Kenley Kristofferson


Tag: music

Music Ed Monday – Lighthouse Music (Part 1)



Hey team,

I love music – I really do. I think about it quite a lot, but when both my day and night jobs are music, sometimes I get so burned out that I can’t see the forest from the trees; or rather, the beauty in the sonic fabric from the succession of pitches in a unidirectional harmonic progression.

Sometimes, we play music; sometimes, we work music. When the grind of it starts to get to me, I often have this small voice in my mind that whispers: “I do love this, right? Right…?”

And I know that I do, but it’s almost like being lost at sea at times and I really need a lighthouse to bring me back. I call these songs/pieces/works lighthouse music because it helps bring my musical ear to shore. Here are a few of them:


Morten Lauridsen – Lux Aeterna

I keep trying to write about this, but I just can’t. It speaks to me in a way that transcends line and harmony and craft. It’s one of the few pieces that I don’t analyze and I just let it wash over me (and I’ve studied/listened to a lot of Lauridsen). And this monstrously good performance sure doesn’t hurt either.

When I hear this, I sometimes tell myself: “This is what light sounds like.” It’s as though the light embraces me, it pulls me in and surrounds me. That’s how I feel when I hear Lux Aeterna.


Lord of the Rings (Annie Lennox) – Into the West

I never know what to write about this, other than it moves me every time I hear it. I always want to be technical about it – you know, “the lyrics,” “the tone,” “the orchestration…” But I don’t know, I feel things when I hear it and I feel like that needs to be enough.

As someone who has read all of Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion, the Children of Húrin, the Unfinished Tales (you get the picture), the narrative runs pretty deep for me. There’s something about Into the West at that point in the story that speaks to me in a very authentic way–leaving friends behind, being unable to live in the world you used to, saying goodbye…

(And all the technical things too. It’s one heck of a performance).


Final Symphony – Born with the Gift of Magic (Final Fantasy VI)

For anyone who’s into music from video games, Final Fantasy VI is core repertoire and there have been countless orchestrations of it (even when an orchestra is entirely unnecessary for the musical goal, but that’s a whole other can of worms). As someone who knows this score inside and out, I’ve always been waiting for someone to take the musical material and work the heck out of it, which is what Born with the Gift of Magic is; in fact, the entire Final Symphony concert/album does it.

The orchestration, structure, and performance is amazing, but the thematic layering is a grad-school level assembly of the musical material that mirrors the narrative. It’s not just a medley, it’s the central conflict of the game and it’s all framed in the series most iconic sequence (the opera, if you’re wondering, which is also the unifying structure of the game). It’s genius… out of this world…  Ah! The craft!


Ingrid Michaelson – The Chain (Live from Webster Hall)

My wife and I listened to this album quite a lot when our son was first born, sometimes at 4am while bouncing on an exercise ball, counting the seconds until he’d fall asleep again. I must have heard this song a hundred times, but I still love it, maybe because it takes me back to that crazy period…

Also, dodie/orla/lauren’s is really great too. There’s this really beautiful purity in their voices, the kind that only comes from young people who love to sing.


What are some of your lighthouse songs/pieces/works? Post in the comments or reach out on facebook/twitter! I’d love to hear from you.

Keep fighting the good fight.

Music Ed Monday – The Long Game

I’m writing this as my baby is fussing in the crib beside me — not crying or screaming, just kind of whining.

We’re in the midst of sleep training our seven-month old and there are many days where I feel like what we’re doing just isn’t working.  Even a week into this, there is still a lot of fussing and particularly around nap time.

It makes me think a lot of picking/rehearsing repertoire. As music educators, it’s one of the most important parts of our job: Picking the right rep for the right band. If I had a nickel for every time I said “I really like this piece, but it’s not right for this group…”

The strange thing is that sometimes I pick a piece of rep that I think is a great choice for my band and, despite my best efforts to pre-teach the concepts, it just doesn’t work; it may not even work for a few weeks.

If you’ve been there, you know the questions we ask ourselves: Did I misjudge the piece? Or my group? Why isn’t it working? And then the logical last question: Do I pull it?

Sometimes, the right decision is to pull it, right? How long as an ensemble do we decide to keep banging this square peg into a round hole? And no one is enjoying it at that point either (including us teachers) and we’re just dragging the band up the hill. Now we’re a month behind schedule and we have fill this gap left by this piece that we thought was going to be great.

This is how I feel about sleep training.  There are many days where I just bang my head against the wall and feel like a terrible parent, especially in the beginning.

On the other hand, there are times where my baby actually stops crying and falls asleep by himself and those are wonderful moments. They don’t happen every time, but they happen sometimes. Many parents tell me that’s normal and that I shouldn’t expect every nap to be a magical perfect experience…

… Just like a rehearsal, right? Some days, it’s two steps forward and one step back; and others, it’s one step forward and two steps back.  Those are the days we need to review.

And then the days get better. The baby needs to learn how to sleep and the band needs to learn how to work through pieces they can’t nail on the first read. In short, both the baby and the band need to work through things they can’t immediately do and that’s okay. It’s okay if it’s hard.

In my earlier years, I would give my senior big band a piece that was pretty above-level for them in September. To be sure, the band would usually listen to a recording of it and really like it, then barely get through four bars of it. I reassured them that it probably wouldn’t sound good until November, but that this was the next level and we needed to work on how to learn it. We needed to practice how to practice it.  I still think that there’s educational merit in it, but there’s a particular personal merit too.

As I’m writing this line, the baby is now sleeping. It took a few pick-ups and put-downs, a couple of head rubs, and a handful of shushes (and some screaming later on, on his part), but he did it.  It wasn’t a pretty hour of fussing–67 minutes, to be exact–but he got it.

Baby sleeping in crib

(not my baby, I found this one at

To bring this back to my big band, they usually started putting the above-level piece together around late November. And let me tell you, when something technical falls into place, it is joy that we rarely experience as educators because there is genuine accomplishment and success in the band and they know it. They worked hard and could do something that they couldn’t do before, then we give them genuine praise for their sincere accomplishment.

There is value in playing the long game.

That brings us back to the question: Do I pull it? If we believe in the piece and believe in the band, are we willing to play the long game, especially when there isn’t as much gratification during the day-to-day? Truthfully, maybe we can structure in more short-term gratification with smart pedagogy and rehearsal strategies, but the long game is the long game, no matter how you slice it.

With baby, we’re in this sleep training business for the long haul. The baby rests better and longer, and also is in a deeper sleep. And hey, we adults have more time during the day to do what we need (like writing a blog post?) so everyone wins, but especially baby.

If it’s the right piece, the band can also be the one that wins, not only by performing the piece well, but actively working through material that’s difficult and challenging for them–I say again, there is educational value in that! It’s a gift in life we can give to our students. Not only can we can teach them how to persist through adversity, but we can do it while making music.


P. S. …aaaaaaand they’re awake. A 20-minute nap? I thought they were supposed to sleep longer and better! Ugh, two steps forward…

Music Ed Monday – …Because They’re Hard

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.


How I walk with an analog stick.

[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 AdventureA 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?]

Water-TempleI 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.

In Music…

  • the more rhythm you read, the easier it becomes.
  • the more you sightread, the easier sightreading becomes.
  • the more keys you read in, the easier key becomes.
  • the more high range you play in, the easier high range passages become.
  • the more low range you play in, the easier low range passages become.
  • the more you practice listening for pitch, the easier playing in tune becomes.

It’s not always that it’s hard, just that it requires more practice 🙂




[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…)



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:

Prairie Wedding is Available!

Prairie Wedding COVER

Happy Easter!

The day is here! Prairie Wedding is published and available for purchase! You can find it at the Daehn Publications website! (or your favourite local music dealer!)

It feels like so long ago that I submitted it for the 2012 CBA Composition Competition and here we are, halfway through 2014 and it’s finally in print.  I don’t mean that in a critical way – that’s just how long things take in the arts, especially when publication is involved.

I am so, so, so grateful to Larry Daehn for taking a risk on my and publishing BOTH Filum Vitae and Prairie Wedding.  Seriously, what a great human being.

Below is a recording by the ever-awesome Cleveland Symphonic Winds under the direction of Loras John Schissel.

Music Ed Monday – The Big Leagues

When I walked into Complex Games that fateful Spring day of 2013, I saw 3D models of, what looked like, the nephews from DuckTales, but immediately put it aside.  I had a meeting with Noah Decter-Jackson (the CEO of the studio) because he wanted to talk to me about an upcoming project.

“… No…” I thought to myself in disbelief.  “I must be mistaken.”

I guess I was trying not to get my hopes up.  Then I passed another monitor and they were tweaking some colour on Scrooge McDuck’s smoking jacket.  Could it be…?

Then I saw Noah and we smiled and shook hands.  He invited me into his office and we caught up for a while (I had been doing contract work for Complex Games for about seven years at this point, so we’ve got a great relationship).  Off the cuff, I said: “Wow, this new game looks a lot like DuckTales!” To which he smiled and said “it is DuckTales.  Have a seat.”

The moment of rising anxiety-mixed-with-excitement is what I’ve come to call the “big leagues” feeling.  That was the first time I ever really felt like I was in over my head.  I was playing in the big leagues.

He walked me through the level design and we determined what would need music and how much.  It was only six tunes and I knew that I could do it, but the quality had to be so, so, so, so high.  I make my stuff as high-quality as I can, but it’s rare that I’ll be lying awake at 11:30 worrying if I put too much mid in the bass EQ.

(That specific example is below.  Seriously, it’s the most iconic bass line in Disney, which will bring me to my next point:)

It’s important not only to want to do a good job, but the other side of that coin is the overbearing feeling of “don’t screw it up.”  And it really is a ton of work.  A metric ton.  Of work.  It’s a ton work that you want to be great, but also to not screw up.

It is so messed up, but I got it done and I grew for it.  I was better for it.  It leads up to something I’ve told my students quite often, best articulated by Courage Wolf:

courage-wolf-bite-off-more-than-you-can-chewThe feeling of being overwhelmed by contibuting something that you believe is beyond you is called a great opportunity for growth.  By going through those feelings of stress, of working so hard you don’t think you can keep going, of continual revision, of the pursuit of your personal best and a constant and consistent strive for excellence, you enable yourself to grow.

I still get those feelings.  I got them with my next contract, KRE-O: CityVille Invasion when I saw toys for the game I was making.  I’m currently working on Betty Boop Dance Card for iOS and I still get those feelings.  Last week, I was so stressed that all I could think about was throwing up and scotch.  But hey, guess what? I made it through without either throwing up or scotch.  When you play in the big leagues, the big league feelings never go away.

Growth is never easy and it rarely feels good until after it’s over.

In teaching, this is what the musical feels like.  It’s two weeks before the show, it’s 9pm on a Tuesday and I just want to go home.  But we aren’t done yet.  We’ve been working on these scenes for months because that’s how long it takes and it has to be good.  That’s one part; the other part (as the pitband director) is don’t screw it up because the singers/actors/dancers are depending on you.  And then the show happens and it’s amazing and we’re so proud of everyone.  At that point, we know that it’s worth it and everyone grew even though it was so much work because it was so much work.

That’s what growth looks like.  You don’t get to grow by doing things you can already do, you grow by doing things you can’t.  You grow by throwing yourself in, drowning for a bit, stressing, struggling, busting your butt, then eventually figuring things out, then working some more, then getting it, then tweaking, then perfecting, then feeling awesome.

So bite off more than you can chew… then chew it.

Music Ed Monday – When They Miss the Beauty

While at Grade 10 Band Camp, the chaperones (all of whom were educators) were discussing the trials of teaching and one of them said something that I haven’t forgotten:

What really troubles me isn’t when they don’t get the material, but when they resist it.  If they’re trying, then they’ll get it eventually, but when they resist it, they will always miss the beauty.

That’s what is really tragic to her: When they miss the beauty.

And we’ve all been there, right? The hashing of parts, the correction of chromatics, the clapping of rhythms, etc.  We know, it’s boring.  It’s boring for them and it’s boring for us.

But it’s okay because we have one-liners to quell their frustration, right? “You can’t access the music if notes and rhythms are in the way,” or “actors can’t make magic on the stage if they’ve still got their heads in their lines.”

Not that I pretend to have any answers, but the older I get, the further I’m distancing myself from those common reasons.  I may find my way back, but this notion of “missing the beauty” has been with me for a few weeks.  I don’t make music for the notes/rhythms, I do it for the beauty.  So I’ve been asking myself how do I make sure they don’t miss the beauty?

That’s been the theme of this month.  Now what does that look like in the classroom?

It’s taken a lot of reflection and, for me, the beauty of a line is usually in its shape.  For non-musicians, that means the rise and fall of volume in a musical phrase.  What really gets me going is when the lines, volume, and intensity all move together.  To be said another way, the musician does what the music demands.


So, even in sightreading (even in technically difficult sightreading), I’ve always made sure that we got to rehearse shape once per rehearsal.  Even if it’s only eight bars, or four bars, or two bars, shape must be prevalent every time.

As it turns out, the kids are really driven by shape too.  Granted, kids are usually motivated and excited by the things that do so for their teacher – it was tuning/pitch for me in high school – but this seems to really connect my kids to the emotional feeling of the music and it does so quickly.  Mr. Cooper from Music Ed blog Cooper’s Divertimento sums it up well:

It can be what Peter Boonshaft calls a “pearl”. It’s one thing per rehearsal that you really work to perfect so that the kids can experience something truly amazing in band that day. A crescendo, perhaps, or a single chord played beautifully. When a kid is part of making something like that happen, when it happens, they feel it somewhere deep down. Remember that feeling? It’s that feeling you get when something sounds so amazing that you just get pumped, or otherwise filled with excitement. If a kid doesn’t care, it’s probably because they either haven’t had that experience, or they haven’t had it regularly, or have been too long without it.

Going back to band camp, I made it my mission to find this feeling in our brass and percussion sectional.  Going into that rehearsal, I really had to fight my “band teaching” toolbelt, to go outside my comfort zone and try something new.  Teach them the thing(s) that make you love making music.  Pick one thing and do it.

Shape.  Shape.  Shape.

I didn’t focus too much on basics because, strangely, they fixed themselves on their own.  As they grew through the phrase, some player’s bad tone got better with more air.  Any wrong notes and rhythms were corrected either by their ears or their classmates and they didn’t need to me to tell them.  When it sounds wrong, they know, and they want to fix it 🙂

We were rehearsing Brian Balmage’s Whale Warriors and there was one moment where the melody was in three different one-bar statements in the low brass.  Where’s the story? Find it and tell it with shape.  Now teach them that.


Crescendo for three beats, then descrescendo on beat four. (if each bar is like a sentence, give the sentence some inflection)

The shape of the notation is very similar in each bar, so let’s find a way to make them different.

Now, make each bar slightly louder than the last one.  (take each sentence somewhere… or ‘when in doubt, move forward’)

And there it was.  The basics corrected themselves and the music happened.  The story was told and they knew it.  It was a great feeling in the room.  It was only four bars, but it was awesome.

I’ve been doing it for a month and I really like it.  I feel like I have a little pearl every day.  Granted, the pace of learning the notation is slower, but the ecstacy of playing the music is more present.  For me, that’s a good trade-off 🙂

Have any great pearls? Or great stories about these moments? Leave them in the comments section!

Until next time,

Music Ed Monday – The Double Bind of Truth-Telling

So, I’m reading a book that’s blowing my mind.

It’s called The Curse of the Good Girl and it’s by Rachel Simmons.  I’ve had it on my book shelf for about three years – I bought it in the same shopping trip as The Purity Myth, which also blew my mind.  Clearly, this was a good day at the bookstore.

The Curse of the Good Girl is primarily about teaching adults about the internal struggle that girls, particularly teenage ones, face while trying to balance being “good” and being themselves.  From there, adults can better communicate with their daughters/co-workers/students with a context of how they’re actually doing internally.  In fairness, this is also true for guys, but in the spirit of the book, I’ll stick with girls.

curseI gave some excerpts to my Grade 12s and there was a strong censensus of “yep, that’s how it is,” which is difficult because we work really hard to teach living an authentic life in all of our Music classes.  In the excerpt, some of the girls in the book were asked make a list of what constitutes a “good girl” and some descriptors included: quiet, good grades, no opinions on things, follower, well rounded, tons of friends, generous, boyfriend, conservative, doesn’t show skin, people pleaser, has to do every right, doesn’t get mad, skinny, organized…

… and the list goes on.  First off, does that list strike anyone as even remotely possible? Yet, that’s the expectation.  Before you even try, culture has already shown young girls that they can’t win.  That’s the theme of this post: You can’t win.

(Also, it breaks my heart to see “no opinions on things” is considered a desirable quality… ugh)

After the girls from the book made that list, they made a list of what constitutes a “bad girl” and that looks like this: speaks her mind, loud, proud, rule breaker, doesn’t care about her body, doesn’t care what people think, parties, piercings, rebel, slut, center of attention… and the list goes on.

So, according to them, speaking your mind, not caring what people think, or being proud and loud are not socially-acceptable attributes.  Most adults get out of this (though I can certainly think of ones that haven’t), but kids are still stuck in this web.

When I showed this to the Grade 12 girls, some of them had grown out of this way of thinking, but they affirmed that that mindset was real when they were younger.  But worse than the acknowledgement of both sets of lists is that the adults in their lives are trying to tell them to do something else.  We’re telling them to be themselves, not to care what other people think, to speak their mind, to be well-rounded and others.  We’re really picking from both lists because the lists don’t exist to us.  However, they do exist to them.

Now the student has to be good to their peers while still trying to be good for the adults.  They are now caught in a double bind that they can’t win.

Do you remember that feeling?

This double bind is perfectly, but differently, depicted when it comes to Chapter 3 of the book, which is about the politics of female fighting.  Simmons writes: “Some girls told me that denial was the only safe alternative, because they felt punished by peers when they tried to be honest and when they tried to avoid confrontation altogether.  Rebekah, a junior, articulated a troubling double bind of truth-telling among girls:

“If you’re honest, you get the reputation of being a bitch, because you’re just, like, PMS-y all the time, so you don’t confront people, and [then] you’re a bitch because you’re hiding your feelings… So it’s just easier to, like, lie and completely forget about it.  Either way you’re going to be considered an angry bitch because you don’t about it or an angry bitch because you brought it up.”

Again, either way, you can’t win.  To be said another way, Simmons writes this:

“[Girls] sort of make it a battle instead of just, like, a conversation,” fourteen year old Sarah said.  “It’s, like, who can play their cards the best, instead of how can we figure this out together.”

doubndWhat’s interesting about fourteen-year-old-Sarah’s statement is that she demonstrates understanding of how it should be handled.  From that perspective, she has an interesting internal struggle between what she and everyone else is doing versus what she should be doing.  And in this position in that age, you guessed it, you can’t win.

Can you imagine anything more infuriating than playing a game for years and years that you can’t win? I’ll bet you can because you probably did.  I probably did too.  Maybe you grew up and stopped playing, or maybe you grew up and didn’t and are still playing the same games at work or with your family.

This is where our book from the last post, The Art of Possibility, begins.  Why play a game you can’t win? Then, it does something interesting: It presents you with a possibility that you may not have considered: you can stop playing, then it tells you how 🙂

I really recommend both The Curse of the Good Girl and The Art of Possibility, whether you’re a parent or a teacher or a kid.  Allow yourself to be challenged, don’t give up, and consciously think about the material.  Even if you don’t agree.  Especially if you don’t agree.


Get reading 🙂

– Kenley

Music Ed Monday – Little one, what do you choose to be when you grow up?

At the beginning of this year, we had a PD session on character development which really changed the way that think about teaching.  It didn’t change it in a philosophical way, but more in a practical and pragmatic way.  It’s good that you want to make kids more successful and happier people, but how do you actually do it in a classroom day to day?

I didn’t have all the answers that day because no one ever does.  You will just never, ever have all of the answers.  As soon as you resign yourself to that, you can start making progress.

So no, I didn’t get all the answers, but I got a few.  I got enough to get started.  Even moreso, I got enough to get me even more curious.

I started talking to other teachers around the school about the PD and it was largely well-received.  One teacher in particular (and who I have tremendous respect for) said she’d been interested in pragmatic character education for a while and had just finished a thought-provoking book about it.  It was called How Children Succeed: How Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough and she very kindly lent it to me.

I started reading it, but got overwhelmed at work and life and put it away for a while.  It wasn’t until two weeks ago that I really started digging into it again and I’m so glad I did.  It’s challenged me a lot while still giving me some tools to teach character education more effectively.

Several sections stuck out to me, but I’ve been thinking about the upcoming section quite a bit over the past few days.  It involves a low-income middle school in the US called IS-318 and their exceptional chess program.   In an email exchange between the author and a Scottish chessmaster named Jonathan Rowson, the master writes about the difference between wanting something for yourself and choosing it:

When it comes to ambition… it is crucial to distinguish wanting something and choosing it.  Decide that you want to become a world champion… and you will inevitably fail to put in the necessary hard work.  You will not only not become world champion but also have the unpleasant experience of falling short of  desired goal, with all of the attendant disappointment and regret.  If, however, you choose to become world champion (as Kasparov did at a young age), then you will “reveal your choice through your behaviour and your determination.  Every action says ‘this is who I am.'”

Isn’t that fabulous? Much of the context around this chapter involves practicing chess for hours a day (three as the minimum example, twelve-to-fourteen with the book’s most extreme one), but the notion still stands.  If you’re going to do it, then do it.  If you’re going to use your passion as your label, then you better do your passion.

Sometimes, I wrestle with this as a composer.  During school start up, I rarely compose as much as I want/need to.  If I do write through September and October for a deadline, I usually crash hard at the end of November and all the way through until Winter holidays.  But in the interim, there’s that nagging feeling of “you should be doing something creative right now…” and you just don’t have it in you.

That “nagging feeling” also means that you’ve made that choice, and you’ve probably made it because you like it, or it gives you some sort of enjoyment or meaning.  Here’s another section from the How Children Succeed about that:

During one conversation I had with [the chess teacher] whether she ever felt that her students were sacrificing too much to succeed at chess.  She looked at me like I was crazy.  “What’s missing from that idea is that playing chess is, like, wonderful.”

If you love it and love doing it, then do more of it.  “You are revealing your choice through behaviour and determination” and every action says “this is who you are.”  I love that.  Even when I’m not writing and I’m exhausted and the last thing in the world I want to do is compose, I know that I still love it and that brings me back to the piano.

Sometimes it’s this…

happypianoAnd sometimes, it’s this…


But that’s what it takes if you want to be this…

The same applies to teachers as it does to students: Just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

If you are a student (or former student) reading this, what do you choose to be? Whatever it is you choose, know that you can do it.  You can do it.

You can do it.

… but it’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to do itself :).  There are never any substitutes for hard work, but there are a multitude of rewards.  Whether it’s seeing positive reinforcement on a paper you wrote, someone crediting your ideas, have a finished piece of art in front of your eyes, or seeing your work affect someone emotionally, the reason why it’s that good is because you put that much work into it.  But even moreso, all of your actions are a result of who you choose to be.

Think back to when you were a kid and an adult asked you what you wanted to be when you grow up? Reframe that situation and that wording: “Little one, what do you choose to be when you grow up?”

Let’s have a great week,

PS: For more positive results, see last week’s post.