The Value Of Doing Many Things (Not-So-Well)

The band community in the U.S. is buzzing about the Midwest Clinic performance by the Seika High School Band. It was, by any standard, an amazing performance. I hope that it will serve as impetus for music educators in the U.S. ...and indeed our reflect upon our educational values. Not because the Japanese band system has it right or wrong, but because it is time for us to give some thought to our current commonplace value of children Doing Many Things, but in many cases doing none of them particularly well.

I've written on the topic of our penchant for "well-roundedness" a few times on the blog, most recently last January when some of the Japanese elementary band videos were making the rounds on YouTube (if you haven't done a YouTube search for these videos, you should). The main point of that article was to point out that the Japanese system is producing musicians who are accumulating 1,000 hours per year (or more) of focused, diligent practice. Many of those students will be winning major orchestral positions, there's just no way around that. But what about the vast majority of band students...not just in Japan, but here as well...who do not go on in music? What are they carrying with them when they put the instrument away for the last time? That is what I want to talk about now.

I believe that at the core of the Japanese system is the idea that excellence is the pursuit of perfection, and it is believed to be something every student must experience. Yes, Japanese students are therefore limited in the number of things they can pursue, but whatever they pursue will expose them to discovering what it means to be excellent at something. That is what they will carry onward: The knowledge of what it takes to be great, and I think the Japanese believe that it is something that can be replicated once a student has experienced it. The badge of honor is not how many activities a student can list, but rather the knowledge of what it takes and means to be excellent at something.

In U.S. education circles striving for perfection is an idea that is considered to be oppressive, stressful, and wrong for students. Contrast that with the thunderous applause given by music educators to the Seika band while those young "perfectionists" grinned from ear to ear. This is because there is a difference between being perfect (impossible) and striving to be perfect (excellence).

Excellence is foundational in the arts. In music, striving to do justice to the composer and his or her music is...simply must be... about excellence. Great musicians know they will never be able to perform perfectly, but they also know that their responsibility is to reach for it anyway, each and every time they enter the practice room, rehearsal hall, or stage. Learning and performing with a mindset of excellence is one of the most important life lessons that music education has to offer.

Now, for those of you who are in the "music is its own reward" camp, I am not taking issue with that belief, in fact our views are more aligned than you might think. I'm not saying that music serves purely as a means to learning about excellence, I'm saying they are inextricably linked. How so? It becomes clearer when we consider this question:

At what point is a person considered a musician?

Huh? Aren't students, by definition, musicians as demonstrated by the fact that they have an instrument and are enrolled in my class?

Well, let me ask you: Is a student who is enrolled in an autos class a mechanic? Is a high school student who takes AP Physics a scientist? While we can certainly debate the degree of expertise required for experiences to be meaningful, it seems to me that a musician reaps musical reward in concert with a certain level of expertise, and expertise implies excellence. I think there is therefore at least enough solid footing here to consider the idea that meaningful music requires excellence in its approach. In the absence of excellence, what are students truly learning about music, or really, about anything? You can read more about my thoughts on excellence in "25 Things About Music Teaching and Education" (article | ebook).

Now before the emails and comments start flying, please know that I do not believe being an excellent, self-suficient musician is a simple "you are or you aren't" issue. Becoming an excellent musician is a complex endeavor, and is more of a spectrum than a light switch to be sure. What I'm trying to get people to think about is this: Is excellence an intentional component of your teaching? Do you teach music through the lens of excellence? It's an important philosophical question to reflect upon, and if you have heard the Japanese bands you can't deny that they value excellence. So back to their approach...

There is no question that the Japanese take a very narrow approach to pursuing interests. I believe this is because they feel that the "10,000 hour theory" has merit. In their view, you really haven't learned to be a self-suficient musician (or athlete, dancer, etc.) until and unless you have pursued perfection within the domain, and that takes time. Time of course is a finite resource. In the U.S. we generally value exposure over mastery. I think most of us have a sense that, to some degree, this is a good thing because it allows us to identify pursuits that we might truly enjoy, and we believe that spending your adult life in a fulfilling career is part of the American Dream. But the question remains: If we spend too much time sampling and identifying what we might be good at, we may never truly become excellent at anything. Is it not true that many people spend their lives in careers that are not fulfilling, and can this not be traced to being less than great at it? No, not always, but there is surely some truth there.

We have to be careful in valuing Doing Many Things over the value of learning to do something truly well.

I feel that the music program at my high school has a place for everyone, with ensembles to accommodate varying levels of time commitment.  I tell students who are not in a "top" group that I don't mind if music is not their "one thing" in which they will pursue perfection. But I very much do mind if nothing is. There is no career that values doing lots of things poorly. I believe that all teachers have a responsibility to help students (and parents) understand this reality.

There is much we can learn from the Japanese system, even though we will never have four hours of rehearsal per day. If nothing else teachers can be inspired to be more effective and productive with the contact time we do have. It's imperative that we don't fall into the trap of "oh sure I could do that too if I had _______." We already do enough of that within our own counties and districts! Music educators in the U.S. are uniquely positioned to help our school systems understand the importance of excellence in education. It starts by looking in the mirror and making sure we are doing everything we can to teach with excellence and offering our students opportunities to reach for a higher level of musicianship every day.

The Midwest performance meant many things to many people, but for me the ultimate lesson from the young ladies at Seika is the value of doing something very, very well. Brava!



1. Thomas West has also written some thoughts on Seika and the Japanese band system. Check out his blog at

2. Extra credit if you know why I included Jack Palance's character "Curly" from City Slickers

The Sing Off Season Two: Let's Stand On Some Shoulders

I can't tell you how pleased I am to see the changed approach to season two of The Sing Off. Hats off to Deke Sharon for his hard work and to NBC for taking a solid step towards the one-on-a-part format. Not surprisingly, when people hear the likes of Committed and Groove For Thought they appreciate the rich harmonies, blend, and style. Hearing the amazed reactions from the fans warms the heart if you have been a fan of this music for many years.

So what next? I hope The Sing Off will strive to bring awareness to the recording groups who have paved the way in this genre. With millions of fans watching, why not feature one of these groups at the end of each show, and/or have them coach the groups? There's a whole new generation of consumers out there who are falling in love with vocal music, how about we increase awareness of the artists who brought us here! Who am I talking about?

Take 6

New York Voices

The Real Group

The Idea Of North


And many others. As wonderful as a few of the groups on The Sing Off are this year, it's a shame that most fans don't realize there are major recording artists out there who have worked for decades to bring this genre to this point. Wouldn't it be great for those groups to see an influx of new fans? Let's get on their shoulders, not just their coat tails. Frankly, they've earned this moment in time.

ImproVox iOS App Is Great Fun

There was alot of buzz surrounding the "I am T Pain" autotune app last year, and meanwhile an even cooler app has slipped under the radar. ImproVox not only autotunes, but also adds harmonization in real time. There are different settings for voicings, major/minor, and effects. Best of all, you can record yourself and email your songs to friends. I've included a little holiday snippet from yours truly. Although you can use the mic that is built into the iPhone headset, I got better results using regular headphones and the built in mic mic that is used by the phone. If you have an iPad, you can use higher quality third party mics via the bluetooth connection kit.

In future versions I would like to see the ability to share the snippet directly to Facebook/Twitter, and Dropbox/Soundcloud integration.


Either-Ors, Politics, And The Arts

One thing this election cycle reveals: We are (as John Dewey said) an "Either-Or" society. Pick your side, and the other side is wrong, unethical, incompetent. That's why nothing ever gets done. Of the many things the arts teach, perhaps the most important is that meaning in life is found beyond the "Either-Or."

The arts don't fit neatly into a dichotomy. There are countless ways to approach, interpret, behold, and create art.  A composition can't be reduced to "this way or that way." We know the senselessness of saying one type of music is "right" and all others "wrong." It's expedient to pass judgement and label, but artists know that thinking in such absolutes leaves us unfulfilled, incomplete, and avoids true meaning. Perhaps that is why the arts are so misunderstood in these Either-Or times... they're complex, and that's rather well, inconvenient. We've got "things to do." Yet what is "getting done?"

Even though artistic thinking is complex, I find it a lot easier to understand the arts than politics. But maybe that's just me and "my side."

Music: It Takes A Department

One thing I notice as I speak with other music teachers is an overall lack of departmental collaboration and cooperation. Music teachers tend to work in isolation and hold on tightly to what they have built. But in the long haul this approach is unhealthy and limits what you can accomplish for the sake of all the students in the department. I'm the first to admit I didn't always think this way, but after adopting a departmental approach I will never go back.

Here are a few things I've learned over the years:

-Give at least one all-department performance each year.

-Instead of making tee shirts for your ensemble, consider creating music spirit wear for the whole department.

-Expand your parent-booster organization to include parents from band, orchestra, and choir. Band directors, I'm talking to you.

-If you and your colleague(s) don't have a similar philosophy of music education, you need to work harder to understand one another. That, or someone needs to go (maybe it's you).

-The level of excellence in your particular area will be limited until all areas are flourishing. You may not believe that, but it's true. A rising tide lifts all boats.

Working together as a true department isn't easy. But it's better for the students, the community, and ultimately for you personally, trust me. Reach out, take the first step, think different, and be patient. The dividends will come, you'll see.

1:1 Initiatives in Education? Talk To A Music Teacher

Tropical Christmas carolsThis week Apple released a video highlighting Chris Lehmann's school and their 1:1 initiative. Congratulations to Chris and the students at the Science Leadership Academy who are clearly engaged and excited about their educational journey. Their story got me thinking about why 1:1 initiatives succeed or fail. There's a lot at stake here, both financially and otherwise, so I think ongoing discussion is essential.

As I follow this trend there is something often missing in the dialogue, and that is the educational philosophy. The lack of a clear philosophy tends to leave 1:1 proponents with a fixation problem. The technology is seen as the ends rather than the means. When you watch Chris talk about his schools' 1:1 initiative, it's obvious that the decision to take that step was an outgrowth of a clear, focused educational philosophy where laptops happened to be a fundamental necessity. He didn't buy 500 laptops and then try to build a philosophy around them after the fact.

As an ensemble music teacher who will likely never have a (regular) need for laptops in my classroom, why am I interested in this movement? In short, music teachers have a lot in common with the 1:1 approach. We understand the concept of using tools to bring learning to fruition. So what can educators and administrators learn from their music teaching colleagues?

Let me start by stating something that should be painfully obvious about making music: Teaching ensemble music without instruments would be an exercise in futility. In short, you can't do it. You can teach "about" music without performing it, and in fact that is one absolutely valid aspect of music. But one cannot experience the "how" of music without doing (making) it, and as we have seen for many years, ensembles are a great educational fit for schools. Bands, choirs and orchestras provide a one-of-a-kind way to express and know more about ourselves and the world. In this era of cooperative learning, problem solving, and utilizing powerful tools, music teachers have to smile: We've been doing this for the better part of 100 years! In many ways we are the original 1:1 initiative.

So what do music teachers know, what's the point? It's one that is so painfully obvious as to be missed. Music teachers do not fixate on the tools. We don't say "OK we have these horns, what should we do with them?" We don't think, "let's buy a cello for every student and see what happens." Using an instrument is a given in learning to be an ensemble musician. The instruments, whether the voice, strings, brass, etc. are the means to a specific educational end: Learning how to be an ensemble musician. Instruments are the necessary tools. At the same time, these tools don't teach the students, and having one does not automatically make the student a competent musician (sound familiar?).

So here is my musical metaphor for teachers and administrators who are thinking about 1:1 programs: Rather than focusing on the instruments, what should your musicians be able to know and do, and what is the best ensemble experience to get them there?

Once you have answered that philosophical question, you will know whether or not a 1:1 initiative should be a given in your school.


Did Apple Just Enter The Piano Lab?

Test your skills.

GarageBand listens to you play in real time and tells you how you’re doing. Watch the video

“How Did I Play?”

First GarageBand taught you how to play. Now it tests your chops. As you play along with any lesson, record yourself. GarageBand listens in real time and tells you how you’re doing. You’ll see how well you played with colored notes, a progress bar, and a performance meter. You can check your rhythm and note accuracy, keep track of your progress, and beat your best score — all while perfecting your skills.

One Essential Learning: Add Yours

Yesterday I launched a Google Form to collect essential skills and understandings for high school band students. Add your idea to the list:

Remember, your essential must be focused, teachable, and measurable. An essential learning makes other concepts or essentials possible, and moves the student one step closer to being a lifelong musician.

Essential Learnings in Music: A Collaborative Effort


Our district has adopted a model whereby we identify the things that each and every student will be able to know and do in a given course. These "essential learnings" provide the basis for lessons and summative/formative assessments. Ultimately the collection of essentials represents what it means to become a competent musician in the particular course. They provide the foundation for everything your performing ensembles well, perform. Essentials are very narrow. We don't say "every student will be able to play their band music." A realistic essential for a top high school ensemble might be: "Every student will be able to properly identify major key signatures and perform the associated major scales from memory."

It might seem very simple to identify these essentials, but when you start thinking of it in terms of every single student achieving mastery (not the typical bell curve of results), it can be challenging. I have put out feelers via Facebook and Twitter, but so far I have not found any other music programs who are in the midst of this process. So I am enlisting your help here on the blog, and hopefully a collaborative effort can result in something we all can use.

We are assembling "packets" for every instrument comprised of the skills that a (band/orchestra/choir) student should be able to do as a senior in a capstone music ensemble. One portion will be things that are written (key signatures, rhythm components) and the other portion will consist of performance demonstrations. The packets can provide a basis for ongoing assessments that can be used at multiple levels by altering the tempo requirements. We will also be able to use the packets as audition requirements for the following year. This will provide unprecedented continuity and spiraling in the course sequences. We are starting with the band packets and then moving to orchestra and choir from there.

What I'm asking is that you think of one skill/ability that a senior band student should be able to do, and leave it as a comment below. This will take you just a few seconds and everyone will benefit. I will share the first draft of the packets in the coming month. To get the process going, here is one that we came up with yesterday:

Every student will be able to play the melody to Chester in four-bar phrases (quarter note-based melody, not eighths) at quarter note=60 at a dynamic of mp with characteristic tone. This will demonstrate that the student has learned proper breathing technique while performing a lyrical line.

Or then again, will it? Do you see the challenges of describing these essential learnings? Remember, every student must be able to do it. If they can't, we must revise the instruction and the student stays with the essential learning until they have achieved it. Notice how changing the tempo would make this essential much easier, or much more difficult.

Considering things like range, articulation, key signatures, lip slurs, rudiments, and so on: Name an essential that you feel demonstrates what a senior should be able to know or do. Be sure to include a tempo and dynamic level, and the instrument (or instrument family). Keep the task focused, and set the bar where you think it should be. Thanks for your contributions.

Xenon sequencer for iOS Devices

I stumbled on this app today by using the App Store "Genius" feature. Priced at just $4.99, Xenon has a solid feature set and what appears to be a pretty easy learning curve. Check out their walkthrough video: