Skip to content

Carrots, Eggs, and Coffee

I was recently reading two books by my favorite leadership guru, Dr. John C. Maxwell.  The books were, “How High Will You Climb?” and “Sometimes you Win, Sometimes you Learn“.  In one of those books there was a story about two people talking about adversity in their kitchen.  I’ll paraphrase:

They put on three pots of water and starting them boiling.  The boiling water is adversity.

Into one pot they put carrots, the next eggs, the next some coffee grounds.  After talking for a few minutes they took these things out of the water to see how adversity affected them.

The carrots had lost their crunch and gone soft.  They fell apart when squeezed.

The eggs had turned hard.  The outer shell cracked under pressure and became sharp and spiky.

The coffee changed the water around it into a delicious and energizing drink.

People are the same way in adversity.  Some go soft and are easily squished, others become hard and spiky towards others.  But some embrace their circumstances and change them into something better.

I must confess I am an egg more often than I am coffee, but reading Dr. Maxwell’s thoughts is causing me to pause and evaluate my responses to adversity this week.

Technique: Alignment and Capacity

I’m introducing a lot of technique to students right now, especially 4-mallet Stevens Technique and Marching Percussion.  I find that students can either get through this initial period and on to music making very quickly, or can get hamstrung and struggle along for months without much measurable progress.

The difference in most cases, is understanding the interaction of Alignment and Capacity.

Alignment is getting the mechanics lined up efficiently.  Because everyone is built a little differently, this is an individual exploration.  As a teacher, I emphasize how it “could” feel, rather than how it “should”, and look to remove things that are almost certainly NOT working, as way of aiming their self-discovery.

Capacity is the physical strength developed through repetition.  It is also the sensitivity to how something feels physically.

These two things feed on each other.  The better aligned technique is, the more targeted the muscle and sensitivity development is.  The more strength and sensitivity there is in the system, the faster new discoveries can be made, and the longer practice sessions can last.

To discuss Alignment, I talk with my students about “Monkeys and Coffee Cups”, a study of chimpanzees I read about a while back that mapped brain activity and physical regions of the hand in relation to a sensor object shaped like a coffee mug. The control group was given the “mugs” and tested, but the other group was given objects identical to the sensor “mugs” to play with for a month before testing.  The chimps with a month to experience and manipulate the objects displayed 30x as many discrete regions in the hands.

I teach a lot of runners and swimmers, so an easy analogy for them on Capacity is to run or swim with boots on.  The way you have to move in boots develops all the wrong muscles and movements, and the results will be less than optimal.

In my own high school experience, when I first learned traditional grip, we played the timeless classic,”8-16″ for upwards of an hour at a time.  Within a few minutes I was blistering up and miserable, like so many first-timers are, and in the first week I found a LOT of different ways to hold the stick so I could preserve what little was left of my skin.  Between that manipulation within the motion and the repetition, I quickly developed a very effective approach to playing, which I used to build the rest of my rudimental skills.

Bottom line:  Play every day that you can, and focus on improving HOW you do it.  Every day is more important than lots of hours on occasion, because the consistency is what improves strength and sensitivity.  Doing it better each time is more important than doing it a lot, because the small improvements in alignment and execution will pay off bigger over the weeks and months.

If you constantly improve your Alignment, and consistently develop your Capacity, you will succeed in developing an excellent technique.  Many people can advise you, but in the end, it is your personal journey to understand and use your own body that will bring you the most success.  Embrace yourself and your journey!

Are You The Keymaster?

A few months ago I started the “Rudiment Champion” challenge with my students. It only took about a week to realize a keyboard version was needed as well.  I decided quickly on the name “Keymaster” because we’ve gotten into the habit in my program of referring to keyboard instruments and their players as “Keys”… also I love the original Ghostbusters movie :)

The Keymaster challenge has four levels.  Each level has a collection of related skills, all using 2-mallet technique.  It is my personal opinion that players are forced into the excessively technical world of 4-mallet techniques much too early, and generally long before they master the basic musical elements of their instrument. The Keymaster challenge, therefore, is a concise approach to mastering as many skills and fundamentals as possible before beginning more technically advanced studies.

Level 1: “Artist Scales”


I learned “Artist Scales” from Leigh Howard Stevens in 2005.  They are a reaction against the kinds of scales typically played in band class, which are tailored for wind players.  The challenge is to complete all 12 major scales in under three minutes following the rules on the worksheet.

Most students take between 25-30 minutes on their first attempt.  As each technical or musical issue is mastered, times come down 3-5 minutes at a time, sometimes faster.  It generally takes between 8-12 weeks to complete with weekly testing and correction.  This is the single most valuable lesson I ever teach, because it makes students so completely accountable for results, and covers an enormous range of developmental areas: musical, technical and psychological.

Level 2: Scale Patterns


Scale patterns are about exactly one thing: breaking up the straight line from left to right to left mastered in “Artist Scales”, which results in mastery of the visual layout of the keyboard.

Students generally start on Scale Patterns before finishing “Artist Scales”, because the skills overlap somewhat.  Students who complete “Artist Scales” in three minutes will frequently come back after 4-5 weeks of Scale Patterns and play “Artist Scales” in under two minutes on the first attempt.  This is because the patterns force generalization of key layouts for each scale, which helps the brain to group and process information dramatically faster.

This skill is fundamental to sight reading, memorization, rapid learning, and improvisation, and underlies every other skill by speeding up the ability to see and create on the instrument.

Level 3: Ideo-Kinetics


Gordon Stout is a famous player and teacher, and the head of percussion at Ithaca College.  He is known as one of the few marimbists who plays from music with page turners in concert.  When asked about it he once replied, “By the time I’ve read a piece down 3 or 4 times I play it almost as well as I ever will.  In the amount of time it would take me to memorize it, I could learn 8-10 more pieces.”  His system and accompanying book?  Ideo-Kinetics.

I have six very basic exercises to begin the study of Ideo-Kinetics.  Stout’s book has dozens, but the principle is very simple:  Know where the notes are by FEEL, not by SIGHT.  The marimba is one of the only pitched instruments in the whole world that the player does not touch before playing.  Even a pianist can touch the keys lightly before playing them.  For us, touching IS playing.  This system of finding notes accurately and consistency while essentially blind is fundamental to any level of playing beyond the most basic.

Level 4: Octave Scale Patterns


Using the material from Level 2, this final level tackles the challenges of:

  1. Not being able to see both notes at the same time
  2. Adjusting the distance of an octave as the bars get wider or narrower

Octaves are incredibly common in both 2- and 4-mallet playing.  The secret is to apply pattern visualization and Ideo-Kinetics together, making it possible to simply add an octave to anything you can play.  Easier said than done.

A Level 4 Keymaster is a person with a very highly tuned and tested understanding of tone production, line, groupings, body placement, and note accuracy, and has killer 2-mallet chops as well.  Beginning 4-mallet technique with a player at this level is no longer about learning an instrument with four sticks in your hand, it’s about applying a new technique to a familiar instrument, and reaching for the same level of mastery from day one.

I know which position I’d rather be in.

Awesome Article on How to Practice

I just finished reading “Practice, Made Perfect?” in the sports section of this week’s TIME magazine.

Once again, something I’ve been doing in isolation by accident turns up in an article and goes from a specific success to a general principle.  It’s a good day :)

There was a time, not long ago, when it seemed like I was auditioning for everything all the time, and almost always winning.  The secret to my sudden and unexpected success was what I called “rotation”.  The idea was simple:  Set up every piece on the audition in a circle, and walk around the circle, playing each piece once.  When you get to 5 times around playing everything exactly how you want it, turn around and go the other direction.  When you get that, tear the whole thing down, set it up in a different order and do it again.  And again, and again, and again.

I usually took me about 100 hours to feel like I could nail an audition hanging upside down in my sleep underwater, which is what I was going for.  My specific ability to play the audition became a general ability to play anything in my active repertoire exactly like I wanted, on demand, over and over and over.

These days I’m not auditioning for things very often, but I’m using “rotation” to prepare chamber music, recitals, orchestra parts, and to develop my student’s practice habits, all to great effect.  I’ve never been so efficient with my time, or had such retention in my life.  I’m not anywhere near the article’s “10,000 hours” with this method, but I’m seeing results I never dreamed of even 5 years ago.

Some Drumming Basics

Not long ago I started a challenge for some of my students called the “Rudiment Champion”.  Basically, it’s a list of rudiments and drumming concepts, each played for one minute continuously to prove you have consistency and endurance.  It’s actually pretty hard to do.

I sequenced rudiments/concepts in a logical developmental order, drawing on ideas from, among other things, Bill Bachman’s new book, Stick Technique, which everyone should own a copy of.  I grouped forty different things into four levels, ten per level.  After many iterations I landed on something I thought was pretty good.

My assumption was that most people would quit after Level 1, because it’s pretty hard, time-consuming, and gets you into territory that is less and less applicable outside of marching.  The challenge, therefore, was to pack Level 1 full of the most fundamentally valuable stuff I could.

Here’s the Level 1 list:

  1. Long Roll
  2. 5-Stroke Roll
  3. 9-Stroke Roll
  4. 7-Stroke Roll (16th Base)
  5. 7-Stroke Roll (Triplet Base)
  6. Paradiddle
  7. Paradiddle-Diddle
  8. Tap-Accent no. 1 (Based on Flam-Accent no. 1)
  9. Tap-Drags
  10. Inverted Paradiddles (RLLR LRRL)

Upon reflection, I had to laugh at myself for starting with rolls, because so much time in my college rep classes was spent mocking early drum books for demanding that the open roll be mastered before introducing the quarter note.  I TOTALLY GET IT NOW.  The above list has no written component.  This is drumming as a spoken (played) language.  You get it by DOING it, preferably with others around you who already do it better than you do.  Reading and academically understanding notes is all well and good, but in the end, it’s about pronunciation and execution, and that cannot be learned without hours of repetition, trial, error, and correction.

After some time spent teaching this, I organized the basic concepts on tone production, sticking coordination, and mental focus into three pages, designed to get you through Level 1.  Here they are.

Rudimental Roll Builders

Tone Production and Stroke Types

Alternating Tap-Accent, Paradiddles, and Drags

There are a few exercises on here very minimally adapted from Bachman’s book and named after him.  Everyone should buy his book and get the full scope of what he’s doing, as it is incredible and what I have here is not representative.

In the past few years, my philosophy has become more inclusive, putting marching and concert ideas together in the same space.  These sheets reflect that, and allow me to focus not only on the mechanics of how to get up and down between notes, but also the tone produced on every note.  Indeed, mechanics and tone production inform and affect each other cyclically.


I’m by no means the only person doing this, and I’m always on the lookout for similar resources from people working and developing their ideas.  If you know of any, please share in the comments!

Motivation vs. Discipline: What are we teaching students?

Motivation and discipline are both about getting things done.  

  • Motivation is emotional, we work when we “feel” like it.
  • Discipline is intellectual, we work because it’s a good idea.

When I think about emotions that make me “feel” like doing things, my short list is:

  1. Love: I just REALLY want to do things I love and be with people I love.
  2. Happiness: I enjoy feeling happy (who doesn’t?), and I find it easy to indulge in things that make me feel happy
  3. Hunger: The need to fill myself, physically or metaphorically, is insistent and grows continually until it is fulfilled.
  4. Anger: Sometimes I just really want to GET someone or GET BACK at someone. It’s hard to think of anything else when I feel that way.
  5. Fear: I don’t like bad things to happen to me.  Avoiding trouble and pain is important enough to put everything else on hold until I’m out of danger.


All of those things are very MOTIVATING.  I act after I FEEL.  Motivation is REACTIVE, based on circumstances.  If you exist in a motivation mind-set, someone or something else is always controlling you.

I often hear people talk about ways they try to motivate people.  Based on my above understanding, that suggests to me what they actually mean is that they are trying to control people.  That’s a problem for a few reasons.  First, it’s temporary, and will not be sustained when the motivator is gone.  Second, it’s dangerous because even when it is done with love and for the best reasons, people simply resent being controlled.  Lastly, it’s self-centered, as if the people’s achievement was about accomplishing your goal of making them do something.  Working with people is about helping THEM, not satisfying your own need for control.

When I think about things that are a good idea, my short list is:

  1. Exercise: I feel better and have a better life-view when I’m exercising regularly
  2. Practice: Improving my skills, polishing my chops, and generally improving my professional facility helps me be ready for professional opportunities
  3. Metronomes and A/V recorders: “Honesty Devices” as I call them.  Intended for daily use.
  4. Reading: Learning new things and having new experiences through reading keeps me in touch with the world and fills me with humility and wonder.
  5. Writing: Creating valuable things and passing my ideas on to others can have positive effects and start new ideas in others that I will never know about
  6. Adding Value: Teaching, talking, and pouring myself into others for their benefit will always have a good return.  I don’t know anyone who ever regretted it.


These things are not particularly emotionally energizing.  They all require DISCIPLINE.  As my leadership guru, John Maxwell said, “no one is excited about a paper when they’re still writing it”.  They’re VERY excited after it’s done.  Discipline is PROACTIVE, based on the goals, and the will of the individual.  It is internal, and if you exist in a discipline mind-set, you control yourself.

“To do right is wonderful.  To teach others to do right is even more wonderful – and much easier.”  ~Mark Twain

When I hear people talking about discipline, they’re usually talking about punishment. It is not possible to “discipline” someone.  The only kind of discipline is self-discipline, it’s an unemotional choice made freely by a person to improve their situation.  If you got someone to behave how you wanted by doing something bad to them, you didn’t discipline them, you motivated them with punishment.

I find the public schools to be very motivation-heavy.  Social pressure and grading creates a fear environment, and students learn how to survive, being led from one emotion to another all day, avoiding pain when they can, and generally escaping punishment as much as possible.  There are plenty of individual exceptions, but that’s how the system is set up.  The expectation is: do as you’re told, or else.

In my teaching, all my assignments are discipline-heavy, the early ones especially.  I teach with a discipline-bias for two reasons:  First, because so much of my success comes from consistent discipline.  Second, because it makes the experience of learning with me instantly different, and quickly removes any negative school baggage from the relationship.  In the first few weeks that I work with students, I see most transform from being semi-directionless, looking for instructions and an emotional charge, to being disciplined, focused, and looking for accountability.  Their capacity for self-determination was always there, they were just used to not connecting with it.

The first and most important large assignment I give is “Artist Scales”, which I adapted from my work with Leigh Howard Stevens.  It is a colossal undertaking, but any 6th grader with a 4 octave instrument can do it if they are willing to follow the process.  No one has ever finished it for me in less than 4 weeks (it’s more likely to take upwards of 10), but by the time they can do it in under 3 minutes, they have a complete set of learning tools for any piece, and a disposition to match.  As they get closer to 3 minutes, we cover other things as well in lessons, but we start every time with Artist Scales without fail until it’s done.

Most of my worksheets, lessons and literature expectations flow from this first assignment.  The patterns of discipline developed early on form the basic habits of preparation in all music, and eventually, I hope, in all of life.  Some day, I would like to look at the lives of my former students, and see that they met their highest ambitions in their chosen fields because they learned their Artist Scales :D

The principal of discipline is not about punishment.  It’s about self-determination and a striving to achieve your personal goals whether you feel like doing it today or not. Motivation is powerful, and has its place, but it is fleeting and unsustainable. Discipline is powerful because it is sustainable, and its power grows the longer it is sustained.

If you wait to feel like doing something that is hard, you likely never will.  If you do something anyway because you know it will help you, eventually the results it gives you will make you feel like continuing.

Growth Orientation

Over the past week a few ideas have come together for me and I feel ready to write about what I’ve been calling Growth Orientation.  This is something I’m developing as a core philosophy and practice, and, as it is in development, I find it difficult to organize clearly.  This week I made significant progress thanks to Tom Burritt’s post on

Tom has been reading on university programs and on-line course offerings, and I highly recommend reading his post and following his links to the articles he’s citing if you ever plan on attending a university (hint).

Here’s what I’m bringing together philosophically:

  1. My undergrad at Iowa State imprinted on me the statement, “Lifelong Learning”
  2. I strongly prefer the “apprenticeship” model of education to the “lecture” model
  3. I believe the successful study of any discipline requires developing universal tools of learning
  4. I don’t think anyone is responsible for my education but me
  5. I don’t feel personally responsible to anyone for their own learning
  6. I feel the internet makes the above two statements totally reasonable
  7. I find goals to be highly motivating… until completed, then they become highly demotivating
  8. I find the pursuit of college degrees to be at the heart of some of the saddest, most financially crippling stories I’ve ever heard
  9. I think individual entrepreneurialism based on individual brilliance is the new normal, and anyone who can be replaced cheaply or easily will be
  10. I find myself to be better at the service of building people with information and action than I am at generating and protecting exclusive, unique content

That’s a lot of disparate stuff, which is why I say I have a hard time focusing my material at this early stage.  This is my current conclusion:

  • Goals are temporary.  The momentum gained while working on them reverses upon their completion.  It is easier to talk about and remember how you were successful before than it is to be successful again.
  • Growth is continual, and generates momentum the longer growth continues.  The bigger you grow, the bigger you CAN grow and the bigger you WANT to grow.
  • Therefore:  Growth is a more beneficial focus in study over a long period, and Goals are only suitable as a temporary means to accomplish a short-term end.
  • Furthermore:  Because in western culture we are inundated with goal-oriented thinking all the time, special attention needs to be given to NOT making goals, but attending to steady growth instead.

Example: Marching season is over, so all my students are selecting pieces for solo and ensemble contest, because that’s the next major calendar event (goal). Inevitably I am asked over and over, “what should I play?”, which is a fair question, because you have to pick SOMETHING, but it’s November, and contest for many people is in late February or March.

If I set a piece as a goal now, we start a cycle, where we work for 4-5 months to get ready, then play, then move on.  The challenge becomes selecting a piece that will be a suitable goal, and fulfill all our needs for that entire period.

IF, however, I refuse to choose a piece, and place our focus on maximizing growth during this period, there will be, among other things, pieces getting played, and when we get a few weeks away from contest, whatever is good at that time can be used.

Now the “goal” is relegated to its appropriate place as a short-term solution to a specific problem.  We need a piece to play so we get feedback at contest.  We pick a piece, we play, we get feedback.  Done.  The real value in the 4-5 months of study is the growth, and that may very well be accomplished better without a big contest piece.

The idea of Growth Orientation is one of service:  I exist as a teacher to add value to my students.  The content of lessons is not substantially different than what would be used in goal orientation.  The pieces are mostly similar, the instruments are mostly similar, the specifics of each piece are mostly similar, etc.  What is different is the emphasis on helping students to grow as people by growing as players, rather than on setting goals for completion of material or success at scheduled events.

This also eliminates the common idea that when a piece is learned it’s “done”. Anything that has its value defined by helping to complete a goal loses that value when the goal is complete.  Any piece used in the growth process retains its value as long as growth continues, and could be called upon again at any time, for any suitable reason.

In goal orientation, each completed goal involves an opportunity for stagnation, because a new goal is needed to continue working with purpose.  In growth orientation each small instance of growth leads to greater growth, because there is always one more obvious step to take.

What I want my students to take away from this idea is simple:

  1. You will need to learn and grow through your entire life and adapt to be successful.
  2. Learning itself is a skill you develop any time you learn anything.
  3. You are at the center of your own learning and growth.  It really is all about you!
  4. Once you get good at it, no one will ever teach you better than you.
  5. The best way to grow to a higher level is to connect with someone who is beyond you at whatever specific thing you’re learning.  Add their value to your own!
  6. Always take time to benefit others in their growth as well.  It is impossible to help others without also helping yourself.

I will continue to develop this idea and write on it as it gets better.  I’m using it in every aspect of my life, teaching, study and growth, and I can see its positive effects every day.

Happy growing!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 613 other followers