Actions speak louder than words

I was sitting having a cup of coffee in my lounge room this week with my bichoodle puppy, Huey, curled up beside me.  (He’s 4 now but he’ll always be my puppy!)  When we were done relaxing I started asking him if he would like to go for a walk and was using all the verbal cues he knows to get moving.  He’s always ready to go for a walk and was as usual attentive to my every word.  He sits very well and waits for my cue to get up.  After a little chit chat teasing him about the possibility of going for a walk, I finally gave the command “let’s go!”.  He didn’t move.  I said it again and this time stood up myself.  He then shot off the couch and followed me to get ready for his afternoon promenade. 

This interaction with Huey wasn’t different to any other day but it prompted me to think how much he responds to my movement and actions.  As a very young puppy we completed training together with a dog whisperer/trainer and I remember how she was very much using her own actions as well as verbal cues when interacting with the dogs, in favour of copious amounts of treats.  As a musician, I enjoyed chatting to her about this because we both knew the power of the energy and vibration the dogs are empathetic to.  When I walk with longer strides and with a slight backwards lean Huey knows to stay with me.  I could go on with example after example of Huey responding to my actions but hopefully you’re getting the gist of where I’m going.

As a flute teacher I aim to provide great playing demonstrations for my students whenever possible.  Some teachers rarely play – and perhaps some play too much! – but as a picture paints a thousand words, a fine playing example can quickly explain what many words cannot.  My demonstration, my action, is the culmination and proof of my teaching in words.  As I’m a deep thinker, I then pondered the fact that actions really do speak louder than words.  A good leader I’ve learned, is one who leads by example.  Whether it is teaching my many students or living life in general, my little Huey has reminded me that what I do matters.  What I do is the embodiment of what I believe.

But be sure you live out the message and do not merely listen to it and so deceive yourselves
— James 1:22 (NET)
In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead
— James 2:17 (NIV)

Run to Win!

This week Toowoomba is hosting the Queensland Eisteddfod.  The eisteddfod in Toowoomba has always been a huge event and this year is no exception.  I and many other music teachers support our students and school ensembles, encouraging them to compete and enjoy the performance process. 

This year I wondered how best to think of it all.  It’s a competition after all, right?  I recalled a particular Queensland Eisteddfod section I entered as a tertiary student and the mental approach I decided to go in with.  On that particular occasion I decided most definitely I wanted to win.  Why bother entering a race and not running to win?  So with determination and commitment to playing my best I performed well and did actually win, a big trophy at that!  This wasn’t always the outcome of my eisteddfod performances but I certainly clearly remember this one.

So how do I coach my young students prior to such a competition?  Do I tell them to not think of it as a competition but rather a wonderful performance opportunity?  Do I brush aside the fact that some people will get prizes and others won’t?  Do I ignore the tears I see in my student’s eyes after they didn’t win a prize yet just performed their personal best?  Or what about the weird judgement calls the adjudicator sometimes makes?  Or the student who struggles with performance anxiety and all their best intentions are simply not heard?  Do I publicly praise my students who win the prizes?  Arrgghhh!!!  What does one do with all of this?  I really want to tell them that their ranking has only to do with their performance on that day and judged by one person – it is not a reflection of their personal worth.  The latter is what I often see oozing out of them either for better or worse.

The Olympics are about to begin in Rio.  Do the athletes train all their life for this moment and then decide they are going just for the experience?  Sure, maybe they do.  But you can’t tell me the vast majority of them don’t go in order to win!  Perhaps it’s the overall experience that is the highlight for many of them.  If we took a step back and saw the whole Olympic movement as a worldwide community event, we see the magic of the competition as a unifying spectacle.  The volunteers, athletes, coaches, supporters and media from all over the world come and history making moments happen.  On a somewhat smaller scale (just a bit smaller:) this is what the Toowoomba Eisteddfod is like.

I think my coaching advice for my students next year will be of course to run the race in order to win – train and prepare and focus on beating their personal bests and reflect on the process – but at the same time think more broadly about the event that brings together the musical community.  Just as the athletes compete and bring the whole world together, our young musicians bring together a band of teachers, volunteers, supporters, and community spirit.  There is no use avoiding the fact they are in a competition but just maybe the competition is bigger than their individual performance and that’s what they can learn from.

I think of two verses that perhaps contradict each other but equally apply to such events.

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win!
— 1 Corinthians 9:24 (NLT)
I considered and observed on earth the following: The race doesn’t go to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor food to the wise, nor wealth to the smart, nor recognition to the skilled. Instead, timing and circumstances meet them all.
— Ecclesiastes 9:11 (ISV)

Dance like somebody's watching

Yesterday I performed with the community orchestra in a combined tour de force with the First Five Forever initiative in a reading of Narelle Oliver’s book Fox and Fine Feathers, read by the author herself.  Two concerts were packed with young children ages 0 – 5 most of whom heard a live orchestra for the first time.  The live music and projections of the pictures from the book brought Narelle’s story to life for the children.  We were all decked out suitably with fox tails and feathers, and bursts of colour emanated from the music stands, colour coding each section of the orchestra.  There must be something about orchestrated children’s stories and animals…  Peter and the Wolf, The Carnival of the Animals….

The concerts were successful and well received by the enthusiastic audience, but the highlight for me was the children’s participation at the end.  A child volunteered one after the other to adorn specific bird costumes from the story and dance to the music provided on cue from the orchestra.  The willingness of children to participate not under any obligation, but on the contrary beg to be picked to present themselves in front of a crowd clothed in costume, and improvise a dance on the spot to music they’ve only just heard, is really quite remarkable.  The first young lady performed a beautiful ballet sequence to Bizet’s Menuet before our very eyes with no rehearsal – no prior knowledge she would be dancing that day – no steps to learn – no music to rehearse – just pure delight in creating in the moment with no care for what any person present thought of her.  It bought tears to my eyes, and that of my flutist colleague playing the solo.

Each child had a different costume to wear representing an animal from the story.  What a celebration of the unique creation of each animal and the child wearing it.   The orchestra and audience alike watched with delight as each child danced their interpretation of the animals.  There are so many things to observe here – the confidence of a child, the sheer delight in creating, and the unique masterpiece we all are and worthy of celebrating without judgement or fear.  I know the quote “dance like nobody’s watching” but how wonderful would it be to dance with the confidence, safety and reassurance of a child, knowing that somebody is watching and celebrating with us?   



Life's a Smorgasbord

I was having a conversation with one of my advanced students today.  She is at a crossroads wondering what paths to take career wise and therefore now what study options to pursue.  After exploring several possibilities, I said to her well really it’s just like eating at Sizzler – everything is available to her now, she just has to choose something! 

In coaching many of my students I find that there is quite a lot of stress surrounding their decisions for study options.  Does it really have to be so?  Of course aptitude and passion are a factor but even then we have so much choice now in making a career.  I stress the word “making”. 

I recall my school headmaster giving us the wonderful piece of advice that there are no wrong decisions.  He was full of wisdom and would often come and take our classes himself for life skills lessons.  I remember him writing powerful messages on our blackboards – many of which I remember from time to time and have helped me in making choices.

The power of choice is always available to us.  Just like dining at a smorgasbord, we are so blessed to pursue the activities that take our interest.  The only thing we need to do is choose.  Even if life was a la carte, if life dishes us up something we don’t like or didn’t order, then send it back!  Better yet, learn to cook!  It may not always be easy due to circumstances beyond our control, but we all have the power of choice to make the life we desire. 


The Art of Listening

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the power of listening.  As a musician and teacher the activity comes up quite frequently!  I’m amazed though at the amount of convincing it takes for some of my students to listen to recordings. 

I remember as a student if I wanted to listen to a professional recording of my pieces I had to contact the flute specialist store in Sydney to enquire whether they had a recording of what I wanted on cassette!  If they didn’t they ordered it for me from somewhere overseas and it took a while to arrive. 

My students now have the opportunity to listen not only to one recording of their work, but often times several different renditions and have the luxury of comparison.  Not only that but most things are available instantly online and often for free. 

Why does it take them so long to look up a recording and spend the time listening? I always ask them isn’t this the best homework any teacher has prescribed for them all week?

I know there is a school of thought that suggests that music students shouldn’t listen to recordings of their repertoire until after they have learned the work so that they come up with their own interpretation.  Perhaps this is a valid point for accomplished advanced students. 

I often ask my students the question “how did they learn to speak English?”  Most of them tell me it was as a young child listening to their parents.  When did they start to speak?  When did they start to read and write?  Wouldn’t it make sense for music education to follow the pattern of learning a language?

What I’m really writing about here is the power of listening.  Just by listening to recordings we form sound images in our mind.  I had an advanced student play for me this last week and the progress she demonstrated since the lesson last week was outstanding.  She was playing a Mozart flute concerto.  Style and elegance are paramount.  I had asked her to listen and compare several recordings for phrasing and articulation.  She didn’t actually practice her own playing much but just the act of listening that week made her sound like a totally different and refined player. 

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder – perhaps the beauty of music is in the ear of the listener!  Sound images are powerful, just as visual images.  The more we listen the more detailed our sound images become and the better we replicate, recreate or self-create the sound worlds we desire.