Category Archives: Teaching

Don’t Get Me Started

I sit in my practice room with my tuba resting in my lap.  On this cold winter day, I am kept toasty by the space heater humming in the corner.  In the large mirror on the wall, my reflection scrutinizes my posture, searching for hints of physical tension in the way I hold the instrument.  I lean forward, then lean backwards trying to gauge the point in which I am balanced on the chair and on my torso.  I feel the support as my feet root firmly onto the hardwood floor.  I bring the mouthpiece lightly to my lips, testing the way the warm metal feels.  After one more relaxing exhale, I open my mouth and take in as much air as possible, form a tight seal against the mouthpiece, shape my mouth to play a C, and expel my air through the horn.

Ffffffff……womp!  Sigh…

I’ve done it countless times, but getting the note to start consistently instead of flubbing it is still a daily struggle.  Once the note starts, I can make it sound beautiful, but getting it to start is daunting and often demoralizing.  And that’s just the beginning (ha!).

I’ve been looking to start teaching privately in the last few months.  My strongest areas are tuba, trombone, and accordion, but there isn’t a huge demand for that compared to an instrument like piano.  While I’m not the strongest pianist, I have performed plenty on the instrument, and the demand for piano teachers is much higher than the other instruments I play.  I know that once I begin to teach piano, everything will fall into place.  But how do I take that first step and start things rolling.  Where do I start?

I recently called a friend of mine who is an accomplished singer in a variety of choral chamber groups.  She was lamenting the lack of initiative in the groups she sings in, talking about some of the directions she’d like to take them.  “I’d love to focus on modern choral music, written within the past few years.  I think there’s a real market for it in my community.  But I have no idea who I’d talk to about getting it started.”

On a “completely different” note, I’ve been missing an important part of my life since I left my full time job.  Namely, I used to go to the pool twice a week to swim laps for a half hour.  Now that I don’t have access to a cheap recreation center, I haven’t been exercising nearly as much.  During the summer, I started walking more and then running, something I haven’t done since college.  Just as I was getting into the swing of things, the weather turned colder.  When it’s not absolutely frigid outside, I see people running and biking with special gear and multiple layers.  I’d love to try it myself, but I’m afraid of getting embarrassed by these veterans who have been doing it all their lives.  I wouldn’t even know where to start.

track and field and dan

Yes I know the hurdles don’t actually accelerate. But did you know that this arcade game is one of the most likely to give you a heart attack?

Ok, I think I’ve made my point.  Often the most difficult hurdles to leap over are the simple ones of going from 0 mph to 1 mph.  It’s tough getting started with a project, a conversation, a new skill set; even with the process of getting started!  Lately, I’ve been inundated with examples of encountering obstacles in the simple process of trying something new.  So how do we create the momentum to get us up and running?

Firstly, in the case of the conversation with my vocalist friend, I found that approaching her issues from a non-her perspective gave me an edge in seeing the big picture.  Namely, I reminded her she worked at a university.  Her role at the university puts her in contact with many different departments, including the music department.  Which just happens to have a great composition program.  I told her about how when I worked at a university, I used to come into contact with people from the music department.  I would introduce myself as a musician and form a connection.  Most often, that connection was one of simple camaraderie, but I had also seen some of them performing when I wasn’t working.  And since leaving, I have even gotten some work from them as a freelance musician.

In that case, my knowledge of how this system worked for me, and my reminder that she worked in a similar system gave her a template to follow in starting to pursue her own goals.

As for my private teaching, I recently reached out to a pianist friend of mine who has been teaching privately for years.  She discussed some of the books and exercises that she uses for her beginning piano students.  While this was incredibly helpful in showing me some examples of how I could start teaching, what was even more useful (and impressive) was the checklist she showed me.  It listed out all the different tools students should have available to them before they start moving on to more advanced repertoire.  It included things as basic as “Left Hand vs. Right Hand” and “playing loud and quiet” to more advanced concepts such as “syncopated rhythms” and “arpeggios.”  Truthfully, the contents of the checklist were unimportant; rather, the mere fact that there was a checklist with subjects that she deemed important for the students to know was the real eye opener.  When I have my own set of priorities of the components a student should know, I feel like I’ll be so much more prepared and confident in my piano pedagogy skills.

One common thread to each of these solutions is the input of a friend or mentor to help get things started.  Rather than talk about the process we can do to find a good mentor, I want to talk about how we can actually BE a good mentor.  See, I’ve taught countless seminars on a variety of technological subjects, and I know from experience that it is far more important to be an empathetic teacher than a knowledgeable one.  Now clearly, we need to have knowledge of our subject matter to be effective at helping others to grasp it.  However, without the communication skills to meet the student (or mentee) where they’re at, the knowledge is pointless.

We all have things that we’re great at whether it’s a musical instrument, the arcade game Track and Field (see the picture above), or navigating the Affordable Care Act website.  If you are helping someone learn how to do that thing you’re great at, think back to the difficulties you encountered when you first approached it.  Guide them through the pitfalls with relatable language.  Something like:

“Getting notes to start consistently on the tuba is something I’ve worked on for a long time.  There are days where they sound better and days where I don’t even feel like I can play a single note.  However, I found these exercises helped a lot.”

In that way you are pointing out things to be aware of, letting them know that you’ve encountered the same issues, and giving them a potential solution.  You’re also making a connection between yourself and the person you’re helping.  I find a casual approach helps me with that.  Empathy is really important here.  If you are detached, mechanical, or overly discouraging, you can easily break the connection and trust necessary so that they can ask for help and advice.

So let’s summarize.

Having trouble getting started with something?

  1. Ask someone outside your situation for a fresh perspective.
  2. Make a list of the components that make up the thing you want to do.
  3. Ask for help from someone who has encountered a similar issue.

Has somebody asked you for help starting something new?

  1. Offer a template that has worked for you.
  2. Use relatable language to help establish trust and offer solutions.
  3. Be empathetic!  Listen, offer encouragement, talk about similar issues you have run into.

Above all, try to recognize the paralysis that can set in when you begin something new.  Remind yourself that there are countless solutions and plenty of people to help you.  Reach out to embrace the new like we did when we were children.  Be wide-eyed and wonderstruck.

Then you may begin.


A Curious Mind

Lately I’ve been flooded with projects, and it has been glorious glorious glorious!  I’ve been cramming about as much gigging as I can into my 40 work week and the weekends.  I’ve had the opportunity to play with 20’s trad jazz bands, 2nd line wedding bands, orchestras, and impromptu jams.  I also started a polka band (Polkadelphia!) and have been busy learning and playing a whole new style and repertoire.  I recently recorded a new song I wrote about Dungeons and Dragons to be used as a Kickstarter reward for my friend’s project, Kobolds At My Baby… in color!  I have been teaching piano lessons and developing a songwriting class for teenagers.  I have been honing my design skills and am currently working on revamping a friend’s website.  I’ve been taking (c)old projects out of storage and working on finding viable venues.  I’m about at the end of my wits, and I’m loving it!

On a parallel track, ever since I graduated from college in 2000, I have been absolutely terrified of going back to school for “formalized” education.  Many of my friends went for their masters degrees, and I went off and did my own thing.  For the past 6 years I’ve worked at a university with free tuition benefits.  Yet, except for a semester of German, a music and technology class, and an audited yoga class, I have eschewed using those benefits.  Many friends and colleagues think I’m crazy for not taking advantage and getting a free masters degree.  But I have my reasons, the biggest being that I don’t want to commit myself to classes and projects that may become a burden over time.

While I know it’s not a direct parallel (and frankly, what is?) I look at these two areas of my life and see some incongruity.  In one, I am tearing up my free time and immersing myself to be as busy as possible.  In the other, I am fiercely guarding my free time from waste.  Let’s debunk a few things here too.  It’s not a fear of learning new things, because in my current projects, I’ve learned more than I have in my whole life.  And it’s not that I perceive formalized education as a waste of my time any more than my projects might turn out to be.  It’s entirely possible that I commit myself to a project of my own devising that turns out to be draining and lackluster.  I think the biggest difference between the two for me is the quality of self-direction in my own projects.

Before any academics get in a huff, I do believe that when someone enters into a program for a graduate degree, there is a significant amount of self-direction required and encouraged, as opposed to undergraduate degrees which tend to be a bit more cookie-cutter.  I’d also like to point out that while my experiences with graduate degrees are second-hand, I have spoken to a lot of people who have gone through such programs.  However, at the end of the day, there are prerequisites to finish, auxiliary tasks to perform, and a standardized finished product to turn in.  It all seems pretty externally directed to me.  My many friends who have advanced degrees also attest to the bureaucracy and the “old guard” of the system that detract from the learning process.

It’s true that any industry has its old guard and bureaucracy, but I’ve been finding that approaching my projects with a degree of experimentation and innovation helps to dispel some of the feeling that I’m playing the game.  It’s kind of like that moment as a songwriter when you stop trying to write songs in the style of people you admire, and start to really focus on your own modes of expression.  All of a sudden, there’s this sense of newness and genuine connection.  When done in the right circumstances, people really sit up and take notice.
Perhaps I’m being naive, but the naivete is part of the joy of it.  I’m approaching the parts of my life that I want to change with many ideas and few expectations.  I’m learning about the things that matter to me, and while I’ll never feel in control of the outcome, I do feel quite confident about the direction I’m going.

Metroid with Tuba


I’m also really enjoying how each new morsel of knowledge opens up new avenues.  It reminds me of classic NES games like Metroid; after you get certain items, you can unlock new areas that were previously inaccessible.  Likewise, with a CD pressed, I get access to venues I couldn’t play before.  With Polkadelphia, I get access to a new market, and the people who manage that market.  I can see these webs spreading out before me as I go.  Also like Metroid, I can choose the order in which I make these discoveries.  And also like Metroid, it’s pretty fun.

At this point, I don’t know necessarily what the take-away is for this post.  Certainly you should try to be in touch with what it is you want.  It’s both fun and fulfilling to explore what it is you want from a variety of different angles.  I suppose what I would impart is that you don’t have to give up the process of self-directed exploration just because you are an adult (or because you are a child).  It increasingly seems to me that only by continuing to explore and expand the parameters of our lives in directions that we choose can we truly live a life that is glorious glorious glorious!

Serve the Core

A few weeks ago, I was talking to Mike from Departure Consulting about developing a songwriting class.  We were discussing some of the pitfalls we encounter while teaching, and he brought up a colleague who had given him some advice on the subject.  This colleague had taught the same class for over twenty years, and told Mike that each year he shaves a bit off the syllabus.  This might seem like the class would take less and less time to teach, but in this colleague revealed that he was paring the course down so that each piece of information acutely reflected the core concepts of the class.

Michaelangelo's Angel

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

In other words, he was separating the wheat from the chaff.  He was setting the angel in the marble free.  There are countless clichés that amount to the same thing: we create a better product by adding components that serve the core message, and selectively removing components that do not.  For some reason though, as the story was related to me, I saw it fresh; it was a nexus between so many vastly different components of my life.

The first thing that popped in my head was the card game Magic the Gathering.  I’ve mentioned this multiple times before, but Magic is a deck-building card game.  It’s been around for 20 years, and in that time, they have printed over 15,000 different cards.  This can seem overwhelming to a new entrant into the game, but in most players work within a pool of cards (not literally) significantly smaller than that at any given time.

When building a deck, you want the best cards possible to be included.  After all, by starting with the best cards, you have a better chance of playing with those best cards and winning the game.  However, using this strategy over time, I have found that it doesn’t always work.  Certainly I garner some wins by playing a slew of powerful cards, but sometimes the deck seems to be at cross-purposes with itself.  A better strategy is often to identify exactly what you want your deck to do, and then only add cards that will lead you to that game state.  For example, if you want to play an aggressive deck, omit the cards that are powerful but aim for a protracted endgame.  In those cases if your deck works correctly, you should have won already.  If I only add cards that support that core strategy and omit the cards that do not support it, my deck will often be better for it.

Last weekend I was lamenting that despite my increased tuba practicing, I have a hard time with breath control and extremes of volume in my low range.  In other words, I get out of breath quickly when I play loud in the low register of the tuba.  I began browsing the web for recommendations for improving efficiency in the low range, and found several examples of exercises.  Then I noticed that all of these exercises involved focusing on that range with an awareness of how much air I’m using and how I’m using it.  Here’s where I had one of those obnoxious epiphanies that I relearn every few months (weeks?): When I practice a specific thing, I get better at that thing.

Turns out, my daily routine was missing some focused practice of the low range.  I was so entrenched in the idea that any practice was holistically good for my playing, that I wasn’t making modifications for specific goals.  After about 20 minutes of long tones played fortissimo, I was able to hold low notes out more fully and louder.  Once I identified my core goal, I was able to focus on that goal and eliminate the tools I was using that distracted from that goal.

Of course, one key element here is understanding what your core concepts are in the first place.  Sometimes when we are unable to achieve what we want, the problem is not in our methods, but rather in our definition of the problem.  We all know people who are perpetually dissatisfied in their relationships.  Too often this is because they’re attempting solutions to a problem they haven’t identified.  Until we probe and discover what our core message is, we can’t find a way to highlight it in our work.

So the next time you feel like you’re plateauing and find it difficult to improve,  try taking it back to its fundamental core.  Write out your goal in a sentence or two.  Then write all the things you are doing within that discipline.  Cross out the tasks that do not serve that core idea, and supplement with any tasks that do serve it.  You’ll find your focus is renewed and your goals are more within your reach than you might have suspected.

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