Learn to play, play to learn

IMG_6416Denise has been reacquainting herself with what it’s like to be a student. She’s started learning cello, taking two lessons a week. She loves the instrument as well as the chance to learn more about the student-teacher relationship. “As an adult you miss that sort of thing, a regular meeting with someone who’s helping you with some aspect of yourself and you feel very nurtured and cared about. You pay some shrink to listen to you every week, is what most people do. This week my cello teacher canceled a lesson, and I was upset about it. It’s a very intensely personal thing to study an instrument, and since adults are emotionally more rich and more mature, the nature of the relationship with a teacher tends to be that way as well. I’m so completely involved; it just takes you out of your life.” 

{Piano teacher, Denise Kahn, from the book Piano Lessons by Noah Adams}

An accomplished professional decides to learn something new for three clear and powerful reasons:

First, she wants to increase her empathy for her students, reminding herself of what it’s like to be in their shoes. Second, she wants to experience a mature and supportive relationship that will assist in her own teaching by helping her to (third reason) learn more about herself.

Her wisdom is demonstrated by her commitment to continuous learning about herself, others and her vocation.

This is the recipe for all who are committed to being the kind of human beings, perhaps the kind of leaders, who understand that to be well equipped for change and complexity means to willingly challenge our personal, relational, and professional status quo.

Finally, we’d do well to acknowledge that if the word “play” can be applied to something as difficult as learning an instrument, it can certainly be applied to our own pursuits.

What might happen if we played our way into and around these areas of learning? How might that alter our willingness to explore them even more deeply?

If it’s time to learn, it must be time to play. And it’s always time to learn.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Poem for a Sunday Morning

I chose this poem because it reminds me of singing in my college choir. Our director always challenged us to stay energized in the rests, in the silences that occur between every phrase of music. Each of those moments was an opportunity to be present – for just a beat or maybe for many measures – and in that presence to anticipate what was coming next. It was an active participation, even in the silence. It made us better listeners and, as better listeners, even better singers.

He trained us to sing into the silence, to be active in our rest, to create anticipation – even possibility – out of nothing.

Extremes Are Easy

Two buckets were easier carried than one.
I grew up in between.
– Seamus Heaney, “Terminus”

Where one finishes,
the other begins.

Extremes are easy. Only
the middle is a puzzle. Midsummer –
the middle way,
shades of gray,
no absolutes,
only choices.

in-between two notes,
in the pause,
in the silent space between two waves,
in the breath between breaths,
everything is possible.

{W. Craig Gilliam, Where Wild Things Grow}

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

A Week of Thanks: Day 5

fullsizeoutput_1a86I am thankful to walk among giants.

I am thankful for my teachers.

Only a cursory mental review yields too many to name, too many to count, even. The guides, mentors, instructors, influencers who have shaped my life, both head and heart.

Each made a mark at a key moment in my development that was some combination of generous, challenging, loving, corrective and insightful. Each made me stop and reconsider, often with deep resistance, but ultimately with appreciation.

Jim Shepard, my high school choral director, shaped my raw talent into something that I could offer as a soloist and, more importantly, as part of an ensemble. His kind encouragement prepared me for a very different kind of teacher, Paul Salamunovich, for whom I sang in college and of whom, at least in the early going, I was deeply afraid. Paul was demanding in a way I had not experienced it. He was also exceedingly generous because he lived in service of making the most beautiful music possible.

These early experiences as a team member were essential for someone whose learned inclination is to go it alone. They showed me what was possible when preparation, listening, attention, awareness, feedback and practice were fully lived. They gave me the tangible, concrete evidence I needed that any group of people, wholly committed to both the journey and the destination, can create something of soaring significance and meaning.

This learning in my teens and early twenties, was the ignition point for what would become my vocation. Jim and Paul co-planted the seeds that would bloom into not only a desire but a need to see the disciplines of choral music lived out in leadership and organizational life. I couldn’t have told you that then and I barely appreciate now how true a statement it is!

This is why the work of David Whyte found such fertile ground in me. I was prepared, having been shaped by music, to receive his application of poetry and philosophy to the corporate landscape in his book, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. It so arrested me that I remember reading it and having my ‘Eureka!’ moment. “This is it,” I said to myself with the turn of every page. Like borrowing a warm winter coat when all you’ve got is a wind breaker, I took his teaching and made it my own. When I finally had the chance to meet him a few years later, I approached with caution as if trying not to break a spell. I handed over my copy of his book for him to sign and as I did, expressed as best I could just how much it had and was continuing to shape my work. It was a ‘coming full circle’ moment and his graciousness and appreciation lifted me even higher.

In the everyday work of inexpertly applying David’s ideas to my particular organizational experience, I was shaped by the guiding hands of a quartet of ‘advisors’ on whose intellectual and emotional generosity I feasted. Blake McHenry, Cal Harrah, Marlene Laping and Gary Heil kindly and earnestly pushed, pulled, cajoled, enlivened, and exasperated me. I can only imagine their own exasperation at once again encountering the face of my ignorance, struggling to catch-on and keep up. But they never showed it and were steadfastly kind and supportive. Whatever we accomplished in those years is directly attributed to the guiding hands of their influence.

All of this provided me with enough equity, eventually…slowly, to move on to the new experience of starting my own business. And is it continues to grow, taking on dimensions I did not imagine it could, I look back at just this short list of teachers – there are so many more – and offer my deepest appreciation for taking me by the hand and leading me to the deeper water.

I am thankful to stand among giants.

I am thankful for my teachers.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.




The Timelessness of Feeling

There is an odd and unpredictable relationship between my iPhone and my car’s bluetooth receiver (cue, “First World Problem” music).

Sometimes it just starts playing music that I haven’t told it to play. And this is surprising to me because I almost never play music in my car. I am a devoted podcast listener. I am hungry – ceaselessly hungry, it seems – for information. Sometimes current events, often times interviews, but always the spoken word.

The other day, taking my daughter to school, on it came; a random shuffle of the music on my phone. And it was a good song, something from the musical “Next to Normal,” I think. “Oh, this is good,” I said. And we listened. And then I thought, “Well, let’s just see what comes on next.”

“Daniel,” by Elton John. No way I was changing that one.

And then an amazing cover of “Songbird” by Eva Cassidy. Incredible.

One after another these great artists joined me in the car: James Taylor, Pearl Jam, Glen Hansard, Colin Hay, Simon and Garfunkel.

Not once did I want to change to a podcast. I was in a reverie of my music, reminded of what it means to me, grateful for it.

It seems our devices know a lot about us these days. Mine knows something that surprised me, something I am relieved that it knows: that once in a while I need to be washed in the timelessness of feeling instead of the immediacy of knowing.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.


The Courage to Play

I received the following “Words of EnCOURAGEment” this week from Terasa Cooley, Executive Director of the The Center for Courage and Renewal. I hope you appreciate and enjoy it as much as I do and then take a few minutes to go to the Center’s website and learn about their important work.

Back in 2013, Bruce Springsteen pulled a request from an audience member at a concert to play Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.” Which he had never performed before. Which his band had never been prepped for. He hums and strums and struggles to find the right key. The band is looking mystified and frustrated. And then he takes off. After a few bumbles the band kicks in. And then the joy begins. Everyone gets caught up in the pure creative fun, and you can’t watch it without laughing and dancing (even if in your desk chair!).

In today’s fractured and fractious time, it often feels to me like we’ve lost the joy of playing together and risking together. When we’re anxious our instinct is to hold ourselves tight, to contract, to hesitate in case we get it wrong. I know I feel that way. Watching this video and feeling the bubble of joy break through me, I realized how much I need this feeling, and how I need to let myself play!

What would happen if we tried and got it wrong? The world would not crash down. What happens when we hold back? Our souls close down. Bruce Springsteen had the luxury of a band that would play along. Who in your life could play in your proverbial “backup band” while you risk making mistakes and feeling foolish?

I never thought of play requiring courage. But clearly it must, or we would do it more often. Children at play are often fearless. At some point we realize there are consequences to our actions and the fear starts shutting us down. But that child in us still longs to play. My vow to myself is to let her come out and tease me into risking being the fool.