Transcribing Julian Bond

Julian Bond on the streets of the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in 1968, courtesy AP

UVA Today: You can help put Julian Bond’s papers in an online archive. UVA, in this case meaning the Carter G. Woodson Institute of African-American and African Studies, the Small Special Collections Library, the Center for Digital Editing, the Scholars’ Lab, and Virginia Humanities, are sponsoring a two-day event to harness volunteer efforts to transcribe Civil Rights icon and former UVA professor Julian Bond’s papers. (I’ve written a little before about the lessons I learned from Mr. Bond.)

If I lived near Charlottesville, I would attend the event in a heartbeat. But given that the event is happening almost a year to the day after the re-emergence of Nazis in America, and several days after the planned anniversary rally in Washington, DC, I hope that the organizers are taking steps to prevent interference with the process.

Quiet time

The blog is quiet this week thanks to another Tanglewood outing, my second and last for the summer. This week I’m here exercising my straight tone, singing with Herbert Blomstedt on the Haydn Missa in angustiis (aka “Lord Nelson Mass”) and singing a chorus-only Prelude program featuring the Pizzetti Requiem and a set of related Italian choral music.

My colleague Jeff has written about the Pizzetti, so I’ll just add that Pizzetti’s allusions in the piece are maddening. So far I’ve found the connection to Tallis’s Lamentations of Jeremiah in Pizzetti’s setting of the word “Jerusalem” (first movement), and I’ll post others as I find them.

Tanglewood – Chichester, Barber

The first Tanglewood Festival Chorus residency of the season is concluded and it was bittersweet. I got to watch my colleagues perform an astonishing La bohème on Saturday, took in the final rehearsals of the newly formed Boston Symphony Children’s Chorus (though wasn’t able to see their concert), and performed Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” for the first time with the BSO (and about the fifth time in my life).

All of which was a pretty good warmup to the highlight of the weekend, the memorial concert for John Oliver. There were about 175 choristers from all eras of John’s tenure on stage in Ozawa Hall. We performed a set of songs by Samuel Barber, of which I had only performed “Heaven-Haven” (some twenty-eight years previously, with Mike Butterman and the Virginia Glee Club); was familiar with (but had never sung) “Sure on This Shining Night,” and had never heard (“The Coolin” and “To Be Sung on the Water”). The chorus came together in passionate song remarkably quickly, considering how long it had been since some of the members had sung with the TFC (thirty years or more in some cases).

And I was by turns amused and deeply moved by the remembrances by TFC members Brian Robinson and, especially, Paula Folkman. And doubly so by the brief remembrance held earlier in the day at John’s tree (not the one above; I’ll get a picture next week) where Mark Rulison and a crowd of alumni, friends, and family gathered to remember John.

Rebuilding

Twelve years ago, on one of my first trips to Tanglewood, I discovered the hedge maze that abutted the Lawn next to our usual practice spot, the Chamber Music Hall. Cloaked by twelve foot hedges, the center held a fountain overflowing with flowers. Beyond lay a memorial bench commemorating the donation of the Tanglewood property by the Tappan family. The bench was evocatively ruined. It still had a commanding presence but the cracks that ran through it seemingly threatened to send part of it toppling to the ground. Behind: a fifteen foot hedge. Beyond: the road, then the world.

This year we arrived at CMH to see a temporary fence and a blue sky gap in the hedge. The fence surrounded a batch of new hedges barely eighteen inches tall. Beyond: the bench, rebuilt. Without the overgrowth of hedge, the now-reknitted bench, still awaiting the reapplication of its bronze dedication letters, curved like a oyster, inviting and naked. The dark tangled beauty I remembered from twelve years ago was gone, but another beauty now sits revealed, waiting for its letters.

Driving past Arrowhead

I’ve sometimes posted (in the past thirteen years or so of this blog) about my experiences wandering around the Berkshires while out at Tanglewood—the Hancock Shaker Village, Lenox—though during my blog dark period there were several escapades (to Naumkeag and The Mount) that went unrecorded. But what I didn’t appreciate, even after coming out here for so many years, was the degree to which you can literally stumble over fascinating corners everywhere you go out here.

Last night, for instance: I took a shortcut to dinner that led through clusters of houses separated by trees and fields. Looking up, I saw a big sign on the left: “Herman Melville’s Arrowhead.” I’m going to have to find the time to go by and get a tour of the place where Moby-Dick was completed.

Friday Random 10: No Lights edition

Haven’t done one of these in a long time, but a partial power outage at work seems like a good reason to start. Here are the first ten tracks that have spun up from my music player today. I will confess to cheating a little by removing that one Johnny Mathis Christmas tune that came up in the middle.

  1. The Flaming Lips, “Goin’ On,” At War with the Mystics (Deluxe Edition)
  2. Jonny Greenwood, “Bode Radio/Glass Light/Broken Hearts,” Bodysong (Music from the Motion Picture)
  3. Nine Inch Nails, “The Downward Spiral,” The Downward Spiral
  4. Bruce Cockburn, “Yanqui Go Home,” Stealing Fire
  5. Donny McCaslin, “Warszawa,” Beyond Now
  6. Prince, “4 the Tears in Your Eyes,” The Hits/The B-Sides
  7. Pink, “Just Give Me a Reason,” The Truth About Love
  8. Zapp, “So Ruff, So Tuff,” Historia de la Musica Rock: Locas
  9. Red Steagall, “Bob Wills Music” (from my friend Catherine’s mix “Texas Radio and the Big Beat”)
  10. The Bad Plus, “Thriftstore Jewelry,” Prog

Opera crash course

I’ve been up to my eyeballs in opera recordings for the past four or five months. I didn’t have many (well, any) opera recordings prior to that, save a fantastic Colin Davis recording of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust that I ordered after we performed it with the BSO last fall (under Charles Dutoit, but that’s a different story). But then the records started arriving…

There’s something pretty fantastic about being a member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus: your fellow musicians are all well connected to people who have been making and living music for a long time. One of my fellow choristers, for instance, is good friends with the former head usher at Tanglewood. And it turns out that he was a rabid collector of opera recordings, and now needs to downsize his collection. So she asked the group at large, Does anyone want some records? Reader, I said yes.

And then the first batch of recordings arrived a few months ago: two cardboard boxes full of opera sets, most only played once. Huge amounts of Massenet and Verdi, some Douglas Moore (The Devil and Daniel WebsterThe Ballad of Baby Doe), and Meyerbeer and Richard Strauss and Tschaikovsky and…

Needless to say, I’ve been kept busy digitizing and listening. And in the process I’ve learned that I really like listening to opera. It wasn’t something that my family prepared me for—while classical radio was on all they time in my home when I grew up, it was almost always instrumental or (sometimes) sacred choral. Opera was something that we occasionally would tune into with Saturday afternoon Met broadcasts but wouldn’t seek out. My perspective began to change after I started singing in opera choruses with the TFC, but this immersion is really starting to make me want to listen to more.

Which is good, because two new boxes arrived last week. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me…

King’s Weigh House

During our vacation week in London, we walked by the church above probably half a dozen times. I was struck by the structure—the polychrome, the oval chapel—and by the odd coincidence of the church’s presence on Binney Street, which was the address of our first apartment when we moved to Cambridge, Mass.

I finally got around to looking up the church, intrigued by its odd name. The King’s Weigh House church was indeed built over the site of the King’s weigh house, but that was in Little Eastcheap rather than its current Mayfair site. (The original site first held St. Andrew Hubbard church, which was destroyed by the Great Fire of London, then replaced by a weigh house that became a chapel for dissenters in 1695 before moving up the street.)

The congregation was forced to move when the Metropolitan Railway purchased the land on Eastcheap, but the Duke of Westminster donated the current site. The new building was designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the architect responsible for the London Natural History Museum, a handful of buildings at Oxford, and, amusingly, Strangeways Prison.

Oh, and Binney Street? Turns out it’s named for English Congregationalist preacher Thomas Binney, explaining its reuse for a street in Congregationalist Cambridge. (Oh, and our apartment in the complex formerly called Worthington Place turns out to have been in a National Historic District!)

Remembering Robert Fair

I wanted to commemorate the February passing (I only learned of it this morning via UVA Magazine) of Robert Fair, Virginia Glee Club 1946-1947, associate dean at the Darden School, WWII veteran, and member of the first incarnation of the VGCAFA, the Virginia Glee Club Advisory Board, in the mid-1990s.

Bob Fair was a mentor to Larry Mueller and brought a lot of wisdom to our meetings in Newcomb Hall as we worked to figure out how we were going to grow the then-$200K endowment to support the needs of the Glee Club. Bob was wise, funny, and more than happy to share his wisdom when asked.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have learned from some of the finest men and women in the world. Hats off for Bob Fair and much gratitude for all he did.

Bonus: Bob’s oral history of his early life and World War II makes for a riveting read.

Improving PM, part 2 – When not to listen to customers

This is part of a short series about the talk I gave at Product Camp Boston, entitled “Getting Better at Getting Better: A PM Kaizen.” A general introduction to the talk is here and you can view the slides.

The hardest thing for me as a PM has been to learn how to listen to customers, and when not to.

I know, I know. Customer centricity is a key tenet for growth, if you don’t listen to customers you die. But I’d argue that you can get yourself in real trouble if you listen to customers too much, or listen the wrong way.

Here’s the thing. Customers will tell you really important things about how your software works, or doesn’t work, for them. But sometimes you have to really dig for the key information. I can’t count the number of times that a customer request came into my email, passed along by a well-meaning co-worker, that when I dug in turned out to be a completely different issue.

The reason is that we all try to solve our own problems. Customers know their workflow better than anyone else, and so as they think about something that irks them about your software, they’ll consider lots of possible ways to solve the problem within what they understand to be the constraints, and discard the ones that won’t work for them. Then they’ll think of other problems and revise their solution, and ultimately pass along a solution that is so specific to their use case that it may actually not solve the problem for other customers, and may even create new problems.

So I tend to follow the rule of Five Whys. Because what is tremendously valuable is understanding the root cause, the underlying customer problem, that sparked the communication in the first place. Sometimes customers are inspired to identify good solutions, but often their understanding of the constraints, lack of knowledge of other features you have in your roadmap (or under development), or thought process constrained by their local environment results in partial workarounds that don’t solve the root issue.

So much for the microcosm of customer feature requests. What about your roadmap? Surely that should be customer centric?

Well, to a point. But you have to be keenly aware of who the customers are who are influencing your roadmap and who they represent—and what stage your product and your market are in. I find the Crossing the Chasm model helpful for understanding this part. A lead customer for a pre-chasm offering, or a mainstream customer for a post-chasm offering, can provide helpful feedback. But if you’re in the middle of a market disruption, listening only to your existing customers can be a recipe for disaster.

That goes double for when you get successful. Large software product teams get very good at listening to their existing customers, and miss out on the customer pain points that lead some prospects to choose other solutions. If you couple the crowded PM calendar with lots of feedback from existing customers, you can get into a trap of the Urgent Now and miss the signals that your market is shifting.

So how do you stay focused on longer term, bigger picture problems? How do you avoid being dragged into that tire fire in your inbox? It turns out that the tools you need to stay focused on the right things may be closer to hand than you think.

Improving PM, part 1: the calendar

This is part of a short series about the talk I gave at Product Camp Boston, entitled “Getting Better at Getting Better: A PM Kaizen.” A general introduction to the talk is here and you can view the slides.

The number one complaint I hear from PMs is the tyranny of the calendar. “There’s no time.” “I’m in meetings all day, all week.” “I’m staying until 8 to get work done.” “I’m logging in after the kids are in bed and staying up until 2.” “Let’s meet, two weeks from now when I have free time.”

The net result is a calendar like the above, with about three or four free hours scattered throughout a work week. There are all kinds of problems with this way of working. One of the worst problems is something I recognized first in working with building software for developers, and that I recognize in my own calendar: the time to build context.

Knowledge workers, like software developers and product managers (and marketers and others), rely on an understanding of the context in which they’re doing their work to be effective. As a software developer, you can’t effectively debug a problem unless you first build a mental model of how that part of the software works. That’s time-consuming, and if you’re interrupted you have to start all over again. (There’s a great illustration of this challenge for programmers by Jason Heeris.) And for some PM work—strategy, building roadmap, understanding user problems—you need that mental model time too. A half hour or hour here or there doesn’t really cut it.

But many PMs that I know are achievement oriented. We like to make lists and check off items. So what do we do? We spend all our downtime getting stuff done. It isn’t the strategic important stuff that needs a half hour of context building, because we don’t have time for that. It’s responding to email, putting out fires in inboxes, answering customer feedback.

The strategic, in other words, gets crowded out by the tactical.

There are many ways you can solve for this problem. One of them, which I heartily recommend, is becoming more effective at saying “no.” That has its own challenges. You can just say “no” and leave the requester with no way to fill that request. Unless you’re uninterested in the welfare of your customers and the bottom line of your company, that’s often not behavior that maximizes long-term outcomes. So you may find yourself trying to understand the breakdown in the system that led that person to your desk and left you as the only person in the organization that can help them solve their problem, and suddenly you’re back to square one.

If you’re good at saying no when you can, and diagnosing organizational breakdowns when you can’t AND taking steps to shift the permanent solution elsewhere in the organization, then that’s an effective way to keep your calendar clean. That means, though, that “just saying no” isn’t really within reach for most PMs.

So what’s the alternative? I would argue that we have to find a way to systematically think about our work, in such a way that we don’t constantly have to reconstruct our context before we can move the work to the next step. I’ll discuss this more next time.

Follow up reading: The challenge of being “the only person in the organization that can help solve the problem” is covered extensively in the writings of W. Edwards Deming; he calls the process of finding these “only people” identifying the constraint in a process, and recommends that you find ways to elevate the constraint by redesigning the process so that it is subordinate to the constraint. There’s some practical discussion about elevating constraints in the context of software development and IT in the classic DevOps novel The Phoenix Project.

 

Cocktail Weekend: Commander Livesey’s Gin-Blind

It’s been a very long time since I’ve posted on Cocktail Friday, so to make up for it here’s a special holiday weekend cocktail post. The change in weather (however fickle) toward summer has me thinking away from my normal brown liquor based drinks and toward gin, and that’s the direction I went exploring this past weekend.

The immediate trigger for the exploration was a bottle of The Botanist, that remarkable Islay-based gin (from Bruichladdich Distillery). Far less sweet and more herbal than the Plymouth and Old Tom gins I’ve been experimenting with recently, there’s a lot going on in this bottle. I first tried it just directly with tonic and lime, but the mediocre tonic water I had in my bar just made it sweet and swamped the complexity.

Charles H. Baker Jr. to the rescue. We’ve sampled recipes from his A Gentleman’s Companion before — see the Remember the Maine — and this one does not disappoint either. The curaçao highlights the herbal flavors of the gin while the cognac and orange bitters. It’s not a mild drink, even after stirring over ice. Baker’s story says that when he and his wife, traveling in Bombay, met the good Commander of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, he noted that “We don’t prescribe this just before target practice.”

As always, if you want to try the recipe, here’s the Highball recipe card. Enjoy!