Category Archives: C-Jam

Branded for Life, Part 2: One Step More

As I mentioned in Part 1, this past year, I branded my life as the “Year of Awesomeness.” Over the past month, I’ve been contemplating what I want to make next year about. After toying with lots of possibilities, talking with a close friend, running ideas past my wife, I’ve finally found the words that resonate most with where I am in my life: One Step More.

My pursuit of running has had a major impact on my life. I’ve never had a competitive drive, always longing for cooperative efforts. But I found myself pushing myself, and then realizing after the race how much further I can go. I didn’t even know how far I could reach, and now I want to reach farther in all aspects of my life.

Far too often, I have settled for good enough or assumed I had done my best without expending the extra effort. I would reach as far as the edge of my comfort zone allowed, and whatever lay beyond that was just outside of my grasp. This year, I want to take that extra step outside of my comfort zone. I want to put in that little bit of extra effort to see just how much farther I can get, how much faster I can go, how much better I can be. It is time to subvert the self-imposed limits that I too often wrap myself in like a warm blanket.

While last year had the “Year of Awesomeness” chart, this year will be a little different. No charts, graphs, or diagrams to assess my progress. There is no end to progress to. There is no striving to reach any particular goal other than that of striving. So this year, there will be an empty jar to fill. Every extra step. Every training run I push myself on, practice session I work a little harder on, every extra phone call I make to book the band, every little step extra I take. . . I will write it down, date it, and drop it in the jar. At the end of 2013, I will pull them all out, reading each and every one, and take stock of how far those many little extra steps take me.

It is time to strive. One Step More.

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Branded for Life, Part 1

As I sit sipping eggnog we picked up from the farmer’s market this weekend, I realize that the end of another year is fast approaching. Last year at this time, I was taking stock of my life, and wasn’t pleased by what I saw. My life had gotten away from me. I didn’t feel like I was making choices, I had just been sucked along for the ride. My career felt stagnant, good friendships had fallen by the wayside…It probably didn’t help that I was often eating a 1 lb. bag of Twizzlers and a tube of pringles for lunch regularly. Oh yeah, while I was still relatively skinny, I had reached my heaviest weight ever, felt lethargic, and was starting to have issues with my back. Apparently, age and my body were not getting along very well. Needless to say, it was hard for me to take stock of my life, and see the “fulfillment” inventory running so low. Continue reading

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Intentional Practice

As a piano teacher, I spend 50% of my time teaching kids how to read music and the other 50% of my time teaching them how to practice. As a voice teacher, I spend 50% of my time teaching body awareness and technique, and 50% of my time teaching them how to practice. And as a dance teacher, I spend 75% of my time teaching “moves,” 20% teaching technique, and 5% teaching them how to practice. Of course, we run drills and repetitions, practicing in class. But that’s not the same as teaching someone how to acquire a skill on their own. In an attempt to rectify this imbalance in my teaching, I thought I would take some of the insights I’ve garnered from teaching piano and voice, and share them here for any and all interested in learning more about practicing.

First, my definition of practice:
Practicing is the process of taking something difficult, and making it easy.
That’s it. Take something hard, make it easy. For me, this idea of practice extends to all things; mathematics, literature, science, the arts, philosophy. In my brain, I do make a distinction for the practice of physical actions where the goal is to train the body and practice of intellectual things that focus on that specific, grey matter part of the body. When training the body, we need to train the mind, too, but the end goal is for the body to be able to execute without the mind having to consciously process in minutiae. It just takes too long to go from the brain through all of the processes to the commands to the body to the actual execution. We need the grey matter in the beginning, but my methods of practicing always strive for minimizing the role of the brain in the end.

Stage 1: Practicing for “The Click.”
My college piano professor had a saying that has been repeated by many a teacher: “Practice DOESN’T make perfect. PERFECT practice makes perfect.” The challenge for us is that it is near impossible to start out perfect. So the first part of our practice is to get to perfect. Slow, meticulous, methodical. This is my mantra to get there. I have two main tools for this.

The first is the zoom tool. In piano, I often say, if you can’t play one note right, you can’t play two notes right. If you can’t play two notes, you can’t play the measure. If you can’t play the measure, you can’t play the phrase. And so on. One of the easiest ways to take something difficult and make it easy is to zoom in to the point where we can be successful, master that little chunk, and then start to add these little pieces together. Most often, students try to do too much at once. Mastery is built on the understanding of every fine detail, and its often easier to learn those details one at a time than to try to tackle everything at once. Sometimes, you can take out some details, such as styling, as you master the basic movement. Then, go back and add the detail as the next goal to accomplish.

The second is the slow-motion tool. The slower we go, the more time we have for our brain to process to think, and to execute with accuracy. Eventually, we want to get the brain out of the way, but if we’ve got to use it, lets give it the time it needs to do its thing. With repetition, we can minimize the amount of time we spend thinking about each step in the process.

Throughout this stage of the process, its important to be observant, think critically and make adjustments. If you screw up the same way two or three times in a row, address the difficulty immediately. Zoom in, and drill the problem. Or slow down. Its better to take your time in the beginning than to be unlearning mistakes. From my own experiences, unlearning mistakes is a painful and tedious process.

Stage 2: Perfect Practice
When I’m working with young students, I often find that they short cut the first part of the process and then never really get to the second part. Once you are able to do something perfect, then the practicing for retention begins. We want as many clean, perfect repetitions as possible. Usually, I set my students goals: 3 times right in a row, 5 times right in a row, and as they get to more complicated and challenging music, 10 times right in a row. The goal is to build consistency, and identify any remaining weaknesses in execution which should be addressed with the stage 1 tools.

This is also the time to slowly increase speed. We don’t immediately jump to the desired speed, we want to build up gradually, always remaining in control of our execution. I have lots of other little tools that I often use to assist in building up speed. For instance, I will move as quickly as I can to a predetermined pausing point(s), acclimating my body to the quick actions. Then, I’ll shift where the pausing point is. Eventually, I can put it all back together without the pauses.

In addition, it can be useful to start from scratch, modify your technique or your way of thinking. In piano, I will sometimes practice staccato (short, detached notes), just to force my body through the same motions in a different way. With singing, that might mean practicing a pop song with classical technique. In dancing, I might adjust the scale of the pulse or the amount of stretch in the connection. The more ways you force your brain to grapple with the same material, the more mastery you develop over it.

One last thought on practicing in general: Set clear, deliberate goals for your practice time. It feels good to accomplish. One small thing done is progress. And it may be that the next day, you lose that progress. Don’t worry, it will come to you easier the second time. In the movie, Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman’s character narrates, “Geology is the study of pressure over time.” Practice is the same thing. Pressure over time. Practice smart. Work hard. Apply pressure over time. “That’s all it takes really, pressure and time.”

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Filed under C-Jam, Technique, Theory

The Hardest Thing

Today, I was driving down to work, mulling about things, and my thoughts turned to dancing. There’s been a dearth of dancing in my life lately. I’ve been preoccupied with other activities like running my first race and my 5 year anniversary. But according to my meandering thoughts, dancing is never far from my heart.

I was contemplating the hardest thing about dancing. Balance? Frame and consistent connection? Maintaining a pulse and communicating rhythm? Maybe aerials and all of those high flying moves? But I don’t think the hardest thing about dancing has anything to do with technique, and has everything to do with life. For me, the hardest thing about dancing is being vulnerable.

Sure, many of us go to dances just to let loose and have a good time. We aren’t always looking for something deep and meaningful. For some people, dancing is an escape. But for me, the best part of dancing happens when I let my guard down, when I feel safe with my partner, when my partner feels safe with me and lets her guard down, too. In those music-wrapped moments, I have always found my profoundest dancing experiences. Those are the moments when the true joy of the heart can be released and the true sorrow of a soul can be exposed.

For me, that willingness to show up with everything that’s going on in my life, everything that I’ve buried inside, tucked away, locked up, and hidden from the world…that’s the hardest thing to do in dancing. But its transformative. When the heart is released, a kick can be a burst of joy or an act of anger. A turn can be a tender moment or a bit of heartbreak. I get that it isn’t for everybody. Its hard. Its risky. Hell, you may even just hear it as my pretentious ramblings on my sense of expression and artistry in dance. But for me, its the hard thing that makes it most worth while.

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Filed under Aesthetics, C-Jam

On Partnership

On October 13th, Susanne and I will celebrate our 5th anniversary, an event that has given me cause to reflect on my marriage and on the nature of partnership. Susanne and I try to be very honest that ours is not a perfect marriage, that we struggle and have conflict, and that we work really damn hard at our relationship. To be honest, we’ve had a couple of really rough years with a lot of hurt feelings, but we both wanted this relationship to work so bad that we put all our efforts into realizing our dreams. Now, I can say that, while not every day is perfect, we are living that dream together. And even on the days when imperfect rears its head, we live into our dream together. All of these times, good and bad, have enlightened me about the nature of partnerships of both the romantic and dance variety. As a tribute to my wife, here is some of the wisdom and insight I have gleaned from my five years with this wonderful woman:

1) See the best in your partner, even when they are at their worst.When I first met Susanne, I was in a very raw place; not exactly at my best. For whatever reason, she saw something worth investing in, saw the best in me. I try to live up to that vision, to be the best self that I find reflected in her eyes. And in return, I offer her my eyes through which to view her best self. Even in our darkest moments, I have never doubted how amazing she is.

2) Lead by example; change yourself and invite your partner to join you. Continue reading

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Keeping Time – Dance and Marriage

In music, we often talk about the drummer keeping time, setting down the groove for the rest of the band to play over. As dancers, we keep time with our feet and our bodies. But there are other ways we keep time as well, we mark the changes. In Annapolis, we would end each dance with the song “Annapolis Shuffle,” by Them Eastport Oyster Boys. At any event weekend, Sunday afternoon is always a mountaintop experience for me, another way I keep time.

Four years ago, I married my co-author, dance partner, and all around amazing woman, Susanne Randolph Sparks. A year later, we started teaching dance together. We will keep this time with an anniversary dance extravaganza on September 23rd. But I thought I would take a moment before then to share some thoughts and recollections about our time together as a couple who teaches.

  1. Teaching dance together reminds me that we are partners. As much as I’d like to say that things are always rainbows and lollipops, the truth is that relationships are messy. But once a week, no matter what, I had to set aside whatever disagreements or wounds I was dwelling on to teach with my wife. For those three hours, we were a partnership, whether we wanted to be or not. And by the end, I always wanted to be her partner even more. I like to think that I’m a good teacher, but with my wife’s critical eye, feedback, and guidance during classes, I think we are pretty amazing.
  2. We won’t always agree, and that makes us stronger. Susanne likes to say that the lead’s left hand should be at the ladies waist. I prefer to teach it as a straight line from elbow to elbow. In our conflict, we have both become more thoughtful about the dance, and grown in our own dancing. We established a rule early on not to critique each other’s dancing. But in teaching together, we’ve both been able to explore and push ourselves, share our ideas with one another, and hear the other’s insights without ever criticizing. Plus, teaching holds us accountable to each other and our students to strive for better in our dancing.
  3. Success in dancing, teaching and relationships takes consistent, hard work over time. I’d like to start by saying thank you to all of our students who took lessons from us that first year. We have learned a lot about teaching since then, and appreciate your patience as we learned. After every class, we always decompress about what went well and where we can improve. Over time, certain things have become pretty standard for us, but we continue to evaluate ourselves. We are also constantly working to adapt to our students needs. I find that the same things are necessary in our marriage. Check in regularly. Examine your routines. Adapt to meet you partners needs.
  4. Love means having to say you’re sorry AND make amends for the wounds you cause. Whoever said, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” was full of it. Its an inevitable fact of life that people will hurt each other, whether intentional or unintentional. We’ll screw up on the dance floor. We’ll screw up off the dance floor. Say you’re sorry and make it right to the best of your ability.
  5. The greatest rewards are the hardest to obtain. When I first started dancing, it was fantastic, like a new relationship. I remember early on when I was dating Susanne, we danced in her kitchen while I sang “They Can’t Take That Away.” Shortly after, we danced at a Jane Monheit concert when she sang the same tune for her encore. I treasure those memories, but wouldn’t want to go back for anything. Much like years of dancing have seasoned me and revealed truths about dancing I never could have imagined, my years with Susanne have revealed to me truths about her and about our relationship that were once unfathomable.
For all of these reasons and more, I am a better man today. Sharing my passion, the support of our students, and the love of an amazing woman continue to transform my life. I hope you all will join us to celebrate on the 23rd, and help us mark the time.

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Song Exchange – August Edition

A warm ‘Hello’ from Rehoboth Beach, DE where Susanne and I have spent the week on vacation. This post is part of what was formerly the “Songs of the Month Club,” but we decided to mix it up. Frankly, I was tired of sharing all my carefully collected gems without hearing back from you all about your discoveries! So I’m hoping that everyone who reads and enjoys this series will share at least one of their favorite dance tunes from the past month to help me build my collection as well! Let me know what you’re listening to!

Onto the music, this was a bit of an odd month. I DJ-ed for a couple of July 4th patriotic themed dances, and went hunting for vintage WWII themed songs. We also hosted our annual Luau Dance in Annapolis, and I found some Hawaiian swing for the occasion.

Patriotic Tunes:

  • “Thanks  Mr. Roosevelt” – Harry Leader & His Band. A peppy little vintage sounding tune that clocks in just over 205 BPM, but feels very laid back and approachable. I am particularly fond of the vocals which are backed by some great piano work. Sid Pimm is listed as the pianist for the band, and I may try to track down some more of his work.
  • “Yankee Doodle” – Jack Teagarden. The vocals are just passing, but the band is swinging hard with some really tight ensemble work from both the trumpet and the reed sections.
  • “You’re a Grand Old Flag” – Barrel Fingers Barry. Barrelhouse piano styling. It has a little more square, ragtime/early jazz feeling to it. If you need some patriotic music for dancing, it can fit the bill nicely, but otherwise I’d let this one sit for better options. Continue reading

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Filed under Big Band, Blues, C-Jam, Dixieland, Jazz, Music, Pop