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  • Writer's pictureKeith Johnston

Anticipate the Difficult by Managing the Easy

Anticipate the difficult by managing the easy.

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that, no matter how much I might want to, there are simply some things that are out of my control.

As a band director who oversees ensembles that perform indoors and outdoors at all times of the year, as well as ensembles that tour locally and internationally, I’ve found a lot of stability and comfort in lists and plans.

One of my very first experiences with a major event going wrong was in 1995. I was about 25 years old and was the conductor for the Allegheny Brass Band’s tour to China. We were supposed to have a 2 week, 7 city concert tour as guests of the People’s Republic of China. What I didn’t know was that right before we departed from LA for Shanghai - as in an hour before - the tour organizers in China relayed to some of our board members that the tour might not happen. It seemed that the Chinese government was upset over an American movie and it’s portrayal of China. As a result they were canceling visas of artists.

When we arrived in Shanghai we were picked up at the airport and brought to our hotel. The tour organizers thanked us for coming and said that unfortunately we wouldn’t be allowed to perform at all.” They allowed us to shop and sightsee in Shanghai for a few days, then transferred us to Beijing for a couple of days - again for tourism and shopping - then sent us home without ever playing a note.

What could I have done? Nothing. What did I do? I went shopping, walked the Great Wall, and explored.

Over the years I’ve tried many different ways to control the circumstances surrounding the various activities I’m involved with. I’ve tried to micro-manage details of aspects of an event that are completely out of my control, only to be exhausted.

I’ve tried to be hands off completely and say “well there’s nothing I can do about it!”, but that only makes me more anxious.

It took me a lot of years to understand and accept that for any given situation there are some things I can control, and some I can’t. However, for the things I can’t control I can control how I prepare, and subsequently react, to them.

Anticipate the difficult by managing the easy.

In January of 2018 I took the Sacred Heart University Band on tour to Prague and Vienna. During 3 days of rehearsals prior to our departure we learned that a weather system was going to move into the northeast and had the potential to dump a lot of snow on us. On the day of our departure.

The precise timeline was still uncertain, but my staff and I started to plan for a situation where our flight was canceled, and we were stuck at the airport.

We made lists of how we would divide up the band in the event our flight was canceled and we had to split into smaller groups to get to Europe. I was in constant communication with our travel agency (yes, use a travel agency!) and university administration, and posted often to the band parent Facebook group. And of course I prepared the band for the possibility of a change in plans.

The storm last hours and shut down travel across the entire eastern seaboard. We, along with a thousand + other people, were stuck in a terminal at JFK. For 36 hours. In the end we had to split the band in half. One group traveled to Washington DC to fly out to Vienna. The second group left from New York about 24 hours later. The tour was shortened, but a huge success. Yes, there were lots of times that students and parents were concerned, but with lots of communication and a plan (evolving though it was) the entire band made it to Europe and back again. And have some great stories to tell!

Anticipate the difficult by managing the easy.

Doing the little things in life may not always prevent big emergencies from happening. But they can help provide a framework to navigate troubles by freeing up your mind to focus, and think ahead. And in the process manage the next easy part of life in anticipation of the next unknown difficulty that you’ll inevitably encounter.

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