Remembering Your “Why”

My father recently found an archival audio recording of my Masters degree recital.  You can listen to it here and read some of my thoughts below, if you’d like.

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Life has spun an unexpected journey in many ways since I performed that recital.  As I listened to the program on my commute earlier today, it occurred to me that the recital represented life lessons I’ve learned more deeply and reminded me of my true inspirations.  It is so easy in the grind of life to forget your “Why” or what drives you to achieve, serve and contribute.  I suggest doing whatever you can to remember your “Why” each day, each month, each year.  My path has changed many times, forcing me to adapt, but even at each turn there are some things that I realize now have been steadfast:

1. No Single Label – This 50 minute recital program had music spanning over 200 years and representing five different countries.  More so, the character of each piece expressed something very different but no one piece expressed everything.   I have realized as I’ve grown older that the quality of my life is the combination of many roles I play, but no one role defines me completely.   Each person is equally multi-faceted and that is why building relationship requires work to see and value all parts of that person.

2. Discipline is Freedom – The works on this recital program were not easy.  They took months of preparation on my part and I mapped out on a calendar how exactly I was going to learn the music in the prescribed time.  (I even had to learn how to make a completely different reed for the Xenakis that could play the multi-phonics and super high F-sharp.)  As I listen to the performances now, the atmosphere of each piece sounds so free even though I remember all the methodical work I put in.  Freedom comes from the hard work we put in to life.

3. No Regrets – I can hear a note crack or at times not even come out during this recital.  These are usually at points where I was risking trying to play too loud or too soft.  Every time there was a disruption, I kept going – almost like it didn’t happen.   Hearing the boldness in my playing to the point of risk was something that made me smile.  At the time of this recital (2004) and at the time of this post (2018), I had gone through some very difficult times in my personal life.  My reaction then was the same as it is now: get back up, be bold and work hard towards a new goal. Always commit 100%, don’t regret – learn and move forward.  There was something rather comforting knowing that part of me hasn’t changed even after all these years, and I am inspired by my 25 year-old self.

4. Collaboration and Community – Both this recital and my Bachelors degree recital included several musicians.  It strikes me now that I have always loved to collaborate with others.  I am energized by their contributions and life is more meaningful together.  As I’ve grown older, I have had to be intentional about keeping a community around me.  That community energizes and inspires me.  That community has also held me upright in challenging times.  Life is more meaningful together.

There was something altogether magical about listening to my old recital.  I don’t say that to be vain or pat myself on the back.  It was a strong connection and reminder of a very vibrant version of myself.  I am sure that life will continue to bring unexpected turns, each twist requiring me to respond.  I will stumble, I will fall.  But I will also try to remember the “Why” I adopted many years ago: work hard, express deeply to truly connect, gather together and serve those around you.







Engage Your Team with Questions, Not Answers

This article was originally published on Echelon Front’s Platoon Hut website.

For the last year I’ve been leading a weekly planning meeting of key staff who work to produce concerts at the Nashville Symphony.  Each concert or event has many details requiring coordination from several departments, and so the weekly meeting is valuable time together. Ever since I started leading the meeting, I struggled to find ways to engage staff more in discussion. I tried modifying the agenda, preparing more thoroughly and keeping myself informed of what was happening on the frontlines as much as possible so I could drive conversation.  Nothing I did was getting the full results I wanted from the group, which was to empower more effective discussion and maximize our valuable time together.

Recently, I was away at a week long conference, and missed a week’s worth of concerts.  I came to the weekly meeting feeling a bit concerned how disconnected I was from the office but curious how the concerts went.  Instead of me reporting out and driving the conversation like I always did, I asked lots of questions of the group: how did they feel it went? What worked? What should we remember for next time?   I didn’t have any of the answers and relied on them to fill in the blanks.

After the meeting was over, I was impressed with how the group really stepped up and engaged more fully in the conversation.  They offered up insightful feedback and the meeting was very helpful. What made the difference? And then it hit me – perhaps they didn’t speak up as much in the past because they didn’t need to – I did all the talking.  By being so concerned with staying connected to the details, I probably stifled the conversation because I thought I needed to have all the answers. Instead, I took a chance, let go and got out of the way. I used curiosity and inquiry to find out from them what really happened.  It worked, and I realized my team was ready to take ownership, I just needed give them the room to do so.

How To Train for Personal Crisis

This article was originally published on Echelon Front’s Platoon Hut website.

At some point in your life, you will deal with a personal crisis: death of a loved one, serious medical diagnosis, divorce, job loss. These extreme times can be incredibly stressful, disorienting and crippling. We cannot anticipate when we will be hit, but we can train now and be better equipped to navigate those challenges.  

There are four commitments you can make now to prepare for an unforeseen crisis. Strengthening these now will provide you with the foundation you need later:

  • Work hard to become an effective leader.  Have a relentless attitude about learning to implement the 4 Laws of Combat (Cover and Move, Simple, Prioritize & Execute, Decentralized Command).  Never be satisfied that you have it all figured out and pursue improvement every day. A crisis is the wrong time to start preparing. Prepare now and you will have the tools to begin getting back on your feet once the storm hits.
  • Build relationship with everyone you meet. Each day, you will have opportunities to build trust or break it. Commit to building relationship with everyone you meet. When we build relationship, we become better parents, spouses, friends and coworkers. When the crisis hits, those people will be there for you.
  • Practice gratitude. Be thankful for what you have. When relationship, health, possession, or job is taken from you, you will see how sacrifice and loss can still lead to opportunity. You will find light in the darkness.
  • Always have a mission.  As leaders, practice setting and achieving goals both big and small. When crisis hits, our new mission can be very apparent: survival. As we emerge from crisis we will likely need to define a new mission. When you have already practiced setting and achieving goals, identifying even the smallest new mission will be impact your ability to stand up, move forward and make the most of your new life.   



Take your hands off the keyboard: A Guide to Effective Listening

In a recent evaluation, I was told I needed to improve my listening skills. I spent considerable time stewing over the criticism before I realized I needed to step back, detach and consider what effective listening looked like if I was going to make any meaningful change.   After some research, I found some “simple but not easy” concepts: effective listening does not involve talking or thinking about what I am going to say next.  It does involve me contributing a present and clear mindset plus an openness to wherever the conversation might lead. Now, I needed a chance to implement.

A few days later, a colleague showed up at my office when I was halfway through typing a critical email. She asked if I had a moment to talk, she walked in and sat down as I finished typing a sentence.  As simple as it might seem, it finally occurred to me that I needed to take my hands off the computer keyboard and put them on my lap.  I turned my attention fully to her, shut my mouth and listened with curiosity to what she wanted to discuss.  The result was a meaningful conversation that helped to deepen our working relationship.

Leaders are expected to drive the progress of their team. I strive to stay organized under pressure in order get lots of work done.  However, I realize now that effective listening requires a readiness to press pause.  When someone comes to talk to you, physically disconnect from what you were in the middle of if you have to, and give them your full attention.  They will trust approaching you, and you will accomplish more together.


This article is a direct result of my work in the League of American Orchestras’ Emerging Leaders Program and was published January 29, 2018 on Echelon Front’s website as a contribution to their discussion forum Platoon Hut

The role of the Communications Department in an Orchestra

An interview with Nashville Symphony’s Vice President of Communications, Jonathan Marx

What is the primary goal of the Communications department?

The objectives of any Communications department will vary at least a little, depending on the institutional ecosystem in which it operates. But from my vantage point, our job at the Nashville Symphony is to promote visibility and awareness of the institution, with the goal of driving public participation, brand loyalty, revenue, community engagement, donations and any and all other forms of support (but not necessarily in that order — our priorities are constantly shifting, converging and overlapping).

How do we do that? By effectively telling the story of the institution through all tools at our disposal: digital media, written communication, oral communication, graphics, photography, video, PR, media coverage and any- and everything else we can think of.

What is easy about sharing the story of an orchestra?

The orchestra is such a large and multifaceted entity, and the art form is so rich — sonically, aesthetically, historically — that there are numerous opportunities to explore storytelling.  With so many members of the ensemble, and so many guest artists, we have a large and constantly evolving source of storytellers, each with their own unique ideas and intentions. If, to cite Gustav Mahler, a symphony must be like the world and “contain everything,” then the possibilities for storytelling truly are endless (at least in conceptual terms), particularly if we are willing to be open and creative to new ideas and approaches.

What is challenging about sharing the story of an orchestra?

In some ways, the vastness of possibility can be a challenge, mostly because we have limited resources and time, particularly with so many concerts and institutional initiatives to promote. For me, the biggest conceptual challenge is how to convey the ways in which orchestral music can be interesting and compelling to everyone, whether they are familiar with the art form or not. Most frequently, this translates into the challenge of helping our Marketing team drive ticket sales, particularly when we are operating in a marketplace where there are so many entertainment options.

Another challenge is negotiating some of the complexities and dynamics revolving around the labor-vs.-management relationship that characterizes professional American orchestras. There are times when we’re not always clear about the ways in which our strategies and tactics may be at odds with the goals and viewpoints of the artists themselves, which is a humbling experience, as our goal of course is to promote their artistry. At the same time, I really welcome hearing diverse thoughts and opinions from members of the ensemble, as it reminds me, once again, of the breadth and variety of opinions and ideas that shape our world. And so the orchestra once again becomes a metaphor for complexities we navigate in everyday life, ideally making the work we do that much more relevant and rewarding.

How can the Orchestra Operations department contribute towards the goals of the Communications department?

By helping us interpret, understand and navigate all of the complexities of keeping an orchestra functionally healthy. And by providing us insights and information that wouldn’t be readily evident to us because we either lack depth of knowledge, or we may simply be overlooking compelling ideas and opportunities due to our divided attention.

Relationship between Orchestra Operations and other Departments

Stay tuned for a series of articles that will share the relationship between Orchestra Operations and other departments of a professional orchestra including: Communications & Public Relations, Marketing, Development, Artistic and Education/Community Engagement.  These relationships are strongest when there is a shared awareness of the specific work, goals and deadlines between departments. Building trust and respect within those relationships is crucial to achieving high level work while cultivating a positive work environment.