Owen Underhill's Hinge for Piano and Chamber Ensemble by Chris Foley

This recording dates from nearly 20 years ago, and was one of my most memorable performing/recording projects from the time I was a member of the Vancouver New Music Ensemble. Owen Underhill’s Hinge, with its intricacy and interaction of piano writing against the chamber ensemble, was a challenge and required a ton of preparation. We really nailed the recording, and our work here is a fine example of the cohesion that the ensemble played with in the late 90’s.

Here’s the full lineup from the recording:

Owen Underhill, conductor
Chris Foley, piano solo
Kathryn Cernauskas, flute and piccolo
David Owen, english horn and oboe
François Houle, bass clarinet
Salvador Ferreras, percussion
Victor Costanzi, violin
Sue Round, cello
David Brown, double bass

Emmett O'Hanlon on 1000% Dedication and Starting Now by Chris Foley

Once we reach a certain level of success, there is a danger of staying in the same place for too long. Understanding how to move on from this place and on to the next stage can be one of the greatest challenges that we face.

Emmett O’Hanlon is one of those rare classical performers whose rise to success coincided with production of a very informative YouTube channel where he talked about his experiences along the way. His musings on the creative life are extremely useful to those embarking on a similar creative path.

In We’ll Call Him John, Emmett tells the story about advice his father gave to a janitor unsure of whether to train for his lifelong dream as a doctor (video is cued up to 2:44 where the story starts):

One of the reasons to follow your dream immediately is that even if the original plan doesn’t work out, the process of taking that step opens up possibilities:

I’ve always approached things at 100 miles an hour. I’ve always approached things from a mindset of if I put this off, it’s just going to be that much longer until I get it. Obviously, some dreams are harder to get than others. Although I hate the word luck because it kind of demeans that hard work you put into something, it does take a level of luck, but if you’re not working towards that goal, nothing can happen. You can’t get lucky. So even if what ends up happening isn’t your original plan, something amazing will come out of that hard work.

In Story Time…Here We Go, Emmett talks about the challenges he faced with developing a fitness plan and how he overcame them:

On his fitness journey and how it wasn’t just about fitness:

Although it’s just a gym and it’s just fitness, for me it has proven that if you just fully dedicate 1000% to something, it will happen. That goes for careers, that goes for fitness, that goes for anything. Although it might seem easier for some people due to their luck or their position in life or whatever, that doesn’t mean that they’re more deserving than anyone else. You just have to see what you want and reconstitute everything you have to that purpose.

…With the fitness stuff I wasn’t lucky genetically. It really is something in my life that has taught a lot about myself. I learned that if I indulge myself, I will procrastinate. I’ve also learned that if I do procrastinate it causes me a lot of anxiety because I hate wasting time. Because the only true resource that is fleeting is time. Since I’ve been taught this lesson of driving yourself and dedicating yourself to something, I now have all these new things I want to do and all these new goals I have for myself, and my only enemy in the mission to get these things is time, because I know as long as I put the hours in and the work in, I can achieve something towards that goal. Because you have to come to terms with the fact that there’s only so much we get done in a day, or an hour, or 10 minutes.

Let’s not forget that Emmett is first and foremost an awesome baritone! Here he is with pianist Andrew King singing New York, New York:

Look through Emmett’s YouTube channel for more stories and updates. You can also find him on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

(Via Allison Vest)

Keith Jarrett Plays Over the Rainbow by Chris Foley

Pianists trained in the classical tradition might find Keith Jarrett’s physical mannerisms a little off-putting. But in this arrangement of Over the Rainbow you’ll find a stillness, beauty, and perfect choice of notes in the improvised sections that makes Jarrett’s style so moving.

I Have an Idea by Chris Foley

These four simple words regularly pop out of the mouths of people in phone calls, meetings, coffee gatherings, and late-night Facebook Messenger chats.

I have an idea.

These four words signal that the person who said them has not only thought of something, but that they have plans, are willing to share them, talk through them, and have made the first steps forward towards making an idea a reality.

I have an idea.

If you’re the one saying these words, you’ve taken the time to find a new way to approach a situation, solve a problem, find a new market, or discover something completely new. You’ve also put enough trust in those around you to broach the subject, throw out an idea, seek input, and start a discussion.

I have an idea.

If you’re the one to whom these words are directed, listen carefully. Someone has put their trust in you and has gone out on a limb in order to share their ideas with you. They have just started the process of collaboration and need some valuable input based on your own experience and ideas. They might even have an answer to a question that has been nagging at you for a very long time.

But the person putting out the idea has also taken a risk. The danger of someone putting themselves out on a limb in this way is their idea might be dismissed for not being financially viable, a little too over-the-top, not cognizant of present realities, or not appropriate to the situation. They might get the impression that their ideas weren’t even viable in the first place.

But the process of putting out an idea is critical to moving forward projects, careers, and the entire profession. We need a steady stream of new ideas. Even if they’re a little too ambitious, they can lead to other new ideas, to partnerships, collaborations, and eventual solutions.

Over the last few months, the words “I have an idea” have been spoken to me a larger number of times than usual. This is good news indeed that I might be a person who has them too, am surrounded by exceptional individuals, and who trusts and is trusted enough to be able to understand and talk about them. Thank you for sharing your visions and crazy dreams with me.

For those of you who have said these words to friends, colleagues, or potential colleagues, keep up the great work. Keep on thinking up new ways of doing things, and take a chance to share it with others. Keep on looking for people worthy of sharing your vision with, and who have the ability to understand you. From these discussions there will arise a future of new possibilities.

(Image courtesy of Sean Patrick Murphy on Unsplash)

Musicians Should Learn Career Skills Just Like They Learn Music by Chris Foley

Part of working as an emerging musician today is developing the skill-set that can help you to gain a foothold in the profession at a time when there have never been so many people trying to do exactly the same thing, and the standards have never been higher. If you’re already established in the profession, keeping up with the relentless pace of present reality will require a continual growth and broadening of your professional horizons, even in the final decades of your career. So many of these critical skills are non-musical:

  • self-care and mental health

  • marketing yourself on social media

  • email management

  • project management

  • grant writing

  • financial skills

These may seem like things that are completely apart from playing an instrument, but the kind of careful daily preparation that can get you there is more than familiar to musicians. David Perrell in Learn Like an Athlete talks about how many of these elite learning abilities of athletes and musicians need to be applied to knowledge work.

Athletes train. Musicians train. Performers train. But knowledge workers don’t.

Knowledge workers should train like LeBron, and implement strict “learning plans.” To be sure, intellectual life is different from basketball. Success is harder to measure and the metrics for improvement aren’t quite as clear. Even then, there’s a lot to learn from the way top athletes train. They are clear in their objectives and deliberate in their pursuit of improvement.

Knowledge workers should imitate them.

Being a musician no different from being a knowledge worker. You may have already developed your elite musical skills, but in order to get the chance to actually use them, you need to be able to create a situation where you can either get hired or create your own work. Music teachers need to be able to sell a high-priced product within specific communities. Performers need to market themselves to their audience and build a fan base.

Here’s David’s plan:

Learn in three-month sprints and commit to a new learning project every quarter.

Even the longest projects are simply a collection of short term tasks. Knowing that, you should break down the project into daily increments, and create a series of daily and weekly goals to learn the skills required to complete the project on time. 

The end goal should be clear. Start by writing down a positive vision for your future. Focus on the end goal, not the skill itself. For example, rather than saying “I want to learn how to draw,” I focused on the end goal: “moving forward, all the charts, graphs, and images on my website will be hand-drawn.” 

Just like learning music! David also has a template that helps you put this type of learning program into practice.

What are your non-musical learning goals and challenges? Leave a comment below.

(Via Marginal Revolution. Image courtesy of Providence Doucet on Unsplash.)

Experiments in Rejection and Failure by Chris Foley

Most of the things that I’ve done have taken me quite a long time to realize any sense of real visibility in doing them. That’s just always been the arc of my life in anything that I was doing. I didn’t really get any traction with my career for about the first decade. I now look back and call that first decade experiments in rejection and failure.

The quote above is from Debbie Millman, the guest on Jocelyn Glei’s latest episode of Hurry Slowly, who talks about how the most important projects in life take time and simply cannot be realized in short timespans. Another quote from Debbie on her conversation with David Lee Roth (of Van Halen fame):

“We were talking about the arc of a career and what he [David Lee Roth] said was, ‘You don’t really ever want to reach the peak because when you reach the peak you’re often alone, and it’s always cold. The only direction is down.’ I thought, ‘My, God, that’s got to be one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever heard.’”

Debbie’s way of looking at the trajectory of long-term creative projects is useful in plotting your own path, and I like her idea of the 10-year creative plan. The long roads are often the ones with the most potential.

Debbie Millman: The Speed of Achievement (Apple Podcasts, Spotify)

(Photo courtesy of Diego Jimenez on Unsplash)

From Music School to the Opera World by Chris Foley

Embarking on a professional opera career after the sheltered world of university can be eye-opening, writes baritone Lucas Meachem in What School Doesn’t Teach You About Opera. Lucas’ advice looks at how to deal with uncertainty and the importance of developing your own program where none is laid out for you in life. How he motivated himself to create a course of study during a two-month hiatus:

The first time I had time off as a young professional was when I was singing in Stuttgart and the stagehands went on strike. I had two entire (paid) months off and I had to be intelligent with my time. I took the opportunity to learn German and hired a tutor. I became proficient by the time I left the country.

It was up to me how I spent those two months and I had to continue being productive or else I would have gone stir-crazy as well as gotten behind on my potential development as a singer. I had to motivate myself to develop without a program telling me how.

The only place where I disagree with Lucas is regarding the responsibility of music programs to teach students about real life skills and situations - I feel strongly that they should, and that many music programs are failing their students in this regard.

A deep dive into Lucas’ blog is well worth the time - you’ll find a lot of practical advice and wisdom there.

(Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash)

A Life of Total Work? by Chris Foley

What if our entire lives were taken up with work? Andrew Taggart looks at what such a scenario might look like in his recent article for Aeon:

Imagine that work had taken over the world. It would be the centre around which the rest of life turned. Then all else would come to be subservient to work. Then slowly, almost imperceptibly, anything else – the games once played, the songs hitherto sung, the loves fulfilled, the festivals celebrated – would come to resemble, and ultimately become, work. And then there would come a time, itself largely unobserved, when the many worlds that had once existed before work took over the world would vanish completely from the cultural record, having fallen into oblivion.

More about how Total Work plays out:

Following this taskification of the world, she sees time as a scarce resource to be used prudently, is always concerned with what is to be done, and is often anxious both about whether this is the right thing to do now and about there always being more to do. Crucially, the attitude of the total worker is not grasped best in cases of overwork, but rather in the everyday way in which he is single-mindedly focused on tasks to be completed, with productivity, effectiveness and efficiency to be enhanced. How? Through the modes of effective planning, skilful prioritising and timely delegation. The total worker, in brief, is a figure of ceaseless, tensed, busied activity: a figure, whose main affliction is a deep existential restlessness fixated on producing the useful.

Hey, that sounds really professional, and not unlike the lives of many people I know, including myself at various times over the last 30 years.

Taggart’s article is highly disquieting and raises more questions than it answers. But perhaps what these questions teach us is that even if (to quote Nicholas Bate) the purpose of work is purpose itself, we need to find contemplation, friendships, and cool things to do quite apart from that purpose.

(Image courtesy of Bethany Legg on Unsplash)

Robbie, a Short Sci-Fi Film by Neil Harvey by Chris Foley

My name is Robbie. I am from a planet called Earth. It is part of a four-billion-year-old solar system.

What if a robot was given consciousness, the ability to form relationships and run simulations, and went into space? That’s the premise of Robbie, a short sci-fi film by Neil Harvey from the always-fascinating (and binge-watchable) DUST channel on YouTube. My mind was blown at 1:35 and it kept getting better (and more emotionally engaging) until the very end.

Bring Kleenex.

Wendy Hatala Foley's Painted Musical Instruments by Chris Foley

Over the last few years, Wendy has painted several works on instruments which, through overuse, are no longer playable. Wendy’s re-imagining of these instruments adds new life and value to objects that would otherwise be condemned to a life of disuse and neglect, transforming them into art pieces that can have a permanent place in a home, redolent with the memories that they inspired.

Many of these pieces are sold (see the caption for each), but several are still available - click on the contact link at the top of the page of you’re interested in purchasing. Wendy also has several unpainted instruments on deck, so feel free to contact us if you have any specific ideas for a commission. You can follow Wendy’s Instagram to see her full repertory and stay apprised of upcoming works.