Leaping with Incomplete Information

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In every new project, there comes a time to leap.

We always, always, begin new projects with incomplete information. Gaps in our knowledge, speculation, unfounded theories and guesses.

That shouldn’t stop us from leaping, from envisioning something new and bringing it to fruition.

Leap, try, and then begin to revise as your close your knowledge gaps. Without the leap, you will never have complete information, and you will never see something new into the world.

We do more of the same all the time in our personal and professional lives. When was the last time you envisioned something new, and then leapt?

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Conducting vs. Mixing

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I’m in the middle of two big projects right now.

First, RAMChoir – a large, multi-generational, unauditioned TTBB choir that will perform in June after five 90-minute rehearsals.

Second, mixing The Rockford Aces’ fourth album, Get Ready – the culmination of two years of recording with many hours of session and overdub time, and many more hours of rehearsal.

In conducting the RAMChoir, I’m required to be immediately responsive to what I hear – providing feedback and eliciting results quickly and efficiently so that we can stay on track. (There’s never enough rehearsal time, is there?)

In mixing the album, my job is to be equally efficient, but in a more refined way. Mixing errors can be fixed through iteration, and no one gets tired (except me and the engineer) as we pursue the perfect mix.

To me, these represent the perfect yin-yang of experiences. In one, I have to react at once. In the other, I have to constantly refine.

I think all conductors would learn a few things from spending a while in the recording studio. Conversely, all producers could stand to spend a couple of hours running a live rehearsal.

Both will drive you to enhance your ears and your musical skills, but in profoundly different ways. I feel a more complete musician for having both experiences.

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Lead With Love

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It is built into the choir director’s job that you must disappoint some people. Solo auditions, choir placement, repertoire choices, concert scheduling. All of these have the potential to disappoint choir members. (I have even known a chorister or two who had very specific expectations about conductor daily attire – another chance to disappoint!)

It is built into the job to disappoint.

If you can’t avoid it, then the right thing to do is address it. Don’t apologize. Don’t question your decisions. Don’t quit your job!

Address it by leading with love. All students should know that their teacher loves them as human beings. But there is more. Your students should see evidence of all of these loves:

Love for your students.
Love for the music.
Love for your choral program.
Love for the process.
Love for all of your ensembles.

Lead with this love, and the disappointment can’t last terribly long. Your shining love will banish the shadows.

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Directed Idleness

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Is your idleness directionless or directed?

Creative people know that they must find idleness as a way of making space for creation in their minds. For some, it’s an electricity-free month in a cabin; for others, it’s just rising before the rest of the world. This directed idleness comes with no guarantees, but it offers possibilities.

Meanwhile most of us work hard to fill our idleness with directionless stuff. Binge-watching, social media, fitness, side-hustles, and on and on. I think we’re afraid of having–or even appearing to have–idle time in our lives.

But creation demands idleness; if you want to make something new, reduce the directionless idle time. Don’t demand productivity with your newfound idle time; just be idle and trust.

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The Dip

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One of Seth Godin’s best books is The Dip. It’s quite short, but it introduces us to an important concept.

The Dip is the time when you’ve started doing something, but before you’ve achieved the goal. The dip can vary in duration based on what you’re trying to achieve – some might be only a few minutes, some might last weeks, months, even years.

Seth says that it’s important to assess the size of the dip before you commit – is the outcome worth the length of the dip? If it’s not, don’t do it. If you get to the middle and find the dip is actually a lot longer than you thought, it might be best to quit.

Being able to assess the dips ahead of time is an important tool in our choral tool belt. Here are some activities with dips that you should assess up front, and continue to reassess as you go.

  • Starting on that tough new piece.
  • Planning a trip.
  • Committing to an extra performance (especially relevant come December – how much time does that 20 minute performance actually take?)
  • Commissioning a new work.
  • Embarking on a recording project.

One of the reasons it’s so important for us as teachers to assess the dip is because our students often can’t. They often have no idea of the chasm they have to cross to, say, perfect the Byrd Haec Dies. It’s up to us to present the challenge appropriately up front, and then help them through the dip, when it feels hopeless.

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Memorizing Words & Music

My students had to memorize a piece on fairly short notice recently – for a concert tonight.

Of course, it’s easier this time of year. The group is cohesive, has developed concrete group ideas of musicality, and thus is achieving musicality way faster.

On the other hand, it’s harder when musical elements come so easily – because memorization isn’t something that develops along the same line as musicality. Quickly accessed musicality can actually obscure the slower achievement of memorization.

I asked my students for some strategies for memorizing words & music. Here’s some of what we came up with:

  • Write out/type out the lyrics.
  • Listen to a recording of the song before you sleep, or on repeat as you’re doing other things.
  • Just sing it a lot.
  • Practice with a friend.
  • Force yourself to sing from memory, so you can find your own problem spots.

The truth is, memorization is generally a simple result of repetition. I think most choirs achieve memorization through simple brute force: sufficient (or even plentiful) rehearsal time. Almost by osmosis, with no special effort, the piece becomes memorized.

To speed up this process, the only solution is to accelerate the repetitions. What strategy you use to achieve that is up to you, but only through repetition can you achieve memorization.

Keep Singing 2017

Yesterday, I reminded students how much they need choir in high school.

That doesn’t end when you graduate – indeed, when you land at a college campus and know almost nobody, your need for a community and a home is only going to increase. While there are many activities on campus that provide community, joining a college choir is a great way to fill social, educational, and artistic needs in one activity.

The best way to connect with the right choir on campus is to take advantage of the Keep Singing Project, which is on a mission to connecting graduating singers with college and community choir conductors.

The form is easy to complete, and you can learn more at their website or on Twitter and Facebook.

High school students: take the two minutes now to complete this form.

Choir directors: this is a perfect project for the day after your final concert: set up a computer with the form, and encourage each senior to take a moment to complete it.

You Need Choir More

A very short letter to high school students debating between staying in choir and taking one more AP class.

You need choir more.

The end.

I mean this truly, deeply. I see a vast percentage of students who are weighed down with academic and societal pressure. What you need, and are fortunate to have available to you, is a chance to set aside your burden and make collaborative art daily.

You need choir more.

Fill your soul, enrich your heart, stimulate your entire brain. Take that AP class at a community college, online, or when you get to college.

You need choir more.

Hearing Yourself

As I see it, the entire hearing population hears you sing in one way – through air vibrations – minus one person. You.

You hear yourself through a combination of air vibrations and bone vibrations. It seems many of the vocal production errors young singers make stem from this disconnect.

Assessing your singing voice, acoustically, is vital, then. You need to be able to hear yourself the way others hear you!

Here are three ways to achieve it.

  1. A good voice teacher + trust. Let them be your ears, and learn to sing by trusting their suggestions.
  2. Recording and listening back. This is just as hard as you imagine, and the difficulty of listening back can be prohibitive. But so beneficial!
  3. Microphone and speaker. Singing on-mic – and listening live – can be a boon, particularly for quieter voices or when tackling subtler music. A simple sound system for this purpose is inexpensive and worthwhile.

Probably the best solution is a combination of all three; however, unless a singer digs in deep to at least one of them, they’ll be struggling to make headway. At least, headway that can be heard by the rest of the world.


In Michigan, public schools are given relatively few options to raise funds beyond what’s allotted by the state. One unexpected option is to pass a county-wide Enhancement Millage. Individual school districts can’t, but Intermediate School Districts can.

The Kent County ISD is offering it’s first attempt at a millage vote today. It’s a modest 0.9 mills, which will raise roughly $211 per student across Kent County, without strings attached. It will not come close to covering the inflation increases over the last ten years, but it will certainly help.

If you live in Kent County, I encourage you to vote today: I’ll be voting in support of this millage. It’s a tangible way of supporting good public education in your community.

Click here to read more about the proposal.