Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Does what I do matter?

The topic of the value of background music has been addressed by me in this forum before and I witnessed a prime example of its power at a recent wedding.  There was an outdoor wedding ceremony on the second Saturday in January and that should not sound abnormal for people from Arizona but we experienced record-breaking cold temperatures that week.  Nights were in the 20s and days were barely reaching into the 50s.  Trees froze, pipes burst, one car skidded through a patch of ice on the street near a prominent auto dealership in downtown Phoenix and totalled a Camaro and a Corvette on the lot. They don't really sell "Winter" coats in Arizona.  The cold wasn't much by Toronto or Minneapolis standards, but it's something we are not acclimated to or prepared for around here.  One young bridesmaid stood at attention and was shivering so severely in her tiny spring dress that I though she might collapse- at least the goose pimples on her arms and legs might have poked somebody's eye out.  I hope it didn't ruin any pictures, but I gave her my jacket for the 15 minutes of the ceremony because I was standing nearby on sound duty. I walked up behind her and took it back just as the minister was introducing the new Mr. and Mrs.  I was cold too, but at least I had long sleeves and long pants... I was glad to get the jacket back too. 
I'm telling this story because of an interesting observation.  Normally, this golf club would have the ceremony on the lawn, as this one was, and then retire to the patio for cocktails while the family portraits were taken and then the guests are invited inside for dinner and dancing later.  Because of the biting cold, the guests were invited inside right away to have cocktails and hors d'oeuvres.  I have a small sound system for ceremonies that can be moved to a patio or foyer in the time it takes for guests to make the short walk but since I was switching to my big sound system already inside, I just wanted to put away a couple of microphone stands to have them out of the way of the professional photography.  In the 3 or 4 minutes it took me to get inside to start some music on my big system, the entire crowd had made it inside.  I came in shortly behind them with a microphone stand in one hand and a couple of cables in my other hand and noticed that they were all whispering like they were in a church.  I chided them about it and then loudly and laughingly said, "Let me get some music on quickly so you guys will feel comfortable talking."  They laughed tepidly with me but remained silent until I got behind my workstation and cued a song.  It didn't take but 15 seconds for them to begin talking with their normal voices.  It wasn't even one minute before there was laughter and people gesturing largely with their hands and touching peoples arms or shoulders as they talked.  Nobody ever wants their voice to rise above the din.  The music masks each voice and people feel comfortable talking.
Please forgive a bit of an off-colored story here- not profane but PG-13 perhaps.  When I was married many, many years ago.  We were at a family celebration dinner at a favorite Riverside California Chinese restaurant after a graduation or birthday or something.  There was lots of shouting and laughter and good times. We weren't the only ones, it was the attitude of the restaurant and its other patrons as well.  The restaurant served a drink called a Double Scorpion that is served in a giant half shell and made to be shared with two long straws.  My sister-in-law was sharing that with a man she was dating at the time and the bartender hadn't really worked it over with the blender as he or she should have and there were chunks of ice that jammed up the straw.  My sister-in-law drew attention to that fact very loudly at a moment when the noise level in the restaurant happened to drop off.  She shouted, "I keep sucking on it, but it won't come!"   That further silenced the crowd and then it turned to uncomfortable laughter and then genuine laughter- at least at our table. An outburst like that in many other social settings would have been terribly embarrassing for all involved but proper background music would have saved the day.

I'm not much for New Year's resolutions but it's kind of a natural time to consider your lives when the people of the world mark the passing of years together.  Does what I do really matter?  Am I contributing something to society?  Am I just paying the bills?  Am I doing this because it's the only thing I know? 
I'm so grateful that I'm in a position to say no to customers once in a while- to turn away a difficult customer or someone that is otherwise willing to open their wallet to me but who I don't wish to work for.  I have confidence that I will be working on any given weekend somewhere- but maybe not for THIS customer.  Even if I do miss a weekend, it's not a financial crisis.  I can usually weed out the "bridezillas" in the consultation process.  I don't get them often because I think I've surrounded myself with conscientious event planners and venue operators that refer me and for whom such people don't become their customers either.  Every once in a while, a bridezilla gets past me but not often.  (I say bridezillas, but there are other types of difficult customers in corporate events and any other social occasion and these same thoughts apply.) When one slips through, and this sounds cocky I suppose, but I command enough respect that they don't act up or press any buttons when I'm working.

Generally, I live life on the importance theory.  If the wedding or other event is not important enough to them- such that they will not act poorly during it- it can't be MORE important to me.  That philosophy is tempered however by the fact that my next couple of customers are in that room and I have to act well from a marketing standpoint, contractual standpoint, from an ethical and moral standpoint and, well, that's what decent people do, they act well in spite of other people not acting well.

I had a bride a couple of years ago that I thought was a real sweetheart.  She had been widowed some years before and this was her 2nd marriage and I was really looking forward to her wedding.  In the 2 or 3 times that we met to work on details, I started having some doubts.  She wasn't belligerent or anything, but I started to think she may have had a drinking problem or was even using drugs or something.  She was really uneven and loopy and even did a couple of embarrassing things that made me uncomfortable.  It was way too late to send her packing at this point so I pressed on.  In the days leading up to the event, while working on final details, and I mean the little behind-the-scenes details, I learned about several tragedies that had happened in her family and in the extended family in addition to the tragedy that had taken her 1st husband.  This was a family that had suffered a lot in the last 3 years.  There were accidents, a suicide, disease, loss of employment and there was the blame and guilt and other feelings that go with such things.  This family NEEDED a happy occasion and this wedding was it.  (She was taking some prescribed drugs under the care of a doctor and they were having a hard time finding the right dosage at the time.)

So how do I help them celebrate this wedding without disrespecting all of the hurt?  I remember when Saturday Night Live went back on the air a few weeks after the 9/11 Terrorist attacks.  They began the show by honoring those who lost their lives and the brave fire fighters and policemen and then producer Lorne Michaels asked Mayor Rudy Giuliani, "Can we be funny?"  Mayor Giuliani said with a straight face, "Why start now?" and the audience cheered wildly.  There's a technique that I learned from an actress that I knew in LA many years ago.  She said you don't 'act' drinking a glass of water, you just drink the glass of water.  You don't 'act' walking across a room, you just walk across the room.  You don't 'act' speaking to your friend, you just speak.  You speak the moment.  That concept of speaking the moment has really served me well.  The concept came up similarly in a Master of Ceremonies seminar I participated in once.
I simply spoke the moment.  I allowed a few tears, acknowledged it, but kept it from becoming a memorial service as opposed to a wedding celebration.   I helped them know that it was OK.  That celebrating and dancing and laughing and feasting and hugging each other and singing along to every word and really getting into it didn't somehow disrespect the hurt or the losses.  Funny thing is that I didn't really 'speak' it.  I showed them.  I led the way.  Each of my announcements and each gesture and every song choice was very calculated and deliberate.  I knew my craft and I knew it well.  It WAS in every way, the happy occasion that they needed.  I hope that it gave them a year or two of fuel towards the healing going forward from that day.

Could a hobbyist or other beginner DJ have done it?  Maybe.  I look back at where I was 25 or 30 years ago, playing at drunken backyard parties and weddings at the crummy decrepit no-name fraternity hall or wherever and I say no!  I didn't have the expertise to do it.  There would have been ended up being lots of tears and there might have been some little accusations and arguments in the lobby and everybody would have left shortly after dinner- frustrated and sad- from a wedding that should have been a happy occasion!  

When I play piano at a restaurant or bistro or something, the opening notes of any given song may be met with absolute jubilation.  People can be instantly moved to tears by a few notes of a loved song.  They are tears of joy, of course.  It's a song that has deep meaning to them.  The lyrics of that song got them through a tough time in their life and they celebrate where they are now relative to where they were then.  A restaurant experience isn't the same structured occasion that a wedding or corporate event is, but they came there to feel better about something. It may be on an entirely subconscious level but when they leave they feel better and I contend that it was the music.  There are spiritual, mathematical, ethereal components of music that help us rearrange the hurt somehow.  It files the hurt further back in our minds somewhere and we either pull some more pleasant memories to the forefront or move the hurt to the back and replace it with the memories of this night instead. Theres a song by Lawrence Gowan about letting go of the past and making way for the good: "Every time I lent a hand, the angels sang some Dixieland.  With every hug and every kiss, another hurt dropped off the list."    
Why would a retailer spend $50,000 on a big grand opening celebration with music being the headline feature?  Well, because it will add to sales not just at the time but it creates good-will among potential full-time customers going forward.  They'll get every penny of that back in increased sales over a period of time.  Why have a DJ at a weeknight retail promotion for several hundred dollars?  It creates a bit of excitement, it draws a crowd and then nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.  People see others having fun and they can't allow those people to have MORE FUN THAN I AM HAVING... I GOTTA GET OVER THERE AND BE PART OF THAT CROWD!  I played at a retail promotion last year where the sales goal was $127,000 dollars in cosmetics in a day.  Store management was monitoring the cash registers at hourly intervals throughout the day and they came to me to tell me that there was an absolute and measureable difference in sales within 15 minutes of DJ music and energetic announcements.  Customers didn't walk by the counters, they danced by the counters and opened their wallets at the cash registers.  In a 12 hour sales day, half of the sales were generated while I was playing music in the last 3 hours.  Was it worth my professional fee of $800 for 3 hours on a weeknight?  Absolutely!

I'm no fan of politicians but after the 9/11 Terrorist attacks, several members of Congress stood on the steps of the Capitol and spontaneously sang "God Bless America"  Why music and not some other expression?  Was music was perhaps even more universally acceptable than prayer in that situation? 

There's a world-class museum in Scottsdale AZ called the Musical Instrument Museum and I've spent about 5 afternoons there in the year that they've been open and I still don't feel like I've seen it all. There are historic musical instruments from all over the world and from every ethnicity and nationality. One thread that I've been able to discern in my visits is that even in the face of complete oppression or poverty, the people find some way to make music.  They'll use tin cans, sticks, dried vegetables, animal bones, animal skins or whatever they can find.  The most interesting instruments and musical styles that I've seen there have come from or been born in poverty or because of some tyrant dictator telling a people that they can't have music.  It finds a way!
There's a story about a farmer who was getting up in years and knew he would soon be "gathered up to his people" as it says in the Old Testament.  He wished to bequeath is property to one of his three sons.  He proposed that whichever of his sons could fill the barn with any commodity of their choosing could have their father's life work as an inheritance.  The oldest son set about buying up all of the firewood in the region and filling the barn.  After a week or so, he exhausted his resources and there was frankly no more wood to be found in the region and the barn was only about 2/3 full.  He had to pull the wood out and give the middle son a chance.  The middle son set about buying up all of the bales of hay in the county and the region.  After about a week, he had exhausted his resources and there was no more hay to be found and the barn was only 3/4 full.  He had to pull out all of the hay and make way for the youngest son to have a crack at it.  The youngest son felt that after the noble attempts of his two older brothers that ended in failure, that there was no way he would be able to do anything that would succeed where his brothers hadn't.  He went in to the barn and closed the door and sat down in the middle of that big space and lit a candle and he cried.  The light filled the barn!  And the farmer gave the youngest son all of the inheritance. 

There are a couple of brilliant bakers in this town that make beautiful and delicious wedding cakes, but they dont' "fill" the room.  I've seen genius event designers bring incredibly colorful and interesting event decor that doesn't "fill" a room.  I've seen guests eat a celebration feast prepared and served by the best chefs in the West- and those plates didnt' "fill" the room.  Music always fills the room.  All of the elements come together to make a lovely event and it's the music that ties it all together.  Those cold wedding guests, whispering like they were in an elevator, didn't start celebrating that wedding until music allowed or instructed them to do so.   
If you don't push back the sofa in your living room and dance once in a while, you are missing out on one of the great joys of life.  So... does what I do matter?  Abso-floggin'-lutely!


Anonymous said...

When I was a single mom, living with Nicole in the home my parents had built for us, I spent many moments in our sparsely furnished living room dancing to Stevie Nicks, Alanis Morriette, and well any music that I owned that fit the mood of the moment. Nicole grew an appreciation for music at a young age and was entertained at the same time. To this day, you can still find me dancing. Differtent music perhaps, different house, different time in my life but still music fills my darkest moments or my joyful ones and dancing takes my heart to a better place still. You will find me singing, or I should say I bellow even now I am singing Missing You because I literally listened to it all day. God has blessed you. You make a difference

Cynthia said...

Good read, Curtis.