Shine Your Light

These thoughts are excerpted from the keynote I presented at the CT-ACDA Fall Conference in Guildford, CT.  I have edited my remarks for this print edition for ease of reading (mostly, I took out all of the jokes that failed miserably).

Shine Your Light

When I found out that the conference was titled “Shine Your Light,” I instantly thought of the zillions of inspiring graduation speeches I’ve heard.  I starting thinking about all of the times I was actually inspired by one of those students offering sage advice well-beyond their years. And then I started considering all of the ways I open myself up to be inspired: by reading internet blogs, doing self-help meditations, being around successful people, reading books about productivity and creativity, attending sermons, political speeches.

But the thing that inspires me the most is my students.  There’s something about witnessing your student do something great.  Many, many times I have thought, if that 14-year-old can do that, then I have no excuse.

And that got me thinking about the care and support that I offer my students that I probably should offer to myself.

Never once have I said to a student:

  • You probably shouldn’t try that. You won’t be any good at it.
  • Don’t go out and try to make a difference.
  • Push your instincts way down deep and don’t pay attention to your desires or your strengths.
  • Keep your ideas to yourself and don’t ask for help.
  • Somebody else will probably do it.
  • Wait for a sign.
  • Don’t try to get better. It’s not going to happen.
  • Education is overrated.
  • Whatever you do, don’t think it through.
  • Stay out of the way.
  • You probably have nothing to add to this discussion.
  • And please, please don’t participate.

Shine Your Light.  Seems like a simple enough idea.

I like to think that part of my extraverted personality was shaped during my very first choir experience.  I vividly remember singing “This Little Light of Mine” as a four-year-old in the children’s choir.  Though my Protestant roots have long been pulled up and wrestled with, the message of empowerment in that song has really stuck with me.

A couple of years ago, I was in the final throes of completing a doctorate in education in learning and teaching.  At the same time, I was covering my husband’s sabbatical leave by conducting one of his choirs at Hofstra.  I was panicked because the first concert was at the beginning of November and I knew I didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time.  So, I sat down at the computer and wrote a list of ten ways the students could practice on their own.  And as I often do when I plan lessons and curriculum, I assumed the worst, which in this case was that none of them had any reading skills whatsoever.  From that perspective, I put together what I thought were some strategies that anybody with a pulse could basically do.  And just like how I used to stick a Swiffer duster in my own children’s tiny hands so they could play the “dusting game,” I figured anything was better than nothing.

So, here’s the thing.  I had this list.  I made it kind of funny.  I knew it was solid from a pedagogical perspective.  I also knew there was definitely nothing groundbreaking or new about it.  Every one of you teaches your singers about every one of the things on the list.  But I also knew there wasn’t anything out there like it, because I looked on the internet hoping I could steal something to photocopy and give to my singers.

So, I put my list out there. I shined my light.

As of today, it has been read over 100,000 times on my wordpress blog.  I give permission for people to photocopy the PDF version on the webpage and freely distribute it to their singers.  I have no idea how many singers actually use it, but I’m guessing it’s a lot. With the exception of only a handful of days in the last three years, the page has been visited daily by people all over the world; from countries I have to look up on google maps.

I am nothing exceptional.  I just did a thing.

I bet there’s a thing you can do. I don’t know what that is.  You probably do, though.

My insurance underwriter father and my operating nurse mother never would have guessed that someday someone would ask their middle child to speak at a state conference of choral conductors.  But a lovely group of ACDA members from Connecticut attended my interest session at the National ACDA Conference in Minneapolis and asked me to be here with you. The reason I was presenting an interest session in the first place is because I put myself out there and sent in a session proposal.  I shined my light.

I went back to school to get my doctorate because I was bored.  I had taken up quilting baby blankets, which was not really doing the trick. And then I was like, wait a second. Something has to change.  So, I applied to a doctoral program.  And I shined my light.

There are risks to shining your light.  Sometimes people yell at you to turn it down because it’s too bright.  Sometimes people just turn it off.  But you have to decide if you’re okay with existing in your own darkness or if you can’t stand just borrowing someone else’s light anymore.

I know, I know. There are times when you just need someone else’s light.  But there’s also a need for your light in our community.

Let’s take a second here to address imposter syndrome.  That’s where you feel like you are not qualified to be doing the thing that you do and someday really soon everyone is going to figure it out and that’ll be the end of the dream.  This imposter syndrome can make you feel like your light isn’t real, or isn’t contributing. But you have to remember that this feeling isn’t unique to you. The only way to fight it is to actually turn on your light and let it shine (aka just do something).

So, here we all are at this ACDA Conference, which implies that we all believe in the power of group singing. So, I’m going to ask you, “What are you doing to not only maintainchoral membership, but increase the chances that more people learn to sing and have access to a choir?”

Imagine a pyramid shape with me. At the bottom is the largest stratum. These are children that sing in school. For the most part, all children have access to group singing in the elementary school.

Move up a bit on the pyramid and you have a smaller stratum.  These are students who select chorus in their middle school experience.  These are students who are comfortable with their identity as a singer and feel successful at singing all the while going through a voice change.  Maybe some of these kids also sing in community children’s choirs.

Move up a little further on the pyramid and you start to see the diminishing number of students singing at the high school level.  Here, attrition sets in due to jam-packed schedules, lack of support from home to pursue music making, technical voice problems, and/or identity issues.

Further up the pyramid we get to the collegiate singer.  This small percentage of the population has sought out and navigated the obstacles of how to audition for a college choir or maybe has been one of the few singers to make it into an a cappella group.  The rest of the high school singers have used the transition into college as an opportunity to seek out new experiences and put their energies elsewhere.

The smallest group is at the top of the pyramid:  Adults who still sing in a choir.  Gone from this group are adults with too busy lives, adults who think they can’t sing, and adults without access to choirs in their communities.

Faced with this structure, we exist in a society where dwindling participation rates in choral singing negatively affect the fabric of our communities because people aren’t reaping the musical, social, and health and well-being benefits.  Singing for everyone doesn’t have to be a phenomenon that only our youngest generation experiences.  What would our world be like if more people sang together?

So, I ask you this.  What can you do to shine your light to increase musical experiences for members of your community?  Could you invite your audiences to sing along with you at one of your concerts?  Could you host a family night or faculty night where members of your choir invite family members or teachers to sing with them?  Could you start a choir for people who don’t think they can sing? Could you educate people about the benefits of singing?  Could you write an article/publish a blog post/present an interest session?  Could you contribute to a choral advocacy group either with your time or your money?  Could you become involved in the political process of lobbying for music education and arts funding?

How can you best utilize your skill set to bring more music to more people?

I know.  It’s easy to get caught up in the concert preparation cycle. We work in a profession where the constant loop is:

  • pick the perfect repertoire,
  • infuse notes and rhythms into our singers,
  • refine, perform, repeat.

It’s a hard loop.  And it’s always hard work.  But that’s not going away, nor is that loop the only contribution you can make to the choral art.  We can’t be complacent or hide in the tiny bubble of our own ensemble.

Think about the singers in your own choir. Who shines their light in your choir?  How do you recognize it?  Maybe they are super engaged.  Maybe they inspired the singers around them. Maybe they have a pencil.  Maybe they are organizers or musical leaders or recruiters. What can you learn from how they shine their light?

Take a minute to think.  What is it that you do well?  Know a lot about?  Feel curiosity about or passion for?  Or what gets you mad and fired up?

What is something you can do to help grow our community of singers?  Take 30 seconds to just think about this question. Resist the urge to check your phone during these 30 seconds.  Try to think of something you can do to help grow our community of singers.

Here are some things to think about as you consider shining your light.

  • If ideas are popping into your head, write them down now.
  • Know that you are inherently positioned to do something different from your peers.
  • Pick one thing (not 17 causes) to put your energy into.
  • Go towards what you’re curious about.
  • Do your research.
  • Do it because you believe it is important.
  • Don’t go at it alone.
  • Remember that no one will invite you to do something that’s only an idea in your own head.
  • Take healthy risks. The clock is always ticking.
  • Balance patience with action.
  • Failure should be expected, so manage your expectations.
  • And teaching in the classroom or rehearsal is the same as implementing things in the bigger world. You already have the right skill set to make a difference.

Shining your light is just like singing your voice.  You have to find your resonance or figure out where your light shines the brightest. You may need to try out lots of repertoire to see what fits your voice best.  You may need to figure out who to sit next to so that you sound the best. You know how it works.

Go out there and shine your light.

-Doreen Fryling, CT-ACDA Fall Conference, October 27th, 2018




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