Recording Studio Insights

A recording studio session can be a powerful learning tool for students. I wish more high school students had the chance to spend a few hours tracking in a studio; they can learn great lessons about:

  • Consistency
  • Musicianship
  • Musical Process
  • Personal responsibility
  • Patience
  • Ensemble trust and forgiveness

Breaking down a well-learned piece of music into its component parts for a recording can lead to seeing music and the choir in completely new ways. Who wouldn’t want that?

Invisible Growth

One of the best results of embarking on a new personal learning journey is the educational insights it brings along.

As educators we would do well to remember that there is often a time when a skill is being developed that no progress is apparent. You are learning and growing, but you cannot show–or even sense–any growth.

In the past week or so, I’ve felt tremendous progress in my language growth using Duolingo. But the previous month of daily practice I felt stalled – absolutely no sense of improvement.

It’s our job as learners to know that that neutral feeling is part of the neural process; we can’t give up.

It’s our job as educators to make sure that neutral feeling isn’t taken as a signal to quit.

If I had quit when I felt no progress, I would have made my feeling into reality. Only by pushing through the challenging weeks have I felt growth in language.

Are you encouraging your students, especially when they feel like they aren’t improving? Are you reminding them to double down on practice, trusting that growth is happening, though invisibly?

It’s hard to maintain this mindset when we have grades/deadlines/standardized testing looming. But our brains won’t bow to our calendars, no matter how much we insist they do.

Invisible growth is real, and must be factored into our teaching.

A Joke in Another Language

I remember my Latin professor laughing at a joke in Horace one semester as class began, and then asserting that the best way to recognize your fluency is when you “get the joke” in another language.

I was reminded of this the other day, when I was able to make some members of The Real Group laugh with a sentence I had learned from Duolingo: “Jag behöver en advokat!”

“Getting the joke” doesn’t need to apply only to humor – or only to languages. Part of how I can tell a student’s musical fluency is how well they “get the joke” in the music; that is, can they see the big picture, understand how the details and parts relate to one another, interpret with natural musicality, relate the music to other musical experiences?

All of those things, and more, are pat of “getting the joke” in music.

Until you can get the joke, you aren’t really speaking the language.


Make your goal as a conductor this one word: less.

What must you do to encourage musicality from your singers? Do this and nothing more.

Can you discern between necessary and unnecessary work? Try less.

The biggest goal I set for myself as a conductor this year was to be offstage for most of my choir’s concert in June. We’ve made progress on that goal, with performances in the last two days that saw me standing in front of my ensemble with hands at my sides. I was a safety net, but they drove their own performance.

Yesterday, I had a conversation with a friend who is not a conductor, but a wise observer of conductors. He agreed that the best conducting is often the least, and when he stands in front of choirs, rather than trying to wave his hands ineffectually, he simply expresses the music physically, with excellent effect.

There is a point when the conductor conducts expressively not to elicit a sound from their choir, but because they fear what would happen if they don’t – a loss of control, a different interpretation, a musical mistake.

Don’t let fear drive your conducting. Do less and see what happens.

Take The Day After

Our lives are ever more rushed. Music teachers especially: we run from event to event, in an uninterrupted blur of weeks running from August to June. (Then the planning begins…)

I am here to encourage you to give yourself a break on the day after a big event. You’ve planned, you’ve cajoled, you’ve sprinted to get ready. You’ve done the heavy lifting and you’ve put in the hours.

It is OK to be a little down the day after.

It’s better than OK, it’s encouraged. Recharging, rejuvenating, relaxing, resting: these are needed if you are to be able to face down the next big event, whether it’s next month or tomorrow already. I hereby absolve you of any guilt over having less-than-peak productivity.

Take the day after and rest.

21 Years With The Real Group

The first time I saw The Real Group was March of 1996 – I was a freshman in college.

A couple of non-music-major friends had planned to join me, but canceled at the last minute. I was so floored by this remarkable group that I ran to a PAY PHONE, called, and begged them to rush to the concert. “Even if you only hear the last two songs…” (They didn’t make it, but think I counted five encores…)

The second time I saw The Real Group was March of 1997, and I thought – this is great! The Swedish a cappella wonder comes to Kalamazoo every year!

I didn’t see them again until 2014, when I helped produce a concert in Jenison.

But the remainder of my college career, I hatched a plan to convince them to take me as an intern between college and grad school. A year in Stockholm, learning from these amazing people – this is what I wanted.

Instead I fell in love and Stockholm became a lower priority.

The sixth time I heard The Real Group – will be tonight. I welcomed them back to Michigan as friends, and got to share wonderful conversation and connection. They worked with my own students, and inspired them just the way I was inspired in 1996.

Twenty-one years later, this group continues to be the vanguard of vocal music. I am moved and awed every time I hear them sing, and I am now blessed to count them as friends.

Often it takes longer than you hope; but if you keep working, magical things can happen.

Join me at Rockford High School tonight, March 23, as we present The Real Group LIVE in concert at 7pm.

Creating Singular Experiences

One of the important jobs a choir director owns is in creating singular experiences. Whether in travel, like my friend Greg heading to Europe in seven days, or connection, like singing for a visiting motivational speaker, as a group at my school did this morning.

Most of all, we create singular musical experiences – which should involve connection with an audience, striving for a musical peak performance, and a journey with their fellow singers.

It’s when we create singular experiences that we rise above the day-to-day and build the lasting memories that our students will hold onto long after they become former-students.

This week is one I hope my students hold on to forever. It will include:

TODAY – Masterclass with them performing & being coached by The Real Group.

THURSDAY – opening for and attending an evening performance by The Real Group.

SATURDAY – making entirely different music at State Solo & Ensemble.

MONDAY – recording still other music for their upcoming album.

Why put ourselves through this exhausting journey? Because it’s through that exhaustion that we create the singular experiences that help fill up a life.

I hope they never forget the week they’re about to have; and I hope to create as many unforgettable weeks as I can with my students.

That’s my job.

Feeling Syncopations

I heard from a client I regularly arrange for that they were struggling with some syncopations – specifically, eighth-note anticipations of the downbeat.

In reflecting on how I teach in such situations, I discovered that the most frequent rhythmic noise I make in rehearsal is to strengthen this type of syncopation. Long after I stop audibly giving them the beat, I am snapping or clapping on the strong beat immediately preceding the syncopation.

I told my client to start by snapping both beat 4 and 4-and (where they sing). Then, take away the upbeat, leaving just a snap occurring on the eighth-note before they sing. When they are solid, you can also eliminate that sound, trusting that the singers will have ingrained the cue beat.

Teaching singers to hear a syncopation as a reaction to an immediately preceding beat is the most effective way I’ve found for consistency in these tricky rhythms.

Artistic Progress: Arts Advocacy Day 2017

Today is the beginning of Arts Advocacy Day 2017. (For reasons unclear but welcome, it lasts for two days).

I salute all of you taking the time to advocate for the arts today, whether through letters, calls, or trips to Washington, D.C. It makes a difference.

What is the crux of arts advocacy? That arts deserve public institutional support. Why?


A great country needs great art.

Art magnifies our souls. Art should be at the core of a culture, whether secular or religious, urban or rural, public or private.

You may look to technological progress as a sign of a society’s greatness; I look to artistic progress.

A great country needs great art.

A Little Bit Every Day

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” goes the popular expression attributed to Laozi from the Tao Te Ching.

Put another way, if you do a little bit every day, eventually you’ve done a lot.

Yesterday my daily public writing crossed 200,000 words – roughly the length of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, or somewhere around a 700-page book.

I did this by committing to just a little bit every day: averaging just over 200 words a day.

This is a big number, and one I achieved without permission, authority, or assignment.

What else am I able to achieve, a little bit every day? What are you able to achieve?

A milestone at

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