Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Attention to Detail


"The difference between a good band and a great band is attention to detail."
Martin Behnke, Director of Bands, Willamette University, c. 1980

I can still hear him saying it to us. Willamette was (and is) a small college, too small to front a full-blown concert band, too small even to fill every chair of a wind ensemble with highly skilled musicians. There were no auditions; Dr. Behnke assigned chairs based on how well we played during rehearsal, and liked to move people from chair to chair depending on which piece we were playing, which parts he thought needed to be doubled, which players excelled at a certain kind of playing, and whatever other subjective criterion might apply. If, during rehearsal, he saw us growing impatient with his meticulous attention to nailing a certain phrase, he'd remind us in his warm baritone that details matter: intonation, articulation, uniformity of unison playing, balance, precision all figure in the overall excellence of a performance. One player out of sync makes the entire section sound off. Just a few small mistakes, spread out over the entire band, transforms the most passionate performance into just a good effort.

He was right. I've heard plenty of band performances, not to mention orchestras, choirs, jazz ensembles, chamber groups, and other permutations of musicians playing together that don't fit any of those categories. Many play with passion, and that certainly gets them far--but not as far as they'd like. No amount of passion can overcome a sloppy performance. You know this, too, whether or not you're a trained musician. Stop for a moment and ask yourself: would you rather attend a concert by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra or by the orchestra of whatever middle school you're closest to? (And no, your child is not part of either orchestra, so you can drop the "support" criterion.)

I'm starting with this illustration from music pedagogy because it strikes me as the best way to assess the past two weeks in this nation's political life. First we had four days of passion in Cleveland, culminating in a 75-minute oration by the Republican nominee, Donald Trump. There was stagecraft--smoke and mirrors, really--and there was controversy, but mostly, it was choreographed sloppiness of the sort that makes reality TV so riveting. The passion was a blend of the unadulterated enthusiasm of Trump believers and the resigned "Gotta win somehow" cheers of former Never Trump converts. It had a "get on the bandwagon" feel to it: we're all Republicans here, and good Republicans fall in line, so start clapping, damn it!

Contrast that with the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. Here, too, there was passion, though of many different sorts. Democrats have never been as good at falling in line as Republicans, and that was certainly the case with the Bernie Sanders camp. There were loud protests, boos, walk-outs, sign-waving, and whatever else these mostly young people thought could disrupt the proceedings. There were also rousing, hopeful speeches, in marked contrast to the gloom and doom projected by GOP convention speakers. Part of this was simply that establishment Democrats wanted to be in Philadelphia, while establishment Republicans mostly kept their distance from Cleveland. But more than that, Democratic oratory has been benefiting from the influence of Black preaching for several generations now, and the structure and cadence of many convention speeches reflected that influence. Then there's the sense of making history: for the second time in a decade, Democrats have nominated a candidate who represents a large portion of the American population (a majority, in this case) that has never held the nation's highest office.

Apart from the mostly positive passion in the Democratic room, the greatest contrast with the Republicans was attention to detail. The protests of the Sanders camp were permitted, but managed, and eventually, measures were taken to drown them out with chants carefully selected to resonate with, rather than compete with, those of the Sandersites. There may have been seating strategies, as well, with Clinton delegate moving in to occupy seats vacated by Sanders delegates going to the bathroom and thus breaking up large blocs, or shifting them farther back in the arena. Apart from managing (rather than silencing) the protests, the convention was canny in its stagecraft, selecting appropriate and contemporary music for transitions and introductions, programming powerful speakers to appear during prime time and build up to the nominee's grand finale, and even adding a clever touch at the end of that speech--having the podium sink into the floor--to maximize the camera appeal of the candidates' families joining them on stage. Wardrobe played into that image, as well, with Hillary in white, Chelsea in red, and Bill in blue.

In sum, the Democratic convention was run like the Clinton campaign, paying attention to detail, anticipating problems before they happened and, if necessary, improvising solutions that minimized and transcended, rather than repressed, conflicts and gaffes. The one word that sums it all up best is "careful."

As for the Trump convention, and campaign as a whole, there's a different word: "sloppy." In the wake of the Democratic convention, Trump has been nothing short of reactionary, spewing insults and lies at every speaker who said anything that hit a nerve. "What, am I not allowed to respond?" he fumed over the brouhaha he has created over gold star father Khizr Khan's challenge for Trump to actually read the Constitution.

The answer is simply "no." An American President must manage every public expression of feeling or thought. The world watches. Blurting out an off-the-cuff remark at a White House press conference on Monday can trigger rioting in Islamabad on Tuesday. That's why the most effective Presidents are skilled politicians, and even they surround themselves with advisors who can help them iron out problems generated by spontaneous expressions.

Hillary Clinton is anything but spontaneous in public. Her speeches are carefully written and edited, and her delivery can seem mechanical at times. I will certainly miss the dramatic oratory of President Obama. But public speaking, while an essential part of the Presidency, is actually one of the smallest parts of the job. I've said this before about pastors: no matter how brilliant they are in the pulpit, that one hour a week is far less important than how they manage their time away from it. pastoring a church, rehearsing a band, or running the country all depend on the same skill set: attending to detail.

Considering how her campaign has been run, and how well-choreographed the Democratic convention was, I have no doubt that Hillary Clinton will be the most detail-oriented President in decades. While that may not be inspiring, it's what this country needs.

At the same time, I have no doubt at all that Donald Trump, given the chance, will Make America a Great Mess. His chaos candidacy, his sloppy convention, and his daily verbal excretions preview a Presidency that would border on apocalyptic.

That's why I'm with her.