Taking the Baton: Lessons learned from a semester on the podium

Last fall, the director of the Hamline University Wind Ensemble, Dr Janet Greene, approached me with a proposition. She was to take a sabbatical semester in the spring and needed an interim conductor for the band. She thought I’d be a good fit, citing the few times I’d coached or conducting brass ensembles at Hamline, and wanted to offer me the opportunity. Needless to say, I was honored, but, initially, skeptical and mildly terrified of the idea. She encouraged me to think about it and I promised I would.

It’s not that, as I noted above, that I haven’t conducted before. Chamber groups, brass choirs, etc, have all been a part of my experience. I know which direction to wave my arms in various meters, and I can run a solid rehearsal. My trepidation stemmed more from the doubt that I could be musically inspiring to a group of college kids, that I could evoke a connection to the music and their colleagues that so many of the best conductors I’ve worked with have done.

Janet was not to be put off my fears, and assured me that most of the work would be organizational, and rehearsal-oriented (“You don’t have to be Leonard Bernstein. You just have to be there for them.”). Then she mentioned the salary increase and I had a much harder time saying no.

So I was hired. I was caught up on the admin needs, given direction on how to pick repertoire, and granted access to the roster and the list of students that might step up if there was a need. Hamline is not a big university, and the music program is tiny. I’ve been lucky to have at least one student per semester in my low brass studio, and in the fall I had none at all. Most of the ensemble participants are not pursuing musical degrees, and there are many different levels of playing ability. Somehow, we managed to pull together a band with at least one person on a part (minus bassoon, which we went without, and trombones and oboe, for which parts we hired ringers).

With such a small ensemble, and uncertainty in what parts could be covered, it was hard to pick repertoire. I knew for sure we would attempt Ticheli’s An American Elegy, in honor of the 20 years since the Columbine High School shooting. I wanted diversity on my program, and found a copy of Folk Suite by William Grant Still in the library. With a little money available to purchase new works, I grabbed a copy of John Zdechlik’s A Centennial Fanfare for brass, and a new-ish piece by New York composer Carrie Magin called And the Nightwatchers Awake. The woodwinds were game to play an arrangement of the Overture to Il Re Pastore by Mozart, and a quirky Herbert Hazelman piece called A Short Ballet for Awkward Dancers rounded out the program. Later I would be asked if the Percussion Ensemble could perform, and was delighted to add a brand new work (i can’t believer it IS butter!) by Hamline student and composer Leah Hunter to the program.

Our final program for the Spring 2019 concert

The start of the semester was hard. I was nervous, the students were struggling to get back into the flow of things, the weather was AWFUL and kept people from making rehearsal all the time. I wasn’t sure who was going to show up. Not having a full trombone section was painful to me (Alex, a former student of mine, has been gamely playing with HUWE for years even as he attends college elsewhere, so he was always there at least. But dang, you really need at least 2 trombones, 3 is preferable, to make a band sound good). An hour and 15 minutes twice a week felt both too long and stressful and too short to be effective. I worried constantly about whether they liked me, about mistakes I had made or weird things I’d said (no one loses complete access to their vocabulary like I do when I’m anxious), while at the same time being frustrated that things didn’t seem to get practiced in the off hours.

But we started to find a groove. I made a few personal revelations:

  1. It’s okay if they don’t like you. They may like you more if you stop trying so hard to be nice.
  2. The program has gaps in instrumentation and ability that exist for many different reasons. None of them your fault. Your responsibility is to provide a semester of learning and musical experience.

I’m a product of 2 (and a half) big university music programs where the wind ensembles were the crowning glory of the college, and I have always enjoyed playing in wind bands more than other large ensembles. At Wisconsin, James Smith asked so much of us, and gave us so much in return, he was like our own local Lenny in many ways. I probably don’t need to tell you what an honor it was to play under Eugene Corporon at North Texas. The caliber of that band was some kind of magical. And working with Emily Threinen at the U showed me what a woman, poised, direct, and intelligent, looks like on the podium. In all of those programs, though, you had a group working to play at near professional levels to present an end product as polished as it could get.

Hamline is not those places, and its players are not those musicians. Make no mistake, though: it is in no way inferior. The act of making music belongs to all of us, regardless of level, and while we can hope to have the best concert possible, what matters more than anything is the process. What are we learning as we go? What inspires us and sticks with us? I remember very little about the actual concerts I’ve played, but there are little details – phases spoken, techniques learned, jokes bandied – from rehearsals that I will never forget.

So it became my goal not to worry so much about the product. I had to take a lesson from my own pedagogical book: it’s not the how, it’s the what and why. Can I express to these students what makes the music so vital to their current experience? Can I help them problem solve, work together, play from the heart? Can I be honest with them about what scares me, what I’m learning to do, as well as what I already know, what I can offer from my own experiences?

There were still frustrations as the semester went on (would they ever just WATCH ME when an ensemble moment was critical?!?), but more and more, as I relaxed into my role and the students warmed up to me, rehearsals left me with a feeling of warmth and accomplishment. I could hear the music coming together, I could feel my effect on their interpretations. I felt- dare I say it? – right at home on that podium, with their attention focused on me.

Our concert flyer

Concert day arrived! The rest of the trombone section was present at the dress rehearsal, and suddenly, the ensemble sounded READY. They were excited. It was time for hard work to pay off, and for the music to be let loose into the world, enjoyed.

The final bow

I didn’t feel nervous anymore, as we took to the stage. I remember a few tricky spots that wavered, but more importantly I remember some glorious moments – especially the Ticheli, which these young people who were either just babies or not even born when Columbine happened played so tenderly I actually cried while conducting. Overall, they triumphed. And I can take credit only for my small part in it. These are dedicated and kind humans, who love music, who love the process. I am so humbled to have worked with them.

And I hope I get to do it again, and soon.

DIs 6.7-6.12.18

I have been keeping up my Daily Improv traditional! Just got away from posting them. Here’s a collection of what I’ve done since June 6.

(I missed 6.9 because of a stomach bug- no trombone playing was happening that day!)

Working on taking a small idea and making it bigger- in this case, adding in all the notes of an Eb major scale. 

Thinking about the fabulous, intelligent, rough-edged and wonderful Anthony Boudain, and all the places travel has taken me too, as well. Let’s all go out and be bold, kind, curious travelers in his memory. 


I was trying to record a straight take of “Scotland the Brave” but kept messing up. This is just a little bit of my frustration, vented. 

The way my bass trombone’s valves are tuned, when I play straight down into the trigger register I get a sus4 chord instead of a major triad, like modern basses do. I like the sound and did a little funky improv on that. 

To celebrate having a Brass Lassie gig this weekend (if you’re in the area we hope to see you there!), I learned the tune to my favorite song in our book, Fause Fause, and then turned on a live recording and soloed over the instrumental sections. It’s a little goofy on the timing- I’ll work on a different set up next time I want to do something similar. 

June: Daily Improvisations

Each day in June I’m going to try to do a little morning improv, just something simple to get my creative brain ready for the day. Here’s the first one! Follow my Soundcloud profile for more as I add them.

#MusicAndMentalHealth Wisdom Wednesday: Alexander Technician Tully Hall

Wednesdays this month, 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 want to feature the insightful writing and mentorship of my Alexander Technique teacher, Tully Hall. Tully is as kind-hearted and wise a person as I have ever met, and we’ve really bonded over our mutual ideas about brass playing, movement, pedagogy, and life.

After many years of being intrigued by Alexander and thinking “I should try that”, last July I finally got a recommendation to contact Tully, and I am so glad I did. I’ve done just about every little bit of bodily self-care you can think of in order to manage chronic back, neck, and shoulder pain: acupuncture, yoga, physical therapy, cupping, massage, flotation tanks… Every one of them was great, and combining them helped a little, but nothing has made quite the difference that AT has, and in as short an amount of time. I stopped fighting my body’s tension spots and started reorganizing how I stood, sat, moved, and flowed through my day.  Talking with Tully about intention and external focus of attention has reminded me that the pedagogy I teach doesn’t just have to apply to brass playing. We can move through the world without grasping, without working so hard. We can be open and curious.

Here are some of my favorite posts by Tully on the topic of intention and curiosity, but I highly recommend her entire blog.

Where Intention Goes, Energy Flows

Descriptions of Alexander Technique can often include the dreaded p-word (Posture!), which can bring up a maelstrom of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ for many of us. But what is posture really? A few weeks ago I listened to ‘On Being’ host Krista Tippett talking with physicist Carlo Rovelli. The episode is titled: All Reality is Interaction. One of his phrases really stuck with me: “the huge wave of happenings which is a human self.”  One aspect of that wave is our interaction with gravity. We are made for gravity: we meet its presence with our own wave of anti-gravity. We’re so elegantly designed that we don’t have to exert direct muscular force to do it.

Get Ready, Get Curious…Engage!

My great niece has this uncluttered freedom that I admire very much. (It’s wonderfully common in the 1.5 year old demographic.) Using my Alexander Technique know-how lets me get some of that freedom for myself:

  • I can enter a listening, curious state rather than a “just let me get through this so I can get to the next thing” state.
  • If I don’t rush, I don’t tighten.
  • I don’t have to hold myself up, I can rest on whatever’s supporting me.
  • I can orient my attention outward into the environment surrounding me.
  • I can find a state of flow that makes me available to move.
  • If I’m holding or moving something, I can ask it, “how would you like to move?”

Have you experimented with Alexander Technique? How has it affected you, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally? Do you find, like I do, that after a lesson you feel like you could take on anything in your day with poise and grace?

#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!

Teaching Journal 4.27.18

# of Students Taught: 6

Ages: 1 frosh, 2 sophomores, 2 seniors, one college student

Instrument:  3 tenor trombones, 2 baritones, 1 bass bone

Materials: scales, tunes, & ear training; etudes, jury repertoire, etudes

Fundamentals covered: direction of lines and phrases, finding one’s ‘base volume’ (i.e. going for a full sound as a default, not always playing softly), energy and intention

Memorable moment: I have a newish student I really enjoy working with because he’s a cool kid, but he is a little bit on the…let’s say… lazy side. I think he hasn’t quite figured out where his attention should be in any given point in life, and on trombone his default volume is what my high school band director would call ‘mezzo nothing’. It’s too quiet, and while there’s a good sound under there, it has no energy to it. Today we worked on finding a default volume that was fuller and louder. I told him to match what I did, exactly, including the volume and quality of sound, and he did it, handily. I asked him if he had expended much more effort to create a bigger sound and he said no, not really.

Takeaways: Oftentimes I think weaker sound is not a product of not enough air, but not enough energy on the air. I encourage my students not to try harder or blow more, but visualize bigger, match what they hear. I think it works better in the long run then teaching them that loud = effort.