Sunday, August 29, 2010

Music, or Testerman's Ramble

At one point in my life I played in a band that performed a variety of Irish traditional and folk music.  We also played a fair amount of Scottish traditional and folk as well, however, it seems if you play or sing a single Irish song, you are labelled "Irish" and you'll be crazy-busy in March, and pretty slow the rest of the year.  Unless you work really hard and play reasonably well.

So a side-effect of playing in a band that performs this stuff  is, when you get good enough for people to pay you money to go to their towns, cities, festivals, whatever, you will run into other folks who play the same type of music.  When schedules permit, this often devolves into a session / sessiun / wild-music-playing party.  There are certain protocols that most folks follow in these events - and the fantastic thing is that usually the level of play is quite good.  Tempos are snappy so reels drive forward and hornpipes can be lilty (and tend to run around Warp 9) and jigs are of a nature where feet rarely touch the ground. 

Now, these uber-sessions are not so different than more traditional ones held in houses or coffee-shops or bars or clubs.  The big difference is the recognition that there are no light-weight players and everyone has mastered their craft.  This is not always the case at other sessions. 

I have been out of the performing trad/folk music for several years now, and in the last year began attending some of the local sessions, just to get my feet wet.  I was a bit rusty on bodhran, the Irish hand frame drum, which I had played for 20 years on stage and in sessions.  My limited ability on penny whistle was nigh-on vanished - I remembered tunes and could call phrases from my memory to my finger tips, but I'm effectively starting over.  With crazy work and home schedule it has been hard to find time to practice , let alone become "street legal" on whistle.

So, I show up at the Sunday night sessions and play a couple of tunes on whistle when they come up.  I will also play the bodhran a bit, depending on the number of people there (it does not take many drums to become "too many" for the melody instruments - whistles, mandolins, fiddles, flutes, dulcimers and the like.) 

This last Sunday there were a fair number of players.  There were 8 or 9 "melody" players, a couple of guitars, a tenor-banjo, who played melody when he knew the tune and vamped when he did not - and me on drum (with the occaisional contribution of bones.)  Some of the players are quite experienced and I have seen around for many years.  Some are between beginner and novice.  Some are "in between" levels of experience. 

One tune in particular would have made me stop the band, if it was a "band" that was playing and have them start again.  That typically isn't done in sessions - so I did the "drummer equivalent" and simply stopped playing.  One of the mandolin players, who knew me and has also been around the block gave a little smile and he stopped as well.  We were treated to a rare sight of 6 people who were absolutely certain what the "correct" tempo was for the tune that was being played - and none of them would give an inch - or a click on the metronome.  The guitar players seemed to play along with which ever melody instrument was close to them and generally the best description was "trainwreck."

That reminded me of a projet I had worked on some time ago.  I was not on the project originally, but was brought in as part of a desperation move to fix it.  Like in the tune on Sunday, each of the participants knew what the right thing to do was.  The problem was none of them agreed on what that thing was.  "Blood on the Green" was an apt summation of that effort.  The programmers were berated for not following instructions - but how do you follow instructions when there are multiple, conflicting sets of instructions? 

Because of the "political nature" of the project, no managers or directors were willing to step up and take on some form of leadership role for fear that there would be repercussions for doing so.  The PM, BA and Dev Lead floundered without some form of direction from their respective management teams.  Information was contradictory at best. 

In the end, a Director put his foot down, asserted control and forced the issue.  Me being added to the project was part of forcing the issue.  Until that point, the uncertainty of the leadership was sapping the ability of the project group to operate as an effective team.  Like the music session last week, no one had a clear picture as to what was "right" and where the center of gravity was. 

People can urge "Best Practices," "Standards," "Process" and "Metrics" all they want.  In some contexts, that may be the right thing.  However, wiothout a clear understanding of the intent of the effort, nothing will save the project.  Ulysses S. Grant, that prescient Software Oracle (well, American General turned President) warned that indecision was worse than a wrong decision.  Wrong decisions could be countered by "right" decisions, but no decision, from leadership, leaves your group floundering looking for a center. 

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