Playing Up and Playing Down

Early on in parenting, I read about the concept of playing up and playing down. It turns out that children really don’t have a specific age as a range – and they can play more or less maturely depending on their playmates.

So my seven-year-old can have markedly different behavior and maturity depending on whether he’s playing with a ten-year-old, a five-year-old, or a classmate.

One of our challenges as educators is to always get our students to play up – behave and make music at a maturity level that belies their age.

Because my choir integrates students from 9th-12th grade, it’s easy to get the younger singers to play up; for the older students, one way to encourage them to not play down is to erase the authoritative distance between you and them. If I treat them and interact with them as an equal, then they have no choice but to play up.

If you want your students to rise to a challenge, then you should provide someone to meet at that higher level.

Are Scores Cross-Stitch Patterns or Recipes?

Cross-stitch patterns tell you what to do. Use this yarn with these holes, make no alterations, and you’ll complete the picture as promised. The tools and materials are provided to complete the project.

Recipes tell you the amounts and techniques to create a dish. Add this much flour and yeast, whisk in liquid, proof until doubled in size. Specifics (the tools you have in your kitchen, the way you whisk, the quality of ingredients) can significantly alter the finished dish.

I think we too-often think of musical scores as cross-stitch – “just add choir” – but we should think of them as recipes. The specific strengths and weaknesses of our singers should affect the finished product. So should the weather when we’re singing, the musical background of your choir and conductor.

Cross-stitch patterns leave no room for error, but also no room for creativity by the artist. Approaching a score with that perspective is bound to produce bland music.

A good recipe in the hands of a skilled cook gives the opportunity for greatness. Have you ever had a dish and said, “I must have the recipe”, only to find that it didn’t shine in your own kitchen?

That cook looked for the beauty in the recipe, and tweaked and adjusted to make it shine. We must do the same with our scores.

The moment we start thinking of musical scores as kits to be assembled, we dramatically diminish the potential of the final performance.

Looking for Hope

This week, I’ve repeatedly tried looking for hope in the wrong place. Twitter.

Twitter is not for finding hope. Twitter is great for many things, but for supporting optimism about the future, it’s, um, not so good.

Going forward, I’m going to try finding hope in likelier spots.

  • My family.
  • My work.
  • Music.
  • The people I know who are working hard to make things better.

Why did I think social media would work better than these?

Change the World

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

From the culture in your classroom to the future of the nation – be thoughtful, be committed. Take action and change the world.

We’ve got this!

Artistic Potential

We all have artistic potential.

Can we all be Picasso? McFerrin? Baryshnikov?

Of course not. But we can all reach further than we might think, and we are all leaving too much potential behind.

That’s why arts educators are important. We help to uncover potential, and empower students to tap that potential to make their world better.

Every time schools reduce arts education as an expedient solution to a budget problem, we squander a little more of our society’s future artistic potential.

And a society without artistic impulse is a society unable to seek and create beauty.

I want more beauty, hope, and art in my world. Don’t you?

Static Motion

It used to be there were two states for people: motion or stillness.

In recent years, we’ve created a third category between the two. Let’s call it static motion. Kinetic stillness.

In static motion, we get the feeling of momentum, even as we are still. It is facilitated by the screens that occupy our days. It expanded from television to computers to the ubiquitous phones. We can now have the sense of great forward motion from waking till bedtime without ever moving.

The biggest problem with this is that we trick ourselves into thinking we’re moving. Building the hard skills necessary for success requires actual motion – practicing, working, repeating. The screen work we do feels just as real but doesn’t promise any corresponding distance traveled.

Teachers and parents, then, have the responsibility to A) expect and encourage kinetic motion rather than just static motion, and B) model such in our own behavior.

There is nothing wrong with screens being an important part of our life; but until we can consciously recognize the line between kinetic motion and static motion, it’s vital that we be cautious towards the screen.

Musical Plagiarism

Musical plagiarism can be hard to explain for non-musicians. Because of the ubiquity of certain chord progressions, there are things that sound like copying but are really more like convergent evolution. (Like, bats didn’t copy their wings from birds…)

A distant cousin, Rob Mathes, recently served as an expert witness defending Led Zeppelin in a plagiarism case concerning “Stairway to Heaven.” His account of the case, and the intricacies of what is copying, musically speaking, is fascinating. Suffice it to say, Led Zeppelin didn’t plagiarize the piece, and the musical similarities are natural for pieces born of the same era, and both of which reference a long musical lineage.

(I think the same is true for “Blurred Lines”, though Pharrell Williams and the rest didn’t have musical experts as proficient as Rob, apparently.)

Plagiarism in writing and speech…that’s a different story. We can all recognize when a speech has been copied.

The Value of the Recital

Sometimes we’re cautious with young students about insisting on public performance. Do the work, learn the pieces, move on. Young musicians can be apprehensive about performing, and of course we have all heard the nightmare stories of blank minds in kids’ recitals.

But there is a profound value in having the recital.

Music is not music until it is shared with an audience. In her book Anatomy of Melody, Alice Parker describes a circle from composer to conductor to singer that is completed only when we add audience. This is as true for solo performers as for 200 voice choirs.

You don’t know how well you know a piece until you perform it in front of people. It doesn’t need to be many – the formality of a recital and a few family members in the audience is enough to get adrenaline going…and then you learn what you’ve really learned.

The sense of accomplishment from sharing a piece publicly is far beyond the day-to-day rehearsal or lesson work. When you’ve performed in public, you’ve really made something happen.

This June we had a family piano recital – all five of us played pieces, for each other and a few other family members. It was a joyous, non-threatening, and musical peak for me and it gave each of my sons a sense of where they were, and where they were going. Over the summer they’ve continued playing regularly (well, semi-regularly) despite taking the summer off of lessons, and I think the reason for that is the recital. Their pride of performance has spurred them onwards in their music-making.

Building Compassion

What the world needs now…is compassion. We all need the ability to see every other person as worthy of love, as precious.

I personally know adults (and so do you) who seem to have no compassion for any other person. They mock, they disparage, they criticize. They never build up, find common ground, or seek to know more. These compassionless people hurt the world.

Compassion is a muscle we are capable of flexing, and some have built it up more than others. But we can all get better.

One of the gifts of singing in the choir is the ability to flex our compassion. We interact with fellow singers and learn to love them. We meet the composer across centuries, cultures, religions. We learn to express emotions to an audience and practice forgiving others’ mistakes (and accepting forgiveness for our own).

Choir builds compassion; it fuels connection and unity. I do not think it’s a panacea for all our many problems, but it would be a great start.

People who makes music together
Cannot be enemies,
At least while the music lasts.

-Paul Hindemith

What The Break Is For

I’ve been really enjoying watching my teacher friends travel, relax, having summer fun. (Michigan lakes, of course, figure large.) The break from teaching is, in fact, an important part of their effectiveness within the current system.

Why? What is this break for?

For teachers, it’s for building a stock of infinite patience. That’s what students deserve, and need. When you’ve taught key signature 23 times, but little Elizabeth will finally get it on the 24th. When, after your repeated announcements, emails, and postings leading up to a concert, you still hear “I didn’t know we had a concert today.” When you need to stay after school to care for a student, even though you’re missing family time at home.

Failure is the surest path to success. To allow students to keep failing, failing, failing requires patience, patience, patience.

The current educational system requires nonstop, 60-80 hour weeks from teachers from August to June. There are simply not enough hours in the day to teach, plan, see family, eat well, sleep, and practice self-care.

It’s the precious few weeks in the summer that build a teacher’s stores of patience, with the hope they will survive through the entire school year to follow. If you wonder how much patience is really needed, consider how often you have seen a parent lose patience with their own children…and then consider that on school days teachers see kids for more waking hours than parents–and in groups of 20…25…50…100!

Keep resting, teachers. You need and deserve every minute.