How We Bond

One of the perks to being involved in a school-sponsored group activity (a sport, a club, a ensemble) is the sense of connection and bonding that comes with close proximity to your peers.

But not all activities are created equal – and the different ways that bonding happens makes a difference in outcome.


Some activities bond through a shared opponent.

Some activities bond through real adversity (i.e., hard group work)

Some activities bond through contrived adversity (i.e., hazing).

Some activities bond through common passion.

Some activities bond through common mission.

Some activities bond through open communication and sharing of feelings.


Many activities use a combination of the above to form a team – for example, members of a high school varsity football team face an opponent, real adversity, and hold a common passion. (Let’s hope most football teams have eliminated the formerly ubiquitous hazing at this point…)

How does your choir form as a team? Of course, your singers share a common passion for music; they build their team through hard work preparing for concerts; choirs are blessed to generally not have opponents, per se – allowing them to form a team without a concept of “enemies.”

This weekend, I shared in a choral bonding experience built around open, deep sharing. Singers shared honestly about their hopes, fears, and personal histories. They cried and comforted each other. They were vulnerable and honored each others’ vulnerability.

It will without a doubt pay dividends as these singers work to create art and express communal emotion over the school year. Their strength will be built on this deep personal connection.

I can’t imagine many other activities besides choir being welcoming, accepting, and vulnerable in this way.

The bonds they have built through honest emotional connection will last longer and go deeper than virtually any other type of bond.

We can participate in many activities and finish not knowing each other beyond a superficial level. Choir, with its focus on honest emotion and interpersonal connection, gives a truly special chance to go deeper.

Tired Rehearsals

Student tiredness is cyclical, and doesn’t line up personally across your entire student population. However, we all deal occasionally with rehearsals where, because of other activities, because of personal issues, school calendar, illness, or other challenges, the group as a whole appears to be more tired than usual. What can you do in this situation?

A few options:

  • Run your rehearsal. We all have busy days and need to learn to function while tired.
  • Add time for non-rehearsal. Teach theory concepts, do a team-building game, or give them a few minutes of down time to catch up.
  • Group guided meditation. Meditation can be a powerful tool for calming the mind and enhancing personal energy – things our singers all need to learn to do.
  • Repertoire analysis and discussion. Discuss the music. Take your students through the kind of formal analysis that you might do in preparation to conduct a piece.
  • Guided listening. Listen to music that relates to the music you’re preparing. Let them get comfy (but not asleep) and discuss the music together.
  • Let them out early. Solicit promises of extra rest, and then let them go.

There isn’t only one way to get to success on concert day. Manage your rehearsal pace for efficiency, sure, but also manage your students so that they can perform at peak levels.

Health Care & The Arts

“Universal health care would do more to help artists in this country than any arts organization could ever do. Every arts organization in this country, in my opinion, should stop whatever they’re doing and throw all their efforts into health care reform.”

Austin Kleon

My daily posts here are dedicated to three main topics: choral music, education, and creativity. (Note: none of those is politics.)

Nothing I have ever accomplished in any of those three realms would have been possible if not for the health care provided for my family by my wife’s job, which has enabled me to pursue a freelance career and be an at-home parent.

All the creative work I have done, including composing, arranging, conducting, teaching – even writing daily here – would have gone undone without the safety net of health insurance.

If the USA were to provide the universal health benefits afforded by every other industrialized nation, I believe we would see a groundswell of artists taking risks and creating. Without the risk of an unforeseen health tragedy decimating their bank account, artists would be free to put new, inspirational, powerful art into the world.

The Affordable Care Act hasn’t solved all of America’s health care problems, but it has improved matters for many people.

If it is repealed, I know that I have many artist friends who will no longer be able to make their art.

And the world needs more art.

Support Team

Good teammates know that some of the time, they’ll have to shoulder extra weight. The other teammate will be sick, or tired, or distracted, or in some other need.

Good teammates don’t complain when they have to carry their colleagues load. They don’t accuse, they don’t badmouth.

Good teammates know that there will come a time when someone will carry some of their weight.

Build a team of members who support each other, no matter what.

Reality vs. The Story I’m Telling

Brené Brown puts language about the gap between reality and our inner monologue when she advises to bolster conversations with this statement: “The story I’m telling is…”

We respond to story, and our stories help us make sense of our lives. But our stories don’t always conform to reality, and we’d do well to acknowledge that – even if we don’t change the narrative.

The story I’m telling is that I hate playing the piano. (The reality is that I don’t like the feelings of inadequacy that comes with trying to learn a new skill.)

The story I’m telling is that I’m too busy to practice 5 minutes a day. (The reality is that I’m not prioritizing it, or I haven’t mastered time management enough to budget appropriately, or…)

Careful with the stories you tell, and discard them if they don’t serve you. Even if you don’t discard them, acknowledge that they exist.

Drop a Note for Accuracy

Recently I was working on a challenging transition with my TTBB group. They had to go from a unison G to a 2nd-inversion Eb ma7 chord. The crunchy half-step between B1 and T2 was tricky.

The solution? Rehearse with just one part at a time. Without the B1s, the chord rang as a simple E-flat major triad. Without the T2s, a G minor.

Five or ten drills of each of those, and each part knew what to listen for to lock their chord. When it came together, it suddenly rang true.

Finding underlying simple structures, like major triads, and isolating them in rehearsal is a great way to empower your singers to sing more accurately by listening to what’s happening around them.

Montage Moment

Do you have montage moments? That’s a moment when you feel like, if this were a movie, this would be the first shot in a montage that would fast-forward through a time transition.

Once you start to build a habit, it’s easy to expect the results will start to appear automatically. I think we’re conditioned by all of these movie montages to expect the change to happen quickly.

In truth, the montage exists because the reality is boring. It’s doing the same habit again, and again, and again, and again, and again…with only small results for a long time. The results build up through repetition and time, so you might wish for a montage.

Montages only happen in movies, and in retrospect.

When you look back at the skill that you have built, it will appear like a montage – you’ll see highlights, and it will compress in time in your memory. But when you look forward, don’t expect time to speed up for you.

It takes time to build a new skill. Lots and lots of time. Montages help fit this development into the confines of a film, but they leave us lacking perspective when we go to develop our own skills.

Tell your students: movie montages are lying to you.




On The Way To Good

A few weeks into the school year can be a miserable place to be.

You’ve got some notes down, but you’re not an ensemble yet. You’ve got some inkling of where you’re headed, but you’re still a ways away.

Here are the things to remember:

On the way to good, you have to go through a lot of failure.

On the way to good, you will feel frustrated when your performance doesn’t match your inner ear.

On the way to good, you won’t be good yet.

The comfort is that this has been true for every choir that ever got good. It’s been true for every pianist who has played Carnegie Hall, every Supreme Court Justice, every Major League pitcher.

Before they were good, they were on the way to good.

Knowing that failure is a byway on the path to success should be sweet comfort. And with that knowledge, you can let the frustration of failure lead not to quitting, but to practice – the practice that gets you ever closer to success.

Pitch & Rhythm

The right note at the wrong time is the wrong note.

So goes an old adage, and one I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. I’ve heard a lot of auditions recently with musicians who sight read (or sing prepared pieces) with accurate pitches and inaccurate rhythms. In a heightened, nervous state, brains hyper-focus on the most important things, and it’s clear that for many young musicians, pitch is far higher on the list than rhythm.

But, of course, it shouldn’t be. Pitch and rhythm are equally important to successful music. We must find a way not to prioritize one over the other. If you can’t read both at once, read them separately, but make sure your preparation includes consideration of rhythms as equally important to the pitches.

If you teach sight reading, are you making sure your students understand how vital accurate rhythms are to their success?


I’ve written before on why I think we should consider calling choir retreats “choir advances”, because of the amazing progress you make in a day or a weekend together.

When you advance, you’re heading towards something. Here, then, are the three goals I invited Shades of Blue, my vocal jazz ensemble from Grand Rapids Community College, to advance towards today.

  1. Towards a team. (Because we make better music when we’re on the same team.)
  2. Towards a concept of what vocal jazz is. (Because vocal jazz is a fraught term, and we need to define our terms as early as possible so we’re headed in the same direction.
  3. Towards our sound. (Every ensemble has a different sound, created by the individuals who make up the group.)

Every activity we spent time on was in service of one, two, or all three of those goals.

What goals would you pick to advance towards?