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.

Three Pillars of Teaching Music

Pillars of Education

In my mind there are three pillars to successful music teaching: Content, Craft, and Concern.

The Content Area: Music

Perhaps you had a music teacher who was organized and dedicated, but didn't understand how to select repertoire, create a beautiful ensemble sound, or catch the little details that make music leap off the page. Teaching music requires a deep and unwavering commitment to serving the music. Any great teacher must be passionate and knowledgeable about their content area, and for us that is music. How much time do you spend researching repertoire? Is your ensemble balanced, and if not, why not? What weaknesses in your training need to be addressed? How expressive is your conducting? If I asked your students, what would they say about your musicianship?

The Craft: Pedagogy

We've all had a teacher who was knowledgeable about the content but didn't particularly care whether or not we learned anything. The stereotypical case is the performance major who picked up the education degree as a "fall back" position. Another example is the director who considers the ensemble as their own personal tool for professional achievement. Teaching is an honor, and in music education it is our job to teach students to take ownership of their own musicianship. It takes constant reflection, trust, research, and planning for the sake of one's students. Being a solid performer yourself is not enough. You must have command of ensemble techniques, a solid philosophical foundation, and a clear sense of whose musical experience is the priority... yours or theirs. If I asked your students, what would they say about your teaching?

The Concern: Students

I hear music education majors and younger teachers talking about whether or not students should like them. This is really a very simple issue. The question isn't whether students like you or dislike you. The question is whether students believe you are concerned about them. Notice I didn't say you should like them, I'm suggesting you need to care about them. If you genuinely care about your students, guess what? They will like you. It has nothing to do with being friends with them. It has everything to do with valuing them as individuals. Stop looking at an ensemble as a singular entity and take notice of the individuals who sit in front of you every day. What do you know about them? If I asked your students, what would they say about your concern for them...not as musicians, but as people?

These three areas show us why teaching is one of the most difficult professions. Being a content expert, mastering the craft, and caring for each and every student is an absolutely exhaustive endeavor. If you are truly pursuing the profession in this manner then you know you earn your salary each and every day. No one expects you to have the three C's in perfect balance. What is reasonable to expect is that you're always striving to improve. It's not any different than what we expect from our students.

Keep looking in the mirror, keep the faith, and never give up.

HS and MS Concert Band Composer Graphs

Here are graphs showing the top composers being programmed this semester by high school and middle school band directors around the country. If you would like to enter the repertoire you are teaching please stop by our Google Spreadsheet and enter it. There are nearly 500 700 800 900 entries now, and the results update this chart automatically, so please check back in the coming weeks. NOTE: The purpose of this data collection is to reflect current trends, nothing more. You must draw your own conclusions.

High School Chart:


Here is the Middle School Chart: 


Authenticity in Music Ensembles

I'd been mulling over a post dealing with what it means for an ensemble (and its music) to be honest and/or authentic. I know it's based on trust. You can't make meaningful music without trust. But beyond that I hadn't written it because I just didn't have my mind fully wrapped around the entire concept.

And then I saw this video. What else is there to say? It's all right here: Trust, Honesty, Authenticity.


John Wooden: I Love To Teach

This is a fantastic talk on coaching and teaching from John Wooden (UCLA Basketball). 

Awesome, or what? Perhaps the best example of intimate connection between coaching and teaching that I've found. The next time you are at a music convention and someone starts bashing athletics, tell him or her about this video. All music teachers can learn something from Coach Wooden.

Some music teachers scoff at referring to their ensembles as a team, but I embrace it, because it's true. You don't have to compete in order to be a team. Besides, as Coach says, "I never mentioned winning. My idea is that you can lose when you outscore somebody in a game, and you can win when you are outscored." This is someone who understands that reaching your full potential is the heart of the matter. A team is one way to manifest that potential.

I need to be more like John Wooden. Take a look at his pyramid of leadership and tell me that you don't need to be more like him as well.

Understanding Free Brain Space in Ensembles


Yesterday I led a discussion with some university music education majors. At one point I was talking about, which I use regularly with one of my band classes during our pre-rehearsal routine. It's a very useful site that provides single line rhythms which I project on the screen in our rehearsal room. A question arose from one of the college students about whether working on rhythm devoid of pitch was de-contextualizing rhythm, perhaps even making it irrelevant. I thought it was a great question and an opportunity to discuss what I like to call (very unofficially) "Free Brain Space." There really wasn't enough time to answer fully so I thought I would follow up here.

If you have been teaching for at least a few years you are familiar with the situation whereby students leave out important musical aspects when they are struggling with technical details that they have not yet mastered. Continuing with the subject of rhythm, I know that when students are focused upon the rhythmic complexity of a passage I rarely hear accurate articulations, dynamics, blend, and intonation. Since they are using almost all of their processing for rhythm, there is not enough "free brain space" for these other essential items, so the overall performance is lacking. My goal is to help students master various technical issues to the point that those things are "second nature" at which time they are able to devote their attention to the details that make music more meaningful. If too many plates are spinning they are going to be in "survival mode" whereby it is nearly impossible for them to attend to much beyond their own part.

A lesson I have used in the past to make this point is one where I give two students different textbooks and ask them to read aloud simultaneously. I ask them to try to listen to the other student while they are reading their own text. After a paragraph or so I stop them and ask what they remember. Usually they are able to remember a little about what they themselves just read, and almost nothing about what the other person was reading. I ask them to "try harder" (sound familiar?) and start a new paragraph. This time is quite interesting, as invariably both readers end up pausing their own reading as they try to understand what the other person is saying. After this paragraph it is usually the case that they latch onto one or two words or ideas that the other person was reading, but they remember less of their own content. The soon realize that it is impossible to attend to both of these tasks at the same time.

The next thing I do is take one textbook away and replace it with something very familiar, like the Pledge of Allegiance, but I don't tell the other student what they are about to hear. As both students read aloud at this point, things are quite different. The student with the pledge knows it so well that she can focus more upon what the other student is reading, and the student with the textbook instantly recognizes the pledge. Lastly I ask both of them to recite the pledge. As you might expect, they automatically recite it together and begin to negotiate on the pacing and inflections in real time.

Although not an exact correlation to the way music works, the students are able to make the connection that when their own responsibilities are mastered, it is easier to attend to other things that are happening around them. "Free Brain Space" is an essential component of successful music making. So I suggest to you that the reason many school ensembles give lackluster performances is because students are playing music that is individually too difficult. They are using the majority of their processing power to "survive" their individual responsibilities. They might learn their part, but they never really learn the piece. That is something we must think about as teachers. What is the value of learning the third clarinet part to the Persichetti Symphony versus having an understanding of the entire work?

As an aside, I (conversely) believe the main reason that percussionists get a bad rap for behavior is because their parts are often too easy (or absent altogether), which means they have plenty of "free brain space" available for other things, and they do indeed find other things to do when put in that situation. Ensemble directors need to spend more time finding repertoire that properly challenges all the students in the ensemble.

I used the term "Free Brain Space" years ago, before I had any idea what it was really called. For those of you who are interested in the more official terms, what is really happening here is helping students to acquire procedural knowledge. Michael Polanyi is a chemist-turned-philosopher who talks extensively about "ways of knowing" beyond the more traditional types of knowledge that are demonstrated via pencil and paper. Naturally this has important meaning for those of us in the arts. For a quick overview (and extending) of Polanyi's thoughts I suggest you take a look at Fred Nickol's paper. A quick quote from Nickols on the subject of procedural knowledge:


Developing Procedural Knowledge

We are talking here of skill development, specifically, the acquisition of explicit, declarative knowledge as the basis for skill development. Often this works as follows:

1. We are presented with a description of a way to perform a task.

2. We practice it, perhaps haltingly at first but our proficiency improves with continued practice and it benefits from feedback.

3. Finally, we reach the point at which our ability to perform the task is automatic, we no longer have to think about it.


Sound familiar? Of course, this is exactly what musicians are working to accomplish every day. And once we get to the point where a particular passage (or the entire third clarinet part) is mastered, we no longer "have to think about it" which frees us up to attend to the entire piece. Suddenly the ensemble is better balanced, playing more in tune, and creating a more exciting performance.

All of that is a very long way of saying that using is one way of moving rhythm from "declarative" to "procedural" knowledge. If the goal is for students to learn the piece, not just one part, we need to work towards more procedural knowledge.

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Technology is a force, not a computer

Kevin Kelly of Wired gives a TED Talk on the history of technology. This is a "must watch" for anyone who thinks they understand what technology is, where it has been, and where it is going. It is especially pertinent for music educators who can't get any technology funding unless it involves a computer or something else that "plugs in." We must learn how to educate the holders of the purse strings so they understand how something like Remo's Renaissance Hazy timpani heads represent a technological advancement that changes the learning environment for the better, or proper acoustical treatment of a rehearsal room.

Teaching to the lower ninety five percent

LC Contest  2005-09-10_15

This Friday I will be speaking to music education majors at my undergraduate alma mater.

I'm not looking forward to it.

That may sound odd, but it's true. When I taught at the college level I was passionate about the need for undergraduate students to take Philosophy of Music Education. I spent the better part of the semester unpacking the assumptions that music education majors bring to college, most of those assumptions being formulated (naturally) by their own high school experiences. By the end of the semester I was hopeful that some of them had at least considered a different way of viewing their future profession. I would routinely tell them that many of things we discussed would not "click" until they were in the field, occasionally during student teaching but more likely a few years into the profession. In this "why do I need to know this" generation, this requires a massive amount of trust, trust that I cultivated over time. Planting those seeds that would take root years later was essential and as I said it took many weeks of persistent, thought provoking questioning and dialog, not to mention a continued follow up in subsequent years. Many college faculty members think that philosophy should be reserved for graduate study. I think that is far too late, but sadly most undergraduates across the nation do not take such a course.

So this week I will have about one hour to "enlighten" a group of music education majors, one hour to somehow make a lasting difference. It seems one of the main reasons for inviting me was my 25 Things About Teaching Music and Education. That article is a summation of everything I've learned and been thinking about for the past twenty years. Any one of the twenty five points is worth several hours of discussion by itself. You see my dilemma.

If you've done any amount of presentation work, you know how to do the magic tricks that get everyone engaged, laughing a little, and leaving an hour later with good feelings..... that rarely turn into lasting change. That doesn't interest me. In this one hour session with what I'm sure is a typical got-it-all-figured-out, mainly (like myself) trumpet-playing music ed. group, I'll be lucky to get one point to stick with them. So what should that be?

Well, for those participants who read this post before Friday, you're getting a sneak peak (not to mention proving yourselves by doing some preparation prior to the discussion). What I want to talk about is this: The way that most music education majors arrive at the decision to become music teachers is diametrically opposed to the reality of what most public school students need.

Great, that should be a very inspiring talk.

But the facts are the facts. If you look at the way most high school music programs are structured, they consistently reward the very "best" music students.

  • Students sit in chair order from strongest to weakest.
  • Students who get a first place at solo contest are given medals, certificates, or trophies.
  • The Drum Majors are heralded and given (oftentimes too much) teaching responsibility over their peers.

Each spring the "senior soloist" performs (usually with a very weak accompaniment from the band or orchestra), and the audience is informed that this senior will be attending such-and-such university and will major in music education. Everyone nods knowingly. The inspired student heads off to college, taking all of those experiences with them, and is typically met by faculty members that taught a little public school (usually five years or so) before leaving to pursue their dream of teaching at the collegiate level. This leaves the music education major in a situation where their beliefs about how music programs should be approached go largely unchallenged, as their former high school teachers usually have far more practical experience than most professors. Five years later (even though you were told it would be four) the student emerges ready to go out and create a near carbon-copy of their high school program that will inspire and empower the few, producing one or two future music educators per year and garnering accolades for the program. And so it goes. The problem?

What about the other ninety five percent of the students?

Are we really supposed to be in the business of gearing our programs to the top five percent? To read that statement it simply rings as ridiculous. Yet that is exactly what happens more often than not.

It's always interesting when my own graduates go off to college and send me an email that usually includes a statement like "everyone here was a drum major" or "I'm surrounded by people I saw at All State last year." Right. Young people who are inspired to teach music usually get to that point because of the wonderful opportunities they had. They rose to the top, they achieved, they loved it. It makes perfect sense. The problem is that we are perpetuating a cycle whereby music programs are designed to inspire and reward the few. As teachers we know that the main purpose of public school music is not to prepare students to be music educators. How could it be? At most only five percent of our graduates will enter the profession, and even then there are not enough jobs to go around.

Out of the remaining ninety five percent of the students, the vast majority will never perform again after high school. What exactly are those students getting that makes our class invaluable? Are we focusing our attention there, both in the profession and in our college methods courses? Or are we continuing to buy into the thought that as long as the band, orchestra, or choir is "successful" that the experience will be meaningful to the lower ninety five percent automatically?

Music education majors need to grapple with this subject if they are going to be able to break the cycle of teaching to the top, and get focused on the learning of all students, especially the "lower" ninety five percent. Music education needs to be relevant and meaningful now more than ever before.

So that's what I'm going to be talking about. Wish me luck.

More on the pursuit of perfection in music

Below is the audio of a short speech by Jack Stamp regarding the importance of music education, specifically as it relates to pursuing perfection (though he doesn't use that term). I've talked about excellence as the consistent pursuit of perfection in a previous blog post. Where else in education are students experiencing this? Isn't it essential that students learn the importance of interdependent excellence? I think it is.