Sunday, August 5, 2018

Consolidation: Beauty, Course-Correction, and Peter Pan

As missions and ministries go, I find those that seem to grow or make progress with their devotees over time to be the most engaging. As the congregation’s needs develop over time, a ministry’s mission can be more beneficial to its community if it is responsive to those needs as they change and grow. For my part, I do still consider my vocation to beauty to be a ministry, although the focus has narrowed as my life has become more consolidated. Years ago, when I was pursuing music full time, my focus had more to do with the Via Pulchritudinis, or the “Way of Beauty”, and the church’s many exhortations on artistic creation. I felt then, and still do, that my past and current experiences as a performer, a “hired gun”, a teacher, and as a composer were used to help those in similar positions find their own voice, or at the very least be able to identify with my personal journey and seek solace in that sense of community. Such paths can be arduous if you are isolated. These days, in my vocation as a husband and in my wealth management practice, the “Way of Beauty” in my life has had to evolve and has become a little more complex in it’s day-to-day meaning. I’ll explain a bit more about how in the next few paragraphs, but I write now with the intent to exhort my community as I used to, only with a more concentrated perspective. I want to appeal to anyone who feels and struggles with the tension that can exist between the missionary-style life they’ve lived for so long (and thought they’d live forever) and the unknown ahead. There are those, too, who simply just don’t know what to do with their life because, all of a sudden (after years of school, tons of debt, and a few years removed), they don’t really know what they want to do with their lives - or may be avoiding that change altogether. I have been there too, and I want to share what it has been like to receive grace from a faithful God, and how the joy of relying on him has far exceeded the pains of letting go of plans of which I thought I was certain.
Before I get started, I must say that I intend to build my message on personal experience, which deals specifically with my art, my marriage, and my career in wealth management over the last two plus years. Perhaps you chose to go back to school, enter into real estate, sell insurance, teach, start your own business, etc. Perhaps you got married and needed to enter the work force in a different way, or have just grown tired of not being paid enough by a church, gig promoter, or school. I have had to be creative in the ways that I pursue beauty as my priorities changed over time, and those who seek to do the same after devoting so much of their lives to art and beauty will also need to be creative, regardless of what they choose to do moving forward.
To me, Beauty has a single definition: It is the self-sacrificing, consummate act of Jesus dying on the cross. A more broad definition might differ by defining beauty as something that satisfies the mind by giving pleasure to the senses. This is probably the context most people consider when using this term. Instead, I view the broad definition more as a by-product of beauty’s true definition. For example, one may find the Bach Cello Suites to be beautiful in the way they sound, whereas I think they are made beautiful by hours of sacrifice in the practice room and a vulnerability that the cellist exhibits in performing them. (Believe me, I have heard plenty of Bach where the cellist should’ve practiced more). Christ married the church by exposing his humanity to the world and by making the gift of himself the means for us to know salvation. The musician exposes himself to a listener and makes the gift of himself by his expression and interpretation of the music, all so the listener may know the creator of the music more, as well as the Holy Spirit’s creative and discrete intercession in that process. My point is that Beauty has a clear definition, and it should be applied to all creative endeavors in a vocational way. 
When God entrusted the dignity and well-being of another human to me on July 8th, 2017, he opened my life up to the continuous opportunity of expressing, receiving, and promoting beauty in the most substantial way. Up until this point, I knew beauty in my music. I knew it in the way that it guided the careful construction and interpretation of my own compositions and the music of the great composers. I knew beauty when I struggled with music, became apathetic to it, and came to love it again. I knew it in the responses and unions I experienced with my audiences, almost like a marriage. Well, now I’m married, and God took the whole thing up a notch. Beauty in the context of my vocation today, compared to beauty as a musician, is no longer immaterial. The thing that I make sacrifices for has an actual body and soul. My decisions have more implications and consequences now. Rather than spending hours in a practice room and creating spaces for people to receive my music, I need to direct that desire to creating a space for my bride to receive me - a home. I no longer create a space of beauty for a large audience on a regular basis, instead, I create a beautiful space for an audience of one. My bride has made known to me that she likes food and shelter, so my practice room is the trading desk, my score studies are the Wall Street Journal, and my Carnegie Hall is the home for which my job pays. In that home, while I still have many actual instruments, the ones I use to perform for my wife are the pots and skillets . . . and the mop. This may sound like a very poor trade, the guitar for the mop, but I think that’s something the world would have you think. It’s something that we tell ourselves to assure us that there is no greater thing than the art we create. In reality, there’s no greater thing than laying one’s personal desires down for the good of another. Sure, it’s hard to go to sleep some days thinking that I should have written something or played something today, but that satisfaction is fleeting and it leaves me wanting more. On the flip side, it makes the gigs I CHOOSE to do all the more special. The instruments you use to bring life to your vocation may be different, but the life itself is real and indissoluble. I should say that my life isn’t totally devoid of music. Quite the contrary, I feel like I am doing more now than I used to because focusing my energy on fewer projects with more intentionality requires more energy than playing random gigs.
“Ok, so you made some changes. I’m thinking about making some changes too, what does your life look like now?” First off, as for my career, let me put to rest some of the misconceptions about your financial advisors. Most of us aren’t millionaires, we are not in crowded rooms screaming “buy!” and “sell!” all day, and most of us aren’t just trying to sell you something for our personal gain. The financial advisors I know are dads waiting with their kids at bus stop, moms trying to catch after school baseball games, people in front of me in the confession line, and people that sacrifice a great deal of their own comforts to put their clients first. Sure there are bad apples, and even influential power houses that your parents laud, like: Suze Orman or Dave Ramsey, and even your Uncle Jim who made it big trading stocks all day. There are some who may have even had a bad experience with an advisor, others may have had great experiences. There may even be some disconnect between what one advisor tells you to do, and what you read in a book or online. There are many resources out there for us to use in planning, but my point is that advisors, in general, are not unlike your physicians, mail carriers, or your friendly neighborhood Spidermen (and women). For my part, in trying to grow my business, my experiences with people have landed across the board. In two-plus years I have made over 3,500 phone calls and had over 600 meetings. You really don’t get a better chance to see what people are like. You also get a great chance to redeem your role for people who have been hurt or have had bad experiences with advisors in the past. All of that said, it’s important to realize that, if you decide to make a career adjustment to fill a need, it can both be beneficial to your life and also create some new challenges you didn’t anticipate. While my business, for example, has helped me grow, it’s also had some had some interesting impacts on my social life, and I have sometimes struggled with that. The important thing to remember is that God is not only faithful in the way that continues to make your life beautiful when you “course-correct”, he is also faithful in the way that he carries you through your struggles. The key is to remain faithful, and re-commit when you forget to do so.
As I mentioned before, I have had to be creative in how I fill my daily life with beautiful things. I think the single greatest fear of any musician entering corporate America is that their day-to-day lives will become sterile - I think the word “cubicle” gets thrown around a lot to describe these “dystopian” realities. Well, I had a cubicle for a short time, and there was nothing sterile about it. I made generous use of the company copy machine, and covered every beige inch with my favorite impressionist and renaissance paintings. I had rosaries and images of my favorite saints watching me work. When people walked by, they take one look and left with a smile. Beauty does its greatest work in the smallest ways! If I am idle at my desk, music is always filling the backdrop, making all menial tasks purposeful.
There is a very real human experience in my line of work as well. The bulk of my time is spent sitting across from someone developing a relationship. Some would think that such a relationship would be used in a utilitarian way for my gain, as a means to an end (that being some kind of sale). I don’t deny that sales are a component of my job description, but I will say that a sale or advice comes as a result of the real purpose of the relationship (and btw Luke mentions somewhere in his gospel that the laborer is worth his wage . . . free Oreos to whoever finds it for me). You see, for someone to sit across from you and unlock their desires, vulnerabilities, and goals is no small feat. The real purpose of the relationship is for me to create a space for my client to be vulnerable and intentional about their goals, struggles, and ideas. That’s not easy in our world today. I reverence the gift of that transparency by listening and learning about what makes that person unique, and THAT is a BEAUTIFUL experience. I also try to fill in any gaps of knowledge someone may have relevant to financial planning. It’s interesting that something so important in our lives as financial planning isn’t taught in school, but I digress. If there is a victory, it is in the ability to share in the victories of others as they commit (and re-commit when they fail) to plans that strengthen their own vocations and influences. The Lord’s victory is the real and romantic way he carried through my selfish attachments and allowed me to see the vocation to beauty in a way that is relevant to my job. Our victory, as the laity, is our humility in making leaps of faith.
            In closing, I want to reiterate above all that God is faithful. That single fact is so much bigger than the “concentration camps” of our comparison complexes and the “I still don’t know what I want to do with my life” tunicates. Some of us are called to serve the Lord in big and magnificent ways for our whole lives. Many of us are even called to serve the Lord in wonderful big ways for a short while, but most of us are called to continue to serve Him in smaller ways when we are so called. Remember, the victory of the laity is our humility, and our fundamental responsibility to create and nurture life. As for jobs, when it comes down to it, you’re just going to need to find something and stick with it, whether it gives you the same joy that the occupation or lifestyle you had before did or not - and if you don’t know if the job is going to provide that for you on the front end, then just do it. Find that thing that you can do for thirty years, do it faithfully, and God will make it the thing you’re glad you did for thirty years. There just isn’t a sustainable place in this world for “man-children” or “Peter Pans”. Further, he will use your artistic and missionary gifts for needs you didn’t even know needed filling. Serve the bigger purpose and support your family. Don’t put all your chips on trying to affect as many lives as you can. It’s not a numbers game. Finally, I move that, regardless of what occupations you hold and regardless of what need you fill or what people you serve – regardless of whether or not the dream panned out – you have been given a sense of what is and isn’t beautiful. Your current circumstances have not diminished your responsibility to bring beauty into the world.

God love you,

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Bull & the Bear: Checking in One Year Later


                  The Bull & the Bear: Checking in One Year Later

     “I don’t say much any more.” At least, that’s what I thought to myself recently after one of my serial mid-day flashbacks. I guess what I mean to say is that I am less compelled to “get on my soapbox” these days. Not that hoards of faithful followers ever really subscribed to my rant and wisdom (or lack thereof...), but I suppose to some it might seem like I joined the “Order of Curley-Headed Eccentrics-in-Hiding Club”...of which Rick Moranis is secretary, and Richard Simmons is president.

     The truth is that much has changed for me, and in a seemingly short amount of time. It’s almost been a year to the day since I started my own wealth management practice, and effectively reduced my thriving musical career to a weekly commitment of yelling at people in Latin and the occasional nostalgic weekend of loud noises, lights, and surviving the TSA line at the airport. Reviews on my decision have been mixed. For the most part, my efforts have been met with tremendous support, coupled with only a hint of skepticism (which has been easy to settle because it turns out that I’m pretty damn good at my job). Others are upset that their emotional investment in my music has been met with a level return. Investment analogies aside, I find that the deepest connections in this time have been made in conversations with those artists who fight winning and losing battles for their art every day. Specifically, I am referring to those practical burdens of needing to provide for a family, obtaining financial independence and security, and retaining autonomy, growth, and freedom in your art form while at the same time embracing the lifestyle of an artist that can often consume every available minute of one’s day.

     The Holy Spirit is an old friend, one who seems to arrive unannounced but always with fireworks in tow... kind of like Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring. His most recent visit happened this past weekend. I was attending a mass where my good friend was preaching as a deacon for the first time. Prior to mass (and I should note that it was memorial day weekend), the pianist played a medley of patriotic hymns and fanfares. Among the melodies was the main theme of the 2nd movement of Dvorak’s 9th symphony, the “Symphony for the New World”(1895). I don’t know what made this melody so jarring to my state at that moment, except that it might have to do with the fact that in the span of two months, I got into a car accident, bought a car, bought a house, spent 12 hours of my 60 hour work week studying for a massive securities exam (with two more to follow in a months time), and I will be married in one month. Regardless, this melody, which I have heard and performed a thousand times, moved me to tears. My fiancé (having noticed), on the drive home, asked me a profound question. She wanted to know if I was happy...specifically with the changes I made, and with the lifestyle I have now chosen.

     ...and so I finally arrive at point. I have always referred to my music as my “lower-case v” vocation; a call to sacrifice my comforts for the sake of beauty. With a month standing between me and my “upper-case V” vocation (my wedding), I can’t help but think that in accepting one, I am no longer able to make the sacrifices necessary for the other. In other words, I don’t quite believe that one can fully give himself to both “brides”. I believe that there is a disconnect between having a thriving vocation as an artist, and having a free, total, faithful, and fruitful vocation as a spouse. The word "thriving" can mean many different things to many people. For my part, I'm referring to it as my career. I don't want to give the impression that my art isn't thriving in other ways. In fact, it is blossoming in ways that I didn't even know were possible, but that growth has little to do with the stage, the wattage, the crowds, and the money. It's become much more intimate. I do want to say that I understand there are exceptions to that idea. In a way, I view these gifted artists as ones who God has granted to opportunity to “wear both uniforms”. Case in point, why are there so many artists who have to find lucrative work outside of their craft to support a family, and so few who are able to support their family (prudently) on their art alone? Such a question merits a gratuitous answer based on how the world views and supports its culture-bearing artists...it’s best that we just reserve that topic for a longer piece in the future.

     The pitfall here would be to think that I am suggesting that one must give up their ambitions, desires, and gifts for the sake of marriage, holy orders, or consecrated life. On the contrary, I believe that you can continue a ministry in the arts and sustain a vocation simultaneously, but the priorities may need to shift. For me, this meant staying home more, rather than going missing for three weeks of the month, and saving money for a home, rather than a guitar or album. This means that I have to protect my income so that if lighting strikes, the people who rely on it will be safe. This means that I have to spend more time on my relationships, and a little less time writing. The sacrifices are hard at first, but the reward is great. Additionally, I think I should say that I believe God is faithful, and he rewards his faithful. One cannot comprehend the joy and grace of a vocation unless you’ve made the leap of faith to be in it. I believe that there is no comparison to be made between the happiness music brought me and the joy and fulfillment to come with being a loving and imperfect husband and father.

     Finally, while I have always acknowledged that success for me (in music) meant that I had autonomy and freedom to express myself, as opposed to monetary success, I recognize that the most fruitful thing I can do with my gift is to place it before the foot of the Lord in an expression of the great Fiat: let it be done with me in accordance with your will. 

P.S....Yes, i'm happy!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Sometimes, it doesn't work out the way you think it will...

                          Sometimes, it doesn’t work out the way you think it will…
I sometimes think that I should have gone into the business of collecting nickels. It’s a favorite phrase of mine, “Man, if I had a nickel for however many times I_______, I’d be a millionaire.” It’s a less narcissistic way of expressing that you’re essentially “ahead of the game”, with regard to perception…but that’s neither here nor there. More pertinently: if I had a nickel for however many times someone told me to “quit everything and go follow your dreams”, I would probably have enough nickels to sustain me financially through such an endeavor.

I’ve hit an interesting milestone in my musical career in the last few weeks, in that, at least with regard to the non-stop touring and endless performances, it has pretty much come to a cadence. Starting July 1st, I will officially be a securities planning representative in the field of comprehensive personal finance. It doesn’t really all fit on a business card…but then, who still uses those? The interview process took close to two months, and required a lot of testing and evaluation. More importantly, it gave me a sort of grace period…one allowing me to clearly discern whether or not this was right for me.

In truth, I have always been plagued by the notion that I would be inadequate when, eventually, I’d have to support a family on a musician’s salary. Even in my success as a single man with few liabilities and a 30k per year income, I always wrestled with the horror that I could potentially have no answer for my future wife when she looks to me in times of financial stress. Some days are better than others, and on those days I wake up realizing that ever since I submitted myself to a vocation of beauty and music, I have never gone without. God is faithful. He keeps His promises. He has qualified me, and I’ve merely made myself available. A vocation requires such a gift of self by definition, and it is in that giving that I have come to find my identity and call to serve.

My message is not a statement of disclosure, but instead a plea for change of heart. You see, in my years as a full-time musician and composer, I have experienced a multitude of dichotomies. One such is that there seems to be some idea that to “give it all up, and chase your dreams” is somehow more admirable that devoting one’s life to an ulterior mission of work to provide for yourself and for your family. For example, why is it that a man or woman who devotes his or her life entirely to music or art is more celebrated and courageous than the one who has invested the same time in a more pragmatic field to ensure that his family has a secure and palatable future? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that pursuing music and art full time is “invaliant”, I’m also not trying to take providence out of the equation, that which often suggests a call or a mission to invest such talents. I remember how people would react when I told them that I was a composer and musician when they would ask me what I did for a living. They would look at me as if I were a superhero. I loved it. Sure it’s exotic, but hindsight and experience highlight the parallels that exist across music and such jobs as teaching, construction, or even law enforcement.

I don’t want to diminish the role of the full-time working musician in our culture. Surely, without these individuals, where could we find beauty in sound? The fulfillment that I experienced day-to-day was exhilarating and addictive, such that even as I rest and rejoice in the prospect of this new ministry, I still grapple with the loss of some of the liberties I took in music. My solace and solution to the new void is this: focus more locally. What I have found recently is that when I began to volunteer my music and offer it back to the place I came from, I became more fulfilled than I ever was in front of crowds of 10,000 or more. Further, might I suggest to the full-time musician that if you are not giving back to the communities that helped you create your gifts, then you are simply doing it wrong.  

“But James, isn’t this all too convenient for you to proclaim? You’ve decided to make a transition, and you all of a sudden have this epiphany. It sounds like you’re trying to justify this decision to the rest of us.” Fair. The timing is a little too perfect, I’ll give you that. On the other hand, what if I was to tell you that if I could narrow down one single solitary burden that I, and hundreds of musicians like me, had in common. Real talk, most musicians can’t support a family on a musician’s salary alone. Most of those who are able are no more talented than the rest of us, but have found a niche or even just plain got lucky. Others do indeed work very hard and profit well from sweat equity, I don’t want to discredit that. However, a vocation to be a husband and father is far more important than that of a musician, and it should come first. I’ve known this the entire time I have been active, and now it’s time for a change. So I tell you, you musicians who know how I have felt, it’s ok that it didn’t turn out the way you thought it would. It’s scary to think about what comes next, but if you approach it with the same heart and consistency by which you became successful and expressive musicians, then you will be happy.

Finally, let’s talk about this past Sunday’s. Jesus says to his disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Never underestimate the variety of sacrifices people make in this world, and be mindful of those who work not on the stage, but instead in the factory or field. Who’s to say that God hasn’t qualified these available to be the silent heroes of this culture? As for me, I haven’t stopped playing music, but I’ve slowed down the touring. Instead, I’m composing every day in my room after work for TV and film, and for my own purposes. Perhaps I’ll go the way of Charles Ives, known at the end of my life not just for music, but also for the fact that it continued to thrive despite an eight to five.

God Bless,

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Catholic Celebrity Is A Problem

          When I arrived in Nashville in the fall of 2013, I did so with all of the bare essentials necessary to becoming a successful rock star: my thirteen instruments, two pairs of skinny jeans (one medium, and one that could also double as compression tights in most hospitals), and finally an inflated ideology based on connection-making, due-paying, and image-faking. I’m originally from south Louisiana, a place known for its authenticity among other things, so it didn’t take long for me to shake off the fa├žade and begin making myself comfortable in my new home. Over time, I found myself having trouble doing just that, getting comfortable. Now, before I go on, I should clarify two things: first, I genuinely love Nashville and all of the people who made it home for me, and second, I was pursuing a career specifically in Catholic music (in contrast to country, pop, etc.). This piece isn’t a slight on the place or the art, but instead on a deeply infectious lifestyle I encountered there within the industry: celebrity.

            Ok James, you self-righteous know-it-all, what’s so bad about becoming a celebrity? What’s wrong with pursuing my dreams and seeing them through to fame and influence?

I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with pursuing one’s dreams. I don’t believe that it’s wrong to be recognized for being influential and really great at what you do. However, I’ve been in this industry long enough to recognize that there are those in the Catholic ministry and music industry, as well as those pursuing careers within the industry, who are preoccupied and enamored with the goal of becoming well-renowned and celebrated. It’s a pitfall, one that I fell into myself. I was ultra concerned at the time with how I was presented on social media, and also with marketing myself based on “perception-making”. I wanted the whole world to know whom I was playing for, which artist I was opening for, who I “casually” ran into backstage, or even how many people were about to see me play. The issue with this lifestyle is that I wasn’t involved with the secular music industry at the time, but instead, the sacred music industry. At what point in that time was I giving glory to God in action and word? Why was I so focused on how people saw me, and not how I was seeing people?

I’ve had so many conversations with aspiring worship leaders who are utterly distracted by what the key players in the industry are currently doing and saying. They rehearse for interviews instead of performances, and study trends instead of sounds. It’s as if the only way these artists could possibly hope to enter the market is by imitation and uniformity. For example, I can recall accompanying a particular artist on the road for a short time. This artist's career was young, but so was mine, and in our defense…we both had a lot to learn. When we would play festivals opening up for the premier Catholic worship leaders and song-writers (I wont name them here, but you can figure it out…there are only like 5 or 6), I can remember how this artist's disposition and interpersonal skills would change. For example, when we were featured to lead worship for small parish events, this artist’s focus would be on the people and relating to the congregation. We would be free to pray, and by doing so, would lead others in prayer. In contrast, at the festivals and large events, we would only focus on relating to the headlining artist. We would make sure that we were “seen and heard”. We would anoint these headliners with questions regarding industry personal and marketing strategies… “Who does your screen printing?”, “How can I get in touch with your manager and producer?”,  “How can I set up a co-write with you?” These headliners are regular people; don’t you think they want to talk more about faith, family, and life? Presumption over perception, superficial relationships verses dignity, and commotion versus peace. All this, and when did we find time to pray before the set?

Celebrity hardens and entitles self-giving hearts, and blinds those eagerly searching for truth. If God wanted all the artists and speakers in the Christian music industry to look and sound the same, wouldn’t he have given us all the same exact talent? For every different person who has the gift to glorify God for the masses in word and song, there is a different and particular gift God has given for us to do so. Celebrity is the culture of sameness and comparison, not individuality and freedom. Who are we as Catholic artists to act as though our every inspiration does not come from the Holy Spirit?

Saint John Paul the Great wrote in his Letter to Artists, “I appeal especially to you, Christian artists: I wish to remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close alliance that has always existed between the Gospel and art means that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man.”

              The great saint reminds us that the function of art is to glorify God by connecting the truth of the gospel to the heart of man in a way which he can understand as an individual created in God’s likeness. Finally, to quote Twentieth Century Fox’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”

Friday, January 29, 2016

An Artist's Vocation

     Being 26 years old is peculiar; at least it is for me. It’s a seemingly less enchanting time for me than was my time in college, of which I am three years removed, but nonetheless exciting still because I would say that I am on the cusp of being a true adult...in age anyways (I still buy fruit roll-ups when I grocery shop). Much of my formation as a Christian up to this point has consisted primarily of theology and church teaching, with an emphases on the all-emphatic term, “vocation”. What is a vocation, and why is it more relevant to me now at 26 than it ever was in my youth?

     A vocation is a “call from God to a distinct state of life, through which a person can reach holiness.” (Lumen Gentium, 39). For us, this refers to our individual call to marriage, priesthood, religious life, or even the call to live a consecrated life as a single person. It’s so simple, and yet so complex at the same time. “Who shall I spend the rest of my life with in marriage?” “Am I called to become a priest?” “Are Franciscans part Jedi?”. I say my age is peculiar, because for the first time ever I am confronting these big questions in a real way.

     I am an artist. I compose and perform original and accompanied music all over the world, and for those of you in a similar state (or even those artists who are perfectly content)...I have found a solution: your vocation right now, and always, is to Beauty. Let’s see what Pope Pius Xll has to say about it in his encyclical “The Function of Art”:

      “Composers, filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and to increase its store of treasures. Let them produce compositions, which have the qualities proper to genuine sacred music, not confining themselves to works, which can be sung only by large choirs, but providing also for the needs of small choirs and for the active participation of the entire assembly of the faithful.”

     A wise Franciscan (possible Jedi...) once told me that there are “Capital V” vocations, and “Lower- case v” vocations. For example, not everyone is called to live the religious life, but all Christians are called to live a life devoted to holiness. Holiness is a “lower-case v” vocation. I move that all artists, not just Christian artists, are called to live out a vocation to the discovery, conception, and example of Beauty for all people to witness. Just as a husband devotes himself to his bride in self-giving love, or a priest sacrifices for his bride, the Church, so you as a musician, composer, painter, dancer, writer, actor, singer, sculptor, and expressionist should give all of your self to your craft. Let your exhibit be one of complete exposition and vulnerability, just as the greatest example of Beauty, Jesus Christ, gave of himself on the cross for all to see.

     It’s hard. Sometimes you don’t know where your next check is gonna come from, or perhaps even how you might support a family one day. There are days where I let this get to me, and I run to the classifieds online looking for the quickest way to make $50,000 a year. At some point thereafter, though, I always come back to this: God is faithful, and I’ve never been at a want for anything. He desires for you to give the gift he’s given by His grace and for His glory. You are His work of art too.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Beauty, Security, and the Struggle for Sustainability

Beauty, Security, and the Struggle for Sustainability

         In September of 2014, I made some amendments to a lifestyle that I had been pursuing for eight years up until that point, full-time artist and musician. Sure, in the interim I earned two degrees from LSU and held a handful of unrelated part-time jobs, but the way of life consistent with creation and musical exploration was always present. In that September nearly a year ago, I decided that I would need to supplement my income with earnings both substantial and consistent. At the time, and for personal reasons I won't go into here, I had to heal quickly from the long-standing disposition I carried holding that to have a need for any income outside of my musical earnings implied that I failed or wasn’t proficient enough to support myself on music alone. That is an interior lie perpetuated by a culture that, on the whole, does not value Beauty in the way one would value other life essentials…but that is a whole other blog, and I digress.
            As of today, and since that point in time, I have applied for thirty-five jobs. These jobs vary in title and responsibility, but are related in their lists of qualifications, education requirements, and suggested experiences. For my purpose, they were titles relating to logistics, administration, organizational, clerical, performance, conducting, and management. Ten of those titles were decided without consideration, and as for the three that offered me interviews…well, if they had worked out, I don’t think I would be writing this. As for the remaining twenty-two, I haven’t been contacted at all. Now, I’m sure there’s a Pearson counselor out there who may be reading this thinking, “well, you just need to know how to differentiate yourself from potential employers…”. That logic is fleeting. The truth is, the markets are saturated and employers aren’t always interested in investing in potential employees. I would be dishonest if I was to say that I haven’t felt discouraged and desolate at times. I’ve even hated the music that I would normally seek refuge in because I would feel like it had distracted me for so long that I have become useless.  I know plenty of artists, writers, actors, dancers, and musicians who feel the exact same way.
            I didn’t come here to complain but to brag about a great truth I realized today. I was in Mass earlier (and for those of you from different faith practices, I intend to make this as relevant to you as I can), and a line in the gospel caught my attention. John 6:26-28 reads, “….Amen, amen I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life…”.  In context, Jesus had just fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish to capacity, and with an abundance left over. Afterwards, he left and was sought out by many of the disciples that were present at the feast. They desired to be fed more food, to which Jesus responded that they seek the virtue and way of life that will get them to Heaven. Friends, Beauty is the great heavenly food found here on earth. The beauty present to us all in abundance in the forms of music, nature, written words, drama, dance, love, service, silence, and celebration is not perishable, nor does it fill us to capacity like the food consumed by the 5,000 people. We never get enough Beauty, and we always leave a beautiful experience wanting more. One experience will keep us returning again and again, thus filling our daily lives the substance and true sustainable security that we believe money alone will bring us. Like wise, I am not saying that we don’t have a responsibility to feed, shelter, and clothe our families and ourselves. I would say that, to do so devoid of beautiful encounters and experiences would render those efforts lifeless when we believe them to be life giving.

            This is my appeal, to beauty makers: let the search for the earthly food that perishes only aid your ever-continuing search for truth and beauty through your gifts. For the beauty-receivers: support those who enhance your lives with the eternal food that is beauty. Do so by investing in them in as many ways as you are able. Finally, to those of us artists who continue to search for the means to eat and be healthy, don’t give up!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Jim Gaffigan and the "McDonalization" of Beauty

When I go to the gym to “get swoll”, more often than not I am listening to a Jim Gaffigan station on Pandora Radio. First, I wouldn’t entirely recommend this to someone who has trouble maintaining physical composure while laughing…especially when you’ve got a 200lb barbell over your head, but I digress...
Recently, I was listening to a bit Jim was doing about McDonald's. I transcribed a section of the sketch below for you to read. Note: the italicized portions refer to that unusual “2nd person” voice that Jim regularly uses in his bits.

          “I’m tired of people acting like they’re better than McDonald's. You may have never set foot inside a McDonald's, but you have your own McDonald's. You know, maybe instead of buying a Big Mac, you read US Weekly. Hey, that’s still McDonald's, it’s just served up a little different. Maybe your McDonald's is you telling yourself that your Starbucks Frappacino is not a milkshake, or maybe you watch Glee…. it’s all McDonald's, McDonald's of the soul: momentary pleasure, followed by incredible guilt eventually leading to cancer. I’m lovin’ it! We all have our own McDonald's. It may take me a while to digest my quarter-pounder with cheese, but that tramp stamp is forever. Really, it’s all McDonald's out there, right? I mean, how can we all name three people that have dated Jennifer Anniston? It’s McDonald's, and we gobble it up just like those McDonald's fries. Who’s she dating now?? (nom nom nom) I know I shouldn’t, but it’s so salty…is she pregnant yet?? That’s not even my business. Scarlet Johansen got a hair cut, why do I give a s#$t...CAUSE IT’S MCDONALD'S, AND IT FEELS GOOD GOING DOWN. By the way, if you care who Prince William married, that’s Burger King….that’s not even our gossip!”

Now before I dive in, here are two more quotes:       

           “The senses are not to be discarded, but they should be expanded to their widest capacity” – Pope Benedict XVl Spirit of the Liturgy

           “Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labor without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a “spirituality” of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people.” – JPll Letter to Artist

Folks, we were intended for Eden. Our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls were not intended for the world we made for ourselves since the fall. Tolkien said it best, I think…

          ”But certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of exile.”

What is it, then, to say about a people meant for something more, but reside, instead, in an imperfect world filled with self-made, often shallow, imitations of the Eden? At the least, I think it can be said that we are hungry. We have a deep insatiable hunger for the fullness intended for us in Eden. That hunger can be filled with many good things that reflect the original beauty of Eden, but because it can also be filled with cheap imitations of that original beauty, it can also be our great weakness, depending on what you consume. Here's another quote from Pope Benedict XVl…

          “A man who does not love art, poetry, music, and nature can be dangerous. Blindness and deafness are not incidental; they are necessarily reflected in his words.”

There are invitations to receive beauty everywhere, and we still posses the infinite capacity to receive it. Our lack of resolve in receiving that beauty IS NOT INCIDENTAL. There are detrimental, lasting, effects of not living a beauty-centric lifestyle. Many of you eat good food to nourish your bodies, you run and hike to stay in great physical shape, you attend school to fill your mind…what do you do for your soul? When every part of you fails from aging and you are left with your soul alone to express yourself, what condition will it be in?

Mr. Gaffigan says that it’s all “McDonald's”…US Weekly, Fast Food, the shows we watch, the gossip…”Momentary pleasure, followed by incredible guilt and eventually leading to cancer.” Will it give you cancer? Probably not, but can you become addicted and complacent? Yes. Take, for example, the culture of pornography and its devastating effects on the male psyche and the family, or even the effects of fast food on an increasingly obese nation. There’s no denying it.

How do we heal what has been broken? Gifts of self. Give the gift of your self to your work, your family, your friends, total strangers, and the many things you love. What else heals? RECEIVE the gifts of self from others. One of our great imperfections is the notion that we must be independent in all things, and self-reliant in all of our needs. Instead, be dependent on the gifts that artists, composers, writers, actors, and dancers give you everyday. No sacrifice of time in the name of receiving beauty has ever gone unrewarded. Be vigilant, then, in all of your actions and words, that you may no longer perpetuate the McDonald's culture, but instead reclaim the original beauty intended for you by giving and receiving.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

What I have learned during my 9 years as a professional full-time musician...

Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility. Humility.
Humility…and always bring Pepto on the road with you…

Happy Easter!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Gift Of Self: The Difference Between What Is And Is Not Beautiful

          I do a lot of work with publicists and writers; indeed true masters of the Adjective. It’s an art form in itself really, to interview or review important events and people in our culture, and to make those words appear necessary enough to compete with the insatiable stimuli we encounter in our day-to-day lives. Now, I’m not here to disparage such an occupation or vocation, but I have noticed an emerging consistency, one that I would like to see debunked. Many of us use the word “Beautiful”, but fewer are those people who, I believe, truly understand the word for its meaning and implications. Sometimes, when I read about something that is labeled as "beautiful", and it isn't, I am reminded of the character Inigo Montoya telling the character Vizzini that he “doesn’t think that word means what you think it means” in the movie The Princess Bride.

            But James, isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder? Who are you to say what is and is not beautiful (to which I often reply, “Well, I’m a badass")? True, some beautiful things in this world appear to be more beautiful to some relative to others. However, it is also true that some people regard certain things as beautiful when those things are not…especially in regard to popular music. Here’s why: while different people may have different notions and ideas for what is and is not beautiful, all things that are beautiful have/should have one thing in common. Every beautiful thing originates with a person giving the gift of his or herself. That is to say, too, that everything that ever was or has been beautiful originated with the gift of one man or woman’s self. To be “self-giving” is the act, beauty the outcome, and love the virtue. If a word, act, or sound does not somehow originate with an act of “self-giving”, then it is not a beautiful thing. Likewise, if a word, act, or sound originates from a selfish act, then I would regard it as the opposite of beautiful, that is, inherently ugly. Again, I am accounting for the difference between things that are beautiful, not beautiful, and ugly. That is not to say that a “non-beautiful” thing is a bad thing...it’s just a thing.

            Beautiful music is timeless music. A beautiful piece is written as a gift from the artist to the listener, regardless of the style or genre. Beautiful music merits financial gain and support simply by its beauty alone, and not because of it’s popularity or uniformity with like-written songs or pieces. Beautiful music, in this way, is not fleeting, but instead transports us to the time and place most relevant to us hearing it every time it plays throughout our entire lives. Therefore it, and other art forms likewise, should be reverenced and appreciated.

            “Man cannot fully find himself except through the gift of himself.” – Pope Saint John Paul II. To search for, create, and live out beautiful things is to devote time to finding one’s true self. We become more confident and sure, charitable and peaceful, interesting and vibrant people. Let us never settle for things that are not beautiful, but instead receive them and live lives devoted, therefore, to fixing a broken world.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What's In A Name: Use Is The Opposite Of Love.

          I recently had the pleasure of leading worship with some good life-loving musicians for a large gathering of Catholic college students in Nashville…let’s call it the “FIND” conference (I'm being extremely facetious). It was a substantial production: 10,000 attendees, hundreds of vendors, and hundreds of great talks and presentations, all in a terrarium-like convention center. It was pretty neat. During the conference, part of my job was to accompany a small musical ensemble for a breakout session. To give you some perspective, many of the musicians I was playing with are successful in their own right as solo musicians, and have had a lot of great exposure, but are also some of the kindest and most humble people I’ve met. One day, before this particular breakout session, I was sitting with one of these musicians, let's call her Susie, while a woman approached her. Bubbly and quick to act, this heat-seeking ball of lipstick was swift in introducing herself to Susie, but not to me…three people…in an empty room that seats 500. I was not offended, and gave her the benefit of the doubt thinking she may be from a foreign land where introduction formalities may be different...maybe somewhere on Mars. Anywho, I just proceeded to sit there and pretend to look at my phone while I listened to their conversation. In the three and a half minutes that the two women spoke, I noticed something: this random woman, who ended up having a leading role in the pending breakout session, kept using names. In fact, before she ended and went her own way, she mentioned thirteen names of prominent Catholic music artists, speakers, and popular figures. She was precise too, saying who she has worked with, who she had over for dinner, and who she just got a Snapchat from. This story has a great ending…but I’m going to finish it later.

          Brothers and sisters, what’s in a name that makes it so powerful? Throughout history, entire wars have been fought for the sake of a name. Names are erected on plaques, read at ceremonies, at stake in legal discrepancies, and used to attract attention to ourselves. Our name is directly correlated to our beauty and dignity as a human person. We are nothing without our name. Our names define us, and we dignify our name by attaching it to a physical body that we are called to keep in shape spiritually, physically, emotionally, and humanely.

          Brothers and Sisters, what is love? (Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more…) Love is the act of affirming the dignity of a human person. Love is the choice you make to bring another person closer to Christ, whether in a very small or very big way.

          Brothers and Sisters, what is the opposite of love? The opposite of love is not hate, it is use. Use is the opposite of Love. When we use another person for personal gain, we are directly contradicting our call to acknowledge that person’s dignity.

          Here’s my issue: STOP NAME DROPPING. When I lived in Nashville, if you were going to a gig you had to be prepared by bringing the following things with you: your instrument that you practiced, some nice clothes, and a list of names to use in conversation. The more gigs you do, the more names you have. The more names you have, the better your chance you can make a connection with someone...which might lead to more work. This happens everywhere, but on a much smaller scale. In fact, just to clarify, it's a perfectly harmless thing to do if your trying to make the connection with the sole intent to befriend another person. When you use the name of another person, however, to create the perception that you are anything other than yourself (i.e. famous rockstar), then you have used that person for personal gain, and that’s not a sign of love. At that point you are using two people, the name mentioned, and the person you are talking to. Instead, why not walk into a workspace the same way you walk into your own home?You should be confident and sufficiently yourself in all of your work and home life. You were miraculously and beautifully created to make a difference with your name alone, and those are the people who end up making the best impressions anyway.

            Back to Ms. Lipstick…a few days have passed since the previously mentioned conversation between Susie and Ms. Lipstick, and it was time to do our last breakout session. I had arrived early to the venue, again empty and waiting for 500 people, and noticed that the only people there were Ms. Lipstick and myself. So I went up to her to introduce myself. I caught her by surprise, and said that my name was James and I was a Catholic musician…which I though was sufficient. The conversation lasted about a minute, after I realized she wast going to look up from her phone, and I walked away not feeling very important to say the least.

            Let us be like Mother Theresa in all things, one who never passed a single person by without looking into their eyes and beholding the beauty within.