Choir Teacher Pre-Assignment

You have your choir calendar with all the dates set.

What you probably haven’t planned for is the post-concert/festival/event publicity.

Realize, my friends, that local newspaper loves printing stories about great things happening in their community. If you write the articles, add a picture or two, and know the right email to send it to, it’s almost inevitable that it gets published. It’s good news for everyone!

Realize, too, that you can already write 90% of the article you’ll want to publish after the event. The details/achievements might change, but most of what you want to write is already clear.

Do yourself a favor and don’t wait to write the article until after the event – when you’re depleted from the work.

Your assignment is to write the articles now. Maybe pick two or three that you know will be hard in the moment. (I, for example, know that March is a struggle to juggle for me.) Save them in a document, and add a private event reminding you to polish them the day after the concert.

When the time comes, you’ll only have a few minutes work to get a perfect article in the hands of your local newspaper…and in front of the eyes of your community members.

We’ll Try Again Tomorrow

Sometimes the best thing to say today is, “We’ll try again tomorrow.”

It doesn’t always go right; things fall apart (thanks, Pema Chödrön); harsh words are spoken; sleep is interrupted; rehearsals don’t go as well as planned; tears are shed.

We’ll try again tomorrow.

You need to take the long view. Today isn’t the beginning, and it isn’t the end. You will have more chances.

We’ll try again tomorrow.

If you’re starting a journey, remember this mantra. If you’ve been on it for a while, you know the truth of its sentiment. When a Monday gets away from you, your students can’t sing in tune, and fire drills interrupt your every hour, remember…

We’ll try again tomorrow.

Art Speed

You might digest a novel in a day, while your neighbor might take a month. Perhaps Jane Austen had a speed at which she wanted you to read Pride and Prejudice, but once it was published, she had no control.

The same is true for Mona Lisa–although Leonardo da Vinci might have known his ideal amount of time to take it in, some viewers might take ten second to snap a selfie, while others spend hours studying every line and shadow.

Most art has a speed–the speed the artist thinks it should take to have the perfect experience of it. But music is one of the few arts where we get to dictate the speed…often down to the fraction of a second.

Even dramatic plays can vary widely with interpretation, cuts, blocking, and direction.

It’s composers, above all, who can compel their target audience to experience their art in exactly the time they imagined it.

That’s a special privilege, a very significant power over our audiences. We do well to keep in mind the real time of our artistic experience. Unlike a novel, it really matters how long we imagine a piece of music taking.

Formal Innovation

Formal innovation means nothing without artistry.

I’m reading a fabulous novel with virtuosic formal artistry. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is actually seven nested novels with interwoven plots. But though the form of his novel is compelling, it wouldn’t be nearly enough to sustain a reader if he wasn’t also a fabulous author.

Beethoven’s formal innovations to symphonies and string quartets are only worth anything because of his gift for melodic development.

Picasso could only innovate Cubism because he was a gifted enough painter to make his formal innovations make sense.

Formal innovation is something we notice; it’s a sign of towering achievement and usually praiseworthy in an artist. We too often overlook the truth that the artistry predates the innovation – indeed, the artistry enables the formal innovation.

If you want to create something new, first get good at your craft; eventually you’ll get good enough to change the very form of your art.

Or as Pablo Picasso famously said, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”

Summer Conference 4X

As of last Friday, I have completed my service to MSVMA as staff for the Summer Conference. For four years, I had the honor of working alongside some amazing colleagues in programming, planning, and coordinating the conference, and while I’m excited to be refocusing my volunteer time on the All-State Jazz Choir, I’m blue at leaving this position alongside my friends.

My primary responsibility for the conference was to select presenters and sessions, and then program them into a 3-day conference that would provide an educational and inspiring experience for the membership of MSVMA. As such I programmed over 100 sessions comprised of many of the finest choral educators I know, at the middle school, high school, and collegiate levels in Michigan and beyond. I thank every educator who shared their time and expertise during my tenure. I also thank the headliners who led the conference during my tenure: Robyn Lana, Lynda Hasseler, Jo-Michael Scheibe, Sandra Snow, and Jerry Blackstone. I’m also pleased to have had a hand in inviting next year’s fabulous headliners.

My MSVMA Conference Staff colleagues and I were able to innovate on several aspects of the conference while I served on the board. I’m proud that we now offer SCECH credits to our teachers, that we found a new schedule format to alleviate some of the conference-exhaustion we observed in the past, and that we tried a Friday-Focus day on “Specialized” choral styles (musical theater, pop a cappella, Spiritual, vocal jazz) that led to increased attendance throughout Friday. I’m most proud of the ChoralTED TED-Style session we included every year I was on the staff–providing a unique opportunity for our presenters to deliver polished talks in the TED format, and delivering three such talks in one 50-minute session.

Most of all, I’m appreciative of the relationships I made and the wonderful colleagues I worked with and learned from while in this position.

The 2017 Summer Workshop Staff

Nancy Bray oversaw the Summer Conference until this year. She is a brilliant educator, wonderful soul, and kind with her time and insights. I feel blessed that I got to spend many hours working alongside her.

Both of my Executive Board supervisors put in countless hours collaborating, overseeing, and taking care of countless details throughout this process. Thank you both, Brandon Ulrich and Kyle Zeuch. It was a distinct pleasure to work with both of you. Debra Jacks has been a wonderfully calm and supporting presence these last two years in the Conference office, Christy Seyler has time and again been a lifesaver in the MSVMA office, and of course Ginny Kerwin offered clear, specific, and helpful advice whenever asked.

More than any other reason, I was sad to leave this position because I don’t get to keep working alongside my friend Helen Hansens. I got to know her because of this position, and my life is better because I did!

I was also blessed to work with Helen’s predecessor, Phil Johnson. I was lucky to receive guidance from my own predecessor, Jolene Plotzke, and I hope Eric Cadena feels ready to take over based on my advice and support.

Thank you to every one of you, as well as the many attendees who offered suggestions when I asked. This position gave me the unique opportunity to connect with, support, and learn from so many fellow choral educators, and I leave greatly enriched.

MSVMA is a truly special organization, and I was lucky to be able to serve in this small role for a few years. It’s not the end of my time volunteering for MSVMA – just a change in focus.

Mirabai: Seen and Heard New

It’s rare to be present at the start of something new and important, and I feel that I got that chance last night at the inaugural performance of Mirabai, the new professional women’s chorus conducted by artistic director Sandra Snow.

It should go without saying that the performance, titled “All I Was Doing Was Breathing,” was an artistic expression of the highest order – beautiful, emotionally connected singing reigned throughout their two-hour performance in repertoire ranging from Baroque (Cesis and Cozzolani) and Romantic (Fanny Mendelssohn) to contemporary (including works from Abbie Betinis, Jocelyn Hagen, Andrea Ramsey, and Sean Ivory) with a centerpiece of the newly commissioned three-movement work Ecstatic Songs by David Brunner, setting poetry of the 16th-century Hindu mystic poet Mirabai. With only three days rehearsal, these musical artists made amazing strides and I look forward to hearing the pieces again on their forthcoming recording.

I want to draw attention to two other significant pieces of the Mirabai story. First, watching these singers, I was struck by the number of important choral artists were on stage. Many of these women are notable conductors, composers, and performers in their own right–capable of leading ensembles to the highest levels of artistry–but joined under Dr. Snow’s leadership for this ensemble. To see the performance of these women was to marvel at their collective skill and commitment. They traveled from across the U.S. (and from abroad) to make this music. Next week they will all be resuming their own careers as musical leaders, but for this past week they led from within the ensemble to reach their marvelous conclusion. You could see in many faces that they possess the knowledge of what it takes to lead such an ensemble, and they gave to Dr. Snow what they would have desired if they had been on the podium.

Second, consider the sheer innovation of this project – the audacity to dream for something this big and see it realized – is inspiring. I wasn’t there at the founding of The Robert Shaw Chorale, the first concert of Chanticleer, the first recording session featuring The Singers Unlimited. Neither were you. But I suspect the energy was much the same: the feeling was that someone had dared to take her dream–the sound in her head–and do the work to make it real. So many dreams remain only in our heads, and the more audacious the dream, the more likely it is that we never leap after it. Dr. Snow leapt, and 28 women leapt with her. That, on its own, is praiseworthy; and the leap itself makes it so much more likely that they will continue to exist, grow, and expand their reach and artistry.

I don’t know what the future holds for Mirabai but it looks incredibly promising based on what I heard last night, and on what I know of these remarkable women. Congratulations to all involved; thank you for making art together, and for making it in public so that I and my fellow audience members could leave inspired.

For more information about Mirabai, and to support their mission, visit and follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

The Little Coincidences

In Mandy’s talk, she talked about paying attention to how you spend your time, and how that makes you feel.

I think, just as important, is to pay attention to the little coincidences – the syncronicities – that tell you that you’re headed in the right direction.

When you embark on a new project, you will find subtle, microscopic hints to guide you.

The trouble is, if you’ve drowned out the world with noise, with media, with stuff, you might not hear them – and head in the wrong direction. How you spend your margins of time will determine how well you sense these things.

Get quiet enough to hear the little hints, look closely enough to see them, bend down and touch them. They will let you know if it’s time to change tacks, or keep on in the same direction.

Economy of the Soul

My wife Mandy delievered a powerful TED-style talk at the MSVMA Summer Conference today. In it she talked about the tools for busy choir directors to remain centered and grounded in their over-filled lives.

Some favorite lines:

“Nobody in this room has a lot of free time – we have to find values in the crevices of life.”

“May you find the peace to allow the rain and the wisdom to take care of yourself when it starts to thunder.”

“A book with no margins or spaces is unreadable – you need margins to make sense of your life.”

Here’s a link to her slide show, which includes resources, videos, and further reading.


One New Thing

If you can leave a day with one new thing you know how to do, that is a good day.

A conference, then, is an embarrassment of riches – new ideas, new friends, new strategies and tricks, every hour of the day.

It leaves attendees exhausted from all they’ve taken in. All the new things they know how to do.

And then comes the hard part: implementing all those new things. Because if you don’t act on the new things, you don’t really know how to do them.

I’m lucky to be around so many remarkable educators sharing their ideas and collecting new ones. It gives me hope for my profession, for the future of music education, and for myself with all the new things I’m going to know how to do.


Yesterday I heard an hour concert from one of thousands of village bands nationwide. The band was made up of amateurs from all walks of life: physicians, retirees, lawyers. They gave up their Monday evenings for rehearsal and performance, simply for the love (AMAteur) of the music.

It reminded me of my oldest musical memories – sitting next to my dad as he played first trumpet in the Franklin Village Band, some 35 years ago. A completely different group of amateurs, but motivated by the exact same love. I now realize that from the earliest, I was motivated not by professionals making a living as musicians, but by the people who love making music so much that they can’t not play.

I’ll bet it was the same for you. You didn’t start out in Robert Shaw Chorale rehearsals. You started with middle school choir, your parents’ local theatre productions, congregational hymns. You were motivated by being alongside people who loved music.

We can agree that the Boston Pops plays Leroy Anderson better than a community pickup band. But I’d often prefer to hear it played, with joy, enthusiasm, and passion, by a group of amateurs with nothing motivating them than their love for making music together.

And if my dad’s playing in the band, it’s no contest.