Not Because It’s Perfect

Don’t start because it’s perfect, start because it’s time.

You will always discover things as you go, always change things for the next time. But waiting till it’s perfect is really an excuse to never do it.

Start. Learn. Fix. Repeat. Not because it’s perfect. Because it’s time.

I’m celebrating today the start of Michigan All-State Jazz Choir – a long dreamed development finally coming to reality. I got to rehearse the choir today in preparation for their first annual performance this January. It won’t be perfect – logistics, rehearsal schedules, and so much more will be fine-tuned and improved. But we’ve started, and that’s what’s most important.

Create First

Every creative person I know balances their creation – their true work – with many other obligations. Family, home care, email, promotion, business work, teaching, traveling, and on and on.

All of it will be more bearable if you create first. First do your true work, and then do everything else.

It’s not always easy to prioritize creative work in the face of a sink full of dishes, or a stack of invoices to send out. It’s the right thing to do.

Create first. It will make the rest of your work lighter, and you will be steps farther along on your creative journey.

Weather the Storm

Just a reminder that when you’re in the middle of a storm, it can feel permanent. It can literally feel like it will never stop raining.

It will stop. All you have to do is weather it until then.

Don’t do anything rash mid-storm: it’s not an accurate impression of your climate. Weather the storm, and then think hard when the sun comes back out.

(Also applies to: the emotions of teenagers, politics, bad rehearsals, and much much more…)

Skills & Fun

You’re only going succeed in music if you acquire massive skills. It’s too competitive, too challenging, there are too many other good people out there. Skill building is – and should be – the primary motivator of serious music study.

But you’re also only going to succeed in music if you continue to have fun with it, every day. It makes you fun to collaborate with, and it makes it easier to get out of bed in the morning. A musician ten years into her career who isn’t still enjoying the gigs will find other work, no matter how successful she is – it’s simply too hard if it’s not fun.

So music teachers: are you remembering to keep it fun? Are you remembering to remind your students to have fun as they acquire the skills?

I’m not talking about game-ifying skill building (though that can be fun, too.). I’m talking about making your ear training lessons silly, engaging, memorable. I’m talking about programming music that is challenging but also rewarding and fun to perform.

Atmosphere is important. Fun is important. We neglect these elements at our students’ peril.

Travails in New Spaces

Rehearsing in a new space can be daunting.

New spaces come with new acoustics, new visuals, new interpersonal dynamics. It can affect personal space, intonation, balance, blend, and so much more. You can lose a whole rehearsal to overcoming challenges that aren’t due to any person in the room, but due to a change in the space itself.

It can be daunting, but also worthwhile, to change spaces. Ideally, we should balance the familiarity of a comfortable “home” rehearsal space with frequent excursions to other spaces. We should take advantage of the amazing “stairwell reverb” experiences – where we sound magically better thanks to the space, but also put ourselves and our singers into positions where they can’t hear what they expect to. Acoustically dry, acoustically distracting, or just plain ugly sounding spaces can help us to clarify what is the choir and what is the room.

Do this enough, too, and you’ll never get thrown for a loop when you walk into a new performance space.

Space to Be Creative

Creativity requires space. Space free of obligations, space free of distractions. Maybe that’s part of why childhood is such a fertile time for creative thinking. Children create with abandon, given the space and a few tools. (And without the tools, they improvise!)

There are two factors in recent years that undermine this creative space for both children and adults.

First, a focus on individual productivity – a word which here means, “doing things that can be measured.” We celebrate increasing productivity in working adults, but we’ve also mistakenly started applying the same criteria to children – measurable output, rather than creative output.

In both cases, the increased productivity comes with a clear cost of decreased creativity – as we focus more on efficiency, we lose the space to be creative.

Second, a constant access to our devices and the internet. Adults bemoan their nonstop connectedness, because it feels out of their control. But they perhaps aren’t bemoaning enough the fact that large organizations are hijacking the free space in their brains – for one more post, one more tweet, one more episode on Netflix. Again, each “one more” draws space away from creativity.

And of course, the connection comes younger and younger – phones in middle school, devices in backpacks in kindergarten. All with noble goals of education and connection, but all drawing our children away from the space to be creative.

I watched three children yesterday return devices to their parents; after a minute or two of bellyaching, they found paper, pencils, crayons, and got to work creating. They went outside and built forts. It’s natural for kids to create. And given the space, they are boundlessly creative.

But without that space, they will quickly unlearn natural creativity and become more consumers of others’ creativity.

Time Limited

We’re entering the time of year when everyone remembers how much they love choirs.

Tree lightings, Holiday Concerts, run-outs, caroling parties, sing-alongs, Candlelight ceremonies, teas, and on and on.

Just remember: it’s time limited. Four weeks from today, it will be Christmas Eve.

Just keep moving forward, do your best, catch as much as you can. The rest you’ll pick up later.

It’s a joyous, magical time of year – between the day of giving Thanks and the giving of gifts that mark Christmas, Hanukkah, and other Solstice holidays. Focus on the giving, and that you are getting to do what you love (albeit, more hours a day than you usually do.)

It’s time limited.

The Way to Be a Leader

So much writing is devoted to how to be a leader. Books, courses, articles, magazines, and on and on.

They all offer the way to be a leader, (and offer different ways) but too often ignore the main point.

The way to be a leader is to know who you are. Knowing yourself is a barrier in the road to leadership, and until you surpass it, your leadership success will be limited.

Until you know yourself, you won’t be able to choose the right leadership style for you. Until you know yourself, you can read as many leadership books, take as many training courses, as you want–but you won’t become the leader you wish to be.

The way to be a leader is to know yourself. And then discover how to be a leader as yourself.


Art Is Specific

Great art comes from specific conditions. It can be a specific ensemble or performer, a specific message from the creator. It can be a specific story to tell, a specific theatre to perform in, a specific time in your life.

Stephen Sondheim says in the revue Sondheim on Sondheim,

“If you ask me to write a love song, I don’t know what to write. But if you say, ‘Write me a torch song about a girl who’s just been jilted by a guy, and she comes into a bar and she’s in a red dress and she orders a grasshopper,’ that I can write, because you’ve started to characterize and give me specifics to write about – there’s a drink to write about, there’s a bar to write about, there’s a dress to write about. Who was the guy who jilted her? Why did she choose that dress?”

Specificity is core to artistic creation. That’s one of the reasons that several recent Disney movies have been so well received – Frozen in Norway, Moana in the South Pacific. They’re specific stories.

Pixar always tells stories heavy on specifics – they imagine a world, populate it, and then tell a story within it. The details (even the easter eggs) they put in all enhance the specificity of their art. I was delighted to see that they’d done it again with Coco – placing it in a specific culture and time, with specific music and art, specific traditions and dynamics. The story they tell is universal – of family, love, and passion – but it is the details with which they tell it that makes it special.

How can you make your art more specific?

Gratitude and Music-Making

Music-making is sweeter when it comes from a place of gratitude.

Gratitude for the opportunity. For the music. For the fellowship. For the collaborators, supporters, audience, leadership, composer.

Remember the spirit of gratitude that you cultivate on Thanksgiving, and try to carry it into the music you make year-round.

Some past Thanksgiving posts worth reading:

Thanksgiving Playlist
Simple Gifts

A Thanksgiving playlist:

Seth Godin’s Thanksgiving reader is highly recommended: print out a copy for your table this year.