Basso Continuo: Organization

by Kevin Dibble, Tenor/Bass R & R Chair

Greetings ACDA Eastern Region!

I hope that your holiday season has provided the rest that we all need following the busy Christmas concert season! As the new year approaches and we are all making resolutions (though I know I won’t lose the 20lbs I’m pledging to drop), I thought I would write about something not specifically choral or musical at all. I have found this topic to be crucial to my teaching, music-making, and personal growth / professional development. 

Today, I’m writing about ORGANIZATION

I recently encountered a book that was written for full-time pastors and church leaders, but the premise of the book can be applied to our profession with great ease! Colin Marshall and Tony Payne’s The Trellis and the Vine presents the duality of structure and production as two necessary and related aspects of growth (again, the authors are specifically referring to growth in ministry, but I have co-opted this metaphor for growth in our music-making, teaching, and changing lives through our music making). At its most basic, the analogy is as follows: A vineyard can have the most fertile ground, the greatest vine stock, the perfect variety of grapes for the location, and the perfect growing conditions but, if it lacks the equally developed structure of the trellis, the vine and crop sit on the ground and rot before any harvest can take place. On the other side of the coin, if a vintner spends all of their resources – time, money, effort, etc. building the perfect trellis but neglects the actual vines, there will be little to no fruit for the labor. We see this all the time in our work. Either conductors and teachers focus on the hearts and minds of our students and community but neglect the structure that truly allows the program to thrive, OR we focus so much on the structure and checklists that we leave no time for the music to impact hearts, minds, and lives. 

It’s no secret that we as musicians are often laughed about and considered organizationally inept. After all, what can really be expected of “those artist types” from a concert-sequential perspective? I will admit, I used to be the stereotype of disorganization. Anyone who knew me as a first-year college student would laugh at the thought of me writing about organization. Having said this, I believe it is this transformation that allows me to write about this subject. If you are already completely organized and have no issues or concerns in this arena, feel free to close this window or scroll on by. For the rest of us who still think there is organization room to grow, here are a few tips/tricks I have picked up and some useful tools/resources that have revolutionized my teaching. *N.B. I am not a paid sponsor of any of the tools or resources suggested below. 

  • Timing matters: I am a morning person. I can wake up at 4:00am and get good work done before I launch into my ever-more-cluttered daily schedule. Conversely, by 10:00pm, I am ready to shut down and I am well aware that no quality work will happen at my desk after 11:00pm (no matter how much coffee I consume). Know yourself and plan accordingly. The old adage “work smarter not harder” can clearly be applied here. 
  • Plan ahead: One of my greatest mentors and friends – the dean for a school of music at a large university in the south, once told me of the “Six P’s for success.” Prior Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. We must prepare properly to avoid being caught off-guard or worse, arriving at the end of a tour concert and realizing we have no housing lined up for our singers. 
  • Invest time: We are all busier than we ever thought possible. Technology, which was supposed to provide relief and add ease to our workloads has had the opposite effect. Now that tasks can be accomplished faster, we are being asked to accomplish more than ever before. UNPLUG. Sit at a desk with no devices or distractions for a set period of time regularly. Use this time to build a schedule and think about tasks that are upcoming. I find that this helps me avoid the moments of “I have 24 free minutes here but don’t know what to do with it.” By thinking through a schedule, I have added a couple of hours of productivity to my workday, allowing me to spend these hours with my family in the evening rather than worrying about work! 
  • Use tools: 
    • As a rule, I am not a techie. There are few tools I have found as useful as a Ticonderoga #2 and a piece of paper. I make daily lists to help me accomplish the myriad tasks for which I am responsible. However, for my long-term strategizing and planning, as well as for my major project preparation (tours, performances, the books which I am currently writing, program development, professional development, curriculum design, etc.), I have found Mind Mapping to be of inestimable value. Taking all of my thoughts and organizing them on paper has created a wonderful reprieve and taken all of these “loose ends” allowing me to actually accomplish something other than contributing to my graying and thinning hair. As an Apple user, I use Simple Mind but there are many mind-mapping software options available. 
    • I have also, almost exclusively, stepped away from the “tried-and-true” Microsoft Office Suite. I am not going to say anything negative about these tools. On the contrary, if your program is functioning like a well-oiled-machine and you utilize these programs, great! I did for a long time as well. However, I have found the ease of access and group sharing/editing of Google Drive to be an incredible help. Are there better options out there? Maybe. But as a free option, Google has created a very helpful product. 
    • Finally, at a minimal foray into tools of technology, I strongly encourage the active use and maintenance of a digital / electronic calendar. This does not have to replace your paper daily planner or desk calendar if you don’t want to dive that deeply but, for most of us, our phones are always with us. This creates instant access to the calendar and allows us to respond in real-time to requests as well as prevents missed meetings (any digital calendar worth its salt will have a reminder option). 
  • Share the load: As I mentioned above, we are doing a lot. I have found great relief by building a team of trusted community members and students to aid in the management and operation of my choral program. This is terrifying. I’m sure many of you like me, fall closer to the “control freak” end of the spectrum, if only because you care so deeply and know you will do things “the right way.” Trust and let go. There are tasks that you HAVE to complete; things that you are the only person who can address. Focus your energy on those. Other things can be delegated. Start slowly at first. Hand over tasks that “anyone” can handle. Slowly build your trellis in such a way that you are only dealing with the tasks that can only be dealt with by you. The rest of your time can be spent on the vine-work of enriching and changing lives! 
  • Useful resources: Many time management books and programs are out there and I certainly have not read all of them. However, I would recommend David Allen’s Getting Things Done. In this book he provides concrete, detailed actionable steps to organize your life and increase your productivity. 
  • Lastly, I find an organized space to be essential for productivity. This is not to say that my desk is always neat. On the contrary, while I am working on a project, the top of my desk is almost always completely hidden from view. However, before starting a new project, I intentionally take the time to organize my work space. I consider this part of one of my favorite sayings (which I preach to my students daily) “Set yourself up for success.” 

This is not an exhaustive list. Other programs, tools, tips, and tricks exist and would easily aid in our organizational efforts. However, I hope that this brief look at some relatively simple options, which I have found to be low-cost / high-yield, might help as you work to organize and develop your program. 

Be well! Please do reach out if there is anything that I can do to help or support you and/or your programs!! 

Dr. Kevin Dibble is returning to the Greatbatch School of Music, Houghton University in the fall of 2022. At Houghton he will be serving as the Director of Choral Activities and Visiting Assistant Professor of Music.