Enjoyment and Understanding

It has become a tradition for me to post a beginning of the year “digital speech” for the students at the Bob Cole Conservatory. I’ve talked about subjects such as time management, how everything you do in your life contributes to your musicianship, and the importance of hearing live music.This year, I focus on something often left unsaid but which impacts students almost every day: the difference between enjoyment and understanding.

When you listen to music it is human to have a reaction such as “I like it,” or “I don’t like it.” Sometimes, you have no reaction, you may even have missed the sound of music playing as you traveled up an elevator or walked through the music building. In those cases, you might consider your reaction to be “neutral.”

Your reaction to music is yours. It comes from somewhere beyond thinking or rationalization. Don’t let anyone decide for you what you do and don’t like. You don’t even really get to “decide” it just happens.

What I am interested in having you consider, though, is not the set of pieces or performances you like or don’t like, but the fundamental relationship between “like/don’t like” and “understand/don’t understand.” In the study of music, you only need concern yourself with “understand/don’t understand.” “Like/don’t like” doesn’t play a role in learning about music, and has a smaller role than you might imagine in creating and making music.

I have often been asked, “Why do I need to understand things I don’t like?” Sometimes they also tack on a defensive volley, “I’m never going to use things I don’t like, so I don’t need to know about them.” These people are not questioning the wisdom of understanding, they are expressing a response to being asked to spend time with something they don’t care for.

Do you have difficulty sticking with activities you don’t like, perhaps doing the dishes or the laundry, cleaning the bathtub, warming up on long tones, starting homework assignments early enough to allow ample time to complete them well? We all have things that fit this category. Me? I have a terrible time making myself exercise

You have chosen to study music, have passed a rigorous audition to be admitted, and have made a tremendous financial and time commitment to college. Rather than let an irrational response to a piece, passage, or concept adversely impact your understanding of music, think about why you’re here. You want to perform, compose, teach, research, conduct, arrange, manage, record, or in some way be involved in music in your life. You want be a professional. That may mean, especially for students new to the conservatory, coming to the realization that things are no longer business as usual. This is good! You’re supposed to be challenged to digest and create with new skills. What is an education if not that? Sure there is stress, but leap for joy that you get to spend years focused on making yourself the best musician you can. When you graduate, the luxury of time will change. (Oh yes, I’ve heard the same refrain for 25+ years, “I never realized how much time I had to do things when I was in school.” You will be busy at Bob Cole but you will never have the time to learn and improve that you do now. Alumni who have read this far, please share your stories about that below.)

I had a composition student, I’ll call him Mr. U, who diligently came to lessons each week with a reasonable amount of new material. We talked about what he wanted his piece to be and I proposed some changes that would bring his music more in line with his desires. Every week he came back with newly written music but no edits of the previous material. Every week I made similar suggestions about changes, and encouraged him to spend time editing his music to make it more like what he wanted. He never changed a thing for two years! He never changed a note, added an articulation, reconsidered a dynamic level, shifted the relationships among new entrances or counterpoint, nothing. His new music each week keep exhibiting the same weaknesses that I coached him to revise and reconsider.

As much as I would have like to ask him to leave and return only when he’d done what I asked, I’m not that kind of teacher. In truth, I did that once because I allowed myself to express anger, and not surprisingly, it didn’t work out well. The student’s defensive ire manifested as a lack of trust in everything I said. That was the end of my ability to teach her. Teaching isn’t Bootcamp, it is a dialogue, whether that’s in a private lesson or in a classroom. As the instructor, I steer the dialogue, though recalcitrant students and I battle it out for control now and then. I invoke the Socratic method, asking questions and guiding students to the answer I want which is, I believe, already within them. “Mr. U” didn’t “like” editing, he didn’t “like” change, he didn’t “like” learning, and he didn’t have the skills to deal with the magnitude of the wall that he erected around his music because of all those “didn’t likes.” He wasn’t dedicated to nor curious about dismantling the barrier, to probing its origins or its implications. He graduated years ago and it will probably come as no surprise that he is no longer composing.

What I’m talking about here is cultivating a profound commitment to inquiry and curiosity. If you are dubious about the need for that, then I invite you to pause for a moment, find a quiet space and reflect on it. Ask yourself as honestly as you can why you think you don’t need to commit to understanding all that you can. I don’t mean that as a judgement of you, or in the sense that you should discover how to defend your answer, but ask you to let your mind settle enough to see what contributes to your response and what is underneath it driving it to the surface. The question I ask you to focus on is “Why do I believe I do not need to understand as much as I can about all facets of music in order to be the musician I want to be?” The essence of the search is embedded in the word “why.” [A note: search for answers to this question with a patient and understanding mind. Reactions are just a surface manifestation of issues that we all encounter in life. To the best of your ability, do not admonish yourself for your reactions. The response isn’t bad or wrong, it simply occurred.]

Here are some possible answers, to give you an idea of what perspectives your inquiry may include. It may be because you are exhausted (if you’re currently in college as a music major, this is de rigueur). It may be because you have other more significant and  immediate issues to deal with that don’t leave you enough mental energy to tackle exacting work (if that is the case, seek advice on what to do. Taking time off from intensive study might be the wise action). It may be because you don’t have the motivation, intention, passion, wherewithal, drive, or whatever-it-takes to be the musician you want to be (if that is the case, seek advice about your desires, goals, and deepest wishes, negotiating a course through life that brings you joy). And it may be that you’ve not yet taken the time to really ask the question, and that you discover your reasons for being obdurate are surmountable with care, guidance, and wise effort.

Do you savor the sensation of warm water running over your hands? It can be such a comforting and familiar feeling on your skin. I loved to sit right by the water spout in the bath as a kid. How do you feel about bubbles? Did you take bubble baths or dip pink wands with jagged-edge rings into jars of magical fluid, flinging luminescent bubbles from your fingertips in the warmth of summer? How do you feel about moving your arm in a circular motion? If you’re petting a dog or cat, you may experience lower blood pressure and less stress from that movement. Did you play with blocks, build sandcastles, or create magnificent structures from Legos? So what is it exactly that you don’t like about doing the dishes?

Understand what it is that you don’t like and you will probably find that it isn’t such a deal breaker after all. Next time you do the dishes, really be there for the water, the soap, the movements you make, and the stacking. Be mindful of what it is that you are doing in the moment. If you live as I do, where drought is an issue, you can even add in the joy of turning the faucet on and off, on and off, on and off. If you are in a spot where you’re fighting against doing something because you do not enjoy it, then figure out precisely what it is that you don’t enjoy and focus on the aspects which bring you joy.

If you are having troubles in the practice room, notice as carefully as you can when they occur and what they feel like. Pay particular attention to your internal and external circumstances if you notice that you are no longer having trouble. Then talk with others about it. I can say truthfully that no one who has ever walked this planet as a musician went without a bad day (week, month, year) in the practice room. Learning how to handle that is as important as the practicing itself on the path to becoming an elite musician. (For composers, conductors, and researchers, the concept is the same, just change some of the vocabulary.)

Notice “like” and “don’t like” and then move on. Seek to understand. Sometimes you may discover that there is only one aspect of a piece you don’t care for and that everything else is a gold mine. Don’t miss the treasure because you don’t like the box in which it was handed to you.


Ian Brekke Featured in The Independent

Alumnus Ian Brekke, Director of Choral and Vocal Studies at Las Posits College lead his students in a concert entitled “More Intensely, More Beautifully, More Devotedly.” Ian is quoted about the concert: “We have had a difficult year of senseless acts committed inside school grounds, an unfortunate trend that continues to shake all of us. We’ve prepared a concert series meant to uplift and inspire the members of the community. We are fortunate that music is such a wonderful medium for communicating and sharing emotion, a sort of exaggerated method of conversation. This is our conversation with our community, to give the gift of music to those that may need it.”

Photo – Doug Jorgensen

Pulse Percussion Wins WGI World Championship

Pulse Percussion Ensemble with Freshmen Trent Gronewold and Emmanuel Mora, and Junior Connie Truong won the WGI Percussion World Championship. Danielle Collins (MM Music Education) is co-founder and President of the Board of Directors of Pulse, alumnus Darren Loney is also on the Board, and alumnus Ian Grom is Percussion Front Ensemble Coordinator/Arranger.

POW, a new Pulse team, earned a spot in finals and finished 13th. The three-day World Championship event, held in Dayton Ohio this year, evaluated more than 200 percussion ensembles from over 40 states and 4 countries.

Sherrine Mostin’s Arrangements Performed

Sacramento State University’s Big Band performed alumna Sherrine Mostin’s composition “Heartspeak.” After completing her MM in Jazz Voice here, Sherrine entered the doctoral program at the University of Miami where, as a TA, she won the Downbeat award for Best Undergraduate Collegiate Vocal Jazz Ensemble and was also awarded Graduate College Winner in the Vocal Jazz Soloist category  She is currently Assistant Professor of Voice at Minnesota State University Moorhead, of Miami Frost School of Music.

Stephen Salts Guest Conducts Clarion Singers

Alumnus Stephen Salts will be the guest conductor of The Clarion Singers for their concert at St Thomas The Apostle in Hollywood on 20 February.

Alumni Beth Peregrine and Stacy Oh will join the Clarion Singers on tour. They’ll be touring in the UK and performing at Canterbury Cathedral this summer. The Canterbury Cathedral is one of the oldest and most famous structures in England and forms part of a World Heritage Site.

LeatherTramp at SXSW

LeatherTramp with students Jake Abernathie, Gracie Gray, and Elizabeth Chavez, and alumni Lawrence Pi, Miko Shudo, Cole Syverson, Chandler Riley, Marc Encabo, John-Michael O’Brien, and Gary Soland performed at SXSW in Austin.

They had three shows in at SXSW as well as stops in Amarillo, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

Maria Lazarova Completes Online Opera Role

Lecturer Maria Lazarova has wrapped on “Vireo” an opera created expressly for episodic release via broadcast and online media, by Lisa Bielawa, composer, and Erik Ehn, Librettist. Maria appears with the Kronos Quartet, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and the Orange County School of the Arts Middle School Choir, and several excellent vocalists. The opera won the 2015 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Multimedia Award.  In spring 2017, KCET will release all twelve episodes at once for free, on-demand streaming, which is a first for the network.

Katharin Rundus’s “Cantabile: Voice Class” Receives Rave Review

Lecturer Katharin Rundus’s latest book, Cantabile: Voice Class is reviewed in this month’s Classical Singer Magazine; also included is an interview with her. The book is intended for a one-semester class for beginning vocalists, a “bootcamp” as she refers to it.

From Classical Singer Magazine’s review: “Rundus presents the terms and concepts of vocal pedagogy in a manner that makes them accessible and intelligible without being watered down… Cantabile: Voice Class is … poised to become a standard text for teaching beginning singers.”

Chelsea Stevens Signs with Aguilar Amplification

Alumna Chelsea Stevens has been signed as an Aguilar Amplification artist. In their ad featuring her, Aguilar wrote, “Chelsea Stevens is fresh voice in the bass community whose command of many styles/genres has made her an in-demand bassist for popular television shows Glee and as a member of the house band for Estrella TV’s Noches con Platanito.”

James Yoshizawa: Bodhrán Soloist and Percussionist

Alumnus James Yoshizawa has been asked to be the bodhrán soloist and percussionist in the new Broadway musical, “Come From Away.” There will be some touring in Washington DC and Toronto, then it will land on Broadway in NYC in January 2017. He will also return to the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival as a guest artist this summer and record his second album with the Jonathan Rowden Group this summer.