We Never Talk Anymore

SBO Staff • April/May 2017Festivals • May 1, 2017

By Tom Merrill

Once upon a time, a music teacher had a really bad day. They decided to pick up their spirits by buying a brand-new sports car and going for a long relaxing drive up in the mountains. Just as a particularly sharp turn was approaching, another car came careening around the corner, directly into their path. The music teacher slammed on the brakes, just missing a head-on collision with the other vehicle.

The other driver stopped, rolled down the window, and yelled “PIG!!” The music teacher, not to be outdone, rolled down their window and yelled back “COW!!” They slammed the car into gear, turned the corner, and crashed their new car right into a giant pig standing in the middle of the road.

As the old movie line goes, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

As an observer in the field, I’ve seen what appears to be a widening gap where we are less communicative and more misunderstood – ironic given that we are quite possibly more connected than ever before in human history. The great news is that these stressful situations are solvable and often preventable. 

This article isn’t meant as a critical way to yell, “PIG!”, but rather a way to help us all communicate more effectively to make our lives easier. At a time when music educators have far more on their plates (much of it having little to do with teaching music) and far less time in which to accomplish their tasks, anything that can save time and frustration is a win.

Pick Up the Phone. When I began working on the business side of the music education industry, communication with clients tended towards about 90% phone conversation and 10% email. In the ensuing 17 years, it feels as if those numbers have made an exact reversal.

Email (or texting, Facebook message, etc.) is quick and efficient, and certainly provides a handy “paper trail” of what was said, promised, or agreed upon. At the same time, we’ve all been part of dialogues where the “ping-pong volley” that takes days could have been solved in a 60-second telephone conversation.

Some of the best collaborations, ideas, and solutions that I have seen take place in direct conversation. This is more than just the words, but the opportunity to interpret tone of voice and truly measure enthusiasm (of lack of) for a plan. Recognize when it’s time to stop typing and start talking. It may save you time in the long run.

What’s Your Preference? One thing I have learned is that most people will have a preferred method of communication. This may be determined by the content of their day, their access to phone or computer, and even generational differences. Don’t hesitate to simply let those who need to reach you know what works best—it saves a tremendous amount of “guessing game” on their part, and fewer duplicate messages for you to delete as well.

Read what is sent, and answer what is asked. This would seem like a no-brainer, right? Yet we have all likely been frustrated by questions that receive half-answers that lead to more of the unnecessary email ping-pong match. Unlike an essay question, remember that “partial credit” for answers is usually not rewarded…or at the very least not helpful. A moment spent reviewing a response will save you at least a moment having to revisit the subject or solve a problem later because a question didn’t get answered.

The first step is keeping communication to a minimum. For me—knowing the life of a music teacher—I avoid extraneous contact, especially during their busy times of year. It’s not that I don’t love talking with them…I do! But I also respect their schedules. As a result, they know that when I do write or call, it’s important.

Don’t Go into Radio Silence. Both with myself and with colleagues, I’ve seen situations where a very engaged conversation with a potential client comes to an unexplainable screeching halt. Phone messages are not returned, and emails are ignored. I call this state of limbo “radio silence,” and it is one of the most frustrating feelings to experience because you have no idea where you stand following what was interpreted as positive interaction (not to mention usually a lot of work involved as well).

Being in the music education industry, we understand that rejection is part of the gig. We know we’re not going to earn every single opportunity that comes our way. It is always better to bring closure—good or bad—to a collaboration process.

Please understand—the clear majority of the people in the music education industry are not your stereotypical pushy salespeople. Most want to help you and your program succeed. The truly GREAT ones will know when what they offer isn’t the right fit for you, and will admit that to you rather than try to force their product upon you. The OUTSTANDING ones will suggest another source, perhaps even a competitor, who has exactly what you’re seeking.

When a music industry professional asks you what they could have done better to earn your business, they truly are working to learn how their services may need to evolve. A short, specific response is something that will always be appreciated…and in the long run could be key in developing new opportunities that could eventually benefit your students and the music education field.

To summarize, keeping an awareness of how and why we communicate can lead to more effective conversation…with better information shared in less time, and fewer missed details. In the end, it all benefits the experience and music education of our students. And it just might help prevent you from having a farm animal as a hood ornament.

Tom Merrill is the executive director of Festivals of Music. He has worked for over 25 years in the music education field as a band director, performance travel planner, and festival organizer.

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