Opposites (un)Attract

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The theory that opposites attract has been a well accepted, but unfounded, myth for decades. The concept is fairly simple, we seek in others the traits and skills that we ourselves lack. 

The theory is based in the belief that extroverts & introverts, adventure seekers & couch surfers, and night owls & early risers are at their best when they find companions and partners with qualities that they themselves lack.

But apparently it just isn’t true.

In his new book, Great Myths of Relationships, relationship expert, Matthew Johnson, used a fact based approach to dispelling this long held myth. Johnson writes:


"Whether people really find opposites more attractive has been the subject of many scientific studies. Researchers have investigated what combination makes for better romantic partners – those who are similar, different, or opposite? Scientists call these three possibilities the homogamy hypothesis, the heterogamy hypothesis and the complementarity hypothesis, respectively. The clear winner when it comes to successful relationships? Homogamy.” 


Mr. Johnson’s research seems to imply that for long lasting relationships, we are better off looking for our doppelganger than our nemesis. But I’m not convinced his research applies to musicians or our ensembles.

Harmony, both personally and musically, are critical to the success of any ensemble. A great deal of time, effort, and care are required to take divergent tones and craft them into one singular blended sound. 

As a musical conductor, your responsibilities include balancing and blending divergent melodies, rhythms, tonalities, timbres, and voices. Similarly, as an educator, you are responsible to blend different ages, maturity levels, languages, temperaments, ethnicities, economics, and cultures. As a music educator, you do more than blend sounds, you blend lives. You are charged with creating harmonies on stage while maintaining them in your classroom. And that is as difficult as it is complex. 

Harmony, literally and figuratively, requires more than one voice, more than one sound, more than one person, and by extension, more than one opinion. By definition, it is impossible to have harmony without first having diversity. In this way, opposites DO attract and Mr. Johnson's hypothesis fails.

Yes, it would be easier if we taught just one type of student with one type of talent. Yes, it would be easier if all of our students had the same level of commitment and dedication. But, I think most musicians would agree that harmony, musical AND personal, is at it’s finest when it involves a wide assortment of sounds, pitches, and people. The greater the complexity, the deeper and richer the beauty.

So yes, Mr. Johnson, when it comes to relationships, homogamy may win out, but when it comes to music and the young people that create it, harmony trumps homogamy every time.

A, B, C, D, E, F, G… Next Time You’ll Remember Me!

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Pamela Pauls reads more than just about any other person in America. As the the editor of the prestigious New York Times Book Review, she consumes words the way most of us consume air. Pamela has merged her passion and profession into an all day (and sometimes night) consumption of all things printed, 

As one of America's foremost literary scholars, you would think she would have a highly developed sense of memory and recall, but she doesn't. In fact, she admits that she remembers very little of what she reads once she is done. 

“I almost always remember where I was as I was reading it, and the physical object of the book itself,” says Paul, who reads, it is fair to say, a lot of books. “I remember the edition; I remember the cover; I usually remember where I bought it, or who gave it to me. What I don’t remember—and it’s terrible—is everything else.”

And it turns out she’s not alone.

The “forgetting curve,” as it’s called, is steepest during the first 24 hours after you learn something. Exactly how much you forget, percentage-wise, varies. Unless you review the material, much of it slips down the drain after the first day, with more to follow in the days after. This leaves you with a fraction of what you originally took in.

Except when it comes to music.


Music and songs are different from books in that they aren't just the consumption of information, they’re part of the tapestry of life. They combine and attach themselves to experiences and become woven in with the events of our lives and once they are intertwined, they are virtually impossible to separate. 


Don’t believe me?

Just think of one of the first songs you learned decades ago: “A,B,C,D,E,F,G… Next time won’t you sing with me.” Try and say the previous sentence without singing it (and speaking the letters in rhythm counts as singing!)

I wonder if “reading” printed music is as forgettable as reading the printed word. I know that for me, I remember very little of what I played in high school and almost nothing from college. However, as a student and as a teacher, I remember with great clarity the “feeling I had” and the “place I was” when I played/conducted it. As someone who read scores as Ms. Pauls read books, I must admit that my “forgetting curve” when it comes to reading music is just as steep. 

I suspect that it is similar for the students in our ensembles.

What makes music different? It's the fact that the harmonies and melodies are intertwined with the moments and memories of our lives. In fact, once memories and music are combined, they are inseparable. Music allows us to recall our memories faster and with greater clarity. I could cite research studies about the frontal cortex and the temporal lobe, but for both our sanities can I ask you to take my word for it?

Just yesterday, after a workshop, I had the experience of rehearsing a band on two of my favorite pieces, Festive Overture and Children’s March. And while the surroundings and students were unfamiliar, the memories and feelings they evoked were immediate and endearing as if they occurred yesterday. 

We KNOW that the act of learning WITH music increases comprehension. So imagine what learning while MAKING music does for the young people in your classes. If nothing else, you know you will be remembered!

Have a great week!

p.s. I just wonder why reading ABOUT music doesn’t create long term retention the same as learning WITH music. That would have made music history much easier.

p.p.s. If you are at TMEA, you should check out my two sessions on Friday. I am packing some cool stuff to give away and I promise you won't disappointed! How do I know? I don't. But, since you are reading this text without music, it's likely you won't remember my promise anyway!

DREAD-UARY AND THE SUPER BAWL!

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Hey Scott,

These are dark times. The political climate is toxic, the weather is dreary, and the stock market is in turmoil. The calendar says February, but can we all agree that it should be called “Dread-uary?” When it comes to months, our second one is definitely a #2.

But at least it has the Super Bowl! And what a SUPER Bowl it was!

It’s no secret that many people watch the Super Bowl just for the commercials, and given my love of the Buffalo Bills, you can often times count me among those people. The ads are as incredible as they are entertaining. These companies spend millions of dollars and thousands of man hours assessing, analyzing, planning, and preparing for their seminal moment. Given the magnitude of the stakes, there is nothing left to chance. They study their consumer and hone in on trigger points that will make them feel something so compelling that will cause them to make a decision or purchase a product. 

As we were walking home from our neighborhood party my wife asked, “Did you notice the difference in the ads this year?”

"UUMMMM… Other than every other one was for TIDE? No. Why?”

She said, “So many of them we either aspirational or inspirational? It just shows how despondent people are feeling right now."

Capitalism dictates that in order to grow and thrive, businesses must either solve a problem, address a pain point, or fill a need. And as far as I can tell, nearly all of the forty-five commercials that aired this past Sunday evening attempted to make us smile, cry, or feel joy. 


For one night, four dozen of America’s largest companies decided that what we needed most was not to be reminded to buy their product, but to be reminded that we are bound as people. AMAZING!


As you and your students grind through the “Dread-uary" ritual of rehearsing and preparing for concerts, contests, and competitions, perhaps we can all take a cue from corporate America remind ourselves to take a break every twenty minutes or so to smile, cry, or otherwise celebrate being human and how lucky we are to have music to express it.

Whether it's tears of laughter or tears of joy, it's still a SUPER BAWL!

Have a great week!

The State of Our Union

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Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution requires the President to periodically "give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

By the time you receive this email, our nation will be mired in demagoguery as politicians and pundits alike parse each and every word, gesture and inflection, of the President's speech. No detail is too small for a focus group and no nuance too sophisticated for a poll. For the next several days, our national airwaves will be filled with toxic dialogue by opinionated, and overly confident talk show hosts. 

When it comes to vicious and violent, the Super Bowl will place a distant second this week. 

In hopes of lightening the mood, I thought it might be fun to look back and read some of the most poignant State of the Union quotes and see how they might apply to our profession. 


The first State of the Union address, given by George Washington in 1790, was only 833 words long, a precedent that has been long since eclipsed by nearly all of his successors. 


President George Washington, Jan. 8, 1790: “The welfare of our country is the great object to which our cares and efforts ought to be directed…"

President Abraham Lincoln, Dec.. 1, 1862: “The trials we pass through will honor or dishonor us to the next generation. "

President John F. Kennedy, Jan. 11, 1962: “I have found that people everywhere look to us–not because of our wealth or power, but the splendor of our ideals. 

President Ronald Reagan, Feb. 6, 1985: There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we ourselves erect.

I saved my favorite for last...

President Gerald Ford, Jan. 15, 1975: “I must say to you that the state of the Union is not good.” 

I choose each one of these quotes specifically as I believed there to be a (in)direct relationship to music education. At one point in writing this article, I attempted to parse out the meaning, but quickly realized that I was giving myself far too much and you far too little credit. 

So for now, I will leave for you to determine and decide, as today, the last thing any of us needs is ANOTHER talking head explaining what someone else said.

Too ALL of you I say with great confidence that the state of music education is well. And, if you need a focus group to prove it, just look at the smiling faces of your first period class.

Have a great day!

From One Lang (Lang) to Another!

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Norwich is a sleepy little town in the central part of Vermont. The bedroom community is quiet and cozy and is not unlike hundreds, if not thousands, of other communities scattered across this country, except for when it comes to childhood sports. 

In Norwich, no parent presses for participation and no bar of excellence is set. In their community soccer league, after a kid scores two goals in a game he is sat down so that some other kid has a chance to score. Their approach to participation and competition is consistent across all leagues and ages. 

Why is this so noteworthy? Because it turns out that the sleepy little un-athletic town of Norwich continually sends athletes to the Olympics and other significant international competitions in numbers ridiculously disproportionate to its size. 

Like every parent, I want what’s best for my children. I approach parenting, piano, and coaching in the same way that I taught, with structure and rigor. It’s not that I expect, or even want, them to choose music or sports as a career, but I want them to understand that in all things, excellence is achieved through diligence, commitment, and dedication. 

But what if I’m wrong? What if my approach is inhibiting their growth? What if, in all my attempts to help them grow and succeed, I am keeping them from flourishing? What if, in an effort to do EVERYTHING right, it turns out that I may have done everything wrong and at times make myself and my kids miserable in the process? 

In a recent article in the New Yorker Magazine author Adam Gopnik goes in search of what it takes to raise a prodigy. He examines extraordinary individuals from all walks off life in hopes of finding a common thread in their upbringing, some consistent experience or approach that might explain their extraordinary skills. 

What did Gopnik discover was the secret sauce? What did he find to be the key differentiator for savants? Was it rigor? Was it structure? Was it dedication, rigor, and commitment, as I had suspected? 

Nope.


Gopnik states that, "What typically emerges from looking at kids, gifted and ordinary, is that, from the kids’ point of view, accomplishment, that is, the private sense of mastery, the hard thing suddenly made easy, counts for far more in their inner lives than does the achievement—the competition won, the reward secured." 


In short, Gopnik believes that genius is not fostered, and is in fact inhibited, by competition. 

Famed pianist Lang Lang explains that the brutal pressures placed on him by his father were over stressing him. He says he was saved because he had, “carved out space for a version of the ‘autotelic experience’—absorption in an activity purely for its own sake, a specialty of childhood.” 

I make both my boys play piano, and trust me when I say more frequently than not, forcing them to practice has left everyone less than inspired. 

Maybe this Lang should take a cue from the other Lang (Lang) and chill out a bit. Maybe I need to be less competitive and more supportive. Maybe I need to guide less and let them explore more. Maybe I need to force less and let them explore more. Maybe, just maybe, in music and sports, they need less time practicing and more time playing. 

For the sake of me and my boys, I am willing to try. Plus, it’s too cold for me to move to Vermont. 

Have a great week!

PRE PRE PRE PRE-MED

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With greater rigor comes a greater education. This has been the mantra and formula used by reformists and political pundits for almost two decades. Through it all, America’s youth have been pushed, pulled, prodded, and cajoled through dizzying levels of sleep deprivation and stress, often leading to depression, angst, and academic burnout. 

Since 2010, schools across this country have turned to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) based curricula in hopes of feeding the frenzy of helicopter parents who crave competition and rigor. Needing proof that their children are prepared for college and a global marketplace, schools are being forced to drive curricula towards technical skills that have an ever decreasing shelf life of relevance and usability.

Are we pushing kids too far too fast? Is it possible that in an effort to do good, we are actually doing long-term damage? Where will it stop? When will it end? How long before preschool becomes pre-med? 

Gone are teaching and training of soft skills. Gone are the days of teaching of requisite and important social skills. Gone are the days of exploration and discovery. 

Through it all, there is some evidence that STEM is not driving innovation but is in fact inhibiting it.

As a part of a major initiative to analyze its workforce, Google undertook a comprehensive and long ranging study of its employees and what makes them successful or not. What they found shook not just Google but the entirety of Silicon Valley, akin to the earthquakes they have become accustomed to. 


Project Oxygen concluded that, "among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise came in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others, valuing different points of view; having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas."


Those traits sound more like what one gains as an English or music major than as a computer programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despitetheir technical training, not because of it? 

After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, musicians, artists, and even the MBAs and company founders once viewed with disdain.

Yes, science, technology, and math are important. We need engineers to understand schematics. We need architects to understand blueprints. We need programmers to understand code. But, we also need humans who understand humans. 

And the arts, music in particular, makes people more human and help us to understand what it is to be human.

Have a great week!

p.s. This weekend, my very intelligent middle school son proclaimed that one of our household lights was broken and needed to be replaced. When I informed him that it was just a burnt out light bulb, he exclaimed, “What’s that? You mean lights don’t last forever or at least 40 years?” So yeah, maybe the Lang household could use a little more STEM.

A Stradivarius must be played!

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Antonius Stradivarius is a name known through the annals of time and across the globe as THE preeminent luthier and purveyor of stringed instruments. While he is mostly known for his violins, he also created and crafted incredible violas, cellos, mandolins, harps, and guitars. 

Throughout time, others have tried to replicate his creations, but to no avail. Counterfeiters and copycats alike have copied his exact specifications, but are unable to match it's beauty, tone, and resonance, making his instruments among the most sought after objects in the modern world. Sadly, due to theft, loss, and damage, of his 1200 creations, only 650 remain, where they valued in the tens of millions of dollars. 

What's his secret? What's the special technique or raw material that separates his creations from all others?

The answer may lie in a story from the past... 

Legend has it (I have been unable to source the material) that in the 1950’s an instrument made by Antonio Stradivari was purchased by an investor for a sizable sum. The man placed the instrument in an airtight vault and kept it there for 10 years expecting its value to dramatically increase during that time.


On the day of the auction, the violin was taken out of the vault and handed to one of the world’s greatest violinists to demonstrate its authenticity. The Stradivarius was tuned and the auction house became hushed to hear the tones of this musical treasure. But what came from the instrument was worse than the music from a cheap, beat up, children’s violin. The legend has it that a Stradivarius will only reach its potential if it is played regularly and not simply kept hidden. 


The story reminds us that an instrument without a musician is a depreciating asset. It may have monetary value in and of itself, but art absent purpose is nothing more than an artifact.

Perhaps the greatness of a Stradivarius that has eluded copycats and counterfeiters is not located in the dimensions and details of the instrument, but is his understanding of musicians and why they play his instruments.

We all want our students to master the techniques and fundamentals necessary to perform at the highest levels. We all want to give our students the tools, musical and otherwise, to be successful long after they are gone from our rehearsal halls. But, what's the best way to do that? 

Perhaps the answer of both goals is the same: nurture the musician as much as you nurture the music. 

Just as a Stradivarius requires consistent time and attention to allow it to speak with its truest and purest voice, so does the musician playing it. After all, no one is moved by an artifact!

Have a great (and warm) week!

Nature/Nurture and the Lasting Impact of Leroy Anderson

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In the Bolivian Rain Forest at the base of the Andes Mountains lives an indigenous people know as the Tsimane’ people (pronounced ‘chee-MAH-ney’). These villagers are so remote that they are virtually untouched by modern civilization and Western culture, including our music. One of the results is that these people sing largely in monophonic tones and with no harmony. 

Recently, a team of scientists traveled to Bolivia to study these people and their musical preferences (and you thought ethnomusicologists had no fun?). The scientists tested the villagers musical preferences in regards to melodies, harmonies, and dissonance. 

The results of the test? 

It turns out the that the villagers had NO PREFERENCE WHATSOEVER about music. 

Whereas, people raised on “Western” music have a strong preference for melodies, harmonies, and the resolution of dissonance, their South American counterparts did not. They did not hear harmonies as any more or less pleasing than monophony and found no discomfort with dissonance when compared to its resolution. 

The conclusion… 

Musical preferences are a force of nurture and not nature. In other words, our environment, not our genetics, dictates our musical tastes and preferences both now and in the future. 

As a teacher, I have always innately believed this but never been able to quantify it. Show me a teacher whose excited about Ives Variation on America and I will show you students who embrace dissonance. Find me a teacher who truly understands a ii(min7)-V7-I(maj7) progression and I will show you young people who dig Dizzy Gillespie. Find me a choir that understands the difference between a chromatic and diatonic scale and I will show you a group that will embrace Eric Whitacre’s Sleep. 

As music educators we expose our students to different sounds and styles each and every day. In doing so, we are altering their musical tastes on an almost organic level. Long after they leave our classrooms our choices in programming and choosing ensembles will have an effect on their (musical) lives and likely those of their children. 

The above mentioned study makes clear the point that your students’ appreciation and consumption of music are significantly altered by the music they are playing each and every day in your classroom. 

Sure makes you rethink the horse whinny at the end of Sleigh Ride, doesn’t it? 

Have a great week. Some exciting stuff is coming your way next week. 

p.s. A couple of Christmases ago, my mother gave my wife and I tickets to Yanni. So, um… Yeah. Let’s just say that my musical growth was as stunted as my physical growth. 

Instruments, IKEA, and the Chinese Water(less) Torture! 

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Whether you realize it or not, the Chinese are killing it in the music manufacturing industry.

LITERALLY... They are killing the industry! 

Is it their artificially deflated currency? 
Is it their endless supply of cheap labor? 
Is it the stealing of intellectual property? 
Is it flooding the market with low cost, low quality instruments? 

NOPE! It’s their furniture. 

Yep, you read it correctly. Chinese coffee tables and Lazy-Boy recliners (do they have either of those?) are killing it.


It turns out that in China, demand for furniture made of rosewood (hongmu) has spiked so significantly that it has spawned an entire black market industry. Think of it like the drug trade, but with tone wood


During the past year in Thailand more than 150 people have been killed fighting over rosewood. And you thought the south side of Chicago was rough! Sheesh. If this keeps up, instrument manufacturers are going to have to attach a warning label to their claves and clarinets that reads: “Use at your own risk!" 

The wide spread and excessive violence has lead to an international crackdown on the movement of rosewood, and it is having an impact all up and down the music industry. Want a guitar, clarinet, or cello? Needs rosewood. Looking for new strings for your guitar? Costs are up because less guitars are being made. Hoping to find an affordable marimba or cello for the holiday season? FOOORRRGEETTTAAABBBOUUUTTIIITTT! 

It turns out that not only is sourcing this precious natural wood increasingly difficult, but instruments containing rosewood can, in fact, be confiscated in certain situations and countries. Apparently, when Nancy Reagan said, “Just Say No!” she was referring to getting high on a marimba and not marijuana. 

This issue reminds me that our industry is bigger than a single classroom or program. It reminds me that if I want an industry partner to understand my struggles as a teacher, perhaps I should try to understand their struggles in return. It reminds me to appreciate ALL of the people who help to bring music to a classroom and to the life of a young person. 

It also reminds me that China needs an IKEA in the worst way. That would be the Chinese Torture that didn’t require any water! 

Have a great week!

I Wouldn't Be So Positive If I Were You!

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The $12 Billion dollar pop psychology industry is filled with self-help concepts that have a shelf life shorter than most produce items. Almost daily a new blockbuster arrives to help us reach for the stars, achieve our goals, and live our lives to the fullest. 

Truly, there is a book to help you achieve every dream and overcome every obstacle., no matter how ridiculous. Don’t believe me? 

Interested in… Channeling the love of your lost pet by knitting a sweater out of her fur? 
Ever dream of… Becoming Pope? 
Got too many friends and looking for... A way to be LESS interesting in 10 seconds or less?Wanna Write a Book on.. How to write a book about writing a book? 
Looking for help on… Dealing with urges to paint your cat (and who doesn’t)?

THERE’S A BOOK FOR ALL OF THESE ISSUES AND MORE! 

According to a recent analysis of the self-improvement industry some $549 million a year is spent on self-help books in America and it all started with one man and one book: The Power of Positive Thinking.

Published in 1952, Norman Vincent Peale's seminal work spent 186 weeks on the New York Times best seller list and sold over seven million copies in fifteen different languages. And how could it not? I mean, we ALL agree on the power of positive thought, right?

Well, it turns out that not everyone is so positive about being positive.

I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, “Where’s the self-help section?” She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose. 

— Steven Wright. 

In a recent book, Rethinking Positive Thinkingauthor Gabrielle Ottingen noted that participants who were invested in positive thinking were observed to have had less life satisfaction and less success in actually achieving their goals than those who thought more negatively. It seems that there was a strong correlation between positive ideas and poor performance. The study went on to cite that thinking positively releases endorphins, lowers blood pressure, and reduces energy levels as if the goal had already been achieved, thus lowering the drive to ACTUALLY achieve it. 

This is good news for us music teachers!

When you think about it, music teachers are among the most cranky and critical educators on campus. As a general rule, we live in a perpetual state of performance angst while using the words “no” and “wrong” the way other teachers use oxygen. We never met a rehearsal we couldn’t improve upon and a musical phrase we didn’t judge. We’ve perfected “the look,” tested the aerodynamic properties of every piece of equipment within reach, and can throw a tantrum that would leave any three year old envious. At least this is true for me.

Yes, my former students or any workshop attendees would tell you, that despite my years of experience as a “motivational speaker," I am NO Norman Vincent Peale.

But maybe that's because good ole' Norman had it all wrong.

Maybe endorphins are not meant to come from actually being good. Maybe the rush of success was meant to come AFTER actually achieving it. Maybe affirmations were meant for actual actions. Maybe, just maybe Norman had everything backwards and that thinking positive comes AFTER being positive. 

So I say, “YES!" to holding young people accountable. I say, “Continue to raise the bar and maintain a higher standard." I affirm the occasional bark and celebrate letting the blood boil a bit. I say this in the name of progress. I say this in the name of teaching and learning. I say this in the name of actual achievement. And according to Ms. Ottingen, I say this in the name of happiness, both for you and your students. 

Sure, you're no Norman Vincent Peale, but then again, he was no music teacher. 

Have a great week!