April 22, 2012

What I learned

Medal ceremony, 2008 Summer Olympics
(Blogging: not yet an Olympic event)
Well, here's the good news: you don't have to vote on this one! 

Yep, the Great Arts Blogger Challenge is over, and I took home the bronze medal.  Well, it's really more "hypothetical" than "bronze" per say; in fact it's not really a "medal" per say.  Look: I came in third.  I'll say this for the Spring For Music Festival people; they're not ones to follow the American tendency to worry about everyone's self-esteem and give out Certificates of Participation to us non-winning finalists.  Well, that's okay by me.

I learned a lot during the four weeks of competition; this seems like a good time to summarize the experience as a way of putting it to bed and getting on with my normal gig of blathering on about opera.

1. Never bring a switchblade to a gun fight.  I see now that I got lulled into a false sense of security by having won the popular vote in the first three rounds of the Challenge.  I assumed that the same resources of voters which carried the day early on would continue to be sufficient.

I was wrong.

I see now that, being a product of online technology, blogs require all available online tools to be fully competitive in events like this.  Witness:
  • I received an email from someone at the Huffington Post, a widely popular e-zine, with an offer to publish my blog on their site.  The eventual Challenge winner, who publishes her blog privately, obviously received the same message and was in a position to take them up on it.  Her final Challenge essay duly appeared on HuffPo, gaining her considerable increased exposure.  My blog, on the other hand, is owned by my employers, meaning the the HuffPo issue had to be vetted by management and, I supposed, an attorney.  They haven't gotten back to me yet, and as we know, the whole challenge thing is history.  Also,
  • I don't do Twitter.  Funny thing about Twitter; one reads nearly daily news stories about some athlete, politician or celebrity who impetuously sent out a tweet that created misunderstandings, controversy and regret.  I, Glenn Winters, am an impetuous soul.  I have steered clear of Twitter largely to avoid embarrassing myself and my company.  Also: most of the people who think I'm "all cool and everything", i.e. opera patrons, tend to be Of A Certain Age, or in other words of a generation unlikely to fool around with Twitter.  As it turned out, heavy use of Twitter played a role in getting out the vote in the final days.  Meanwhile, I was sending out smoke signals, otherwise known as emails, to friends who may or may not have opened them.  Actually, emails don't even rise to the level of a switchblade in my analogy - more like throwing stones and yelling "Yo' mama!"  (Note: never yell "Yo' mama!" at a gunfight.  Not cool.)  Also,
  • Although I'm heavy into Facebook, I see now that I employed a Field of Dreams strategy, one that ultimately let me down.  You remember the catch-phrase from that movie; applied to the Blogger Challenge, it amounts to: "If you post it, they will vote".  My status posts for the past month consisted of daily updates with reminders to vote and the link to the voting website.  While it got a lot of response, and several FB pals were kind enough to re-post, the fact is that only a small percentage of my 573 "friends" really got involved.  On the final day of voting, when I'd begun to slip irretrievably behind into third place, I realized I should have been contacting Facebook folks with personal messages appealing for their votes.  It worked, but came to late to do any good.
Bottom line: any activity involving public voting, be it a presidential election or a humble blogger contest, boils down primarily to getting out the vote.  Those with the resources and will to do what must be done have the advantage, an advantage that could in fact prove at least equal to qualifications of merit alone.

2. A sense of humor is both a way of breaking down walls and erecting walls.
I've always enjoyed making people laugh; in another life, I might actually have tried my hand at stand-up comedy.  I give some 150 talks about opera during the course of a nine-month performing season in the form of lectures, seminars, radio broadcasts and classes.  I have, over eight such seasons, honed my skills in timing and delivery and have gotten pretty good at making a roomfull of people laugh.  I defend this approach by pointing out that a) all public speakers, including sermonizing ministers, routinely employ humor as a tool to engage their audiences; 2) the public generally has an image of the opera world best described as stuffy, snobby, and other lesser-known Snow White dwarves, and 3) my pet peeve about many classical musicians who speak in public is that they often really are stuffy and snobby in tone, which just reinforces the stereotype. 

So I strive for a balance of irreverent humor and substance: chuckles and insight, belly-laughs and knowledge.

But over the years I've learned that while being quick-witted is a good way to get people to like me in the short term, it has disadvantages as well.  Think about your close friends, the ones you would call in the middle of the night in an emergency, the ones you turn to in a crisis: are they likely to be the ones who are always cracking wise and being flip?


In my private life, I've come to observe that my personality has left me knowing a lot of people who think I'm a good guy, but who don't qualify as confidantes.  Being funny can, in the end, be a way of distancing oneself from the world at large; of erecting barriers to close relationships outside of family.

This might also have been true in the Challenge.  I did not read the entries of my competitors.  For one thing, I didn't want to be influenced by other writers' approaches.  For another, I dreaded discovering that my essays might not measure up in content or style.  However, I'm told by those who did read them that the winner's style was one of open emotionalism and passion, while the second-place finisher was going for an erudite, sophisticated tone.  I suspect that my attempts at humor may have trivialized my point of view in comparison.

Regrets?  None!  I like my irreverent writing style, and I don't really want everyone who reads me to feel free to call me at 3:00 AM to share the news that their parakeet has cancer.  To quote Popeye the Sailor Man, "I yam what I yam".

3. Few of us probably realize how many friends we really have.  All issues of confidante-level friendships aside, I gotta tell you:

People are wonderful, and I'm lucky to know so many terrific ones!

The main reason I don't regret not winning the Challenge (as kewl as that would've been) is that I got a great prize: the enthusiastic support of a wide range of people who went to extraordinary lengths to help and encourage me. 

Of course, the essential virtue of Facebook is that it permits us all to engage in meaningful interaction with people who would otherwise fade into irrelevency on the radar screens of our lives.  Old classmates, former co-workers, childhood friends, ex-students, teachers or bosses - in the past, such individuals would make short-lived attempts to be in touch with us until the passing of time and physical distance caused all bonds to atrophy and wither away.  Facebook provides a window into their - and our - daily lives.

This is all by way of leading up to my amazement at how SO MANY became invested in this blogger competition and cheered me on.  I was genuinely touched by all the Facebook friends, near and far, of long or casual acquaintance - who seemed actually happy to help me with daily voting, re-posting my updates, and just generally spreading the word on my behalf.  Sounds cheesy, but this aspect of the Challenge was genuinely heart-warming.  I'll always be grateful.

My new book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online from amazon.com or at http://www.kendallhunt.com/operazoo or by phone from the Customer Service line at 1-800-344-9034 ext.3020.