Mistakes, Loudly

I was repeatedly heard yesterday urging students to make mistakes, loudly. Why loudly? The better to fix them.

Because fixing mistakes is a three step process.

  1. MAKE mistakes.
  2. DISCOVER mistakes.
  3. FIX mistakes.

As makers of mistakes, we tend to overlook step 2, and that’s where making them loudly can be of use. A mistake left unnoticed is a mistake that will be repeated.

A boldly-made mistake is one that will be discovered and fixed.

Washington’s Selflessness: One Last Time

The most unexpected moment to bring me to repeated tears in Hamilton: An American Musical is this song, “One Last Time.” It dramatizes George Washington’s decision not to run for a third term as president, and the reasoning for establishing the presidency as an office greater than any office holder.

This level of devotion to the idea of American democracy–the selfless nobility of his dream–has left me weeping more times than I can count.

Here’s the original cast performing the song at the White House last year; the moment I’m thinking of comes around 1:50 into the video. Washington’s 285th birthday is tomorrow – join me to celebrate this, his most valuable legacy.



Mr. President, they will say you’re weak

No, they will see we’re strong

Your position is so unique

So I’ll use it to move them along

Why do you have to say goodbye?

If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on
It outlives me when I’m gone
Like the scripture says:
“Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid.”
They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made
I wanna sit under my own vine and fig tree
A moment alone in the shade
At home in this nation we’ve made
One last time

Handling Frustration

Frustration is an inevitable part of learning a new skill. At the beginning of the process, you can visualize what you want to do, but you can’t actually do it. The gulf between the two is a consistent and profound source of frustration. How you handle this frustration can make a huge difference for the people around you, as well as for your own continued progress on your goal.

The most common reaction to frustration is quitting. the vast majority of young pianists quit when they are no longer able to easily leap over frustrating hurdles. As soon as the frustration lasts beyond their ability to ignore it, they quit.

Beyond quitting, I see many strivers forge their frustration into anger, which they can take out on the people around them, on their surroundings (like slamming fists on that trusty piano) or on themselves. “I’m never going to be able to do this.” “I suck.” “I can’t.”

The key to handling frustration, though, is a different dialogue, and one that must be learned and repeated. Try telling yourself some of these, the next time you feel the frustration that comes with learning:

“I have consistently overcome frustration in the past.”
“I can do this, even though I’m currently unable to.”
“Frustration is a sign of learning.”
“The goal is worth the struggle.”

It’s too easy to let frustration undermine our progress, if we haven’t established a mindset that allows for sparring with the frustration itself.


This is the soulful, rich, true music I need today. What about you?

Bobby Mcferrin’s VOCAbuLarieS came out almost seven years ago; if you haven’t listened deeply, you’re in for a magical treat today.

Physical Beings

It’s easy to fall into the mindset that we are intellectual beings – that we are in essence brains with built-in transportation.

But come across an unseasonably warm February day with a bright sun shining, and you will be reminded that your whole body is in the world. We are physical beings, head to toe, in need of connecting with the world.

I’m off to enjoy the sun.

When The Fraud Police Comes Calling

How do you respond when the Fraud Police come calling?

“The Fraud Police are the imaginary, terrifying force of ‘real’ grown-ups who you believe – at some subconscious level – are going to come knocking on your door in the middle of the night, saying:
We’ve been watching you, and we have evidence that you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING.”

(Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking)

The Fraud Police are imaginary, but they’re also very real. I doubt I know anyone who hasn’t wrangled with them. The problem, as Palmer points out, is that “When you’re afraid of someone’s judgment, you can’t connect with them. You’re too preoccupied with the task of impressing them.”

Ratings, accolades, awards, compliments: they won’t do anything to stop the Fraud Police, because in your ear they whisper, “We know the truth.”

But as music educators work their way through Festival Season, it’s important that we find a way to quiet them, so we can get to the hard work of pulling the best out of our students.

The only way to combat the Fraud Police is keep putting yourself in situations where you risk being “arrested”. Keep being vulnerable in public, keep making art. Keep facing down the threats in your ear, and don’t forget to notice that the Fraud Police never actually show up. With persistence, when the Fraud Police come whispering, you can learn to say, “You’ve never showed up before, so I’m not listening.”

Stillness and Improvement

My writing is often focused on improvement. Strategies, goals, reasoning. How to get better, and how to keep getting better.

It’s just as important, and maybe to often overlooked in our society, to be happy in stillness. Be happy where you are right now.

Even as there are too many people stuck in a rut, choosing to binge-watch Netflix or the latest PS4 game, there are perhaps as many people caught forever on an up escalator, working ever harder to time-manage every moment, and to measure their productivity.

Neither extreme is good for your soul. Ask yourself which end of the scale you reside at, and work to cultivate the other.

The Timing of Success

Looking ahead, success can seem like a straight shot. Insert Tab A into Slot B/preheat the oven to 350º/don’t forget to floss…and you’ll be there in no time!

Success isn’t like that. You can start out next to an equally talented friend, and they might reach pinnacles years before you. They’ll be winning awards and flying first class to Europe while you’re still eating ramen.

Patience. Patience is what’s required. Keep doing the hard work of your craft every single day. The skills you are building will come together in their own time, and the result will be amazing art–just not on the schedule you might have predicted.

Early success is not the best success; keep working, keep struggling with your art and you’ll be rewarded. I believe in you.

Don’t compare your success to the person who you started with. Compare your art to the art you made yesterday. And keep moving forward.

Don’t give up! You are doing it right!

Love Song

Daniel Levitin’s The World in Six Songs names love as one of the six archetypal song subjects (along with friendship, joy, comfort, religion, knowledge). Certainly that’s my experience – particularly in pop, jazz, and other contemporary styles, love is the most consistently present theme in the music I program.

Here is a favorite; A Case of You is a complex, nuanced look at love from one of our greatest songsmiths, Joni Mitchell. This is her later version, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra with Vince Mendoza’s brilliant arrangements.

You are in my blood like holy wine,
You taste so bitter and you taste so sweet.
Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling
Still I’d be on my feet–I’d still be on my feet.

Inspiring Kids To Sing

Overheard (read) in a discussion prompted by the question  “Snapshot, beginning of 2017: what is the current state of contemporary a cappella?”:

“High school a cappella is inspiring kids to sing. Something traditional choral music has struggled to do for decades.”

Traditional choral music has not struggled for decades to inspire kids to sing.

Traditional choral music has struggled for decades to continue to reach kids, even as public school arts budgets have been eviscerated.

Traditional choral music has provided a place for all students, even as a cappella pop directors debate whether 16 is too big for one of their ensembles.

Traditional choral music has educated students about the Western musical canon (and, increasingly, a canon that draws from every part of the globe), encompassing 500+ years of musical achievement, even as contemporary a cappella groups struggle to program the most ripped-from-the-pop-charts tunes.

Traditional choral music provides opportunities for every singer to express emotion through great poetry, even as a non-soloist in a a cappella pop group might go an entire concert without singing an actual word.

Traditional choral music has not struggled to inspire kids to sing.

A cappella pop music can, and should, be part of a well-rounded choral music experience. I direct an ensemble that could be described a contemporary a cappella group! But a cappella pop is not a panacea for what ails music education. Societal value of music education is that.

Two things combine to inspire kids to sing: Passion for music and great teachers. Given those and the opportunity to enroll in a choir, there is no struggle.