#MusicAndMentalHealth: Give Yourself Permission

As this post goes up, I’m in all likelihood stretched out on a beach or in a hammock (the rainy season is starting in early this year) in Cahuita, Costa Rica.

I’ve been invited to stay with friend and fellow trombonist Gabe and her mom. We’ll take in Cahuita National Park, the Museo de Cacao, and local culture. I am incredibly excited; I’ve only spent a few hours in Costa Rica itself but I have a soft spot for the Caribbean and the Central American countries from my time on cruise ships.

Giving myself permission to buy a plane ticket and take time off from work and potential gigs was incredibly difficult. I knew the minute Gabe invited me that I would go, but I had to give myself all kinds of pep talks to actually make it happen. It’s so hard, as a freelance musician and a self-employed educator, to walk away from work during the regular season. It’s easier over winter holidays, when students are not in school and wanting a break, or in the summer when things are light anyway, but mid-May? C’mon! On top of that, how will my chops feel when I get back? What will I have lost, musically.

The answer? Nothing. Sure, it’ll take a few days to feel normal again, but in reality, I’ll have gained. My skills will not suffer in the long run for a week off. Years ago, I would panic at the idea of not playing for whatever period of time- a few days, a week, a month (ok, but to be real, I probably couldn’t go a month just yet :/). Eventually, I began to realize that time off is truly musically valuable. It gives your brain a chance to recuperate, incorporate old habits, and simmer on new experiences and ideas.

As for teaching and playing, taking a vacation is not going to mean I lose students or gigs. They will still all be there- because everyone understands the value of time away. I recently saw a claim that Americans work more days that medieval peasants. I laughed aloud- and then I sobbed a bit. I don’t even have a 9-to-5 job, but I do work in the ever-growing gig economy, which might grind even harder that the 40 hours a week crowd. We don’t have health insurance provided for us, after all, and our income depends on how hard we hustle.

So, giving myself permission to leave is hard. I’m getting better at it, though. And I give you permission to take a break, too.


#MusicAndMentalHealth: What Does Burnout Feel Like?

Many years ago, when I worked on cruise ships, I experienced firsthand what it looks like when a musician feels burnt out and uninspired.  The bottled up atmosphere of a ship, combined with repetitive musical engagements and low regard from management for the wellbeing of their artists, can really make making music feel like a soul-sucking dead end job. While I managed mostly to avoid feeling that way myself, many of my colleagues who had done ships for years exhibited all the telltale signs of career exhaustion. It’s why I made an effort to rebuild my career at home on land before I found myself in the same position, and work constantly to manage it optimally.

[disclaimer: lots of cruise musicians love their job for years! ymmv!]

Any career or imperfect job situation can bring us stress and lower our motivation from time to time. Music can be particularly hard to balance for many reasons as musicians are often struggling to make ends meet, always on the hustle, worried about turning things down, constantly practicing for the next thing, and tentative to take breaks. On top of that we’re often perfectionists- we’ve spent long hours in the practice room honing our skills and we can be obsessive with our practice regimens.

According to Psychology Today, there are 3 main pillars of burnout:

  1. Physical and Mental Exhaustion, which can include insomnia, mental fatigue, forgetfulness, anxiety, changes in appetite, depression, and difficulty managing anger;
  2. Cynicism and Detachment, characterized by a loss of enjoyment in tasks and activities, pessimism, and isolation;
  3. Signs of Ineffectiveness and Lack of Accomplishmentincluding apathy, irritability, and decreased productivity.

I’ve definitely felt all of these in the last couple of months, and I’ve been struggling to identify exactly what’s burning me out, or if it’s a general need for change. As summer approaches, I know my schedule will change for the better, but there are a few things I can do know to help myself reposition the needle.

Primarily, I need to say no to more things. I don’t be a part of every project or take every student that comes my way. I have a big, self-assigned project (a teacher’s guide for my upcoming clinic offering) on my plate right now, but I’m realizing that it actually doesn’t need to see completion until I start marketing in the fall, and that it is actually in very good shape. Beating myself up about the progress I was making on it was #3 through and through, and it was bleeding into my everyday life and work.

I also need to give myself a break- there won’t be a big project or effort in June. I’m putting my proposed YouTube series on hold until later in the summer, or at least until I feel more inspired to do it. I’d like to get back into a more regular practice routine, and start to brainstorm repertoire for a packaged guest artist performance/presentation, and that seems like a lot of fun play and practice, rather than busy work.

And finally, I need to listen to my very own Relaxation Mentor, Nikolai.

This is a live view from my computer as I attempt to write this post around a cranky, needly, elderly bb who will put his head over the trackpad and keyboard while I’m typing in hopes I’ll give up and just sit with him.

Lately, Nikolai has been reminding me of a book I had as a child called Misty Morgan. In the book, Morgan the unicorn is trying desperately to get his friend the Princess to play with him, but she is constantly in motion, obsessed with getting her work done. After being put off a few too many times, Morgan eventually wanders sadly and unthinkingly into a thick mist, and it is up to the Princess to rescue him.

Whenever I’m in the midst of a busy day, in and out of rooms in my house, or stopping home just for a quick bite, Nikolai’s pitiful expression worries me. I want to make time for the work I love to do, but also leave open space for play and friendship. It’s the balance of the two of these that keep us inspired.

#MusicAndMentalHealth Wisdom Wednesday: Rebecca Hass

This month on the blog on Wednesdays I’m aiming to feature the writing of a colleague who’s doing good work helping musicians find ways to balance work, life, and play. Whether they’re finding paths for themselves and sharing their journey, or actively guiding people through the process of gaining a good groundwork, these folks are truly thinking outside the box of our traditional grindstone mentality. The result is careers and people that are happier, more productive in the long run, and ultimately, more successful (and it all depends on how you define ‘success’).

This week, I’m delighted to excerpt some of the writing of my dear friend Rebecca Hass, whom you know from some of my past collaborations with piano as well as our efforts to institute a regular networking happy hour event for women in the MSP Metro’s music scene. Rebecca has been a champion of so many things positive and holistic in my life, as well as an excellent ear and mentor when it comes to difficult situations. Please check out her work, writing, and performances, and be sure to support her album of original Brazilian tunes Kickstarter, which launches May 29th!

Here are some of my favorite posts from Rebecca on balance, mental health, and creativity:

What is Enough

“Over the weekend, despite relaxing quite a bit, I felt unbelievably exhausted, moody, and irritable. (Hello, signs of burnout!) As this article explains, burnout is not a sudden state that you find yourself in, it’s a slow leak that creeps up on you (although you may not notice). I relate to many of the signs they listed. Teachers are definitely at risk for burnout, and people with my workaholic personality. So, I keep reminding myself that rest is part of the cycle of my work – I will not be able to function well if I don’t rest. (Easier said than done.)”

10 Survival Strategies for Busy Times

7) Batch tasks together

Schedule larger blocks of time to do regular activities (like printing materials, planning lessons, cooking food for the week, etc.) I’ve heard a statistic that it takes 20 minutes or more to re-focus when you switch tasks, so you can save a ton of time this way!

8) Make shorter to-do lists

I know that it sounds counter-intuitive to be telling yourself to do less work when you’re super busy and working more, but shorter lists help you prioritize what most needs to get done. You’ll probably actually achieve the same amount, and you’ll feel more in control and better about yourself because you get to the end of the list. I’m not usually very good at doing this, but I’ve been trying it this week, and I’m getting the essentials done, in a more relaxed fashion”

These two really hit home for me. If I have too many projects going and I try to get a little of each done in a day, I am much less successful than if I had dedicated more time to each. Of course, I still have days where task-switching happens, and I have to remind myself to set aside the biggest amount of time for the thing that needs the most attention. And also forgive myself if I didn’t also clean the bathroom.

Let’s Talk About Anxiety

“Notice that I said “get better”, not “cure my anxiety” – I have no illusions that being on medication cures the problem, and I know that this is a lifelong issue that I will always be prone to. If my life gets more stressful and/or I don’t keep up my healthy habits, I definitely feel it, and it’s a learning process of awareness that I have to commit to. I’m certainly not perfect, and I’m still prone to workaholic tendencies, as much as I try not to fall into that trap (that Midwestern farmer heritage dies hard, as does the stereotypical musician lifestyle). Lisa Congdon talks about her experience with workaholism and anxiety here, and I totally relate to all of her takeaways.

I felt my anxiety ramping up again this week, as I’m nearing spring break (starting after my concert tonight!) and have gotten a bit fried from a busy month, but I am MUCH more sensitive to the red flags of increased anxiety and impending burnout now (feeling crabby/unable to handle work/stressful situations as well as normal, heart racing, feeling fearful for no good reason, feeling exhausted rather than energized after a walk, etc.) So, I won’t let things get as bad as they did last year if I can help it.”

Balancing Rest and The Hustle

“There are a lot of factors to weigh: whether you’ll be able to rest more after the period of “hustle”, how healthy you’re feeling, whether additional stressors are present in your life right now, whether it’s a typically busy season, etc. When it comes down to it, is it worth it to you to give up rest, time with loved ones, hobbies, home-cooked meals, etc. in order to pursue your career goals? Or how much of that is okay to give up? And for how long at a time?

My work has always been really important to me, but I think that I have always swung too far to that side of the rest/work seesaw, at the expense of a lot of things, including my own health. So, even though I do struggle with it, I am committed to resting and recharging as a basic personal value, even if it means that I make a little less money, or that some of my goals take a little longer to achieve. After all, no one ever says “I wish that I had worked more” on their deathbed. I want my workload and lifestyle to feel sustainable (which is obviously going to be different for every person). ”

And the end of this post is as good a time as any to introduce you to Rebecca’s ‘Relaxation Mentor’ Rusty T Cat, a total good boy who knows how to help his human take a breath and rest.

What Rusty wants us to know is that it’s important to foster the relationships and social activities in our lives, even if it’s as simple as putting down the phone and scritching a kitty’s soft forehead for a bit.

Go, and read all of Rebecca’s writing!

#MusicAndMentalHealth: The Work-Life Balancing Act

It’s no secret that the freelance musical life can sometimes be one of financial insecurity, a swing between work drought and work overload. Between having to manage a constantly changing schedule, provide for one’s own health insurance and future benefits, and keep on top of skills and develop new abilities and directions artistically, musicians often feel stress, burnout, and depression.

But many make it work, and with effort and adaptability, create careers for themselves that they wouldn’t trade for anything. I’m one of these musicians, and today I want to talk a little bit about my path to a balanced career, how I continue to struggle, and what I’m doing to stay joyful and inspired in my work.

Up until the early years of my 30s, I worked part-time jobs in other industries while trying to figure out the right direction for my musical career. I was a ticket agent for the Minnesota Orchestra, an office assistant for a medical health organization, and an employee of my friend’s eBay shipping business (that was one of my favorites- really let my type A organizational tendencies shine).  Throughout these jobs I was steadily learning what I wanted to be ‘when I grew up’, and it looked a little different from what I’d told myself I’d be upon leaving music school years before.

I had always thought I would make a living performing- with a chamber music group, as a freelancer, as part of a theatre orchestra or band, anything. I worked cruise ships and marketed myself as a capable performer in many genres. But the work I was getting did not garner enough to pay my bills, and when teaching opportunities started to fall in my lap (see this post for my teaching origin story), I realized that if I wanted to break the cycle of part time, non-music-related jobs, I would have to start developing my studio. It was timely- I was starting to get discouraged and bitter about my performance career- and it provided me a way forward.

These days, I make the majority of my income from teaching weekly private lessons to students at all levels, and I love it. My gig income has become something ‘extra’ I can sock away for fun things or life savings. But lately, I’ve been feeling a bit ‘crispy’ about teaching (that is, just on the edge of burnt-out), and while part of that might be the end of another school year nearing, I think it also has to do with the sheer amount  of teaching that I am doing that is giving me little time to work on other aspects of my career. I’m feeling the need to rebalance, and I have a few ideas.

The first thing I’ve been trying to do is cut back slightly on the number of students in my studio. I love each and every one of them, but I’m beginning to feel that past a certain number, I start to get a little frazzled and have more phoned in lessons than I would like. My magic number of students for optimum teaching mental health is probably somewhere between 25-28, and right now I have *34* including a few long standing clinic engagements that involve anywhere between 2-10 students apiece. The summer will loosen my schedule quite a bit, but I want to make sure that in the fall, the structure looks a little different and I can stave off the crispiness for a little longer.

First, I don’t plan to replace the 5 high school seniors currently in my studio, unless a student comes along that can easily fit into my available times at one of the high schools or at the church I rent from. Secondly, I’ve stepped away from the company I teach Skype lessons for- that’s 2 more. Thirdly, if I’m awarded the grant I wrote to continue and expand my teaching offerings at Richfield High School, I will likely try to organize all my home studio students on one or two days (instead of 3) so I can streamline my schedule.

On top of this, I need to be stricter about giving myself days of the week off, and particularly making sure I have more than one in a row. Currently, Saturdays and Mondays are days ‘off’, but more often than not they end up getting filled up in some other way. Saturdays get gigs, and Mondays become days in which I make a lot of appointments and address my inbox/business needs.

What would be ideal would be maybe a Fri/Sat or Sun/Mon day off arrangement, something that lines up with both a social life and a chore day, and that’s what I’m striving to create starting in the fall. I’m also hoping to expand my outreach as a clinician and educator, and that may mean having to juggle schedules so that I can get into more classrooms.

One of the most amazing things to happen in the last 2 years is a growing demand for my services as a performer, not just in groups like Brass Lassie and the Adam Meckler Orchestra, but as a freelancer and soloist, as well. A particularly long 2 weeks last month made me realize that the educator life and the performer life don’t exactly mesh well if you like full nights of sleep. But playing as often as I have been lately has reminded me that performing is my life’s joy, and developing a better structure around gigging might help me balance some of my burn-out feelings around teaching.

The musical life will never be perfect- but what work life is- but as musicians we are constantly adapting our strategies toward having a healthy and fulfilling career. I also know for myself that doing one particular thing for years and years is not for me, and that I will evolve into a new phase not long down the line. Likely it will still involve all of the things I do now, but to me it will feel fresh and motivating as I chase down that challenge.

How have you found ways to balance your career and your mental health? How do you keep things fresh and inspiring? Where are you at in your journey?

The Blog in May: #MusicAndMentalHealth

It’s May! Up here in Minnesota, the snow has finally melted and we even had one day get into the 80s. People are starting to shake off the winter blues, festival and event season is gearing up, and the trees are getting those first bits of green.

But even with winter in the rearview mirror and the promise of warmer, more social times ahead, spring and summer can be a tough time for many. In May, medical health professionals everywhere celebrate Mental Health Month, a period of advocacy, visibility, and support for people struggling with mental illnesses.

In conjunction with all the fine work being done on the topic by many of my colleagues, I’m dedicating the blog this month to the mental health of musicians, professional and amateur alike, and how the art  of music can help and hinder our wellbeing. I’ll talk about how I’ve found balance in my career (and how I haven’t!), showcase colleagues whose writing and influence have helped me, and ask you to weigh in on how your life with music affects your brain.

And now that I’ve written this up- I can go for a therapeutic sunny afternoon bike ride! Stay tuned for more in May.

#TeacherFeature: Northside Advocate Teresa Campbell

Welcome back to #TeacherFeature! Every Wednesday this month I’ll be highlighting the work and career of one of my favorite educators and talking about how they’ve influenced my career and teaching philosophy.

Today I want to shout-out one my close friends, and someone I’ve known for a long time as a inspired, dedicated educator and musician. She’s turned her generous, compassionate heart to helping the underserved kids of North Minneapolis grow community and self-confidence through music. Please welcome to the blog Ms Teresa Campbell!

Teresa and I met at the University of Wisconsin when I was a freshman in 1999. I admired her ability to take on all styles of music, and in particular, her compositional bent. It was unthinkable to me that I would be able to present something that I wrote as musical viable, and watching Teresa perform her own music was part of a big change in my mindset. We lost touch over the years and reconnected in Minneapolis, sharing a common love of music and social justice education.

These days, Teresa performs regularly around the Cities as a violinist, including in the Stone Arch Collective (oboe, violin, viola, and cello), which was one of MPR’s ClassNotes Artists in AY1516. But her career really centers around the work she does as an El Sistema educator for MacPhail in the North Minneapolis schools Harvest Prep, Ascension Catholic, and the MacPhail Northside Youth Orchestra.

What I love about Teresa’s teaching is that it’s not about making her young string players flawless musicians, but rather, about building safe, inclusive communities in her programs and then encouraging her students to explore musical journeys they might not otherwise have access to. Her posts on social media frequently display her deep care and concern for the wellbeing of these kids, many of whom face poverty, broken family structures, and violence as part of their daily lives. Her orchestras offer a haven from these stressors, a place for kids to be themselves and grow as young, vibrant people.

Teresa and some of her students at Ascension 

In addition to her work in Minneapolis’ North Minneapolis neighborhoods, Teresa recently earned a second masters in English as  Second Language, and is an advocate for homeless youth through the work of Covenant House. I am beyond proud to call her a friend and a colleague and I know she is creating a lifelong legacy of compassionate music education that will touch many youth for years to come.

Teaching and Learning: Staying Relevant

Last week I wrote about how I learned to teach- not just by discovering a talent for teaching but by understanding the journey I had to take to be effective and earnest in my skills. This week I want to talk about the exciting process of lifelong learning: applying what I know about helping folks learn to my own educational opportunities.

I may dive more into this next month (the theme is all picked out: Music & Mental Health!), but over the years I’ve had some struggles not just with working to be an effective educator, but with managing the burnout and stress that can come with it. Not only is teaching music privately a career high in emotional labor and investment, it’s often thankless and frustrating financially.   It takes perseverance and dedication to make it all work, and an adaptability that can often be hard-won.

Even as I reflect on the last five years of private teaching, I’m looking forward to the next chapter. I know I can’t just maintain a private studio for the rest of my working life. There need to be new challenges and created opportunities that keep my mind and inspiration fresh. Here are some of the ways I work to keep my career energizing:

Be a student, too

This can mean taking lessons, classes, seminars, anything- but staying in the mindset of being a learning can help you understand how others are learning, and create better teaching moments for you. I’m not currently in lessons or otherwise, but I am working with amazing instructional learning designer Suzi Hunn (new website coming soon!) to put together my new clinic program and getting a big lesson in how course work is effectively and inclusively designed.

Observe other teachers/educational situations

I get some of my best ideas from watching other folks teach. Not only that, I can observe their language, interaction with the students, and strategies without having to be ‘on’ myself.

Stay in touch with mentors

Staying fresh on my teaching philosophy and connection to my own educational past means keeping relationships with my mentors and teacher open and healthy.

Get social

I love talking with other teachers, whether we’re kvetching, swapping ideas or stories, or just having a normal adult conversation without the added level of having to be an example and role model. Private teaching can be very lonely and isolating, and there have been days where I realized I didn’t talk to anyone over 18- not a terrible thing, but sometimes you need peer-to-peer chit chat to let your brain process its day and recharge your batteries.

Be Interdisciplinary

I often feel that some of the best inspiration I get is from sectors other than music. Books on entrepreneurship, philosophy, relationships, psychology, and science have all been extremely enlightening and motivating for me over the years. On top of that, it makes you a more interesting teacher- you can reference a broad range of topics that can either help you build rapport with a student or send them in a new direction.

Attend conferences, events, festivals, etc

Your state probably has a music educator’s conference. There’s the illustrious Midwest Clinic. Your instrument’s organization is probably getting ready to host a  festival this summer. A Trombone Day just happened in the Twin Cities last week. Or maybe it’s not music-related, per se, like the excellent Giant Steps  which happens in the Cities in October. If something interests you, go to it. Sure, you can network, but you can also listen, and get new ideas.

Strike a balance

I loooove teaching. There are days when I’m tired and worn out but after a few lessons I actually feel more awake and relaxed. There are also other days when I’m worn out no matter who I teach, and I struggle to stay on my game for the lessons. I’ve started to make sure that there is at least one day, preferably two, a week, where I don’t teach. It gives me a chance to recharge my spoons and feel like the next time lessons come around, I’ll be ready to offer my best educational experience.

Keep inventing

As I mentioned above, I’m in the process of developing a new clinic I can market. I’m thinking I’ll limit my studio population slightly in the next year and save some time for mini clinician tours and performances, starting with Minnesota. There will be more information about that soon, but in the meantime, planning for that is making me look forward, develop new strategies, and keep myself evolving and reaching as a teacher.

What kinds of things do you do to stay relevant and inspired as a teacher and learner? What’s worked and what hasn’t? What will you do next?

#TeacherFeature: Master Educator Sarah Minette

Welcome back to #TeacherFeature! Every Wednesday this month I’ll be highlight the work and career of one of my favorite educators and talking about how they’ve influenced my career and teaching philosophy.

Today I am really pleased to be able to feature a local educator and academic who is truly using her passion for music and music learning to make all voices in our community visible and valued. Please welcome to the blog Ms Sarah Minette!

As I was developing my own philosophy of teaching and starting to promote the image I wanted to have on the scene, many people said, ‘you need to meet Sarah Minette.’ We’ve since connected, and I can’t say when collective advice has ever been so spot on. Sarah is a kind, compassionate, committed music educator with an eye for finding pathways into the most vulnerable students’ hearts and minds.

Sarah teaches several classes at South High School in Minneapolis. South is a big, diverse school in an urban location that pulls students from many different facets of the Minneapolis community. Three of my own students attend and participate in their band program (hi, Henry, Genevieve, and Ellie!), Leading class guitar, beginning band, and Jazz II, and offering a course on popular music in America, Sarah brings her own thoughtful teaching philosophy to each.

You can read the whole statement in the link above, but here’s my favorite part (seriously though, it’s all excellent):

There must be a sense of safety so that the students and myself, in our vulnerable states can take intellectual and personal risks. However, this can only occur if the content is relevant to the students, their lives, their diverse backgrounds, and the learning community. I consider what prior knowledge and understanding the students with whom I work, as well as future students, may bring with them to the classroom. Relinquishing the title “expert” and instead, considering myself a “co-learner” has augmented the teaching and learning experience for not only myself, but the students with whom I work.

-From “Teaching and Learning Statement”, Sarah Minette’s website.

Sarah has numerous anecdotes and experiences on the blog portion of her website, and I encourage you to explore her fine writing on the subject of her teaching. My particular favorite is her musings on the million dollar question: “What does it mean to be successful?”

Discussing a recent article in which the author proscribed a particular brand of achievement to what a successful guitar class would look like, Sarah questions why numbers and rankings have become so important for music teachers, and wonders what we may have lost sight of.

From the post:

As educators, we have goals for our students and hopefully, we share these goals and involve the students in the goal-making. Ideally, the goals should come from the students first and we help them get there. But if this is what it means to see success, for the students to succeed, why are we not reading about their accomplishments? Why am I reading more about the teachers’ accomplishments? This is not to dismiss the hard work that teachers do, we work our asses off, no doubt about that. But why? Do we work our butts off to receive awards, or do we work our butts off to watch the students struggle with a musical problem, only to work through the problem themselves and possibly others, and come out with a better understanding on the other side?

She goes on to describe her guitar class’s trip to the recording studios at McNally-Smith College of Music (R.I.P.) and how they managed the creative, technical, and marketing processes all on their own with minimal guidance from her. At the end they had a product, yes, but the product was bonus material when considering the overall lessons and growth these students undertook for their own musical benefit.

An academic also, Sarah is working on her doctorate in music education, with a dissertation in the works exploring how LGBTQ music educators navigate their personal and professional lives. It’s another example of her commitment to bringing diverse voices into music education and the broader sphere of learning communities.

Thinking about the myriad examples of inclusion, empathy, and risk-taking Sarah Minette takes as an educator and academic every day inspires me to do more for my students and my community. There are so many voices to be heard, and all we need is the patience and care to listen to them.

Teaching and Learning: Developing Your Skills

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had in recent years, when, upon describing that I teach music lessons for a living, have involved some version of the phrase “You must really have a gift for teaching.”

It’s usually at that point that I explain a little bit about my past as a teacher and player to illustrate that no, I didn’t have any particular innate talent for it, but I did and do work very hard to develop my skill as an educator. Like anything else we go about doing in life, teaching is a learned art.

My first life as a private music teacher was a crash course in being effective that I can’t say I ever truly took to heart. I was 24, living in Dallas, TX, and managing my first ever studio of 20-30 kids who mostly had ZERO interest in private lessons. They were mandated by the band program and the band program had nearly impossibly high standards to maintain. On top of that, I was inexperienced, and uncertain about my own future as a professional player. Once I started grad school at UNT, I steadily decreased the number of lessons I taught and told myself that it wasn’t for me. I was going to focus on performing and just accept that I didn’t have the necessary qualities to teach young musicians.

I told myself that for years.

Some time after moving to Minnesota, another musician I had met at a gig called me up and asked if I would teach his grandson trombone. He was in 8th grade and really struggling. A bit strapped for cash, I agreed, even though I felt a pit in my stomach wondering if I could make this work and not screw this poor kid up. I was 30, had done a few cruise ships, and was finally starting to see the path forward for myself as a professional. On top of that I’d had a quality pedagogue as my professor at UNT (Jan Kagarice) and was starting to develop my own version of her method for my use.

The time was right. Kyle flourished as a trombone player and later a doubler- he now plays sousaphone in the University of Minnesota marching band- and I started to see what fun it could be to guide students to musical proficiency. I got hip to new materials, starting talking shop with my fellow educators, and eventually began to add more and more students. With performance not making me the money I needed to subsist, and tired of working part time jobs, I put myself to the task of becoming a full time educator.

So what, besides a little maturity (both emotional and trombone-al), changed for me? The biggest thing was what I said above: I had to realized that I had to LEARN to teach. I had to apply myself to testing strategies, doing research, and being patient for experience and inspiration to kick in. I had to take time to find the right materials for each student, and correct course when they weren’t working. I had to stop getting frustrated because kids weren’t practicing, and ask myself what I could do to change that reality. I had to stop talking, and listen.

It’s important to acknowledge educating as a learned skill. In the US, we undervalue our teachers, in any capacity, at any level, both financially and as professionals. Much like with performing musicians, treating education as an innate capacity can lead people to expect those ‘blessed’ with it to offer up their services as though they could do nothing else. If we gave teachers and artists credit for the long, arduous work they’ve done in becoming their best professional selves, we would not treat them so poorly in our society.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about teaching music:

-Be accessible. Build rapport with your students, and respect them as human beings.

-The student will tell you what’s working for them. Maybe not with words, but with their attitude or their level of practice. Maybe they’ll really smoke some phrase and you’ll think, aha! they like this.

-Spend less time talking, more time listening and demonstrating. My overarching philosophy here is that I can’t teach technique. I can teach musical ideation with a goal of adding technical skill to the process, but I can’t sit with a student and tell them a bunch of jargon and then expect them to be successful at it. They need a demo, and that’s easy enough. If it was something I couldn’t do, I’d find an example of someone who could. Remember: “The body learns by doing.”

-Keep your own skills sharp. If you’re playing well, and invested in your own development, you can share that energy with your students. Sometimes if I don’t have much on the stand I need to work on, I’ll practice what my students are learning.

-Sometimes it’s going to be frustrating.

-But it will get better, if you’re patient.

-Make time for yourself, to recharge your spoons. Teaching is high in emotional labor cost, and it will wear you down. Make sure you have a day or two each week when you don’t teach, and pamper yourself.

What have been the most valuable lessons for you as an educator or learner? How do you incorporate those into your pedagogy?

#TeacherFeature: Equity Engineer Roque Diaz

Welcome back to #TeacherFeature! Every Wednesday this month I’ll be highlight the work and career of one of my favorite educators and talking about how they’ve influenced my career and teaching philosophy.

Please welcome to the blog my good friend, colleague, sometime boss, trumpet maverick, composer, and overall champion for equity in the arts, Roque Diaz!

he hasn’t won an Oscar yet but stay tuned

I met Roque in 2016 when we were both starting our doctoral programs at the U (he’s still there, about to take his exams, as he has more academic fortitude than I). Over the course of our friendship we’ve collaborated on musical projects (The Satellites), administered free lessons programs (MN Brass’s educational grant for the students of Brooklyn Center High School), and talked  tangible ways to make our big dreams of creating arts learning and community that provides resources for all.

From his bio:

Roque Diaz is an avid scholar, educator, musician, composer, creator, music director, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Music Education and Creative Studies and Media at the University of Minnesota. Roque recently presented “Policies that Matter: Creating a Voice through Policy Awareness for Music Teacher Educators”, at the 2017 Society for Music Teacher Educators Conference in Minneapolis, MN. He will be presenting his next research “Embedding Diversity: A Case Study of the Artistic Citizenship Practices of a Regional Arts Council”, at the 2018 Reflective Conservatoire Conference in London, England. Roque’s research interests are in creating a body movement and awareness curriculum for the marching arts, arts education policy, and embedding diversity and strengthening equity and inclusion into the arts.

Roque is in the process of forming an international arts organization that is dedicated to making the arts a viable career choice whose mission is to provide consistent and sustainable employment to all diverse artists.

What I love about Roque the educator is his commitment to seeing arts establishments and academic institutions rapidly evolve for a future of inclusive, representational learning and performance. He wants to see everyone have access, and see themselves and their culture reflected in the art they are experiencing.

This often means tough conversations in collegiate and non-profit settings where Western European, white, and male viewpoints have long dominated, but Roque is not one to back down from a challenge. Together we worked very hard to get POC and/or women in the teaching positions at BCHS. He’ll begin work at MacPhail Center for Music in June of this year, directing and developing their diversity initiatives to bring more of the Cities within range of accessible music education.

I’ve learned so much from Roque. He’s given me the language I need to describe my educational goals, supplied me with resources that further my work, and frequently been a friendly ear for my frustrations and concerns about the music industry. I know that his future as an arts entrepreneur and innovate educator is just beginning, so I’m excited to see what he can do…and what we can all do together.

Check out Roque’s academic writing and join his conversation about the future of creative artistry and stay tuned for more.