Thursday, May 31, 2018

Critical Mass

Last weekend, the North Carolina School of Science and Math held its 37th commencement exercises on the lawn of the school.  All week long we were concerned about the possibility of rain on Saturday. But, in the end, the rain held off and we had a lovely ceremony. The class of 2018 commenced as scheduled. And school is officially closed for the next week or so while we prepare for the beginning of summer activities.


There were a number of wonderful speakers at the ceremony.  The primary speaker was Dr. Billy Pizer, '86, Susan B. King Professor and Associate Dean for Academic Programs at the Sanford School of Public Policy and Faculty Fellow at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, both at Duke University. Among his remarks was a bit of an introduction to the concept of "critical mass."  He explained that critical mass is key to a variety of unfolding reactions. He further explained that in any system there is typically some sort of order. But given enough critical mass, the order can be broken. If there's not enough critical mass to break the system, the previous order remains. I believe during his remarks used the metaphor of people standing in line. One person breaks in line, it probably isn't enough critical mass to cause chaos in the line. However, if 50 people break into the line, there's a likelihood that the critical mass of those 50 people will break the order of the line.  My recollection is that his explanation of the concept was in regard to his thoughts about climate change and his work in that important area.  He encouraged our graduates to be aware of the inertia that can be created by committed groups of people.  Critical mass can both stabilize and alter systems.

Interestingly, "critical mass" is a concept that I have thought about a great deal over the years as it relates to music education and my work as an orchestra director. So, today I will share some of those thoughts and models.

Critical Mass is defined as "the minimum size or amount of something required to start or maintain a venture."  Think about this as it applies to your work in the music classroom both as ensemble director and as administrator of the program.  Have you ever started a venture as music instructor?  Have you started a program? A new ensemble? A new initiative? Even a new job?  Once in place, we all must maintain our programs. At it's core, critical mass involves a venture and we all certainly have experience with ventures and undertakings!  As music instructors we are program administrators as well as instructors.  So, I hope you can already see how this concept is in many ways central to a variety of aspects of our work.


I currently enjoy directing fairly large ensembles at my school. I typically have between 40 and 60 string players enrolled in my orchestra during any given term. (Our total student enrollment is ~680, so those are pretty good numbers!) I often think back to my early years at NCSSM when the numbers were much smaller. I believe in 2001, when I first arrived at NCSSM, there were about 12 string players enrolled in Orchestra. This creates a very different musical and social environment on a daily basis. First, when there are large numbers (critical mass) in the room, the group simply sounds better. Large string groups generally have a very appealing corporate sound. (I am often reminded by my wind ensemble directing friends that this isn't always the case in a band class.) When there are only 12 or 15 in the room, every voice counts to a much greater degree. One out of tune B-flat can really adversely impact the overall sound of the ensemble. There isn't that "critical mass" to keep the system from breaking down. We, as ensemble directors, really rely on critical mass to generate a great sound.  And, as a result, individual players can take musical risks that they might not otherwise embrace in a smaller ensemble.  A wrong note or fudged lick here or there won't really be "heard."  There is freedom  in numbers.  A friend once told me of an experience she had playing the Bach Double Concerto with about 3000 violinists at an international Suzuki gathering.  She told me that she thought it would be confining and restricting before the performance, but in the end , it was actually the opposite.  She said it was one of the most freeing and musical experiences of her life. Cool!


But, there is so much more to it than simply generating sound. There is a real social impact to critical mass in the ensemble as well. When we think about enticing students to take our class, critical mass is part of it.  It is much more appealing to join an ensemble that has lots of people, lots of interest, and lots of potential each the individual student. Without critical mass in the ensemble, students may fear that their mistakes will be heard more prominently, that their role in the small ensemble may be more than they can handle as a musician, or that it will be less of a positive, large ensemble experience. Critical mass can play a role in all of these social implications.


My orchestra gave its final performance of the 2017/2018 academic year just a few weekends ago. Within two weeks of the performance, I found out that my principal second violin would be attending a science competition across the country on the evening of the concert. I also found out that one of my top first violinists would be in Singapore at a math competition. Additionally, another important member of the second violin section was scheduled to get her wisdom teeth out that week and wouldn't be able to play in the concert. I could mention couple other similar situations that occurred in that time frame as well, but you get the point. Now, I know that all music directors struggle with these issues of schedule conflicts. Some of this is par for the course at our specialized school. Students are involved in a large variety of activities and events. We understand that music program simply one cog in a very complex wheel. So, I try not to lose sleep over these conflicts that seem to come up from time to time. However, this attitude and reaction is much easier to implement when we have a critical mass of players in the ensemble. In other words, those three students missing the performance would not break the order of the system that I have in place. I have plenty of violins and, while we really did miss each of those players, the system remained strong and the performance was magnificent. Critical mass was really important on that evening. If I had an ensemble of 12 or 15 players, the absences would have been catastrophic.


Another area in which I notice the impact of critical mass is teaching various technical and musical skills to the ensemble. Let's use player movement as an example. I am always encouraging ensemble to "breathe into entrances." I ask them to breathe for any entrance as if they are in a string quartet giving a preparation beat. I want them to lift their instrument and prepare for the entrance in a way that is called for by the musical style. This clearly is not natural for all young musicians. It requires concentration and an active mind to play with this sort of proactive physical performance technique. It requires leadership and strong understanding of the repertoire. That said, when an entire ensemble breathes into an entrance, the musical impact is stunning. When I first introduce this concept to an ensemble, typically only one or two players really get it at first. I have to keep working with and coaching a section or the entire ensemble until a critical mass of the players commit to the action. Finally, when we get over the hump of critical mass, those that are not fully invested in the physicality of the performance become the outliers and eventually realize the importance of the action. They would rather join the system than break the critical mass.

This concept of critical mass can be replicated in many other facets of the ensemble. I find this to be true with commitment to dynamics and phrasing, commitment to appropriate playing position and bow technique, and commitment to eye contact and musical interaction within the ensemble. I know that I find it much more satisfying to teach and to learn when there is a critical mass of students and interest in the room. This can be one of the most difficult hurdles for young teachers to overcome as they are thrust into a new classroom or teaching environment. It takes time to generate a critical mass of interest, trust, and commitment in a community or classroom. A music program is a "system" and systems with a low critical mass can be compromised easily. This can create a great deal of stress for teachers young and old!


How do you relate to the concept of "critical mass?" I was really thrilled to hear Dr. Pizer bring it up in his commencement remarks last weekend.  Clearly, he is thinking about it through the lens of his work and I through the lens of mine.  What have I missed here?  Do you relate to this concept in your work?  What systems are you developing?  How has that system been compromised in the past? Can a critical mass stop it from being compromised?

I would love to hear from you. These are just some of my thoughts as we begin the summer of 2018.  I am sure there will be more.  Until next time...


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

25 Bows for 25 Kids

Many of you know that I am honored to be affiliated with Coda Bow International.
As part of their 25th anniversary celebration, Coda is offering this wonderful opportunity for string students:


Music Teachers, do you have a hard-working, dedicated student who would benefit from a better bow? Nominate them to be one of the 25 recipients of a CodaBow Diamond NX with a custom name engraving!

Nominations accepted through October 1st, 2018.
Letters of nomination should be sent to  or to CodaBow International Attn: Rachael Ryan Dahlgren 876 East Third Street Winona, MN 55987
Nominations should outline the qualifications of the student including:

·         Student’s name, age, and instrument
·         Need for sponsorship
·         Example of student’s dedication and commitment
·         Example of student’s achievement and potential
·         How a CodaBow will positively impact the student’s musicianship
·         Teacher’s name, email, and school or music associations

Bow awards will be announced on, Facebook, and by email November 1st, 2018

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Coda Joule Carbon Fiber Bow

Today, I want to say a few words about the Coda Joule Bow.

I have been playing carbon fiber bows for the past 20 years or so. Initially, I was using them primarily with electric violins and had also used them exclusively with my acoustic violin for the past 10 years.  I have used them for a variety of styles including classical, rock, jazz, bluegrass, and others.

The Coda Joule has been my choice with my electrics for several years now and I am as happy with it today as I was the first time I played it. This bow is really unique.  It has all kinds of guts for the big stuff that I play and speaks with authority in the exact way that I need.  I have been using it a ton lately with my 5 string NS Design CR violin and with  D'Addario Octave Helicore Strings on my CR 4 string violin. I have used it extensively with my electric and acoustic instruments on a variety of performances and recordings and have been uniformly impressed with it. It gets a a huge tone and is totally consistent and resonant from frog to tip.  I have been in the studio lately doing some work on new Believer material and I am super happy with the response that the Joule provides for the heavy, crunchy style that I am going for.  For a quick listen, check out Return to Zero, toward the end of the tune. This one isn't so crunchy, but was recorded with the Joule. There is more to come later in the year.

Prior to picking up the Joule, I had been known to use a viola bow from time to time with my electrics and on rock and improv gigs. I just really liked the power and tone that it provided. And, actually Jean Luc Ponty recommended that to me back in the mid 1990's, before I was really doing much heavy playing and chopping.   Now that I have the Joule, the viola bow is totally off the table. The Joule meets that need completely.

I also use the Joule occasionally with my acoustic.  I really don't use it for classical playing.  Instead, I pull it out when I am looking to provide a prominent rhythmic vibe.  I also really like it when I need to cut through an acoustic band. 

The Joule is priced under $700.00 and is a must have for those of us that are working outside of the western classical tradition. Trust me, it plays a lot better than $700.00!

Bold and brilliant, the JOULE boasts a powerful resonance on the bottom strings and strong projection across all ranges. Unattainable with traditional materials, the innovative design of the shaft adds more mass to critical performance areas while preserving a balanced weight and comfortable flexibility. This unique design allows the bow to grab the string and speak effortlessly whether playing deep whole tones or percussive chops. Particularly well-suited to extended-range and electric instruments, the JOULE is the strong favorite for all high-octane performances.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

In the woods

As we get ready to wrap up the 2017-2018 academic year, I am quickly turning my attention to the activities of the summer.  This one will be interesting for me as it is the first summer in over a decade that I haven't filled up with summer camps and a great deal of teaching.  This summer, instead, will be full of family activities and taking a bit more time for me.  I am looking forward to attending my son's baseball games, hanging out with my wife, and organizing a few family outings and trips.   In addition, I will have some time to do things that I haven't done in many years. One of those activities is mountain biking. I used to spend a lot of time on the trails (and on the roads), but in recent years I've gotten away from it a bit.  Life, work, and general busy schedules and taken over and cycling is one of the activities that took a hit.

This summer, I intend to get on my bike and out in the woods and as many days as possible. I was out for a ride last weekend couldn't help but think how my whole system changes when I am in the woods. I am fed by sounds of the forest in the morning, the various shades of light throughout the day, and the way my mind and body seem to relax when I am there.  I think that some of this is due to my childhood camping trips and great memories that I have of being in the woods, camping with my family.  I am reinvigorated by the woods. I am inspired by the woods. 

As I was out of the woods on a recent ride, I couldn't help but think how Beethoven and Mahler we're both impacted by their time spent in the woods.  Both composers found inspiration in nature.   The Project Gutenberg EBook of Beethoven:the Man and the Artist, by Ludwig van Beethoven, Edited by Friedrich Kerst andHenry Edward Krehbiel, states,

"Beethoven was a true son of the Rhine in his love for nature. As a boy he had taken extended trips, sometimes occupying days, with his father “through the Rhenish localities ever-lastingly dear to me.” In his days of physical health Nature was his instructress in art; “I may not come without my banner,” he used to say when he set out upon his wanderings even in his latest years, and never without his notebooks. In the scenes of nature he found his marvelous motives and themes; brook, birds and tree sang to him. In a few special cases he has himself recorded the fact."

As I pulled out of the woods on a recent ride, I thought of this Beethoven quote: “How happy I am to be able to wander among bushes and herbs, under trees and over rocks; no man can love the country as I love it. Woods, trees and rocks send back the echo that man desires.”  I felt like in some way, he was affirming my need to be there on that day. 

In recent years, I have become more and more interested in the symphonies of Mahler and have learned that he, too, was highly impacted by nature.  Mahler would spend his summers on retreat away from the city, away from his usual conducting duties, composing his great symphonies.  In many ways, his time with nature reminded him of his childhood and brought him a similar calm and inspiration.  The sounds of nature were the sounds of a symphony orchestra.  He, as composer, was the conduit between nature and the audience.  “My music is always the voice of nature sounding in tone…” The phrase "Wie ein Naturlaut" was written over the first bars of his Symphony No 1. This can be translated "as if spoken by nature".  As one listens to the opening of the First Symphony, they can hear the sustained octaves representing the awakening of nature and the descending 4th sounding like birds calling as the forest wakes up.  The sounds are not those of man, but those of the world around us.

Our upstairs air condition went out of service a couple of weeks ago and we are waiting for a new one to be installed in a couple of weeks.  We are fortunate that is is not too hot yet in North Carolina, especially at night.  We have been sleeping with the windows open and fans running since the unit broke down.  One happy result of the broken AC unit (And trust me, there aren't many!) is the opportunity to hear the sounds of the night with the windows open. Our back yard is full of activity throughout the night and the sounds are spectacular.  There is so much activity.  If find the sounds to be calming when I wake up in the middle of the night.  Again, it reminds me of childhood camping trips and wonderful times spent in the woods and around nature.  We should all sleep with our windows open more!

I am really looking forward to experiencing "Wie ein Naturlaut" on a daily basis this summer while on my bike in the woods.  I find it inspiring.  I find it rejuvenating. I find it sustaining.  As Beethoven said, “Nature is a glorious school for the heart! It is well; I shall be a scholar in this school and bring an eager heart to her instruction."  

And you thought I was just going to be riding a bike!


Friday, May 11, 2018

Music and Arts Directors Clinic May 12, 2018

Hello to all who are attending my sessions at the Music and Arts Directors Clinics in Frederick, MD on May 12, 2018.
Here is the link to the Pre-session  Survey
Here is a link to the full handout for my general session, "Finding and Maintaining Fulfillment in your Career in Music Education."

All my best!