Life Lessons

Find Your Weakness(es) and Press On

When I teach voice lessons, I tell students that there are four main areas that need to be mastered. These are: Posture, Placement, Breathing, and Relaxation. Most problems with the voice boil down to failure to implement one or more of these.

Which brings me to a story. One of my voice students consistently demonstrated the same problem. This student had one major issue that needs to be fixed. The student tightened up all the time. My answer was to take the student through relaxation exercises. We stretched our body. We massaged our jaw and tongue muscles. I told the student to open up (i.e. relax the tongue) and increase the space in the mouth (i.e. relax the jaw). Even after constant work to relax, he still frequently struggled with relaxation. Although, he did get better at it.

My own vocal struggles did not have anything to do with relaxation. If there are only type A’s and type B’s, then I am a type Z. Being laid-back is my default setting. No, I fought with breathing and, especially, placement.  Once I figured out placement, singing was really easy for me.

We can learn lessons from this. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, our greatest flaws with our voices (and life) will not be mended quickly. The big problems will not be fixed overnight. They will take years of concerted effort.

The key to victory is finding your weakness(es). Determine what is truly holding you back. Is it psychological? Is it physiological? Is it emotional? Is it spiritual? If so, what are you going to do about it?

Understanding your shortcomings is only step one. Step two, and quite frankly the longest and hardest step, is to doggedly move toward correcting them. There will be setbacks. We will fail more than we succeed. What will ultimately clinch victory is fortitude. Press forward no matter the obstacles.

It’s All About the People

Last week, I finally finished unpacking into my new apartment. I want to thank those who helped. It can be daunting when you have as many books as I do! Anyway, the above thank you card from a third grader I once taught was in one of those boxes. I also want to point out the excellent cursive.

Yes, teachers/directors do sometimes keep these letters. It helps us remember why we do this in the first place. When we’re feeling down, those notes can reorient our perspective. A kind word or a warm hug at the right time can make all the difference in the world.

In a previous post, I talked about a tendency some folks have. They see others as tools to be used. They are obsessed with “succeeding.” By that, they mean that they want their ambitions fulfilled. Ascending the corporate and monetary ladder is all that matters. Loving people comes after completing plans.

Today, I want to put forth a different thesis: people matter. If we’re concerned about a legacy, that is where we should invest our time.

An Excellent Article on Replacing a Beloved Choir Teacher

I recently found this blog post on replacing a popular choir teacher. This squares with my own experience during my first year of teaching. I succeeded an extremely popular and experienced director. Everyone adored him. He was able to get good sounds out of his groups, and he was just plain likable. He never met a stranger. You couldn’t not like him.

He and I were exact opposites. I was tall. He was short. I was an introvert. He was an extrovert. I was fresh out of school. He had several years of experience and was headed toward a doctoral program. I had big shoes to fill (metaphorically speaking, of course).

Students are not the most forgiving to a wet-behind-the-ears teacher when they have sat under a popular, talented, and experienced teacher. I found this to be the case with me. I struggled to find my stride. I probably would have quit except that, like many Snyders before me, I am very stubborn. We don’t like to give up.

Thankfully, I also taught a wonderful grade of youngsters who never had him as a teacher. They loved me and treated me kindly. I owe a lot to that grade. They kept me sane.

After several years, the music program was more or less mine. If you are replacing a beloved choral teacher, please be patient. It will get better in time.

How to Make Good Decisions

Over the past several months, I have worked hard to create the Branch United Youth Choir. On my mind has been all the decisions I’ve got to make in the coming months. A lot of questions have cropped up. When do I send out invitations? How do I recruit? Who do I contact, and when should I contact them?

I need to confess something. I love making big decisions. I joyfully develop long-term goals. It is easy for me, and I even find it fun. When I was in college, I would spend hours combing through the course catalog so that I could plan my classes for every semester in advance. I was able to take extra classes that weren’t in my major because of this. Even though I was completely off the catalog’s schedule, I graduated on time with all my credits completed.

Small decisions are not as fun, however. The biggest problems can come from small decisions. That molehill suddenly morphs into a mountain and throws you for a loop. You find yourself obsessing about a small decision. What happens if I apply here and not there? How do I word this e-mail? Who do I ask for help?  These small decisions crop up at times. They distress you if you are not careful.

I am going to share with you a method for making good decisions. I learned this from an excellent teacher I had back in undergrad. I have used this many times, and it hasn’t failed me yet. I’m not going to say that I am a pro at it. The Lord knows I am still learning just like everyone else.

Step 1: Is it right or wrong?

This is an extremely important question. If it’s wrong, you don’t do it. If it’s right, you are free to do it. Once you decide on the morality of something, you can then move on to step two.

Step 2: Is it appropriate?

Will my decision fit the occasion? You don’t typically wear a clown suit at a funeral or a wedding. Unless, of course, a clown has passed away or two clowns are marrying one another or something. Anyway, in another context, a clown suit might be the perfect thing to wear.

Step 3: Is it expedient?

If something is morally right and appropriate, it does not always follow that you should do it. Maybe now is not the right time. Do you think the decision you want to make the best course of action at present?

I’m going to add a few more questions of my own to this system.

Did I get advice?

“Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14, KJV). It is prudent to get input from wise, knowledgeable people. This one thing has saved my keister more times than I can count. Be careful, though. Not all advice—even from a wise person—will be the right call 100% of the time. Advisers advise, but deciders decide. You ultimately must make the decision.

Did I count the cost?

You usually can tell the outcome of a decision. Are you prepared to accept its consequences? If you are, you can live through the good times or the tough times that follow the decision.

The Cult of the Old: Traditionalism Stinks

In an earlier post, I discussed why some folks are obsessed with all things new. If they’re not on the cutting edge, they may as well not exist. This happens to such an extreme that they chuck common sense out the window. However, the defenestration (sorry, I just had to use that word) of common sense is not confined to the worship of new stuff. Common sense can also be jettisoned by traditionalism.

Please notice that I did not say that tradition stinks. Traditions give a sense of continuity and community. I said traditionalism stinks. By traditionalism, I mean the worship of tradition to the extent that someone holds to it even when it harms them to do so.

I am also not advocating absolute pragmatism. One must hold onto his morals and principles at all times. The ends don’t justify the means.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

You often hear this phrase. Just because something still works does not mean it is the best way. Maybe some new device or technique will make your labor more productive, less labor-intensive, etc.

I’m currently reading through Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. In it, he describes how a farmer should invest some of his profits to upgrade his equipment. A student should invest her money into being taught more skills. Manufacturers should streamline their factory processes. You can always improve things.

“An organization that refuses to change, refuses to live.”

My brother-in-law once told me this. I have often reflected on its profundity over the years. Human beings and organizations must adapt. If you don’t adapt over time, then you might have to do it all at once. Growing pains are far less noticeable if they happen gradually than if they happen quickly. So, what keeps individuals and groups from needed change?

Comfort

“What do you mean, I shouldn’t keep doing ‘x’? I’ve been doing ‘x’ for however-many years!” The problem is that “x” no longer works, or does not work as well as it used to. Continuing doing “x” might lead to disaster.

Fear

“I don’t know what will happen if I change.” True, but you do know what will happen if things continue the way they are. Let’s say you are standing in the middle of the road and a truck is barreling towards you. You need to move now, otherwise things will get messy. Let the fear move you instead of freezing you in place.

Hurting Feelings

“If I do this, I will make Bobby or Susie sad/angry.” That very well might be. Are Bobby’s or Susie’s feelings more important than survival?

Personality Cult

“I’ve always followed so-and-so. S/he is the bee’s knees.” Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t. Maybe that person has been the biggest impediment to your success. Maybe they’re the common denominator in your decline.

In no way am I advocating running roughshod over people. Change must always be done kindly, carefully, deliberately, and transparently. It must be consistent with your principles. Don’t transmogrify into something soulless in your quest to improve. Transform into something soulful instead.

6 Ways Choir Auditions Prepare Singers for the Real World

In a post last week, I detailed 3 reasons why I believe choir conductors should hold auditions. They were:

I am going to deal with the second point today. Simply put, auditions prepare singers for the real world. How so? You may ask.

Here are six ways auditions prepare singers for the real world.

  1. It gives them objective feedback.
  2. It teaches them that they will be judged.
  3. Sometimes they will have a crumby audition.
  4. Sometimes they will not be good enough.
  5. Sometimes they need to work harder.
  6. Sometimes they are that good.

Auditions give objective feedback.

In our life, we need feedback. We have to have objective critiques of ourselves and our actions. If you are the type who is never at fault or never has a fault, you will never improve as a human being. You will repeat and repeat the the same same mistakes over and over again. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do not learn from their personal history are in for a rough ride through life.

Sometimes you will be judged.

Auditions are like vaccinations. They are a weaker form of the real thing. If you treat them like this, they will prepare you for the times in life when it really matters. There are times in your life where you will need to apply for something you really want or need. That might be a favorite college, a good job, the lead part in the school play, etc. If you learn that you can survive a measly choir audition, it will strengthen you so that you can survive a job hunt.

Sometimes auditions are unfair.

We’ve all been there. There are times when nepotism, favoritism, and general butt-kissery rule the day. You were passed over for the top choir again, even though you were better than the ones who made it in. The son or daughter of the director got the solo when they just don’t have the voice or the skills.

That’s life. It is unfair. The sooner you realize it, the better you will be able to handle it. The better you handle it, the more easily you will be able to move on to the next opportunity.

Sometimes you will have a crumby audition.

There are times when you have an off day. You didn’t get enough sleep. You’re battling a cold. You’re stressed out from a fight with parents, siblings, friends, classmates, coworkers, et al. All of that negative bleckiness can force you to perform poorly. If you have this happen in an audition, it won’t surprise you when it happens at a job interview.

Sometimes you will not be good enough.

You will not always have the skills (yet) for a position. In the perception of the auditioner, you might not be exactly what they want or you need more training. Failing an audition can be a good thing, if you learn from it. Maybe you need to get more training to make you more appealing, versatile, or whatever. Maybe you need a little more time to develop your abilities.

Also, it’s okay to not be the best. There was only one Pavarotti or Robert Shaw or Leonard Bernstein, and you ain’t him.  Sing because you love singing. Be the best that you can be because you want to be the best you can be.

Sometimes you need to work harder.

There are times you did not prepare enough. You didn’t study. You didn’t practice. You didn’t take the time to learn what you needed to. When you fail, you need to take a hard look at yourself in the mirror and see if you need to fix anything. Rejection is painful and challenging, but it is also extremely beneficial in the long run.

Sometimes you are that good.

Auditions are great because they help you understand your strengths, weaknesses, and life in general. You really do have a talent, but you didn’t know it until you worked hard and prepared. The reward for that preparation was an aced audition. That led to more training, more opportunities, and more rewards. Success is built on attempting. Go for it. All that can happen is that you fail, and that’s not the end of the world.

Why I Don’t Let My Singers Use the Word “Can’t”

As a voice teacher, I get the opportunity to work with young singers all the time. A pesky word will pop up every now and then. My singers will tell me that they “can’t” do something. It is not within the realm of possibility. They should not even try. It really bothers me when my singers use the word.

It is not to say that human beings don’t have difficulty doing things. I have had to work hard to achieve things in life. We all have. Sometimes, those achievements only come after years and years of concerted effort.

I’ll use a common example from my voice studio. A girl struggles to sing a high note that I know she is physiologically capable of singing. That struggle is normal. Singers have all had to work on range extension. It may take a while to strengthen and coordinate the vocal mechanism to be able to sing that high note.

All too often this type of girl has told me, “I can’t sing that.” This is why I have a rule in my lessons and rehearsals. My singers must not use the word “can’t.” Why? Because it is a cop-out. They are much more capable than they think.

I do not believe in giving up easily, which is what the usage of this word frequently amounts to. My singers want to give up, even though I can tell that they would be able to sing that work with just a little more time, instruction, and effort. It’s as if they think I’m going to ask them to do something they will never, ever, in a million, bazillion years, be able to do.

So what do I let them say? I tell them to say, “I find this difficult right now,” or something similar. The phrase “right now” communicates to their mind that this present difficulty is temporary. The singer will be able to perform it eventually. They need to try a few more times.

Little efforts train us for the big efforts. When we learn not to psyche ourselves out concerning easier problems, such as learning to sing high notes, we learn not to be scared about seemingly insurmountable ones.

Life is hard sometimes. You have to push through the difficulty in order to succeed. When we stop ourselves from attempting something because it becomes hard, we are doing ourselves a disservice. We are teaching ourselves to surrender at the first sign of hardship. Many of the best things in life require arduous, even herculean effort to attain.

(Photograph can be found at Flickr. Photographer: Kumon. License: Creative Commons)