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! 

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 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKH54msZ0AY).  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 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 (http://www.georgeheinl.com/) 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 (http://www.artistresponseteam.com/ ), 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!