Thoughts on Community and The Outside Track

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


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.


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.


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.


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.

Susan and Kids s.jpg

Some of my favourite community members!


Nothing but a song

I went to a conference last weekend. Or to be more accurate, I crashed a conference last weekend. In truth, I hadn’t actually intended on going. I was in Victoria, visiting with my most wonderful friend Marj Welch. We did what we do each year: she works up in her office, I work in a make-shift office at the dining room table. We converge at the end of the day to walk her dog Bobbie, eat our dinner and tell stories till the wee hours. Somewhere in there, we all head up to Cowichan Lake to visit with my friend Andy and family, and play music for hours and hours (and hours) on end.

This year, the EECOM conference was taking place at the University of Victoria while I was out west. The contract work I am doing right now is not related to environmental learning per se, and I was more interested in visiting with my friends out there, particularly Olivia, Sonia and Darrell, than attending a conference. But Holly Arntzen was playing at the Saturday night EECOM event, and she is quite remarkable (  And besides, Grant, Luba, Remy and Sue all conspired to convince me to come, just for the evening. I am so glad I did.

Holly and her partner Kevin, and the rest of the band The Wilds, were wonderful. They were backed up by the Getting Higher Choir from Victoria, and before I knew it, there were about 30 of us up, singing and dancing with Holly and company. The performance ended, and many of us gathered outside to ponder the remainder of the evening.

Which, of course, had to involve more music. The dancers and singers moseyed and sashayed through the residences and found a “campfire” to gather around. Well, campfire, not so much. But circle of chairs and a few cold beers, a taste of Strathisla single malt, and it was anything and everything we wanted! And if you know me at all, you will know that you’ll find me wherever music is being made. A fiddle, a mandolin and a guitar, supported by happy voices, is a magical event and I want to be in the middle of it all.

What I wanted to share with you was not so much the magic of the night, but the connections that music can make. I had crashed the conference. I didn’t have a name tag. I didn’t know anyone other than a few familiar faces. But after a few songs and switching from instrument to instrument, I had a circle full of new friends. I didn’t have a clue what they did, but I knew they were interested in environmental learning and in music…so they were kindred spirits to me.

Interestingly enough, when we took a wee break to refresh, I started chatting with Lidia, one of the singers, a lovely young woman from Quebec. Do you know that she was not interested in traditional environmental learning, but more interested in working with adults, with communities, exploring the role of stakeholders in environmental change? And do you know that I am interested in the same thing? And that without music, without the gathering that brought us all together to sing, I would have never known anyone else at the conference was interested in the same things that intrigued me?

It was music that brought us together but our shared interests outside music that made us both sit up and notice. The conversations I had with Lidia convinced me to beg for admission to the next day’s morning session, and explore, discuss and consider new paths for pubic awareness, engagement and communications.

It was nothing but a song that brought us together. But it was everything.

Post conference tunes!

Post conference tunes!

Fiddle lessons from the Masters (Part 2)

I spent the next 4 weeks playing my loaner fiddle. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I spent the next 4 weeks falling hopelessly in love with my loaner fiddle. The tunes seemed to dance out of the instrument, enveloping my ears with a rich, deep almost chocolatey warmth that made me smile every time I touched the bow to string. I wasn’t a very good player, but this made me want to play more and more…which is how one learns, isn’t it?

Me and my true love!

Me and my true love!

After getting the dreaded phone call that my instrument was repaired and ready to go home, I arranged a lesson with Sandy with the loaner instrument. As I played a set of jigs, he stopped me to ask what was on my mind. “I have to give this back today, Sandy, and I am heartbroken about it! But I can’t come close to affording it!”

Sandy is one of the most gracious, gentle and optimistic human beings I’ve ever met. He looked into my eyes, smiled, and this is what I remember him saying: “My dear, once in a lifetime, you find a fiddle that fits. You pick it up and it is as if it was made for you. You will spend years playing all sorts of instruments, but if this is yours, then don’t let it go. Do whatever you have to so that you can keep it. And trust me, I can tell that this is yours. Your face tells me that every time you pick it up”.

When I headed down to Heinl’s, I was in a complete conundrum. I walked into the store, and Ric was waiting for me on the stairs. He asked what was up, and I told him I had fallen in love with his loaner, but I was here to give it back. With two children in university and all my other commitments, there was no way I could scrape together that kind of money.

Ric slowly smiled. Actually, he beamed. He took the case from my hands and put it on the counter. And then he said we would work together so I could keep the instrument. He said “It is so rare when we find an instrument that fits your spirit, your body and your heart, and when you do, you need to keep it.”

How much money could I put down? I had $200 to pay for the repairs to my other fiddle, and I had budgeted for the month to cover that. But remember, Ric knew and trusted his clients. He stood at the counter, punching a calculator, finally pushing it aside and saying “The repairs on the home-built are $80, so put the other $120 down and hopefully in 6 months, we can complete the sale.”

6 months. I could do that. I handed him my cash, signed some paperwork, picked up the my repaired fiddle and said good-bye. “Not so fast, young lady! Aren’t you forgetting something?” This most wonderful business man insisted I take the loaner with me, despite the fact that I had barely paid for 10% of the instrument!

I learned so much from this adventure in my life. I learned that there are angels, in the form of fiddle teachers and music store owners, who shower us with grace. I learned that things we love are worth having in our lives, regardless of the costs, and there are people out there prepared to help us have them. There have been trade offs and compromises for that fiddle…I had to give up my private fiddle lessons, and Starbucks coffee is consumed only when I travel. But when I pick up that fiddle, the one that was made for me, it is worth it all.

My story is about my fiddle. But it could be about anything that is truly “yours”. As my reader, find whatever lessons in the story that you can, and then share them with others. I know both Sandy and Ric would be happy.

Fiddle lessons from the Masters (Part 1)

My hand-built beauty, complete with Clif Bar for a post-practise snack!

My hand-built beauty, complete with Clif Bar for a post-practise snack!

About 5 years ago, I decided I wanted to learn to play the fiddle. I was out on the French shore of Nova Scotia  and I bought a hand-built fiddle and an old beat up case. Through a mixture of genius, magic and good luck, I found Sandy MacIntyre, a Toronto based Cape Breton fiddler and my love affair with Cape Breton music started.

After a few months of lessons with Sandy, we both realized that my instrument needed a little work. Sandy, being the gentle man that he is, called the only violin repair shop he trusted, and told the owner, Ric Heinl, that I would be venturing down to see him. So off I trundled to Toronto, fiddle in hand.

George Heinl’s ( is in an elegant old building on Church Street, with no sign that announces that this is actually a store. Ric Heinl and his team of luthiers are responsible for restoring and maintaining the instruments for The Canada Council for the Arts Musical Instrument Bank…meaning this is no run of the mill instrument store. As I walked into the quiet front room, a woman was testing out new bows for her violin, and I heard Ric tell her quietly that “this one is about $1,000, but worth every penny”.

Panic set in. My instrument and case, if you included the Clif bar I had stashed inside, was worth about $85!!! For some reason, that didn’t matter to Ric. He had talked to Sandy, and I was as important to him as the woman in the front room (who I later learned played for TSO). Ric examined my instrument and told me what he would do. I just needed to find a loaner instrument so I could keep playing while he was repairing mine.

Loaner? Are you kidding? The only thing I could take from the shop that was close to the value of my fiddle was the door stop! But no, that was a Heinl’s tradition. If you leave an instrument, you borrow one, for free, until yours is done.

(Hello, cynics out there? Yes, one could choose to believe that this is a classic marketing ploy to buy an expensive fiddle. I however, choose to believe otherwise.)

Ric insisted that I play the loaner violins that he had in a cabinet and select the one that felt the best. Being a beginner, I really had no idea how a fiddle was supposed to feel! But I pretended I did, and I bravely drew a bow over three instruments. They all felt the same.

Then came the fourth. Oh my. It was different, richer, fit under my chin, just felt like it was made for me. Ric didn’t even have to ask. He just said “well, I believe this is going home with you”.

I looked at the tag on the instrument. $1,500!!!! He was going to let me leave my instrument (and the Clif bar, as it turns out) and walk out of the store with $1,500 worth of violin in my old beat up case. The very notion was absurd! And yet I did leave with this incredible instrument and a bit of paper saying I would bring it back when mine was repaired.IMG_2145

And how, pray tell, does this relate to work, business, to my environmental consulting? Simple. Ric treated each of his clients with grace and dignity, like they were all equally important and valuable to him and to his business. His clients didn’t find him by looking on the street for a sign, but by being referred by someone Ric trusted. He had confidence, not only in his products and service, but in his client base. He was prepared to risk a lot to provide a superior quality of service. (I might not be able to buy the loaner instrument, but you can rest assured that I will never, ever go anywhere else for instrument repair.)

The lessons I learned from this experience were memorable:

  • Provide excellence in products and service, all the time, to everyone. Make that the very foundation of your business.
  • If you provide excellence, you can trust yourself, and others will trust you.
  • The more you trust yourself and your clients, the more you can risk.
  • Risk whatever it takes. If you fail, you will still have excellent products and service. And if you succeed, it only gets better.

(The end of Part 1. Part 2 of the story follows, however, it is less business based and more personal. Choose to read it, or let it go. But I’m willing to risk it anyway).

Artist Response Team – a moment in time

Sometimes when I sit down at my desk to work, I get overwhelmed. The phone is ringing, the papers are piling and the keyboard is staring at me, telling me to get working. It is easy to forget that life is not made up of deadlines and projects, but, if you can pause and reflect, it is made up of moments, conversations and dreams, all adding together to become memories that you can use.

This summer, I ended up in the most warm and welcoming home of Holly Arntzen and Kevin Wright. Holly’s company, ART ( ), is a production house that specializes in music and entertainment that educates about nature, and responds peacefully to the environmental and social crises we find ourselves facing. ART’s mission is to shift culture, and help communities move towards sustainability, one song at a time.DSC00085

Holly and Kevin work with other musicians, educators, artists, scientists and writers to create their innovative school music programs, perform in schools, develop environmental learning materials, perform at folk festivals and other concert opportunities, do community outreach related to the environment, and generally do incredible things for our planet through their passion for music.

I was in their home for a few hours, nothing more. And I haven’t spoken to then since I drove away. But as I reflect on that brief time, I realize it had an impact on my life and my future. No, I’m not going to leave my consulting gig and go out on the road with Holly and Kevin! But when I facilitate workshops now, I remind participants to recall those moments that are special and use them for their future – explore what can they learn from them, and what can they share with others.

I’ve sent off a note to Holly, simply to see if she remembered me, and lo and behold, she did! I don’t know where it will lead, but the possibilities exist. Please check out their website. Holly and Kevin work their magic in the west right now. But I think they’ve got a future in the east, and I want to help them find it. If you have any ideas, please share them here!

More than music

I sat in my living room this morning and realized that I am more than music. Or more than a trainer, or more than a consultant. Music alone doesn’t describe all of me. It takes a lot to describe a person. And interestingly enough, I came to this conclusion while I was thinking about things I need to infuse into my business projects. Here’s where this comes from:

Yesterday, my pal Janey calls to tell me that she’s got someone visiting whose father was a relatively famous Newfoundland fiddler. His name, she thought, was Benoit.

Emile Benoit? The most incredible fiddler to come out of the Port aux Port Peninsula, Newfoundland, writer of incredible tunes and teller of stories? (

Well, yes, that could be him.

Bring her over!!!

Roberta Benoit arrived, took one glance at my living room and started to smile. Before I knew it, she had my fiddle going, I was on the guitar, and we were jamming, smiling, jamming and smiling, Cape Breton, French and Newfoundland tunes galore. Did I say smiling? What a time!

So what does this have to do with business, you may ask? This morning, I looked around my living room and tried to see what Roberta would have seen. She would have seen regular living room stuff: a couch, some chairs, a few lights, and a coffee table. But here’s what else she saw:

  • an upright grand piano
  • two guitars
  • a mandolin
  • two fiddles
  • a tenor saxophone
  • a trombone
  • a flute
  • three tin whistles
  • a mountain dulcimer
  • every surface covered in sheet music!

Roberta saw music everywhere. So her conclusions about me would be that I was first and foremost a musician. But the truth is not so simple. I am many other things. I am a facilitator, a trainer, an environmental consultant (just read my webpages!). I am a runner, a fly fisher, a parent…the list just goes on and on.

When you are in a workshop, taking a course, sitting on a plane, or in a meeting, take a moment to reflect on Roberta’s perspective. It’s important to look beyond the obvious, and uncover truths, realities and information that help us to better understand each other. As clients, as stakeholders and as friends. Make sure you look beyond the music, and find out as much as you can.

When I’m running a workshop, I always ask my participants what they would do if they weren’t doing the job that brought them to the workshop. Ask yourself that: What would you do, what would you like to do, if you weren’t doing your current job? Let me know, I’d be interested in find out. Because I’m more than music.

…but I do love music!