It’s all about the numbers

Data Source: Roger Bale, SPAH Membership Director

Without people, a membership organization cannot pursue its mission. Failing to attract new members and grow the organization signals either a lack of interest in the mission or problems with membership development.

SPAH’s issue is not a lack of interest in the harmonica. The 21st Century harmonica market supports more manufacturers than ever: Hohner, Suzuki, Seydel, Herring, Lee Oskar, Bends, Huang to name a few. The market also supports a robust craft vendor movement that includes instructional material, harmonica customizers, amp builders, microphone techs and accessory manufacturers . Folks on harp-l and elsewhere describe these days as the golden age of harmonica gear.

There are plenty of harmonica players worldwide and therefore plenty of potential members.

Nevertheless, membership numbers trended down over the last three years as well as over the last 11 years. The difficult economy no doubt affected the situation; however, the current administration’s priorities and spending practices have conspicuously ignored membership development in favor of a near total focus on producing the convention.

Some observations about the data:

  • a 2% drop over 11 years.
  • a 7 % drop over the last four years,

Is a seven percent decline over four years and 11 years of net negative growth an accomplishment? The best face anyone can put on these numbers is SPAH more-or-less maintained the status quo. Personally, I would be disappointed with that performance.

The data illustrates clearly the inevitable conclusion of the current management team’s paralysis by analysis and its convention-centric policies.

Warren and I believe the organization and the convention will not be sustainable over time if future management teams continue the practice of ignoring growth. We plan to make membership development a priority. And we will not to fall prey to paralysis by analysis.

(A Note About the Data: The numbers for the graph come from Membership Director Roger Bale and have been given to both candidates.).

A note on campaign rhetoric

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, elections are the worst form of choosing a leader except for all the others. Elections are messy. They have winners and losers. They pit well intentioned people against each other and force candidates to struggle with balancing the greater good against personal ambitions. They require friends to pick sides and set the stage for emotional debates .

SPAH’s founders chose elections as the means to pick its leaders. It took 50 years but there is finally a contested election. There’s no point in having [them] if they “… cannot give a [an organization] a firm sense of direction [or] if it has two or more [candidates who] merely have different names but are as alike in their principles and aims as two peas in the same pod.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

The good news is for first time, there are two people who love love the organization and its mission enough to volunteer their time to serve. Because Winslow and I are not two peas in a pod, the members are now in control of SPAH’S destiny instead of a small group of people chosen by the current president.

Everyone agrees the convention experience is the heart and soul of SPAH’s identity. We all want to preserve and advance our instrument. We also agree SPAH should be the premier harmonica organization.

The road diverges, as it were, at management style and goals for how to carry SPAH’s legacy into the future.

We need someone willing to till new fields and grow different crops. Every farmer knows he can not grow the same plant in the same field in perpetuity. Looking back over the last ten years, we have not grown. Staying the same is not an accomplishment, it is maintaining the status quo.

Were the presidency about being rewarded for time in rank or accomplishments in musicianship, the choice would be clear and I would not have run.

Alas, the office of president is not a ceremonial role nor is choosing a new leader a popularity contest. We do not have an executive director who can run the business while the president presides over plates of beef, chicken or fish and gives out awards.

I am not running for president to be master of ceremonies at the annual banquet, or to get a place on the stage during the convention, or because it will help me sell books or get gigs. I am running because I believe in the mission and I believe I have the right experience for the challenges facing us today.

Civil competition, especially among friends, requires utmost care. The challenge we face as candidates is to illustrate the differences in ideas without hurting feelings. This requires both meticulous language and the ability to distinguish between differences of opinion and judgment of the person.

When the dust settles and the choices are made, governing begins. At that point, I hope we can set aside our differences of opinion and and labor together for SPAH’s benefit. And I hope we can get back to the real matter at hand: music.

Chromatic vs. Diatonic: Harmonica Politics

The choice of instrument flows from our taste in music and what we have to say as musicians. Chromatic, Diatonic, Bass, and Chord all deserve a place in SPAH.

Most of my playing has focused on the diatonic and blues. But for the last two years I have studied Jazz and music theory with Mike Turk. For that application the chromatic is my instrument of choice.

Please be assured that Warren and I will preserve all the harmonica traditions. As listeners and aficionados of our instrument we find pleasure in the full spectrum of harmonicas. Under our administration, the shows and seminars at the convention will continue to reflect tradition and embrace diversity.

The changes Warren and I hope to bring to SPAH are related to how the business is run. We take the “Preserve and Advance” mission very seriously. We also believe SPAH needs business minded leadership to accomplish that mission in the future.

Winslow is an amazing musician , well known in SPAH, and has served the organization with distinction. He has my respect and gratitude. If being president was a reward for harmonica street cred, Winslow would get my vote. In my opinion, however, the job of president is to run the business and to have a vision for the future.

In those areas Warren and I offer an alternative worth serious consideration. SPAH will benefit greatly from a management team with a can-do mindset instead of a “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are” approach. (source: Winslow’s candidate’s statement) Bien pensant. The literal transition means “good thinking.” In other words, going along to get along.

The music we all listen to did not spring from a culture of bien pensant. At one time  originators were the agitators and boat rockers. Thank God for outsiders. If SPAH’s members aspire to being more relevant to the entire harmonica community in the 21st century, Warren and I are the choice.

SPAH Election 2012

Members now have an opportunity to choose SPAH’s future direction. In the 2012 election SPAH members will have a choice in leadership instead of being asked to accept the hand-chosen successor of the current management team.

Our predecessors have done a good job organizing the convention and putting SPAH on a path toward financial security. However, we think broadening the organization’s focus and adopting an entreprenurial approach is necessary to take the next steps to reinvigorate SPAH.

The convention is the heart of the SPAH experience but as Warren and I became involved in the governance and operations, we came to believe that we could do better than an 800+ member organization and just planning a convention.

Vote for Bob Cohen for President and Warren “Bee” Bachman for Vice President.

Cohen-Bachman SPAH Roadmap

  • Creating and implementing a robust marketing program designed to increase and diversify our membership.
  • Adding tangible benefits to our membership.
  • Increasing attendance at the convention.
  • More actively developing useful content for the web site.
  • Forming stronger partnerships with manufacturers, vendors, and other stakeholders.
  • Implementing a Capital Drive Program.
  • Decreasing our reliance on volunteers to perform vital tasks.
  • “Opening the books”

A Note on Transparency

In addition to our vision for growth and professionalization, Warren and I believe SPAH should be a fully transparent organization. The current management culture has been disinclined to make available important information to the membership like our financial status meeting minutes, which document the decision making process. In token of our promise for transparency, click the links below for some of that information..

Sympathy for the Devil

The blood oath ceremony disturbed Jerry deeply.  When it was his turn to leave the hooch, he flashed the “thumbs-up”, gripped the ersatz door jambs, and propelled himself into a frenzied run for Chris’s garage.  He grabbed his bike, and pedaled east at a furiously pace.

He stared down Canterbury Street’s dark asphalt pavement, focusing on the black strip   bordered by a white cement curbs on both sides.  It seemed to him the earth had split open and was quaffing the light in huge gulps as it spilled into pools from the two street lamps and from behind the curtained windows of the houses.

Imagination and reality commingled.  Nothing looked familiar as he pedaled toward home, not the cars, nor the houses, which now seemed dull and lifeless, almost as though the evil power at work that night had already sucked the people into the earth’s rapacious gullet.

Crossing Bayview Road to 40th Street did not help.  He was haunted by the feeling that something awful would happen for having set Dill’s house on fire.  And that feeling dogged him as he turned the cranks on his bicycle.

40th Street stood opposite Canterbury. 14 high ranches in seven neat rows measured the space between old and new followed by an abrupt transition.  Well-manicured lawns and an expansive road gave way gravel and mature overhanging trees.  The only sign of life were rural mailboxes and lights twinkling through dense woods.

The lower portion of 40th Street was among the oldest byways in Bayview.  Formerly a narrow country lane called Rabbit’s Run that provided access to an enclave of early black settlers and Secatogue Indians, it was widened to accommodate cars in the 40s and given a layer of gravel in the 50s. The road perpendicularly intersected the main north-south road just shy of the border between Baywood and Bayview proper, from which the narrow byway led east three quarters of a mile into the woods until it dwindled to a small footpath, leading finally to a small shanty village that straddled Stewart’s Creek.

Jerry gripped the bike’s handlebars harder and compulsively ran  his left thumb over his now bloodless index finger, feeling the cross shaped cut as he steered his bicycle onto the gravel road of lower 40th Street.  The upside down cross dripping with blood cast a dark shadow on in his mind.

The blood oath played in a loop. The light from the lantern took on a more sinister greenish yellow glow, the background transformed from dark to red, Joey’s features–lost in the gloaming–took on villainous affect.

His scarecrow face wore a look of terror, the china blue eyes swept the road before him. Jerry shuddered.  “I made a deal with the devil.  I’m going to hell.”

Just past the place where 40th Street changed, Beelzebub sat in the back seat of a candy apple red ’57 Chevy Bel Aire.  The car had a fully worked 327–balanced and blueprinted, bored and stroked, two Holley 1200 CFM carbs, Accel Distributor, uncorked headers.  It was jacked up in the rear with Gabriel air shocks to accommodate the 12 inch wide L 50s mounted on Cragar SS mag wheels.  In the front were a pair of G 78s, with chrome moon hubcaps.  Two of the devil’s minions idled against the trunk.  Both wore black boots, black peg-leg jeans, black T-shirts, black leather jackets, and their black Ray Ban Wayfarers hung rakishly on their pointed ears.  There was no escape.  It was if Jerry a whirling vortex drew him inexorably towards the barrier.  He veered to the left to avoid capture.  The nearest thug reached for his handlebars.

“Where you goin’ in such a hurry kid?”

The Fiend himself emerged from the car.  A black cobra skin shoe, topped with a black silk sock, lowered from the open door.  The other foot followed. Beelzebub effortlessly climbed from the car’s back seat.  He stood bolt up right and reflexively smoothed the wrinkles of his black jeans.  Bub’s outfit (that’s what the Minions called him) was completed with a black silk shirt, and the same sunglasses as the minions.

Wearing a toothy smile, Bub reached into the wallet pocket of his jacket and produced a folded contract and a fountain pen.

Jerry knew what it was and wanted to run away.  The black clad flunkies held tightly to his bicycle.  His urge to resist diminished as Beelzebub drew nearer, until finally all will was gone.

Bub laid the contract on the hood.  “Sign,” the fiend demanded.  He twisted the top of the fountain pen off and, with a manicured hand, proffered the writing instrument to Jerry.

Trembling, the frightened boy scrawled his name on the dotted line in red ink and Bub said, “Glad you could join us.”  A broad, toothy grin grew across his face–both his upper incisors were gold plated.  Bub and his minions started laughing.

When Jerry came to his senses, he was lying on the ground in a pile of rubber and metal. Chester Green, his father, stood over him with a good-natured grin on his face. The first thing the boy felt was embarrassment followed by twinges and burns from the bruises and scrapes scattered along the right side of his body.

“What the hell’s ‘smatter?  I heard a loud crashing against the garage door and found you on the ground.” Said Chester.  He started laughing.

Tears leaked out of the corners of Jerry’s eyes.  He started moving after he realized that the laughing came from his father’s mouth.

Sensing his son’s embarrassment, Chester asked, “You okay?”

“Yeah I’m fine.”

“Why the hell did you ride your bike into the garage door?”

And then answering his own question, Chet added, “You been drinking son?”

“No dad,” replied Jerry in a deadened tone.

“C’mon get yourself up and c’mere. Let me smell your breath.”

Jerry complied. He crawled out from under his bike, stood up and brushed himself off.  He walked toward the breezeway, where his father stood.  Against the light, Jerry still saw a hulking silhouette and an image of his meeting with Lucifer.  The vision barely lasted an instant.

Bending down to Jerry’s face, Chester said, “C’mon now.  Blow.”  Satisfied his son hadn’t been drinking, Chester Green started to laugh again, “Damnedest thing I ever saw.”  And he walked away, “Pick up your bike and put it away.”

Just as they closed the garage door, a throaty rumbling disturbed the silence. The sound approached slowly.  After a few minutes a red ’57 Chevy Bel Aire slowed to a stop in front of the Green’s house.

The engine idled roughly from the racing cam.  The window rolled down.  A voice called out,   “Hey Mr. Green.  It’s Glimpy, uh, Bob Fallon.  Everything okay with Jerry?  We were parked up a ways enjoying the night.  We said hi.  Kid screamed and rode off like he was being chased by the devil. ”

“He’s okay.  What’re doin’ around here?” replied Chester. The sound of two girls giggling tumbled out of the car .  “Never mind.  Thanks for stopping by.”

The Chevy made a U-turn and rolled slowly away.  A few moments later, thunder and squealing erupted followed three loud chirps as Glimpy ran up the tach and power-shifted.  “That guy’s got some car, huh?” said Chet

Jerry grunted and put away his bike.

Zen Mind, Writing Mind

I struggle with my writing. It’s lonely, painful, and frustrating to the point of Prozac–actually generic Zoloft but that does not alliterate. Don’t get me wrong, I am not without skill or talent neither do I always struggle. I have had my successes. I spent three years in a Ph.D. program at Stony Brook University on a teaching fellowship where I taught composition and literature classes. I’m a self-taught technologist and worked at a technical writer for many years. The first piece I ever published was in The Boston Globe. I wrote for them frequently on adventure sports and travel during the early part of my writing career. They even offered me a job in the Sports department.

Anyone who knows anything about Boston and sports, knows getting offered a staff gig at The Globe is a pretty big deal. What did I do? I said no thanks. Feature articles and books were my future. For some reason writing has always been karmic ground zero. I must have slept with editor’s wife in my last life.

Stumbling hard over my first bout of writer’s block in the third year of the Ph.D program and turning down the full time gig, according to some, are prima facie evidence of my issues with success. As in, if there’s a way to sabotage my work, I will find it.

I should have known better. In the longhand days, back when I was a fresh faced undergrad, I procrastinated until the last possible minute and then hung out with OCD. Rough drafts could not have cross-outs or mistakes. If they did, I’d have to go back to the beginning and start over. Then I would rinse and repeat until the deadline overshadowed compulsion.

The word processor freed me of that particular neurosis with no intervention from the Pharmaceutical-Industrial-Complex, which led to a number of productive years during which I wrote academic papers and poetry and kept company with other aspiring writers and scholars like my former best friend Bruce Bawer, who has gone on to become a prolific writer.

Then along came perhaps the most noxious writer’s nemesis, the inner critic. Nobody, including my wife of 28 years, knows me better. He knows just how to bring my writing to a halt. If he were a real person instead of a manifestation of neurosis, I would have given him the Bronx Beatdown years ago, like every other bully who made the mistake of picking on me.

In fact, he just cracked open a bottle of self-doubt and started pouring it on my ideas. That stuff works like acid. It quietly consumes the surface and little by little turns to a rolling boil until eventually there is a hole where once was an idea.

Sometimes, like this moment, my intentions are strong enough to give that guy a big eff you. It sort of works. Ever adaptable, he switched gears and said, “Since you can’t shut up, get to the point. And it better be good.”

Zen moments are when you see things exactly as they are. When there is only doing. With writing I experience these moments of clarity. My mind quiets down and the keyboard disappears. My karma slips away leaving only words and emotions and ideas.

Writing might be a kind of karmic chemotherapy. Cancer patients subject themselves to a regimen of poison under the theory that healthy cells are ever so slightly stronger than the cancer. If all goes according to plan, the malignant cells die and the healthy ones repair themselves.

Since I am a survivor of sorts and have devoted my entire life to the karmic struggle, I want to share the lessons I have learned by teaching writing. It is a sort of pay it forward thing for my old undergrad Shakespeare professor Norman Burns. He pointed me in the right direction when I was completely lost. Paraphrasing one of my favorite cinematic protagonists Elwood Blues, I’m on a mission from Norm.

Teacher applications are curious beasts. Beyond the usual CV data, many of them ask for a statement about the applicant’s teaching philosophy. How this helps administrators pick one prospective teacher over another, I’m not sure. But apparently I have to have a philosophy of teaching.

Before I explicate my “philosophy,” I want to paraphrase of an old Zen teaching story related at a Dharma Talk by given by Kwan Um School of Zen founder Zen Master Seung Sahn, and which appears in his book The Compass of Zen.

Dok Sahn was a famous Buddhist monk who lived long ago in China. During his career, he was regarded as the greatest sutra master (scholar of Buddhist scriptures) and the foremost expert of the Diamond Sutra (an important Buddhist text). He spent his time traveling from temple to temple throughout China challenging the best and brightest monks to debates about the sutras. Being highly learned and adept in dharma combat, he never lost.

One day, Dok Sahn learned about a Zen temple in the south of China where it was reported that the monks just ate, slept, and sat in meditation all day and in so doing became enlightened.

Enlightenment without the many years of studying the sutras was inconceivable to Dok Sahn; therefore, he resolved to find this temple to and correct their mistake.

After many weeks of travel, he came upon a teashop run by a devout Buddhist laywoman. It was lunchtime so he stopped in to inquire about both the menu and the whereabouts of the Zen temple.

Dok Sahn was a famous figure. The laywoman immediately recognized him and greeted him in accordance with the customs of the day and the respect due to so lofty a personage.

She showed him to a table and politely inquired about his business. Dok Sahn replied he was looking for a temple in the south where, “The monks just ate, slept, and meditated,” and added that he intended to set them straight by hitting them with his teachings of the Diamond Sutra.

The laywoman smiled and replied, “Wonderful! You are a famous sutra master. You understand all of the Buddha’s speech. You understand the Buddha’s teaching. May I ask you a question?” She continued, “If you answer the question correctly lunch is free. If not, you must pay.

The teashop owner’s impertinence angered the great sutra master because implicit in the question’s format was a reversal of roles. After an awkward pause, he collected himself and agreed to the bargain.

The laywoman asked, “In the Diamond Sutra it says, ‘It is impossible to keep past mind, impossible to hold on to present mind, and impossible to grasp future mind.’ With what mind will you eat lunch?

Dok Sahn paused. He consulted his vast store of learning. He reviewed the 84,000 sutras, which he’d memorized, compared that against his writings on the Diamond Sutra, went over all he’d learned about the Buddha’s speech–nothing. He couldn’t answer the question.

The woman laughed at him and said, “You don’t understand the Diamond Sutra’s true meaning. You don’t understand anything. How are you going to test the Zen monks in the south?

The laywoman hit Dok Sahn’s mind and stopped it dead. “From whom did you learn this teaching?” he inquired.

“Nobody,” she said. “Everyone already has it inside of him.”

Humbled, he paid for his lunch and continued on his journey to seek the Zen temple, only now with the intention of learning the Zen style of practice.

Dok Sahn’s mistake points directly to my approach to teaching writing. The correct answer was to do something in that moment. The correct answer was to say nothing and pick up the food and eat it. Why? Because when you eat, just eat. Teachers’ speech and academic knowledge without frequent practice are like a picture of a meal, not much use to a hungry person.

How does this apply to my classroom and my teaching philosophy? Duh. Have you not been paying attention? Writers write. (And they read too, but that discussion is for another piece).

What are you waiting for: go turn on the computer and fire up your word processor (note: this space is available for a product placement from a certain software company in Redmond).

Take 45 minutes and write a 250 word piece about a person who has just resolved to take an action–you pick it. And for God’s sake forget about the grade! Set a timer and do not write for more than 45 minutes, no matter what. Deadlines are a fact of life and your writing will never be perfect. Get over it now and when when your inner critic cracks open his bottle of self-doubt, you can tell eff off!

With what mind will you write?

Um . . . Yeah, like, teaching stuff

“There are three things to remember when teaching: know your stuff; know whom you are stuffing; and then stuff them elegantly.” (Lola J. May, educator and writer)

On it’s face, May’s advice rings true. Who could argue with a prescription requiring teachers to master their subject, tailor their lessons to fit their students situations, and teach with style?

The best answer to that question lies in the details. What does it mean to master a subject? What does it mean to teach to an audience? What does it mean to teach elegantly? And, last how does the word “stuff” shape May’s message and reflect on teaching style?

Just as work ethic better predicts success than grades, how a teacher answers those questions gives more meaningful insight into his or her effectiveness for the challenges of the 21st century classroom.

Know Your Stuff

Virtually any Education major who manages to get a diploma can satisfy the Commonwealth’s requirements for a teaching license and in so doing truthfully claim subject matter expertise as well as qualify for “Highly Qualified Teacher” status.

Merely satisfying requirements is neither an effective nor particularly meaningful measure of a teacher. At best those data points imply competence, at worst they hide incompetence.

Learning does not stop with the terminal degree nor the Professional license. Indeed, “The illiterate of the 21st century,” writes furturist Alvin Toffler, “will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Great teachers commit to life long learning. They live Toffler’s prescription. They study their subject ferociously and fearlessly question their knowledge over the course of their careers. They model this wisdom and weave it into their lessons. They develop ways to balance the demand for excellence and accountability with rewarding risk and earnest failures that lead to growth.

Know Whom You Are Stuffing

At the risk of stating the obvious, high school teachers should actually like working with adolescents. Teachers should take the time to form authentic relationships with their students and invest in their education–even when it appears that the investment is taken for granted. Many of the “seeds” sewn in high school do not come to fruition until later in life.

For sure, teaching to a diverse student body is tricky business. Students in public high schools present with varying levels of intelligence, social and intellectual maturity, and motivation. They arrive at school every day shouldering heavy backpacks and dragging the less visible baggage of their home lives and cultural backgrounds. This presents objective challenges to the precept “know whom you are stuffing.”

Districts help with a thoughtful placement process which builds cohorts of students of similar abilities and match them to teachers with demonstrable success with that group.

Likewise, curricula established by administrators and classroom teachers who are familiar with both the Commonwealth’s frameworks and the idiosyncrasies of their community help. Pre-qualifying in public schools with heterogeneous populations and limited resources ultimately create diverse classrooms.

That puts the burden on classroom teachers to reach as many students as possible. To do so, teachers must rely on their expertise, life experiences, wisdom, and people skills to  to create clear pictures of their students and, to the extent possible, employ strategies which balance the needs of the many with the needs of the few.

Stuff them Elegantly

The work of “stuffi[ng] them elegantly” requires balancing two (sometimes seemingly mutually exclusive) absolute necessities: treating students as individuals and insuring the majority of the class masters the curriculum by year’s end.

Solving the problems of teaching to diverse populations might stand as a good candidate for the definition of “teaching elegantly.” Elegance implies good communication and organizational skills, It implies creative teaching strategies and rapport with students. Yet, the phrase glibly ignores reality. Good teaching is hard work. It requires energy, flexibility, compassion, a commitment to high standards, a sense-of-humor, patience, and the ability to inspire.

Good teachers aspire to those intangible qualities. Whatever happens with data driven teacher evaluations, educators who are not life-long learners and who do not practice Toffler’s regimen of learning, questioning, and relearning doom themselves and their students to mediocrity or worse.

Parsing Stuff

On the most basic level May’s advice about teaching works for me. Being a language person, however. I am sensitive to the subtle changes in the word “stuff’s” function in each clause and how that affects the semantics of her message.

“Stuffing” students full of “knowledge” presupposes a passive learning situation in which the teacher gives and the student receives. “Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon,” (E. M. Forster).

Students learn to the extent of their investment in their education. Data driven evaluations and high stakes testing may be useful tools but they do not and cannot measure growth in work habits and commitment.

Face it, no matter how much we as educators and students love our fields, our students may not. When they’re 50 years they probably will not remember how to solve a quadratic equation or diagram a sentence, but they will rely on the mental and work habits developed during their formal education. That makes a collaborative learning experience so very important.

SPAH Financials

Because SPAH is non-profit organization, SPAH members and the public have right to know how the organization’s money is spent and how decisions are made. The U.S. and Michigan laws require the organization to furnish information about its finances to whomever asks. This is in return for relief from corporate tax, sales tax, and the ability to accept tax deductible donations.

The current management team has been reluctant to release financial information After numerous emails requesting financial data, the management team finally released its tax returns for the last three years. (FYI, this is publicly available on GuideStar) Requests were made for P&L reports (Profit and Loss) and detailed information about transactions–both were refused.

Warren and I believe SPAH should be a fully transparent organization. We will release a Financial Report at the annual meeting during the convention as well as on

In token fulfilling that promise, below are links to PDFs of the last three tax returns.

Download SPAH Tax Returns