The Two Chords Before

Gene Puerling loved to have his final cadences include bitonal chords – often either a major II chord in the treble over the I chord in the bass, or else a I chord in the treble over a bVII in the bass.

It’s beautiful, shimmery, and beguiling, but it’s not actually the most important part. The most important part is the set of two chords before. The two chords before are what setup this final chord to make sense – without the context, he can’t get to the ending he wants.

The same is true in so much of life. We see the beautiful, complex, sophisticated final product, but we fail to notice that that culmination was set up for success two chords earlier (two rehearsals earlier, two chess moves earlier, two anything earlier!)

Don’t worry so much about the ending: worry about the setup that makes that ending inevitable. 

Timeless and Personal

If you want to rank jazz singers, there’s little question that Ella Fitzgerald is probably going to end up on top. We can debate the Ella vs. Sarah, and should mention Joe Williams and Frank Sinatra and a dozen others, but in all likelihood, Ella knocks them all down, every time.

But she is hardly ever listed as “favorite” when I ask my students their favorite singer. That’s because there are two different characteristics at play. Timeless and Personal. 

Even the most timeless musician might not make the music that speaks to you most personally. And what speaks to you personally this year might not last through five years of growth.

Ella has proved she’s timeless. Her recordings don’t lose luster as time passes.

But if a young person picks a favorite jazz singer today, she’s far more likely to mention Cécile McLorin Savant, or Sarah Gazarek, or Esperanza Spalding or Kurt Elling. These singers are making music that is personal and speaks to today.

Will this personal music last and become timeless? That’s a harder question. Certainly, there was a time when Ella’s music was personal and of the time; but there were many more singers who also made music at that time, but who are not revered today.

Regardless, it’s clear that your favorite musician, particularly as you develop, is going to be one who speaks to your present condition – timeless or not, their music is personal.

And the biggest question of all: how do you make music, as Ella did, that is personal at the time and grows into something timeless? 

Michael Jackson. Prince The Beatles. Beethoven. Ella. They made music of their time that grew in timelessness with each passing year. This is the mark of greatness, and a goal to aspire to.

Blind Spots

You know where your car’s blind spots are, right? And when driving, you have practiced behavior to ensure safely avoiding having cars in your blind spots.

But you also should remember that other cars have blind spots. It’s important not to stay long in another car or truck’s blind spot, so that they don’t cause an accident.

In short – you have to keep two kinds of blind spots in mind: your own, and the ones of every car sharing the road.

This is true in rehearsal, too. Conductors at every level of experience have blind spots in their teaching: preferences, under-developed skills, or physical conditions. With a little reflection, a conductor can acknowledge her blind spots and compensate for them.

But are you also seeing, acknowledging, and adjusting for the blind spots in your singers? Are you making sure that you aren’t conducting and teaching into their blind spots?

Know your own blind spots and correct for them. But also know how to avoid the blind spots of your singers.

Different Music Together

Austin Kleon recently wrote:

If you give the same book to 100 people, they’ll read 100 different books.

The same is true for music. If there are 14 different people in your choir…or 40…or 100…they will each sing a different piece while holding the same octavo.

They will bring their own life experience, perspective, current challenges, opinions, musical understanding, and so on, to their performance of the piece.

Is it any wonder it takes a while to shape a piece into something cohesive? We need to find unanimity in the face of vastly different readings of the same text.

Practice Over Prodigy

I put my money on practice over prodigy, any day of the week. Put the practice in, day after day, and you will see results. A prodigy might get there first, but a practicer will often achieve more long-term, as the gifts of a prodigy might not grow with time after the initial burst.

Prodigy or practice? Pick practice for longevity. Pick prodigy today.

Prodigy and practice? There’s the one who will change the world.

But listen, non-prodigies: Nearly all of us aren’t prodigies. Comparing yourself to a five-year-old virtuoso isn’t a fair or realistic comparison, and doesn’t offer any real insight into your future (or the five-year-old’s…).

Get back in the practice room and get better.

If You Don’t Know What to Say

If you don’t know what to say…


Be silent.


If you don’t know how to say it…take the time to consider your words.


If you still don’t know what to say…say “I don’t know.”

This works for anyone, everyone. For learners and teachers. For leaders.

There is power in “I don’t know.” There is strength in the silence of contemplation.


Watch this video of Jacob Collier talking harmony:


Jacob is a genius of harmony – his explorations have taken him in fascinating and aurally challenging directions, including things like dividing an interval symmetrically to create unusual colors (for example, dividing a descending minor third into four equal steps).

What he drives home in this video, more than anything, is that harmonic choice is something he uses to express emotion. Telling a cohesive story does much to clarify the best choices to make, and from there it’s a question of personal artistry and sensibility.

Stay to the end to hear Herbie Hancock talk about mishearing Miles Davis and what he learned about not playing “butter notes.”

As I begin to work again in the harmonically rich world that is vocal jazz music, I’m struggling to balance my own passion for rich harmony with my understanding of harmony as really a subset of melody – good harmony as resultant from simultaneous melodic statements. Collier is among the most vertically minded musicians I’m aware of, so I balance listening to his work with attention to Bach and Alice Parker, with their distinct focus on horizontal musical statements.

Is it possible to balance the rich harmony of Collier or Puerling with the linear motion of Bach or Parker? That’s what I’m trying to discover.

Common Language

Students can enter a course with vastly different reference points; this can make it difficult to deliver information simultaneously to the entire class.

We need to develop a common language. Common references help us communicate more clearly, efficiently, and effectively.

Here are some ways to work on building this common language in your ensemble class:

  1. Guided listening. You are immediately building up references you can point back to in rehearsal.
  2. Shared musical experiences. Frequent performances, particularly early in the year, are shared experiences that can lead to a common language.
  3. Humor. Laughing together can build a bond and a language.
  4. Struggle. Struggling together “in the trenches” towards a shared goal can bond an ensemble and give them shared understanding.
  5. Academic Knowledge. The simple act of providing shared knowledge – theoretical, technical, physiological, spiritual, etc., empowers your singers to be able to communicate with the same vocabulary.

There are many more ways than this to ensure that your students have a common language to communicate in; what is your favorite?

Talk Above Them, Then Wait

One of my favorite strategies in teaching a mixed-knowledge-level group (and aren’t they all) is to talk above them, then wait.

This, mind you, is for fundamental concepts, presented in the way I want them understood. For example, last night I spent close to 15 minutes on the functional meaning of 12/8, leading into an understanding of the difference between 12/8 and 6/4 and how hemiola works to tie the two together.

Some of my students grasped this concept on first explanation. Others needed to ask a lot of questions, and maybe still weren’t quite clear when they left. That’s okay. They’ll reach understanding if they desire it, and in the meantime, I’ve made clear that there is more in this world for them to reach for.

The middle of the lesson is chaotic – questions from all sides, good (and mistaken) references to knowledge they already possess. It’s worth it as, one by one, they begin to see the picture I’m painting.

Talk above the knowledge level of your students (at least, on average.) And then wait. Wait for them to understand. Wait for them to ask questions. Wait for them to say, “wait, but…” Answer every question, invite them and wait for them.

Two Kinds of Mistakes

There are two very different types of mistakes you can make in performance.

First is the kind everyone makes, no matter how prepared. It’s easy to have a slight slip of focus that leads to an error, but it’s just as easy to pick up from it. This kind of error is no problem – it’s momentary. It happens for a moment and it happens in a moment. We should forgive these mistakes without question. Even the best performers never reach 100% in any given performance.

The second kind of mistake you make doesn’t actually happen during the performance, though that’s where the outcome is heard. This mistake was made days, or weeks before, when insufficient preparation was done. The error during the performance is the result of not knowing how to perform the music correctly. This is the mistake that requires teaching after the fact, and reminders ahead of time. This is the mistake that is harder to simply forgive.

Consider your last performance. Can you identify the mistakes you made? Can you determine which of the two varieties they are?