Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Open Planet

As a private music teacher, I spend a decent amount of time bouncing around the various schools in the community.  Needless to say, I get a lot of radio, but not a lot of full stories.  Today, one of the many partial shows I listen to was focusing on a pending US Supreme Court case dealing with privacy.  In this particular case, a drug dealer was convicted with the use of evidence gathered through a tracking device on his car.  
The concept of privacy as protected by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution is very simple.  Each individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy within their own home or property - car, boat, etc.  The Constitution, of course, never discusses whether or not an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to electronic tracking.  It becomes an issue of the courts to decide exactly the intention the framers had when writing the Constitution.  
What it does make clear is that we are never to assume a reasonable expectation of privacy the moment we step into public space.  The topic of discussion on NPR turned from the pending court case to the future of privacy, and particularly the role tech giants Google and Facebook will play in defining what exactly privacy means to each of us.
At any given time during your day, computer systems and private and public security cameras provide a timeline of your daily activities.  For instance, here is a log of my day and the systems that can identify my location:
  • Woke up and checked email (internet company)
  • drove to teach at first school (traffic cameras)
  • entered school (security cameras)
  • in between lessons sent email/text messages, checked internet (cell company)
  • changed schools (traffic cameras, phone call, security cameras)
  • starbucks (mobile app)
  • changed school (ditto)
  • restaurant (phone usage)
  • drove home (traffic cameras)
  • home (internet)
The combined information from these systems could theoretically rebuild a fairly accurate representation of my activities during the day.  The NPR hosts discussed the idea of “Open Planet,” an idea put forth by author Jeffrey Rosen in his book Constitution 3.0.  “Open Planet” is a concept that suggests Facebook and Google currently have the architecture in place to quickly introduce a system that would allow users to anonymously view any public security camera in the world, identify a face with facial recognition software, link to their Facebook page, do a search of that face in all security cameras, then track that individual’s movements at any point in the database’s memory.
Creepy, huh.  Kinda makes an electronic tracking device seem quite elementary.  The Constitution has enough safeguards in place to protect our privacy from government, but does it have anything to protect us from private entities?  You wouldn’t have to worry about the FBI as much as your creepy neighbor.  Parents could know exactly where their kids are at all time (something college kids prefer not happening).
This scenario would definitely have interesting ramifications.  Personally, I am curious how my behavior would change if I knew that people could track me where ever I went.  Maybe I wouldn’t go to Starbucks as often.  Maybe I wouldn’t eat fast food as often.  Maybe I wouldn’t care.
The whole situation begs the question: what is privacy?  Do we have any expectation to privacy beyond our homes?  Either way, it certainly presents an interesting possibility for the future.  

Frank Chambers

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Back in the Saddle

One of my long-time friends and fellow bloggers recently jumped back into the blogosphere after a seven week hiatus.  While I know it was difficult in her situation to take time away from her responsibilities (read: writing dissertation), getting back to your goals and what makes you happy is oftentimes a cathartic moment.
Her blog - called Not-A-Fortune - highlights the fortune cookie inserts she and her friends discover while satisfying those frequent Asian food urges.  Each insert, while not necessarily the best of fortunes, offers some guidance on how to live your life.  The blog both lampoons and validates these fortunes, offering a dose of humor combined with dash of serious life lesson.
The reason I bring up Not-A-Fortune is because her return to blogdom has reminded me of the value of getting back in the saddle.  As many of you know, when I departed my stable high school teaching position, it was for the joy and excitement of writing a novel, yet in the five months since I made that decision, I have only written about thirty-four pages worth of content.  Compare this to the two hundred and fifteen pages I had written in the three months before.
This took up much of my July and August.
Sure, I have been busy with other creative efforts, and my time has been occupied by discovering exactly how to go about this new life I am creating for myself, but ultimately those are excuses, and as I have said before, I should be stronger than my excuses.  So, this week, while I am mostly free of distraction, I dedicated myself to writing 10,000 words, or approximately 40 pages.
Jumping back in was hard.  The last passage I had written during the summer was a cliff hanger of sorts, although that wasn’t the initial intent.  I left the scene assuming I would return the next day, my mind full of ideas of exactly what was going to happen.  When I came back to it months later, I had only minimal notes, and my outlines failed to mention exactly what happened and why.  First, I think it highlights the value of having a very clear and thorough outline before even writing one word of the first draft, and second, I think it provides an excellent example of what happens when you leave yourself hanging.
I immediately experienced frustration.  Unsure of what I was supposed to do next, or even how to overcome the gigantic speed bump I had inadvertently placed in my own way, I stared at the screen.  But then I started typing.  I will freely admit I hated the next twenty pages or so.  I felt like I didn’t know the characters any more, I didn’t understand their motivations or how they were growing.  I felt like I was picking up where some other author left off.  Sure, I had the notes, but the framework was created with the intention of flowing through it, not pausing for months at a time.
Either way, while I struggled with forcing the words out, my efforts to get back at it paid off.  I have finally returned to a place where I feel comfortable with my efforts.  I think part of my relaxed feeling is knowing there will be a second draft.  I will definitely have the opportunity to fix everything I hate this time around.  The importance of a first draft is to just get things down.
I think the message I take from my own mistake is to push through to the end when you have the chance.  In the midst of a project, even putting it down for one day chips away from the work habit you have created.  I think much of my struggle came not just from being unfamiliar with my direction, but being uncomfortable with sitting down and writing for extended periods of time.  Had I not broken off my efforts, even just maintaining my writing in a minimum way, I wouldn’t have had to expend such energy to get restarted.
I couldn’t tell you how many times I have started projects and failed to finish it.  While this isn’t the best way to go about it, getting back has always made me happy.  The exciting part is actually finishing, finding the satisfaction that comes with completion.  And while I am unsure of how long it will take me to finish my first draft, I am back at it and working more diligently than I have in months.  It feels good to be back in the saddle.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Being Thankful

The spirit of today’s holiday resides in our ability to gives thanks.  Many of us will find ourselves thankful for our families, our health, our station in life.  We will be thankful for the armed forces and the sacrifices they make for our safety; we will be thankful for our religions, and for the sacrifices associated with each of these.  We will thank the people around us for their love and caring, we will post generic status updates on facebook wishing everyone happy thanksgiving, or tweet our thanks in 140 characters or less.  Some of us will blog about it and some of us will simply offer thanks to an empty room.

Pie courtesy of @DuetHouston.
The meaning of the holiday sometimes gets lost in what has recently become tradition.  We stare blankly at the TV, the floats of the Macy’s day parade dance across the screen, pushed along by marching bands and little known singers.  We find ourselves wrapped up in the meal, eager for our favorite stuffing dish or drooling in anticipation of our favorite pie.  We go back and forth with our favorite football rivals celebrating our victories and agonizing in our defeats.  We cherish post meal naps, leftover turkey sandwiches, egg nog, or the family trip to the movie theater.

While all of this distraction swirls around us, tugging and pulling our attention away from the central theme of the holiday, some of us drift away from the idea of being truly thankful.  Avoid the temptation of giving lip service only, proclaiming thanks without meaning.  Instead of only saying that you are thankful for something, actually mean it.  If you find yourself in a place in life that seems to not merit thanks, dive deeper; I am sure you can find some reason to be thankful.

There are many people who live lives that seem absent of elements deserving thanks.  The universe appears to have conspired against these people, driving all positive elements from their experiences.  No matter how low the world seems to have pushed you, there is always something to be thankful for. 

Find it.  Pick yourself up.  Focus on anything good.  It could be as simple as the oxygen in the air you just breathed.  Find some joy in the sun shining, in the color of the leaves, in the fact you are alive to experience at all.  Be thankful for anything, no matter it’s insignificance.  By finding thanks in it, you have just increased its value, and by feeling thanks, you have increased yours.

Finding one thing to be truly thankful for will allow you to expand your sphere of thanks.  Move it beyond the bounds of that one item, encompass your surroundings, find anything to be thankful for beyond yourself.  Eventually, your thanks will grow; you will find that as you allow it to expand outwardly, it will soak in, bringing the feeling of thanks to the center of your being.

As you travel through this Thanksgiving holiday, I encourage you to review what you are thankful for.  Do you skim the surface, or do you allow your thanks to delve deep?  Are you the kind of person whose every action is determined by a feeling of gratitude and graciousness, or do you only play at being thankful.  This Thanksgiving, choose the first option.  Allow yourself the freedom to live thanks and not just give it.  Be the person whose actions reflect their words.  Enjoy the feeling of existing in a world in which thanks are necessary and not just optional. 

This is Thanksgiving 2011.
The excitement today brings should be a celebration of a year of thankfulness, not just one day to honor that towards which we are thankful.  Thanksgiving 2011 should be the cannon which launches you into a full year of an attitude of gratitude, ensuring every experience between this Thanksgiving and next is received with a spirit of thanks.  Appreciate what the universe has to offer you; find something in every situation to be thankful for.

I am thankful for everything in my life, for every good and bad experience, for every good and poor choice I have made.  I am thankful for everyone who has ever participated in my experience, everyone under whose influence I have operated and everyone I have had the opportunity to influence.  I am thankful for my teachers and my students, those I have met and those I have not.  I am thankful for the plethora of lessons I still have left to learn and to teach.  I am thankful for family and friends, for food, and sports, and the Macy’s parade.  I am thankful for love and happiness, for joy and tears.  I am thankful for everything the universe has chosen to offer me.

I am thankful that you have taken the time to read my blog today.  Be thankful for something, big or small, it does not matter.  Simply be thankful, the rest will follow.

Frank Chambers

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Band Isn't Fun

One of my private students complained to me this week that band was no longer fun. I listened to her, letting her blow off the steam she felt she couldn’t (or shouldn’t) share with her band directors.  She was on her soapbox for a long time, expressing her opinion buttressed by the thoughts of other students her age.  They, the juniors and seniors of her school, had decided that band simply was no longer fun.
Of course, at the end of her speech, she told me that she wouldn’t quit band, but that many others were thinking about it.  Why would they continue to pursue something the no longer considered fun?
I smiled at her, not necessarily because of how she felt, but because this was definitely not the first time that I had heard this speech.
High school band directing is a job with many facets.  One of these is to constantly be an emotional juggler, placating the variable feelings the four grades of students in your program feel.  Allow me to break them down:
  • Freshman - excited at the newness of marching band, discovering their place in the high school world, scared because they are the little fish in the big pond
  • Sophomores - encouraged by their survival of freshman year, comfortable with marching band, inspired by juniors and seniors in leadership positions
  • Juniors - unsure of how to balance added leadership responsibility, struggling with the fact that the newness of marching band has worn off, overloaded in classes
  • Seniors - ready to be done, unsure how to deal with the adulation of freshman and sophomores, tired
Each of these groups must be treated differently, otherwise the program risks alienating an entire class.  For my student, who is a junior, she is experiencing the same exact thing many of my juniors and seniors had experienced before.  For her, this was the sixth year in band, so the newness had faded.  All the experiences she had regarded as exciting were now expected and common-place.  She no longer found enjoyment in coming to band because she was now in the group required to set the example for the others, and the standard had risen, leading to frustration.
While I didn’t share this with her, I certainly have no concerns sharing it with you.  This is life.  Absent constant fluctuation, our lives run the risk of becoming mundane, pedantic, and boring.
Before writing today, I looked back on my own life, as I frequently do, looking for examples from which I could draw some conclusions.  Really, the only conclusion I could find provided an answer to why I hadn’t entirely felt this way until recently.
Growing up, school provided enough variety to keep me interested.  As the grades flew by, the activities in which I participated revolved - baseball, soccer, basketball, football, track, swimming - keeping me on my toes.  As I became involved with band, I experienced the undulating excitement Texas band offers - beginning band, concert band, high school marching band, contests, youth orchestra.  I kept my non-band life exciting by fluctuating my activities - working at Ci-Ci’s Pizza and Tom’s Ribs, German Club, Latin Club, Newspaper.  My four years of college were broken up with a variety of ensembles, music fraternity activities, and private lessons.  After college, I performed for two years before returning for my Masters.
I kept enough variety, unintentionally, to keep myself interested in what I was doing.  Until recently, the longest I had ever gone without a change in my life program was two years.
Then I taught band for five years.  This experience helped me understand, on a personal level, how these juniors and seniors felt.  Teaching band for me had become routine.  Just like with the junior and seniors, I had grown tired of the endless rotation of classes, the faculty meetings and standardized tests, the building of curriculum, the cycle of contest seasons.  Please don’t get me wrong, I was never tired of the students, nor was I ever tired of the music.  There was simply something I was not doing that might have altered my experience.
When I was teaching band, the head director always had the same response for the kids who would complain about the lack of fun, and it is one that I now see might have offered me a remedy.  He would simply look them in the face and tell them that nothing had changed except them, now it was time for them to make it fun.
Reflecting back, I can see how I was not doing that for myself.  I know many teachers who love their jobs, giving so much of themselves to their students, yet keeping their perspective new and invigorating.  They constantly reinvent their teaching or their programs, working to keep themselves from becoming bored in their chosen profession by the repetitive, cyclical nature of the occupation.
Any job, and for that matter, life itself, is the same way.  What you do with your time makes your life boring or not.  Sometimes you do need a change, but it may not be as drastic a change as you think.  For me, I am still in music education, I am just teaching on a more independent level.  For my student, she needs to quit attempting to live the same experience she had her first two years in high school band and find the fun she is missing.
I think all of us can take a lesson from this.  If band (or life) isn’t fun, it is because you are no longer making it fun.  So, instead of complaining about it, go out and do something about it.

Frank Chambers

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Moment of Inspiration

I recently watched The King’s Speech and loved it.  Aside from the superb acting, the excellent writing, and the inspiring subject matter, I was impressed that Director Tom Hooper took the risk of programming classical music into the score, highlighting two pieces by Ludwig von Beethoven - the Second Movements from Symphony no. 7 and the “Emperor” Piano Concerto.  While I am a giant fan of modern film scoring, I was delighted to know that the people who have seen The King’s Speech have been exposed to a little bit of music history.

There is part of me that wonders how much thought was put into the selection of Beethoven as King George VI’s triumphal herald.  In a way, the two - King George VI and Beethoven - share a common thread: both over came debilitating handicaps to accomplish greatness.

For King George VI, a lifelong stammer prevented him from speaking in public.  His attempts to treat the condition frequently met with failure, causing further stress to the future monarch.  Finally, he met a teacher who combined the appropriate set of skills with sheer determination to help the King minimize the impact his stammer had on his speeches.  The pinnacle of that progress, at least in the movie, is when King George  announces that Great Britain has entered World War II.  It is this speech that is accompanied by the pulsing, undulating melody of the Second Movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.  

As many reviewers have noted, the selection of this particular movement was perfect for the scene.  It reflected the rhythm with which the King spoke, mimicking his breathy phrasing and his rhythmic articulation.  There is no doubt in my mind this scene cemented The King’s Speech capture of the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Beethoven, like King George VI, fought a disability directly related to his craft.  Where the King, occupying a position in which public speech is mandatory, continually fought a speech impediment, Beethoven suffered a condition that gradually rendered him deaf.  His Seventh Symphony premiered during a two year period in which his hearing went from poor to non-existent.  How Beethoven was able to compose something so gentle, subtle, and emotionally pulling, while barely being able to hear it himself is a miracle.  Beethoven continued to write many great works after he became fully deaf, the greatest and most well-known of these is his Ninth Symphony, in which he crafted the famous “Ode to Joy” melody.

Watching The King’s Speech, and later thinking about what both of these men had to overcome in their lives, made me consider my own petty excuses.  Does “I’m tired”, or “my stomach doesn’t feel well” matter any more when compared to King George’s struggles?  Does a cold or a headache really compare to composing great music while deaf?  

Honestly, we are all going to encounter some sort of obstacles on our path that will attempt to derail us from our goals.  Succumbing to our excuses only allows our obstacles to win.  Neither Beethoven or King George gave up, though they frequently wanted to.  They had the will to push on and fight through all the reasons the universe offered for them to quit.  

One of the mantras Samantha has brought home to me from her Mary Kay meetings is the idea of being stronger than your excuses.  We will all have excuses at one point or another, we have to recognize this fact and be comfortable with it.  Then, we have to allow ourselves to be stronger than our excuses.

Both King George and Beethoven were stronger than theirs.  They fought through the tribulations their lives encountered, persevering to the end, providing excellent models for us to follow.  Whether or not Tom Hooper knew it, he provided more than just a perfect soundtrack for a moving scene in a movie, he combined the powerful spirit of two great men into a moment that should inspire us all.

Frank Chambers

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Easy Way

Every so often, we are presented with a situation in which we have to choose a course of action - take the easy way out, or do what is right.  Too often, human nature pushes is in the direction of doing nothing, seeing that the easy path is less stressful, less invasive, and ultimately just easier.  Doing the right thing is somehow a burden on ourselves.
The Bible addresses this human condition in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  After a Jew is beaten and left for dead, he is passed and ignored by two men who should have helped him, and is instead helped by a Samaritan - a people despised by the Jews.  This man took the more difficult path because it was the right thing to do, regardless of the difficulties.
Many times in our lives, we are given the same opportunity, and we are the men who pass by, ignoring the opportunity to help someone else.
Think about it.  Have you ever walked down the street, seen someone litter, remarked about how shameful it is that they would just throw trash on the street, and then walked by the trash?  Ever passed by someone on the road whose car has broken down?  I imagine you can think back to an occasion or two when you have done the same thing or witnessed someone else do it.
Doing nothing is easier.
Ever since I was little, I knew the name Joe Paterno.  I was never a Nittany Lion fan, but I was aware of his greatness as a coach, a mentor, and a supporter of the athlete scholar.  In college football, Joe PA is a legend, a god hoisted into the pantheon of greats.  He put State College, PA on the map.
I am sure, in the months and years following the child rape scandal now dirtying his reputation as a moral behemoth, the public will be exposed to a plethora of assumptions, speculations, and eventually truths as to why Joe PA failed to pursue action in what would seem to be the most egregious violation of his moral facade.  Ultimately, while the question of why will be the one to make pundits, talking heads, magazines, publishers, and maybe Joe, PA himself, the most money, it really is quite simple - it was easier to do nothing.
The Grand Jury testimony paints a picture of Joe PA at least doing something, satisfying his legal obligation - he passed the buck.  His claim of not knowing the details surrounding the incident doesn’t change the fact that he knew of an incident where a man was seen in the shower performing inappropriate and illegal actions to a young boy.  His failure to pursue results upon upper administration taking no action, while not being illegal, certainly suggests the Penn State board of trustees firing of Joe PA was justified.
For everyone rushing to defend him, for all the students who eagerly rioted upon his firing, and for anyone associated with the program, the reality of the situation is simply this - through his inaction, he supported the rape and molestation of additional young boys.  I am going to assume (for the time being) that Joe PA did what too many American’s seem to do when presented with a situation in which they have the opportunity to do the right thing, but don’t - they ignore it.  Ignoring it is easier
As a teacher, I learned repeatedly, first from my college professors, and then from experience in the classroom, that an undesirable behavior, left alone, will cement itself into the habits of a person.  If you let a student speak out once in your rehearsal with no consequence, that student will continue to do so.  Extinguishing the behavior will grow in difficulty the longer the talking is allowed.  

I am not suggesting that the circumstances surrounding Joe PA and Penn State are in any way on the same level of a student speaking out during a band rehearsal, but fundamentally, the issue is identical.  The grand jury report alleges that Sandusky has been molesting boys since the early nineties.  He was investigated as early as 1998, an investigation the coaching staff was fully aware of, as it forced Sandusky into retirement upon completion of the investigation.  

So, in 2002, when Sandusky was seen raping a boy in the locker room by a grad assistant, and Joe Pa was then informed, and nothing was done, his behavior was again not extinguished when the opportunity to do so presented itself, essentially suggesting to Sandusky that his behavior was condoned by those who knew.
Look at the do nothing events surrounding the scandal.
  • 1998 - investigation into Sandusky, charges not filed by DA
  • 2000 - janitor witnesses Sandusky molesting boy at Penn State, reported to supervisor who advises the information be brought to higher-ups; a report is never filed
  • 2002 - grad assistant witnesses Sandusky raping boy in shower at Penn State, he informs his father, Joe PA, and the AD, later a VP and the President are involved; Sandusky’s keys are taken away and his charity to help young boys is informed of the incident
These were all missed opportunities to extinguish a behavior that destroyed the lives of the boys involved.
Finally, in 2008, when Sandusky was a volunteer coach for a public high school, a parent reported that he had been inappropriate with their child.  Sandusky was barred from the district and reported to the authorities.  These actions eventually led to the indictment on 40 counts.
How was it that Sandusky was allowed to go near a public school a decade after he had first been investigated?  Because of the do-nothing attitude of the people involved.  Doing nothing was easier than the trial of having to report what was seen, answering extensive questions, being involved in an investigation, etc. 
Because of inaction, the rape and molestation of at least four more boys occurred between 1998 and 2008.  The pain and suffering they endured, the physical and mental damage inflicted on them by this sexual predator, is on the heads of the people who did nothing.  All they had to do was step up, call the police, and let the investigation take Sandusky out of the picture.
Unfortunately they didn’t.  Instead of acting in the interest of the boys, they did the same thing as the first two men to pass the Jew in the parable, they acted in the best interest of themselves.  
After all, that is what taking the easy way is. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Competitive Edge

This time of year is when the Texas band students gear up for individual competitions.  My Junior High and High School kids are all getting ready for the Region Band auditions, my sixth graders just had their Honor Band auditions, and we are starting to pick music for Solo and Ensemble contest in February.  This is a time of nerves, anxiety, and self defeat.
Many of my students are struggling with how to deal with the pressure they encounter while playing by themselves, in front of other people, for a score.  They are nervous about how they will play, the impression others will take from hearing them, and the results of the auditions.  Many of them crater under the pressure.  
One student in particular confided in me that her anxiety sometimes reaches a point where she blacks out.  After the audition is complete, she doesn’t have any recollection of what happened.  
Each of these students attempts to manage their nerves in their own individual way.  They all have little rituals they perform the day of their big audition: some will not play at all before the audition, some will play entirely too much; some will wear special clothes, some don’t care; some bring coloring books into the room, some a book to read, and others will sleep.  One student told me that she had heard bananas tame your nerves, so in the three days prior to the audition last year, she ate something like 3 pounds in bananas.
What many of these students find is that they only way they really are able to successfully manage their nerves is to practice them.  In an effort to help them prepare, I would do mock auditions in their lessons, taking excessive notes, sitting in a way that suggests an audition setting, and looking at them intently.  I also will randomly invite a band director or another student into the lesson to listen to them play.  While this helps, ultimately, the student will only improve at auditioning if they take their efforts into their own hands.
As an adult, to prepare for job interviews, I would ask myself questions, crafting my answers to make sure I said exactly what I wanted to say.  I would have friends or my wife ask me questions randomly, trying to knock me off balance.  The only way I could improve at interviewing was to do it.  The same goes for my students.  I tell them to play for their friends, their significant others, their parents, to call up Grandma on the phone and play for her, for their band directors, for other teachers, etc.  Putting themselves in that situation is the best way to get ready for it.
Of course, none of this matters if you can’t get out of your own head.  As a teenager, the  one thing you care about more than anything in the world is self image.  During an audition, a student that centers in on their mistakes is going to perform poorly.  I call it the snowball effect - you focus on your first mistake and not on what is coming next, so you make another, and another, and another.  Eventually every note is incorrect, the music sounds nothing like what is on the page, and the student’s spirit is crushed.
I encourage them to imagine putting their mistakes in a box which they won’t look in until the audition is finished.  They are more than welcome to be aware of any mistakes they might make, but into the box they must go.  Ideally, this prevents them from distracting their focus from the job at hand and keeps them from snowballing to the end of their piece.
When I interviewed at Conroe High School in the summer of 2006, I felt confident going into the interview.  I thought I knew all the answers to any question they could throw at me and was ready to knock them out of the park.  I met with the Band Director and the Fine Arts Coordinator first and felt confident.  Then we went to meet the principal, an imposing force of a man.  Finally, a question was thrown my way I hadn’t prepared for - “Do you have any questions for me?”
Wow, I froze.  I had no questions.  I had never thought to have questions.  I didn’t know what to ask.  So, I told him no.  He smiled an intimidating grin and said, “Wouldn’t you like to know how the principal views the Fine Arts, and band specifically, in the fabric of Conroe High School?”
I gave him the only answer I could think of - yes.
No matter how diligently you prepare for these encounters, there is always something you won’t anticipate.  This is when it comes down to character and personality.  My students may have to deal with broken reeds, an instrument problem, forgetting their music, or a simple brain fart like forgetting a fingering.  At this point, they get to choose: push through and find a solution or succumb to the pressure of failure.
For me, as a teacher, these auditions are less about the rankings at the end of the contest and more about the growth the student experiences during the process.  My job is to guide them to their best potential, offer them a set of skills that can help them reach that potential, and give them some tools to deal with the pressure of the moment.  For some of my students, simply showing up, sitting down, and playing, is the victory.
The same can be said for most of us.  In any situation in which we feel pressure to perform, avoiding the costly mental badgering over any perceived errors should help usher us towards a more successful attempt.  Remember, competition is about the growth involved, not just the end result.  Focusing only on the result can leave you cut from getting too close to the competitive edge.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Trick or Treat

Halloween night had great weather here in Houston.  The sky was clear, the air brisk, with a slight breeze, and the temperature was just a little bit chilly.  It was so awesome that Samantha and I decided to drag some chairs out to our porch and join our two jack-o-lantern’s and hand out candy.
In between the hordes of costumed children and patient parents, I couldn’t help but reflect on recent news articles I had read detailing certain group’s religious objections to celebrating Halloween.  Most of the claims centered around an inappropriate focus on death and the macabre, the influence of the Devil through costumes, and the idea that participants are joining in a millennia old pagan tribute.
Sure.  Great.  Whatever floats your boat.  I am definitely not here to argue your religious beliefs.  What I would like to point out, from an entirely secular point of view, is the perspective I took from my Halloween night experience.
For a long time, it has seemed to me that the idea of “neighborhood” is dead.  Growing up, everyone seemed to know each other, adults and kids alike.  I remember my parents having driveway parties, where anyone who wanted to stop by was welcome.  There was a camaraderie amongst the inhabitants of Clover Hill that I haven’t seemed to find here in my neighborhood.
But I could feel it Halloween night.
As the parents herded their kids from door to door, I met so many friendly people I had never even seen before.  Regardless of this holiday’s roots, our small neighborhood was transformed from a series of isolated homes and families into a community.  Groups mixed who had never mixed before, families walked with families simply because they happened to be on the same side of the street.  People talked, laughed, and had fun.  “Neighborhood” was alive again, if only for a night.

I couldn’t also help being struck by the politeness of it all.  As we sat in our chairs, handing out sugary goodness to princesses, vampires, cowboys, and an army of Buzz Lightyear characters, our candied generosity was constantly met with a prompt and honest thank you.  Even the recent parents escorting their newly talking toddler would encourage the costumed cutie to say “Trick or Treat!” and then “Thank You.”
Even the un-costumed pre-teens were polite.  All day I had practiced how to deliver the line - “Dude, you have to EARN my candy” - but I couldn’t do it, they were just so nice.
In my secular American experience, Halloween is the only holiday where complete strangers are willing to offer a gift of candy to young people who knock on their door.  How awesome is that!?!?  During the traditional gift giving holidays of Christmas and Easter, our gifts tend to be reserved for our families and friends, maybe our co-workers, and sometimes to charities, but do we open up our doors and give to complete strangers?  
I have never thought of Halloween as a giving holiday until this year.  It presents an opportunity for a community to grow together, for parents to instruct their young ones how to receive a gift with thanks, and for those who understand the lesson to put it into practice.  
For me, while I certainly loved the weather, the absolute perfection of the night had nothing to do with how cool it was.  It had everything to do with the amazing atmosphere my neighbors created around me.