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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Introducing the Rotundas

January 13, 2012 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

I give advice all the time but it’s rarely heeded. A year ago, I suggested that Minnesota’s new state public policy leaders meet regularly, outside of formal policy-making relationship settings. They should, I advocated, create a vehicle for regular, meaningful exchange but absent the button-downed trappings of a 10am meeting in the Governor’s Reception Room. Drawing on Minnesota’s Scandinavian roots, I suggested weekly or even daily saunas.

Governor Dayton, Speaker Zellers and then-Senate Majority Leader Koch never adopted my suggestion. Look where we are today.

Last year’s legislative session was ugly. Conservative policy leaders insisted on a cuts-only budget. After a three-week state government shutdown, the compromise budget was based on further program cuts, financial book jiggering, and shifting costs into future fiscal periods.

I don’t know that weekly leadership saunas would’ve produced a balanced approach, pairing strategic programs cuts with modest revenue increases, but they didn’t even bother trying my suggestion.

That’s ok. I have another, new approach for the new legislative session: a cappella singing.

The idea of policymakers finding common-cause, if not flat-out relaxation, in music is not a new idea. A few years back, Minnesota Congressman Colin Peterson played bass guitar in a bi-partisan Capitol Hill band. Mostly, they played country music covers without talking a lot of shop. Like nearly all bands, they eventually broke up. Still, simply being together, working on a groove, creates opportunity for compromise and public policy creation.

I love small ensemble singing. Quartets, octets, mixed-gender or single sex groups. They’re all good. Trio or duet singing is harder because two or three blended voices, while magical, doesn’t quite capture the range and harmonic possibilities of four or more voices. Also, close-harmony duets or trio singing requires real skill. Apart from the shattering emotional experience of losing a brother, the two surviving BeeGees stopped performing because Maurice Gibb carried the heaviest load. He sang the middle part.

Singing on the high or low end is comparatively simple. Finding the correct middle note binds the extremes. It’s a lot harder than it looks. Or sounds.

Consequently, I’m suggesting that Dayton, Zellers and newly-elected Senate Majority leader Dave Senjem include House Minority Caucus Leader Paul Thiessen and State Senate Minority Caucus Leader Tom Bakk in the group. Five voices create great sonic potential, richer than three yet no one can hide.

Consider some of the great quintets in vocal music history. The Dominoes. The Platters. The Five Blind Boys of Alabama. Sweet Honey in the Rock is a women’s quintet with the sixth, non-singing member signing in ASL. The Beach Boys weren’t sufficiently skilled to play musical instruments on their records—the Wrecking Crew performed that function—but they moved five-part harmony into the rock and roll era.

Five is the right number.

Let me also suggest a name: The Rotundas, after that big open space in the State Capitol’s center. The rotunda looks cool, giving people a place to congregate but doesn’t belong to the Governor or the Legislature.

A cappella singing eschews all instruments but voice. It requires only modest singing skill but, most importantly, rewards listening. Hearing the other voices in order to find the right note, chasing a single vocal vision—creating one voice from five—is a blast. And, all of those tiled Capitol surfaces practically scream for both doo-wop and Gregorian chant numbers.

The possibilities are endless. I mean, who doesn’t like singing? It’s a skill routinely taught in school music programs. Well, sort of. Real, per-capita state educational budget cuts and school payment funding shifts are causing music program elimination but since most state policy leaders were educated in an earlier, better-funded era, they’ll know how to sing even if their kids or grandkids are deprived of the same opportunity.

But, I digress. I’m looking for a mechanism for Dayton, Zellers, Senjem, Theissen and Bakk to work together without overtly discussing Minnesota’s considerable public policy challenges. Vocal group singing fits the bill. It doesn’t require disrobing, sweating or rolling in the snow like my sauna suggestion. Feedback is immediate. Right or wrong notes, the singers know.

The Rotundas could set a new standard for state policy making. Rather than an endless slog of work days, Tuesday rehearsal nights could be the week’s salvation, creating common ground. Singing can lead Minnesota forward, helping policy leaders focus on what really matters. I know I’d stop and listen.

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