Lessons From the Slopes (for teaching and life)

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January is a good month for a college professor, and where I teach we don’t start our semester until the very end of the month. This give me time to guest conduct, do clinics, study scores, update my courses, and ski!

This year the goal was to take it a little easier than normal and I did one clinic, and one festival, a junior high school festival in NY. That was an incredible experience and I am always blown away by the student musicians and what they accomplish in such a short time. Those students have some great teachers. I have done dozens of festivals, and am always proud of the work and energy of the musicians I teach.

With my conducting schedule easy, I decided to take an entire week away from work as much as possible and hit the slopes for some skiing. It was a fantastic week being outdoors, and as I was riding the lift the first day I started wondering how I could possibly make an educational experience out of a fun week of slacking off and being away from music. It was easy to see all the lessons right in front of me once I opened up my eyes.

Get Away From Work When You Can

This one is easy, and obvious, yet we tend to work ourselves into the ground and burn out happens. We want to say yes, and feel like it won’t get done unless we do it. Most of the time the email will be okay if you leave it until tomorrow. We all need time to recharge our batteries and explore and experience life. Time away from work will make you better at what you do. Easy advice, but not always easy to do.

Back to the Basics

I have been skiing for as long as I can remember and don’t take lessons anymore, but with not so great knees I decided to go back to the basics and see how I was skiing. Two of my days on the slopes I spent mostly on easier trails working on basic turns, and figured out why one knee always hated me at the end of the day. It was nice to get back to the basics for a bit and see what I was doing wrong and what I was doing right. Bad habits can creep into what we do,  especially if you are a conductor, and from time to time it is important to visit the foundation of what you do. Every spring semester I teach basic conducting and love the class, not just because I get to introduce students to conducting, but also because it gives me a chance to revisit my conducting foundation. I practice every beginning exercise my students do and it helps make me a better. I am able to take some time to focus on the little things because a rehearsal is not the time to practice your conducting!

Looking Back Doesn’t Always Help

I have this habit of looking back after hitting a rough patch of snow or ice. When I slide or lose a little control, I turn around and look at what just happened completely ignoring what is in front of me. There is a certain satisfaction to cursing the ice spot, but it doesn’t really help with what is happening in the moment. I had never thought about this until I was on the lift and watched someone do the exact same thing. The skier hit a patch of ice, and turned around to curse it, and missed the next ice spot. It didn’t end well for the poor guy, but it got me thinking about rehearsals. Mistakes happen and we need to not focus so much on them that we miss what is coming. As a conductor you can’t stop to fix every mistake. You need to keep going so the ensemble can understand the whole of the music you are rehearsing. Teach your students to learn how to correct their own errors. Instill in your students the ability to learn from their mistakes without you having to constantly stop and fix things. Rehearsals become tedious without flow. Some times you just have to keep going and focus on what is in front of you. That is not to say that you shouldn’t stop and fix things in rehearsals, but you need to figure out when to stop and when to let it go. Remind your students of their responsibilities with this quote from author Paulo Coelho, “A mistake repeated more than once is a decision.” Have some faith and let them correct themselves. If they don’t know how to fix errors, you need to teach them, not just conduct them and get them ready for the concert.

Mistakes Will Happen

I fell once the whole week, and I did let loose some, so I was mildly surprised and very proud of myself. The one time I did fall was rather embarrassing though, as it happened as I was getting off the lift. This is something I have done thousands of times over the years without falling. But it happens. I also witnessed a guy just fall over in the lift line. Again, it happens. Don’t lose your focus on the “easy” things. Don’t let your students relax and stop focusing during rests. Keep them focused, and keep yourself focused as well. Don’t treat your warm up as a routine. Don’t let your guard down during this “easy” part of rehearsal.

Open up your eyes and ears to the lessons right in front of you every day. Get away from work and re-energize yourself and make yourself better at what you do.

I guess it is time to start the semester and to do that teaching thing…

Interested in more? Check out Essays From The Average Band Director, available on Amazon.com!


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