Kenley Kristofferson

Composer. Teacher. Writer. Voice Actor.

Music Ed Monday – Fine-Thanks-And-You (Part 1)

(This is part one of a two-part post.  The first part will introduce the topic, while the second will address some of the skills associated with what it looks like in a classroom, at least at a rudimentary level).

The CBC (our public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) ran a program this past year on its current events show about mindfulness in the classroom.  It portrayed various programs in Ontario who are adopting programs of self-awareness in students, but with a particular focus on emotional awareness.  The bit started with one of the show’s producers recounting his experience eating a square of chocolate with a Toronto-based mindfulness coach, framed around the idea of just “noticing” the chocolate.

– What does the wrapper look like?
– Is it shiny?
– How heavy is the chocolate?
– What does it smell like?
– What colour is it?
– (Notice and be aware of all of these things)

Then as he put it on his tongue, he received another set of questions/instructions:

– What is the first taste you notice?
– Is it melting? How is it melting?
– What are the first flavours you taste?

Then he bit down on the square:

– How much resistance is there against your teeth?
– Is it soft? Is it hard?
– Is it crunchy? Is it creamy?

And so forth.  This point may seem a bit laboured, but it’s relevant because I’ve eaten a lot (bold and italics) of chocolate in my life and my only question after the first square is usually “where is the next square,” followed by “what do you mean we’re out of chocolate?!” I would rarely notice anything about something I have a tremendous amount of experience with, which on the surface seems ridiculous, but I think that it happens everywhere and with the vast majority of people.


The program aired during a week when my nephew was staying with me to attend basketball camp at the University of Manitoba.  When I came to pick him up, I’d ask how he was doing and he would always (5/5 times) answer with “Good, you?” That tells me that he’s mechanically responding with a socially acceptable “good” while being polite and asking me how I am as well (“you”).  Five out of five times; same tone, same vocal inflection.

The adult equivalent of this is “fine, thanks, and you?” which often blurs together as fine-thanks-and-you.  This breaks down as:

Fine – I’m alright; not bad, not great, but good enough that you probably won’t ask anymore about it.
Thanks – I’m being polite, look at how polite I’m being.
And You – I’m going to further my politeness by asking how you are.  I’m not really that interested, I just need to give the impression that I am long enough to talk about something else.

Part of this response is to give the illusion of strength to someone not terribly connected to you, like Frank the Mail Guy or Jane from Accounting.  Not that either of these people aren’t important, they just don’t need to know much more than fine-thanks-and-you about you.

But I think that the inherent problem is where you start really believing fine-thanks-and-you and you don’t actually know what’s going on with your own feelings either.  When you wake up, you’re more tired than you’ve ever been.  You’re quicker to anger.  Your neck and shoulders are always tight.  You’re drinking more.  It takes you hours to fall asleep and you can’t seem to figure out why.

Now imagine that there is a person who is more sensitive than you, less experienced, more tired, busier, and works in a highly competitive and judgemental environment.  Now we’re describing teenager and it has never been harder to be one.

In terms of trying to live up to impossible physical standards in a world where your social media accounts all demonstrate your passion for social justice while featuring photoshopped professional photography, it’s all been said.  There is pressure coming from all sides to be not only be perfect (which is impossible, by the way), but to actively share it.  The only thing more important than keeping it all together is the impression of keeping it all together.

And don’t get me wrong, I don’t escape it either and (probably) neither do you.  This is the world we live in now, but for the adults reading it, at least we don’t have to grow up in it.  And this is where mindfulness comes in.

Remember the chocolate from above? And the noticing? Let’s pair that with why we can’t seem to fall asleep at night and how hard it is to keep up with the Joneses on social media.  It all boils down to a lack of emotional awareness – you don’t actually know how you’re feeling.  It’s okay, that’s the world you’ve been brought up into, but now imagine a scenario where you would learn to manage your emotions when they’re at their most volatile.

Imagine you learned to emotionally aware at sixteen.  Imagine a world where you grew up learning to gain a handle on your emotions.  That’s what we’re talking about here.

start-where-you-areThankfully, I get to team teach with someone who beat this trend by about ten years.  Educational culture is just getting on the wagon of teaching mindfulness and emotional awareness and my teaching partner has already been doing it for about ten years.*

Sometimes, he’ll lead them in guided meditation, but not terribly often.  He’ll usually just ask “how are you doing in there today?” as a start, followed by something like “just notice the sensations in your body and how they relate to how you’re feeling.”  Not exactly that, but something like it.   It doesn’t have to be a full-on Buddhist meditation or three-hour kumbaya, it’s as easy as asking them how they’re feeling today and genuinely caring about the answer.

When I overhear that, I might think “I feel a tightness in my chest” (which usually means I’m anxious) or “my traps and neck are really tight” (meaning that I’m stressed) or that I feel no sensation and I’m just feeling good.  The difference is that I’m actually taking a second to acknowledge what I’m actually feeling in real time.  Not at the end of the day where I reflect, but I reflect in that moment, which is an important part of it.

I want to delve into some of the more day-to-day of it next week and what it looks like in my classroom, but I want to give some homework for the next seven days (because I’m a teacher, you know).

– In a distraction-free environment, notice how you’re feeling in a given moment; that is, draw attention to the sensations happening in your body and how they connect to your emotions.  You don’t have to do anything about it, just acknowledge that it’s there and don’t run away from it.  Acknowledge it, then keep acknowledging it.

That’s the start.  Let’s have a great week.

Photo cred:

VGM Wednesday – “Demise of the Ritual” from Shadow of the Colossus

“Demise of the Ritual” from Shadow of the Colossus, by Ko Otani

Shadow of the Colossus is one of those games that I never, ever thought I would beat.  I don’t know why, but I had this fear of it, like I wasn’t very good or something.  I knew a ton of people who’d beaten it, but I never thought I’d be one of them…

… until one day I was.

I picked up the Ico/SOTC Remaster for PS3 and started playing it, getting to the third colossus and being unable to make the jump on the platform.  For those who’ve played, it’s this one:


Ugh, so hard, except it’s not.  Once I learned the back jump control (R2 + looking back + triangle), it wasn’t hard at all.  I just didn’t understand the controls, which I needed to learn.  The game gave me a situation where I needed to figure it out so I could use it later on, which is just good game design.  Once I got it, I got it for the rest of the game.

Then I fought the colossus and fell into my old traps of thinking I couldn’t do it and that I wasn’t good enough to beat him.  How was I supposed to beat this game if I’m stuck on the third boss? There are thirteen more after this! So I kept running, falling off, and eventually dying.

But each time I died, I did a little better each time.  This is a concept that comes up in our classroom a lot: Failing better.  Every time I died, I was further along than I was before, and on the fourth round, I beat him and there was much rejoicing.  Then I fought the fourth one and beat it the first time, and the same with the fifth.  I was getting better.  I could do this.  As we say in the band room, when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

I still died at times as the game progressed, but I was dying less and less and getting better at figuring the puzzle of beating each colossus.  The game got a lot more fun once I overcame my self-sabotage.  If I reframed my perception and my approach, the game (or, at least, the playing of it) was entirely different experience.  It was fun.  It was exhilarating.  There many times where Wander was literally holding on for dear life and I was right there with him.

Before I knew it, I was at the sixteenth and final colossus.  I had reached the end of a game I never thought I’d finish.


That’s where the music comes in.   Ko Otani’s score is absolutely gripping and I would finally hear “Demise of the Ritual” in the game environment.  A lot of the battle themes are moved around and reused, but not this one.  This one only happens during the last colossus and, in the spirit of honesty, I never thought I’d hear it while I was playing.

And hear it I did.  By the end of the nearly two-hour battle, I was humming all of the inside parts and singing some of the beautiful English Horn writing whenever it came up.  It’s a humbling experience to die five times on the final boss then win after hours of fighting, but I was failing better each time.  On my third attempt, I hadn’t even reached him yet and had no idea how to proceed.  It was one of those experiences where you just have no idea how you’ll ever succeed, where you collapse before you’re even close to the finish line.  And we’ve all been there, right? I’M SO TIRED AND IT’S ONLY TUESDAY!

But then you keep going.  You assess where you went wrong and what alternate solutions are.  You keep doing what you did right and changing what you did wrong.  If you don’t do something exactly correct, you practice until you get it, and that’s where video games shine:

If you can’t do it, you can’t move on.  There are no pity passes or half-marks, it’s pass/fail and that’s it*

In the end, I did it.  It was a gripping feeling to finally beat a game I didn’t think I could ever finish.  As weird as it sounds, sometimes I feel like a fraud or a phony for not beating games in the core repertoire.  Granted, there’s an argument that the need to finish games isn’t entirely necessary to experience them, but I try to finish things that I start.  I haven’t beaten Ocarina of Time yet, which is embarrassing, but I felt the same with it that I did with SOTC: I just can’t do it…

…except that I can, and taking down SOTC showed me that.  So  I guess I’d better get on that!


PS: (I’m going to try to create some content again because that’s important)

* Mostly, not every single game has pass/fail, like that ridiculous option to skip parts you can’t beat in L.A. Noire, which is garbage.

Icelandic Folk Song Suite – PREMIERE!

The Winnipeg Wind Ensemble is premiering my new work, “Icelandic Folk Song Suite,” on May 3rd and 4th! Hope you can make it out!

The May 3rd premiere takes place at Gimli High School in my hometown of Gimli, MB, Canada.  They will be joined by the Gimli High School Senior Concert Band, which is really crazy because that’s the band I grew up in.  For me, it’s a day comprised of my musical upbringing – from concert band to composing.  I’m super grateful for everyone who’s making that day possible.

The May 4th premiere is in Jubilee Place at MBCI in Winnipeg, MB on Music Monday (which is also cool).  That building is such a terrific venue and we’re recording it that evening – again, so grateful for the WWE for recording it.  Full of grate.

Here’s the poster! Hope you can make it out!






[Some spoilers, but come on, the game came out fifteen years ago!]

I’ve really put this on the backburner, but I’m still slowly working through one of the most important series of my life.  I’ve put a lot of time and love into these stories, and it’s quite a bit different revisiting them as an adult – not better or worse, just different.

I was never really invested Final Fantasy IX, not like the other ones anyway.  It came out when I was in Grade 9, but I didn’t actually get around to it until the middle-to-end of Grade 12.  Rather than camping out in my room playing PlayStation (a friend’s PlayStation, actually), I was out with friends and all that.

That being said, I remember that I still enjoyed the experience of playing.  That’s not the same as just “enjoying the game,” though.  There are some games that I enjoyed being inside than actually getting through the narrative – Dragon Quest VIII, Shadow of the Colossus, Super Mario Galaxy, etc.

The experience was different this time – not better or worse, just different.  The Black Mage plot that dominates the first half of the game was more interesting and darker than I’d remembered.  Vivi’s identity crisis felt more real too; in fact, that was the most interesting part of the game to me.  I appreciated that Square changed gears from the angsty protagonists with the exuberant Zidane, but Vivi’s struggle for purpose and meaning was far more interesting than any of the other stories.

That being said, I was more aware of the writers’ efforts to give everyone a substantial story.  Steiner’s betrayal by Queen Brahne and his need to do right, Vivi’s identity quest, Garnet/Dagger to find herself away from labels and expectations… There was real planning there.

For me, the story really falls off the rails once Garland gets into the picture.  I appreciate the throwback (all of them in this game, actually), but the narrative really loses its focus.  Two worlds and clones and souls and… ugh.  Just too much.  The game is at its best when the story is focused and, in our case, that’s the beginning of the game.

As much as I’m ragging on it, there are many great elements.  The Ability system is really fun and is a dynamic way to buff up your characters.  All of the characters fight in a radically different way, like an early FF game and I love that.  I love the twists on the original classes too – put a racket on Dagger and she can actually do some damage, the Eiko/Dagger double summoner party is pretty great, extra magic on a Freya as a dragoon, Sword Magic between Steiner and Vivi… and the list goes on.

I also liked the soundtrack better this time around.  I wasn’t crazy about the renaissance flare of the game’s aesthetic on my first playthrough, but I really liked it now.  Even some of the smaller pieces that we only hear once stand on their own better than I remember, like “Border Village Dali”

I also appreciate how Uematsu builds thematically on character themes, which isn’t something that he always did.  For example, “Steiner’s Theme” and “Steiner’s Stealth” use his thematic material, even though he’s not the main protagonist, or “Vivi’s Theme” and “Fleeting Life” for Vivi.  Even all of the Freya/Burmecia thematic material shares the three-against-two ostinato – there’s just such care given to thematic material in the game.   Strangely, “Zidane’s Theme” in the OST isn’t really one that I equate with him, but more with exciting situations.  The narrative doesn’t do a great job of linking them together.

Particular favourites:

“Ambush Attack” (often with Black Waltzes; 4/4 + 5/4 never sounded so good!)

“Assault of the Silver Dragons” (really, only because it’s the FF8 sound library, which it very clearly and jarringly is)

“The Dark Messenger” (final boss theme, the fifth of Kuja’s thematic pieces in the score)

My cousin’s husband summed it up best when we were talking about this a few months back.  He said “I enjoyed FFVIII more than I remember, and FFIX less” and I feel about the same.  It was still a good experience, but I was quite done with it near the end.  Definitely worth the playthrough, maybe not a second one, though.

(What now? Do I finally have to beat FFII? I just don’t want to…)


Sabbatical Roundup – Highlights

Today is the last day of my sabbatical.  Who would’ve thought 150 days would blow by so quickly?

It’s been a very productive five months, though, and I thought that I’d share some of my favourite events and projects from my sabbatical time.

1) Premiering Morgun with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

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There is something very surreal about getting to work with some of the best musicians in your community.  Writing something for the WSO has always been something of an unattainable goal in my musical life.  I always sensed that they were on a different level than I am (and they really are), but a select few people with the right connections took a risk on me and, before I knew it, I had the commission – paid for and all.

While the premiere was amazing, I’ll never forget the moment that they started rehearsing it.  Both the conductor and the ensemble were in plain clothes and only Matthew Patton (composer and curator of the Winnipeg New Music Festival, which all of you should attend), Peter Johnson (editor of the Lögberg Heimskringla newspaper), Vikingur Ólafsson (the amazing Icelandic pianist with whom I had the privilege of sharing the concert) and I were in the hall.  When the strings started stacking the harmony through those opening measures, there was a feeling of awe and beauty like I’ve never felt before.

I’ll write more about the experience later on because there’s just so much to say.  It is quite surprising where music takes you.  Here are some pictures from the premiere!






2) Meeting Maddy’s Mom

During the summer, I was asked to write a piece to commemorate the life of Madison Fleming, a 10th-grader from Olds, AB who had died suddenly just after school had been dismissed for the summer.  While the research was emotional, I was hardly prepared to walk into this girl’s home and sit with her Mom, Pam.

I wrote about the experience in Olds in an earlier post, but I didn’t write about meeting Pam – I’m not sure why, I just didn’t.  Her house was beautiful and well-kept and she greeted us at the door.  She had a friend with her and they were clearly talking about Maddy before Karri (the band teacher and commissioner) and I arrived, but she still smiled as she led us inside.

While looking at pictures and hearing stories, it was clear that the family was so happy and fulfilled before Maddy died.  While she was a fighter, she had her whole family behind her and they cherished every moment.  When you see pictures of the family at the lake or at her baseball game, there was a sense that no time was ever wasted, but instead was genuinely spent together.

Pam is a profoundly kind person and you know as soon as you see her.  She just brings an energy of warmth wherever she goes and I think about her family often.  It is quite surprising where music takes you.  #Kindnessmatters

3) Banff!

It took me a few weeks to really realize how transformative my time at the Banff Centre really was.  I worked so hard, I was exhausted, I was bitchy in the middle of it, but it was so worth it.  I met some incredible human beings, some wonderful musicians, and I got to work full-time on music for an ensemble for which I’d never written before.

Some of the people I got to meet:

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Sammy, Kelsey, Abby and Neil

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These lovely ladies, Kelsey and Jodi


Here’s Abby, Jodi and Kenna, as well as Team Australia (Jessica and Xina, who are some of my very favourites)

And so many others too! Including the wonderful Sarah Slean, who is also one of my very, very favourite human beings.


And here’s where we were…


4) The Release of Horus Heresy: Drop Assault

I’ve worked on very few contracts/commissions that actually scare me – DuckTales: Scrooge’s Loot, The Matters of Kindness – but Drop Assault was definitely one of them.

I play Dungeons & Dragons with someone who is very serious about the Warhammer 40K universe, but particularly the Horus Heresy origin story of it.  When I found out that Complex Games had gotten the rights to make a game set in that universe, I was hoping that I could write for it and, thankfully, I was the guy.


The advance for the contract was almost-entirely spent on upgrading my instrument libraries.  I knew that what I had wasn’t good enough for a game of that scope and depth, so I took inventory of what I needed and went up from there.

That being said, I’m super proud of the game and I’m quite pleased with the score.  We worked really hard on it and it took many resubmissions to get it right, but we definitely got it.  You can pick it up here if you want to check it out!

5) Finishing the “Icelandic Folk Song Suite”

It was the hardest thing I ever wrote – and by “hardest,” I mean the most technically complicated and harmonically complex.  It’s Level 5 (second hardest level in Concert Band music), four movements and eleven minutes long.  I had it kicking around in my head for about a year, but I knew that I had to get it down, I just needed the time…

And it took about six solid months.  Granted, I didn’t work on it every day, but it was always there writing itself in my head as I was doing other things.

It premieres on May 4th, 2015 by the Winnipeg Wind Ensemble.  Going to be a wild good time!


There is so much more I could write about (getting published in The Teacher, for example), but there’s something to be said for just having the time and energy to do things right.  Not to be rushed to finish a commission or a game contract, but just having the time to make it as great as it can be.

I am so grateful to my school and school division for allowing me to take one semester to write.

Now back to the classroom :)



Horus Heresy: Drop Assault Released!

Long live the emperor, Drop Assault is released for iOS today.  You can pick it up here.

horusheresyiconPut together by the teams at Complex Games and Crooz, this Clash-of-Clans-style mobile game has been such a great experience for me.  I’ve always wanted to work on a dark and gritty game with an epic orchestral score and I finally got to do it with this game.

And what a game it is.  The controls are tight, there’s so much care and detail in the environment and so much attention to the Warhammer 40,000 lore.  The graphics are really clean (but certainly not lacking in detail) and the animations are really smooth.  There are no rough edges anywhere in the experience.

Here’s the trailer, to get you started:

Musically, it was a really big job, even though it was only 8 minutes or so. Because of the grandness of the universe, the score demanded a breadth that I don’t think is found in most mobile games.  That’s not to say that it sounds as grand as film music, which I like on its own, but this score still needed to feel like it was for a game and I tried to keep that at the front of my mind and the edge of my pencil.  Movie universes are nice, but there’s a depth that’s lost because of the forced progression of the narrative and scene structure – you can’t just hang out in a movie scene like you can in a game.  The music of Drop Assault still has the structure and design of a game soundtrack and that’s super important to me.

The music is mostly orchestral, but featuring extended percussion like a tom ensemble, taiko drums, shakers or tam and gong.  Because the universe is so mechanical, I had the urge to put chains and gears in it, but I thought it might be overkill with the SFX (which are awesome, btw).  In many of the big pieces, the low strings drive the ostinato, so finding the right string ensemble was key.  The one that I ended up using has 24 sampled celli and 8 sampled double basses, which is about two-to-three times a normal orchestral low string section.  That’s not to say that there still isn’t ample non-string writing – there’s a lot of epic brass and moving woodwind lines too.  This game is one of those few times where I really wanted to use every spice in the spice rack.

I talk about the music further in this developer diary entry from Complex Games:

I’m really proud of this game (and its music, to be honest) and I hope that you all pick it up and give it a go!


On Kindness…

There are so many things that I need to write about: Being on sabbatical, my premiere with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, my composing residency in Banff, etc.  But there’s one experience this past week that really ripped my stuffing out and I’d like to share it (or maybe I just need to write about it). This is going to be a long one, but also an important one. madison

A few months ago, I wrote a post about a commission from Olds High School in Olds, Alberta, Canada for a concert band piece commemorating the life of a student who’d passed away that summer.  The student’s name was Madison Fleming and, while I didn’t meet her, she felt like a kindred spirit to me. More on that later.

It took me about seven weeks to write it and, needless to say, it went through a lot of revision.  When I sent it away, the teacher (Karri Anderson) thought it was appropriate and she liked it, which is important.  Her correspondence was kind and heartfelt and, in one letter, she told me that she would be sending it to Madison’s mother, Pam.  Pam described her memories of watching Madison and her brother play in the backyard, running through sprinklers, playing softball, and helping her in garden.  It was hard to keep it together after reading that.

This music means something deeper than anything I can write or express.  I feel so much gratitude for being a part of it, even though it was a bit terrifying to write; in fact, I almost didn’t take the commission because it was so much pressure.  But as the great Michael Brandon has often said, you need to run toward the things that scare you.

As a teacher, there are few nightmares greater to me than losing a student.  It is one of my worst fears and I hope I never have to go through it.  Karri lost a student, Maddy’s friends lost one of their own, but Pam lost a daughter and that trumps everything.  To be honest, I was really scared to to hand this piece out, which is one of the reasons why I needed to do it.  While at my residency in Banff, I would come into school on the Monday and we’d introduce the piece.

I arrived at Olds on Sunday (Airdrie, actually) and crashed at Karri’s place after drinking wine and listening to band music until almost 1:00am (that’s what band teachers do – “Red Line Tango,” “Blue Shades,” the Alfred Reed “Greensleeves,” etc).   We got to school early the next morning and made the parts.  Grade 10 band was first, where we worked “Prairie Wedding” and then started “Matters of Kindness.”  It’s a little bit hard for a Grade 10 band, but they did okay, especially emotionally.  They didn’t really know Maddy that well because they were younger than her, so we rehearsed more than we engaged our hearts.  After that was Grade 11 and 12 band and that was an entirely different story.

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Maddy would have been in Grade 11 this year and, like the Grade 10s, we started with “Prairie Wedding,” which went pretty well, but there was a palpable distress in the air that not even my hyper-positivity could shake.  They knew what was coming.

About halfway through the class, I looked over at Karri and she nodded back and we knew it was time to start.  About three kids left before we even handed out parts.  A few more left after the first few bars of the recording.  Karri followed after to check on the kids and I could see the principal talking to some who were wiping their eyes.

I imagine that the commission wasn’t horribly exciting to some of the kids, it was terrifying.  It would force them to engage in feelings that are so close and so traumatizing that they can’t even acknowledge them, let alone engage with them.   This piece begins a process of emotional growth for these young humans that will initially push them and crush them, but will also eventually lift and strengthen them.  So often in life, we aren’t ready for change, but we’re thrust into it.  Growth is never, ever easy, but it happens to us whether we want it to or not.  For so many of us, stagnation just isn’t an option.

But imagine getting the chance to use music – and in a group – to work through something that has ravaged you and your community.  Imagine being able to do something collaborative, artistic, and in line with what Maddy would have wanted.  Imagine being able to contribute something to send a message to those around you at the concert.

It’s going to be a really hard process for a lot of those kids, but often the best things in life are hard.  JFK once said “we don’t go to the moon and do the other things because they’re easy, we do them because they’re hard,” but it’s more than that.  Being a teenager is hard.  Raising kids is hard.  House renovations are hard.  Finishing a big project, whatever it is, is usually hard…

… but you’re almost always better for having gone through it.  The music itself isn’t that difficult, it’s facing their feelings that’s going to be hard, and I want to say that that’s part of the artistic experience, but it’s more than that: it’s part of the human experience.

What’s happening in that band room right now is Capital “M” Music / Capital “E” Education.  We arts teachers try so hard to get the kids to feel things and interpret the struggle and that’s going to happening to some of those kids everyday.  Those kids will be feeling that music pretty hard and their struggle is going to be very real.  But we’re stronger together, aren’t we? When we band together as a group, a community*, or an ensemble we are capable of anything.  We’re even capable of helping a grieving community by bringing a way for them to help say with music what their words can’t.  Art only works when we look for something inside so we can express it on the outside and this is art in deepest expression.

Part of it is also who Maddy was.  She was the type of person who believed in kindness for kindness’s sake, which is why I feel such a connection to her.  She checked on her brother when he was out at a friend’s house, just to see how he was doing.  She was the glue of her friend group who pushed them to experience new things in life instead of just doing the same old thing.  She believed that the power of community can be used to overcome great obstacles, whether it’s her baseball team or her concert band.  She believed in kindness – “Kindness matters” was something she said to people and that’s where “The Matters of Kindness” title comes from – kindness does matter, but sometimes we need to explore the matters of that kindness to express it truly and authentically.

After we left the school, Karri and I went to see Pam at her house.  We sat in the immaculately clean living room where there were many pictures of family vacations, trips to the lake, and of course Madison.  You just knew this was a family built on love.  They are one of the greats.  We all sat in a circle talking.  We were a room of people just holding it together.

Even in the midst of such tragedy, we were overwhelmed with gratitude toward one another.  I was grateful for Karri for pursuing a commission, and to Pam for allowing it, and they were grateful to me for accepting.  There was a palpable feeling of love.  I won’t recount everything in our conversation, but needless to say, Maddy’s death left a tremendous wake and we explored much of that in our talk.

I left Olds that afternoon feeling emotionally drained, but refreshed.  There was teaching today, and genuine art-making.  All of the things that music making entails were on display, all hearts were bared on sleeves.  It makes me feel good about people in the world and that there are good people everywhere who want to do the right thing.  Maddy was one of them, and even though she’s not here, we still are and we can make a difference.  It doesn’t have to change the world, but it can change a person and, you know, that’s good enough for me.


* = when we were having breakfast that day, we were talking about the piece and the server approached and said “are you talking about Maddy?” then told us about how she worked at the elementary school while Maddy was a kid and how she was the bravest and strongest little kid she’d ever seen.  We talked about her for about 10 minutes.  That’s what happens in a small community and what happens to one happens to many.

Music Ed Monday – Kick Your A– Then Bake A Cake

sailormoonThe original Sailor Moon cartoon came out in Canada when I was 12 years old and it changed my life – more as an adult than a child.

I didn’t realize how revolutionary Sailor Moon was at the time when it aired.  I got into anime through finding this channel on our satellite dish (which was probably not really for kids, let’s be honest) and it showed me that animation could be something more than just cartoons.  It was the start of a life-long relationship with anime.

I didn’t tell many kids that I watched Sailor Moon when I was that age because it was still viewed as “a show for girls” and, while I understood that it was a show of female protagonists, I didn’t really understand why it was only for girls because… well, because I watched it too.  And what did that mean for me?

It was one of the first times I can remember having an identity crisis.  However, I wasn’t old enough to understand that it wasn’t really an identity crisis at all: I knew exactly who I was, it was whether or not I had the courage to believe it in spite of what others were saying.  At the end of the day, I still taped every episode at 8:30am, right after Batman.

Then I forgot about it for almost twenty years and, just last year, I did something out of the ordinary: I watched them all again.

While a little bit juvenile at times, there are some really big messages in that show.  It wasn’t that I was too young to get them, but I was really too immature to appreciate them and I wasn’t strong enough to fight for them.  The point of the show wasn’t that girls were fighting evil monsters, it was that girls are interesting and unique people who are also strong enough to fight for themselves.

When I was a kid, I loved Tuxedo Mask.  All of my invented heroes were in tuxedos – I even made a Lego Tuxedo Mask.  But when I watched him as an adult, I realized that he doesn’t even do anything.  As a former student of mine perfectly explained:




He’s not even a hero and that’s the whole point.  The paradigm of the female foil character that helps the uber-male-action-hero save the day is entirely turned on its head.  I especially got that in the original Japanese when I discovered scenes that were significantly watered down in the English version:


I’d seen that meme before, but I didn’t know that it was from an actual episode, which is below:

As a kid, I didn’t realize how forward-thinking this show was, especially in the 90s.  This anime not only trailblazed the magical girl genre of anime, but also taught girls that they could be the hero of their own story and that they didn’t need any man to save them.  As a boy, this also subversively taught me that it wasn’t my responsibility to save anyone and not every girl needed saving.  Of course they don’t and I know this as an adult, but as a heroes-and-villains-oriented kid, that was a big one.  I wish I had the perspective for it to be less of a big deal, actually.

*                    *                    *

We got the internet shortly after Sailor Moon came out and I quickly learned that Japan was ahead of us in the show.  There were more than five scouts! And one was older! And one was a kid! And two of them were lesbians.

Thankfully, I had enough perspective to think this wasn’t a big deal.  I mean, the network did and I later learned that they would be very-close-cousins in the North American version, but them being lovers was just fine to twelve-year-old me.   Almost anyone who’s watched anime in the last 20 years knows that Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus are lesbians, yet they were the first homosexual superheroes that I’d ever experienced. But they weren’t the gay stereotypes that were flying around in the 90s as culture was discovering something that had been there the whole time, the scouts/senshi were interesting and unique people who were in love and cared about each other (and were super strong and kicked some a–).

The video above talks about that, but there’s an even better example out there right now.

Sailor Moon Crystal has given the series a facelift and rebooted it closer to the manga and, I’ve got to tell you, it’s really good.  It’s fast, it cut all the filler, it’s more serious and it’s way more feminist-oriented (and by that, I mean that it doesn’t pull any punches about an all-female lead cast who needs no help from anyone but each other).  It presents its story and apologizes for nothing.

The episode at the beginning of September introduced Makoto (Sailor Jupiter) and it showed a traditional side of women that the show often downplayed, particularly how she likes to cook and has a lost love.  But none of that is in spite of her being tough, but instead she demonstrates the ability to be both feminine and strong; both traditional and tenacious, or to put it my favourite way:


Having one does not negate the other.  And this happens with guys too (though, to a far less degree): You can be strong and emotional, you can like sports and be artistic, you can be smart and still be interesting.  Just be whoever you are.

Makoto never apologizes for who she is and that is one of the clearest strengths of Sailor Moon Crystal.  Ami doesn’t apologize for being smart or Rei for being spiritual.  Usagi is learning that she can be clutzy and still be a leader and that a leader doesn’t always lead with strength, but with heart.

It’s a good lesson.  Imagine if more kids led with heart than strength :)



LegendofZeldaThe-OcarinaofTimeUV-40I have a confession to make: Despite being into games for my entire life, I have never beaten the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

I know.  How can you trust anything video-game-related that I have to say? I haven’t even been through the core literature of our genre!  It’s like loving science fiction without having seen Star Wars, or liking fantasy without having seen/read Lord of the Rings.

In truth, I’ve never been able to beat the Forest Temple… until today.

I’m not exaggerating here, but after dying against Phantom Ganondorf over fifty times, I had given up hope.  But it wasn’t like I died fifty times all in one go: I have start and quit Ocarina of Time at least four or five times.

There was a point in my life where I had given up and, no matter how hard I tried, I would never be able to beat this game.

I can count the number of times I’ve said that one hand, so I’m a pretty persistent guy, but there’s something gravely sad about not being able to do something that so many people have clearly done, which leads me to the point that some of you may be thinking:





And some of you may not be, and that’s fine, but sometimes we have these benchmarks where we assume (wrongly, I think) that these are things the average person should do.  Well, it may be that there is no “average,” there are just people who are just trying to get through life and get a little better at it as they go along.

One of my former students posted this on her instagram and it was the catalyst to my return to the dreaded Forest Temple:


I love how it compares these actions to Mount Everest because it correctly contextualizes the amount of effort it will take to surmount them.  It accurately responds to the three prompts from earlier:

But the Forest Temple isn’t even that hard! –  WELL, IT’S HARD FOR ME.

Just wait until the Water Temple! – I NEEDED TO DO THE FOREST TEMPLE FIRST.


You think Ocarina is hard? Just try… – I DO THINK OCARINA IS HARD AND NOW I’M GOING TO BEAT IT.


Because that’s how it ends: We beat it.

I’ve had a really successful year and I’m grateful for everyone who’s helped and I’m pleased as punch that things are going so well, but none of those things have made me howl and scream like finally killing Phantom Ganondorf.  It was like I was ten years old and the house was filled with my cry of victory.  For a good 30 seconds, it was like the Winnipeg Jets winning the Stanley Cup in Game Seven with a goal in overtime.  Solid screaming.  It was that kind of elation.

And it wasn’t because I beat the level, it was that I conquered something that I had failed over and over again.  That was my Mount Everest.  Sure, it wasn’t the tallest mountain or the hardest game (or even the hardest dungeon), but there was something in my mind that told me I couldn’t do it, then I pressed on and succeeded.

And we’ve all been there.  We’ve all done something that we’d failed on time and time again.  The difference for most of us is that those experiences probably happened most often when we were kids and we were less scared of our feelings and the world.  It is easier to give up when you aren’t a child because, when you’re young, you have nothing to lose.

I had to remember that today because I started the temple dying over and over again as usual.  In fact, I thought to myself “why am I even trying? I’m never going to be able to do this,” but I also knew that this was my Everest, not anyone else’s.  As the boss rode out of the pictures and I kept dying, I finally started to systematize where I was going wrong; in this case, my bow technique was poor.  I started to look at each round with him as practice, instead of a life-or-death struggle and I started to tell myself that I would just restart back at the beginning if I died and that I really had nothing to lose.

As I mastered the horse-riding part of the boss, he took on his spiritual form and we played some Zelda tennis with his energy balls and I died again… and again… and again.  I needed to swing sooner.

And even though I figured out the way to beat him, it doesn’t mean that I could do it.  Just because I understood the problem cognitively didn’t mean that I could solve the problem physically.  It became the same as music: Just because I can read it doesn’t mean I can do it.

So I died over and over and over and over again… until the one time I didn’t.


Let’s not try to climb the biggest mountain ever today, but let’s do what we can and try and do a little more each time.  We don’t arm curl 60s on first day at the gym, but maybe someday we’ll get there.  And we aren’t lesser people if we can’t curl 60s on our first day, we can only do what we can do.  We might start at 5s or 10s or 20s, and wherever you start is fine.  When that feels easy move up a little bit.

Musically, we would never start a 4-year old on their first day of piano with a Rachmaninoff concerto.  They might get there someday, and maybe there are four-year olds who can do it, but everyone’s fine with where they are.

And if you surpass whatever Everest you’re working on right now, allow yourself to feel good about it.  If you let thoughts like “now I can finally do the thing that everyone else can do” get in your head, you’ll never feel good about anything you accomplish.  Do what you can do and feel good about it.  If you’re feeling ambitious, try something else just outside your realm of ability and work to do that, and feel good about that when you surpass it.

It feels good to let yourself feel good about accomplishments, no matter how small.

Have the best week,

Images from:

Sabbatical Week 2 Roundup!

Another big week on the sabbatical:

Seeing as I got to the end of Movement IV of the Icelandic Folk Song Suite, I spent most of my work on this patching up holes in the music.  I worked the transitions a lot and figured out how they’re going to work, patching up the last one just tonight (which is still a bit of a mess).

I’m definitely at the last 10% of the piece, which is often the most time-consuming.  I’ve had this piece in my head for so long that, for much of it, I couldn’t get it down fast enough.  I knew exactly where everything was going to go and how it was going to fit – well, most of it anyway.  Now it’s the real nitty gritty.

Here’s what else transpired this week:

– I also got down some earlier choral sketches, but I’m not sure if I’m going to keep them.  I like them, but we’ll see where it goes.

– Anticipating the WSO‘s Nordic Festival, Peter Johnson from the Lögberg-Heimskringla wrote an article about me and my musical development.  It was centred around high school band, video games, and how I learned to write music.  I’m really pleased with it and I hope that you pick up a paper to read it!

– I started some upcoming video game work, but nothing new to show.  In fact, I don’t even think I can show it anyway.

– I had to rewrite some Drop Assault music because it didn’t pass the top rung of the ladder with the head company and the timeline was super tight, so Tuesday was a 15-hour day and impeded some progress on the following days.  Clearly, I am not 18 anymore and can’t work like I used to.

– Speaking of Drop Assault, I’m doing a development diary for the music that I wrapped up this week.  There will be some video, an interview portion, and a supplementary blog post on the “Combat” music.  It should be up reasonably soon.



– And this is one of the most important ones: I put together the event for the Morgun premiere with the WSO.  It’s going to be spectacular.  If you’d like to come, all of the details are on the event page:

That’s it for this week!


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