Anyone who knows me more than about 5 minutes will hear about my wife Karen. That's not her pictured above, it's John Williams - will get to that in just a moment.
I know intellectually that she's not perfect, but she has to be close. I've checked her thoroughly (read into that whatever you'd like) and she is a good egg. In addition to being an amazing wife, mother and friend, she is a gifted musician.
When you normally hear that, it is true, but there are levels and then there are levels. She plays the harp for the Marine Band, also known as the President's Own. They are the music for the President and the White House and are the oldest continuously existing professional music organization in America. They are also the best concert band in the world. She is a top tier orchestral harpist and it is really fun for me to get to watch her do her thing.
When Lincoln gave the Gettysburg address, members of the Marine Band played him in. They have such a rich tradition, musically, historically and they are a wonderful example of an organization run with excellence, fraught with legacy and they sound great too. They honor the Corp., and everyone who hears them play.
You should check them out if you haven't already - they have regular concert series in the Spring and play on the steps of the Capitol and beside the Washington Monument on Wednesdays and Thursdays in the Summer. The concerts are free, but don't let that fool you. They are a premier orchestral group and what you hear will be amazing.
Because they are who they are, they attract the best conductors and composers to work with them from time to time. When we were dating, I asked Karen who some of her favorite conductors were and if she had any favorite musical experiences - she immediately mentioned John Williams. As many of you will recognize, he is one of the most famous composer / conductors of our generation, mostly famous for his wonderful movie scores.
Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Catch Me if You Can.
And that list could go on...
You get the idea... he's written some incredibly powerful music that, with the medium of the film, has ingrained itself into our culture and delighted millions of listeners. He was scheduled to conduct the Marine Band again a couple of years ago - and family members were allowed to attend the last rehearsal.
It might be one of the best things I've ever seen. It was musical. It was stunning leadership. It was awesome. Here are a series of observations in no particular order:
- Mr. Williams was a very soft spoken man, speaking in a quiet voice, barely above a whisper. It wasn't tentative, but you found yourself leaning forward to hear what he had to say... and not just because of the volume.
- He ran an incredibly tight rehearsal. Like a master artisan, he knew exactly what he wanted, he was incredibly prepared and he moved things along faster than you would believe. He would direct them to a section, measure 225, 1, 2 and off they went - then he would stop and adjust them, leaping into the next section.
- His adjustments were alarmingly good. You have to understand, these are musicians of the very best caliber and they can play a note or phrase with nuance bordering on the supernatural. Most of us have 3-4 tools in the tool box (i.e., louder, softer, faster, slower) but master musicians can bring things to life and make them breathe in ways that are delightful. They have 20 tools in the tool box for a given moment and Williams knew this. I heard things like, "ok, coming off the phrase in 240, it's a dotted eighth note - but don't make a meal out of that, exit it just a bit quicker and we will make the transition more cleanly.
That's ridiculous. Slice two 1/100's of a second off of the phrase and it will make things better. Uh huh.
The section they had just played had sounded really good to me.
But when they played it again, it was better. It was noticeably better. Even I could hear the difference. It was clear and it was a clear upgrade. It was night and day. It was like magic. He made great into virtuoso. Holy sonic cow batman, do that again!
So he did. About 400 times.
- He was remarkably consistent. Every thing he said, every thing he did made the pieces better. He didn't miss - not one time. For three hours he was Midas, every touch making more gold and I've never seen anything like it. He knew what he wanted, he was able to communicate it and he would instantly move on to the next thing with no wasted time or energy.
- He was encouraging. "That's it!" he would exclaim... "that's exactly right!" and the musicians just bloomed under his praise. Darned if they didn't get EVEN BETTER because of it. And he was so kind and gentle, while being exacting... that the entire room felt like they were part of his collaboration. It was never 'you're doing it wrong' - it was always, this change will make it perfect.
And he was right.
- His timing was godlike and inspired. He was doing pieces and medleys to a running video that he could see (and the audience could see) but that the band members could not. He had checkpoints where he would push them and pull them ever so slightly... but the music fit the visual we were seeing perfectly. And at the end of a 9 minute video with scattered scenes, it would build to a climax and the music would follow.
Every time, he dropped the finale and climax perfectly into the pocket - matching the video to the hundredth of a second. Do you have any idea how hard that would be to do? And to make that adjustment 2 minutes ago, 30 seconds ago, so it seems natural and seamless to the audience?
He did it the first time and the family members couldn't contain ourselves, we cheered and clapped!
Then he did it again.
It was unreal. How in the world a human could do that is beyond me. If he had flapped his arms and flown around the room, it wouldn't have been any more amazing.
- He brought real joy to the process. Like Prospero, in control of the Tempest in every detail and leading everyone to good things, he did his thing and brought all of us with him. A lot of William's music is brass heavy and clarinet heavy... and the Marine Band brass is the best in the world. Their clarinets are there as well, shockingly good to hear. And several times the Band would be playing something and Williams would turn to his second and his team of assistants and he would just grin like a little kid.
He was clearly delighted by the goodness they were bringing to his music and the extra power that the different instrumentation of a concert band can bring. He would look back and nod, as if to say, "how about THAT?" and smiling in clear joy and the music of the moment.
- He had so much credibility by the end of the session, that he could have asked for anything and they would not have hesitated. Stand on your head and bark like a dog - and I would done it without question. And, somehow, it would have made the music better.
I made some decisions that day.
1) Leadership can be gentle and kind and still be incredibly effective. The hard charging type A personality doesn't have to be mean about it.
2) The real beauty of his process was that it was his... he was not the stereotypical perfectionist and angry conductor. Be yourself, there is greatness to be found in true identity.
3) You can honor people and their time through your own excellence, communication and preparation.
4) People (even great musicians) are capable of more than even they realize.
5) Leadership can be a focusing principle that makes everyone better.
6) Trust is a powerful thing and can be strengthened by repeated success.
7) Joy and praise are powerful allies.
May God give us times where we fit our place perfectly: where we lead, where we follow, where we trust and where we shine.
I'm thinking we'll like what we hear - and so will everyone around us.
At The Surge we love doing things together... that includes writing a blog! Here are a few of our main contributing authors:
Our fearless leader, Dwaine is the lead pastor at The Surge. His experience in counter terrorism with the CIA prepared him for ministry and he likes dogs and babies even more than E does.
E (short for Eric Reiss) is the Wingman at The Surge and likes dogs, music, Mexican food, his wife Karen and his little girl Evangeline... not necessarily in that order.