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Once Upon A Time

In an earlier creative life, I was part of a small group of voice-over artists doing a radio spot for a retailer’s anniversary campaign. The end of the piece called for a simple arrangement of “Happy Birthday.” The producer rolled tape, and we sang. After a brief pause, he hit the talk-back button and said, “Okay, let’s try one more. Michael, why don’t you lay out on this one.” Lay out. On Happy Birthday. So I stopped singing.


Years passed, and many birthday celebrations came and went. I laid out for a while, but secretly practiced “Happy Birthday,” focusing on maintaining proper pitch. After a while, I was able to get through the piece without drifting. Then came the next step in my journey – keeping my pitch when someone added harmony. Now, I know it sounds like a pretty simple task, but for me, it was nearly impossible. Making it even more vexing is the fact that my wife is a singer. A really really really good singer, who has taught countless others to sing correctly and beautifully. She fills the world with beautiful noise. I have the noise part down…

After years of private practice, and lots of positive and negative reinforcement, I can now get through a spirited Happy Birthday on pitch most of the time. I do have to close my eyes and visualize the notes, but hey, at least nobody asks me to lay out!


Granddaughter Chloe has a straightforward way of communication. On her third birthday, I was rather enthusiastically singing Happy Birthday. More than once. In the middle of my third or fourth rendition, she gently but firmly placed her three-year-old hand over my mouth and said, with love and seriousness, “Stop singing, Papa.”  


So I laid out.

I Just Can’t Help Myself

Yesterday, I was pulling out of the Cookie Crock parking lot when I spotted a friend walking towards the entrance. Facebook had earlier notified me that it was her birthday, so, without thinking, I began to sing “Happy Birthday” out the car window. She glanced around, trying to locate the source of the sound. Rather than finishing the song, I waved and got out of the car for a proper greeting and a short, lovely chat. A smart move, considering I was approaching the part of the song that requires me to close my eyes and focus on my pitch. Anyone who has been in the parking lot of the Crock knows that it demands wide-open eyes, good ears, cat-like reflexes and a deep faith in a higher power to navigate the terrain safely.

When Last We Spoke

I remembered that the last time we had spoken in person I had done a poor job expressing my thoughts, leaving the impression that I was upset or angry. I was able to go home, collect my thoughts, and figure out what I was trying to communicate. I then put the right words into the proper sequence, writing rather than streaming. I’m glad I recognized my missteps and doubly glad I was able to express my thoughts adequately to a person I much admire and respect. She is a person who lives her values, which is endlessly inspiring. She deserves a quality rendition of “Happy Birthday!”

The reality is that, much like my singing, I don’t always hit all the intended notes, sometimes drifting and clanging off of random thoughts that seem connected in my mind, but can land atonally on unsuspecting listeners.

This Seems Familiar

In my creative days, I would often find myself in maniacal sessions with a collaborator, throwing jokes, musical ideas and characters around looking for a better more perfect scene. It was great fun and very fulfilling, though it often required an adult to be in the room, capturing the best thoughts and keeping a loose perimeter around the proceedings, lest we combust into a puff of nonsense. Afterward, I would retreat to my home studio and spend hours and days shaping and polishing those ideas into songs and scenes, putting the right sounds and rhythms to the words and music.


Evidence of Creative Collusion!

Later, in my “real job” phase, I was fortunate to experience a similar creative world. Designers, engineers and product managers replaced the playwrights and actors, with business leaders acting as the adult. The differences were not so significant, though; creative people set loose together in search of innovation. Later, we would retreat to our spaces, open our tool kits, and turn that creative chaos into rigorously constructed solutions.

Chaos, Focus, Results

Through all of these phases, I have come to recognize where I am most effective at communication, and where the madness in my methods can be at times distracting, confusing, annoying and intrusive. Try as I might, though, I have not quite figured out how to get to the end without going through the beginning. 

So I lay out for a verse or two.

Mirror, Mirror

Watching others communicate is often enlightening. At the monthly Community Services meetings, a core group of citizens joins the board and staff in reviewing the activities of the district. It is unusual to have a meeting where the regulars don’t speak out. Some comments reveal a detailed understanding of complex challenges. Some posit little more than entrenched opinions that, while often well stated, contribute little towards moving us all forward. The core message from the core messengers is usually “No.” No compromise, and no respect for different views and approaches, while at the same time demanding respect and acquiescence to their viewpoints. It often feels like a ceaseless campaign to grind everyone and everything down to the point of surrender. Requests for balance are taken as demands for silence. A large group of citizens who volunteer their time and expertise towards the betterment of all is often overshadowed by the sideshow stars who demand a solo.


We could all benefit from occasionally laying out, and making time to listen to ourselves with honest ears. It might increase our ability to sing in harmony.