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.

Who cares about live music?

"Tell Someone Who Cares"Time for a rant/ rave/ vent, methinks. It’s been a while. Bear with me:

Who cares about live music?

Everywhere I look there are stories of musicians being yelled off their stage, performers crying for “decent” pay, orchestras and opera houses closing down, music schools diminishing beyond recognition, and a host of other music-related news that simply doesn’t play a pretty tune.

So, who actually still cares about music?

  • Musicians do (instrumentalists, singers, composers, conductors).
  • Politicians will if it makes them popular.
  • Some film producers and directors do.
  • Music writers and administrators do.
  • Music teachers and professors do.
  • Some corporate executives hoping to make their company look good by supporting local musical establishments might.

Who else?

  • And don’t tell me dancers do – if they did we’d still have live musicians at every performance.
  • And don’t tell me most audiences do – if they did they’d willingly pay the costs of every concert.
  • And don’t tell me clergy do – if they did they wouldn’t be promoting celebrities who sing to pre-recorded tracks.

But despite the seemingly exhaustive list of supporters, first: look how many people who experienced music directly in their lives are those who remain passionate about it, and second: I can’t help but feel an underlying podium of obligation and hidden-agenda persuasion.

The fact is, in 2013 there are very few people who care about one of humankind’s most fundamental forms of expression. “Music” has been around for as long as birds could whistle and people could control the pitch of their voices. For centuries it was just a part of everyday life for just about everyone.

16th Century Gregorian Chant Song Book

This 16thC songbook in Seville Cathedral contains many chants “composed” over hundreds of years

Then, about 500+ years ago, someone figured out a way to write it down so others could repeat what was being expressed. (Actually, music was used in the church to aid priests with their memorization of liturgical text – a trick that is still used today.) I’ve seen one of the earliest songbooks known to exist, currently housed in Seville cathedral, and when people stop to consider what it represents, it is an awesome thing. But, like so many museum pieces, most people just wander by and say ¡Qué Bueno! (“That’s nice.”) You can hear the apathy in their tone.

Since then, there’s been a direct split between formal music and popular music. Even these words seem insufficient to describe the horrors of classifying and labeling just about each individual’s specific tastes, desires, likes and academic output of organized sound-based expression.

But what really scares me are these two facts:

1. Older generations are telling younger generations that music is unworthy, not to be valued, and an interrupting annoyance. Instead, we are taught by decision-makers and influencers that it is a gimmick, a sometimes useful but very expensive tool of persuasion, and wholly unessential or unnecessary for anyone’s well-being. Example: “Our youth groups don’t want to see an orchestra on stage – that’s not our vision for them.” Example: “Oh! That youth orchestra is just way too loud whilst we’re shopping. C’mon, let’s leave.” Example: This whole flashmob was commercially staged, including the little girl at the beginning – the bank the performers were in front of was celebrating its 130th birthday.

2. Musicians are out to prove their relevance/ worth/ value, demand certain rights, and are using Music as a political means to get what they want (be that income, satisfaction, their own worth/ value, proof that they matter or haven’t wasted their lives pursuing something pointless, etc.).

Ouch.

And I’m fed up with it.

In today’s technological digitized world, is there even a future for music? At all? We have created machines that compose and conduct, and devices that source every piece of music that has ever been recorded or constructed as an audio file. [And that’s a whole other rant – are we listening to the performers, or the sound system? More on that another time.] Music provides some sort of background sensory stimulation in almost every activity many Western humans undertake, including shopping, using public toilets, driving, office work, jogging, and so on.

The recent spike in popularity of orchestras playing music whilst a film is displayed above them is an extension of the old piano-playing cinemas of… wait for it… not even a hundred years ago. In Beethoven’s time it was rare for concert halls to have seats. People mingled, chatted, ate & drank, and had a good old time hanging out. In Mozart’s time, operas told stories of faraway places and unknown cultures with drama and costumes and scenery and, of course, dramatic music.

Mention opera nowadays and most people yawn.

What’s happened? What’s going on? Where are humans headed next? Hardly the dearly desired World Peace, that’s for sure! And I fear the loss of music and the senses that rely on it for their useful/ proper/ full development, will transform humans into unthinking creatures of survival habit.

And yet we’ve come so far…

What do you think? Add a comment below and let’s talk about it…

Maybe it’s just in specific cultures. Maybe this is all totally imagined. Regardless, I’m upset so many humans around us are dismissing live music making, and I’m getting angry enough to do something about it in my little circle of influence. More about that soon!

 

Back to Choral Roots

A couple of months ago I was appointed Conductor of the 40+ year old Clearwater Chorus. It’s an ensemble of people who like to sing, and encourages adults of varying ages and abilities to make and share music together.

At least, that’s what it is now.

The Clearwater Chorus

Although not titled a “Director” that is effectively my role and as a result, I’ve grabbed hold of the reins and am guiding the ensemble through a new perspective: who we have and what we do now is what we are, and as long as we work together to share music, we’ll be doing something of value to the world.

[Click here: I’m giving away four tickets to our concert on Dec 22!]

Why is this so new? Because like so many institutions that are founded and/or led by an individual for so long (in this case, Arthur Goetze who directed the group from 1975-2005), its members can become entrenched in “the way things were.” This is also a very typical perspective of older generations, especially those who have worked their whole lives and are now enjoying a few special comforts in retirement: they expect things to stay the way they know them. But that is so rarely beneficial for anyone, and certainly not how the world spins.

So whilst respecting the past and honoring those who have gained far more experience with this ensemble than I ever hope to, it is now time to focus not on what we don’t have but on what we do…

Doesn’t this pertain to life in general?

For example, over the past 12 years I have mourned the loss of an active performing and teaching career founded in music, something I have known to be a primary part of my existence since I was in single digits. My music career after moving to the USA has been patchy, fraught with unconfidence, some expensive decisions, and a distinct lack of industry contacts that don’t label me an outsider.

But this current appointment has, unexpectedly, brought me right back to square one – the roots from which my fascination with music grew.

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown began his musical life as a choir boy in Cuxton Church

The Anglo Saxon village church in Cuxton UK, where I was a choir boy

I was 7 years old when I began playing the piano, but that was after I began singing in my English village church choir. I remember joining the village Junior School choir around the same time, as well, but by the time I had moved to my UK secondary school at age 11, I was fully immersed in singing, piano and clarinet. It wasn’t until just before I moved to the USA the first time that I showed any interest in percussion (and if you know me, it was an incredible 4 years of percussion playing that got me into college at 17 years old! More on that another time, perhaps).

During my college years a budding-conductor buddy of mine, Chris Kiver now a Choral Professor at Penn State University, and I would organize “Scratch” singing sessions in which anyone who wanted to play and sing the repertoire we had planned could do so. Of course we did much recruiting, but giving solo parts to multiple singers throughout each piece enabled them to get much needed experience, and Chris and I to learn many differing needs of accompaniment.

In the years that followed college I conducted various ensembles such as the Ealing Choral Society (thanks to the late great James Gaddarn), the Yalding Choral Society, the Medway Community College Singers, and a whole host of other one-off groups. Four highlights in particular were:

  • Conducting Handel’s complete Messiah with 5 days’ notice when the conductor who was booked fell ill,
  • Conducting a “Marathon Singing Session” in which almost 1,000 teenagers sang hymns, easy listening songs and some chart songs,
  • Conducting the European Premiere of Dawn Mantras (outside, at sunrise) by Australian composer Ross Edwards during the UK’s year-long Millennium Festival in 2000, and
  • Singing for John Rutter at Carnegie Hall in his own composition Magnificat.
British American Conductor Composer sang at Carnegie Hall for John Rutter

Melissa and I hanging out with John Rutter in NYC

In addition, I played timpani or percussion for countless choral societies around the UK in more pieces of music than I can remember – hundreds. And, being a percussionist usually with lots of time not actually playing, I got to listen to conductors rehearse their choirs, listen to the choir members mutter under their breath, and have choir members (usually altos) unsolicitally (?!) share their awe about how anyone could actually play the timpani: “I never knew they had pedals like that!”

Interestingly, only a handful of these choral activities “made the cut” onto my resume, so when most folk read my history of musical performance, they see “instrumental conductor” or even just “music teacher.” It’s quite annoying, really, because although conductors in the UK and Europe are trained to be teachers (hence the general reference to them as “Maestro“) in all genres of “formal” music – orchestral, choral, opera, musicals, some concert/wind band and maybe even ballet – in the USA conductors are labelled at a young age and ‘specialize’ not in leadership or motivation, but as a topical expert in just one of those genres. It’s such a pity.

Of course there are exceptions such as James Levine. Kind of. And the incomparable Leonard Bernstein. But generally, conductors in the USA are rarely recognized as even “capable” of conducting well in more than one musical genre. You can tell when a choral conductor has an orchestra in front of them, and you can tell when an orchestral conductor now has to deal with a choir, too. I’m quite proud of the fact that I was taught and expected to work with both, so now that I’m working with the Clearwater Chorus (this links to our Facebook page – please Like it!), not only do I feel comfortable and confident that I can help produce a good sound, help the singers sing together, and focus on sharing good stories and music with others (including the audience), but it is also bringing me back to my roots in music – as that little angelic Church of England choir boy in my village.

For your entertainment: This is one of my favourite Bernstein performances of showmanship, especially around the 5 minute mark. It’s even more engaging because of the video/ audio mis-synching!