Professional Learning Networks for Teachers

Wheel of Friendship

I wanted to address something that has been on my mind for some time now regarding the teacher-networking movement taking place. For those of us who are "longtime" users of Facebook, Twitter, and other networking tools, it has been exciting to see our colleagues begin to dip their toe into the Web 2.0 water. While we are witnessing a clear acceleration of the networking adoption rate, I am hoping to address an important semantics issue before we reach critical mass (something I expect to see within the next 24 months).

The common term being utilized for teacher interaction via the web is Personal Learning Network, or PLN. While I think that label is appropriate for people who share a common personal interest (for example, woodworking), I am concerned about using that term to describe networking within the teaching profession. We must give careful consideration to the connotations associated with the word personal (for example, taking a personal day). There is a clear dichotomy between "personal" and "professional" and I think those of us on the ground floor of the teacher-networking movement need to make sure administrators, board members, parents, and even our colleagues understand that online networking is a critical component of our professional development efforts.

Therefore, just as PLC stands for Professional Learning Community, PLN should stand for Professional Learning Network. Indeed in many ways a PLN can (and does) function as a networked version of a PLC Team. For some of us... particularly music teachers... the PLN is even more essential since most music teachers are a "team of one" in their buildings. In many cases the only way for music teachers to collaborate and share knowledge in a consistent and meaningful way is by networking with other "like content" professionals via the web. So it is imperative that we present this movement in a way that makes it abundantly clear that teacher-networking is professional development, not a "personal" or "social" pastime. Professional Learning Network fits the bill.

Networking is one of the most exciting things that has happened in my twenty-year teaching career. Web 2.0 technologies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google Docs have allowed me to collaborate with nearly 2,000 other music teachers, and the number is rising quickly. Yet we know that there are people who consider "social networking" to be frivolous or something that detracts from "real work." Should we get to a point where administrators tell us that networking be done on personal time (and that day is already upon many of us), we had best redouble our efforts to create a clear understanding that teacher-networking efforts are professional.

Long live the Professional Learning Network.

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Don't mess with band parents

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(from Lawrence, Kansas)

Contentious budget talks ended abruptly Tuesday night as Lawrence school board members approved a plan to bridge the district’s $5 million budget gap for next year without closing any elementary schools.

[....]

Band cut restored

The plan was not all well-received because it involves a $43,520 cut to restructure school nurses. Board member Marlene Merrill proposed an amendment to strip that cut from the plan, but it failed, 4-3.

One development from Monday’s cuts played a major part in Tuesday’s compromise. Board members had cut sixth-grade instrumental music programs to save $295,000, and a large group of high school band students and parents showed up at the Tuesday meeting to protest.

Band members played in the parking lot, and they also filled the hallway during the meeting and held up various music trophies. Parents and band members feared the sixth-grade cuts would cause a ripple effect because the teachers who were reassigned would possibly have seniority over both high school band directors, causing them to lose their jobs.

Morgan, who did not support the band cut Monday, included restoring the sixth-grade band cut as part of his compromise that ultimately passed.

“I think it does show that the board has a mind for fine arts, and certainly we see that as an important part of the education in our city,” said Terry Jacobsen, co-president of the Lawrence High School band parents organization.

After weeks of tense meetings and forums, board members were able to make at least two large groups of people happy Tuesday night, but they said the district may not be out of the woods yet. If the state’s budget picture worsens, the district could be looking at having to cut more than the $5 million gap they closed.

“What this does tonight, what we did — assuming the Legislature does remotely part of its job — we are ready to go in to next year with a balanced budget,” Morgan said.

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Ken Robinson: What's Wrong With Education

If you are currently teaching public school this video clip from Sir Ken Robinson will resonate with you. Robinson's comments about teen stress, depression, and falling prey to doing what society deems important at the expense of finding one's true passions are spot-on.The arts have a key role to play in bringing the joy of learning back to schools across our country. That is, if the government doesn't continue to stand back and let the current funding crisis snuff us out first.

Rewards, Musical and Otherwise

This is a paper I wrote during doctoral coursework almost exactly ten years ago. I have made a few simple edits, but it remains largely unaltered. Interesting how the school funding pendulum has swung this way again a decade later. In any case, I hope you enjoy it.

 

 

Rewards (musical and otherwise): A philosophical look at the performance-based music class.

Introduction

If there was one thing I took to heart as I started my Ph.D. it was the need to develop a clearly defined personal philosophy of music education. And if there is one thing I have learned thus far it is this: The more I learn about philosophy, the clearer my ineptitude becomes. As Allen Britton said (1990), “[W]hat one knows, one knows, and what one doesn’t know, one doesn’t know one doesn’t know” (p.183). I am learning more everyday about what I don’t know, but was once sure I did. In this paper I will attempt to articulate my evolving philosophy as it relates to performing ensembles in the secondary schools.

The Purpose of Education

Kliebard (1985) has identified three types of reformists in the history of education in this country: Social efficiency, child-centered, and social meliorists. In short, their views were that schools should do one of the following: Prepare students for specific places within society; focus upon the unique gifts and talents of the student; function as an avenue for social change. As for my personal stance, I am inclined to agree with Jerome Bruner (1996), who talks of antinomies–views that, while they contradict one another, all hold truth. Certainly there are important sides to each of the reform arguments. In addition, I agree with Bruner that we should also consider culture (and the classroom as culture) as an integral component of schooling.

Consequently, I conceive of schools and preschools as serving a renewed function within our changing societies. This entails building school cultures that operate as mutual communities of learners, involved jointly in solving problems with all contributing to the process of educating one another. Such groups provide not only a locus for instruction, but a focus for identity and mutual work. Let these schools be a place for the praxis (rather than the proclamation) of cultural mutuality–which means an increase in the awareness that children have of what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why (pp. 81-82).

It is the word awareness that is key for me. Ultimately students must have an awareness of their educational situation if they are to be successful learners. I believe that this was Dewey’s main concern with the various efforts to reform education. The ultimate purpose of education is rather pointless without careful consideration of the process (experience) in which students interact. In fact, it is through careful consideration of process that the purpose of education takes shape.

In a certain sense every experience should do something to prepare a person for later experiences of a deeper and more expansive quality. That is the very meaning of growth, continuity, reconstruction of experience. But it is a mistake to suppose that the mere acquisition of a certain amount of arithmetic, geography, history, etc., which is taught and studied because it may be useful at some time in the future, has this effect, and it is a mistake to suppose that acquisition of skills in reading and figuring will automatically constitute preparation for their right and effective use under conditions very unlike those in which they were acquired (Dewey, 1938, p. 47).

Lest it be thought that I am avoiding taking a stance, I will attempt to summarize my beliefs as such: The purpose of education is to provide students with opportunities for experiential learning, in such breadth and depth that they are prepared to be successful members of society, contributing in whatever area their interests may lead. Experiences should be designed to reflect the interactions and situations that will be encountered in society.

The Value of Music

We now turn to the question of the value of music. Here again we have a topic upon which an entire dissertation could be based. It almost goes without saying that music educators must be prepared to justify the need for music education. Ironically–at least to me–we do not see teachers in other disciplines facing similar circumstances (it is difficult to imagine math teachers attending a school board meeting to convince members of the need for math education). At the core of the issue is time and money. I say this because we rarely see disagreement on any educational issue that does not have one of these factors involved.

The length of the school day and year has remained unchanged for several decades. Over this same time period however, few would argue that the knowledge base has increased exponentially. New knowledge has not simply replaced old knowledge. If we subscribe to the ideas of Dewey and Bruner, we know that people must have a grasp on what came before a new idea if they are to fully comprehend it. Current events, as they become less “current,” are not forgotten, but rather are slowly added to an ever-increasing historical record. How can students possibly comprehend all that is happening today in the same amount of minutes found in the public schools in (say) 1945? When adults are faced with time constraints in the workplace, the usual solution is to “prioritize.” They start with what is considered to be most critical, understanding that items at the bottom of the list may not be accomplished. It is natural that school boards and administrators, when dealing with a finite number of minutes, will prioritize offerings.

School funding has been a particularly critical issue over the past decade, although most would contend that it has always been an issue to some degree. When dollars are tight, the answer is once again to prioritize. Anyone who has a monthly household budget understands this issue. When there is plenty of money to go around, there is little need to prioritize because we can afford everything we want. When dollars are tight, we start to talk about what we really need, which is sometimes different than what we want.

The reason I raise the issue of time and money is this: Perhaps the justification for music (or art, dance, theater, etc.) would not be front-page news in every music education publication if we, as a nation, reformed school funding and reevaluated the length of the school day/year. I do not think that administrators and school boards are inherently opposed to music education. Rather I think they feel forced to prioritize based upon constraints of time and/or money. Of course, we still must have (as any discipline must) a strong rationale for music education. There are three main reasons that, in my belief, music belongs in our schools.

Brain

First, music is an essential form of creativity, expression, and non-verbal knowledge. Now, I fully realize the immensity of that statement and am further aware that the parameters of this paper will not allow for a full explanation of that claim. I will offer this comparison as justification. I believe we can agree that the ability to read and write is highly valued in our society. It would not be out of line to suggest that we teach English so that people have the ability to be creative, express themselves, and interact with our world verbally. This goes far beyond functional literacy, which is obviously important but not sufficient. To read Shakespeare or Robert Frost is clearly not something one does to merely get through the day. To fully grasp the meanings in these works provides a window to understanding humanity more completely. However it is not easily done, and to be able to present one's own ideas verbally is even more difficult, yet is clearly an essential component of participating fully in our society. Indeed, it takes years of experience with the English language–in an educational setting–to gain the insights needed in this regard.

And so it is with music. Music provides us with the ability to intereact with our world in non-verbal ways. I think we are on the cusp of reaching an understanding of the importance of non-verbal ways of knowing. As Michael Polanyi says, "we know more than we can tell." Music cannot be told in words. Music must be experienced to be understood. Creating and expressing oneself musically (with the exception of lyrics) has almost nothing to do with words. It is a unique way of thinking, and yields a unique type of knowledge.

The second reason relies upon the first. That is, if we believe that music is a unique way of knowing, we surely want to educate young people not only to consume music, but to compose and/or perform it as well. Beyond the creative and expressive aspects, it is also an essential means of the evolution of our culture. We dare not leave things out of education that we value so highly as music. To do so is to leave the future of our very culture in question, a gamble we should not be willing to take with anything so essentialy human.

The third reason has to do with the social aspects of music. There are few subjects taught in schools that promote the bringing together of people. Music in a live performance setting has what Peter Kivy (1991) calls a “culturally cohesive effect” (p. 91). This concept, in conjunction with the culture that exists within the musical ensemble itself, presents an interdependent group experience that is truly unique. We do not educate children in musical groups merely out of convenience. It is also because of our awareness that we are not alone in the world. Music, in its completeness, is not a solitary endeavor, it is social.

The Purpose of Music Education

Having mentioned three important reasons for music’s inclusion in schools, we now turn to the question of what music education contributes to schooling in general. This is an extremely broad area, and for the purposes of this discussion I will focus upon my particular area of specialization, which is instrumental music. Of special interest to me is the fact that instrumental music is almost exclusively an elective in the public schools. In other words, students choose whether or not they will study music. I find it interesting to think about the reasons students may “elect” to take a course of study–and particularly why they elect to return in subsequent years. Much of what I will discuss is based upon by own observations during my 9 years of public school teaching–what Bruner (1996) might call “folk psychology.” I have found this type of observation to be extremely helpful as I fuse it with my studies in an effort to form my personal philosophy.

The Concept of Reward

When students make the choice to study music, I believe they do so because they believe it will be worth their time and effort. But that is question begging–where is the payoff, the reward? I believe there are three types of satisfaction or reward that students seek: Affirmational, social, and musical. We will look briefly at each of these areas as they apply to both students and teachers.

Affirmational Reward

 

It is my experience that students desire regular affirmation as an integral part of the learning process. Ways of receiving affirmation include, but are not limited to: Competition, verbal/non-verbal feedback, and grades. Affirmation through competition can be seen through seating tests, entry into “higher” ensembles, contests, etc. Competition can easily become the focus of a performance-based class–we all know of at least one rehearsal room that is loaded with trophies. In my own experience and studies, I have come to agreement with Johnson and Johnson, as well as other researchers who have shown that cooperative endeavors can include competition, but cooperation is most successful when the competition is external and not amongst the members of the group. For example, I have found great benefit in the rotation of part assignments because it allows for a shared sense of leadership as the students aim towards a common goal. I noticed early in my teaching career that “seating” the students did not seem to help the morale of the group and in fact made the students reluctant to assist in each other’s musical progress.

However, when I taught marching band I was an advocate for competition (in addition to the more traditional service and school-spirit roles). I felt that competition between schools was healthy–and consistent with other activities in the school (that I considered marching band an extracurricular activity was key in the decision to compete). This was an especially important experience for those students who were not athletically inclined/motivated. Competition is a reality in our society, and therefore should have a place–a healthy place–in our schools.

Instructing the 'cello

Verbal and non-verbal affirmation is a necessity in any classroom setting, but particularly for students who elect performance-based classes. Performing daily in front of peers and adults can be a highly intimidating experience. On the positive side, affirmation from peers and adults can be a strong contributor to self-confidence. When I resigned from my high school position I received many letters from students, many of whom made mention of the fact that I affirmed them in ways that encouraged them or made them feel good about who they were. It was then that I realized more fully how important affirmation is to students. Sometimes, in an effort to “get the group ready,” teachers (myself included) find themselves too busy to dedicate time to affirming students. This generally indicates a misunderstanding of the educational environment, and specifically calls into question “whose musical experience is it anyway?” But more on that later.

Non-verbal affirmation includes facial gestures, body language, and the like. It is important to remember the deflating power of a sideways glance while conducting (or the dreaded “look of death”). Conversely it is important to remember the affirming power of a smile or nod. Lastly we must remember that all humans enjoy the non-verbal affirmation known as applause. Teachers would do well to remember that, most times, the applause for which they are bowing is intended for the students seated behind them. It is also important to note that, in my opinion, students can tell whether you are taking the bow for them or for yourself.

Grades have been a source of debate for some time. I will not take part in that debate here. I will simply state that assessment is in fact a form of affirmation, and can be a particularly tricky area for music educators due to the subjective nature of performing on a musical instrument. When a student answers “1493” on a social studies exam (concerning Christopher Columbus), it does not take much convincing for him to understand why the answer is “wrong.” But things are not so objective when we evaluate tone, articulation, and so forth. The fact is that society has placed grades in high regard, and therefore students consider their grades to be an indication of their self-worth–it is a form of affirmation. Therefore parameters must be clearly understood by students, and assessment must be regular and structured to reflect the learning experience.

Social Reward

Some aspects of social reward are very obvious. In the high school setting it is typical for students to have been playing an instrument for five years or more. To gather daily with friends year after year and do something fun(!) in school is quite a treat. Every year I would ask our seniors to list their favorite events or moments while in the band program. Time and again, friendships were listed among the favorite memories. It should not be a secret (nor should it be discouraged) that fellowship is an important component of performing ensembles. As previously mentioned, working together toward a common goal is one of the distinguishing factors of the performing arts, and the fact that friendships are cultivated through this learning environment should be cherished and nurtured.

Other social rewards include aspects of citizenship such as self-discipline, accountability, status, and responsibility. While these are clearly extramusical benefits, they are benefits nonetheless and should not be discounted–rather they should be touted, especially because they are important concepts of our society. The important point is that all extramusical benefits should be an outgrowth of the search for musical reward.

Musical Reward

Horn

We now turn to what is, at least to this educator, the most critical type of reward. But the challenging part of musical reward is in its definition. I believe that many music educators, if asked what musical rewards their students experience, would cite many of the clearly extramusical rewards already discussed. Indeed in many discussions with my colleagues I have heard of the benefits of teamwork, discipline and the like, which are “only available in band” (choir, etc.)–and are therefore musical rewards. There is a semi-logical reason that many music educators cannot come to grips with true musical reward, and I will discuss that point later. For now I must outline what I believe constitutes musical reward. And once again, this subject could very easily serve as material for and entire dissertation and perhaps more.

I have been grappling with idea of “discovery” or “truth-finding” in music. There are many terms that, I think, run along these same lines. Bruner (1996) refers to “meaning making,” Reimer (1989) to “knowledge of,” and Elliot (1994) “self-knowledge.” We can talk about aesthetics, praxis, constructivism, and so forth, but what I am getting at is not so much the Most Important Thing About Music, but rather the moment in time when an individual comes to a musical understanding, and the associated feeling of satisfaction (reward) that comes from this realization. The musical understanding is “truth” for this individual, for what we come to fully understand in music (or anything) becomes added to the things that we hold to be true. And the greater the  struggle, the greater the satisfaction. It is about experiencing music cognitively. I believe this problem solving/discovery approach aligns with Dewey’s views about experiential learning, because without such revelation or discovery there has been no real “experience.” The other important benefit of this “umbrella” is that it allows for many different philosophical ideas to be incorporated. Bowman (1991) has cautioned that perhaps we have become too rigid in our philosophical beliefs, and in doing so have denied our students the opportunity to experience music from a more pluralistic view. It is interesting that teachers can have such strong philosophical allegiances when many times even the authors themselves are the first to say that they do not claim to have all the answers, but more about that some other time.

Whatever the focus of our teaching–which should be determined by the music currently being experienced anyway–the goal should be to lead students to moments of musical reward. And ultimately it is their desire for musical reward that we are looking to cultivate, for this may be the only musical benefit that they take with them. Students who can play an instrument at a highly skilled level will not sustain our musical culture (most do not continue to play after high school) unless they have developed a desire for musical reward. I believe that a desire for musical reward will last, preparing citizens to consume music of the highest quality and partake in cultural/musical experiences long after they have left the rehearsal room. This has everything to do with replicating our society.

The Danger of Folk Pedagogy

Ironic as it may seem, the biggest obstacle between students and musical reward is the teacher. Much of this is due to what Bruner (1996) calls “folk pedagogy.” While most would agree that schooling contributes significantly to the replication of society, we must realize that there is not a magic filter that extracts the good from the bad. Just as a mother realizes she has become just like her mother when she yells “because I said so” for the first time, so too are teachers inclined to assume the ways of their former teachers. No matter how effective undergraduate curricula may be, I believe that the influence of former public school teachers cannot be underestimated. While in many cases this may be of benefit, we must nevertheless strive to analyze the ways we were taught, while at the same time constructing our own individual philosophies.

The Teacher’s Reward

1971 NWBBA trophy

I think I have made it clear that, while there are many types of rewards that music students can reap, musical rewards should be at the core. In fact, I believe that the other types of rewards will come quite naturally as the teacher focuses upon musical rewards. But more on that later. What I want to discuss now is this. What is in it for the teacher? Is the reward structure the same as that of the student? Clearly the affirmational and social structure is not the same for the teacher–at least in the classroom. But what of musical reward? Should the teacher desire and reap musical reward in the classroom? This is an important point that deserves careful consideration.

Largely due to folk pedagogy, it seems quite natural for the music teacher to “realize” a musical composition. That is, the teacher will oftentimes make all decisions regarding the expressiveness of the music, in addition to the usual corrections of notes and rhythms. Reimer (1989) feels that this takes creative artistry away from the students.

A curriculum claiming to be artistic, or musical, or creative, must be a developmental series of leanings about how to get better at being artistic, musical, creative. Creativity cannot be conceptualized as being the sole prerogative of the teacher-director, the students being artisans who only carry out his or her artistic wishes. The students must share in the creativity, under the insightful, unifying governance of the teacher. It will be difficult for many performance directors to give up complete ownership of creativity to become nurturers of it. But when they do, they become music educators . . .(p. 193).

And so it becomes clear that the reward for teachers is not musical at its core, but can be found in the musical rewards of the students. This is both a selfless and counter-intuitive act for a teacher-conductor, particularly if his/her previous teachers seized musical rewards for themselves. Everything in music majors’ pasts tells them that, upon graduation, it is their time. It is their turn to ascend the podium and create the music. In reality, a music educator will allow the musical experience to be explored and “directed” by the students. The true educator may not say “play softer here,” but might ask “what do you think about the dynamics in this phrase?” Does this mean that the teacher gives no direction whatsoever? Dewey (1938) cautions teachers from gravitating too far to the other side of the issue:

The plan, in other words, is a co-operative enterprise, not a dictation. The teacher’s suggestion is not a mold for a cast-iron result but is a starting point to be developed into a plan through contributions from the experience of all engaged in the learning process. The development occurs through reciprocal give-and-take, the teacher taking but not being afraid also to give. The essential point is that the purpose grow and take shape through the process of social intelligence (p. 72).

Just as the math teacher does little good for students by simply providing the answer, so we must be willing to let our students discover their  musical way with our guidance (which is different than our direction). But, as long as we continue to be the ones to “take the bow” and stand on the podium, the temptation to direct the students will always be there, especially when we know that we can create a better product through didactic means. We must not fool ourselves into thinking that, because the ensemble sounds “good,” the students have experienced the music. Indeed I think it is completely possible for an ensemble to present an excellent sounding performance without knowing much at all about the essence of the music they are performing. It is not our place to merely manipulate our students musically, nor teach them the part devoid of learning the piece. While it might be acceptable (even preferable) for the professional ensembles to be dictated to, it is not much of an experience for the educational ensemble.

Furthermore, when the director is reaping the musical rewards, he or she is more likely to manipulate the students through the other forms of reward. For example, a director might hold weekly seating tests, not for purposes of musical growth per se, but because doing so will insure that the students practice their parts–laying the groundwork for a “great” performance (and greater musical satisfaction for the teacher). Oftentimes students are so exasperated by this process that they are relieved (instead of joyful) when the concert is over. I can think of few educational injustices greater than this.

Not only should teachers make room on the musical path, but the same holds for affirmational and social rewards as well. Anyone who has hung around the “pub” at a music convention knows that some directors take bands to competition not because they believe it to be a healthy experience for their students, but because they are satisfying their own needs. The same can be said of the director who programs a certain composition because “all the college directors are programming it.” There are many other examples, but I believe these few are enough to raise the following questions. Whose experience is it? Can we be selfless enough to get out of the way and allow our students to reap and desire the rewards associated with their co-operative efforts?

Conclusions

It is the responsibility of our society to educate our children. Education should include all that we hold valuable, which unquestionably includes music. Within music education we have a responsibility to offer students musically rewarding, performance-based experiences. Performance, if it is to be musically rewarding, must be coupled with broad-based understanding, which only comes through in-depth experience in the realization process. Solving musical problems and discovering musical truths are facilitated by educators who understand that their own musical gratification must be relinquished and supplanted by a desire to facilitate their students’ musical rewards.

 

References

Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bowman, W. (1991). A plea for pluralism: Variations on a theme by George McKay. In R. Colwell (Ed.), Basic concepts in music education, II (pp. 94-110). Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado.

Britton, A. (1991). American music education: Is it better than we think? A discussion of the roles of performance and repertory, together with brief mention of certain other problems. In R. Colwell (Ed.), Basic concepts in music education, II (pp. 175-188). Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Elliot, D. (1994). Music matters: A new philosophy of music education. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Kivy, P. (1991). Music and the liberal education. Journal of Aesthetic Education 25 (3), 71-93.

Kliebard, H. (1985). What happened to American schooling in the first part of the twentieth century? In E. Eisner (Ed.), Learning and teaching the ways of knowing (pp. 1-22). Chicago, IL: The National Society for the Study of Education.

Reimer, B. (1989). A philosophy of music education. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Photo attribution:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mtsofan/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Best In-Ear Headphones for the Buck

A few weeks ago I bought the Klipsch Image S4 Headphones. They retail for $79.99, and I haven't really seen them discounted anywhere, which was one indication that they are selling well and worth the price. They may not sound as perfect as some of those $300 models from Sure, Monster, and Klipsch, but for my money they are very close. The bass response is clear and the highs are not harsh. I would certainly suggest you check them out. They provide three different ear pieces so you can get a comfortable fit and block external noise.

Thoughts on Wind Band Repertoire

Today a colleague in my area reminded me about Stephen Budiansky and his Washington Post article from 2005. I had been meaning to write about his views and our current state of affairs in wind repertoire, so here goes...

 

I have previously stated that, next to building trust, selecting repertoire is the most important thing we do. From that post:

Keep in mind that there is a very good reason that the vast majority of compositions go out of print within a few years. You should spend more time researching and choosing repertoire than you do in score study (and you should do a lot of score study, right?). If you are a young teacher you should rarely perform a piece that is less than five years old. Later in your career you will understand why this is essential. Music that has stood the test of time has done so with good reason in most cases. Let the profession help you in this regard.

As Budiansky discovered after the release of his Washington Post article, this subject is considered a "third rail" in the band world. It's basically our version of Social Security reform efforts. Consequently he received some terse feeback from some composers, publishers, and even music organizations. But I agree with him that our profession needs to be courageous and spend time in honest dialog about this subject. I have attached Budiansky's most recent thoughts at the bottom of this post. If you are a band or orchestra director you should definitely read it, after which a strong look in the mirror will be in order. At the end of the document he makes some recommendations to which I would like to provide some response and additional thoughts:

1. get rid of festivals, contests, grading of works — all of that apparatus that encourages us to look at music as assembly-line fodder rather than as art to be evaluated and embraced for its beauty and artistic significance

The point I resonate with is competition. Generally, I don't believe in mixing competition with concert band or orchestral ensembles. That is not to say it doesn't make kids prepare more effectively... it often does exactly that. But in my mind competition is really an evaluation of the teaching, and all too often directors make the mistake of believing that adjudication is about the students. If you don't believe that the judges are in the room to judge your teaching, you really shouldn't be going to contests. Even if you do understand that, it still takes a very mature group of students to understand it, and even then it is difficult for them not to place ratings and trophies at the top of their priority list.

Add to that the unacceptable venues (almost always  gymnasiums) and the fact that most directors rarely adopt the adjudicators' recommendations (but are quick to point out mistakes on the recording to their students), and you see why I not only resist taking my students to contests but also stopped adjudicating such events. To me it puts students in a untenable situation whereby focusing on the joy of music making is highly improbable, and that just doesn't interest me. I do however value input from respected colleagues, so I regularly bring clinicians to my rehearsals and afterwards (privately) I ask for the truth about my teaching. This allows me to continue to improve and at the same time brings benefits to my students without the distraction of competition.

Having said all that, I do believe there are non-competitive festivals out there that can fulfill two essential components for performing ensembles: A venue designed for music performance, and a knowing audience. If you can't get your kids to one of these types of events, then consider starting such an event, or renting a true concert hall once a year.

Due to the fact that the "grading" of music has become inconsistent and (at times) misleading, I tend to agree with Budiansky that we need to rethink stamping a "difficulty level" on wind band music which, by the way, does not even take place in the choral world, nor most of the best orchestral repertoire. Good directors can evaluate the difficulty of a piece by reviewing the score.

2. start teaching music teachers about music and how to make aesthetic judgments about music

This is, far and away, the most important point Budiansky makes. Our colleges and universities have largely failed undergraduates in this critical area. There are only a handful of schools that have a dedicated class in repertoire study and evaluation. Most schools briefly glaze over the topic as part of a larger methods course. In my opinion the vast majority of undergraduates leave college without the slightest clue on how to evaluate the merits of the extant repertoire, which is why they resort to the latest publications, or what they themselves played when they were students. (There is also a larger problem here that deals with the lack of public school teaching experience by many of the professors teaching music education courses, but I have to leave that for another time.)

There is also a bit of presentism that must be considered when we are talking about excellent repertoire that has stood the test of time. As Budiansky has pointed out, many pieces that are considered to be the "best of the best" today were not well accepted in their time. Further,  there were certainly many compositions by many composers that lasted no longer than many of the "school" compositions of today. But of course we don't discuss those because we simply don't know anything about them... they were lost over time. Therefore I'm not convinced we have more "bad" music being written today... there's just no way to know how much bad orchestra music has been written over hundreds of years.

Finally, what is "popular" and what is "legitimate" music is a moving target. For example, nearly any Sousa march is today considered to be of the highest order, yet in his time marches were the popular music of the day. He used as treats for the audience after playing his more "serious" compositions or transcriptions. Naturally, the audience loved the marches and perhaps more importantly school bands loved to play the marches because it was the most current music you could play (like a garage band of today being able to play a John Mayer song). Ask your students how many of them listen to marches on their iPods. You get my point. Aside from military bands, there really are no full-time professional concert bands today and even if there were, we wouldn't see teens lining up at the train station to greet them like they did in Sousa's day. The idea of relevance in wind band repertoire needs further thought and discussion as we also discuss what makes a wind band composition worthy of study.

3. play a lot of stuff in class that you never plan to perform but which it is important for students to be exposed to as part of their education. Worry more about teaching music and less about technical perfection

I wholeheartedly agree with this recommendation. It has everything to do with the investment of time that leads to musical dividends, and resisting the programming of repertoire that is too far beyond the current abilities of your students. We've all been there, and we have to improve. That way the music students do present can be played well.

4. absolutely play new works and original works for wind band but evaluate them against the entire competition: only include them in your curriculum if you honestly believe they’re as good as the best of the last 1,000 years

While this point may reveal Budiansky's lack of expertise in music education (he is a writer/historian and holds a math degree from Harvard) it is on the right track and should not be dismissed out of hand.

As those of us in the band profession know, the wind band movement is much younger than the orchestra medium. This presents us with some real challenges when it comes to repertoire selection, especially in light of modern percussion instruments and techniques that leave much of the older wind band repertoire lacking (and most orchestral transcriptions from "1,000 years" ago).

While many teachers can justify having percussionists sit out for certain pieces, or play parts that are far easier than the winds, I struggle to  justify it. If we assume that only a small percentage of the "in print" repertoire is excellent (perhaps 5%?) that percentage drops dramatically when we try to identify repertoire where winds and percussion are treated equally. In a professional ensemble it doesn't really matter if you don't use all of your personnel on a given piece, but in education it does. Nevertheless, Budiansky's point remains: we must evaluate all repertoire carefully and only play the very best, and it needs to be an excellent experience for the entire ensemble, not just the winds. Those pieces are out there, but it takes time and effort to find them.

5. stop letting the for-profit merchants dictate curriculum, repertoire, what you can play at Midwest, what you’re allowed to utter at a MENC conference. Put educational and artistic goals, not the profit motive, back in the driver’s seat. Publishers are not evil people; they are not the ultimate root of the problem; but their interests are never going to place artistic and educational merit ahead of their bottom line. That’s your job as educators and directors. You really have to take a stand on returning educational and artistic decisions to the hands of the people who have no conflicts of interest

The bottom line is that publishers are going to publish what teachers want to purchase. If the colleges and universities teach undergraduates how to properly evaluate, identify, and purchase only great repertoire, what do you think the publishers would make available? Many of us are personally acquainted with some of today's successful wind band composers. Nearly all of them have written at least one or two excellent works, works that should be purchased and performed by the vast majority of groups. Keeping those works in print is good for the profession, good for students, and sends the right message to composers and publishers.

It has always been true that difficult music (for nearly any medium) has a hard time getting published because publishers do not feel the interest level will be strong enough to warrant the investment. They are not completely wrong about this. The good news is that today's technology is making it easier for composers to self-publish. Take for example some of the recent works of Kenneth Snoeck which are well-crafted, equally challenging for all sections, and available direct as pdf files. I believe we will see more composers use pdf publishing for their works that, for whatever reason, are less "publisher-friendly," and that is good for us.

As far as the Midwest Clinic, that is an event that was built on a partnership with the publishers from year one. For those of us who have performed there, you know that going into it, and if you don't agree with it, you don't apply. What it meant for me personally was hours upon hours of sifting through new repertoire to find pieces worthy of the experience. It isn't easy but it can be done.

6. if you don’t treat music as a serious, curricular, academic class, then there’s no reason to expect the administrators, parents, and students to do so. If you treat it as an athletic event or a group activity rather than as something worthwhile in its own right, don’t be surprised that it — and you — then get no respect

I can't find anything to disagree with or add to. Spot on.

7. most of all: dare to criticize! it’s a sign that your brain is functioning. And if somebody’s feelings get hurt, they’re in the wrong business anyway

Yes, I think we should speak frankly about repertoire. But more importantly we need to take a strong look at what our colleagues are performing, because what we believe is manifested in what we do, not merely what we say. Seek out the directors that you respect and find out what they are programming. This is one reason I started the BDG Twice-Taught List. Pieces that are taught multiple times by successful teachers should carry weight with other teachers. Many teachers, regardless of their age, would be well-served to duplicate the choices made by these teachers. And why not? It's not a competition, right? There is absolutely no shame in giving your students the same great repertoire that other fine programs are utilizing.

So Mr. Budiansky, while I know you have received some criticism from some over the years, I thank you for your candor. You have raised some very important points that deserve careful consideration. We know that music is not made in isolation. Composers, publishers, ensembles, teachers, and audiences are all part of the collective endeavor. But as Budiansky rightly says, thicker skin is needed if we are going to make the best choices for our students.

 

 

Don't Mind Me, That's Just My Heart Breaking

Free A Child's Cry

Yesterday one of the largest school districts in Illinois said it intends to cut 164 staff, a move which will reduce the music teachers in the district by about 50%. As a bellwether for the state, it is a flat out scary decision to see and should concern all arts educators in Illinois. Superintendents don't just communicate with one another about whether they should take a snow day. Rest assured a green light for deeper arts cuts across the state was just lit. If District 204 (with two GRAMMY recognized high schools) thinks a 50% music reduction is acceptable, who is next?

Congress acted swiftly to save our largest financial institutions, telling us that the country was on the brink of another great depression. I don't disagree that we were, however fast forward a year and Wall Street has miraculously paid out over 18 billion dollars in bonuses. In one short year Wall Street has moved from the edge of the cliff right back into their Central Park condos. Meanwhile the states are under water dealing with the continued tax revenue fallout from the housing bubble which was largely caused by the inappropriate lending by many of these same financial institutions. Ironic? Something isn't right with this picture.

Worse yet...and in classic legislator fashion...the problem is now being passed on to our children. Every time there is a political campaign we hear about solving spending problems so they are not put on the backs of the next generation, which is nearly always an empty promise. But this time it is far worse: They're not passing on a broken system (like Social Security), this time politicians are making decisions that impact the education of students right now, today. They have no problem using children as leverage. In Illinois Governor Quinn is holding education hostage in an effort to get a tax increase. But even if he gets an increase it won't be enough to fix the damage already inflicted. Illinois is not alone,  the education funding problem is a national epidemic. And where is Congress in midst of all this? Stalemated in a healthcare debate.

A bailout for AIG? No problem. A bailout for our children? Pound sand, we're too busy pointing fingers. And what about the White House? It seems they are too busy praising the firing of teachers and creating a Race To The Top to notice what is really happening. Does anyone really think that test scores are going to improve by increasing class sizes and cutting the creative arts? Talking school reform in the midst of state budget crises is like arguing about best practices in fire prevention while your home is ablaze.

The old adage is that when education funding is cut, the arts are first to go. True, but we must realize that there is far more to it than fewer concerts. We are robbing students of essential means of developing their thinking, creativity, and expression. This isn't about teachers, it isn't about the arts, it is about stunting the intellect of the next generation. We know that the next generation will need to be more creative to deal with the myriad of problems being passed on to them. We're currently making certain that they won't be equipped to deal with them.

Don't mind me, that's just my heart breaking.