Thursday, January 28, 2010


At a solo trombone recital I recently attended, a particularly convoluted piece (composed by my mentor, Art Gottschalk) was half musicianship and half performance art. It ended with the trombonist asking aloud, Warum? Several days later, that moment is still simmering in my head. Why?

Children are famous for asking the question incessantly, but almost everyone I know is intrigued by this question on some level: Why don't I have any money? Why did I get a promotion? Why is that person famous? Why are those people wealthy? Why did my grandmother die? Why can't I be in a functional relationship? Why did I get sick? Why did they make that decision? Why did that movie get made? Why is gas so expensive? And on and on.

In my life, I have been asking a lot of why questions, too. Why does composing matter to me? Why is it important to me that other people hear what I create? Why do I want to teach? Why do I want to live where I am? I want to know the reasons underneath my decisions and my actions, primarily so I can ensure that what I'm doing is based on something that matters rather than on my fear of what might happen.

The problem is that sometimes people will accept any explanation as an answer. Why don't you have any money? Because you haven't taken the right courses. Or because you work in the wrong industry. Or because you spend it unwisely. Or any other number of reasons. And there are enough answers that one can ignore the unappealing possibilities and focus on the more palatable ones. And justifying which explanations I accept (and act on) has been one way I've kept myself from truly creating what I want.

The truth is that sometimes we don't get to know why. Sometimes people get sick, and it doesn't have anything to do with their behavior or God being angry at them. Some people become famous or wealthy, and it might have more to do with their persistence than anything scandalous or worthy of criticism. Of course, it might seem more satisfying to come up with a convincing explanation that taps into our judgments and beliefs.

I could spend so much time researching or inventing feasible reasons why things are the way they are that I risk forgetting the most important thing: I can create what I want in my life. It requires knowing what I want, and it helps if I have a strong purpose. But there isn't a secret formula out there that is going to create it for me, and there isn't a proper way to do things that I need to learn. I'm not missing anything I need. It's just a matter of living out what I want to be. Why? Because I am who I am. No more and no less.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Defining the Path

When I first started submitting music to competitions and performance opportunities, I was often frustrated by the kinds of pieces people wanted. It was all "art music," but the parameters were usually very specific, and I didn't always have a piece that fit the bill. There were (and still are) competitions for pieces of 12 minutes or less for trombone, ukulele, and pipe organ, or other unusual groupings. Some prizes are awarded to orchestral pieces written by students under the age of 30. There are calls for unaccompanied vocal music with texts dealing with living harmoniously with technology. Maybe that's a bit extreme, but the point is that I felt lucky when I came across an opportunity that actually matched up with music I had composed.

Now that I am also looking for opportunities to get my music into films or television spots or advertisements, I am noticing some similarities. One opportunity might be for downbeat Electronica instrumentals. Another might be for quirky pop tunes with female vocals. Or dark heavy metal ballads about losing someone. Then, there will be a rare gem of an opportunity that seems perfect for what I have written. At least the people working on these projects seem to know exactly what they're looking for.

At one point, I was looking at all of this very much from a poverty perspective: There aren't enough opportunities for my music. Which means I can't succeed. What I've created isn't what other people want, so I either have to write something I don't want to or just give up altogether. In other words, the epitome of hopeless victim-hood. It can be quite a temptation. Especially when it means that I don't have to try to create what I want or to be "successful" because I can't have it anyway. And it won't be my fault because external forces were conspiring against me from the very beginning. Melodramatic perhaps, but I would bet that something similar goes on inside everyone's mind from time to time.

What's true is that I can compose whatever I want to. Opportunities for that music might fall into my lap, or I might have to do a little work to get a piece out into the world. Either way, there are plenty of ways that a piece of music can be heard. On top of that, I have enough experience now that I know what kinds of ensembles are consistently looking for new music. And I know what styles of music are constantly being sought by television networks and film projects. If I want to, I can write something that fits the bill with some confidence that it at least has a market.

Of course, a big part of it is recognizing how my strengths as a composer match up with the available opportunities. It will be a while before I have an opera ready to workshop, and it will be even longer before I become a yodeling female singer/songwriter. Those kinds of opportunities are actually in the minority, though, and there is a wealth of possibility when I am willing to see it. Besides, just doing what I'm passionate about engages my creativity a lot more than coming up with reasons why I shouldn't even try.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Blind Men and Elephants

A certain Plebeian received as a gift an overnight trip to a distant city and tickets to a live performance by a famous musician. Although he had heard of the musician, he was utterly unfamiliar with her music, but he enthusiastically made arrangements for the excursion. On the day of his departure, he called a cab to take him to the airport, and along the way he excitedly told the cabbie about his trip and the concert.

"Oh, you'll love her music!" exclaimed the driver. "I have every piece she's done on my iPod and my wife and I listen to her constantly!" The Plebeian was quite happy with the driver's opinion and looked forward to the event all the more.

As he arrived at the airport, he noticed that the performer was on the cover of a gossip magazine. Apparently some shocking and scandalous details about her personal life had come to light. Slightly taken aback, the Plebeian began to wonder if truly beautiful music could come from a person who led that kind of life. He went through security, and having plenty of time, he settled down at an airport coffee shop to ponder.

While he was there, he noticed a man of the cloth sitting alone at a nearby table, so he boldly told the priest about his trip and the concert. The priest's face lit up and he said, "My sister has her autograph. She said that musician is one of the loveliest and most gracious people she has ever met." Greatly reassured, the Plebeian thanked the priest for chatting with him, and he went on to his gate.

While waiting to board the plane, he sat next to a young woman who seemed pleasant enough. As they waited, they talked about their respective trips briefly, and the Plebeian told her about the concert he was to see. The woman smirked and said, "At least you didn't pay for the tickets. Her music is just awful. It all sounds the same. And she has such a boring stage presence. But, I know it's hard to turn down free tickets."

Well, the Plebeian was greatly troubled by the time he boarded the plane, and although he considered not talking to anyone else about his trip until he returned home, he had barely gotten into his seat before the man next to him struck up a conversation. Eventually, he told his neighbor about the concert, and the man said, "You're kidding! My brother went to high school with her. He says she used to run with a really rough crowd. Now she's a real snob. Never talks to anyone from her home town. I heard that she..." And on the story went for most of the flight.

By the time he checked into his hotel, the Plebeian wasn't even sure he wanted to go to the concert. Seeing the distress on his face, the desk clerk asked him if he needed anything else. Since the lobby wasn't busy, the Plebeian told the desk clerk about his dilemma. He had these tickets, and some people had said that her music was great and she was a wonderful person. But some other people thought her music is awful and told him what a horrible person she is.

The desk clerk smiled and said, "Well, you'll just have to see for yourself, then. Other people might have their opinions for any number of reasons, but you have a chance to form your own opinion. And that's ultimately the one that will matter most to you."

So the Plebeian went to the concert.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Shaking Off the Dust

When something doesn't make logical sense to me, it's tough for my mind to just let it go. I want to figure it out, put all of the pieces in place until I can understand at least one rational explanation, even if it isn't reality. When I really become preoccupied with this process, it can weigh me down. A couple of days ago, I was hanging on to something that not only seemed irrational, but pondering it just sent me deeper into anger about the situation.

Before I left a previous job, I had agreed to help with an event as an independent contractor. All of the pieces were in place as far as I was concerned, and I had taken care to remain in contact with the person organizing the event, just in case there were any changes. I received a phone call from the organizer a few days ago, saying that they were going to get someone closer to the venue instead of keeping me on the project.

I was a bit puzzled, to say the least. I haven't moved, so I am not any further away than I had been. I commented that I believed all of the arrangements were made, and that I was willing to travel if there were additional decisions or changes I needed to be a part of. But this person had it that my involvement was inconvenient, and someone closer would just be easier. My response was to graciously accept the decision and wish them the best.

The more I thought about it, though, the less it made logical sense. After turning it around in my head for awhile, I couldn't conceive of any reason for this person to have developed this idea that it would be better for the event to replace me with someone closer. Unless it wasn't this person's idea. I began to concoct a picture in my head of this planner being influenced by people who disagreed with some of the leadership decisions I had made when I worked there. I began to get angry as I conceived of how my livelihood was being negatively impacted by petty people. Even though I had endeavored remain professional and maintain connections, other people were sabotaging my efforts.

At least in my head. But then, I remembered something I have heard many times about focusing on my strengths rather than perceived weakness. When people concentrate time and energy on weaknesses, they are always catching up. But focusing on strengths leads to forward momentum. It's strange how seemingly insignificant things can add up and weigh a person down, as if the dust on my shoes can actually make my feet work harder. Focusing on my strengths is like shaking off the dust and realizing how much lighter I can actually be. I began to see how this applies to some relationships, too.

What I am trying to create in my life right now actually doesn't depend on my attachment with this old work site. I am not dependent on the people there for my livelihood, and they don't actually have any direct impact on my success. That relationship is primarily part of my past, not my future. While it would be nice to remain connected on a professional level, I can't carry that intention alone. My current goals involve becoming reconnected with people with whom I haven't been in regular contact for awhile and fostering new partnerships of vision and purpose. At a certain point, focusing on maintaining a conflict-ridden relationship detracts from the energy I would like to be putting into developing and nurturing stronger relationships.

So my anger was not for nothing, and I am grateful that I was able to dig into it enough to find the valuable piece and move forward. Hanging on to the anger would have been less productive. But I have more clarity now than I did a few days ago, and in a sense I have given myself permission to move on with dustless shoes.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Have You Ever Noticed...

that when you learn new word, you start hearing it everywhere? The concept that dreaming big is a team activity has been taking root for me over the past several months. I have been realizing more and more how vital connections and partnerships are in creating a powerful vision that reaches beyond my own life. This week, I have been noticing this idea all over the place, in blatant and subtle ways.

I had lunch with a friend of mine and mentioned something I was considering taking on. His response was, "I can provide you with names of a few people I trust, if you're interested." Almost exactly the same thing happened yesterday at the More To Life Creative Possibilities Day in Houston: I mentioned to someone that I envisioned creating some connecting multimedia messages for the community, but had little technical expertise to carry out that vision alone. By lunch, I had the names of two experienced videographers in the community who will potentially be incredible assets who are passionate about the message of the organization.

Beyond those conversations, I accompanied some young musicians last week, playing music that would have been incomplete and unsatisfying without partnership. The music involved more than what one performer can accomplish alone. And having partnership in enrolling the next Power of Connection course I am teaching is much more encouraging and effective than if I were to try doing it all by myself. I think one of reasons I enjoy teaching the course so much is the profound way my own thinking has been transformed by embracing a more expansive vision than I ever have before.

When I attended a new music concert last night presented by Musiqa, it struck me that the organization was thriving because of partnerships on many levels. It was bigger than one person's idea. As I was recently invited to consider taking a leadership role in a similar organization, I immediately saw the potential for connection. I was able to lay the groundwork for further conversations with people who are successfully doing what I would like to create. I can benefit from their insight and experience, and I can learn how two similarly-focused organizations can thrive together while maintaining distinct identities. Without a belief in the value of partnerships and a willingness to connect, a vision that big could be daunting.

As it becomes more ingrained that I don't have to take on my vision all by myself, I notice more and more examples of partnerships. I see movie credits where an entire team of people collaborated on writing and directing a successful film. I hear compelling pieces of music that were created by a lyricist and a composer working together. I read published papers about discoveries to which a team of researchers contributed. And when I really start noticing, I see how partnerships play a part in carrying out almost every vision, from managing a successful restaurant to producing an opera.

While I see the power of "rugged individualism" in setting my sights on what truly matters to me, the other side of that equation is in how the vision is created. I could try to do everything myself, but the potential for success skyrockets when I am willing to see all of the possibilties for connecting with other people. I am excited that what I am creating in so many different areas of my life can benefit and inspire others in a powerful way. And I am absolutely willing to trust in a vision that creates space for plenty of traveling companions.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Getting It Right

"Do you and your wife go to bed at the same time?" I thought it was an odd question, but a friend of mine had heard somewhere that couples who go to bed at the same time have better marriages. That someone even did the statistical research into that off-the-wall fact reflects a trend that I am now seeing from a new perspective. A lot of people want to do things the "right" way. They don't trust in their own capability enough to just enjoy the journey of their lives, they want to check with the experts to make sure they are doing everything in a way that will ensure success.

Until recently, I wanted to see every step of the journey before I committed to the destination. And I wanted to make sure that I could tackle every obstacle along the way without risking failure. Of course there were still surprises along the way, but it ultimately meant that I wasn't taking the path that would be most fulfilling. I didn't trust myself enough to take the journey I really wanted to take. Now I have a strong belief that the next step is all I really need to see, and I don't necessarily need to see it right now. When I trust in my capability as a human being, I can enjoy myself a little more along the way, too.

For the record, my wife and I usually don't go to bed at the same time. We have different sleep patterns and different schedules. And the time we spend awake with each other is largely what defines our relationship. That doesn't mean I think it's wrong for couples to go to bed at the same time, but it seems entirely a matter of personal preference. Just because something works well in one person's life doesn't mean that everyone else should be doing it the same way. And yet, I will admit that I want that comfort sometimes. I want to know how things are supposed to be done so I can at least have a basis of comparison.

The real kicker is: No one actually knows how it's supposed to be. Someone may have made a decision, and other people may have followed along. A whole group of people may have gotten together and agreed on a way to do something. But it all amounts to preference. I believe that people have the capability to choose the best way for them to carry out their life's purpose, and with the exception of a few basic moral principles, it doesn't have to be the same way anyone else would do it. Consulting the experts is fine, but there isn't really any external measure of success that matters. I ultimately define for myself the "right" way to get where I want to be. It starts with trusting myself and taking a step.

For me, it also means trusting others to be a part of my journey. But more on that later.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Leading from Within

In so many movies, there is a scene that I rarely see played out in real life: an individual spontaneously stands up in front of a group of people and delivers and impromptu rallying speech that inspires the crowd to significant, purposeful action. Whether they are going out and winning the competition or burning down the evil scientist's laboratory, their decisions are inspired by an individual voice. I'm sure that this kind of thing happens in reality in more subtle ways, whether for good or ill, but this kind of influence seems short-lived to me. It isn't what I think of as "leadership."

Even the word leadership has conjured for me certain mental images of a person who is at the front of a group of people. The leader marches purposefully forward, and the rest of the parade follows. The leader holds the torch high and people flock to him. Or even, the leader unveils the blueprint and a throng of people dash off to do their part. These are rather comical images to me right now, but they are caricatures of what I have been expecting of myself and others.

Various sources have been contributing to an evolving definition of leadership recently. What I have been reading and hearing from some other people reveals a definition of leadership that is slightly different from what mine had been. They suggest that a leader is the one who breaks from the crowd and heads off in a new direction with purpose, creating a path rather than traversing one that can be clearly seen. Sometimes, these definitions of a leader don't even make mention of who is following or where they come from, because ultimately it is about a path of personal meaning.

In many ways, I have gotten good at waiting. I have waited for the right opportunities, the right environment, the right number of supporters, or even the right quality of support. I have held back engaging 100% of my capability in the world, because I want to make sure that others are with me. I spend time and energy trying to figure out how to convince others about the value of what I am doing, when I could just be doing it. The waiting and holding back doesn't actually move me forward. And as valuable as it is to me to have other people's support, the primary motivation has to emerge from within my own being.

So I am looking at clear ways to redefine my sense of leadership in my decisions as I begin a new year. I am forging my own trail, and I'm trusting that the people who see value in what I am doing will be there with me. I want to engage others about what I am creating, and I want to connect with them about their journey as well. But I also acknowledge that doing it is more compelling than talking about it. And if I am committed to carrying out the personal journey that is most satisfying to me, I believe I already have all that I need to be on that path.