summer reading

June 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

Greetings and salutations! It’s been ages since my last post, but I thought it would be great to do a summer reading list to herald the end of the school year.

Books that have made a difference for me:

“Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel Pink.

A most serendipitous purchase made in LGA and read cover-to-cover before touching down in Kansas City for the 2011 ASTA conference. The premise of Pink’s book is that our current motivation systems such as reward and punishment are outdated and do not increase development of natural intrinsic motivation, and in order to motivate present and future workplaces and classrooms, we need to approach motivation differently.

“Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Suriving and Thriving at Work, Home and School” by John Medina

It’s not every day you read a book by a developmental molecular biologist, but this faculty required reading list book from a few years back was my enjoyable first foray into the world of teacher development literature. Some of those things your mother always told you growing up —eat right, exercise, and get a good night’s sleep— take a surprising and well-researched tone in Medina’s book.

“The Gifts of Imperfection: Letting Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are” by Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW

While I am largely suspicious of pop-psychology or “self-help” books, there are a few really remarkable books that delve into human development and personal insight. Dr. Brown’s book is one of them. As a shame researcher for the University of Houston, she provides a loving and meat-and-potatoes clarity on developing resilience, empathy and authenticity in the face of the numerous shaming and painful experiences we all experience. While I can’t do the book justice in this write-up, I also can’t sing it enough praises. In an age of disappointment-avoidance culture and glorified worship of certain questionable social expectations and standards, this book is a Godsend.

“Teaching Music with Passion” by Dr. Peter Loel Boonshaft

One of the first books I downloaded on my Kindle, and still one of my favorites. Combine practical rehearsal technique advice with heart-warming, tear-jerking anecdotes on life as a music teacher, and you have “Teaching Music with Passion.” Dr. Boonshaft’s book (part of a larger series) inspired me to take a closer look at where I am as an educator, and where I yet want to be. It’s worth enjoying in small doses, for while Boonshaft writes like a dream, this highly readable work is also very profound and its ideas deserve to marinate in your teaching toolbox.

“Wherever You Go, There You Are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn

This seminal classic of the bringing-Eastern-thought-to-Western-minds, “Wherever You Go” is a practical primer on mindfullness and meditation. As a conductor it’s helped me become more present tense, though I reccomend it to any performing artist or musical layperson.

What’s on my reading list this summer…

“Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong” by Aline Tugend

“Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul” by Stuart Brown, MD and Christopher Vaughan

“NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

“Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” by Anne Lamott


What books have made the difference for you? Please leave your response in the comments section below.


Better, First and Without Condition: an intonation fairy tale

April 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Okay, I take that back: this is a true story that took place a year ago…

Poor B-flats, what have they ever done to us? I thought to myself, as I listened to one of my beginning ensembles make their way through a beautiful little Mozart arrangement in F major. F major, that should be my first mistake, I argued with myself. But on the other hand, they are ready for the challenge! This needs to happen— they are all extremely fine players— the brick wall is only imaginary!

We went over the finger-to-finger relationships on each string during rehearsal the previous week. We tuned the pitches and chords, measure by measure. I had sent pep-talk follow-up emails home for parents to see, asking everyone to bring the scale to their private teachers (each child in the group has one.) I gave the violins (the intonation culprits in this instance) sound files to practice with. We played left-hand games; we had little in-class challenges. Hadn’t I done plenty? Shouldn’t I just let it be, or fall into some tired pattern of lecturing?

But this isn’t about pawning responsibility off on the other; the student must give it their best, and the teacher must give it even better than their best— and do that first and without condition. Parents do this instinctively— not stooping to their child’s level in the midst of a tantrum; feeding them and changing their diaper and keeping track of them for eighteen-or-so years, much of which goes unnoticed. These same parents have entrusted us, the teachers, with their wonderful children. As a young woman who hasn’t had children yet, I am so humbled by the parents I encounter— they are my role models for better, first, and without condition.

This reality hit me hard post-rehearsal while I was in the local department store of all places. (No, not Macy’s. I mean the local Mom-and-Pop strip mall kind that has all sorts of things from greeting cards to toilet plungers to children’s clothes.) It was there while waiting at the checkout counter that I saw Them, and I had to buy Them. Them being inch-long rubber pigs and Tyrannosaurus Rexes.

Butchers, I mentally griped at the following rehearsal, I should send them to work at the deli counter with those not-at-all-low “Low 1’s” and “Low 2’s”. But then I remembered Them, hiding in my pocket, waiting for their moment of freedom. Cutting off the ensemble abruptly, I reached in and pulled out my little bag. Curiosity quieted the students unusually well without my help.

One by one, with the utmost concentration, I began to line up the little pigs. “Ah, good intonation is sublime…” I began, glancing around at my most confused ensemble.

But it only takes one…

I placed a t-rex on the city limits of the music stand.

“…or two…”

Another t-rex joined in, and the fun began. Think more parts Carnage (than Carnival) of the Animals.

“…to hurt the intonation of the whole ensemble.”

Complete stillness; then laughter and back to work. I am not sure if it was the amusement factor of watching their conductor regress into playing with bite-sized plastic figurines, but after that, I had no trouble afterward getting them to play F-major fingers in tune. Maybe they needed to see how serious I was, and the only way I could communicate that was paradoxically by being silly myself. Maybe they needed that rousing rendition of “Historically Inaccurate Teeny-Tiny Nature Hour with Miss Kim” to know I would go out on a limb for them. Maybe they trusted because they saw how much I cared about them and this whole intonation thing.

…And maybe they were just kids who needed a good show and a moment to clear their heads.

Suffice to say, we’ve evolved and play B-flat and all of his tricky natural friends with panache. (Apparently, my dinosaur roar and pig squeals aren’t too bad, either.) During repetitions of this song-and-dance for my older, teen-aged students in other orchestras, many asked if they could keep the pigs. (I ended up having to buy a bagful for one ensemble!) Occasionally, I’ll spot one, tucked inside a scroll— a fond memory of time when intonation got its moment in the sun.

for the 12,000th time…

January 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

This year I will probably be about the 12,000th person to conduct the Elgar Serenade for Strings in e minor, Op. 20 with youth orchestra. My greatest hope is that there will be another 12,000 after me! It is thrilling knowledge that we’ll be able to pass along our art in one of the most invaluable ways—through making live music.

I mean to encourage all you educators and performers today as we start the New Year. We don’t have to feel overwhelmed by the past precedent with interpretations. It’s easy to fall in the trap of “There will never be a better recording of this than the one by so-and-so” or “Who really wants to hear my high school band play this piece, when it was premiered so beautifully last year by the local college’s ensemble?” All of this is worth repeating, every second of it —be those seconds of pristine execution from a professional ensemble or the heartfelt quirkiness of a middle-school choir. If we never said “I love you” to people just because the Hollywood actors and actresses present it so beautifully on the silver screen, imagine what a loveless place the world would be. If we didn’t have children because we realized that we might pass on our high cholesterol or allergies, how quickly might the human race disappear?

This is probably a good time to briefly discuss the above mentioned “Serenade for Strings”, as it has likely origins in the piece Elgar wrote for the Worchester Ladies’ Orchestral Class (who were amateur musicians, by the way.) Titled “Three Pieces for String Orchestra”, these lyrical, pastoral (and in the composer’s own words, “stringy”) movements were originally dubbed Spring Song, Elegy, and Finale respectively. Upon hearing the work, Elgar’s wife composed beautiful poetry for each movement. (I’ve managed to get small snippets of the poems from program notes, though I would love to read them in their entirety.) Even the intensely self-critical Elgar proclaimed in a letter to his dear friend C.W. Buck, dated 8 July 1888: “I like ’em (the first thing I ever did!)”

For such a piece of music to inspire poetry and produce rare satisfaction in the composer bespeak the quality of the work. Its probable current incarnation as the “Serenade for Strings” has been well-loved for years.

Interestingly enough, the “Three Pieces” manuscript was lost, and the “Serenade” was first billed by music publisher Novello as “unsaleable”. Amazing that something so precious to us today might have never been brought to light given such a precarious beginning. Eventually the “Serenade for Strings” as we know it today was published by Brietkopf & Hartel in 1892, with the first complete performance of the work not until 1905. (That’s right, 1905. How’s that for threadbare entry into the market?).  Someone had to make it heard in order for it to become an oft-performed staple of the string orchestra repertoire. History ended up being kind to the work because people made it kind. The bottom line is that this music had to see the light of day in order to become viable. It had to be performed again. And again. And again.

While the tale of Elgar’s Serenade is sobering, I suspect the summation of our situation as educators and evangelists for classical music lies in two places with two very different quotes— one hopeful, one cautionary. In the words of Sir Francis Darwin— “But in science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs.” We get to convince the world of the beauty of classical music, simply by carrying on this tradition with all our heart. For if we fail to continue it because we’re hung up on comparing our humble offerings to the Berlin Philharmonic, then we doom ourselves to extinction. As Henry Demarest Lloyd wisely said, “Monopoly is Business at the end of its journey.” Recordings alone cannot rouse our hearts as live performances can; highest-quality live professional performances of classical music cannot possibly reach everyone, as demographics, financial reasons, and exposure show. I know many who may have never been consumers in the classical music market, buying recordings or concert tickets, if not for first being exposed to the noble art through their kids playing it— my own parents included!

Take heart; there is room for all of us. You all have so much to offer the world through classical music, not only for the 12,000th performance, but especially for the 12,000th performance.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .


Anderson, Robert. “Elgar and his Publishers.” The Cambridge Companion to Elgar. Eds. Daniel Grimley and Julian Rushton. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 24-31.

Brown, Svend. Serenade for Strings. Programme Note. <> 6 Jan 2011.

Elgar, Edward. Letters of Edward Elgar and Other Writings. Ed. Percy Young. 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Hyperion Press Inc, 1979.

Grimley, Daniel M. “ ‘A smiling with a sigh’: the chamber music and works for strings.” The Cambridge Companion to Elgar. Eds. Daniel Grimley and Julian Rushton. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 120-138.

Harper-Scott, J.P.E. Elgar: An Extraordinary Life. London: ABRSM Publishing, 2007.

applications, auditions, and majors …oh my!

November 29, 2010 § 1 Comment

It’s getting to be that time of the year again.

Pumpkin pies, tree-trimming, candle-lighting, present-sharing, well-wishing, end-of-year concerts …and turning in those music school applications.

For the graduating high school seniors and the contemplative juniors looking to make a career in music, find the right music school or college can be a daunting process, and on top of all those applications and SATs, there’s an audition process to boot. The good news is, all of the music teachers and mentors in your life (good/bad/indifferent) have all managed to survive this (!)

(you will, too!)

Here are a few thoughts and insights I’ve come across over the years— some a result of learning from my own experience, while others are a credit to far wiser sources. Enjoy, and best wishes!

1. The private teacher is everything. Perhaps the most important person you will come into contact with during your undergraduate career is your private lesson teacher. They are a constant throughout your education, and it is imperative that you are happy with them and getting worlds out of your experience studying under them. Take a lesson or two with your potential future teacher in advance of the audition period to get a sense of their style and see if it’s a good fit. They’ll also be able to give you an accurate assessment of whether or not they think you’ll be a good candidate for their school.

2. Your current HS teacher will have a lot of great insights. They may be able to make introductions for you as you take preview lessons at college institutions.

3. The audition is the main determining factor of your acceptance. That isn’t to say it’s time to slack off at school, as many university programs or conservatories connected to universities have academic requirements. It only means that the time you spend preparing your college audition repertoire is invaluable, as it is frequently the “make-it-or-break-it” factor of your acceptance. Check the audition requirements carefully of each school you apply to, as there may be some discrepancies between them.

4. If you don’t feel ready for the audition process right now, there are options out there. Some schools offer a liberal arts degree in Music (no concentration) for which you don’t have to audition. A few conservatories offer extension division study, which may or may not require an audition. If you are accepted to your dream school on the basis of grades but you don’t have a successful audition, you may be eligible to begin your academic career undeclared and re-audition at a later date. The good news is, as I mentioned in my previous post on perfectionism and risk-taking, it’s okay to not feel entirely ready or feel some discomfort about the process. (To be truthful, I’ve never met someone who has been as excited about taking their college auditions as they were about getting a present from the tooth fairy.) I had my fair share of joy and disappointment, but in retrospect I’m glad I went through that experience several times throughout undergrad and grad school.

5. Getting into a small, lesser-known school doesn’t mean you won’t make fabulous progress any more than getting into Juilliard will make you the next Itzhak Perlman. Sometimes being a part of a smaller program will supply you with great opportunities and more individualized attention. If you feel that it’s time for a change, you can always transfer. (I did, and I was very happy with how both legs of my undergraduate career unfolded.) There are hardworking folks in any school, and there are those who for whatever reason lack the motivation to practice and study. As long as you do the work consistently and practice smart, you’ll be amazed by what progress you’ll make!

6. Some schools offer unified applications. When I was applying for college, I had to fill out separate forms for EACH school. Nowadays many conservatories and large university music schools offer unified applications. This takes a lot of additional stress out of the process.

7. Start an audition club at your high school, youth orchestra or prep program where you and your fellow seniors all play your audition rep for each other on a regular basis. (Looking back at my senior year in retrospect, I am smacking myself for not thinking of this one sooner— we had 12 future music majors in a class of 208 and could have had a field day with this!)

8. Much of the time-honored wisdom of general college application applies to us, too. (Applying to “reach”, “middle” and “safety” schools; applying to a few schools but not so many as to be overwhelmed, etc; looking for learning environments that best suit your personality —city or country life, big or small student body, close to home or far away, etc.)

9. Numerous professional musical institutions offer scholarships. For more information, talk to your private or school music teacher or search online. National organizations like MENC or ASTA are a great place to start. Even local/state chapters of music teacher groups and music shops frequently offer such opportunities.

10. Come May/June, it’s all done! Time to breathe easy…for now.


If you have any wisdom you’d like to impart from your college audition process, please consider leaving a comment below! We’d be glad to hear your insights.

the fruit and the dough (or “the slippery slope of perfection”)

November 8, 2010 § 2 Comments

Is there anything particularly disturbing about unripe fruit? Is dough, before it is baked, a bad thing?
I caught one of the wisest sayings I’d ever heard from the headmaster of my school several years ago at a faculty meeting. Roughly paraphrased, he said, “We encourage and teach our students to pursue not perfection, but excellence.” There is a marked difference between these things, perfection and excellence. I won’t renumerate the many points made by psychologists and researchers on the topic.
So… back to my seemingly absurd questions. Before the fruit ripens and the dough bakes, they are still fruit and dough. No one in history (as far as I know) has thought to say there’s something inherently wrong with them. (Any time I’ve asked these questions of my students, they always seem to illicit a quizzical response: “Um, Miss Kim. There’s nothing wrong with unripe fruit or unbaked dough. They’re just unripe and unbaked.”) Away from their instruments, it’s interesting how kids can appreciate that everything unfolds in due time.
The problem with perfection is, when we expect it of ourselves and others, we end up telling our students, or our colleagues, or our student’s parents that there is something wrong with them and/or us, whether it’s through word or through action. We end up throwing in too much fertilizer, or pesticide, or yeast to “correct” the natural process of learning and growing. (I wince now at all the times I’ve said “perfect!” after a child corrected their bow hold. I make it my duty as an educator now to come up with more colorful responses to a job well done.)
Please understand I’m not advocating laziness. Excellence still means we have expectations. We set goals, expect good behavior and consistent at-home preparation on the part of our students. As music educators we are responsible for investing time and energy into score-study, lesson plans and our own professional development.
Making honest, musical mistakes is a valuable part of learning. Find me a person who hasn’t made music mistakes —whether it’s the neighborhood church organist or Vadim Repin— and I promise I’ll go on a roller coaster with you. (I hate those.) In any case, here’s proof that the latter, who even at age 12 proved to be a prodigy of breathtaking skill and warmth, relied on the insights of his teacher:
Sidestep those learning opportunities that come with mistake-making, and only then do they become a source of shame. In truth, to a person who pursues excellence, mistakes are simply little [free] music teachers— the only real failure is to not take a risk and try (which yes, does mean we stand a chance to be criticized.) Good thing constructive criticism helps us grow as well! As for the not-so-constructive kind? Well… we have a choice to put it in perspective and consider the source (probably a perfectionist). Ultimately, we take risks when something is worth it. Continuing in that same vein—If we don’t teach our students to take healthy risks and take those risks ourselves, then aren’t we obscuring the value of music?
There have been countless moments in my musical life where I’ve made mistakes, and those mistakes when viewed under the light of excellence (rather than perfection) have pushed me in the best kind of way to be a better musician. Fortunately, as my beloved undergraduate violin teacher in conservatory informed me on one of my more cerebral days, “we’re not surgeons. If we play the wrong note, nobody dies.”
The good thing about rehearsing a concert program over a period of time is that we get to see the fruit ripen and the dough rise. We have two choices: we can enjoy that process, or wait to be happy with our students the day of the concert. Perfectionism’s “until” becomes a four-lettered word that crowds out the fun of each rehearsal. We can have unrealistic expectations from day one and wait for the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic to chase after our baton, or we can take delight in the process of the developing that piece of music with the creativity and curiosity a music educator thrives on. Some of the most significant goals we may have for our ensembles are long-term and thus easy to miss when looked at through the impatient and narrow-minded microscope of perfection.
And then when it’s time, the well-trained ensemble and the equally learning and growing teacher will be able to enjoy that experience of the performance much like a farmer picking with ease the ripened fruit, or the baker opening an oven to the sights and smells of a beautiful baked pastry —all the more because the journey was made with patience, understanding and total joy.

jcc orchestras press release

September 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

news article from mapleGOOD

September 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

A beautiful article written by our past board president at YOEC, featured in the latest issue of mapleGOOD.  It really takes a village… students, parents, and teachers working together to make a program like this one not only a success in a musical sense, but a thriving and dynamic addition to the community.