Kenley Kristofferson


Category: Uncategorized

“Nothing Gold Can Stay” (NEW WORK!)

Photo by gang coo on Unsplash

Hey everyone, I have a new work in print! I know, even in this crazy year of remote rehearsals and streaming concerts, composers are still writing and publishers are still printing new music. I am so grateful for that.

This new piece is an SATB setting of Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and I’m so incredibly proud of it. It was commissioned by Dr. Mark Munson at Bowling Green State University and his choirs totally knocked it out of the park. So much so that Cypress Choral Music agreed to publish it. Here’s the recording of it:

When finding poetry to set for choral music, it is important to me that the text not only be expressive, but also have layers of interpretation. Robert Frost’s Nothing Gold Can Stay meets both criteria in spades.

On the surface, the text is quite bleak, highlighting the fleeting nature of time and how all our most beautiful moments eventually slip away – that nothing lasts forever. But, the more I read it, the more the text reminds me to cherish moments and to be present with those I care about. While nature’s first green is her hardest hue to hold, it is still in fact, gold. While the flower lasts but an hour, we need to appreciate that we have a flower at all.

Upon further reading, I feel a sense of value in these objects or moments ending. The impermanence of life invites us to be grateful for the time we have it. Whether it is our youth or a summer vacation, time with friends or a family meal, playing with a toddler or sharing stories with your grandparents.

This poem also reminds me that there is a surplus of beauty in the world and, while something ends, it is never the last beautiful object or moment. “Dawn goes down to day,” but a new day is only tomorrow.

And hey, isn’t all of this such a representation of the last two years? Of watching our normal actions from the previous years slipping away? Of finding gratitude in things we didn’t know were important to us? Of appreciating untenable moments before they slip away? My goodness, writing this piece was so cathartic, even though I had to drag it out of me kicking and screaming.

When I wrote this, I was up to my eyeballs in remote teaching from home and looking after my then-two-year old son. We had no child care in Spring or Summer of 2020 and my wife works the intake line for a benefits company (so she had to be on the lines, also dealing with things that were confidential), so that left me. Don’t get me wrong, we had help sometimes, and my small fry and I had lots of wonderful experiences, but “the drive to create art” was not where I was in the hierarchy of needs. Plus, I still had to finish the year teaching music at my school. It was a whirlwind, but I accepted this commission in 2019, so I had to finish it and it had to be good.

And, you know, it really did turn out well. This was the first piece since finishing my Master’s at Brandon University where I thought to myself “this is what my advisor (Dr. T. Patrick Carrabré) meant,” as I increased the harmonic and textural complexity in the work. It was a process of discovering how I could do the things he was talking about in my music and still have it sound like my music. I still have a ways to go, but this was the first step.

Please consider purchasing this music for your ensemble!

Stay gold, everyone.

Band Room Podcast!

Hey everyone,

Well, I just wrote a really long and intense post about my 2020 experience, so here’s something a little shorter and brighter!

Dylan Maddix and Cait Nishimura had me as a guest on their Band Room Podcast and it felt really amazing to talk shop with them. We talk composing, teaching, balance, video game music, and a whole bunch of other stuff. It’s a really wonderful conversation, so please check it out!

New Year, ______ Me – A 2020 Reflection

I was feeling okay this morning, then my cat meowed at me and my stress level went from 0 to 10. He just meowed… that’s it. It seems like a good metaphor for how things have been going.

My last blog post was–perhaps naively–about my goals for 2020. Until this past year, 2019 was one of the busiest years of my life and one where I had the fewest internal resources to deal with it. When I was 25, I could eat “busy” for breakfast, but with a full-time job, finishing my Master’s degree, raising a toddler, and trying to be a present and contributing husband, that wasn’t so easy. There was just so little room for art-making at that time. I want to say that I had big dreams in that last post, but they actually seemed pretty modest: Try find some light of inspiration/motivation to write music.

So, what happened? You won’t need all three guesses, but I want to follow-up my previous post and keep a record of how things actually transpired.

Our program’s last performance was at the Optimist Festival in February of 2020, and things started to change shortly after. We had our last Jazz Band rehearsal in the first week of March, where after weeks of hashing out Chick Corea’s “Spain” and Charles Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song,” they were finally starting to take shape. We actually got to celebrate their hard work. That was last time we played together that year. We had class until the week before Spring Break at the end of the month, then it was all online from there.

And this is where things take a turn. It had still been a busy 2020 up until that point, but with normal busy things. Senior Symphonic Camp (which my teaching partner ran, but it was still in our calendar), marks being due and semester change, then festival performance and prep for the Cantando Festival in April. I thought to myself, “at least we still have child care and I can recharge a bit during Spring Break before this push into remote learning.” Our private child care ended on the Tuesday of Spring Break, to be reassessed every month, so our two-year old was home with us full-time. My wife is an intake worker for the counselling department of a benefits company and she was starting to work from home, but needed her own space to answer calls and privacy for the confidentiality of said calls, so her handling child care wasn’t in the cards. That’s not to say that we didn’t come visit her in her office sometimes, but she certainly couldn’t be downstairs making muffins with us if there were no calls. The public health advisories at the time told us to keep our bubble small and not to introduce seniors into it, as they were more at risk, so that ruled out parents. That left me as the primary child care provider.

Now, this is where the story leaves some room for interpretation. I’m old enough to know that there’s what I feel happened, and what really happened, and here’s a hint: they aren’t the same story.

As our department was figuring out how to deliver online learning for the first time, we decided that Band was to be the delivery mechanism for a lot of the online teaching, because everyone in Jazz Band also had to be in Band — it was the biggest umbrella. My teaching partner and the primary band teacher, Michael Brandon, was an absolute champ. He did so much research and troubleshooting and content delivery that he really kept that boat afloat. I taught Music History every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 11:15-12:20, timing it with my wife’s lunch break so that she could have our two-year old during that time. I would still have lots of correspondence with the kids, but my only time free of child care was from 6:00am-9:00am, then from 4:30-7:00, unless my wife worked late, then I would just work later in the night. To the students last year who got emails from me at six in the morning, or at seven-p.m., sorry about that. It was the only time I could do it. Anyway, It turned into my wife and I being on the clock from about 6:00am to about 8:00pm, then we’d hang out for an hour and collapse into bed. I was doing my best, she was amazing, but it was totally unsustainable.

I thought child care might resume by May; it did not. June? It did not. But surely, summer in Manitoba was in pretty good shape, so maybe July? Nope. Maybe I’d get one month of rest in August. I’m afraid not. The tough reality that I had to face was that we wouldn’t have child care until September. We would later learn that there was more to the story that we’d previously known and that our provider was going through health and other things, so there are no hard feelings. That being said, when I found out that day care wasn’t resuming in August, I smashed the shopvac into my garage wall until it broke apart. That’s not generally the kind of person I am, but that’s where I was at.

Now, there is a lot of truth in that, but there’s more to the story. My wife and I really struggling with the demands of work and parenting by about May, so we had to open up our bubble to include our parents. We just couldn’t handle the intensity, alongside the social anxiety of just existing in this time, managing the fear and isolation. My in-laws took Milo one day a week (sometimes more), which turned into the day where I could turn the proverbial amps to eleven and connect with kids, deliver content, mark, assess, and actually do my job while the sun was up. It wasn’t a rest day, it was a catch up one. My parents had him on the weekend too, sometimes. It was just such a difficult feeling to navigate, between safety and self-preservation. I know that’s a bit melodramatic, but that’s how it felt; again, how I felt versus what really happened.

By the time the school year was over, I was totally fried. It’s not like my proverbial tank was empty, the “Check Gauge” light was frantically blinking. But, it was nice outside now and restrictions were lifting a bit because we had low case numbers, so my small fry and I could actually do things. We could go to a park, we could go to the splash pad, have picnics, stop at the coffee shop and pick up a treat… there were things to do.

Here’s the most important part: Even though I was beyond exhausted and solo-parenting for the summer days (mostly, but not entirely), it really cemented my son and I’s relationship. Everyone I talked to about it said that this will be a gift and, while I couldn’t feel it at the time, they were right. He and I have a really awesome bond. Mom is still the favourite, but I’m a pretty close second.

Near the end of that summer, we actually secured child care in a children’s centre for September in our neighbourhood. We had wanted to get in there for some time, and we had been a pretty squeaky wheel, but it was finally happening. Of course, I’d be back at work, but at least we had care and our guy could meet the kids he’d eventually go to school with… and just in time for me to go back to work.

While I missed my little guy dreadfully when I went back, I was not in a good place when I started work again, and I knew that I wouldn’t be. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t going to come back energized and that that would need to be okay. I lined up counselling, I had a plan to stay active, and I was going to take sick days when I needed them. I knew that my students would need a lot from me, so I needed to get myself in a position where I had the most to give (within reason). By October, I was seriously considering taking a leave, and the second wave was just beginning.

While we had child care, we couldn’t see our parents around this time and that was really hard for everyone. I got through my funk and came out the other side (as we often do), but the alternating days of A-K and L-Z high school classes were very challenging on a pedagogical and musical level. October would deal one more gutpunch, though: by the end of the month, we couldn’t play instruments in class anymore. Sure, we had to play with masks, instrument covers, be six-to-nine feet apart and at about 25% capacity, but we could play.

Some teachers hadn’t been playing all year, which must have been a really difficult decision to make and has very few silver linings. We knew it might be coming down the pipe, but seeing as the world has so few crystal balls right now, it’s hard to see anything a few weeks in advance sometimes. We had to reinvent, and it was fun for a while (boomwhackers, bucket drumming, basic keyboarding, documentaries, etc.), we all really just wanted to make music together again, and we still do.

And we will. It will either get warmer outside and we can play out there, or restrictions will change and we can play indoors. People will get vaccinated and the numbers will continue to drop (hopefully before a third wave, but see the sentence above about crystal balls). For me, I actually need some time off, so I’m looking forward to the end of the month where I can get a week of solitude at Spring Break.

It’s okay not to find a silver lining in all of this. To use my teaching partner’s analogy, it’s okay to be mad that we were building a sandcastle for decades and something came to knock it all away. There’s loss here: loss of time, loss of energy and motivation, loss of arts students in our programs, loss of musical moments in our day, and for a lot of people, a loss of life of those around them.

It’s also okay to keep persevering in spite of loss. It’s possible to feel gutpunched about kids dropping our programs, while still showing up for the ones that stayed and giving them the best experience we can, given the circumstances. I don’t find a lot of silver linings in this past academic year, but here’s the most important one to me: Life keeps throwing obstacles at these kids, and a lot of them keep showing up. I’m not saying we should praise kids on their resilience (because they don’t want to hear that, they want to play volleyball or go to a movie theatre and they’d take that over resilience any day of the week), I’m saying we should keep giving them something to show up for. We need to be grown-ups they look up to and keep finding ways to build their ability and skill sets in our educational areas. One transformational paradigm in our program was shifting to online rehearsals, and like the previous remote materials, my teaching partner spearheaded this and he is a rock star for all of the work he’s done for our department.

Now, online rehearsals aren’t perfect–not even close! BUT, they do enable us to play our instruments and work on music in some capacity. When Manitoba high schools went remote in January, we shifted to playing online and, in some crazy form, we could make music together. The kids could unmute their mics, play something that we’re working on, and we could celebrate some great sounds together. As a teacher, it’s amazing how quickly my music ped language came back: “Okay, clarinets, let’s hold that all the way to the end of that line,” or “lots of support here, lows!” or “One, two, three, no-breath-no-breath-no-breath-no-breath-all-the-way!” hahaha.

That gets old too, don’t get me wrong, but it’s something. The absence of music is the wound, online rehearsals are the gauze and pressure, and band rehearsal is the ambulance; we just need to keep gauze and pressure on the wound until the ambulance gets here.

And it will. Keep fighting the good fight teachers and students. We’re all in this together. Let’s keep showing up for one another, support each other when we need it, and be patient with ourselves and lean on others when we can’d do it ourselves. If Band is the biggest team we’ll ever play on, let’s show the world how true that really is.

Thanks for reading.

Music Ed Monday – Assignments for Days Without Playing

Hey team. I’ve been thinking about ways to help my fellow teachers in these uncertain times, especially considering that we won’t be playing very much to help stem transmission of COVID-19. So, I thought I’d share some of the materials/assignments that I’ve got for when we’re not playing.

1959 – The Year That Changed Jazz

Four big jazz albums were released in 1959: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, Time Out by Dave Brubeck, Mingus Ah Um from Charles Mingus, and The Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette Coleman. There’s this tremendous documentary about that one year, which I’ve included above. I find that it’s a great way to introduce what and who to listen to for my Grade 10 Jazz students when they start my program. The assignment has two parts: Firstly, comprehension questions (with timecodes for each answer, so they can make the connection between the question and the correct answer) and a long answer response at the end, where they need to listen to one of the four albums from to back.

(Also important: The timecodes are for the video above, but I don’t think it’s available on mobile. That being said, other ones are)

1959 – The Year That Changed Jazz Assignment

Eric Whitacre (Oxford Union) Response

One of the things I love above Eric is hearing him speak about his musical experience and craft. He’s very eloquent and well-spoken, but also talks about composition in a way that’s easy for people to relate to.

Here’s a response that I’d give to my Composition class (but is applicable to anyone).

Eric Whitacre (Oxford Union) Assignment

Jazz Profiles (NPR) Assignment

There is this amazing series from NPR called “Jazz Profiles” that’s made up of one-hour episodes about jazz musicians of the 20th-century. Each episode focuses on a different artist and is a great way to introduce students to some of the masters.

Here is the link to show.

Here is a link to the assignment.

Miles Davis Album Review Assignment

A few years back, one of my bands went through a big Miles phase, especially his later stuff, so I tried to follow their interest with an album review assignment. In the end, it turned into a project done in pairs as a sort of “gallery walk” through Miles’ discography. It also engaged the kids in listening to some of the difficult fusion stuff, which was a good exercise in itself.

I can’t find the rubric right now, so you might be on your own for that one, but here’s the assignment anyway.

Miles Davis Album Review Assignment

Bach and Beethoven – Being Subversive in a Culture of Polite Music

This assignment explores how Western culture has made Classical Music more “respectable” by wallpapering over this less-than-savoury parts its composers life. CBC’s Michael Enright did an awesome interview with Ted Gioia that explores how Bach and Beethoven were more subversive than history often tells, but also that said subversion also informs so much of their art-making.

You can listen to the CBC Interview here.

And here is the assignment.


Okay, team, it’s a start! I hope that helps!

Let’s do our best and get through this.


New Year, Old Me.

On paper, last year was a pretty incredible year. In the first half of 2019, I completed my Master’s degree in Composition (with the gold medal for the Graduate Music program, so it went well), I taught a lot of amazing kids and made some wonderful music, and I was flown out to Arizona State University for the American premiere of “Transcendent Light.” I got some articles published in our national band journal and I presented at our provincial music conference in front of my peers. On the home front, my family was doing great, my then-one-year old was growing and changing… everything was in good shape.

Transcendent Light, performed by the Arizona State University Wind Ensemble, Barrett Choir, and Choral Union and conducted by Dr. Jason Caslor.

When summer finally came and I had July and August away from work, I crashed incredibly hard – harder than ever before. The intensity of my graduate degree while teaching full-time and being a present and involved father while still trying to be a working composer finally caught up with me. While there have been summers that started as burnout (like watching “The Office” from my couch for a week straight), I usually came out of it within a week or two and then was back to my old self. That didn’t happen this time.

I spent a lot of the summer despondent and overspent. I felt the absence of presence, like I was floating through the days as they slipped away toward September, when I’d have to go back to work. In hindsight, I’m quite certain this is what depression felt like for me; not feeling sad, but instead, the absence of feelings, like being a shell of oneself. For the first summer in recent memory (or maybe ever), I didn’t do anything creative – I didn’t make anything.

It was like plugging in your phone after the battery dies – it doesn’t turn on, just a white plug and a lightning bolt against a black background. It’s on, but it can’t really do anything.

When I got back to work, the metaphorical phone was functional, but it was nowhere near 100%, probably less than 50%. I started some small contract work lined up since before the summer and it took me months to finish (I just finished it today, in fact), and old me would have hammered it out in six weeks.

Something needed to change. For the last few years, I’ve been feeling that the work/life balance (whatever that even means) has been climbing to an unsustainable place and, this year, it got there. I often had this diagram in my mind:

Let’s be clear: That doesn’t mean I’m going to quit my job or shut out the world or anything, but that I needed to find ways to keep my head above water.

After much discussion with my wife, I started going for counselling and it has made a really big difference. We talk a lot about protecting time in a variety of contexts. Maybe it’s going to the gym on my lunch break at work, or declining new contracts/commissions if there isn’t time/energy to do them, or bringing my toddler to day care even if I’m home on a week day. It’s also amazing how effective it is to just say something out loud to someone – that’s a big part of it too.

It really came to a head a few weeks ago, when I was talking to my wife about how I had no drive to make anything and that I missed being creative. Her eyes lowered as she spoke: “That doesn’t sound like you. You used to love being creative.”

So one of my goals for this year is try and find my way back to the person that I really enjoyed being, someone who is creative and has ideas about people, art, and the world again. It’s not a resolution, but more of a goal. Here are some steps that I’m planning on taking:

  • Protect my time, either at work, home, family, or leisure time.
  • Work on things that are meaningful to me (and to not work on things that aren’t).
  • Develop more rituals that are nourishing, like date nights with my wife or non-negotiable times to work out during the day.
  • Be more organized at work.
  • Engage in energizing solitude where I can.
  • Spend more time with my friends and family too.

I know that my life has changed now, but it can be as nourishing as it once while still being different, and I think that I’m off to a good start. As I’m writing this, I feel good. I’ve got some musical ideas spinning around and feel pretty good going back to work on Monday. I’ve had some excellent family time these last two weeks and built back some important bridges in my social groups (which I’ve neglected over the past year).

I know the saying goes “new year, new you,” but for me, “new year, old you” is where I’m headed.

Onwards and upwards, everyone.

The Past Year and the Next!

How can it be that it be that I haven’t updated this website in seven months? Wow, we’d better get started.

IMG_6691.JPG2017 was an amazing year, both personally and professionally.  Let’s start with the personal stuff:

  • My son was born on November 4th! He’s just the best.
  • I started grad school and am actually doing university right.  More on that later.
  • I made some of the best beer I’ve ever made in my entire life (A citric IPA, a Cascade SMaSH Pale Ale, and a vanilla bourbon stout, if anyone is interested.)
  • My podcast/YouTube show about video game music, Into the Score, is starting to gain some traction.  Maybe you’d like to watch it?

And now, the professional stuff:


  • I taught a great year at my school, Lord Selkirk Regional Comprehensive Secondary School.
  • I wrote a three-movement work for band and choir called “Transcendent Light” and it had the most glorious premiere by the Winnipeg Wind Ensemble the Manitoba Music Educators’ Association.  It was inspired by Ken Epp, who gave so much strength to music education in our province.  I am so grateful that I got to write the piece.
  • I wrote a piece for 150 trumpets for a Canada 150 brass concert in Regina, Saskatchewan (that’s in Canada, btw).  Also, I got to hang out with Pete Meechan and Michelle Styles, who are two of the most wonderful musicians and composers you’ll ever meet.
  • I worked with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra on two separate occasions: I did seven of ten arrangements for their “Manitoba, mon amour” show that celebrated Franco-Manitobain musicians in WinnipegIMG_6561and I did four pieces for Faouzia and the WSO for the Canada 150 Canada Day show at the Forks.
  • “The Matters of Kindness” is finally published! It’s going out with Grand Mesa Music in Spring 2018 and I hope that every band in the world plays it.
  • I’m still working on Ship Out of Luck by Complex Games.  It is really coming along – this game is going to make waves.  It’s looking and sounding so amazing.
  • I wrote a euphonium concerto, am setting my “Prairie Trombone Suite” for band, and have some new work under my belt for the coming year.
  • Published two articles in the Canadian Winds!

There’s a lot coming up on the horizon, so stay tuned!

Let’s have a great year.



Music Ed Monday – New Show, Same Nerd.

After weeks and weeks of researching, reading, recording, filming and editing, my new show launches today.  The original “Into the Score” ran from 2004 to 2007; it was a time where I was a very different person, or at least I thought I was.

If anyone who’s reading this knows me personally, you’ll probably know that I’ve been interested in video game music for the majority of my life.  If we’ve ever spoken more deeply, you might know that I’m particularly interested in studying it and seeing how it works musically, in culture, and in the game.

The big difference between launching the original show in my early twenties and this one in my mid-thirties isn’t just that it’s video this time.  To be honest, I am becoming one of those adults who gets more scared to take risks as I’m getting older.  I remember a stand-up comic saying that in a bit I saw: “Make sure you do things when you’re young because you’ll get too scared as you get older.”

I’m not scared of the work or the know-how, it’s something that our kids struggle with in our classrooms: The willingness to show people who you really are and to show them what you really care about.

As a now-steadily-working professional musician, I was really worried that my show would sabotage my composing career.  It might still wreck it, but I’m not worried about that anymore… because it might not.  I needed to take the advice that I give to kids all the time: “People will be more interested if you’re real and genuine with them.” Also this gem: “Everyone is too busy doubting themselves to doubt you.”  Or maybe this one: “People are interested in people who have cool and unique interests.” Seriously, I’ve got a hundred of’em.

It’s risky to go out and spread words that we believe in, but if we don’t say them, then who will? It’s okay to disagree, it’s okay to be judged, but we might be creating the very content that someone has been looking for their whole lives.  That might sound unreasonable, but that was often the response that I got for the first “Into the Score” thirteen years ago.

The early 2000s was the infancy of podcasting.  It’s true, there were podcasts before “Serial” and it was an amazing time to be creating content.  There were many shows about video game music, but they were all jukebox-style without a lot of meat to them.  I wanted something that really dug into the music, the game, the culture around it, and it’s place in the canon of gaming.  I found nonsuch podcast, so I made one and “Into the Score” had a devoted cult following.

(I’m serious, I got an email last week about it and it ended ten years ago.)

The new “Into the Score” is an unabashed, heart-on-your-sleeve, x-to-the-power-of-nerd show about studying video game music and I’d love if you would check it out.  Share it wildly with your friends, family, co-workers, students, etc.

And, if you’re so inclined, please become a patron and support the show financially (and get some cool rewards!) :

Thanks for all of your support, everyone.  Say what you mean, mean what you say, and let’s make the world a better place.


Into the Score – RELAUNCH

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.


Music Ed Monday – Radical Empathy

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!


Music Ed Monday – It Depends on the Room

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.

nowwhatSome 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.

Photo Cred:

Cello –

Now What? –