Paralysis of Indecision

I’ve been struggling to prioritize reading books, which I love, in recent months.

I knew that the lure of online dithering was a big part of the problem. But even with that more under control, I still struggled. It was only recently I recognized the other piece of the problem.

The paralysis of indecision: there are so many things I want to read, and I’m afraid of choosing wrong. Especially when I haven’t read much, it’s easy to tell myself that the choice becomes more important, because I read fewer books.

Once I reminded myself that even reading a not-great book is better than not reading, and that the important thing is to choose and begin, it became easier to start reading again. I’ve finished three books in the last 10 days, and it feels so great to be back on board, reading books.

Don’t let the fear of choosing wrong keep you from starting. Whether it’s choosing a text for a composition, programming music for a concert, or just deciding what to read, don’t let yourself be paralyzed with indecision.

Choose and begin.

Infected With Curiosity

Alton Brown, creator of Good Eats and host of Iron Chef America, was recently a guest on the excellent podcast The Moment with Brian Koppelman. During the discussion, Alton said this about his teaching:

Curiosity is the most powerful force on the earth. People talk to me about, “Well, you know, you’re a great teacher, blah, blah, blah,” actually, I’m not a really great teacher. My main thing is to infect you with curiosity. If I can infect you with curiosity about food, you will get, eventually, up off your sofa and you will do something.

Alton Brown taught me how to cook, and I have the utmost respect for his skill as a performer, a cook, and a writer.

That’s why I feel comfortable here saying he’s wrong.

Infecting people with curiosity is the definition of good teaching.


Ensemble Learning Goals

I’m filling music folders for my ensemble for next year, and that always puts me in the mood to set some goals for the individuals in the group. If we are open to it, we can reflect on and learn from our shortcomings to become better educators. While I think there are many things I do consistently well with my group, here are four things I want to do even better next year for the sake of my students:

  1. Focus On Text – this is something I’ve been getting better at (hard for a harmony-head like me). Above all, I want to make sure that text is a primary consideration, not something added after the notes and rhythms are learned.
  2. Individual Musical Knowledge – making sure that all of my students can speak accurately and intelligently about the music they’re singing.
  3. Personal Accountability Training – I’ve experimented with many different ways, with widely varying results, for personal accountability without undue individual stress (think, no solo part tests). With more thought and consideration, maybe this will be the year I get it right!
  4. Leadership & Character Education. Specifically, I desire more intentional leadership/character discussion in rehearsal. Setting an example, but also calling out outstanding leadership and character, and frank discussion about these traits.

What are some ensemble learning goals you can set for the year? How can you make your teaching better later by thinking more now, when you have the time?

Private Criticism

In a 1947 letter to Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland wrote:

Bob Shaw did a bee-utiful job with my new chorus….I can only imagine how you’ll react to it. Any ho you won’t have to conduct it – since there’s nothing but voices. (I decided that Bob’s conducting technique derives from the football cheerleader. Or did you say that already?)

(Excerpt from The Leonard Bernstein Letters, pp. 226-227)

Here is Robert Shaw, later the dean of American choral conductors, the butt of a joke between Copland and Bernstein. A football cheerleader! It seems clear that they had already shared privately criticism of his conducting. Now bear in mind that only a year later, Shaw started preparing choruses for Toscanini, who then said “In Robert Shaw I have at last found the maestro I have been looking for.”

This Copland letter serves that a good reminder of several things:

  1. Robert Shaw wasn’t always The Legendary Robert Shaw.
  2. What people say about you in private isn’t always kind, accurate, or important.
  3. You can do a “bee-utiful” job and still be criticized (fairly or unfairly).

Most of all, keep doing what you’re passionate about. Whether or not Shaw was aware of Lenny and Aaron cracking jokes behind his back, he kept on and built a remarkable career as a conductor.

You Deserve A Break

You deserve a break.

Not from the work. Keep doing the work.

You deserve a break from the onslaught. From the news, from the updates, from the posts. From the constant attention-sapping. From media old-, new-, and social-.

For the last week, I pre-loaded my posts and disappeared into a no-cell-tower, no-wifi, no screen haven. It was, undoubtedly, the best break I can remember.

I didn’t click share, I didn’t click post, I didn’t “like”, “love”, or “follow”.

You deserve this, too. The new tempo I found over the week was blessed (and I was blessed to receive exemplary guidance each day from an expert at moving at the pace of the world, rather than the pace of the media.). The mental, emotional work I did will buoy me as I jump full-force into the next concert season.

Take my advice: you deserve a break and to find a new tempo. You might also find, like me, that you don’t want to come back.

Alice’s Books

To end Alice Parker Week, here are a few things I recommend reading as you delve in.

(And of course, please download and listen to her interview with Krista Tippett right now!)

The Anatomy of Melody: Exploring the Single Line of Song – her book on the foundations of music in all society.

The Answering Voice: The Beginnings of Counterpoint – her sequel to the above book, considering more horizontal and thorough approach to harmony.

Reflections on Song: My Musical World – a collection of her editorial essays for her Melodious Accord newsletter, covering twenty years of her writing.

Melodious Accord: Good Singing in Church – a tiny and powerful book on the source of good, heartfelt singing for all.

Folk-Song Transformations – A collection of great folk tunes with explanations of how to present them for sing-alongs.

Alice Parker’s Hand-me-down Songs – Book and CD of songs to teach your kids.

Alice Parker Week: Lessons from Shaw

It’s Alice Parker Week: In addition to being a living legend as a composer and arranger, Alice is a beautifully polished author. Her writings exhibit the same clarity and parsimony of her music. I’ve selected some quotes from her books as meditations for this week.

Today, a few choice lessons Alice describes in her lovely memorial to the legendary conductor Robert Shaw.

The memories are crystal-clear: his pointing to a coda of a sketch, saying: “That’s the first idea you’ve had.

Changing one note in a phrase; adjusting one duration; listening always to breathing so that it is built into the song; speaking text aloud to capture vowels, consonant, diphthongs, accents, colors; recognizing which elements which would unite the whole; “one idea per verse”; enormous care with exact durations and cut-offs; learning that if you have a great melody to work with, you mostly need to stay out of its way (you can afford to be clever with the less-great).

For Tom’s (Alice’s husband & Shaw’s right-hand man in the RS Chorale) memorial service, Robert came to New York and conducted a volunteer choir of 500 […] in the Brahms Requiem […] (I remember being completely transported by the service). Who can do the same for him? I know there have been and will be many tributes. I know how many lives he touched through his unique genius. I will miss him as a good friend, a tireless pursuer of excellence, a delightful raconteur, and a wonderful teacher.

What did I learn? There’s no holding back – throw yourself in, without counting the cost or time. Be your own harshest critic (I was never as good at that as he.) Listen all the time: the specific word,accent, mouth, voice, person, composer. Capture the sound on the page. In the last analysis (and the first) one can’t separate the text, the melody, and the setting: it’s all one. […] And the music is one of the greatest gifts and sternest masters. When we enter its world, we must submerge our individuality in its surge and ebb, only finding our own voice through the mastery of its demands.

It’s a lot to live up to. Thanks, Robert – and rest well.

From Reflections on Song: My Musical World, pages 78-79 (March 1999)

Learning from Alice’s words, from our time together, and of course from her music, has made me feel like a small part of a long chain. Parker, Shaw, Herford, Waring, and on and on, backward through time, connected to the song.

For me, there might be nothing more inspiring than to read an expert writing about their mentor. Alice’s words on Shaw speaks volumes about their connection, about both him and her.

I am blessed to know Alice, and the last week spent reconnecting with her writings has been a great pleasure. Tomorrow I’ll have a brief bibliography of suggested readings.


Alice Parker Week: The Seas of Sound

It’s Alice Parker Week: In addition to being a living legend as a composer and arranger, Alice is a beautifully polished author. Her writings exhibit the same clarity and parsimony of her music. I’ve selected some quotes from her books as meditations for this week.

Learning to swim in the seas of sound is important for us Westerners. It opens cultural gateways as we trade songs with people from all over the world who sing for the same reasons (and with the same equipment) that we do. Moving into a culture through its folk melodies is immensely rewarding, as eel as horizon-expanding. And it is truly basic to an understanding of what a page of music is: in its first and last sense, and aid to remembered sound, to a rich musical experience – never just a collection of black marks signifying abstract pitches and rhythms. Let us all restudy our art to have this free relationship with it, so that we can open our ears and mouths and become ambassadors of song wherever we go.

From Reflections on Song: My Musical World, page 77 (October 1998)

Song, melody, tune. We become so immersed in more abstract musical mastery – harmony especially – that we all need to take Alice’s advice and reconnect with the source. The song.

The other day my family sang “There’s a Hole in the Middle of the Sea” on a boat ride with about a dozen people on it; I watched the experienced musicians work to catch on to a new song, and I watched an amateur who probably hadn’t sung the song in decades shout “faster” at the end of each verse.

The song has joy in it, when you learn to “swim in the seas of sound” – go deep into it and immerse yourself in the source, the song.

Alice Parker Week: Technology and the Arts

It’s Alice Parker Week: In addition to being a living legend as a composer and arranger, Alice is a beautifully polished author. Her writings exhibit the same clarity and parsimony of her music. I’ve selected some quotes from her books as meditations for this week.


When we carry our cell phones and CD players wherever we go, we are living at a remove from our surroundings. […] Instead of actively participating in each moment of our lives, we are withdrawn, increasingly unable to cope with other human beings, or even to notice and enjoy he natural world though which we move. We become so umbilically attached to that electronic life that we suffer very really pangs of withdrawal, as from an addiction, when the pangs are removed.

Is there an antidote to this cultural disease? Let me propose those arts based on doing rather than viewing. Let us work together to make things that involve our sense, cooking together being an obvious focal point for families. We are helping each other, teaching and learning, conversing (often sharing the tidbits which remain hidden from direct questioning), and finally sharing in the results of our labors. Theater is the art that involves the creation of a world rather than a meal, where actors and production folk become a community as they work to produce a convincing whole. Writing, reading and painting are solitary – as are practicing an instrument, or sculpting a statue. Yet all these are intensely human activities: the ultimate goal is to communicate with other human beings. Art is not, in my view, for art’s sake: it is for our sake, in the largest possible context. [Bold mine]

I’ve saved singing – choral music – for the last. No other art demands so persuasively that we dwell in this moment, right here, where space crosses time, in order to create something fleeting that we cannot make alone. Here is a positive addiction – one that brings blessings rather than disease, and one that makes us appreciate and  value those with whom and for whom we sing. We are most wonderfully human when we sing together – and we should be very jealous and suspicious of those electronic media that seek to usurp this experience.

From Reflections on Song: My Musical World, pages 96-97 (July 2002)

Consider the creative arts as the antidote to screen addiction. And consider choral music – “where space crosses time” – among the highest of these arts.

Note that Alice wrote these words long before Facebook was a thing, to say nothing of Instagram, Snapchat, How much more do we need Alice’s advice today?

Alice Parker Week: Food, Sex, and Music

It’s Alice Parker Week: In addition to being a living legend as a composer and arranger, Alice is a beautifully polished author. Her writings exhibit the same clarity and parsimony of her music. I’ve selected some quotes from her books as meditations for this week.

An Associated Press in today’s newspaper cites a scientific study that proves that ‘some people have a powerful emotional response to music’. How amazing! How prescient we are to have known this all along – and where were the disbelievers? It goes on to say that ‘melodies can stimulate the same parts of the brain as food and sex’. Aha! Another of my cherished beliefs. I knew that food and song were intimately connected (food in, song out) but the addition of the third component provides a gratifying (literally) bonus.


The article ends with the comment that food and sex are necessary for the survival of the species, but, Dr. Blood asserts, “music did not develop strictly for survival purposes.”

How does she know? If music, food and sex activate the brain in the same way, isn’t it possible that music provides some basic function that she hasn’t yet guessed at? Isn’t she asking the wrong question? Since music seems so important, isn’t it doing something that we haven’t yet determined, and cannot yet measure? The question transposed is: Why is music so important to the survival of the species? If it is, why are we not educating our children in it, intensively, all through their school years?


Back to the brain, and choral music. Dr. Blood doesn’t even think to ask what happens when four, or sixteen, or forty, or a hundred voices and instruments achieve that ‘chill’, that ecstasy, at the same moment – and sustain it for seconds that feel like eternity. Or what happens when an audience is drawn into that same experience. Isn’t it possible that ensemble music provides us with a model of what our society is capable of being? That if we practice this skill daily, and share it with our neighbors, respecting all the other cultures that cherish their inheritance (yes, even the rock ‘n’ rollers), we have a blue-print for the world as it might be?

From Reflections on Song: My Musical World, pages 92-93 (Nov. 2001)

Fascinating – the scientist sees three experiences lighting up the same parts of the brain, and says, “How stranger that unimportant music is treated the same by the brain as these important functions?” It takes Alice, the musician and brilliant observer of the world, to say, “Why does the brain think music is as important to our survival as food and sex?”

It’s all in how you view the world – how you phrase the question. I want to view it more like Alice, don’t you?

A beloved plate hangs on my wall at home.