Today on the show we’re joined by a musician, music teacher, entrepreneur, author, online summit host, small business coach, podcaster and band director. Which might sound like we have a crowd of guests assembled, but in fact these are all one person: Elisa Janson-Jones.
Elisa is the host of the Music Ed Mentor podcast, organiser of the International Music Education Summit and author of “The Music Educator’s Guide to Thrive”, and through these projects and more she is on a mission to help music teachers discover the non-musical skills that can empower them to succeed. As you’ll discover in this episode though, a lot of what Elisa has to share is just as applicable to the hobbyist or professional musician as it is a music teacher.
In this conversation we talk about:
- Elisa’s own musical upbringing and how she came to play a huge number of different instruments.
- The unique challenges of conducting an orchestra or band, and how you can actually learn to hear and follow dozens of different musical parts at once without needing to be born with some magical gift.
- The 8 aspects of wellness that you should be thinking about if you want to enjoy your musical life to its fullest
… And Elisa also shares how she came to not only take up playing the ukulele recently, but actually build one from scratch herself!
Listen to the episode:
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Elisa. Thank you for joining us today.
Elisa: Well, thanks for having me on.
Christopher: So I’m always curious when I talk to music teachers and particularly those who are, kind of, thought leaders and admired among music teachers such as yourself. I’m always curious to know, were you one of those kids that was just playing every instrument from the age of five and never needed to be taught a thing, or what did your own music education look like?
Elisa: Well, I have a mother who’s a vocalist and my dad was a band teacher for more than 40 years, a band and choir teacher. So it was always in my home. We were always hosting parties with the band students over because he was a collegiate band director for many years and of course my mother was into musical theater so I was singing from an extremely young age and of course music was just, it was just part of our life. It was what you did and when it came, but as far as structured lessons I didn’t really have anything until I got into our elementary band in the fifth or sixth grade. Yeah. That was the start of my instrumental career but, like I said, I’ve been a vocalist and a performer since, probably, three years old.
Christopher: Wow, great. And what were you playing in that band when you joined in fifth or sixth grade?
Elisa: You know, I wanted to play the flute because my older sister played the flute so my dad said, “What do you want to play?” and I said, “The flute,” and he said, “No. You can’t play the flute. Your older sister already plays the flute. You have to play something else,” and of course, I was, like, “I don’t — huh?” Right?
So he said to me, “Say, ‘Mary had a little lamb’,” so I said, “Mary had a little lamb.” I was like, ten years old, right? And he goes, “You know what? You look like you could have a good French horn embouchure. I’m going to start you on cornet for a year and then we’ll switch you to French horn,” and that’s what we did.
I played trumpet and cornet for a year which I was remarkably good at because I had done motorboats in the bathtub until I was four years old so the buzzing came easy for me and then, of course, I switched to French horn, which is the hardest instrument in the universe.
Christopher: Okay, that’s super interesting. I was listening to an episode of your podcast where u were talking with a guy, I think his name was Mr. D, all about sight singing, and he was noting that he as a horn player had pitch advantage in that you were used to pitching the notes mentally before u play them, and that would help with the vocal side of things. Where there any other things from the vocal world that helped you with the French horn, or vice versa?
Elisa: Yes, of course. The more, it really came into play more when I was in college and started sight-singing myself. That improved my French horn playing because once you learn how the interval should sound, how things should sound on the page then it’s much more easy.
The thing that’s challenging about French horn is the notes are so close together, okay? So for the layperson you have to have a really fine-tuned embouchure to be able to change the notes or to be able to hear the difference and so if you can kind of preemptively know what it’s supposed to sound like it makes it so much easier and it wasn’t until I took two full years of sight-singing in college that that really started to be solidified as part of my musical prowess.
Christopher: Interesting. Yeah. That’s something that comes up from time to time in Musical U when we’re talking about singing in tune, for sure, because the idea of taking aim at the note rather than just opening your mouth and then thinking about what note you’re trying to hit, that can go a really long way, right?
Elisa: Yeah. So, I don’t know how much the French horn playing helped my sight-singing but my sight-singing definitely helped improve my French horn playing.
Christopher: That’s great. And so you were playing cornet for a couple of years and then moved to French horn and was it horn all the way after that?
Elisa: It was. Through high school I did do choir in high school as well and then I, of course, knew from a very young age, probably, you know, about the time I picked up the French horn and got involved in band that I wanted to be a music teacher. It helped that my dad was a music teacher, too, but most people would point out, it’s going to go one way or the other. Either you see your parent as a music teacher and you think, “Yes. That’s what I want to do as a career,” or you think, “Why on earth would I want to do that as a career? That is insane. You don’t make any money, you guys.” You know? But, anyway, I digress.
So then when I got into university that’s when I started picking up other instruments. Of course, I did marching band, I played the mellophone, I did brass, like, a British brass ensemble, so I did, like, a euphonium, kind of, E flat alto horn, if anybody knows what that is. It’s a pretty rare instrument. So mainly it was brass until I got into college but I picked up the others extremely quickly, actually.
Christopher: Let’s talk a little bit about that, because I think a lot of our listeners probably play one instrument and I know that some of them will feel like they don’t even quite play one instrument yet, so maybe you could speak a bit to why that was easy and why you weren’t, just, you know, starting from scratch with each of those different instruments.
Elisa: Well, sure, I mean, brass instruments, it’s the same thing, like I said, about French horn. If you can, kind of, feel out and hear out where those partials are, where those notes should be then it’s quite easy. All of the wind instruments kind of, once you get the tonguing and the blowing down, then it’s just a matter of fingering and embouchure on all of them. If you spend , like, 80% of your time on technique then you’re going to be able to spend 20% of your time just playing and having so much fun and so it kind of comes down to that.
But there are some relationships that are very similar, so, for example, if you start on, like, the recorder, those fingerings are very similar to the flute, which are also very similar to the the saxophone, and if you can play the saxophone then clarinet’s actually pretty easy and vice versa because the top hand fingerings are the same. So once you’ve kind of developed those core skills, the tongue, the air, the fingers and the reading, of course, the note reading, then it all, just, kind of, falls into place. So it’s kind of the same thing with strings, too, because I, I did do extensive string study in college. My goal in college learning all these instruments was just to be the very best band and orchestra teacher I could and I knew that having those foundational skills was really, really vital. Do you want to know what was really hard for me?
Christopher: I do.
Elisa: Drum set.
Christopher: Interesting. I am learning drums at the moment and it is a very different thing.
Elisa: Yeah. Like, I can do a rock beat. I can sometimes do, like, a 3-4 rock beat, but, like, that hand-eye thing, nothing, I feel like nothing in music has come easy for me. Nothing.
Elisa: I feel like I, and, you know, I grew up my whole life, especially once I got through college and people said, “Oh, you play all these instruments. Oh, you sing so beautifully,” and my response is always, “Well, I worked hard to become so,” you know, I, maybe I had a little natural ability but I was trained from a very young age, you know, but I really do feel like I have had to work at everything that I have learned and accomplished.
Christopher: Interesting. I’ve been thinking for a while about getting T-shirts made up for Musical U that say something like, “No, I’m not a natural. I’ve just worked really hard,” and I can’t quite get the wording right, but I think something in that direction is a shirt a lot of us would be proud to wear.
Elisa: Well, you know, I’m in all these music teacher groups on Facebook and sometimes it comes up, you know, what’s your response when somebody compliments you on your music performance and, you know, when somebody hears me sing, I often do some MC work, you know, where I host events, and whatever, and I might do a little mike check where I sing a little and people will go, “Oh, my gosh. Oh, you have such a beautiful voice,” and I go, “Well, I have a degree in music. I really should,” you know? Like, I took voice lessons, people.
Christopher: Yeah. I feel like we could have a whole conversation about singing, in particular and the talent myth around singing because I think it’s more acute there than with any other instrument, where people just think, you know, you were born with an amazing voice when in reality the great singers have worked really hard to make that happen.
Elisa: Yeah. I saw a video recently of a great singer, I think it was Celine Dion and she was being interviewed on a talk show and the talk show host said, “Well, what do you do before you go onstage?” and she said, “I don’t want to tell you. It’s really boring,” and they’re, like, “It can’t be boring. You’re Celine Dion. You are this fabulous diva,” and she said, “No. It’s, like, r-r-r-r-r,” you know, and she starts going through, and it’s the same exact exercises that any good voice teacher is going to teach you and here she is, this consummate professional, and, you know, she’s had this immense career and she’s still doing those same vocal warmups before she goes onstage.
Christopher: I love that. That’s great. And so for you over those years you were picking up the instruments and from the outside I am sure it looked like you were just, kind of, swanning through life, picking up new instruments, but what did it look like from your perspective? What were the difficult bits or what were the big breakthroughs for you along the way?
Elisa: Oh, boy. Let me think about that. In learning multiple instruments?
Christopher: Not specifically. No, it’s just in your musical journey. Or, I could put it a different way and say, you know, if it wasn’t coming easy and if there was a lot of hard work involved, what was it that kept you going? What was it that made it a joy rather than a chore?
Elisa: Playing fun stuff.
Elisa: You know, like, getting to the point where, I wanted to get to the point where I could play whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted and so finding those opportunities, not just in my own personal practice but finding opportunities to perform outside of my home and outside of my practice, which has been extremely rewarding. I’m currently the conductor of our community band but before I was the conductor I played French horn in it and I played French horn in it because I wanted to, because it was fun. So I think it’s finding that, you know, what’s fun for you.
So when I was learning the flute, for example, I opened up a hymn book because they were songs that I knew, they were songs that I loved, they were songs that I could learn and really push myself toward. So I think that’s the other thing, is, you know, finding opportunities to not only do songs that you enjoy but songs that challenge you because to find the flow, which is that happy place, right, it needs to be hard enough that you’re challenged but not so hard that you’re frustrated and when you find that kind of sweet spot then it doesn’t matter what you’re playing. It’s fun.
Christopher: That’s great advice. And you were talking a little bit there about the impression people might have had about you and the reality. Would you say, you know, what you just described is a very, kind of, scientific, analytical way of thinking about practice is, you know, I’m going to consider my boundaries and find something that’s just on that threshold. That’s not the kind of creative, artistic, flighty musician who just, kind of, wanders about playing amazing things that a lot of people assume goes along with being a music major and a music teacher. What would you say your personality was like in that spectrum of things?
Elisa: You know, you put music in front of me, I can play it. You take the music away and I feel scared. I was not raised as, like, a jazz musician. I did learn jazz I college and of course I’ve taught jazz and I’ve taught improvisation but I still feel, like, that security when it comes to having the music in front of me.
And the thing that, and stop me if I’m totally getting off track, but I did quit teaching public school for a short time when my children were very little and that’s when I really focused on my private lessons studio and I spent that last paycheck, not the whole thing, but a lot of it, on a really nice guitar and I had never been a guitar player before but I thought, “You know what, it’s time for me to get my face out of the instrument or the instrument out of my face and learn to play something just for fun,” because everything else was work at that point, right?
And so I started learning guitar. I took lessons. My stepmom is a fantastic guitar player and teacher so I started out there and that, more than anything else, just being able to sing and play at the same time started to get my eyes off the music, right? And it wasn’t until then and this is after a, you know, 20-year career in performing arts. It wasn’t until then that I took my eyes off the music and that’s when I started to really realize that the music didn’t have to be on the page, it was in me.
Christopher: Wow. That’s amazing to hear and I, for me, I read something in a, I was teaching myself piano in my 20’s or returning to piano and I read something in a book that was talking about the importance of memorizing and it said something like, you know, “You only begin making music when you stop reading it,” and that really stuck with me that, you know, if you learn it from the sheet music fine, but then memorizing it gives you this freedom when it comes to actually playing it and it sounds like that’s kind of the experience you had where you realized that, “Oh, I don’t need to be pinned to the sheet music. I can actually create music and not have anything in front of me.”
Elisa: Yeah. And I could truly create it, you know, I, maybe it’s because the tools were fewer, you know? I work really well in a construct. Like, you give me the parameters and I can create within that and I feel like that gave me freedom by tying me down, right?
So it was, like, I gave myself three chords, okay? B flat, D and G, let’s say. And I would just start to create patterns with those three chords. But you’re absolutely right. I think you can be a fine musician and read the music, I mean, any symphony is going to prove that but I think you’re right, too, that if you truly want to be free to express you need to get your eyes off the music.
I recently had this experience. I was conducting an outdoor concert and I had the score open in front of me and the wind picked up and so my score was blowing. I couldn’t watch the music, right? “What do I do? I can’t — how can I cue people if I can’t see where to cue them? I can’t follow along?” Right? And it was, I mean, it was, I was fine. I was fine, because I knew the music well enough but it was, again, that little fear of, “I can’t read it,” right?
I should also say I’m a big collector of books and a a total bibliophile, okay, so the reading thing’s big for me. So anyway, after that I was, like, “This is never going to happen to me again,” and I spent the next week memorizing every score for our next concert because I was, like, “Whether it’s the wind or weather, I just want to make eye contact with the people. I want to connect to the actual music instead of just the notes.” I really dedicated myself to that and that was just something that happened, you know, two weeks ago, so it’s a continuous lifelong learning process, I guess.
Christopher: And aside from the sheer practicality of, you know, not needing to worry if the wind picks up, do you find it makes a difference?
Christopher: I mean, conducting is a slightly different thing, I suppose, but if we’re thinking about playing music or performing, do you find it makes a difference to how expressive you can be?
Elisa: Well, yeah, because I may not be playing an instrument but I’m playing the band, right? They crescendo when I indicate a crescendo and they decrescendo when I indicate that so in a way I’m playing all the instruments at once and it absolutely made a difference because, again, not only was I connecting to my players on a more personal level because I had my eyes up, I was making eye contact, but I was more confident in what I was doing which, in turn, reflected to their confidence as players and I was able to be more expressive through that, as well.
Christopher: Very cool. So I would love to pause on this for a moment because I think you’re the first guest we’ve had who has talked about conducting a band or an orchestra and I’d love for you to explain a little bit how that works and what it’s like, because I think it’s a, you know, if you think about the recorder as a fairly simple instrument where you are playing a melody line and your two hands are working together and, okay, your mouth is doing something but that’s fairly, kind of, clear cut.
And then maybe a guitar and piano are a bit more complex. You’ve got some left hand, right hand stuff and maybe your feet are involved and then, you know, something like, organ, you’ve got all kinds of stuff going on but at the far end of that I think is the conductor who is, as you say, playing all of the instruments at once in some sense and, in particular, what I’d love to hear about is the mental or aural skills that go into that because you need to be aware of everything that’s going on musically, not just a single melody line, not just melody in chords but, you know, dozens of parts. How does that work? How do you learn to do that and what does it take?
Elisa: It takes practice, like all good musical skills and just like I said before, I have had to work at every single thing that I’ve learned, including conducting. I was very fortunate to have three fabulous conducting instructors in college and so through that year and a half of private, nearly private instruction I was able to learn how to read. I actually have a score sitting here next to me so bear with me. This is “The Symphonic Suite for Star Trek.”
Christopher: Very cool.
Elisa: And I’m going to count the number of musical lines we have. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two, twenty three lines of music, all on one page, all different instruments.
So part of the skill is the same skill, and I’m going to lead into sight reading, here, okay, is pattern recognition. You start learning it in kindergarten. I know this because I teach kindergarten, right? And first grade and second, up to eighth grade. So the key is really recognizing those patterns that happen in the music, not just patterns of repetition but which instruments tend to be paired together, you know, what the beings look like, what scale patterns look like.
So the thing that makes me a strong sight reader is the same thing that makes me a strong conductor, is being able to look for those patterns, see them and be able to look ahead and then it comes back to the sight-singing thing.
You see how everything’s connected, here? Okay. Because if you can sight-sing, I can look at this music and go, “You know what? I know how that should sound and that’s not how it did sound,” and so in rehearsal I can go, “You know what, guys? You actually played that incorrectly,” and I know that because of my sight-singing skills.
Christopher: That’s a beautiful example, because, you know, to the layperson sitting in on that orchestral rehearsal or band practice they’re going to notice you being, like, “Wait, you played an E flat instead of an E back there in the horn section,” and they’re going to be, like, “What? What? How did she possibly know that?”
Elisa: Oh, I love playing that trick on my middle school kids, too, because, they’re, like, or I’ll have a choir of, like, 50 kids, right, and I’ll be able to pick out the one kid who’s not fitting in, right, who’s vowel is not correct and so it’s pulling them flat, right? Because their tongue isn’t curling up in the back enough and they’re, like, “But Ms. Jones, how did you know?” I’m like, “Years of experience. You’re singing it wrong and I can actually, like, hear that,” and they’re, like, “But how did you know it was me?” So it’s a good trick.
Christopher: So I don’t talk a lot about my opinions on teaching music on this podcast because although I have a viewpoint on what’s important in music education and not, I’m not a music teacher and I have a huge respect for those who do it, in person, day in and day out. At the same time I think it’s fair to say that there are teachers who just, kind of, show up and deliver a lesson plan and leave it at that and there are teachers who, and it sounds like you’re certainly one of them, who are really passionate and mindful and thoughtful about what they’re doing and who they are as a music teacher and that really came across in your book. You wrote a book called, “The Music Educator’s Guide to Thrive,” and I absolutely loved it, not least because although in the title it says it’s about music educators, so much of what’s in there is super useful and kind of mind-expanding for anyone in their profession, in their hobby, whatever it may be, and so if it’s all right I’d love to talk a little bit about that because this is kind of your guide for music teachers to, in my own words, to become the, kind of, fully-fledged music teacher rather than just someone who shows up and tries to tick the boxes and keep a salary coming in.
Elisa: Sure. Well, I’m thrilled that you want to talk about my book, of course.
Christopher: So, you, in the book you present kind of a mental model for thinking about your wellness as a music educator and you break it into eight different aspects. Can you think what those are and why there are as many as eight that people should be thinking about?
Elisa: Well, sure, but we have to backtrack just a tad, which is the impetus for the book. Teacher burnout, especially with music teachers, is incredibly high. The last figure I read was 50% won’t last seven years and that’s not a career, that’s a job, right? And so I started delving into why are teachers not thriving in this profession when I have these fabulous examples in my own family and in my life and in my own mentors who have lived this career for 40 years and have been successful, so that’s kind of where it started and, you know, I was going to be presenting at the national music educator’s conference, as well, so that was kind of an impetus, but really it comes down to if you have a well-rounded life, if you have a holistic approach to your own life then you’re going to eventually drive success.
The true issue comes when you neglect certain areas of your wellness, be it financial wellness or social wellness or your physical wellbeing, any one of those things, if it’s neglected you will suffer and so the idea is to minimize suffering by focusing holistically on your own wellbeing. So, for example, you said you want to talk about physical wellbeing, right? I mean, it’s impossible, let me give a story, here.
I was in high school and I had this fabulous band teacher, adored her, Mrs. Leyvah, I’m going to say her name because she’s retired now but she was fabulous. She got sick a lot and so it was great for me because I was the student conductor, okay, so I was teaching band in high school, if we’re technical about it, right? But it also was detrimental to the program that she was gone so often because of health issues. I don’t know what those health issues were or anything but that’s a frequent complaint among music teachers. We’re around small children all the time just as most of us who go to work at any kind of place outside of our own home, we’re around people who are sick, we could get sick ourselves and not only is that destructive to our mental and emotional wellbeing but it could hurt our finances, it could hurt any number of things so if we just think the time to focus on our physical wellness and not just through diet but also through exercise, which in turn helps our emotional wellbeing, it helps us to have a clarity of thought.
I was not active as a young child, unless you count marching band, which you should count marching band because it’s hard, okay? But I lived a very sedentary life all through college and it wasn’t until I was pushing 30 and my mother and father both got diagnosed with diabetes that I was, like, “Oh, boy. I really need to focus on my health,” and I started riding my bike and I started racing triathlons and it wasn’t until I started to feel truly good that I realized how good I could feel or how good I should feel and even still on the days when I ride my bike to work, because, yes, I do bike commute pretty frequently, gets me about 20 miles in on the bike. I get to school, I change my clothes in the bathroom, right, or in my office, and I teach that day with a much more calm and centered demeanor just because of that little bit of physical activity, just because of that little bit of connection to nature. So that kind of is the physical wellbeing part. It’s really nurturing ourselves physically.
So then you go to, like, cognitive wellbeing, which I think is another one that you mentioned that stood out for you and that’s the continuous development of our mind. So taking time to delve into challenging things and it could be reading self-help books like mine. I recommend it. You know, but it doesn’t have to be just that. You could watch a TED talk, you could read a book about astronomy but as long as, the idea of being a lifelong learner. You could take up a new instrument, which is something that I recently did, actually, as if there are any more instruments for me left to learn to play, you know, and then your emotional wellbeing. If you take time to practice your emotional wellbeing through meditation and mindful practices and, you know, guided meditation, affirmations, I know that for some people that sounds like super, super frou-frou, but if you think about it, it’s something we’re doing all the time. We are constantly telling ourselves what we are and that’s all affirmations are. We can choose to say, “I’m beautiful. I’m fabulous. I’m talented. I’m picking up this instrument so easily. I’m playing guitar so well. Look at how much I’ve improved from last week,” or we can just be out of control with those thoughts and then it could be, “Wow, guitar is so frustrating. Why is this so hard for me?”
So if you think about it in terms of it’s stuff you’re already doing only now, instead of letting that happen to you, you’re going to take charge of that happening and you get to be the boss of what happens and for somebody like me, I might be standing in the classroom of 50 fourth-graders, okay? These are eight and nine-year-old kids and they love to talk, they love to be belligerent, they love to joke around and sometimes it does get out of control and it’s in those moments when I can invoke this potential that I’ve created in myself because I’ve practiced, right, to take a deep breath and be mindful and reset that situation and that could be the case for any stressful situation, you know, if you’ve practiced how to be centered, how to be mindful, how to live in the moment and be able to take a deep breath and think clearly and be emotionally centered then life does not enact itself upon you, you enact yourself upon life. Sorry, was that really deep and [Unintelligible [00:29:56]?
Christopher: That was beautiful. No, I’m 100% on board and I love that this is all inspired by the desire to help more music teachers have the career they hope to rather than burning out, fizzling out, getting frustrated. That’s wonderful. I think, at the same time, hearing you talk about it, it’s probably clear to everyone listening that this is not advice that only applies to music teachers, you know, this is good life advice for anyone, I think, and I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a second because I think what you just, kind of, painted a picture of is clearly a really rich existence, you know, it’s not, “I’m pigeon-holed in my job. I’m doing it day-to-day. I’m just, kind of, getting through the day,” this is a life that’s rich emotionally, physically, spiritually and you’re learning all the time. It sounds amazing. How is there enough time for all of that?
Elisa: So when I first started it, I had a friend turn me on to a book called, “The Miracle Morning,” and it’s a great book. If you want to read it a lot of the same concepts are talked about in my book as well.
So I started with ten minutes in the morning. I woke up ten minutes earlier and I had a list of six things that I wanted to do, right? So meditation, affirmations, visualization, journal writing, reading and exercise, okay? So I set a timer because I was, like, “I’ve only got ten minutes, friends. I’ve got three kids, two part-time jobs, I’m trying to be an entrepreneur, I’ve got lessons to teach this afternoon. I’ve got to get it done,” right? So I did, like, two minutes per each thing and then, like, one minute of visualization, one minute of affirmations and that was it.
And so it started with ten minutes per day and then I realized I wanted more and so then it went to 20 and then it went to 30 and now I dedicate an hour or so of time every morning. I start with yoga to wake my body up, I, don’t get me into lifestyle practices, because I’ll tell you exactly what I’m doing and you’ll think I’m insane, so, we’re not going to go there, but, you know, if it’s truly a priority, you’ll make time for it, and I learned that from a TED talk, actually.
You know, if your house floods then what does your schedule look like, then? It looks like you’re dealing with your house flooding, right? And so it’s just a matter of making it that big of a priority and I didn’t want to be just living life anymore, you know? I didn’t want to be just going to a job and so if you really want to improve your life you can start with as little as five minutes a day, six minutes a day and you’re not going to see immediate improvement.
I mean, just like with everything and especially with learning a musical instrument you’re not going to see immediate improvement. You’re not going to be on book two after the second week of playing or, you know, lesson six. It takes time and after a month of that practice then you start to realize, “Wow, I’m getting along better with people at work,” you know, “Wow, I have a little more money in my checking account than I usually do this time of the month.” So if you’re actually looking at improving your life in a very significant way, with those baby steps, it does have to be consistent.
Christopher: Well, I think you have a similar nature to me in that you tend to be quite, kind of, logical and methodical and I think that comes across in this framework you’ve put together, but for me growing up, self-help books and things like affirmations, I was always highly skeptical, you know, I’m a scientist by background. That stuff seemed super woo-woo, wasn’t on board but the more I got into —
Elisa: My first degree is in science, by the way.
Christopher: Well there you go.
Elisa: Science, music, and business are what my degrees are in. But anyway, go on.
Christopher: Well, you know, for me what made me give it a chance and explore that stuff was more and more the people I admired and particularly in the world of entrepreneurship were talking about this stuff. These weren’t flimsy people, these weren’t, kind of, hopeless people who were kind of looking for any opportunity to feel good about themselves. These were people that were really accomplishing things and they were talking about visualization and affirmations and goal-setting and planning and all of this stuff from the self-help books and I think you’re a perfect example yourself.
You know, you are not the average music teacher and for someone who’s studied self-help and that whole, kind of, self-management and self-development it would come as no surprise that you are out there achieving great things and so you’re not just a music teacher, you’ve also written this book and you’re the host of a very popular podcast, “The Music and Mentor Podcast.” You’ve put together this amazing online summit for music educators to learn from the best in the business and you also have a great collaboration with one of the leading, kind of, music education platforms, Smart Music, so I don’t want to sell you short by blitzing through all of those amazing accomplishments but I did just want to note that, you know, you’re not someone who is making these recommendations because you hope they’ll work or because they sound like a good idea. These are things that you have applied and have seen great results from.
Elisa: Yeah. And you just touched on my own personal mission, I mean, I’ve decided to help music teachers because I am a music teacher, because I was raised by music teachers but the true mission is teaching entrepreneurship to music teachers, right, because, like you said, as entrepreneurs, we’ve learned so much from these people that we admire about the metaphysical world, let’s say, and yet as teachers we’re struggling because we don’t have that training, right? Most teachers have never heard of how to do a SWOT analysis, which you didn’t mention. I do have an MBA and I’m a business consultant as well. So I do SWOT analysis all the time but it’s something that you say that to a music teacher and they’re like, “What?” and you’re, like, “Dude, it’s an essential tool that can be utilized to improve your program or improve yourself or improve anything in your life,” and so my personal mission is to take these business skills, these entrepreneurial skills and slide them into the career of music education.
Christopher: Awesome. Well, I’m having to hold myself back because I feel like you and I could talk for another several hours just about this topic.
Elisa: Well, we have to talk about ukelele.
Christopher: Exactly. We have to talk about ukelele.
Elisa: We have to talk about the ukelele.
Christopher: And I think what we’ll have to do is invite you to come and give a masterclass at Musical U and share some of these entrepreneurship skills with our members there because, as you say, it is hugely powerful stuff that’s often relegated to the world of business and left out of reach of people who would really benefit. So all I’m going to do is direct people to your book and for anyone listening do not be put off for a moment by it being “The Music Educator’s Guide.” Just think of it as “The Human’s Guide to Thrive,” and you’ll get an awful lot out of it and we will certainly have links in the show notes to the Music Ed Mentor Podcast and to the Music Education Summit and to make sure people can find out more about those, but let’s wrap up by talking about the ukelele, which is one of my own favorite instruments. Where did ukelele come into the picture for you?
Elisa: Okay. So a couple of years ago I bought a ukelele for my son, right? And it just kind of sat on the shelf because he was nine and not that into it, okay? Of my three kids, he’s the only one who’s not, like, super gung-ho into the music thing yet, all right? Meanwhile, last spring, it was just a few months ago, I was interviewing another elementary music teacher for my podcast and we were talking about how neither one of us have, like, super-amazing piano skills, right? And he said, “You know, what works for me is I play the ukelele. That gives me the background chords where I can pluck out the notes and it’s small, it’s helpful,” and I had originally tried doing guitar.
As I mentioned, I took up guitar and that was just too big, too bulky to work with little kids so this idea of, like, something small that I can hold in my hands and it’s okay if the kids touch it. And then it helps that my husband has a ukelele and has been playing ukelele for a years so I was, like, ‘You know what? Maybe over spring break I’ll pick up the ukelele,” right? And I am not a young woman and I have played almost every other instrument and I became obsessed with the ukelele because it was just so much fun and it opened my eyes to, you know, getting out of the music. It was the first time I truly, like, became, I was improvising. Like, he was playing chords and I was playing the melody and it was just mind-blowingly fun for someone who, as you said, is pretty musical, it was a new thing for me and no, it has not been easy, just like everything else, I’ve had to work at it and then of course I built my own ukelele.
Christopher: Of course. That’s the obvious next step. You’re going to have to fill in a little more of that story.
Elisa: Well, I wanted to, I started playing with the little one that I had bought for my son, you know, and it was painted and it sounded okay but my husband has this beautiful Gretsch ukulele and I was, like, “Oh, man, I want something nicer. I deserve something nicer. I’m a music educator,” right? And so I went around to all the music stores in our town and, just, they were all out of my price range or I didn’t, the cheap ones just didn’t sound as good to me and then I got thinking, “You know what? I between I could build my own,” and so I found a kit. It wasn’t, just, glue the pieces together. It was in-depth building and, you know, I’ve built websites, I’ve built businesses, I’ve built music programs, I’ve built concert bands, I’ve built non-profits, I’ve built, you know, all these things but I’ve never built something to hold in my hands like that and it took this whole other side of my brain, I would say, almost the artsy side, right, the creative side, the side that can see the way pieces come together and that was extremely hard for me. And then, of course, if I drill it here, I can’t take that back. Measure three times. But, anyway, now it’s done and it’s a beautiful, mahogany ukulele and it was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. Now I play it every night and I love it.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, Elisa, I don’t know how you find the time for all of that, even if it’s, you know, ten minutes or 60 minutes in the morning to cram everything in, you manage an incredible amount and it’s certainly an inspiration. All that remains is to say a big thank you for joining us on the show today. There was a ton of really interesting stuff in there that I’m going to go away and think more about and I know our listeners will be inspired and encouraged to explore a little bit more of what their musical life could offer for them.
Elisa: Good, well, thank you so much for having me on and best of luck to everybody. Lifelong learning.
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