Here we are again: it’s the holiday season and we’re all making our lists and checking them twice, trying to figure out the perfect gifts for the people we love. It is the season of giving and receiving (and maybe a little stressing). While we look for those items that make our loved ones smile, I think we all know the best gifts we can give are not the ones we physically wrap and put under the tree. The best and longest-lasting gifts are those that we give of ourselves: our time, talents, kind words, knowledge, etc. These are the types of gifts we don’t just give all at once, but are a culmination of organic and genuine care that is given over time rather than one day a year. When we look back on our lives, these are the gifts that stand out the most. Often, they are given to us by mentors.
I’m a choir director at First United Methodist Church of Arlington and the Artistic Director of Awaken Ensemble. It is through my musical education to become a choir director that I have had the joy of some of the best mentoring relationships imaginable. Honestly, I’ve had too many mentors to specifically name, from when I was in pre-K to even now as a professional. I know my life is richer and fuller because of the mentors I’ve had. It is because of being mentored by so many that I also am intentional about being a mentor to others. These mentoring relationships go far beyond music and into the very person I am now.
While music may have been what originally drew me to my mentors, it wasn’t just music I was learning. It was dedication, responsibility, leadership, compassion, expression, professionalism, and so many more traits that go well beyond being a good musician.
When I was a music student at Sam Houston State University, one of my most influential mentors, Dr. Allen Hightower (who is now director of choral studies at UNT), said, “Don’t use people to make good music, use music to make good people.” That statement — that idea — has always stuck with me, and actually Dr. Hightower was quoting another great mentor and teacher in the field of music, Dr. Hugh Sanders, who taught at West Texas State and later Baylor. Insights like that one are why mentoring is so important, and why passing our knowledge to others is so valuable. I often come back to that statement when I’m preparing a choir for a concert or even when I’m working on a non-musical project.
So often in life, we are task-oriented people. We make a list of the things we need to do, and we go out there and complete our list of tasks. As a choir director, it is my task to create the best music possible with the choirs I have the honor to conduct. This takes precision in every facet: rhythm, tone, tempo, and the list continues. Even in the midst of all of that, I do my best to take the time to ask the question why. Why does the rhythm need to be precise, why does our tone need to be unified, our tempo speed up/slow down? Why do we get louder and softer? All of these questions need to have a deeper meaning than “because the music says so.” All of the answers to those questions lead us to what we are trying to express emotionally. It is my job as the director to have the choir feel the music as it is written on the page with emotional intentionality in every note. If we are simply performing strictly what is on the page without diving into the emotional content, we are using people to make good music rather than using music to make good people.
It is through this expression of emotions and investigation of what each specific emotion is trying to portray that give us the opportunity to delve deeper into our own humanity. Music leads us to places in our souls that need to be explored and naturally opens conversations about those vulnerable places. This is how I believe I have been mentored. Not only have I been taught how to be a good musician, but to explore that which makes us human. With the guidance of many musical mentors, this is how I have come to be who I am today and feel so very called to share in mentoring others to do the same.
As I mentioned earlier, I have the great joy to be the artistic director of Awaken Ensemble. My wife, Mary, and I co-founded this choir, and it is comprised primarily of music professionals. Most of those music professionals are educators. As music educators, I know they all take on the opportunity to be mentors to the students who come into their classrooms and are making an incredible positive impact across our community. I know this because they all had great mentors, and in turn, they want to be great mentors to their students. The hope is their students will catch on and also want to mentor the next generation of musicians.
I know we are not all musicians, but each one of us has the power to look deeper than being task-oriented people. Even within the tasks of life, there is so much to be discovered, and through your own unique perspectives you also have so much to give. Sharing our time and experiences with others is such an extraordinary gift that each of us can give and receive.
As you think of the perfect gift you can give this year, consider how you can give your time, talent, knowledge, and kindness to those around you. Whether it is in your profession, within your family, a little league team you coach, or wherever you find yourself, look for ways to put more good into the world. You never know what kind of impact you could have.