About Susan Gesner

I believe I am a talented professional with a wealth of experience in a variety of facilitation, consultation, education and research fields. I am known for my leadership, strong interpersonal skills and my ability to bring teams together for a common goal. I strive to incorporate my own and other's passion for the environment and sustainability for the future. Oh, and I love to run, fly fish, ski and make music!

To cell phone, or not to cell phone…

A hot day means an early dog walk for Roxy, Lucy and myself. I had already gone for my morning run and now the three of us were just entering the Belfountain Conservation Area – aka the park – for a stroll next to the Credit River. Roxy’s 14, so our walks are a bit shorter and more subdued than they have been in the past, but she loves to sniff and bark, and there’s lots to sniffing and barking opportunities in the park.

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The girls, cooling off in the water post-phone call.

As we approached the river, my phone rang, disturbing the lovely sense of quiet tranquility that had descended upon me. I keep it stowed inside my little bag that I use to carry those recyclable “dog poo bags”, so I yanked it out to look at it. I had decided if it wasn’t one of my children or my Dad, I wouldn’t answer it.

It wasn’t.  And I didn’t.

That got me thinking how bizarre it seems to me to have a phone “at the ready” for all times. Remember, if you are old enough, when phones were inside houses and offices, and when you walked out of the door, no one could reach you until you walked back inside? And that meant if you were in the car driving somewhere – up to the cottage, back to university, or anywhere at all – you had to pull over, find a gas station or restaurant with a pay phone to make a call if you wanted to be in touch with someone. Now, you can sit in the driver’s seat, speak into the interior of your car, and send a text, e mail or call whoever you want. (How crazy is that!)

When I was a little kid, we used to drive from Minnesota to Nova Scotia to visit our family, and we wouldn’t use a phone from the day we left until we arrived at my grandparent’s house. Now, I exit my door and there is nothing between me and any instant communication that I desire….whether I desire it or not!

I have found that access to my phone literally stops me from being able to be on my own. Having the phone in my dog poo bag/purse/briefcase/car means I am not always attuned to what is around me because I pay attention to it, or the possibility it brings, and not necessarily to the concrete, real life situation in front of me.

Two summers ago, Remy and I went to the Atlin Arts and Music Festival in Atlin, B.C We had been kayaking on Atlin Lake for a few days, came back into town to shower and get ready for the festival, and we saw the streets filled with festival goers – all walking around and talking to each other, and NO ONE WAS HOLDING A CELL PHONE! In the laundromat where we had showers, people waiting in line were talking to each other, and weren’t slumped over their cell phones. Why? Because there is no cell service in Atlin! None. You have to communicate old school. If you’re there visiting, you have to hope that your buddies remembered to save you a camping site, because you can’t text them and check to make sure. You can’t call ahead while on the road, because your phone won’t work. You just have to figure it out like you did when you were a kid.

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Calling my Dad from Atlin.

It was truly fascinating to see all these people wandering around town, and no one was holding a phone. Pause and think about that, just for a moment. And in fact, Remy’s on his way down to Atlin today, and he might as well leave his cell phone at home because no one will be able to reach him there.

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Who needs a cell phone? Water bottle, fly rod and flask. Pretty sweet! 

 

I think I am conditioned to using my cell phone for many things – the techno-literature calls it “technology mediated communications”. I have become attached to it, and it connects me to my larger social network. But while it connects me virtually, it detaches me to reality. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to give it up, but I do want to ensure that I maintain my connection to that which is immediately around me.

So this morning, after my phone rang, I turned it off and focused on what was around me – the sapsucker hammering its head into an ash tree (made me laugh out loud because it look liked Donald Trump!), the fishing bobber I saw stuck in a tree, and most importantly, my dogs. It was a great walk. I highly recommend you do the same. Either take a trip to Atlin (a mere 5,446 kms from my home of Belfountain), or just turn off your phone for a while, and enjoy!

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Atlin Lake Paddle (photo courtesy of R. Rodden, taken using a cell phone!)

 

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Belwood Step Dancing …or Brain Training on the Edge!

The Community Hall was packed with people – mothers, fathers, kids everywhere – and the judge sat front and centre, ready to assess the steps of each participant. We were numbers 205 and 206, and I was sooooooo nervous. I hoped that when the music started, my feet would just do what I have trained them to do, but I had no idea if they would.

What am I talking about? My step dancing competition from last week!

There’s lots of research that tells us that as we age, our brains get smaller. Nerves die off, losing their connections, and that leads to a thinned out network feeding our thinking functions. But brain shrinkage isn’t inevitable, and that research also tells us that picking up a challenging new hobby makes a huge difference. I’ve successfully managed to ignore this fact until my friend Marlene sprang into my kitchen after her first step dancing lesson, loudly announcing that I would be joining her from now on. (I actually don’t recall having any part in that decision, by the way.)

Marlene picked me up the following week, and dragged me to Chanda Leahy’s studio. Fast forward about 7 months, and you find the two of us in the Belwood Community Hall, ready to dance a reel at the Spring Rain Feis 2017, while Chanda’s son Xavier accompanied us on his fiddle.

I’m a musician, and I thought that learning the steps to some jigs and reels would be easy. NOPE! Despite having the most remarkable teacher in the world, it was quite a few months before I made the switch from looking like I was stomping cockroaches skittering across the hardwood floor to something vaguely resembling dancing.

Which brings me to last Saturday when Marlene and I got ready to perform. We were in the Pre-Beginner Category (seriously), and our “competition” ranged in age from 5 – 12 years old – we were the only adults!!! The kids took their performing seriously; they had clearly practiced more regularly that the two of us, who had those silly day jobs to keep us occupied.

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Our competition…with Xavier accompanying them, and Chanda looking hopeful!

None of that mattered, of course. All that mattered was the certainty that my heart was about to explode in my chest while I waited to perform. There was anxious banter between the two of us and Xavier while he tuned his fiddle, and I wondered how I was ever going to remember all the steps. With mild panic setting in, I realized that I might crash and burn in front of all those parents and kids.

How may times do we, as adults, really experience that feeling of risk, of fear of failure? When was the last time you felt your heart jack hammering with uncertainty? Do you take risks? Are you prepared to try and fail? And what happens when you do?

I think many of us adults coast through our days doing things that are safe and secure. We don’t step to the edge of our comfort zones, because that’s un-comfortable. It takes extra effort that, in our busy, crazy and chaotic lives, we don’t want to expend. It’s easier (and safer) to just do the same old / same old. So we do.

Who knew step dancing was going to take me to the edge? But when Xavier started to play (at warp speed, I might add), my adrenaline-infused feet began to dance, and I was carried away with delight that I was actually doing this crazy thing!

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I’d love to tell you that we won our Pre-Beginner Category…but that is not the case. I can tell you that we grinned through the entire sequence, and by the time we were done, everyone in the audience was grinning with us. We got a huge round of applause and one little girl told me she thought we were very brave.

Our Saturday morning was a clear reminder to me that I need to make myself less comfortable now and then, and that a little risk – of failure, of embarrassment, of a mis-step – bring a sense of accomplishment and pride when it’s done. Just try it. I’ll be here, grinning and clapping for you!

Roast Beef, Politics and the Forest

Two hours. That’s how long it took me on Saturday night to drive into Toronto. My most wonderful friend Rochelle, her wife Amy and their 13 year old son were hosting me and my son Rory for a birthday dinner. The roads were slick and slippery, and when I reached the Don Valley Parkway, it lived up to its nickname of “Don Valley Parking Lot”. I sat quietly in my car, not moving, trying to be patient.

By the time I reached Rochelle’s, I was weary, but excited about the standing rib roast waiting for me inside. And when the door opened, love from my friends and family poured out the front door, enveloped me and carried me up the stairs. In a heartbeat, I had a glass of wine in my hand, been hugged by everyone in the house, and the insanity of the drive had vanished.

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Me and Rochelle, changing the world at at TFC game.

We enjoyed an amazing meal, with oohs and aahs about the incredible “roast beast”. We stayed at the table post-meal and solved the problems of the world. Where to start? First, we tackled what we were each reading, and what books intrigued us. Next, we moved on to movies and TV shows, including Star Wars and Dr. Who (naturally). But try as we might, we were unable to avoid the elephant in the room. “He who shall not be named” kept surfacing and we finally succumbed to talking about Trump’s first week in office.

I imagine that many thousands of people across the planet were doing the same thing. Trying not to talk about Trump and the US, and what the future holds for us, but eventually ending up voicing concerns, anger, and fears about what direction he is taking that most powerful country.

I said how, on the morning of the election results, Jaime called me in tears, not believing that he could have been elected. Rory talked about involvement in politics, and what that would mean. Rochelle echoed that, noting how friends had suggested that she might be someone who could throw her hat in the ring, so to speak, in Toronto/Ontario/Canada to make a difference. As a woman, who is Jewish, and in a same sex marriage, she has the cards stacked against her if she lived in the US. But here, she is just another incredible, wonderful and compelling individual who can make a difference.

But politics isn’t for her. So how to make that difference? What can any of us do?

Politics reminds me of nursing…for some, thankfully, it is a calling. For me, it is intolerable. Politics falls into the same category. So where does that leave me? What can I do to be a voice, to speak out, to make a difference in this time of political, social and cultural chaos? If I’m not entering politics, and I am simply Susan Gesner from Belfountain, what can I do to help the world be a better place?

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Just Susan Gesner from Belfountain, spreading a bit more love.

I will do what I always do, but even more. I will make a conscious and mindful effort to look at everyone I meet as an individual, to speak to them, to learn about them, to value them. People will know that I see their value, that I am curious about them, and that they make my life better by knowing them. Age, colour, race, religion – nothing like that matters at all. If I can do that, perhaps those people I meet with do the same, and we will become a huge, growing snowball of consideration, attention and value.

I challenge each of you reading this (and usually I have 2 or 3 people who at least click on my words) to do the same. Be sure your friends and family know you are doing this, because they may choose to follow suit. Make the snowball grow, and we can blanket the world, or at least our part of it, in goodness and caring. Margaret Mead, perhaps the most famous anthropologist in the world, helped us learn about anthropology’s holistic vision of the human species. It was she who said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

To quote another powerful thought leader of our recent history, Winnie the Pooh said “You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”

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Janey, Marj and Julie leaving their corner of the forest. Let’s all do it!

I’m not going to stay in my corner of the Forest. I am going to continue to go beyond, to meet and talk and value and share. I know many of my friends will do the same. Let’s try to be the change this world needs right now.

What does it take to be a hero?

What does it take to be a hero? As I look at the news feeds about rescues in Syria and some of the monumental acts of sacrifice that take place daily, my first thought is that a hero is someone who does something super-human. Somebody who gives everything he or she has for a purpose they believe in. Not something that your every day, run of the mill individual is necessarily cut out to do.

And then I watched the Olympic Men’s triathlon.

I was watching Andrew Yorke. Andrew is my son Rory’s friend, a young man that I watched grow up. I have pictures of Andrew bobbing for apples in our basement, snowboarding with our family, and even some from he and Rory’s grade 8 graduation. Memories, too, of loading bikes on my truck and going over to Albion Hills to ride up and down the hills with a crew of kids that always included Andrew. Always moving, always playing, always laughing.

Still, kind of a run of the mill individual from Caledon East.

But Andrew was also the kind of kid who, when Rory was deciding whether or not to go to the regional arts high school and leave all his friends behind, called him up to tell him he had to go there…and they’d still be friends, even if they didn’t go to school together. Pretty heroic for a run of the mill 14 year old.

Andrew was ready for the Olympics, and in the best shape of his life. He stood at the beach, ready to enter the water, obviously prepared to give everything he had. And he did.

Yes, Alistair Brownlee won the event. He out-swam, out-rode and out-ran all the other competitors, Andrew included. But it was Andrew who is my hero. Because he gave everything he had. And more. Who knows what happened to cause the crash, but Andrew and Jason Wilson went down. Then Andrew did what he always does – he got up and kept going. Imagine spending years of your life focused on this single outcome, and then have your goals shatter into smithereens in a heartbeat….and then having the guts and the internal strength to get up, push your bike uphill, and keep going.

Something like that would crush most of us average mortals. We would sink into the ground and be afraid to rise. Not Andrew. He kept going. He finished the race, and he turned and waved to the crowds.

If you must know, I was crying when I saw Andrew cross the finish line. Not because I felt sorry for him, but because I am so fiercely proud of this young man. He is our Olympian, with a spirit and determination that knows no bounds. Andrew, you are a hero to Caledon, to Canada, and to all who know and love you.

Hoodies and Happiness

Imagine you went for a hike with your dogs in a local Conservation Area. As you wander

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Part of the trail.

along the wood-chipped trail in the sunny weather, you hear voices up ahead. You can’t see anyone, but the voices you hear are deep, and there seems to be three separate voices, so you conclude perhaps there are 3 men ahead of you. As you wind your way through the bends of the trail, you can just make out the men up ahead, standing together near a small viewing bench.

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The Bench, from a distance.

There are actually 4 of them, and they are all large men, with one distinguishing characteristic: they are each wearing dark hoodies with the hoods up, hiding their faces. They are clustered together, lowering their voices and quietly laughing.

What is your first reaction?

Do you feel a bit of anxiety? Do you slow down? Do you want to turn in the other direction before they see you, or before your dogs see them and start to bark? What is the first thing you think about?

PAUSE for a moment…and consider what your own reaction might have been. 

That happened to me last week. It was one of those exquisitely lovely, sunny spring days and I was hiking along the Gorge Loop Trail at the Belfountain Conservation Area. That when I heard the voices. Roxy and Lucy were too busy sniffing to notice the men, and had I wanted to, I could have turned around and headed in another direction to avoid them. But I was not going to be intimidated by a few guys with hoodies on a sunny day! So on I forged, anxiety at bay, to firmly walk past the Bench and the hoodies.

And as I rounded the bend and the men could see me, the largest of them quickly pulled off his hoodie…and grinned at me! The other others did the same, and they all smiled and yelled out hello. I thought of all the things that had gone around in my head, and the first words out of my mouth were “You know, you 4 look like a bunch of thugs out here with your hoodies on!”

They all roared with laughter and the first young man said “I know! I didn’t want to scare you with my hood, but it is so windy that I waited till you came close”. His face was full of concern and humour, and before we knew it, we were all laughing so hard two of them had to sit down on the bench!

As I wiped my eyes, said my goodbyes and headed back on the trail, I realized I had actually made myself feel anxious about what might have happened. And yet, what actually happened – unplanned shared laughter – was wonderful. How often do I think something is going to happen, and then pre-empt my own activities to prevent something that MIGHT happen from happening?

I literally stopped walking to consider whether I do that in my personal life, and what the implications are. I know I sometimes imagine all sorts of crazy outcomes, but like the day on the trail, I tend to forge on and take the “risk” of the unknown. But when I consider my work life, I  am not certain that I am the same kind of risk taker with my business. I have been known to not look at the horizon for growth opportunities and instead, focus on the potential negative things that might happen. I envision the challenges rather than the benefits.

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Me, clearly envisioning the challenges.

Erika Anderson, writing in Harvard Business Review, talks about changing your inner narrative.  So rather than first being negative, be curious, and motivated to find the positive.This requires a willingness to experiment, to be confident and to trust…your business, yourself and others. I know I need to do more of this in my work life.

If I had turned around and walked the other way on the trail, I would have been fine. The dogs would have had a good walk, and I would have made it home safe and sound. But I was willing to be curious, and to risk just a little. The rewards of the risk – the laughter and the smiles, and the incredibly delightful change in my mood, was well worth it. I think about my business and I am determined to risk a bit more, and to not just be safe and sound.

I challenge you to do the same, in business and in personal life. You may find hoodies, but you’re also sure to find happiness!

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My girls, at the Bench, wondering why I even think about this kind of thing!

Thoughts on Community and The Outside Track

On Monday night, March 7th, something quite wonderful happened in the hamlet of Belfountain. The Outside Track, http://www.theoutsidetrack.com/, a Scots, Irish and Cape Breton fusion band, performed at The Higher Ground Coffee Company, 

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The Outside Track (though Ailie, the harpist, is hidden on the right).

 

The café seats about 25 people comfortably. We had close to 50, without counting the band, the baristas and people who arrived because they saw the Open sign lit up. It was an evening of tunes, dancing, singing and laughter. When I introduced the band, I looked out at a sea of incredibly happy and excited faces. I knew that the night was going to be special.

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Our amazing baristas!

The room was filled with people from all walks of life. A real estate agent, a project management specialist, a retired French teacher, a flamenco dancer, someone battling cancer….a panoply of personalities and experiences, squished together, cheek to jowl, anticipating the celebration of music.

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G, Janey and Brian…new friends to each other.

These people were from my community. Or rather, my communities. I knew them all, from living in Caledon East or Belfountain, from going to physiotherapy together, playing fiddle, taking our children to swimming lessons, walking dogs together. And as I reflected on the magic of the night, I wanted to write something about the power and connection of community, and remind us all that a community’s heart and soul is something that draws us all together and gives us energy, love and hope.

But, well, you know, life got in the way. I had another workshop to run, then two reports to prepare, a proposal to get to the courier, groceries, laundry….you know the drill. And now it’s March 23rd, and the incredible show seems so long ago. Who cares about community anyway?

I woke up yesterday morning to the radio blaring news of the tragedy in Brussels. I felt weighted down in my bed, feeling an overwhelming sadness at yet one more senseless and heart-wrenching chapter in the theatre of the world.  At least 30 people were killed in two explosions, one at the Brussels Airport and another at the Maalbeek Metro Station. This was close on the heels of the Paris attacks in November, where gunmen and suicide bombers hit a concert hall, a major stadium, restaurants and bars and left 130 dead and hundreds wounded. That followed the Boston Marathon bombings where two bombs went off near the finish line, killing 3 spectators and wounding more than 260 other people.

How could I write about community, about joy and music, when these tragedies keep hitting us in the face every time we look at the paper, or listen to the radio, or stare at our computer screens?

But how can I not?

In the Globe and Mail this morning, I read an article about the Brussels event. Phil Gurski, an author who worked for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and just finished a book entitled The Threat Within, was quoted. “For more than a decade now, European civilians have been killed in the streets, oftentimes by terrorists who grew up in the very cities that they hit”.

Imagine that, if you will.

That brought me squarely back to the night of March 7th, and The Outside Track. In one room, on one night, the communities that make up my life converged for one purpose – joy. Oh sure, we wanted to stamp our feet, sing along and get carried away with the fiddle and the accordion. But what was clear was the joy that infused the air and drew us all together. Nights like that won’t change the world. The people at the café that night may not have known one another previously, because they come from different communities. But for one night, we all shared something powerful and wonderful. We were all in the same community.

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Laura and I are in a cycling and business community!

My blogs usually end with a linkage to a piece of business advice, like: “Imagine the worst-case scenario and build from that”, or “Start your mornings dealing with the hard stuff, when your mind is clear and you can make progress”. But not today.

Today, I want you to think about yourself. Who are your communities? Where and how can you connect them? Don’t worry about your business environment or your financial success. Think about bringing joy, by connecting one concert and one community at a time, in your life and the lives of others. The Outside Track did it for 50 disparate people in Belfountain. I hope that we can all find ways to make that happen again and again and again.

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Some of my favourite community members!

Anastasia’s Music

I was running south on Shaw’s Creek Road and a beautiful tune came through my headphones, an Andrea Beaton original that made my feet dance and my face grew a smile. I found myself humming along and by the time I got home, I had to grab my fiddle, pull the tune out of my memory and play it.

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Pulling a tune out of thin air…

I’m lucky like that. I can’t always remember the words to songs, or have the first notes of a tune ready to just start and play. But if I hear a tune few times, I can almost always play it back. I’ve never thought much about that skill, until I met my most wonderful friend Anastasia. 

Anastasia (or Aunti-Stasia, as I sometimes say in my head) is an amazing fiddler. She picks up her bow, and she looks like a professional player,  with an intense focus and drive. She’s also a  NINJA when it comes to sight reading. You can put anything in front of her, and she can play it. It is almost as if her brain doesn’t even have to register the notes she sees, and the tune goes from the paper to her eyes and down to her fingers in lightning speed. At our Tuesday night fiddle group with Sandy MacIntyre, she puts us all to shame when we get a new set of tunes, because she can play them perfectly as soon as she sees them.

But here’s the thing: she has serious trouble memorizing tunes. She can read anything. But take the music away, and she’s temporarily lost. 

I have read about how people’s brains are different, and I can acknowledge that, intellectually. But it really wasn’t until I spent time playing music with Anastasia that I really, truly understood how different people can be.

At first glance, Anastasia and I pretty similar. She’s got a handful of university degrees, and so do I. We are both medium height, with Germanic last names. We are both runners, and we play the fiddle. And we both smile a lot.

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Partners in crime after our Half Marathon in Ottawa!

But the way that we process information is dramatically different! My brain seems to capture the tune in its entirety, and I can reproduce it. Anastasia’s brain sees the individual parts of the tune, as transcribed in notes, rests, time signatures, and she reproduces it. We can both play the music, but we do it using different skill sets. 

I was running a workshop for York Region last week, and I had a room full of people who worked in the forestry sector. A quick glance around the room told me everyone was pretty much the same – outdoorsy types who prefer to wear plaid shirts and hiking boots, but were stuck behind a desk doing management plans. I imagined that everyone was going to have the same ideas and perspectives about the upcoming tree planting programs.

But then I thought of Anastasia and our differences. How many people around the table had brains that worked like mine? And how many were like Anastasia? And (gasp) how many other kinds of brains were out there???!!!

Before I got myself twisted into a knot, it occurred to me that I could just ask a question and I’d find out what kinds of brains were going to contribute to the discussions. So well before panic set in, I simply asked people to tell me how they “thought”. Were they problem solvers? Were they skeptics? Did they see a few clear choices, or did they see a variety of options? Could they hear the music and repeat it, or did they prefer to see all the notes beforehand?

As each person shared the way they “thought”, I wrote down their responses on a flip chart so we could all see them. Once I realized the wide variety of thinkers who sat around 

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Don’t be blind to the differences!

the table, I got excited about the diversity of ideas, options and models that we could generate. And interestingly enough, once everyone else understood this incredible diversity, they looked at one another differently and with a more critical appreciation of what each person could contribute.

Suddenly, the plaid shirts appeared quite different!

My take away from this? If you are a facilitator, or a participant in a meeting, or any living, breathing human being, please don’t forget that there is a wealth of diversity all around you, and that is goes above and beyond gender, culture and apparel choices. Take the time to recognize and take advantage of that diversity in your work and your personal life, and celebrate the differences as your move closer towards your goals.

I read a quotation this morning that said: Play the music, not the instrument. So listen for Anastasia and I playing music this weekend. She’ll be the one paying close attention to the notes, making no mistakes and playing with joy. I’ll be the one with my eyes closed, playing whatever notes come from my fingers, and also playing with joy. We may get to the music in different ways, but the result makes us both happy!