Kenley Kristofferson


Tag: music ed

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 – Keep on Keepin’ On

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.



VGM Ed Mondnesday – “Dying Over and Over Repeatedly” or “Why Super Meat Boy Makes Students Into More Successful Human Beings”

Once upon a time, console platformers (Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, Wonder Boy, etc.) gave the player three lives to beat the level.  In the case of Super Mario Bros., you got three lives to beat the whole game.  You may be thinking “but you’ve got 1ups!” and yes, that’s true, but allow me to pull you into a stressful part of your past…

You (as Mario) are standing on a platform with a particularly treacherous jump.  There are hammer brothers and a smattering of koopa troopas that pass juuuuuuust at the time you need to jump.  Your heart races.  Your getting warm and your face is flushed.  Your breathing accelerates and one thought cuts into your consciousness:

I don’t know if I can make it and I only have three lives.

Then you jump… and you don’t make it.

You wasted one of your lives because you made a mistake, now you only have two lives left! You can’t get that life back!

However, you need to try again… and you die.  One life left.

In a last ditch effort to beat the level and continue forward to the game’s conclusion.  You attempt the terrifying jump… and you die.

Then you see it, what you’ve been dreading all along: GAME OVER.

Life message: You tried and you just weren’t good enough.

Let me present another scenario.  You see an amazing power-up at the top of the screen in an underwater level, but it’s being patrolled by cheep-cheeps and those squidy guys.  You mull it over in your head for a while, then remember that you only have three lives and you can’t risk it.

Life message: The best things in life have risk attached and, if you want to get to the end, it’s best not to go for them.

Now, I’m no educational psychologist or sociologist, but those sound like pretty bad messages to send to kids.   I know that there are no game designers laughing maniacally in some Japanese lab, trying to crush the dreams of schoolchildren, but the messages stand.  This is the plight of older console games, especially the ones at the nexus of limited lives and extreme difficulty.

Strangely, that nexus resonated with one of the game designers of Super Meat Boy.  In Indie Game: The Movie, Tommy Refenes talks about his love of hard games, especially older console games.  I say “strangely” because there is one real difference between Super Meat Boy and platformers across all gaming generations:

The player has unlimited lives.  It’s not even a cheat code, it’s a legitimate part of the game design.

The game is also punishingly difficult, and notoriously so.  And, as a player, it’s okay that the game is hard because I get an unlimited number of lives in order to achieve my goal.

Life message #1: You can always try again.

Furthermore, every level has an ending that’s really achievable and many people have done it.  That doesn’t mean that it’s not hard, it means that success is possible for every player and, as said above, you can always try again.

Life message #2: It’s hard, but you can do it.

Life message #3: You can achieve the success that other people have also achieved.  They are not special or better than you, they just put in the work and time it takes to be successful.

Because you have infinite lives, the player isn’t afraid to take risks because you can always try again.  There are no consequences for failure.  In fact, the respawn time after you die is almost immediate.  Imagine if, every time you failed, you immediately picked yourself up and tried something new?

Life message #4: In order to succeed, two of the most important qualities you must develop are persistency and resiliency.

The game requires you to take risks in order to find the solution because it’s often not where you expect, or it demands a certain level of ability.  If you have it, you’ll beat the level and continue to one more difficult; if you don’t, then you’ll die a whole bunch of times until you finally achieve the dexterity and finesse you need to win.

Life message #5: Practice makes perfect.

Life message #6: No risk, no return.

The amazing thing about Super Meat Boy is that it not only demands risk, it also demands failure.  You need to fall down sometimes.  You may jump into a wall full of needles when practicing your jump timing.  Then you die and respawn immediately, before you get the chance to wallow in your own failure.  In fact, it often achieves the opposite effect: You get inspired to win.  By the time you’ve actually realized that you died, you’re already back at the start, ready to start again.

Life message #7: Allow failure to be motivating, instead of demoralizing.  If you don’t find it motivating, see Life messages 1-6.

Beating a level in Super Meat Boy is so rewarding because it’s just so damn hard.  Before we move on, let’s address how awesome that feels.

Life message #8: If you want a feeling of genuine success, find a genuine challenge and overcome it by being persistent and resilient.

It feels amazing because of a wonderful combination of personal risk, failure, persistance, resiliency, and finally victory.  After you beat the level, the designers put in a replay where you get to watch every round that you played on that level at the same time.  So you watch your ten or twenty or thirty or forty Meat Boys at the same time jumping, racing, running and dying.

All except one.  That Meat Boy makes it to the end and succeeds.  That’s you 🙂

There is no consequence for dying; in fact, it’s celebrated.

Watch an example of the bone-crushing difficulty of Super Meat Boy, at least from the opening to 4:15.  The re-run happens at 4:00, but it’s important to watch this player fail for four minutes straight.  He must fail thirty times.  Then watch him get back up and try something new.  Watch him keep going.  Watch him being resilient.  Watch him being persistent.

Now imagine if we all did that in our own lives.  Imagine if we picked ourselves up every time we fell down.  Imagine if we didn’t internalize failure and just treated it as something that happens whenever we start something new.  Imagine that failure was not only expected, but celebrated as risk taking.  Imagine taking a risk that was meaningful to you.  Imagine going all in on everything important to you.

What if we failed, got up, and tried something different every time?

What if you learned that at 16 years old?

Imagine how different your life could be.  If that makes you emotional, let it.  If you are a teenager/young adult, take that to heart and go for it.  If you’re older than that, it’s not too late.  It’s never too late.

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the next best time is now. 🙂


Music Ed Monday – The Rollerskating Girl

Wow, October already, eh?

What a wild start up.  For teachers and/or students reading this, I hope it’s been grand and the machine is running full steam ahead!

We had a wonderful PD session on Friday.  Actually, “wonderful” doesn’t quite cut it – it was earth-shattering.  I barely slept all weekend because I couldn’t keep my mind out of it.

The speaker’s name is Debbie Silver and she came to Winnipeg for a six-hour PD session.  She spoke about many things, including effort, teaching the whole kid, self-efficacy and addressing “failure.”  I put the last one in quotation marks because she means it in a way differently than the way that we often use it in our classroom.  She used many examples to illustrate, but one stuck out to me.

She told a story of a girl who loved to rollerskate.  While I don’t remember it exactly, I’ll retell it the best I can.


Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved to rollerskate.  After she got home from elementary school, she would tear off her bookbag, throw off her shoes and slap on her rollerskates.  She would often skate around her street from the time she got home until after the sun went down. 

To her surprise and delight, her teacher announced that her class would be having a rollerskating party just before the long weekend.  She couldn’t have been more excited.

When the day finally came, she got to the rink and ran to the cement pad as fast she could.  She saw her friends on the bench getting into their skates, as well as her teacher on the bleachers.  Other kids were already skating in circles near the sides and she couldn’t wait to join them.

The group of girls all got onto the pad at the same time and started skating.  They immediately saw how comfortable the rollerskating girl was on her skates, gliding with such grace and ease, as though she had practiced for 1000 hours.  They told her that she was so good that she should try a spin, and she did.  As she spun, her foot caught the concrete and she fell to the ground.  Her friends laughed and pulled her up.  She thought about how to jump higher and spin sooner so that she could complete the move then tried again.  She did better, but fell again.  She thought about it some more, tweaked some of the details and tried again.  

This time she did it.  Her friends cheered and the girl felt very satisfied.

This process continued a few more times with figure-eights and extra high leaps, among other things.  While she never completed a move on the first time, she always had it mastered by the third and by the end of the day, she had learned five more moves! All while the other kids just skated around in a boring old circle.

She couldn’t wait to tell her teacher, so at the end of the day, she took off her skates and ran up to her teacher on the bleachers. 

“Did you see me?” she said. “All those other kids were just skating around in a boring old circle and I learned five new moves! Did you see me? Did you see how good I was?”

The teacher looked at her quizzically.  “How good you were? My dear, you fell down more than any other kid!”


And we do that sometimes, don’t we? We always teach to performance.  We punish mistakes and reward perfection.  We talk about “the journey is the destination” and then we give them a test.

It breaks my heart hearing it and it breaks my heart thinking of when I’ve done it in the past.  I’ve never quite had my educational foundation shaken as much as I had this weekend.  Debbie Silver summarized the story so appropriately:

They didn’t fail, they fell!

That’s it! We need to let them fall and we can’t punish them for doing so.  Falling is not failing.

There is so much extra baggage that comes with the word “failure.”  We’ve (adults, but not necessarily only teachers) somehow enabled this behaviour where failure doesn’t become a result, it becomes an identity, and that is profoundly detrimental, especially when it becomes cumulative and the failures stack on top of one another.  We now have a situation where the kid has such a burden and weight of “failure” that they just can’t get back up.  It becomes an identity, instead of a result.

I have the urge to say “but that’s not real, they aren’t a failure!” but it goes so much deeper than that.  To that person, it is real and they have to face it every day.  Somewhere down the path of their life, they have learned that they’re a failure, regardless of whether it’s true or not, and that’s a damn shame.  As teachers, maybe we have the power to stop it.

We need to teach kids how to take risks in their life (within reason, of course).  If they succeed, amazing; if they fall, then we need to teach them how to get back up.  I haven’t thought nearly enough about this, but I know that I’ll be writing about it for weeks to come.  The blog is really a means of keeping the moving parts clean and the knife edge sharp when it comes to teaching.  I need to keep reflecting, evaluating and exploring new ways to be a better teacher and journalling about it (via my website) is an effective means.  And, of course, commentary is always welcome.

Even through crazy exhaustion this month, I can’t think of a time where I’ve been more motivated to be a teacher 🙂

When have you taken a risk in your life where you’ve succeeded? How did that feel? What did you learn?
When have you taken a risk in your life where you’ve fallen down (figuratively)? How did that feel? What did you learn?

Until next time,

PS: A sneak peek into next week’s post…

Music Ed Monday – The Gift is Ours

Around this time of the year, teachers often get cards and letters and usually for thanks.  It’s a nice gesture and I always look forward to it.

That sounds a  bit pretentious, but given that the nature of our job is to help other human beings further themselves and figure out the world around them, the notion that some of them may be grateful isn’t a strange one.

What said students don’t often realize is that the gift goes both ways – in many cases, we are better because you are here.

In the event that a student is reading this, you may realize that we have made several demands on you over the course of your time with us.  A great many of the times, you’ve probably met us every step of the way.  Fewer of you will exceed our expectations and even fewer will fail to meet them.

In all cases, the teacher learns from the students’ behaviour.

Whenever you react to us or our expectations, it prompts a question.  It’s not the same question every time, but it might look something like this:

Meets expectations: They did what I wanted them to do (in order to facilitate growth), now what’s the next step?

Exceeds expectations: They surpassed what I expected them to do, what could I have done differently?

Fails to meet expectations: They didn’t do what I expected they could, what did I miss?

In all cases, your reaction facilitates our growth just like our expectations facilitate yours.

The gift of growth goes both ways.

But it’s not only that.  There are many students who work hard for us and give us their best every time.

There are many students who light up our room with smiles and a great attitude.

There are many students who are a great friend to others.

There are many students who make the best of their time here by taking part in school sports, events and activities.

There are many students who let us get to know them as people.

They aren’t all the same students, but the result is always the same:

Investment = Growth.

As teachers, your investment in this building is the best gift you give us because it enables us to forge relationships that encourage your positive growth as a human being.

For example, when you give everything you’ve got on an English paper, the feedback and assessment become relevant because they can improve your ability to communicate.  But, behind that, the topic of that paper is probably something that you’ve never thought about.  Maybe a human rights issue, Romeo’s inability to get (or keep) what he wants (which, in almost all cases, is love), or an introspective project about discovering who you are.

When you give everything you have to that human rights issue by doing your research, carving your commentary to be razor sharp, or exploring ideas that have previously scared you, you may begin to challenge who you really are and (maybe what you really the topic.  Or, you may even unravel things that issues that you didn’t know existed and become motivated to be a part of the solution.

Growth 🙂

If it’s Romeo’s inability to maintain a relationship, what’s getting in the way? Are you like that? Is there a cock-eyed arrogance that drives men/women away? Is your over-emotional state sabotaging your ability to date someone past three dates? Do you always take the most complicated solution, even when a mind-numbingly easy one is presented? You may learn something about yourself…

Growth 🙂

Do you have to do a multi-genre essay about various aspects of your personality? Have you ever looked that deeply into yourself before? Were you scared of what you might find? And what happened when you did find it? And then how did you reflect it best in your work? Is your fear of commitment best shown as a collage or a poem? Is your love of family an expository essay or stream of consciousness poem?

Growth 🙂

We get really invested when you invest in our work because every assignment we give you is designed to facilitate growth.  Again, that growth often comes with a mutual trust between the teacher and the student and can turn into a dialogue, which often becomes conversation, which often becomes a relationship that encourages your positive development as a human being.

If you are a student reading this and you have given a lot to the school, then thank you.  Thank you for investing in yourself and, consequently, investing in us teachers too.

If you are a student reading this and you aren’t really into school, consider giving it a second chance.  You can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket, right?

If you were once a student and reading this, you probably made a difference in someone’s life while you were at school and you might not even know it, so thanks for that 🙂

Music Ed Monday is taking a break for the summer, so we’ll see everyone in the fall!
(though, stay tuned for VGM Wednesday and various blogs about musical adventures!)

Music Ed Monday – Before You Go…

Today is the last day of class.   So, Grade 12s, you made it.  Congratulations 🙂

This wasn’t the hardest thing you’ve had to do, but it certainly wasn’t the easiest either.  It took a lot of work – sometimes, you didn’t put in quite as much as you should, put it appears that you put in enough.  You’ve made a great start.

Mr. Brandon had some great sentiments for the last class, and I feel like I’ve shared so many hundreds of hours with you all (100 hours per course; the record is 700 hours) that I want to leave you with some things that we’ve been saying during your past three years.  You don’t have to listen/read/follow, but you can if you want 🙂

1) Be humble.

Listen to everyone you meet, treat them with respect, and let them teach you what you need.

2) Nobody cares what you can do without trying.

Or to be said another way…

3) We only expect your best.

Give it your all, then give it a little bit more.

4) The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the next best time is now.

This is a classic Brandon-ism, but it’s so good that I need to share it.  Which leads me to another…

5) It’s never too late to do the right thing.

Never, ever, ever.

6) Sometimes, it’s your fault; sometimes, it’s not, but both are okay.

As humans, we like to deflect blame.  We don’t like to be found at fault for things, whether it’s a car accident or gossipping, missing a bill payment or hurting someone’s feelings.  Some of these things may actually be your fault, so just own up to it and take responsibility, instead of making excuses.  It’s amazing what you’ll learn about yourself and how sparse those mistakes will become in your future.

7) When the caterpillar wound itself in a coccoon, it thought its world was ending… then it became a butterfly.

Sometimes, the hardest part of life is not knowing what comes next, especially when the axe is to the grindstone and you can’t see past the next paycheque, exam, or sleepless night.  But even through the fog of exhaustion or a huge life change, great things can happen and happen all the time.

Thanks for a great few years.  Be safe and do the right thing… Always.

Until then,

Music Ed Monday – The Inspiration Board

We used to have this whiteboard at the front of our room, but then we got this incredible SMARTBoard.   It’s an enormous touchscreen monitor that’s rigged up to our iMac.  It’s like Star Trek, the future is now 🙂

… But then what were we going to do with this old whiteboard?

Well, we just put it off to the side on, really, the only wallspace that would fit.  We also didn’t have much to put on it either (because we did everything on the SMARTBoard), so it held rehearsal schedules or reminders for a while, but then it turned into something entirely different.

I love this thing.  It’s now the “Inspiration Board” and I can’t really take credit for any of it.  This is a brainchild of Michael Brandon, my collaborating teacher.  We each bring something different to the Music Room, but I’m sure glad that he brings this.

But then another amazing thing happened: The kids started writing on it too.  Take a look at this gem here:

Then just last week, Michael posed a question on the white board: “It’s your turn! What have you learned?” And just look how they responded…

Some of my favourites include…
– “Everyone leads from their own seat” (we can thank one of our clarinetists for that one)
– “No one cares what you can do without trying.”
– “Feel the fear and do it anyway.”

It’s amazing what they’ll tell you if only you give them the opportunity 🙂

Have a great week!

Music Ed Mondays – Listen Harder Than You Play

This is one of my favourite one-liners.  It just says so much in so little (the mark of a good one-liner, I say!):

– It tells the musicians to ramp their awareness.
– It encourages them to focus their attention on something.
– It reinforces them to take a greater responsibility for the whole…

And more!

As musicians, it’s so easy to get lost in our part, especially if it’s technical.  But if you’re playing an ensemble and aren’t the soloist, it doesn’t matter how well you can play your part if it’s not going to coalesce with the rest of the ensemble.  I know that I’m not really saying anything new, but the harder I try and solve the problem, the less I realize that it’s probably an easy solution that’s solved by not by the band playing harder, but listening harder.

Even when I’m playing in an ensemble, I constantly have to remind myself to listen to the people around me, and I bet the kids in the ensemble need it too.

We’ve been working on articulation like crazy in my Jr. Symphonic band.  Okay, that’s a half truth – we’ve been practicing “reading the whole notation,” not just reading rhythms, then dynamics, then articulation, but drawing awareness to all of those parts of the notes… but the lynchpin is always articulation.  It always got better when we would isolate sections and all I’d say is “listen for the articulation,” then it was fixed.

It wasn’t about fixing, but about awareness.   Now pull the awareness to other aspects that you’re working on in your performance: Pitch, tempo, shape, etc.

Maybe it’s not about more rehearsal, maybe just more awareness… and more listening.

Anyway, I don’t pretend to be the master, but this is something I’ve been thinking about!

Your homework: Try and it for a week or two and see what your class does.   How do they respond? Do the elements that you’re working on improve or stay the same?

Let me know!

PS: I have the BEST VGM Wednesday this week! I’m SO excited!

Music Ed Monday – A Flute Player’s Relationship With Music

Good afternoon!

Here is another essay from a Grade 11 Fundamentals of Music student describing her relationship with Music.  It’s very personal (but I have her permission to post it) and that’s its greatest strength: It’s authentic.

This reminds me how lucky I am to teach Music to young adults who are invested in this collaborative effort.  But while the ensemble is collaborative, there are individual rewards 🙂

(it’s quite long, but definitely worth the read!)


My relationship with Music; there are so many ways to think about and describe it.  The way Music understands everything about me, the way Music takes care of me and doesn’t judge me, the way Music loves me and treats me kindly, and the way she makes me feel like I can put everything on the table for everyone to see without being afraid.

Lately, I have been stressed about my skills and techniques, my marks in my classes, and about getting into university.  I wasn’t dealing with the stress and I was certainly not aware of all the good things that were happening in the present, so I decided to go talk to my middle school band teacher, Ms. Lansky.  I realized that I hadn’t ever thanked her for motivating me to get to where I am today, so I started there and continued on about how I was and how school was going and in the midst of my little freak out, she stopped me and told me: “You can do anything if you set your mind to it and keep your confidence up.”  They were some of the few words she said, but that was all I needed to hear.  I later went home and played for hours and hours and I finally felt like my emotional connection had strengthened.  I had finally reached where I wanted to be all along.  I was upset the other day, so I put my flute together and played a song and I felt released from the anger almost immediately and sunk into a world of peace that I never wanted to leave.  Sometimes I fight the fear of opening up to Music and those are the times that playing turns into practicing, but this time I was completely vulnerable from the very start, at last.

I feel like Music really understands who I am, what I love and how I feel at the present moment.  Sometimes, she’s the only one able to cheer me up.  I feel unafraid to be judged by my Music because I know there will be no judging going on between us.  The way Music is so tender and loving makes me feel like I belong to something so great, so special and so wonderful, which of course I do! The soft and comforting sounds could ease me to sleep, calm me down or cheer me up.  The way her soothing sounds make me feel at rest, like a mother talking and hushing her baby to sleep.  I love Music and I was having my doubts about if this was really what I wanted to do with my life until I recently found the answer, which was a definite yes.

I think the reason why I love Music so much is that when I play, I can finally open up and show myself to everyone.  It can speak louder than my words ever could.  I love the feeling of being vulnerable but trusting in myself, and in Music, that I will be fine and, at that moment, nothing can hurt me because I won’t let it.

Playing with [Nikki] for the first time was an excellent moment for the both of us.  It was nice to open up to her and feel comfortable right away.  I loved playing with her, probably because of how she feels the same way about Music and how we can totally be ourselves around each other, knowing we won’t do any harm.  We had an instant connection this year.  Maybe our interests in Music, but I think there’s a stronger connection, something I don’t have with anyone else.  We had a really great conversation the other day, right after she suggested that we play together, about how other people can’t get in our way of being happy and in the way of what we want to do.  We gave each other hope and formed an even stronger connection between us.  She told me something that’ll stick for a long time: “If things get rough, just keep smiling and you’ll get through it.”  The conversation was so meaningful and inspirational for the both of us, leading us to create the wonderful experience we desired while playing together.  I would normally try and avoid playing with someone else because I’d be afraid of not being good enough or getting embarrassed, but with the relationship that we both have through Music, I don’t feel the weird or awkward sensation running through me making me nervous for no reason! I feel like I am finally able to express my full emotion and thoughts through the sound I create.  I love the way Music feels, reaching out and holding the hand that connects me to a different world than the one I’m used to.  I don’t know how someone couldn’t want to be a part of it! For a long time, I was afraid of that connection and going to that place, but when I did, I found that this was the place that would make me a different person, this was the place that would make me a musician.

I will always want Music to be my own, unique experience, my thoughts, my emotion, and if I don’t live it, it won’t come out of my instrument or my imagination! I am not sure what made me decide that I needed to write this all down, maybe my recent realizations of my strong, undying love for Music, my friendship with Music growing stronger with each day that passes by, or my experiences with other great musicians that I understand how I feel about everything.  All of this makes one of my favourite quotes come to mind:

“Music is a moral law.  It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm, meaning, and happiness to life and to everything” – Unknown.

I guess you could say that I had a reawakening that made me realize all of this, but it helped me finally find what I’ve been looking for all this .  I finally found what it feels like to be a musician, and yet my journey has just begun.


I love that.  An authentic and thoughtful connection with Music.  I feel so thankful to them for their openness, security and honesty.

Now, here’s this week’s assignment:

Ask your students to write 1/2 – 1 page about what Music means to them.  You could phrase this in a few different ways:

  • Describe your relationship with Music.
  • Explore how you connect with Music on a daily basis.
  • If Music was a person, how would you interact? Are you friends? Enemies? Lab Partners? One-Uppers?

But please include the caveat of be authentic and honest with yourself.  If you haven’t built a connection of openness and awareness between your students (because that certainly doesn’t happen over night), remind them that they will not be judged or assessed on their opinion/thoughts/feelings.  It’s personal and there is no right or wrong answer.

If you do it and want to alk about it, post how it went in the comments below!


PS: [ ] imples the name has been changed.

Conception to Completion – Filum Vitae

Making parts and I have a love/hate relationship.  I love the formatting, the making every part beautiful, the tweaking of fonts and the slight adjustment of dynamics and articulation… until about the fifth hour.

You see, it’s painstaking and precise work.  I love that kind of work… up to a point.

The other catch with making parts is that, while there are many steps between the beginning and end of transcription/arrangement, there is editing and proofreading between every step.

My work for concert band, Filum Vitae, has been rehearsed for many weeks and recorded twice by our school’s Senior Band.  The first draft wasn’t even complete, it got to about measure 50 and stopped (because I had run out of time before Band Camp, which was the first deadline).  It sounded pretty good, but there were still a few transposing errors, key signature things, harmony slip-ups and things that just didn’t work.  I’ll get back to that in a minute, but first, let’s go through conception to completion.

This may sound like a how-to, but it’s not meant to be quite so pretentious.  If you’re a composer and interested in getting performed, I’ve dropped in some notes – they worked for me, but the opposite of what I say may be equally true.

1) Inspiration

You can read more about this on the actual Filum Vitae page (linked above), but it’s really about the emotions in animals being similar to our own.  The concepts may be challenging human uniqueness (which may be comfortable and empowering, the evidence tells us that it just ain’t so), but it lends incredible power to the unity of life through a conduit of feelings – love, mercy, fear or happiness.

The clip that really did it for me is this one, from the BBC’s The Story of Science:


2) The Piano

My house isn’t big enough for a piano, so I have my little M-Audio Oxygen, which is far more than satisfactory.  Before I think of instrumentation or voicing, it starts with the piano.  I had the melody and harmony within about ten minutes, then it became a very late night 🙂

3) Text

Whether it’s choral or not, there is always text.  It just helps me figure out what I’m thinking and helps connect the music and my intention.  I was really into this idea of “The Thread of Life” and how life is a great thread that moves throughout time, but also that we’re all threads and together we make a brilliant tapestry.  That’s where the lyrics start – I may not use them, but they accomplished their task.

4) Music and Lyrics and Sketches

Again, whether it’s choral or not, the music and the melody go together.  Even if the connection of putting the text to the melody is psychological, it helps move the music forward.  But, it’s not just me moving the music, it’s the music moving me.  It needs to impact me as I’m writing, I need to feel something during the process and feel it often if the piece is going to get off the ground.  Thankfully, this one kept me going every step of the way 🙂

After the voicing and the harmony is figured out against the melody, I start pencilling in instruments: Cls + B.Cl… A.Sax/T.Sax join here… etc.

5) Checks and Balances

At this point, the instrumentation (if it’s not vocal) is worming its way into my head.  While I’ve got a pretty good ear for orchestration, I’ve still got to check some parts out.  This is the first of the checks and balances during my process and there are many of them.  I use Apple’s Logic as a sequencer and then check some of my sketches digitally.  They usually work, but not all the time… and that’s why we have checks and balances.

The mockup sounds like this:

6) The Long Transcription

This is, by far, the most time- and energy-intensive part of the process.  But let’s be honest, this is composing.  This is where the pencil marks the page and where your ideas can be worked out both visually and aurally.  Where you visually check the sound.  Where you make hard decisions about orchestration, range and all that good stuff.

I used to play all of my music in when I was younger and less patient.  I had it all in my head and I felt like I had to get it down before I lost it.  This may change later on, but I really feel like my work is better when I take the long road.  It makes the think twice about Copy/Paste (especially in percussion writing) and generic cliches because every musical decision takes more time, so think twice about it before you get it down.  This is check-and-balance #2.

7) The Score – Draft 1 

After I’ve finished the pencil and paper aspect of it, the actual “part creation” begins.  Some composers start with this step while others use the notation software to flesh out their orchestration.  Different practices work for different composers and you should do what works for you, but this doesn’t work for me.  I use Finale 2011 (right now, anyway) and this is another long process of playing in every staff of your handwritten-manuscript.  This is also a great time to check every line individually – is this the melody/ harmonic line that you hear? If not, good time to change it.

Check-and-balance #3.

How does your harmony sound? Have you transposed everything correctly? Does the instrumentation (even as brutal as MIDI is) sound like it does in your head?

Check-and-balance #4.

At this point, we get to the painstaking process of plugging in each articulation, dynamic and shape.  Again, this is where really make sure that we want x-note to be staccato, or we really want our bowing a certain way in the strings.

Check-and-balance #5.

8) The Score – Draft 2

At this point, you can make your score look reasonably nice and extract parts that look good enough to be legible.  If you get to this point – right on, good for you.  It’s a lot of work, but if you have a piece that you’re really passionate about then it’s completely worth it.

Email music teachers that you know, respect or are inviting of new work and see if you can get a read from them.  I might not start with a college or university, but there’s no harm in sending the piece out – the worst they can say is “no.”  If you can get a read and hear your work come to life, all of those late nights, shirts full of eraser shavings and sore fingers from writing will be worth it.  It will also sound very different than you thought, most probably in the orchestration department.  You may also have some wrong notes or chords that are voiced a bit strangely or cross-relations that you didn’t hear in your mockup (I know I did with this tune).

There is a big difference between what works digitally and what works acoustically, good thing to remember.  If they read it pretty well (as in, no wrong notes/rhythms and reasonably good shape/pitch/dynamics), see if you can get a rough recording of your tune that you can refer back to.  It doesn’t have to be great, but just so you can hear what it’s like acoustically, rather than always having to go back to your digital mockup.

This is check-and-balance #6.  Make sure you thank the teacher and the ensemble for taking a risk on you and supporting new music and writers.  If you can swing it, ask if you can go back and revise it then make a recording.

Our recording sounded like this:

9) The Score and Parts – Final Draft

There may be more drafts in the middle, but you could have a serious piece in about three or four drafts, if you really work your ears and the manuscript.  I went back to my score and put in all of my edits on my second draft – the cross-relations that I missed, the missing dynamics, the music that came alive during the performance, all of that.

More precise work.  I always miss dynamics somewhere along the way.  After putting those in, I make sure that they’re all in a line on each system, then line up the tempo information, then the shapes… it’s all formatting.  After that, the fonts and the page numbers, the “divisi” and “tutti” and the cues that should have been there, but weren’t.

Check-and-balance #7.

Then I extracted all of the parts and go through them, one by one, doing the same formatting on them (dynamics, articulations, etc.).

Check-and-balance #8.

Then a quick print, proofread again.  Oh, probably forgot something here…

Check-and-balance #9.

Okay… maybe… this is it? Ugh, this crescendo slipped down too far in the Horn 2 part.

Check-and-balance #10.

… Okay…

… Okay! Yeah! Looks great! Did it!

10) Party / Take the Rest of the Night Off

After many hours (probably about 20-25 in total), the whole editing/proofreading is done.

The University of Manitoba Concert Band is recording the work on January 26th, 2012.  So, this round of edits was to make sure that it was perfect when they got it.  I was also an awful university student, so here’s hoping that my old profs look at this and say “wow, I guess he turned himself around!” That would be nice!

Any comments on the post are definitely invited!

Long read! Have a great weekend!