Monthly Archives: February 2013

The PLAN Versus the Plans

Lately I’ve had a boom of ideas for different projects that have interested me.  Over the weekend, I must have been projecting or physically manifesting the mass of ideas that have been passing through my head, because in at least 3 different conversations, I have been asked “so, what’s your plan.”  As in, what is the cohesive plan that unites these different projects into a single vision.


I love it when a Dan comes together!

It’s not an unsurprising question.  When we think of the great innovators of our time – Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Kim Kardashian – it’s easy to imagine that they had a single unwavering vision of what they wanted to create and how they wanted to create it.  Steve Jobs for example, had the idea for the iPad back in 1983.  With his i’s on the prize, he transformed the nature of computers by seemingly moving towards that singular goal.  Certainly that’s a possibility, as some people have a great prescience about the direction they want and need to go.  However, I think it’s more probable that this was just one of many ideas in the swirling mass of ideas that he envisioned.  It’s not always about staying on a track to the bitter end.  It’s often more about trying as many ideas as possible, and letting the good ones come to fruition.  Put simply, it’s The Plan versus the plans.

When we have a single, fierce vision of the direction we’ll be taking, it’s so easy to lose the flexibility necessary to succeed.  For example, let’s say I’ve decided that I’m going to develop my songwriting skills and accordion playing and continue to get better until I reach my (fictional) goal of playing solo at the Electric Factory.  So I start playing exclusively at venues that play the kinds of music that are played at the Electric Factory.  However, in doing so I might avoid playing shows that could give me a larger grassroots fan base; the kind of fan base that would make it easier for me to book a show at the Electric Factory.  And if I’m so focused on playing there, I might not realize that Electric Factory is not the best venue for what I do.  In this way, my laser focus becomes a liability rather than an asset.

So what I’ve been answering as I’ve had these conversations over the weekend is that I don’t have a Plan with a capital “P,” and I’m not currently looking for one.  I do have a series of ideas and projects that I have been developing and testing.  I devote time and energy into these projects to see what direction they take, what type of responses I get, and whether they are financially viable.  This process keeps me constantly engaged, as I’m not working on just one thing; I get to use my different skills in different ways.

Currently, my projects include a podcast called Sound Decisions about the process of songwriting, a polka band with a modern twist, a class on how to write and record music, and the development of a private teaching studio.  Some of these ideas are in the earliest stages where they’re just a twinkle in my eye.  Others are further along with templates and materials already being developed.  And the podcast already has several episodes and more are on the way.  As these projects continue to develop, I look forward to adjusting them as necessary.  At some point, some may turn into dead ends and I’ll abandon ship.  Or maybe they can be retooled into another idea that works better.

songwriting box

Available in the cereal aisle of your local grocery store

At some point, all these disparate elements might also come together into a more cohesive structure.  You know, like Songwriting Bootcamp Lessons, (Now with Polka!).  That would be great if they do, but if the ideas themselves are sound on their own, then an all-encompassing plan isn’t really necessary.  After all, there is a default structure anyway, which is my life.  And if I’m doing things right, these parts will always fit nicely within the bounds of the plan “Make my life as diverse and enjoyable as possible.”  This idea can be scary, since if that’s what I’m trying to do for a living, I have the added pressure of making sure things are financially viable so I can continue to do little things like, you know, have a place to live.  Interestingly, this came up in two of the conversations I had this weekend, and the answer was the same in each of them: stop worrying and just do it.  Just as water flows downhill, cats land on their feet, and toast lands on the buttered side, it will work itself out.

So the next time you’re questioned by a family member, company, school, or overachieving friend about what your next big plan is, take a deep breath, and let them know the individual pieces that make up your life.  Let the diverse array of activities that fill your time be a point of pride, let them know that you’re not always sure what the shape of the big picture is, and let them know that you’re excited and fascinated by the wholly flexible set of options you have set up for yourself.  Until then, keep building, and stay aware of the wonderful shapes your life can produce.


Serve the Core

A few weeks ago, I was talking to Mike from Departure Consulting about developing a songwriting class.  We were discussing some of the pitfalls we encounter while teaching, and he brought up a colleague who had given him some advice on the subject.  This colleague had taught the same class for over twenty years, and told Mike that each year he shaves a bit off the syllabus.  This might seem like the class would take less and less time to teach, but in this colleague revealed that he was paring the course down so that each piece of information acutely reflected the core concepts of the class.

Michaelangelo's Angel

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

In other words, he was separating the wheat from the chaff.  He was setting the angel in the marble free.  There are countless clichés that amount to the same thing: we create a better product by adding components that serve the core message, and selectively removing components that do not.  For some reason though, as the story was related to me, I saw it fresh; it was a nexus between so many vastly different components of my life.

The first thing that popped in my head was the card game Magic the Gathering.  I’ve mentioned this multiple times before, but Magic is a deck-building card game.  It’s been around for 20 years, and in that time, they have printed over 15,000 different cards.  This can seem overwhelming to a new entrant into the game, but in most players work within a pool of cards (not literally) significantly smaller than that at any given time.

When building a deck, you want the best cards possible to be included.  After all, by starting with the best cards, you have a better chance of playing with those best cards and winning the game.  However, using this strategy over time, I have found that it doesn’t always work.  Certainly I garner some wins by playing a slew of powerful cards, but sometimes the deck seems to be at cross-purposes with itself.  A better strategy is often to identify exactly what you want your deck to do, and then only add cards that will lead you to that game state.  For example, if you want to play an aggressive deck, omit the cards that are powerful but aim for a protracted endgame.  In those cases if your deck works correctly, you should have won already.  If I only add cards that support that core strategy and omit the cards that do not support it, my deck will often be better for it.

Last weekend I was lamenting that despite my increased tuba practicing, I have a hard time with breath control and extremes of volume in my low range.  In other words, I get out of breath quickly when I play loud in the low register of the tuba.  I began browsing the web for recommendations for improving efficiency in the low range, and found several examples of exercises.  Then I noticed that all of these exercises involved focusing on that range with an awareness of how much air I’m using and how I’m using it.  Here’s where I had one of those obnoxious epiphanies that I relearn every few months (weeks?): When I practice a specific thing, I get better at that thing.

Turns out, my daily routine was missing some focused practice of the low range.  I was so entrenched in the idea that any practice was holistically good for my playing, that I wasn’t making modifications for specific goals.  After about 20 minutes of long tones played fortissimo, I was able to hold low notes out more fully and louder.  Once I identified my core goal, I was able to focus on that goal and eliminate the tools I was using that distracted from that goal.

Of course, one key element here is understanding what your core concepts are in the first place.  Sometimes when we are unable to achieve what we want, the problem is not in our methods, but rather in our definition of the problem.  We all know people who are perpetually dissatisfied in their relationships.  Too often this is because they’re attempting solutions to a problem they haven’t identified.  Until we probe and discover what our core message is, we can’t find a way to highlight it in our work.

So the next time you feel like you’re plateauing and find it difficult to improve,  try taking it back to its fundamental core.  Write out your goal in a sentence or two.  Then write all the things you are doing within that discipline.  Cross out the tasks that do not serve that core idea, and supplement with any tasks that do serve it.  You’ll find your focus is renewed and your goals are more within your reach than you might have suspected.

Losing a Close Friend

On Friday, I was teaching a class when I got a call from my girlfriend Katie.  I couldn’t answer it right away, but when she called again after the class, I realized I should take it.  The day before, she had taken her cat Mr. Peterson to the vet when he began acting listless, and I assured her that it was probably just something minor.  I excused myself from the meeting I was in and walked into the hallway.  It was there that she told me that he had been diagnosed with kidney failure, and she had put him to sleep that morning.

Some of us are cat people, some are dog people; some are pet people, some are not.  If you’ve never had a pet before, the sick, heartbroken feeling you get when they leave your life may not be relatable, and that is one of the redeeming features of not having a pet.  When you have a pet, you are wholly responsible for its well-being.  You are the key factor in that pet’s quality of life, and good pet owners are as giving as they are able to their pets.  When that pet dies, no matter what the circumstances and no matter how much you cared for him or her, you can’t help feeling that you let them down; after all, the pet didn’t let itself down, and there’s no one else around to shoulder the burden.  It’s a crushing grief and guilt, even though it’s a skewed perspective on the matter.

Mr. Peterson the catMr. Peterson was an incredibly sweet orange tabby.  He was polydactyl, meaning he had a few extra toes.  For him, they came in the form of thumbs on his front paws, which simultaneously made him look like he was wearing mittens, and made it seem like he could hold a pen or pencil to write a manuscript.  Sadly, that manuscript is left unfinished.  If you think you’ve never heard of him, you might be wrong.  If some delightful (and random) woman has ever come up to you at a party and told you “my cat has thumbs,” then odds are good that the story of Mr. Peterson has become a part of your life also.  This has happened more times than I can count, as it was Katie’s favorite ice breaker.

Mr. Peterson came into our lives when Katie noticed him following people up and down her street yelling at them.  Apparently he had been recently abandoned, and was looking for a new home.  I only witnessed his antics on the street once before Katie decided to adopt him.  One day she saw him on the sidewalk, scooped him up, and brought him inside.

I slept over at her house his first night there.  He still hadn’t decided who to imprint on, not realizing that I was just a visitor at the house.  That night, he slept in bed with us, finding a spot right on the top of my head to lie on.  His diet from the street differed greatly from his new one, and consequently he spent the night farting on my head.  Actually, about an hour in, I threw him out of the room.  Fortunately, his gastrointestinal issues improved over time.

Mr. Peterson and Katie quickly formed a close bond.  Whenever I would call Katie, I would ask her for the “Peterson Report.”  Here is one such report that she had emailed me:

Mr Peterson, the attractive feline resident of [Redacted] Road, could be found today curled up on a cozy sweater leaving a thick layer of orange fur. He then licked his genitals, got up, stretched, yawned and jumped down. Once on the floor he spotted an irresistible temptation: a wire. The wire had no chance. My Peterson defeated it quickly and humanely. He then placed the wire in his food bowl with some kibbles.

In addition, I left at least one phone message singing “Here’s to you, Mrs. Peterson.”  Because Katie may have been my girlfriend for many years, but I had no doubts that she was really Mrs. Peterson.

Some of the things I loved about Mr. Peterson: He was very good-tempered.  He was friendly, but wouldn’t take any unseemly behavior; he had no problem batting people (mostly loud children) with his paws if they bothered him too much (claws sheathed).  He was very sensitive to noises.  He announced his entrance into any room, usually multiple times, with his signature “Blau.”  When someone got into the shower, he would stand outside the curtain and yell until they got out.  He kept great company for anyone fortunate enough to use the bathroom at Katie’s house.

Mr. Peterson was so expressive.  His pupils were almost always dilated, and he seemed to have a perpetual look of curiosity mixed with concern.  His personality was huge, but in a very humble and dignified way; a genuine way that a lot of other cats could have learned from.  He was a very very special presence, and the hole that he leaves in my heart feels bottomless.

I am so sad that we only got to know him for about four wonderful years.  His kidney disorder took his life when he was only about five years old.  This was a cat that I wish I could have gotten to know better over the years to come and to see the quirky and warm guy he would have become.  I am overwhelmed by the unfairness that that will never be.

sock puppet

Mr. Peterson sniffing a suspicious sock puppet.

In lieu of flowers, balls of string, or odd sock puppets, Katie asks that you wait for some time to bring him up to her.  The pain of loss is still raw and tender at this point.  We all move on, but we do it in our own time.

So now the wires that he used to attack and then store in his food bowl are safe from harm.  The Turkish rugs, his favorite receptacle for vomit, now have a reprieve.  The wooden dresser is freed from the tyranny of being licked, and let’s just say that it is a good day for pieces of crinkly plastic across the world.  As for those of us who knew Mr. Peterson; his warm, kind, gentile, orange, dignified, and loving soul will be in our hearts forever.

Mr. Peterson

Mr. Peterson

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