Monday, June 13, 2011

Pomp and Circumstance

Pomp and Circumstance, March No. 1, Edward Elgar....again!

Since entering high school in 1980, I have been involved in at least one commencement exercise every year, totalling well over forty. Most of them have involved the playing of Pomp and Circumstance, repeated many times.

In June of 1981, I played in my high school band at the Awards Convocation, and for the first time, having heard it hundreds of times before, played this ubiquitous melody. There were about 100 seniors reverently marching into the York High School Gymnasium, and it took several repeats to get even this modestly sized class into their places.

At UNH, we would be enticed (by a $30 or so check) to come back on to campus and play for commencement, which was usually a week or so after we'd moved home for the summer. We always played good old P&C 1, over and over again. We would get punchy sometimes. The other tuba and I would try alternating notes. The trumpets would hold their horns upside town and press the valves with the tops of their fingers. People would start switching instruments. There was all sorts of silliness. One year, controversy erupted when the conductor suggested that it was the year to play something other than P&C. He was tired of it. Word got out, graduating students objected, editorials were written, and an administrative directive came down to resume P&C. That didn't help our attitude much.

In my first teaching job, Waterville High School processed in to Pomp and Circumstance, and recessed to the Triumphant March from Aida. That was what was done. No further negotiation required.

Boston University, for which I was involved in nine commencements, did not use P&C No. 1 at all. They used an interesting medley of processional marches, including P&C No. 4, which I frankly like better. I think it kept things fresh for the band. P&C No. 1 was not a tradition for BU. It may well have been mandated that it be something else. I honestly don't remember. All I know is that we didn't have to play it.

For Andover High School, it was back to P&C. I certainly was not compelled to upset the apple cart right away and start making wholesale changes to their traditions, no matter how weary I was of this melody. Maybe down the road, with a little more clout, I might be able to enlighten this community with some better music.

In addition the five schools which I either attneded of taught, I can also claim over a dozen schools over the years in which I was invited in to help with thier commencements. Most of them, but not all, employed good old P&C.

Recently, as I was preparing to rehearse P&C for my tenth year in Andover, I had this revelation: It's not about me. It's not about the band. It's about the graduates and their families.

What I did not mention earlier in these remarks is that in 1981 at York High School, the first time I played this, it gave me goosebumps. This was really it! These people were finishing high school, and this music was a huge part of marking that for them. For most of their lives, they heard this tune, and imagined the significance. Here I was playing it for them. My turn was coming!

In 1984, when it was being played for me and my classmates, it absolutely was electric to hear that melody as I marched into that gym. I also remember feeling exactly the same way as I heard it boom through the speakers at UNH's Cowell Stadium as we entered the field in May of 1988. I frankly don't remember a thing about the music when I received my Masters at BU.

I have decided that it does not matter one bit how weary I am of Pomp and Circumstance, not does it matter how weary the band is of the same. It simply isn't about us. It is a significant, important, and traditional piece of music for this occasion. Once a year, I can happily find the joy in this piece, and perform it with every bit of attention and reverence that the graduates and their families deserve. They are entitled to our best effort, without clowning around, without trading instruments, and without the slightest hint of contempt. I will not reduce their joy whatsoever by even suggesting that there is any banality to this music, by word or by deed. For many, it may be one of very few times , if not the only time, they ever hear it live. I will not have my fingerprints on a substandard performance of it, just because I have played it so many times.

This change in approach has actually made me like it better. I also do know that every kid in the Andover band will see exactly what I mean in the next one to three years.

If necessary, let's at least save the elitist attitude about Pomp and Circumstance for the teachers' hospitality room at the district festivals, but give it all due reverence in public, especially with our students. It will not take long for that reverence to become genuine if you let it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Getting The Kid to the Concert!

Below is a letter going out to band parents, to address the fact that a number of middle school students were missing from our All Bands Night, without my prior knowledge. We'll see if it does the trick.

* * * * * * * * * *

All Bands Night is behind us, and was a great success. It is however a concern that many members of the band, all of whom I consider important, were not in attendance. I am compelled to take a look at our communications to see what I can do to help this, and to make sure that each family understands my expectations in terms of attending performances. Here are some important points in my philosophy about performance attendance:

Every member’s presence improves the sound of the band.
We all need to see ourselves as a gain in the quality of the group. Everyone in the band is either an accomplished player, or is fast headed in that direction. Performance experiences are gratifying and motivating, and be it in the long or short run, being there in performance is a benefit to everyone.

Performances need to take priority of practices or rehearsals.
I understand, and frankly revel in the fact, that music students are often well rounded and involved in many different things, and many demands are made of their schedules. Having said this, membership in the bands implies that we are preparing for performances. We only get this chance a handful of times in the course of the school year. I would never ask a student to miss a game or recital for one of my rehearsals. I expect students extend the same courtesy to their fellow band members when a performance conflicts with a dance rehearsal, athletic practice, or something alike. I can be flexible with call times in order to accommodate a compromise, but I do expect all students at all performances.

Call times are scheduled with the needs of the ensemble in mind, but also in respecting the needs of the families.
I try very hard not to absorb any more time than necessary, respecting meal times, homework, and other family situations. With that said, I ask and encourage the members to be punctual with call times for concerts, unless an arrangement has been made prior.

Emergencies do happen.
It is understood that illnesses and other emergencies come up. I hope that I am rational, fair, and understanding about these, but I do think it is reasonable to expect that they are communicated to me in a timely manner. I don’t want to go hunting this information down. Whenever possible, this should be communicated to me in advance, but certainly as soon after as possible.


I know an important aspect of this is your having the information in a timely manner in which to plan. In order to make improvements in the area, I am including a tear-away sheet that will include as many e-mail addresses as you would like me to add into a list that updates you regularly with information about band performances and other news. I pledge to make improvements in this realm so that between us, we can create a better experience for our performances.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The War of 2011 - The Second Theater - Counting Rests

The War on Pencils was going so well, that I decided also to declare war on counting rests. I have contented for most my time in Andover (and let’s face it, probably everywhere else) that if it weren’t for rests, we’d learn out music twice as fast. It’s not the notes that really slow us down, it’s the silence.

I have decided that it all starts with the very word ‘rest’. Educationally, it is suggests not only an absence of sound, but also promotes a drop in focus. An eight measure sabbatical, if you will. I have decided to treat ‘rests’ not as break from playing, but rather an active infusion of silence, which has to be performed with the same intensity as one does when making sound. It is a question of getting students to commit to the silence and its importance.

Partially to demonstrate the potential intensity and power of silence, I discuss avant-garde compose John Cage’s 1952 work 4’33”, in which the pianist is instructed to sit in silence at the piano for that length of time. It is the sounds of the environment, including those caused by the anxiety of the audience, that make the ‘music’. It is the presence of silence that causes this, and helps demonstrate its potential and power.

I do admit that I wonder if I had that capacity to buy into that when I was their age. I still give it a shot.

My new battle cry: “We do not rest! We active perform the silence!”

Before I let you bring it up, I myself explore a potential hypocrisy here. I am a tuba player. I have played in many orchestras. In Dvorak’s ninth symphony (For the New World), the tuba has fourteen notes in the second movement: seven at the beginning, and the same seven at the end. That’s it! That’s the whole tuba part: twelve half notes and two whole notes tied to an eighth note. That big crazy last movement is nothing but rest for the tuba. It would be a lot to ask for the tuba player not to have a stack of crossword puzzles at the ready for that rehearsal.

This however is not our problem. Based on the literature that I choose, my students consider anything more than sixteen measures to be a lot. It has always been a battle to get them to focus for even that amount of time. Once they get good at resting, I will let them decide to what extent they have to be completely engaged at every silence. They aren’t really even close to that point yet.

So, that is the first beachfront we attack: Focus. Once I get them to buy into the importance, I can now diagnose further counting issues more narrowly. If they are indeed focused, then what else might cause missed entrances?

Well, you can get many answers to this if you ask them to count their rests out loud. I have been doing this when there is a problem. It automatically forces focus, and it also exposes their counting issues. Are they counting in the right meter? Are they somehow mathematically coming up with an error? Counting out loud will expose any of these issues. The students aren’t nuts about it, but they see that it works. This is incentive for them to solve these issues quickly and independently.

My personal rest counting demons are losing the count, and self doubt. I think I’m not alone. I attack these fronts as well, from perhaps a more gentle, empathetic, and humorous point of view.

Why is it that the most accurate counters in this band all lack the self-esteem to lead the knuckleheads into a confident entrance at the right time? You know you are right, but the guy next to you, who has never successfully counted a rest in his life, doesn’t have his horn anywhere near his face for the entrance, so you suddenly look at your flawed life, give into you fear, and into the Dark Side, and join him in unscheduled prolonged silence. It’s time to take back the night! Forge forward! You know how to count! Make that entrance! Make the knuckleheads follow you!”

I have also in my own counting initiated an odometer of sorts. I count with my fingers. I count to ten using the numbers in American Sign Language, so I can do it with one hand. (I find I really only have to keep track of the ‘ones’ digit. If I can’t keep track of where I am within ten measures, I have bigger problems.) I practice the muscle memory of counting to ten during otherwise wasted time, like elevator rides, red lights, etc. That way it becomes automatic, and I can rely on it as a back up. I am encouraging this tried and true method with my students.

I think what might be as important as anything else is I try to give my students the freedom to err on the side of confidence. If someone makes an early entrance with confidence, I attempt to correct it on the fly with a smile. I want them to prefer to make that mistake than to not enter at all, or late. If the entrance is late, or feeble, we stop and discuss why. They don’t want to hear me talk. They’d rather keep going.

This glorious cause, like the pencils, has seen a great deal of progress, to the point that the students are noticing and to which they are positively responding.

I think I will await unconditional surrender on these fronts before I launch an offensive against playing without first brushing teeth.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Pencil War of 2011

Now, in my tenth year in this job, I have made a lot of little logistical in-roads to progress in the program. I have realized a few visions that nagged at me for a while. The percussion equipment in each school is now decent, if not excellent. The students have taken more ownership for care of the equipment in all the schools. There are many ways in which things are better.


I have watched technology proliferate over the last ten years. Most of my students would not be caught dead without an iPod, or cell phone, or laptop, or even portable video game, all within an arm’s reach. If I needed to borrow a graphing calculator during band class, I am sure I would have my pick of eight from the front row alone, almost instantly. Despite all of this immediately available technology, it seems as though my students were resolved to never be caught by their peers with a pencil on their stand. Despite my directives, admonitions, and protestations, any time I asked them to jot something down in their music, they seemed to grin at my in cold defiance. This was simply asking more of them than they were willing to give.

I tried reasoning with them. If they can always have a $400 iPod with them, they also can be expected to at all times have a 29 cent pencil. Certainly they have pencils in their other classes. I tried for nine years to impress upon them that their use is no less necessary in band than in any other class. It was to the point that they almost showed pity for me, as though they really felt my anxiety, but certainly not enough to commit to having a pencil in rehearsal. Let’s not be ridiculous.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came during the dress rehearsal for our winter concert. There was a section in the band that I had asked to put a breath mark at a certain point. Each rehearsal required their being reminded of this, and yet there on stage, just a few hours before they concert, they all missed it. I walked out behind them, and none of the four had marked a thing on his music. I completely lost my cool!

“Attention. This rehearsal will resume when every single music stand of this stage has a sharpened pencil on it, and not one moment before. Let it also be known that December 11, 2010, is the last day that I will ever beg an Andover High School musician to have a pencil on this stand. You will have a pencil, and I mean pencil, (no pens, erasable or otherwise) and it will be out and on your stand, not in your case, or your backpack, or even your pencil bag under your chair. Your efforts at seeing to it that this band remains mediocre have failed and will go on no further. You will now stand up, leave the stage, and either return with a pencil or a drop slip from the Guidence office. Go!”

Everyone came back. Everyone had a pencil. Nobody had a drop slip. It didn’t take that long, either.

During our breathing warm-ups, I do ask them to hold up a pencil. I do not begin until they all have them. This process takes just seconds these days. I took this fight to the middle schools, and met equal success. I have to keep at them, but the simple routine and reminder has made it all work. The rehearsal process is much improved as a result. If I ask them to write it down, they do it! I don’t have to teach a lot of things twice.

I fully realize that it’s possible that a majority of you reading this have tackled this successfully long ago. However, for those of you who, like me, found this fight time consuming and at times fruitless, this hard line I’ve taken has made a tremendous difference. I encourage you to give it a shot. It’s an investment in rehearsal time that gives an immediate payback!

You know, this is going so well, maybe I will declare war on their unwillingness to count rests!

To be continued…