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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Fraternity is Like a Mix Tape

I’m going to show my age in this essay, and I know full well that this will only “reach” a certain segment of the readership.  Please stick with me, even if you don’t know at all what this is ---->

I was a (self-proclaimed) master of the mix tape.  Whether it was to psych up for a sporting event or competition, or to enjoy a road trip, or to woo a young lady, I knew how to mix it just right.  It’s an art form, really.  Any person can just throw a bunch of songs onto a cassette.  But, that doesn’t make it a mix tape.  Mix tapes get their power from thoughtful design, song ordering, and transitions.  It’s like writing a book - there is a storyline in a good mix tape.

A mix tape is like life.  And so is a fraternity experience.  So, is it possible to mash-up these two things?  Here is my best attempt.

Here is how a fraternity or sorority is like a good mix tape:

It Has to Have a Purpose 
A mix tape without a purpose is like an I-Pod Shuffle.  There are good songs there, but no thread by which they connect.  Similarly, a fraternity can have good guys, but without purpose there is nothing around which to gravitate.  To focus. 

When you build a mix tape, you need to start with the reason why.  Are you trying to inspire better athletic performance?  Or trying to tell someone how much they mean to you?  With that focused purpose, choosing the right songs becomes simpler.

Here is an example, if I were building a mix tape with the purpose of evoking the essence of life’s journey, then I might start with a slow and reflective song with a good build-up - maybe like Pearl Jam’s “Release.”  I would then search for music that represents the circumstances of life, such as R.E.M’s “Half a World Away” to represent longing, Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” to represent love lost, and Mumford and Son’s “I Will Wait” to evoke love found. 

For your fraternity, what is your reason why?  If it’s to live out the teachings of your Ritual (I hope), then you should choose members and initiatives that can help make that happen.

If you don't know your purpose, or select members that contradict your purpose, then the end result is disjointed and confusing. 

Variety Matters
The artistry of a mix tape comes from the variance in the songs selected.  If one side of your mix is all heavy metal and the other side is all broadway, then you haven’t made a mix tape.  You’ve made two compilations instead.  Mix tapes can find a way to blend genres like heavy metal with broadway and yet make it sound perfectly right.  This is difficult to do, but when you hit it right, it’s special.

It's a high risk, high reward endeavor.  I once made magic with a combo of Pachelbel 's Canon in D and Chumbawamba's Tubthumper.  On the flip side,  a blend of Andrea Bocelli and Poison doesn't work as well.

In fraternity, variety can be found in many forms.  A good fraternity experience will expose members to many different opportunities, including service, education, networking, and leadership.  A good fraternity experience should also expose members to different types of people - meaning that your membership should be diverse.  We grow the most in life because of the different individuals who come inside our life.  There is only so much we can learn from people who have similar life stories to ours.  

And besides, a mix tape with only the same type of music is boring.  As it is with fraternity.

Be Thoughtful About Time

Probably the most difficult skill to master as a mix tape maker is timing.  Cassettes only had a certain amount of time for each side (typically 30 or 45 minutes).  If you didn’t time it right, you could be recording the final song on side A and the cassette you were recording onto would run out and stop.  The sound of a tape stopping too early was heartbreaking.  I would
watch the reels in motion and pray that the recorded tape would hold out for 30 more seconds. Watching to black tape spool shrink smaller…and smaller...and...KERCHUNK.  Stopped.

Watch your time.  The undergraduate fraternity years - while not the only years through which to experience fraternity - are very special.  Before you know it, they will be gone. 

The opposite of running out of time on a mix tape is leaving too much soundless space at the end.  The space is begging to be used.

Make sure that you can say you took advantage of every minute you could, and that you left no tape unfilled. 

There is a Time for All Emotions
If a fraternity experience is done well, there will be plenty of time for laughter, frustration, anger, joy, sadness, inspiration and all other emotions associated with being human.  Only those things most vital and significant in life evoke emotions.  If your fraternity, or your college experience, or your job, or your marriage, any other major element in your life does not evoke emotions, then something is wrong.  We shouldn’t be afraid of endeavors that will make us vulnerable to emotions, and instead, we should search for them.

In the same way, a mix tape moves from good to powerful if it can evoke emotions.  Songs can send tremendously relevant resonance into our psyche.  My favorite mix tapes made me tap my feet at times, made me laugh at times, and made me cry at times.  Especially if they included Eva Cassidy.

Start and End Strong
If it’s not obvious by now, I’m old school in a lot of ways, and another indication is how I still like to view music albums as...well...albums.  I think an album should be judged on its entirety and not just on the 2-3 songs that will be played at wedding receptions or top 40 countdowns.  I admire bands that can build albums into musical experiences rather than just a collection of songs.  U2 could do this.  Pink Floyd too.  I’m not sure who in today’s music is really achieving this, but it’s hard now in the itunes generation.  We buy songs more than albums these days.  Anyhow, I think a good mix tape mirrors this, and especially knows how to capitalize its beginning and punctuate its end.

On the mix tapes I enjoyed the most, I would find a creative way to start the tape, usually involving a slower song with a dramatic buildup leading into a fast-paced rocker (old timers, think of Van Halen’s 1984 album).  I wanted to set the mood and draw the listener in.  Likewise, a good ending is essential for leaving the listener with the thought that they just experienced something big.  Garth Brooks was always excellent at closing songs on his albums (think “The Dance” and “The River”). 

In a fraternity experience, it’s not so hard to start strong.  We’re good at that.  We know how to make getting bids and initiation ceremonies a big deal.  We can launch our members forward with excitement.

But, too many of our members end their fraternity mix tape by their Junior year.  They start to see less value in the experience, or just turn their attention to something else.  Not only do I encourage fraternities to find relevant ways to engage older undergraduates, but I also encourage those older undergraduates to take it upon themselves to end strong.  Your experience is an asset.  Think about how you can seize these later days of your undergraduate experience and do things that matter so much to your fraternity, that the newer members have a inspired and lasting impression of you.  You become the powerful mix tape that stays in their mind. 

Most of you reading this have probably never made a mix tape, and never will.  Yet, you can make a fraternity experience.  You choose the message, you choose the music, you choose the time, and choose how it ends.  Make it one that you’d never want to stop listening to.

And one more thing.  I most strongly believe that...KERCHUNK.

Darn it.

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