Master Class: Preparing for Excellence

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” - Abraham Lincoln

In addressing the idea of preparedness, President Lincoln couldn’t have put this better. It’s essential to have the proper tools in good working order before taking on any task, be it cutting down a tree, painting a portrait, writing a song, or giving a performance. It becomes even more important to prepare well when getting ready for ministry, whether it’s through artistic expression or some other means. Let’s look at some of the factors that go into becoming prepared for both art and ministry.


Any artist worth his or her salt will tell you that regular practice is essential to growing and maintaining one’s skills. Depending on your discipline and skill level, the type and amount of practice you need may vary.

First, there is practice on the mechanics of your art form. This could be running scales for a musician, working on perspective for a painter, honing body shapes for a sculptor, or working the various sets of muscles for a dancer. When you get good at doing your art, this type of practice becomes more of a warm-up or study, but it’s not unimportant just because more seasoned artists spend less time doing it. They do it less because they have already done it enough, spending countless hours perfecting their skills. But they still need to review these skills at times, which is why they continue to warm up and run through studies. Veteran drummers who have spent their whole lives behind the kit will still work the “rudiments” of their art, practicing the most basic patterns that make up functional drumming. This is the kind of axe-sharpening that Lincoln talked about, getting your tools in tip-top shape for the job.

Working on the technicalities of one’s art is another form of practice. Besides getting to know the scales backward and forward, musicians might practice breathing techniques, fingering patterns, rhythmic exercises and other practices that help them get beyond the basics. Dancers will practice landing on the exact right spot, making the precise gesture or step that is required, and stretching their muscles enough to execute all the necessary flexes and jumps in their routine. Painters will move beyond considerations of line and color to work on texture, realism, and conveying emotion through visual form. All of this more intimate detail work pays off. After all, many people can tell trained singers vs. untrained singers just by where and how they breathe, and this makes a big difference in how their performances are judged.

One important element of practice that is often overlooked is improvisation. Whether it’s with a group or behind closed doors, improvising is the best way to develop one’s own personality as an artist. New techniques can be learned spontaneously this way; bad habits can be weeded out and good ones taken up in their place. Artists who just slap some color on a palette and start painting without any preconceived ideas of where they are headed can make some remarkable discoveries along the way. The point is to come out with something that is different from what you have come out with before. It might be “good” or “bad” depending on the context you work in, but either way this can be a really valuable practice to get into. In fact, when something turns out bad, it can be more valuable a learning tool than if everything comes out good. We can look at a bad result and say, “Wow, this is something I really need to work on and improve.”

The old axiom “practice makes perfect” isn’t really true. The real idea is “perfect practice makes perfect”, which means one should sometimes slow down as much as possible so that one can get every detail as right as possible. Jazz drummer Art Blakey once said that it was very easy to play fast; the hard part came at really slow tempos when it was more difficult to predict where the next beat would land. Blakey therefore practiced playing along with a metronome at the slowest tempos he could manage, to hone that part of his craft. It also makes it more dangerous to miss a note or beat because those gaffes stand out more at slower tempos. The same applies to dance, painting, and other art forms. Slow, deliberate pacing can reveal much about where one’s skills need work.

There is a difference between practice and rehearsal. Rehearsal means working on specific things for a specific task, i.e., running through next Sunday’s set of worship music, reading lines for an upcoming play performance, or practicing the steps for next week’s dance recital. It has clear, short-sighted goals in mind. Practice is more about working on one’s individual skills as an artist, be it in a group setting or all alone in the garage. Practice doesn’t have to be about getting one particular song right or painting the perfect tree; it’s more broadly aimed at learning what you can do now and what you can’t do yet but might want to do.

One good way to get better at your art is to teach it to someone else. Not only does this remind you of certain aspects of the art you may have forgotten or taken for granted, but it adds pressure to do a good job and convey expertise to others.


Consider this scenario: You walk into a tax preparation office with a boxful of receipts, W-2s and other odious tax-time paperwork, hoping to stave off the IRS for another year. You sit down at a desk in front of a nicely dressed, smiling young man who proceeds to talk with you about your financial history over the past year. The longer the conversation goes, the more you realize that this person isn’t really trained for his job. He doesn’t seem to know anything about the most recent tax-code updates, local regulations for small business owners, or much else beyond your own minimal understanding of tax law. When you finally ask him about it, he admits that he has never gone to school or even attended a seminar on tax preparation. But, he hastily adds, he is sure that everything will be fine because he’s got a real heart for the matter and is excited to just be at the desk. Besides, he’s heard about another tax preparer who has never had any training, either, but is wildly successful in the field.

Does this sound like one of those oddball Holiday Inn Express commercials? How about replacing the tax guy with an auto mechanic, an exercise coach, or a skydiving instructor? Would you accept the “real heart for the matter” excuse from one of these professionals if they had no real background in what they were supposed to do?

Why is it, then, that Christians are so willing to accept a lack of training in the people who serve in church arts ministries? Why do we have so many worship musicians and leaders who cannot read music and cannot even identify where most of the notes lie on their instruments? Why are there so many “artists” who consider knowledge of their field to be less important than tax preparers, mechanics and coaches do in their fields?

The word pedantic means minimally skilled, just getting by with the bare necessities to do one’s job. Pedantic performance lacks imagination, interest and real motivation; it is done simply for the purpose of doing it. Pedantic artistry is almost an oxymoron, since it can’t really be called “art” if it’s an unskilled hack job. Ironically, pedants tend to be very self-confident, especially if they are working in some sort of ministerial aspect. Mark Lowry tells a story about a singer who was commended on his performance. The singer replied, “Oh, it wasn’t me. It was God singing through me.” And Lowry thought to himself, “Brother, if that was God singing, it would’ve sounded a whole lot better than that!” But how many times have you heard similar things from Christian singers?

There seems to be some sort of mindset in Christendom that it’s okay to be untrained and aimless as long as one is doing it for God. And this is precisely the mindset that we should not find in places like worship ministries. We serve the Creator of the universe, and it doesn’t speak well of us if we don’t care enough to even learn how to perform for Him properly. Why should the audience at a Metallica concert hear a more polished, professional, and passionate song than God Himself and His people do in church? Christian music has become a joke in professional musical circles for just this reason.

It’s one thing to be a beginner, and quite another to still have the skills of a beginner when you have been at it for years. We have all probably known worship musicians who have played on their church teams for a decade or more and still have to rely on chord-chart books to figure out where to put their hands on their instruments. Some of them have probably voiced philosophies like, “Well, you know, all that music theory just gets in the way because it ties you down to a bunch of rules.” This is pedantry, and it doesn’t do anyone a great deal of good. Rules aren’t made to be broken, and they can only really be broken if you understand what they mean in the first place. God doesn’t need more pedants; he needs more professionals, unpaid or otherwise.

Another vital practice is widening your scope of experience so you don’t become a “one-trick pony”, only capable of doing certain things. For musicians, this might mean listening to and playing something besides contemporary worship music. For painters, it might be exploring pointillism or impressionism. For dancers, it might be extending into modern forms instead of sticking to ballet. Not only will this broaden your mind and intellect, enabling you to appreciate and understand more things, it will give you more tools that may be useful to you in the future.


This is probably the most essential element for a Christian artist to prepare with, because it reminds us why we are doing this in the first place. If our art is aimed to serve, glorify, and worship God, the intimate connection of prayer is vital before and during the exercise of our art.

We can pray for the people who will partake of our art by hearing or seeing it. We probably won’t even know their names for the most part, but God does, and we can pray that they will receive the message we are trying to convey in a proper manner.

We can pray for our own health and spiritual well-being, so that we can do the best job possible as God’s artistic servants.

We can pray for other people within our artistic discipline – other musicians, painters, dancers, etc. – since these are people that we interact with, learn from, and often teach ourselves.

We can pray for our spiritual leaders, whether it’s the head pastor, the worship leader or someone else in a position of authority. Since our art will often coexist with their ministries, it is important that there be no spiritual conflict or misunderstanding.

There’s an old story about a man whose town was flooding. As he stood on the front porch of his home, someone in a boat came by and offered to take him to safety. The man said, “No need, my friend. The Lord will provide.”

A while later the waters had risen more, and the man moved to the second-floor balcony. Another boat came by and a man told him to jump in. His reply was the same: “No need, my friend. The Lord will provide.”

A while later he had to move to the roof of his house as the water kept rising. A helicopter hovered overhead and dropped down a ladder to save the man. Still he said, “No need, my friend. The Lord will provide.”

It wasn’t long before the man drowned and found himself in Heaven. He asked God, “But Lord, I trusted you to save me and you didn’t.” The Lord replied, “Well, I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?”

The moral of the story? Be sure to be receptive to what God is really trying to tell you through prayer and other means. Take advantage of the opportunities for growth and improvement that God sends your way. It will make you a more effective artist and a more effective minister.

Our past Master Class articles:

It Builds Character, March 2009

Labanotation, February 2009

Singability, January 2009

Avoiding Cliches, December 2008

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