Learning Words and Tunes

Do you find it easier to learn words or tunes?

If you’re like me, my students, and most people I’ve asked, the answer is tunes. Thus the number of times you’ve sung along with the radio, and nailed the song but made up words.

I mention this for two reasons.

First, because it’s good to know this characteristic as you work at memorizing a piece: your effort should be directed to reflect your weaknesses. So, more time on words than on tunes.

Second, because I think this tells us something really important about our brains. We are hardwired to hold onto tunes we hear. Oliver Sacks argued that language is actually a useful by-product of our musical brains. I think our relative ease of learning songs vs. learning lyrics is very telling.


Mr. Rogers was the master of irony-free creative expression.

I don’t know if there’s any entertainer who more effectively connected with an audience with a generous, genuine expression of emotion.

I was reminded because right now, Twitch is airing a marathon of the complete series of Mister Rogers Neighborhood (over 1,000 episodes from 1963-2001).

When my son and I turned it on today, Episode #1101 was airing – featuring him burying a dead pet fish and talking about losing his childhood pet dog, Mitzie.

Emotional honesty to children? It was beautiful, complete with a touching song.

Irony is a near-universal language in 2017, but surely children’s television isn’t the only place where we can approach subjects without irony. Honest, open expression takes effort, but it is rewarding for both the artist and their audience.

Watch the full episode below. (the segment about his fish and his dog starts around 3:00)


Congratulations 2017 Rockford Aces

My TTBB chamber ensemble, The Rockford Aces, have been having a banner year.

I want to especially congratulate them on the hard work they put in to achieve one of their goals today.

Every year, many of these students set a performance at Michigan Youth Arts Festival as a goal they have for the group this year. (I’m always quick to point out that earning that performance isn’t a goal – it’s the result of a goal. The goal to aim towards is making music at the highest possible level.)

This year they achieved it with their stellar singing, which grew out of passion, camaraderie, and, most of all, hard work. They have accepted every challenge, worked together and on their own, and most importantly never flagged even on their most tiring weeks or rough rehearsals.

I am looking forward to a marvelous opportunity to share their music-making with a discriminating audience later this morning. I am always looking forward to the chance to make music with this group of young people.

It’s an honor to help guide your journey, Aces.

Choir Makes You Conscious

Sometimes our culture wants us to turn out critical thinking off. (“All the time,” shouted a student when I said that in rehearsal. “So we’ll buy stuff.”)

We all need an antidote, then, to the numbing presence of our culture on our conscious brains. And singing in the choir is a perfect antidote.

You can’t make music with a group very well unless you are consciously keyed in to the exact moment you are in. Dynamics, articulations, vowels, balance, phrasing, intonation, and more – they all require intent. They all require conscious thought and in-the-moment thinking. You cannot have a superior musical experience with a numbed brain.

Just another benefit to singing in the choir.

Commissioning Bonus

Commissioning new music is its own reward – you get to perform new, original music written just for your ensemble.

However, there’s a big bonus to commissioning when the piece goes on to have a life of its own.

Recently, the brilliant piece May, written by Michael McGlynn for my choir, The Rockford Aces, has started to live its post-commission life.

This week, Michael’s outstanding professional ensemble, Anúna, has released their recording and music video.

In addition, the Grammy-Award winning Kansas City Chorale (with one of my favorite conductors, Charles Bruffy) this week performed May as part of a concert of McGlynn’s music – with recording to follow, it sounds like.

Writing new music and hearing it performed is obviously exciting; but I am always surprised by the pride I feel in pieces I didn’t write, but did commission, receiving performances beyond my group. I feel a sense of ownership that extends to these pieces, and their life after premiere is perhaps the biggest influence that I, as a conductor, can have on my profession.

You should feel that feeling too! Commission new music! On your own, or as part of a consortium, you should be a part of bringing new music to the world.

Strict Form & Strict Consistency

Forced creating every day, especially with narrow limits on the creation, can lead you to surprisingly creative results.

I’ve been putting daily notes in lunches for a couple of years now – every day, a sentence, reminder, doodle, or other.

Recently, I’ve started experimenting with the rather limited form, and have had some fun results and discovered new possibilities.

It’s only because I had a deadline to meet, every single day, that I discovered new creative avenues. If I had stuck to doing notes occasionally rather than daily, I never would have been forced into a creative corner.

Surely this can apply to any kind of creativity. Witness Austin Kleon’s blackout poems. Witness the remarkable output of Rodgers & Hart songs, within the narrow popular song form. Witness Shakespeare’s Sonnets or Annie Lebovitz’s photographic profiles.

Applied together, strict form and strict consistency can lead to powerful results.

Showing Up

We have to show up. I can certify that about half of my blog posts are below average. And…that doesn’t mean I don’t blog those days, because I’m not sure what’s going to be a below-average blog post until after it’s in the world. All I know is if I blog every day-5,000, 6,000, 7,000 times in a row-sooner or later I’m going to blog something that people find useful.

Seth Godin on the Why I Write Podcast

Showing up is the answer.

A composer once shared with me that a big part of succeeding as a composer is not quitting – he had looked around at 35 and realized all the other talented composers he had studied alongside were no longer composing. Having continued to show up, he had amassed enough good work to be a success.

Because if half of your output is below average, then half of your work is above average, too. Create enough and you’ve got a lot of above-average work to point to.

Keep showing up, keep creating and sharing work. If you are brave enough to not quit, your chances of success will skyrocket.

Let Us Now Praise Elementary Crafting

It’s just as valuable, and less applauded, than math skills or literacy.

Elementary school crafting.

What did my children learn in crafting art projects to celebrate Mother’s Day?

They learned that creation is of value – and that even with a template, they can make something personal and reflective of their creativity.

They learned that celebrating with gifts from the heart – not expensive but individual – is worthwhile.

They were reminded, of course, to celebrate their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and other loving adults in their lives.

They learned the value of taking time out of their scheduled lives to create.

They might have learned that the kid one desk over has a different family dynamic than their own.

Gosh…it sounds like something that shouldn’t end with elementary school, doesn’t it?

Get Ready For the New Aces Album

I’ve been moonlighting as an album producer these last couple months, and I’m happy to share that The Rockford Aces’ fourth studio album, Get Ready!, entered production today. It will be released June 2 at the conclusion of our annual concert.

As always, I and my students have learned much from the process: tweaks for future projects, but also affirmation of much of the work we have been doing both this year, as well as year-upon-year.

The album is an accurate reflection of The Rockford Aces’ goal of outstanding singing regardless of genre: they sing jazz, pop, comedy, classical from Renaissance to contemporary, and more.

I am so proud of this recording and invite you to join us on June 2 to pick up a copy.

**This recording project was only possible because back in 2011 we successfully Kickstarted the project. Sales of each record have funded the recording of the next. I and the Aces are eternally thankful for those supporters.**

Time Away

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In the record mixing process, it is essential to give yourself time away to listen critically.

Ears get tired, and used to a particular sonic environment. You need to take a few hours, listen in your car, on headphones, while you’re doing other things.

You have to build in time to reflect and revise because it’s the only way to produce a superior product that will stand up later.

How many times do you finish a project, and send it out into the world without that reflection? How often are your purely reactive in rehearsals, without the time or inclination to reflect.

When I have the discipline to record and listen back to my own rehearsals, I become a better conductor.

When I have time to write, reflect, and then refine my writing (musical or verbal), the end product is better.

Recording is one of the few places I regularly work where that space is required – baked into the process. We ought to require it of ourselves more often.

Today marks the end of tip jar week here at jedscott.com. Read more here or click here to chip in!