I can’t even believe it. The original Into the Score podcast ran from 2006-2010 (about) and, after ten years, it’s coming back in a different form.
More details to come, but it’s happening everyone… it’s really happening.
I can’t even believe it. The original Into the Score podcast ran from 2006-2010 (about) and, after ten years, it’s coming back in a different form.
More details to come, but it’s happening everyone… it’s really happening.
As I was leaving the band room one day, I heard a booming teenage voice. When I got out the door, the hallway was lined with people watching a large young adult cursing and throwing his body around. The shop teacher and another teacher on duty stood at the end of the hall in case something went seriously wrong. A hundred pairs of wide Grade 10 eyes watched this boy swearing and marching toward the day, shocked and scared for what might happened next.
He looked my way as he passed and, regrettably, I said something like “Wow, such model behaviour.” I can’t remember what I said, but I immediately knew that I shouldn’t be bringing gas to the bonfire, which of course, I did.
He drew both of his middle fingers toward me and exclaimed—and this is true—“F- – – you, you band b- – – -!” Really, that’s what he said. Then he stormed out of the school and I never saw him again.
When I recounted the story to my wife, the first thing she said was: “I wonder what made him do that.” I was hoping she’d show a little more concern for me, but the fact that her first instinct was one of empathy toward the teen shows how wonderful of a person she really is. Her first response to many situations like this is one of radical empathy.
I wonder what might happen if we approached teaching this way. What if we took a long look at what was really happening with our kids who act out, our kids who are perpetually late, or our kids who seem apathetic and resigned to participating in school. What we’ll find is that there is, almost always, more going on than we know.
Maybe they are starved for attention, that’s why they act out.
Maybe they have to get themselves out of bed and make their own meals, that’s what why they’re always late.
Maybe they feel like no one cares about them or that they aren’t important, that’s why they’re apathetic.
In his book “Pathways,” Joseph Alsobrook recounts a time where he invites one of his outspoken students to a morning meeting before school one day. Alsobrook sat down with the student and they started talking, first about their morning, then about sports and other interests that the student had. The student was waiting for some kind of punishment, but it never came. Instead, he got to talk about things that interested him to an adult that was listening and empathizing.
Instead of disciplining that child over and over again, Alsobrook simply listened to him. What if we took the approach of simply asking our students questions about their lives and really listened to them?
As I get older, I find that I have to learn more about the detailed parts of my students’ interests: Social media, Pokemon Go, video games, sports, etc. However, underneath those surface parts of their lives are more timeless and eternal desires: Connection, feeling heard, validation, acknowledgment, attention, being accountable, feeling like they have value, and many others. They are the things that we all need and that humanity will never stop pursuing. If a student is acting out, it may be because they’re missing a core value of their life and maybe we can be the ones to give it to them.
Model radical empathy, my teachers!
Disclaimer: I’m not a counselor nor an expert, but I talk to a lot of kids about a great many things related to their well-being. Here are some patterns of experience paired with elements of mental health that I’ve learned from pro-counselors. This is one perspective that may challenge you and that’s okay. Allow yourself to be challenged, then consider it or never think about it again. It’s up to you.
This past week, I met a man whose daughter was buying a cello. She tried about ten celli and, by the end of the day, she’d narrowed it down to two. As the girl was going through the perks of each one, her father simply asked her which one sounded better. After a brief pause, she looked up at him and said: “It depends on the room.”
Which is so true – different instruments simply sound different when played in different rooms and the same is true with kids. Students are dynamic individuals whose behaviour is often determined by where they are and who surrounds them. A teenager might be goofy in English class, quiet in Physics, pensive in church, or fearful around their overbearing parents.
As educators, we’ll often talk about what a student is like when commenting on their report card or during parent-teacher interviews, but the reality is that we’re only commenting on what they’re like when they’re in our room.
One of my Grade 12 trombone players has said maaaaaaaaaybe ten words out loud over her three years with me, but she’ll howl during a sprawling story in the hallway outside the band room.
My Grade 11 bass player is the queen of sassy comments in rehearsal, but will help the drama teacher at the drop of a hat and always with warmth and a smile.
One of my Grade 10 saxophone players takes a good ten minutes to moisten her reed and get to work, but will crush it in dancing rehearsal and rugby practice.
The truth is that we don’t always know the whole story with people and often times, it depends on what room they’re in.
The original context of that cello story related to mental health and the concept of diagnosis versus looking at root causes of distress. For example: A student can’t present their project because they have anxiety vs. A student feels anxious because presenting in front of one’s peers is a stressful experience tied in with judgement, feeling good enough, putting themselves out there, etc. Of course they feel anxious, anyone would feel anxious about this!
The man who told me the cello story also said this to me: “Of course you have Anxiety, now take the capital off.” I love that.
Some Grade 12 students (or first-year university ones) will start to realize their anxiety and see someone about it, then get pills to help them manage it. As we get closer to graduation, we start to have those conversations about leaving high school. They mention that they don’t know if they’ve made the right decision to take a year off. They need to pick classes for college or university and have no idea where their life is going (which is normal, by the way). They might regret registering for Pre-Med because they really want to be a writer, but their dad wants them to be a doctor and that’s the only way he’ll pay for school. They might be scared about leaving home and moving out, or the opposite: They might be stressed out about staying at home because they just want to move-the-heck out of their house and live their own lives.
When we look back on these completely normal feelings, it’s easy to understand what they’re anxious about, but that doesn’t mean they need to be clinically diagnosed with anxiety. They don’t need pills for it, they need to spend some time with their emotions and listen to their body because the anxiety is their body trying to tell them something.
My teaching partner often says that emotions are felt in the body and it’s something we share with our students regularly. Our body has physical responses to what we’re feeling and both kids and adults wrestle with that. I’ve seen students with perpetual headaches, then I meet their parents and understand exactly what’s going on. What they’re feeling isn’t an illness, it’s a ridiculous level of stress and it’s not hard to see why. Or maybe they have a test they didn’t study for and, coincidently (or not), have a killer stomach ache. That’s not a stomach ache; they’re feeling stress because they didn’t prepare for something that’s important to them. They have anxiety, but they don’t have Anxiety.
If we can recognize that, we can start to unravel what’s really going on inside our minds and bodies. I want to leave it there for this week, but I’ll cover the perils of unpacking in a later installment of “Music Ed Monday.” I’m not saying it’s easy (it’s the furthest thing from it), but the important work of our life rarely is. But alas, for a different day.
It’s amazing how much those feelings of stress relate to decision-making. Many of the examples above are about precisely that: making decisions. We don’t often get stressed about whether or not to choose the soup or the salad at a restaurant (unless you do, and that’s fine!) or what to watch on Netflix, but rather, about big decisions. The gravity of making decisions during important moments doesn’t always feel good (and often manifests as stress or anxiety), but that doesn’t mean we need to avoid them. In fact, we need to do the opposite: we need to embrace them. There is a skill about making decisions under authentic pressure and it’s really important that we develop it early on to make life more manageable down the road. It’s hard, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s stressful… and it’s also called growth and growth is often all of these things too.
Cello – https://i.ytimg.com/vi/Vych-cTtx2M/hqdefault.jpg
In a really wonderful turn of events, I won a competition this past month! My very first one!
It was the 2015 Canadian Band Association Composition Competition (*whew!*) and my piece for concert band “The Meeting Place” took home the prize. I really like that tune, and so do a lot of my students – more than many of my other ones, actually.
The funny thing about that particular piece is that I’ve had a really hard time finding a publisher, which freed it up to compete, but it made me feel self-conscious about the work. Maybe it wasn’t as strong as I thought it was. Maybe the structure or the voicing needs more work. Maybe I need to rewrite some parts…
Then I thought back on it: I already rewrote the parts, actually. The commissioner’s (Alexis Silver’s) band had some pretty beefy instrumentation, so I standardized the score and parts after the premiere; like condensing the six percussion parts into three, for example. Then we recorded it and it works – it all works, so what was in the way?
If the piece is winning competitions, the reality is that nothing might be in the way. Maybe it just didn’t make the cut in that particular round of publishing submissions, but you’ve got to keep on keepin’ on. I needed to keep resubmitting it and, finally, it’s getting picked up by a new publishing house in the US (which I can’t say too too much about yet!), but it might still be sitting on my desk had I not kept on.
The same is true with the CBA Competition: This is the third time I’ve entered it. It would’ve been very easy to quit after the first try, but there are so many factors that go into getting work submitted and getting it accepted. The first time I entered was after I wrote Filum Vitae and I didn’t win, though I later learned that it was between Filum and the eventual winner, Christiaan Venter’s Rocky Mountain Lullaby. At the time, all I knew was that I didn’t win. Not the end of the world, but still not a great feeling.
The second time I entered was with Prairie Wedding and it got an honourable mention, which was a nice feeling, but it still didn’t win. That being said, it did get some pieces sold and I made some good connections, which rings true to what composer Eric Whitacre says about competitions: You should do them for a myriad of important reasons, but you probably won’t win, and he’s right.
There are so many lessons in losing something, far more than you’ll ever learn if you win. I’ve thrown my hat in the ring for jobs I wasn’t qualified for or competitions with some pretty big players and it’s taught me one really important lesson: It’s not no, it’s not yet.
For example, I applied for the Composer in Residence job with our local symphony and, as you might have guessed, I didn’t get it. I didn’t make it past the first round. However, it got my music into their hands and now I get some smaller gigs with them like arranging or work with schools. While that’s not a commission for writing a symphony, that’s a heck of a lot more than I was doing with them before. Maybe with more orchestra work under my belt and, you know, a Master’s degree, maybe I can break into that scene in 5-10 years.
That is, unless I don’t apply for it again, because I didn’t get it once, so why would I get it later?
I’m being facetious, that’s a terrible argument, but a common one. I ran into one of my former students who’s studying music in university, getting ready for an audition to get into the Performance program there. She said “I’ll do my best, but if I don’t get in then I’ll probably quit, because it would be so demoralizing.” After two years of crazy practicing and wild success, she might quit if she doesn’t get into this one thing the first time. To me, that is absolutely crazy, but it happens all the time and to all sorts of people.
Think about all of the people who write a story, send it to one publisher, get rejected, then never write again. Think about that person who wants a job in finance, applies for the job, doesn’t get it, then works in a job beneath their qualifications and spirals downward thinking about what could’ve been.
It’s so common because rejection is hard, it really is, but it’s how you deal with it that’s important. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected not once, not twice, but twelve times in a row. Imagine a world if she gave up – I don’t want to!
Even as Robert Galbrath, her Cuckoo’s Calling was still rejected by publishers.
Yes, J. K. Rowling, go take a writing course…
The important thing is persistence, to keep on keepin’ on. When you put yourself out there, there are a variety of factors that aren’t in your control, the only one in your control is whether or not you put yourself out there. That doesn’t mean you’ll be 100% successful, but doing nothing guarantees you’ll be 100% unsuccessful.
The best way to not get into music school is to not even apply. An audition doesn’t mean you’ll get in, but with some preparation, you just might.
The best way to not date that really awesome person you like is to never, ever speak to them. You might try and they might not go for you, but they might just be surprised by how wonderful of a person you are.
The best way not to have a successful show is make sure you don’t tell anyone about it. Or, consider telling people about the show and then being super happy that they came.
Put yourself out there and if you don’t achieve your goal, figure out what you can do differently and try it again. Rinse and repeat until you get it 🙂
Let’s have a great week.
I got to spend some time in Canmore, AB (Canada) this past weekend. You know, this place:
It’s a really beautiful town, but I really didn’t have a hot clue where I was going most of the time. I’m a pretty nervous driver when I’m in a place that I don’t know very well, so I was being extra observant and extra careful. Most of the time, being extra careful is very effective, but sometimes it makes us anxious and we actually end up seeing less.
And that was the case on Saturday afternoon. I was going to make a left turn and, while trying to see everything, I didn’t see the car coming from my left.
It’s okay, I inched out the stoplight, travelled a foot or two and braked, avoiding an accident by about a hundred feet. I did, however, get one of these:
You know this face and the feeling you get when you see it. That mixture of shame, embarrassment, with a dash of anger. I mean, who does this guy think he is?
And it’s the last point that I want to address because it specifically relates to teaching: Why is he so angry? There are a few things that happen here:
First is the surprise. The other driver is just caught off guard and gets emotional. His first reaction is adrenaline – I scared him and he doesn’t like that.
Second, he doesn’t like that he’s surprised and now he’s reacting with the reptilian part of his brain. There’s a fight or flight mechanism that’s making him feel defensive. And that defence leads to anger.
Anger is the third one. He’s angry; or, at the very least, emotional. He might not be angry at me immediately, but he’s angry.
As we know about emotions (but particularly anger), we don’t always think clearly when we’re in the moment. As the old saying goes, when emotions are high, intelligence is low, and this is where the social/emotional construct gets hairy.
If it were to end here, that’d be fine. He’s surprised, he’s emotional, he’s angry – I can deal with that. The problem comes where he makes eye contact with you and puts his arm in the air signalling that you should know better. He doesn’t make it about him, he makes it about you. In fairness, I’m the one who didn’t see him, so it really is about me, really. However, the problem lies with the arm gesture. The problem lies with the action he takes against you.
He needed me to know that I was wrong, that “What are you doing, man? Don’t you know better?” look. He needs to prove to me that I was wrong and assert dominance that he knew better than I did. In short, he needs to teach me a lesson. It’s not about driving now, it’s about power.
I have a problem with that because he’s basing all of his actions on the flawed initial premise that my inching out of the stoplight and subsequent braking was done on purpose. The thought had never entered his mind that, perhaps, I simply didn’t see him and made a mistake.
This happens all the time, but particularly in traffic. When you see someone cut someone else off and the person behind loses their mind, could it be that maybe the person in front thought that they had more room than they actually did? That maybe the person in front wasn’t trying to be malicious at all and, instead, just made a mistake?
In today’s case, it’s not that I didn’t know better, it’s that I didn’t see him that far away. When some fifteen year old bumps an eighteen year old in the hallway and the older one screams “what’s your problem?!” it’s most likely that the younger one didn’t see him, thought they had more room, or simply wasn’t paying attention. No malicious intent involved, just an accident.
Any altercation is better solved with empathy, rather being solved with power. If you feel slighted or taken advantage of, is it real? Could it possibly be a lack of thinking? Or that the assailant maybe hadn’t thought about their action in the way that you’re thinking about it?
How many people do we know in our lives whose first reaction to all new situations is to get mad?
Something unexpected happens? Anger.
Change in the plans? Anger.
Someone didn’t do things the way that they would do things? Anger.
Someone does something that they wouldn’t do? Anger.
Instead, let’s try and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes for a second before we react. What are they bringing to the table? What are the other possible outcomes for their action other than to slight me?
(P.S. Odds are that no one is trying to slight you and it’s all in your head. You aren’t that important, it’s okay, neither am I, neither is anyone)
It’s hard, I know. It’s about tricking your reptilian brain out of engaging. Your cerebral cortex isn’t very good at reacting quickly, but it does a much better job of finding solutions. Really, it does.
And let’s collectively agree to stop trying to teach all of these strangers a lesson. Leave the lesson teaching to teachers and parents. We don’t always know why people do what they do, but it’s usually someone not thinking, not paying attention, or just making a mistake.
It’s okay, it’s only a big deal if you make it a big deal. Or, I guess, if this guy does.
Let’s do our best, everyone.
I’m trying to remember exactly when I was playing Final Fantasy X for the first time. It came out when I was in Grade 10, though I first saw it when my cousin showed it to me at my grandmother’s house in Gimli, the town where I grew up. But even still, I don’t think I started really playing it until I was university, which was about three years after its release.
Anyway, I can’t say anything that hasn’t already been said, but let’s get down to it:
Final Fantasy X HD Remake (PS3)
The customization was more fun than I remember, particularly making new weapons and the sphere grid. Whenever I got a new weapon, I’d think “aw yeah!” except that all of the weapons were really the same, you’d just need to assign a few different abilities (though some had more slots, so okay, I get that). It was really fun to just customize everyone infinitely, then compounding that with the real-time customization during battle and it became really fun. The in-game subbing of people felt more strategic than before, which both a pro and a con, but more on that later.
This might be heresy to say, but I really liked the updated OST for the HD Remake, but I liked it because it wasn’t that different (which, in itself, is a heretical comment). Honestly, so much of it felt like updated the samples and/or playing things live; in short, it’s not as different as purists would want you to believe. There are some tracks like Besaid, which are pretty different between the original and the remake, but most of the music in the remake is just cleaner with better samples and recordings. Seriously, it really, really holds up.
Some of the magic was gone this time, and I don’t know what it was. There was something about the storyline and the world that just didn’t hold up like I remember, which was upsetting. Not that it was a bad game, it just wasn’t as magical as I remember. Again, not to say it isn’t good, but something was different this time. Maybe it’s because I’m older or I have a different understanding of the intersection of plot and design, but something resonated with me differently this time. I cared less about the characters and the journey. Maybe it was because I knew what was coming and how it was all going to end, but I don’t know.
I still liked the experience, but I’m not sure if I would go through it again, which contrasts my excitement for the FFVII remake that I can’t wait to explore.
Anyway, only four more FFs left now…
A few years ago, two of my very good friends made a New Year’s Resolution to say yes to anyone invited them out to something, hoping to embark on some new adventures and live a little more.
“Want to go out for drinks?” Yes.
“Want to go snowboarding next weekend?” Yes.
“Want to come to the beach in fifteen minutes?” Yes. Yes. Yes.
And so on, and they had many wonderful excursions and made a ton of great memories. They were tired, but it was worth it.
For any of you who know me personally, you know that every year of my life has been a “Year of Yes.” It doesn’t take much to get to me to come out, take a job, help out, or anything like that. It’s usually good, but it takes away something that I recently discovered that I really enjoy: Leisure time.
This winter break, I didn’t work as hard as I needed to. I just couldn’t. I still got to the piano most days, sent away drafts, proofread scores, and sent/responded to emails, but I started this break so tired. Not the tired from a weekend of partying, but the tired that comes from pushing yourself for months without a respite, which I often (read: always) do to myself.
This is the last year of that. I’m still absolutely going to finish what I’ve started, but if new work comes my way that I’m not 110% thrilled about, I’m just not going to take it. Am I still going to keep writing and taking some new work? Absolutely, but not all of it. Not because I don’t like the extra money (because I really, really do), but because I rediscovered how much I like going on dates with my wife, hanging at friends’ houses, watching movies, playing video games, doing puzzles, reading books, unwinding at my parents’ house, going for coffee with my dad, and/or getting up in the morning and feeling like a functional human being.
“Wow, I’m feeling shaky and it’s only my second cup of coffee.” YES. THAT’S BECAUSE YOU RESTED AND THEN YOU SLEPT.
“Wow, I can’t believe it’s 10:30 and my eyes are still open.” LIKE A NORMAL PERSON.
This is connected to a much larger complex relationship that I have with my own productivity, self-esteem, and personal value, but that’s for a different post.
This is the year that I stop caring so much about how much work I’ve done and focus more on doing the things I want to do. Also, because I didn’t slave away quite as hard this break, I got some of my best composing done in a long time. There’s a big difference between “hitting the piano to work” and “hitting the piano to write,” and I was saying the former a whole lot more than the latter this year. This is the year that changes.
When I told my wife, she just smiled and said “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Me too, me too…
The following is a story about how I finally did the thing that most people I grew up with did when they were twelve.
In the past sixteen years, I have started The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time four times. The first time, I only got to the Goron Village and then I had to return my friend’s Nintendo 64 because it was 1998, after all. The second and third times, I got to the Jabu Jabu fish and then quit for some reason. The fourth time was this past year and I only got to the Forest Temple then couldn’t beat the boss (Phantom Ganon in the paintings, if you remember).
I posted about the fourth time a few months ago, and instead of letting my failure get the better of me, I persisted and was eventually victorious. Continuing on from that success, I kept on playing and, three days ago, I beat it.
If you aren’t familiar with the core repertoire of video games, Ocarina of Time is a game that’s more like a rite of passage – anyone who is remotely into games, video game music, or game history has beaten it many years ago. It’s regarded by almost everybody as the best Zelda game and by some as the best video game ever made. It always felt like a black mark on my credibility because it would always come up, usually like “…[it’s] kind of like in Ocarina, when [x would happen]” and I’d have to tell them, then they’d exclaim “YOU’VE NEVER BEATEN OCARINA OF TIME?!?!?!?!”
It’s one of those weird things that always stuck with me. I always felt like it was so hard. The dungeons felt unintuitive to me, the puzzle solutions didn’t make sense, and the side quests were so out of left field that I didn’t know how anyone could have figured them out (especially in the late 90s, when the wild west of the internet was a different place).
The turning point was when A Link Between Worlds came out, which takes place in the same world as the only other Zelda game I’d played, A Link to the Past. The puzzles and dungeons were hard, but not impossible. It was just hard enough that I could figure out the strategies on my own and start to build patterns. The experience of playing through it made me fall in love with the series again, and perhaps as important, reminded me why other people loved it too. It felt like I was starting to get it.
After newly acquiring a Nintendo 3DS, I downloaded Link’s Awakening from the eStore and started playing it. Like Ocarina, it was incredibly challenging, but A Link Between Worlds gave me the skill set to decipher the same patterns and look for the same physical prompts. While relying on walkthroughs a little more than I should have, I eventually beat Link’s Awakening and really enjoyed it.
When I came back to Ocarina (on the N64, not the 3DS), I came at it with renewed vigour. I was at the beginning of the Fire Temple now and I started to see what I had to do. I saw patterns in dungeon design that I didn’t see before (and that I’d made it that far in the game without seeing them is a testament to my knack of fumbling toward victory 😛 ) and, while I screamed at the TV a lot, at least I knew what to do. I was still terrible with Z targeting, shooting a bow, and jumping in a straight line, but at least I knew what to practice.
[Brief aside: I think this happens in teaching often. We teach kids the steps, we don’t teach them to see the patterns. While I start teaching chord theory in Grade 10 Jazz, there was a moment we were doing cadences in my Grade 12 Fundamentals of Music class where a student perked up all of a sudden and said “I totally just understand all of Grade 10 Jazz now.” It took Classical cadences for her to figure out ii-Vs in Jazz, she just didn’t see the pattern before, until one day where she did.]
It’s the notion that playing Ocarina didn’t make me better at it (at least, not at first), I needed to play other Zelda games to practice. This is why so many other kids were better at it than me: I played A Link to the Past, and they played the original, Link’s Adventure, A Link to the Past, and maybe Link’s Awakening. They just had more practice at the genre than me.
[Further aside: The more pieces kids play in band, the better they become at current and later pieces. I mean, of course, right?]
I just needed to catch up. What I love about the Zelda games is that the
only way to get through them is to get through them. There are almost no shortcuts, easy way outs, or cheats – if you haven’t mastered certain skills, you just can’t go on. You can read the walkthrough and know what you need to do, but it doesn’t matter unless you can actually do it.
[Yet another aside: Just because a student knows that measure 79 is just an Ab run, that doesn’t matter if they can’t do it when it counts.]
Beating Ocarina of Time was really incredibly hard for me, but it wasn’t impossible. We can all do things that are hard; in fact, the best things we’ve ever done are probably the hardest things we’ve ever done. As John F. Kennedy once said (in one of my favourite quotes ever):
“We don’t go to the moon and do the other things because they’re easy, we do them because they’re hard.”
However, the hardest things require the most work, but perhaps more importantly, the most practice. As we keep plugging away at things, we grow and see more patterns, which make the next difficult things that are similar less difficult. After Ocarina, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword will be easier.
It’s not always that it’s hard, just that it requires more practice 🙂
Back in Summer of 2015, I was asked by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra if I could do an arrangement of a pop song for a divisional choir and the orchestra. Every other year, the River East Transcona School Division hires out the orchestra to play with their choir. This was an enormous opportunity, so of course I said yes, then got it done on time and on budget (which is a super important part of composing).
Several months passed until, finally, it premiered last week. In fact, it came up so quickly that it almost slipped by me. Everything at my school has been so crazy that it’s taken a lot of time and effort to just keep all the plates spinning. Between teaching and writing, there’s been a lot going on.
That morning, I asked about tickets and it was decided there would be some comps at the door. I left school at 5:00, grabbed a sub, then headed down to the concert hall, where there were gaggles of kids everywhere, but a noticeable absence of tickets at the box office. Someone let me inside and apologized profusely (the Winnipeg Centennial Concert Hall staff is exceptionally kind all the time) and I just smiled and said “so long as there’s beer, everything will be just fine.” The clerk laughed and said there’s always beer at the concert hall.
But there wasn’t this time. The divisional concert was a school event, so obviously there would be no beer. Not the end of the world, but beer at the concert hall is just the best. Really.
Going to the symphony is less fancy than it used to be, but it’s still fancy. There’s a formality when going to the biggest hall in the province to see the very best musicians we have play that night. Even though they played my piece Morgun last year, I’ve always felt like I was never at that level. I studied with the now-principal trombone of the ensemble and I was terrible. I really clawed my way to the finish line of my music degree, which had an extra year of lessons because I failed the first year of euphonium. Failed, not “got a C,” which might as well be a failure for lessons. I literally failed the playing portion of music school. For various other reasons, my university failures were the best thing that ever happened to me, but the sense of inadequacy followed me for my entire professional music career (and still does, from time to time).
When the WSO played my piece the first time, I felt like such an imposter. I was some schmuck who got commissioned to write something, like a one time shot. They certainly didn’t make me feel that way – they were amazing to me, but I had this narrative spinning in my head. It was all old baggage from university. When they asked me again, I couldn’t even believe it, but I knew deep down that I needed to accept the job.
Back to last week:
My piece closed the night and the conductor of the orchestra, Julian Pellicano, thanked the parents and staff of the division, as well as the symphony, and introduced the piece. He described the piece, then ended by saying that it was arranged by local, yet world-renowned composer Kenley Kristofferson which, while not exactly true, was cool because I was the only arranger he mentioned the entire night.
The orchestra and the choir killed it during their performance. The kids were into it, the audience dug it, and the performers really nailed the piece. It was so inspiring that, at the end of it, I thought that the only thing that could’ve made the night better was a beer.
A voice in the back of my mind told me that maybe, just maybe, they’d have beer backstage, but the voice in my mind was clear: You aren’t good enough to go backstage at the symphony. But the more I thought about it rationally, the more I realized that I wrote the last tune of the night, this is the second time I arranged for the ensemble, and I knew so many performers through university or band camps or whatever. And hey, the worst that could happen is nothing, right?
So I descended the stairs and slipped through the backstage door and into the hallway, where I hugged and shook hands with some of the RETSD teachers I knew and talked shop for a few minutes. Then the VP of Artistic Operations stopped me (with a beer in his hand) and smiled as he congratulated me on tonight’s piece. We talked more shop for a while, then told me about some potential new work on the horizon. I couldn’t even believe he remembered my name, let alone (maybe) offering me new work! And as he said the next few words, a smile stretched across my face: “Why don’t you come into the green room for a beer?”
And I did and it was packed with both WSO and RETSD folk. I saw the backstage manager and she remembered me from last year and so did the production manager. Then Julian came up and we high-fived and laughed throughout the night. Clearly, the story in my head was not the same as the story that was playing out in front of me, and only one of them can be true. And guess what, it’s the one in front of you all the time.
Eric Whitacre (one of my favourite composers) once said to music students that “nobody ever asked about his GPA after he graduated,” the important thing is that he got there. The older I get, the more true that it’s becoming. We don’t all take the same road to get there sometimes. Some roads are smoother, some roads have more ups than downs, while others have more downs than ups. Some people got to practice traversing the road before they actually had to start the adventure and that’s okay too. We don’t all get to the end the same way, but the important thing is that we get there.
And sometimes at the end, there’s a free beer in the green room.
(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.
Thankfully, 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: http://www.personalexcellenceprogramme.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/buddha-in-the-moment.jpg