Saturday, January 2, 2010

As Though It Were Working

It all started a couple of days before Christmas. Pete, our guitar player in No Room for Jello called up and said, "Hey Mark, I've got this crazy idea. I've been working with this young woman who has an amazing voice and we've been asked to perform at a big New Year's Eve event in Hudson. I was thinking we could put a band together complete with horns and everything. Do you think you could write horn arrangements for about nine or ten songs?"

Without thinking about it, I said, "Sure! Sounds like fun."

Preparing for the Big Gig
Two days later (Christmas Eve), we were all assembled in our living room. The big round chair for two had been replaced by a set of drums. There were singers standing where the couch had been, a bass player just to the left of the fireplace and horns in front of the piano. We were on our way.

We rehearsed and worked through arrangements for all the songs, rehearsed again on Sunday and Wednesday, and then on New Years Eve, we performed. (If you'd like a glimpse, just click the play button on the image above.)

For those of you who read this blog regularly, you might recall that the first rehearsal marked the beginning of Iris' existential crisis (at least musically speaking) which in turn inspired a bit of exploration around left- and right-brainedness, or as my friend Jonathan calls it, "blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."

For me, the last week provided an amazing opportunity to learn more about how we behave when lots of new and unpredictable things are happening in situations that we consider to be meaningful and important.

First of course, y'all got to participate with Iris as she struggled with her singing after encountering someone who whom she considered to be truly gifted. She not only felt terrible about her music, but began to doubt everything she was doing. Not only that, but she did it for days which for Iris just doesn't happen.

One of the things that is really wonderful about Iris is her wide-eyed optimism and persistence. She regularly engages new adventures without a thought as to whether or not she can do something; she easily sidesteps the "advising couch-potatoes" as she calls them, the naysayers who insist that should should be more careful, that she shouldn't set her expectations too high. She sets her mind on what she wants and no one can tell her otherwise.

Being with Iris, I've come to learn that stubbornness is in the eye of the beholder; if the person who persists is doing something that you agree with, then they're confident and persistent. If on the other hand, they're doing something you don't want, they're resistant and stubborn.

Over the past week, my eye beheld stubbornness. I started thinking that he best way to convince Iris to do something would be to argue for the opposite of what I wanted. Then, after a session in the playroom with Quinn on Thursday, Iris came home inspired and excited.

Iris had been talking to Quinn's dad Randy, who is a professional musician and composer. Randy had been asking her about her singing and Iris had explained that her style was more like Astrid Gilberto than Aretha Franklin. Randy suggested that Iris might spend time exploring singers whose styles resonated with her, styles that she could more easily imitate and learn from. Randy somehow penetrated her persistence.

Yesterday afternoon, before our performance at Fuel, Iris and I played around with singing styles that came easily to her and arrived at something that really sounded great. As we performed last night, it was as though Iris had received a beautiful new instrument. She sang wonderfully.

Driving home she said, "It felt more like talking than singing."

I said, "Cool. Then keep talking!"

For Iris, who has been working diligently to develop her vocal technique, her best performance came with something that required very little technique, and more of her getting in touch with who she is as a singer.

For our trumpet player Scott, whom I mentioned as a left-brained-everything-structured-and-predictable musician, facing a big gig where things were in flux right up to and through the performance was something of a challenge. His first response to Pete was, "OK, as long as Mark is going to write out all the parts."

As we began rehearsing, he would consistently ask me if I could send him copies of everything so that he could practice. His vocabulary was littered with phrases like "I can't..." and "I'm not someone who can..." and "I gotta have at least..."

But then something magical happened. Each rehearsal began with the litany of what would be required to perform, but then by the end Scott would be improvising and playing parts on the fly. Better yet, the less that Scott looked at and relied on the music, the more confident he got and the better he sounded. In spite of his beliefs about structure and predictability, Scott has a big heart, big enough to overcome his fears and doubts.

By the end of the performance on New Years Eve, Scott was even moving with the tunes on stage and playing solos ad lib.

There was our novice bassist Ken who had only ever performed in his church and only with music in front of him that he'd practiced and practiced.

Ken is an artist who makes his living sketching architectural structures. Ken had recently completed a sketch of our lead singer's house and mentioned to her that he played bass. Since we hadn't yet recruited a bassist for the gig, she invited him along.

From the very start of the first rehearsal, Ken wanted to make sure that everyone knew that he was completely unqualified to be playing with the band. He then set out to prove it and regularly reminded us that he had told us so. Through all his apologetic and prognostication, the person over whom Ken had the greatest influence was Ken.

He slowly developed this kind of internal panic (quiet on the outside, frantic on the inside) where he could no longer translate the words that he was hearing; all instructions from either Pete or me just ended up gibberish.

Many Christian churches teach a practice called positive confession. Forgetting for the moment the specific causality, the idea is that what we say will happen, tends to happen. Every time we make a dyer prediction, we contribute to that prediction becoming reality.

Knowing a bit of the lingo, I asked Ken about what he was confessing, and then what results he expected to get. Over the next couple of days, we had a chance to speak more about it and slowly Ken dropped the negative jargon. By Thursday night, it was gone altogether and he was excited and upbeat for the gig. Ken did great!

As Though It Were Working
It seems that there are many things that we do in our lives simply because we've always done them. Over time, we don't even question how we operate, let alone consider alternatives, even if our way of operating doesn't get us what we want.

We may even actively profess that our behavior doesn't work. And yet, we cling to it like a life preserver in a stormy sea. We say we want one thing, and then we stubbornly persist in doing the very things that preclude our getting it.

At first blush, this appears quite bizarre, but I think that there's a logic behind it. At some point in our lives we adopt a behavior to take care of ourselves at points of crisis. If we grow up surrounded by naysayers and doubters, we learn stubbornness and persistence. If we grow up in an environment where everything is out of control and nothing is certain, we learn to create structures that give us at least brief moments of control. If we grow up being criticized or living with disappointment, we learn to beat the critics to the punch and expect failure.

Over time, our crisis behavior emerges independent of the nature of the crisis; it's just a response to the sense of crisis... even when the situation has changed completely... even when the behavior doesn't work.

So What?
What behavioral baggage are you carrying into this new year? Do you find that in certain situations you seem to jump to old behaviors that you considered long gone? What are the situations and what are the actions? How did you come to taking those actions in challenging situations in the first place? What were the triggers and how did your actions work for you? Do they still work?

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