Small Groups with Big Hearts

Last Friday night, 134 people gathered in a room in our local public library for the sole purpose of sharing music with each other. Most of these were students, along with parents, grandparents, and community members who maybe were surprised to hear live music floating through the air at an otherwise quiet public library.

Mr. Band Director will tell you that this might be the best teaching he’s ever done—when he stands back and doesn’t teach at all: these Friday night monthly gigs at the library are the result of his initiative to get kids playing in small groups, completely self-led. Many of the students playing found their own music (or wrote their own!), set up rehearsal time, and are completely autonomous.

What I see at each of these small concerts are musicians taking risks, showing their vulnerability by performing some of their own work, and displaying how much communication can be relayed without a single word. I see students who stand up and introduce their groups, their faces flush with nervousness from public speaking, only to immediately look more relaxed when their instrument is in hand. I see tall, lanky boys go to their grandmothers in the audience, leaning over to kiss their cheek as Grandma grins proudly, holding his face in her hands. I see little sisters watching their older siblings, and I wonder if they are imagining their future selves up in front.

How it started

A few years ago, my husband, decided that if he wanted his students to continue including music in their lives beyond high school and college, he would have to show them a different way of using their skill than just in a large group of musicians like a concert band or marching band. It’s much easier to participate in band when it’s a class during your scheduled day in school, but as adults, how can you find time to fit music into your life, especially if your career is in a non music-related field?

One of the first small groups he developed was our own boys: He took Clark, a bass player, and Ben, a guitar player, to our local homeless shelter on Saturday nights. Later, they added in our third son, Reese, who plays cajon, a small Peruvian hand drum. Those Saturday nights were magical. My four guys, plus a rotating cast of friends would play instruments, reading charts they’d pull up on the internet. They’d play classic rock like Beatles or Eagles. The guests would join in with singing. Soon, the Saturday night jam sessions became a routine, and each night ended with one of the guests always singing Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Another guest, Rich, turned out to be a gifted guitar player. Someone would bring a guitar each week for him to play, and for an hour or two, Rich’s face looked less drawn and tired as he poured himself into the music.

Mr. Band Director is a huge fan of synergy and mutually beneficial situations, so he started looking up literature that could be used for small chamber ensembles from musicians in his larger bands. From there, small groups began practicing on their own, all working towards “gigs.” These groups would go to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, churches. To make a game of it, he made it into a challenge.

Read about his 100 Gig Challenge here.

These young musicians are why I will argue loudly to anyone who disparages “kids these days.” The kids I know are talented and hard-working. They want to be part of something that has purpose. They want a better world. They want to have ownership over authentic experiences. They want to challenge others and be challenged.

When you don’t have time for a break

Tips for Taking 10-Minute Mini Vacations

I saw a meme this week about making this a “No”vember—saying no to too much, therefore saying no to stress and overwhelm. Buying our small house was our way of saying “no” to a crippling mortgage bill, and our family has said “no” to overconsumption and keeping up with the Joneses. But, the idea of an actual “No” vember just doesn’t seem possible. The rhythm of our life as a Library Marketer, a High School Band Director, two active kids living at home and two more active adult children living nearby means that November is filled with play rehearsals, band rehearsals, performance after performance, on top of all our regular events and commitments. I mean, these are all things we enjoy doing. It’s just … there’s so much of it all at once.

And I’m just talking about November. I’m not letting myself think about December yet.

I figure this is as good a time as any to remind myself, and you, my dear readers, that it’s these times when you don’t have time to take a break that it’s most important to take a break!

Sure, you want to pack your bags and hop on the nearest plane and leave everything behind. But that’s going to have to wait until later, when things calm down. Right now, break your “vacation” into chunks. Ten minute chunks. You have ten minutes, don’t you?


1. Soak your feet
I have a bag of scented epsom salts in my linen closet. Use a clean tub big enough to fit both your feet and make the water as hot as you can stand it. The steam, combined with the luxurious warmth, plus the aroma of the scent (my favorite is peppermint, but lavender is lovely, too) can take your mind away from it all for a few moments. Don’t forget to have a fluffy towel and some lotion nearby!

2. Make a cup of tea
And don’t use just any cup, either. Put the tea in a proper china cup, or use your favorite mug. It should be pretty to look at and feel good in your hands. Hold the cup with both hands. Breathe deeply and sip slowly!

3. Do ONE THING, start to finish
This is something I struggle with—multitasking! I usually have something in the oven, a load in the washer, the vacuum out, and I’m trying to do everything at the same time. If I’m on my laptop, I routinely have 20 tabs open. Shake it up: pick ONE THING, then do it. Start it, then finish it, all in one sitting. I’m always surprised at how accomplished I feel when I do this, instead of my normal routine of starting 50 projects and finishing none of them.

4. Make a list. Use a good pen.
Do you love lists? I do! I make at least one every day. (I probably love them too much.) I’ve found making shorter lists get better results. Think about (maybe while you sip your tea?) three things that are a priority today. Write them down. Oh, and always use a good pen. I love gel pens, or Sharpie pens. I love my fountain pen the most, but not for lists. The fountain pen is for writing letters.

5. Write a letter
Or a note, or just a postcard. It feels good to let someone else know you’re thinking of them. It doesn’t even have to be their birthday.

6. Go for a walk
My dog makes sure I stick to this routine, but of course, you can take a walk alone, too. Skip the earbuds and listen to the sounds in your neighborhood. Take deep breaths, too. When I’m at work, I try at least once a day to walk through the building to hand deliver something or ask someone a question in person instead of sending an email. Gets the blood flowing, and gets you in touch with your surroundings!

7. Set a timer and take a cat nap
I admit, sometimes my catnaps turn into mega-naps. Because, well, naps. I live for them! But even just putting your feet up, laying back and closing your eyes for 10 minutes can recharge you. Don’t use the time to worry or plan or check email. Just be. And if you find that hard to do, play some soothing music to keep your mind focused.

How do you treat yourself to a mini-vacation? Share in the comments!

Music Builds Cathedrals

Being a band director’s wife, there is no shortage of music in my life–thank goodness!

Last weekend in a span of less than 24 hours, I had two very different back-to-back musical experiences. On Saturday, we were given primo floor-level tickets to Symphony Center in Chicago, arguably one of the best and most beautiful performance spaces. We heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform music by Dmitri Shostakovich: loud, brash, passionate, and stirring. The way the brass played with such power that the sound pummeled the walls behind us then dissipated in swirls around our ears, had my trumpeter husband just as enthused as you might imagine someone cheering on their favorite team in the last moments of a neck-and-neck championship game.

Players of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra warm up before performing Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony

Sunday, however, there were no tuxedos or stages or conductor podiums or glasses of wine poured at intermission; Sunday we went to an assisted living facility just a mile or so from home. Like many times before, Mr. Band Director invited his students to volunteer to come on a sunny Sunday to play a piece of music or two for the residents.

If anyone ever sighs, “Kids these days!” Mr. Band Director and I will argue that the kids we know, the band kids, have hearts of gold and will take our world into the future in excellent fashion, thank you very much. Carrying their instruments and music stands, a small army of students followed my husband to the second floor, where folks were already gathered, canes and walkers cast aside, brakes secured on wheelchairs. The room is used for programs, concerts, and parties, and the stained glass window nestled in the crux of the vaulted ceiling gives the insinuation of a chapel.

Teaching band at the local high school means my husband stands before large groups of kids for concert band, jazz band, pep band, even marching band. But the small groups that form–perhaps a couple flutists, or a group of woodwinds, maybe a brass quartet–is the stuff that produces some of the largest educational leaps in his students. Since Mr. Band Director grew up taking his music to nursing homes–unlikely cathedrals–he knows this is something worth doing.

The music begins. Smiles spread across faces. Eyes sparkle. Toes tap.

A group of students play an instrumental arrangement of “Havana,” by Camila Cabello. It’s unlikely any of the residents recognized the Top 40 hit, but no matter; the students sound good, and the tune has a catchy groove. More toes tap.

At the sound of an old favorite hymn–“Morning Has Broken”–a collective sigh ripples through the crowd.

Ahhhh, I remember this one!

Before long, the imaginary wall between audience and performer breaks down.

What kind of saxophone is that? a woman asks.

I used to play clarinet, says another woman to the students. My sister played flute.

A man in back doesn’t say a word. But there are tears in his eyes.

And who’s to say which is better, the concert hall or the retirement home? There are arguments for each. Symphony Center takes my breath away at the domed ceiling, bright lights, and the sheer lifelong, grueling commitment of all the musicians to study and hone their craft in order to join and remain in one of the finest Symphony Orchestras.

And yet.

The students didn’t come that Sunday for a grade or for a paycheck. They volunteered–said yes–to sharing their music. Some didn’t know what to expect, but they came anyway. Some had only one song prepared, but the one song came out sweet and strong and clear.

I think these young musicians already know that music can exist among tuxedos, stages, and box seats, but it doesn’t need to. This beautiful connective force called music belongs in unexpected places, among the hearing aids and orthopedic shoes, on a quiet street, in a homeless shelter. You can bring the music to the cathedral, or you can build the cathedral with the music.

Mr. Band Director knew it all along. Off to the side, he’s giddy with excitement, cheering on his team.

We bought a little camper

“Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy a camper,
which is kind of the same thing.”

Unknown

The fun started when we rented an RV for our family vacation this past summer: a 32-foot monstrosity with room enough for 8 to sleep. It was a bucket-list item that we wanted to try: load up the whole tribe, traverse the Midwest, and end up at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. For a week, we were all together with our four kids, ranging from age 12 to 23, plus our son’s girlfriend, seeing the sights, watching Old Faithful erupt, searching the scenery for bears, elk, and moose (our efforts were rewarded on all counts). There was so much laughter and singing. We hiked and climbed, oohed and aahed. Books and playlists were shared. There were so. many. chess games. It’s a trip we’ll remember for a long time.

We’ve done a lot of tent camping over the years. Taking babies and toddlers and young children to a campground is work, but it’s also magical. The outdoors is the perfect playground for kids. But as my husband likes to say, “As time goes on, the ground gets harder.” Our rented RV opened our eyes to the convenience of having a little place to come in from out of the rain, while not missing out on the campfires and simplicity of camping.

Here’s a photo of Mr. Band Director at the wheel of the rented RV. It’s a 32-foot monstrosity and he handled it like a pro!

Soon after returning from Yellowstone, we bought a camping trailer. Our little teardrop is more compact, more suited for weekend getaways. It sleeps 3.

Our “new-to-us” little camper!

Check out this photo of us on our maiden voyage. Next to us is our friend’s car. She slept in a specially fitted tent for her Prius, called a Habitent. It’s pretty awesome. It transformed her little car into a wilderness getaway. Plus, she added twinkly lights which gets my full approval.

So, I stand by the fact that the happiest times of my life are spent in small spaces: my small house (a.k.a. the Cozy Cottage); a college dorm room; cabins in Michigan; bedtime stories in my kids’ treehouse. We don’t need a lot of space to feel happy and peaceful: in fact, it’s my experience is that the smaller the space, the more expansive the joy.

I’m looking forward to big adventures in the beautiful world in our little house on wheels!

Worst Case Scenarios

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My hidden superpower is coming up with worst case scenarios. For any given situation, I’m pretty adept at imagining the most catastrophic outcome. Thousands of times a day in my mind’s eye, I see myself tripping, or having something dropped on me; getting into a car accident; being mugged; ending up with a black eye or broken limb; being publicly humiliated. (Funny, but the time I actually did fall on my face, I wasn’t thinking about a worst cast scenario at all–I was just walking my dog.)

This morning, my son, who is headed to college in a few weeks, needed to go to the campus to get a correction made on some paperwork. It required him to bring in his social security card and his drivers license. We agreed on a wake-up time, I checked how traffic would look that time of morning, and we went to sleep. Even in sleep, my mind took over and provided me with a horrifying alternative outcome:

My Dream:

We wake up to realize we overslept. Then we see that it’s snowing. My car won’t start, so we just barely catch a rickety bus out of town. The bus driver, running behind schedule, speeds up to make up for time, and the bus nearly tips over going around a curve in the slushy snow. Finally, we trudge our way to the college admissions office only to discover my son forgot his social security card at home. We catch the rickety/scary bus back home, retrieve the SS card, and just as we’re about to leave, our dog escapes. Wait–actually it’s two dogs, one I’ve ever seen before. (Have I forgotten that we’re petsitting?) Now it’s raining. We have to round up the two wet dogs and clean them up. Once that’s done, we remember our original mission: the paperwork! This time, thankfully, my car starts. Just as the sun is setting, we get to the admissions office and successfully finish our errand. *whew*

Reality:

  • We wake up. On time.
  • The sun is out. My son plays some Beatles’ tunes and we sing in the car.
  • The woman working at the admissions desk is friendly, warm, and helpful.
  • My son borrows a pen to fill out a form.
  • We get the paperwork corrected.
  • Done by 9:30 a.m.

The scenarios in my head rarely turn out to be anything like reality. I don’t know why my brain does that. I’m having a delightfully non-eventful day today. I’ve hung out some laundry to dry in the sun, I made a nice lunch with my daughter, and now I’m writing in my favorite spot with a cold drink beside me. I’m going to take a break from worst case scenarios for a little while–at least, as long as I’m awake. I hope you do the same.

xoxo,
Carol

Beginning, Middle, and End

Photo by Dominika Roseclay on Pexels.com

Life is one big love story with hundreds of little love stories within it.

Ram Charan

I wasn’t intending on telling a story as I rode with Sarah into the city on a Monday night. I was just going to lend moral support to our friend, Kim, a storyteller. Earlier in the day, Kim asked me, “Are you going to tell a story?” and I said “Absolutely not!” without hesitating. Later, Sarah told me, “I have a story. Do you want to do one, too?”

This time I hesitated and said, “Maybe.”

What are you supposed to do when you’re out on a Monday night in the spring in your favorite city with two fearless women who don’t seem to be concerned about baring their souls to a roomful of strangers?

I folded under the peer pressure and put my name on the sign-up sheet.

The storytelling event, an open mic, is a popular long-running series in Chicago. The stories are unrehearsed. Anyone can walk in, sign up, and be called up to the front where there’s just a microphone. There are rules: The story can be no longer than 7 minutes, and the audience is expected to offer up unbridled enthusiasm. I mean, each storyteller approached and retreated from the microphone among thunderous applause from a supportive audience. It was a safe space. Phones were off, eyes were up, ears were open. We were all going to be vulnerable. Together.

I felt the earth shift during that evening of storytelling. I heard stories of love, loss, and redemption. Of breaking rules. Of making up new rules. Feeling alone. Overcoming.

Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Since that night, I’m starting to consider my quiet life as a series of my own stories. I hadn’t really thought of it quite that way before. But when your life is a story unfolding, it makes you want to try new things, experience things out of your comfort zone. Because who knows what might happen? Everything could go right, and that will become a sweet story.

Or everything could go wrong. That would make a compelling story. All of it is good.

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Band Wife

March 2019 – visiting Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs with our 174 “kids.”

Spring Break involved a bus ride spanning four states with 174 teenagers and about a dozen adults. We traveled to the beautiful Rocky Mountains in Colorado, arguably one of the most stunning spots in our country. Two years ago I did this on a trip to Disney World. Four years ago I was on a bus to Memphis.

I’m a Band Wife. My husband, Mr. Band Director, is a musician and a teacher, and his passion is showing young people how to make music a part of their everyday life. Mr. Director wakes up early and is excited to get to a before-school jazz rehearsal at the high school where he’s taught for 13 years. He leads his band during the day. After school, there are sectionals, auditions, lessons. In the evenings, there are sometimes performances, rehearsals, marching band during football season, pep band during basketball season. After an event, Mr. Director can’t leave until the last student is picked up. Weekends, there’s the occasional call: “Mr. Band Director, I forgot my instrument at school. Can you help me get it?”

I only tell you this so that you understand that for Mr. Director, this isn’t a 9-5 job. This is a calling. A lifestyle, in fact. When Mr. Director isn’t in the classroom, he is reading articles about more effective teaching methods, reaching out to other musicians to exchange ideas. At our dinner table, we sometimes get a music lesson, or tips on how to practice better to achieve mastery on an instrument.

Being a Band Wife isn’t a calling, but it is a lifestyle. Band wives know the literature. They understand the different sections of the band. They’re sitting on the sidelines at the football game and basketball game, cheering for the band (and the team, too!). They’re in the auditorium. They’re armed with lawn chair and mosquito spray in the back of the van for all the summer concerts outside.

So why do I spend spring break riding 18 hours on a coach bus, thankful for my neck pillow, crushing a bag filled with snacks between my ankles to keep it upright as we rumble along the highway?

Because it’s Band Tour, silly.

Those 174 kids are like our extended family. They shape the world our family lives in. Based on these 174, the world is in great hands. These are thoughtful kids who are kind to one another, who look out for each other, and make great music together. Even better, they aren’t shy about sharing their music with the rest of the world. Some of them will go on and do music as a career–performers, educators, songwriters, arrangers– and others will use music as a stress reliever or a side hustle outside of their “day jobs.” But they will always have music in their lives. My husband makes it his life’s work.

I get to watch my husband do what he loves. When a student is hurting, he cries with them. When a student makes a sudden connection with music, it can feed his soul for days. As the Band Wife, I have the best seat in the house.