Recording: The Ultimate Test

Last evening I held the first of two three-hour studio recording sessions with my choir. Most years we spend some time in the studio; this year we are putting together the first half of an album that we’ll complete next year. We started tonight with May, the piece we commissioned with Michael McGlynn.

I don’t think there is a better test of a group’s growth, teamwork, and trust than a recording studio. Tensions run high as you sing the piece over and over again to get the perfect take. As one or another section makes a mistake a few times in a row, trust is put to the test.

And of course the microphones don’t lie: any error you make shows up clear as day.

It’s an excellent way to culminate a year of hard work – to record that work for posterity and to demonstrate to yourselves just how far you’ve come.

If recordings aren’t on your May school-year agenda, I strongly urge you to add them. In the studio or in a hall, close miked or acoustic: the educational and musical results will astound you.

Generosity of Spirit

Here’s what I aspire to in my professional and personal interactions:

Generosity. Generosity of spirit is the bedrock of my collaborations.

I try to make every interaction I have be built on generosity, and when I lapse in my generosity, I apologize and fix it as quickly as I can.

Generosity is giving more than requested.

Generosity is caring more about the project than my ego.

Generosity is caring more about my collaborators than my ego.

Generosity is understanding that when I request things from busy collaborators, I might need to nudge them.

Generosity is giving honest apologies for failures.

Generosity is acknowledging others’ apologies and forgiving their failures.

Generosity is doing as much as I can, as quickly as I can, to make to make a project successful – sacrificing as much as I am able to that end.

Generosity is always treating my collaborators with love and respect.

This is the ideal I aspire to every day. Do I succeed? That is for others to decide.

Pick Three Words

As we near the end of the year, I am reflecting on the skills I most want my students to have built over the last year. Here are my top three:

  1. Work ethic.
  2. Musicianship.
  3. Teamwork.

I am reflecting because I know I can’t hit each of these skills equally; perhaps work ethic suffered this year because I spent too much time on teamwork. Maybe prioritizing musicianship means learning less repertoire – or maybe focusing on musicianship early will make repertoire easier to learn later!

What about you? Can you pick the top three traits you want your students to have? Where have you succeeded, where can you work harder?

Planning for next year has already begun in my mind, and that means more than just selecting repertoire and nailing down gigs – it means checking priorities and shifting weight to support the work you want to do.

My Judgement Is Flawed

So is yours. So is everyone’s. We have blind spots, preferences, biases. In hindsight, our experiences appear to be leading us – but in the right direction? Who can say.

A mentor can. That’s why it’s so important to have a mentor in our life. (Especially before our mid-20’s, when our prefrontal cortex is undeveloped, but that’s another day.)

Anyone can benefit from having a teacher. But the secret to success is to understand this list.

1. Your mentor will have: skills, judgement, taste, and a personal connection with you.

2. You will respond to their mentoring.

(So far, relatively easy…)

3. You trust them even if you disagree.

If you will acknowledge your flawed judgement, you must accept that your mentor can see more, and guide you better, than you can guide yourself.

At some point you will need to seek a new mentor as your grow, or divorce yourself a mentor if their judgement proves flawed. But in the meantime, you will make progress, and progress on a path that might be better suited to you than the one you would have chosen yourself.

[Finding a mentor is one of Jed’s Laws of Success]

Having a Jobby

My organic farmer friend used to look longingly at our little vegetable garden – “I wish I had time for a garden!”

Wait, what? Why would someone who toils 16 hours a day to grow organic crops want a vegetable garden?

The answer is that it would be a job-hobby. A jobby.

Professional musicians have taken their passion and turned it into a career. But the long daily grind can turn even your favorite thing in the world into a drudgery.

In this situation I often suggest a hobby, But for someone with an all-consuming passion for one thing (music, farming, computer science), your passion is your logical choice for a hobby – despite already being your job.

Maybe, like one choral educator, your hobby is a cover band playing locally on the weekends. Many  music teachers conduct a community choir that feeds joy back into their teaching. Others sing in a symphony chorus or other top-flight community choir.

Maybe, like one computer professional, you spend days off volunteering to teach coding to kids.

Maybe, like my farmer friend, you need a garden to putter in.

You’ve found your passion and made career of it: to keep it filled with joy, maybe now find a jobby to keep it fresh.

Make Friends With The Empty Page

The empty page is always challenging. It stares at you and dares you to fill it in. It asks whether you really have anything worth saying. It waits patiently for your guard to be down.


Make friends with the empty page and you can weather the empty page.

Here are a few ways I’ve learned to deal with it.

  1. Face it every day. Get used to seeing it.
  2. Lower the stakes. Don’t expect perfection from every word.
  3. Celebrate the small wins. It’s the act that’s worth celebrating, not any praise.

I’ve discovered, too, that making friends with the empty page can transfer from one world to another: my daily writing here has made my musical writings easier to face.

The more you write, the better you become; and the best way to write more is to stop fearing the empty page, and be friends instead.

Genre is a Construct

In his book Every Song Ever, Ben Ratliff correctly writes:

"Genre is a construct for the purpose of commerce, not pleasure."

“Genre is a construct for the purpose of commerce, not pleasure.” – Ben Ratliff, Every Song Ever

I am reminded of this every day by my four-year-old, who will bounce directly from Cats to Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony to What a Girl Is by Liv and Maddie (Disneypop). A day of listening might include James Taylor/George Gershwin/Taylor Swift/Stephen Sondheim/Gene Puerling/Yannick Nézet-Seguin/Lin-Manuel Miranda/Pentatonix/Bruno Mars/Adam Gwon/The Muppets/Bock & Harnick.

It’s me that makes these hierarchical. His personal playlist (in his head and on the computer) is simply music that moves him. Of course he can hear the similarities between Mozart and Haydn, Pentatonix and The Real Group, Michael Jackson and Bruno Mars. But he correctly understands that there’s a lot more that connects Taylor Swift and Schubert than divides them. The question is: does it move you?

We would all do better to take a page from this young sophisticate and think of other ways to categorize music than by the construct of genre.

Check out Ben Ratliff’s book for more thoughts on how to listen now that every song is available all the time.

If It Were Easy

You’ve heard the expression, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.”

There’s a truth there – it takes stamina, willpower to repeatedly accomplish tough things.

But I think there is another side to this. Those who succeed again and again look at the tasks they repeat and ask, “What would this look like if it were easy?”

What would I have to change to make it sustainable to do this again and again. Software, personal habits, saying “no” – all ways to make the things you do easier.

If someone passionate can’t figure out how to make their job easier to do, they will burn out. So it’s important to ask yourself: “What would this look like if it were easy?”

You can’t make everything in your life easy, but you can make anything in your life easier. And easier might be enough to be sustainable.

Step back, survey those things you do every day. What can you change to make it easier?

Commit to Rehearsal

Dear singers, why should you work hard in rehearsal? Here’s how I look at it.

You’re going to be tired at the end of a 2-hour rehearsal. No matter what.

The vast majority of the energy you spend in rehearsal is non-negotiable. Sitting or standing, your body uses energy, and even half-committed work requires energy.

Why not commit to rehearsal, and use every bit of energy you can to make each minute count? It will take only marginally more energy, and you leave with pride knowing you gave everything you could.

The music improves, the ensemble improves, you have more fun. And you’re only a teensy bit more tired than you would be otherwise.

How can you not?

Conductor is a Service Job

“Conductor” is a job in the service sector.

  • Serve your choristers.
  • Serve your students.
  • Serve your audience.
  • Serve your community.
  • Serve your colleagues.
  • Serve your profession.

And most of all

  • Serve the music.

Today when you begin a rehearsal, silently ask yourself, “How can I be of service today.”