Matthew Arau ’97 knows many of the educators he speaks with are stressed, often exhausted. The pandemic has worn on them, and he knows the struggle to find a path forward is complicated.
But Arau, an ever-upbeat associate professor of music in Lawrence University’s Conservatory of Music, is preaching a steady diet of positivity in the face of those stressors. Reset the mindset and others will follow. It’s a mantra he’s willing into existence in almost everything he does, and he’s doing so to an increasingly engaged national—and sometimes international—audience.
A Lawrence alumnus who chairs the university’s Music Education Department and conducts the Lawrence Symphonic Band, Arau launched a side project three years ago, an LLC called Upbeat Global. He did so as more speaking opportunities at music education conferences were coming his way—taking him across the United States, as well as to Australia, Canada, Cyprus, Greece, Malaysia, and Singapore. He sensed an appetite among educators to hear his message of leadership through a positive mindset.
In June 2020, he unveiled the Upbeat Global website.
And now Arau’s first book, Upbeat! Mindset, Mindfulness, and Leadership in Music Education and Beyond, has been released by GIA Publications (it’s also available on Amazon). The book digs deeper into Arau’s vision for classroom and student leadership, a melding of positivity-infused lessons he’s taken from authors of popular mindset books—Carol Dweck, Stephen Covey, among others—and his experiences as an educator and a practitioner of yoga and meditation.
The book speaks to self-care, in that we need to take care of ourselves in order to take care of others. It speaks to the teaching of servant leadership, to the use of breathing techniques to center a teacher’s thoughts and those of their students, to finding gratitude in even the simplest of tasks, and to bringing enthusiasm to the daily grind.
“I created Upbeat Global as an umbrella for all the work I was doing,” Arau said. “By the time that happened in early 2019, I was presenting all over the world, as a guest conductor and as a speaker on motivation and leadership concepts.”
When the pandemic put things in lockdown in the spring of 2020, Arau said he found himself in a strangely quiet place. Classes went remote; travel was canceled; the streets near his Neenah home were eerily empty.
“As someone who practices mindfulness and meditation, it was pretty profound,” he said. “So, I started journaling, trying to process my thoughts more deeply.”
With encouragement from colleagues and mentors, that journaling became the basis of the book he’d long wanted to write.
“I realized there was a great need for this content,” Arau said. “It was really about serving and helping people. It goes beyond music.”
He was struck by how well the word “upbeat” resonates with his message—as it pertains to attitude but also in its meaning in music. His wife, Merilee Ott-Arau, had first suggested the word as they were looking to elevate Arau’s work.
“In the conducting world, we think of upbeat as the preparatory beat,” Arau said. “It’s all that information—the sound, the tempo, the dynamic, the color, the emotion—that we imagine ahead of time. That’s the upbeat.”
When the music starts, that’s the downbeat.
And that is something that plays out in all facets of life, not just music, Arau said.
“Upbeats are the thoughts; actions are the downbeats. We choose our attitude, we choose our response in any situation, and, ultimately, we choose our thoughts. So, we choose our upbeat.”
Walking the talk
Brian Pertl, dean of the Conservatory, has watched Arau’s motivational work evolve since bringing him onto the Conservatory faculty eight years ago. He said Arau lives and works with the same passions that have made him an in-demand public speaker. It’s an energy that rubs off on colleagues and students alike.
“Matthew embodies the upbeat positivity that is so beautifully conveyed in his book,” Pertl said. “Whether he is leading the Symphonic Band, teaching in a classroom, or giving the keynote at a national music education conference, he inspires and empowers those around him.”
Arau points to his undergraduate days at Lawrence in the mid-1990s for setting him on this path. He was a double-degree student, studying music and government and drawing important lessons from both.
“That planted the first seeds of my interest in leadership,” Arau said.
“I always give a shout out to Lawrence. The idea of thinking broader, the liberal arts education, that’s what influenced my own thinking. When I read a book on personal development or leadership or mindset or mindfulness, I always think about how can that be applied to music and music education, which I think is a very liberal arts way of thinking.”
Arau, who went on to earn a master’s degree from the American Band College at Southern Oregon University and a doctor of musical arts degree from the University of Colorado, Boulder, was a high school band director in Colorado in 2006 when he started creating student leadership initiatives, anchored by those lessons he took from Lawrence. That put in motion the journey that would lead him back to Lawrence. By the time he joined the Lawrence faculty in 2014, he was deep into research on the ways mindset can affect what you do and how you do it.
“I got really interested in growth mindset,” Arau said. “I realized how important our attitude and our mindset are in skill acquisition. Much more than natural attributes. I started this crusade against the word talent. I replaced the word talent with skill. I always say, talent is recognized after the hard work, not before. Talent is really layer upon layer of skill. So, I started giving sessions about unlocking potential. When a teacher truly believes in their students, there is no limit on what the student can achieve.”
He’s been building on those concepts ever since, incorporating the psychology of positivity into his message as he champions upbeat leadership to teachers, band directors, and anyone else willing to listen. The pandemic, he believes, has added context and urgency to the message.
“It’s important we have a lot of positive energy in the world at a time when it seems negativity is everywhere,” he said.
Teachers and other educators have been front and center throughout the pandemic, and the toll it’s taking is significant. Finding a healthy mindset can be a struggle, but once there the payoff can be life-changing, Arau said.
“You can’t just snap your fingers and, ‘oh, I’m going to choose a good attitude,’” he said. “I’m really careful to acknowledge that it’s not looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. It’s using what we have within us to help choose what we focus on.
“If we’re experiencing challenges, one thing to do is focus on gratitude. Find one little thing you’re grateful for. Maybe the smallest detail. And just by shifting our mind to something we’re grateful for we begin to see a little bit more in our line of vision that we’re grateful for. That’s an intentional choice.
“And then there’s that connection between our breathing and our emotions. If we’re stressed or angry, our breathing gets tight, high in our chest. It’s a physiological response. When we get to that centered, grounded place where we make the best decisions, maybe the best versions of ourselves, our breathing is low. We can intentionally change our breathing.”
As Arau spoke those words, he was preparing for a weekend trip to Philadelphia, where he’d be speaking at a four-state education conference. The following weekend he would be speaking to a gathering of student leaders in Missouri. And the weekend after that he was being featured at a music education conference in the state of Washington.
His message on positivity is in demand.
“He is shaping the future of music education at the national and international level, with Lawrence as his home and with our students and our community as his inspiration,” Pertl said. “I can’t wait to see what comes next.”