Against the Odds: Overcoming Adversity

momandmeSometimes a single experience or event can completely alter the outcome of your life. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I had experience as a child that unquestionably completely changed my life. Thirty years ago today my mother committed suicide. I was just shy of turning 12 years old and my world was turned upside down.

My recollections of the specifics of July 15, 1986 are somewhat vague, but I do remember that it was a usual summer day. I remember riding my bike home from the local public swimming pool, along with my sister and cousin, only to arrive to my father who had an extremely somber look on his face. I didn’t know what was wrong, but I could tell it was something critical. Holding back his emotions the best he could, my father explained to us what had happened and we all broke down crying. The last thing I remember of that day is that I decided to take a long walk alone in the woods. The emotions that went through my head included sadness, fear, anger, and remorse. I had so many questions, many of which will never be answered.

For many years my mother’s death split my family apart and the slightest mention of my mother and her death started everyone crying. For me, the topic was taboo. I didn’t like to talk about it. Members of my family tried to point fingers and blame someone for what happened. There was a lot of anger and bitterness. Mainly though, everyone was very sad and the grieving period lasted a long time. My mother was an important part of her family, particularly when she was growing up. She was the oldest of five children and often served as a “second mother” and role model to her siblings. I remember her being thoughtful, loving, witty, and extremely intelligent. She was also a wonderful cook!

Growing up, I don’t think too many people outside of my family knew about what had happened. If they did, it wasn’t really brought up. In the 80’s, things were not as open as they are today. I sometimes felt that people would judge me if they knew what had happened, so I didn’t speak of it. I kept so much inside. I was never offered any type of counseling after this traumatic event and essentially coped with things on my own. As an adolescent, this was an extremely difficult task. In fact, the trauma disturbed me for a very long time and made an impact on the choices I made and how I dealt with different situations. After attending my very first counseling session just last November, I realized what a huge mistake I had been making by not seeing someone much earlier. I was carrying a huge amount of weight on my shoulders for nearly 30 years! I previously thought to myself that I would be a weak person if I sought out help. The truth is that everyone has moments when they are down however we shouldn’t be afraid to admit it and seek help from others, if necessary.

In my last blog post I discussed my internal mental drive to attempt to rise to “the top” of my profession. It may seem a bit strange, but I owe a majority of my professional drive to the loss of my mother. From the time she died, I vowed that I would be different. I asserted that I would be successful and overcome the odds that were then placed against me. (I didn’t as many of the musical opportunities growing up that my fellow colleagues had.)

In high school I worked to keep up my grades while holding a part time job and participating in some extra curricular activities like the Mentor Mannheim Orchestra. I practiced (not enough), and really wanted to take private lessons, which I did start when I was nearly 14. My father supported me, but there wasn’t really too much of a demand to hold high academic standards or be successful in school. I just made sure I was going to school, being prepared, doing my homework, etc. because I wanted to. I was never a straight A student, but did what I had to do. When I made up my mind to pursue music, again my father supported me, but the reality of actually making it happen was up to me.

“Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving, we get stronger and more resilient.”
― Steve Maraboli, from “Life, the Truth, and Being Free”

The loss of my mother has stirred many emotions and caused lots of different behaviors over the years. I experienced anger, frustration, anxiety, fear, loneliness, shame, resentment, and depression. However, on the positive side, I feel that I have been able to make the best out of the cards I have been dealt. I was forced to be more courageous, outgoing, dedicated, caring, and, most of all, grateful for what I have. I am extremely appreciative of the experiences I have been afforded.

“Gratitude is the single most important ingredient to living a successful and fulfilled life.”

I often wonder how much different would my life be if my mother were alive. How would I have turned out? Who would I be? Would I have a family? What would I be doing? My guess is that if my mother were alive, I would not have made the same life for myself. So, in many ways, I owe my mother more than I realize. While I wish that she were here today, (particularly to see my amazing boys!) I am thankful for my life. I’m always looking forward to the future, because best is still yet to come!

“It’s your reaction to adversity, not the adversity itself that determines how your life’s story will develop” – Dieter F. Achtdorf

In closing, I would just like to say that it is crucial to cherish the time you have with your loved ones. Quality time can’t be taken for granted because our time is limited. There are never guarantees. Always make relationships with family and friends your first priority. And if life throws you for a loop and things aren’t right, talk to a friend or seek counseling as soon as possible. Don’t be afraid to discuss your feelings and definitely don’t hold your feelings inside.

“Life is so ironic. It takes sadness to know happiness, noise to appreciate silence, and absence to value presence.”

RIP, Mom, and thank you.

Success: Is it about getting to “the top” or just being happy?

successThroughout my career, I have always kept my eyes open for ways to advance in my profession. I’ve loved just about every teaching position I have been in, but no matter how great the situation, I always felt like I need to go higher with the next big job and the next degree. I had to get to “the top.” I had to be the best I could be. My drive to get to the top was so strong that I became disoriented and eventually lost focus of what I loved doing most. In addition, it put additional stress on myself, and had negative impacts on my family.

What exactly is “the top?”

In the teaching world, I often hear people say, “Oh, you are moving up from teaching middle school to teaching high school? That’s awesome!” Moving up??? Really??  After I won a tenure-track position to teach college full time, I thought to myself that I had finally made it. Unfortunately, there is a mentality in the field of education that often associates your “rank” or “importance” with the level of your students. How wrong this is!! The top is where you are happiest.

How do you really get to “the top?”

This fall, I’m moving “down” from the ivory towers of collegiate-level teaching and will go back to directing a high school orchestra program. I don’t consider this a move down at all because I’m finally making a move for the real me and will be going back to do what I love to do most. Simply put: I’m happiest when I’m working with kids in the schools. (In addition, this new position will have many positive implications for my family, which is of utmost importance!)

Success is an iceberg…

For the last four years I served as a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Music Education at Kennesaw State University.  I was hired on to be the first string education professor and things went extremely well. I worked to increase student enrollment in string music education and helped make KSU the largest undergraduate string education program in the state Georgia. I connected with school orchestras and the community by directing a large number of outreach events and conducted an orchestra for the Georgia Youth Symphony Orchestra. I collaborated with my colleagues, developed new courses, refreshed old courses, served on committees, and endured some major changes in the music education curriculum and student teacher assessment. I made positive relationships with my students and felt their enthusiasm, energy, and pride. In addition to the work at the local level, I increased visibility to KSU and the School of Music by leading dozens of orchestra clinics, presenting at numerous conferences, conducting honor/all-state orchestras, and even presenting some research. The invitations just kept coming! My yearly reviews were stellar and I was well on my way to becoming a tenured Associate Professor. Success!! But even with all of the positive accolades and subsequent notoriety, I wasn’t truly happy. I never felt completely fulfilled.  Something was missing.

(KSU Rocks, BTW)

I do want to publicly acknowledge the sheer awesomeness that is Kennesaw State University (KSU)!!  It is an incredible institution with marvelous faculty and students and a great place to work, learn, and grow. It is THE university (and School of Music!) to be at in Georgia and is quickly gaining a solid reputation at the regional and national levels. I could go on and on about how great a place KSU is. I will dearly miss my colleagues and am thankful that we will always remain friends. In addition, I will forever be a fan, advocate, and supporter of KSU and always an Owl at heart. GO OWLS!!!

Be thankful for every day

Starting in the 10th grade, my dream job was to be a high school orchestra director. (Thank you Mr. Curtis Petersen!!) I started teaching in the public schools in 1996 and had unique experiences teaching wonderful students in Nevada, Florida, and Ohio. Some of the fondest memories of my career were during the times when I was teaching middle school and high school orchestra. Unfortunately, I took some of these experiences for granted and didn’t always realize how great I had it. For a number of different personal and professional reasons, I was always looking to get to that next level “up.”

“Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” — John Lennon

If you keep an open mind and are willing to make changes, life can take you places you never expected. I don’t regret any of the career changes I’ve made. Each place I have worked there were memorable experiences. Most importantly, along the way I met awesome people and developed so many positive relationships with my students and colleagues. These relationships have helped define my career and my life in ways I can hardly explain.  To all of my friends, colleagues, and former students:  THANK YOU!

If you ever question yourself and where you are, is very important to stop and smell the roses. It’s cliché, but it’s true: The grass is not always greener on the other side. But, unfortunately sometimes you have to experience alternatives to fully comprehend this. On the other end of the spectrum, if you don’t take any risks you’ll never know what you are missing! Decisions can be so difficult.

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” – Confucius

No matter what, remember that being at “the top” is being (and staying) where you are happiest, not where you think you should be or where others see you. If you are unsure, dig down deep and follow your heart.

 

“Watching The Wheels” by John Lennon

(Listen on Apple Music)

People say I’m crazy doing what I’m doing,

Well they give me all kinds of warnings to save me from ruin,

When I say that I’m o.k. they look at me kind of strange,

Surely your not happy now you no longer play the game,

 

People say I’m lazy dreaming my life away,

Well they give me all kinds of advice designed to enlighten me,

When I tell that I’m doing fine watching shadows on the wall,

Don’t you miss the big time boy you’re no longer on the ball?

 

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round,

I really love to watch them roll,

No longer riding on the merry-go-round,

I just had to let it go,

 

People asking questions lost in confusion,

Well I tell them there’s no problem,

Only solutions,

Well they shake their heads and they look at me as if I’ve lost my mind,

I tell them there’s no hurry…

I’m just sitting here doing time,

 

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round,

I really love to watch them roll,

No longer riding on the merry-go-round,

I just had to let it go.

 

Wishing everyone a safe and enjoyable summer break! 🙂

Setting Personal and Professional Goals

It’s hard to believe that December is already upon us!  I am extremely thankful for the week-long Thanksgiving break.  It was nice to spend a lot of quality time with my family and also take a few moments for myself.

November was a busy month. On the 17th, I had the opportunity to perform solo alongside three of my amazing colleagues (Helen Kim, Justin Bruns, and Kenn Wagner) who are world-class performing violinists and are some of the top players in the area. For over a year Kenn had been asking me to perform with him (accompanied by my university orchestra). I simply could not do it last school year because I was so bogged down with trying to complete my dissertation, however this year there were no excuses!


It was decided that we would perform Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins in B Minor. This was my first real solo opportunity with an orchestra, and I knew the level of performance would be extremely high given the company, so I was quite nervous.  Luckily my colleagues are kind, amazing, and supportive people.  They provided a comfortable environment in which to play. They were especially patient and helpful with my all-campus university orchestra that consists of mostly non-music majors. My students and I feel so fortunate that these incredible violinists were willing to share their talents and perform with us.  I know this sort of opportunity doesn’t happen everywhere!

“I feel that it is important for our students to know that we are musicians who can still perform.”

Performing as a soloist definitely put me out of my comfort zone, however it helped rejuvenate an emphasis on performing by forcing me to focus on my instrument. I really miss performing and haven’t done very much since moving to Georgia. The hustle and bustle of a new job, presenting, conducting, a dissertation, and a busy family life didn’t allow me the time to dedicate to my instrument. November’s performance opportunity really helped bring me back! This fall I have been quite diligent about practicing and it felt really great to regain the musical bond with my instrument. I’m going to make it a goal to continue to practice as often as I can.  Scheduling the time to practice is the key to actually making practice a reality. In our busy professional lives as teachers, it is easy to let practicing go. Modeling and playing along with my orchestra is not a substitute for true, dedicated practice.  I feel that it is important for our students to know that we are musicians who can still perform.

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” 
― Henry Ford

Away from the music field, I’ve also pursued a personal fitness goal – to complete a half marathon (13.1 miles). In the past I’ve done several races such as the 5K, 10K, and even a 15K, but the half marathon was a fairly big difference. Over the past several years, I’ve enjoyed staying fit by doing some running. I should note that I have not always been a “runner.” In high school, I could barely run a mile! I have found that running has helped me deal with stress and improves my physical and emotional wellness.

With the support and encouragement of my wife, she signed both of us up for the “Triple Peach” through the Atlanta Track Club.  The Triple Peach is a three race series beginning with the Peachtree Road Race on the 4th of July, the Atlanta 10 Miler in October, and concludes with the Atlanta Half Marathon on Thanksgiving. I am now proud to say that I’ve done the Triple Peach with the completion of my first half marathon on Thanksgiving morning! Attaining this goal was not easy. I don’t love running, but I do love how i feel when I’m done. Sometimes in the middle of a long run I really hate it, but once I’m done I feel amazing and I realize that the effort was all worth it. Running is definitely mind over matter!

In life, we have our ups and downs.  But it is how we handle the events in our lives that really matter.  I feel like I endured a great deal in my lifetime and am finally coming to peace with many of the things that used to bother me. I’ve let go of negativity and the little (non important) things and am only focusing on what really matters.  I’m extremely thankful for my incredible wife and beautiful boys and am also grateful for the professional opportunities that continue to fall into place.

rocky

As educators we must continue to learn and also set goals for ourselves, no matter how big or small. It is essential that we strive to push through adversity and become our best. There are no limits.

The making of musicians

Last weekend I hosted the inaugural Orchestra Invitational at the Kennesaw State University School of Music.  The venue hosted middle school and high school orchestras to our stage where they performed and were provided feedback from three adjudicators followed by an on-stage clinic right after their performance. What a pleasure it was listening to these orchestras from all over the Atlanta area! In addition, I enjoyed listening to the fantastic clinics that were presented by my colleague Dr. Nathaniel Parker, Interim director of orchestras at KSU, and Mr. David Eccles, Assistant Professor of String Music Education of VanderCook College in Chicago.

The KSU Orchestra Invitational was created to in order to provide performing experience that featured high quality assessment and feedback without the worries of ratings and political scrutiny.  I made sure to let directors know that the event was non-competitive and was simply meant for them to receive valuable written and aural adjudication along with a clinic that would not only congratulate students on their progress, but also foster musical growth and inspire students to continue to do their very best.

For the last several years, I have worked to get this event off the ground and this year it finally happened! Over the last week I’ve received a great deal of  positive feedback from directors which has been encouraging.  It was a lot of work to put together. I’m proud to have helped bring over 500 students to my university’s performance stage, but more than that, I’m proud of the local orchestra directors who “put it out there” during their first semester. It took a lot of courage. It was also nice to see some directors bring their younger ensembles and not just their top performers.

Each of the performances this weekend were good and some were absolutely phenomenal.  I can say, however, that not every performance was “contest ready.”  This is a GOOD THING! Let me explain.

This is my fourth year in Georgia, and unfortunately I have found that many directors are so worried about their own reputations or the reputation of “their program” that the focus strays from teaching kids to become better musicians. Each semester I meet students who perform in my all-campus (non-major) orchestra who lack some essential string playing skills such as solid left and right technique, the ability to count rhythms, and other essential musicianship skills.  While each student has their own story (lack of practice, other activities, etc.), the responsibility for this shortcoming can often be blamed on the student’s orchestra director.

Teachers must remember to focus on teaching concepts and the process rather than just the product.  Teachers should not teach students “the music.” What I mean by this is that we must train students to be musicians, not simply “music players.” Students must have the ability to learn music independently and obtain skills that will help them make informed, musical decisions that allow them to interpret and learn a piece of music.

One of the problems I seen in many schools is when directors prepare for adjudicated “festival” performances. In my opinion, the importance and emphasis often placed on adjudicated events is far beyond what it should be. Teachers should not let their ensembles work on three pieces of music for 50-75 minutes per day for months and months just to perform it “perfectly.” If it takes a group that long to master a piece of music, it’s simply too hard for them. These are my opinions and have become part of my teaching philosophy. In the past, I admit I too have been guilty of putting everything I have into a single performance. But, now that I’ve stepped away for a while I come to the realization that this is a somewhat toxic practice in music education.

The orchestras that played this weekend were all solid, but I know some directors were nervous because their groups may not have been fully polished. We must let go of this worry and stop spending all of our time perfecting “the music.” I’m all for a great performance, but at what expense must this come?  Forcing our orchestra students to drill through music over and over and over (for months on end!) until it’s “perfect” doesn’t sound overly enjoyable or encouraging.  If the music is at the appropriate level, it doesn’t take that long for them to learn it.  Allowing students to perform music that fits their playing level allows them to make music, not just chase notes.

Teachers should continue to implement daily lessons that will help students develop their technical skills that will allow them become musicians who are independent learners and interpreters of music as a whole. Our job as music educators is to provide students with experiences that will enable them to enjoy music for a lifetime, wether that be creating, performing, or listening. We must each student’s education before anything else. By focusing on the process and not the product we are training our students to be musicians who can adapt, create, and perform music independently. Most importantly, we are giving our students the tools necessary to be lifelong learners and consumers of music.

String Selection Update

amoIn January of 2013, I posted about my choice of strings.  Well, a lot has changed since then, so I’m updating my list and wanted to discuss my most recent string choice.

For my violin, I now prefer D’Addario Kaplan Amo

The Kaplan violin strings, Amo and Vivo, were introduced in the Fall of 2014. The Amo’s have won me over!  I really like their projection, yet they are still very responsive and warm.  The strings break in very quickly and have lasted quite a long time.

To learn more about D’Addario Kaplan Amo and Vivo string sets, visit the product page.

What strings do I use?

Many students ask what brand/type of strings I use on my personal instruments, so I thought I would post my favorites and why I like them.

BOPK_Box_Comps_5.inddViolin: D’Addario Zyex

Zyex help provide a wide-range of tonal qualities from warm to rich, but also remain very responsive.  They break in almost immediately and last quite a long time.

bo_prod_H310_4-4M_main_3Viola: D’Addario Helicore

The number one issue that I have as a violinist who also plays viola is string response time, particularly on the thicker  G and C strings.  The Helicore strings are extremely responsive, yet produce a warm and powerful tone.

BOPK_Kaplan_KS510_Cello.inddCello:  D’Addario Kaplan

Cello is not my primary instrument, however I have been fortunate to have studied privately during my undergraduate and graduate work, so I purchased a decent cello and want it to sound great. Kaplan cello set help me get a warm and rich tone across the entire instrument.

bo_prod_H310_4-4M_main_3

Double Bass:  D’Addario Helicore Orchestral

A favorite of mine since I first started teaching, the Helicore Orchestral double bass strings are the perfect balance of warmth, power, and response.  They work well for both pizzicato and arco playing.

* Note:  While D’Addario offers a variety of playing tensions, all strings I use are medium tension.

What strings do I use in an educational setting?

As an educator, I understand the budget constraints that most schools have.  I also want my orchestras to sound their best. Having fresh, high-quality strings one of the most important factors that helps accomplish this.

bo_prod_J810_4-4M_main_2For school-owned and entry level student instruments, I highly recommend D’Addario Prelude for violin, viola, and cello.  For double bass, I changed strings less frequently so I was willing to spend more on bass strings.  Instead of using Prelude on my double basses (which are decent strings), I would upgrade all of the bass strings to Helicore Orchestral.   I would upgrade all sizes (even 1/4 size!) of double basses. The power and warmth of the Helicore strings were totally worth the extra cost.  They also last a long time before needing to be replaced. When I first arrived to my teaching position in Las Vegas, I change all eight of the school basses from the stock steel strings to Helicore and noticed an incredible difference in my bass players ability to play with a good sound and play with better intonation!

Why D’Addario?

I appreciate the quality and consistency of D’Addario strings.  For years, I used strings from other companies, particularly those companies based in Europe.  I found that the quality was not always consistent from set to set.  I would also have a considerable amount of breakage near the ball end of the string, which was extremely frustrating when you have paid a lot of money for strings and only have one backup set.  I don’t like to return items to the store.
d-addario-logoIn my quest for the perfect strings, the D’Addario Bowed sales staff, Lyris Hung and Liz Benoit Crew, were extremely knowledgeable in providing useful information and professional guidance that helped me make the best choice for my instrument and my playing style(s).

Finally, I love that all of the D’Addario bowed strings are designed, engineered, and manufactured at the company headquarters in Farmingdale, New York.  USA proud!

Conducting the New Mexico MEA All-State Concert Orchestra

I had the great fortune to have served as guest conductor for the New Mexico Music Educators Association All State Concert Orchestra, January 5-7, 2012, at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

What an experience this was!  First, it was my first All-State experience, so I was pretty nervous.  It turned out that the teachers who put the event together were WONDERFUL and the student musicians were AWESOME!  Such great students!

One challenge I faced is that about 95% of the wind players had never played in an orchestral setting before, so there was a lot of learning about the responsibility of being an orchestral wind player.  I am happy to say, that everyone did a great job and the performance was very successful!  I am excited to hear the recording!

Program:

Poeme Symphonique “Les Preludes”
Liszt; arr. England
Alfred Publishing, Duration: 4:00

Academic Festival Overture
Brahms; arr. Simpson
Master Music
Duration: 9:00

A Short Overture
Joshua Missal
Kjos Music, Duration: 3:30

Symphony No. 9, Finale
Beethoven; arr. Leidig
Highland-Etling, Duration: 7:00

On a personal note, I was so excited to be able to reconnect again with my good friend Karen Ginther, an orchestra teacher in the Rio Rancho Schools.  We were college violin stand partners back in the day!

We also ate a quick snack across the street at a great little diner where they had the best cinnamon rolls!

Guest Lecturer, Ohio University School of Music

What an honor it was to serve as a guest lecturer at the Ohio University School of Music on October 17-18, 2011.  This experience meant so much to me, as OU is my alma mater.  It was my first time on campus since graduation in June of 1996!

So much has changed, but the atmosphere and vibe is still the same.  I realized how much I missed it!  Being on campus brought back some wonderful memories!

It was very fun visiting and catching up with OU faculty and staff! I also had the opportunity to meet faculty that were not teaching when I was there, most notably Elizabeth Braun, director of the Athens Community Music School.

It was fascinating speaking to a group of freshman music majors, as I could remember sitting in the same classroom back in the fall of 1992.  I always wonder what specific person or event(s) help convince young music students to pursue music education as a career.

It was not without some sadness that I made the visit to Athens.  One of my biggest life regrets was not heading down to Athens earlier to visit my wonderful violin teacher, Howard Beebe.  Mr. Beebe was a mentor and educator who made a life-changing difference in my life.  I would not be where I am to day without his guidance and confidence in my abilities.  Mr. Beebe passed away on December 30, 2010.