Reasons I want a boyfriend

As a single person, my thoughts frequently turn to a list of reasons I don’t want a boyfriend. So far, I’ve reached my 22nd birthday with a heart-count of 0-2, but neither guy ever made it to the serious, bona-fide, public boyfriend level, and these reasons honestly have kept me sane while the world around me falls in love for everyone to see. I suppose, more accurately, these are really the reasons that aren’t why I want a boyfriend…or reasons I don’t need a boyfriend and am content as a single Pringle.

For example:

  1. Financial security…it’s something I can achieve apart from a male companion. This isn’t the 19th-century anymore, and, frankly, God says I can make my own wise investments (Prov. 31:16) and reap my rewards (Prov. 31:31), and I will take that, please and thank you.
  2. Sex…I don’t need it to make me happy. Love can be expressed in so many ways by so many people, and if I go my whole life never having had sex, I’ll be okay.
  3. Fulfillment as a woman…God defines it. I don’t need a boyfriend, husband, or children to validate my existence as a woman. I was created by Him for big-H Him, not for little-h him.
  4. Just, me…honestly, I’m super stressy all the time and I don’t need to throw my mess on another human for the rest of ever. That’s basically all there is to say about that. Supposedly, the “right one” will want my mess, but does anyone ever *really* want more mess? Nope. They just love through it. I’m okay with not making anyone go through that. heh.

These are the top four, among others.

But occasionally, like tonight, my mind turns over the little reasons why I would like a boyfriend. Some are bigger than others. I’m still going to let myself be happy as I am. I’m not going to be romance-guilted into thirsting for something God doesn’t have for me right now. But a little dreaming never killed anyone.

  1. Going grocery shopping. Or just, shopping. Buying cute clothes is fun. Buying cute clothes that your boyfriend especially likes because he helped choose them? I feel like that may be extra-fun. Or picking up food that you’re cooking together that night because you’re that kind of couple. I’m down.
  2. Going to Chicago together. This one is honestly super personal to me. I grew up in the inner city of the best city in America (don’t @ me, NYC) and there’s so much about it that is still home. I want to go to a Grant Park Symphony concert in Millennium Park with him. I want to kiss him on the shores of Lake Michigan with the sun setting below the water. I want to enjoy a baseball game (South Side, of course, sorry Cubbies) and take him to one of the little hole-in-the-wall Italian ice places my family loves. I want to sit at a table for two on the patio of a Michigan Avenue restaurant and breathe in the smell of wine, beer, exhaust, garlic, and beef (with just a hint of sewer) that is combines into a potpourri that is the glorious essence of downtown. To fall in love in the country is charming, but to fall in love in the city…that is romance.
  3. I’d kind of like a special friend who is always going to play on my team. Friends are great. Family is amazing. But when your world is either crashing down or flying to heights unseen, having someone who will always go to bat for you when you need a DH and cheer for your every home run is just really great. It would be nice to have that.
  4. Hugs are great and kisses sound nice. I like to be touched…respectfully, of course. It would be nice to have someone auditioning for the role of Person Who Gets to (Respectfully) Touch Aelsa Forever.
  5. I really like to watch movies and then analyze them from a literary and musical standpoint and I really want someone to do that with forever. That’s basically it.
  6. Someone to love God withI don’t need a guy to bring me closer to God. That’s pretty much antithetical to how God works. But some of the most peace-bringing moments in my life were when one of my almost-boyfriends would remind me of how much God cares about me and how I need to trust Him with whatever scary part of my life I was worrying about at that moment. I can forget God sometimes, and when I forget, maybe he’ll remember, and maybe when he forgets, I’ll remember. Being a team with the Holy Spirit to serve Jesus and honor God sounds like a pretty special thing.
  7. Seriously, have you seen weddings? Not every guy is going to be Mr. Right, but I’m an adult, so I look for husband material right off the bat because I don’t have time for games. I don’t sweat breakups—they’re tough emotionally, but I don’t take them to mean I failed at the dating thing. It’s simply that the beauty of a healthy marriage and the glory of a pretty wedding are serious perks to a strong, permanent (final) boyfriend.

I’ve been through a lot of stuff with my heart in the last two years. Sometimes, I’m pretty sure I’ll never be ready to be with someone, and that no one will ever be ready to be with me. I chug along with my head down—not hanging, sad at what I’m missing—determined to achieve my goals with or without my equally-yoked partner. God will always be there for me, and I’ll never have to feel incomplete. But if God sends a human companion to work towards Him, each other, and our individual and mutual goals, I look forward to experiencing numbers 1 through 7.

Either way, whether it’s the list of reasons I’m glad to be single or the list of reasons I’d be glad to be taken, God has me bound for my happy ever after and if it’s God’s happy ever after, I know it’s gotta be the best.


For better or for different

When I was a little girl, I remember having a conversation with my mom about how she loved my brothers and me versus how she loved my dad. Love is an abstract noun, and in my childlike need to quantify the intangible, I believed that my mom loved my dad more than she loved me. My mom’s answer was as satisfactory as any could possibly be: “I don’t love him more, I love him differently.”

I didn’t completely buy it then, and truthfully, I don’t think I completely buy it now, but her answer has always stuck with me because it taught me something critical about love.

Love is not a zero-sum game. Love exists outside the bonds of time, of measurement, of space, of math.

As a Christian, this is something I believe in my core because I know that God is Love (1 John 4:8). Thus, since God is extrametric, extratemporal, infinite, constant, and immutable, love is extrametric, extratemporal (AND YES, I KNOW I KINDA MADE THOSE WORDS UP, OKAY, SHHH…), infinite, constant, and immutable.

As a person, this is something I believe in my core because I have experience in the human condition. I know that love is outside time because you don’t stop loving someone after they die—ask any widow or widower. I know love is infinite because when you love someone, every day you feel you love them more than the day before, and you even love versions of them that existed before you knew them.

But as a Christian person, it’s so tempting to try to measure love.

I recently engaged in an online debate on this point. I try to avoid exchanging opinions online, because typically, no one comes out any different, just angrier. But one of the comments I simply could not ignore. “Experiencing marriage is how we can truly understand the love of Christ for His church,” and later, “Because of my significant other, I know God’s love in a deeper and fuller way.”

To be clear, this person did not say that God loves him more because of his significant other, just that he experiences it more deeply.

Even so, what this attitude implies is that a single person does not experience the fullness of God’s love inherently because of their singleness. It asserts that the way to know the love of God more totally is to experience the romantic love of another human.

The first error in this is supposing that the love of God can be limited by anything, including human status (Romans 8:38-39). Are we to say Paul the Apostle felt the love of God less than Peter felt it because Peter had a wife? Or that Mary Magdalene, a woman who walked with Jesus both until His death and after His resurrection, breathing His words as He exhaled them, could not experience Christ’s love as fully as my mom, who serves God through her marriage? If you feel more loved by and more in love with God because of a romantic relationship, as my mom would say, “that says more about you than it says about God.”

Don’t get me wrong—as humans, every step on our journey is about growing closer with God. Relationships, as part of our journey, should bring us closer to God and amaze us with His grace and mercy and love. But that is not what this individual meant by his statement. He truly believes that single people experience less of God’s love than people in a romantic bond.

This brings us to the second error; the one my mom addressed when I was so young. Married people do not feel God’s love more—they feel it differently. A married person knows what it feels like to have someone give something important up for them, experiencing the sacrificial love of God through another human being. A single person knows what it feels like to be held by a friend as their body quivers, racked from tears, because their heart is lonely, experiencing the comforting love of God through another human being. They are both experiencing God’s love, but different.

Seemingly unrelated: as a single young woman, I have the almost unhindered ability to make any decision I feel led to. I have no life partner to consult in my choices—I am free to make my own decisions. I can choose what I want for my life.

If my relationship status were to change tomorrow, if I were to gain a serious boyfriend in a blink of an eye, would I suddenly lose the ability to make choices? No. I would not be making fewer choices. I would simply be making different choices.

He would be my choice. His life, his issues, his career, his joys, his struggles…they would all be my choice. I would be choosing him, choosing to pursue his dreams with him and prefer them to my own, choosing to lay aside my struggles to encourage him through his, choosing to celebrate his successes rather than focusing on my own. And as he gives up his singleness, I would be his choice. He will choose me. He will choose to skip playing video games with a friend to make gluten-free cookies with me, he will choose to go for a walk when he’d rather take a nap, he will choose to take a nap when he’d rather be on a walk, and he will choose to kiss me even when my breath stinks. He will choose to honor my dreams, choose to respect my wishes, and choose to be for me someone that, so far, no one else has been able to be.

And for both of us, all those choices would be the best decisions we could make.

Loving someone doesn’t cost you any degree of choice—loving someone simply means choosing differently.

I do not feel God’s love less because I am single. The fact that I don’t have a husband, or even a free trial husband (boyfriend, heh), does not limit my capacity to experience the love of God.

But if or when I start a free trial, and hopefully decide that I enjoy the experience enough to pay the lifetime subscription fee, I know I’ll be learning more about God and His love just because I’m living life with Big-H Him as I also live life with little-h him. I cannot quantify an infinite and unmeasurable gift of God. I will just feel the love of God differently.

Those of you who have partners of various stages can revel in the beauty of God’s love through the gift of your life. Those of us who have no eligibles in our inboxes or spouses in our beds can revel in the beauty of God’s love through the gift of our life. It’s not more, not less. Different.

Insecurity-gram and the Perfect Picture People

The suffix -gram comes from the Greek gramma, which does not, contrary to what you might hope, mean “mother of my parent,” but in fact means, “drawing,” “a picture,” “a document,” or even, “a character.”

The etymology of the now universal 21st-century word “Instagram,” both a noun and a verb, is essentially “immediate document” or “immediate picture.” The prefix of Insta- carries a sense of urgency with it. It’s not just immediate because you want it to be, it’s immediate because you feel like it needs it to be.

insta screen cap

I am not here to diss Instagram. I’m not here to offer yet another exposé on the tragedies of life as a millenial or guilt anyone about their use of the internet. Anyone who follows me on any platform knows I love me some social media. Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Marco Polo, Pinterest, and yes, definitely Instagram are all part of my daily routines. I love to be connected to people I know and people I don’t. I love the instantaneous and easy access to information and entertainment. I was an Insta-fan of the Instagram (I’m so sorry; I’m my father’s daughter). This is a screen grab of my Instagram. I’m minorly addicted. I post about my brothers, my animals, about the stuff I do musically, stories about my growth as a person or changes in my life, pretty pictures that I take, and sometimes your average emotional quote attached to a selfie because I’m 22 and can do what I want with my life.

I have frequently been convicted about my use of social media and reminded by various concerned family members about the dangers of oversharing on the internet, so I am not saying my media habits are perfect. But I hope that when someone looks at my profile, they see real. They see stories of everyday life without me having to say anything to prove it. Pictures of a world that isn’t a perfectly lit magazine spread.

As an Instagram user, it’s annoying when the people I follow only post perfect pictures of their picture perfect world.

But what’s more annoying is when they post frequent reminders on their Better Homes and Gardens snapshots that their life is far from perfect. A pristine, professionally staged photograph accompanied by an anecdote about how their kid was screaming literally twenty seconds ago or that they don’t feel as beautiful as we tell them they are or that their kitchen is actually never as clean as our feeds tell us it is, so don’t be jealous—I’m just like you.

You see, Instagram doesn’t just cause status anxiety for those of us who look at the Perfect Picture People, trying so hard not to be envious…it also instills insecurity into the soul of the Perfect Picture People. While one person feels less-than and wants to measure up, the other feels judged and wants to be relatable. Both users turn off their screen after scrolling through the infinite feed of photos or tapping through their Insta-stories and feel discontent with their online presence. And both are likely to try too hard to seem more like the other.

I look at my profile, especially in my early days as an Insta-user, and cringe at the grainy, non-iPhone representations of my life. The selfies that I over-filtered because the camera was so bad I had to make too many adjustments to make them even a little decent—even back then, I was trying to measure up. I have almost, on multiple occasions, gone in and purged my profile of these ‘immediate pictures’ of my life. I want to be that girl who only posts pictures of white walls and bright green plants, beautiful foreign countries, and immaculately organized desks. I want, for one tiny moment in time, to urgently document my whitewashed, brightened, beautified and temporarily organized life so I look like a ‘cool girl’ on the internet. I fight this on a fairly regular basis, which isn’t great, but at least I’ve decided to fight it. My life is not a stock photo, and I don’t want to have to tell people that. I want them to see it. I want them to be able to relate to me without me making sure they know I think they should be able to.

Frankly, Perfect Picture People, you are not just like me. Nope, you have fancy, multi-thousand dollar Nikons and Canons with every lens imaginable for every need you might have, and you feel like you need to offer a #phonephotography disclaimer when you only have your humble iPhone 7+ on you. You live in areas with some of the highest income-per-capita statistics in the state. You buy all your clothes from cute boutiques (Old Navy if you’re feeling pinched for pennies) and dress your little ones in Baby Gap. I’m a college student paying my own way through school with less than $10 of her own money in her bank account at this moment, who feels unbelievably lucky to have her iPhone 5s, thinks $5 for a pair of jeans at a thrift store is highway robbery, and whose most expensive piece of clothing is a $24 pair of boots she bought at Walmart last fall. My reaction to you saying you’re just like me is similar to the universally experienced feeling of walking into your friends’ pristine bedrooms and having to process a series of profuse apologies about how messy everything is when your own bedroom floor hasn’t been seen by human eye for days.

I may be at times envious of your life. I may sometimes want a hard-working attentive husband, or an incredible 3-week European tour, or a literal model of a baby, or a kitchen that looks as Chip-and-Joanna as yours. But here’s the thing: that’s not your weight to bear. If I have a bad attitude, that’s my heart issue to deal with. On a more positive note, if I see the beautiful things you have and are inspired to work towards that some day, that’s my dream to live into.

It’s okay to be prosperous! It’s okay to have a different kind of life. It’s amazing that you are able to live the way you are, and a testament to God’s grace and provision for you and your family—don’t be embarrassed by it! But just like you don’t want your followers to Keep-Up-With-the-Joneses you, and pretend to be what they think you are, please don’t feel like you need to be us. Don’t tell us your life is normal. Don’t tell us you don’t always have it together. There’s a quote by Margaret Thatcher that I love: “Power is like being a lady… if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” To use two clichés in the same sentence, image is very powerful and actions speak louder than words. If you have to tell us you’re “normal,” if you have to tell us you’re “just like us,” if you have to tell us you’re “real,” you aren’t.

Please don’t feel like this means posting a sliding photo gallery of the various stages of a sobbing infant who was misbehaving or a picture of a mountain of dirty laundry. It’s hard to explain how people can tell when someone is being duplicitous, but people can tell—without you literally putting it out there. Post generously about your beautiful life and don’t apologize for your blessings! But maybe don’t perfectly frame every picture, and maybe don’t send the brightness and contrast through the roof with a touch of a slide on the saturation. Instead, post shaky hand-held videos of your little one singing the alphabet—you know, the kind we have of us 90s babies that we dust off the VHS player to watch. Post totally unposed candid photos of your family and instead of a long sappy caption, be okay with a more three-ring-photo-album style “Smith Family Reunion 2018!!!” You don’t have to look perfect anymore than the rest of Instagram does—how’s that for weight off your shoulders?!

And to those who, like me, have phones that are now considered obsolete and aren’t living what we think of as a happily-ever-after, find the beauty in your happily-ever-now. If we still have access to Instagram in 20 years, we’ll be grateful to see memories of what really happened. Stop idolizing a life that has been run through a Martha Stewart filter. As irritating as it can be, everyone is right to say their lives aren’t perfect, because they aren’t, thanks to our post-sin world. If we aren’t content in our circumstances, we won’t be content in any circumstances. Instagram is an exciting place, a cross-section of cultures, and we should admire and respect it, even when it seems boring (like our own) or sugar-coated (like that of the Perfect Picture People).

To all Instagram users everywhere: our joy is ours, and should not be allowed to be stolen by comparison. Our life is ours, and we should live it with gratitude and contentment. Our Instagrams are “immediate documentations” of our lives, and we shouldn’t have to hit pause because we’re too insecure to let them play out in the feeds of our friends.

8 lessons This Is Us provides about manhood

The second season finale of the hit NBC TV show, This Is Us, aired on Tuesday night. This post may contain mild spoilers.

The American man has a storied history. The stereotypical 1950s American man gets up in the morning, goes to work, comes home at night, eats dinner, prepared by his doting wife, then retires to his arm chair with a cigar and a newspaper for the rest of the evening. Various sectors of society take this stereotype and find a million solutions to its weaknesses, ranging from adding spiritual shepherding duties, including disciplining children, to equal distribution of both domestic and workplace labor across the man and his wife. Oh, how we could pick fights about what it should and should not mean to be a man.

One thing that This Is Us has done is capture truths about manhood that should be universal, speaking subtly and almost silently to the lives of any boy or man who watches the show.

As a man, it isn’t ‘cool’ to want to escape your wife

One of the very first things that Jack Pearson, the patriarch on the show, said that captured my attention in the show was when his wife, Rebecca, was excessively pregnant with triplets. She was hormonal, exhausted, and unkind. I believe it was Jack’s birthday, and his friends invited him out to go golfing with them, and they started resentfully going on about their wives. They turn to Jack for participation, and he refuses. He says,

…she’s at her worst right now. Like, exorcist level bad. But I still don’t want to escape her…I want to freeze time, just to get a little bit more.

and left the country club that minute to go back to her. 

The reason this jumped out at me is that this is the kind of man my father is, but not the kind of man that gets portrayed on television. My father preferred the company of my mom to the company of any. other. person. He would say that when he married mom, he was choosing her to be his best friend over any other person in the world and he didn’t need to buddy-buddy with men away from her. But in the media, annoyance and disrespect toward women is glorified by how married men speak of their wives. In the entire course of the show, Jack does not speak of Rebecca without love. Now that is cool.

Relationships are a team sport

We definitely see this in Jack and Rebecca’s marriage, but we especially see it with Beth and Randall. Beth was a stay-at-home mom for the first season, but when Randall left his job to spend more time with his family, Beth went back to work. Before this decision, in season one, Randall wanted to go off to work, missing his daughter’s chess tournament. Beth looked him in the eyes, and said

Nuh-uh. Tonight, I call marriage.

Both Beth and Randall have this power. Both halves of the marriage can remind the other of what matters. Many, many times throughout the show, they do. They have this ‘game’ they call “Worst Case Scenarios,” where, to deal with Randall’s crippling anxiety, they just toss back and forth their deepest darkest fears for how a situation would turn out. They both do it. Randall isn’t just addressing Beth’s worries like she’s a scaredy-cat, and Beth isn’t just pacifying an obsessive husband; they respect each other’s fear and get everything out in the open. When Randall decides he wants to buy an apartment building, Beth goes in on it with him, despite her worries, and works by his side to get the project underway. When Beth needs Randall to stop freaking (“Randall-ing”) out on her, she says as much. When Randall needs Beth to let down her emotional guard, he says as much. They fight, they argue, they get angry, but they can’t stay away, because they are in. love. Randall is a beautiful demonstration of a man who loves his wife in practical, day in and day out, kind of ways.

The road to being a good man is bumpy, sometimes

Kevin Pearson is the character on the show that everyone loves to hate and hates that they love. He’s attractive, used to getting his way, selfish, needy, an addict, and gets away with all of it for much of the first two seasons. But besides being an example of everything wrong with self-absorbed machismo, Kevin’s story points out that life is a journey, and you don’t always need a map to succeed. Kevin’s earliest plans were to be a football star, then he had his dreams crushed by an injury. He turns his face to acting, eventually ending up on TV. That falls apart, so he tries stage. Theatre doesn’t work out, but he gets signed for a movie. Along the way, he faces addiction. Kevin is lost, and by the end of the second season, he’s started to find the path again. In the season finale, you see him in a grounded place, realizing the consequences of his carelessness and selfishness. Sometimes, it takes a while to find your place, and that’s okay. It’s never too late to confess your shortcomings and do better.

Being sappy does not compromise your manhood

Jack Pearson is the king of what Rebecca calls “grand gestures.” But sometimes his grandest gestures were simple and sweet and private. When Rebecca was facing a health scare, Jack takes her from her appointment, terrified and anxious for the test results, to a surprise place: his ‘favorite tree.’ When they get there, Rebecca asks him what makes it his favorite place, and he says,

…because this is the tree where we get good news.

His pager goes off, and they run to the payphone just across the drive to call the hospital back. They do, indeed, get good news. She’s fine. There, at night, relieved, she looks at him and asks,

Why this tree?

He replies,

It was the one closest to a payphone.

He made. it. all. up. Or, rather, he chose to express an intentional sentiment to help Rebecca deal with something. Early on in the show, Rebecca tells him she needs more from him in the marriage, and he promises her that if she wants a 10 on a 1-10 scale, he will be an 11. The show is littered with moments like this between not only Jack and Rebecca, but Jack and his children. Almost everything that comes out of his mouth is laced with grace and kindness toward those around him, and he’s not ashamed of it. He doesn’t let fear of his emotions prevent him from emoting to those he loves. This leads nicely into…

Real men cry

Randall Pearson cries. All the time. He is an emotional man and it’s endearing. He is emotionally invested in everything. He tears up when his foster daughter finally called him ‘foster dad.’ He completely loses it when he had to say goodbye to her. In season one, with his anxiety severely stretched and undertreated, he was a mess. But oh, what a man. He is strong. He will stand up to bullies and stand up for justice. He is corny and nerdy as all get out, but he managed to catch a heck of a fine lady who loves him with every fiber of her soul. Randall almost single-handedly attacked huge construction projects on his property and has no problem getting sweaty and dirty. There is nothing unmanly about Randall at all, and he cries. Boys and men have to understand that crying doesn’t make them pansies, and Randall leads by example.

Don’t be afraid of looking silly

This lesson can be seen through Toby, Kate Pearson’s boyfriend/fiance/husband (at various points through the two seasons, he is all of these things). When Kate has news she is terrified of sharing because she’s scared to hope, Toby tries to keep the excitement in. Then, when Kate finally admits she is ready to talk about it, Toby dances and goes nuts in a very public place. Earlier in the show, Toby rolls out a literal red carpet for her. In the second season finale, the writers draw a verbal comparison between Toby and Jack, but any viewer worth their salt paying attention the whole show notices how Toby is picking up where Jack left off in Kate’s life—grand gestures are back in her life. He goes to a mail distribution center and combs through every package there to find a package that he knows will hurt Kate’s already aching heart if it arrives, and he does not give up, regardless of the workers’ opinions of him. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks, he is going to show love to the people he loves, and that is that.

It’s okay to get help

Almost every man in the show, from Jack to Randall to Kevin, asks for help. Viewers learn toward the end of season two that Jack regularly visited the doctor who delivered the babies for advice about raising children. Randall’s nervous breakdown poses a serious problem and it’s Kevin who finds him and helps him feel safe. Kevin’s struggle with addiction leads to rehab and then a family counseling session; he has to admit that he didn’t get to this place alone and he can’t get out of it alone, either. Jack even takes out a loan from his father, an abusive alcoholic with whom he has no relationship, to help build his family a home. Guys can’t be the strong people they feel like they need to be without help from people who love them. They can’t do it all by themselves.

The best kind of fighting is fighting for other people

Jack and Rebecca, like most parents, started off as a couple first, before they even thought of raising a family. Jack soon began to desire children. Rebecca, at the time, did not. It became a matter of some crisis, and there’s a point where Jack says to Rebecca,

If it is between you and having kids, you win. Every time. No question.

This isn’t about whether Rebecca was justified in not wanting children. She was scared to have children, and came to want babies and love the ones she got. But in that moment, Jack surrendered his desires to those of his wife. He fought for their relationship. He fought with his children, for his children, to sustain a healthy home for them and Rebecca. This attitude in the fictional family culture is summed up nicely by Kevin when he made a hard choice for a relationship, and declares that

Sometimes you gotta do the right thing, even if it’s not what you want.


This Is Us is quality writing, with beautiful character development and lessons for both men and women. While the world keeps arguing about what it means to be a man, the writers present characters so substantial and realistic that few people can disagree with what they’re saying about manliness. As a member of the Christian faith community, despite the fact that I couldn’t describe This Is Us as a ‘family show,’ it is a show that demonstrates the beauty of family informed by faith (the writers have yet to get specific about any sort of denomination or faith, and themselves draw no ties, but as a believer myself, I see values represented that I hold to in my own faith. There are occasional clues to suggest that the TV family does at least follow in a mildly religious tradition).

I hope for any young men watching that they see positive examples in entertainment that are so rare to see anywhere else. I hope for any older men that they see positive examples to encourage them to do what’s right for their families. Strength and sensitivity meet in the male characters of This Is Us, and when season 3 drops next September, Those Of Us who are fans, male and female alike, will be poised in front of the TV to continue to follow their stories.

The art of musicianship

When some offensive lineman tussles unnecessarily with the quarterback, or the hitter at bat beats up a ref who called a clear ball a strike, the behavior goes down as ‘unsportsmanlike.’ Good sportsmanship is one of the primary lessons we’re told sports teaches our young children: the ability to compete, to lose, to handle it gracefully, congratulate your competitors, practice harder, and turn your face to the next game.

Good sportsmanship isn’t just playing the sport well, it’s surrounding your sport with gracious living.

As a musician, we often reduce musicianship to exquisite technique, sensitive phrasing, perfect posture, thorough understanding of historical performance methods, strong tonal sense, and countless other little (or not so little) things good musicians have to be good at to be good at their craft. This may not sound like a reduction, because it is a heck of a lot to remember and chip away at for an entire career, but it is, still, an incomplete picture of true musicianship.

The art of musicianship reaches beyond us and our abilities and includes focusing on surrounding ourselves within our art with gracious living.

Musicians literally make their living through performance. Performance in this case is not restricted to playing or singing in front of an audience. Performance can include the results parents see in their children who take weekly lessons from you, and it can include the grades of the kids in the high school music appreciation class you teach…music is a world of performance, and so often, we get our identity confused in this.

A work of art, pouring forth from the mind and hands of its creator(s), is intensely personal. Numbers are always numbers, and math doesn’t change depending on who is executing the calculations. Laws are subject to some interpretation, but arguing in court must be done based on sets of pre-existing laws that don’t change from lawyer to lawyer. Music is a product that has infinite possibilities with innumerable variations—even the same piece, written by the same composer, sounds different when played by different performers, conducted by different conductors, or even when heard by different audiences. No performer plays every performance exactly the same way they did it the time before. Our music is shaped by us and the world around us at that very moment.

This has so much power. It has potential to heal and it has power to hurt. While we can use situations to shape the sounds that speak to us or to our listener, we use this power for good. But when we let it go to our heads that our performance is uniquely ours, we can get our skills confused with our substance.

This is a dangerous place to be.

No longer is a mistake just a momentary error, it is a personal failing. No longer is a rejection letter just a disappointment, it is a death of a dream. No longer is a weak audition an opportunity to learn and do better next time, it is heartbreak.

I have seen, both on Pinterest and as quotes posted on countless musicians’ Instagram or Facebook accounts, this one sentence that makes me sad: “Music isn’t just something I do, it’s who I am.” Agh!! What a terrifying thought! What if something happened to me and I couldn’t perform? What if I lost my hearing, my sight, my hands?  Sure, some people find ways of doing music even with these disadvantages, but what if I couldn’t? What if that was it for me? I have personally come so close to being unable to pursue music and the thought that this would have robbed me of myself is miserable! If music is who I am, then without music in my life, my essence must be gone from my life, and that is not a healthy mindset.

Musician etiquette is built to at least disguise, if not discourage this crossing of identities, but it still happens. Why do performers bow when people clap? The tradition is not built to say ‘yes, I know, I’m so great, because that performance was great.’ It’s a way of honoring the people you are bowing to, a way of thanking them for their presence, and acknowledging their importance. We ought not to go into someone else’s sound-space and take it over with our sound without specific invitation to do so, because we can be in a place without our music being there, too. Performers in an orchestra typically wear all black as a way of demonstrating that no one of them is more important than any other. It is becoming more and more the custom for accompanists to bow simultaneously with soloists, receiving equal recognition for their contribution despite the supposed subordination of their part to the other’s. Musical tradition is set up to recognize everyone involved in the music except yourself.

True artists bow simply and without exaggeration; this movement is not about them, but about the people who listen. True artists don’t bring their oboe as a plus one when their hosts just invited the person who happens to own the oboe. True artists don’t try to stand out when playing in an ensemble. True artists don’t ignore the people who make it possible for them to sound good.

Musicianship is an art, and what an art it is; music moves us, transports us, emboldens us, distracts us, and to create it is a beautiful thing. Like all arts, music is part science and part soul and musicianship itself is the same. No science of technique and ability can compensate for a lack of soul—grace and humility.

Next time a concerto competition ref gives you harsh marks on your tone from behind her notepad, accept the criticism and move forward. Next time the quarterback first chair in orchestra plays a passage that you completely flubbed, thank him for being a good player and don’t compare yourself to him. Musicianship is is to music what sportsmanship is to sports: the entertainment is poisoned by its absence. Keep your eye on the ball and brush it off. Be a jolly good sport.