N LABOR DAY 2021, I enjoyed two steaming mugs of delicious coffee. Since then, I have consumed no caffeine. Yet I direct a large church choir that sings about 100 Masses per year. I teach music classes to dozens of children at our parish (there are 82 enrolled for this fall). My side hustle is a busy freelance writing business. I’m a contributor here at Corpus Christi Watershed. And I’m married with five kids.
This isn’t a brag-post. It’s an “If I can do it, so can you” post. But do you really want to do it?
Why a Church Choir Director Might Give Up Caffeine
How did I know I could pull this off? I’ve given up coffee as a Lenten penance for years. After I did it enough times, it went from torturous to merely uncomfortable. But during those Lents, I would still consume considerable amounts of caffeine from less tasty and more penitential sources, such as yerba mate. So I was mostly giving up the singular satisfaction of a good cup of coffee. When you prepare it well, coffee has an aroma, taste, and texture that hit just right.
Still, coffee does give a more direct jolt than other sources of caffeine. That’s good and bad. It’s good in the sense that it bestows a feeling of confident joy. It’s bad in the sense that when the feeling wears off and fatigue sets in, it leaves the drinker feeling insecure about his ability to carry on.
When I was drinking coffee and other caffeinated beverages, my days were a constant exercise in calibrating my energy levels: “How did I sleep last night? Not so well. I’d better have lots of coffee today. But how energized do I need to feel for this rehearsal? What would happen if I had just a little more energy than last week? Then again, what if I have trouble sleeping afterwards? Why don’t I split the difference?”
The thing is, it’s not caffeine’s job to run our lives. Unless we’re at the point of exhaustion, the body will deliver the energy we need to get through the tasks we care about. Ever tried reading a boring book on a lazy summer afternoon? You probably fell asleep on the couch. Ever fallen asleep directing your choir? I’m guessing not, because you care about the work.
Of course, it’s not all about merely staying awake. It’s about being at our best. Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system. Do we need a keyed-up nervous system to lead our choirs? I say no. In fact, I think it’s far more helpful to cultivate a sense of inner calm. For years, I tried to do this while caffeine was coursing through my veins. I would aim for serenity while my mind was racing two, three, four steps ahead of the choir. That’s why I decided it was time to quit all caffeine, at least for a little while.
How It’s Going for Me
I quit caffeine cold turkey last September. I never got the withdrawal headaches I expected. But I was never a five-cups-a-day guy.
I thought the quality of my sleep would improve. Instead, I somehow ended up with sporadic insomnia. Oh, I fall asleep immediately at night. But then I’ll wake up at 3 a.m. and stay awake, despite having no major worries in my life.
Still, I have more energy than before. I suspect that after a while of not getting that artificial boost, the body finds ways of compensating. Despite feeling energetic enough to do everything in my life, I’m incredibly calm. My moods are even. Sure, mental prayer sometimes turns into a series of accidental catnaps, but if I stay busy, I’ll stay awake.
These days, I get by on a weird morning drink that contains chicory, guarana, ashwagandha, and kola nuts. It’s nothing like coffee, but it enhances my mental focus without causing jitters or mood swings. I’ll occasionally take a decaf powdered drink supplement that contains B vitamins, magnesium, L-theanine, quercetin, green tea extract, and pine bark extract. Or a capsule with niacin, copper, and herbs. And my daily B-vitamin supplement is the best you can buy.
If you try quitting caffeine, you may need to wean yourself for days or weeks. Once you’re off, you may sometimes crave the smell, taste, and texture of coffee more than the buzz. That’s when you’ll know you’re winning—and you’ll have an extra penance to offer up.
Why a Church Choir Director Should Give Up Caffeine
I won’t preach at you to give up caffeine. In fact, I trust the studies that say it’s healthy to consume coffee in moderation. But here are some points to consider:
- Music happens moment by moment. And there’s only so much energy you can bring to any moment. Does caffeine ever overload your circuits? Would you seem more authentic to your choir if your enthusiasm came from you, not from a mug?
- Your body is trying to tell you things. Whether you’re well-rested or exhausted, caffeine will only mask your true feelings. It takes away your sense of how hard you’re pushing yourself and how much you’re capable of.
- He must increase, but you must decrease (Jn 3:30). Caffeine can make you laser-focused on your goals. Goals are useful, to a point. But church music is full of variables such as absences, mistakes, distractions, and human frailties. When we encounter these variables, we reach a decision point: we can either force our will on the choir or step back and let Our Lord work through us. Our Lord is all-powerful, but He’s also meek enough not to cut in front of a guy who just drank three cups.
If you can run a church choir with equanimity while consuming caffeine, you’re a better man (or woman) than me. But consider how much more effective you might be without that powerful stimulant.