Sunday, April 25, 2010

Best Worst Accompanying Job

When I first got the call, my instinct was to say "No." A high school band director had gotten my information from another local instructor as an accompanist who could collaborate well with students playing challenging pieces, and I was grateful for the word-of-mouth advertising. But he was calling with one week's notice to ask if I could play for an event which conflicted with another commitment. And during the conversation he said, "We run into this problem every year." That told me that he hadn't adjusted his preparation model to get an accompanist further in advance, even though it had caused him difficulty to wait until the eleventh hour in the past. Given my schedule, I just didn't know how I could possibly rehearse with his students twice before the event (which is my standard practice), so I politely declined.

I hate to turn down work, especially work that I enjoy doing, but there were so many reasons that this offer seemed like a bad idea, I felt relieved when I ended the call without adding something to my calendar. Then, he called back. It had been a couple of hours, and I was certainly caught off guard. He told me that they had changed the times of the event and asked if I was able to fit it in more easily. After talking for a few minutes, I agreed to take the job, and he said he would email all the info I needed to pick up the music and schedule rehearsals.

There was so much about the offer that I didn't like. He didn't seem organized. The event was only a week away, and his description of some of the pieces suggested that I would prefer a few weeks to work on them rather than a few days. My schedule was already packed with other accompanying jobs, and I honestly didn't believe that I would be able to provide the quality and quantity of time I typically give students. And to top it off I simply didn't find it easy to trust the director, even though I had only spoken with him for a total of 15-20 minutes. Somehow, I expected that the circumstances would be different from other schools with which I was working.

That same week, I had agreed to almost exactly the same time frame at another school. I was already playing piano for about a dozen advanced students at the high school. The director called me early on a Monday morning, exactly one week before their event, and told me that one of their accompanists was ill and they needed to find a replacement. She told me that I was the first person she called because she recognized that I was one of the most skilled accompanists on their roster, and she asked if I would be willing to take on another ten students. When I arrived at the school later that day, she had all of the additional music together, she had the schedules of all of the students, she introduced me to them and told them about the change of plan, and she reassured them that everything would be fine with their original accompanist. As I worked with the students, she was constantly on hand to help coordinate the rehearsal schedule. What could have been a chaotic and stressful arrangement was instead smooth and enjoyable because she was so on top of things. I was very happy that I had agreed to take on a little more, even with only one week to put it all together.

For some reason, I wasn't expecting the same treatment from the director on the phone. I watched for his email, trusting that I would be able to make everything work with my time and it would be another opportunity to build my reputation. But over the next few days, the email didn't arrive, and it was late in the evening on Sunday when I received his call. His event was now four days away, and he was calling to let me know that he would have music gathered together for me by Tuesday morning. I explained to him my concerns about how little time remained before the event, and I told him that I would likely not be able to rehearse twice with each student at that point. That seemed fine, and we worked out a schedule of when I would be on hand during school hours for the students to rehearse, and when I hung up, I had a bit of a sinking feeling about the whole affair.

On Thursday, I was angry. This was hands down the worst accompanying job I had ever accepted. They didn't actually have all of the piano music, so they had to rush order it. Some of the students had never even played through their entire solo before I met with them, and others were playing pieces that required considerable coordination between pianist and soloist that simply wasn't likely to develop in a single rehearsal. The manner in which the director spoke to the students conveyed a lack of respect, and he had certainly not set them up for success. He referred to me as "Mr. Parfait," even after I had corrected him, and he brought a challenging piece of music to me as the event was starting to ask if I could play it for another student I had not even met ahead of time. I heard from everyone involved that it was the same story every year, waiting until the last minute and scrambling to get accompanists and music together. To top it off, I had never been told with certainty what I would be paid for my efforts.

And then, when I sat down to play for the first student, I realized that I wasn't there to do the director a favor. As disorganized and disrespectful as the director had been, I was grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the students' journeys as musicians. I was reminded of what was true about me, my compassion, my skill, my passion for music and connection with other people, my ability to encourage and inspire. I would have loved to have more rehearsals with the students, and I could have played those piano parts more skillfully with a little more time. But I did my very best under the circumstances, and the students represented themselves well.

It wasn't difficult to let go of my anger about the situation when I got back to the real reason that I was there. Out of a desire for them to have the best program possible, I suggested some planning guidelines to the director and provided the names of a couple of area directors that held similar events so he could compare notes and they could learn from one another. I will probably think twice before I agree to another event with that particular director, and I have learned once again that I don't enjoy playing music as much when I have too little time to prepare it well. And yet, when I clearly recognize the real purpose behind my choices, I can be satisfied with how I handle circumstances and impact lives.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Beliefs Become Reality

Over the last two weekends, I have put my piano skills to work accompanying about 80 beginner-level musicians at their solo and ensemble events. Students from several schools gather at a host school and take their turns walking into what is usually a math or social studies classroom and playing their piece (with their trusty pianist) for a judge who is usually a complete stranger. For some, it is a grueling experience, and for many of them it is a lot of fun. For me, it has been remarkable to see what adorns the walls of modern classrooms.

Certainly there must have been inspirational posters of some kind when I was a young student, but I don't remember what they said. Posters decorating the classrooms I was in this weekend had phrases like: Surround yourself with what you want to become. (It depicted a rather dull pencil in the midst of a forest of very sharp ones.) Another read: Character takes courage... it requires doing what's right, not what's easy or popular. Of course, some of the messages were about how to treat other people, and some were designed to build effective habits. My favorite of those was: If you don't have time to do it right, you must have time to do it over. The ones that most caught my attention, though, were the ones that were instilling beliefs that may not be conveyed in any other area of a person's life.

We don't outgrow some beliefs. Whether they actually serve us well or not, we hang on to some ideas about reality without any concrete supporting evidence. And sometimes we even cling to conflicting beliefs. We may believe that it's absolutely true that strong moral character is desirable and requires sacrifices. And we may believe that it's absolutely true that you have to cheat to get ahead in life. One of those certainly wasn't on a classroom poster, but many people pick it up somewhere. Just those two conflicting beliefs can wind up meaning intense struggle about identity and defining success. And we have hundreds and hundreds of beliefs that we have claimed as truths.

Claiming a belief is true doesn't really alter reality, though. Sure, some people get more money or a better career position by cheating. Yes, the choices people make in friendships have an influence on them. But it also takes courage to do something that doesn't seem "right" to everyone around you. And sometimes it may be important to get a task done without worrying about whether it's done as perfectly as possible. The bottom line is: I get to choose the standards by which I live my life. I don't get to define Truth, but I do get to decide what I'm going to believe. And that changes everything about how I live.

About a year and a half ago, I believed that I was trapped. So, naturally, I started working on getting myself out of the trap... only to realize that I wasn't actually trapped by anything other than my own picture of the way things had to be. When I started believing something different about myself, reality started to look different as well. I don't actually believe that reality changed, but what I was able to see changed. Being willing to dance with what was verifiably true opened up possibilities that didn't exist for me when I was claiming all kinds of things as truths, when they were actually just beliefs I had chosen.

More to come on recent developments. For now, one last poster I saw this weekend (quoting Henry Ford, I think) : Whether you believe you can or you believe you can't, you're right.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


When my wife and I visited Florence, we made it a priority to see some of the sculpture of Michelangelo in person. Impressive as every completed work was, the most striking image for me was the hall of unfinished "slave" sculptures that were originally intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Nine-foot-tall figures emerging from blocks of stone. Even though they are quite static in reality, I imagine them to be in a continual state of casting off the raw marble and stepping out into full view.

I have been thinking about those sculptures this week as I submit music to a few competitions and opportunities for performance. I am categorically an "emerging" composer. Although there are likely many definitions for that label, my sense is that an emerging composer is one who has received some acknowledgment and achieved some success but has yet to gain broad name-recognition, an international reputation, or prominent creative position. I am working toward becoming a sought-after composer, although that's not an official category, but I have realized this week how much I fit into the "emerging" category as a human being.

Since I began writing this blog a little over a year ago, I have gone from playing it safe to more consistently claiming my strengths. I have been developing skills and behaviors that wind up serving every area of my life, whether it is in teaching communication skills, working with other musicians, or the lessons learned in starting a business and networking. I have stepped more fully into local leadership of an international non-profit organization, and I have stepped away from environments that kept me from engaging my full capability and creativity.

Now I am learning again that everything I do in a day's activities can be things I truly want to do. Especially when I realize that how I am being is more meaningful that what I am doing. My attitude and my willingness to remember why I want to do those things makes the difference between a day of burdensome obligations and a day of playful engagement. So, in the midst of all my other activity this week, when I put aside another piece I was working on to start composing a flute piece that was in my head, I found the entire process to be rather playful.

Not only were some of the musical elements playful, but my way of approaching the piece was light. There is no reason I have to compose this piece, but the ideas seem more of a natural response to how I am wanting to be. And that opens up possibilities for the music that I am not always willing to pursue. I am already thinking of the flautists and flute teachers with whom I can share this piece, and what kinds of audiences I can engage. Recognizing why it is important to me that my music is performed and heard, without being attached to any specific outcome, helps me balance boldness and playfulness at a level I have not often been willing to trust. And I have no idea what will come of it.

So as I become more comfortable with what it means for me to be engaging life 100%, I am recognizing more opportunities to create and to have a positive impact on others' lives. Perhaps someday soon I will see results that place me in a "sought-after" category as a composer. Perhaps not. Either way, as a human being, I plan to keep emerging.