Operation Varsity Blues, Snowplows, & My Failure as a Teacher


While the rest of America is obsessing over the college admission bribery scandal, I am too busy reminding my boys to clean up their mess, practice their piano, and close the cabinet they opened to care very much. As a former guidance department chair, my wife is a little obsessed with it, but it hasn’t slowed her down from packing their lunches, doing their laundry, and planning their playdates.

Are we doing too much? Perhaps, but we're not alone in doing it.

recent poll conducted by The New York Times and Morning Consult showed that if parents don't stop handling things for their children, the fall out is significant when they become adults. Children of these parents are often woefully unprepared not just for post secondary schooling but life as an adult.

Helicopter parenting, the practice of hovering anxiously and monitoring your child’s every activity, is so commonplace that it has become more of a norm than an outlier. Taken to an extreme, these Hollywood parents have resorted to lying, cheating, and bribing their children’s way into college.

Code-named Operation Varsity Blues, the college entrance bribery sting operation has shocked the country as privilege and wealth were traded for access and opportunity at some of America’s most prestigious universities. Celebrities and millionaires buying their children’s way into college is certainly an extreme example but the underlying desire to help, assist, and shield children from risk, failure, or disappointment is as common as can be regardless of your social status. It even has a name. It's called Snow Plowing.

And in it’s less outrageous — and wholly legal — form, lawn-mowing and bulldozing (synonyms for snow plowing) has become more and more commonplace among not just the privileged elite, but for the everyday child.

After reading the article I sat and reflected on my own children and my parenting choices. Was I guilty of snowplowing? Yes. The sad part was, my snowplowing lifestyle was not just limited to my personal life, but extended into my professional life as well. As band director, did I ever:

  • Choose literature that shielding my students from risk or exposure? Yes.

  • Attend an event or contest that best suited my ensembles? Yes.

  • Feature an accomplished soloist over a novice in order to score higher? Yes.

  • Ask my music arranger to write to hide exposure to error? Yes.

  • Excessively remind my students to practice instead of having them fail? Yes.

  • Ever take a pollyanna approach to take a negative and make it more positive? Yes!

OMG! I’m not just a snowplow, I am a world class SNOWBLOWER!

I am sure at the time I was able to justify my choices. I am sure that they were rationalized with educational objectives and couched in student centered decision making. But, I am also relatively certain that there was some risk aversion going on as well. While stating that I was making my decisions for the good of my students, I am certain that there was an element of self-protection involved as well.

Being a music teacher involves risk. Unlike most other educators, our product/performance is on display for the world to see, hear and be judged (literally). Then our results are published for all to cheer and jeer. 

Knowing this, can you blame me for snowplowing? Can you see a little of it in yourself? I suspect so.

Darwinian thinking states that the strongest will survive. And that placing oneself in unnecessary peril is not an act of strength and bravery but one of cowardice and stupidity. We do what we must to avoid risk and exposure to pain. We seek to find more joy and hide from most anguish. In short, we do what is necessary to not just survive, but thrive as a person and a professional.

Is it right? I don’t know. If I were to return to the classroom would I continue to be something of a snowplow? I suspect so.

As a parent and a professional, I am trying to do what is best, and protect those in my charge. I mean no harm and do it from a place of love. Have I crossed the proverbial line into a place where I should be wearing snow pants? Perhaps, but it's hard to know since I don’t know where that line is. Can you show it to me? I lose sight of it from time to time.

All I know is, look out Ivy League, because here come the Lang boys! 

Now, anybody got 100K I can borrow?

Have a great week.

p.s. In all candor, when I was stuck in the Denver Airport for 44 hours last week due to the Polar Vortex Bomb, my mother checked in on me every four hours and even offered to buy my hotel room. So yeah, I come by my snowplowing naturally.

p.p.s. If you ordered a copy of Sound Leadership, please be patient. I ran out of stock TWICE! Your books will be there shortly.

p.s.s. I am playing around with the look and feel of the newsletter. Give me some feedback.

Bill Murray and the Brain Drain of February and March!

Bill Murray.jpg

Imagine yourself hosting a party or a family gathering. You invite a group of friends and are celebrating a milestone or a special event. The party is going strong and you realize you are out of glassware. Not wanting to slow the momentum and energy, you sprint to the kitchen to get some glassware and you see Bill Murray in your kitchen doing your dishes.

No, you're not imagining it. It really happened.

Murray has been an iconic figure for nearly half a century. Through it all he has remained as accessible to the every day man as he is elusive to the paparazzi. To that point, for years now Bill Murray sightings have been the stuff of urban legend. In recent years, without any notice, the internationally known comedian and film star has:

According to IMDB, He’s popping up in so many random places that there’s even a website and a documentary by Tommy Avallone to tracking the actor’s whereabouts and activities. "The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man is an inside look at rare and never-before seen footage of the comedic icon participating in stories previously presumed to be urban legend. Whether it be singing karaoke late at night with strangers or crashing a kickball game in the middle of the afternoon, Bill Murray lives in the moment and by doing so, creates magic with real people. "

Why does Murray do it? What’s his motivation?

According to Avallone's, the answers lie both in Murray's films and the reflections of those he's touched in real life. “For Murray, life itself is a form of improv: When a situation arises, he meets it head-on and responds not as it should be but as he wants it to be.

To the person, everyone who has been a part of his impromptu drop-ins says they came away from it feeling not like they'd met a movie star, but like they'd been lifted up by the experience. He lives entirely in the moment, they say, and it's never about him. 

I have never been especially good at living in the moment. I rarely savor a victory or revel in an accomplishment. My instinct is to move on and tackle the next problem. For most of my life this was more than my mentality, it was my identity, and I suspect will always be. You may be similar in this way. But, in recent months, like Murray I have felt more compelled to stop, watch, and listen. I am wanting to be a participant more than a leader and be WITH them instead of in FRONT of them.

Why do I share this? Because I know how BRUTAL February and March are for a music teachers. Registration deadlines, contest, school musicals, all-region auditions, concerts, and the like have us running ragged and always wondering, “I don’t have time to go to the bathroom, how am I going to find time to fill out a purchase order?” The demands and deadlines are as real as they are non-negotiable. But as you navigate through your day, perhaps you might remind yourself that we work with children. We create art. And that spontaneity and joy are more than a part of the artistic process, they are necessary parts of a healthy human experience. In the end, no one will remember your contest scores, they will remember how you made them think and feel.

Bill Murray’s adventures teach us an especially poignant lesson for an age when so much of life is lived outside the moment, via social media, where so many make it all about themselves. In the end, Avallone's film isn't really about Bill Murray at all, but his example. And it might be easier to emulate it than we think.

p.s. Look for a special announcement in your inbox tomorrow.

p.p.s. If you see or know Bill, please tell him he is welcome to "drop in" on any of my sessions!

The Lotto, Contest, and Being Protected by Suge Night!


Yesterday, after a delay of nearly three months, an anonymous South Carolinian claimed the $1.5 billion jackpot from the Mega Millions lottery held in October 2018. 

The winner, who has elected to remain anonymous, chose the one-time payment cash option, making the prize worth nearly $878,000,000. It is the largest jackpot payout to a single winner in U. S. history. While we don’t know “who” received the three quarters of a billion dollars, we do know “how” they won it. It turns out that while in line to buy the ticket, the winner allowed another customer to step in front to buy their ticket, leaving the benefactor of the kindness wondering what could have been.

Invariably you hear from lottery winners, "I’m not going to change, I will still be the same person I have always been.” Most people scoff at this and opine about what they would do with the money if they won. (SPOILER ALERT, mine involves having the President’s Own at my beck and call.) And, while we may never know if the winners honor their words, the sentiment does have some substantial science & psychology behind it.

In the book DRIVE, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Daniel Pink does a deep dive into the way our minds think and how our bodies work. The New York Times bestseller gives readers a paradigm shattering new way to think about motivation.

"Most people believe that the best way to motivate is with rewards like money—the carrot-and-stick approach. That’s a mistake,” says Pink. In this persuasive new book he asserts that "the secret to high performance and satisfaction—at work, at school, and at home—is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world."

Drawing on four decades of scientific research on human motivation, Pink exposes the mismatch between what science knows and what business does—and how that affects every aspect of life. He examines the three elements of true motivation—autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

As we approach contest season it’s interesting to think about how we as teachers, and our students, are motivated. If you agree with Pink, and I do, techniques such as playing tests, practice records, and chair placement, while effective, actually inhibit the overall growth of the student and the ensemble. This does not necessarily mean we should approach everything as if we were a hemp wearing utopian vegan commune in the woods, but that we humans are pre-programmed to want to be challenged and that extrinsic motivators can serve to inhibit that innate desire.

Our students are programmed to think:

  • If I study harder I will get an A.

  • If I work harder I will get a leadership position.

  • If I practice more, I will be first chair.

But is that the way we want them to think?

Do you want a student who will only learn for personal gain?Do you want a leader who works only when rewarded?Do you want a musician who only practices to beat their peers?Do you want an ensemble who celebrates the rating they received more than the music they made?Do you want to be the teacher who is remembered for their ratings more than their impact?

Of course not!

Studies show that the our minds are willing and wanting to work. And when we stray from that premise of “why” people work, we end up impeding excellence and not creating it.

After all, you don’t put in all those hours for a carrot of a paycheck do you? You don’t spend your nights and weekends at rehearsal because you fear being fired, do you? Likely not, as YOU are a model of intrinsic motivation who doesn’t just do things right, you do them for the right reasons.

So ask yourself, “What would I do after I won the lottery?” I have a sneaky suspicion that many of you would spend a portion of your winnings on your program and continue to serve music education in some way. 

Something to think about. 

Have a great week and stay warm!

p.s. If I won that much money, I would still write this e-zine, albeit from a large mansion on a remote island. You might think me guarded & distant, and you would be right. Just so you know, I won't just be "guarded" emotionally, I will physically be guarded by Suge Knight at all times. In addition, I will hire John Cena to protect ME from Suge Knight. So yeah, SOME things will change.

Glossophobia and Finding Your True Potential


This is the last part in a three part series about keeping your passion alive & Burning On!

Glossophobia, or speech anxiety, is commonly known as the fear of public speaking. The word glossophobia derives from the Greek word glōssa, meaning tongue, and phobos, fear or dread. Some people have this specific phobia while others may also have broader social phobia or social anxiety disorder.

Overall, fear of public speaking is by far and away America's biggest phobia - 25.3% say they fear speaking in front of a crowd. Glossophobia led by a wide margin over arachnophobia (spiders), ophidiophobia (snakes), arcophobia (heights), and arachibutyrophobia (fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth). Yep, according to a recent survey, talking in front of a room full of people is more terrifying than clowns, tall buildings, and lunchtime sandwich mishaps.

For those of you who suffer from glossophobia, fear not, there is help. There are public speaking coaches, relaxation exercises, books, and articles filled with peaking rules designed to ensure that your oration is met with adulation. Yes, time tested and sure fire tips, techniques that guarantee success.

And I ignore all of them.

Anyone who has ever been to one of my sessions or attended a presentation knows that my style is, well, unorthodox to stay the least. I move too much, talk too fast, sit people too close, and deliver too much content. Yes, I am the anti-speaker speaker.

This was not a conscious decision or done with a great deal of forethought. But after sixteen years teaching and talking to kids, I had found my voice, my style, and my message. It was authentic to me and seemed to resonate with kids!

In short, it works. At least it works FOR ME.

There is no one way to speak and if there was we could only impact or affect one type of person. I speak the way I taught, my way. Not the right way, not the wrong way, just my way. 

And I suspect you are similar in your uniqueness in your teaching, both in knowledge and delivery.

You have blessings & curses, successes & failures, and dreams & fears. You are uniquely you and have the ability to impact your students, community, and this profession in an equally unique way. 

Just know that your reach can stretch far beyond your classroom and your sphere of influence impacts more than just your students. It's important to think beyond what is immediate and right in front of you in order to know what is possible. You need to see that as you grow and evolve as a person and professional so does your influence. You many not feel or see it, but it is there for everyone else to see and believe. Sometimes you have to just trust and take the leap of faith towards your greatness. 

That is unless you have achievemephobia (fear of success). 

And yes, we can help with that too. 

Stay tuned for a big announcement!

Granularization and My Music Education Sommelier!


Granularization and My Music Education Sommelier!

Carla Marina Marchese is a Honey Sommelier. Yes, that’s correct, and not just your ordinary run of the mill one, she is an internationally respected and revered honey expert.

In a recent article she explains that, "When we taste honey, we don't do the ceremonial swirl — the wine expert's ritual — before we sniff. Honey sommeliers smear. 

Smear it on the sides of the glass like this," she says, using a tiny plastic spoon. Once the honey is smeared, I can stick my nose in the glass to properly evaluate the aroma, then spoon a dollop onto my tongue.” 

Listen, I’m the type of guy who keeps honey in a teddy bear container and if blindfolded would struggle to taste the difference between a fine honey and Louisiana Hot Sauce. But then again, I am just your average Joe while Carla is among the world’s leading honey experts.

Article author Jason Wilson writes that "When she detects a metallic taste in the honey, she knows the beekeeper has likely used rusty equipment. When she tastes too much smoky flavor, she knows the honey came from an inexperienced beekeeper who uses too much smoke because he’s afraid of bees. Which is to say Marchese’s palate is so finely tuned that she can literally taste the beekeeper’s fear in a smear of honey."

Mustard. Honey. Hot sauce. Welcome to the era of surprisingly specific expertise. The Sommelier of everything is here!

Granular specificity is not just reserved for those with fine honed pallets and super taster taste buds (and yes, that's a real thing, too). The are mechanics who only work on carburetors from 67 Ford Mustangs, surfing instructors that only teach dogs, and authors whose sole source of prose is contained within a fortune cookie.

Generalization is out and specificity is in. And music education is not immune to the to granularization movement. In fact, in many ways, we are leading the charge.

In the past thirty years music education has evolved to the point that many programs now have specific and unique show designers, program coordinators, movement specialists, choreographers, drill writers, music arrangers, instrument specialists, and drill instructors. We have apps, tuners, iPads, and instrument specific private lesson teachers to help us ensure with great specificity and micro accuracy that we are playing what we are supposed to, when we are supposed to, and where we are supposed to. And if not, a flock of pseudo instructors will swarm on you like bees on honey!

The age of specificity is here and brings with it a level of knowledge that speaks of expertise and craftsmanship. Being an expert implies additional education & training along with an extensive track record of success. It speaks to a deep understanding not just of the mechanics of the object but the art of it as well. It is the summation of a life’s body of work and a deep and abiding passion for the subject matter. Which is why I am proud to announce that I am changing my title to:

Secondary Education Music Education Leadership Sommelier! © ®

Yes, like a wine Sommelier, I can walk into a room and smell the fear of a young teacher. I can detect the slightest notes of procrastination and lack of accountability among the body of students. I can read body language and detect the slights after nodes of disengagement and apathy. I can speak with direction and distinction and is implied with pedagogical pedigree. 

How can I do this? Because I have dedicated my life to being a Secondary Education Music Education Leadership Sommelier (I just like writing that).

Others outside the profession might think it odd. They might think my job weirdly specific or far to narrow in scope. That’s ok, I don't understand their honey, and they don't have to understand my music. The world is plenty big enough for us to coexist.

And so is the world of music education. Despite it's narrow scope, the space is large enough for all of us to coexist and compliment one another, while being different.

Last week’s response to my "Burn In" e-zine was among the highest I have ever received. In that newsletter I suggested that in order to keep from burning out, you needed to burn on! My point was that inside this seemingly small profession are hundreds and hundreds of more granular pursuits. Opportunities to explore passions and professional pathways that can excite and engage as if we were new teachers once again. And that the specificity of these pursuits is not a liability, but an asset and an opportunity

The question is, what is your Sommelier?

Last week, I stated a problem. This week, I propose a pathway. Next week I will provide a solution.

Stay tuned and have a great week.

Scott Lang
Secondary Education Music Education Leadership Sommelier



I was recently interviewed for an article on music teacher burnout. The author was not an educator and asked questions similar to those that might be asked of a banker, dentist, or any number of other non-music professions. After a few minutes, I stopped her and asked if she had any exposure to music education. 

She excitedly replied that her daughter was in the fifth grade and had just started the saxophone, but other than that, she did not.

I proceeded to give her a crash course in all things music education: the early mornings, late nights, and endless weekend events, musicals, marching band, angry parents, cranky adjudicators, and the ever evolving standard of excellence. I told her stories of sleep deprivation, missed meals, and the quandary of breaking down one class, preparing for another, and using the restroom during the six minute passing period.

Needless to say she was a bit overwhelmed.

She said, “I had no idea it was like that. Do you have any tips for people wanting to avoid it? Maybe an outside hobby, exercise, or more time away from school?”

"Yes, I have one tip," I replied. "WORK MORE!"

After a brief pause she replied, "I don’t understand, work MORE?"

From my experience, we don’t burnout because of the workload. We burn out because we’ve lost the fire for what we do. Hence the term, burn-out. Our fire is out! The solution to burn-out is not running away, it’s staying and building a new fire.

Listen, speaking from experience, if you teach long enough burnout is unavoidable. If you believe the stats, 52% of YOU are at risk for leaving the profession. Why? Well, we are the most lateral profession on the planet. If you are a really good bank teller, you get promoted to Head Teller. If you are successful at that you move on to Assistant Branch Manager, which is obviously a gateway to Branch Manager. If you find success they you move up to the corporate offices and you become a District Manager, with an eye on joining the executive team with an office in the C-Suites and the seven figure salary.

If you are a world class educator… Well, you get to stay there for thirty years and eat bad cafeteria food. 

In today’s world we not wired to do the same thing for thirty-five years and we shouldn’t be embarrassed to acknowledge that. Burnout isn’t bad. And, we have to stop acting as if it were. It's you bodies way of telling you that it's time for change. 

  • I cannot lift weights the way I did when I was 25

  • I cannot eat or drink the way I did at 25

  • I cannot sleep the way I did at 25

  • I cannot run the way I did at 25

I cannot teach the way I did at 25. Nor should I. I am smarter, more skilled and efficient, thus freeing up time and energies for something new and challenging.

Burnout is in part WHAT we do, but also in HOW we do it. In order to avoiding burning OUT of our profession we have to burn IN to what we do. We have to reinvent both the what and the how we do things.

Yes, burnout is painful, but remember the good with the bad. Being burnt out means you:

  • Pursued excellence at a high level

  • Invested in something in a deep and personal way

  • Dedicated years to perfecting a craft

  • Gave generously of your time and talents

  • Put the success of children above your own well being

The answer is finding something NEW inside of something OLD. For instance, when I started to feel the pangs of burnout: 

  • I took on additional responsibilities of department chair and construction coordinator.

  • When that wasn’t enough I served on my constituent board.

  • After a few years when the burn out returned I became an administrator.

  • After returning to the classroom. I wrote a book.

  • When the fire started to diminish, I started a leadership company.

  • After eight years on the road, feeling a bit crispy, I created Be Part of the Music.

  • Seven years later I began business consulting.

Each one of these new endeavors required more time, more effort, and more work. But, with each added responsibility came the joy of finding our profession anew again. I was able to learn new things, make new mistakes, and surround myself with new people. These events didn’t diminish my career, it extended and enriched it beyond measure. New technologies, opportunities, and schools have made our profession more diverse and open to opportunity than ever before. The landscape of music education is filled with opportunities and options that present endless options for someone who is looking to spark a new flame and re-build their once powerful fire.

So let me ask you, what would keep your burn-on? Is there a new role you can assume, side-business you can start, or thing you can create? Is there a problem you can solve or someone you can help? Is there something that makes you smile or keeps you up at night?

If not, then think in it. If so, then chase it! Because the solution to BURNING OUT, is BURNING ON!

p.s. In the next couple of weeks you will be hearing about new projects that have me burning on. Stay tuned.

KonMari and My Unsubscribe Button


Marie Kondo is an internationally recognized Japanese organizing consultant-turned-author whose book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, re-popularized the idea that the first step to achieving inner peace is to give away the useless piles of things you’ve accumulated over the years. 

Through her four best selling books, and the recently released series on Netflix called Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, she has helped millions of people not just declutter their homes but also declutter their lives and relationships. She was recently named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people and has created an international movement causing thrift stores to explode as people downsize belongings and embrace a more minimalist life.

At its very essence, Marie’s method, the KonMari method, has people sort through each and every thing in their lives and ask the simple question, “Does this spark joy in my life?” If the answer is no, then the object is “thanked” for being a valued part of your life and discarded with respect. As a part of the cleansing process, she sorts all objects into five categories:

  1. Clothing

  2. Books

  3. Paper

  4. Miscellaneous

  5. Sentimental

Her method advocates that by separating all items and focusing singularly on one group at a time, you are best able to hone your sense of “joy” and make good decisions about what things are truly important and what things are just getting in the way.

Her advocates say that her approach has changed lives, improved relationships, and even saved marriages. It’s not about the cleanliness per say but it is about removing things that distract us from what is important while lowering the stress levels in our relationships.

Admittedly, I am an easy covert. I am a minimalist by nature and find a sense of peace in simple & decluttered places. My wife and I differ in this area. When I suggested we try the KonMari method (which she already knew about), she laughed and said, “Okay, all my things spark joy! So leave my stuff ALONE!” 

Admittedly, her angst comes from me, maybe, throwing away some of her things in the name of decluttering or from the time I completely emptied our closet into the tub while she was away on a trip. Those things did not spark joy, and per the KonMari method, but sparks did fly!

When you hear music teachers, or students, talk about their programs, you almost always hear the words “home” and “family.” And for many of our students it is more than a metaphor. And like a well lived in home, our rooms are full of stuff and can become cluttered with things once valuable and useful but are no longer needed, relevant, or bring anyone joy. Perhaps we could conduct a KonMari experiment on our rehearsal spaces and offices. The translation to a music room is almost seamless. When I look at the five categories of Marie’s method I see them easily converting to our second home/rehearsal space:

  1. Uniforms

  2. Music & method books

  3. Paperwork & emails

  4. Miscellaneous 

  5. Trophies, plaques, and photos

Everything has its place and time. And times and places change and we have to change with them, both personally and professionally. Think of: 

  • A trophy that was valued at one time but is not relevant to current students

  • The Eb alto horn that no longer is played but occupies a locker

  • The old color guard silks that are no longer used

  • The broken chairs, stands, and bows that take up space

  • The fax machine that sits in a closet or CDs that are no longer used

  • The email/voicemail box that is overflowing with messages

Please understand that this activity and blog are not about "Tidying Up". Far from it. It's about viewing removing things from your professional life and space that no longer spark joy. It's about honoring the past but looking toward the future. It's about decluttering your heart and mind as well as your space, for you and your students so that you can spend more time and energy focusing on the things and people that...

Spark joy!

Happy “KonMaring!"

p.s. If this blog does not spark joy... Please feel free to whisper a "thank you,” and unsubscribe. If it does spark joy, then share with a friend. 

The Grading Curve and the Merits of Sitting Last Chair!

Cap & Gown UNF.jpg

The Boston Globe recently released a report on the post secondary success of its cities top high school graduates. The Valedictorians Project chronicles the post secondary lives of the best and brightest their schools had to offer. The multi-year study chronicled the lives of these academic all-stars in the decade that followed their graduation and the results were shocking to say the least. 

After interviewing the top graduates from the cities public schools they found that:

  • One in four failed to get a bachelor's degree 

  • A quarter wanted to become doctors, but none did

  • Forty percent make less than $50k a year

  • Four have been homeless at some point

  • Many who achieved college degrees were still struggling

How is this possible? These students studied hard and set off to change the world. But what the study found was that in more cases than not, the world changed them.

This wasn't how things were supposed to turn out. After all, they had put in the time and done the work. They had made the sacrifices necessary to stand among the elite. How could this be possible? It turns out the answers are as varied and as complicated as the lives of the students who participated.

To be clear, the report is not an inditement of these schools or their teachers but rather tries to understand all of the complex factors associated with student learning and academic success, including poverty, gender, race, and opportunity. 

For me, it begs us all to ask the question, “Are these schools failing to serve their children, or is the community failing to serve their schools?”

For instance, the report stated, “many of Boston’s top students are “doubly disadvantaged” at college because they are financially struggling and have little in their background to prepare them for higher education. Thrust into an alien, privileged world, they try to get through classes while holding down jobs, coping with crises back home, or even struggling with limited English. A number of valedictorians said that they experienced culture shock, social isolation, and a deep disconnect with college classmates, sometimes going so far as to switch schools or drop out." The study also noted that, "Valedictorians from the cities and towns surrounding Boston have fared much better than their counterparts in Boston public schools. The suburban graduates were about two and a half times as likely as the Boston students both to earn an advanced degree and earn more than $100,000 a year.”

So, is it better to be a Valedictorian in the inner city or the class clown in the suburbs. This recent report seems to indicate the latter.

If we were to conduct a similar study with student musicians, I wonder what the results would be? For instance, would it be better:

  • To be last chair in a strong ensemble or first chair in a weak one?

  • To be a lead player in a weak school or a weak player in a strong school?

  • Be an alternate in a nationally recognized marching band or drum major of a weak one?

  • To struggle at Juilliard or shine at a lesser school?

I do not know the answers to these questions, but I have my thoughts and theories. Winton Marsalis once said, “Don’t let my prejudices become yours!” So I will keep them to myself. But what I do know is that much like the students studied as a part of The Valedictorians Project, the reach, depth, and value of what EVERY child receives as a part of their school music experience (and from YOU) cannot be fully measured until long after they are gone.

Chutes, Ladders, and an Unbelievable Story!


Chutes and Ladders has been a staple of the American childhood experience since 1943. Originally created in ancient India as Moksha Patam or Snakes and Ladders (the original name and translation), it was associated with traditional Hindu philosophy contrasting karma and kama, or destiny and desire. 

According to Wikipedia: "The game (Snakes and Ladders) was designed to emphasize randomness and destiny, whereas other games require a mixture of skill and free will."

If you have ever played Chutes and Ladders (and who hasn’t?) you already know that it is a game based on random luck, and that the players have zero control over the outcome of the game. Yes, it is a child’s game but it's packed with adult sized life lessons.\

Our lives and our professions are filled with “chutes & ladders.”

  • An all-state oboist moves into your school boundaries - ladder

  • The drummer for your jazz band moves out - chute

  • Unhappy helicopter parent’s child graduates - ladder

  • You are reminded that she has three more children - chute

  • Drill writer delivers amazing drill - ladder

  • He delivers it six days late - chute

You get the idea.

Like every other part of our lives, much of what we do each and every day has an element of skill associated with it and comes with some modicum of control. But as in Chutes and Ladders, some things are left entirely up to chance where we are powerless.

We (the Be Part of the Music team and I) recently experienced a significant “chute-like” event. 

Approximately a year ago, one of our existing sponsors made a significant offer to become the sole presenting sponsor of Be Part of the Music. This sponsorship allowed us to fully realize our long held vision while providing us with the long-term security that would allow us to hire employees and tackle bigger projects. Ladder! 

Eight weeks ago the SEC (Securities & Exchange Commission) and the FBI raided the offices of the investor/owner for allegedly running a large scale and long play Ponzi scheme. The assets of his seven (non-music related) businesses were seized and all 79 innocent and hard working employees were immediately furloughed without pay. All contracts were declared null and void and all business relationships were severed. Chute!

Chaos ensued as the authorities seized everything and a court appointed conservator took control of all assets.

This shock of it all and the subsequent fall out have been significant, both on a personal and professional level. The worst part is that Be Part of the Music is in peril as the actions of one person have jeopardized six years of work as we have been operating without funding since last September. To be clear, as bad as our situation is, it does not compare to the hundreds of investors who lost their life's savings or the eighty families who were sent looking for work during the holiday season. They are the real victims. We are collateral damage.

What will happen with Be Part of the Music? In short, we don't know, but we are trying to figure it out.

For the past eight weeks we’ve been taking every meeting, exploring every option, and considering all possible avenues. In the meantime, thanks to the generosity and no quit attitude of our team, we’re at least going to finish what we started. 

And we have started a lot.

In the coming days we are going to release a significant new offering that has been in the works for quite some time. It could be a game changer for thousands and thousands of music educators. Our plan (if possible) is to follow that up with ANOTHER new and equally significant program announcement in April or May. 

For the past eight weeks I have wrestled with if and what I should share regarding this situation. In the end I decided that if this community (Be Part of the Music/Scott Lang Leadership) was real, than I needed to be real with you. Dealing with all of this has been difficult, but it has also shown me that while there is bad in the world, there is still good in people. 

We can’t always predict or prepare for the precipitous fall that comes with an unexpected chute. But when sent to the bottom, I do know how to look for, and if necessary, build a ladder!

With great appreciation for you!


Hamilton and the Joy of Mediocrity!


Yesterday, after my fourth attempt at hacking my way through Hamilton’s It’s Quiet Uptown, I had an epiphany. A lightening bolt moment that was as profound as it was sudden. My revelation? 

I’m bad at piano. 

And perhaps more important, I have zero desire to be good. I just like playing.

If you think I am just being modest, I assure you I am not. I have both the qualitative and quantitative assessments skills to know what bad is and I am bad. Don’t believe me, my wife, children, and even my Golden Retriever would be happy to validate my conclusion. 

Certainly my musical training, experience, and knowledge provide me with both the ability and pathways to improve, but I don’t want to. I am happy in my mediocrity. I wallow in wrong notes and bad singing the way a pig wallows in mud, happy as can be and oblivious to the thoughts of others. 

Either way, what’s so bad about being bad? It used to be okay to not be okay. Not anymore. Doing something for fun just isn’t good enough anymore.

If you’re a jogger, it’s not enough to trot around the block, you need to post a personal best in a half-marathon. If you’re a skier, you can’t be just satisfied with blue runs, you want to excel on black diamondsHow can you enjoy your Saturday morning stretch when you’re missing out on acro-yoga? Why shoot for par when a birdie or eagle will get you closer to your personal best? After all, if you’re not aiming for the top, you’re standing at the bottom. Right?\

Not necessarily so.

There is something noble about the pursuit of excellence. There is much to be learned and gained from pushing oneself outside of the comfort zone. Setting a goal that’s just out of reach and striving for it has been the basis of super human athletic, academic, and musical achievements.

The question I am asking is when is it okay to not pursue excellence and simply do something because we enjoy it? In short, when is it good to be bad? This question has relevances in both our personal and professional lives. For instance: 

  • Can we enjoy watching drum corps and winter guards without trying to match them?

  • Can we attend conferences and performances and walk away appreciating them without feeling pressured to replicate them?

  • Can we attend an instructional clinic without feeling dejected that we are not the teacher they are?

  • Can we see pre and post work hours as opportunities for for something other than extended rehearsals?

  • Can we compete as an opportunity to showcase our skills and not as a function of winning?

In short, can we call ourselves successful teachers if our students are not quantifiably successful? Has the “pursuit of excellence” corrupted our profession and our students’ musical experiences? 

I think not. 

But it has polarized the space between the joy of creation and the discipline of achievement. 

I believe that within every educational setting there can be a place for a Julliard-bound student AND a casual music maker. There can be an ensemble that meets the needs of a savant AND and one that meets the needs of the slacker. There can be a way to showcase virtuosity as well as celebrate mediocrity. The demands of excellence are not at war with the creative process. They are mutually beneficial and must coexist simultaneously so as to provide opportunities for all music making and music makers.

The reasons FOR making music are as wide and as varied as the level we make music at. The tolerance and acceptance of our musical skills allows for MORE music, from MORE people, equating to MORE joy in the world.

As a pianist, Lang Lang’s brilliance is no threat to me and my brilliance is no threat to him. The way we play the instrument may be very different, but the joy we receive from doing it is likely very similar.

Have a great week!

p.s. In my defense, I might be better if Lin Manual Miranda didn’t love the key’s of B and E!