Sermon I wrote and presented at Congregation Beth El in Bangor, ME
Yom Kippur Service 10/12/16
My father once asked me a question when I was just three years old. He asked, “Lucas—what is the meaning of life?” I’m not sure what inspired him to pose this particular question to a three-year-old but I like to think that he felt I still held a connection to my pre-Earth embodiment so, perhaps, I might have had an insight as to that which lies beyond this dimension. “Lucas—what is the meaning of life?” I peered up at him with my baby blues (I can only say that because this is how my folks later conveyed the story to me). I peered up at him with my three-year-old baby blues and, without hesitation or forethought, simply answered, “Joy.”
Joy. From the mouths of babes…the meaning of life is Joy. Okay: let’s go with that. As a three-year-old, I clearly knew the answer and had no reason to lie about it. So, if that is the answer, what does that mean for us living folk? That answer gives us some serious marching orders: how should we spend our mortal time in support of this one-word summation of our reason for being? Are we joyful in our endeavors to bring joy to others? Are we sincere in our efforts and actions and, when we make mistakes along the way, are we sincere in our acknowledgement of those mistakes so that we can more quickly get back on the path of Joy? Today, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we acknowledge the mistakes we have made in the past year in order for us to be able to move into the New Year with the intention of doing better and getting back on the path towards Joy.
The basis for one of the tools I use most often when teaching or working is something I like to call the “Whoops Factor”…because, after a big gaff in the middle of a performance, speech, demonstration, sporting event—come on: we’ve all had them!–nothing dispels the tension better than having the guilty party simply own up to his or her mistake by saying, “Whoops!,” smiling and then moving on! I first learned this in my freshman year at UCLA, when we took on the extraordinary task of reviving Marc Blitzstein’s socialist musical comedy, The Cradle Will Rock. Well, after a manic two weeks of rehearsal, the first night was a smash success. We got to the second performance and things were clicking along without a problem…until I went on stage for what was truly a remarkable song and dance duet called “Art for Art’s Sake”…and it happened. I completely lost track of my next lyric. Now the director of the production, John Hall, was in the pit for the performance, turning pages for the wonderful pianist, so I thought it would be easy enough to simply look into the pit: John would sense my distress, feed me the lyric and then we could all move on…right? No…if things had played out that way, we wouldn’t have the “Whoops Factor” today. Quite the contrary—I remember fondly that, when I did look into the pit for help, John looked up at me with a beautiful Cheshire-cat grin and, instead of feeding me the lyric, took his index finger, bent it and introduced to me the universal gesture of “You blew it, buddy” by shoving the larger knuckle up towards his nostril…and twisting. What could I do but lift my head back up out of the pit, think to myself, “Well, okay then…WHOOPS!…smile at the audience…and MOVE ON!
Don’t get me wrong—I loved having John Hall as a director. He did the best thing he could have done in the moment: he helped me learn how to figure out “how to figure it out.” This reminds me of great performers like Carol Burnett and her costars who would crack up and break character at any moment. Of course, if you’re too young to know who Carol Burnett is, you’ve got a great evening of YouTube clips ahead of you later this week. They built the idea of making mistakes into the very fiber of their comedy—and it was one of the pillars of the show’s success.
As an orchestra leader, I know that musicians don’t make mistakes on purpose. In fact, I don’t know anyone who actually makes a mistake intentionally…and we all make mistakes. The manner in which we handle ourselves once the mistake has been made, however, is the test of our own inner character and integrity.
Here’s the sticky part: whose fault was it that a mistake was made? Do we blame others for our mistakes without personal culpability? Did others around us set us up for success or create a subpar environment in which it was difficult for us to do our best? As a conductor, I can set the musicians of the ensemble up for success or for failure—it really depends on my understanding of how I am at my best when I operate from a place of integrity, honesty and sincerity.
The things that I do on a visual basis, the gestures that I make, can incite good and bad performances from people. If I’m conducting poorly, out of time, while people are trying to play something rhythmically, then that might influence them to not play as well as they’d like to. If I give a gesture that is sharp and harsh when the notes that are coming up are supposed to be smooth, legato and singing, then I’ve done the wrong gesture which, in turn, influences negatively the way that the horn player, perhaps, is going to approach instigating the beginning of the phrase. It’s a very subtle sort of thing, but that’s what my position is about—and I always assume first responsibility for any mistakes that are made.
Being a conductor is a perfect metaphor for leadership across the board because, in order to do it properly, one must actually listen and collaborate to achieve the best results. I’ve been asked, “Why do you want to be a conductor? Is it the power?” No. I do what I do because I love to teach. I take my lead from one of my own mentors, Leonard Bernstein, who approached everything he did from the place of the sage, the rabbi, the teacher. Everything he did was infused with the joy of teaching and conveying wonder and curiosity: when he conducted, when he composed, when he played the piano, when he told stories and made up silly limericks—it was all a joyful celebration of that which was the essence of Lenny, as he was affectionately called.
I recently taught my 19th annual session of the BMI Conducting Workshop for film and TV composers in Los Angeles. The goal of the workshop is to help the composers better understand the role of the conductor on the podium and how they, as leaders, can nurture a better performance from the assembled musicians in the recording studio. One of the things I teach my conducting students is that leading is less about enforcing one’s will than it is about creating the proper atmosphere in which everyone around us can do what they do to their utmost ability. There are those who are dogmatic and unyielding in their leadership style and sadly unaware that they are actually setting their colleagues up for failure. These are people who blame others for the mistakes they make without realizing that it may have been their own fault for creating the circumstances that led to the mistake in the first place. This points to a joyless atmosphere.
While teaching the workshop this year, I had an “AHA” moment—the revelation that I teach something very unique. Not just because I’m teaching conducting but, rather, that I teach leadership, itself. I have had extraordinary teachers and mentors throughout my life and I have learned many things, a multitude of information, techniques and philosophies. However, much of that training was singularly focused—even my own conducting teachers dealt primarily with the fundamentals of being on the podium, rarely delving into actual leadership skills, embracing the psychological results of our actions and the diplomacy required when negotiating one’s way through the collaborative arts. In other words, being a conductor is not just about starting and stopping the group while waving one’s arms in a manner that has a modicum of connection to the music but, rather, it’s about leading, listening, leading, listening, cajoling, listening, leading, finessing, inspiring, listening, re-routing, fixing, listening, smiling…and guiding the music on the path of Joy.
Yes, a smile goes a long way…and there is no joy without a smile. Shinichi Suzuki, founder of the international Suzuki method for music education said, “Children learn to smile from their parents.” We are all leaders in various ways and at various times in our lives. We lead by example, we teach by example…we grow by example. I do feel blessed because the example my parents gave to me was one of many smiles and much love. As children, we were encouraged to catalyze our curiosity, pursue our interests and to celebrate our creativity. To foster the recognition of one’s true inner self and spirit is to forge that path towards Joy.
So, how can we, indeed, recognize the things within ourselves that can keep us on that true and joyful path? Are there ideological and spiritual bowling alley bumpers? For me, the belief in a higher power that emanates through all of us has most certainly informed and balanced all of my relationships and endeavors to the point that I am able to trust my instincts about right and wrong and the vast field of gray that lies between the two.
My first lesson in right and wrong was, perhaps, a very slight incident but it has stayed with me my entire life as my own set of moral bowling alley bumpers. I was about five years old and I remember being in the supermarket, walking beside my mother. I was not normally the kind of child to reach and grab things off shelves but as we were wending our way through the produce section, we came across a mountain—I was five—a mountain of unshelled, whole walnuts. I stopped in my tracks in awe as my mother moved forward towards the avocados and kiwi. Without malice and quite innocently—yes, innocently because, remember, I did not yet know that the action I was about to take was wrong—I reached out and took a large walnut from the display. There I was, examining my newly acquired treasure in the middle of Ralph’s supermarket, completely unaware that I was about to go down as the worst thief in history…when my mother, suddenly noticing that I was no longer by her side, turned around to find her son standing in the middle of a crime scene. Swiftly, she made her way back to me and, with her nostrils flared, asked, “What is that?” “A walnut,” I replied with the sudden realization that something might actually be amiss. “Did you take that?” I gulped and squeaked out an affirmation, “Yes.” “Well, put it back—and when we get home, you’re going to go straight to your room and think about what you’ve done.”
I have to pause for a moment because I realize that you may, by now, have a picture in your mind of the kind of woman my mother was when I was growing up…and if that portrait is of one of the sweetest, most gentle and nurturing souls on the planet, you’d be absolutely accurate. The walnut incident is but an example of good parenting because I have clearly never forgotten my brief foray to the dark side. Yes, my mom handed me my first set of moral bowling alley bumpers that day and I can never thank her enough.
So, at this time of year, we circle back to our actions of the previous year. Do we take responsibility for our actions, be they mistakes or successes? Are we deserving of Joy or have we achieved it even though we were just coasting by on our laurels and reputation?
We all have inner barometers of integrity—the big question is whether or not we choose to embrace our moral instincts…and help others along the way to do the same. If we do make mistakes, are we able to say, “Whoops!,” take responsibility, smile and move on? Or, are we, as individuals in society, merely (and sadly) conditioned now to blame others and deflect responsibility by saying that someone else did something worse so that that which we did really wasn’t so bad?
How can we learn to effectively navigate our way back towards the path of Joy? There are three-year-olds all over the world living with that innocent expectation. This will be our test for the coming year. May the reflection we have done this Yom Kippur give us the inner strength by which to pass this test and surmount any other obstacles that arise as we face the year ahead.