Stevie Berryman reflects on what it means to return to “normal” after Hurricane Harvey. Part science primer, part therapeutic catharsis, this essay encourages teachers and directors to keep doing their best work, whatever that work is. If you are struggling, if you are weary…it’s okay; you’re in good company. It’s not your fault. You can blame it on the second law of thermodynamics.

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Highlight to Tweet: “Nothing is static. Doing nothing is the same thing as assisting decay.” – @StevieBeTweetin

When the Waters Rise: On Entropy and High Water

Entropy may be an odd metaphor for a musician to adopt, but I grew up in a family of scientists. My mother was a biochemist at a time when her lab still elected a female employee to be the company’s beauty queen, which meant a year-long reassignment as the official company spokesmodel. My father has a PhD in physical chemistry, and spent much of his career advising chemical plants how to clean up their spill before the whole mess froze into the tundra. So while I couldn’t help my son with his AP Physics homework last year, some of the broader concepts have stuck with me.

Entropy is a measure of the number of possible arrangements the atoms in a system can have. The higher the entropy of an object, the more uncertain we are about the states of the atoms making up that object because there are more possible states to decide from. As musicians, we can think of this in terms of improvisation. If they were allowed to use only two notes, most people could improvise a song quickly and easily. If you assigned a whole class to write two-note compositions, I suspect many of them would sound similar. There just aren’t that many different ways to arrange two notes. But if you were given an orchestra and asked to improvise a piece of music together, the result would be entirely different. There would be far more chaos and cacophony than in your two-note etude. Metaphorically, then, an orchestra has a greater amount of entropy than a singer with a two note range, because there are more possible arrangements of notes.

In this sense, entropy is a measure of uncertainty or randomness. More variables means more chaos and less predictability, less order. When you have lots of possible combinations of notes, not all of them are going to be pleasant. But a few of them…a few of them might be magnificent. Feel free to prove me wrong, but I think John Williams has already cornered the market on stunning two-note themes. For the rest of us, creating something beautiful or brilliant necessitates working in systems with a high level of entropy.

This is affirming news for directors everywhere. If your desk is an archeological dig through different strata of music dating back to last year’s winter concert, I can assume two things: you are working in a system with a lot of entropy, and also you have a wealth of music from which to make your selections. Those are both signs of a healthy program.

But for those of us living on the Texas Gulf Coast right now, even as the flood waters recede, we are drowning in entropy. We are awash in uncertainty. If your commute is already stressful, just imagine if you suddenly had no car. Everyone has those days when it’s hard to get dressed and out the door on time, but just imagine if you were in a shelter or temporary housing, or if you got to remain in your home, but had to do your laundry at your neighbor’s house. Every single part of your day is harder and more stressful. Everything takes more energy and effort: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Your assumptions are gone; there is no longer any such thing as a foregone conclusion. It’s hard and uncomfortable to live and work in that level of chaos, and for many people this system is not going to stabilize any time soon.

This is especially true for teachers. As I write this, my children (one in high school, one in middle school) are midway through their second “first day” of the school year. They had only gone to school for 4 days before Hurricane Harvey shut down a good portion of Texas for a week and a half. I imagine the differences in these children today and on their first “first day.” First day of school excitement and anxiety has a different pitch today. New school supplies and clothes that were a source of pride 2 weeks ago may have been replaced by new school supplies and clothes that are a reminder of what has been lost. Or maybe they haven’t been replaced at all. Few children are ever excited about eating school lunches, but the opportunity for two hot meals a day is one that some of them won’t get at home for a while.

In all of this grief, in all of this anger, in all of this uncertainty, in all of this entropy we are asking teachers to restore order to this system, teachers who are possibly dealing with their own losses. And this is what is happening in my school district, where only one school was too damaged to reopen. Further south, you’ll find Aransas County ISD: 100% of their schools were damaged. Not only did they not head back to school today, there is not even a projected date to return. There is no timeline. The entire district is shut down indefinitely.

But the silver lining here is that in this level of randomness some of the unexpected outcomes are going to be positive. We see that constantly in the way our neighbors are supporting each other. I see it in the way J. J. Watt, the star defensive end for the Houston Texans, has been able to raise over $27 million dollars for hurricane relief pretty much just by being J. J. I see it in the way our local soccer game favorite Kona-Ice is now driving down streets handing out free sno-cones to anyone working at a cleanup site. I see it when someone in my neighborhood Facebook group asked if anyone was able to run a load of laundry for some out-of-town relief workers, and 47 of us immediately responded. I’ve never before had to wait in line for the privilege of doing someone else’s laundry. I see it in the number of times my family has been turned away from helping at a work site, because they already have all the volunteers they need for that day. Don’t worry, we’ll keep going back. There will still be work tomorrow.

And that work is important. You see, entropy can also be understood as the amount of energy in an object unable to do work. Every system experiences energy dispersal, meaning that there is no perfect conversion from energy to work. I think teachers especially can empathize with the  second law of thermodynamics, and the notion that the energy we put in seems greater than the work we produce. And that’s what happens on a normal day at work. We just call that “Tuesday.”

But when your particular system is hit by a disaster, whether that is high water, forest fire, or the retirement of a favorite teacher, you monumentally magnify the amount of entropy in that system. Understand then, during those chaotic times, you may put in the same amount of energy, but you will accomplish less work. It’s not a question of effort; it’s a law of physics. This is important to understand. If you started a brand new teaching job this year and you’ve been coming home exhausted, ready to go to bed at 8:30, it doesn’t mean something is wrong with you. It just means that you are not exempt from the laws of thermodynamics.

In times of stress, your singers and students are less able to produce work. The corollary is that to maintain the same level of work, they will have to increase energy. It’s your job, directors, to recognize when physics is derailing your rehearsal. This is an equation you must balance, so you have two choices. You can demand more energy. Or, you can revise your expectations, so that you are requiring them to produce less work. To jump out of the physics terminology, cut them some slack. They probably aren’t the ones responsible for increasing the amount of entropy in the system, so don’t blame them when the amount of work is diminished.

That’s really hard when we have tied our egos to what they produce. If we prioritize literature selections that make us look like brilliant directors over what is appropriately challenging for our choirs, they know it. And while they may be willing to work hard to create something beautiful and magical because that’s the intoxicating part of being a musician, they are less likely to put in the same effort simply to burnish your image. Real talk, friends: as directors, we know when we have over-programmed. And we’ve all done it. And that mistake is one that we need to own entirely, and not put it on the choir to fix.

The appropriate fix for over-programming is one that requires the director, not the choir, to sacrifice. Maybe you can shorten a piece. Maybe you cut it entirely. Maybe you swap it for an easier arrangement. The important thing is that these fixes don’t require your choir to pay for your mistake. Berating your choir for not working hard enough, accusing them of not practicing, scheduling additional rehearsals or lengthening the ones you already have…all these are ways of telling your choir that a poor performance is THEIR fault. And sometimes, it may be their fault, but in the specific case of over-programming, no, it’s you, Director. It’s on you.

The big problem comes when the entropy upheaval happens during your concert or contest preparations. What may have been appropriate music selections at the beginning of the season are now out of reach, because the increased entropy means that less of their energy can be converted into real work. In this scenario, the director chose appropriate music, and then external forces created a situation in which the choir just wouldn’t be able to perform as well. No one is at fault here. But Director, it’s still your job to fix it. And this is when you have to make that choice: do you reduce the amount of work expected, or do you increase the amount of energy?

Sometimes we don’t get a choice. Sometimes a cataclysmic natural disaster happens one week into the new school year. There is no way to reduce the amount of work; you must increase your energy. And if you don’t? Well, the laws of thermodynamics have something to say about that, too. If left alone, the amount of entropy in a system will increase. Basically, by doing nothing, we allow a system to slide into chaos. What is remarkable here is the realization that “leaving things status quo” can never result in things actually staying the same. All matter is subject to the laws of attraction; we are constantly moving towards or away from something. Nothing is ever truly still.

This truth applies to every aspect of our lives. In a relationship, you are either working to grow closer to someone, or you are growing further apart. There is no default where everything just stays the way it is. If you practiced piano every day from the time you were 5 to when you were 20, then I know you got better. And if you skip a day of practice you won’t get worse. But if you skip a year of practice, your loss of mastery becomes measurable. You can resume practicing again, you can pour energy into the system and you will get better again. But if you stop, entropy takes over, and your skills again will fade away. Doing nothing is never really doing nothing. Nothing is static. Doing nothing is the same thing as assisting decay.

So when your energy levels are tapped and there is still work to be done and entropy is increasing and the water is still rising…you ask for help. As directors we are expected to have the answers. But sometimes we don’t. I don’t know that anyone has the answer for 50” of rain. So we ask for help, and grace, and we extend that same help and grace to others. And we make music, because where there is hope there is music and where there is music there is hope, and I know of no other endeavour that so thoroughly defies the laws of physics, because when we make music together that effort is magnified, and the work we produce is far greater than the energy we put in.

So if you need help, there is an online community ready to advise and support you. It’s on Facebook, and it’s called Choir Nation and it’s populated by over 2000 of the most positive and affirming singers and directors on Facebook. And there is the Choir Ninja podcast, and if you have a problem, chances are we have already produced an episode that covers it. But if we haven’t, just ask, and we will. Ryan and I are here to serve you, Choir Nation. So no matter what sort of flood you are dealing with, and no matter what monsters lurk in the high waters, keep making music. And we will help.

My name is Stevie Berryman, and I am filling in today for your host Ryan Guth. If this podcast is valuable to you, buy us a cup coffee. You can do that by supporting us on Patreon for as little as $1 per episode. You can also support what we do by giving your business to our sponsors, My Music Folders and Sight Reading Factory. You can find all of these links in this episode’s show notes at www.choir.ninja. Our podcast continues next week with our Voices from Houston series, when we bring you encore replays of some of our favorite interviews with Houston area choir directors.

Bio:

Stevie Berryman is the Chief Awesomeness Officer for the Choir Ninja Podcast. She lives in northwest Houston, and aside from one small leak, had no damage during Hurricane Harvey. As the Artistic Director for the Houston Chamber Ringers, she is helping flooded churches clean and refurbish handbells and chimes that were damaged, and match donated equipment with the bell choirs who could most use it.

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