How to be Unawesome. Really.

I recently read an excellent book by Scott Stratten which is basically about communication. This is a book I do actually recommend and have given away several copies already – get it here (Amazon affiliate link). It includes many stories of excellent customer service as well as some examples we wouldn’t want to follow. Unfortunately we can all add to the latter and perhaps less so of the former. But if everyone was excellent, that would be the norm and none of us would have any chance to stand out against the crowd, right?

(Amazon affiliate link)


After moving to the Tampa Bay area I had a document to sign and return. It came to me with a pre-paid FedEx envelope so all I had to do was drop it off at a FedEx location or drop box, right? So I looked online for one, and saw some EXCELLENT news – there was one within walking distance! I clicked on the business’s link and it was confirmed in the list of that location’s services. Yey.

As I hadn’t had my daily dose of either chocolate or coffee that day, I was feeling particularly snarky and decided the walk outside would do me good. I walk and swim every non-wet day anyway, but this extra sojourn was welcomed.

The document was duly signed, sealed and my lazy afternoon walk began. Soaking up the sun was making me feel less snarky already.

I entered the strip mall store and noticed it was busy with things and two nicely uniformed young ladies. (In fact, the only man I’ve ever seen in there has been the owner. Hmm.) Two cheerful hellos bellowed throughout the store and my attention was immediately drawn to two bright white smiles. Nice. Customers are made to feel welcome, there’s a neatness about this mail/post/courier service store, and the sun is still shining upon this glorious day.

“Hi! Can I just leave this with you, please?” I held up my FedEx envelope.

“Oh, sorry, no we don’t take FedEx.”

“Oh. Really? Your website says you do.”

“Oh. Really? Let me just check with the owner – I wasn’t aware.”

It was a little annoying that there was a wait, but that was preferable to a “No” or leaving the envelope to get lost or thrown out.

Whilst on the phone the sweet service provider blushed, and I could already tell she was being put between a rock and a hard place. By now I was getting miffed and making up stories in my head about what the owner was saying. Eventually she carefully hung up.

“Sorry, sir. We don’t take FedEx packages.”

Hrumph.

Remember my lack of coffee and chocolate was making me snarky earlier that day? It just resurfaced. I could have walked out, but I was feeling snarky. I’d been misled and wronged and wanted it righted, and it made me annoyed that the owner left it to an otherwise helpful and seemingly conscientious late-teen to deal with what might have been an irate customer.

“But your website says you take FedEx packages.”

“I know, but the owner just told me we don’t anymore.”

“OK. But I came here because your website’s list of services definitely includes FedEx.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“Can I talk to the owner, please?”

“No, I’m afraid not.” She blushed again. Is her employer really that much of a bully? I was about to find out.

“Sorry? Didn’t you just speak to him or her?”

“Yes.”

“Could you call them back, please?”

“We’re not allowed to let customers speak to him.”

Now I felt like an ogre that was putting this girl in an awkward position, and was just about to walk out when I realized it wasn’t me at all, but this owner. I could have left it, but… did I mention I was having a Snarky Day?

“I’m sorry you’re caught in the middle of your boss’s incompetence and my bad mood, but I would really like to speak to the owner, please.” Just at that moment a tall white haired chap appeared from the ‘back room’. Both girls blushed and immediately took a step backwards to let this Presence go wherever he wanted – right in the middle of the service counter on this occasion. Not being slow on the uptake, I looked at my nervous clerk and gently said,

“Hi. Can I leave this with you, please?”

The gentleman glanced directly at my FedEx envelope and answered on behalf of the clerk I was speaking to, “No. We don’t take FedEx.”

“Oh. Sorry, but your website says you do.”

“We don’t.”

(I’m thinking, who’s the “we” in this?)

“But your website says you do.”

“This is a UPS store.”

“Uh-huh. But your website says you take FedEx, too. ”

“We don’t”

“And United States Postal Service.”

“Yes, we do.”

“But not FedEx.”

“No.”

“Even though your website says you do.”

“We don’t.”

“But your website says you do.” I winked at the clerk who was both blushing (still) and kinda giggling.

“That was probably from when we were a Mailroom Plus store about five years ago.”

“OK. But I came here because your website says you take FedEx.” (See? I’m not slow – I recognize an excuse when I’m thumped with one.)

“We don’t. Is there something else I can help you with?” At this point there was actually eye contact because the owner had finished taping a small box.

“Well, you haven’t helped me at all so far, but do you know where I can take my FedEx package?”

“No.” I guess I asked for that one.

“Is there a drop box around here, or another store?”

“I don’t know.”

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? This chap has been in the mail/courier business in this location for at least five years and doesn’t know where there’s a FedEx drop off location?

“Thank you,” I smiled to the clerk. She smiled back and I walked out.

At which point a FedEx truck drove up to the store front and the driver jumped out with an envelope. When he came out of the store empty handed I asked if he would kindly take my envelope. “Sure!” he said, and scanned it straight away. I asked if he knew of a drop off location nearby and he said,

“Well, sometimes this guy will take them but when he doesn’t, there’s a Mailboxes Etc store in the strip mall about 1/2 a mile away.”

“Thank you.”

To me, that bitter old store owner who appears to bully his staff is delivering truly inconsistent un-doctored deeply-rooted medal-worthy Unawesome service. A perfect example of how not to earn new business or keep the customers you do have. At least I can drop off my UPS and USPS  pre-labeled pre-paid mail within walking distance, and I don’t have to give him any of my money.

People Matter.

What are you working on?

One of the impressive train sets at Northlandz in NJ

Do you have a hobby or skill that you pursue outside of your day job?

Some people build model train sets, others go ice skating. Some folk coach Little League baseball, and others knit.

What’s your hobby?

(Tell me in the comments below).

It’s interesting that over the past 10 days or so something has come to light in my world prompted by several emails following my “Keeping up appearances” post last week. That something is a project. No, a Project. Well, to be perfectly honest, it’s a “Major Project.”

Much of the encouragement and advice you’ve shared in comments, tweets and emails has been very uplifting and very wise. Perhaps the most common public perspective was how incredible it can be to have a mentor or two, and that’s what Tuesday’s post was all about. But several emails fairly unsubtley told me to get my act together, cease and desist the doubt and negativity, and get back to what SPB does best.

Those emails from a handful of well-respected people, plus two from people I’ve never met in person, were intimate and direct. They were and will remain private, but the common thread between them all served the same purpose and mentioned the same solution.

What I was like, once.

I think the purpose of those emails was not so much to get me believing in myself again, but to remind me of who I was – jog my memory of what I was like – lift me above the dark thicket and thorny brush to survey the vast pine forest I’ve been wandering in (musically) for several years, and combine that with all that I’ve learned in recent times. In other words, transition from a floundering find-your-footing thirty-year-old to a mature expert forty-something (My older sister would probably translate that as “Grow up!“) OK, a little deep, perhaps, but isn’t that something we all hanker for once-in-a-while? Maybe that’s been my problem: I’ve been dealing with surface stuff for so long now that I’ve not taken care of the inner, deep things. Whatever your stance on that, I choose to acknowledge that we all have deep, personal issues to learn about, and I’m not going to brush them under the carpet or hide from them anymore (like the British are particularly renowned for!)

However, getting back to the real Me was only the first commonality mentioned in those emails. The second was this: a Major Project.

Yeah, yeah, yeah…

Before you sigh, roll your eyes up and shake your head at yet another SPB attempt at something, we’re not talking about the trite little videos I’ve been publishing over the past few years. No, we’re talking something different – something more in line with “me” – a project that will blow me (and hopefully you) away. This project will be something I can focus my energies on and produce a result that is actually outstandingly SPB-like, not a mediocre copy of what has (or appeared to have) worked for others.

People matter: I love chatting to audiences after a concert.

People matter.

It is clear my music career needs attention. No more fluff. No more scrounging around looking for something to do. Being a conductor is TOUGH because whatever you want to do, you need a bunch of people to do it with. Conducting 1 or 4 people is just dumb, yet finding players to form an orchestra is either nigh impossible outside the higher education environment or it costs a small fortune (believe me: my wife and parents know!) (It can be done, though – remember George Marriner Maull and his creation of the remarkable Discovery Orchestra in my last post?) And composing usually requires an ensemble who will play your music. Good luck with that! Well, I have been blessed: I am VERY fortunate to have many colleagues in the music world who have more confidence in me than I do myself, and they’ve taken on my music and performed it – most recently Jane Rondin of the Zephyrs Wind Quintet in New Jersey, and Alexandra Vago of the Blue Pointe String Quartet in Cleveland, Ohio.

You also matter. Thank you for taking this journey with me.

So I need a project. A big project. Something that will blow me away. Something I can do without relying on other people, and something that does not require me to put my hand out and ask for money. I need a music-related project in which I can find fulfillment.

Funnily enough, the disappointment that sparked this recent series of posts may provide just the right catalyst for that project.

Give me a few more days to figure out some nuances, and I’ll tell you what the disappointment was, and what it and you have spurred me to do.

Shall we say, Friday next week? It’s a date – look out for my next email then.

Your turn:

To help us all focus on what we do well in life, what is your hobby or Major Project right now? And how did you get into it? Write a comment below, and then share this post with your circles of influence – they will want to read what you write!

Unexpected advice and a possible way forward

What an incredible week.

My last blog post “Keeping up appearances” attracted the most views I’ve ever had, as well as the most comments. Thank you!

It is clear that many of you believe a small group of advisers or friends with whom you can share disappointments is a good thing, but even better is a mentor or two. I must admit to constantly referring back to the same handful of people on many matters, but unfortunately I have yet to come across a mentoring candidate in my industry who is on the same playing field/ experienced in what I’m trying to do/ ignoring staid industry norms.

Not even the adventurous Emily Wozniak and her Sound ExChange Orchestra can claim that no-one has done it before. Maybe the Aurora Orchestra is the closest thing to my kind of innovation. Certainly their marketing is – that’s a great 2013 season video:

 

 

The small, global Orchestra Establishment has its noose tightly wrapped around just about everyone, convincing them there is no other way. Certainly every Musical Director and Senior Administrator in the USA & UK, who are probably the closest candidates for mentoring someone like me, succumb to their ways if they want to keep making great orchestral music in the current climate. Emily is young, cute and has a plethora of eager college students at her disposal. I don’t know if she has a mentor or two, but even if she doesn’t yet it won’t be hard to find them. On the other hand, I’m not quite as attractive as she is, and at 42 years old most people would expect me to know what I’m doing and be mentoring others – probably people like Emily.

In fact, I am and have been for several years (I wonder if that explains why people started calling me Maestro a couple of years ago?). Many ex-students stay in touch and I often support them through their own career and life decision-making processes. Just earlier this month one of my longer-term online students came from El Salvador to Tampa for our first in-person sessions – a couple of lessons, a couple of chats about goals and career options, and participation in some rehearsals & concerts. It’s very different in person than via email, and the visit has strengthened the trust between us.

George Marriner Maull, the closest and longest music-related adviser Stephen P Brown has worked with.

The vibrant George Marriner Maull
Photo courtesy of aptonline.org

I definitely have advisers (actually, more like Friends) in business, spirituality and my personal life, but not in the break-the-mold, rip-it-up-and-start-again orchestra industry of the 21st century. [At this point I must give a nod to a dear, dear friend who has taught me a great deal about how to approach music, and makes time to hear my concerns as much as his schedule permits: George Marriner Maull of the Discovery Orchestra. Please buy their incredible DVDs. George has had a profound influence in my musical life since I was a teenager, and continues to do so, but his efforts are hampered by the old-school setup of classical music – which is what I broke away from many years ago. He is doing remarkable work bringing live classical music to children and generally interested people and I hope his passionate flame burns brightly for a long, long time.]

All in all, perhaps that is why last week’s post expressed surprise about sharing deeply personal disappointment – without a mentor it’s not something I’ve done or experienced before and I’ve been immensely touched by your response & support. Here’s an interesting twist, though: whilst many of the blog post comments answered my questions, and many others were boosting my confidence (thank you!), some actionable solutions actually came via email.

One reoccurring solution in particular caused me to think about it over this past weekend, and I think I’m going to look into it further.

I’ll post about it on Friday, but suffice it to say: it will have a HUGE impact.

 

Do you have a mentor?

Have you had a mentor in the past?

Have you been a mentor for someone?

Let me know what the benefits are in the comments below…

Keeping up appearances

I recently received some rather disappointing news. Normally, no-one would know except my poor wife who would end up tolerating my pottering around the house and moping through the kitchen cupboards kidding myself I needed something to munch on.

But the rest of the world wouldn’t know.

Blog posts would still appear on schedule, uplifting tweets would still get posted, and the occasional Facebook message would continue to find its way into the ether. Students would continue to strive for goals just out of their current reach, audiences would cheer and applaud, and colleagues would continue to rely on the ever-smiling, ever-present, ever-reliable SPB to be there for them.

All was always well, apparently.

Except this time. Tweeting has been difficult, I’ve fallen behind in my blog posts thinking I have nothing to say that anyone would want to read, and my Facebook presence has all but dissipated. Students noticed an absence of normally high expectations, audiences didn’t seem entertained, and colleagues noticed that laughter no longer filled the room.

The disappointing news hit me hard.

But there was one difference this time. At the beginning of the project I reached out to a bunch of people to see if anyone was interested in supporting my efforts – a mini Board, if you will. Eight brave souls jumped on board without hesitation (well, some hesitation for a couple of them). Upon conclusion of the project and its disappointing outcome, I had to reach out to every one of those supporters who believed I could pull it off.

To say I was nervous is an honest understatement.

Afterwards, something remarkable happened. Slowly, one by one, every single one of “The Great Eight” responded by email with incredible words of encouragement and humorous perspective. Comments like:

We still believe in you.

You are definitely a talented musician and composer. We are behind you 100%.

They’d probably have refused Bach & Beethoven, too.

I’m sure you will succeed in achieving your objective soon.

Keep believing in yourself Stephen – my money is still on you!

Isn’t that wonderful feedback?! However, these are not your run-of-the-mill stock phrases spurted out to make someone feel better. No, I know these people and trust them. These comments are real. They’re genuine. And coming from these specific Great Eight, these are comments I should actually take to heart. Then I realized something: perhaps sharing one’s disappointments with a handful of people close to you and/or the project will actually enhance your relationships, healthily build your confidence, and lift you out of any potentially depressing doldrums.

First, THANK YOU!

Second, I’d love to know if this really works, or if it was a one-off. Have you shared a particularly devastating disappointment with a small private group of people? What was their response? And how did it affect your own perspective and/or behavior?

Leave a comment below and let me know if sharing helps you. Tell me if you have a close circle of ‘listeners’ you can go to with disappointments (as well as successes). Perhaps I can learn from your own experiences.

How is ‘beautiful’ music defined?

This past week my wife asked me to compose something beautiful, preferably for the cello (as that’s her favourite instrument).

I said “What do you mean?”

“Not ‘intelligent’ or clever or busy, just something… beautiful.”

“Meaning what, exactly?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Like, a song that’s nice.”

“Oh, OK!” I said. “I’m right on it!”

 

Er… can you help me?!

 

What do you think she means? Am I displaying an incredible amount of utter ignorance here? I thought some of my choral music is particularly beautiful (especially “Lucy’s Song” using a text by Charles Dickens), and if you’ve heard “A Mother’s Lament” I’m sure you’ll agree that can be classified as ‘beautiful’ too.

But “beautiful music” seems to be a completely subjective matter (click it to tweet it!)

And apparently, what I’ve composed to date is not enough. I have a challenge here, folks, and I have an inkling as to the kind of thing I should be doing, but what are your thoughts? What makes a piece of music “BEAUTIFUL?” What are the characteristics, styles, intentions, moods, etc.? Help me write this piece by leaving a reply below, and I will most certainly dedicate the piece to you! Seriously.

Here’s an example of a cello piece that I think is beautiful. What do you think makes it so?

 

What makes this music “beautiful?”

I’m sure there are specific characteristics that make music ‘beautiful’ but what are they?

Nick Scott believes it is all to do with pacing. What does that mean?

One response on his post suggest “anything that comes from the heart” and I would add “as opposed to the head.” But again, what does that mean? How does a composer determine what someone else would find beautiful?

In response to a post on the Musica Sacra forum, bjerabek suggests the Golden Ratio is at play in anything beautiful. I can see that. I looked into the Golden Ratio during my sojourn at Cleveland State University some ten years ago, but how sad if that were that’s required to make beautiful music – doesn’t that make it “intelligent” or “clever” music?

Just a simple Google search for the most beautiful music in the world doesn’t really help, nor does Classic FM‘s overuse of the adjective.

So I’m wondering, what music do YOU find beautiful? And more importantly, WHY?

Les Miserables the movie

I’m a fan of “Les Mis” the show. Overall assessment of the movie is good – I liked it and I liked that so many of the audience were directly affected (meaning, audibly sobbing or laughing).

Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) – bravo!
Anne Hathaway (Fantine) – well done.
Russell Crowe (Javert) – completely ruined the film. (Sorry Russell!)
Amanda Seyfried (Cosette) – she hit the high notes!
Samantha Barks (Eponine) – terrific. Really.
Isabelle Allen (Young Cosette) – really good singing and acting. A pleasant surprise.
Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche) – brilliant.
Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thénardier) – acting brilliance shone through the terrible interpretation.
Borat (Thénardier) – should stick to what he does best: staying off the big screen. Must’ve been a ploy to make the movie attractive to his unique audience.

The cinematography was unnecessarily disruptive and the sound was awful. Sit at your desktop computer or TV surround system and unhook the bass booster before turning the volume down by 1/3.

Did I say that overall I like the movie? It was a very good effort well worth the ticket price.

Not normal goals for 2013

SPB in Romania, 1987

SPB in Romania, 1987

I can’t believe I spent as much time setting next year’s goals as I did. Really. Goals have always been important to me (you may remember I subscribe to Gary Ryan Blair’s wonderful Goal System)

And whilst there are some great projects in the works, in the back of my mind, and even underway, here are the goals I’m setting myself to achieve in 2013. They are all measurable by my own conscientious intuition, but I’m OK with that this year. Here are my goals:

1. To wake up every morning full of energy, purpose, expectation and ready to make choices.
2. To improve my existing relationships and develop new ones – to contribute & engage (the hard option) rather than withdraw (the easy option).
3. To pursue meaningful and creative work that may not always be flawless.
4. To notice my own and others’ feelings, to appreciate that freedom is a choice, to pursue big dreams, and not to become cynical.
5. To leap, surprise, challenge, embrace, and love boldly.

(Thanks to Chris Guillebeau for some extra guidance this year)

My questions to you are:

  • What are your goals for 2013?
  • Do you feel that any of my goals could apply to you as well?
  • What is one big project you’ll be undertaking next year?

Leave a reply & post your thoughts, feelings and comments below – I read every single one of them!