Friday, September 17, 2010

In Memorium: George N. Parks (1953-2010), Director, University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band

I begin this blog entry, my first in several months, at nine in the morning, following the passing of George N. Parks, just last night. I know very little at this point about his death: only that it came way too soon in a vibrant and enthusiastic life. I am in a haze of disbelief.

George Parks was in his thirty-third year as director of the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band: a job he began at age 24.

My awareness of George began about eleven years before I ever actually met him. Not having been involved in competition marching band at my school, I began following my cousin’s band from Portsmouth, NH, and would attend her shows periodically. I attended the New England Scholastic Band Association finals in 1982 where I saw, for the first time, the UMass Marching Band, led by what appeared to be a teenager with fiery red hair running up and down the sidelines with a bullhorn, psyching up not only his enormous band, but also those about to experience their performance. The band came forth off the line with such an impressive sound and spectacle. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. Such power.

My next encounter with George was on his home turf, when as a freshman, I travelled with my UNH Marching Band out to Amherst for our game against UMass. Their band was still huge, the man was still seemingly insane with energy and enthusiasm, and the experience was no less marvelous than when I was in high school, despite the snow and bitter cold driven through the stadium by a howling gale. It was on this occasion that I was first treated to the dignity and grace that he possessed and insisted on from his band. They were gracious hosts. They seemed genuinely glad that another band was there to share the occasion. They watched and enjoyed our show, and saw to it that we enjoyed theirs. They hosted a wonderful social gathering that night after the game. They made us feel welcome. They made us feel as though we were part of the family. Such class.

Power and Class. This was, and still is, the nickname of the band. “The Power and Class of New England.” Marching Bands, particularly college ones, often times have a subtitle like that. If they come across as presumptuous, it is more likely the case that they give themselves these names so that they might aspire to deserve such a label. Ohio State’s band refers to itself as the “Best Damned Band In The Land”. The University of Maine throws a blanket over the whole state by calling themselves “The Pride of Maine.” The UNH Band assumed the moniker of “The Beast of the East” some time after I was in it. When I was working at Boston University, we referred to ourselves as “The Pride of Commonwealth Avenue”, partially because it had a sort of a poetic and somewhat more humble approach to a nickname, but also because it took perhaps a little dig at Boston College down the street. “The Power and Class of New England” had always occurred to me to be one of the more lofty names a band could take upon itself. If you are within the six state area of New England, you are most likely within a cheap cab ride of at least one excellent post-secondary institution at all times, and many of them have marching bands, and many of those are very good. It presumes a lot for UMass to distinguish itself from the others by pointing out its power and class. Perhaps the Pride of Maine, The Beast of the East, and the Pride of Commonwealth Avenue are such, but there is little doubt that UMass deserves their title. For this, in my opinion, George N. Parks is almost wholly responsible.

Upon my assuming the leadership of the band at Boston University in 1992, George was at all times a substantial supporter of our efforts to grow and improve. He was a tremendous help and support as the BU Band moved into its post-football era. As I grew to know him, I enjoyed many very fulfilling and soul-feeding conversations. I always seemed to spend some good time with him during the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago each December, and I grew more and more proud of my association with him.

It is unquestionably a devastation to lose George, with seemingly so much more that he could and wanted to give. But as my heart hurts at the thought of how many will be deprived of an opportunity to make music with him, I am compelled to remember that his influence is hardly limited to the thousands and thousands of students (almost all of whom he could call by name, I’m told) who encountered him directly though his work at UMass, his Drum Major Academy, or the countless festivals he conducted and clinics he gave. He not only inspired musicians, he inspired scores of teachers. I can’t stop thinking of more and more of my colleagues whose lives were touched profoundly by George, and as a result these people touch the lives of their students in kind. I think of the pride that my students have had in themselves led by a DMA educated drum major. I think of all of the teachers in neighboring towns who brought the spirit and drive of their beloved UMass band into their own groups, band or otherwise.

I begin my conclusion about seven hours after I began the introduction. A deeper sadness has set in, and I need some time to process all of this, but I will. I’ve seen George work. I’ve heard him talk. I’ve felt his drive, his optimism. If I know him at all like I think I do, I know that he will never let a little thing like his untimely death keep him from pushing us all to make music, and to love doing it. He’s set us up pretty well for that. Let’s all help him out with that: music teacher and non-music teacher alike.

My thoughts and prayers go out to his family, his friends, his students past and present, and all those who mourn his passing. Rest, George. You will be missed dearly.

Eyes, with pride.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

My Two Favorite YouTube Videos...

Just a quick entry for you....

Igor Stravinsky conducts the lullaby and finale from "The Firebird"
An 82 year old Stravinsky conducts the New Philarmonia Orchestra in London in 1965. To see the amazing mind that created this music use his frail body to conduct it is heartwarming, especially as you see him choking back smiles as it hits the climaxes.

Paul Potts' initial audition on "Brittan's Got Talent"
This video remains for me great example of the importance of music, and how its experience and passion can bring a person from one place to another in life. It gives me goosebumps when this unassuming little man wins over an entire audience with none more that the opening notes of his performance. You can almost feel the audience's expectations transform as he sings.

Enjoy! Spread them around!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Twenty-five Infuential Albums - Repost from Facebook

I enjoyed writing this for Facebook (February 19, 2009), and thought I'd repost it here, with a couple of minor edits. It generated some good discussion. These are, unless I rethink this, the 25 most influential albums in my musical life.

I kept it to 25, and restricted myself to one album per artist. I would probably have many Pink Floyd and Beatles albums in this, as well as several other multiples, but I thought it would be a better exercise for me if I stick with this rule. I also resisted the temptation to put a lot of albums that I know should be here, but in all honesty have not played as much of a role in my life as I know they should have, particularly as a musician.

1. “The Wall” – Pink Floyd
It quickly became and has remained my all-time favorite album. I find it aesthetically beautiful, sad, clever, and musical. David Gilmour’s guitar playing has remained a source of inspiration for me it terms of soul and an economy for notes. He plays nothing unless it is a significant improvement on silence. Sam Pilafian, my tuba teacher in graduate school, has a very impressive discography and resume in his career, but his involvement with ‘The Wall’ still captures my imagination.

2. “Abbey Road” – The Beatles
The Beatles broke up just as I was getting old enough to know who they were. By the time I became acquainted with Abbey Road, I had heard many of the songs. My father had bought a used Mercedes that had an eight-track tape deck, and a box of tapes in the trunk that included Abbey Road. That was by far my favorite of the bunch.

3. “Ein Deutches Requiem” – Chicago Symphony (Sir George Solti)
I have decided that this is my favorite classical work. It makes many bold moves. It does not follow the liturgy of the requiem and just uses pensive passages of scripture, it makes German sound mournful and beautiful, and it makes the violins tacit for the first movement, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen elsewhere. I fell in love with it when I played a band transcription of the first movement at music camp before eleventh grade. I bought this recording of it, and played it into the ground.

4. “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme” – Simon and Garfukel
It was a toss-up between this and the “Live in Central Park” album, but I chose this one because it came first both in existence, and in my life. Though the album was fifteen years old by then, my freshman roommate and I played this cassette tape almost every night for the first semester. They really took folk music to an art form in this album. “Central Park” was important because I listened to it all summer in my car driving 60 miles one way to visit my girlfriend almost every weekend during college.

5.“The Cars” – The Cars
This album has remained an important one. I became aware of it as it was my neighbor’s favorite tape, and I bummed a ride to school from him for a good part of my freshman year. I got it myself, and listened to it until I had worn it out. It became the soundtrack of my early adolescence, for sure. I have held it up since as a great example of a well crafted collection of songs that come together as one cohesive work.

6. “Kind of Blue” – Miles Davis
This album belonged to my dad, and until I was most of the way through high school, as far as I knew, my dad was the only person who owned a Miles Davis record. He owned a lot of them, and I liked them. This was my favorite. Miles taught me that music that doesn’t catch you the first time you listen to it isn’t necessarily bad music. It might be great because of that. Miles compels you to want to understand him.

7. “Dream of the Blue Turtles” – Sting
I had been a Police fan before this album, and have been a huge Sting fan since. This particular one is so important because it sounds like it gave Sting some freedom to really explore his various influences and talents.

8. “Rock of the Westies” – Elton John
Elton John is why I wanted to learn piano. He is also why I was disappointed that the eye doctor said I didn’t need glasses. This is an important record because it was the first one I ever bought with my own money. It’s not his best, or most popular, but I loved it, aside from feeling ripped off that “Philadelphia Freedom” wasn’t on it.

9. “West Side Story” – Stan Kenton
This, like the Miles Davis record, is one that my dad introduced me to. It brought both Stan Kenton and the music of West Side Story into my life, and both have become very important. Kenton was my ‘gateway drug’ into the concept of the big band. I listened to a lot of Kenton in college, and since.

10. “Van Halen I” – Van Halen
My sister Julie got me this for my 16th birthday, because I asked her for it. I asked her for it because I found myself drawing their ubiquitous logo on my school book covers despite the fact that I didn’t know any of their music. I really did fall in love with it, and found them to be great players who sounded like they were having a terrific time. Turned out the latter wasn’t always the case. David Lee Roth said of their chemistry that it was a shame they couldn’t work it out. They were better than the sum of their parts. It turns out that they were keeping him from becoming an irrelevant clown, and he was keeping them from becoming “Toto”.

11. “Changesonebowie” - David Bowie
In tenth grade, I had a crush on a girl in high school who loved David Bowie, so I ran out and bought this album because I recognized a couple of songs on it, and wanted to be educated enough on Bowie to discuss him with her. That didn’t really work as I’d hoped, but it did start a lifelong appreciation for Bowie that still goes on. The girl and I ended up friends at least.

12. “Jarreau” – Al Jarreau
My introduction to this album is a funny story. I have a friend who is one of the most passionate musicians I know, and has grown into one of the finest teachers I know. He and I had known each other at music camp, and were now hanging out together at a social gathering during marching band camp my freshman year at UNH. Over the stereo came “Boogie Down”, the first cut on side one. Consumed, he took the floor and danced, and I mean danced. He pantomimed every horn lick, every rim shot, and really gave a spirited performance of Jarreau’s scat solo after the second chorus. The crowd parted and observed him, lost in the groove, with amused disbelief. I wanted to pull him off the floor and away from this social suicide, but I knew he didn’t care. He was into it. I bought the album for myself shortly thereafter, and have gotten lost in it myself many times, but not in front of nearly as many people.

13. “Roger Bobo Plays Tuba” – Roger Bobo
Roger was for many years the tubist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I bought this album at the suggestion of my applied tuba teacher in college, Nic Orovich. He thought it important that I really hear what a tuba is supposed to sound like. This one did just that, and I still listen to it often. This album also fueled my love for the music of Paul Hindemith.

14. “The Stranger” – Billy Joel
Remember when Columbia House used to give you 13 records for a penny if you buy just nine more in the next three years? This was one of my thirteen, when I was in seventh grade, and I think my favorite. I had chosen it because one of my friends has done a report on it for music class in school, and it sounded cool. He slipped in front of Elton John and my favorite singer/songwriter/pianist with this album. The two have been neck and neck since.

15. “Solas” – Solas
Check back with me in a few years, because this one might end up higher on the list. I ran into Solas at the Lowell (MA) Folk Festival in 2001. I’d been to Ireland the previous summer, and was starting to really appreciate Irish (and other forms of Celtic) music. It was this Solas concert, and hence their CD's starting with this one, that I think fueled an ever-growing love for this type of music.

16. “Incredible Journey” – Bob Mintzer
It’s a great album. Terrific compositions, wonderfully performed, and impeccably produced. It was not released in a wide scale, but it’s out there. It was given to me by Mr. Mintzer when he came to play with the Disney Band I was in in 1987. It wasn’t really a gift as much as a desparate plea for me to become better acquainted with the material so the concert wouldn’t be such a disaster. I hope he feels like it worked. I listened to it non-stop in preparation for the gig, and an awful lot since.

17. “On the Line” – Lee Ritenour
This is an odd one on the list, but it is an important album for me. Ritenour is a very capable guitarist who is closely affiliated with pianist/composer Dave Grusin. It is very carefully crafted jazz/fusion, that in retrospect often sounds like music they use to get in and out of commercials during televised coverage of golf tournaments. It’s pretty smooth and antiseptic stuff, but something about this particular record spoke to me. He is very clean and very smart, and I liked it, a lot.

18. “Switched On Bach” – Walter Carlos
Another album that dad had, only this one was on reel-to-reel. It is the first album ever to be recorded using a computer. It is the music of J.S. Bach performed by Walter (now Wendy) Carlos on the Moog synthesizer, which was monophonic, and had to be done with numerous overdubbed tracks. I had no idea of the musical importance or controvoursy at the time. I just knew that when you heard it, Dad was coming to get you, and you were going to get tickled, good!

19. “Take 6” – Take 6
These guys still blow my mind. I learned about them about the time that I graduated from UNH. They are a gospel jazz a cappella group that has as much soul and depth as they do talent and chops. The arrangements are genius, and the performance is flawless, even live. I know each note of this album.

20. “Dire Straits” – Dire Straits
This is one of the few albums that my dad bought while I was old enough to notice. We both loved it, and when I went off to college, I really had to talk him into letting me take it. They’ve done great stuff since, but this, their first effort, might be their best.

21. “Mary Poppins: Motion Picture Soundtrack” – Original Cast
I’ve owned three copies of this. I can’t leave it off. I listened to it incesently when I got my first record player, and my son has done the same. I learned what an “overture” was from this album.

22. “Close To You” – The Carpenters
I admit it…I love me some Carpenters. I always have. This particular album was their first big break-out success, and it was one of the records in my grandparents collection that I could listen to. It is easy to belittle them. They invite it with some very saccharine production, with overdone background vocals and stings, etc., but the songs are well writen, and Karen Carpenter's low and soulful voice is beautiful, and all the more melancholy knowing what she was going through at the time, and how it hastened her untimely demise.

23. “Heaven and Hell” – Joe Jackson
From 1997, I was consumed by this one for a long time. It is a musical exploration of the seven deadly sins, and is wonderfully clever. It uses a unique collection of collaborations, and is somewhat appropriately released on the Sony Classical label. It’s not your run-of-the-mill Joe Jackson album, if there is such a thing.

24. “Purple Rain” – Prince
It is possible that this one is not ranked high enough, but I might be too embarrassed to put it any higher. I think that Prince has all the soul and chops of anyone in pop history. He’s a weird dude, but he knows his music. I think this album saw him keep his libido just enough in check to put out a serious work, almost.

25. “Chicago II” – Chicago
I love Chicago, and had to put one of theirs in there. This is the one I have listened to the most, for sure. I love the “Ballet for a Girl in Bucchanon”, which included “Make Me Smile” and “Color My World”. I was buying Chicago albums as they came out for many years, but stopped at 18.

I'd be intrigued to see your lists as well, or your impressions of mine.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

An interview (and maybe give me a vote?)

I was interviewed for a website called I encourage you to check it out, and if you are so compelled, give the blog a 'thumbs up' vote! Thanks.

Musical Arachnophobia - Divide and Conquer

When the snow melted each spring, there would be this daunting task ahead of me of cleaning up the yard. I would pull into my driveway that was as covered in pine cones as was the whole rest of my one-acre yard. It just seemed so impossible as it lay out in front of me.

When time presented itself, I would often make a decision (conscious or otherwise) to take care of some other task that I knew I could complete in that allotted time. That had to be done as well, and it was a lot less scary and intimidating.

Eventually, I knew I'd have to attack that yard. I would summon every shred of motivation I could, and I'd get started.

That, as it always turned out, was the hard part: getting started.

It would take a little while, but before too terribly long, I would see a decent-sized parcel of my yard begin to look nice. That was very motivating. It made me want to finish, and do it well. I started looking forward to the opportunity to get out there and get it done. I had conquered the fear thrust upon me by this intimidating and seemingly insurmountable task. I would get the muscle memory back, and the flow. Eventually, it was done.

It was in this that I discovered (embarrassingly recently) the concept of what I now call "Musical Arachnophobia": The fear of particularly ink-laden passages full of beams and articulations and accidentals and syncopations and triplets and quintuplets and foreign abbreviations that take on the appearance of spiders on the page. My college wind ensemble director used to call these passages "wags" (wild-ass guesses), in which you just blow and flail your fingers in a hope of creating something akin to the composer's intended effect. I love that expression, and use it too, but the "Arachnophobia" comes into play when you get into the practice room, and get so intimidated by the prospect of learning the passage that you find some way to avoid it for the moment, for as many moments as you can. This can, in many cases, result in a permanent 'wag' each time the student reaches that section, until such a time as someone tells him or her that it's not working.

As it was with my yard work, most of the time it's just a matter of getting started on the process. If you can get them playing just part of the lick, or part of the run, or part of the passage, you have taught them that it can be done, and you have got a little of it done well enough that they will want to finish it, just like the little patch of yard that made me want to make the rest of it look good.

This is a funny metaphor for me, because it goes both ways. Work like you practice music, and vice-versa. I am striving myself to conquer a 'fear of spiders', and encouraging my students to do that same.

I think in the spirit of full disclosure, it's only fair to mention that the real way I have conquered that specific aversion to yard word was to buy a condominium.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Force Will Be With You, Always

A side note: As I wrote this most recent post, my almost-eight-year-old son was standing at my piano in the kitchen (which, by the way, I love that my piano is in my kitchen) for much of that time, trying to play "The Imperial March" from the Star Wars saga by ear in as many different keys as he can figure out.

Hard to find a better example of "a different kind of beautiful" than that!

The Magic Feather - Who Are the Leaders?

So much learning happens from seat to seat in band. The eleventh grader sitting next to the ninth grader in the trumpet section will likely have as much influence on his progress and motivation as I will from the podium. As a facilitator of this learning, I need to be sure to let this happen. It might be collegial, in might be competitive, it might be both. Either way, it's a big motivator.

There is an aspect of this sort of mentorship that I call the "Magic Feather" effect. Some band members make the band better simply because they play well. Others make it better because in addition to playing well, they model things for their sections and speed up the learning. Then there are those that makes everyone play better, just with their presence. Be it their leadership, talent, charisma: whatever it is, just their being there makes everyone play better. They are the Magic Feathers.

In the story "Dumbo" (or at least the Walt Disney take on it. I am not versed enough to cite the original story.), our hero, a baby elephant born into circus captivity with huge ears. As it turns out, these ears make it possible for him to fly. While he always possessed this ability, he lacked the confidence. He was given a feather, told it was magic, and this gave him the courage and initiative to perform to his potential: to fly!

The magic feathers in my bands don't just help lead their sections. They infuse confidence in them. People find their own potentials with more success when those magic feathers are present.

This is a term I have been using for pretty much my entire teaching career. I certainly remember using it in my first job. I like to think I coined its use this way, but who knows if I heard some other music teacher use it, and just don't remember? My apologies to this person if that's the case. Until further notice, I'm taking credit.

When I first started using it, there was almost a negative connotation to it. Timothy Mouse was screaming at Dumbo as the two of them plummeted toward the earth that he never needed it, and that he could fly with out it. That was sort of my use of it as well. The 'magic feather' was absent, and I knew the felt like they needed him or her to play well. I was using that analogy to point out to them that if they can play with the 'feather', they can without as well.

I now extend the image further into what I hope is a more positive one, that they should not just strive to succeed without the 'magic feather', but rather aspire to become one. They should work to become a force that motivates that band to play well, and not be the need for such motivation. I think that has given this image more impact over the years.

I have also used this image to trick myself into a greater level of confidence in aspects of my own life that are outside of my comfort level, such as athletics. It really works.

Thanks to all of you...

It is a real treat to see that the increase of the number of people reading this blog. Let me know what you think, either via comment or e-mail ( If you enjoy it, please spread the word! I am enjoying this a great deal, and love meeting new people as a result of it!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On The Chopping Block...

The discussion is swirling in our district about the high school's block schedule, which consists of four 84 minute blocks per day, some classes every day, some alternating every other day, and almost all of them meeting for just one of the two semesters. This schedule is about ten years old, and in general students and teachers like it.

Band is offered every other day, and you can either sign up for it all year, or by the semester. Over the last ten or so years, it's become that a majority of band kids are in it for just the fall or just the spring. There are so many offerings and choices and pressures on these kids. I have decided that rather than 'fight city hall', I will take these parameters and resources, and try to work them into the most attractive and valuable program that I can. This is what this school wants, and I am paid to provide the best possible product I can with the material I am given. I maintain that I do no better to advocate for music and the band than to be the best teacher I can be.

Block scheduling throws up some real road blocks for ensembles. Much of what we do thrives on continuity, and a block schedule can interrupt that. I will always have the core group of students that show up whenever or wherever there is a band in which to play, and I will always have the group of students that will have the conflicts. Block scheduling affects those kids in the middle. Some are able to participate easier due to the schedule, some who have a more difficult time.

I will say that, despite being led to believe for many years that once a student takes a hiatus from playing, it is very difficult to get them back. In my situation, this doesn't seem to be the case as much as I had expected. Many students continue to study their instruments privately as the year goes on, and are ready to come back when they once again are scheduled. They are often playing outside of the school day in the jazz. marching, or pit groups during their hiatuses as well. It can work.
One of the most significant difficulties I run across is keeping the sections of which there are often not many players full, such as horn and double reeds.

I am not compelled to draw some valuable conclusion for you here. While some might look at our program and argue the contrary, I say we are making it work. We have to start almost from scratch in February, and that makes the March large group festival not really feasible for us, but so be it. That's how we do it, and we kind other ways of getting outside feedback. I am not joining the fight to save block scheduling, but I'm not taking up arms against it either. I'll just keep teaching.

I do make a really big deal in the spring concert about the seniors with eight semesters of high school band behind them. I'll admit that.

I'll let you know what the district decides.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Middle School Band - They Can Sense Your Fear

Without qualification, I can state with a clear conscience that I love teaching middle school. It's not an easy thing to love. It is an acquired taste. If you choose to read further, I consider that permission, based on my love of this part of my job, to consider myself successful at it. Maybe you'd allow me this even if only for poetic license. In my first job, one of my colleagues, a brilliant if not hauntingly cynical teacher, had this (I hope) tongue-in cheek theory about middle schools: "Get rid of them! Close every one of them. When a student completes fifth grade, he or she will be handed an ax and sent into the woods for three years, unsupervised, to cut firewood for society. When they emerge, they will be more emotionally, physically, and probably academically better prepared for high school than middle schools ever would have made them. Will they kill each other out there? Yes, they might. As sad as that is, we must no longer shelter these students from eventual natural selection by protecting them in the halls of our middle schools. Concerned that the 'best and the brightest' of our students might not survive the three-year pre-pubescent ax fight? They probably won't, and the atom will go unsplit, and missiles not built, and the globe will be unwarmed, and our species will go on: a race of strong mediocre humans." Funny stuff, but there is something about middle schools that make more than just this guy feel that way. I don't think one has to. Not everyone who teaches middle school band loves it. Among those, maybe there are some that never will, or ever could. I think there are plenty that should, can, and hopefully will learn to love it. If you just can't make that leap, then please consider an alternative (and likely for more lucrative) way to be miserable in your career. There is too much at stake for you to show up and collect a paycheck for souring a generation of students right out of music. Step One: Release the notion that this a stepping stone to a better job. Kids deserve committed teachers, who are there for them. I am certain they can tell when they don't have that from you. Whatever your ambitions, you are their teacher. You are their music. Be their leader. This they will respect. Embrace all the wonderful things about being part of their musical growth. Step Two: Understand and respect them. Middle school kids are neither caterpillars nor butterflies. They range in age from 11 to 14, but they look like they span the ages of 8 to 33. They are bombarded with stimulus, hormones, and pressures like never before in their lives. They are trying to establish themselves socially. They are experimenting with their independence. They can appear disrespectful, disengaged, disinterested. They can be hyperactive and out of control. I dismiss most of this as their being distracted. Their need to impress each other, look cool, stand out, not stand out, will all once in a while overtake their ability to focus and achieve. Telling them that they are lazy, disrespectful, or uncommitted is not only ineffective and counter-productive, its just not accurate, not at first anyway. Show them enough of that sort of contempt, and they will fall right into your assessment of them. You will lose them. You have very little to lose by reminding yourself that they are a distracted group of young musicians who genuinely want to be good, and want you to show them how. Step Three: Decide that you are not giving up on them, ever. Tell them that, especially when things are getting rough. "Folks, I know we can do this, and I am not giving up on you." I have that line chambered for those moments when I am beginning to feel frustrated. The message is clear yet positive: they are falling short of your expectations, and you have faith that they can meet them. I feel like that invites them along into my struggle. It not only pulls them along, it pulls me. Step Four: Don't underestimate them. Find that piece that might be just out of their reach, hand it out, and expect success. It's a form of trust in them that they will pick up on, and to which they will respond. As I think back on my career, I have way too more "that was too easy" thoughts than that of "that was too hard". Step Five: Be calm and candid. They will mess up. They're middle school kids. They need to be empowered to mess up once in a while, or they will not be willing to take risks with you. Wrong notes are not meant a a personal attack. Tell them what you expect, praise their earnest progress towards meeting them. Let them know when they do not meet those expectations, but do not take it personally when they don't. Most of the time they don't mean it personally, and even if they do, it's not really in your interest to let them know they've succeeded. They are kids. We are paid not to be. Step Six: Don't buy too hard into the idea of the fact that you are a 'feeder system' for the high school band. I do get it, I promise. I know that the product, the performance, is a huge part of the public face of our music departments, and that without good preparation from the middle schools, the high school band will have a harder time putting out a quality product. I think that the same level of performance can be achieved if we as middle school teachers work toward preparing our students to learn, not just perform. The Spanish teachers in our middle schools are not trying to develop a base of students that will make the high school Spanish department look good, they are trying to give their students the best experience in Spanish they can. It's a subtle but important distinction, and I contend that the quality of teaching improves to the extend that they are our students, and not the high school's prospects. If you teach middle school kids, savor the privilege to be such an important part of their lives at such an important time in their lives. You will probably never be forgotten, for better of for worse. There are three teachers, all career middle school band directors, all very different whom I admire greatly. When I am ever tempted to take this responsibity lightly I think of those three, and try minimize my differences from them. Contrary to what my cynical friend suggests, middle school is an extraordinarily important time. They are in a cocoon, finding who they are to become as adults. For many of them, being a musician and sharing that experience with peers is a huge part of that. If you even bother to read these remarks, I think there is a good chance you were on of those kids.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Chops/Hip/Groove: Cultivating Musical Taste in Students

"Wagner is better than it sounds" - Mark Twain

"Good music is music that sounds good." - Duke Ellington

"It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that certain je ne sais quoi." - Peter Schikile

As every year passes, it doesn't get any easier not to resort to this tired old question: What is this garbage that kids are listening to these days?

From generation to generation, that question has been thrown around with abandon. Kids will always listen to music to which their parents and teachers do not relate, and vice versa.

As music teachers, years of intense immersion in excellent music likely makes it harder for us to cope with that gap, but our role with these kids make it all the more important that we do! I think parents are supposed to have these sort of cultural conflicts with their kids. It might be part of their thawing out the dependence between them. With music teachers, it's different. We have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to facilitate their musical tastes.

Not only that, but we have a golden opportunity. While this assertion is certainly up for debate, I contend that I am the only teacher in my school that teaches a subject that everybody is born loving. While (for example) math and science teachers are trying to get their students to fall in love with what they do, all I have to do is to not let them fall out of love with music. With that comes the responsibility to not mess that up! It is important that I do not belittle their tastes. If I were to do that, would they pay any attention to mine? How could I expect that of them? On a personal level, I hope I am never that arrogant. On a professional level, I hope I never squander that potential connection.

The first step: summon all of your strength to give their music the benefit of the doubt. It makes it far easier to ask the same of them with that to which you are trying to introduce them.

My personal philosophy (maybe more of a goal, to which I sometimes fall short) is that there are two kinds of music: That which I like, and that which I do not yet understand. This theoretically prevents me from dismissing any music right away as being 'bad'. I try to hold my students to the same standard, but I can't if I fall short.

One vehicle toward this end I have used is that in our Survey of Music classes, I begin each class with the students taking turns bringing in a piece of music for the class. One that they consider compelling, for whatever reason. It may be a recent discovery, or an old favorite. It might relate to something we've talked about. It could be impressive, funny (intentionally or accidentally), meaningful, old, just needs to be within the realm of being respectful to the fact that we are in school, and I reserve the right to help them with that decision. My own personal appreciation for many different styles of music has grown significantly in the four years I've done this. My iPod is full of stuff to which I would never have paid any attention, were it not that students brought this sort of music in. I suspect that some of my music sneaks on to thiers. I also contribute to the show-and-tell, at least once per week. The kids, with almost no exceptions, have been open and supportive of each other in terms of listening to what each other has to offer, and then also what I feed them as well.

I have a less passive listening activity called "Chops/Hip/Groove". These three words represent three aesthetic components to music (in sort of a jazz vernacular), and I explain to them that when I decided what it is about a piece of music that speaks to me, I run it through this list to help determine that.

"Chops" refers to technical ability. If a piece has a high chops factor, it is because it contains technically impressive or virtuoso performance. "Hip" refers to the qualities of the music that make it distinctive, unique, or innovative. "Groove" is one I have a harder time defining, and I admit it might be a catch-all. I think "Groove" to what extend the emotional commitment to the music is apparent. Something with a lot of soul, emotion, or momentum. When we listen critically to the music, I ask them to identify on which of these areas a performance reached them. Often it's more than one, sometimes all three.

I always bring The Beatles in on this discussion. I love The Beatles, but I do not find that they carried themselves into their well deserved legendary status on the wings of their "chops". Their songs are groundbreaking. Their sound is distinctive and arguably timeless. It is not difficult for one moment to feel this music. They have not, however, taught too many people anything about how to sing or play their instruments. They were capable, but not virtuoso. They didn't need to be. The "Groove" and "Hip" factors pulled them through.

The students identify music important to them, and then analyze it against these three factors. It's often very eye-opening for them. At least one kid per semester realizes that maybe Dream Theatre is very good at a style of music to which they probably don't offer a great deal of innovation, while on the other hand, a band like Cake is a group of marginally talented musicians whose whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

As soon as this conversation runs its course, we can listen to the The Berlin Philharmonic, John Coltrane, Virgil Fox, Django Reinhardt, Billie Holiday, Luciano Pavarotti, and run it through the same tests. As they become familiar with these artists they might not otherwise seek out, I start to see what it is they appreciate with hardcore, punk, or death metal.

It is my hope that the barriers (cultural, geographical, generational, etc) that needlessly prevent good music from making into our lives begin to break down. I conclude this discussion with two pieces of advice.

1) When someone suggests music to you, give it a shot.

2) Never ever let anyone tell you what not to like. If it speaks to you, then it's good, no matter what anyone, including your music teacher, says.

You need not subtract music from your tastes to make room for more.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Cake Dat Cake Spratnass Tay

"Rote" is four letter word in music education, and perhaps in education in general.

I find it difficult to have this conversation without appearing to undermine the importance of music literacy. I put a great deal of effort in trying to bring my students through a process that leads them into a genuine relationship with reading music.

While it is not hard to find less than intuitive and contradictory aspects of music notation, I find that as a quasi-language, its iconographic and aesthetic qualities are remarkable. As much as any other symbolic imagery of which I am familiar, music notation looks a lot like what it's intended to represent. It is beautiful and clear, if quirky. Yes, without question, I feel that my music students need to learn to read music.

Having said that, I also acknowledge that music is an aural art. When learning music, the ear needs to be as at least as important as the eye. Music is far older than music notation. Modeling and demonstrating are not only acceptable, they are paramount. Don't feel too guilty or inadequate as a music teacher for 'showing them how it goes'. We all do it, all the time.

I have a lesson I teach that I hope demonstrates the importance of modeling, in addition to using notation. I accept the challenge here of using only notation to demonstrate this, because due to the very point I am trying to make, I believe this lesson is way more effective when I deliver it in person.

Before I say a word, I write this array of 'words' on the board:


I ask them to read it...then again...and build it to a good level of unison fluency. I ask them what it means. Typically nobody has any idea. I explain to them that this is at least phonetically in English. (That often at least gives them a hint).

Still no luck? Then I ask them to imagine that they just walked into a diner in South Carolina, and they want to start off with a soft drink. They ask the waitress, clearly a local, what the choices are. She answers...


Some folks begin to catch on, but not too many get the whole thing.

This array of words is designed to use one's knowledge of phonetics (notation) to trick the brain into producing the words "Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, and Iced Tea" with a southern drawl. The combining of "Sprite, and Iced" into the one word "Spratnass" is not intended to throw anyone off the scent. It is designed to get someone from (for example) New England to read this with the inflection that one might confuse for that desired southern accent.

The point I try to make with this is that, using notation and only notation, one can come pretty close to creating a composer's intended idea, but only through a context and aural understanding do we really know that we are making music, or that we are reading a list of soft drinks with a southern drawl. If we the musicians have this context...this awareness...then they, and their audience, have a far better chance of a genuine music experience, and not just an audio 'paint by numbers.'

The desired effect of this lesson is an understanding for the importance of seeking this context, this understanding, the connection. It doesn't dismiss the value of notation, but it demonstrates where it might tend to fall short.

It's also kind of a fun lesson.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

My Annual Homily to Eighth Graders

This is the basic idea of a chat that I have every year with eighth grade band members, in an effort to keep them involved as they move on into high school.

Often we all come into an occasion when we are next to a stranger for a lengthy period of time, and a conversation will feel less awkward that silence. Occasions such as an airplane, a ski lift, a train ride, or something like that. Adults almost always ask each other what they do for a living.

When I mention that I am a school band director, I typically get one of three answers. The first, and by far the most rare, is something like "Oh, cool. I actually play the alto sax in a community band in the next town", or "Yeah? That's great! My company has a Tuesday night jazz jam after work. It's a great way to keep my trumpet chops going."

The other two, which are probably pretty even in frequency, are either "I played the clarinet until ninth grade, but I dropped it. I really wish I'd kept it up." or, "You know, I never played a musical instrument, and I always wish I had."

Nobody has ever said to me, "You know, I dropped the trombone after my sophomore year, and it was the best thing I ever did. Things really opened up for me, and my life is richer because I quit that thing."

I know what you are thinking. Who would ever say something like that to a music teacher? I don't know, but just ask a math teacher what people often say when they announce their vocation.

Moving from eighth grade to high school is a dangerous time in the development of the life-long musician. Parents become less likely to encourage or mandate your participation, and it's easy to feel like it will be more than you can handle with everything else that you think high school will throw at you. History will tell you that it is an easy time to stop playing, and there is almost never an easy time to start again.

You have given yourself, over the last four or five years, a gift. You have made yourself fluent in music. You are special. Many people wish they could do what you do. How tragic for you now to give it up, and take this from me, right at the time when this really starts to get fun.

Do yourself a favor. Don't stop making music. Don't lament to some music teacher on your flight to Chicago twenty years from now that you always wish you'd kept it up. Tell that teacher that you did keep it up, and that you play with your own kids a lot, or something like that. You'll make his or her day, I promise.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

"Music Makes You Smarter" / "Basketball Makes You Taller"

I don't know. Maybe it all comes down to my thinking that with all of our bumper stickers, tote bags, t-shirts, refrigerator magnets that we, music educators, might come across as a little bit pathetic. Either way, I think some rational arguments can be made against some of our historical stances when it comes to defending the importance of music in our schools.

"Music Makes You Smarter"

This platitude has several issues as far as I am concerned. As music teachers, we quote all kinds of research pointing to how music students in high schools are on average stronger academically than those who did not study in music. I don't dispute that for a moment. I'm sure they are. Frankly it only stands to reason. I do however fear that this is tantamount to making the assertion that "Basketball Makes You Taller." Without hard data in front of me, I bet that if you take all boys that reach the height of 6'8" by the time they get done with high school, there would be a far greater percentage of them who played basketball than those who did not reach 6'8". They played basketball because they grew tall, not the other way around.

Maybe music attracts smart kids.

I've also read a lot of suggestion that introducing music in early childhood, right down to playing Mozart to a baby in the womb, seems to stimulate an intellectual development that leads to better-than-average success academically. I have a hard time imaging that such studies were able to get a legitimate control group that would validate such assertions. If you are the type of parents that would treat your kids to pre-natal Mozart and Suzuki violin instruction, would there not likely be a few other things you are doing right that might also lead to the success of your children?

Am I then saying that music doesn't make you smarter? Certainly not! If it doesn't, than I am not doing my job, which is the same job that all of my colleagues have within their subjects. We all do what we do to "make kids smarter". If I were a Social Studies teacher, and I parked my car next to the music teacher's car sporting a bumper sticker that distinguished music from my discipline as one that improves kids intellects, I might be justifiably insulted, and certainly dismissive. Maybe you disagree with everything I've said here, and that the conclusions of all of this research are irrefutable and ironclad. I still suggest that we are not doing ourselves a service in the long run by suggesting to administrators and colleagues that what makes music special or unique is that we make kids smarter.

That brings me to another point. We often build a case for music education by pointing out why it is not unique...not special. We outline all of the math, the language, the history, and the physical fitness aspects of music. We crow about how it is all these subjects, wrapped into one.

For me, it is this simple. Music is important because it is music. That's how it should be sold.

How do we do that? We accomplish this by letting music do what it can do. By bringing it into the soul of our students. In short, the best advocacy we can provide for our craft is to work toward being incredible at it. Discretely store all the free stuff you got at the convention this year and spend your energy teaching music as well as you can do it. Nothing will speak louder than this. Be a member of the faculty, a team player, value what each of them do as you expect them to do for you. Enjoy interdisciplinary opportunities, carry out your duties with a smile, see your role at the school as the music part of the whole, and be awesome at what you do. You will be valued, even without a bumper sticker or hoodie, begging to be valued.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Amanda's inadvertent break with her faith...

Amanda was new in town, wanted to be in band, and had not yet ever studied an instrument. I had a trombone in the closet that nobody was playing. I needed trombone players. She needed a horn. It was a perfect situation.

Her very cooperative teachers helped me find a 30-minute time each week in which she could be spared from the classroom to help bring her up to speed with her fellow sixth grade musicians, all of whom had a one year head start on her. She had a great attitude, and clearly seemed to be a self-starter. It didn't all come terribly naturally to her, but she never became discouraged. She would come to band, play what she could, and worked hard to see that it was a little more the next time. She never let us down.

The program for our December concert was quite intentionally secular. I don't really remember if there was any outside urging to that effect, or if this was a decision I had made myself, but I had not geared any music specifically to a holiday theme. What I do remember specifically is that one of our pieces was the "Hava Nagila", a very well-know Jewish celebration folk piece.

I recall this specifically because of a phone call I got one morning from Amanda's mother. She started by telling us what a wonderful experience Amanda was having with band, and how much it meant to her. However, there was a point of concern.

"We are Jehovah's Witnesses, and our faith compels us to refrain from celebrations outside of the teachings of our church, such as secular or patriotic holidays, birthdays, and music and/or celebrations of faiths outside of our own." she said, "This, I fear, would include 'Hava Nagila', and I respectfully ask you to excuse Amanda from participating when you rehearse or perform this song."

"Of course," I responded. "and please don't give it another thought." I paused for a moment, before adding that I felt terrible, because she's been working on this with us for several months, and I regret that somehow I hadn't heard of this sooner. Being an itinerant teacher means that this sorts of details might escape me.

"Please don't worry. Your intentions were good, and no harm done. We also could have checked her folder before now to be sure that everything was appropriate for her. The funny part of it is that for most of these several months, she was not to a level where her playing gave that away. It wasn't until early this week that her level of play had become good enough that we could recognize what she was playing."

I've always wondered what came first, the joy over the realization that Amanda was improving enough for her work to be recognized, or the anxiety over the realization that she has, for months, been breaking an important covenant. For years since, I have chuckled to myself over the eternal debate over whether or not any covenant was indeed broken. She didn't know what the song was, and was not yet capable of performing it. She is innocent in thought and deed. I say she was cool.

He works in mysterious ways!

A Different Kind of Beautiful...explained

The first sounds, and even into the first several months, or a young instrumentalists playing career can produce a relentlessly outlandish array of sounds. These are almost never as difficult on the student as they are on the parents and all others in the household. It is important to get said parents on board with the importance of practice, even if this practice significantly breaks an otherwise tranquil and peaceful evening.

"I don't know if I can take this squeaking clarinet much longer," they often say, only half-jokingly. My response to them, and my mantra, is that it really is "a different kind of beautiful."

Maybe that doesn't always work for them. I know it, in my own heart, to be the God's honest truth.

Why this blog...

I am a school band director, and it works for me for several reasons:

a) It might be the only thing for which I have the right skill sets.
b) I like teaching smart kids.
c) I like teaching kids that choose to be there.
d) When I finish my job, people clap.
e) I, like everyone on the planet to some extent, love music.

In my twenty-plus years of teaching, I have accumulated (and continue to collect) lots of anecdotes, experiences, relationships, triumphs, failures, and other stories. It occurred to me this might be the perfect forum to create a chronicle. Names and events may change, some to respect anonymity, and others just because I remember it wrong. We'll see as we go. I hope this gives you some sort of benefit, no matter who you are.