Some of my most formative and memorable musical experiences have taken place at conferences of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA).  From the University of Louisville’s breathtaking performance of Raua Needmine in Los Angeles, to performing with the University of Kentucky Men’s Chorus in Winston-Salem, to the Keystone State Boychoir radiating pure joy in Boston last year, these conferences offer an opportunity to refresh my creative spirit, inspire my central self (see The Art of Possibility by Zander and Zander for details on that term), and remind me of why I do what I do.  Music—choral music in particular—is all about communication, and at ACDA, communication at the highest possible level.  Hundreds of voices unite in artistry, symbolism, and beauty.  When met with vulnerability and openness, the result is pure magic.

However, ACDA conferences sometimes appeal to the calculating self as well (again, see Zander and Zander), and I’d be lying if I claimed I had never succumbed to that temptation.  When surrounded by the best in the business, one can easily resent the successes of others and whine about one’s own situation (whether or not whining is even justified by said situation).  What looks like venting or “being real” is often just ungratefulness in disguise.

I’ve sat with colleagues in concerts of amazing and beautiful music, nit-picking the tiniest details.  After all, 

How many choir directors does it take to screw in a lightbulb?


One to screw it in and four others to discuss how they would have done it better.

(There’s an alternate answer that explains, “No one will ever know, because no one watches the director.”)  


Instead of appreciating and being thankful for the stunning gift of music, I have all-too-often focused on the oddly-colored ribbons, unusual wrapping paper, or missing name card.  This is the kind of behavior that would cause a child to spend half of Christmas Day standing in the corner rather than playing with new toys.  Maybe ACDA needs to reserve a corner of the concert hall specifically for the Negative Nicks and Nancys among us!

Beyond what I’ve lost by engaging in these negative conversations, what have I ever gained from them?  Not one bloody thing.  While I might “feel” superior for a moment, being so needlessly and overly critical destroys an opportunity to enjoy, to love, to cry, to laugh, or to be human, offering little more than bitterness in return.  I’ve been told not to let anyone steal my joy, but what they really need to tell me is not to steal my own joy!

Recently Becca Kenneally told the MassACDA Intercollegiate Choral Festival participants, “From here on out, doing what you love will have to be a conscious choice.  No one is going to tell you to do the things you love.”  Her wisdom has stuck with me, and I’ve shared it with several of my students.  I teach on a campus that is walking distance from one of the most beautiful parks in Massachusetts, including over 90 miles of hiking trails, and do you know how many times I’ve been told to take a hike?  None (excepting the times when it was meant metaphorically).  Do you know how many times I’ve taken a hike through the Blue Hills Reservation?  Once.  IN THREE YEARS!!!!!  How in the world is this possible?  Because I didn’t choose to do something that I love, and nobody is going to tell me to do it! 

At this ACDA National Conference, I will make a bold declaration in the hopes that my friends and colleagues will join me and hold me accountable.  

  • I will choose to love.  

  • I will choose to be grateful.  

  • I will choose to seek joy, meaning, and significance.  

  • In short, I will choose to be human, because this is what art is all about.


Other books that have shaped my thoughts on this topic:  Mindset by Carol Dwyer and Rethinking “Art” by Steve Shipps