Fellow musicians! It’s been a while. The world is coming back alive. As such, it feels like everybody is getting back on the highway all at once, and it is making scheduling a special sort of nightmare. I suppose if there is such thing as a good kind of nightmare, it might be this.

It has me thinking, though, about organization, structure, and the pathways we follow to initiative success. I have had to turn away a lot of potentially fruitful partnerships recently because they were just too late to the punch. I am also struggling with some existing clients as they try to get things together. It has been bringing me back to the moments that define my current sense of organization.

In many ways, it began when I started working as a freelance musician and teacher in the Springfield/Branson areas. This involved keeping track of nights with gigs and rehearsals, something I never really had to do before. Pryor to this, having a class schedule and following other students around to the odd dress rehearsal was enough organization. We were all generally in it together. I was not in the habit of writing things down, keeping a calendar, because I did not need it. But, I learned very quickly that when my path diverged from the main, I would need a system to navigate it.

As we learn to organize our attentions, it becomes important to make a distinction that others often fail to make. That is the difference between what is arbitrary and what is functional. Consider the alphabet. It is actually a collection of non-repeating symbols, and its order is arbitrary. “A” is only first because it is taught first. It might be more apt to organize it by function (vowels and consonants, for instance).

So obviously organizing your office by function may be more useful than by object alphabetically. But even more useful might be organizing it by usefulness. I keep my Bb trumpet on the peg closest to me because I use it the most while teaching, whereas the D trumpet maybe occupies a space on the shelf. In times of need, I can rearrange quickly and easily; if I am playing something that involves D trumpet and I want it to take a more active role in my routines, I swap it with rotary.

I remember a conversation I had when studying with Dr. Don Greene. If you are unfamiliar, he is possibly the preeminent performance psychologist in the business. We were discussing some of the things that were harming in inner sense of calm while performing, and I mentioned that the state of organization of my desk and room were a source of personal criticism. He disagreed, and encouraged me that these disarrangements are common among intelligent, creative people, because it allows them to work organically.

I think of this mechanism less as “organization” as it is “prioritization.” This applies not only to physical things, but also information. A good friend who is now a college dean retold me a story where he recently needed to let go of an assistant, who by all accounts was pretty good at organizing, but often failed to prioritize his job and information in a helpful manner. He would belabor arbitrary or non-useful data and tasks at the expense of things that were quite urgent. My dean friend was having to make lists and help this individual prioritize tasks; having an assistant that requires management is purpose-defeating.

This is why it is important to collate and prioritize tasks and information, as well as organize them. Even some arbitrary, mundane tasks must be taken care of in short order, such as prompt e-mails. And does this not have bearing on practice skills? As good practicers, we have to recognize that creative projects, number of notes, and the status of our web sites, are all important, but that none of that matters if we do not establish a great sound every day. There is no routine or method in the world that will help if we do not prioritize the importance of ease, flow, and resonance. And there is no talent in the world that can succeed without some apparatus for communication and organization.

This is why I have come to believe that good judgment is a hallmark characteristic of effective people. The ability to discern the effects of a process or decision in the immediate future, and at points farther down the road. This takes time to cultivate, and is among the rarest of qualities in the musical workforce. The question is, do we want our ability to effectively process information to be the limiting factor on how much music we make? On how good we are at teaching? On how much money we can bring in doing what we love? I have seen a lot of hiccups recently as schools and ensembles that have a strong communication and clarity in executive function are able to bring in the best personnel, have their students back early enough to have competitive advantages, and have viable grant programs up and running, in this mad dash to get back on the live-music highway. I realize that some positions feel insulated (especially public sectors with job security, like band directors), but they will find their programs and initiatives anemic, their jobs harder, their hours longer, and their reputations more and more at risk, if they are unable to do these things. I have seen it, and I have been party to it. Nobody is immune to poor organizational skills.

This is how my modern sense of organization was born— the fear of missing out because I was not organized/communicative enough. I have since realized the true value of information collation: that our ability to collate and prioritize information is the true limiter on what we can accomplish, how much music we can make, and how much we can contribute to the greater good.

So for the love of Pete, take care of your junk more than a week in advance.

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