5 lessons my dog taught me about being a music director

My dog has added so much joy, adventure, and love in my life, along with not a little bit of exasperation 🙂 but it’s always worth it. As I write, she’s currently snuggled up next to my legs, and it couldn’t be cozier. Of course, she would be on my lap if I let her, and then I wouldn’t get anything done…

dog on lap
“Oh, am I in the way?” #sorrynotsorry

Born on Epiphany 2012, Misha will be turning 4 years old in just a few months. I have learned so much from her in these past years, quite a bit of which stems from when she and I were training in agility in Richmond. I’m finding that these lessons apply extraordinarily well to my vocation and avocation as a pastoral musician.

1. Teach independent thinking. One technique with agility dogs is to ask them to offer something to you, rather than commanding them to do a trick. Rote command-based performance is a basic skill level, but if a dog can refer to a bank of tricks they know and offer you several different ones in a row, they’ve moved up to a higher level of thought.

Teaching your musicians to think for themselves rather than repeating by rote will bring your choirs and ensembles to a higher level in performance and worship. In church music, this means engagement with the music; each choir member has a responsibility to be independent on their part, while contributing to the improvement of the ensemble. It also means an engagement with the text, its meaning and theology; an engagement with the music’s role in worship, and an engagement with the musician’s responsibility of helping lead the congregation in song and worship.

2. Start small, and build on those fundamentals. Advanced dog tricks require a multi-step teaching process, as they combine different components of simpler tricks. I’ve been teaching my dog the shell game: 3 cups and a treat under one of them, I mix up the cups and she has to find the treat. Fundamentals that we draw on: sit, stay, watch me, she releases from the sit to identify her guess when I say “get it”, she points something out by nosing it, and waits for me to tell her “okay” before she gets to eat it.

If you want to teach your choir the gorgeous Durufle’s Requiem, for example (a noble and ambitious goal), they’ll draw on fundamentals like: basic music theory, knowledge of Latin pronunciation, familiarity with mixed meters, knowledge of Romantic/Impressionist style, singing with an orchestra and organ, singing a major work that’s 40 minutes long, etc. Just like I can’t expect my dog to be able to figure out a complex trick without first learning all the components, we can’t expect our choirs to achieve success with complicated works before they’re successful at the fundamentals.

3. Engage the mind and body. My dog is a herding breed, so she’s constantly thinking, and a lot of our tricks require her to figure things out. But she gets frustrated if I only engage her mind, because she has boundless energy to burn out. Her favorite tricks are ones that require her to think while sprinting around the yard to her heart’s content, and she’s more successful at them because they engage her in multiple ways.

There’s demonstrated evidence that connecting the mind and body reinforces our learning on a deeper level. When I count aloud as I’m practicing a difficult passage on the organ, it “sets” that passage in my fingers more securely. Or when we teach a rhythmic work to our choirs, for example, and have them stomp, clap, or even walk around, the rhythm sets more securely in their bodies, and the music more securely in their minds, than if we only engage them cognitively.

4. Positive reinforcement. (4b, the Youth Corollary: Distraction is more effective than reprimands.) My dog has never responded to negative reinforcement. She sees that I’m upset about something, but rarely connects my disapproval with something she’s done. However, if I teach my dog by reinforcing what she’s done right, she learns, and adjusts her decision-making process accordingly the next time. Now, during that time when the decision-making process is still being cemented, there might arise some situations where I don’t want to have to reprimand her, or for her to backslide into bad habits, and I’ve found distraction to be an invaluable technique.

Many secular choirs and ensembles can function with a mix of positive and negative reinforcement, but church ensembles by and large cannot. You have a group of volunteers who may want to be good musicians, but equal priorities may be fellowship, the joy of singing/playing, or contribution of their gifts to worship. Acknowledgement of these alternative priorities along with consistent positive reinforcement will help your church musicians feel successful with these multiple priorities.

And the youth corollary: I’ve found skillful distraction to be especially invaluable working with youth, and my dog has made me a master at it. Youth are more likely to be pushing boundaries and more likely to end up in situations that require reprimands than your adults, so if you can head off a mis-adventure with distraction before they find themselves in a situation with serious consequences, you can keep them in a positive experience, and not have to resort to negative reinforcement.

5. Pay attention to body language. I know if my dog is insecure, threatened, happy, nervous, hurting, guilty, playful, or about to be a selfish jerk, because I can read her body language. When she’s feeling threatened, she barks a lot and that’s annoying, so if I’m paying attention, I can distract her from that and re-orient her in a positive direction. Great agility teams primarily communicate through body language; your dog pays attention to the direction of your shoulders and your feet, and goes in that direction; they read speed from your stance (running or walking). At home, my dog reads if I’m tense and goes into protective mode, for example. My dog reads more from my body language than from any verbal command I might give her.

It’s just as important to pay attention to the body language of your musicians. If they’re not understanding a concept, or getting frustrated with not being successful, you can present the material in a different way; if they’re losing concentration, you can mix it up; if they’re engaging especially well with a certain technique, you can bring that back another time. You can read things from your musicians’ body language that they won’t tell you. Just like with your dog, it pays to pay attention.

Being a pack leader with my herding dog has taught me so much about life, about working with kids and youth, working with volunteers– lessons that have transformed how I lead as a church music director and as a pastoral musician. My dog has not only added love and joy to my life, but has made me a better person and a better leader.

And for that, she’s going to get some serious playtime today, followed by some serious snuggles 🙂


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