End of August

It’s time to greet September and say goodbye to August. Perhaps with this lovely poem by Irish poet Francis Ledwidge.


by Francis Ledwidge

She’ll come at dusky first of day,
White over yellow harvest’s song.
Upon her dewy rainbow way
She shall be beautiful and strong.
The lidless eye of noon shall spray
Tan on her ankles in the hay,
Shall kiss her brown the whole day long.

I’ll know her in the windows, tall
Above the crickets of the hay.
I’ll know her when her odd eyes fall,
One May-blue, one November-gray.
I’ll watch her down the red barn wall
Take down her rusty scythe and call,
And I will follow her away.

Here are the Rockford Aces singing Michael McGlynn’s gorgeous setting at the 2012 World Choir Games.

Boredom and Creativity

In Krista Tippet’s On Being interview with neuropsychologit Rex Jung, titled Creativity and the Everyday Brain, she asks a question about free time that includes this statement:

It’s something that’s, to me, proven true in life, that there’s a connection between boredom and creativity, or between not having things given to you to do….

It’s a popular idea, I think, that we need boredom to be creative. That creativity requires a lack of structure.

I don’t buy it.

Consider Alice Parker, who has written thousands of creative works, every one on commission, during her long career composing and arranging.

Consider Charles Dickens, who wrote exceedingly creative novels, novellas short stories, journalism, and more – all on commission and incredibly prolific.

Consider Isaac Newton, who during his “Annus Mirabilis” (1666) made his significant discoveries in calculus, gravity, optics, and the laws of motion. Think he was bored? Me neither. He was working nonstop.

Rex Jung states in the interview that creativity comes from a relaxation of some parts of the brain to allow for different ideas to interact. And certainly that can come about when you’re bored. But you can also train your brain to enter this relaxedness.

I remember being bored. But it’s been so long, I don’t remember what it feels like.

To be creative, you don’t need boredom. Relaxing your brain and playing with various ideas is the key. Teach yourself to enter this state and you can remain creative whenever you need to, not simply when the “mood strikes” or when the world around you stops.

Finishing a Piece

Finishing a piece is joy and fear.

You’ve sweated over the big picture, the arc, the actual writing. The last few hours are spent on fine details, making sure the the piece will be as successful as possible at first reading.

And you feel great joy when you decide it’s ready to send to the conductor. Once there was an empty sheet of paper, and now there is the potential for music.

A minute later, the fear comes. Now you are once again looking at a blank sheet of paper, trying to imagine what it will sound like when finished.

That fear can keep you from accepting that you’re finished. You can spend needless hours and days fussing over the layout, the articulations, the exact piano voicings in bar 53. Because you don’t want to jump back into the fear and the blank page.

Jump. Face the fear, send the score, and begin again.


Your Professional Development

Teachers: be sure that in addition to the days of “professional development” you participate in through your school, you also engage in your own professional development. Activities that are certain to help you on your journey.

Ask: What will help me develop your professional skills?

Today’s personal PD assignment from me is to listen to some music that makes you say “wow.” Raise the bar for what you think of as possible musically.

And then bring that new bar into the classroom or rehearsal room with you.

How about this? It’s Roomful of Teeth singing live the Passacaglia from Caroline Shaw’s Partita, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

In the Zone

How do you stay in the zone? For me, it’s important – and tough – to remember to not overuse it.

I’ve been in a really good writing zone for about a week, with progress made on a number of fronts, music flowing relatively smoothly, and results I’ve been pleased with.

The result is I try to sneak down and write more every chance I get – to the neglect of other responsibilities. Sometimes I write and write until I’ve written myself right out of the zone.

A better plan is to stop before I’m tired. Impose limits on my writing time, knowing that I’ll still be in the zone when I come back.

I think a big part of it must be fear – what if I won’t still be in the right mental state?

The answer is, of course I will; and of course I won’t. Sooner or later, I won’t be in the zone again. It ebbs and flows with health, tiredness, inspiration, mood, and so many other factors. But using it until it’s gone is no way to keep it around.

So, I’m vowing not to overuse my writing muscles.

Although it is nice to get extra writing done before the school year starts…

New from Michael McGlynn

Thanks to Minnesota Public Radio’s Choral Stream, I got to enjoy Anúna’s new album, Revelation, last night via live stream. It’s a fabulous new record, from the unique musical perspective of Michael McGlynn. Anúna and McGlynn are probably the best-known Irish choral music today.

McGlynn has been leading Anúna since 1987, producing a remarkable collection of albums and published choral music. The two McGlynn pieces I’ve done with the Rockford Aces, Dúlamán and August, have been consistent favorites of the groups.

I’m looking forward especially to programming his One Last Song from the new album, which I am certain that the Aces will love. In the meantime, though, thanks to support from the Rockford Education Foundation, Michael has been working on an original commission for the Aces. We expect to have it in the near future and will be premiering it later this school year.

We are fortunate to have many worldwide perspectives on choral music composition, and I love the singular viewpoint Michael brings to his work. It is instantly recognizable, personal, heartfelt. And the performances on the new album are virtuosic enough to do his music justice.

Enjoy this archived google hangout between Michael, Anúna, and Tesfa Wondemagegnehu. They recorded it immediately after the live stream of the album last night – at 2am Ireland time.

Required Back-to-School Reading

As school starts up again across the country, I am always reminded of this fabulous free book on what education should be about. My first time reading it, it had a profound effect on how I think about education and especially about music education’s place in the school landscape.

It’s a quick read – and a strongly urge you to spend a night or two reading it if you are a teacher or a parent. And then let it inform your educational agenda and personal interactions this year.

Stop Stealing Dreams
by Seth Godin
Printable edition
Screen PDF edition
Kindle edition

Mastery is Repetition

As each arrow left for its target, the archers were caught between success (hitting the ten) and mastery (knowing it means nothing if you can’t do it again and again).

-Sarah Lewis, The Rise: Creativity, The Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery

It means nothing if you can’t repeat it.

Understand that you’re not done when you finally sing it in tune; know that the first Superior rating is insignificant; realize that one post going viral is luck, not skill.

We celebrate “overnight success” and the flavor-of-the-week top-40 song so much in our society that it is easy to forget what mastery feels like.

Music is a Core Class

Yesterday I said that we should strongly avoid standardized assessment in music class. As soon as I finished it, I heard the protests – but the Senate bill is a great advocacy of of our subject – how can we scorn it?

What should we do instead?

What we should do instead is a lot harder. In the long run, the Senate’s designation is a nice platitude but doesn’t really solve the problem of communities valuing us.

We have to convince our own communities that the arts are vital. It needs to be a weekly part of what we do as music educators – convince people, one at a time if necessary, that music belongs in the schools and couldn’t possibly be cut.

There are models for this and I’ve begun trying various ways to increase my arts department’s profile locally; I’ll be writing more about this.

One model to look to is high school athletics. They have a century of advocacy head-start on us – they have done so many things well that it’s almost impossible to imagine cuts to a high school football team, for example.

There is room for everything – athletics doesn’t have to lose for arts to win.

Music teachers are often the most visible musicians in a community. It is our job to advocate for music in our community, and if we don’t take on this role, the jobs will disappear as communities fail to value them.

It’s a lot harder than a Congressional designation, but it’s the right approach to take.

Music is Not a Core Class

Music is at the core of our society. It is not a “core class” as we are intent on defining it in the U.S.

Along with “core subject” status comes the need to know that students are proficient in this area. And the only way we know to assess their proficiency is … to assess them.

Right now, national organizations are beginning to pilot assessments they have developed. I simply do not believe that there is a way to create tests that meet both of these criteria:

  1. Provide lawmakers with clear, easily understood, objective data about student knowledge.
  2. Do not detract from the daily work of helping students to make art in the classroom.

Making art is a daily struggle; a bubbled test to verify that they have learned to make art will not improve my students’ education.

The argument in favor of core status for music is that it might help protect the jobs of music teachers – if it’s a core class, it can’t be cut so deeply or often.

But to what end? If the high school choral educators I know end up just as focused on preparing students for tests as the math and social studies teachers, hasn’t that diminished the experience they provide?