The End of Average – book review

The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness

Are you average?end of average

Author Todd Rose argues that nobody is average. We all have unique, jagged strengths and weaknesses.

Scientists and statisticians use averages to draw conclusions about a group. However, applying the lessons of the average to an individual is not helpful, and can sometimes be harmful. This is called the “ergodic switch.”

Consider this example. A student takes a standardized test and the results show an average score. As you can see from the table below, this student is not uniformly average in all subjects. This student is above average in encoding and visual puzzles but below average in vocabulary. This student has some clear strengths and one area that needs attention. A one-size-fits-all education really fits none.


composite average score

Age of Average

The End of Average discusses how we have arrived at blindly accepting the lie that the average is a valid tool for creating policy. I thought the sections on genes, traits, Quetelet’s social physics, and Taylorism were particularly interesting. The rise of standardization in American culture was slow, but it has a strong foothold in our educational and business systems today.

The central question of the book is

“How can a society predicated on the conviction that individuals can only be evaluated in reference to the average ever create the conditions for understanding and harnessing individuality?”

The Benefits of Personalization

As a music teacher, I understand the value of a personalized education. Students come to me with unique problems, natural talents, and resources. Some have musical parents; others are the first in their families to study music. Some have natural vibrato; others require years of systematic instruction to learn the skill. Because I work with each student individually, I adapt my teaching. This makes taking private lessons so different than self-directed learning from a book or instruction in school band/orchestra.

My children are fortunate to be in a school system that allows teachers flexibility with the materials they use in the classroom. Through projects, the kids are allowed to choose the direction and intensity of study. For example, my daughter is working on a detailed diorama of Ireland, (shown here with our hedgehog dressed as a leprechaun.) My son who was in the same class last year, chose to write a report for that project. They have different interests and skills, but project-based learning allows them to maximize their jagged learning profiles.Ireland project

Online instruction has offered my son the opportunity to work ahead in math. An online math program allows him to take tests in various math concepts. If he passes the test, he can move onto the next subject area. When it’s new material, the program slows down and teaches him the concept, adding drills until the material is mastered. As parents, we are thrilled that he doesn’t have to complete worksheets on things he already knows. It’s this kind of dynamic, individualized learning that maximizes learning and minimizes frustration.

Wary of Averages

Rose’s book has opened my eyes to the times I have taken the average for granted. From now on, I’m will be much more suspicious when reading articles that try to apply generalizations to specific people. Consequently, I will take another look at the brain scans referenced in Brain Imaging on Musicians, but I hear the school bus… so that will have to wait for now.

Music as a Spiritual Practice

Since the beginning, music and spirituality have been inextricably linked.

Every culture in the world has used music as a spiritual practice in rituals for healing, connecting with the Divine, communicating with the spirit world, celebrating important events, and so forth. Ancient people knew the power of music and we do too. In the book Why You Love Music: From Mozart to Metallica- The Emotional Power of Beautiful Sounds, by John Powell, the front endpaper asserts

Music plays a hugely important role in our emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual lives. It impacts the ways we work, relax, behave, and feel. It can make us smile or cry, it helps us bond with the people around us, and it even has the power to alleviate a range of medical conditions.

This blog series will focus on how music can be used as a spiritual practice. Religious or not, all people benefit from activities that foster more compassion, more love, more generosity, more wholeness.

Look for the helpers.

How do you respond when something awful happens? Perhaps you feel sad or angry at first. But in the days and weeks that follow, do these events leave you feeling hopeless or are you spurred to action?

This week marked the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Once again, the news featured stories about the victims and about a world that was changed by senseless violence. However, alongside the tragic stories, the news this year also told about the people who were helpers.
Look for the helpers

The stories told about September 11 offer many examples of people who responded with generosity to the tragedy. For example, the people of  Gander, Newfoundland, didn’t seek out a charity project, but they offered generous support to the more than 7000 travelers who became stranded when American airspace was closed. Those travelers, after returning home, returned the favor by setting up a well-funded scholarship for the children of Gander.

There were many other hopeful stories too. Mental health professionals volunteered their time to talk with the first responders and attend to their emotional needs. Others went to NYC to help with the recovery efforts, risking their own health. And fire stations all across the country reported gifts of food, homemade cards, and other donations. I remember long lines at the Red Cross blood donation center in Boulder, where I was living at the time.

We have a choice when something bad happens: we can be paralyzed by fear and depression or we can work to make things better. Because we never know when we will called to be “helpers,” we have to be ready.

Be a helper.

I believe that the people who are best able to respond to a crisis are the people who are healthy – physically, mentally, emotionally. It’s normal to feel sad or angry when tragedy strikes, but I want to be the person ready to respond with action and love when called to help.

My goal is to stay balanced and spiritually whole enough that when the need arises, I will be able to respond immediately and generously. As a music teacher, I understand how important it is for me to be psychologically healthy when working with others. Music is my passion as well as my livelihood. It is also a source of strength when I’m not feeling grounded.

Music as a spiritual practice.

There are as many paths to the divine as there are people. Just as practicing yoga has multiple benefits, so too the study of music offers many spiritual lessons. For example, listening to music can help regulate our emotions. Participating in an ensemble can help us commit to something larger than ourselves. Practicing a musical instrument teaches us how to be comfortable when alone and how to listen deeply. Performing makes us confront negative self-talk. Vocalists must take a deep dive into the words, transforming text into something meaningful.

music and spiritual practice

music at NUUC

In this blog series, I’ll discuss ways to integrate music into a meaningful spiritual practice. I’ll offer some exercises and share my experiences as a performer, teacher, and church musician. I’m aided in this journey by my wonderful choir at North Unitarian Universalist Congregation. We have made it a priority this season to explore the role of music and spirituality in our lives and in our community.

How does music play a role in helping you become the person you want to be? Please respond below with your thoughts.

Music Education Brain Research

Music Education and Brain Research

Music education in the public schools has been under attack for decades.  Although parents and teachers have advocated for more and better music programs, having seen the benefits to students, music programs are often the first programs to be cut when a school is under-funded. Neurologists are now conducting brain research that substantiates what we’ve intuitively always known about the advantages of early music education.

5th grade band concert

5th grade band concert – music education

The Brain and Music Program at USC

Researchers at USC have been conducting interesting experiments that will (hopefully) guide the education system in understanding how important music education is for students.

In October 2016, the USC researchers published a paper

“Neural correlates of accelerated auditory processing in children engaged in music training published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience”
(Volume 21, October 2016, Pages 1–14)

detailing the brain activity of students with music training vs. students who had not received music instruction.  Like other studies, their results were conclusive: studying music changes the brain in significant and important ways.

Their conclusion is that

These findings provide evidence that childhood music training has a measurable impact in the development of auditory processes. Although the findings described here are restricted to auditory skills and to their neural correlates, such enhanced maturation may favor faster and more efficient development of language skills as well, given that some of the neural substrates to these different processes are shared. Our findings demonstrate that music education has an important role to play in childhood development and add to the converging evidence that music training is capable of shaping skills that are ingredients of success in social and academic development. It is of particular importance that we show these effects in children from disadvantaged backgrounds.” (emphasis mine)

I have blogged about similar research in these posts:

Brain Imaging on Musicians

The Musician’s Brain

I’m wondering how much more empirical data we need to convince administrators that music isn’t just a fun “elective.” Music education is vital to the education of all students.

Chrome Music Lab – Acoustics Sandbox

Chrome Music Lab

Check out the Chrome Music Lab, a virtual playground for learning about acoustics.

Chrome Music Lab – Fun with Acoustics!

acousticsClick on something – anything – and interact with the pictures on the screen. There are no explanations, no words even. Jump into the musical sandbox and see the spectrogram of a flute.. or a harp… or even your own voice.

The interface is so simple and visual that people of all ages can learn about acoustics. You don’t need to be a musician to enjoy this website.



The Chrome Music Lab reminds me of The Exploratorium in San Francisco. It’s a giant building full of science experiments. My family spent an incredible day there several years ago with our kids, then six and four. I remember one exhibit in particular – it had a motor that was exposed and operational. Our youngest liked turning the crank and seeing all the parts move. I had a “lightbulb moment” about magnets and energy. Husband, who is a pro with small engines, was fascinated by some detail I didn’t begin to understand. All of us learned something new by playing with the exhibit.

The Chrome Music Lab is like this too. Playing with the monkeys and drums, I was reminded of the ethnomusicologist’s way of notating non-Western rhythms. My kids liked clicking on the silly monkeys and hearing the different sounds. Others might observe the visual spacing of the rhythms, as if the sounds were placed on a ruler. Each person will have a different understanding of the activity and unique insights.

Here are a few ideas for interacting with the Chrome Music Lab:

  • Try to guess the piece on the “Piano Roll” before hitting the play button.
  • Find the octaves in “Harmonics.”
  • Use “Arpeggios” to accompany yourself while singing simple songs like “The Wheels On the Bus” and “Twinkle Twinkle.”
  • Notice how the tune changes as you draw in “Kandinsky.” Art becomes music. Change colors for different sounds.

(Thanks, James, for the link.)

Flute Memes: My Favorites

Flute Memes

Social media is overflowing with memes for everything, including music. Flute memes appear on my Facebook page nearly every day.

For your enjoyment, I offer a collection of my favorite flute memes.

Deep but uplifting:

flute memes

I can’t decide if I love this one because it shows all the parts of a flute or because I have a love/hate relationship with IKEA.


flute memes

Feeling small before the almighty Bach:

flute memes

Because the flute is not for the faint of heart:

flute memes

This is one I found on the subway in Montreal:

flute memes

The Donald has inspired a lot of memes, but this one is my favorite:

the best termperament

Although not a meme, at least one person has been nearly killed by a flute.

“SERIOUS ACCIDENT AT THE VINTNERS’ HALL. On Tuesday night an accident occurred at the Vintners’-hall, Thames-street, to a gentleman of the name of Ireland, brother of one of the liverymen of the company, which caused great alarm to those who were assembled at dinner on the occasion of the celebration of the Lord Mayor’s-day. He entered the hall a little before 9 o’clock, and took his seat nearly under the orchestra. He had not been there above ten minutes when the flute belonging to one of the musicians dropped from the orchestra on his head. The blood immediately flowed most profusely, and he was for a moment stunned. Mr. May, a surgeon of the neighbourhood, was instantly called in, who found that he had received a slanting wound on the scalp. The wound was dressed, after which Mr. Ireland was conveyed home in a coach. The stewards promptly inquired how the accident originated, when it was ascertained that while the musician was adjusting the leaves of his music-book the flute slipped out of his hand. The man was perfectly sober. It was stated by Mr. May that he did not anticipate any fatal result.”
–unnamed reporter, in The [London] Times, 12 November 1841, page 7

And this one isn’t a flute, but it made me laugh so hard that I have to share it with you.

musician poster

look closely at the mouthpiece


Stay tuned, friends. I’ll add more of these gems as I find them. (Updated September 27, 2016)

What are your favorite flute memes?


Music and Math: Three Concepts for Understanding Rhythm

Music and Math

My job as a music teacher is to help students understand the basic elements of music. Rhythm is the most difficult of the “right-or-wrong” music elements (the others are articulations and pitches.) Mastering rhythm often requires multiple approaches. Connecting music and math is one approach.

We all have different learning styles. One model of learning suggests that we have a preference for visual, auditory, or kinesthetic experiences. Understanding where your strengths are in the visual-auditory-kinesthetic spectrum can direct you to helpful systems of learning. Here’s a link to the  VAK Learning Styles Survey .

Some students resonate with a kinesthetic understanding of rhythm. They need to feel the beat in their bodies. In the studio, we may use marching, bouncing balls, and/or conducting the music to help students internalize the beat. For kinesthetic learners, Dalcroze Eurythmics is helpful.

Other students prefer to hear the rhythms. These are auditory learners. The blog post “Rhythm Silliness” talks about the words I like to use to help students learn rhythm by ear. We use words like “Mississippi,” “peanut butter” or “R2D2” for sixteenth notes. We do a lot of playing rhythms together or I’ll play one measure and the student will play it back.

Visual learners often prefer a more analytical approach to learning rhythm. Charts and visual aids are helpful to folks who have strong visual skills. If you are one of these people, read on! This blog post is for you.

This blog post will show three mathematical concepts and how they contribute to a deeper understanding of the division of the beat.


5th grade math and music

math workbook

My son brought home his fifth grade math book last night. This is from an introduction page to a unit on fractions. This page clearly shows the relationship between music and math. It even points out that the time signature looks like a fraction. By adding the note values at the bottom of the page, students can figure out where the barlines are supposed to be.

A word of caution: I have observed that younger students can be confused about fractions. They think that if a pie is divided into two parts, there must be more pie because two is more than one. For this reason, I don’t use fractions with young students until they have studied them in math at school. I have had the most success using rhythm words to teach rhythm to young students.

However, once a student understands fractions, the concept is easily applied to music and deepens the student’s understanding of how the beat is divided into equal parts. Notes that are tied together become easy math problems. (1/4+1/4=1/2) Students who understand fractions have an easier time subdividing the beat, as they have to do when the eighth note is the value that gets one beat.


I love to cook and sometimes I have to double of halve a recipe. This calls for an understanding of fractions and ratios. Take a look at my measuring cup:

music and math in the kitchen

measuring cup

If you look closely, you can see that there are lines for 1/4 cup, 1/3 cup, 1/2 cup, 2/3 cup, 3/4 cup, and the top is one whole cup. Imagine that this one cup of flour is a quarter note. That note can be divided in many different ways. Three 1/3 cups = 1 cup in the same was as a triplet will divide a quarter note into three equal short notes. I like to think of the image of this measuring cup when working on rhythms that switch between eighth notes and triplets. I have a clear mental image of how triplets in one instrument and sixteenth notes in another will line up.

Music and math makes great cookies!


Daniel Buckvich, professor of music at University of Idaho has an innovative system for teaching rhythm, which he calls “Measured Music.” I became familiar with his ideas as an undergraduate student at The Ohio State University. It was one of those great “AHA!” moments when I opened the book and saw for the first time the visual representation of my mental concept of rhythm. Buckvich’s “Measured Music” system begins with a ruler, something with which we are all familiar. (I should note that this ruler is in inches, so if you are a metric person, this might not be as helpful.)

music and math

from Measured Music

A ruler has whole numbers (1, 2, 3, and so forth) that indicate inches. The inches have smaller divisions also. The longest line is at the half-inch mark. Shorter lines indicate the 1/4 and 3/4 inch. Finally, the smallest lines divide the 1/4 into 1/8 (and sometimes 1/16).

Buckvich’s system also uses small circles, like mini pies, to show the subdivision of the beat. Sometimes the smallest subdivision is 1/2, other times it is 1/3. In the above example, you will see that it is 1/4 or the sixteenth note. Below is a page from later in the book showing complex rhythms. I love how visual this music and math system is.

music and math

another page from Measured Music

If your brain isn’t wired for this kind of math, that’s totally fine. You likely need another system for internalizing the pulse and subdividing the beat. As I mentioned earlier, there are other systems for teaching rhythm that are good for kinesthetic and auditory learners.

If the above music and math concepts work for you, great! Use them to deepen your understanding of the division of the beat. Visually overlay a ruler, a measuring cup, an apple pie over difficult rhythms. Continue to explore how the fractions can be overlaid and be prepared for some “Aha!” moments of your own.

Music is a beautiful, mathematical marvel. If you liked this post, you may also be interested in learning about the math concepts behind the harmonic series, music theory, acoustics, and instrument design.

I love Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is my hero.

I’ve read nearly every one of Kurt Vonnegut’s books. I love his wry humor and oddball social commentary. So it goes.

This Vonnegut quote was circulating on my Facebook feed this week, and the timing couldn’t have been better.

Vonnegut quote

Making art can feel lonely and pointless. All artists (and I include musicians in the broad artist category) have dark times of self-doubt. But whether you are making money as an artist or consider it a hobby, you are making something. Perhaps it will not matter to anyone but you. Nonetheless, there is a deep human urge to create something from nothing.

As a mother, I feel it is my job to help my kids grow souls. My children both study music, but it’s not because I want them to become soloists with symphonies across the world. They study music to broaden their lives, to connect emotionally, and to develop a sharp mind.

Every week I teach several music and movement classes for families with preschool children. I end my music classes for families with this blessing:

“Wherever you go, keep a song in your heart.”

Improvisation Inspiration

Improvisation Inspiration

beatboxing improvisation

As part of my “file cabinet” method for organizing practice, I encourage everyone to add improvisation to their daily practice. Remember, improvisation can take lots of different forms from trying to figure out at favorite song by ear to playing a solo with a jazz band.

Flutists can do some really cool things with their instruments, like using the keys to make percussion sounds, singing and playing at the same time, or flutter tonguing. These “extended techniques” give us a big sound palette and modern composers such as Robert Dick are taking full advantage of them.

Greg Pattillo is a flutist who is pushing the boundaries of the sonic capabilities of the flute. He beatboxes while playing to create a totally new and exciting sound. You can find him on many YouTube videos. Here’s a link to some of the videos he has posted on his personal website:

Greg has a video “Beatbox Flute 101” to help get you started:

Want to be the coolest flutist in the band? Try beatboxing and impress all your friends!


Sight Reading Tips

Sight Reading Tips and Three Activities for Improving Eye Tracking

I was teaching a lesson with a 9 year-old student this week when I asked her to do some sight reading. I noticed she was having a lot of trouble, starting and stopping frequently. The music I gave her wasn’t challenging so it seemed odd that she should have so much trouble with it. That’s when I started watching her eyes and I knew immediately what the problem was. Her eyes were focused on the note she was playing. When she came to the end of a line of music, her eyes made the jump to the next line at exactly the same time as her fingers.

sight reading

Dad and daughter duo

When playing music, our eyes must be ahead of our fingers. The notes we are playing are not the notes we are looking at. This is an important skill for musicians.

Here are three things you can do to check and improve the eye movement:

  1. Teachers and Parents: Pay attention to where one line of music ends. As the student plays the music and approaches the end of the line, carefully watch her eyes. You should see her eyes jump to the left quickly as she begins reading the second line. Her eyes should move BEFORE she finishes playing the line of music. Depending on the tempo, the eyes will reach the second line as much as a measure before the fingers. Even at a slow tempo, the eyes will be at least one beat ahead of the fingers. Tracking the eye movements at the end of a line of music is the easiest way to diagnose the problem because the eyes must make a quick sweep from right to left. It’s easy to see the eyes move and measure if the jump is ahead of the sound.
  2. Teachers, here’s a game you can play during a lesson: As the student is playing, use a small piece of blank paper (a note card works well). Move the paper from left to right, covering up a note before the student plays it. The goal of this game is to help the student’s eyes track ahead of her fingers. Try covering up more of the music, perhaps two or three notes before she plays them. How fast you move the paper and how many you are able to cover ahead of the fingers depends on the speed of the music and the complexity of rhythms.
  3. Students: Practicing your sight reading may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s the best way to improve. I have found the Sight Reading Factory to be a very helpful subscription service. After selecting instrument, level, and length of exercise, the program generates new sight reading material. Best of all for our eye tracking purposes, you can choose “disappearing measures” as a challenge. As you play, the measures disappear, forcing you to look ahead. The way this program is designed, the measure will disappear after you play it. However, by watching the count-off and beginning two beats later, the measure will disappear just at the moment you begin to play it, forcing you to keep your eyes one measure ahead of the fingers.

It’s important that the eyes are tracking properly. Students whose eyes are focused on the current note will have a lot of difficulty sight-reading without frequent stops. The brain needs to have a head start to send the proper signals to the fingers.

Bite Sized Pieces (Woodshedding technique)

BITE SIZE PIECES – technique exercise

This blog post is part of a series on woodshedding. For more ideas on how to invigorate your practicing with new and creative ideas, check out the bog posts on the Articulation Game, Rhythm Spinner Game, Scale Card Game, and Karate Chops. Today’s blog post will offer some ideas for how to turn a long run of music notes into a smooth, effortless thing of beauty.

Long, fast runs can turn into a sloppy mess if we let the fingers run freely. Easy fingering combinations move more quickly than difficult ones, giving the passage an uneven texture. We must even out the technique to make the run sound good. Clean runs sound much faster than sloppy ones at the same tempo. Consider this example:


long muddy run


Let’s group the notes like this:

bite sized pieces

marked groups


You can pause after each group. Alternatively, you can articulate the first note of each group or pulse with the breath. Choose groups that make the most sense, ie. chromatic movement, scales. Try to break the groups when there is an unusual skip. In the example above, the notes are grouped together because they are chromatic. The notes that start groups are exceptions to the rule; in this case, the minor thirds are different than the half steps. We bring attention to these exceptions by making them the start of a new group.

When performing, we want to think of the groups but keep the original articulation. In practice and in the finished performance it’s simply too difficult for the brain to control all 22 notes. But small groups are manageable.
Creating groups will help the technique be cleaner and the run will sound faster. When playing fast runs, you must listen very carefully to hear every note. If you can’t hear each individual note, neither can your audience.