Kenley Kristofferson


Tag: teaching

Music Ed Monday – Assignments for Days Without Playing

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

1959 – The Year That Changed Jazz

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

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

1959 – The Year That Changed Jazz Assignment

Eric Whitacre (Oxford Union) Response

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

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

Eric Whitacre (Oxford Union) Assignment

Jazz Profiles (NPR) Assignment

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

Here is the link to show.

Here is a link to the assignment.

Miles Davis Album Review Assignment

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

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

Miles Davis Album Review Assignment

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

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

You can listen to the CBC Interview here.

And here is the assignment.


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

Let’s do our best and get through this.


Music Ed Monday – The Quest for Beer at the Orchestra

Back in Summer of 2015, I was asked by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra if I could do an arrangement of a pop song for a divisional choir and the orchestra.  Every other year, the River East Transcona School Division hires out the orchestra to play with their choir.  This was an enormous opportunity, so of course I said yes, then got it done on time and on budget (which is a super important part of composing).

Several months passed until, finally, it premiered last week.  In fact, it came up so quickly that it almost slipped by me.  Everything at my school has been so crazy that it’s taken a lot of time and effort to just keep all the plates spinning.  Between teaching and writing, there’s been a lot going on.

That morning, I asked about tickets and it was decided there would be some comps at the door.  I left school at 5:00, grabbed a sub, then headed down to the concert hall, where there were gaggles of kids everywhere, but a noticeable absence of tickets at the box office.  Someone let me inside and apologized profusely (the Winnipeg Centennial Concert Hall staff is exceptionally kind all the time) and I just smiled and said “so long as there’s beer, everything will be just fine.”  The clerk laughed and said there’s always beer at the concert hall.

But there wasn’t this time.  The divisional concert was a school event, so obviously there would be no beer.  Not the end of the world, but beer at the concert hall is just the best.  Really.


Going to the symphony is less fancy than it used to be, but it’s still fancy.  There’s a formality when going to the biggest hall in the province to see the very best musicians we have play that night.  Even though they played my piece Morgun last year, I’ve always felt like I was never at that level.  I studied with the now-principal trombone of the ensemble and I was terrible.  I really clawed my way to the finish line of my music degree, which had an extra year of lessons because I failed the first year of euphonium.  Failed, not “got a C,” which might as well be a failure for lessons.  I literally failed the playing portion of music school.  For various other reasons, my university failures were the best thing that ever happened to me, but the sense of inadequacy followed me for my entire professional music career (and still does, from time to time).

When the WSO played my piece the first time, I felt like such an imposter.  I was some schmuck who got commissioned to write something, like a one time shot.  They certainly didn’t make me feel that way – they were amazing to me, but I had this narrative spinning in my head.  It was all old baggage from university.  When they asked me again, I couldn’t even believe it, but I knew deep down that I needed to accept the job.


Back to last week:

My piece closed the night and the conductor of the orchestra, Julian Pellicano, thanked the parents and staff of the division, as well as the symphony, and introduced the piece.  He described the piece, then ended by saying that it was arranged by local, yet world-renowned composer Kenley Kristofferson which, while not exactly true, was cool because I was the only arranger he mentioned the entire night.

The orchestra and the choir killed it during their performance.  The kids were into it, the audience dug it, and the performers really nailed the piece.  It was so inspiring that, at the end of it, I thought that the only thing that could’ve made the night better was a beer.

A voice in the back of my mind told me that maybe, just maybe, they’d have beer backstage, but the voice in my mind was clear: You aren’t good enough to go backstage at the symphony.  But the more I thought about it rationally, the more I realized that I wrote the last tune of the night, this is the second time I arranged for the ensemble, and I knew so many performers through university or band camps or whatever.  And hey, the worst that could happen is nothing, right?

So I descended the stairs and slipped through the backstage door and into the hallway, where I hugged and shook hands with some of the RETSD teachers I knew and talked shop for a few minutes.  Then the VP of Artistic Operations stopped me (with a beer in his hand) and smiled as he congratulated me on tonight’s piece.  We talked more shop for a while, then told me about some potential new work on the horizon.  I couldn’t even believe he remembered my name, let alone (maybe) offering me new work! And as he said the next few words, a smile stretched across my face: “Why don’t you come into the green room for a beer?”

And I did and it was packed with both WSO and RETSD folk.  I saw the backstage manager and she remembered me from last year and so did the production manager.  Then Julian came up and we high-fived and laughed throughout the night.  Clearly, the story in my head was not the same as the story that was playing out in front of me, and only one of them can be true.  And guess what, it’s the one in front of you all the time.

Eric Whitacre (one of my favourite composers) once said to music students that “nobody ever asked about his GPA after he graduated,” the important thing is that he got there.  The older I get, the more true that it’s becoming.  We don’t all take the same road to get there sometimes.  Some roads are smoother, some roads have more ups than downs, while others have more downs than ups.  Some people got to practice traversing the road before they actually had to start the adventure and that’s okay too.  We don’t all get to the end the same way, but the important thing is that we get there.

And sometimes at the end, there’s a free beer in the green room.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he bit down on the square:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo cred:

Music Ed Monday – Transform and Make It So (Part 2)

Optimus%20Prime%20-3In Part One of this mini-series, I reviewed how the character of Jean-Luc Picard was influential to me in my adolescence.   But, when I was a lot younger, I had Optimus Prime.

Optimus Prime (from Generation One) was strong without being brutish.  He would fight, but only when necessary.  He would take responsibility of his actions and always, always protect the humans.  That was a big one: He would always fight the battles when needed and never frivolously, but he would do so to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves.  That is an amazing message for kids.

(Side note: Kids had amazing messages in 80s cartoons.  Seriously, Transformers, He-Man, Teddy Ruxpin… it was a good time to be a kid).

But now, for the details:

“Sometimes, even the wisest of men and machines can be in error.”
(Transformers G1: “SOS Dinobots” @21:40)

Everybody makes mistakes, so admit it, take responsibility, and learn from it.

“We must help Ironhide.”
(Transformers G1: “Autobot Run” @14:40)

You always help when you can.  Always, always, always.

“We must have courage, Huffer.  We can’t ignore the danger, we must conquer it.”
(Transformers G1: “More Than Meets the Eye, Part 2” @14:30)

Huffer precedes the line with “but we’re not fighters like they are.”  Meet the challenge head on.  It’s not about having fear, it’s about what you do in spite of it.

And so many others.  Wired wrote a post about this back in 2007 when the Transformers movie and they really hit the nail on the head:

…Prime practically step-parented the latchkey kids of the mid-’80s. He was our Allfather at a time when flesh-and-blood role models were increasingly few and far between….So when Prime declared, “One shall stand, one shall fall!” in that seismic, tear-down-this-wall timbre of his (or, more accurately, voice actor Peter Cullen), you believed him….

For two glorious years, Optimus Prime was America’s hero….Then in 1986, the original Prime did something that distinguished him from most other cartoon heroes. He died. He died for freedom, for righteousness, and for shelf space….For nearly two decades…the sons of Prime waited for Papa Bot…

With bated breath and shaken faith we await the return of our Almighty Rig. Because without Prime, we’re stuck with whiney Spider-Boys, metrosexual pirates, and koan-spouting kung-fu Christs in designer sunglasses and unisex clubwear. Because he died protecting us in ’86, and nothing’s ever been the same since. Because these days, the only real men left are giant robots…

Indeed, indeed.  The media with which our kids interact affects them greatly both positively and negatively.  When kids see Miley Cyrus at the VMAs and don’t react with disgust, that says something about the message.  The Canadian Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message” and that resonates with culture’s ever-changing online presence, but we also can’t forget that the media is the message too.

In an age where pop culture is so pervasive (and sometimes insidious), we have to be really mindful about both who the models are and which models the kids are following.  It’s fine to have Captain Picard or Optimus Prime on the air, but if no one’s watching, then who cares?

A worse problem is to insert any of these characters into a program that doesn’t match their integrity.  For example, I love(d) the Transformers franchise, but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (the second movie) was one of the most sexist and racist movies I’d ever seen.  And in the midst of this terrifying cultural portrayal of women and minorities is Optimus Prime? Are you serious? Writers, do you even know who you’re writing about?

So who’s left to model for kids? Well, real life adolescents and adults.  Brothers, sisters, parents, teachers, law makers, politicians, et cetera.  We need to be the good that they so desperately crave and the leaders they so desperately deserve.  We need to model kindness, empathy, dialogue, patience, perseverence, and care-giving.  Kids need to know that we care about them and will continue to support them even after they leave.  I heard a speaker this morning say “they need to know that even when they leave the house, the door is always open and there will always be a light for when they come back” and I thought that was perfect.


Be mindful of your words and actions this week.  Who’s watching you and what can you teach them? How can your actions model what you desire so deeply to see in others?

Have a great week,

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 – The Starfish Story

Strolling along the edge of the sea, a man catches sight of a young woman who appears to be engaged in a ritual dance. She stoops down, then straightens to her full height, casting her arm out in an arc. Drawing closer, he sees that the beach around her is littered with starfish, and she is throwing them one by one into the sea. He lightly mocks her: “There are stranded starfish as far as the eye can see, for miles up the beach. What difference can saving a few of them possibly make?” Smiling, she bends down and once more tosses a starfish out over the water, saying serenely, “It certainly makes a difference to this one.”

starfishIsn’t that a lovely story? While originally by Loren Eisley, I read it in Ben and Rosamund Zander’s The Art of Possibility, which we’re doing as a trial run for the Fundamentals III novel study. It’s a wonderfully powerful read and challenges us from following the path of others in the world of measurement to our own path in the universe of possibility. In the words of a former student of mine, it challenges the reader to “stop stopping their lives and start starting them.”

Ben Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, so many of his anecdotes and stories are musically-based, which resonates with both myself and my students. This chapter focuses on “Being a Contribution,” rather than being caught in the engine of competition. What if I stopped measuring my achievements and accomplishments against those of others and, instead, focused on just giving the world what I had to give? What if I’m just fine where I am? What if it’s okay to give what I have, and not worry about giving what I don’t?

When someone starts thinking like that, the focus immediately switches from seeing the obstacles (“needing to give what you don’t have”) to seeing the progress (“it’s okay to give what I have”).

Ben Zander follows this story with this:

From our earliest days, we understand that there are tasks ahead of us to accomplish and landmarks to achieve. Life often looks like an obstacle course. In order to maximize success, we spend a good deal of time discussion what stands in the way of it. The man in the story sees only obstacles when he speaks of the countless starfish. He warns the young woman that her gestures are futile. Too many starfish, not enough time, not enough staff or resources, results too difficult to track…

The story told, however, reveals nothing about the “success” or “failure” of the rescue mission, or what proportion of the starfish survived or perished. It does not describe the past, nor foretell the future. All we hear is that the young woman was smiling and serene, and that she moved in the pattern of a dance. Absent are the familiar measurements of progress. Instead, life is revealed as a place to contribute and we as contributors. Not because we have done a measurable amount of good, but because that is the story we tell.

You just can’t measure all of the good, can you? Yet we try, especially in education. We need to assign a number to your progress. I don’t love it, but that is the institution where I’ve made my decision to contribute because I get to work with the most kids.

If I lived in the world of measurement, I may be saying “How can I make a difference in the world? I only see 120 kids a year? 120 out of millions! How can I impact the world when see so few kids?”

But now, if I live in a world of possibility, I could reframe that statement with something like: “I get to work with many individuals and some really need the help of teachers. Isn’t amazing that we get to be there and be positively present in their life?”

To be said another way: You don’t have to change the world to make a difference in it.


– Pick up this book and read it slowly, chapter by chapter. When you’ve finished one chapter, think about it throughout the day and see where you can change your perception to reflect the ideas in the book. You might not take everything from it, but you might take something, and that’s a great start.

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 Space Between

I stopped complaining about how busy I was a long time ago because I realized that I wasn’t really as busy as most people, especially parents… and especially moms.  I have no kids to drive to soccer practice, I have no lunches to make, I have very little laundry to do (comparatively), I enjoy my job, I have an easy commute…

Organizationally, my life is pretty good and I’m grateful for that.

Sometimes, I forget and I take on new commitments, work extra late at school, and take on new composing projects.  And some times are just busier than others, right? That’s real life.  I often feel like that’s my whole life, then I have to remind myself of this post’s first paragraph.

Yesterday, I had some contract work that I had to finish.  I had been working on it for ten weeks and I was at the end of my rope.  It had to get done that day.  No more extensions, no more self-deceptions, no more excuses.

Buckle down and get it done, Kenley.

After about three hours, I finished it and was quite happy with it, but I was so resentful that I had to do it on my Sunday (even though I’ve had plenty of other Sundays to get it done).  I puttered around and cleaned the house, still miserable.  Finally, I made a bagel, frustrated that it wasn’t cut all the way through, I held it in my left hand and hacked into it…

… and through it…

… and into my pinkie.

Let’s start with honesty: Blood everywhere.  Kitchen floor, hallway, up the stairs, into the bathroom… everywhere.  I didn’t know that a hand had that much blood in it (but the more that I thought about it, it’s full of capillaries, what else did I think would be in there?).  Off to the emergency room and, three hours later, I had four stitches in my hand.  Something like this…

Something like that, but bloodier and on my pinkie.  That’s not my finger, it’s someone else’s.

As I got home, I was still bored and grumpy and just went to bed, but my wife had the laptop so I couldn’t watch a show as I fell asleep.  I grabbed my phone and, for some reason, listened to my inner Michael Brandon and tried to meditate via Meditation Oasis.  As I listened to the string loops and soothing voice of Mary Maddox, I realized that my mind was racing.  It’s thoughts like those that often prompt a meta-voice that thinks over your storm of thoughts, usually with something along the lines of “what the hell are you so worked up about?

Then, somewhere between those two voices, there’s the distance where you actual have a bit of clarity and you get to work through some problems.

It is the space between thoughts.

It’s the space where you cut your finger because you acted emotionally, rather than rationally and with a measured reason.  You worked at a coffee shop, Kenley.  You know how to cut a bagel.  When you act emotionally, you do stupid things. 

Oh, right.

As you stand above your thoughts (figuratively, of course), you get a chance to look down and see what’s actually kicking around inside your head.  There were some troubling facebook statuses that you were thinking about, hoping the people were okay.  There was your hand, and how dumb you felt after you realized that you could have avoided it had you actually thought like a reasonable human being.  There was getting your oil changed, which you still haven’t done.  There was the chord changes in the music behind Mary Maddox, and if that extension was a 9th, or just the fifth of the V chord held as a pedal above the other chords.  There were the cadences that you hoped your students remembered after the weekend in Fundamentals of Music.  And, among many other thoughts, will you actually teach the isorhythmic motet in Music History, or will you just teach it as a precursor to metre in common practice music?

As you look back up to that meta-voice in your head, it answers with its common refrain: Do you really need to think about all of those things right now? Did you really need to have ALL of those thoughts kicking around your head all weekend?

And my common answer: No, not really.

The problem is that we (myself included) get so busy that we rarely listen to that voice, or even take the time to look down at our thoughts and see what we even have kicking around our head.  As a student, how many times has your teacher walked in and looked like hell, yelled disproportionately in class and left in a worse mood than they did when they walked in (which was pretty bad to begin with)?

Teachers, how many times have you done that?

Kenley, how many times have you done that?

Oh right, I’ve got it pretty good.  Sometimes I forget that.  When I’ve had teachers, students, or fellow workers (at any job) like that, I remember thinking: “Whatever’s going on with you, don’t take that out on me.  Sort yourself out and we’ll talk later.”

Whoever is reading this – teachers, friends, students, compatriates – this week’s homework is to actually look down at your thoughts and see what you’re carrying around in there.  Find the space between.  What needs to stay? What needs to go? You can’t get out of your mortgage or car payments, but you can probably stop stressing about things you can’t do anything about until tomorrow.  Your marking won’t get done if you’re lying in bed and you can’t rehearse your band while you’re out for drinks with the guys.  Let it go.

Before I wrote this, I was in a disproportionately frustrated mood.  Not for any reason, but a measured and rational bit of writing did me good and I feel a lot better than I did an hour ago.  I invite you to do the same.  Meditation Oasis is also pretty great 🙂

Until then,

PS: Thanks to Sarah for kicking my butt into getting back on these.  Even teachers need a kick sometimes…

PPS: The stitches pic came from here.

PPPS: This week is the one year anniversary of my radio play, The Constant.  Feel free to check it out!

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…