Be Excellent at Your Level
Don’t despise the day of small things.

When I was a kid, my parents told me they would often get a particular kind of phone call from adults wanting to take piano lessons. There were usually two features they had in common: 1. They had never played piano before. 2. They were going to play like their favorite pianist even if it took them six months.

I see aspects of this mentality all the time, sometimes in music, sometimes in other areas of life; sometimes in children, sometimes in adults.

Yet, no matter what our level is, we should strive to be our best—doing it with our might (Ecclesiastes 9:10)—which means being excellent at your level.

What is Your Level?

One simple example of this idea of being excellent at your level comes from a video of two pianists. First, a professional pianist plays a nine-foot grand piano, and everything is as you would expect: perfectly executed within the context of what he is doing. He is excellent at his level, as a professional is expected to be.

The second pianist is a child, probably about 10. He’s playing an upright piano. He plays basic scales and classical music at a very basic level. He plays it perfectly. Every note is in place, everything carried out exactly as it should be. He is also excellent at his level, and no one would find fault with that.

The point the presenter makes is that if the child is excellent at his level, as he progresses, he will eventually become excellent at the level of the professional across from him. When we see a child performing well at their level, everyone understands that we should not despise the day of small things. When we see a single rose, we don’t criticize it for not being a rose garden. If you’ve ever wondered how something that is already perfect can become more perfect, this is how: advancement to another level.

But if the child tried to do what the professional is doing—and they often do—it would no longer be excellent. A new student often comes wanting to play some famously advanced piece of music: Debussy’s “Clair De Lune,” Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude,” or any number of a hundred other pieces. The beauty-pageant mentality tells us that it is actually possible to do this. You can teach someone a single piece of music over the course of a year or two that they can play to somewhat of a level—but it will never turn anyone into a real pianist. A pianist needs to become excellent at the most basic levels, not bypass the basics and consequently become mediocre at every level.

I often hear the Church’s music director, Ryan Malone, say that people need to be both goal-oriented and step-oriented. We continually set goals as Herbert Armstrong admonished in Seven Laws of Success, and if we are ambitious, those goals are not at our level. That’s great. That shows that we want to accomplish great things. In order to do that, though, we have to break things down at the level we can handle.

Students often get impatient wanting to play a piece up to speed. But with every instrument, you have to learn to play it slowly, correctly, before you can play it fast. Learning to do a thing perfectly at the lower tempo is being excellent at your level.

Respect your current level. If the skill you are learning isn’t perfect at the fundamental levels, those flaws are going to compound themselves as you progress. And if you’re not ready for the meat, you have to go back to the milk (Hebrews 5:13-14).

Much of the time, people are trying to practice—but they are working at a level they aren’t ready for. So I’ll watch a pianist repeat the same difficult passage rapidly 10 times, making errors every time.

The old saying practice makes perfect is true. If you practice something incorrectly 10 times, you have perfected your ability to play something incorrectly and cemented your ability to repeat that in the future. And there is a huge difference in trying to build something perfectly, one step at a time, and trying to fix something that isn’t right.

What happens if you aren’t excellent at some component of your level and you move ahead? In math, it results in students being unable to complete problems in a reasonable amount of time. The problem is usually the same: Basic things, like times tables, can’t be completed quickly in the mind, so the student becomes dependent on calculators. Or sloppiness enters in at lower levels, which makes it impossible to complete problems correctly at higher levels. Someone with a C in Algebra 2 who moves on to pre-Calculus is in for trouble. They weren’t excellent at their level, and now they can’t be excellent at any of the later levels.

Learning a piece of music isn’t starting sloppy and then gradually cleaning the mess. It’s starting slowly and perfectly through the entire process so you have as few errors as possible to clean as you progress.

This principle applies to almost anything where you are developing skill. Here are a few points to help you apply this principle:

ONE | Start now

Sometimes we feel like we won’t be excellent until we are older, but the time to start building in excellence is when you are young. Don’t think you’ll put in a better effort down the road; do it now.

I was 12 years old when I had my first opportunity to play live hymns in services. Our Worldwide Church of God congregation had about 500 people, and my day had arrived. The song leader handed me the list of songs he intended to do, and I handed him my list of hymns I actually knew—all 10 of them!

I had tried to use this as an excuse not to play hymns, but my mom was adamant. The time to start was now—not 10 years down the road.

Strictly speaking, it would never become necessary for me to play hymns. For one thing, I attended services with my mom, who played all of the hymns herself. In my mind, we were swapping a competent pianist for an incompetent one.

But she was right, and the principle I was learning is found throughout the Bible: Everything starts small. Humanity began with one man. The Work of God had the smallest of beginnings.

In Matthew 13, Jesus Christ compares the Kingdom itself to a mustard seed: “Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof” (verses 31-32).

It’s easy to think that we will be more valuable later, that our skill set just doesn’t warrant our participation right now—and thus to hang back and let older, more experienced people handle all the real work. This is a mistake. Even as a young person, you really could and should be serving now—especially in your home.

Right now, you have the opportunity to get up next to your parents and watch how they do things, to see how your dad fixes the fence or how your mom bakes a cake. Then, having seen their expertise, put it into action! In my case, I scooted up next to my mom on the bench as she showed me how to write chord symbols into a hymn when I was 8 years old—a hymnal I still carry with those notes I made all those years ago.

These are vital training and preparation years that will affect what you do for the rest of your life. As any Herbert W. Armstrong College student can tell you, college can be busy. This was certainly true in my college as well, and I remember my surprise when my college piano teacher told me that I should determine what piano music I learned carefully because these were primarily the pieces I would be playing for the rest of my life.

At the time, I envisioned life being less hectic later—but he was absolutely right. There was far more time to learn new pieces of music in high school and college than after work, marriage and children took their rightful place in my life. The things I do today are based on the training I received and implemented then. The things you will do for the rest of your life largely depend on what excellence you build today.

Though we might have the thought that we will pick up some valuable skill later, the great athletes, the great musicians, the great writers—the people at the top of most professions—developed and honed those skills while they were still young—and so must you!

TWO | Focus on the basics

I’ve had students turn in a paper called “The Thesis Paper” with no thesis statement. Invariably, they tell me they forgot to do that part. Think about that: You write an entire paper, researched, footnoted, but never come up with a thesis. Since the basic level wasn’t completed, the paper has no actual function. Until that most basic skill is mastered, the rest of your writing skills have no real effect.

Thesis statements (the writer’s version of a “specific purpose statement”) are a great example of something that, if mastered, will make learning everything else much easier as a writer and public speaker. If you understand the thesis, you understand how to research. You understand how to organize your material. It’s at the most basic level, but being excellent at that level pays dividends later.

Every great athlete will tell you the same thing: that the keys to greatness are diligence and mastering the fundamentals. Sometimes kids learning a sport can scrape by on natural ability, but the mechanics are wrong. And if they feel like they are doing well, they never really correct the issue.

THREE | Don’t get distracted by higher levels or areas that don’t apply to what you are doing

At the Summer Educational Program each year, we teach basic song leading, and campers who have never led a song want to do hymns in odder time signatures, hymns with mid-verse pauses, or to have the congregation sing Battle Hymn of the Republic”in a round.

That isn’t what they need to be learning right now. It also doesn’t show the other campers what they need to be learning. The campers need to become excellent at the most basic level, not pass the basics by and consequently become mediocre at every level.

The same thing can happen with True Education submissions. Sometimes someone writing their first article ever, instead of focusing on telling a really interesting story, decides that they should rely on flashbacks or writing in the style of some famous author. Instead of learning the basic format of writing a Lesson from a Life or Lessons from History, they get focused on something else that, in the overall analysis, doesn’t really matter.

FOUR | Progress through things in the right order

Imagine if the first book you ever read was a Sherlock Holmes story. They are fun, engaging stories—you should definitely read them—but consider the route you might take getting there. I remember reading Encyclopedia Brown stories while I was still young; I read Hardy Boys novels when I was a little older. By the time I encountered Sherlock Holmes stories, I had approached that level of reading gradually—even within the mystery genre.

You can, then, immediately see why so many people think William Shakespeare’s plays are boring: The mind simply hasn’t been prepared for it. A combination of limited vocabulary and weak reading background denies you access to the greatest playwright of all time! When you don’t understand the material in front of you, it is boring.

The solution is not, as so many students believe, to read as little as possible. It is to find books that you enjoy at your current level, and then gradually increase that level over time. It is to concurrently improve the level of your vocabulary over time.

The Apostle Paul talked about this principle of increasing the richness of our experience over time, saying that he fed the Corinthians with milk because they would not have been able to bear the meat (1 Corinthians 3:2). As time went on, the Corinthians didn’t go after God’s truth the way they should have, and they still required milk!

Though the direct application here is spiritual, the metaphor can be applied to many areas—music, athletics and certainly reading.

FIVE | Be sure to progress in all components that relate to what you are learning

A pianist might have advanced in some areas while neglecting others, something I see in nearly 100 percent of students who come to AC from the field. Maybe someone works through a method book and has made their way to playing Chopin waltzes and Beethoven sonatas, but they only memorized a piece once or twice a year. Even though they might have the technique, it takes them six months to a year to learn a three-minute piece instead of the three-to-four weeks it should take at that level. They might have been excellent in some ways, but they didn’t learn to memorize and sight-read at basic levels, and now they can’t do it at advanced levels.

Maybe they did learn memorization, and did progress through pieces at a regular level, but didn’t learn any music theory along the way. That has consequences too, especially as the music becomes more difficult. Eventually, the student tends to hit a wall.

The solution in all of these cases—whether it’s math, music, physical education or any other skill development—is the same, and it’s unpleasant for the student. They have to go back to the original level that they didn’t master. A student who should be playing concerti with an orchestra by now has to go back to the earliest Bach written for children to practice memorization or write in chord symbols on a basic hymn. A math student has to do work that is no longer age appropriate.

Rather than fall into those traps, remember what it feels like to see a small child reaching goals in the day of small things—not starting with Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto or trying to compose a symphony while he learns to read the staff, but learning to execute the most basic scales and piano music perfectly. And as you set your personal goals, be excellent at your level, doing that work with your might—no matter what that level may be.