The Importance of Failed Attempts

In her recent TED presentation, Sarah Lewis discussed the importance of corrections after failed attempts. Lewis, an Assistant Professor at Harvard University is the author of The Rise: Creativity, The Gift of Failure, and The Search for Mastery.

“It is one of the enduring enigmas of the human experience: many of our most iconic, creative endeavors—from Nobel Prize-winning discoveries to entrepreneurial inventions and works in the arts—are not achievements, but conversions, corrections after failed attempts.

In her TED Talk, Lewis referenced a practice by Navajo weavers and potters of purposefully incorporating an imperfection, or “spiritline” into their textiles and ceramics. The “intentional flaw” is interpreted by some as an artisan’s expression of modesty-a symbolic concession to imperfection, and as a reminder of the importance of continued refinement. Another interpretation of the intentional imperfection is to ensure a pathway for the continuation of the art forms.

In regard to mastery, Lewis states that, “Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They’re masters because the realize that there isn’t one.”

Much has been written in written about the various “slow movements”. Slow reading, slow cooking, slow (or deep) learning, and slow thinking are just a few of the areas of recent interest. The focus on purposeful, and systematic paths to learning are well served by recognizing, and incorporating the wisdom found in failed attempts.

The Rise

Carolina Wind Symphony – Russian Christmas Music

imagesNote: This blog also serves as a way to communicate thoughts, concepts, and detailed rehearsal instructions to the Carolina Wind Symphony. During the ensemble’s concert season, many of the postings will be written for the members of that particular ensemble. 

It takes both a unique ensemble, and a deliberate mindset to reveal the beauty and genius of Russian Christmas Music. When considering this composition for the CWS, I admittedly hesitated, and wanted to distance the ensemble (and myself) from this iconic work. Russian Christmas Music is a magnificent tableau brimming with lyricism, drama, sonority, and grandeur. Perhaps the most striking aspects of this composition, is the form. How the structure and architecture of this composition unfolds, develops, and reveals is lasting testimony to the brilliance of Alfred Reed. This masterwork is so, so much more than a great finale for a marching band, or corps. Sadly, Reed’s signature work has been used (and abused) more for its intense visceral effects, than for the expansive odyssey that Russian Christmas Music offers both performer, and listener.

In Alfred Reed’s comments to conductors, and also in his numerous writings about Russian Christmas Music, he states that, “literally every note, every rhythm, every melodic, harmonic or rhythmic inflection in this composition should produce an impression of singing, regardless of texture or tempo.” Based on the musical heritage of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Russian Christmas Music is part of a rich cultural and liturgical tradition that admits no instrumental music in its services. To hear a male chorus perform Salvation Is Created by Pavel Tschesnokoff is a wonderful example of the combination of strength and lyricism. One can almost imagine soaring arches, guttering candles, and the expansive resonance of a cathedral. As we begin our study and rehearsal of this iconic work, we should strive toward an interpretation that is true to the composer’s intent, and seek a performance that is so incredibly fresh it would seem that it was composed for each of us. And it was.

Robert Shaw coined the word “emotellectual” as a touchstone for his superb choirs and orchestras. This “made-up” term was Shaw’s attempt to elicit (in one word) a genuine and meaningful interpretation that inspires, ennobles, and enlarges the intellect, as well as the soul. At our best, this is what we should strive for in our music.


“For a composition, is after all, an organism. It is a living, not a static, thing. That is why it is capable of being seen in a different light and from different angles by various interpreters or even by the same interpreter at different times. Interpretation is, to a large extent, a matter of emphasis. Every piece has an essential quality which the interpretation must not betray.” – Aaron Copland 

Irish Tune From County Derry – A Memorable Performance Revisited


This blog was first published in 2011. Life, and and many other excuses provided a hiatus in my blog writing. Since that time, I keep returning to my thoughts on this blog, and the importance of memorable, live performances. The following contains an addendum quote by James Croft (FSU) that brings even more beauty to the composition, and its connection to the conductor, performers, and those fortunate enough to hear and see the concert.

Irish Tune from County Derry by Percy Grainger was the concluding musical selection of a retirement concert, honoring H. Robert Reynolds’ service as Director of Bands at The University of Michigan. Being one of the most programmed compositions in wind band literature, scores of wonderful performances and memorable interpretations of this classic quickly come to mind. Why was this performance memorable? Each note played and conducted was cherished by both performer and conductor as a tribute and temporal keepsake. Listening carefully, one can hear the ensemble and conductor savoring each chord with bittersweet reluctance as they reluctantly approach the final chords of Grainger’s timeless music, and of Reynolds’ tenure at Ann Arbor. Some of my colleagues would say that my critique is full of nonsense and overripe sentimentality. Maybe, but I’ll stand by my opinion and be thankful for that musical offering.

Grainger Sax

August 5, 2014

While selecting music for an upcoming concert, I was examining the most recent Carl Fischer publication of  Irish Tune from County Derry (Larry Clark, Editor). Among the notes to the conductor was the following quote by Dr. James Croft:

“…Irish Tune from County Derry is one of those pieces that has probably touched the hearts of more band performers than any of Grainger’s numerous works for band. Most of us recall the first time we had an ensemble capable of approaching the modest technical requirements of this gem and then standing in awe of some magical scoring that reached out and embraced us.

As many times as I have conducted this piece, I have never been as singularly struck with the magic as I was when observing H. Robert Reynolds conduct it using only his face and torso. It was mesmerizing. It was a tribute to the union of a remarkable conductor, who was able to extract the work’s musical essence while engaging the ensemble in a completely focused interpretation. With a less inspired piece, I doubt if this would have been possible…”

James Croft, Director of Bands – The Florida State University

La Grande Ligne – Excerpt from Copland’s “What To Listen For In Music”


Excerpt from  “What to Listen For in Music” by Aaron Copland

“But whatever the form the composer chooses to adopt, there is always one great desideratum: The form must have what in my student days we used to call la grande ligne (the long line). It is difficult adequately to explain the meaning of that phrase to the layman. To be properly understood in relation to a piece of music, it must be felt. In mere words, it simply means that every good piece of music must give us a sense of flow—a sense of continuity from first note to last. Every elementary music student knows the principle, but to put it into practice has challenged the greatest minds in music! A great symphony is a man-made Mississippi down which we irresistibly flow from the instant of our leave taking to a long foreseen destination. Music must always flow, for that is part of its very essence, but the creation of that continuity and flow—that long line—constitutes the be-all and end-all of every composer’s existence.”

Comments on Conducting – Thank You James Levine & Gregg Hanson

James Levine Interview

The attached video clip from James Levine: America’s Maestro (American Masters – PBS) is a unique view into what I believe is the essence of conducting. It is a sentiment that expressed by anyone less than a conducting icon, would be dismissed with dilettantish skepticism. Having led the Metropolitan Opera for over forty years, Levine describes his approach to conducting as being a “teacher conductor”. Prior to Levine, the “Met” was universally known more for unbridled self-exhibition than musical expression. James Levine created an astonishing ensemble through his methodology of leadership. His style of musical leadership is succinctly addressed in Max McKee’s: Leadership Is An Art. McKee states that the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. The latter of the two leadership responsibilities was a hallmark of Levine’s grace as a conductor. His respect for, and encouragement of orchestral and vocal musicians is legendary.

For a music ensemble, the reality that is to be clearly defined is the composer’s musical intent. In a recent Facebook posting, Greg Hanson (Director of Bands – University of Arizona) stated…

“It is our job to dig deeply into the road map called a score and try to unlock what the composer meant. This all has to happen before you stand in front of the ensemble. Many young wind AND orchestral conductors these days are more interested in the almighty “gesture” and how pretty their technique is than what the music has to say. Go back and watch Fritz Reiner, Toscanini, Richard Strauss. You will see virtually no technique by today’s standards (before universities started handing out conducting degrees). But you will hear extraordinary music making. The RESULT is all that matters! If the ensemble does not play with sensibility and extraordinary detail to each musical thought, all the technique in the world is for naught.”

 I agree with Levine in that the musicians must know what is needed to achieve an insightful performance. This is not achieved through a conducting gesture, but through the conductor providing a clear, studied interpretation. Commonality of interpretation and performance is defined and refined in rehearsal through the collaborative efforts of the conductor and the ensemble. If one had the opportunity to view the music library of a top-tier orchestra, it would provide a glimpse of the repertoire of the orchestra’s past, present and future. But more importantly, it would be index of an interpretive vocabulary common to the musicians of that orchestra; the results of shared experiences and constant nudging in the direction of common concepts.

Breathing & Conducting

Therefore, the basic trick is the preparatory upbeat. It is exactly like breathing: the preparation is like an inhalation, and the music sounds like an exhalation. We all have to inhale to speak, for example; all verbal expression is exhaled. So it is with music: we inhale on the upbeat and sing out a phrase of music, then inhale again and breathe out the next phrase. A conductor who breathes with the music has gone far in a acquiring a technique.  – Leonard Bernstein

Don’t you cellists ever breathe? After all, the human voice learned to sing long before stringed instruments were invented. And singers must breathe. The audience also breathes. Play it again but this time humanize this long passage. Play it as though you, too, had to breathe while phrasing. Form it into bite-size phrases which the audience can assimilate comfortably while they, too, continue to breathe. – George Szell