The Art of Self Promotion

Everyone that’s ever written a resume or had a job interview has engaged in self promotion. I’m bad at it. Always have been, always will be. And I’m blaming my dad, Donald J. Byrnes, who  opted for hard work and humility.

Despite my DNA, I know skillful self promotion when I see it. Saturday night I found myself on the campus of San Luis Obispo (SLO) University in Central California. In the university’s beautiful Performing Arts Center more specifically. As I flipped through the program for the evening’s concert, I realized Zuill Bailey, the guest cellist, knows self promotion.

“The funny thing is,” I whispered to my date, “when most people read these artists’ profiles they think they’re biographical, that someone writes them for them, but the artists write them themselves.” “Then,” I added, “get a load of the guest cellist’s opening paragraph. It’s an award winner.”

ZUILL BAILEY is widely considered one of the premiere cellists in the world. His rare combination of celebrated artistry, technical wizardry as well as his engaging personality has secured his place as one of the most sought after and active cellists today.

At first glance, that made me want to puke, but the more I thought about it, my stance softened. Here’s why. Let’s guesstimate that there’s 5,000 truly spectacular cellists in the world and approximately 500 opportunities to make a good living playing cello. Nine out of ten are underemployed not because they’re not as talented as the “sought after” tenth, because they’re not as skilled at self promotion. Artists that want to make a living practicing their art have to promote themselves.

Wild guess. I would not enjoy ZB off stage, but I don’t begrudge him swinging for the fences when it comes to his description of himself. The problem of course is when people exaggerate their accomplishments. When they’re better at self promotion than they are at their jobs.

In the mid 1990s I was working educational magic (Channeling ZB!) at Guilford College, a small liberal arts college in Greensboro, North Carolina, when the President decided to retire. He wrote a letter of explanation to the community, the bulk of which was a list of his accomplishments (my favorite, he bragged the endowment had doubled, but failed to note that the market had tripled during his tenure). My dad, the chief executive officer of a major company at the time, was always interested in my work, and so I shared the letter with him. Disgusted he simply said, “Incredibly self-serving.” I didn’t realize it until I re-read it through that lens. He was right, it was embarrassingly self-serving.

My dad’s “road less traveled” philosophy was work hard, care about those you work with, don’t track your accomplishments, and maybe someday, people will respect you and say nice things about you. Too many of those nice things were said after he suddenly died from a heart attack on the way to work at age 69. Yesterday he would have been 87 years old.

Eighteen years later and I still miss him and his countercultural ways.


Reinventing Teaching, Reinventing School

Olympia High School’s spring orchestra concert. A young woman sits down at a large, beautiful harp. Her sound is transcendent. I’m transported to a sun-filled Thirteenth Century Renaissance faire. I also think about dying and how her music would ease the transition.

Next, the Chamber orchestra takes the stage. They practice together four days a week, before the sun or their classmates rise. They sit in a semi-circle with a wood stool front and center. A double bass player enters, sits on the stool, and adjusts his music stand as his compatriots tune their instruments. He follows suit. Eventually, he turns to the left, looks over his shoulder and makes eye contact with the first violinist. Next, he turns to the right, looks over his other shoulder and makes eye contact with the first cellist. It’s time.

Their excellence moved the audience, but a more subtle aspect of their performance was overlooked, their utter and complete independence. They have an outstanding orchestra teacher, but his work was done in class during January and February; as a result, he sat backstage out of the limelight. The education reformer in me wanted to freeze that image of the teacher backstage listening to his students playing on the stage, stand up, and bellow, “That’s what Decker Walker meant when he wrote, ‘The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them!'”

In schools today, “something is done to students” ninety-five percent of the time. Adults make all the important decisions with little to no student participation. Student governments have next to no impact on meaningful day-to-day school life or climate. Adults out-think and out-talk students to such a degree that interrupting student talk and thought is accepted as normal. So much so that students know they can out wait their teachers, that in short order their teachers will fill any empty spaces with their words and thoughts.

Athletics, or coaching more specifically, could provide a more hopeful, student-centered model for improved teaching and learning, one where students take on ever increasing responsibility for both their school environment and learning, except for the fact that most coaches overcoach, greatly limiting their athletes’ participation in decision-making, calling timeouts the second something goes awry, and yanking players after their first mistakes. There are exceptions, but the fact that they are exceptions illustrates the problem.

Maybe the best model is the music program’s artistic cousin, drama. When the curtain rises on a play, there’s no calling timeouts. The student-actors work especially long hours to prepare because they know they’re going to be on their own. For better or worse. Just like when they graduate and the curtain rises on their adult lives.

Empowering students to help make meaningful school decisions and become more independent learners doesn’t mean teachers will spend their days playing Scrabble on their smartphones. While backstage, the orchestra teacher was listening intently to his students, taking notes, preparing to critique their performance in class in eleven hours.

Conventional wisdom aside, teaching isn’t someone standing at a podium talking endlessly to rows of passive students. That’s “presenting”. Reinventing school requires reinventing teaching, reinventing teaching requires elevating the careful and thoughtful assessment of student work to new heights. Teachers must talk less and observe and listen more as students demonstrate what they know and can do. And then the teacher’s job is to help students figure out how to sound even better, solve even more difficult problems, and write even more lucidly.

Women’s Honor Roll

Props to the following females for creating positive momentum in their own unique ways.

A 14 year old violinist who auditioned for and then was invited to join an excellent high school symphony next year.

A 17 year old violinist who, with fifteen of her friends, recently won the Washington State Chamber Orchestra competition.

The woman in seat 9C on the Denver-Seattle flight last week for making her 9 and 12 year old sons do their math homework on the plane and then insisted they thank the pilot on the way out.

To the woman swimming in the lane next to me yesterday morning. Me, You’re a good swimmer, nice stroke. Her, I know, but I make too many excuses and don’t swim enough. But you’re in great shape. I know. What else do you do? I manage a five acre mobile home park and do three hours of hard labor every day. How old are you? 77.

Other nominees are now being accepted.