The Work & The Reaction

There are two costs involved in performing any task:

  1. The work: the time and effort it takes to complete.
  2. The reaction: the mental and emotional energy surrounding it.

To be efficient at doing what you want to do, you have to ensure that the second cost does not also involve significant time and effort.

Spend significant time fretting, worrying, complaining, and not doing, and you have just massively increased the total cost of that task.

If your half-hour of homework comes with an additional half-hour of complaining about it, then it now costs you an hour to complete your homework. Guess what? That leads to more frustration, further increasing the #2 cost, and leading to a vicious circle.

If you can set aside #2 until you have spent time on #1, you will find that your negative emotional response will be minimized. The reaction will cost less if you can just focus on completing the work quickly and effectively.

In other words – quit complaining and do the work.

Art in the Small Moments

I find the major art I practice relies on the minor art I practice in the small moments.

Notes to my kids, a lovingly prepared meal. Even a well-made bed or a clean kitchen counter.

Tackling these small tasks with the same detailed attention I give to my art doesn’t deplete me – it buoys me and gives me the strength to take on my art.

The stories are wrong – being an artist doesn’t require ignoring your life. It doesn’t require foregoing the little art of a life well-lived and well-loved.

For me, the two go hand in hand.

Know Your Goals

When it’s time for a concert, you should know what your goals are.

It might seem self-evident: give the best performance possible of the music you’ve prepared. But there are more and subtler possibilities to consider.

For example: my group, The Rockford Aces, are preparing to perform at the ACDA-Michigan Fall Conference in 2 1/2 weeks. As such, their concert tomorrow isn’t a culmination, but a waypoint. My goals for tomorrow’s concert were:

  1. Make sure the most challenging music was learned by heart, and performable. Sometimes the best way to know what you don’t know is to perform it and see what happens.
  2. Learn about the stamina it will require to give the performance on Oct. 28. Again, you can’t really experience the demands on your focus and energy that a performance will give until there is an expectant audience in front of you.
  3. Boost confidence so the final two weeks can be about honing. Until you’ve performed music, you haven’t owned it. Tomorrow’s concert should give my students confidence to carry them across the finish line.

What goals do you have for each of your ensembles in their next performance? What goals can you set beyond “perform the music well”?

Discovered vs. Taught

As I write this, my son is trying to sound out “Shave and a Haircut” at the piano.

He’s six, and has a fine ear, so it won’t take him too long. But listening to all the wrong attempts isn’t easy.

I could show him. It would take me twenty seconds.

But the brain works differently when something is discovered and when something is taught.

Every false try: when he compares the notes he plays to his concept of the tune, and then tries again, is a synapse strengthened. An understanding solidified. Growth.

As hard as it can be for educators to watch, five minutes of discovery is worth much, much more than five minutes of teaching.

Better Than The Original

I have loved MOSS since I first heard their 2008 album. And I was lucky to hear a rare live performance Thursday night.

Before I reflect in detail about that wonderful performance, I want to share this song. I hadn’t really listened to Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, so I knew MOSS’s version much better.

And in hearing the original, I was able to reflect on what, really, the arranger’s art is. Arranging, at its finest, is transformative. It uncovers the truth of a piece of art and presents it in an idealized way.

We find it too easy to disparage arrangers as contributing relatively little, compared to composers. That’s not how I see it: at its best, arranging can create art that is better than the original.

Here’s the second half of their transformation of Joni’s piece. To her the other half, you’ll have to pony up for their marvelous whole album.



patina (noun): a surface appearance of something grown beautiful especially with age or use – the beautiful patina of this antique table (Merriam-Webster)

I got to go “home” to my undergraduate music building last night for an amazing concert. On the way home, we reflected on the beautiful patina a space can acquire in individual sets of eyes. For me, the Dalton Center Recital Hall contains 20+ years of patina, from high school camps to hundreds of events over my undergraduate years. I could see friends, colleagues, musical legends in the space.

Patina is more than just memories – it’s the fact that a space can hold extra meaning for people, and that those meanings can enhance every experiences in that space. The concert was better for me because it was in that cherished space. It added an additional layer onto the thick patina of that building, one that will further enhance my next experience.

What spaces are utilitarian for you? What spaces have patina? Can you work to give your most-used spaces patina?

Seth Godin says of his office that the patina of past projects drives him to better discernment about future projects – his work must live up to the patina of the past work. That’s an aspiration – to give your workspace patina to spur success.

Choirs and Mindfulness

Mindfulness has been a fruitful area of scientific study in recent years, and of formal religious study for thousands.

Recently, an article gained popularity in choral circles with the headline, “Choral Singing Boosts Mindfulness,” and the sub-headline, “New research points to one reason joining a choir boosts mental health.”

Well, of course it does.

Try spending more than a few minutes taking care to produce consistent vowels, consonants, and resonance, while navigating tricky alto lines, in German, while expressing the emotion of a language you don’t speak, and making sure you are locking dynamics, phrasing, breaths, and intonation with the other singers in the room.

There is simply no choice to remain in the moment. There is simply no choice, in an effective choral rehearsal, than to get better at mindfulness.

Choral music is meditative. But more important, the very act of creating music with a group, both in performance and in rehearsal, requires a mediative state.

Letting Out The Reins

I often use the metaphor of reins to describe parenting; I believe that it is the job of parents to consistently, and intentionally, let out reins for our children – allowing them ever-larger chances to learn, to succeed, to grow, and, indeed, to fail. Holding too tight to the reins can feel right in the midst of a situation, but by not letting it out, parents do their children a long-term disservice. Without that freedom, children never learn self-efficacy.

But what about our choral ensembles? Of course the conductor must maintain at least some control over the vision, repertoire, direction, interpretation of the music. But more and more, I feel that it is a choral educator’s job to empower choral students to make musical decisions, large and small, for themselves.

It can start small – should we breathe here or sing through the phrase? How should this word properly be pronounced? What is the right articulation? Over the course of a year of music-making, the singers can, and should, be responsible for ever larger decisions. They require guidance from the conductor: build a framework for how decisions are made; make space in the rehearsal for evaluation of options; know which decisions can be successfully made by students at various points in the year, and don’t ask them to make decisions they aren’t able to make.

Letting out the reins to enable students decision-making: not only does it empower students and give them an ownership stake in the ensemble’s achievement, but it prepares students to continue to make music after they leave your ensemble.

Do you want more of your students to sing after they graduate? Then empower them to be musical leaders.

Dear People

Robert Shaw was famous for his letters.

His first biography was named after his familiar opening – Dear People – and Robert Blocker has edited an entire volume, The Robert Shaw Reader, to Shaw’s written words.

Why did Shaw feel it was so important to communicate textually with his singers?

  1. It maintained connection between rehearsals – ensuring that everyone was thinking about the music between rehearsals.
  2. It allowed him to elaborate, defend, strengthen, and clarify points made in rehearsal.
  3. In an efficiently run rehearsal, there’s not much time for chatter. The letter gave him the chance to philosophize at length.
  4. It was a chance to wrangle with bigger issues.
  5. It was the perfect place to say, “Hey, practice this!”

Convinced of the value? Good!

Now think about what he had to do.

  1. Sit down at a typewriter and type the letters.
  2. Use a mimeograph machine (remember those?) to make copies for all the singers.
  3. Fold into an envelope, stamp, address, and send.
  4. Wait 1-2 days for your singers to receive them and read them.

Guess what? Technology has evolved to give us the perfect method of delivering “Dear People” letters to our singers. Whether it’s on a private or public blog, in a Facebook group, a Blackboard Announcement, email, or even a Text communication via Remind101, it’s easy to stay completely digital in your letters.

(I like to include a question of the week in my letters, to ensure that my singers are reading them. They can comment right on my post.)

Making this part of your weekly practice with your singers will make a tremendous difference. Letting them see your passion, your work, your diligence, and your commitment to the ensemble will propel them in the same direction.

Expressiveness and Popping Wheelies

My oldest son is teaching himself how to pop wheelies on his bike right now. He’s frustrated, because, in his words, “The front wheel is too heavy.” I think this is likely the feeling of most novice-wheeliers…and it has nothing to do with the weight of the bike.

If you keep your weight too far forward, you’ll never get the front wheel off the ground. The trick to a wheelie is to put your center of gravity so far back that the front wheel is effectively weightless. But the danger in that is that it feels like you’re going to fall backwards off of your bike – and that’s a real risk.

But until you learn to navigate the risk of falling backwards, and learn to balance between far enough and too far, you’ll never be able to really pop a wheelie.

The same is true of musical expressiveness. You can certainly profess interest in wanting to make your music deeply expressive. But if you don’t learn to navigate the line, (by going too far with dynamics, expressions, tempos), your music will never rise into the air.

Until you lean too far, you’ll never know where the line is.