Category Archives: Writing

Spring Breaking Down

sousaphone at spring break

From left to right, Chubbs, El Poonhound, Beef, and Tuba Lard.

So you may have noticed that I’ve taken a few weeks off writing.  Well, I’ve been on Spring Break, catching the rays of Daytona Beach, spending my nights in a drunken haze of wet t-shirt contests and beer pong.  And today I’m going to tell you the lessons I’ve learned from my new bros Chubbs, Beef, and El Poonhound.

Ok, the truth is that I’ve been struggling to come up with things to write about.  The anxiety about not writing something “of quality” builds up for me, until I’m paralyzed by my own writing process.  Especially now that I’ve had some posts that I’m proud of, it can be disappointing to put something out that isn’t as strong.  Interestingly, this reminds me of the process of practicing, and a lesson I learned early on.

In 1994, I had my first private lesson on the tuba with Jay Krush of the Pennsylvania Ballet.  I had been playing for about 4 years, and had been quite successful at the local band and orchestra festivals, placing towards the top of the section each time.  I was ready to take my playing to the next level (whatever that meant), and Jay had been highly recommended.

As with just about any 15 year old, I had a lot of different activities on my plate.  I had taken some difficult classes in high school, I was playing in the marching band, and I was active in the theater group as well.  After the first few tuba lessons, Jay began to notice that I wasn’t practicing consistently, and he let me know that he noticed (in the kindest way possible).  I made some efforts to make time each day, with varying degrees of success.  At some point, probably because of how Jay was encouraging me to practice, something clicked for me.  I realized that the musicians I admired: Sam Pilafian, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman; all had devoted massive amounts of time towards practicing.  Nothing extraordinary there.  What really sunk in was that they didn’t go through years of practice and then one day just stop, after having achieved a certain level.  Their practice was a lifelong endeavor to improve and remain at the top of their game.

While this was inspiring in that I now had a more clear template for success, it was also disheartening to realize that even the best performers in the world have to dedicate their lives to practice and improvement.  In fact, they especially have to!  Now, I don’t have a problem with working hard to achieve goals, but the concept of an process without end can be daunting.  When this concept sunk in for me, I pulled myself together and started putting in the work.  Since then at certain times in my life, I have been able to devote more time to practice and improvement, and at others I have either not had the time, or not successfully utilized it.

Sometimes the knowledge of what it takes to be my best is my undoing.  I will recognize that I don’t have the time to work at being my best, and then I feel too demoralized to put forth the smallest effort.  After all, if I can’t be my best, why bother trying at all?  Not the healthiest attitude for sure, but it’s something that gnaws away at me from time to time.  And sometimes I don’t know how to get out of it.  Like right now with my blog, as well as with my music practice.

So how about I start the process right here and now.  Off the top of my head, here’s what I would tell a friend if they were experiencing the same problems:

1. Remember those other shades besides just black and white?

The choices I have as a performer/writer/person are not broken down into success versus lack of success.  That’s the way that joyless (and terrible) executives approach their problems.  There are a myriad of other flavors in this ice cream sundae.

How did you do?  	Completely successful	 	Not at all successful	   How did you do?  	Successful 	Not successful 	Pretty successful 	Successful is some ways, not in others 	Well, I had fun 	Define success, man 	I sure learned a lot 	With a few tweaks, it will work 	Need to check it out more 	I might be headed in the wrong direction 	I successfully learned what success is!

It is more realistic to approach my work as in the second column.

2. Break it down into small chunks

I don’t have to go from zero to one million when it comes to efficiency and quality.  In fact, it’s not even possible, barring extraordinary good luck.  Instead, I can focus on small pieces at a time.  For my blog, I can just start stockpiling ideas more efficiently.  Or I can tweak the narrative style.  When it comes to practicing, I can incrementally add time to my routine.  I can also shift what I’m adding in order to vary my practice experience.

3. Make work into play

When I choose a method for doing or learning, it’s not just to put myself on the well-beaten path to success.  There’s something to be said for writing and playing for the sake of writing and playing.  After all, isn’t that what drew us all towards the things we do in the first place?  Sometimes there’s an enjoyment of the process, but sometimes that enjoyment needs to be cultivated.  I need to make the time to discover the many facets of my creative process, and to rekindle the abstract joy I encountered in the first place.

So hopefully I’ll be back here same time next week putting into practice what I’ve explored today.  After all, discovering how and what I want to write about and exploring the process of learning and constant improvement has to be at least as exciting as a wet t-shirt contest at Señor Sousa’s, right?  Right?


Knowing When to Push

Well I’m back, after an unexpected hiatus.  I was going to talk about how I took Labor Day (Labor Week) off to recharge myself, but that’s not the truth of the situation.  In actuality, I tried to write my two blogs per week, but I ran into some obstacles.  Rather than focusing on the particulars of the obstacles themselves, I’d rather talk about my reactions to them.

Essentially, I was having trouble coming up with good topics to write about, and I began writing something I wasn’t as happy with.  I had put myself on a deadline to finish it, but as that deadline loomed closer, the anxiety started to rise.  It became a vicious circle where I was agitated for not finishing what I started, which then made it even more difficult to complete.  About the time the feelings of self-loathing started coming in, I decided to call it a day.  I could have tried to push through and make something happen, but I’m not sure that would have been fruitful, and I’m sure it wouldn’t have made me feel good.

Dan in Half Moon Pose

Don’t push me, man!

There’s a balance that needs to be maintained between pushing yourself to the edge of your abilities and knowing your own limitations.  I find this distinction especially clear in the practice of yoga.  A good yoga teacher will motivate you to try to work past the imaginary chalk marking of what you were able to accomplish previously.  A great teacher will be able to do so while respecting your physical and emotional limits.  It’s a really tricky tightrope to walk.  After all, if you’re only stretching as far as you did the previous day, you don’t give yourself the opportunity to surprise yourself with how much you can accomplish.  If you push too far, though, it’s easy to feel demoralized by what you could not accomplish, not to mention to hurt yourself in the process.

I definitely err on the side of kindness to myself, though I often wonder if that may be something that holds me back.  I worry that if I can’t completely commit to a project, to the point that either it’s going to break or I’m going to break, then perhaps my heart is not fully in it.  After all, Olympic athletes throw put themselves through grueling paces to be the best they can.  World-class musicians spend hours and hours in the practice room honing their skills until they are razor sharp.  One could argue that without that blinding drive to be the very best and to overcome all obstacles, humans would not have accomplished all that we have.

On the other hand, that mindset sounds far from healthy.  If we strive to push ourselves no matter what, we may make great strides, but we miss the nuances of life along the way.  In running that marathon in record time with our blinders on and eyes on the prize, we run right past that cliff that looks out over the valley in which a small hamlet is nestled, a resident of which makes the most finely crafted grilled cheese sandwiches, and whose daughter has inviting chocolatey eyes and likes to stay up all night talking about Magic the Gathering and making cookies.

I’ve come to a point in my life where the maintenance of my sense of well-being is the highest priority to me, and I structure my obligations so that I don’t put it in jeopardy.  When I do stretch it to its limits, I may accomplish more, but I feel less pride in those accomplishments because of the strain it puts on me.  It’s like the joke, “For Lent I gave up my self-esteem, but then I realized I wasn’t really worth saving anyway.”

So I will continue to test the boundaries of what I am capable of doing, but I will do so with a kindness towards myself in the process.  There will be weeks in which I bite off too much, and I have to ease up on some of my goals.  There will also be weeks in which I release a new CD, write an inspiring new blog post, and create an innovative podcast.

And speaking of new podcasts, I’m very excited to announce that I am releasing the first episode of Sound Decisions today.  It’s a podcast in which I sit down with an artist to discuss one of their songs with them in-depth.  It’s a great opportunity to hear some music you may not have heard before, to analyze the lyrics of the songs you love, and to indulge in music theory geekiness.  For my inaugural episode, I sat down with my good friend and fantastic singer/songwriter/pianist Anna Dagmar to discuss her song “Satellite.”  If you love to learn the secrets behind how your favorite songs are made, this is the podcast for you.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to gently coax myself to try the dreaded half-moon pose once again.

People Who Like to Have Fun

Among my considerable talents such as stone-skipping, liar’s dice, and kitten-rearing, I drew some attention from single friends of mine a few years back by being an exceptional online dating profile writer.  Several of my female friends would send me their profiles for me to proofread and improve upon.  One even asked me to create hers from scratch.  I crafted an excellent one for her, posted it, and within 24 hours she was getting significantly more attention.  Of course, the way that I crafted it painted a picture of someone who was more like me than like her.  After one or two dates with bizarre and quirky gentlemen, she scrapped it and wrote her own.

The trick to a good dating profile is to make it stand out.  Go to any dating site, and you’ll see page after page of time same cliches and styles.  Here, I won’t even look:

I’m new around here and I’m looking to meet someone special.  I’m in decent shape, and I like music, museums, and having fun!  I’m totally comfortable hanging out at a bar, or staying in and watching a movie.  I love good food and sharing it with someone great.  I’m an interesting, caring, and genuine person.  Hit me up soon!

Mine might look like:

I just moved to Philly where I’ll be working as Assistant Curator of Ancient Antiquities, in the newly created Myspace Wing at the Penn Archaeology Museum.  Ok, that’s a lie, I have a crummy desk job, but I do occasionally get out an ultra-fine brush and excavate peoples’ myspace profiles.  It’s like a time warp back to 2004.  Everyone here so far has told me to pick a side in Pat’s vs. Geno’s, but I’d rather start a feud of my own.  Maybe Abyssnia vs. Dahlak or Auntie Anne’s vs. the scary pretzel guy on the side of the road.  If we got enough feuds together, we could have a tournament of the best places to eat.  In that vein, I’m seeking someone with a white board and killer penmanship.

The problem with the former example is that it describes almost anyone.  And to prove it, I give you the Not Test.

Take any online profile and turn every sentence into the negative.  If the profile becomes meaningless or makes you look like a sociopath, then your profile isn’t really saying anything about you:

I’ve been around here for a while, and I’m not looking to meet anyone special.  I’m in terrible shape, and I dislike music, museums, and having fun!  I don’t like hanging out at a bar or staying in and watching a movie.  I hate good food and  never share it with someone great.  I’m an uninteresting, uncaring, and disingenuous person.  Hit me up soon!

See, nobody dislikes music.  Or fun!  By definition, you can’t dislike fun!  Otherwise it wouldn’t be fun.

On the other profile I crafted, turning the sentences negative may produce bizarreness, but it doesn’t change the overall picture you get of the person who created it.

Now, I’m happily in a relationship, but this idea of the Not Test came up last night in a completely different context.  I was considering who I market my music to, and was tasked with coming up with a list.  There were some good ones like:

  • Listeners who like to hear the lyrics of songs
  • Listeners who like the accordion

But I also found myself listing:

  • Listeners who like live music
  • Listeners who like interesting music

I realized that these types of statements don’t really say anything about these people.  It should be no surprise that they also fail the Not Test.  Very few musicians target listeners who dislike live music or boring music.  If I’m going to list out who I want to reach, I need to find specific and meaningful descriptors; things that set me apart from other performers.  I need to play on my strengths and find people who are interested in what may be a niche market.

When we try to define what it is we do in any context, whether it’s for a resume, web bio, or grant proposal, we need to find ways to show our meaningful impact and value so we can stand apart from the crowd.  Be specific.  Find and use your own unique voice.  Don’t be afraid to push some of the boundaries of what is expected of you and how you and others define you.  You’ll find that your standing out usually attracts more people than it repels.  Particularly, it attracts the kind of person who is interested in hearing what you have to say.  That in turn opens up new opportunities to strengthen or clarify what it is you have to offer and adds further uniqueness to your offerings.

Otherwise you’re just the person who likes to have fun.

Penn's Myspace Exhibit

Can’t WAIT to see this exhibit!

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