A Stranger’s Eyes

You see your home differently when a stranger walks into it. Suddenly, you’re seeing it through a stranger’s eyes.

Suddenly, every mark on the wall, misplaced toy, dirty dish is readily apparent to you: even if they have evaded your eyes for weeks.

The same thing happens when a guest clinician works with your choir – suddenly you hear with their ears. Suddenly, the strengths – and weaknesses – of your ensemble are clear.

Some react to this truth by keeping strangers out – don’t go to festival, don’t invite people over for dinner, don’t open up your world (and your soul) to people who will open your senses in return.

But the only way to make your work better is to see it clearly and fix it. And a stranger’s eyes can be a great way to improve your own vision.

Cooking & Dishes

If you aren’t willing to the dishes, you aren’t really committed to cooking.

This has been my mantra whenever I’ve entered the kitchen for the last few years. A busy family’s rate of dirty-dish-generation sometimes reminds me of a highway during an ice storm: one small error can lead to major catastrophe.

So, since I love to cook, I have to stay on the dishes.

It’s the same for anything you love to do: whether you love singing, writing music, dance, running, calculus, architecture, orthopedic surgery, being president or any activity, there are dishes involved. There are long practices, stretching, rest days, public criticism, long boring proofs, and other parts of the job that are less than fun.

If you aren’t willing to do the not-fun parts, you aren’t really committed to the job.

Best to know that up front, and then either (1) commit to shouldering them or (2) walking away.

Pick Back Up

You will go to sleep with nothing left. Will you have anything to give come morning?

Who knows. All you can do is pick back up.

You will face setbacks. Are they surmountable?

Who knows. All you can do is pick back up.

You will have unbelievable achievements, and then face the blank page again. Will you be able to create again?

Who knows. All you can do is pick back up.

You will lose and you will win. You will fail and succeed. You will give everything you have, and then have to give more. Will you be able to keep going through all of it?

Of course. Pick back up and start again.

Time-Sensitive v. Urgent

I remember a request long ago being described as “not urgent, but time-sensitive.”

It’s worth piecing apart those two phrases, and differentiating between them in our speech.

Urgent items are usually time-sensitive. You must complete this vitally important project within a short time-frame.

Time-sensitive items aren’t always urgent. It’s important to complete certain menial tasks within a window of time, but the tasks may not qualify as life-or-death urgent.

Can things be urgent and not time-sensitive? Yes! Consider the scale of global climate change. While the problem is urgent, it’s easy to view it as not time-sensitive, since it will play out over multiple human generations. Or in the choral field, consider programming next year’s repertoire. It’s urgent (it absolutely must be done), but not time-sensitive (we don’t need it tomorrow, yet).

It’s important, then, to differentiate between (1) urgent & time-sensitive, (2) urgent & not time-sensitive, and (3) time-sensitive but not urgent.

If you have to prioritize your tasks, I would prioritize in that order. But too often we prioritize in this order: (1)/(3)….(2 – if possible).

When we prioritize that way, our urgent projects get postponed until they become time-sensitive…and we can never get ahead.

Putting Down All of the Juggling Pins

Teachers on “Summer Break” aren’t on break – they’re doing all sorts of different work to prepare. Part of this is active work: planning, programming, cleaning, learning, creating.

Part of it is passive work: the important work of recharging emotional and physical stores to be ready to support students for the following school year.

If you’re like me, you struggle with the challenge of not putting down all of the juggling pins.

You’ve been juggling eleven pins, even though you only learned to juggle nine, since the New Year. You want more than anything to put them all down.

But if you don’t keep a few in the air, at least part-time, August will find you underprepared in the active preparation.

My ideal plan is to juggle a few pins for a few hours, and then turn to family and recharging. My problem is that once juggling pins are in the air, I want to keep juggling them – and even if I walk away from them, I keep juggling them in my head.

So my challenge to you (and to me) is: find a way to use those pins, and then put them away when you’re done. A separate space, a regular time, an appointment in your phone. Do something to time limit the juggling, and make it a routine to quiet the mind.

You need both active and passive preparation for the next school year. Balance is the key.

What I Did This Summer (Preview Edition)

When the next school year starts in about ten weeks, someone will surely ask “What did you do this summer?” Here’s some of what I hope to say:

I breathed
I exercised (my mind, my body, my spirit)
I connected
I unplugged
I ate well
I read
I had long conversations that weren’t ever cut short by a pressing engagement
I discovered
I created
I recharged for the year ahead

What is on your future “What I did this summer” list?

Secrets and Random Acts

I really struggled keeping a secret from my wife Mandy these last two weeks.

Of course, the secret was worth keeping – it was a secret Facebook group devoted to performing Random Acts of Kindness in celebration of her 40th birthday. We set a goal of 40, but ended up achieving more than 160 acts shared in the group in the 10 days ending on her birthday.

It was hard to see these beautiful acts come in, and not be able to share them with my best friend.

But interestingly, a pattern emerged of people wishing to be able to keep more secrets. In short, they didn’t want to appear to brag about performing kindnesses.

I understand the motivation, but in the end, the power of this group convinced me that it’s vital that we share these acts of kindness when we do them.

We’re in a sharing society, where our impression of the world is profoundly affected by what people share on social media. We can interpret absence as nonexistence, so when no one shares these random acts, we assume they don’t exist. This might give some permission to be less kind themselves.

Secondly, and more important, the members of the group saw quick amplification from the posting. The frequency of posts increased, the creativity and magnitude of random acts grew. People copied earlier random acts, or were simply inspired to get out there and perform their own Random Acts. Entire classrooms were inspired by their teacher’s sharing about this group, recipients of early acts of kindness performed their own and reported back to the group. I heard reports of teenagers and adults having long conversations about the meaning of these acts, and their value to society.

All of this tells me, we need to be more intentional about sharing the positive things we do in our life. Not to brag, but to inspire others.

I’ve changed the group to public, and hope deeply that you’ll join, enjoy the past random acts, and perform your own – and share them!

There are secrets worth keeping for surprises, and there are secrets we need to stop holding so tightly.

A Bridge

Last year I inaugurated spring auditions – I had previously auditioned the first week of school.

Now, there are disadvantages, particularly with personnel adjustments due to moves or other summer complications. Collegiate ensembles would have a much harder time auditioning in April for September start.

But the biggest advantage I see is having a bridge.

Having an ensemble before the end of the school year means you can start building the ensemble, quietly, long before the school year starts. You don’t even need a rehearsal footprint. Just that the group exists, and can connect, means you’ll reap benefits in the fall.

It also means your graduating seniors can know, and connect with, incoming ensemble members before they head off to college. Whether they make a concerted effort to do so or not, there is something about making that bridge between the past and the future.

Finally, it’s so much easier to program specifically when you know the new ensemble. Since I made this change, I’ve found it much easier to make my music selections in June and July, so I’m ready with appropriate music for my group come August. The existence of a bridge to walk on makes it a lot easier to move forward.

Three Important Parts

One of my favorite recipes to cook is Francis Lam’s Weapons-Grade Ratatouille. (He says it’s done when you take a taste and want to punch a wall. He’s not kidding.)

What makes his recipe tick, and leave you transformed, is the combination of really three important parts:

  • Simple, quality ingredients
  • Basic approaches
  • Copious time for transformation

And I think that’s really true for music-making too.

For ensembles: take quality literature, treat it with respect and musicality, and then allow sufficient time for it to settle someplace lovely.

For choral composers: start with a quality text, set it with respect for its meaning and inherent musicality, and then give yourself sufficient time to discover the most parsimonious conclusions.

Take a minute and read Lam’s recipe – and then count down to August, when a trip to the farmer’s market will allow you to make his amazing product.

Daily Creativity

“I draw two or three cartoons every night.”

That’s what keeps me leaning into creativity every day. That quote by my eight-year-old son.

Children, of course, don’t consider that anything special – creation is a natural state. And we can return to that default, if we can only get out of our own way.

He has thoughts and expresses them creatively.  Every night.

We should all be so disciplined. Only discipline isn’t the right word. He doesn’t have to fight his way into a daily creative space, he naturally comes to it.