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, new...it 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.