My Next Read by Chris Foley

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Look what arrived in the mail yesterday! It’s not every day that you get to read a novel about music that’s written by someone with a deep and meaningful knowledge of what the musical life actually entails. A huge thanks goes out to Rhonda Rizzo for sending me a copy - stay tuned for some thoughts on The Waco Variations.

Two Mountains by Chris Foley

Los Cuernos in Evening Light by  Walter Sawka

Los Cuernos in Evening Light by Walter Sawka

David Brooks’s The Moral Peril of Meritocracy frames the world in terms of two mountains. The first mountain is that of professional accomplishment and success. The second mountain is more elusive and is often reached through suffering, adversity, or through dedication to a cause:

If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second is about shedding the ego and dissolving the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution.

On the first mountain, personal freedom is celebrated — keeping your options open, absence of restraint. But the perfectly free life is the unattached and unremembered life. Freedom is not an ocean you want to swim in; it is a river you want to cross so that you can plant yourself on the other side.

So the person on the second mountain is making commitments. People who have made a commitment to a town, a person, an institution or a cause have cast their lot and burned the bridges behind them. They have made a promise without expecting a return. They are all in.

On why the second mountain is important:

We don’t treat one another well. And the truth is that 60 years of a hyper-individualistic first-mountain culture have weakened the bonds between people. They’ve dissolved the shared moral cultures that used to restrain capitalism and the meritocracy.

Over the past few decades the individual, the self, has been at the center. The second-mountain people are leading us toward a culture that puts relationships at the center. They ask us to measure our lives by the quality of our attachments, to see that life is a qualitative endeavor, not a quantitative one. They ask us to see others at their full depths, and not just as a stereotype, and to have the courage to lead with vulnerability. These second-mountain people are leading us into a new culture. Culture change happens when a small group of people find a better way to live and the rest of us copy them. These second-mountain people have found it.

What does your second mountain look like?

From Brainstorm to Project in One Evening by Chris Foley

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A little bit of brainstorming can go a long way when you’re starting something new. Pictured above is the one-page project plan I wrote out in my Leuchtturm notebook one evening in late February when yet another winter storm caused the cancellation of a concert that several of my students were to perform at.

This small glitch in my schedule gave me the opening I needed to jump-start a project that I intended to eventually get to over the coming weeks in a leisurely manner, and moved up the launch from weeks to days. The plan I came up with was only a bare-bones sketch, but provided the framework for the actions that followed with a lot of subsequent review and adjustment. And in hindsight, once I had taken the initial steps, it felt really easy.

That project plan above led to the the blog that you’re reading right now.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with people over the last few weeks about how the musical profession, both with performing and teaching, is moving more quickly than ever into an entrepreneurial model. The scarcity model, where an ever-growing pool of highly educated professionals apply for a limited number of academic and performing positions, is is a zero-sum game that seems to be shrinking every year*.

But through the ability to generate new ideas and projects, we’re able to create genuine growth in the arts. Understanding a few basics of product creation and marketing, we’ll be able to find those who are genuinely interested in our projects, develop the personal connections, create, and sell a product, whether it be our expertise, a concert series, or something entirely new.

Musicians need to be able to do this.

Since I started this blog in early February, here are some of the things that have transpired:

  • I’ve come into contact and development friendships with many amazing people in the fields of music, productivity, and business development.

  • I learned a new platform (Squarespace).

  • An entirely new audience for my writing.

  • I landed my first clients in an entirely new field for me (life coaching for musicians), and intend to pursue this line of work in the coming months.

  • My teaching has been transformed through contact with a host of new ideas related to life coaching and personal productivity.

Above all, it’s the friendships and conversations arising from this project that I value the most. New ideas and connections lead to more of the same, and this is the greatest advantage of the entrepreneurial model once you tap into its vast potential.

And it all started with a few basic ideas written out in a notebook that coalesced into a simple project plan hatched over the course of an evening.


* I’m indebted to Jennifer Rosenfeld of iCadenza, whose explanations of the entrepreneurial and scarcity models have helped me to understand a lot of the trends that are currently going on in the profession.

Olivier Latry Plays the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor at Notre Dame de Paris by Chris Foley

Many of us this morning are heartbroken by the devastating fire at Notre Dame de Paris, one of the world’s greatest cultural treasures. Fortunately, the great organ survived, according to Paris’ deputy mayor:

10:35 a.m.

Paris’ deputy mayor says Notre Dame’s organ, among the world’s most famous and biggest, remains intact after a devastating fire at Paris’ main cathedral.

Emmanuel Gregoire told BFMTV Tuesday that a plan to protect Notre Dame’s treasures was rapidly and successfully activated.

The impressive organ dates to the 1730s and was constructed by Francois Thierry. It boasts an estimated 8,000 pipes.

We can only hope that the organ is once again in playable condition during our lifetimes. Until then, we have only the recorded legacy of great performances on that instrument. Here’s Olivier Latry playing Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor: (Update Friday, April 26, 2019) It appears that the video referenced in the title is no longer available on YouTube for whatever reasons. In its place, here’s a video of Olivier Latry playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor:

You can read more about the Great and Choir organs here, here, and here.

What I Learned Over the Last Two Weeks by Chris Foley

This is a place I always go to when I’m in the western Conception Bay area. The weather in the first week of April was warmer than when I came here in mid-June two years ago.

This is a place I always go to when I’m in the western Conception Bay area. The weather in the first week of April was warmer than when I came here in mid-June two years ago.

Once in a while you encounter a period of time where everything snaps into clarity, and where the most important issues and questions all of a sudden seem to make more sense. A few days ago I got back from a two-week trip on the road examining at the Kiwanis Music Festival in Carbonear and examining for The Royal Conservatory’s Certificate Program in Winnipeg. In both these places, I had the chance to observe musical communities at their finest.

The stage at the Carbonear Regional Community Centre.

The stage at the Carbonear Regional Community Centre.

The trip started with a full week adjudicating in Carbonear, a small town up the Conception Bay coastline northwest of St. John’s, Newfoundland. What I found intriguing was how a small town of less than 5000 people can support a festival with a full week of piano and voice classes. What intrigued me about this trip were the words of those who had previously adjudicated in Carbonear, and how it had transformed their outlook on music education. So I left with an eagerness to discover something that several of my colleagues had already learned while working there.

The first thing I noticed was how well-run the festival was. Adjudicating a full festival is no small feat, and the web of rules, scholarships, and qualification requirements can be difficult to navigate at the best of times. However, the day-to-day logistics were handled with a level of detail that allowed me to concentrate on the music and how I could help each performer, given the limited time available in performing classes throughout the day.

The view from my motel room in Carbonear. The weather tended to be quite variable, and I experienced three seasons in one week.

The view from my motel room in Carbonear. The weather tended to be quite variable, and I experienced three seasons in one week.

But as the week developed, I also noticed a number of other things. Music in Newfoundland holds a central a place in the life of families, noticeable by the sheer love and engagement of so many musicians and the large number of relatives that came out to support the performers, many of whom learned multiple instruments.

The performers were highly supportive of each other, even in competitive classes. After performing, I would notice that many of them high-fived and fist-bumped each other. Sadly, there are only a few awards available for each class, many of which are quite sizeable. But after announcing the results, I was pleasantly astonished to notice that those who didn’t win genuinely congratulated those who did.

This was a tough shot to make, and I had to time the shot with the rise and fall of the waves so as not to have my iPhone swept out to sea.

This was a tough shot to make, and I had to time the shot with the rise and fall of the waves so as not to have my iPhone swept out to sea.

There are also strong ties between those working in the arts community with the business community at large. This is a relationship that in many places is largely not known or understood, but when you see it in action, you can see a community working together with strong cohesion, and with the best interests of everyone. In Carbonear, there was a strong understanding in the business community that arts activities are an integral part of the area’s economic activity, can strengthen ties within it, and bring people into the area. The large number of people learning instruments also created a strong demand for teachers in the area. My hope is that as current teachers in the area age and eventually retire, younger teachers will move to the community in order to continue the local musical traditions.

The trip continued with a short examining stint in Winnipeg, where I had a chance to catch up with some of my dearest friends as well as meet new ones. Tempering my admiration of the high standard of playing was a realization of the very real issues facing educators in that city, especially regarding the mental health of young people.

A well-deserved drink at Winnipeg airport at the end of the trip.

A well-deserved drink at Winnipeg airport at the end of the trip.

I like to thank people for the impact that they have in the world, and in the case of the last two weeks, the list of people I personally thanked, either in person or on social media, went well into the dozens. But I wanted to thank everyone once more who makes such an impact on their community in Carbonear, St. John’s, and Winnipeg. You know who you are, and I just wanted you all to know that your dedication to the arts community and young people whose lives you impact, either as educators, parents, or volunteers, really matters. You’re doing great work, and the example that you’ve shown will inform the work I do for a very long time.

Hybrid Life: Balancing Careers in Music and Writing by Chris Foley

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Today’s guest post is from Rhonda Rizzo, a performing and recording pianist, and author.  She has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It, numerous articles, and a novel, The Waco Variations.  If you’re interested in following Rhonda’s projects, check out her blog No Dead Guys. I hope that Rhonda’s account of managing her twin careers resonates with you the way it does for me - this is the way forward for many of us as we enter a much more entrepreneur-oriented era for success in the arts.


It took my first recital (age 6) to convince me I wanted to be a pianist.  It took selling my first story (age 15) to convince me I wanted to be a writer.  It has taken me decades to figure out how to balance the two.  I am, a career mentor once told me, a hybrid. She was the first one who saw the value of maintaining both career paths when most people told me I needed to specialize and choose between the two.  

Balancing two parallel career paths is tricky.  My focus zig-zags; sometimes it’s the piano that absorbs me and other times it’s writing.  This could be a sign that I’m not serious about either career, but it’s the path I’ve taken because I’m creatively incomplete without both disciplines in my life.  And, after decades of working in both art forms, I can see the common ground that feeds them both.  

Communication.  It’s the earth, the hummus, the guiding force, the creative stuff that dictates my writing and playing.  Some truths require the poetry of words; others go so deep they need the wordless communication of music.  The trick is to listen closely and obey the creative impulse, regardless of the communication channel.  

It took decades of working in these parallel careers before they fused in one project.  I’m a career non-fiction writer who found myself compelled to write the fictional story of a young pianist, Cassie, who survives the Branch Davidian fire in Waco, Texas. The resulting novel,  The Waco Variations, is Cassie’s journey of healing—a journey made possible through her love of the music she plays.  In Bach and Barber Cassie finds the structure she lacks in her life.  In Rachmaninoff and Chopin, she learns how to grieve.  In the very act of delving deeply into music, she finds the healing she needs to transcend tragedy and create her life.  

The Waco Variations is a book I couldn’t have written had I not been a career pianist.  Sinking into notes, following musical lines, feeling the thrill of connecting with the mind of the composer—these are things that form the tapestry of my life as a pianist.  Conversely, had I not had decades of honing my writing skills, I’d have never been able to put these experiences into words.  

Since the novel’s publication, my duel career paths have returned to their individual, meandering ways.  The writing part of my life has allowed me to connect with other “hybrid” musician/writer colleagues, introducing me to people all over the globe. Through these connections I have a list of articles and guest blogs to write. My musical career continues to pull me to the music of living composers, which I record and write about on my blog.  I’m knuckle-deep into a new set of compositions that I’m lucky enough to be the first person (other than the composers) to hear and bring to life.   Most days find me with my hands on both keyboards—the piano and the computer—searching for ways to communicate truths living in music and life. I play with notes and words and I hope that despite the challenges of juggling multiple projects something beautiful enters the world through my hands.

Arrival Day in Carbonear by Chris Foley

Carbonear is a small town about an hour north-west of St. John’s in Newfoundland. I’ll be spending the next week here adjudicating for the Carbonear Kiwanis Music Festival. Below are some pictures from yesterday afternoon, when the temperature hit a balmy 16 degrees Celsius (61 Fahrenheit), easily the warmest day of the year so far. Last night’s cod supper is pictured at the bottom.

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Year One for Professional Singers by Chris Foley

Zach Finkelstein has a new blog about how to survive and thrive as a professional performing artist, and his post on getting to a living wage as a singer is eye-opening. I feel his numbers are right on the mark regarding how much a singer should expect to make at various tiers of performing organizations. It’s not pretty.

Becoming a professional singer has almost nothing to do with the pedigree of your young artist program CV or elite conservatory or how many competitions you win. It is all about your ability to survive for a decade or longer while trying to build a professional career.

If you’re a student or recent graduate from a music program, this is recommended reading.

The First Note by Chris Foley

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Some thoughts on performing from lesson notes sent to my first student of the day:

The moment your fingers touch the keys, you already need to have a clear sense of rhythmic pace, the sound you want, as well as your musical vision for the piece. Take more time before you start! Silence is the frame out of which your musical performance emerges. 

Get Into the Studio by Chris Foley

Steven Pressfield on the importance of showing up and starting:

Shut up and get into the studio. Once your physical envelope is standing before the easel, your heart and mind will follow.

If you want to write, plant your backside in front of the typewriter. Don’t get up from the chair, no matter how many brilliantly-plausible reasons your Resistance-churning brain presents to you. Sooner or later your fingers will settle onto the keys. Not long after that, I promise, the goddess will slip invisibly but powerfully into the room.