Turn the Lights Back On

By NAfME Members Amy M. Knopps and Lori Schwartz Reichl

“The shadow is the greatest teacher for how to come to the light.”
― Ram Dass

From 1970 to 1993, Billy Joel, musical artist extraordinaire, released a new album nearly every year. He sold an astonishing 160 million albums. By the mid-90s, he had composed more than 120 songs with 33 of them earning spots on the Top 40 chart in the United States. However, Joel’s vocal music creativity came to a halt in 1993, and for decades he did not produce any new songs. Although Joel did compose some instrumental music during that time, he has released no new albums in more than 30 years. The magic seemed to be gone. His creative lights turned off.

What happened to Joel? Where did the music go? Did he need a break? Did he lose his love for his craft? Did he retire? Did he try new things? Did other areas of his life take precedence? Holding himself to a nearly impossible standard, Joel cites the main reason for his dim light was that “I couldn’t be as good as I wanted to, and it was driving me crazy.” Furthermore, Neil Diamond’s quote of “I’ve forgiven myself for not being Beethoven” nearly summed up Joel’s own feelings on songwriting. Joel is a passionate fan of Beethoven, and he countered with, “I have not forgiven myself for not being Beethoven, and still to this day haven’t.” Nothing was good enough for Joel, so forward progress with his passion stopped, and darkness prevailed.

Does this sound familiar? Has the light for your passion or craft dimmed or even turned off? How long have you existed in the darkness? Have you figured out why the light is not shining as brightly anymore? What have you done to try to turn the lights back on or what could you do to reset the switch? Whose light could shine on you to help restore your energy or passion?

Coming Back into the Light

In January 2024, at the age of 74, after a lot of time and convincing by American songwriter and producer Freddy Wexler, Joel released his first original song in 17 years titled, “Turn the Lights Back On.” This new song demonstrates that Joel was ready and eventually willing to engage again in the music making process with a new guiding light. It took time and a great deal of help by Wexler, but Joel’s passion was turned back on. This dimness or darkness demonstrates that the lights that guide our passions or talents may fade or even turn off. However, we have the ability to turn our lights back on at any age or time, especially with the support of others. It is never too late for a second chance or to grow and reach new goals. Just like Joel, we might also be surprised at who or what motivates us to turn our lights back on and begin to shine them brightly again.

Billy Joel playing piano on stage with accompanying musicians at the 66th GRAMMY Awards in February 2024

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 04: (FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Billy Joel performs during the 66th GRAMMY Awards at Crypto.com Arena on February 04, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Timothy Norris/FilmMagic)

Reflecting in the Shadows

Take a moment to examine where you are in your life and career. Determine if your lights have dimmed or have turned off. A reflective exercise could shine the light on answers that have been hidden in the darkness for some time. Consider asking yourself the following self-evaluative questions:

  • Do I feel like I am just trying to get through another day?
  • Does every day feel the same where no forward progress is made?
  • Do I feel unfulfilled with my work, no matter my efforts?
  • Do I lack motivation to do and give my best?
  • Do I feel lost and disconnected from my craft or others?
  • Has my vision dimmed or is my mission blurry?

Understand that you are not alone in the shadows. Burnout, a three-component syndrome of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, is moderately experienced by 65% of American workers. Burnout can produce feelings of alienation and futility, compromise relationships, and diminish long-term career prospects. Burnout happens to most human beings at some point in our lives. We witnessed how Billy Joel publicly experienced burnout and has recently overcome it.

One of the reasons Joel connects so well with Beethoven is that he describes the classical composer as one of the most human of composers. Joel says Beethoven is “fascinating because he struggled, you hear the struggles, and I struggle as a writer. It is not easy to write songs.” Everyone experiences challenges within their life and profession. When we have fallen into the darkness, finding the light again is not easy either. Help is often needed. Others are more than willing to assist us and guide us to the light again—if we let them.

Making Key Changes to
Turn the Lights Back On

  1. Focus on mental and physical health.

First and foremost, we should take a moment to focus on our mental and physical health. We can create space to disconnect from the stressors of our life and profession. Consider focusing on our breathing and stretching our body for a few moments. We should check our levels of hydration and take in more water if necessary. Allowing for movement or longer bursts of exercise throughout our day is necessary. We should attempt to eat regular, healthy meals and plan for this often.

  1. Reexamine our goals.

It is very possible that our interests, goals, and/or priorities have shifted in recent months or years. Where are we now and where do we want to go? What goals do we still hope to achieve? What might our legacy be? We should champion our accomplishments and be proud of what we have achieved, while also determining what is next.

  1. Seek inspiration from other sources. 

Inspiration can come from anywhere or anyone—even a new Billy Joel single. By expanding our circle, we could consider others who could mentor or guide us. Discover other art forms, books, film, media, or travel that may relight our passion or guide us to a new light. Find out who or what is waiting for us and how we can be moved back into the light. By reshaping our inspiration, we may relight our path—either a similar one or a new one.

  1. Change our routine.

A routine that worked in previous months or years may not be optimal at this phase of our life or career. Consider changing our routine to allow for motivation to reemerge. Have we ever been a morning person? Let’s try being one! Do we not collaborate well with others? Consider a new collaboration! Seek out the unfamiliar. Let’s give ourselves a fresh start, allow for grace, and make space to try and possibly fail at something new. We shouldn’t be afraid to test a few new routines, join forces with others, or accept the guidance of new people. We should realize that what works for someone else might not fit exactly into our lifestyle or responsibilities. However, we will not know unless we try!

  1. Show gratitude.

There is an Edwin Arlington Robinson quote that states there are “Two kinds of gratitude: The sudden kind we feel for what we take; the larger kind we feel for what we give.” Consider those who have supported us on our journey, such as family, friends, teachers, and mentors. Take the time to reflect on the tremendous gifts they have given us, and share thanks with them if they are still alive. This reflection may remind us of similar times in our lives when we were in the darkness and needed help finding the light. Furthermore, the display of gratitude may in turn influence our moods and motivate us in greater ways.

It Is Never Too Late to Turn the Lights Back On

Billy Joel and Freddy Wexler in black tuxedo suits standing at 2024 GRAMMYs smiling at camera. Joel is wearing dark sunglasses. Wexler's arm is around Joel.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 04: Billy Joel and Freddy Wexler attend the 66th GRAMMY Awards at Crypto.com Arena on February 04, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

Billy Joel needed to make key changes in his songwriting career. For years, he remained in the darkness unable to find the light again. An unlikely pairing with a new motivational figure opened his eyes to a new routine and needed inspiration, where he was able to reexamine his goals and achieve new ones. Joel is grateful to Wexler for influencing his career and helping him to literally turn the lights back on.

No matter where we are in our life or career, it is not too late to fall back in love with our craft—or even a new one. Billy Joel took almost two decades to turn his lights back on. His most recent song lyrics read, “I’m late, but I’m here right now. And I’m tryin’ to find the magic that we lost somehow.” We can, too! We can find the magic that we may have lost. With relentless assistance and newfound inspiration, the light switch can be flipped, and our lights can be turned back on to shine brightly once again. Don’t be ashamed or afraid to turn the lights back on! We all need to do so from time to time.

Watch these videos about how Billy Joel found the joy in song writing again with the guidance of Freddy Wexler to magically create “Turn the Lights Back On.”

YouTube video

YouTube video

Feature Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash.

About the authors:

Amy Knopps headshot

Photo by Dale Lloyd Photography

NAfME member Dr. Amy M. Knopps is the Associate Director of Bands and Director of Athletic Bands at the University of Missouri where she directs Marching Mizzou, Mini Mizzou, Symphonic Band, and teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in the School of Music. Prior to her appointment in the fall of 2017, Dr. Knopps served for seven years as Associate Director of Bands and Director of Athletic Bands at Eastern Michigan University.

Dr. Knopps holds degrees from The University of Georgia (DMA), the University of Kansas (MM), and the University of Missouri (BS, Ed.) where her principal conducting teachers were Dr. John P. Lynch and Dr. Dale J. Lonis.

Dr. Knopps continues to be a very active conductor, clinician, and adjudicator across the United States and internationally having worked and performed throughout Asia, Australia, Canada, Europe, and South America. For nearly ten years she has served as a head clinician/instructor at the Smith-Walbridge Clinics held in Charleston, Illinois, each summer working with high school and collegiate drum majors from across the country. Dr. Knopps is also known for her published contributions as she has authored several articles for School Band and Orchestra Magazine, and has contributed to eight volumes of the Teaching Music through Performance in Band series.

Dr. Knopps maintains memberships in several professional affiliations and is currently serving on the College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA) Athletic Bands Committee as Chair and as Missouri State Chair. In 2021, Dr. Knopps was named Associate Professor of the Year by the College of Arts and Science and received the Purple Chalk Teaching Award. In 2023, Dr. Knopps earned a Distinguished Alumni Award from the College of Arts and Science, the Faculty and Alumni Award from the Mizzou Alumni Association, and was inducted into the Marching Mizzou Hall of Fame. In 2024, Dr. Knopps earned the William T. Kemper Fellowship for Teaching Excellence, the highest teaching award offered at Mizzou.

Lori Schwartz Reichl Portrait

Photo: Richard Twigg Photography

NAfME member Dr. Lori Schwartz Reichl is the visionary thought leader of Making Key Changes. Her career began in music education where she learned the importance of a key change—a shift in the tonal center of a piece of music, often used to inject energy or produce significance. She eventually realized the necessity and impact of making key changes in all areas of her life.

Since transitioning out of one classroom as a public school educator, Dr. Reichl has uniquely created a global classroom for her essential work. She guides organizations, teams, and individuals to create and maintain a shared vision by making key changes in their communities, companies, classrooms, and careers to unlock their greatest potential in collaboration with those they love, serve, and lead.

Learn more MakingKeyChanges.com. Subscribe to Dr. Reichl’s Making Key Changes newsletter. Listen to her weekly podcast.

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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

April 2024 Teaching Music

Published Date

April 4, 2024


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April 4, 2024. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

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