Mindfulness Session

This morning at the MSVMA Summer Workshop, Mandy shared a fabulous hour of insight into the use of mindfulness for the choral educator and in the choral classroom. I hope she continues to share it in other locations; in the meantime enjoy her session presentation here.

Reactionary Intonation

The other day I heard a pop song in a restaurant or in a store that was clearly reacting to the overproduced, slickly auto-tuned sound that is pervasive right now.

Their reaction – sing without pitch correction. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough. To my ear, they were intentionally singing out-of-tune as a sort of statement about pitch correction.

I understand the motive; there’s a lot to be gained from a subtler understanding of intonation than is provided by the software tools. BUT the opposite of auto-tune isn’t out-of-tune. It’s sophisticated, nuanced, in-tune singing.

The great singers always display a fluidity to their understanding of pitch that is equally ignored by both auto-tune and intentionally tuneless singers.

Let’s find our way back to that.

P.S.: I failed to get the name or artist of the song. If you have a guess, please let me know!

The Core Mission

Here’s a two-step plan for achieving the dreams you’re too busy to get to.

1. Acknowledge your Core Mission. Imagine you’re a Fortune 500 company – what is the bottom line, sine qua non of your professional life?

2. For every opportunity that comes your way, ask yourself: is that part of the core mission? If it is, take it on. If it isn’t, say no and say why.

Over time, things that rob your time will stop dropping into your lap, and collaborators will start approaching you with things that actually meet your core mission requirements.


On a boat, my son likes to shout “Starboard over port, I can hit you if I want!” He learned the idea during a sailing camp earlier this summer.

It’s a standard rule of sailboat racing that right-of-way goes to the boat with the wind crossing over the starboard (right) side of the boat. It governs most interactions during a race.

I had to explain to him that there’s a deeper, more fundamental rule. While the boat without right-of-way must adjust course, if they are unsuccessful or unable to get out of the way, the starboard boat must do everything within their power to avoid a collision.

So much of human interaction forgets the second half of the rule.

1. I’m right and you’re wrong. Therefore, I win. (at a verbal altercation, e.g.)


2. Everyone deserves to be safe from egregious harm.

Everything from a fistfight (brawl) to criminal sentencing (mandatory minimums) to political debates (opponents’ ridicule) to online comments (trolling) would do well to remember the second half. We humans are all-too-ready to take our rightness as an opportunity to pile on.

Epic Day

“That just turned today into an Epic Day.”

So we told our sons’ great aunt after she gave them a jet ski ride. A moment of pure joy that made their day special.

What can you do to make today epic? Here are a few things you could do:

  • Watch the sunset
  • Write a song
  • Dance with someone you love
  • Meditate
  • Take a walk
  • Take a dive
  • Call a friend
  • Learn to do something new
  • Sing

How many days in a row can you have Epic Days?

(I’m making today epic by closing down screens to renew my screen sabbath…)

Summer Workshop

I’m on the organizing team for the MSVMA Summer Workshop. It’s three days of sessions on a wide range of choral topics, including a headliner – this year the fabulous Sandra Snow.

I started working on this year’s workshop about 50 weeks ago, just after the last one finished. It takes a year to find the presenters, nail down the sessions, and do the rest of the planning.

And it starts on Wednesday! I’m really excited about the workshop we’ve put together – a fabulous mix of reading sessions, new topics, and new approaches to familiar ideas. It’s not too late to register for the workshop – just click here. The MSVMA Workshop runs Wednesday, July 29 to Friday, July 31 at the Radisson Hotel in Lansing. Click here for more info. It’s open to all choral musicians, including great discounts for college students.

The team I work with, including the wonderful Helen Hansens and anchored by the amazing Nancy Bray, will be delighted to see you.


I recently got to see two digitally animated films in the movie theater – with three sons, it’s been a good movie month.

Movie One was mind-blowing: laughs, tears, and a message of great depth that has continued to resonate in the weeks since we saw it.

Movie Two had plentiful bodily-function jokes, explosions, and long sequences without much happening to engage me.

The difference was ambition. The Movie One’s team aspired to a level that transcends entertainment into art.

We have room for all levels of creation in this world; but we can all aim higher. The success of the Movie One shows without question that it’s possible. It’s without question harder. But not impossible.

And it magnifies our society to aim higher.

I have adjusted the work I do and the commissions I seek over the years to coincide with my own artistic passions. It’s meant less work, at the start, as I’ve left certain kinds of musical creation behind. But the music I make rewards me creatively, and I work with people who share my artistic goals.

Are you making the art you aspire to make? What can you change to achieve higher goals?

Keep Going

Long journeys come with setbacks. Keep going.

There will be some times in your struggle when you feel in charge, and others when you feel like your work falls on deaf ears, with every step taken in reverse.

It’s part of the journey. Keep going.

Trust your community, trust your friends, trust yourself. Don’t walk away from the work you’ve already put in; instead, walk toward the struggle and use the work you’ve already done to leverage you forward and remind yourself that you’ve already taken great strides.

Don’t give up. Keep going.

Revolutionizing the Form

Do you feel like in your field, there’s no room for growth in form? The great ideas have already happened and we’re left in a world that’s been fully explored.

If so, then consider children’s books, and young author Mac Barnett.

His picture and chapter books are hilarious and engaging and do things I’ve never seen children’s books do before (unreliable narrators, tricky rhyme games, etc.). But I want to focus on his book “Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem“.

Book Cover for Billy Twitters

This beautiful book, illustrated and narrated in hyper-realism, is about a boy given a pet blue whale as punishment for a minor offense.

But it doesn’t end there. Barnett included an ad on the inside cover to get your own FREE blue whale for the cost of a stamp. My son sent away for his blue whale several weeks ago, and received a letter recently, apparently from a Norwegian law firm, explaining why the whale hasn’t arrived (Norwegian customs law). It included a number where you can call and leave a message for your blue whale. The outgoing message is whale song.

Still think that there’s no room for experimenting with form?

What’s the functional equivalent for jazz arranging? For teaching? For your art?

Here’s Barnett talking about his work at a TEDx event.

Write for Specific People

The longest-lived choral composer/arrangers – including most of my favorites – had groups they wrote for in much of their writing.

  • Gene Puerling – The Hi-Lo’s and The Singers Unlimited
  • Alice Parker – The Robert Shaw Chorale
  • Darmon Meader – The New York Voices
  • Anders Edenroth – The Real Group
  • J.S. Bach – the St. Thomas Choir of Leipzig, among others
  • Palestrina – the Cappella Giulia, among others

As Ms. Parker described it to me, when she was writing a solo line, the staff paper became almost transparent and she could see behind it the singer she was writing for. So often, the soloists would later say how well it fit their voices: of course it did – they’d been singing it from the moment pencil hit paper.

Alice added, “write perfectly for one choir, and it will work well for all choirs. Try to write something for all choirs, and it will be perfect for no one.”

When it’s a commission, of course you can tailor to the specific ensemble. But even when it’s not to be sung by one specific choir (or you don’t know the choir well enough to write with them in mind), have an ensemble you know and love in your head, singing as you write. In the end, the music will be much better.