Vicious Circles

We’ve all had those rehearsals. Anxious, stressed, or just tired, we start out on a wrong foot.

On that wrong foot, the choir sings less than their best. Being committed, they react with frustration. The frustration leads to tension, anxiety, more stress, and more tiredness. The vicious circle continues, to the point where the most straightforward action becomes difficult.

An entire rehearsal can be lost in such moments. Perhaps even more. As leaders, it’s important that we provide the right leadership in those moments to diffuse the tension, raise spirits, and break the vicious circle.

  • Remain calm.
  • Take a break.
  • Tell the truth.
  • Go for small successes and use them as ladder rungs.
  • Know it won’t last forever.

No Artist Tries To Be Second-Rate

No artist tries to be second-rate.

Every artist is trying with each project to do their best work. But even great artists miss, and even good work fails.

Half of Gershwin’s songs are below average. That means for every Someone To Watch Over Me, there is some dreck out there somewhere.

Some artists keep their second-rate art quiet. They scrap half-completed novels, like John Green did before finishing Turtles All The Way Down. Or they write two or three songs for every one that makes it into a musical, as Stephen Sondheim might.

Other artists put their work out there, and say, this is the best I could do today. And then they get to work on the next project. Records are often like that – a musician won’t know until it’s in the world whether they have made the art they intended to make.

No artist tries to be second-rate, but every artist is compelled to keep making art. If you aren’t willing to risk making bad art, you aren’t willing to be an artist.

The Point of Education

Is the point of education to prepare you for a career?

At a certain point, yes. Particularly in trade schools or skills-based education, that’s the point. Community College, conservatories, terminal degrees – these should find you ready for a career at their conclusion.

High school? The point of high school is not to prepare you for a career. High school should give you:

  • Opportunities to try new things.
  • Chances to fail and pick yourself back up.
  • Places to express your artistic self.
  • A daily place to be curious.
  • Knowledge about the world and the great ideas that have shaped it.

More and more, our society is viewing high school as a pre-career training: through a statewide merit curriculum, designated tracks for future tradespeople, or college credit for courses in specific fields. Our state is aiming to designate computer programming as a “foreign language” so students can learn tech skills while meeting a requirement for what was previously considered a well-rounded human being.

If you view high school as nothing but preparatory boxes for a career, then you are consigning the arts even further from mainstream education. And you are saddling 15-year-olds with demands to know themselves better than they really should be able to.

I didn’t know what I was going to be at 15, and neither did most of you. Why are we demanding it of future generations of students?

Focus With Joy


What tone do you imagine when you hear that one word sentence? I hear sternness. I hear control. I hear discipline.

Too often, we associate deep focus with negative or authoritative emotions. It’s what your teacher says when you are distracted, or what you say to your kids when you want them to finish their homework and get to bed.

We do require focus in choral music – particularly in performance of multiple works back to back. A 20 or 30 minute performance can severely tax our ability to stay focused.

But when a conductor reminds her choir to stay focused, what too often happens is that with the singers’ focus comes a scowl. The joy is sapped from the music.

There can be a joy to focus. Think of a time when a joyful hour passed in a heartbeat. You were in a deep state of focus, but chances are that you weren’t scowling.

Can you guide your students to a joyful focus in their music-making?

Sight Reading Solutions

My middle son is in his fourth level of piano books. He has recently been sight reading from his younger brother’s level one books. He can’t sight read from his own books, though he can play the songs with practice.

The fact is, we can all perform music at a much higher level than our reading ability. Successful sight reading lags several steps behind what we can successfully achieve with practice.

How do you deal with this reality?

1. You can program easier music – music that can be sight read well by your students, thus empowering them with successes.

2. You can program harder music, but teach it by rote, while relegating sight reading to an academic task divorced from actual music performance.

3. You can adapt the sight reading to make it easier (generally by changing tempo) to make it more accessible.

But my favorite, learned from my son, is:

4. You can sight read music you’ve already performed, but far enough in the past to have forgotten the details. It feels like sight reading, but it also feels familiar. You are practicing the skills of sight reading, but with a net.

My youngest son brings home books to read every week – a set of books selected for their appropriateness to his current reading ability. And he reads them aloud every single day. Because even though it’s not new, practicing the motions of sight reading helps the skills of sight reading.

Be Salt

When you leave salt out of a bread recipe, it looks pretty much normal. But take a bite, and you find the loaf  bland, flat, and un-bread-like.

With the salt, the bread doesn’t taste salty – it tastes bready. It taste like it’s supposed to.

Be the salt of your choir. Contribute not by drawing attention to yourself, but by making the choir sound more the choir. Be a singer we’d miss if you were gone, but not because you stand out when you’re there.

Not Running a Marathon Today

I’m not running a marathon today.

It wasn’t for lack of trying – I registered at the end of 2016 for today’s Grand Rapids Marathon. It felt like the right big goal to help me maintain a strong focus on my own health as I approached 40. I was confident that my understanding of habit, consistency, and deliberate practice, along with a long on-ramp, would carry me to my goal.

Various unforeseeable mountains got in my way, and prevented me from reaching my goal. I decided in August to defer my registration for a year.

Since then, I’ve redesigned my running goals for a different outcome. As I often tell my singers, I care more about them singing in 5 or 25 years than I do about today’s rehearsal. By the same token, I care more about my own overall physical health than I do about finishing a particular race.

My goal now: run 4 days a week. I don’t care about increasing mileage, meeting pace or distance goals. I listen to my body and do what’s right for it. And I do it consistently. With that goal, I believe I’m better off long-term, and even more likely to be well-prepared for a marathon down the road.

It seems like musicians are always putting marathons ahead of themselves: special events, bigger arias, world travel, audition success, festival performances. These are all noble and worthwhile. I love the challenges they provide for my students–and for me.

But sometimes it’s worth pausing and recognizing that it is just as noble to pursue consistency. Consistent music-making. Consistent practice.

Sometimes we can accomplish more long-term with consistency than with big goals.

People Like Us Do Things Like This

One of the slowest-building, and most worthwhile, aspects of conducting in the same place for awhile is the development of a choral culture. The traditions, the special songs, the running jokes, sure….but more important is the self-definition that you can help build.

It boils down to an expression that Seth Godin uses a lot: People like us do things like this.

When your students join a choir, they learn from the people around them what is involved in being in that choir. Good or bad, that culture can be just as big a determiner of success as anything else.

Do people like us practice regularly? Do people like use pencils in our music? Raise our hands when we make a mistake? Show up early for rehearsal?

You can demand all you want; these things don’t develop overnight but as part of a deep  culture. The great part is, that’s a culture that will outlive your tenure anywhere.

People like us do things like this. Help them figure out what those things are, and encourage or demand as much as you can. But know that the good habits you seek won’t be locked in until they become a part of the culture.

I Don’t Like It Because It’s Difficult

Students react strongly to the music they’re learning – both positively and negatively. They will give you a variety of reasons for why the love it, or why they hate it.

The reasons to love any piece of music are many, and the given reason is usually honest and heartfelt. But when you plumb down beyond the reasons given why a student dislikes a piece, there is very often the same underlying reason.

I don’t like it because it’s difficult.

Once you understand that all the reasons a student gives are obscuring this truth, it’s clear what the teacher must do: push through, passionately and encouragingly, until what’s difficult becomes easy.

In my experience those pieces often become a student favorites. Provided the teacher legitimately loves the piece, once the frustration is behind them, students find there is much to love.

Four Tens

We like things that come in groups of ten – decades, fingers, that whole decimal system. And of course, top ten lists. It felt appropriate today to make four top ten lists, for a total of forty items.

They’re all alphabetical because I don’t have favorites: just a collection of artists I lean on – a different one could be my favorite every day. Are my lists longer than ten? Of course! But these are the ten I most frequently come back to.

My Top Ten Vocal Groups

  1. The Boswell Sisters
  2. The Hi-Lo’s
  3. Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross
  4. The Manhattan Transfer
  5. New York Voices
  6. Rajaton
  7. The Real Group
  8. The Singers Unlimited
  9. The Swingle Singers
  10. Take 6

My Top Ten Classic Jazz Singers

  1. Chet Baker
  2. Nat “King” Cole
  3. Ella Fitzgerald
  4. Shirley Horn
  5. Mark Murphy
  6. Frank Sinatra
  7. Mel Tormé
  8. Sarah Vaughan
  9. Joe Williams
  10. Nancy Wilson

My Top Ten Arrangers for Voice

  1. Anders Edenroth
  2. Moses Hogan
  3. Mark Kibble
  4. Phil Mattson
  5. Darmon Meader
  6. Alice Parker
  7. Gene Puerling
  8. Ward Swingle
  9. Michele Weir
  10. Steve Zegree

My Top Ten Authors/Thinkers Who Shape My Worldview

  1. Brené Brown
  2. Pema Chödrön
  3. Malcolm Gladwell
  4. Seth Godin
  5. Adam Grant
  6. Austin Kleon
  7. Alice Parker
  8. Alex Ross
  9. Krista Tippett
  10. Steve Zegree