Category Archives: Skill Building

The Difference Between Knowing and Doing

When I was in high school, music teachers weren’t always sure what to do with me.  I knew a lot of theory and information, which meant that my teachers were constantly giving me new information about jazz theory and improvising techniques.  The only problem?  I couldn’t actually play any of it.

There is a mammoth difference between knowing how to do something and actually being able to do this.  In my many years of teaching, this is often the biggest challenge I face when working with students.

One summer when I was teaching at a summer music festival, there was this hotshot young jazz pianist that was wowing everybody. He would sit at the piano and play extremely complicated and virtuostic music, while everybody sat listening, completely impressed.  Knowing that he was going to be studying privately with me, a couple of students actually came up to me and said “What are you even going to be able to teach that guy?”  (Sigh.). At his first lesson, I had him play a Blues in F at a medium tempo.  He completely fell apart.  Turns out he had spent a lot of time learning the “hip” stuff, but hadn’t really learned the basics.

The most significant improvement I have made as a pianist has been when I take the time to fill in the gaps.   I sit down and made a list of all of the skills I lack– from voicings to scales, to working through difficult keys.  I once took a lesson with the saxophonist Kirk MacDonald, who asked me to arpeggiate the chords on All the Things You Are and I couldn’t do it.  At all.  I had played that song hundreds of times, but I was still unable to manage the very basic skills.  I was stuck on the “knowing” side and very far away from the “doing”.

I think one of the reasons my private students are so successful, is due to my experience of being a “knower” for so long.  I start everyone who walks through the door in the same place – at the very beginning.  Some of the more advanced students are taken aback that I would be working them at such a “low level”, until they discover that they are actually lacking in a great deal of these crucial foundations.  Most of them are quite shocked at how much they improve when they go back to the beginning and translate what they know to what they can do.

Nowadays when I’m practicing singing or piano (or both), I take my time to make sure that what is in my head is actually coming out of my fingers/voice and isn’t just stuck in my head.  It makes practicing really engaging and fun and helps me to stay grounded as I work.

Is there anything that you “know” but aren’t able to “do?’  What could you do to tackle that?

Take A Professional Development “Staycation”

Summer is here and your Facebook feed is full of photos of colleagues and friends singing and smiling at the many workshops, conferences and institutes that are being offered at colleges and retreat spaces all over the world.  And you’re quietly tucked at home, unable to attend due to no money (thanks a lot, student loans…or bathroom renovation) or no childcare.  (Or both, in my case…sigh).

Before you get a terminal case of FOMO, I have come up with a solution to the Professional Development Blues.  I call it the Professional Development “Staycation.”  Just because you can’t hop on a play and spend three weeks studying with some master teacher doesn’t mean that you can’t grow your skills in a meaningful way this summer.

Here is a list of ideas I put together to make sure that you stay on top of your professional development, on a budget.

  1. Take private lessons with an expert in your area…or via Skype.

You may not have thousands of dollars to fly off somewhere, but what if you invested a few hundred dollars taking private lessons with a great teacher.  If there isn’t anyone in your area, there are loads of amazing teachers who teach via Skype.

  1. Swap lessons with a colleague.

Sometimes the best professional development comes from watching others teach and learning what works for them. Reach out to another voice teacher in your area and see if they’d be into a swap, or even let you observe them teach.

  1. Catch up on your reading/watching/listening

We all know you have a stack of Journal of Singing’s that have been gathering dust while you have been teaching all year.  Now would be a great idea to read them and get current.  This is also a good time to listen to the soundtracks to all of the Tony nominees, and check out the albums that got Grammy nominations this year.  This would also be a great chance to go back and binge-listen some Naked Vocalist podcasts too!

  1. Look back

If you tend to stay current with the new musicals and albums coming out, you might consider having a look back.  Binge watch some old movie musicals, watch some PBS Great Performances or even go on YouTube and see how many versions you can find of Ella Fitzgerald singing “A Tisket A Tasket.”

  1. Take an online course

There are tons of online resources for instruction nowadays, many of which are extremely comprehensive and effective.  Berklee College in Boston has tons of offerings, and if you’re looking to gain some piano skills, check out my online course Piano Skills for Singers.  

  1. Work on your business

Now would be a great time to update your website, switch to an online billing system, learn Excel, learn how to shoot and edit videos or study marketing.  Many community colleges offer courses on business topics inexpensively, or you can hit YouTube to see what is available.  You may also order a stack of books from your public library to do a deep dive into a business-related skill.

These are just a few ideas that can help you grow your skill set this summer, while you preserve your pocketbook and still get your kids (or dogs) to the park every day.  What are YOUR summer PD plans?

On Confronting Hairy Monsters

Everybody has hairy monsters in the life. You know them. The list of difficult tasks that you’ve been meaning to get to and have been avoiding for months or maybe even years. You know you need to do them. You know they are high value. But they are just complicated and frustrating enough that you have just stuffed them under the bed and hoped that they won’t come out again. Perhaps you prioritize other tasks or get busy with other chores, but the monsters keep lurking until you one day take them on.

Tasks that pull at us often do so because they are actually really important and may even hold the key to massive growth in your personal or professional life. These are high value and high impact Continue reading