Three years ago …
For the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of teaching for the Meridee Winters School of Music. The job offer came at a rough time for me. I was overwhelmed with the amount of band and freelance work in my life and wasn’t able to focus on truly honing my craft as a composer. My relationship with friends and family was frayed for various reasons. Emotionally, I was not in a great place. I was busy but far from thriving, and I felt like my career in music was stagnating. I was maintaining rather than moving forward.
I needed a change.
The school and methodology
The acceptance of the job offer started me down a path that’s helped me thrive not only in my solo music career but also as an educator. The school’s goal is to transform students into people who are free and able to express themselves creatively in whatever manner is meaningful to them. Furthermore, the school’s founder, Meridee Winters, has developed a methodology to help students learn by alternating between left brain and right brain approaches. She’s constantly researching pedagogical methodologies, new approaches to teaching, and breakthroughs on how the mind learns and using that knowledge to keep her methods up to date.
It’s pretty incredible stuff, and the results show.
Even the recitals are far from your stale, run-of-the-mill music recitals. There’s always a theme and a drive by families and teachers to put on a truly inspiring and entertaining experience rather than a long wait for a 3 minute performance followed by zoning out. It’s amazing how students talk to each other after the show, complimenting each other about their accomplishments. No one has to tell them to do it; it just happens, and most of the kids had only met each other for the first time at the show.
I’ve seen the methodology and approach completely change students’ outlook on music. Many of my students were kids who had taken traditional music lessons but were feeling bored. Parents came to the school hoping that they could make music fun for their kids. The loyalty of the families that work with the school really shows.
Which was why it was really difficult when I told them I wouldn’t be teaching there anymore.
Building relationships through understanding: my teaching approach
In my mind, teaching music has little to do with bestowing knowledge of chords, theory, scales, and “the proper repertoire.” Music lessons have everything to do with building a strong relationship between student and teacher. Do you remember what it’s like being a child? How misunderstood you felt by adults? How little grown-ups would listen to your wants and needs? By necessity there’s a clear line of separation between kids and adults, but it’s still an obstacle to overcome for any child.
Now imagine being a child and having access to an adult who’s there to listen to you for the entire time. It’s an adult who knows the same music you do, is savvy to the latest pop culture trends, watches the same movies, plays the same video games, empathizes with how busy a schedule can become. Now imagine having that access on a consistent, weekly basis.
Kids idolize. Adults envy.
I can’t teach discipline, hard work, passion, patience, collaboration, humor, kindness, or humility, but I can model it. I can also embrace the things that make every student unique, things that they may not know about themselves, things that maybe other adults ignore or discourage. Hyperactivity and a seeming inability to focus isn’t a flaw just the same as shyness and reservedness is not. They’re personality types. While a teacher in a classroom might not have the time to tailor lessons to each and every student, a private music teacher does.
For example, pretty much all of my hyperactive students were able to concentrate on playing when I engaged their bodies in lessons further. I was a restless kid (and still am judging by leg that shakes like a wagging puppy’s tail). What’s the worst feeling if you’re feeling hyper? Being forced to sit and stay quiet. Solution? Try playing the passage while standing up. On one foot. With your eyes closed. While jumping up and down. The body is engaged leaving the mind to be focused. Most kids can’t keep up that level of exertion for 45 minutes (most kids). Eventually, they’ll want to sit back down or try something else.
Too shy to even talk to the teacher let alone play music? Then don’t talk. Draw. Come-up with a story. Then we have material to work with. We can write a song to the story. I can be the one playing music. The student can direct me by showing me drawings for loud, quiet, fast, slow, happy, sad, simple, complicated. As they get more comfortable with me and open up, then we can work on making music together. As an intense introvert, I understand the feeling that the world predominantly seems to favor extroverted behavior which can be overwhelming. Music is my safe place, and it can be theirs too.
And for all of my students, I’m confident that music will remain a safe haven for them for the rest of their lives.
How I feel now
Yesterday, I woke up at 7am after a long day of working until 4:30am. I rolled into the recital hall at 9am and didn’t get back home until 10:30pm. I left exhausted and returned home completely energized. Each and every one of my students made me so proud. Save for a couple of exceptions, I’ve had them all since I began teaching through the school, so I got to see their musical growth over a long period of time. Sure, the three years went by quickly for me, but imagine the changes you go through from age 5 to 8. Or 7 through age 10. Or 13 to 16.
It doesn’t take much to make me cry. But I managed to stay strong for the kids and their families as I said my goodbyes to them. For many of my students, it’s their first time saying goodbye to a music teacher because of circumstance rather than a desire to quit. I was there to listen to them and to help them improve week after week through some pretty important developmental periods in their lives. (For perspective, they got to spend more one on one time with me than they have with their grandparents.) Some hugs from them felt like desperate pleas to not go away. Some parting looks were of sadness and confusion. Some goodbyes sounded more like questions than statements.
I had wonderful kids and wonderful families. It’s a two-way street. I spent every week with each and every family, heard about what was going on in their lives, things they’re excited about, things that they’re worried about, things they were curious about, and things they were frustrated about. It’s going to be a huge change to not have that in my life anymore. But I’m invested. I made it very clear that I’ll always be their teacher and that I’m always there to listen, answer questions, vent to, celebrate with, and talk to. Just because I’m moving on to a different phase in my life does not mean that communication ends upon my leaving. Not unless they want it to.
I’m excited about what my future holds. However, that excitement couldn’t have come without the support of my families. They helped me put out both of my full-length records, finance my touring, become a better workshop teacher, and cheer me on through all of my successes. They were happy for my for my engagement, enthusiastic when I got a puppy, frustrated when my car got destroyed, concerned when I was sick. It melted my heart when my families unanimously told me that while they’re sad to see me go, they’d suspected that I’d eventually move on to find more success.
They believe in me far more than I do myself.
What does the future hold?
To be perfectly honest, my future is a lot more vague than I thought it’d be. I know what I’d like to be doing. And I’m taking a leap of faith in hopes that my efforts will help me soar both personally and professionally. But it’s okay. The uncertainty is okay. Uncertainty isn’t a prison, it’s a blank canvas. It’s endless opportunities.
What is certain is that I have a wonderful family, wonderful friends, and a ton of wonderful people who support what I’m about and what I do.
As long as I have that to anchor me, I will thrive.
In my experience, the role of the music teacher isn’t necessarily to teach. Yes, it’s important to review subjects like scales, theory, sight reading, and improvisation, but time and time again, the thing I found is most valuable to students is the relationship shared between student and teacher.
For younger students, it’s one of the only times in their week where they get true, regular, one on one time with an adult other than their parents. This is also time that’s centered around them rather than the adult.
Music lessons have the benefit of being involved in the creative and expressive realm. The attentive teacher can recognize what’s important in and relevant to their student’s and help channel those concepts into meaningful ways of creative self expression.
When students are able to use what they learn in music to connect with their friends, family, or even complete strangers and feel better understood because of it, we the music teachers have truly done our job.
Today, I turn 28.
In the words of my girlfriend, “still young, but not that young anymore.” In my recent reflections, I’ve been giving a lot of thought of Reality vs Dreaming, mostly in context with my career. 28 is a big age developmentally for musicians. 30 is even bigger.
1. Time is running out. Right?
In conversations with a good musician friend of mine, Trevor H., the idea that we’d be 30+ year old dudes playing in local bars and clubs in hopes of one day “making it” seemed unacceptable. It still is. While do I feel like I’m “making it,” perhaps the better phrase is “making it happen.” The reality of what it takes to be an independent musician in this radically changing business climate is daunting, but this is our professional degree via the school of hard knocks.
Being a musician is like being a shark: one must constantly be moving or risk drowning in the very environment that gives you life. Creating and practicing is such a miniscule part of the day-to-day activity. There are plenty of better-written articles that talk about how much work goes into putting on even a moderately successful show. The point is that I feel like I’ve been working hard, working smart, and working long hours. But I still feel like I’m not working enough.
However, feeling like there’s never enough time is a good thing. I go to sleep excited, barely able to wait until I have a chance to move things even more forward.
2. Maintaining turns me into a caveman.
A lesson that I’ve learned this year was about the importance of adapting. Trends change so quickly, and what once was profitable, hip, and seemingly eternal can disappear. As another one of my musician friends (Geoff B.) had observed, guys who stick to the old ways are essentially cavemen still swinging branches in an age of bows & arrows. I realized that I was playing catch-up to a destination that was still going to leave me lagging woefully behind.
If I want true success, I have to take risks, suck-up failures from experimentation, and anticipate where trends are moving. Sure people will continue to find success in the traditional way of doing things, and maybe I will too, but even the rock stars of old have had to change to survive in today’s market. And I’m no rock star.
3. Touring is wonderful. Family is even better.
I began my 27th year of life single. I felt great about it: I was going to be a road dog, traveling nonstop so I can perform my music. With no ties emotional ties to a significant other, I wasn’t really hurting anyone, and I had a way of keeping the machine going, at least for a little while.
Then I fell in love.
After my summer tour, we moved in together. We had a puppy. I didn’t want to be traveling all the time anymore. But my finances suffered because of my extended time away from the road. After all, I’d planned my next few years of life as a performing artist with a packed schedule. Plans change.
I’m blessed to have a girlfriend who begs me to stick with music. She dismisses any notion of my getting a “real job.” She’d told me, “I can’t see you doing anything else. You found your calling and are meant to do this. It hurts me to think that you’d consider doing anything other than what you love.” Then she added, “It’d be a completely different story if I felt that your music sucked.”
We haven’t quite found the right balance yet, but I don’t think it ever gets easy being away from your girlfriend and puppy.
27’s given me a lot of lessons, some learned harder than others. I’m looking forward to seeing where 28 takes me! A big thank you to everyone who’s been supporting my music and making this all possible!
Last year on Valentine’s Day, I was single, just as I was for the previous V-Day, and many before that. No matter how one slices it, it sucks being single on February 14th.
To everyone, whether you’re single, involved or just getting into/out of a relationship: cherish your family. Cherish your friends. Above all, cherish yourself. No matter what you think of this holiday, one thing is true: the world can always use more love.
I’m so thankful to all of my friends new and old, casual and intimate, near and far who’ve helped me through difficult times and celebrated with me during triumphant ones. I love my family: they anchor me and are my constants in an ever changing world.
This weekend, I will celebrate my first Valentine’s Day in over half a decade. I’ve been looking forward to it but also wish lots of love on those who need it.
One of my favorite movies of all time is Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, a film I feel to be Miyazaki at the height of his game. Natasia and I watched it over the weekend and marveled at the storytelling, the incredibly imaginative scenery/visuals, and the beautiful ethic driving the film. Spirited Away was a movie I remember anticipating highly in high school. I listened Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack months before the film had released in the US, and several of the numbers tug at my heart strings with more vigor than classical music mainstays.
Like any good work of art, so many interpretations and angles can be taken from the movie, but one particular theme that resonated with me was that of loneliness. Protagonist Chihiro struggles with loneliness: she’s an only child, is in the process of moving at the beginning of the film, gets separated from her parents, gets isolated in the strange spirit world she finds herself, and [SPOILER ALERT] has to say goodbye to all the friends she’s made by the film’s end. However, she seems to resolve many of her initial loneliness issues by helping others confront theirs.
One of the most heart-warming things about the movie is the cast of outcasts who help her in spite of a world and culture that demands the contrary. Not all are kind to her, but they are genuine. My philosophy is ever-changing, but something that has changed was that most of us as individuals cannot do much to make sweeping changes to the world around us. However, we do exercise a great amount of power in the way we conduct ourselves in our everyday lives.
A little bit of kindness and respect go a long way in making the world a better place. While it’s easy and basic instinct to blame others for the bad in the world, it’s much harder to look within, acknowledge our own faults, and live our lives in a way that helps the people around us. I feel that many people–myself included–are too quick to assume the worst from others or be weary of the trustworthiness, generosity, and kindness of strangers. Yet when we allow the fear of having that trust betrayed rule our lives, we further isolate ourselves and feel ever more lonely.
I elect we stick together and be a positive influence in our community, no matter how big or small.
This weekend, I performed as a part of the Phoenixville Firebird Festival which celebrates Phoenixville, PA’s economic turnaround. The day’s festivities were to culminate in the burning of a 30’+ tall, hand-crafted wooden bird as it always has in previous years. It’s a beautiful occasion for people to gather and celebrate.
Unfortunately, arsonists burned down the statue well before the festivities had even begun. In spite of all-day heavy rain, Phoenixville banded together and continued with the festivities. Musicians, artists, performers, and craftsmen all gave their all in celebration. Within hours, people had donated wood and helped reconstruct a scaled-down version of the bird so that the ceremonial burning of the phoenix could go as planned.
My thoughts are two-fold. First is being upset that people would consciously go out of their way to destroy something that not only took months of work but also symbolized something positive for a community. Second is admiration for how Phoenixville lived up to their name and carried the spirit of the festival, even despite the act of vandalism as well as the terrible weather.
On a personal note, this also felt like a revival of sorts for myself. I’ve been making some significant changes to how I’ll be approaching the business side of my music for the coming year, something I’ll be announcing soon as events unfold. However, this weekend’s show was a test run and proving grounds for part of what’s to come, and things felt good to me. Cryptic, I know, but despite trying circumstances, this weekend helped remind me that it’s important for us all to band together to support something we truly believe in, especially when that something is your community.