Saturday, June 29, 2013

Why Give, Why Serve?

The featured cover story in Time Magazine for June 26, 2013 is entitled: How Service Can Save Us. In it, columnist Joe Klein observes and discusses the phenomenon that U.S. Military Veterans who return home from the battlefield have a much easier time adapting to civilian life if they serve in some capacity. It seems that being part of something larger than themselves truly helps many overcome Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, becoming happier in the process.

Recent psychological studies coming out of Harvard University are confirming that serving others helps bring about happiness and success.  In a humorous and engaging 12 minute TED talk entitled “The Happy Secret To Better Work,” Shawn Achor tells his audience that success does not bring happiness, but rather, the reverse is true— happiness brings success. He’s written a book about this inversion of our view of success entitled The Happiness Advantage. In it he suggests “rewiring” your brain for happiness by practicing these five disciplines:
  1. Write down each day three things that you are grateful for.
  2. Relive a good moment by journaling about it briefly in a paragraph.
  3. Perform an intentional or random act of kindness for someone.
  4. Exercise.
  5. Meditate (pray).
Larry and me in New Hampshire, 2003
Each year, I organize and ride in a bicycle ride entitled "The Central Coast Century." I do it in memory of my brother Larry, who died of ALS, (Lou Gehrig's Disease) in October of 2007.  His death profoundly changed my life—and the lives of those close to him.  That’s why I ride.  I don’t want anyone else to go through what we went through.  I want to help find a cure.  I find great meaning in serving in this manner, outside my normal routine.

What about you?  What do you do to serve others? How do you handle the paradox that when you give, you receive?  Leave a comment—and let me know.


Monday, July 30, 2012

The Process Is the Product

In any process that culminates with a product, be it the launch of a new business, athletic training for a sporting competition, or a series of rehearsals for a production in the performing arts, the process is the product.

I recently completed a one day, one hundred mile bike ride through the beautiful Central Coast of California, a ride which I organized and founded in 2005. While riding this "Century," the number of miles left to ride before I reached the finish line was always on my mind.  After all, that's the point—the product—to ride 100 miles, correct?  Partially. If I had concentrated only upon reaching the finish line, perhaps I would have missed the taste of salt in the air as I rode along Moonstone Beach in Cambria. Maybe I would not have seen the beauty of the sun casting her shadows through the groves of the ancient oaks along the climb up Old Creek Road. I might have possibly been oblivious to the camaraderie, competition and cadence of the friends I love who rode alongside me.

Yes, completing and finishing the ride was certainly the goal, but that wasn't the only product.  There were many other results of this project.  For me, they included the eagerness and anticipation that I felt as I looked forward to the ride day over the several months that I trained. In addition to the joy of anticipating the ride, I lost fifteen pounds of body weight, gained wind capacity and thus rejuvenated my self-confidence. The 170 other people who rode raised $40,500 to fight ALS, a.k.a Lou Gehrig's Disease. This is the disease which took the life of my brother Larry at age 49.  A sense of community was nurtured among all of the participants as we joined together to be part of something larger than ourselves.

It's the process that is the product, the joy is in the journey.

Here are six things to consider to help you consider your process as your product.  They work for me as I compose music, discipline myself in a new skill or as I lead others in a major project.  Although my particular field is music, I believe that they apply to any discipline, even a bike century.  I am indebted to my teacher Dr. Mark Carlson, for bringing them to my attention.

1. Have Clear Beginnings and Endings:  Without that final finish line, my ride would have been meaningless.  Set clear, challenging goals, BHAGs that you and everyone else will know when they have been obtained. For example, if you want to grow your choir's ability to communicate, why not challenge them to memorize Handel's Hallelujah Chorus this year for the grand finale of your Christmas concert?  You could then use all of that work to perform it flash mob style somewhere fun!

2. Watch for and celebrate Forward Motion:  Congratulate yourself and your group when a small part of your goal has been obtained. "Hey friends, we've now got the first 16 bars of the Hallelujah Chorus  memorized; that's 16 more than we had when we started.  Next week, let's aim to have 32 bars memorized." When I'm riding my bike up certain hill here in South Corona, I keep my eye on my computer/speedometer to ensure that I'm actually "working" out and not just strolling my way up the hill.

3. Keep it Interesting: There are a myriad of ways to do this.  Find someone in your choir who has struggled with memorization in the past but has worked hard and is conquering the Handel. Have them share how they are doing  with the entire group.  Our bike ride asks people who own RVs to serve at the Rest Stops.  I believe that the RV owner's pride in their rigs gives them permission to be more hospitable, engaging and interesting to the riders.

4. Use Building Blocks that Evolve Over Time.  Stories of past victories, songs sung and places performed are the building the blocks that help form the interwoven fabric of a choir.  Every healthy group has these kinds of legends that build community. "I remember the time when the bus broke down and we sang for the people inside the Burger King in which we were stuck for three hours." "I remember when we had an electrical blackout and we were singing We Have Seen the Light and the lights miraculously came back on in the middle of that particular song." Although our bike ride has only been in existence since 2005, we already have legendary stories like "Remember when that lady came out yelling at us with her gun demanding that we move our porta potty, all of that despite the fact that it was placed on public property?"

5. Aim for a Climax:  In athletic training, in music, in the business world, there's always a sense of the "peak" to any endeavor.  Most often, this happens just before the culminating event, but not always.

6. Plan Surprises:  In a choral group, this could be as simple as unexpected food following the rehearsal.  In our bike ride, 140 dozen oatmeal, chocolate chip, and peanut butter cookies—homemade by the people of our sponsoring church—surprised participants accustomed to the corporate sponsored snacks in other rides.

Concerts, contests and other culminating events can seem to be the point of our work.  But they're only part of it.  The process itself is the entire product.  Enjoy that process as you use it to reach your goals.  Find the joy in the journey.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Tick tock tick tock—Deadline coming, shouts the clock

One of the perceived advantages of working as an academic is the long summer break from teaching.  It allows the college professor extended periods of times for what might be called the “Three Rs” of higher academics—reading, writing and research.  If a professor is going to bring any interest at all to his classroom, he must be a life-long learner.

Yet, there is a double-edged sword to this richness of time, and everyone, not just academics, experiences it.  The sword is anxiety.

It is so very easy to be anxious and worried about time.  “Oh my!” I hear myself fretting.  It’s already June 16th and I will have to be teaching again in just ten more weeks. Ten weeks?  Seriously Glenn, you’re worried about only having ten weeks left? 

Absurd?  Absolutely.  Yet I experienced the same kinds of anxious feelings when I wasn’t a college professor.  I’ve heard people say that “time is money,” and I think that there’s some truth to this, especially in that there never seems to be enough of either. 

So how can we be content with the time that we’re given and not succumb to the life sucking temptation of anxiety?

You’re not dead yet.

You’re alive, and that means that you have a purpose. Your best days are neither behind—or ahead of you.  Your best day is today, for that’s all you have.  Discover what you’re purpose is for today and do it.

Here’s a few great quotes about time that I look at every once in a while to help me get through my time anxiety.

Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. I rather believe that time is a companion who goes with us on the journey and reminds us to cherish every moment, because it will never come again. Jean Luc Picard in Star Trek, Generations.

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero – "Seize the Day, putting as little trust as possible in the future"—Horace.

Sunrise on Lake Waukewan,
Meredith, New Hampshire
This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it. Psalm 118:24.

Procrastination, worry and anxiety are our enemies. Let’s discover our purpose for today and then live it, with joy and thankfulness to the One who gave it to us.

Friday, May 25, 2012

In Praise of Pruning...

I was out in our backyard yesterday, doing some trimming and weeding.  Our roses had just finished their first, big round of blooming for this season. They needed to be pruned a bit.

Pruning helps a rose bush grow more beautiful.  Without pruning, the energy needed to grow more blossoms will be wasted on the production of its fruit—the rose hips.  Without pruning, the bush will eventually revert back to its natural state and shoot out ugly, gangly, vine-like branches. Soon enough, the whole thing can become a tangled mess.

So I pruned away.  I thought that I was close to finishing the job after working the clippers for twenty to thirty minutes.  Stepping back to get a different perspective, I noticed several old blooms that I had missed on the backside of the bush.  So, I worked my arms through the thorns, towards the far side of the rosebush, got scraped up a bit, but successfully pruned away the previously overlooked dead blossoms. 

I stepped back again, brushed off my arms and then I moved to my left.  There again were some more old blossoms that I had missed, plus some ugly spider webs and some big, dead, brown leaves that had dropped from the sycamore tree in the schoolyard that’s behind our house.  The dead leaves, the spider webs, the faded blossoms had all been invisible to me—until I had moved to my left.

I sighed, for in the garage my very cool bike—with its Dura-Ace components—was waiting for me to take it out for a ride.

More pruning…

Now I moved to my right—more messy stuff that I had missed, more pruning.

Then it occurred to me—I’m a lot like this rosebush.  I can’t grow without pruning and a change in perspective. I need to be willing to move around whatever I’m working on in order to see what’s incomplete about it. I need to be faithful to the task.  I need to invite the perspective of others into my life, those who can see what I can’t see about myself.  I need to keep working until I hear the words “it is good.”

Also, without a change in my perspective, I can’t help those who have asked me for help in their growth, their pruning.  Perhaps the most important change I can make is to practice the Golden Rule and put myself in the shoes of those that I’m leading, the students I’m teaching, the people I’m serving.  I need—all of us need—to keep working, keep pruning—with love—all the while avoiding the thorns, until we hear the words “it is good.”

Happy springtime!

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Eyes Are the Window To the Soul…

The eyes are the window to the soul…

Perhaps a great saying like this abides in our language and culture because of the truth that it contains—and there is much truth in this one.

My wife Julie and I were watching Grimm on television last night.  It’s a show about Nick Burkhardt, a detective who can see certain, unique people as they really are, that is, supernatural witches, werewolves or wildermann. In the season finale, Nick’s girlfriend Juliette seems to have been changed by the show’s antagonists for some evil purpose.  How do we know?  We know from the look in her eyes. When they suddenly open as she awakens from a coma, they are quite different. Solid brown, animal like, pupils missing, her once lovely eyes tell us now that something is quite wrong with her. She is no longer herself.

Have you ever noticed that there’s an art to looking at someone in the eyes?  Business people will tell you that a deal can be made or broken—depending upon how skilled the presenter is at looking into the client’s eyes.  If the presenter doesn’t make enough eye contact and carefully observe the client’s level of interest, the client may feel slighted, or think perhaps that the presenter is lying.  On the flip side, looking too long into the eyes of another can be disconcerting.  We tend to wonder about the motives of those who look at us in the eyes for too long.

Singers and groups of singers—such as choirs—need to understand the power of eye contact.

In a performance class that I was once coaching, a young woman with a really terrific voice was struggling to connect with the other members of the class as she sang.  She sang with power, conviction and style, and on a recording, her performance would have been stunning.  Yet, at this moment in time, we all felt like something was missing. 

Finally, someone asked her what she was looking at.  She put her head down and answered kind of sheepishly, “The wall.” 

Perplexed, we asked, The wall?  Why are you looking at the wall?  Why not look at us?  She kind of scuffed her feet and answered quietly, “Because I love the wall.”  

The room burst into laughter together with her. We all knew how she felt.  Looking into the eyes of another is one of the most intimate and sometimes difficult things we humans can do.  We would much rather look at the wall.

For choirs, the “wall” is the folder of music held in their hands as they perform. Even though they have looked at that same piece of paper dozens of times during rehearsal and they know its directions for singing well, they still look intently at those directions during the times when they are trying to communicate its truth to those that are listening, that is, the performance.  

We conductors often inadvertently reinforce this wall.  How many times have you heard a conductor say “C’mon people, on measure forty-nine, there’s a rest on beat four, would you please mark it and observe it?  So, when it comes to the performance of measure forty-nine, beat four—where has the choir rehearsed its eyes to look?  On its music of course;  certainly no one wants to experience the wrath of a conductor!

Gustavo Dudamel
So conductors, let’s start with ourselves.  How can we get a choir to connect with us—and then correspondingly with those listening to our performance?  Here’s how: When we stand in front of a group, we must overcome our natural inclination to look down at our music—and—make every effort to always be looking into the choir’s eyes, using the printed music as little as possible. 

Try this: Take a piece of music that you know by heart, close the page, move your stand off to the side and then, as you lead, simply look into the eyes of each individual choir member throughout the entire piece.  Try to “land” your eyes on each individual once for at least three seconds.  Count how many times you look down at where your music stand usually is.  Or better yet, have a trusted member of the choir count for you! It’s not easy, but if you want your choir to have the power of communication that the eyes afford, you must set the example and lead the way.

The eyes are the window to the soul for instrumental groups too.  Take a look here at the life Gustavo Dudamel brings out of the Venezuela Youth Orchestra as he conducts Leonard Bernstein’s MamboNotice Dudamel’s eyes.  They are always challenging his people—yet they are also enjoying the life nurturing, mutual experience he shares with them.

Music is a form of communication, and that communication becomes much deeper and richer when we utilize the windows to the soul, that is, the eyes.  Looking into the eyes of your group is a skill that you too can learn.

I’ll enumerate some more practical ways as to how to accomplish this in my next blog, June 10th.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

When He Lifts His Eyes

Choral music passed a milestone this month.  Dr. Gary Bonner is retiring at age 74 from his duties as the Dean of the School of Music at California Baptist University.

Over the decades of his professional career, Dr. Bonner continually experimented with choral conducting in the use non-verbal gesture to create spontaneous, almost improvised performances that were highly engaging for both the singers and the audiences.  His son Judd's DMA dissertation goes into depth in describing Bonner's non-verbal technique along with that of Rodney Eichenberger's—who independently from Bonner also uses non-verbal gesture in his choral conducting.

Somehow, the duty of putting together a faculty good-bye luncheon fell upon my shoulders along with that of my new colleague and friend at CBU, Dr. Steve Betts.

I've found that one of the best ways to mark these kinds of milestones is to write a poem.  I learned this from Pastor Brian Morgan when I served beside him up at Peninsula Bible Church in Cupertino.  Poetry allows one to express one's self in a deep, highly meaningful manner that we Americans seem to be unaware of.  It's appropriate that my first blog post includes a poem, especially for a man who has had such a significant influence upon who I am.

We closed the luncheon with the reading of this poem.  I was fighting back the tears as I read it to him. At least two things happened that afternoon—he felt highly honored—and I felt that I was able to express my feelings for him in an appropriate but powerful way though the unique and neglected art of poetry.

When He Lifts His Eyes

When he lifts his eyes, a journey begins.
He’s wanting to fly to high places
Where both the air and life are crystal clear,
And a fragrant aroma wafts through the air.
On breezes of song he glides, flies and swoops with ease,
His destination is a place so high, nothing less than the Heavenlies.

We are his wings.
And we move, sing and sway with the Spirit’s whispers leading.
This musician’s forward motion beckons, calls and entices us to be heeding,
To fly us onward to heights and places he’s uniquely gifted to see.

And Oh what he sees.
When he’s in the room, he somehow knows that you’re there.
Though throngs may surround you,
There’s no ducking, no hiding, he always sees you
And his expectation is that you will join his song.
For he knows his gift
and to share the joy of his journey
Is for you, what he longs,
To choose life, and to say yes, to simply follow along.

He savors each moment, so aware of how the time flees,
Yet somehow, on these wings of music, we glimpse eternity.
The door to heaven opens just a little with each flight
And we see the truth he envisions as we sing, wing to new heights.

His gifting, his visions, his dreams of what’s possible
Inspire me to press on and grow to be the best me that I can be.
Years of discipline leading to a moment of freedom.
He makes me believe that like him, I am not ordinary,
For none of us are just any old Tad, Doc or Gary,
We are all children of the Heavenly Father, gifted to change the world for the good.

Some of us lead, some of us follow,
For the eyes cannot say to the hand
“I have no need of you,”
But, there are times when the hand must say to the eyes, “Thank you.”
For flights to high places and songs that have been sung,
Today we are grateful to you for leading us in this journey
That’s barely begun.

Glenn Pickett, May 2012