Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Voice, Collaboration, Virtual Choirs, and Rising Up

October 10, 2020

There’s a heartbreakingly beautiful story to be told here—the story of how online interactions involving music, collaboration, the human voice, and activism are creating light and fostering positive action in times of darkness. The story of how online collaborations are drawing us together at a time when “social distances” are overwhelming so many people. And the story of why the arts remain an essential part of the human experience.

The story is rooted in the realization that there is something primally comforting and deeply inspirational about musical collaboration involving the human voice. It flows from the recognition that singing together can be a language of community. Creativity. And hope. Singing together and hearing others sing together in our online/social-distancing/sheltering-in-place/pandemic-plagued world are proving to be ways—for those of us not facing barriers to our access to the Internet and the tools needed to use it effectively—to build or further develop strong social connections rather than succumbing to isolation and social distances. Singing together and/or hearing others sing online are ways of using technology to overcome rather than to create distances, to bring us together in ways that allow us to build upon our shared interests and social needs rather than being dispirited by challenges that appear to be too large to tackle.

My own introduction to the concept of virtual choirs and online performances came a little more than a year ago (in May 2019), in a pre-coronavirus world, when I was lucky enough to see and hear virtual-choir pioneer Eric Whitacre demonstrating and embracing us with the power of global online choral collaborations in a closing keynote session presented during the ATD (Association of Talent Development) annual International Conference & Exposition (in San Diego). Hearing Whitacre describe and demonstrate what was involved in creating and nurturing virtual choirs and producing online performances was world-changing; it was a first-rate example of what we foster when we use technology as a tool and focus on the beauty of our creative spirit in the arts and many other endeavors—including training-teaching-learning, which draws the thousands of ATD members globally together.

Thoughts of virtual choirs and online performances receded into the inner recesses of my mind for several months. Then, in March 2020, we entered the “three-week” (now seven-month) period of sheltering-in-place guidelines put into place here in a six-county coalition within the San Francisco Bay Area and, soon thereafter, in other parts of the United States, in response to the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic on our shores.

It was a recommendation from friend/colleague/co-conspirator in training-teaching-learning Jill Hurst-Wahl that rekindled my interest that month in virtual choirs and what they suggest in terms of online collaborative possibilities for all of us: the recommendation to watch a virtual-choir rendition of “Helplessly Hoping,” performed and recorded by Italy’s Il coro che non c’è (The Choir That Isn’t There). As was the case with seeing and hearing Whitacre’s virtual choir a year earlier, the experience of hearing and seeing the students in Il coro was transformative. Encouraging. Emotionally-engaging. Inspiring. Tremendously moving. And it made me want to hear more. Which led me to the work of Canada’s Phoenix Chamber Choir. The playfully creative online performances of musicians involved in a live virtual “coffee house” concert, complete with audience interactions via a conference backchannel, during the ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man weeklong summer camp in July 2020 for dreamer-doer-drivers working to shape the future of learning in the digital age. The virtual sing-along videos (including two versions of “Vote Him Way (the Liar Tweets Tonight”) created by singer-songwriter-satirist-activist Roy Zimmerman and his co-writer/wife Melanie Harby. And so many more.

But it’s Zimmerman’s work that most effectively shows us how we might use social media and online interactions to create that intersection of music, collaboration, the human voice, and activism. Because he is engaging. Because he is part of that ever-growing group of first-rate artist-activists who are exploring online alternatives and environments in response to the loss of the onsite venues and interactions that were their lifeblood before the coronavirus arrived. Because he is effectively using Facebook and YouTube, through his “Live from the Left Coast” performances, to not only to stay in touch with and further cultivate his audience, but to nurture relationships between those audience members through his use of online chat within those platforms. Because he is among those participating in the new “Trumped By Music” project initiated by a Dutch/American team “that wants to provide a platform for anti-Trump musicians to be seen and heard… We want to provide maximum exposure for this passionate and vocal community! Our aim is to help our featured artists gain exposure for their message, as well as stimulate musicians to send us new content.” And because his work is reaching and inspiring others equally committed to using music in deeply-emotional ways to foster social change—as was the case with Wilmington Academy Explorations teacher Sandy Errante and her husband, Wilmington Symphony Orchestra conductor Steven Errante.

The pre-coronavirus virtual meeting of Zimmerman and the Errantes is centered around Zimmerman’s incredibly moving song “Rise Up” (co-written with Harby). It was inspired by the students who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School [Parkland, Florida] on Valentine’s Day in 2018 and who turned their experience into the March for Our Lives/Vote for Our Lives/Never Again movement that, six weeks later, inspired marches in more than 500 cities around the world. His rendition of the song as a duet with Laura Love was included on his Rize Up CD in 2018. And that’s where the story becomes very interesting, as Sandy Errante explained in a recent email exchange we had:

“My husband and I had heard Roy perform at the Unitarian Church in Wilmington before. We loved his satire, his energy, his passion, his humor and his music. And then…

“One Thursday evening after my rehearsal with the Girls’ Choir of Wilmington, I was on the way home when our local radio station, WHQR, started advertising an upcoming concert at the UU with Roy. The radio announcer, George Sheibner, played a song I had not heard before—Rise Up. As I drove along listening, I was captivated by the lyrics, the music, the harmonies and suspensions, and the message. By the end of the song and the final chorus, I was in tears. I knew the Girls’ Choir had to sing this piece. But how to make that happen? 

“I reached out to my husband, who was on his way to a rehearsal with the Wilmington Youth Orchestra. Steve is an arranger and a composer, and I needed him to know right away that this was something we absolutely HAD to do. He asked me to find a recording of the song. I did. And I hunted down the contact info for Roy, using my contacts at the UU church. Once we had permission from Roy to proceed, we started imagining this song as told from the children’s perspective. We altered the lyrics just a bit [changing it from the point of view of adults addressing the Parkland survivors to the point of view of the students themselves]. Now we had a song that the girls could sing from their hearts. We had a youth orchestra that could accompany. We had a performance in the making.­

“After all was said and done, we concurred, this IS their world and this was their song.”

And it remains our song—our anthem—in this pandemic, shelter-in-place world, through its availability on YouTube (with the girls’ choir) and on the CD. It’s there for them—and for us—as we continue seeking light and inspiration while living through devastatingly tragic times. Times of great division and conflict. Times that are, for many, overwhelming. And, as is often the case in tragic, divisive, conflict-ridden times, times that are also inspiring tremendous levels of creativity and opportunities for collaboration designed to foster positive change—which we nurture through our support and engagement in any and every way we can.

Update: Roy Zimmerman and Melanie Harby have posted a piece about the collaboration that produced their recent “My Vote, My Voice, My Right” video and included links to other virtual collaborations of that particular song: https://www.royzimmerman.com/blog/my-vote-my-voice-my-right.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-first in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: “And I Am…”

September 13, 2020

Our most challenging times are generally the times when I am most drawn to the arts for comfort, solace, and inspiration. It is, therefore, no surprise to me that as I continue adapting to and working within shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to a coronavirus pandemic, I am spending inordinate amounts of time lately returning to and exploring, more deeply than ever before, authors I admire and adore—people like Scott Russell Sanders, who over a long period of time, has consistently produced lyrical, thoughtful essays and much more, including his newly-released collection, The Way of Imagination. I was drawn back to Sander’ A Private History of Awe a few weeks ago when intense, hours-long lightning and thunder storms reminded me of the stunning opening of that book, in which Sanders recalls being four years old, standing with his father, and watching lightning shatter a magnificent, stately old oak tree.

My re-immersion into the arts has also brought me into contact with the work of wonderful singer-songwriter-satirists like Roy Zimmerman, who in the most dazzling yet down-to-earth ways mixes humor, biting social satire, and a sense of humanity that runs deeper than any river upon which I have ever rafted. Watching videos that capture his work spanning nearly a couple of decades has given me a strong appreciation for what he does and offers. Seeing some of his latest videos—including new, powerfully poignant collaborations along the lines of what he does in “Driving While Black” with Clovice Lewis, Jr. and the two versions he has recorded of “The Liar Tweets Tonight”—suggests to me that no matter how much recognition he receives for his work, he will always deserve even more. And catching a few of his free online “Live from the Left Coast” concerts over the past few weeks on Facebook and YouTube makes me wonder what rock I have been sleeping under while he has been out there entertainingly, provocatively, and lovingly shining light so effectively where it needs to be shone, how I could have missed, for so long, wonderful songs like “I Approve This Message,” which is as funny, poignant, and moving a song as any “protest” song I have ever heard, with its litany of “I ams” beginning with “I am the doughnut lady, I am the civil engineer, I am the tractor salesman who is a stand-up comic at his own daughter’s wedding…” and becoming more engaging as the song continues.

What has been most rewarding and transformative, however, is spotting the artistry in places where I usually do not seek it, as in letters from friends and colleagues. Those letters, like the one I received via email a couple of days ago from someone who is married to a firefighter in a rural part of Northern California devastated by wildfires, absolutely floor me through their combination of honesty, poignancy, and razer-sharp focus. They remind me of the inner artist each of us carriers and so often fails to take the time to nurture. And they further awaken the storyteller in me who wants to highlight other people’s stories as much as, if not more than, I tend to highlight my own.

With that in mind, I contacted the friend for permission to reprint a lightly-edited version of her story here—edited not because it needed any sort of rewriting, but because she and her husband are incredibly private people who do not, in any way, want to call attention to themselves at a time when so many others need our attention and support. The edits, therefore, remove references by specific name to the people she is describing and to the area in which they are living. But even with those omissions, the piece stands out to me as an example of the “…and I am…” approach Zimmerman adopts in singing about those people we mistakenly think of as “average Americans” when, in reality, they are so much more than the word “average” can ever begin to convey:

“It’s been an absolute life-changing devastation for almost everyone in our lives. And it’s so layered it’s hard to stay focused these days. My husband’s parents lost absolutely everything. He and I and his sister had a lot of belongings there too because we all still had our two “bedrooms” to stay in while visiting and store stuff. Not to mention all their childhood stuff. All the pictures and mementos. Not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of items and equipment and vehicles. They had been in that house for over 30 years. When the house got surrounded and his parents had left, my husband got there right after and tried to turn the sprinklers on, but the power was out, so the water pump wouldn’t work. My heart aches for him having to watch it all go up. And then he had to watch his aunt and uncle’s house go up. His dad’s sister and husband’s. And then watch all of our friends lose all of their homes. He was working with four of our close friends who are also firefighters, and they all lost their homes too. I believe two lives (an older gentleman who wouldn’t leave his home, and a lady who got trapped) and 150+ houses were lost so far.

“So much has been lost. There are so many displaced families and people. So many people with just the shirts on their backs. And, sadly, many people down there couldn’t afford fire insurance, so that adds a whole other problem to the list of problems. Almost everyone we know with family and friends is completely homeless. So many animals lost, too, which is absolutely heartbreaking. Many died and many are just missing. Thankfully, people from local agencies have gone down, collected, and are housing a lot of displaced animals until they can reunite.

“It’s an absolute chaotic nightmare. But there’s some things to be thankful for as well. My mother and her husband have not lost anything so far. And I’m so happy everyone we know and love is safe and alive. Stuff is just stuff. Lives matter more and cannot be replaced. If that had happened in the middle of the night on that one way in-one way out creek road, in the dark, people confused from sleep, in a fire going 50+ mph, it could have been even worse. When we lose one or two people in town it’s horrific. But to think we could have 20-30+ people missing or dead right now would make it so much worse. And to see everyone help one another and pull together brings hope. We can always rebuild.

“There’s so much hurt right now, I’m trying to just stay focused on my husband. Because he’s my priority, and I know how much family and friends mean to him, and he’s the biggest softie sweetie in the world. He’s being exceptionally hard on himself, feeling like as a firefighter he should have been able to save everything or anything. Feels like he’s failed his whole family and all our friends. But he’s so exhausted he hasn’t had a moment to process or grieve in any way. And everyone grieves differently, so I just have to give him time. He worked for over 40 hours straight before finally getting four hours of sleep. Hopefully, he will get a little more tonight.”

I devour Sanders’ work. I sink into Zimmerman’s music. And I immerse myself into my friend’s powerful description of how the current wildfires are affecting her and the people around her. And because they all are so compelling in their ability to capture essential truths and inspire empathy, Zimmerman’s refrain “…and I am…” makes me more of whom I am than I otherwise would be.

–N.B.: This is the twentieth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


ALA Annual Conference 2012: Ideas, Inspiration, and Meals of Food and Challenges

June 22, 2012

Gather small groups of training-teaching-learning colleagues over meals, as I have so many times over the past few years while attending conferences, and you’ll find yourself exploding with ideas. Inspiration. And the rewards of intellectual and collegial engagement.

Which is exactly what happened once again when that sort of group here in Anaheim for the 2012 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference broke bread this evening—actually, we broke Chinese food, but there’s no need to be overly precise about this—and eventually moved toward a very spirited discussion about some of the trends and challenges we face in libraries as well as in other industries.

We were a smaller than usual group this time—eight instead of the usual 10 to 15—and it worked out very well. Partially because most of us found common ground through our affiliations with libraries and/or library organizations. And partially because, as usual, the gathering included some healthy cross-pollination of ideas—this time through the inclusion of two non-library colleagues from the Orange County Chapter of the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD).

There was the usual time spent just becoming reacquainted and welcoming those new friends into the group. And then we not-too-surprisingly found ourselves acknowledging that the challenges we encounter in workplace learning and performance (staff training) programs transcend industry barriers.

But what was most engaging and inspiring was not the simple recitation of what’s wrong with what we and our learners are doing; it was the willingness to dream of potential solutions to the challenges we and our learners face. In discussing the challenge of not losing institutional/ organizational knowledge as colleagues move on to other positions or retire entirely—regardless of whether we’re talking about libraries, ASTD chapters, or any other organization or group—we proposed and considered a variety of potential solutions. Wikis (which received an almost universal thumbs-down because too few people are willing to dedicate the time and effort to make a wiki thrive). Short work sabbaticals during which colleagues would take time to document the knowledge and experience they have acquired. Top-down implementation of formal knowledge-retention efforts. Informal cross-training so departing colleagues leave those still in the workplace with the knowledge needed to continue and to thrive. And even making it a requirement of a job or a service position that employees/volunteers create documentation of what they do and how they do it.

When all was said and done, we found ourselves returning to what’s at the heart of all successful training-teaching-learning: concentrating on the people, not the tech tools. Our mantra, in fact, could easily be “peer to peer; no technology”—as one colleague suggested—if we want to create a sustainable pattern of retaining and learning from the wisdom of our workplace crowds.

As the conversation moved into another perennial topic—learners who are far from engaged in the learning process—we found a variety of suggestions covering a variety of extremes. One on side, there was the dream of making learning so engaging that learners actively pursue those learning opportunities. On the opposite end of the discussion, there was the practice of firing those who will not learn and support an organization’s efforts to survive in what is clearly a very competitive environment.

And no, please don’t assume that this was just a bunch of trainers kicking around ideas with no hope of implementing them. We know of trainer-teacher-learners who successfully and consistently draw learners to their workshops, seminars, and asynchronous offerings because they are so engaging. We also know of organizations where those unwilling to keep up with changing worksite needs are offered one of two choices: rise to the challenge or rise to the need to find new work before being removed from their current positions—the choice was the employees’ choice to make.

It’s clearly sobering as well as invaluable to create and take advantage of the opportunities a conference provides for this level of conversation and exchange. It’s what draws many of us to conferences and other learning opportunities. We have the opportunity to draw upon the thoughts and experiences of some of the brightest people we know or are about to meet. It provides us with a chance to float ideas that otherwise might not have been considered. And it reminds us that rethinking our beliefs and our assumptions can be a very healthy endeavor, both for the chance it gives us to reaffirm what we hold dear, and to recognize the need to change what we might unnecessarily—and to our collective detriment—be retaining.

N.B.: Sharon Morris and I, on Sunday, June 24, 2012, will be facilitating a 90-minute workshop on how to engage workplace learners. The session, under the auspices of the ALA Learning Round Table, begins at 10:30 am at the ALA Annual Conference here in Anaheim, in Convention Center Room 203B. Hope you’ll join us for what promises to be an engaging discussion.


Jonah Lehrer: Creatively Imagining Solutions

June 19, 2012

Imagine a book with an approach so creative and so playfully appealing that we run out and buy it, devour it, look for interviews with the author, and then dive into the promotional video as well as other videos because we discover depths in the work that we suspect we’ll never grow tired of exploring. Then realize you don’t have to imagine it, because Jonah Lehrer has written it.

Reading Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works pulls us onto familiar turf—the study of creativity, how the brain works, how we resolve the numerous challenges life tosses our way, and how we as trainer-teacher-learners can more effectively fulfill our potential. It also takes us down some intriguing paths by creatively using storytelling to help us understand how much effort is required to produce what so often appears to be an unearned flash of brilliant insight.

As Malcolm Gladwell so effectively does in Outliers: The Story of Success, Lehrer continually shows us that it’s practice that often can be found at the base of those divine moments of creativity we so admire.

“Creativity shouldn’t be seen as something otherworldly,” he writes near the beginning of his book. “It shouldn’t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other ‘creative types.’ The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code. At any given moment, the brain is automatically forming new associations, continually connecting an everyday x to an unexpected y.

Drawing from research into the way the brain works, he helps us understand what we can do to nurture our own creative impulses.

“When our minds are at ease…we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere”—a practice we can foster in our students through the learning opportunities we provide. “In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we’re trying to solve….It’s not until we’re being massaged by warm water, unable to check our e-mail, that we’re finally able to hear the quiet voices in the backs of our heads telling us about the insight. The answers have been there all along—we just weren’t listening” (pp. 31-32).

There’s plenty here for those steeped in adult learning theory as proposed by Malcolm Knowles in The Adult Learner and Robert Gagné in The Conditions of Learning.  In the same way that Knowles and Gagné encouraged us to recognize that learners progress by building upon what they already know, Lehrer looks into the way our brain functions and he reports that a newly created thought is “transmitted back to its source—those pleasure-hungry dopamine cells in the midbrain—so the neurons learn from the new idea. ‘We call that a recursive loop,’ [Earl] Miller says. ‘It allows the system to feed on itself, so that one idea leads naturally to the next. We can then build on these connections, so that they lead to other, richer connections’” (pp. 67-68).

Those steeped in the theory and reality of the way we approach change—ranging  from Everett Rogers and his seminal work Diffusion of Innovations to Dan Ariely and his Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions—will be equally intrigued by the insights Lehrer provides through his summaries of brain-based research. Taking something as simple as the transformations we undergo as a result of traveling to new places, he observes that “[w]hen we get home, home is still the same. But something in our minds has been changed, and that changes everything” (p. 130)—an observation that presciently captures what happens to us in the course of traveling with Lehrer through Imagine.

By the time we finish reading the book, we recognize that something in our minds has changed. Reading and trying to solve the brain teasers he provides early in the text makes us more aware of how we approach problem-solving. Reading about how Yo-Yo Ma, Bob Dylan, Milton Glaser, and many others diligently approach their craft helps change the way we approach our own. And reading how creative teams that aren’t completely inbred and, at the same time, are not completely composed of individuals who have never worked together before makes us more aware of the successful learning teams we have been lucky enough to join.

Yet even as he works to show us the magic behind what so often appears to be creative legerdemain, Lehrer is smart enough to know that even though we are making great strides in understanding the science behind our creative processes, there is still something innately human about retaining a sense of awe when we explore this subject: “Creativity is like that magic trick. For the first time, we can see the source of imagination, that massive network of electrical cells that lets us constantly form new connections between old ideas….There will always be something slightly miraculous about the imagination.” (p. 251).

N.B.: For a look at how Lehrer’s book can guide us in developing effective communities of practice, please see “Imagine, Creativity, and Communities of Practice” in ASTD’s Learning Circuits online publication. And for information about the publisher’s withdrawal of Imagine, please see this updated posting.


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