This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Redefining "best".

1981. Thirty years ago my days and nights included putting pencil to music manuscript, moving the sounds I heard in my head to paper. I was composing arrangements for several choirs, vocal and instrumental ensembles and soloists. Arranging music and directing music ensembles had been my life since 1964. And then I stopped writing.

My life had become a kafluffel — juggling four jobs plus freelance creative projects. Southern Baptist churches weren’t hiring gay Ministers of Music back then, so that dream vanished. I thought I’d find more job security in the arts on the administrative side than the creative.

Most of all, looking into my crystal ball I “knew” that I wasn’t going to be the “best” musician, composer, arranger. If that was the case, I needed to find a career path where I could become the best, something that I could do perfectly. Abandon things I love for what I considered security, safety.

These were some of my operating assumptions:

  • When I’m the best, then people won’t disagree with me.
  • When I’m the best, colleagues will accept me as I am.
  • When I’m at the top of my game, authority figures will leave me alone.

How did that modus operandi work out? There were some short-term successes on the road to being the best. For the long term, this MO was not the best for having a life outside of work or for having collaborative relationships at work.

[Hmmm, it was not “the best,” eh?] Thousands of projects later, not one has been perfect. What was am I thinking?

Fast forward to March 2011.

I had a project idea that I hoped would help me shift from trying to be the best, to doing my best with the resources I’ve been given. The time felt right to apply this to my composing. I’d just returned from Houston after accompanying a concert for my friend Pat Hardesty. Pat had included the finale from Candide, a show I had just seen in December in D.C.

At my church, the adult choirs’ spring concert was coming up. How about an arrangement for the two choirs? I pitched the idea to James Walker, the church’s director of music. James likes to include repertoire at the concert that we wouldn’t perform in a service; he was willing. We looked at two options and he chose Make Our Garden Grow, the finale from Candide.

Here’s what aligned to help me:

  • A trusting relationship with authority. After 12 years of lunchtime-sharing-our-journeys, James Walker is my confidant — accepting, supporting, non-judgmental. I trust his aesthetics and that he’d challenge me as well as not let me embarrass myself.
  • A deadline. Music in rehearsal the week after Easter. Concert on June 5.
  • Let’s test this out. We agreed that James didn’t have to use the final product; this is more about my learning in the process. Besides, he’d never heard my work.
  • Music software now makes the process much easier. Revisions, repeats, being able to listen as I write.
  • Challenges to keep my interest. Only 5 rehearsals with each choir plus two 15-minute rehearsals with the combined group on the weekend of the concert.
  • Boundaries set. James and I agreed we’d talk about the piece outside of rehearsals. I remembered premieres of plays when the playwright was part of the rehearsal process and how that was helpful and not so helpful. I wanted to be helpful.
  • Inspiring context for work. Candide is one of my favorite shows and Mary Zimmerman’s production in D.C. was exceptionally moving to me.

I set to writing. James gave feedback for drafts along the way and the music delivered by the resurrection. On time. Rehearsals started.

Then I realized I wasn’t in control.

I’m happiest when projects give me opportunities to push the envelope, learn new things, experiment. In the past, I was conducting or accompanying my arrangements. I had the chance to make changes in rehearsal (probably on a quest to “make it perfect”). This piece is no different re: experimentation; the circumstances are.

This time I am singing in one of the choirs — I hear tenors and basses singing behind me, not the whole. It felt like an out-of-body experience during rehearsals — hearing my music and not being able to change it. Although the choir season is winding down, there’s still a folder-full of repertoire to learn. It was not just about me.

Deep breaths. Letting go to let come. Saying “if it works for James, it works for me” over and over. More deep breaths. Periodic check-ins with my original intentions. Plus James’ phone calls after each rehearsal that became more about debriefing my life-learning lessons.

The week of the performance I look back over the lyrics and to my surprise, this is what I read:

You’ve been a fool and so have I, but come and be my wife.
And let us try before we die to make some sense of life.
We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good.
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood,
And make our garden grow.

I thought the world was sugar cake, for so our master said.
But now I’ll teach my hands to bake our loaf of daily bread.
We’re neither pure …

Let dreamers dream what worlds they please; those Edens can’t be found.
The sweetest flowers, the fairest trees, are grown in solid ground.
We’re neither pure …

My unconscious brain had selected a piece about doing “the best we know” for a project with learning intentions about “doing my best,” instead of “being the best.” Bravo, unconsciousness.

The result? The arrangement was is not perfect, hooray! The make-some-sense-of-life experience was is exhilarating. My relationships expand as my journey expands. Gardens are growing; I can hear them.

You can listen to Make Our Garden Grow