The singer closes his eyes, tilts his head back, and, as his right foot taps on the worn wooden floor of the No Parking recording studio in Rosendale, New York (a stone's throw away from Woodstock), Deaf Lemon Meringue belts out the blues in a deep voice laced with a slight Irish brogue. But Deaf Lemon (known by day as Paul Duffy, 47) isn't singing about the troubles back in his native Dublin, or about rain that won't stop falling, or even about some woman who done him wrong. He's singing about life in the new world of work. Specifically, he's singing the "Overcommitted Blues":
My calendar's full,
My Day-Timer's frayed,
My voice mail's overloaded,
I'm way underpaid.
Got tons overdue,
Several deadlines to meet,
The only things working
Are my two left feet.
I'm a-fumblin' — got those overcommitted blues.
If you see me at the watercooler, please don't stop and schmooze.
Although James Cotton isn't exactly quaking in his boots and B.B. King isn't rushing to restring Lucille, Face the Music, an "interactive musical-edutainment" band, is cutting its first CD. The group, an intriguing collection of full-time consultants and musicians, has been invited into some big companies — including Consolidated Edison and General Electric — to help their employees give voice to a few of the universal laments faced by people in every walk of life.
The emcee, one of the lyricists and the band's clarinetist, is Blind Willy Nilly ("I see more with my eyes closed than open"), aka Mitch Ditkoff. Ditkoff, 52, is also president of Idea Champions, a Woodstock, New York-based training company that has worked with such companies as Bell Atlantic, Coca-Cola, and VH1. "One night, my wife and I were listening to a local blues band — Ernie and the Wild Cats — when the idea to start a band that would sing the corporate blues first came to me," he explains. "The corporate blues exist. And if those feelings aren't externalized, they infect people with doubt, cynicism, and negativity — which makes it harder for people to excel."
Ditkoff approached South Bend Slim, aka Paul Kwiecinski. Kwiecinski, 43, was a project manager at Ford before joining MetaSystem Consulting Group. Kwiecinski, who also plays a mean bass, jumped on the idea of the blues as a metaphor for change. "If the blues teaches us anything, it's that despair is not the only alternative to adversity," says Kwiecinski. "But the blues isn't about finding a solution to what's wrong; it's about stating what the feeling is. To change a bad situation, you first have to acknowledge it."
Ditkoff and his team conduct extensive interviews before their performances. This "needs assessment" helps the band figure out some of its clients' prickly organizational issues, which they then transform into song. "At first, people are a little freaked because we're singing about them," says Ditkoff. "But then they relax and laugh at themselves."
That laughter was just what Tom Hawley wanted when he invited Face the Music to perform at the end of a three-day off-site. "People began laughing when they realized that the band was singing about them," says Hawley, director of HR at FIS (Food Ingredient Specialities), a Nestle subsidiary.
But the fun really began when the managers realized that they'd have to write and perform their own blues songs that would be recorded live on a CD. Hawley, now known in-house as Downtown Tommy Tunes, wrote the "PEP Blues." (PEP is FIS's performance-review system.) "You can imagine what I have to deal with when it's time for reviews," he says. "I wanted people to offer perspectives on tough topics: working long hours, feeling underappreciated, or having limited resources to get a job done."
Perspective as an antidote to the blues? Maybe not for Muddy Waters, but this, after all, is business. Deaf Lemon, who is musical director of Face the Music, offers his own perspective on change-agent blues: "We're absolutely sincere about what we're doing. But the blues has always been partly tongue- in-cheek. We want to capture that too."
Learn more about Face the Music on the Web (www.facethemusicblues.com), or contact Mitch Ditkoff by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sidebar: How to Sing the Blues
Most of us have never held a piece of sheet music in our hands, let alone tried to compose our own screamin' blues numbers. So how does Face the Music persuade musically challenged businesspeople to experiment and express themselves — and to face the music? Here's part of the band's repertoire, in the words of Blind Willy Nilly, aka Mitch Ditkoff.
"What's your problem? Email overload, office politics, your boss? Any feeling can be made into a song. Willie Dixon said it best: You can write the blues about anything. In the morning, you can write the blues because your woman done left you. At night, you can write the blues because she came home.
"The blues is about giving voice to some of the little moments in life. So ask yourself a few questions — What's really going on at work? How does it feel? How long has it been going on? — and then pick a topic."
Change your identity.
"People tend to overidentify with their title, position, agenda, and company. Picking a blues name lets you put your persona aside for the night. We want to give people room to be someone else — or at least to discover another part of themselves that frequently isn't expressed."
Don't be too serious.
"The blues has always been laced with humor and fun. It's not all moaning and groaning."
Go beyond the blues.
"The musical place beyond the blues is called gospel. That's where you go for celebration, ecstasy, gratitude — a place to get out of your head, stop focusing on all the junk, and start realizing how beautiful life is."
A version of this article appeared in the May 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.