Sunday, May 31, 2009

Redefining the Safe Zone

So, I have made a commitment to myself to intentionally stretch to test the limits of my capabilities rather than just playing it safe and sticking with what comes easily. The weird thing is that I'm starting to realize that if something is within the limits of my capabilities, it really isn't all that risky. Circumstances outside my control may impact the success of my efforts, but if I am acting within my abilities, I don't really have a valid reason for lacking confidence. What I recognize is that I'm actually redefining the boundaries of my "safe zone" in this process. I'm not entirely sure what could have convinced me to draw those limits with such constraint, but expanding what I am willing to acknowledge about myself is quite a bit of fun.

Friday, May 29, 2009

A Strange Devaluing



Perhaps it's left over from the drive of academia. Or maybe its origins are further back in my childhood. Wherever it comes from, I often have a tendency to discredit earlier accomplishments in pursuit of my next goal or endeavor. I've noticed it particularly in the way I think of my compositions. For some reason, I sometimes behave as though a piece I wrote several years ago is worthless just because it wasn't finished yesterday.

Part of this perception is fueled by the overwhelming number of art music competitions which demand that entries be unpublished, unperformed works. I understand that organizations want the opportunity to premiere works for the sheer sensationalism and marketability of performing a piece for the first time. Each premiere can be treated like an ensemble is doing something that has never been done before. But what is the message about the music itself? Once a piece has been premiered, is it no longer noteworthy? What if that were the prevailing view about art music from previous generations?

So, with a somewhat habitual disdain for my compositions that have received performances, I have often neglected to send them to musicians or take advantage of further opportunities for these pieces to be appreciated. But when I recently had the chance to hear a performance of a piece I wrote several years ago, I realized just how ridiculous it is to discredit a work of art because it isn't brand new. As I listened, I thought: This is a damn fine piece of music. I feel proud to have created it. I'm really pleased with how all of its elements fit together, and I can acknowledge that it is a compelling piece of music even though it has long passed its first performance.

And that leads me to looking at other pieces I ignore and neglect. I have done some truly satisfying work, and it is not any less worthy of attention because it has already been heard. If anything, it is a mark of distinction for a piece to be actually performed more than once in today's climate. I am beginning to understand the value of taking stock of one's accomplishments, not merely to revel in the past or to stagnate, but to maintain a connection to one's achievements while still progressing onward. The works that instill in me a sense satisfaction are still worth my effort and attention, even as I continue to create.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

E Pluribus Unum


I heard someone speaking recently about one of the three phrases that appear on all American coins: E pluribus unum, or "Out of many, one." Although its context has changed over time, it is commonly taken to represent the same ideal as the metaphor of the melting pot, many cultures and beliefs forming one society. The speaker was intending to proclaim the greatness of American ideals, but in so doing overlooked one of the hazards of slogans: they are often subject to interpretation.

One of the pitfalls I have witnessed recently is the conclusion that the diversity of cultures and beliefs must reach consensus in order to be a part of the same society. Having diverse origins is all well and good, but some seem to believe that all members of a society must have a common culture and belief system, or at least common behaviors. Of course the corollary to that is "Everyone should believe what I believe, because otherwise there is something wrong with them or me." And if everyone is thinking that, "one-ness" seems a far-fetched goal. Is it possible for a collective to have a unified identity while maintaining the integrity of each individual's choice of beliefs and practices? Or when we say "e pluribus unum" are we really saying, "no matter from whence you come, you are welcome to be subject to the beliefs and practices of the majority (or at least the loudest) in this society?"

But although I can make observations or even suggestions regarding society as a whole, my primary influence is on a much smaller scale. Indeed, most people do not have such far-reaching impact that they are altering societal behaviors or beliefs. In the smaller organizations of which I am a part, it seems that consensus is a more realistic goal. This assumes, of course, that all of the participants are willing to reach a consensus. But a common purpose that holds people together can easily allow for diverse origins, cultural practices, spiritual beliefs, and so on and so forth. Provided the unifying purpose is not compromised.

And yet there are those individuals, even on a smaller scale, who believe that their way of doing things is the absolute right way to do it. Their inflexibility can be a particular challenge to consensus building, and at times unity may even be impossible for them. I can only think that those people are often frustrated and frequently disappointed. I know I am when I fall into that insistence.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Authentic Music

Not very long ago, I was holding onto great resentment about the American military industrial complex. I was angered by the idea of people profiting from fueling violence, and I was outraged that the people who were profiting from violence would put other people's lives at risk to do so. I railed against the fear-inducing rhetoric that elicited support from a populace who were easily convinced that barbarism was not only the best answer, it seemed to be accepted as the only answer. I was appalled that a society would accept the implication that fellow citizens were dying to protect our freedom while leaders were blatantly whittling them away. And on and on.

I still believe many of those things, but my response is rather different now. When I allowed my own anger to be incited, I was really putting the same kind of energy into the world that angered me. Making a choice about what I want to create in the world means, in part, handling my distaste for the purposes and methods of the American military industrial complex differently.

So how can I respond to the things that rouse my anger without amplifying the very behavior that angers me? One way for me is through music. I compose music because I have something to communicate. I don't always expect the listener to completely comprehend the message because music, at least instrumental music, is a rather abstract art form. And yet, I believe that I can express an alternative way of thinking, a glimmer of a different view, a speck of awareness that run contrary to the mainstream.

I could just convey my anger and outrage, and I have heard music of diverse styles that seems to be little more than a vitriolic assault. But if I am authentic about what I want to create in the world, my music can become a vessel for communicating ideals that run contrary to Nietzsche's "might makes right" and conveys the strength of unity and grounded-ness. Music can, in subtle ways, point out the futility of playing military King of the Mountain or the danger in belief without thought. Rather than holding composition as expression, I recognize that music can actually be transformative. And that is a powerful motivation I can't easily ignore.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Just How I Am?

I awakened today with my own words in my head. I often remind others that we are all free to change our minds and choose something different than what we thought we wanted yesterday. There may be consequences, of course, but we never truly trapped by our decisions. So today, I am hearing my words back at me: I am not trapped by my choices or my circumstances.

It's tempting to fall back on statements like "That's just how I am," or "That's just the way I do things." But those little quips are really not accurate. My experience and my choices have all been up to this point, but I have the freedom to do things differently today if I want to. And tomorrow I'll get the same opportunity. To be honest, the choice is available to me many, many times a day.

So what do I want to change today? What do I want to do or be differently? What will get me even more on track with my goals and dreams? One thing is I'm going to speak up and make sure the people around me know what I want. How else can I really expect them to partner with me? I'm also going to be conscious about how I spend my time. I want to be awake and I want my choices to be purposeful. And I'm going to remember that I have the freedom to make any adjustments or course corrections I want along every step of the way.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Shortcuts

I was taking a large ensemble piece I wrote a few years ago and creating a virtual recording of it. I haven't ever gotten a high-quality performance or recording of the work, but I am hopeful that I'll be able to get close with my virtual studio setup. The biggest problem I encountered was one of balance between the instruments. I had been trying to take a convenient shortcut in recording the piece, but it was costing me more time and frustration than I had anticipated.

After my experiences this past weekend, I was quick to see that I had plenty of time to do this project well. I'm not on a deadline, and I won't lose anything by taking the time necessary to create a finished product with which I am very satisfied. What is my interest in a shortcut all about? I'm passionate about I'm doing, I have enough time to spend on it, and I'm not a lazy person. Maybe it was about finding an efficient way to accomplish what I want, but my exploration led me into understanding the flaws with my plan. What I was attempting wasn't much of a shortcut in the end. But that's really just fine. Now I can take the time to do it well.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Trusting

The More To Life weekend had been going well. I had taken time to be well-prepared for my role, and I had plenty of people contributing toward my vision of that role. I was really getting that I can trust other people (and myself) and relax and enjoy the experience of serving as a part of an incredible team. Then Sunday evening came along.

I hadn't eaten much lunch, my first mistake. When I care for my own health and well being, I am infinitely more capable to create what I want to in the world. But I didn't, so I was getting into a spiral about how much I had to do and how little time I had to do it. I was irritable that our team meeting was taking time away from what I needed to do, and I was frustrated that I was being asked to assist in other tasks when I already had so much on my own plate. I began to believe that I was on the verge of failure, and I became driven.

As I started in on getting things done, other people stepped up to contribute and they encouraged me to go and eat. That was when I realized that I had sabotaged myself by not eating anything for lunch. I was still in a very driven space, though, in spite of getting the message over and over again that I had plenty of time and plenty of people to get things done. First, my food was too hot and I had to wait to eat it (safely); one of my teammates pointed out that it was getting me to slow down. A document that was being updated was still being formatted when I got back from dinner, so I had to wait on that. The venue's copier jammed part way through making the copies I needed, so I had to wait on that. And all the while I had people asking what they could do to contribute.

When I really got the message, though, was when I wound up with everything ready to go and about 90 minutes before it was needed. I literally was sitting around with nothing to do but breathe and wait. I don't have to be on the verge of failure to be doing my best. Everything had been accomplished, I had plenty of people and plenty of time. And I usually do, whether I acknowledge it or not.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Learning the Same Lessons

I served on the team that presented a More To Life Weekend in Houston over the last few days. My role was primarily responsible for compiling all of the documents and handouts participants received. When I accepted this role, it was presented as something that could be a bit of a challenge, so I began preparing several days in advance. By the time I arrived at the venue on Friday afternoon, I had several important pieces already in place.

What I learned early on was that other people were committed to my vision of this role. Not only was I able to rely on other people, it was vital for me to do so in order to have things done as impeccably as I wanted. I could have done everything myself, but I didn't have to. There were always enough people on hand to serve in whatever capacity was necessary in each moment, whether it was in my role or any of the many others that fit together to present a high-quality training. It was a real relief to me to recognize that I could trust other people, and that there was plenty of time. And, as I continue to realize, I can trust myself, too. My preparation contributed directly to how smoothly things went.

Then, I got a big surprise yesterday. One of the documents, a fairly important one that participants receive toward the end of the weekend, was not the version that the leadership had intended to distribute. The result may not have been apparent to the participants, but the leadership perceived it as making it easy for people to be less committed to making a powerful difference in the world. My initial reactions were to feel guilt, defensiveness, and shame, and to believe that I had failed and that others were going to hold this against me for a long time.

When I look at the truth of things, though, I see a different picture. I had prepared materials very conscientiously for this weekend. I was receiving a large number of documents from a variety of sources. I had asked for (and gotten) other knowledgeable people to look over what I had created for the participants ahead of time. I didn't know what this particular intended document looked like, or how it differed from what I had received. I could have followed up with the source for this particular document, but I didn't realize at the time how much of a difference it would make.

So, in the end, the guilt and defensiveness and shame are not a direct result of anything that happened. In fact, I am proud of the way I prepared for and carried out my role. I may have missed the mark on one document by not following up as thoroughly as I could have, but I that doesn't bring me anywhere close to failing. My experience over the weekend was that I didn't have to look very hard for people who are willing to contribute to my vision. Who are willing to embrace it as their vision... our vision together. Although a number of people (including myself) overlooked something, I can still trust people and rely on them. They are human beings just like me, and together we can recognize where we are and where we would like to be and chart a course in partnership. And I can still trust myself even when I recognize that I have room for improvement and growth.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Meaning My Commitment

Just as people can bolster me and support me in keeping my commitments, they can also provide excuses and justifications for lessening my commitments. Sometimes even the words of those who are poised to motivate and lead can ring hollow when they do not fully believe in what they are saying.

I had this experience recently. I sat in a room full of people who committed to a common goal with purpose and intention. Then, over the course of the following week, as I engaged in one-on-one conversations with several people who had been in that room, I heard an entirely different set of expectations. Some of the people who affirmed that common goal really didn't believe in it fully.

Part of the challenge is that believing in something, really taking a commitment seriously, might mean risking. A commitment brings with it responsibility; it isn't just a hope or a wish. It isn't just putting the right energy out into the universe and believing. A commitment means a willingness to act in a way that will contribute toward the desired outcome, to the best of one's ability.

So my dilemma was whether to follow what I saw as a growing crowd and reduce my commitment to a more "realistic" or "reasonable" goal, or whether to maintain my commitment in spite of some wavering voices. And more important than my decision regarding my commitment, how would I hold myself and others? Would I be a failure if I lowered my expectations? Had others betrayed me somehow? Were they failures? Was I being naive or belligerent by holding on to a goal in which others obviously did not believe?

Ultimately, I decided to hold fast to the commitment I made, to still believe in the possibility of our group attaining the goal we had set together. Some other people chose a different course. They are allowed to do that. They are human beings with unique perspectives and insights, and I believe that they are making the best decisions they can for themselves. Neither of us has to be wrong. My decision may cost me a little of my own money, but I'm alright with that. My integrity will benefit in my future commitments if I keep my word and maintain my vision, even if that vision seems at times to be just a bit out of reach. Otherwise, I take the meaning away from my word, and I could start making promises to myself I never intend to keep.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Plenty of Time

There are so many things I want to do in a day... so many things about which I am actually passionate. Sometimes I miss having days when there was literally nothing on my to-do list. But having an abundance of things on which I really love spending time and energy is very different from just staying busy. The former is an expression of life while the latter is numbing.

But I get a little frustrated at what I'm not doing with my time. Every day doesn't have enough moments to really dig into all of the things I want to be doing. No matter how I have spent my time, I look back at the day and think about what I didn't get to. Why does it elude me that I don't have to do everything today? Just because something waits until tomorrow doesn't mean that I have lost anything.

The truth is: if there is an abundance of things about which I am passionate, I will have choices about which valuable and meaningful things I'm going to focus on in any given moment. The truth is: I will never accomplish everything I want to do. There will always be things I just haven't gotten around to yet. Maybe there is a challenge for me in balancing all of the facets of my life in a satisfying way, but to have spent my day doing things I loved doing is a gift I often don't appreciate. And always having further to journey is what gives my life momentum.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Counter-Inertia

In a conversation with someone this week, I heard about a desire to scale back involvement in an organization. There were some frustrations about the way meetings and other issues were handled, and it seemed that some well-ingrained habits within the organization have been undermining its purpose to some extent. It is a familiar scenario in many places where "the way we do it" is what it is because that's the way it's "always" been done. We can become entrenched in habit very quickly, especially if it means we don't have to use our time and energy devising methods that are more ideal to our purpose and intention.

Once in a while, a person comes along who sees the purpose and intention of an organization and believes in it strongly enough to desire improvement and growth. Both in self and in others. If that person is committed to finding tactful ways to teach others, then this visionary can serve an organization by guiding it toward deeper awareness of its purpose and away from the things that persist out of sheer inertia. Transformation can happen when we are reminded why we want to do something and given an opportunity to be invigorated by vision and purpose.

A lot of people believe they know the "right" way to do something. And many times, the "right" way is simply "the way it's always been done." So a visionary might have to be a bit persistent and patient. A teacher may need to learn how to tap into the personal benefits that will motivate people to change. That might be a frustrating enterprise, and it would certainly be easier to write people off and decide that things were never going to change. But wouldn't it be so worth it to be part of that transformation? To see something you really believe in blossom because you were willing to open your mouth . . . gracefully?

The real rewards happen when we find something we value enough to put ourselves on the line, and we actually do.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Seeing Beauty


Well the wall is almost finished, looking better than it did before in some ways. And the little bugs that were crawling around in it have (hopefully) been sent on to a place of never-ending wood-munching bliss. So this morning, I was thinking back to the day of the swarm.

Before they were in the house, my wife looked out at our back patio where thousands of white-winged termites were flying around in a dense, almost graceful swarm. She was filled with appreciation for their delicate beauty, like living dandelion seeds dancing right outside our door. It was a gift to her, a special moment of wonder and delight.

She didn't know what the bugs were, or that they were eating a little bit of our walls, or that their delicate dance would soon be inside our house. That resulted in a bit of a freak out. But before all of that, there was a moment when their beauty was appreciated with untainted eyes. That is how I would like to see the world, too. Thank you for teaching me that, Joy.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Power of Partnership

On my best days I can do a lot of different things well. When I am right on the edge of my capabilities, though, it only takes a little push to get me over the line. One little thing going differently than I expect or taking longer than I've planned and I'm overwhelmed and stressed. Of course, if I hang back in a comfortable, unchallenging space it's easier to make adjustments, but if I'm committed to being fully engaged I want to look for other solutions to feeling overwhelmed.

When I'm playing small, I spend my time and energy on things that don't really take advantage of my skills and expertise. Of course, the things I wind up doing are often still necessary on some level, but it's not necessary for me to do them. When I spend my time unwisely, not only do I limit what I am able to accomplish, but I also limit other people's opportunities to contribute and grow.

Whether I am at work or striving for personal goals, there are people in my life who truly appreciate the opportunity to be of service. Although they experience their own bit of being overwhelmed from time to time, I often find that people are more willing to partner with me than I anticipate. I guess it makes sense, though. I usually feel appreciated when someone seeks my involvement, especially if they're asking me to do something at which I excel.

It boils down to delegation. When I can delegate in ways that allow others to be successful and to develop their own abilities, people are often amazingly grateful. And the partnership allows me to focus my time and energy on the challenges and tasks that are best suited for me.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The First Step

Breaking down a long-term or daunting task into several smaller, attainable goals is a widely accepted bit of advice. One step at a time, you'll eventually achieve what you want. It often works pretty well for me with things about which I am passionate or deeply committed. But in my moments of laziness or fear, the same practice can work against me.

I sometimes allow a goal to seem so convoluted and complex that I never actually make progress. And it can be anything. The less I think I want to do it, or the more fearful I allow myself to be about the outcome, the more steps I create. My mind can make things seem absurdly complicated. "I don't know if I really want to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. First, I have to open the cabinet and get a plate. Then I have to get the bread package, open it up, pull out a couple of slices of bread, and put them on the plate. I'm going to have to open the silverware drawer and find a knife. I have to go into the pantry and look for the peanut butter, then I have to open the jar of peanut butter, take the knife and dip it into the peanut butter jar..." and on and on.

Not that I do this when I just want a sandwich, but it really can be anything. I'll even write down a list of the steps I want to take to accomplish a long-term or daunting task, and then I'll conclude that I have accomplished something. I have a list of smaller targets, so getting to the larger goal should be a walk in the park. That's worth a pat on the back. But then every time I look at that lengthy list of smaller, short-term tasks, I get exhausted just thinking about starting in on them.

Sometimes it serves me better to just dive in once I have a destination in mind. Constantly planning out a course might be a great organizational exercise, but if I never start following the plan, it doesn't amount to much. I can figure out the intermediate benchmarks and course correct along the way, but the most important thing is getting that first actual step behind me. Once I am committed to heading in a particular direction, every step along the way becomes easier.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Wings of Appreciation

I didn't plan on doing much work when I got up today. Still feeling kind of lousy, although not terrible. There were noisy workmen tearing out the rotten, fed-upon parts of a wall, and they needed the A/C turned off because of the dust and debris they were kicking up. I couldn't go anywhere while they were working, and the piano was covered with a drop cloth since it's in the room with the tasty wall. I was pretty much ready to write the day off from the word 'Go.'

Then I opened my email. In it was a note of appreciation for my music from someone I don't even know very well. This came on the heels of an unusual compliment I received last night, when I heard that my piano CD had kept someone from buying a shotgun to deal with Houston traffic. (The details may have been tongue-in-cheek, but I believe the compliment was sincere.) It reminded me that what I create has value to other people, that I am connected to people because of what I choose to put out into the world. Appreciation has tremendous power. I have a tendency to gloss over appreciaton sometimes, but when I really take in that what I have done (or just who I am) has meant so much to someone, it reawakens me to my calling as a human being.

Already feeling my creativity smirking at me a little bit, I went ahead and read today's note from the Universe:
When your peeps ask you what you do all day, every day, Randy, you do tell them, "Whatever I want." Right?
Because you do.
I love these things. Some of them don't pack much of a wallop for me, but more often than not they remind me of something about myself that energizes me and gives me another reason to smile. Alright, whatever I want, eh?

So I spent the day working on music (Dreamsong 17) to submit to a call for pieces to be used in a sci-fi series. I had fun. I still wasn't driven about what I was getting accomplished, or what I needed to do. I just enjoyed myself. Hopefully the fruits of my labor will have a positive impact on someone else as well. But even if today's efforts don't reach many people, I know that creativity fuels creativity. The work I did today was building toward something I'll eventually create that I can't even see yet. And I'm already excited about it.