Friday, September 27, 2019

Mountain Biking and Orchestra

Many of you know that I am really motivated by sports analogies when it comes to music and ensemble musicianship. I have written in this blog about parallels I find between coaching and conducting as well as parallels between baseball hitting technique and violin technique. There have been lots of other posts in the past that touch on approach and purpose as it relates to both sports and music.

Today, however, I am thinking about the act of playing in an ensemble as it relates to the sport of mountain biking. I was out for a ride recently on a beautiful trail single track trail at Brumley Forest in the Durham, North Carolina area and couldn't help but begin to count all of the parallels between playing ensemble music and mountain biking.

First, my students hear me talk about having active minds all the time. In order to really be a fine ensemble player (or soloist), one must always be fully immersed in the moment of music making. That can entail not only thinking about what you are doing at any given moment, but also thinking ahead. One must be prepared for what comes next, and next, and next. When mountain biking, if you are reacting the obstacle you are right on top of, you are doing it too late. The mountain biker has to look ahead and plan their approach to rocks, roots, twist and turns and other obstacles that they might encounter. This involves a complete connection between the trail, the bike, and the rider. Similarly, the violinist must have a complete connection between the repertoire, the instrument, and their mind and spirit.

In fact, aren't both activities of mind, body, and spirit?  There is nothing passive about navigating a great single-track trail.  The mind must be singularly focused.  In fact, I would say that any time my mind wanders when on the trail, I am destined to crash.  Similarly, when playing in an ensemble, one's mind must be singularly focused on the task at hand.  The musician's mind must be ready for all of the "roots, rocks, and twists and turns" of the piece and the performance.  If the mind wanders, bad things can happen!  

The body is the next step in the process; isn't it?  On the trail, as approaching an obstacle of loose rocks, I have to mentally prepare to keep my cadence going through the obstacle.  But that is just the first step. The body must commit to the experience.  It must flow with the trail and the upcoming obstacles.  The body must fight fatigue and stay in control with the unexpected happens.  Isn't it the same in music?  Your brain can tell you to play technical passages all day long, but if the hand isn't up to it, it won't happen.  Similarly, in slow passages, I can't tell you the number of times that the plan for tone and phrasing in my mind has been thwarted by some insecurity or inability of my left or right hand technique.

I mentioned pedal cadence in the previous paragraph.  This is critical to the cyclist.  It is critical to continue pedaling through obstacles.  It is less about the overall speed of the bike, and more about the steady cadence of the pedals through the obstacle.   Similarly, I find that young musicians tend to want to increase the tempo (cadence) through many difficult or "fast" passages when in reality, they call for steady even cadence.  The strength of the rhythm is much more evident when the tempo or cadence is consistent.  Approaching an obstacle slowly and accurately with a steady cadence is always better than approaching an obstacle in a fast, haphazard and sloppy manner.  So it is with music!

Here is one that non-cyclists might not think of: In both disciplines, one must listening carefully to the things that are happening around you.  First, it just makes the experience richer for the cyclist. The sounds of the forest are magnificent at all times of year!!  And, it really helps to know when you are approaching other bikers or animals (large or small) on the trail.   

Here's another one: Riding a trail for the first time is a lot like sight reading a new piece.  The first time through is a totally difference experience than, say, the fifth.  The first time, you have to figure out what is going on.  Perhaps stay a bit cautious.  Then, after you figure out the trail or the piece, you can be a bit more aggressive.  You have had to time plan out your approach, practice the hard passages, and prepare for the various aspects of the test ahead of you.  Practice and repetition change the way you ride and play.

Some others:
  • Proper equipment makes a difference.  There is nothing like the feel of a great bike the first time you try one.  It feels different to ride: more reactive, lighter, faster, more controllable.  The same is true with an upgraded instrument or bow.  Better equipment is worth it!!
  • Find joy and challenge in the obstacle. Both of these activities should inspire joy and satisfaction.  Oddly, I even find satisfaction in an occasional crash; both in riding and in music!
  • Embrace the euphoria of the experience.  It is hard to put the mountain biking experience into words.  It is simply euphoric.  Those of us that play or conduct orchestras know that the music performance experience  is like a drug. We want more all the time.  There is simply nothing like it.  We are all chasing that euphoria!
  • Embrace the dynamic nature of a trail and music. We all love to find that rise and fall in a trail and in music. Some mountain bikers may call this the "flow" of the trail.  It is dynamic and captivating.  And so it is with music.  There is always more to discover and find in a score or performance.  It keeps us coming back time after time!!

So there you have it.  These are the musings of a guy who can't get enough of either of these activities and they are so similar.  I hope you found some interest in this comparison.  What do you find parallels your musical experience?  Another sport?  Another activity?  I would love to hear from you.  As always, thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts!



Florida Orchestra Directors - Friday Presentations

This post if for the folks that attended my sessions today at Florida Orchestra Directors Association.

First, thanks so much for coming to my session!  It was great to meet so many of you and really appreciate all of the interest and positive feedback!

I promised you a few resources.  So, here goes:


If you were in my Pedagogy from the Podium, I didn't get through all of the examples. If you are interested in more, here is link to the presentation

Here is the presentation from my Habits session

More on Finger Patterns as a vehicle to upper positions:

Link to Youtube Playlists

Link to Google Drive with written resources for Finger Patterns

Look over the materials on Youtube and in the Google Drive.  Handout on the Google Drive has more information. Also, be sure to read the text in the Finger Pattern Introduction Video.  It has even more information.  You will find backtracks for all of the Cycles of Finger Patterns in 3rd positions and Backtracks for 1 and 2 octave major scales. If you have more questions, just ask. My e-mail is

I hope this is all useful!
Again, thanks for your wonderful hospitality today.
Until next time,

Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Value of Order

I have been thinking lately about how important it is to have order in our lives.  I believe that I am more productive, more settled, and happier when I feel like my life is orderly.  I enjoy my home more when it is neat and orderly.  Yesterday's clothes left on the floor doesn't feel as good to me as clothing on a hanger.  Knowing what I am going to eat for lunch as I leave for work feels better to me than figuring it out when I am hungry at 12:30 after a morning of classes.  Walking into school with strong lesson plans for the day is better than putting a plan together at the last minute or simply winging it.  I like to plan my daily and weekly schedule carefully.  Somehow all of this orderliness keeps me happy and settled. 

I believe that students need this as well.  For years, I have placed a strong priority on students walking in to an orderly, set up classroom.  I never hand out or collect music in class.  I prepare folders ahead of time, outside of class, and collect music the same way.  I think my students appreciate this.  I feel confident that they appreciate the effort that it takes to be orderly and efficient with class-time.  I also believe in strong classroom routines: introduction, warm up, content and related activity, closure.   These routines set up a safe and predictable learning environment.  

The new school year has begun at NCSSM and orchestra is off to a great start. I have truly enjoyed getting to know all of our new junior string players. Rehearsals have been vibrant and productive right out of the gate.  One thing that has stuck me again this year is the importance of seating in the orchestra and the order that seating facilitates.  Remember that my orchestra changes by just about 50% every year. We are a two-year school and when a class graduates, half of the orchestra departs.  Also, I really don't find out how many students will be in my orchestra or instrumentation until the first day of class. This year I am blessed with incredibly balanced sections: 24 violins, 10 violas, 15 celli, and 2 basses.  I hold auditions very early in the year for my students to introduce themselves to me musically, but for our first few rehearsals, I don't really have a seating order.  We sight-read music and students are permitted to sit anywhere they wish within their section.  This year we had three rehearsals before I could establish a seating chart and sections for the group. While those three rehearsals were fine, I must admit that they never really felt "good."  

By the 2nd week of classes, I had been able to review video auditions and begin to establish some sense of "who is in the room" in my mind.  I created a seating order and assigned violin students into violin I and II sections.  (I should say that I do my best to create "even" sections and rely heavily on assigning some of my top players to leadership positions in the 2nd violin violin section.  I also provide opportunities for some of my less experienced players to test themselves with the sometimes more challenging violin I parts.  And, I always have some students that are simply not ready for the upper positions presented in violin I parts.)   But here is the interesting fact:  once students received their section assignment, seating placement, and stand partner, the ensemble seemed to transform quickly. In fact, immediately. Things were more settled.  Students quickly became comfortable and began to dig into the task at hand in a different way.  It is hard for me to clearly articulate the transformation, but I would simply say that it felt more comfortable.  Every rehearsal since that time has had the same feel.  All I can attribute this to is the confidence that comes with order.  Everyone now knows where they will sit, what part they will play, who their stand partner is, and they are beginning to develop a sense of their role as part of the larger group.

This has been a good reminder for me.  Sometimes I forget the importance of routine and order.  Of course, alternately, sometimes it is good to shake up a routine and order. But, order has to, in fact, be established before it can be "shook up." We crave order as humans.  We respond well to predictability and comfort.  This has been a great reminder for me as we begin the new school year.

I wish you all the best as you begin to establish the order in your classroom and rehearsals to start the new year.


NCDPI ArtsR4Life Conference

Yesterday, I had the pleasure and honor of speaking at the 5th Annual ArtsR4Life Conference on behalf of the NC Chapter of ASTA and came home inspired and renewed.  So, just a few words today about the event.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction partnered with Meredith College, the NC Arts Education Leadership Coalition, and the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources hosted the fifth annual “ARTS R4 Life” professional development conference for NC K-12 Arts Educators in Dance, Music, Theater Arts, and Visual Arts.

This was an opportunity for arts educators to develop personalized learning experiences and have cross-sector learning and collaboration around the 4R’s:

  • Rekindle your artistic spirit by participating in hands’-on arts experiences
  • Reflect on the profession through deepening your understanding of the standards to support student learning and growth
  • Reconnect with colleagues and professional organizations
  • Renew your body and mind through expressive, contemplative, and rejuvenating experiences designed to promote your well-being

The conference took place on Saturday, September 8, 2018, and was be preceded by Arts Education Think Tank, Arts Education Coordinators, and Arts Education Leadership Coalition meetings on Friday, September 7th, 2018.  Educators had a menu of options and selected a personalized learning plan for their time at the conference.

I gave my session, "Finding and Maintaining Fulfillment in your Career in Arts Education" during the morning.  In this session, participants consider their level of fulfillment with their work and career in arts education and related factors. I provide a variety of focus areas for consideration and models for identifying and assessing career fulfillment.  Attendees are asked to consider (and perhaps share) their roles as  artists/educators, motivations for embarking on a career in arts education, sense of mission in the school and community, complexity of their work, perspective on workload, busy schedules, and a balanced life. Participants (hopefully) walk away with strategies to find fulfillment in their careers while balancing their personal and professional life.

I gave the session during two different time slots and was thrilled to have over 30 attendees between the two sessions.  Feedback was excellent and I feel my message was well-received.  Some other highlights of the day, for me included connecting with friends, new and old; the Keynote interview with Lauren Kennedy Brady, Producing Artistic Director for Theater Raleigh; A fun kinesthetic opening exercise led by Shannon Gravelle, Director of Choral Activities and Music Education Coordinator for Meredith College; and an inspiring dance performance by the Rainbow Dance Company to open the day.  In addition, it was great to spend some time with my friend and NC ASTA colleague, Bill Slechta, who has been instrumental in establishing NC ASTA's involvement in this conference for the past 5 years.  I was also happy to spend some time with my friend and colleague, Pat Hall from NCMEA offices.

In all, this was a great event and I am so happy that I was able to attend and participate at such a deep level and represent NC ASTA.