The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Project Managers–Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood

1. Introduction to Habit 5: Empathic Listening and How it Saved Millions of Lives

The key to understanding others is empathic listening. It is an imaginative recreation of the state of mind behind the utterance you hear. One of the corollaries of empathic listening is the principle of understanding a person’s needs and motivations before offering a solution.

The importance of empathic understanding of your adversary can be illustrated through the example of how President Kennedy handled the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nuclear war could have broken out during the crisis which would have cost many millions of American and other lives. The basic breakthrough in the negotiations with the Soviet Union came from Tommy Thompson, a member of the State Department who happened to have been a previous Ambassador to the Soviet Union. A message came in that seemed to be asking for a diplomatic solution to the problem. Tommy Thompson could tell that it was from Khrushchev, the Premier of the Soviet Union.

Just as they were discussing the first message, however, a second message came through, this one a message that threatened military retaliation if the blockade around Cuba were maintained by the United States. The crucial question now became: which message should they respond to, the “soft” message or the “hard message”. Presumably one could make a case for answering the “hard” message since it was the one that most recently arrived and was therefore the “freshest”—maybe it superseded the first message.

Tommy Thompson urged President Kennedy to listen to the “soft” message. He empathized with Khrushchev whom he had known personally when he was an Ambassador. He argued that Khrushchev was trying to find a way out of the situation that would allow him to say that he saved Cuba from an invasion of the United States, and which would be acceptable to those in Russia who didn’t want to appear to back down without getting something in return.

President Kennedy listened to Tommy Thompson on the force of his argument and his convictions. Kennedy could very well empathize with Khrushchev because, although they were on the opposites of the Cold War, they were in a parallel situation with regards to their military. The military on each side were both pushing towards a military confrontation because they both had optimistic assessments of what the outcome would be. In the case of the U.S. military, they opted for a full-scale invasion of Cuba because they were told by the CIA that a) the warheads to the nuclear missiles spotted on Cuba had not yet been delivered to Cuba (hence the blockade of the island) and b) Soviet troop strength was insufficient to counter an American invasion if they acted now.

The Kremlin was also pushing Khrushchev towards a confrontation because they knew what the CIA did not: that the warheads WERE already on the island and the Soviet troop strength WAS sufficient to counter an American invasion. You see, the CIA got those two assumptions wrong, and the U.S. military strategy was primarily based on those two mistaken assumptions.

Kennedy decided to respond and offered to take our nuclear missiles out of Turkey that were pointed to the Soviet Union if Khrushchev would take the missiles out of Cuba that were pointed to the United States. A deal was reached, and a crisis was averted. If it hadn’t been averted, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post today, because I was a young boy staying with my grandfather in Miami, one of the most obvious first targets of the nuclear missiles from Cuba if there had been a nuclear war.

For more details, see my blog post on the Cuban Missile Crisis:

2. The Way of Persuasion

Once you have gone the extra mile and tried to understand others, how do you make yourself understood?

Stephen Covey uses the three-fold system or principles of rhetoric or the art of persuasion that the Greeks used:

These three principles are all part of a persuasive presentation. Most people focus on logos or logic but if you tap into the other side’s emotions, you will be much more successful. But you will never be successful if you haven’t built a relationship of trust so your ethos or character does matter.

Your technical skill as a project manager should give you logos; your interpersonal skill should give you the power of pathos, but it is your quality as a leader, not just a manager, that will give you the ethos to persuade those around you, and ultimately expand your Circle of Influence in your organization.

The next post will be on Habit 6: Synergize

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Project Managers–Habit 4: Think Win-Win

1. Introduction to Habit 4:   How to create a team that is teeming with ideas

Habits 1 through 3 are below the center of the diagram and are those habits leading one from being dependent to being independent, to being both an effective and efficient project manager. Habit 4 is above the center of the diagram and it starts you on the road towards being interdependent and creating a great project team.

To do this you will have to deal with stakeholders—customers, suppliers, project sponsors, other functional managers, and your team members. What spirit you use in negotiating will them determine how successful your team will be.

2. The Human Interaction Quadrant

Everybody going into a negotiation WANTS to win. But what happens when you interact with someone ELSE who wants to win? Then the psychological approach you take matters in deciding the outcome. Here are the four possibilities:

Figure 1. Human Interaction Quadrants

i. Win/Win (green)

This is a cooperative frame of mind, which goes beyond competition to reach a mutually satisfying outcome. This is the best interaction, both in the short run and it is also the most stable in the long run.

ii. Win/Lose (orange)

This is an authoritarian, “my way or the highway” approach which is used in situations of high competition or low trust. This may get its way temporarily, but it will build up a counterforce of resentment from the other party in the long run.

iii. Lose/Win (yellow)

This is capitulation, when you allow the other side to win. This may keep the peace temporarily, but the resentment it builds up leads to it being an unstable interaction in the long run.

iv. Lose/Lose (red)

This is “mutual assured destruction”, or when both parties are so willing to see the other side lose, that they are willing to forgo winning themselves. This is also unstable in the long-run because will engender resentment on both sides of the interaction.

Those committed to the process of win/win, but who cannot reach an agreement will often prefer to disagree agreeably, which is described by Stephen Covey as a “win-win or no deal” paradigm, an even higher expression of the “win-win” mentality.

3. Creating a Win-Win Culture

How does one create a win-win culture on the project and in the organization?

By creating

Fig. 2 Five elements of a win-win culture

The five elements of a win-win culture are the CHARACTER of its members, their RELATIONSHIPS, and the AGREEMENTS they make with one another. These elements are supported by SYSTEMS and PROCESSES which encourage the win-win culture. Let’s take a look at these five elements in turn.


Let’s expand the CHARACTER triangle to see the elements it contains.

Fig. 3. Elements of the win-win character

  • INTEGRITY is the character you get when you have a sense of self-awareness and self-worth. These are cultivated through habits 1 through 3.
  • MATURITY is the balance between personal courage of your own convictions and the consideration of the needs of others.
  • ABUNDANCE MENTALITY is the creative vision that sees one’s success coming out of one’s own efforts rather than at the expense of someone else.


Stephen Covey uses the metaphor of an Emotional Bank Account to emphasize the importance of trust. If you keep making deposits of trust and acknowledgement of the other side’s viewpoints, you will be able to withdraw on that bank account in case of need. This is the essence of networking, in effect, with a “pay it forward” mentality taking priority over “what’s in it for me?”


Fig. 4. 5 elements of the win-win agreement

How does one reach an agreement that allows BOTH parties to win? Stephen Covey says the following five elements need to be included:

Desired results—what is to be done and when

Guidelines—principles and policies within which results are to be accomplished

Resources—support available to help accomplish the results

Accountability—standards of performance and evaluation

Consequences—what will happen as a result (good or bad) of the evaluation.

This achieves a clear understanding which allows the members to be responsible for bringing the results with a minimum of supervision or coercion.

3.4. Systems

One can support win-win culture through

  • training that emphasizes cooperation and brainstorming
  • performance agreements, where the team members create some of the evaluation criteria themselves
  • supporting cooperation in the workplace that bring rewards to groups rather than competition and contests that pit one individual against one another

3.5. Processes

Taking a principled approach to bargaining helps you get to a win-win result easier than a positional approach, because a positional approach is based more on what the other person does and makes you more reactive. A principled approach, on the other hand, helps you get to recognizing a common interest with the other side.

Here’s how to get to that principled approach according to Stephen Covey:

Fig. 5. Principled negotiation process (as opposed to positional approach)

These five elements will create a win-win culture. Everyone likes to think of business being like the wild, wild west. But just think of those gunslinger movies you watched when you were younger. All of those wild west towns that the movies took place in only existed because of the cooperation of all the settlers that came out there to establish it.

If there were ONLY competition in society, there would be no society. Cooperation is as important, if not more important, a principle in keeping a company culture one in which everyone has a chance to share in the victories, because they all are responsible for creating those victories in the first place.

The next post is on Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Project Managers–Habit 3: Put First Things First

The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don’t like to do.  They don’t like doing them either necessarily, but their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose.   E. M. Gray in “The Common Denominator of Success”

1. Introduction to Habit 3:   A Journey from Determinism to Determination

Habit 1 was the habit of being proactive, of being the creator of a circle of influence around yourself to help make the project and one’s organization successful. Those who don’t have Habit 1 live in a reactive world, one of determinism and fatalism, where you feel like you have no control.

After having established the first habit, you then go to Habit 2 which is the first creation or mental creation of a vision. Then in Habit 3 you go to the second creation, which is the physical creation in terms of results of what had been merely planned mentally before.

So whereas Habit 2 dealt with being an effective leader, Habit 3 deals with being an efficient manager in order to carry out the project. In terms of project management processes, Habit 2 would cover the initiating and planning phase, whereas Habit 3 would take you from the planning phase into the executing and monitoring & controlling phase of the project right through to the closing phase.   It shows you how to use your determination and will in order to carry out the mission statement developed with Habit 2.

2. Time—the ultimate constraint

Time is a constraint that is probably the most difficult to control on a project, and in one’s life as well. If you consider your work and your personal life as a series of projects, how does one prioritize the projects to make the best use of one’s time? To discuss this, Stephen Covey uses a four-quadrant model, which given the title of my blog I knew I was going to like the moment I saw it.

Figure 1: Time Management Matrix

The top two quadrants deal with issues that are important in terms of results that contributes to your mission, and your project. The left two quadrants are matters that are urgent in that they demand our immediate attention.

So if you give all permutations of the above two dimensions of urgency and importance, you get the following four quadrants.

  1. Quadrant I activities are urgent and important, such as crises or pressing deadlines.
  2. Quadrant II activities are activities that do not have to be done right now, but which if done would make a positive contribution to your project, such as planning, increasing your production capacity through training, building relationships with stakeholders, and brainstorming (recognizing and looking for new opportunities).
  3. Quadrant III activities are urgent, but not important, such as some e-mails, meetings, reports that are external to or peripheral to your project.
  4. Quadrant IV activities are not urgent, and not important, and these include e-mails external to your organization, and time wasters of any sort.

These are the different quadrants as they exist conceptually. If you could plot the amount of time you spend each day on these activities, what would the above four-quadrant diagram look like? For those whose quadrants I and III seem to take over, here are some suggestions that Stephen Covey makes to get back to a more balanced schedule.

3. Time management pathologies: Quadrant takeover

For those who are always fighting fires, Quadrant I takes up most of their time. If you don’t have a clear idea of what is important, you may end up taking care of urgent matters more often than you need to.

Figure 2. Quadrant I Takeover—Constantly “Putting Out Fires”

Quadrant I

Quadrant II

Quadrant III

Quadrant IV

Solution: Focus on Quadrant II, and try to spend more time on activities that prevent those urgent problems before they occur. This is the reason why there is focus on risk management.

For those who spend a great deal on dealing with problems that are based on the expectations of others outside the project. The tasks may be important to them, but not necessarily to you as the project manager because they are external to the project.

Figure 3. Quadrant III Takeover—I’m Just a Boy who Can’t Say No

Quadrant I

Quadrant II

Quadrant III

Quadrant IV

Solution: As in paragraph 3 above, try to take control of your time by scheduling time for your own project first, and learn the power of when to diplomatically say “no” to requests that are outside of your project. Alternatively, learn to delegate those tasks to others in your team who are capable of handling them.

If you have non-urgent, non-important tasks taking over most of your schedule, as in Quadrant IV, you should definitely delegate them to members of your staff.

3. Time-Management Tools

Okay, so you want to manage your time more effectively using the solutions mentioned above. How do you go about doing it?

Here is a diagram showing the different “generations” of time-management tools, from those which make you merely efficient to those which make you more effective as well.

Figure 4. The Four Generations of Time-Management Tools

The first generation consists of to-do lists. These help you remember tasks you have to do in the present.

The second generation consists of schedules. They help you remember tasks you have to do in the future as well as the present.

The third generation of tools consists of daily planners. These can help you to prioritize those tasks. The key factor here is that these priorities are based on external circumstances, which ends you getting trapped in Quadrant III at the mercy of circumstances beyond your control.

The fourth generation of tools consists of long-term planning, especially that which makes some time for Quadrant II activities that make you more effective as well as efficient.

The following represents Stephen Covey’s scheme for planning which incorporates Quadrant II activities into one’s schedule.

Figure 4. Organizing Effectively AND Efficiently

First stage is creating a mission statement. People say they need discipline to stick to their goals, but that discipline is made easier if you have a mission statement that you can refer to when you feel that you are starting to go adrift. This is something that can be read but must be VISUALIZED when it is created.

With that mission statement in mind, the second stage is to think of the roles you play as a project manager. What are your relationships to your stakeholders, which can include your project sponsors in the organization, your project management organization, your customers, those doing work on the project (subject matter experts), etc. Also, include those roles you play outside of work if you are doing a schedule that combines your work and personal life.

The third stage is to write down those goals which fit into those roles. And finally, create a long-term schedule with those goals in mind. Then you make a weekly schedule based on the long-term schedule, so your short-term focus is always aligned to your long-term horizon.

The best advice I have for you is to look at the examples in Stephen Covey’s book and especially his Personal Workbook that goes together with his text. I can say that I am incorporating his principles and am increasingly amazed not at how much I get done, but how much quality I’ve built into my life since I have tried it.

The next post takes us from the world of the first three habits which take you from dependence to independence, and into the world of the next three habits which help you take a group of independent individuals and turn them into a close-knit team.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Project Managers–Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busy-ness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall. Stephen Covey

1. Introduction to Habit 2: A Call to Leadership rather than Management

Habit 1 was the habit of being proactive, of creating a circle of influence around oneself to help make the project and one’s organization successful. Now that you’ve got this influence, how are you going to use it? Now that you’ve given yourself room to maneuver in, in which direction are you going to go?

Habit 2 deals with creating a mission statement or vision, which is an integral part of leadership of a project or organization. It is using the team’s resources in an effective manner. Once the direction has been established, then it is part of management of the project to go there in an efficient manner.

2. Efficiency vs. effectiveness—the tale of the Helawi tribe

I can explain the difference between being effective and being efficient by means of an old joke told on a comedy series from the 1960s called F-Troop, a humorous take on the Wild West. A young Native American asks his father what the name of the tribe was. The father answered that they are the Helawi tribe. He said to his son that it was funny that he asked that question, because he asked the same question of the chief while they were moving their hunting grounds a while back. The chief was overlooking the landscape, and he looked up distractly from his map and in said “where the hell are we?” The father misheard and thought the chief had said, “we’re the Helawi” and mistook that as the identity of the tribe.

In a similar way, members of your team may identify with their tasks and try to do them efficiently, be as the project manager you must try to be effective and to be like that chief who stops and asks “where the hell are we?” from time to time, and to do that, he needs not a map, but a project charter.

3. The mission statement

An organization should have a mission statement or philosophy that focuses on what the organization wants to be or its character and what it wants to achieve. I like the description in the book by Stephen Covey of our country’s Constitution as being equivalent to its mission statement.

The mission statement or project charter should be centered in the following principles:

Security is your sense of your team or organizations strengths, and the guidance is what you supply as a leader to give direction to the team. Power is derived from the circle of influence described in habit 1 which gives you the capacity to be proactive. It takes the core strengths of the organization and uses them to achieve the project goals you set using your wisdom as a project manager, which is gained from lessons learned on past projects.

In this way, your mission statement will align all of the team members’ activities towards the same direction, and the project itself will align with the strategic goals of the organization.

In the next post on Habit 3, I discuss how to manage the team once you have given them direction as a leader.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Project Managers–Habit 1: Be Proactive

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.—Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr

1. Habit 0—Be Aware of Yourself

The first step in applying any of the 7 Habits that Stephen Covey describes requires you to stand apart from yourself and observe yourself as if you were looking at another person. I call this “Habit 0″, although Covey himself does not use that term. In my opinion, the way to get the most out of his book is to get the Personal Workbook which allows you to make observations on your thoughts, behaviors, and actions based on the material you have read in each chapter. So my recommendation for those who read his book is to go get the workbook and—work through it!

2. Habit 1: What does”proactive” mean? Let’s ask Shakespeare!

Figure 1. Habit 1: Be Proactive

I think the common conception of the word “proactive” is “Acting in advance to deal with an expected difficulty; anticipatory” according to the American Heritage Dictionary. However, in my opinion Stephen Covey’s conception of the word “proactive” is somewhat larger in meaning, more like the definition of the word in the Collins Dictionary of “tending to initiate change rather than reacting to events.” You can initiate change in anticipation of future events, but you can also initiate change in response to past mistakes, and to one’s present circumstances.

Figure 2. Freedom to Choose = Being Proactive

If you believe that genetics, one’s childhood experience, and one’s environment SOLELY determine one’s behavior and attitude, then you are believer in determinism and are reactive. If you are able to use self-awareness to examine yourself, and then use one’s imagination, will and conscience to create a space in which you have freedom to choose your behavior and attitude, then you are being proactive in the wider sense.

It is this wider sense of the word proactive that gives insight into the genius beyond Shakespeare’s plays. Harold Bloom, the most celebrated literary critic in the United States, has written about what makes Shakespeare the most celebrated literary genius of all time. One of those elements is his characters’ ability to overhear themselves and gain self-awareness, and instead of simply reacting to events, to be proactive by exhibiting a freedom of choice from which they act.

Here’s an illustration from the play Hamlet. The eponymous hero has just come from a performance of The Murder of Gonzago, a play within a play that recreates the circumstances behind his father’s murder. When the murder scene happens, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius abruptly rises and leaves the room, and Hamlet is convinced of his uncle’s guilt based on his reaction to the play. Hamlet goes off to find his uncle and murder him, when he suddenly sees him deep in penitent prayer, asking forgiveness for what he has done.

Hamlet draws his dagger to kill him, which would be simply reactive based on his desire for revenge. However, he starts reasoning that if he were to kill his uncle right then and there, his uncle would be pardoned for the murder by having died in a state of penitence for what he had done. Hamlet sheathes his dagger and walks away, because he has overheard himself and reasoned that he does not want to create the unintended consequence of sending his uncle to Heaven by killing him at that moment, saying “Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge!” or as we would say today, giving his uncle a promotion rather than a punishment. In this space created by self-awareness, Hamlet is giving himself a freedom to choose and be proactive. This freedom to choose is what gives Hamlet the quality of being a fully-dimensional human being just like the audience, and they have responded to that echo of their own humanity throughout the ages by declaring Shakespeare the most celebrated of all literary geniuses. Why? Because his best characters are proactive, not reactive.

3. A Project Manager expands his Circle of Influence

One illustration that Covey has to emphasize the difference between reactive and proactive people is create the circle of influence which is the those items over which someone has a degree of control, either directly or indirectly. We can solve our own problems:

a) directly by changing our own habits directly (habits 1, 2, and 3),

b) indirectly by changing the habits of others (habits 4, 5, and 6), or

c) or for those we have no control over, by changing our attitude to one of acceptance.

Those that spend more of their mental energy on problems over which they have no control are reactive. They are either guilty about mistakes they have done in the past, or worry futilely about problems they may encounter in the future without doing anything to prepare. Those that are proactive try to expand their circle of influence, and a Project Manager does this in three ways:

Past Present Future
Proactive method Lessons learned Active listening/empathy Planning/risk response

For mistakes done in the past, a proactive project manager acknowledges the mistake, corrects it and puts it in the lessons learned for future projects. To avoid mistakes in the future, a proactive project manager plans and makes contingencies for deviations to the plan in the form of risk responses that can be made part of a risk register.

Then, to avoid mistakes being done by oneself and others in the present, you need to be an active listener to those in the team so that any concerns, even unexpressed ones, can be dealt with as quickly as possible.

If you follow these three methods of dealing with the past, present, and future, you will not only be a better project manager, but you will become a more responsible person.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Project Managers–Overview

1. Purpose

I am currently taking a course that is preparing me to take the Project Management Professional certification exam. The course is being put on by the Orange County chapter of the Project Management Institute. Our main text for the course is A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge or the PMBOK® Guide for short. Appendix G to that guide lists interpersonal skills that Project Managers should have to help them interact appropriately with the project team and other stakeholders.

Section G.9 of that appendix gives a list of references, and the first book on the list was Stephen R. Covey’s book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I decided to make a project of blogging about the seven habits that Covey presents with the idea of making them specifically relevant to Project Managers.

2. What is a habit?

The definition of a habit is “one of an imaginary race of half-size people living in holes”—oh, wait, that’s the definition of a “hobbit”, invented by J.R.R. Tolkien. But come to think of it, if you have a BAD habit, then you are half of the size of what you COULD become, and you are living in a hole of your own making.

To break a BAD habit and replace it with an EFFECTIVE habit, you need to have three components which Stephen Covey outlines in his section “The Seven Habits—An Overview”. You need theoretical knowledge of what to do, you need the practical application or skill or how to do it, and the motivation or desire to want to do it.

A project manager is motivated by a desire to see the project succeed. Gaining the knowledge of the 7 Habits and putting those skills to work will make it more likely that future projects will succeed.

3. What are the 7 Habits?

The 7 Habits are arranged according to a paradigm or pattern as follows. The first three habits 1, 2, and 3 deal with the paradigm of dependence where the focus is on you, e.g., you take care of me; and if something goes wrong, I blame it all on you. The next three habits 4, 5, and 6 deal with the paradigm of independence where the focus is on me or I, as in I can do this myself. The 7th habit is the paradigm deals with the paradigm of interdependence where the focus is on we, as in we can combine efforts to achieve success.

Habits 1, 2, and 3 deal with self-mastery, and move a person from dependence to independence. Habits 4, 5, and 6 deal with teamwork, cooperation, and communication, and take you from being independent to being interdependent and working with a team. Habit 7 is the habit of renewal, of constant innovation of both yourself and your team.

You can see why being a better leader first means being good at your craft of project management. Although there are many leadership styles, leadership by feat (or example) rather than by fear is the one that I have appreciated in my managers in the past, and is one that I hope to cultivate in the future as a project manager.

4. What is Highly Effective?

These habits are highly effective because they not only increase production (abbreviated by “P”) in the present, but increase one’s productive capacity (“PC”) or capacity to produce in the future. In the illustration Stephen Covey uses of the familiar Aesop’s fable of the goose that laid the golden eggs, the farmer ends up killing the goose (the production capacity of the eggs) to get at the eggs (the production).  Highly effective habits are the habits that keep on giving; they balance your time between activities which give short-term benefit now and those which create long-term benefits for the future.

The PMBOK® Guide recommends this book for project managers, but I recommend that you learn it not just for yourself in your capacity as a project manager, but also to impart these habits to those on your team, to help them move from dependence on you to being able to work independently, and finally to work with others in an interdependent way as part of a team.    When your team becomes more highly effective, then so do you.

With my next post, I start with Habit #1: Be Proactive.

From the Viking Choir to the Masters of Harmony–Returning to the Choral Sea

A chance encounter at one of my recent networking groups leads to my rediscovery of choral music, and a sea of musical memories from my earlier life. This post is dedicated to the memory of Walter Rodby–who started it all.

I remember going to the audition with a sense of resignation.   I was determined to do my best, but I really didn’t have any expectation of making it.  It was the end of freshman year at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, and Walter Rodby was holding tryouts for members for the introductory Male Chorus to join the premier high school chorus, the Viking Choir.  Normally, you needed to be in the intermediate chorus called the Mixed Chorus first.   Only about a dozen slots would be open for those in the Male Chorus who were good enough to pass the audition and go straight to the top choir.

For the audition, we had to sing a passage from some recognizable tune to make sure we at least had the minimum vocal quality that he was looking for. But Mr. Rodby required more than just a pleasing voice. He was a stern taskmaster, and he required that those trying out for chorus to learn how to sight-read music so that the choir rehearsals were more about harmonizing with the other parts than pounding out your own.

It was my turn to enter the room.  Mr. Rodby sat with military bearing at the piano.   He asked me to sing the passage and I was a bit wobbly at first, like one of those fawns trying out its legs for the first time, but then ended literally on a more confident note.    Then he handed me a sheet of music.   Ah, the moment of truth!   I tried to sing my part off the sheet of music, and hoped my practicing had paid off.   I did okay on the first half, but then flubbed the end of the short passage, at the end of which Mr. Rodby politely said, “thank you very much” meaning “the audition is over.”

I don’t know what came over me, but rather than leaving I said, “Mr. Rodby, I know the audition is over, but I think I did the last part of that passage wrong and would like to do it over so that I can get it right,” with my voice showing a determination that came from somewhere deep inside of me.   I redid the passage, and this time, what do you know? I did it perfectly!   I thanked him for allowing me the opportunity to get it right.    “Oh well,” I thought as I left the room, “too bad I got it right AFTER the audition was already over.”  I put it out of mind, and prepared to join the middling Mixed Chorus the next year.

One week later, the lists of those who passed the audition were put on the wall…  All the boys crowded around, and there were many disappointed looks as they returned from scanning for their name.   To avoid the embarrassment, I milled around until most of them had cleared away.  There were a couple of boys who were high-fiving each other for having made it.   I finally decided to get it over with and looked at the list of baritones and at the very bottom was the name … Jerome Rowley.   I made it!   I honestly was more stunned than happy.

Later on, I think that Mr. Rodby passed me on the audition, not because of my non-existent technical brilliance, but because I was determined to get it right.  That extra quality of tenacity was what put me over the edge, I think, and is something that I have never, ever forgotten.

The Viking Choir made history in 1970 by being the first American high school choir to tour behind the Iron Curtain. A few years later when I joined the choir as a sophomore, we went on a tour of the Netherlands and Germany, with a short stopover in France. It was the first time that many in the choir had been to Europe, and I remembered it as a time of music … and magic, as we explored castles, sailed down the Rhine River and sang in cathedrals, and went to restaurants with our choir guides and were served that ambrosia called wine. It was that experience that made me determined that when I returned from Spring Break, I would start learning French and German in addition to the Spanish I was already studying.

The person who was responsible for my success was Walter Rodby, who instilled in me a sensitivity to musical phrasing, which I can only describe as having a musical passage grow and then die down like the blooming and dying of a flower rather than being strictly played according to the rhythm and dynamics as noted in the music. This musicality combined with the dedication and discipline that I had already had in embryo as a member of the Male Chorus caused me to have the wonderful sensation of having fun while working hard together with others as a member of the chorus.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago: I was in a circle of people in a networking group I regularly attend, when we were asked to name something memorable about ourselves.  A guy named Brad said he loved to sing, and was a member of a men’s chorus called the Masters of Harmony, and wanted to know if anybody else in the group sang. “I did,” I volunteered. Or I used to—it had been two decades since my last choral singing in college and graduate school.

He invited me to go to a rehearsal that the Masters of Harmony were putting on in preparation for the International Choral Championships to be held over the 4th of July. Something in me just decided to be adventurous and to try it. I went there on a Wednesday evening and everybody was very friendly and welcoming.   And then they went to the risers and I stood among them as they started to sing …

They were amazing!  I didn’t know until I went home and checked them out on the internet, but they are Southern California’s Premier Men’s Chorus, and were the 2011 International Chorus Champions.  This makes them ineligible according to contest rules to join the international contest again until 2014, but they are going to the international contest to literally give their swan song tribute to whichever chorus wins this year’s competition.    Here’s the link for those who want to take a look at what the chorus is all about:

I sang for three hours and all of the musical director Mark Hale’s comments about singing musically reminded me exactly of what Walter Rodby used to drum into my head for the three years I was a member of the high school chorus.   And the excitement of being part of a group of guys all trying to do their best was just … exhilarating.

When I was done with that one rehearsal, I knew I was hooked:   I knew that whatever it takes, I have to be part of this organization. That yammering little voice I’ve learned to hate over the years started saying, “hey, it’s been over two decades since you’ve sang.” But within me, something deeper, that determination I pulled from the depths of being that one audition day back in high school said, “I will at least try out for it. I will give it my all and do my best—then I can rest.” After that wonderful experience at that rehearsal, and all the memories that it unleashed in me, I cannot NOT go through with it.

We’ll see where this musical road takes me. But even the road in front of me is new, the territory seems very familiar, and I am looking forward to exploring it. For two decades, my musical voice was hidden, but now I MUST sing.