Stepping into Solutions by Giving Old Ways the Boot

The Podcasting Store
3 min readNov 30, 2023

by Drew Holmes

“Aaarrgh! I can’t do it! It’s too hard!”

Sam, our five-year-old, was attempting to put his snow boots on with minimal success. Preparing to walk the five blocks to school, we were on the cusp of missing the first bell. For reasons only known to him, he insisted on attempting to force his feet in rather than using his hands to loosen the straps. Day after day I witnessed this dance, as the frustration bubbles over. Before the situation escalated further, I intervened.

“Hey buddy,” I told him. “When things aren’t going exactly the way you want, what do you do?”

“I get angry!” came his shouted reply.

“Yes, you can feel angry”, I said, “but you can choose how you react to that feeling. When I want something to turn out different, I need to *do* something different.”

My first concert at Drew University in Madison, NJ, was our December holiday performance. The orchestra was small, so the show featured small groups and chamber music, among them a brass quartet in which I was first trumpet.

The quartet was performing an original arrangement of “Christmas Bells”, a legendarily repetitive song. During the dress rehearsal our group could not get our parts in sync. Some of us were rushing, others dragging, and the articulations were inconsistent at best. Professor Nair, our conductor, tried everything he could think of to get four instruments to sound as one, but his efforts proved futile.

“Take a break”, he told the quartet.

Frustrated, I pulled the brass players aside. I was only a few months removed from having played in my first brass quintet, an ensemble comprised of musicians years ahead of me who I respected. While I had not led that group, I learned from those more experienced performers and knew what had worked in a small ensemble collaboration.

“Let’s try to run it again,” I said. “Follow me.”

I gave the downbeat with my trumpet bell and we were off. With no conductor to rely upon, we were forced to listen intently to each other for the correct tempo and interpretation. Amazingly enough it worked, and our individual tone colors wove together to sound like one instrument. Having no conductor for a safety net unlocked the underutilized parts of our brains and the piece came together like never before.

“That was great!” lauded Professor Nair, who had witnessed the whole thing. “We’re going to perform it like that at tomorrow’s concert.”

I felt the weight of the trust he was placing in me, a mere freshman, to lead the group but also appreciated the vote of confidence. He recognized the futility in continuing to fight what was not working by doing the same thing over and over and was willing to experiment with something different, even at the risk of total disaster. Fears of a train wreck were unfounded and once we tried an alternate approach the results took care of themselves, in rehearsal and in the next day’s performance.

“Sam,” I said calmly, but firmly. “Try using your hands to loosen the straps, then push your feet into the boots.”

Grabbing a boot, I demonstrated the process I just described. As he easily slid his foot inside the frustration ebbed.

“Now you try it with the other one.”

He fumbled his way through the steps and managed to get the other boot on. This was not the first time he and I have had this conversation, nor do I expect it will be the last. But with repetition and reinforcement hopefully Sam will learn this lesson and start to problem solve in more creative ways.

Regardless of the outcome, I want him to know that a different approach is almost always guaranteed to create a different result. And maybe it will help get his boots on faster, so we won’t be late for school.

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