District Festival: What I Seek

Artistry is an endless journey, and District Solo & Ensemble Festival is never going to be an endpoint. It is, however, a rest stop along the way.

So I do have benchmarks for what I want my ensemble’s performance to reach at this point in the year:

  • Accurate notes, rhythms, and attention to score markings. The sine qua non of a performance.
  • Striving for artistry. They may not achieve consistent beauty or the breathtaking singing in our minds, but they should strive for it.
  • Pride. They should finish their performance proud of what they have accomplished.
  • Un-satisfaction. They should never ever feel satisfied with a performance. There is always further to go, more to discover and share. They should return to their next rehearsal hungry to apply the lessons learned.


Keep Dancing

Life is a two step – you take one step forward, one back.

Life is a waltz – you’re going in circles around the same space, over and over.

Life is a rave – you do your best to extract the maximum joy from the collective experience.

Life is a line dance – you’re trying to express your individuality while staying in step with the people around you.

Life is a ballet – you do your best to transcend gravity and literally fly, knowing you’ll always come up short.

We’re all dancing our way through successes and setbacks; dancing through days where everything goes right and days where your children keep you awake with illness.

Whatever the next step is, take it. Keep dancing.

Drops in the Bucket

“Soon I’m going to have the perfect place to work.”
“I can’t wait till I retire and have six hours a day to write.”
“It takes me a while to get in the right mindset to be creative.”

I have had recently had several conversations like this with fellow creative souls. They are patiently – or impatiently – for the perfect opportunity to let their creativity blossom.

They are wrong.

The best time to be creative is right now, for as long as you have available. If it’s just 20 minutes, use them. Stop judging your art and get it on paper. You can always revise and improve later. Your creative bucket may look empty now, but every drop you put in counts.

Last year I put drops in my creative bucket every single day. I averaged barely 200 words per day, but at the end of the year had written about 80,000 words. That’s roughly a 250-300 page book.

Don’t wait for the Right Time to be creative: it will never happen. Start now and make it a habit.

Keeping putting drops in the bucket, and you’ll eventually have a full bucket.

Retreats Revisited

Why are retreats important?

Next week will mark my 18th rehearsal with my choir. Since Labor Day.

In that time, we will have spent 36 hours together in rehearsal. 36 hours to learn music, become a team, build trust, and discover our collective art.

Meanwhile, our September retreat concluded after more than 40 hours together. Some were sleeping, admittedly; but even discounting those hours, we have barely equaled our retreat time in the ensuing 4+ months.

The intensive time you spend in retreat early on pays dividends throughout the year. Even in February, the Rockford Aces are a different group for having spent a weekend together in September.

Solo Auditions

Auditioning soloists is one of my least favorite parts of my job as a conductor.

The trust they have been building among themselves is diminished when they have to compete for a solo that only one can get. It is a necessary evil to making the music we want to make; having excellent and passionate musicians means the choices are always tough.

As a conductor, I am motivated by love for the music, and equally by love for my ensemble. Solo auditions require me to diminish one love to serve the other.

I communicate my ambivalence with my students: I don’t enjoy doing this, and I love you all no matter who I select. But it’s also clear that my decision stands.

It’s a comfort that by the end of the year, my choir features enough soloists for at least 75% of the group to have performed a solo.

I think our conversations about service to the music help, too. My students know my choices are made not by ego or favoritism but by a strong desire to enable the music to live.

It will never get easier, and the frequency makes it especially rough – the only thing I enjoy less is the annual ensemble audition, but at least that only happens once per year.

Just Memorize It

A former student reminded me last week of my response when she asked in a theory lesson, “Is there a shortcut to learning the order of sharp keys?”

Sure, there’s a shortcut. Just memorize it. GDAEBF#C#

Repeat 100 times. Repeat 1,000 times. (Skip the #s and you can repeat it once per second.) GDAEBF#C#

A week or two of repetitions and you’ll have it lodged firmly in your brain.

There are many concepts with helpful shortcuts, patterns to notice and use to our advantage.

But there are lots of things that you learn faster by using your prodigious human memory and good old repetition.

We have been taught to abhor rote learning in favor of understanding. In my experience, learning by repetition is a precursor to understanding – whether for the nature of keys, times tables, or even poetry. Memorize some poetry and then turn it over in your head – I guarantee that you’ll spend more time learning what it means after it’s permanently lodged in your brain.


Your Curiosity is a Muscle

Your curiosity is a muscle.

If you want to travel, learn, discover, grow, change, affect change, meet, lead, conquer, interact: it is curiosity that will get you there.

I’m afraid that we in the education world haven’t been doing a good job of nurturing your curiosity for the last 100 years or so; the people who stay curious often do it in spite of their education, or thanks to one remarkable teacher. The history of education is clear on why this is so.

Instantaneous access to the sum of human knowledge on the internet hasn’t helped: when it takes only a second to find the answer to any momentary wondering, you don’t get to  flex that muscle and build its strength.

But you need it strong. To grapple with the big questions – the ones whose answers can’t be found on Wikipedia – you need curiosity that can’t be defeated.

You can’t become an arm-wrestling champion without a lot of arm wrestling (and a lot of losses); so it is with the curiosity muscle.

So build it. Build it with art that defies easy explanation. Ask questions of intent while wandering an art museum, or when reading great poetry or listening to music that has stood the test of time.

Build it in those around you by asking non-factual questions. A history teacher who only asks names and dates is doing a disservice to her students. Ask questions of motivation, imagine alternate-history, the why questions that can’t be easily googled. Help your students, your children to flex their curiosity.

Any school subject can be designed to enhance or dampen creativity: math, science, reading all have opportunities to grow curiosity muscles.

And of course, arts teachers have known this forever. We are in the business of teaching creativity and artistry: curiosity is the muscles that leads to both.

One more reason we are all arts teachers now.

Your Last Gig

As you shape a freelance career, remember that your last gig helps determine your next one.

Don’t want to write music for show choir? Sooner or later, you have to say no to gigs. Actually, make it sooner: the best time is the fist gig, no matter how hungry you are. Once you start taking them, it gets ever-harder to stop.

Or consider: a brilliant colleague left an illustrious conducting job that she enjoyed because she didn’t want to become pigeonholed with that kind of choir.

Listen: to hire you, people want a story about what you do. You can’t sit down with every potential client and tell them your life story, interests, and passions. There isn’t time.

So the story they get is the list of jobs you’ve done that they’ve heard about.

Next time you consider an offer, ask yourself: do I want 100 of these? Because every gig opens a path to the next one.

Tradition, Ritual, or Rut

I find it helpful to occasionally look at actions I repeatedly take and ask: tradition, ritual, or rut?

Traditions are something you do because you always have. There is an important component of nostalgia, but the action still works for you. It’s a tradition to perform a trust fall the last morning of my choir retreat.

Rituals don’t carry as much nostalgia, but you do every day because it positively affects your life. My morning mug of black tea is a ritual. In addition to being delicious, it helps me enter a particular head space.

If a tradition or ritual stops working, but you keep doing it, it has become a rut. A ritual that negatively affects your health or mindset? Rut. A tradition that hinders progress? Rut.

Here are some things I’m asking or recently asked T/R/R about.

  • Choir dresses and tuxedos?
  • TV before bed?
  • My musical writing process.
  • Daily posting here.
  • Rehearsal day/times for my choir.
  • Fundraising strategies for our choir program.

While I don’t have a schedule for examining my behavior to ensure it is still helping me, I do try to regularly note traditions and rituals, both personally and professionally. As Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Derivative Works: A 10-Minute Lesson

We are in the era of Youtubers, remix culture, and pop a cappella. It’s clear that the concept of copyright needs to be debated and changed to reflect the way we’re using culture. Here’s how I started my choir thinking about the ramifications in just a few minutes.

  1. Listen to Cecilia by Simon and Garfunkel.
  2. Listen to Cecilia performed by The New York Voices.

Do they sound the same? What do they have in common, what do they do differently?

Now: understand that the work NYV did on the arrangement belongs to Paul Simon, because it’s a so-called derivative work. [Some students: well, that seems fair; I mean, Paul Simon did write the words and melody and harmony …]

How is NYV’s Cecilia different than they typical a cappella pop “jin jin” arrangement? Did they add anything to the piece that wasn’t in the original? Should Paul Simon own their creative work?

Final question: Is anything completely non-derivative? Can you name a work of art that doesn’t borrow, reference, imitate, or steal from an older work? (Including Paul Simon himself…)

I urged my students to go home and watch “Everything is a Remix“, and I urge you to do the same. There are big, thorny issues that are ever-more important in the internet age. Kirby Ferguson breaks it down in the most compelling way.