Practical Conductor – Three Tips

April 9, 2015

By Brody McDonald

As I write to you, I am sitting in a hotel in Dallas, TX – stuck inside the ice storm. My a cappella group, Eleventh Hour, performed at ACDA National in Salt Lake City. We arrived at the airport only to find our flight home was cancelled. After much waiting in long lines, we were rebooked not to Dayton (our home airport) but to Indianapolis (two hours away). Our connecting flight was in Dallas. The plan was to land in Dallas about midnight, hit a hotel for four or five hours, and then get on the plane for Indy at 7:30 am. When we landed in Dallas, the Indy flight had been cancelled.

All flights to anything NEAR home (Indy, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton) were either cancelled or crammed full of other re-routed people. And trying to get 10 people through on standby? Not likely.

Our only option was to hunker down and wait. To help all y’all (that’s some Texan I learned), Here’s some tips on how to be ready in case your travel goes bad.

Travel Tips When Flying

The biggest way to prepare for travel adventures is to make sure you have great lines of communication.  Make sure you have emergency contact information for every student, both in paper and electronic formats. I keep a notebook and also have a spreadsheet in Google Drive. I create a Google Form before the trip and have the parents input all their information to save myself a lot of typing. When I have just a few students, I create contacts for all parents on my phone. For larger groups, being able to pull up the spreadsheet will suffice. I also use the app GroupMe to communicate with the group members during the trip and the app Remind for sending updates to parents. The last thing I do is create a group email thread with parents, for when I need input on a decision. For instance: if we are re-booked to Indy, can someone drive two hours to pick us up? Also – make sure you have your principal’s contact information as well, in case your delays will cause school absence.

Prepping your bags is also important. Many times when I fly, I bring my tablet, phone, and some snacks on the flight. No more! From now on I will have the essentials (toothbrush, mini-toothpaste, deodorant, hairbrush, and change of at least undergarments) in my carryon bag. If your connecting flight is cancelled, you’ll be stuck with only what you carried on the plane.

An important step I missed on this trip was to call the airport the night before departure to check our flight status (you can also use the web). In our case, I think the cancellation came down in the morning while we were en route to the airport, but if you can get the heads up while still in your hotel, so much the better.

Something I wouldn’t have thought of that is also helpful – have a parent at home assigned to be home and accessible at the computer on your travel day to help you should something go awry. It worked out for us that one set of parents was able to do this. How great. They just kept crunching through websites and options – here’s a hotel in Dallas if you need it. Here’s a place we can get a van rental if no one can drive to Indy to pick you up, et cetera. It’s way easier for them to work on that while you stand in line, help your students, etc. than it is for you try to do everything off your smart phone.

For every trip, bring extra cash and let kids/parents know they can sign some of it out if needed. Having “the bank” is helpful because some students just don’t bring much cash and don’t have ATM cards. Speaking of cards – tell everyone in your party with a credit card to let their company know about the trip. I was in a Dallas, TX WalMart buying toothpaste and new clothes when my Discover Card shut down. I had been racking up charges at hotels, restaurants, et cetera, and they were concerned about fraud.

Above all – stay positive! Your students look to you for calm leadership and positivity.

Put Down the Pencil

So many times I tell my choirs to “begin with the end in mind,” as I learned from Steven Covey. When discussing a performance, I will sometimes ask, “What do you want the audience to say when you finish?” or “What do you want the audience to feel during your performance?” When it comes to singing in a competition, this line of thinking goes a bit farther.

Let’s take for example when my choirs perform at Ohio Music Education Association Large Group Contest each spring. OMEA ratings are:

-I: Superior

-II: Excellent

-III: Good

-IV: Fair

-V: Poor

We discuss what we need to do in order to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that we deserve a Superior rating. Until recently, I told the students to tell the judges (with their singing) to put down a “I.”

Then something changed. I judged an ICCA Quarterfinal (International Championship of Collegiate Acappella). As I judged, I was constantly writing, constantly thinking of what number to circle in each category. How I wished for a group who sang so well I could just listen. Not write. Not circle. Just listen and enjoy.

I realized that I had never fully articulated to my choirs what was in my heart for so long. Since we are in ramp-up for OMEA contest now, I asked my top choir, “What do you want the judges to put down?” I heard a chorus of “I!” and “Superior!” and even some “zero!” (being above a I). Then I said, “I want them to put down their pencils.”

A judge who is caught up in an artistic performance doesn’t want to write or score. They just want to listen. They will gladly take the opportunity to step away from the job of judging to become a happy audience member. If your performance can make that happen, then you’ve won – regardless of your score. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not here to say “we’re all winners!” I don’t think that way. I do, however, think there can be more than one winner in music – which is what makes music different than a basketball game. Anyone who can turn the dots on the printed page into engaging music for the audience is a winner.

When your goal is a score or a winning rank, you aren’t striving towards artistry. If you try to get a specific number out of a judge and fail, then you’re just a failure. If your goal is to create art and you make it, there’s no score or ranking that can invalidate your performance. Creating art is the highest challenge, and if you succeed with your singing, the scores and ranks typically take care of themselves.

At the end of the day, music is an art form. When performed well, it becomes nearly impossible to score. That’s why competitions are both good and bad. They are good because they drive us to make our performances strong enough to become true art, and thus a subjective matter that lives outside of scoring. What a paradox! Yes, there will still be scoring in contests, and there will be ratings awarded. There might be plaques or trophies handed out. Still, the real winners will always be those who created true art on stage and every audience member not holding a pencil.

Do Your Best… Or Not

I think every choir director has felt frustrated from time to time that their singers are sometimes less than 100 percent involved in rehearsal. Everyone has their own level of tolerance for rehearsal complacency, and mine is… well… very low. I expect singers to be engaged and active ALL THE TIME. To be fair, nothing works at 100 percent all the time – least of all young students – but we can strive, we can wish, we can try.

I often say to my students “The only two options you have when singing are (A) singing your best or (B) singing less than your best. When you are in rehearsal, you can’t do anything other than A or B. You can’t do your math homework, clean your room, play video games, listen to the radio, or anything else. You can only do your best or do less than your best.”

To illustrate the absurdity of underperformance, I will pull two bills from my wallet: a twenty- and a one-dollar bill. I walk in front of the choir, asking each student which they would rather have. Inevitably, every singer picks the twenty. Then I tell them: singing less than your best is like picking the one-dollar bill. It makes no sense. You could’ve easily picked the twenty, but you didn’t. It’s silly.

Another way to explain this is in terms of time. Every second of your life is spent doing something. There’s no way to get that time back. You are, in effect, trading a piece of your life for whatever you do in those moments. When you are in rehearsal, you are trading a piece of your life in exchange for the rehearsal. Whether you sing well or poorly, you still forfeit that amount of your life. If the cost is the same, why not go for a better product?

The answer is that most students grow complacent. When they expend the extra energy to rehearse with 100 percent effort, they begin to get tired… physically but also mentally. I call BS on this. Everything makes you tired. Don’t believe me? Try this exercise I do with my students each year:

Hold your arm straight up over your head, as high as it will go. Reach for the sky!

After some time, your arm will begin to feel tired. Go ahead, relax your arm just a bit, maybe 4 inches. Immediately, your muscles will feel some relief.

Now hold your arm still in this new position. Soon, you will feel your arm growing tired again. You’d better let it down a bit farther, maybe another 4 inches. AHH! Sweet relief!

But wait… after a few minutes, your arm is getting tired again? Is there no end to this? Where can you put your arm that it won’t get tired?

The only place your arm won’t get tired is hanging straight down, pointing at the floor. Doing what? Doing nothing. And… the dirty little secret is that even in that position, your arm will get tired if you don’t move it. It will just take longer.

If your arm will get tired in any upward-reaching position, you might as well reach for the stars! If you get tired, you can relax slightly, but still reach very, very high. When that gets tiring, don’t move downward… move back up! It is the variation that keeps your muscles fresh, but all variation should be done within a very small margin – all at the top of your capacity.

Help your singers understand that they can only gain from increasing their rehearsal effort. It costs no more money to work hard, takes no more time, and actually won’t even tire them out faster. Excitement in rehearsal is generated by results, and since working hard yields better results – the end result of working hard is that the singer is less tired, less bored, less frustrated.

It might take some time and also presenting this concept from many angles to have the lesson sink in, but don’t give up. Do your best as a teacher to help them understand this valuable lesson… or not.

Brody McDonald is the director of choirs at Kettering Fairmont High School. Under his leadership, his curricular choirs have consistently earned the highest ratings at state level contest and have been featured at numerous conventions. He is at the forefront of the a cappella movement, serving as a founding member and the vice president of the A Cappella Education Association. His a cappella ensemble, Eleventh Hour, was the first high school group ever to compete on NBC’s The Sing-Off. Brody is also the author of A Cappella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing. Brody has recently joined the faculty at Wright State University as director of A Cappella Studies. He has partnered with Deke Sharon to launch Camp A Cappella, a summer camp designed to immerse singers in the contemporary a cappella style, which will take place June 23-28, 2015 at Wright State University. For more information, please visit  campacappella.com and brodymcdonald.com.

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