Thoughts on the New WGI Winds

The marching arts are hugely popular and can teach so many beneficial things to musicians involved.  There are varying degrees of learning that takes place when involving oneself in marching arts activities and they certainly have their place within music education. This post is in no way meant to take anything away from the marching arts but simply an attempt to offer some thoughts on a new program called WGI Winds.

Yes it is true that until now, wind players have not had an outlet in WGI winter programs, and I believe that there is a reason that it has not happened. With all that happens in a year of school for young musicians, is there really room to add another marching activity in an already busy schedule of pep band, concert bands, jazz bands, chamber music, private lessons, etc.? Do we need to add more marching activities to an already “marching heavy” curriculum? Those of us that are involved in competitive marching band realize that from the months of July until November, marching band is a way of life, and if not careful, can take over a band program causing things to be over balanced in a facet of music education that can ONLY exist because of the winter/spring training.

What is the most important part of a wind players musical training in the school system?

I believe it is broken into 3 main parts: Chamber Music participation, Private Lessons and Band Activities with multiple performances in each of these parts of the education process.  Each of these adds value to the educational process and helps to form the total musician that is the best version of him or herself. Most of these activities take place from January-May, with some band programs spending time on concert band music during marching band season.  Because of the time and competition in marching season, private lessons, chamber ensembles and sometimes concert band reading can take a backseat as we prepare for “important” contests.

So, where does WGI Winds fit into this curriculum. Please, do not hear me saying it cannot fit, but my biggest questions is WHERE and if so, why is this needed? Hear are some arguments against another marching program for winds during the winter and spring.

  • Rote teaching – we continually teach the same pieces of music for months at a time which does not present a “real-world” experience for these young musicians.  As a professional, we rehearse once for multiple concerts, not months for a few concerts.
  • Sight-Reading – If we are practicing for competitions and performances, we are in a sense preparing for the test. When do we get to focus on sight-reading when students are playing the same music for months at a time.
  • Time – When do the students get to practice and be able to take individual responsibility to improve their playing outside of competitive activities? If we are constantly preparing a “show” when do the students practice music other than the show music?
  • Money – many programs are spending thousands of dollars on fall  marching programs, when their students cannot play their instruments, or have not trained knowledgable musicians. How many masterclasses, lessons, chamber ensembles, trips to the symphony could we purchase instead of a winterguard mat, new marching costumes, transportation, etc.
  • The love for marching takes over – it is already difficult enough in some programs to instill a love of the “concert season” in parents and students because they love the competition so much. Adding another competitive wind activity can create even more animosity to an already slippery slope. Some parents call the concert season the “off season”. I would not want to create another organization for parents to attempt to be only involved in instead of the concert program.
  • Priorities – Shouldn’t our priorities be trying to create a love for music and creating the best musical versions of our students? If we compare and mirror our music programs after the professional music world, which is what we should be doing, isn’t it important to train students to be able to perform, practice and fit into the professional world? In order to create impeccable young musicians with an ability to sight-read and perform many different genres, just about all the time we have in our schedule is what is already in the curriculum for a wind player. Masterclasses with high level professional musicians, chamber music programs with multiple performance opportunities (with a book full of music to choose from), improvisation and jazz opportunities, private lessons and lastly trips to hear professsionals perform.
  • Educational process – The problem with the system that is in place is just about every part of the school day the students are given multiple opportunities to get things wrong. Even in our band classes, students play 3 on a part, and practice the same music for months at a time, and subconsciously know that they can mess up because they will always have tomorrow. I believe we need to create more opportunites to get things right quicker without presenting another opportunity to have multiple rehearsals. I am sure with WGI Winds preparations, there would be multiple rehearsals per week.

Is there any time when WGI Winds could be beneficial? I believe there are certain instances where it could add nicely to the curriculum of certain music programs:

  • Very small band – it could work nicely if there is a very small band program that feels the football field is too large of a venue for them to sound resonant and full. The Gym would be a nice space for them to connect with the audience on a more intimate level.
  • No fall marching band – If ensembles choose to train their musicians in the fall with concert band activities, the winter could be a nice time for the program to get their marching experience.

While  WGI Winds does present a chamber music avenue for young musicians, it does not allow students to work on reading and generally consists of instrumentation that is not normal to the professional chamber music idiom. Maybe having a rehearsal limit, and having to perform multiple different shows would help the educational benefit, but there are still many issues that cause it to present problems in today’s music education system.

I am a large supporter of the marching arts, and think there are huge benefits to students participating in the marching arts. I am a consultant, brass instructor and active adjudicator as well as a professional musician and value the time spent on the preparation of the WGI Winds program. I am in no way criticizing the people involved and am just expressing my thoughts on a brand new outlet in the marching arts.

What are your thoughts on WGI Winds?

 

Why Should I Learn My Scales?

We have all heard this phrase many times as music educators, especially if we do private music lesson teaching.

Why do students fight so hard against learning scales and why is it so hard for them to grasp why they are important?

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I guess it is like anything in life that really isn’t that much fun, but is really good for us. Human nature is to rebel against things that do not provide us with instant joy as we want everything right now.  It takes a good deal of training and experience to realize how to achieve our goals and the tough work that lies in between point A and point B.

I try to answer the above question for students before they even ask it. I try to motivate them with the knowledge to understand that learning scales is not busy work, but provides them with the power to become the best musical version of themselves. 

Since we are in the middle of march madness, and everyone has a busted bracket at this point, no doubt, I will equate scales to free throws. Many basketball teams do not work on free throws in their practice sessions but then expect to hit them when the pressure is on. It just isn’t possible. Without that training of the basics and fundamentals, and taking individual responsibility to go through the “basic training”, the game cannot be won at the end.

The same is true in music. Without the fundamental training of scales and patterns, true mastery of music in pressure situations will never happen. There is something that happens to us when we decide to take the initiative to spend time on basics and fundamentals instead of jumping right into a piece of music. Our minds become focused, our character becomes stronger and our mastery of our craft takes on a new form. Can you imagine jumping into the Ohio River and you have never been to the pool? Can you imagine running a marathon with no training? That is exactly what happens when students jump into solos or etudes without the tools from fundamental scales first.

Of course personal responsibility is only one reason to learn your scales, but there are many many more. In fact, there are so many reasons that this post could become very long and boring, so I will just list a few that I use with my students.  I always tell my private music lesson students that they could be excellent musicians if they just practices their scales and only scales in their practice sessions.

Here are a few things scales will improve:

  • sight reading
  • tone quality
  • technique
  • range (for instrumentalists)
  • air flow and evenness in all registers (instrumentalists)
  • key signatures
  • articulation
  • volume control
  • breathing
  • rhythm
  • tempo
  • musicality
  • intonation

Do you focus on scales in your lessons and if so, what are ways you motivate your students?

Six Steps to a Better Brass Section

There is nothing more exciting than hearing a drum corp or marching band with a big, full rich brass sound that resonates in our soul.  I can remember watching the Star of Indiana rehearse when I was young and the sound of the brass wrapped around me like a warm coat. I was hooked on THAT sound.

How do we produce impeccable brass section sounds at the high school level?

It obviously starts with the training and the right decisions being made during the concert season. But, lets say care has been taken in this area and we are ready to improve our brass sound for the upcoming marching season.

Here are 6 things that I do when working with brass sections to get that “wrap around warmth.” Again, this is assuming proper brass training, private lessons, and correct decision making has been made prior to the marching season beginning.

1. Begin with Breathing

Training students in the fundamentals of correct relaxed breathing and tone production to create resonance and projection are paramount to the overall brass sound. The key word is RELAXED. Breathe like a pendulum, the same back and the same forward.

2. Discover the Center

Help the student musicians understand how to discover the core center of the characteristic tone. I like to have the students all say “ah” and sing a pitch with that syllable.  Then I will have them close their mouths and hum the same pitch.  We then discuss which one “resonates” more and why? The students begin to hear the core “buzz” that is at the center of the “ah” syllable. I will have all students play at a F volume with a breath attack, staying relaxed. It is easier to hear the core buzz at bigger volumes.  We then take that sound and bring it down in volume, after the “buzz” is realized. The center is where the resonance, projection and color lives.

3. I + B = V

Intonation + Balance = Volume.  So many brass sections just play loud.  I do not use the word loud.  We say full, big, resonant, in tune, balanced.  High School brass players only have a certain limit to the volume they can produce.  Most are not playing with a 100% characterstic tone, so when they try to force a bad sound it hurts the overall volume of the section. Instead, focus on playing in tune and balanced to create more volume all while staying relaxed.  Oh, and be very mindful of how many people are in your brass section.  20 cannot sound like 70.  Be realistic with your volume expectations.

4. Understand Intonation

Thorough education on the fundamental issues involved with intonation and the tendencies of notes and chords.  Students must understand how the tuning changes depending on what note of the chord they play.  They need to understand the valve or slide tendencies of their instrument.  They need to know their own tendencies as a player. For example, do they play flat or sharp in the upper register? Do they play in tune in the middle register? Please do not tune every person with a tuner on one note! There is so much more to each persons individuality in tuning than the old one note tuning.

5. Understand Balance

Helping the section understand and acheive a balanced/cohesive sound. This balance needs to be realized within each section as well as within the larger brass section. It always seems like trumpets take over a brass section. Most bands let their first trumpets go crazy and hang out above the entire band. Think of the 1st trumpets as the sprinkles on the cupcake.  A few sprinkles are just perfect, but a bucket of sprinkles would ruin the cupcake.  A balanced trumpet section might look like this depending on how large your section is and how competent your musicians are. If you have 20 trumpets and 3 parts.  1-3 on first part (they should not all play 1st at the same time) 7 on 2nd part and 10 on 3rd part.  We really just need to feel the 1st trumpet part most of the time, not really hear it. Other issues are getting a beautiful middle sound from the mellos, and helping the lower trumpets understand how they can help bring that sound out instead of taking over it.  Help students learn how to crawl into each others sound and create a homogenous brass sound. There is so much more to discuss, but this is a beginning. Understanding balance, making correct arranging decisions (a whole other discussion), and making correct choices on part assignments are a good start.

6. How to articulate

Very detailed instruction on the fundamentals and techniques involved in performing different articulation styles. What is the difference between an accent and a marcato, and how do we achieve projection and a clear front to these articulations. Spend many sessions in a very detailed rehearsal playing legato, staccato, accent, marcato and sostenuto articulations and focusing on the front, middle and ending to each note.  Keep the focus on staying relaxed and work different dymnamic levels.

If we create the most competent  and knowledgable students and have them be the best versions of themselves, success will be realized.

Interested in work with your brass section? I am available for Music advising and brass education.

What are your thoughts about brass in marching band?

Off the Beaten Path

Down I-75, off Exit 90, is a town called Richmond, Ky where a band program exists that is just “off the beaten path” called Madison Central High School.

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I had adjudicated the MCHS Marching Band on several occasions for many years, and was excited about the opportunity to do some consult work with them in 2011. I had no idea the musical fulfillment, relationships, musical growth and pure joy that would evolve over the past 4 years.

They do things the right way in Richmond.

All parts of the band program are successful because of special care in each area that ensures students are receiving a top notch music education. They understand that to have a successful marching program in the fall, the concert program must be the primary focus. They understand that to have a successful concert program, they must limit the amount of “spoon feeding” and focus on creating knowledgable individual student musicians with high personal responsibility. They understand that in order to create and foster student musicians with large amounts of personal responibility, they must trust their educational process and do more than play in a band and rehearse a lot.  They are constant learners and thinkers and are humble in their approach, therefore not afraid to incorporate new ideas, some that might be scary or “off the beaten path”.

What else are they doing right?

They have a growing and evolving chamber music program that the students enjoy and thrive from. The directors are  not afraid to turn the students loose out of the main ensemble to learn and grow without a conductor.

They do not over rehearse the students. In December, the Madison Central Music Department put on a concert with only 3 weeks of prep and not your typcial music concert. They partnered with the choral department and put on current arrangements, some in keys that are not common for the high school muscian, and trusted the students to do the preparation outside of rehearsal. On the cusp of a KMEA performance, they saw the benefit of performing and preparing this Christmas program, in which thousands from the community enjoyed at the EKU Arts Center.

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Speaking of KMEA, the MCHS Wind Ensemble is performing at the KMEA State Convention on Thursday February 5, at 1:00.  They began rehearsing for this ever important concert on January 4. One month of preparation is all the students were given, and really, all they needed. The directors understand that students want to succeed, and the less chances they give them to get it wrong, the faster they will get it right. I was there 2 days before this event to witness this band rehearse.  These young musicians were so competent that there were no “high school” level comments being made. The rehearsals were about style and emotion, listening and communicating, phrasing and beauty of tone. It was a huge confirmation of what happens when music is educated and students are trusted, instead of fed with a large spoon.

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Yes, they won the KMEA 5A State Marching Band  Championship this year, but that award comes from doing things the right way.  The students love the band program and thrive from the many experience that are given to them. They love the concert program and making music with each other and they trust the staff to provide musical experiences that are unparalled at the high school level. They have passion and a huge work ethic that comes from a high level of  importance placed on each individual’s training.

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I must also mention the amazing Directors who are never afraid to learn, ask questions and evolve and grow as musicians and educators. Both Brent Barton and David Jaggie are passionate, humble, hard working and selfless. Who knew that in 2011 from a few marching band consults, that I would be able to form relationships with two of the finest music educators in the business, and all would happen just a little “off the beaten path.”

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I could not not be more impressed with a band program, and what these students from rural Richmond, Ky are able to accomplish with less resources than that of larger areas. Keep up the good work Madison Central. I look forward to being part of this stellar band program for many years to come. Thanks for your commitment to musical excellence.

Music Advising for your Marching Band

What are your thoughts about MCHS’s band program?

Rehearse Your Ensemble Less

This is the time of year when music programs in schools are preparing for festivals, honor bands, conferences, etc. Oh, the pressure of sounding great in public so we look good in front of our peers. We must add extra rehearsals, and after school sectionals, and Saturday clinics. But, is this counter productive to what we are trying to do educationally, and what does this really do to the student musician?

Think about this.  If we provide a system for young musicians that allows them multiple chances to get things wrong, will they ever strive to be right the first time? If we make it easy on the student by placing all of the responsibility on us, will they ever take personal responsibility to practice?

How much do we really need to rehearse?

Kids that are in band/orchestra or choir programs in school get class time every day of the week (in most situations). That is roughly 5 hours of rehearsal per week. Most programs begin preparing pieces for concerts months in advance of the concert or festival. If programs are rehearsing 5 hours per week x 3 months, that is around 60 hours of rehearsal on 3-4 peices of music.

There is no way mentally this is stimulating to young musicians. Oh wait, I forgot that we need to add after school rehearsals to this as well. Subconsciously the student feels there is no reason to practice, because there will always be another chance to try and get it right.

Are we scared to turn our groups loose without over rehearsing?

I believe we are. My belief is that human nature is to want to succeed. If you tell a student we have a concert on a specific date, and rehearse and educate them enough to give them the tools they need to prepare, my belief is with less time to get it wrong, they will get it right. . . . . . through their own personal responsibility because they want to succeed.

What if they do not succeed? What if this doesn’t work? Would there not be a great lesson to teach through this process?

Let’s treat these young musicians like professionals.  In the professional world, there might be one rehearsal for multiple concerts instead of multiple rehearsals for one concert.  If we treat students like adults and professionals, will they not rise to the occasion? There is only one way to find out.

I teach multiple chamber music programs with many different school music programs and make it a point to only rehearse one time per week for 1 hour. We have maybe 10 hours of rehearsal and then perform a concert, and it is always miraculous to hear the musical product and to see the level of improvement in each musician individually. It was a scary thing to do at first, but the effeciency in both the music education and the teaching allows learning to happen at a faster pace and higher level, and the students WANT to succeed.

Why are we scared to rehearse less?

Make the Right Decisions

Its cold and miserable in the middle of January and band programs are knee deep in the middle of concert season preparing for spring concerts, music festivals and solo and ensemble events. This time of year is no doubt the most important part of the year to the improvement of our young musicians. With our heads down and our focus centered on music making, when do we begin planning for the upcoming marching season?

This is it! This is the time to begin looking at what we did last year, and begin looking at how we can improve our product for the 2015 fall marching season. The problem many of us face is that we are afraid to self reflect and “die to self” when we take a step outside of our programs and look at what needs to improve. What decisions were wrong decisions? Why was our program not as successful last year as we thought it might be?

It is easy for us to say “those judges last year were not great,” or “I think I might try a different circuit, as they do not like us in the circuit we were in last year.” Instead of looking for excuses, we need to self-reflect and make changes.  What we need to realize is

Every Decision Matters

There is no decision that we make from January-November when planning, implementing, and rehearsing a marching band, that is not important.  From deciding what music to play, to if I should have a first trumpet play a high G in measure 15, every decision must be the right decision.  In fact, to be extremely competitive, every decision must be scrutinized and pondered until you are certain it is the right one. The problem lies that we all think our decisions are right most of the time but we need to not be afraid to ask for help and accept advice. Being humble, learning from others, and being constant learners in our profession will help us make more educated decisions. We have to realize that we cannot do everything ourselves. We cannot design the guard costumes, rehearse the brass, make music changes, handle student/parent issues, balance an ensemble, refine marching style, arrange the music, etc. without HELP!

When planning the upcoming program, ASK FOR HELP!

What do we need to do when looking at the upcoming season? Well, assuming all the right steps are being taken in the concert season to improve the musicianship, begin asking yourself some simple questions to SELF REFLECT.

1. Am I providing these young musicians with the best opportunities for success in brass, woodwind, visual, guard, drill writing, music arranging, etc.? It is ok to make changes, but do not make changes just for the sake of making changes.  The grass is not always greener on the other side so be very specific in providing students the best product for success.

2. What did I do last year that hurt the product? This is a hard one. None of us want to admit that we did anything wrong, but the truth is, we all do things that we wish we could do differently. Try to humble yourself, and improve.  BE HUMBLE.

3. Why do I do competitive marching season? What are my goals for the program and most importantly the students for this time of year?

4. Labor over every decision, and take money out of the equation.  Yes, we all have budget restraints that we deal with, but just for sake of argument, make a wish list of things that provide the best experience for your musicians, and see what you may be able to change, or move around to make it work.  Do you really need the new winter guard mat this year, or would a new woodwind instructor benefit the students and program more this year?

Make every decision an important one and remember. Your decisions affect many more than yourself. Every decision made must give the young students the best chance for success and give them the best education opportunities.

Are you making the right decisions?

Musicality Over Volume in the Marching Arts

We just finished a wonderful marching band season here in Kentucky.  I am thankful to be able to adjudicate marching bands within KMEA and work with many ensembles as either a music/brass coordinator or as a music consultant.  As a music educator, I am constantly longing to be affected by the music in marching season but very seldom am. Here is why I think that is:

Louder is not always better

Why do we work so hard on creating a product that is aesthetically pleasing but ruin it with overblown moments of uncharacteristic tones, poor phrasing and unbalanced timbres? Can beauty of balance and sonority affect us deeper than shear volume?

The marching arts is an extraordinary opportunity to take beautiful music and marry it with a visual product to enhance the emotional effect for the listener. We have a chance to create musical nuance to take the listener on a journey AND have the ability to pair it with nuanced visual effect.  What a great opportunity! Of course, volume is important as we reach climax, but it certainly does not control the emotional effect of the listener or performer.  There are so many rewarding opportunities for student musicians to learn and grow as musicians during marching band but only if we pave a musical avenue that is free of anything other than beauty and heartfelt emotion.

I like to ask students to think of adjectives that come to mind when they are performing different parts of the musical selections.  Some might say “longing”, or “hopeful” as feelings they want to portray.  I also find it very useful to have students think of adjectives that describe their feeling of the tones they are producing.  Obviously if one says “harsh” or “loud” we have an issue with the way this music will affect the listener. We want students to be comfortable and proud with the power they have as performers and musicians to guide a listener in and out of the same adjectives they feel as they are making the music. Instead of “loud” lets feel “power”. Instead of “harsh” lets feel “intensity”.  The performer must put musicianship and emotion in every note they perform, or the music feels lifeless and unimportant.

Can we have students be marching musicians instead of a marching band?

Long phrases with dynamic interest on every note. Using the middle dynamic range instead of just “soft” and “loud”. Musical communication between performers allowing them move out of they way to let more important lines be heard. Exploring the different rich timbres of each instrument in relation to what the music asks. Feeling and perfoming the emotion of the music and guiding the listener through the music using forward motion and direction. Creating a beautiful balance and blend that warms the musical soul. WOW! I would take those over “loud” any day!

It all starts with a well structured and fine tuned concert program including placing much personal responsibility on the students to make their own music with minimal “spoon feeding”. This comes with less after school rehearsals for concert band, more focus on chamber ensembles and private lessons, and very efficient rehearsals where music, instead of ratings, is of the utmost importance. Trips to the symphony, masterclasses with professional musicians, and solo and small ensemble concerts in and out of school can guide this kind of learning. Directors and students alike are longing for music making that means something and affects the heart and soul.

Marching Band can be of so much value to the student musicians and to the audience. Our sense of musicianship must be heightened when taking the concert medium to the outdoors.  What story are we trying to tell, and how musically can we present the information that is best for the performer, listener and staff involved?

Band, Meet Chamber Music!

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Training young musicians is what makes me excited and over time I have tried to not do things as they have always been done, but find the things that truly give the students the best avenue to be better musicians. I believe that young players can be truly amazing beyond what they ever thought capable of themselves, and love the process. I do not feel there is any limit to the level of expertise a young musician can achieve when given the right opportunities.

Young aspiring musicians need the opportunity to perform on their own parts and be independent of others helping them.  They need to be able to get in touch with the senses that open up creativity and tap into the ability to concentrate and engage while making music. Musicians need to be free to communicate and listen.  They need to have the responsibility of preparing a part that is theirs and noone elses. They need to understand how to find tempo and refine intonation on their own.

Also, can we get rid of the conductor!

Nothing against conductors as I have performed under great ones and have conducted groups myself, but removing the person in front trains students to rely on their senses for music making. It also trains students to be communicative with each other regarding all things conductors would normally help with. When musicians have freedom to communicate with others, it changes the musical product for the performer and listener. It seems we are always trying to get students to “be more musical,” but are never really allowing them the chance to communicate.

Implementing chamber ensembles in any music program will bring success beyond anyones wildest dreams.

Think about how often high school band programs rehearse, including after school rehearsals because, let’s face it, five days a week for an hour a day is not enough time, right? Anything that allows the student multiple times to get something wrong tends to build bad habits and create boredom. What if we filled each day with different small group opportunities, using no conductors, and allowed students to read and create music with each other on a daily basis?   That potential makes me excited! Everything would improve. Tone quality, musicality, sight-reading, professionalism, personal responsibility, interest, etc. The possibilities are endless.

School bands provide opportunities for students to make music together, but is that THE thing that is going to create the most growth in our young musicians?

Passion Leads to Hard Work

When I was in college studying music, I honestly didn’t know what path I wanted to take in my career.  Actually I thought there were only a couple of choices for me; Band Director or Orchestral Musician.  I am thankful for the training I received while in college, but does college help us form educated decisions about our potential career paths while helping us get to know ourselves and our passions?

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It wasn’t until I graduated and got out on my own that I began to realize that I wanted to be involved with many different musical experiences.  I felt I had a wide variety of expertise and had many things to offer and there was no way to limit that to one particular career path.  One quote that is heard more often than not is “You can’t make any money as a musician.” While on the surface this might seem logical, my belief is “You can’t make any money if you arent a passionate, hard-working musician.”  As with any career, the people who are most successful are the ones with passion for their craft and the ones putting that passion into work with a very intense work ethic.

Will we ever work hard at something we aren’t passionate about?

 Do you love what you do for a living? Are you truly passionate? Is that passion translating into a driven work ethic? Do you wake up every day with a yearning to “get to work?”  Many of us, whether in school, or in a career feel stuck. Are we living our true passion, and if not,  how do we find our true passion? These steps helped me when wondering what I should do.

1.  Don’t be afraid of change!

2. Ask questions, and be a constant learner. Do you have an interest/ability that makes you tick?

3. Be very curious and observant of others who have become successful doing the thing you love.

4. Seek help, and step outside of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to talk to people (and not just on social media or text message!)

5. Don’t be afraid to fail.

My undergraduate degrees are in Music Education and Music Performance, and my masters degree is in Music Performance.  My passion is Music but almost equally I have found a new passion in Business/Marketing.

What is your passion and are you living that passion?