Make Every Monday A Post-Conference Monday

After a conference, you’re tired but energized. You’re full of new ideas you can’t wait to try with your class. And most of all, you’re inspired by the educators you heard present, and by the ones you chatted with in the hallways and over meals.

Why not bring a bit of that excitement to every Monday?

You can’t attend a conference every weekend, but you can do a little something every weekend. Read an inspiring book, chapter, online post. Watch a great choir, instructional video, or TED Talk on YouTube. Have a half hour shop-talk chat with a colleague on a Sunday afternoon.

Make every Monday a post-conference Monday.

Collaboration in a Conference Performance

Imagine if conference performances afforded you a chance for collaboration beyond the confines of your ensemble.

Conference performances are high-stress, high-profile opportunities, and as such can be perceived as ego-driven. For me, the best performances are the ones that subsume the ego and put genuine music-making at the core of the performance.

I tend to think of – and assess – this at the ensemble level. My favorite conference performances are always the ones that exhibit intra-ensemble communication, musicality, connection. The feeling when a fine ensemble brings the music through them to the audience is the pinnacle of an outstanding conference performance.

Friday my bar for connection was raised several feet by the Chippewa Valley High School Mixed Varsity Choir and their conductor, James Pecar. They finished on a high note with a heartfelt (and tear-inducing) performance of James Taylor’s Shed A Little Light (arranged by Greg Jasperse), and then began their final piece, Ukuthula – a Zulu folk song.

The program notes indicated, “Following the exuberant call to action of Shed a Little Light, Ukuthula expresses the quiet conviction of ultimate success in the mission, coming from the hearts confident of their purpose…The title, Ukuthula, comes from two Zulu root words meaning ‘to be’ and ‘quiet,’ but its meaning has the deeper connotation of rest and peace.”

What made the piece most remarkable, though, was what happened after they began. As the Mixed Varsity Choir began encircling the conference attendees, the choir to follow them in the concert, Paw Paw High School Voices of the Future (Brett Yzquierdo, conductor), rose and processed down the center aisle, singing. The concert set transition was made musically, with these two choirs singing together.

When the program order was finalized, they had begun a long-distance collaboration, making their concert session incalculably richer. Suddenly, these weren’t two choirs to be compared and critiqued, but one choir, joining together for the sake of powerful music.

As various soloists added improvised lines over the choir’s singing, I wept at the beauty of the collaboration and the hope that it gave me.

I was moved by the entire concert session, but this one moment will stay with me for the rest of my career as a shining example of what choirs can do together. With limited time together, and while preparing the most high-profile concert of their year, they kept the big picture in mind and made their performance about music.

Thank you, James. Your vision inspires me.

Good Practice Isn’t Fun to Be Around

It’s important to realize that the behavior leads to good learning isn’t necessarily fun – or even pleasant – to be around.

The most effective practice is short, profoundly repetitive, detail-oriented work.

This is also the least fun to listen to. It can be deeply frustrating to be in earshot of 30 or 40 repetitions of a single challenging bar from a piano waltz.

But there is no denying the effectiveness of the results.

Recently my middle son sat for ten minutes while his young brother worked to solve a particularly tricky puzzle. He saw the solution but was prohibited by me from helping.

His experience was similarly unpleasant to hearing effective piano practice. But by letting his brother solve it himself, he provided  better learning.

As an educator, how comfortable are you with being around the unpleasant state of learning-in-progress?

Alternative Choral Hour

I’ve been a part in planning the brand-new “Alternative Choral Hour” that will be presented tonight as part of the Michigan Music Conference.

I think it’s a great start towards inclusion of all types of choral singing as part of the Michigan Music Conference tapestry. Next year, there will be the first-ever All-State Jazz Choir as part of this evening concert.

While I personally feel that we should be doing more to put all types of quality singing side-by-side, rather than divided into somewhat arbitrary genres, I am proud to have helped include a cappella and jazz choirs at MMC, and especially excited to hear my alma mater choir, WMU Gold Company, tonight.

Join me tonight for the “Alternative Choral Hour” – I’ll be presiding as we hear some fabulous singing from across Michigan.

Proficiency and Growth

Both proficiency and growth are important.

In kindergarteners, growth is far more valuable than any proficiency. On college graduation day the potential for growth should be intact, but it’s more important that the graduate has some finished skills.

At a professional level, the growth achieved must be on top of current proficiency. In educators, in orchestra musicians, in surgeons: growth is important but only because they are already proficient.

Surely that is true for Cabinet Secretaries, too.

Wooden Wednesdays: Overlooked Habits 1

Note: this is the sixteenth of a series of posts investigating the leadership style of John Wooden and its applicability to choral music education.

We have reviewed the fifteen traits John Wooden included in his Pyramid of SuccessThroughout, I felt there was a universality to his selected traits as applicable to all disciplines, despite his developing them as a basketball coach.

That said, I think there are at least a few overlooked character habits that he missed along the way. Perhaps it’s just that he was limited by the dimensions of the pyramid, and perhaps it’s because the habits I’m thinking of are more frequently considered in the arts and sciences than in athletics.


The first trait I want to address is CURIOSITY.

It seems clear to me that curiosity is a habit, and one that needs to be fostered in all humans. Active curiosity is the source for much work ethic. Richard Feynman described “the pleasure of finding things out” – and feeling this pleasure is a powerful motivator for anyone in any discipline.

Without curiosity, all motivation must be extrinsic – you are not compelled to discover new information. With a deep well of curiosity, intrinsic motivation is guaranteed – the discovery is what drives you.

How do we teach curiosity? As ever, it’s a mixture of my four E-words: Explain, Exemplify, Expect, Empower.

Explaining of creativity is not a particularly effective teacher.

We exemplify our own curiosity by acting it out in real time. We show our students how we react to curiosity and the rewards we get for acting on it.

Expecting curiosity is vital. We must save time to welcome curiosity, and honor the truly curious, even (especially) when they wander from the topic being discussed. Prioritize questions from students, respect and answer the questions asked – and if you don’t know the answer, refer back to exemplifying curiosity.

Finally, empower curiosity. In our narrow boxes of lockstep education, it’s easy to dismiss curious souls. If a student asks a question and we say, “That’s not part of what we’re covering,” we have just disempowered their creativity. Instead, we must find the free space, both mental and temporal, to empower and encourage the curious. “That’s not on the syllabus but let’s look at it for a couple of minutes.” “I don’t actually know the answer to that, but if you want, you can research it on your own instead of ___.”

Worries about chaos in the classroom will fade away as we establish a strong center of curiosity in the room. When students (or players) actually want to discover what is being taught, classroom management can be solved by the individuals, rather than a top-down hierarchy. Particularly when curiosity is being encouraged alongside the other habits that Wooden advocates in his Pyramid of Success.

Curiosity, to me, is a habit fundamental to any form of success. Not prioritizing it in yourself or your students is an oversight with tremendous long-term consequences. This is a skill that can begin to be built as early as preschool, and should be maintained and enhanced throughout education and in extracurriculars, whether musical, athletic, academic, or anything else. Wherever we are having experiences, there is room for curiosity. And wherever there is room for curiosity, we should follow it.

Festival Snapshot

It’s getting to be festival season for high school choirs and bands, and that means a reminder is needed:

Every performance is a snapshot. A single picture of your actual potential.

Will every snapshot show you in the best light? Of course not: even the most photogenic people take pictures with their eyes closed.

Consider a soloist performing at festival.

  • The soloist’s nerves could get in the way of their best performance.
  • The soloist could be underprepared (and learn a valuable lesson from this snapshot).
  • The soloist’s potential best, today, might not be where they want it to be.
  • The soloist might be perfectly prepared, but then hear devastating news right before performance.
  • The soloist might be making 5-10 different mistakes in rehearsal, but somehow miss most of them in performance.

Those are some performance factors that can affect the festival score.

But also consider the other humans in the room.

  • The judge could have had a personal tragedy and be giving everyone better than average scores.
  • The judge could have had a personal tragedy and be giving everyone worse than average scores.
  • The judge might not be conversant in the language the soloist speaks in, so doesn’t catch errors.
  • The judge might have just performed the piece, and so be very familiar with the piece and catch every error.
  • The support staff might be new to their jobs, leading to scheduling and organizational errors that leave everyone scrambling and on edge.

On average, I think the scores received at a well-run festival (like MSVMA’s many excellent offerings) are accurate. There is no perfect system but festival coordinators work very hard to ensure consistency and accuracy.

But your performance is not an average: it is a snapshot. In your life, you will get good snapshots and embarrassing ones. Best to not define yourself on a single one.

(And this is why teachers don’t base their ensemble auditions on a single snapshot. The wouldn’t use a judge’s rating at festival to determine next year’s placements, and while there might be an audition process, there must be a sense of the human being behind the audition. Every good teacher I know takes into account the much more accurate picture painted by a thousand snapshots taken over the course of a school year.)

I try to talk at great length to my students about consistency being the most important determiner of festival outcomes. We can’t control every eventuality, but we can do everything we can to make our own performance predictable and independent of any surprises thrown our way. And if we give a performance we can be proud of, the festival score outcome is, if not guaranteed, then at least a little bit moot.

Words To Inspire Actions

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a speaker who inspired action. He was a writer of great grace and power, but he knew his words were only as powerful as the movement they inspired. Here we are, nearly 50 years after his death, still working to follow his lead, and always searching for the leaders who compel actions.

Here’s what Rep. John Lewis says about Dr. King:

I was so inspired by Dr. King that in 1956, with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins – I was only 16 years old – we went down to the public library trying to check out some books, and we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for colors. It was a public library.

Much has changed since 1956, and much remains that needs to change. I don’t practice enough action in the footsteps of King, Lewis, and the other leaders of that era. Perhaps you don’t either. Dr. King reminds me that words aren’t enough, though they are a start.

If you want to hear John Lewis speak movingly about his experience, there is no better place to start than his conversation with Krista Tippett for On BeingI’ll be listening again today.

As John Lewis said,

If you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something about it.

Not say something about it. Do something about it.

Scrabble Rack Management

I have made a personal vow never to complain about the letters in my rack in Scrabble.

The thing is, if you play enough games, you get lot of great sets of seven, and lots of terrible sets with no vowels or all vowels.

The trick is to anticipate how the word you play will affect not only your score, but also your rack. You have to practice Scrabble rack management.

Circumstances change, and we all get good ones and bad ones. But how are your present actions affecting your future situations?

If you have bad present circumstances, will you be stuck with a them for the next four turns? You could skip a turn and sacrifice your rack.

What about great present circumstances? If you choose a few less points now, will you give yourself a better chance the next time around?

(I hope it’s clear that none of this is exclusive to word games…)

Slow Down For Poetry

You have to slow down for poetry.

In good poetry, the words are placed with such care and precision; we must treat them with respect.

Too many adults leave poetry behind with their high school English classes – something for smarter people than I, something for more sophisticated people than I.

Great poetry is for everyone, but you have to slow down for it.

Our lives are filled with prose, most of consumed via screens, either read ourselves or delivered by actors or newscasters.

Why not set aside a little bit of time to slow down for poetry?

Here’s a top-of-my-head list of poets to start with.

Mary Oliver
Elizabeth Alexander
Naomi Shihab Nye
Brian Andreas
Billy Collins

I also suggest Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, which includes him reading aloud a poem a day.

Your life will be profoundly enriched if you give yourself the time to experience poetry – with no judgements, no expectations, nothing but slowing down and immersing yourself in the words.