Sometimes Change Happens All At Once

Sometimes change happens all at once.

I have just begun my last day as a full-time at-home dad. Tomorrow my family heads back to school, and my youngest starts kindergarten. I’ll be at-home, but home alone.

It’s been an incredible journey, and one that fulfilled me professionally as well as personally, even as I almost always prioritized my family ahead of anything else.

In preparation over the last two years, I adopted the philosophy that I can start putting irons in the fire, knowing that by September 2016, they’ll be hot and I’ll be able to handle them.

Well, many of them got hot faster than expected; the last year, especially, has been extremely hard as I tried to handle the hot irons without enough time or mental capacity.

That changes tomorrow. I’m writing the next chapter in my professional life, even as I will remain a constant lifeline for my family.

I don’t know what my new normal will look like, but I’m looking forward to the discovery.

Thank you to my many colleagues who have tolerated and forgiven missed deadlines, overlooked emails, and work at less than my absolute best. I promise that will change.

Thank you to my extended family–my sons’ grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins–you have each helped enable me to be a professional during these hard years.

Thank you to my amazing Mandy; together we have made the sacrifices to enable me to be there for our sons, and together we have charted a journey I love so much.

Thank you most of all to my sons. This has been the best decade of my life and I am so thankful for every day I got to spend with you.

Follow Your Curiosity

Elizabeth Gilbert has said that following your passion is the wrong advice. She says, “Passion is rare; passion is a one-night-stand. Passion is hot, it burns. Every day, you can’t access that.”

She suggests we follow our curiosity instead. If you don’t have one white-hot passion to follow, you at least are curious, and you can follow that every day until you have arrived at a worthwhile destination.

As an artist, I resonate with her advice. I wonder all the time, and give myself fairly free reign to pursue questions and try things–following my curiosity. I trust that my curiosity will lead me to the solutions to my creative challenges.

As a teacher and parent, this advice alarms me. Our educational model stifles curiosity almost as if it’s a top priority. Mandatory computer-graded testing demands facts and rote knowledge; these are unlikely to spur curiosity or creativity. Larger classes lead to fewer opportunities for questions. Lockstep learning means you aren’t permitted either to rocket ahead, propelled by your curiosity, OR to linger behind, snagged by your curiosity.

If you agree with Gilbert’s advice (and you should), then you must change your classroom and your parenting to reflect curiosity as a main priority.

Curiosity requires digressions. It requires “wasted” time. It requires throwing away lesson plans. It requires crosstalk, individuality, and imagination.

Let children ask what if questions. (What if we crescendo on that note? What if Booth didn’t shoot Lincoln?) And then follow their curiosity.

Ask children questions that can’t be Googled. Encourage children to ask questions that can’t be Googled.

Model your own curiosity for children.

When talking of past achievers, note their curiosity, not just their Wikipedia bullet points. Beethoven, Earhart, Einstein, Edison, Picasso: these are curious minds following their curiosity.

Curiosity is one of the great hallmarks of humanity. Following curiosity is the key to creation. Nurturing curiosity is among our most important challenges.

First Performance

There is something to be said for getting your first performance out of the way as soon as humanly possible.

Of course you won’t be polished. You won’t sound like you’re going to sound in six months.

Energy, focus, ensemble, stamina: these are all skills that need to be learned and practiced. But the best way to know where you stand with them is on stage.

Get an audience as early as you can, sing for them. Use it as a springboard to your next rehearsal and next performance.

The longer you put off that first performance, the slower your choir’s growth will be.

I got the chance to conduct my choir in the National Anthem yesterday at the opening meeting for our school district; after only a weekend retreat and no regular rehearsals, they sang well and catapulted themselves into a year of growth. It was the earliest we’ve ever performed and I believe it’s going to do wonders for their trajectory.

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Perfect Game

You’ve always got a perfect game before you start.

There’s never an out-of-tune chord in the silence before the downbeat.

Every student masters every concept you instruct–until the first day of school.

You will make mistakes. You will have poor tuning, wrong tempos, poor literature choices for your choirs.

But the messiness of doing is preferable to the perfection of not having started. It’s true in all art, including teaching.

Best of luck to teachers going back in the next few weeks (or already returned.) Your perfect game won’t last, but you will make a difference.

Actively Discourage

Would you actively discourage your children or students from pursuing a profession?

I have a colleague, a fabulous teacher, who shared that he discouraged his children from pursuing teaching. For big and familiar reasons: too high-stress, too low-pay, too low-respect. For children with maturity, intellect, and ambition, he feared it would be demoralizing.

As he put it, “We are losing many of the best future educators, which is downright scary.” He’s not the only one – comments were filled with agreeing teachers, and I’ve heard from many colleagues who actively argue their passionate students out of pursuing music education.

I have a few more years before my own sons start thinking about college and careers, but at present I cannot imagine discouraging them from following their own course. Teaching, music, technical theater, dance, engineering, political science, business: if it’s what you’re passionate about, and you’re willing to work hard, there is no question that you will find fulfillment. (Read Jed’s Laws of Success).

As I heard it put recently, “Success without fulfillment is the ultimate failure.”

Moreover, we need the best to become teachers. We are squandering our children’s potential. We are manufacturing a teacher shortage through political attacks and monetary games. We need them to join the fight to improve teacher respect, pay, and quality. We need them to take the baton and teach the next generation.

Also: if you tell smart young people that they shouldn’t become teachers, isn’t the takeaway that teachers aren’t smart? (i.e., “If they were smart, they wouldn’t have become teachers.”)

Here are the two articles my friend posted recently. I don’t disagree with him on any of the reasons why he tells smart young people not to become teachers.

I just think the only way to solve them is by encouraging more smart people to become teachers, not discouraging them.

Remember the Patterns

The first week of school for a teacher is always rough. Your days are a blur and you finish utterly exhausted.

I don’t think you’re actually any busier than you were a week or two earlier; it’s a different busy, but not necessarily busier.

The challenge in that first week is to return to old patterns. Alarm wakeup, bell schedules, social interaction, 10:15 lunch, the “on” energy of teaching a lesson.

Your challenge between now and the first day of school is to try and list those patterns; you know them, even if you haven’t lived them the last few weeks. Remember the patterns, write them down, start mentally working through them. It will make that first week less whiplash and more reconnection with the familiar.

Personal & Group Goals

For our choir retreat, every year I ask my students to make a list of three personal goals for the year (in the context of the group) and three goals for the group.

We meet one-on-one to review their audition rubric and discuss their personal goals, and then sit together and discuss our goals for the group. (I share my own personal and group goals with everyone).

Because the questions are so open-ended, it’s a great way to discover what each student values, how he sees himself, and how he sees the group.

Personal goals varied widely, but their group goals fell into three main categories:

  • musical excellence
  • intra-group connection,
  • outreach (both performance and social) beyond the group.

That’s a great blueprint for a year, isn’t it?

Solo Night as Team Building

My annual Rockford Aces retreat was this weekend. Every year we include a Saturday night “Solo Night” – every single member performs a solo with accompaniment from self, friend, or phone.

Not everyone wants to be a solo singer – myself included. But everyone shares a solo with the group. And every year I am inspired by the experience. We get:

  • A sense of each member’s musical taste. There is strength in knowing what you choose to sing.
  • A moment of vulnerability shared with the people you’ll be singing with all year.
  • Amazing music from young people.
  • A community built around music.
  • A chance, often, to hear original music written by passionate teenagers. Wow!

Some might not choose to sing another solo with the group this year, but many will. This right-at-the-start sharing puts them all on equal footing as members of the ensemble.

The vulnerability, the sharing of a small piece of their hearts, is as powerful as any formal Team Building activity I could plan. And because it involves music, it is structured around something I know they’re all passionate about.

One more thing: I always start. I’m not a solo singer–sing much better with a friend next to me–but I wouldn’t ask my students to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. And being vulnerable in front of them empowers them to do the same.

Fidelity To The Score

Fidelity to the Score comprises 25% of the final score in all competitions organized by Interkultur, including the World Choir Games, which I have conducted at in both 2012 and 2014.

What does that mean? I don’t really have any idea.

I have written before about musical terroir, and I will go further.

A tempo can be profoundly affected by the space you are performing in; should a choir be judged for altering from the tempo marking?

Renaissance music often doesn’t contain dynamics or articulations; how are the judges to decide whether the choir’s interpretation is faithful?

If I make a solo into a tutti because it works better musically for my choir, am I being unfaithful to the score? How about if an a cappella piece sits better in Eb than E?

Fidelity to the score sounds like an objective, unbiased method of adjudicating a choir; indeed, it is not. It relies on the biases of the judges and the conductor, and the overlap between the two.

It is appropriate to maintain this criterion or similar in rating choirs’ performances, but it is not appropriate to believe that it offers an unvarnished look at choirs that is independent of the judges’ own opinions.

In competition, we do need to give judges the scaffolding to judge choirs effectively; but all judging is subjective and defining criteria to make it sound not so is a mistake.

Make The Beginning Count

In the hours before I begin my choirs annual retreat this afternoon, on the forefront of my mind will be that I have only one chance to make the beginning count.

As all teachers proceed into a new school year, it’s vital to remember: the tone of the year can be profoundly affected by Day One.

More important than any announcement, any handout, any policy is this: know the tone you want your classroom to have, and devise a way to create that tone from the first minute you are together.

If you don’t, you’ll have an uphill battle for the next month.

Make the beginning count.