Archive for December, 2008

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

As we say goodbye to 2008 (and, as some of us say “good riddance”), it seems that every magazine, newspaper, and TV news show are running features on those who died during the year.

Like all years, it’s quite a list, including George Carlin, Bo Diddley, Charlton Heston, Tim Russert, Sir Edmund Hillary, Suzanne Pleshette, and Tony Snow – to name just a few. But the one name that stops me in my tracks, every time I hear it, is Paul Newman.

Newman fans – and there are millions of us – each have their own reasons for holding him close to our hearts. His philanthropy ($250 million in gifts), his dozens of great movies, or – for some – just his amazingly blue eyes evoke in us a deep personal response.

To me, though, when I think of Paul Newman, I see a guy who took every batch of lemons life handed him – and turned them into lemonade.

His first movie (and almost his last) was “The Silver Chalice.” It was one of the most atrocious movies of the entire 1950s (Newman always claimed it was the worst), and – as the star – he deserved a fair share of the blame. A lesser person might have never shown their face in Hollywood again. Instead, he learned from his over-acting mistakes. He also made no excuses for his failure. He simply vowed to do better the next time – a promise he kept for 50 years.

This is a pattern he would repeat many times in his life, in marriage, fatherhood, and in business.

The death of Newman’s son Scott from a drug overdose was devastating. But – being Paul Newman – he found a life affirming way to deal with the tragedy. In Scott’s name, he created a foundation to help in both prevention of and recovery from drug addiction. His goal was simple – to spare as many other families as possible the pain of losing a loved one to drugs.

I look forward to every viewing of “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid,” “The Sting,” and – a personal favorite – “Cool Hand Luke.” Like all great actors, Newman learned to make each performance seem effortless. And, through the magic of film, he will always be with us.

But, unlike so many other public figures, he was a class act off screen as well. And there aren’t so many of those around that we should ever be too busy to note the passing of one of the best.

Nor should we fail to learn from his example. Old show biz hands say that “In life there are no second acts.” Paul Newman proved them wrong. And time after time, we were the beneficiaries of his second efforts.

So goodbye, 2008 – I won’t miss you at all. But Mr. Newman – wherever you are – you are a memory I will treasure.

Leading By Example – One Way Or Another

Monday, December 29th, 2008

Those of you who are regular visitors to this site – and if you are, God bless you – will notice that I’ve added a new category, as of today: Leadership.

The lovely Gina Tanner, who has started a computer instruction service of her own in recent months, asked me to include some thoughts on this topic from time to time. Perhaps – now that she is in business for herself – all the quotes I am forever collecting will have a more personal relevance for her.

And it is indeed a subject which is dear to my heart. As a bandleader, businessman, and a family guy, I am always looking for a new insight or suggestion that will make me better at my various jobs. There are certainly no shortage of books and websites offering advice. The trouble with most of them is that they seem to all be saying “this is the way,” when the truth is that there are an almost infinite number of ways to lead.

Any quote by General Patton will be pithy and memorable, and he certainly was an amazing leader. But then so was Mother Teresa, and her management style couldn’t have been more different than “Old Blood And Guts.”

In my own life, I have even learned a lot from people whose actions showed me how not to act. These have included both bosses who were of the “my way or the highway” persuasion, as well as others who – in Boone Pickens’ words – tended to say “Ready, Aim… Aim… Aim…” endlessly. Because I remember all too well how both of these extremes made me feel, I make an ongoing effort not to duplicate their mistakes.

So, as a comment worth sharing strikes me, look for more entries dealing with leaders and leadership styles. I’ll warn you up front that – once I get on this topic – one thought tends to lead quickly to another. For instance, one of my favorite quotes (whose origin is unfortunately unknown to me) is:

“A leader leads by example – whether he intends to or not.”

From childhood on, we learn who are – and who are not – real leaders, simply by watching those who would aspire to leadership. If we see them set a good example, we may follow them. If not, we won’t (hopefully.) But – either way, and for better or worse – their actions cause a reaction in us.

Sometimes that reaction is to say, “Even I can do better than that,” and become leaders ourselves. Which fits in neatly with this closing thought from Ralph Nader:

“I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”

How A Melody “For Just One Night” Has Lasted 190 Years

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008

190 years ago today, Father Josef Mohr had a musical/mouse problem. Rodents had chewed through the leather bellows of the pump organ at his tiny Church of St. Nicholas in the village of Oberndorff, high up in the Austrian Alps. The hymns of his Christmas Eve midnight mass would have to be sung a capella. The organ was going to be silent.

Unfortunately for Father Joe, he had chosen this particular Christmas Eve to write a poem which he hoped to have the church organist, Franz Gruber, accompany. When Franz told him about the busted bellows, the good father was so disappointed that Gruber made a very unusual suggestion for that day and age. It seems his wife had recently given him a guitar, and he could now – sometimes – play 4 chords (which, when you think about it, is more than Elvis needed for two decades.)

At Fr. Joe’s urging, Franz agreed to compose a simple little melody that would would suffice for this one Christmas Eve. Next year, when the organ was working again, he promised to create something lasting, grand, and glorious.

And so it was – on December 24th, 1818 – the congregation of the Church of St. Nicholas first heard Gruber’s temporary tune. It must have made a wonderful impression – the congregation has continued the tradition of singing the hymn to guitar accompaniment every Christmas Eve since.)

Over the next 25 years, the song spread, but not the story of its creation. Ultimately, it was published in sheet music form throughout Europe. But every version listed its composers as “Anonymous,” “Traditional,” or “Unknown.”

Then, in 1843, a music salesman stopped in at the tiny church in Oberndorff. Even after all those years, Franz Gruber was still the organist and choir master. As Franz thumbed through a folio of the salesman’s songs, he was astonished to see his melody prominently displayed. Only then did he learn that his simple little tune had become famous. And only then could we know that this beloved Christmas musical treasure was written at a moment when desperation and inspiration collided head-on.

And an organist with no organ to play (and only 4 chords on his guitar) lovingly crafted a melody “for one night” that we still sing every Christmas season: “Silent Night.”

Thanks To Henry VIII For A Christmas Not-So Favorite

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

One of the holiday tunes I have traditionally least enjoyed playing is “The 12 Days Of Christmas.”

Long before we ever get to those “lords a-leaping” and “maids a-milking,” I’ve always been pretty well ready to move on to “Deck The Halls.” But – it turns out – there is much more to this song than meets the ear.

Henry VIII’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn led the Catholic monarch to form a new, official state church cleverly called “The Church Of England.” After searching throughout his realm for someone qualified to lead his fledgling religious undertaking, Henry chanced to look in a mirror – saw himself – and knew he’d found his man.

Thus began 100 years of Catholic persecution in Britain. Many of the faithful left the country. But others went underground, becoming nominally Anglican (but really closet-Catholics.) In order to teach their children the catechism without being outed as “papists,” they wrote a ditty which carefully hid religious instruction between the lines.

The “true love” who bestows all these wonderful gifts is God. But why “a partridge in a pear tree?” Well – any bird will fuss if you come too close to her nest, but partridges will sacrifice their lives for their young. Picture Jesus on a tree.

The two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments, three French hens (gifts fit for a king) are gold, frankincense, and myrrh, while those four calling birds are named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

And on it goes, including the Beatitudes, faithful disciples, and Days of Creation – if you know how to decode the lyrics.

Now that I have a basic understanding of the inventiveness (and faithfulness) of these poor people whose only sin was being on the wrong side of Henry’s libido, I don’t have the heart to call their song my least favorite any more.

So – for now – that bumps “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” up to Number 1 on my Yuletide Yuk List. (That is, until someone convinces me that Grandma represents traditional values, while the reindeer stands for the crass commercialization of Christmas, run amok.)

“The ANGELS Make It Possible, Dad.”

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

As a kid growing up in North Texas, I had the great fortune to be in viewing range of what was then WBAP-TV, Channel 5. The weatherman at that station was Harold Taft. Every Christmas Eve, he would have the camera zoom in on the radar, where I could see that Santa – in an extremely low-tech sleigh – was headed straight for my house. It was magic, and is one of my many wonderful Christmas memories.

By the time our son Erik was born, that magic was gone from the local newscasts – a fact which became glaringly obvious to me the Christmas that Erik was 4. He and I were watching the evening news together, both snuggled into my easy chair. A Ted Baxter-type (which is a meaningless cultural reference for those of you too young to remember the Mary Tyler Moore TV show) began to prattle about a current wire service story calculating how little time Santa would have to stop at each house in the world – even if he used the time zones in his favor. As I recall, he claimed that St. Nick would have less than 1/100th of a second per house.

At this awful news, Erik got up from the chair and went off by himself to ponder the implications. Meanwhile, I contemplated the scathing letter I was going to write the talking head from TV. But soon, Erik was back, and he had experienced an epiphany – a “Eureka!” moment of crystal clarity – that made my wrath at the news anchor vanish completely.

“Dad,” he said. “Since Santa is friends with God and Jesus, and the angels work for God, I’ll bet that – at Christmas – Santa asks God if he can borrow His angels to help him deliver presents to all those kids around the world who would never get one if Santa had to work alone. It’s the angels that make it possible.”

I congratulated him on arriving at the only possible answer, and told him that he absolutely had to be right. I may have neglected to mention that the reason I was so sure of this was that the angels at our house need about 4 hours to put a bicycle together. (We’re not very good at that 1/100th of a second thing.)

I had thought the magic of the season was gone forever. But that’s because I’d been looking at Christmas through my eyes, not my 4-year old’s. Now that I know where (and how) to look, there is Christmas magic everywhere. So the next time holiday stresses rob you of your Yuletide joy, spend a moment seeing Christmas through the eyes of a child.

They see the angels all around us that you and I sometimes overlook.

One MORE Party Detail To Worry About!

Monday, December 15th, 2008

So far – knock wood – I’m still getting calls for parties next year. Looks like I won’t have to go looking for a real job, quite yet.

I missed the onset of The Great Depression by a couple of decades, but – here in North Texas – we had a mini-meltdown in the late 1980s that was close enough. More than once back then, I showed up to play for Christmas parties – only to find that an entire company had gone out of business, or had closed their Dallas offices.

The same financial foolishness that triggered our regional downturn twenty years ago is now creating both national, and even world-wide, havoc. This time, I plan to learn from my past. And I would love nothing more than to be able to help you survive, too.

If you are reading this column, you probably have a party in your immediate future. You are going to need a venue, and – depending on the services provided by them – you may also be in the market for a caterer, florist, decorator, wedding coordinator, band, deejay, photographer, and/or cake baker.

Chances are you will base your choices on a wide variety of criteria. But – in today’s economy – one of your biggest considerations should be: will this vendor still be in business when my event occurs? During our local recession in the ’80s, dozens of my competitors either traded their spandex pants for Dockers and day jobs, or else they hightailed it to someplace where business was booming. Either way, each month I heard from clients whose music provider was no longer available. The same was true in all other aspects of the party industry.

This time, even venues are not immune. Six months from now, will your first choice of location still be in operation? If not – what will you do then?

As a hopeless optimist, I hate to be sounding alarms here. It feels out of character for me, and the last thing any of us needs to do is make the situation worse by pushing the Panic Button. But planning a big event is plenty hard enough, without adding the pressure of worrying over whether the vendors you contract with today will be in bankruptcy proceedings tomorrow. My recommendation is that – when making your selections – you factor in whose pockets are deep enough to survive in a tough economy. And – not to be too obviously self-serving here – who has ridden out the financial storms of the past?

So please forgive me if my usual Pollyanna personality has turned to gloomy Cassandra for the day. It’s just that – when the book of your party is written – I would hate for it to start with Chapter 11. And you would hate it even more.

When Is A Christmas Program NOT A Christmas Program?

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

I was honored to have the opportunity to speak to a group of retired college educators this week. The occasion was what we folks from Mayberry used to call a “Christmas party.” But – since these good folks had toiled at a state college – political correctness required that it be known as a “holiday” gathering. (It could be worse, I guess. They could have called it a “Winter Solstice Celebration.”)

Anyway, my task was to figure out how to deliver a Christmas program that wouldn’t step on the sensitive toes of any of the guests. My solution, such as it was, was to do my regular movie program (“Hollywood: Where The Inmates Run The Asylum”), with the addition of some film-related seasonal tunes at the end (specifically “White Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”)

It seemed to work okay, and nobody threw anything. But two conversations I’ve had since the event left me scratching my head at how PC we’ve all become. One of my Muslim friends wished me a “Merry Christmas,” which prompted me to ask him if he would have been offended by a “Christmas” program at a “Christmas” party. To my surprise, he told me that his all-American kids always celebrated Christmas, and that Santa never by-passed their house. He thought our national political correctness fetish was well-intentioned, but an unnecessary over-reaction.

The other conversation was with my Missus, the lovely Gina Tanner. We passed by a shop bearing seasonal greetings in the two most common languages of our town, English and Spanish. The sign said “Happy Holidays” and “Feliz Navidad.” She asked me what the literal translation of Feliz Navidad was, and I told her: “Merry Christmas.”

“So how come,” she asked, “we can say Merry Christmas, as long as we say it in Spanish?”

Quien sabe – who knows? But please excuse me if I think todos el mundo (the whole freakin’ world) has gone loco en la cabeza (stark raving nuts.)

Running An Entire Party On “Senior Time”

Monday, December 8th, 2008

As I’ve noted before, Seniors tend to be the first ones to arrive at a party, as well as the first to leave. Even at occasions like weddings, where they make up only one segment of the audience, I always encourage my brides to accommodate their Senior guests by scheduling such activities as the first dance and cake cutting earlier – rather than later – in the evening.

But what if your whole crowd is made up of Seniors?

Well, the party planners at a church event I played last night had a novel answer for that question. Instead of the traditional 30 – 60 minutes of gathering and visiting time common at the start of parties, as soon as the first guests came into the room, they were pointed toward the buffet line. Each new group of party-goers followed them through the buffet, resulting in a steady stream of diners, but no long lines. By the “official” start time of the event, over half the guests were already seated at their tables, chowing down. And nobody had waited over a minute or two in line.

A brief benediction, giving thanks for the food already consumed, followed. Then, I had the pleasure of delivering a Christmas program. After me came dessert, coffee – and visiting time. Those who wanted to be the first out the door felt free to leave, knowing that they hadn’t missed any of the food or the show. And those who wanted to stay for a chat with old or new friends were welcome to do so.

In short, every aspect of the perfect party was covered. Only the typical order was reversed.

And – for this particular group – I can honestly say that these Seniors loved the changes.

Sorry I Haven’t Written

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

I really enjoy these twice-weekly opportunities to share insights, answer your questions, and – occasionally – vent whatever is on my mind.

But this week – I am both surprised and thrilled to say – there simply isn’t time to write. Business is booming (contrary to what you read in the newspapers.)

Next week, I should have a little bit more breathing room. In the meantime, please feel free to browse through previous postings or e-mail me any specific questions you may have.

All the best, Dave T

The BEST Way To Know If A Band Is Right For YOU!

Monday, December 1st, 2008

A lot of my band’s business comes through referrals. Mom of brides-to-be chat with moms of recent brides, while their daughters trade insights and horror stories. Often, something a bride or mom says favorably about us seems to result in quick phone calls to me. If I’m available, within the bride’s budget, and if I don’t say something stoopid to cause the family to re-think their decision, a contract soon follows.

Referrals from wedding veterans whose tastes are similar to yours – and whose opinions you trust – are a good way to narrow down your music provider options. In fact, I would say they are the second-best way of all.

But – when time and schedules permit – the best way is still to see the band or deejay you are considering yourself. After all, this is your wedding, and that’s supposed to be a pretty big deal. With luck, it will be the only time you get married, and it ought to be perfect.

However, seeing the band doesn’t just involve dropping by the local club where they perform. If at all possible, you want to see them in a wedding situation, and one which is as close to yours as possible.

Why?

Because the band than can rock your socks off in a night club may not have another speed (or volume) that will be appropriate for your dinner hour. They may not know the tunes your older guests want to hear. Even if you see a song list on their website, you have no way of knowing how long it may have been since they last played your special favorite tunes.

With deejays, of course, you don’t have to worry whether everybody on stage knows your favorite song all the way through. But you still ought to see how he or she works the crowd, announces the evening’s special moments, and is sensitive to the volume needs of the crowd.

So, any time and every time you can, start with referrals. (If you don’t have any friends who’ve recently survived a big wedding, your venue or coordinator can probably give you some references.) If you’ve already picked a videographer, they may have some good footage available of the musicians in action.

But – for peace of mind – nothing takes the place of your eyes and ears helping you make an informed decision about the people whom you will be counting on to create exactly the right mood. It will be time well spent.