Ever get the feeling you’re just whistling in the wind?
I’ve been in the communication business for many years, but there are times when I have to question my ability to get my point across. Like I’m speaking Esperanto or something.
One of those occasions took place this past summer and involved an installment of this column.
With quality control in mind, each year I enter samples of this column in a competition administered by an outfit called the Cooperative Communicators Association, which includes members from all across the country.
With hundreds of entries, the competition is formidable as the association is replete with top-shelf communicators of all stripes. But the most important component of the competition is that entrants receive feedback from the judges.
Well, one of the columns I submitted for scrutiny was a piece I penned last year detailing how I learned to play the drums. The entire point was that if a tone-deaf, uncoordinated old geezer like me can learn to play an instrument, anybody can. The object was to encourage others to set aside their fears, excuses, insecurities, anxieties, etc., and pick up an instrument and start playing the tar out of it, undeterred by the reality that you’re probably not going to be the next incarnation of Jimi Hendrix.
The person judging the piece jotted down this comment: “Great column! I’ve always wanted to play music but I just never had the talent.”
I saw that and thought, “Wait, what?! That’s the whole point…play an instrument whether you have the talent or not. Did this person even read the article?”
I guess I expected that if the column was so “great” in achieving its goal, the judge would have written something more like, “Great column! For years I’ve been too (insert lame excuse here) to learn how to play the (insert type of instrument here), but your masterful articulation and persuasive rhetorical style have convinced me to start taking (re-insert type of instrument here) lessons.”
My ineffectiveness as a communicator also applies to my daughter. I’ve been begging her, badgering her, harassing her, shaming her, appealing to her overachiever personality – every strategy I can think of – to get her to take an interest in playing music.
I’ve explained to her that our family would be swimming in wealth if I had a share of Apple stock for every person over 40 who’s told me they regretted not learning to play music when they were young, or that they begrudgingly took lessons as a kid and now regretted that they quit playing.
I’ve tried to explain to her how music – whether you’re Tim McGraw or Tiny Tim – expands the range of human experience in so many amazing ways, provides opportunities for interacting with others on a different level, for honest and heartfelt self-expression, for giving and sharing with others through a transformational ethereal language, for just plain old emotional release.
A recent experience provided a case-in-point for my intransigent daughter when I received a couple of text messages. The first informed me that a beloved member of our church congregation had just passed away. A few hours later, I received a second text stating that before Miss Margaret drew her last breath she took the initiative to plan out every detail of her “celebration of life” service.
To my astonishment, she specifically requested that I – me, of all people – step up in front of the congregation and sing an old minor-key standard called “Wayfaring Stranger,” a tune she had heard me sing before. I knew she was on some powerful meds, so I just assumed she had confused me with someone who actually has musical chops.
This was new territory for me. I have friends who actually possess some talent and have played at these types of occasions many times. But I was floored that Miss Margaret deemed me worthy of this honor and I had no idea how I was going to properly pull it off.
In yet another example of inadequate communication skill, I’m not sure I can describe what it’s like for someone who typically warbles in the key of B – as in B quiet! – to stand up and sing a song like that at a funeral, where I’ve got no golden voice to rely on and there’s no guarantee I won’t start blubbering.
But I can say without fear of contradiction that given the opportunity to contribute in this way with nothing more to go on than four simple guitar chords, a stubborn will to overcome the innate fear of being judged, and a yearning to somehow touch the hearts of others, well, that’s a pretty dang special privilege. No way I was going to refuse.
Inevitably, the execution was technically sub-par. There was no time for rehearsal, the sound was uneven and literally mixed on the fly, I struck a clunker chord in the first verse, I came pretty close to actually hitting that G sharp note in the chorus and I felt nervous, uncomfortable, unfocused and on the cusp of sobbing the whole time. I was afraid folks could hear my knees knocking through the sound system.
After going through the usual process of obsessing over my deficiencies and beating myself up over yet another pitiful presentation, I remembered the old axiom: “What comes from the heart is received by the heart,” and felt comforted in the assurance that this is all that truly matters.
Once the sanctuary emptied and I was left alone to pack up my gear, the pop of the closing latches on my guitar case echoing through the cavernous space, Miss Margaret and I spent a moment together.
I said farewell to a fine Christian woman, a mother and wife with a passion for serving her Lord. I thanked her for placing her trust in me to somehow reach the souls of her family and friends, despite my musical limitations. I apologized for my imperfect execution and I prayed that her eternal rest in the precious arms of our Savior would be peaceful and in perfect harmony.