Pandora’s Box

In Greek Mythology, Pandora was the first human. Her fatal flaw was curiosity. When she unsealed “Pandora’s Box” she released all pain and disease into the world.

You ever have one of those days? Years?

But the best was last. Having released anguish into the world, one thing remained at the bottom of her vessel – HOPE.

In challenging times, I like to think two things about Pandora and her box.

  1. Hope remains. No matter how much tragedy is around you, hope remains.
  2. Hope is resultant. Pandora couldn’t obtain one of our most uplifting human impulses until she had gone through the pain.

If you, like me, are struggling through the Pandora’s Box that is 2016, know this: hope will remain when all the other emotions have dissipated. It won’t just remain – it is the inevitable result of the pain and strife.

Cling to hope.

Practice is the Silver Bullet

If you can learn how to practice, you can learn anything. The not-so-secret real skill-building goal in all of my private lessons is: learn how to practice.

Every lesson should contain a discussion of practice. My first lesson with a new student is about 50% getting-to-know-you and 50% How To Practice And Why. We start there so there is a baseline establishing the importance of practice.

Don’t skimp on this. Talk about it, often. Give a practice trick or tool with every lesson, expect practice logs, expect regular practice.

Musicianship is important, but I know that not all of my students are going to pursue careers: they don’t need the musical skills as much as they need the human skills. Learning how to practice is applicable for every single career, and those of us lucky enough to teach music students one-on-one every day should make it a core part of our teaching.

Wooden Wednesdays: Loyalty

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

John Wooden’s fourth block in the base of his Pyramid of Success is LOYALTY.

Wooden says, “Let those you lead know you have sincere care, concern, and consideration for their welfare and you will generate great Loyalty from those on the team.”

Loyalty, as Wooden is using it, means not betraying trust. It’s interesting that he does not include TRUST as one of his building blocks of success–I interpret that to mean that he logically interprets trust to be a consequence of something, not something you can build on your own. If you are loyal, your colleagues will trust you. If they are loyal to you, mutual trust grows inevitably.

Our challenge as leaders, whether basketball or choir, is to build a base layer of loyalty that encourages students to build on it. In that case, it falls on us – be loyal to our students. So many of the great choir directors I’ve known were the ones who never missed a recital, always wrote a letter, even bailed kids out of jail if needed. They give free lessons, meet before school or at a coffee shop to discuss their students’ problems. They are overwhelmingly loyal to their kids.

Wooden suggests that we should show the same loyalty to ourselves: “First, be true to yourself and your beliefs. Second, be true to your team.” In the rare situation where you have to be disloyal to yourself to preserve loyalty to a student, you must sacrifice that students’ loyalty. But this is rarer than rare.

What do we get for loyalty? We engender loyalty from our students, and empower them to show loyalty and respect to each other.

So much of really great music-making depends on trust; the altos must know that the basses will be there for them, etc. Overt loyalty – be it grabbing a folder, giving a ride, or just sitting with someone – translates into innate trust. This makes the music easier to attain.

Loyalty isn’t a skill you can easily teach. It must be given and encouraged through actions, not words. That doesn’t make it less desirable or less attainable, just less lecture-able.

A cautionary note: there is another, darker way to create loyalty in a team: fear. In particular, fear of secrets. Age-old hazing rituals use embarrassing situations to create a loyalty of fear. Fraternities, athletic teams, and other institutions have long put new members into compromised situations to create loyalty because their fear of being found out forces them to be loyal to the team.

It does, indeed, create loyalty. But at the terrible price of fear, intimidation, embarrassment, and sometimes outright cruelty.

I am certain that Wooden would never approve of such dark strategies to create a cohesive team. Not because the results aren’t tangible, but because the costs are high and unnecessary. His exhortation to “first be true to yourself and your beliefs” is a clear critique of attempts to build loyalty that come at a cost of any member’s moral compass.

Timbral Variation

The one thing I find most lacking in vocal arrangements and compositions in 2016 is timbral variation.

Because we live in an choral age that glorifies harmony, it’s easy to slog through page after page of four- or six-part chords.

But there are many more options than homophonic harmony.

The most consistent genre offenders to me are:

3. Vocal Jazz. They at least love a good unison soli to break things up.
2. Concert Choral. The New Harmonists have filled the world with add-9 chords and suspensions for days.
1. Contemporary A Cappella. A singer without a solo might go an entire concert only imitating guitar sounds.

Not only are singers bored by this lack of timbral variation – so are the audience members they sing for. IT doesn’t matter how trained or untrained the listener is…the textural sameness of the music will tune them out completely.

The next time you sit down to compose or arrange a piece, make a list of timbral options available to you. How can you make better use of the many sounds that voices can make?

Take The Next Step

When you’re feeling paralyzed by a huge project, the best advice is to just take the next step.

Why? Two important reasons.

  1. Taking the next step is all you can do. The only way to get to the finish line is one step at a time.
  2. Taking the next step reminds you: this is not insurmountable. You can do this.

Stop practicing avoidance on whatever it is you’re stressed about. That only adds to your anxiety.

Just take the next step. (…and the next…and the next…)

Return to Your Center

It’s just over three weeks away. You likely have your mind made up. So does everyone else.

This is me giving you permission to return to your center, to leave the presidential race behind.

Return to your center: close down Twitter, turn off the TV news, don’t hit post on that Facebook reply.

Return to your center: find your musical heart, your family, a good book. Watch a thunderstorm pass or bake some delicious bread.

Sing out loud your favorite song.

Return to your center.


Raising Adults

I’m in the middle of Julie Lythcott-Haims’ fabulous recent book, How To Raise An Adult

In it, she lays out the ways our society has gone astray in child-rearing, leading to a rash of overgrown children rather than adults. She then lays out a number of suggestions for how to right the ship, giving our children the self-efficacy they need to succeed in the world.

I highly recommend the book: it will be influential on my teaching as well as on my own parenting. I have encouraged my school district to invite her as a guest speaker, and will be recommending it to parents and teachers as often as I can.

It’s our responsibility as teachers to do many of the same things she urges parents to do: encourage emotional growth, maturity, and personal development in our students. We can’t afford to treat these traits as someone else’s problem; part of our job in every subject, from elementary school on, must be to encourage increasing autonomy and self-efficacy.

As you’re waiting for your copy of the book to come in, watch her fabulous TED Talk, posted a few weeks ago. Watch it now!

Love and chores!

Dorico Release Next Week

I’ve been stagnating with Finale 2008 for a long time. I waited to upgrade until around 2011, and then I was seriously considering jumping ship (after 20+ years) to Sibelius. But at just that moment, the programming team was let go from Sibelius, and began a brand-new notation project with Steinberg.

Enter Dorico, which, after more than four years of development, comes out next week.

I’m of course apprehensive about learning an entirely new workflow, however I am eternally frustrated by the limitations of Finale, and the workarounds I’ve had to learn over the years. I’m hopeful that Dorico will solve at least some of these problems.

Here’s a brief intro into Dorico from the head of the team. You can read his fascinating development blogs here.

Do you use professional notation software? If so, what is your thinking about Dorico? Will you be jumping ship?


Standards to Empower

I’m always seeking ways to further empower my students, and one way I discovered this year builds on the back of the seven or so “Aces Standards” that are in our folders. These are songs that we sing every year, forming the backbone of a repertoire to enable them to sing a 30-minute set on only once-a-week rehearsals.

This year, I didn’t spend more than a few minutes on any of the seven: introducing them, catching any known trouble spots. And then I turned them over to their student-run Thursday sectionals. I gave the entire of September sectionals to those seven pieces.

So the sacrifice was, they didn’t spend any time on new repertoire between our weekly rehearsals. But in return, I got:

  • A repertoire of ten pieces by Oct 1.
  • Ownership of the music. They prepared these pieces, solving problems on their own.
  • Leadership in the group. Veteran members helped newer members, so everyone had something to work on.
  • Confidence in their skills. They were able to surmount this challenge, proving their ready for bigger ones.
  • A new twist. For students who have been singing these pieces for four years, there was the opportunity to approach them in a fresh way.

Of course, this is only possible because I have students who already know the music – the “standards” programming strategy proves itself again with another bonus.

At first I was concerned about potential pitfalls: Would losing that rehearsal time on new music put us behind? Would they be able to prepare this music with little or no input from me?

In the end, though, it was a very successful experiment. Not only did they memorize and polish this music, but they gained new skills in the process that they can use going forward, both in this musical experience and for their entire lives.

Thirteen By Three


Thirteen By Three

Thirteen three-word phrases I aspire to.

1. Love deeply always.
2. Say thank you.
3. Trust without hesitation.
4. Do better tomorrow.
5. Don’t be afraid.
6. Stand for something.
7. Have big ideas.
8. Make art daily.
9. Read with gusto.
10. Silliness is important.
11. Know your people.
12. Family comes first.
13. Honor the gift.