1. Csikszentmihalyi: Finding Flow
Clear goals + clear steps that provide immediate feedback + challenge set just at the right level = flow = student is not only learning but also experiences joy = successful educator
I deeply believe that even though learning can often be painful and difficult it is up to the educator to set the goals so that the students experiences the joy of learning. Csikszentmihalyi’s article was not only useful for my teaching but also for my practice as a composer. I learned that it is much easier to finish a section of a piece when I set a clear goal for the section and I decide to the to use a specific technique. “Flow tends to occur when a person faces a clear set of goals that require appropriate responses.” (p.1, Csikszentmihalyi). “Flow also happens when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable, so it acts as a magnet for learning new skills and increasing challenges. (p.2, Csikszentmihalyi)
2. Dweck: Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset’
Challenges and failures are opportunities for growth, since they grow our brain and intelligence. “Students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset).” (Dweck, p.1)
Just like the Flow article, this article challenged me not only as an educator but also as an artist, as a person and as a future parent. In my student life I have noticed two extreme types of teachers – one that was pretending that mistakes do not exist and we are all smart kids who try hard. The other group was presenting each mistake as problematic and harmful. As an educator, I strive to find the balance. I want to see the mistakes and acknowledge them but I want to see them as helpful rather than harmful. Owning growth mindset is a lifelong journey, after all “the path to a growth mindset is a journey, not a proclamation.” (Dweck, p.2)
In 2020 I spent 7 months being a Teaching Assistant in The Womens Chorus. The Women’s Chorus (TWC) connects self-identifying women experiencing homelessness and poverty with the healing power of music. I conducted the choir, lead activities in community building and taught improvisation. Most importantly for me, I was building relationships with the women in the choir. Below I am conducting the chorus and a guest string quartet.
Since its launch in fall 2018, TWC, through its weekly meetups and occasional performances, has engaged more than 100 of Boston’s most vulnerable women from diverse backgrounds with an age span of 17 to 82. The program serves as both a cultural home and a community, providing an opportunity for all who join to build self-esteem through making music together.
TWC is partnered with Women’s Lunch Place, a non-profit day shelter and meals program for women experiencing homelessness or poverty in Boston, with the aim of restoring dignity to the women served.
Community Rehearsal Structure
One of the greatest takeaways for me was how much more than just a choir this community is. Creating safe and inclusive rehearsals for this vulnerable population was the mission of our team. See our rehearsal plan for each week.
The rehearsal always consisted of:
- space setup (we wanted the women to come to a space that is clean, pretty and “awaiting them”. That included having binders with the music ready, enough chairs ready etc)
- welcome fanfare for each woman who enters the rehearsal space (see section no.2 below “Each woman is known by name”)
- reading our values our loud together as one voice
- vocal warmup – Usually consisting of silly sounds, sirens, singing the phrase “I love to sing” etc. The conductor would always say and acknowledge that this is silly, yet we enjoy doing it because we do not really get to make crazy sounds elsewhere. For the ladies this provided a getaway from their everyday life and a place to fully be themselves
- creative/improvisation exercise – we brought small percussion instruments (clave sticks, congas, etc) to every rehearsal and handed them directly to each lady. As they were holding them they would often start shaking them and even if they were not following the rhythm, they were enjoying simply making a sound and listening to the rhythm.
- team building activities – Our regular activity was called “Roses and Thorns”, the ladies were always looking forward to it. If they felt so inclined, each of them shared “a rose” – something good about the week and “a thorn” – something not as good. It was so important for them to have someone to hear their thoughts.
- repertoire building – Since most of the women cannot read music (and some cannot read English either), we had to find a way for them to be able to follow the music all together. We decided to create lyric sheets which contain the lyrics as well as information about the form of the piece. In the repertoire we included pieces in a few languages in efforts to include some level of familiarity for all the ladies.
- performance – After each rehearsal we gave a short performance for the community of ladies in The Women’s Lunch Place. This was a chance to connect with the larger community, show what we have learned and recruit new members. Besides that we had regular outside performances, such as at the TEDx Youth conference. This is a joyful snippet from our Holiday performance singing “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer“)
The woman appreciated the stable structure, as one of a few stable elements in their lives. They looked forward to the rehearsals, it was something for them to work towards, a place where they received an honest feedback and a community they cherished. The rehearsal itself was always preceded by the choir director and I recruiting women having breakfast at the Women’s Lunch Place (the rehearsals started at 10AM). This meant we would go around to each table, talk to the ladies and invite them to join us singing in the church upstairs, just above the canteen.
Ensuring Dignity and Equity in 5 Ways
One of the many things I learned to be very aware of when working with TWC was to treat each member of the chorus in very respectful way. There were plenty of structures created in the rehearsal to support the attitude of dignity and equity:
1. Beautiful ladies
We only addressed the women as “Beautiful ladies” when in a group. This is actually something we learnt from The Women’s Lunch Place TWC is partnering with. Their staff only calls the women in this way in both written and spoken form.
2. Each woman is known by name
Whenever one of our beautiful ladies entered the room, the conductor screamed: “Say good morning to (e.g.) Jennifer!” The accompanist played a short fanfare-like sound on the piano while everyone acknowledged that Jennifer has entered the room and said good morning to her. Very often the lady entering the room would blush a little from all the sudden attention she may not get all week.
3. Having clear values
Each rehearsal we read our core values out loud to remind ourselves that every voice is equal, we need to respect each other and be kind.
4. Welcoming rehearsal space
An important part of the rehearsal was the rehearsal space itself. These ladies may rarely get a chance to be in a beautiful artistic environment and so having them gather in a gorgeous old church was an important part of the experience. We The rehearsal then became a space where their voice is heard, surrounded by beauty and supported by voices of others.
5. Equity of levels, language and clothing
When it came to performances, many women struggled with feeling like they are not dressed appropriately or do not have the right make up. We partnered with a lip stick company and gave them out to the ladies however we have not been fully able to solve the clothing issue, other than having the dress code always labeled as “casual and colorful” to make sure everyone can accommodate it.
Reaching Boston Communities with TWC
About once a month we had a special event with The Womens Chorus. This was usually a concert including several team-building activities. It was something for the ladies to work towards, look forward to and most importantly, experience together not only as a choir but also connecting to the larger community of Boston. I will give three examples:
- Valentine’s Day activity – since this is a low self-esteem day for many of the ladies, the leader of the choir came up with an encouraging activity. We had the ladies attach strings to a paper plate, put the plate on their back and each person wrote something nice about everyone in the group. See video 1 and video 2 documenting the activity.
- Why We Sing (Women’s Day) – event with the larger community of Boston on the International Women’s Day. Anyone self-identifying as a woman was invited. One of the activities we did was creating a “safety net” by throwing a rope to each other in a circle which then created a net.
- TEDx Youth – we performed at the TEDx conference in Boston. Watch the video of the performance here. Many of the ladies were very anxious before the event, since it was in a big theatre, there was a large backstage, microphones, runners, cameras,…All of this made the women feel like they don’t belong to that space. Here our regular routine came handy. I took them out of the backstage for a second and we warmed up, shared roses and thorns and this helped them significantly. The experience itself ended up being very bonding for us, after the performance was over we all had pizza together provided by our sponsor and the ladies felt like they have accomplished something truly major.
Reaching underserved children communities of New Delhi with Global Music Institute
September-December 2018 I had the opportunity to teach for a semester at the Global Music Institute, a Berklee-affiliated college in New Delhi. There I developed a community outreach course. With a group of the music college students we prepared a set of pieces and team building activities to share with the Dribble Academy. See them here
Teaching Swing, Improvisation and Blues Form in 2o mins
The goal of my 20 minute beginner recorder lesson was not to loose the attention of the students and keep them in a flow state by multiple representations and teaching for transfer.
I covered swing feel, improvisation and blues form.
“Everything we did was very engaging, especially with the idea of the donuts.”
“I really enjoy playing as a class with the parts.”
“I love how we move from one activity to the next pretty quickly and so we don’t get bored.”
- Draw 4 donut boxes on the board, ask students to guess what they are and if they like donuts
- “When you’re very hungry and you eat a donut which bite is bigger, the first one or the second one? The first bite is big to satisfy the greatest hunger, the second bite is smaller but more accented – you taste more of the flavor, you’re not just trying to satisfy your cravings.”
- There are 4 donut boxes on the board, demonstrate how they sound – first bite a bit longer, second a bit shorter but more accented. The students repeat the sounds
- “When the first donut is gone out of the box you go like: Snap, where did it go?” We’ll snap after the first and after the third donuts are gone
- Point at different boxes and the class says the word donut in time while snapping. Use p, f, cresc, decresc.
- Get someone else from the class to be the donut conductor (not done in the video for the sake of time)
- Ask the students to take out their recorders
- Teach fingering for G and C
- One donut is higher than the others, that’s C, the other are G. Let’s play the donut rhythm with the notes
- Distribute the parts with written-in fingerings for Eb, E, F, A, Bb, B. Give the students a moment to figure it out and then ask if they have questions. (done differently in the video but has proven to be ineffective)
- Listen to each line individually
- Choose who plays melody, everyone else plays their line
- Ask the students to close their eyes, listen to each other, tune, play softly, let the soloist shine
- Improvise using only the 2 notes of the melody and the 4 donut patterns, demonstrate first
- Then improvise only using the 2 notes in any rhythm, demonstrate first
- Any rhythm, any note
- Switch soloists, sing walking bass with the students
Keep asking if the students understand and if they have questions, even if it seems like they’re grasping the concepts.
Here are 5 ways to encourage flow. I found them effective while both observing and teaching lessons:
- using visuals
- encouraging biofeedback
- feedback summary
- keeping the mind engaged
1. Using vvisuals
- Here is an excerpt from my private voice lesson where I brought in an anatomy book and discussed the pictured with my adult student (Transcription from 28/9, my 1st lesson with adult jazz voice student)
The student had a couple questions, such as: “I am doing yoga and working on my abs. This will improve my breathing and tone quality, right?” This was surprising, because the student asked me precisely a question I was reading about the same morning for my voice pedagogy class. The reading was from a book “Your Voice: An Inside View 3rd Edition by Scott McCoy”. I brought the book in and I so responded using the material I read earlier that day. I said that posture can directly impact breathing and so it could be said that all postural muscles are also secondary muscles of respiration (p.137, McCoy). I showed her external oblique abdominis muscles (p.128, McCoy) and explained why they are particularly important expiratory muscles for singers. I showed her on pictures in the book which muscles exactly are moving while breathing and I explained that they are actually relaxing, not tensing up. We touched on the diaphragm and I decided to end the conversation there so that I don’t overwhelm her with information in the first lesson.
6th lesson with the student
Before we started the lesson I showed Julie a video that depicts the movements of a diaphragm when breathing. She was amazed. We continued talking about the diaphragm and the McCoy book helped me again while I explained that diaphragm is the second largest muscle in the body (p.122), separating the content of the abdomen from thorax and directly connected to the spine via two pillars (p.123). We spoke about the movement of the diaphragm and about the common misconception of “breathing from the diaphragm” (p.122) and what her teachers really meant when they said it.
- Observation of a lesson with Dr Howell at the New England Conservatory
The professor was using a lot of prompts and scientific tests. He started with performing Acoustic Vocal Quality Index test, then exercises with a straw, then he had the student use electric massager to soften the tissues via heat and vibration, then a gymnastic bend. This made the lesson very dynamic and contributed to the flow of it. Both the teacher and the student spoke very little. Usually the teacher gave one or two clear “numbered” instructions and the student followed. See my notes from the entire lessons observation here.
2. Encouraging biofeedback/self-feedback
- Lesson with my student
The excerpts below are all from a recorded lesson with my adult student. I found that encouraging biofeedback causes not only flow but also growth mindset.
Me: “Do you mind looking at yourself (in the mirror) and tell me what you see?” Then the student does the exercise
- Songwriting lesson observation
The professor observed frames the lesson excerpt with questions of self assessment. She first gives suggestions and then addresses the issue directly, in this case the issue was disconnection of the lyrics and music. First she addresses the issue from a musical standpoint and then from lyrical, using suggestions from current sources, such as the New York Times. There is not that much positive cushion feedback, which is something that I really enjoy about Dominique’s teaching. She goes very much straight to the point, in a clear yet still very kind way. Most of the excerpt consists of practical suggestions, explanations and her observations of music and culture. (Recorded on February 13th 2018 at the New England Conservatory – Songwriting Lesson with Ms Dominique Eade – transcription and commentary)
- Demonstrating my expectations of the sound is usually much more effective and contributes to flow much better than if I tried to use words to explain the concept.
- Allowing the student to hear for a moment the expected sound with their own voice is even more effective. I was exploring microphones and EQ in the context of vocal pedagogy. I was trying to understand it first and then see how it affects voices. My final experiment confirmed that by EQ modifications it is possible to reduce nasality and add brightness or depth into the student’s sound. I believe that if a student can hear their own voice create the expected sounds via the EQ modification, then they are having easier time making the adjustments necessary to achieve it and they are also more motivated. As a contemporary voice teacher I want to be aware of the possibility of these modifications and have deep understanding of how the microphone affects student’s singing. These issues I addressed in my presentation.
4. feedback summary
A part of Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow includes clear immediate feedback. This is what I strive for when teaching voice lessons.
5. keeping the mind engaged
I observed a lesson with Mr. Larry Scripp on February 5th 2018 at the New England Conservatory and I was amazed by the high flow state he achieved . In the video he states: “If you’re gonna make a change, make it every four times.” (0:51) – Larry rarely lets the student repeat the same concept more than four times. With every fifth repetition he adds a little twist to it so that the mind is constantly engaged. Out of of a 6 minute video Larry talks for about a minute. Most of his cues are visual and fairly subtle. This resulted in the students being very attentive. They could not afford to look at something else but him because they would miss the cue. See the video here.
I am the co-founder of a Slovak non-profit Music Beyond Borders or as we say in Slovakian “Za hranice s hudbou” The reason I started Music Beyond Borders is that I had to learn about jazz literally by googling “How to practice jazz”. There is no high quality jazz or contemporary music education platform in my country and here is why:
- Playing western music including jazz was strictly prohibited by the totalitarian regime until 1989…and so until then there were no schools established.
- The musicians who did play such music anyway were prohibited from entering any college…and so there is a shortage of qualified educators.
- Slovaks could not cross the borders because of the iron curtain…and so there was no option of studying abroad.
My team and I decided to take these circumstances as an opportunity for growth. I founded Music Beyond Borders with three other Slovak women who studied and taught at some of the world’s leading music institutions across the globe. Now, we are bringing all of the experience we have gained back home. Our educational endeavors have been recognized by Forbes Magazine, which marked me as one of their “Forbes 30 Under 30” recipients. One of our past program participants was awarded the same title this year for her innovative musical endeavors. Two other participants have formed award-winning bands performing at major festivals. So we are proud to see the impact our program is starting to have in Slovakia. In 3 years of successful workshops, we have so far reached over 100 participants via 21 instructors.
Our workshops focus on:
- strong intensive curriculum with focus on creativity and flow
- community building
- world-class faculty
The curriculum is built in a way that challenges the students just the right amount to create flow. The students are divided into groups according to level to ensure that. We strive to have the courses fast-paced so that the students are constantly engaged.
After our main event, a 5-day long summer workshop is over, we keep the community of young musicians alive by one-day long workshops in the Spring and Fall, Holiday community party, jam session and an active Facebook group. However, this project is more than just a community and a workshop. It is a step towards our larger goal of starting the first institute of jazz and contemporary music in the country.