Archive for the 'Leadership and Culture Change' Category

Rehearsal and Ensemble

New learnings from this year:

  1. Any group of people can become a class.  All that’s required is a lecturer, a topic, and a roster.  The group doesn’t even need to assemble for the class to work.
  2. Classes are useful for measuring individual performance and for enforcing individual accountability to standards written for individuals.
  3. A group of people becomes an ensemble only when the individuals in the group subordinate their own needs and desires to those of the group.
  4. The only way people will forgo the pursuit of individual goals for the benefit of the group is if there is safety for the individual within the group environment.  Individuals must know that they will not be lost or rejected if they risk themselves for the group.  It’s counter-intuitive, but the group has to protect the individual so that the individual can risk himself or herself for the group.
  5. Creating, protecting, and maintaining a safe environment where an ensemble can emerge is the first and most important task of the group’s leader.  The leader must identify, confront, and if necessary remove individuals whose behavior is divisive.
  6. Leaders model and enable safe environments by risking the rejection of the group and surviving over and over again.  There is no safety in a group where the leader uses his position to protect himself.
  7. Ensemble does not just happen.  It is an accomplishment that goes against our natural impulses.  It must be modeled, it must be taught, it must be built, and it must be celebrated when it is achieved.
  8. The leader / director is the chief risk-taker in the group and has the most to lose if the group fails to create a safe environment and become an ensemble.
  9. Rehearsal is the privilege, joy, and reward of ensembles.

Food court lessons


Here’s the scene:  food court in a mall, choir director with 25 hungry high school kids on a field trip.  Everyone has choices about where and what to eat.  Represented at my table were Taco Bell, Sbarro, Saku Japan (my pick), Chick-Fli-A, and few others.

We’re wrapping up the meal when an employee from Chick-Fil-A approaches the student with the Chick-Fil-A meal and offers her a refill on her drink.  As she is leaving with the cup, I make a comment to the kids about going beyond people’s expectations in service and product, and how important it is to get people’s attention by doing what no one else will do (namely, not hiding behind your counter, waiting to be asked for a refill).

Get this:  the Chick-Fil-A lady overhears me, stops, and comes back to our table to ask the rest of us if she can refill our drinks as well.  

My kids are stunned.  I’m giddy.

After the refills were distributed, we talked at length about what just happened, and drew out these lessons:

  1. Forgiveness is a powerful tool in customer relations.  In a real sense, the employee forgave us for not picking her store in the first place, treating us as if we had picked her, as if we were already her customers.  She did not exercise her “right” to deny us the service.
  2. Can you say “leverage?”  Giving away a refill that costs maybe 10¢ in product in a way that will likely produce hundreds of dollars in future sales is “leverage,” class.  That’s L-E-V-E-R-A-G-E, and yes, you’ll be tested on your grasp of this concept for the rest of your life.
  3. Doing flows from being.  Chick-Fil-A is not in the chicken business.  This employee understands that Chick-Fil-A is in the customer-acquisition-and-retention business.  The predicate in Chick-fil-A’s mission statement is a verb of being: “To be America’s best quick-service restaurant at winning and keeping customers.”  This woman wasn’t sleeping through her Chick-Fil-A training classes.
  4. Doing the right thing is more important than getting credit (or a grade) for doing the right thing.  I pointed out to the kids that they were now drinking free Chick-Fil-A product from cups that advertised for Chick-Fil-A’s competition.  Chick-Fil-A had every “right” to get credit for outstanding service, but this employee was more interested in actually providing the service than in getting the credit.  
  5. Advertising (or advocacy) is good, but doing the right thing by people is much more effective at changing minds.

It’s not exactly easy to impress high schoolers, but this Chick-Fil-A associate had the undivided attention of some saucer-eyed kids with a lifetime of purchasing power ahead of them.  

(If Chick-Fil-A’s paying attention, look up the manager at the Hamilton Place Mall’s food court during Friday’s lunch hour.  It’s promotion time for the blonde who gets it.)

Also, if you’re a CFA fan, you’ll love this.

Advocacy, or Why Choir? (part 2)

Advocacy bugs me.  Marketing doesn’t bug me, packaging doesn’t bug me, but advocacy bugs me.

This past week I accompanied 3 of my students to the annual Tennessee Music Educators Association (TMEA) conference in Nashville.  The students qualified to sing in the All-State Honors Choir, and got to sing under the baton of Anton Armstrong of St. Olaf’s College and Peter Bagley from the University of Connecticut.  They worked very hard and deserved the recognition and honor of being selected, as well as the priveledge of working with 2 masters of the choral craft.

And the payoff for their hard work was to be the final concert in front of their parents and chorus teachers, bursting with pride.  It was a wonderful, magical moment.

Right up until the advocacy part.

Before each choir’s performance, the emcee made it a point to advocate for music education, often in strident, combative terms:  “If your school board even hints at cutting music programs in your communities at home, I hope you’ll stand with me and by God make your voices heard!  Yeah!”  Obligatory applause, and even an “Amen!” here and there.

It was weird.  It was annoying.  It made me want to go out and cut a music program somewhere just because. 

I understand that TMEA is at its core an advocacy group, and that the primary mission of TMEA is to advance and protect music education’s place and role in public schooling.  But must we turn a beautiful music concert into a pep rally for music ed?  Can’t we just let the concert make the point for us?  Can’t we just celebrate the kids and their work?

There will always be school boards that consider cutting music programs in times of financial crisis and stress, but no parent will stand up and take a bullet for a music program because of anyone’s advocacy.  

The best strategy to ensure that music programs survive is not noise and preaching.  The best strategy to ensure that music programs survive is to have awesome music programs everywhere, music programs that provide tangible value to their communities, value that extends beyond the benefit of the participants.  Who are the people in your community other than the parents of your currently enrolled students that would notice or care if your music program was nixed?

What kind of music program would your community fight for?  

Maybe advocacy is just easier than taking a hard look at what we’re producing and re-vamping the product so that people will willingly throw themselves between our programs and budget-cutting school boards.  Maybe it just makes us feel like we’ve done something when for the most part all we’ve done is preach to the choir and irritate the heathen unconvinced.

Maybe I need to redesign the chorus program at West High…

Family Visit at Fellowship Church

I’m one of those kids who grew up far removed from extended family–we lived in East Tennessee while my Mom’s family was in West Tennessee and my Dad’s family was in Louisiana.  We’d see the cousins, aunts, and uncles on annual trips, and it always amused me to know exactly what each aunt and uncle would say when they saw me:  “Oh, my goodness!  Look at how you’ve grown!”  

One year it was less amusing than others and I started complaining to Mom about the “look how you’ve grown” chorus.  “What’s the big deal?  Nobody else ever makes a fuss over me growing.”  

Mom wisely explained that, while I was growing all along, it wasn’t as obvious to people who saw me every week, because the changes were more subtle.  It’s the people who didn’t sit through the process who most easily notice and appreciate the change from one year to the next.

Today I worshiped at Fellowship Church for the first time since July of last year.  Fellowship is my home church, but I don’t get to attend because of my duties at Powell Church on Sunday mornings.  Today I had the morning off from Powell and went with my family to Fellowship.

And today I got a taste of what Aunt Mae felt when she saw me at Thanksgiving.  “Oh my goodness….”

When I was on staff at Fellowship there wasn’t a lot of growth to be seen.  Change came hard and at a high cost, and every inch gained by those of us who wanted to see Fellowship grow and progress in ministry effectiveness was matched by an inch lost to those who wanted to see Fellowship retreat to its glory days.  Proposed improvements to worship center technology were shot down as “extravagant” and “self-indulgent.”  When we added an audition to our worship-volunteer selection process we were dismissed as “shallow” and “all about the show.”  Concerns about aesthetics in worship and production values were derided as “fleshly,” “frustrating the Spirit,” and “immature.”

I don’t know much about the “how” behind the changes that have taken place–for all I know it may still be a battle of inches, but I doubt it because 1) the differences can be measured in feet and yards now, and 2) the rate of change appears to be accelerating.  The “how” is not for me to know, anyway.  I can sure see and discern the “what,” though!

Here are the markers of growth I saw just in the service today:

  1. Rick Dunn referred to The Pastor of Children’s Ministry as “Pastor Gwen” from the stage.  Back in the day her predecessor (also a woman and for all practical purposes also a pastor) had the title “Director of Children’s Ministry” simply because the church leadership couldn’t abide a woman having the “pastor” title.  Fellowship’s ability to call things by their real names is remarkable and commendable.
  2. There’s been a noticeable bump in the quality of in-house video production.  The interview with the college student about serving in Children’s Ministry was spot-on, not only in its writing and content, but also in its videography and editing.  Nicely done!
  3. Someone’s paying attention to aesthetics and design in the graphic arts.  The onscreen packaging of the sermon topic was fantastic.  I don’t know, but I suspect the message-planning horizon at Fellowship is approaching or even exceeding 3 months now.
  4. Someone’s paying attention to onstage lighting.  The color of the scrim wash now coordinates with the palette of the screen graphic behind the song lyrics.
  5. The speaker can now advance his onscreen slides from the stage with a handheld remote without having to give cues to the production booth!  Sweetness.
  6. There’s a lot of new technology on the stage in general, which means there’s money being spent on making things work well.
  7. The band not only plays together really well, but the playing is very musical.  Noticeable variety in dynamics and energy levels makes this artist very happy.

Kudos to the staff and volunteers who are putting together Sunday mornings at Fellowship.  You’ve come far, and at least one person has noticed.

The Gorilla Parable

Yesterday in a breakout session titled “Music Learning = Life Learning” Tim Lautzenheiser told this great story about our learned aversion to change:

A scientist did an experiment involving 5 gorillas in a cage.  The cage had a bunch of bananas hanging from the ceiling and a ladder sitting right under the bananas so the gorillas could get them.  Simple enough, but here’s the catch:  every time one of the gorillas approached the ladder, the scientist would spray all of the gorillas with cold water.

Gorillas hate being wet, and cold water is particularly uncomfortable for them.  So it didn’t take long before no gorilla would approach the ladder under any circumstance for fear of being sprayed.

Once the gorillas had given up on the bananas, the scientist exchanged one of the “trained” gorillas with one who had never been sprayed.  Predictably, when the new gorilla approached the ladder to get the bananas he was attacked by the other 4.  No water was used this time, but it didn’t take long for the newbie to learn that approaching the ladder would result in a beating.

The scientist then replaced another “trained” gorilla with another newbie, who took a similiar pounding when he approached the ladder.  The kicker this time was this:  the first newbie happily took part in the beating of the second newbie, even though he personally had never been sprayed with water.

The scientist continued to replace “trained” gorillas with newbies until the cage contained none of the original 5.  None of the current gorillas had ever been sprayed with water, and none of them ever approached the ladder for the bananas.  

And none of them knew why.

On Conferences and Jubilees

I’m in Nashville for the rest of the week, attending the Tennessee Music Educator’s Association annual conference in conjunction with the All-State band and chorus clinics.  Ostensibly I’m “chaperoning” 3 of my kids who made All-State choir this year, but that’s akin to holding my yard accountable for growing grass.  They get a cursory check-in from me just so I can confirm they’re still alive and the lawn’s not on fire.

Last year this conference saved my sanity–I was in the throes of my first semester teaching high school chorus and not certain I’d survive the experience.  Getting away from the choir room and hanging out with fellow chorus teachers (many of whom were my classmates at UT back in the day) was so helpful and so refreshing.  It refilled my hope-bucket!

It reminds me of many, many Arts Conferences at Willow Creek that kept me in the game during my worship pastor days, so much so that I have to wonder if the main value of these conferences isn’t the content so much as the environment.  Being away from what’s “normal,” whether it’s schedule- or duty-wise or simply being in a different city, may be all it takes to reset the system back to hopeful joy in the “normal” flow of life.  

It’s a sabbath, a jubilee for people who don’t normally do sabbaths or jubilees.

I miss my normal, but am still so glad to be here.  Let some other people do the teaching for two days.  Let someone else lead the worship at Powell Church on Sunday.

I will simply rest and receive.

Until Monday….

Here’s a Thought….

I’ve been writing my student handbook for the chorus kids at West, trying to set up the next year well for my students and for my sanity.  This past week I focused on grading policy, and I had an awesome epiphany–one of those perspective-skewing thoughts that will make a huge difference in how I run the choirs this year.

Here’s how it came–I was setting up a typical grade weighting system for a high school chorus, much like what I had inherited at WHS and used last spring semester:

  • Performance Attendance:  20%
  • Class Participation:  50%
  • End-of-Course exam:  15%
  • Other exams:  15%

“Performance Attendance” amounts to a term paper in any other class, and any more directors have to weigh performance participation so heavily just to ensure that the kids will show up and sing for the term concert.

“Class Participation” is a subjective measure of the quality of a student’s effort during rehearsals.  It’s weighted so heavily because rehearsing is the nitty-gritty work of chorus or band.  Directors use this as a stick to enforce good rehearsal practices–not talking, being on time to class, maintaining good posture, having a pencil with you at all times, following the director’s instructions, etc.

It’s also weighted so heavily because chorus directors like rehearsing better than, well, school.  At least I do.

And here’s the epiphany–I had reduced the measurement of the students’ actual chorus competencies to a mere 30% of the grade, and had reserved 70% of the grade as a rule enforcement mechanism.  Got a slouching kid who won’t open his mouth and sing with the rest of the group?  My response was to cut his participation grade for the day and let it go, as if cutting his grade was going to show him a thing or two.

And don’t you dare miss the concert, because I’ll fail your sorry little…

The problem last spring was this–the kids who were consistently not complying with my classroom expectations of active participation, no gum, etc., were the kids who didn’t really give a rip about their grades.  Losing their 5 participation points for the day didn’t exactly phase them.

What I’m trying to do now is to parse out and separate the behavioral measurement / feedback issues from the performance measurement / feedback issues.  In other words, when a student does not actively, positively participate in the class, I want to treat it as a discipline problem, complete with a demerit system, calls home, and trips to the principal when necessary. Grades are a separate system measuring a separate reality-can the student sing and read music?

The new grade weighting will look like this:

  • End-of-Course Exam: 15%
  • Exams (Written and Singing):  50%
  • Performances (Qualitative):  25%
  • After/Before-School Rehearsal Participation:  10%

The biggest change this brings is that I’m going to have to ramp up my measuring system, adding in regular singing exams to assess student progress toward vocal goals.  It also means that I’m going to have to ramp up my discipline system.  But I’m most excited at the thought that my grading system no longer will have to bear the burden of also being my discipline system.

That’s good for both grades and discipline.

Tweet, tweet….

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