Dog or Pony?

His lips hurt.  A lot.  No, he hadn’t been on the receiving end of a knuckle sandwich, as we used to call a fist to the mouth somewhat facetiously.  He had chosen this pain.  In fact, he was actually paying good money for this discomfort.  The fellow was even spending time on a daily basis to insure that it continued.  One might conclude that he had taken leave of his senses.  But, the stubborn young man was determined to see this through.

The newly-wed couple had settled into their little bungalow, a block or so from the university where the young wife was getting her education.  The long-haired young man was busy trying to earn a living, but he was also a horn player and he thought that it was time to move his skills up to the next level.  The instrumental professor at the university and he soon struck up an agreement.  The professor needed an extra horn player in his band and he was willing to take the eager kid on as a student for a reduced price if he would also show up for band practices on the designated days and perform in the concerts. Without hesitation the young man agreed.  He was in!  He had no idea what it would really cost him.

A few weeks later, he was in all right–in pain.  The pain wasn’t from practice.  There was a lot of that, but the agony came from a different source.  The teacher had watched him play for the first few lessons and then suggested that he needed to change his embouchure.  The embouchure (pronounced awm-ba-sure) is the position and movement of the lips in producing the sound of a musical instrument.  The young man was surprised.  He had been playing the horn for almost half of his young life, had performed in honors bands from his region  and had sat second chair in a highly respected band in his state.  Why should he change what he had been doing?  It worked didn’t it?  After a little discussion and a demonstration of the problem and the potential for improvement, he agreed.  It was a major step.

Without going into a lot of unnecessary detail, what he had to do was to move the position of his mouthpiece from one which enabled him to play the high range, but cost him in endurance, to one where he could play the entire range of the horn and also would be able to play for long periods of time without becoming fatigued. The answer was so simple.  Just move the mouthpiece.

A simple thing to say; not so simple to do.  There are not words to describe the frustration nor the physical discomfort which he felt over the next few months as he struggled to relearn his technique.  Then came the final blow.  The university band was performing a piece which included a horn solo.  There was only one other horn player and our young man was certain that with his own newly acquired skills, he would be the obvious choice to play the solo.  The professors in the music department sat to listen to each player one afternoon, as they determined who would play the solo in the upcoming concert.  Our hero was despondent as the panel explained their decision.  “The other player has the high range this solo requires.  Sorry.”  It didn’t help that they complimented him on his beautiful tone.  “If it depended on the tone, you would be the choice, but we need the range this time.”  Nope.  No help.  He was dejected.  He had done everything right!  If he had just left his embouchure alone, he would be playing that solo!  Of that, he was sure.

There was no going back now, though.  The change had been made for better or worse.  It seemed like worse.  But, as he considered the situation, he began to see the positive side.  He had better tone.  Playing the horn is all about tone.  Well…that and playing in tune, but that’s a discussion for another day.  If you could play the high range, you might get the solo, but he had tone–and the prospect of playing the complete range of the horn as he progressed!  Better the whole package down the road than a one-trick-pony here and now!

What’s that?  One-trick-pony?  You know.  You’ve heard of the dog and pony shows, the little circuses that criss-crossed this country in years past.  These low-budget shows would have a number of dogs, trained to do tricks; jumping and climbing, balancing balls, and other equally impressive feats.  Then there was the pony.  It might come in at the end of the show and rear up on its hind legs, walking a step or two while upright…perhaps even hopping…to the delight and amazement of the audience.  The only problem is that if they came to the show again, they would realize that, while the dogs could do a plethora of tricks, the pony had just the one.  It wasn’t nearly as impressive the second or third time.  A one trick pony. 

Do you see the issue?  It is certainly not only performers (either of music or in the circus) who have the problem.  We all tend to become myopic, focusing on the same thing again and again.  You’ve heard politicians who never vary their message; one topic being assured of raising its visage every time they speak.  I’ve known preachers who would invariably come around to the same issue in all their sermons, no matter the passage of the Bible in which they started.  Styles of music, subjects of conversation, even skills in our field of endeavor…all are mediums of choice for the one-trick-pony.  While specialization has its place, it is also the best way I know to become obsolete or, at best, relegated to a niche in the marketplace.  Ask any manufacturer of vinyl records or eight-track tapes.  Examples are easy to find throughout history.

This is true in our spiritual life, as well as in all other aspects of our physical experience.  When we focus inordinately on one area, however important, we tend to lose sight of the larger image.  The Apostle averred to his young protege’ that all of the Word is intended for instruction, and correction, and training.  The result will be a person who is indeed the complete package, thoroughly equipped to do what is necessary.  Not just in one area, but in every facet of their lives.

Many of us are still working on this project.  It is so much easier to pick one area and become an expert in it, but in the long run, we must diversify or become irrelevant.  We rather like the comfort of focusing on one thing and being recognized as the authority for that thing, don’t we?  But if we instead, become students of the full spectrum of what is occurring all about us, we will be able to influence a much larger audience for a much longer time. 

Which will it be for you?  The ponies are certainly more imposing…at first.  But, just one trick, over and over?  Not for me, thanks. I think I’ll be simply another one of the dogs instead.  No headlines, no adulation from the crowds.  Just competence and faithfulness in every regard.  It’ll be hard work and constant training. 

I guess it really is a dog’s life… 

“See how he dances.
See how he loops from side to side.
See how he prances;
The way his hooves just seem to glide.
He’s just a one trick pony (that’s all he is),
But he turns that trick with pride.” 

(from “One Trick Pony” by Paul Simon~American songwriter/singer)


“May the God of peace…equip you with all you need for doing His will.  May He produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to Him…”
(Hebrews 13:21~NLT)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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