveying not the emotions he is experiencing at the moment, but rather those which he believes inhere in the piece. Interestingly, and as I also noted previously, the emotional highs students too often think are necessary to generate great performances are actually the ones that follow from great performances (and when they do it is a great joy!). Generating those performances, however, is often a much more cerebral affair than most non-musicians realize.

Yesterday in our men’s Bible study group (which we have lovingly dubbed the Council of Skateland since our church meets in a converted skating rink) someone asked if the faithfulness of Old Testament-era Israelites who might sometimes have merely “gone through the motions” of offering the prescribed sacrifices could be considered genuine, even if feelings of love and devotion toward God were not always as evident as they could have been. My answer—as well as the consensus of the group—was that it could, for believers both then and now, the latter bringing the “sacrifice of praise” described in Hebrews 13:15, to say nothing of the “living sacrifices” of our very selves (Romans 12:1). Faithfulness to God need not always be characterized by the emotional “warm fuzzies” which are too often considered synonymous with “worship,” though we might sometimes experience those feelings. But sometimes life isn’t happy. Sometimes it’s all we can do to drag ourselves out of bed each day for any reason, including to attend to God’s worship. Some days we can only lament with Habakkuk,

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

The Bible is full of songs and other expressions of lamentation, putting to death any notions that God’s people will be or are expected to be always happy. Yet we continue in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, even when we don’t feel like it, even when it seems that we are only performing outward exercises. And do we not, interestingly enough, sometimes find that the positive emotions we failed to bring with us to worship follow from it? Do we not sometimes enter the Lord’s house empty and leave it filled? Maybe “going through the motions” isn’t such a fake thing to do, after all.

Longtime readers of The Reforming Trombonist know that I like to draw connections between my work as a musician and teacher and my Christian faith, and while this one might seem a bit tortured, in my own experience it is quite obvious. The music student (and sometimes even the professional) wants to give an expressive performance, but finding only fear and doubt within learns to mimic the outward characteristics of musical expression and finds—to his surprise and delight—that the feelings he thought he needed in order to perform well actually come as a result of performing well. Similarly (though more importantly), the weary Christian, finding “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10) to be a hollow quotation, nevertheless forces himself to perform the rote observances of God’s worship and finds—likewise to his surprise and delight—that the warm feelings of love and devotion that seemed so foreign just a couple of hours before are rekindled as God’s Spirit ministers to him through public and private worship.

Can “going through the motions” be wrong for the Christian? Sure it can. There have certainly been many individuals over the centuries that made an outward show of Christianity but ultimately proved to be false brethren. But for the true believer who is simply “not feeling it that day,” those outward actions might just constitute a tremendous act of faith that God will bless and multiply.

For the musician the parallels end here, because I don’t know how one could be a “false musician.” For you the “the motions” are “the thing.” Learn what great performance sounds like, and then figure out how to create it, regardless of your own feelings. In time, you’ll find that your actual emotions and the ones you seek to convey become increasingly alike as your skills improve and your fears largely (if not completely) subside. That’s when performing starts to become fun!

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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