What Not to Wear (or eat) at the District Band Audition

As my students who are enrolled in local band programs finalize their preparations for the local District Band Auditions this weekend, I prepare to give my usual last-lesson-before-the-audition speech, multiple times. The speech is different for each student, of course, but there are some things I say to every student. The statement that gets the most strange looks is, “Dress for success.” Whenever I say this, the students look at me like I’ve just fallen out of a very tall tree, because they know that I know that this audition is a blind audition – meaning that the adjudicators cannot see the candidates.

And so I respond, “I know.”

It’s still a good idea to dress to do business. You don’t need to dress for a Cotillion Grand Ball, mind you, and you need to make sure what you’re wearing is comfortable. You’ll be spending time sitting on bleachers in a high school gym, and possibly sitting on the floor of a high school hallway as well. And you need to be able to breathe well and move around easily.

But, it really does help your mindset to dress like you mean to do something important that day – like you came to win. Because you did? Didn’t you?

(If you didn’t, we need to have a chat, and that’s another post.)

You came to play well, and your stylin’ duds will be a great reminder of that fact. Additionally, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of dressing for these events. You never know when you’re going to meet someone who could be a good, helpful contact or mentor in the future, and you want to make a good impression. Additionally, you will be taken more seriously if you are dressed for success. For example, if something goes awry with your audition process, and you need to speak to someone in charge, a well-dressed and groomed candidate speaking calmly and firmly and in a non-confrontational manner will get better results.

A few years ago, a student of mine who was in a position to win first chair was not given the proper amount of warm-up time. This had to do, we later learned, with a miscommunication between the judges and the runners. When a runner came to collect her from the warm-up room, mere seconds after she had been deposited there, my student said, “I’m sorry, but I just arrived here, and I need a few minutes to warm up.” The runner replied that the judges had told her to collect the group of students in the room. I’m proud to say that my student stood up for herself and the younger students who were in the room with her by responding, “We just got here. You are required to give us proper warm-up time. We are not ready yet.  Please find an adult if you wish to discuss this further.” Now, my student was dressed for the audition in a comfortable but put-together outfit. Imagine her saying the same thing while wearing an oversized tee, ratty jeans, and tennis shoes. It’s perhaps not fair, but the better-dressed version has a better chance of successfully advocating for herself. (Yes, she got first chair – in the event you’re wondering.)

The other thing I say to my students that sometimes gets me strange looks is, “Don’t order anything from the concession stand until after your audition. Or at least save it for after.” Often, the band boosters or another organization from the host school will set up a concession stand as a way to keep hungry teens fed as they wait hours on end for a five minute audition slot, and as a way to make money. Unfortunately, the food at these stands is not always the healthiest option for audition day.

Now look, I’m all for supporting local band programs. Please do take note that this fall I have purchased my Krispy Kremes from one local band, the famed apple dumplings from another, citrus from son’s program, and my Christmas tree from another local program is sitting on my porch right now, ready for pruning and fluffing. (Hint, hint to my husband, if he is reading this . . . )

I send my own son to these auditions with a little dough for the concessions, but I give him the same advice. Wait. Until. The. Audition. Is. Done.

There is a boatload of hard research and circumstantial evidence now available to support this statement: Musicians are athletes. Flutist Paula Robison said it first. The rest of us are now catching on. Look, would you eat a fried chicken sandwich before a swim meet? Before a soccer game? Before a tennis match? See how ridiculous that sounds? So don’t put that kind of food in your body before you put it to the test of performing in a sterile room in front of strangers hidden behind a screen.

Do eat well before your audition. Try to eat your usual breakfast. If you are like my husband and don’t like to eat first thing in the morning, then don’t. But do pack lots of healthy snacks, and a toothbrush and toothpaste or floss picks in case something gets stuck in your teeth. You don’t want to play an audition with something stuck in your teeth! Avoid gigantic meals and unhealthy food choices, but do carry snacks and water. A few years ago, I read an interview with a flutist who had just won a major orchestral position. She mentioned how long and grueling the process was. And she said that she would not be in her new position with this major orchestra had she not had an energy bar in her bag that day. 

Other tips I give my students:

  • Get a good night’s rest. Staying up late to practice will do you no good. Tell your friends, in no uncertain terms, that you will socialize with them TOMORROW night, and go to bed. Early.
  • Because you’re probably going to have to get up early.  (My son’s call time to be at school to catch the bus this year is 6 am.)
  • If you can do this without waking your household or neighbors, or if you have a very supportive household or neighbors, warm up at home. It will be the only time all day that you’ll be alone until the audition room (in this district). And you’ll feel better having already played that day, when you get to the warm-up room you’re sharing with other people. I know it means you have to get up even earlier, but at this point, what’s the difference? Super early is super early.
  • In addition to snacks and water, pack other things to do. Books, video games, card games, ear phones. Anything to keep you occupied. If you’re going to be waiting in a room where others are warming up, the headphones are key. You really don’t want to put yourself through the psychological mind games of listening to others warm up.
  • Pack a hygiene kit. Lip balm, hand lotion, feminine products. Yes. Those too. No surprises on audition day. You’re ready for anything. Hair clips and ties if you have hair that likes to get in your eyes.
  • Come to win. (We’re back to that now.) That said, you have hopefully already defined what a successful audition means to you. If it’s your first audition, your goal may be getting through the day without throwing up. Or maybe it’s just playing clean. Or maybe you want to be able to demonstrate musicality and style in this most (aesthetically) sterile of settings.

Whatever your goal, you’re more likely to achieve it if you prepare for both the audition and the more practical and mundane aspects of the day. Think like an athlete, behave like a pro, and play like the artist you are.






I Have Met Your Snowflake, and They’re Going to Be OK

As if we parents needed one more thing to worry about doing wrong.

In the past year or so, there has been an explosion of media coverage of college students who are non-resilient, who need “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” and all sorts of other help and props in order to function.

And more recently, the pointy finger of blame is once again trained on the parents of these kids.

And there has been some research to back up that finger. Basically, the narrative goes that, because kids these days are raised with so many fail-safes in place, they are not allowed to fail. Therefore, they do not learn important coping skills. And so, when they are out on their own for the first time, as undergrads or younglings in the working world, they fall apart the first time they fail, or the first time the pressure becomes too great.

Having returned to academia, part-time, this fall, I can vouch that this is true of some of the student population. However, these students are in the minority.

First, I want to address the pointy blamey thing. As a parent, I understand the temptation to insert fail-safes for our children – to make sure they land on something soft when they walk for the first time, to check in frequently with their teachers and follow the online gradebooks like a new, hot mini-series. To ask all cars to kindly stay off the roads for a few days while my son learns to drive.

When our kids were little, we were very fortunate to have as neighbors a lovely couple with three beautiful, intelligent, well-spoken teenage girls, who have ultimately become highly successful adults. I asked their father one day, “What’s your secret?” He replied, “Do you really want to know the truth? We step back and let them fail.”

And that has been the core of our own parenting philosophy.

But that’s also VERY difficult to do.

Especially in a world where crazy people can walk into churches, onto military bases, and into schools and commit massive acts of evil and carnage.

So please, before you point the finger of blame at parents for overprotecting our children, please remember that we are raising kids in an age where intruder drills are a regular occurrence on school calendars.

It’s only natural for us to be a bit more protective. We arm our children with cell phones so we can have constant contact, and I know many parents who regularly use tracking apps to know where their children are at all times. I don’t do it, but I’m not judging those who do. I don’t have their kids, their schedules, or their lives; and I like to remember that we all have different wiring and tendencies to various levels of anxiety.

So do back off on the finger-pointing please. We’re doing the best we can here.

And the kids. They ARE more anxious these days. I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to determine why. In addition to the potential for terrorist attacks, our national government is currently enduring a stress-test of major proportions, and expectations and definitions of success for this generation of students are sky high. Students are constantly under pressure to prove themselves in academics and in a plethora of extra-curricular activities. (And please don’t point fingers at all parents there either. While there are some parents who over-schedule their children, some children over-schedule themselves, while others would sign up for nothing if left to their own devices. I know because I have one of each.)

As for the college students, the so-called “snowflakes”, what they want, more than anything, is for someone, anyone, to listen.

They are hungry to be heard. They are desperate for a real conversation.

The generation raised on social media is dying to have a chat with you. And the topic doesn’t necessarily have to be profound.

Recently, I finished giving a test to a lab class. We still had a few minutes left in the class, so I told the students that anyone who wanted to stay and review material for the upcoming one-on-one portion of the test was welcome to do so, but I also said they were free to go.

No one left.

But when I asked where they wanted to start in reviewing the test material, no one said anything. I asked, “So, why did you stay?”

“We just want to talk.”

“About what?”

“Everything. Anything.”

And so I sat down and I listened. And they told me about themselves. About their personal lives, their challenges, what they dreamed of for their futures, what they ate for dinner last night, something funny their pet did, and on and on and on . . .

And so I think the so-called “Snowflake” problem, the prevalence of non-resilient students, may be a bit of a myth. Yes, all universities have students who need special assistance, and we give them that. Because it’s the right thing to do. Both for the well-being of the student in question and for the health and safety of everyone on campus. I in no way intend to downplay the importance of helping these students. And by the way, they’re not snowflakes either. Many of them display great bravery, ingenuity, discipline, and patience in overcoming whatever it was that caused the university to give them extra attention in the first place.

But I think the more pervasive issue is less one of so-called “snowflakes”, and more one of students who have been raised in a loud, overly anxious world, with skewed ideas of what “success” means. These students have been described as sensitive, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. They are incredibly sensitive to one another’s feelings, and are a very caring generation of students. They may very well indeed need to develop a bit of grit, but that will come – with every challenge and every failure.

When they are ready to talk, they will. And we’d better be ready to listen. And to help them learn and grow.

(This is intended as an opinion piece – and not as an expert opinion on, well, anything, actually.)




You Will Go Today

“Can I please go another day?”

This question was from an Ear Training Student. In her class, we spot-check the students on prepared solfege singing examples or sight singing examples. Not every student is evaluated every day.

“No. You will go today.”

“But I’ve had a very busy week, and I’m sure that if I go Thursday instead, I will do a better job.”


I can think of about 1000 things on my task list right now that would go better if I could wait until Thursday to do them, but the problem is, I must do them today.

Sometimes, the NOW is what is demanded of us.

I’m quite sure that this particular student really did have an unusually busy week, and that she really was concerned that her performance would be less than her usual on that day.

So what?

We train our students to do everything so perfectly perfect, and sometimes neglect to train them for reality.  While it is true in the business of music performance that we strive for perfection at all times, the reality is, no human being ever achieves that. But we keep trying.

As the Millenials say, “Adulting hard.”

You will often be asked to perform something on very few rehearsals, and maybe your child isn’t sleeping at night, and so some of the practice time you would have devoted to learning your music for that performance is given over to napping.

And that’s ok.

Maybe your pet is ill, or every one of your professors decided to assign something big the same week, or maybe your roommate is in crisis or YOU are in crisis.

We are, after all, only human.

And so it’s important to remember that it’s never the one test, the one performance, the one assignment, the one rehearsal.

It’s the series of events and choices you make in your life that create your resume and your track record.

When one is a 20 year old college student, it can be hard to imagine that the sight singing quiz you take today will be but a pebble on the path in 10 years, a distant memory in 20, and completed forgotten in 30. It’s important for us to point out that it’s the journey, and to hold them to task. Their career and their reputation will be based on that track record, the sum total of ALL the pebbles on the path, and never just one sight singing quiz.

Recently, I congratulated a private flute student on her marching band’s competition win. She replied, “Yeah, we were 8 points ahead of last year’s score at the same competition. So we’ve improved. But the band that won the Grand Sweepstakes was 10 points ahead of us, so that’s where we need to go.” That student’s band director has done a fantastic job of instilling in his students that it’s not about the one performance or the one win; it’s about the track record.

And this lesson applies to so many aspects of life. Maybe you inadvertently said something careless that hurt a friend’s feelings, or made a mistake at work, or forgot something that was important to your kid. You can apologize to the friend (or she can realize you weren’t thinking and let it go), your boss will likely look at your complete record and judge you based on that, rather than one mistake. Your kids know that they are important to you based on a whole slew of things you do that show you love them – things you don’t even register. I’ll never forget receiving an assignment my son completed in preschool. He had to finish the sentence, “I know my mom loves me because . . . . ” I had thought he’d talk about a toy I bought him or a trip we’d taken, but instead, he finished the sentence, “she gets down in the floor and plays with me.” That’s something I did every day then – a track record.

Having recently returned to university teaching, I am getting used to a new online grade book. A colleague who teaches another section of ear training and I merged our classes. One day during the first few weeks of classes, I saw a number of new columns in the grade book that I had not put there. I assumed my colleague had inadvertently added columns to my grade book while adding them to hers. I deleted the columns. Turns out that deleted them from her grade book too, student grade entries and all. I was beside myself with embarrassment when she told me, but fortunately, my new colleague chose not to judge me on that one mistake, that one bad performance.

We all have bad performances sometimes. Ever accidentally find yourself going the wrong way on a one way street? Spilled something all over someone else? Or maybe your prepared talk to the board really bombed?

I told the ear training student, “You’ll go today, and I’m sure you’ll be perfectly fine.” (What I meant was, “I have no idea how you’ll do, but I know you won’t die doing this.”)

The student performed her example. She missed one solfege syllable and hesitated at one point, but she still earned an A – .

(Side note: what sort of pressure are we putting on our kids that an A- is not ok?)

I told her this experience was great practice for real life. We’re almost never as prepared as we’d like to be. (Were any of you parents out there prepared for becoming parents?) I pointed out that her professors would often like to be more prepared for their lectures and rehearsals, too, but we just keep moving forward and doing the best we can. This is not permission to slack, of course, but simply to put the results of our honest efforts into perspective.

The student later sent me a kind email, “Thank you for boosting my confidence.”

(Please note I have the student’s permission to share this story.)


The Thin Line

A university colleague and I were discussing the beautiful challenge of teaching. This is in regard to classroom teaching, but it applies to private instruction as well. This was over grub at one of my favorite local joints. My colleague is new to the area, and asked me “What’s pi-men-to?” I responded with my best southern, “Where you from, girl?”

So over her burger with pimento topping and my chilled chicken salad, (they smoke the chicken on site), we were discussing our sections of the class we’re teaching together, how they’re doing, what we’re doing this week, and what the challenges are.

And a friend who works there came and brought us a complimentary dessert. This friend always brings me a dessert when I eat there, on his employee tab, because there was a time when he struggled and I played a very small part in a full neighborhood effort to help him. I asked how he and his family are doing and got the updates on everyone, as my colleague listened.

So my colleague and I went on to talk about the challenges of helping someone in need and also maintaining boundaries. Both she and I are from a faith that mandates us to help others. It’s what we do. And yet, the challenge remains – how much risk do we take in helping others? How much do we give? Until it hurts? Until we’re not sure we can pay our own mortgages? We do have families of our own to raise, nurture and protect.

And we returned to the subject of teaching, and of students in need of help.

And the need to hold the standards and expectations high while at the same time acting with compassion toward our students.

It’s not easy.

I find it to be one of the most challenging aspects of teaching. In fact, I find it to be the very core of the act of teaching itself – having expectations, and then meeting the needs of the students in front of us while still holding our expectations high.

The most successful educators I have ever met hold to this philosophy: Students will come to the bar we set.

The first challenge comes in where to set that bar. Set it too high, and the learning atmosphere will deteriorate into frustration and confusion. Set it too low, and the students won’t work, and will become bored and (again) frustrated.

My high school band director told us that he likes to “hold the carrot just out of reach, so the students have to stretch a bit to reach it.” I like this metaphor. (And my apologies to my high school band director if I have mis-paraphrased him. It went something like that.)

I was explaining to a future band director after an ear training class one day that teaching is a little like tug-of-war with a questionable rope. If I pull just hard enough, the students on the other end will come along, and the rope stays taut. If I pull too hard, I break the rope and lose the student. If I don’t pull hard enough, the rope goes slack and the student has no motivation to come along. In the best scenario, the students on the other end of the rope pull back a little sometimes, and we have a learning dialogue.

So what about when a student needs compassion?

A student may be in need of compassion when they have a learning disability, a physical or mental health issue, a family or financial crisis. The student may need an enlarged test print-out, or ink in particular colors, or they may just need an ear. If while we are listening, we learn that a student has a health issue with which they are not coping, we can refer them to the right helper.

Students with disabilities and illnesses or family or financial issues, with the right support, may go on to be leaders in their field. They may turn their disability or issue into a specialty.

For this reason, I do not lower my expectations of these students; I simply make sure their resources are in place. I take the time to learn about their issues, and I do what I can to help. In the case of my private students under 18, I often connect with parents to get their input on their child’s needs and on what’s going to be helpful to them.

It takes a greater investment of time and energy to teach this way, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it to see a previously struggling student succeed. It’s worth it when you see a former student get a great job. It’s worth it when they send you thank-you notes – “Thanks for being hard on me. I just took an audition and won it. I’m so glad you made me sightread.” It’s worth it when you see them become teachers themselves, invested teachers who care deeply about their students, and the students they will go on to teach.





The Mommy Track Merges Back

Fifteen years ago, I part-time mommy-tracked myself. I was so overly besotted with love and affection for my newborn son, I couldn’t imagine anything else would ever matter again. I never fully quite work. I have always done a certain amount of private teaching, academic teaching, free-lance fluting, and writing. And then one year, the institution where I had already been adjuncting for a number of years made me an offer I felt I couldn’t refuse: They would wrap my adjunct hours into a TA position, which would involve more teaching, and that TA position would pay the tuition for my doctoral work.

I had thought I might never get the opportunity to do doctoral work. When I was working my way through my undergraduate degree, having a doctorate was considered icing on the cake in academia. It was certainly not required to do most things. And, when I finished my graduate work, commuting to San Francisco from just outside Travis Air Force Base where my husband was stationed, the nearest school offering a doctorate in music was Stanford, which was a number of hours away. So I freelanced and built my private studio, working the long, hard hours it takes to make a freelance career work. I added in some college teaching, which led, upon our move to the east coast, to teaching at my alma mater, a small conservatory with a quickly growing reputation.

So, after some initial waffling, I jumped at the opportunity to earn my doctorate as a TA, and soon found myself in deep, completely over my head. To re-tally, I was teaching theory courses as before and now also three sections of 20th Century Listening, a laboratory course designed to accompany the third semester of the undergraduate History of Western Music course. Additionally, I was taking a full time load of coursework and lessons myself, and being called upon to collaborate with students and faculty on numerous performances. I was also managing my home studio, doing a tiny bit of freelancing, and oh yes, raising two kids with the help of my husband, who worked out of town and frequently traveled.

Exhaustion was the most likely cause of the autoimmune flareup that, long story short, led a rheumatologist to diagnose me with Sjogren’s Syndrome, which is now totally trendy to have because tennis superstar Venus Williams has it, but at the time, was completely unknown to me and almost everyone else in the world. I will never forget the rheumatologist’s nurse interviewing me extensively, and at the end of our time together, saying, “Honey, something has GOT to go.”

So I put the doctoral work on hold. After another semester or so of teaching at the conservatory, I decided to put academia on hold indefinitely. My flute studio had grown, and I needed time to learn how to properly balance my life – to manage Sjogren’s, that is. Even more disturbing to me than the fatigue, as a flutist, was the dry mouth that most of us with Sjogren’s suffer with daily. I had to learn properly gauge the med that controls that, and to effectively deal with dry mouth in rehearsals and performance. At one point, I thought my days as a performing flutist were over. I was wrong. I also thought I was done with academia. I was also wrong about that.

One of the bonuses of my husband retiring from his military band career and beginning his own freelance career is that he has more time on his hands. He can help with household management more, and that leaves me more able to work. Which is a good thing, because one thing that is NOT a bonus about my husband retiring from the military is the cut in pay.  So, realizing I needed a quick way to add some more hours to my work load, I spoke with my former division coordinator, and he immediately welcomed me back.

I am a lucky girl. I am a hard worker, and I earned everything I have, but I’ll say it again, I am a lucky girl.

When my husband retired from the military, he took a day job. It turned out to be one of those jobs where people are treated like machines, their quality of life is not respected, and their health is of no concern to the company. There was very little moral support among the employees, and almost no support from the administration. The employees were expected to work inhumanly long hours, and were often scheduled for thirteen consecutive days before receiving a day off. My husband had no time to build his freelance career while working this job, and often turned down musical work because of the schedule. It was a poor fit, and so he took a leap of faith, and quit.

Fast forward to me, sitting in a meeting with my former coordinator. After asking about my family and my health, he said, “What sort of scheduling will work for you? I know your health situation, and I don’t want to overwhelm you with too many preps.”

I brushed off his concern, but later, I thought about that part of our conversation, and compared it to the treatment my husband and other employees received at his short-lived “day job”.

I worked, and will be once again working, with wonderful people, and while I’m grateful to be making up for some of our lost income, I am also excited to be back, and working at something that is my passion and with colleagues who share that passion. In my previous experiences at this school, from my fellow faculty, to division coordinators, chairs, deans, and administrators who served as mentors, I was treated as a human being with a right to a good quality of life. I think that’s all anyone can ask for from an institution, and it is certainly what people working minimum wage want. (That, and to make more money, so they can actually pay their bills and have some quality of life, and not have to get a second job.)

After my daughter was born, rehearsals I was involved in, and even flute juries, were scheduled to give me time to feed her. When it snowed and my children’s preschool was closed, the other faculty teaching on the same hall that morning and I collaborated to create a movie room, with snacks, pillows, and movies in an unused classroom, for the children of faculty who were unable to find a last-minute sitter. Once, on the day of flute juries, my son was ill with a stomach virus, and I couldn’t ask the sitter to come stay with him. I gave him a good dose of Immodium (or whatever it was that was appropriate to give to preschoolers for diarrhea), and another professor built him a “desk fort” in the jury room.) All of the flutists completed their juries with no idea there was a preschooler in the room. (One of the accompanists did spot him, because he was popping the desk part of the chairs up and was in her line of sight. She probably initially thought he was a poltergeist, but quickly realized what was going on, and gave him a friendly wave with her right hand as she turned the page.)

And now my children are older. And there is no reason for me to not go back to full time work. Between my studio, my freelancing, my pedagogical writing, and part-time academia, that’s where I’ll be this fall. Full time.

And I’m looking forward to it. And I’m also sad.

Sad because I will never need to help my beautiful daughter put on her Mary Jane’s for preschool again. Sad because I will never push my kids downtown in a stroller again, or join friends for play dates at the playground and try to have a complete conversation while being interrupted for snacks, pushes on the swing, or catches at the bottom of the slide.

I know it’s sappy, but I can’t help it. I took a mommy track option, and was able to keep my toe in the door of my career, simply because the people I work with are wonderful and supportive and respectful. And now that I stand on the other end of the mommy track, I look back at all the good, all the wonder, all the beauty of it, with tears in my eyes as I wave goodbye to my little children, who will never ever be little again.

And I turn and look ahead, to the tracks we’ll all make – my husband, my two children and me. I see them like little sled runner indentations in the snow, sometimes running parallel, and sometimes veering off independently, and maybe in little loops and curlicues here and there, but always coming back together, even for just a little while.

The Importance of Snowball and other Strange Birds

Last month, for Mother’s Day weekend, my long-time friend Kacy and I had a girls’ weekend away. The timing was Kacy’s idea, because she figured neither of our husbands could easily say no to our wanting to get away on Mother’s Day. My husband was visibly relieved because this solved his perennial problem of what on earth to get me.

Kacy and I run away take small, restful vacations together at least once a year. We’ve known each other since college, and she’s that friend that, when we reconnect after months or even a year apart, it’s as though no time has passed. We pick right back up where we left off. And where we always leave off is with hijinks.

Shenanigans. Escapades.

In college, I learned that just going to the grocery store with Kacy could be therapy, as we would invariably run into some problem – a car stalling, one of us didn’t bring her wallet, a broken jar of mayonnaise – that with any other friend would have possibly ruined our mood or day. But somehow, when the two of us embarked on even a grocery trip together, even the annoyances of life became part of the adventure. Kacy is imminently practical, and I am sometimes a bit impulsive, and while that sometime exasperates Kacy, I think she enjoys the fallout. At least I hope she does. She calls me Lucy. I call her Ethel. Sigh.

This is why I tell people that when Kacy and I, (we now live in different states) go on our weekend getaways, it doesn’t matter where we go. Frankly, the first night of any Lucy and Ethel adventure simply consists of what she and I call “debriefing”. We go somewhere and get a good dinner. And then we go back to our hotel/cabin/condo, change into our pj’s, and stay up half the night filling each other in on everything – the good, the bad, and the ugly – that has happened in our lives since we last saw one another. Kacy can always offer a funny, quirky take on whatever is going on in my life, and some good advice. She also understands my fascination with chickens.

In 2011, I read an essay a friend posted on social media, called “And That’s Why You Should Pick Your Battles”. (http://thebloggess.com/2011/06/21/and-thats-why-you-should-learn-to-pick-your-battles/) The essay, by “The Bloggess”, aka author Jenny Lawson, had gone viral. Lawson, who also writes openly about her battles with anxiety and depression, had written a brilliant and roll-in-the-floor funny essay about a fight she’d had with her husband, and her subsequent rebellious purchase of a giant metal chicken. The story, which involves a trip to a giant bath outlet store with a friend, is precisely the kind of thing Kacy and I live for. I laughed myself silly, shared the post, and moved on with life.

I also began to obsess about chickens. I looked up photos of heirloom chickens. They are beautiful, magnificent birds. I decided I wanted to get a few chickens, but right at that same time, the city where I live decided to do the most UN-hipster thing ever and BAN chicken coops. Totally ridiculous. I just wanted a few chickens for eggs and staring at. I was not planning to run a CAFO in my backyard. Nonetheless, my plans for the cutest chicken coop ever, with accompanying chickens, were thwarted.

Also about the same time, we had an extended family crisis. My husband was on tour, and I called him, very upset. Later that same day, he says he was walking on a street in some small town in the midwest somewhere, when Floyd caught his eye. Floyd is a rusted metal buzzard, and John bought him for me. He brought him home on the tour bus. There are photos of Floyd on the bus, and one of Floyd “driving the bus”.  If you’ve read the Bloggess’s essay, then you’ll understand the significance of the way John presented Floyd. I received a text from him that said, “Knock, knock m———–, and then a knock on the front door. When I opened the door, only Floyd was there.  (My absolute favorite thing about Floyd is the receipt, which we saved. It says “Rusted Metal Buzzard. NO RETURNS!!!

I don’t know why, but there is something about the absurdity of owning a rusted metal buzzard that is soothing in crisis. Sometime after taking ownership of Floyd, I had a flute student who was going through a serious personal crisis. I took her around to our backyard to see Floyd. As I walked, I told her the story. First, the story of Beyonce. Then, the story of Floyd. As she rounded the corner of my house and saw Floyd in all his glorious ridiculousness for the first time, I saw the first smile I’d seen on her in a very long time. When this student graduated, her gift to me was delivered by her sister, who shook her head saying, “I don’t know what she was thinking, but she insisted we get you this.” It was a small metal chicken.

And so, I’ve collected a few more chickens of various sorts over the years. Kacy was with me when I bought a beautiful print of a rooster painting which hangs in my kitchen. I love it. It makes me smile, and I think of my friend whenever I look at it.

Which is why it is oddly significant that a chicken named Snowball had such a star role in our most recent getaway.

When we arrived at the winery on the Biltmore Estate, Kacy drove around the full lot for a bit, looking for parking. Spotting an additional lot, Kacy said, “Let’s park over here.”

“Oh yes, let’s do! Let’s park next to the chicken coop!”

We had been to this area of the estate earlier in the day for lunch, and I had approached the chicken coop with the excitement of a small child. (Actually, the chicken coop is part of a petting zoo which actually IS for small children.) I was fascinated by the sheer number and variety of heirloom chickens there, and I had already spent a good deal of time staring at them.

As we walked up the path, I made Kacy stop again at the chicken coop. She eventually tore me away so we could go wine tasting.

The wine tasting itself turned into an adventure, as we were surrounded by rude people. The burly man to my left was clearly showing off for his date, saying things like, “This doesn’t have the heft of that Cabernet we tried in Burgundy,” and sneering and pouring the wine out. As though he were in some kind of special, invitation-only cellar special tasting at an elite vineyard and winery in a difficult to reach village in New Zealand, as opposed to a mass tasting room at the Biltmore, with hundreds of other tourists. After he and the other rude people left, I told the bartender that my husband and I had lived near Napa Valley in the 90’s, and had spent many a Saturday tasting the wine and trying the food there. Turns out the Biltmore imports grapes from northern California for some of its wines, and we then had a good time playing a game – could Kacy and I determine which wines were from local grapes and which were from Californian grapes? We could. And we did. A lot.

At one point, I remembered there was a limit to the number of wines we were permitted to taste, but our bartender didn’t seem to care. She implied the limit applied to people less cool than my friend Kacy and me. (She totally enforced the limit on the rude people.)

Her pouring arm went for variety over quantity though, so as Kacy and I walked back to the parking lot after a brief period of shopping, we were feeling calm and content, as though all was right in the world.

And that’s when we saw her.

Kacy saw her first. “Look, that chicken is on top of the fence!”

“Oh, wow, she totally is! Oh man, those people are going to get pecked and clawed.”

Anyone who has spent even the most perfunctory time with chickens knows that you do not stare at them, yell, and enter their personal space. But there were two families doing just that. And Snowball was not happy.

I looked away for a moment, distracted by something. (I cannot remember. I think it was a goat.) And then I heard Kacy say, “She did it! That chicken is out of the coop!”

We hastened to the coop, where Snowball, in her beautiful white, fluffy, serene way, was pecking and scratching the ground, as though she were still inside the coop. The perps had run away.

“Kacy, someone is going to hurt this chicken. I’ll go for help. You stay here, and, uhm, keep an eye on the chicken.”

It is a testament to the years we have known one another that Kacy simply responded, “Ok, Charlene. Right. I’ll watch the chicken.” And sighed.

I went into the coop, where, after some time, (I did not allow myself further distraction by goats), I found an attendant who looked exactly like Mr. Green Jeans.

“Excuse me, sir. You have a chicken loose.”

Mr. Green Jeans looked at me like I’d lost my mind, because we were in the petting zoo area where all the chickens (and goats) were loose.

“No, I mean over there.” And I explained what happened.

Mr. Green Jeans expressed his gratitude and said he’d take care of it. But by the time I’d gone back around to the people side of the coop, the perps, realizing they had done something wrong, had already alerted another staff member. As she was putting the chicken back in her coop, we learned her name was Snowball, and this was her first offense.

And Kacy and I went an had a lovely dinner, although neither of us could order the chicken.

And we think of Snowball often now. Perhaps she was simply trying to get away for a little “therapy weekend” like Kacy and me. Perhaps a persistent rooster was driving her crazy, or perhaps she was just tired of the coop and needed a change.

In her one act of defiance, Snowball has become the new standard-bearer for Kacy and me – just needing a little getaway to nowhere, every now and then.

Godspeed, Snowball.


Fantabulistically Awesome

“Wow, that’s fabulous!”

“Please meet my awesome assistant . . . ”

“These cereal flakes are marvelously outrageous!”

I confess to suffering from superlative fatigue. Everything or everyone is “super fantastic, thanks!” these days. I blame the advertising industry, and I suspected it started with or near that stupid hyperactive bunny that advertised cereals, or maybe it was the sugared-up leprechaun . . . .

And it has seeped into our pedagogy. Those of us who teach know the value of supporting our students and making sure they are confident in themselves. And so of course we tell them what they are doing well. “That was lovely! Great job! Atta girl!” And the movement of concern about kids’ self-esteem has been, and is, based on legitimate concern. These days, teen anxiety, depression, and suicide are far more common than they used to be. Parents are understandably concerned that their kids are overwhelmed with pressure – to be the best at everything – academics, sports, the arts. In fact, there is real, albeit somewhat erroneous, concern among parents that kids need to participate in a wide variety of activities in order to stand out in an increasingly competitive college application pool.

But the movement to slather students with compliments is misguided, and it gets the whole teaching and learning act backwards. Compliments do matter, and I tend to lead with them in my critiques, especially when working with a student who is new to me. But as I get to know students, I back off on the compliments. My longtime students know I have faith in them, and they do not require regular reassurance of this fact.

Additionally, when talking about this phenomenon with a friend and mentor who is longtime studio teacher, she pointed out that overly effusive compliments are difficult for young students to process mentally, and can lead to them having a higher opinion of themselves than they should. This can further lead to a lack of motivation to practice, and can also create issues getting along with ensemble members.

Students know very well who they are. And unless they have already been doused with compliments, they know very well at what level they are playing, and are probably aware of some of the playing issues they need to resolve. And here’s the rub – when a teacher over-compliments a student, the student can feel patronized. “Why is she telling me this is great? It’s not. I must be absolutely terrible and she is just being kind.”

I recommend emphasizing truth and facts in teaching. These need not, and should not, be delivered unkindly. If I am unsure how a new student will respond to criticism, I take care to lead with a compliment – a compliment based in fact. “You are doing a fine job of balancing the flute now. It’s much improved over last week. Now, let’s look at how you’re articulating the 8th notes in measure 3.” This reassures the student, if the student needs reassuring, that they are doing something well, and keeps them in the reality-check zone, the area in which they are aware they are improving, but also cognizant of the fact there are areas in their playing that need work, just like everyone else.

With a longtime student, I find I don’t need to bother with reassuring them, and I often ask them to self-diagnose. “Ok, what’s going on with the tone in the low register?” They usually answer correctly, and they may even know what to do about it. And the point is that they are aware that I would not BE correcting them in the first place if I thought they were a hopeless case. In this way, honest correction and critique increase, rather than diminish, a student’s self-esteem, and in a healthy way.

I often think of a handful of teachers I had who taught in what I would call “old school” style. Compliments were few and far-between, but when you received one, you knew you had earned it. The infrequency of compliments had the supply and demand effect. The value of the compliment was increased. This also had the effect of making students work harder for these teachers. Hold the bar high, and the students will not think less of themselves. They will think more of themselves. A parent recently relayed to me that she asked her daughter why she was practicing more, and her daughter replied, “Mrs. Romano knows I am capable of more.”

There will be periods of frustration. Every day is not awesome, every organization is not fantabulous, and not every breakfast cereal chocomarvelous. Students do not learn along a linear climb like a hill. They learn in stair steps. As the student becomes aware they can do more, it is common to experience periods of frustration just before making a learning leap. Quite often, right about the time a parent contacts me with concern their child is frustrated in their home practice, the student comes into a lesson sounding like a whole new kid. That’s the time to use a superlative.