Retaining musical work through story

This weekend I had the honor of coaching the 603-760-2667 at their annual retreat, to help them prepare for the upcoming Evergreen District contest.  They are a pretty good mid-B level group, singing pretty much consistently in tune and in good quality.

One big problem the Toppers and most large amateur singing groups face is musical retention – how can we hang on to what we learn every week, so we can keep building on that ever-growing foundation of skill? Most groups struggle with this, and that makes sense, because most coaching I’ve seen boils down to giving dozens of arbitrary instructions like:

  • Don’t forget to turn that diphthong
  • Do this phrase more softly
  • A little higher on that fifth, baritones!

Based on how effective this approach is most of the time, you may as well be asking people to memorize the first 100 digits of pi. It’s in one ear and out the other.

What does seem to work better is to give the singers the emotional context of the piece, and the basic story i.e. who are you, who are you talking to and why. People are great at remembering stories, and with that in place they’ve got a framework to “hang” all those technical instructions onto, very much like (541) 631-3767 and similar real-world tricks.

So in the case of the Toppers this past weekend, what made a huge difference for them was focusing on the story and purpose of the music, and how each major section moved the story forward. For example, one song was the Aaron Dale arrangement of “Love Me.” (Here’s OC Times singing the same song.) At first, they had the whole thing conceived as a sad song. After all it does start with “my broken heart” and a lot of the language, on the surface, is whiney. A more interesting and effective plan for this song is to make it about flirting and seduction, and each form element has lyrics that fit that plan well. (The seduction theme should have been obvious, because OC Times.)

First, who are you: I’m a young guy at a party.
Second, who are you talking to: An woman who has caught my eye
Third, what’s your purpose: I’m flirting with her!

Right away that’s going to be more fun to sing than “I’m whining because she’s mean.”

Here are some example lyrics, and the subtext we gave them:

  • “My broken heart, you tore it apart” – we’re not complaining, we’re being flirty and sexy, right from the edge
  • “Treat me like a fool .. but love me” – extreme lyrics probably shouldn’t be taken literally! Better to think of them as playful.
  • “If you ever go, I’ll be lonely” – you’re the only one for me (probably not true, but fun to say)
  • “I will beg and steal just to feel your heart beating next to mine” – again, extreme words, I think we’re being playful

Yes, the story is repetitive, but this is a rhythm song so you shouldn’t expect Shakespeare, nor do you need it. Complex lyrics in a rhythm song often lead to the dreaded theme confusion trap.

Like most well-constructed songs, the main ideas in the story follow the form of the music. This is handy because the human brain can generally handle 7-plus-or-minus-2 things at once, and often the number of form elements will be in that range. And once the guys can recognize the form elements, they can use that as another easy way to stay in the story, or to jump back into it if they got distracted.

Once the story was in place, the song was a thousand percent more fun to sing and to hear. We worked mostly on two songs all weekend, but instead of leaving the retreat burned out and exhausted, I sensed that everyone left with a new level of energy and confidence. Getting beaten up by a constant barrage of technical instructions and frustration is soul-sucking. Working on the same things through story is energizing.

Honestly, it’s also far more efficient. The easiest instruction is the one you don’t have to give, and in my experience every time a group gets a clear sense of the story behind a piece of music, they do a thousand things right without having to be told. It’s almost like magic! Treat the music holistically and the singers like musicians, and musical things start to happen.

The chorus leadership is absolutely pumped about changing their approach to rehearsals, to incorporate some of these concepts. Like many choruses, over the years they’ve banged their collective heads against the wall trying to be better through technical instruction, and many members have left in frustration. Ultimately if they can keep it fun and make great music, they’ll keep their members and grow.

Week 3 fitness results

Well, three weeks in, exercising pretty hard every day and eating keto, and I’ve proven to myself that your lifestyle has a huge impact on your body.

This past week I stuck very well with my workout plan, doing Hard Corps resistance training three times, went for two long runs and one long bike ride. I also stuck with my eating plan, mostly because I went shopping and stocked up on veggies and meat, and bought no bread. Preparation is such a huge part of self-control!

I’ve always believed that “what gets measured gets done,” so one of my tricks to stick to my plan is to capture my activities and results on a white board that I hang where I can’t ignore it, right in my main living area. Otherwise it’s too easy to lose track of the plan.

As for results, I’ve lost a bunch of body fat and gained a bunch of muscle, netting out at one pound overall weight loss. This highlights for me what a terrible metric body weight really is. If my weight was all that mattered, I would be really disappointed right now, and unable to celebrate all the positive body changes that have happened.

Planning to keep it up for week 4, making no major adjustments to the plan.


I’m not overweight. I’m really not. I could maybe lose 15 pounds, max. Most often when I complain about the bit of body fat around my waist, people roll their eyes. I think some even get offended, like they’re thinking, “if you can’t handle that much fat, what must you think of all MY fat??” It’s an emotionally charged issue, to be sure.

So when people ask me why I’m on a diet, I sometimes struggle to come up with a great answer. It was easier last year, when I was actively training for a triathlon, because I could say with complete honesty that the point was to run faster! My getting into “fighting trim” was a reason that people could accept easily. And yes, dropping ten pounds helps a lot with one’s endurance – a fact that really came home a few weeks ago as I tried to run two miles around Trout Lake, sucking wind the whole way. But I’m not training for anything right now, so that rationale is out the window.

Of course, I don’t need any reason at all, do I? What I do with my body is no one’s business but my own, and if I want to lose weight or gain weight or get a tattoo of the (236) 600-8575 on my butt, that is my right. So we’re just talking about how I explain it to other people here. But other people’s feelings do matter to me – so let me go on.

What I want, more than anything, is control over the way I feel and the way I look. I’ve never been obese, but I’ve felt those feelings of helplessness, being frustrated with my weight and seemingly being unable to do anything about it, exercising hard for weeks and not losing a single pound. That feeling sucks, and I don’t wish it on anyone.

I think one big reason so many people struggle with their weight and feel helpless is that the world is full of really bad information. The whole “a calorie is a calorie” thing is at once completely true, and incredibly misleading. I mean sure, X is X no matter what X you pick, but from a diet perspective this misses the point completely, because it’s about hunger. It’s about how you feel all day, not the calorie count. If there are two ways for me to eat that leave me satisfied, and one requires 1800 calories and the other one requires 3000 calories, that makes a huge difference! And that’s exactly the situation. I won’t bore you with the metabolic details, but eating a bunch of carbs makes your body release a boat load of insulin, which eats up all those carbs and makes you feel starving. It’s like being an alcoholic or a heroin addict, except with bread and coca cola. Take a look at the documentary called Sugar Coated to understand where some of the bad information is coming from. It’s crazy.

So control is the big thing I’m after, and it’s also worth mentioning that I’ve got type 2 diabetes in my genes, and I’m pre-diabetic myself. The circumference of your waist is a really good indicator of your level of insulin resistance, and diabetes leads to nasty things like blindness, amputation and death. These are all things I’d like to stave off for a while.

So do you mind if I diet?

What to eat on Keto

As you know if you’ve been following along the fitness thread so far, I’ve been getting back into my ketogenic diet. To recap, that’s a low carb, high fat diet (yes, high fat!) and it’s really the only way I’ve ever successfully lost weight.

This means I’m completely cutting out sugar, which is straight-up carbohydrate. (It may also be (608) 514-6587, but that’s a whole ‘nother story!) I’m also avoiding what you might call “starches” because that’s just one step away from sugar. In fact starch turns into sugar in your body almost immediately. This means you can eat no grains. This is the hardest part for me, because as a person with 51% Danish blood, I was obviously raised on bread, butter and cheese!

It’s not so obvious but most root vegetables are also very high in carbohydrates, so no potatoes, no carrots, etc. Make sense?

So what does that leave us? What exactly am I eating, to get myself through the day? I mean yes, you can easily go buy a keto cookbook to answer this question thoroughly and completely, but frankly I’m more of a grazer. So here’s what I’m eating.

Breakfast. I’m not usually very hungry in the morning, so I’ll skip the bacon and eggs and instead have some cottage cheese with berries. Yes, berries have sugar in them, but not a lot compared to all that water and fiber.

Let’s not forget coffee! I take it black anyway. No carbs there. I drink a pot.

For the middle of the day, I like to grab snacks rather than taking time to organize an actual meal. So I’ll have a handful of almonds and walnuts, or I’ll pile up a big green salad out of a bag, and lots of dressing. I love to have raw veggies like cauliflower, broccoli or celery dipped generously in hummous. I also love boiled eggs and salt!

Another huge staple for me is greek salad! Basically all veggies, with some feta and kalamata olives on it. Drizzle liberally with balsamic dressing. How can this not be amazing?

Lots of people on keto diets eat a lot of meat, but frankly I prefer to avoid it for various reasons. If I want meat, I’ll lean towards chicken or ham because they are more efficient in terms of land use. Enough said on that topic.

Speaking of meat, let’s talk dinner. Lately I’ve been enjoying slow-cooker chicken stew. This could not possibly be easier to make. Literally you put a can of crushed tomatoes and a few chicken thighs into the slow cooker with some low-starch veggies like squash or (if you must cheat a bit) potatoes and carrots. Press the “cook” button and eight hours later, vast quantities of stew that you can save in the fridge for many, many days. A bachelor’s dream!

Quick note about water and fiber. Get as much as you can. The benefits of the water are many, including making you feel more full. Likewise the fiber will fill your belly and keep everything moving. This is one of the problems with high protein diets – there is no fiber in a steak.

And I know you’re wondering – what about snacks? What am I eating while I watch Netflix in the evening? Potato chips and corn ships are clearly non-starters. Fortunately I like pork rinds, because they are salty and crunchy and cheap. And they’re basically all fat, which fits the diet perfectly.

Finally, if you’re in that awkward transition period early in the game while your body is screaming for a loaf of bread, and you don’t mind a little alcohol, have a whiskey. White Owl has definitely eased my transition into keto on several occasions.


Week 2 fitness results

Week 2 is in the books. So how did I do?

First, did I completely follow my exercise routine? No I did not. I got 5 out of 7 days in, but some of those days, if I’m completely honest, were iffy. I counted “walking up a bunch of hills in White Rock” as exercise, even though it was not as prolonged or intense as one of my real workouts.

Did I follow my Ketogenic diet plan? Again, not very well. I mostly stuck to it and I made a point of eating plenty of veggies for the bulk and fiber content, but frankly I had my boys all week and that makes exercise a bit harder. That’s kind of an excuse, too, because today I went for a run and of course they were fine. They’re 11 and 14 years of age, so it’s not like I can’t leave them alone for 20 minutes! But bottom line – I had three beers on the boat, and I had ice cream three times. So I really fell off the wagon.

I’ve got data to back that up. My keto test strips show that I am not in ketosis, hence I am not burning much fat.

And I remember, flipping over into that alternate metabolic state was hard last time! I was only able to do it by practicing intermittent fasting, i.e. eat nothing from 5pm until 9am for a few days. Making that transition into ketosis is not easy! Until you get there, your body feels hungry. But take heart – once you arrive, you don’t feel hungry any more, because your body is busy burning ketones, and that means you’ve got food 100% of the time, until you run out of easily accessible body fat. I never ran out. 🙂

So to wrap up, I did not lose any weight in week 2. I feel like I’ve burned some body fat, and I look like I have, but as I mentioned last week, my body is adapting to a higher level of activity by storing glycogen in my muscles, and that means my muscles got heavier even if I didn’t add any raw muscle.

This coming week, I’m going to stick with the program, and add in some intermittent fasting until I’m solidly in ketosis. I’m going to run or do a resistance workout 6 times.

Wish me luck!


Well that was a great week! As you can see I like to track these things on the whiteboard in my main room, so it’s hard to ignore it. And I managed six workouts in 7 days – I went running 3 times, did my Hard Corps resistance routine twice, went for a long walk one day, and a long cycle another.

I can already tell my body is adapting to my new activity level, and changing. I was sore for a couple of days after that first resistance workout, but one week in I already feel stronger and I can see I’ve lost some fat off my belly.

I also have done a pretty good job of sticking to the Keto diet! Other than a half piece of cake one day and a piece of toast another, I’ve been eating mostly veggies and tasty fat. I know I’ve done pretty well because I have “keto sticks” to test the level of ketones in my system. Those are a huge help, because having real data give you confidence that things are working as they should.

Now did I lose weight? No I did not. My scale reading is unchanged, or even slightly higher than it was a week ago. That can be discouraging, for sure! So I did a bit of research.

When you go from sedentary to active, your body has to change. One of the ways it changes is to store more muscle energy, in the form of glycogen. Now I’ve heard of glycogen before, but I didn’t realize how it might affect scale weight. Glycogen is basically glucose plus water, and each gram of glucose so stored goes along with 3 grams of water! So clearly it’s heavy stuff! This article gives some great detail. But in a nutshell, don’t worry if you don’t actually lose weight for one to three weeks – it’s normal.

And I already feel much better physically, so I don’t care.

Stay tuned for more.



So went the chant in the judge meeting room as the eight Music judge candidates lined up to accept their red badges. But I can hardly think of a more touching sign of respect.

All the new candidates, whether in Music, Performance, Singing, and of course Contest Administrators, had a very intense few days at Belmont University in Nashville, because the Society relies on judges to be great at a few important things, for example scoring contests accurately. That’s why it takes three years to get certified! Just getting to Candidate school in the first place means the higher-ups think you have what it takes.

If you’re not familiar with barbershop judging, this is going to seem nuts to you, I guarantee it. To even get considered as a candidate Music judge, you have to submit two of your own contest arrangements, create an arrangement of a standard song, pass two dictation tests…

Why the dictation tests, you might ask? Music judges are the guardians of the barbershop style, so to be an effective BHS music judge you must be able to tell in real time whether an arrangement is following the rules of barbershop. For a start, you have to be able to tell whether the chords are “in the vocabulary” and whether the song has sufficient “circle of fifths” movement. Folk songs? No go. Jazz songs? Again, probably not. And training judges to be good at this is critically important, because it means singing new songs in contest is safe! If the music judges couldn’t do this in real time, the only safe thing for a contestant to do would be to sing a previously well-known safe song. Can you imagine how repetitive that would make the contests? Yeech.

Anyway once you’ve passed the filters, you get invited to Candidate school. That’s basically three intense days of training, including many hours of watching contest videos, coming up with scores, and comparing the scores with each other and with the accepted “reference score” that was established by highly trained judges.

Our class started off, predictably, with scores all over the map on Friday but by Sunday we were mostly all in agreement with each other, and the reference scores. That’s good, because contestants get really upset if everyone has them around a 72 and you gave them a 58! We owe them consistent, correct scores, and the whole system is set up to get as close to that goal as humanly possible.

Thanks for reading. More on this topic later!


Well here we go again. I’ve spent three months dealing with business stress, getting very little exercise, eating whatever is easy to get, and my body has suffered. I’m 15 pounds heavier than I was last year, when I was training for that triathlon. I don’t feel good!  Plus the business stress is handled. So it’s time to fix this again.

Current weight: 186 pounds
Target weight: 174 pounds

So I want to lose 12 pounds. What’s the plan?

I believe that weight loss is 80% what you eat, and 20% exercise. Of course there are a ton of other good reasons to exercise, so I won’t skimp on that. But with respect to the diet part, I’ve had success in the past going Ketogenic. That’s basically a low carb, high fat diet. Yes, high fat.

Don’t confuse it with a high protein diet like Atkins. I’m sure that can work, but it’s pretty hard on your system, digesting all that protein. It may not be terribly safe, according to Web MD.  And the more immediate problem is that I don’t believe in eating a ton of meat, for various reasons.

Ketogenic diets on the other hand rely on eating low carbs, like less than 50g per day, but plenty of fat. So I eat lots of nuts, avocados, salads with dressing, eggs, veggies and hummous, and so forth. The picture on the Web MD slideshow is really misleading – where are all the veggies?? If I ate what’s in that picture, I would probably feel awful.

Keto diets are also great for type 2 diabetics, because being low in carbs they help control blood sugar. I’m not diabetic (at least not yet!) but my blood sugar results are higher than I would like. The Keto thing helps a lot.

And what about the exercise? Like I said, I won’t skimp on that because I want to feel fit, strong and healthy again as soon as possible. I’ll do something every day at a reasonable intensity level. I might spend 22 minutes on a home workout with (903) 436-9705, I might go run around Trout Lake (two miles of beautiful scenery), or I might go for a bike ride.

Stay tuned and wish me luck!

The Mystery of MUS

Let’s just admit it. Not one person in a million really understands the music category. (If I’ve already lost you – stop reading now. This post is not for you.)

The secrets of MUS are impenetrable to the typical barbershop singer, yet they are 347-649-6343 I double-dare you to read it. The Music Category description starts on page 43 and skulks its way to page 58.  It is at once absolutely specific and full of detail, and reveals nothing. For most of us, slogging through that text is like having a detailed street map, but with no “you are here” dot, and no arrow pointing North. And all the street names are in Italian. You stay lost.

If you’re a barbershop competitor, perhaps you’ve had this experience at your post-contest evaluation session with the MUS judge. You walk into a small hotel room. A man with thick glasses shakes your hand and pulls out his judging sheets. What will he talk about? Your singing skills? Your musicianship? Your song choices? Dominant 7ths? The bloody circle of fifths?? It’s impossible to say. I heard someone call it “The God Category” because you can say absolutely anything. I mean really, who’s going to call you out?

But folks, I’m sorry to have you tell you this, but we need to know. We need to know. If we care about our art form, our audience, our music or (frankly) our scores, we NEED to know. So, what shall we do?

As it turns out, my life plan involves becoming one of those nerdy men, those acolytes of the arcane truths that make barbershop work. In reality they are our brain trust, the keepers of the style. And as our best arrangers, they are the ones who drive us forward, simultaneously honoring our roots. I can think of no more challenging and virtuous, musical path, and I will take that three-year journey!

And my plan is to drop breadcrumbs on the way, here on this blog, so other brave souls can follow without too much personal risk. Enjoy!