“Leadership is inspiring and encouraging others to achieve their full potential.”
This was the definition for leadership that music educator and leadership coach Matthew Arau composed in collaboration with students who participated in his Leadership Symposium, a leadership training retreat he initially established in Spring 2006 for music students while band director at Loveland High School, Loveland, CO.
From that point on, Matthew has taught leadership training as a mutual aspect of music education. He founded his organization, Upbeat Global, to promote his vision of inspiring positivity through leadership and music, and has served educators and students around the world. We recently spoke with Matthew to learn more about his background, how he got involved with positivity and leadership coaching, how teachers can incorporate these topics into their own rehearsals, and the importance of positivity in the age of COVID-19.
1. Tell us about yourself?
I am passionate about music, music education, conducting, leadership, and personal development and I do my best to bring all of my interests together in what I do. I am the President, Founder and CEO of Upbeat Global and I am the Chair of Music Education and Associate Director of Bands at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. In addition, I am on the graduate faculty of Vandercook College of Music where I teach an online course, Mindfulness for the Music Educator, for K-12 general music, band, choir, and orchestra teachers. I also teach conducting for the American Band College Master in Music Education program in Ashland, Oregon in the summer. I definitely wear a lot of hats, but fortunately I love everything that I get to do. I live in Neenah, Wisconsin with my wife Merilee and our 9-pound Chihuahua and Dachshund mix, Olive, and two Sugar Gliders, Little Foot and Flash.
2. What is your musical background, as both a student and a teacher?
I was born in Santa Monica, California and was fortunate to grow up in a household that always had music playing on records. I started piano when I was seven and chose the alto saxophone when I was nine. I attended Rio Americano High School and jazz was definitely the centerpiece of my education growing up and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to perform with Dizzy Gillespie at the Monterey Jazz Festival and tour Japan for two summers with the Monterey Jazz Festival High School All-Star Jazz Band.
I attended Lawrence University where I majored in Saxophone Performance with an emphasis in jazz studies, Saxophone Performance (classical), Music Education, and Government. After graduation in 1997, I moved to Loveland, Colorado where I taught music for fifteen years (8 years at Walt Clark Middle School and 7 years at Loveland High School). During that time, I completed my Masters Degree in Music Education from the American Band College at Southern Oregon University and started the D.M.A. program in Instrumental Conducting and Literature at the University of Colorado Boulder. In 2014, I joined the faculty of Lawrence University. It has been a dream come true to return to my alma mater to teach music education and conduct the Symphonic Band.
3. How did you get involved with leadership training and teaching mindfulness and positive thinking within the context of music?
As a middle school band director I was involved in a teacher book study group on Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Reading that book and intentionally implementing those habits made a huge impact on my life. Then, when I became the band director at Loveland High School, there were some challenges when I took over the program, and in response to those challenges, I started meeting with students once a week and worked on training on leadership principles and giving voice to the students and empowering them asking them, “What kind of band do you want to create? What traditions do you want to create?” And I would turn it over to my students to where they were starting to teach leadership concepts themselves to the group and owning it. And through this leadership training—we called it the Leadership Symposium—we were actually able to transform the culture of the band through our focus on student leadership. And, our definition of leadership that we came up with collaboratively is, “Leadership is inspiring and encouraging others to achieve their full potential.” It’s a way of being. It’s a way of serving. It’s a way of treating others. And everyone can have those leadership characteristics if it comes from a place of service for others. We can all inspire others. We can all encourage others, whether we are the Drum Major or the last chair third clarinet player.
When I was in graduate school at Boulder, other music teachers started asking me to help them get a Leadership Symposium going in their own program or to help them get a vision or mission going with their program. So I started volunteering to help various high school bands in Colorado and presented at the Colorado Music Educators Association Conference, where I shared my philosophy and ideas on how to create a student leadership training program. I also applied to present my clinic “Leadership Matters: Enhance your Music Program with Effective Student Leadership” at the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago. When I presented in December 2014, it was standing room only!
Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser watched part of the clinic, and about a month later he called to invite me to join the Conn-Selmer Education Clinician Faculty and present at the Conn-Selmer Institute in June 2015. That led to the opportunity to present at CSI every summer since then. I have taught leadership at camps, at high schools, and school districts. Originally, my leadership teachings were founded on what I taught my high school students, which was founded on three pillars: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, John Wooden and his pyramid of success, and John C. Maxwell’s leadership writings, particularly 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. As I continued to teach, study, and grow in leadership, I discovered other books such as Mindset by Carol Dweck and Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. Mindset led me to books on talent-research and how mastery is acquired, and I discovered books, such as The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, and Peak by Anders Ericsson. Then I ran into positive psychology, and I started studying all that that entails, which led me to realize that being a leader is really about becoming the best version of ourselves.
And this is where personal development and leadership come together. That is when I realized that we can choose our thoughts. We can choose our mindset. A lot of people think, “Well, this is just the way I am,” and I would argue, that’s your choice. You can stay where you are, or you can work to create a new habit of thought. So, that is how all of these things—leadership, positivity, and mindfulness—led to my belief that leadership comes from within. But it all comes back to striving to be the best version of ourselves. And, I have brought all of these ideas into music. So that’s the big question. How do you bring all of these ideas that may come from sports, from business, from spirituality, from psychology into the music rehearsal? This is what has really excited me.
4. Do you find that these skills help students with performance anxiety, the competitive aspects of music, and overall confidence as musicians?
One of the purposes, I think, is to help students manage their thoughts and feelings, so that they lead from within rather than through comparison. President Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I think we understand that as musicians. When we get into that mode of “How are they playing this compared to me?” it actually takes up brain capacity. But when we can focus on becoming the best version of ourselves, and make that the goal, then we actually can find that state of flow. And then you are just focusing on the expression—not thinking about expressing better than others. You’re just expressing you.
What we’re talking about here is a growth mindset. And so many teachers and so many students really do have a fixed mindset. We start to put our students into categories like “exceptionally talented,” or “not really talented,” and for me, for years, my crusade has been to delete the word talent and replace it with the word skill. Because skills can be developed, and skills can be taught. And that’s really what my role is as a teacher—how can I help you grow?
In terms of performance anxiety, students can really calm themselves down and change the flow of their breathing through the practice of deep breathing techniques prior to a performance. This can help students get in the zone and get centered. A simple breath to begin with is what I call the “focus breath.” Breathe in your nose for 4 counts and exhale out your nose for 4 counts. Repeat 3 to 4 times and notice how grounded you become.
5. What inspired you to found Upbeat Global? What is the significance of the name “Upbeat Global”? What’s the mission?
I believe that music is a superpower, and that leadership is the great lifter, and if you put those together, it’s electric. It’s such a powerful combination—and that’s what Upbeat Global is. The mission is to inspire positivity through leadership and music around the world.
The global idea came from my opportunities to conduct and teach leadership in Australia and Singapore, Malaysia, Cyprus, and Greece, and I realized that the message of Upbeat Global is a universal message – together, we can help people discover their light within and to shine brightly.
6. Who do you look up to as leadership and mindfulness mentors? And how do you apply these techniques in your daily life?
My leadership mentor is Tim Lautzenheiser. I first heard him speak when I was a college music education student in 1996. I just found his message and his method of delivery so inspirational. When I joined the staff at the Western International Band Clinic and the American Band College in 2004, every summer and fall I witnessed Tim Lautzenheiser speak. In joining the Conn Selmer faculty I’ve been able to work alongside him and continue to learn from his wisdom.
Some of the authors that have influenced my leadership teaching are Stephen Covey, John Maxwell, John Wooden, Simon Sinek, Daniel Coyle, Brené Brown, Carol Dweck, and Michelle Gielan. In the field of mindfulness, I have been influenced by Dr. Andrew Weil, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dr. Wayne Dyer, Wim Hof, and the Dalai Lama.
I intentionally live what I teach. I would never read a book and then share the idea if I didn’t do it myself. I always think of myself as the lab; I’m going to test out these ideas. I love to read, and I want to share what I learn from an authentic place, so if I read something about how to change a habit of thought and I’ve noticed it in myself, I go after it deliberately to work on myself first.
7. How can teachers incorporate more leadership skills, mindfulness, and positive thinking into rehearsals with their students? What resources are available?
One reason why people don’t try some of these new things is because of “I don’t have time—I’m already pressed for time. How do I have time to do this?” And what we’re discovering is that by incorporating a mindful moment and focus breath—even 60 seconds at the front end of class—we find students have an opportunity to decompress, to refocus, and are much more mentally engaged. Let’s say you want to create a culture of gratitude—you can incorporate a gratitude breath at the beginning of class. You breathe in something that you’re grateful for, or appreciative of. You think of that and you, breathe that in through your nose for 4 counts, and exhale through your mouth for 8 counts. All the stress, everything you want to release, you just let it go. And then you can ask students to share in the chat. I like to ask students, “What brings you joy, gratitude, or comfort?” And that puts your students (and you) in the positivity realm, and when we’re in the positive thinking realm, it ignites our prefrontal cortex and neocortex, which is awesome because when that part of your brain is stimulated, we’re actually able to be smarter, physically more attuned, stronger, our mind is quicker and more creative, relationships are better, we’re more team-minded.
What resources are available?
- The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle
- Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
- Upbeat! Creating a Positive Culture in Music Ensembles, by Matthew Arau
- Matthew Arau publications
- Matthew Arau videos
- Matthew Arau podcasts
8. Progress in personal development isn’t always a linear process. What advice would you give for those who experience setbacks? Especially at a time right now, when it can be even more challenging to stay positive.
Life definitely has its ups and downs, and when we’re down it’s hard to see ourselves climbing out of it. When you’re really down you can reflect back to another time in your life when you’re really down and what opportunities come out of that. For example, maybe you have a breakup, and you feel like your life is wrecked, but maybe down the line you meet someone else and they become more important to you and you think, “Well if it weren’t for that breakup, I wouldn’t have met that person.” Or, maybe you get fired from a job, and that door closes, but maybe another door opens, and you realize it’s a better fit for you. Or, maybe you choose to follow your dream. Think about how you have overcome struggle in the past and know that you can do it again.
I think people think that eventually our life is not going to have struggle—we’re going to get to a point where there’s no more struggle. But there will always be struggle, and that’s life, and it’s how you wrestle with it. And truly, in the end, it’s how we respond to adversity that matters.
9. It seems that there’s an even greater need now for students to learn and experience mindfulness and positive thinking amidst COVID-19 school closures and remote teaching. Have you seen more focus on these areas across the music education community?
I think one of the important conversations that happened with school closures is that we started to think as a profession more about how our students are doing. We came from compassion, empathy, concern—less about our students putting in the hours of practice and acquiring the technique we needed them to get to be ready for the competition or festival, because now there was no competition or festival. We call this focusing on social-emotional growth and wellness. I think that it was beautiful how teachers came together and recognized that all of us are experiencing trauma, and to take some time at the beginning of class to check in and say, “How are you doing. How are you feeling?” And doing mindful breathing at the beginning of class became more commn. Engaging with students about their welfare, their mental-emotional wellbeing became more important. I view this change positively.
10. What sort of growth or transformation do you see from students who have participated in the Upbeat Global Leadership Events?
It’s been super exciting. In addition to having the opportunity to work with individual music programs, beginning in July 2020 I launched global Upbeat events. The first online event was called Upbeat! Virtual Leadership Academy. It consisted of 2 days of drum major training and 2 days of leadership and personal growth. We had 500 students representing 11 states and a student from Malaysia. Since then, we did a free follow up in September, then another event called the Upbeat! Leadership Summit in October. The feedback from students and directors has been overwhelmingly positive.
We open our events to all students, not just students with a leadership title. A lot of younger students are coming to these events and getting super excited that they can share their positivity with the rest of their band. It’s also raised the level of gratitude that students have, and the appreciation they have for getting to make music through challenging times. The big switch is that students focus on what they GET to do, rather than what they’ve lost. They don’t think about I have to do this; they think about I get to do this. That’s a big Upbeat shift that I teach—the “power of GET.”
11. Where can teachers learn more about Upbeat Global, the Leadership Academy?
o Mindfulness for Music Educators Facebook Group
12. What’s next for Upbeat Global?
Our next big event is the Upbeat! Recharge Retreat on Saturday, February 13, 2021. We are hosting a virtual 7th-12thgrade music student session from 12:00 pm—2:30 pm EST and a music teacher session from 3:30—5:00 pm EST. If you are feeling like you are running low on fuel or your battery needs to be recharged, the Upbeat! Recharge Retreat will reignite your flame of passion and purpose. Go to www.upbeatglobal.com for more information and to register for the event by the registration deadline of February 6, 2021.
Stay tuned for more events after the Upbeat! Recharge Retreat. We will be hosting a Leadership Spring Training virtual event in early April 2021 and an Upbeat! Virtual Leadership Academy at the end of July 2021.
My hope for Upbeat Global is that we’re able to inspire, lift, share, teach, and serve as many people in the United States (and beyond) as possible. The dream is to help people unlock their potential, to become the best version of themselves, and to create an Upbeat Movement to spread positivity around the world through leadership and music.