Real Knowledge Takes Time

I was grading listening assignments yesterday, and writing brief responses to their reflections.

One thing that struck me as I responded to a couple dozen short essays on various artists: I didn’t need to re-listen to know what the music meant to me. I could write intelligently on every album that they mentioned, including referencing specific styles or tracks, without looking them up.

It isn’t that I’m a super-genius, or that I have a fantastic memory or singular insights.

It’s just that I’ve been doing this awhile. Real knowledge takes time.

If you want to reach the point of insight, of encyclopedic knowledge, or even of comfort talking off the cuff about a topic: it’s going to take more than a survey course or two. It’s going to take passion, time, and focus.

Real knowledge takes time.

Beyond The Part Recording

Part recordings are a great tool to make choral rehearsals more efficient – for students who cannot play their own parts, these recordings can be lifesavers for learning notes outside of the rehearsal.

But they should only be one piece of your personal practice arsenal. Here are some other things to consider.

  1. Slow Down. Practicing with a part recording means at a single tempo. It’s all too easy to gloss over precision, particularly in fast passages. Slow down, learn the piece note-by-note.
  2. First And Last. Give yourself the first note of a passage (start short, work longer), and sing the passage a cappella, checking yourself at the last note.
  3. A Different Part I. Feeling confident in your part? Practice with a different part recording – alto if you’re a tenor, say. Learn when you have consonances, dissonances, unisons. Learn how they should sound together.
  4. A Different Part II. Feeling good with the recording? Grab a classmate and practice together, a cappella.

Backing Away

One of my goals as a conductor this year (I always set three personal goals alongside my students) is to back away. Give the ensemble more autonomy, more control, more time without me in front of them in concert.

It must be working, because when a sick kid kept me away from a concert last night, my students gave two excellent performances, according to all accounts.

It’s a challenging task – conductors are used to being in front of their ensemble in rehearsal, and the ensemble gets used to the security of their conductor in front of them. But with diligence and conscious effort, we can prepare the ensemble to perform without us.

That’s a good thing!

What are your strategies for empowering your students to sing without a conductor?

Widening Acceptable Parameters

A good ensemble can give an excellent performance – within narrow parameters.

The right space. The right amount of warmup. The right standing arrangement. The right specific cues. The right time of day.

A great ensemble can give an excellent performance – regardless of parameters.

No matter the space, amount of warmup, standing arrangement, cues, or time of day.

Of course those things still matter; but a great ensemble makes them matter less.

The goal, then, is to widen acceptable parameters for performance. One of the methods is time – repeated performances can make many parameters moot. But more important are practiced consistency and the intentional disruption of familiar parameters.

If you only practice in the evening, book a morning performance! If you always stand in sections, surprise your ensemble with a mixed arrangement. If they become reliant on your cues, stop conducting or let someone else conduct. Sing in all kinds of spaces, as often as possible.

Ensembles acquire many routines that are not obvious – it the conductor’s job to recognize them, and intentionally disrupt them, in order to help them move from good ensemble to great.

We Are What We Repeatedly Listen To

We are what we repeatedly do. So goes the maxim by Will Durant, writing on Aristotle.

As musicians, though, we are what we repeatedly listen to. Frequent exposure to new music, of course, is vital to our growth. But we are, most of all, the sum of the music we hear most.

Our aesthetics, our life trajectory, our musical decisions, our very careers – all will be influenced by the music we listen to repeatedly.

Spotify users have been sharing posts with a customized overview of their most frequently-heard tracks; it’s interesting to know what are the five most songs you listened to, or the five most artists. But if you play that game, go a little deeper: ask yourself, how has the music I’ve heard shaped who I am as a musician? As a human?

Until the Magic Voices CD release in 1998, my only way to hear The Singers Unlimited was from a few 15-year-old records I had bought used, or some well-loved records in the WMU Music Library. Now any curious teenager can hear them any time I want, and log more repetitions of a favorite track (say, All The Things You Are from A Capella III) than I could until halfway through college.

Utterly gone are the days where the music you heard was limited by what records you could acquire, or what a radio decided to  play. We have never had more autonomy over choosing what we hear.

Take ownership of that autonomy, and use it to propel yourself with intent along your musical path.


When you start to get good at juggling three balls, often you think the next move is to add another ball.

That’s not the next move. Going from three balls to four requires a completely different set of moves – it’s not addition, it’s reinvention.

When you get good at juggling, rather than add another ball, consider…

  • Juggling with more finesse.
  • Entertaining while you juggle.
  • Juggling while distracted.
  • Juggling slightly different objects.
  • Telling a story through your juggling.
  • Creating meaning through your juggling.

Whatever you’re juggling right now – literally or metaphorically – don’t try to add more to it. Try a different move instead.

Awesome Teachers Make a Difference

The wonderful YouTube science creator Mark Rober said the following during his cool video about winning the board game “Guess Who.”

“Teachers don’t make a difference. Awesome teachers make a difference.”

I think he’s right. And you’ll have to watch the video to get the context, because it’s sweet, and because his quote sounds more disparaging in print than it does in the video.

Rober continues, about the three or four teachers who most affected him:

“Each of those teachers had their own teaching style, but I think that the common thread was that I could just tell that they cared about me as a person and their passion about the subject they were teaching was contagious.”

Let’s take his thoughts a little further, though. He zips through this moment quickly, and doesn’t say a few important things that teachers all know.

1. Virtually every teacher I’ve ever met wants to make a difference in their students’ lives.

2. Becoming that awesome teacher involves more than just knowing the subject – it involves a complex cocktail of skills built over a long time to convey knowledge, inspire curiosity, and engage young minds.

And most important and elusive:

3. No teacher will be that one awesome teacher for every student.

Personal chemistry, timing, and any number of other random events mean that even the most awesome of awesome teachers will not reach every student, or be what every student needs at the moment they meet.

Every teacher I know wants to be an awesome teacher, and every teacher I know is that awesome teacher for some student.


Every Piece Has Something to Offer

You will not love every piece of music we do together.

Every piece will offer something to you.

You will not identify with the point of view of every composer.

That’s not the point. Making music from many points of view is a great way to widen your worldview.

With every piece you take up, take a moment to remember that it has something unique just for you.

Don’t dismiss it. Seek out what it’s offering.

(And don’t forget that the piece you detest today might end up being your favorite in the end. There’s value in the journey.)

Can’t Wait For Monday

Find the kind of work where you can’t wait for Monday.

If you’re dreading Monday, maybe it’s time to change how you do your work.

Not Because It’s Perfect

Don’t start because it’s perfect, start because it’s time.

You will always discover things as you go, always change things for the next time. But waiting till it’s perfect is really an excuse to never do it.

Start. Learn. Fix. Repeat. Not because it’s perfect. Because it’s time.

I’m celebrating today the start of Michigan All-State Jazz Choir – a long dreamed development finally coming to reality. I got to rehearse the choir today in preparation for their first annual performance this January. It won’t be perfect – logistics, rehearsal schedules, and so much more will be fine-tuned and improved. But we’ve started, and that’s what’s most important.