Your teaching is perfect...for the results you are getting

"My teaching is perfectly designed for the learning results I'm currently getting."

Sort of makes you think about what needs to happen if you want to increase student learning, doesn't it?

Oftentimes we don't think *we* need to change anything about our teaching....students just need to pay attention and work harder.

The quote is adapted from a leadership/organizational quote by Tom Northup: "All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they’re now getting"

Don't watch this if you don't want to improve your teaching

This video from Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur will take just over an hour of your time. When I think about concepts like key signatures, rhythm, and even something as fundamental as how an ensemble/conductor relationship "works," I'm left with little choice but to reconsider age old assumptions and practices. Set aside the time to watch this video. His candor and self awareness is refreshing.

The Post-All-State Adrenaline Rush


I had really good rehearsals today. I've been at this long enough to recognize that I usually have a burst of inspiration upon returning from our All State Convention. Do you notice this as well? I bet you probably do. You might have heard a great ensemble, or attended a session and picked up some great ideas. Upon returning to school you feel energized, and your students respond immediately. It's an awesome feeling. The question is, why can't we sustain it?

In my 25 Things About Music Teaching and Education I talk about the fact that great teaching takes energy. There is no doubt in my mind. Think of the teachers in your life that you respected the most, and chances are they were energetic. I know when I'm teaching my best because at the end of the day I am exhausted. Not in a bad way mind you, it's a good kind of tired (if you feel "beat up" at the end of the day that's another matter altogether). The next time you feel exhausted at the end of the day, think about your rehearsals and you'll probably find that you were really teaching well. Your rehearsals were focused, you knew what needed to be accomplished, and the students were with you all the way. It's so exciting that you'd think we would want those kind of rehearsals every day. But it's really hard to sustain, which is why a few weeks after All State I'm usually back to wondering why my rehearsals are lagging in comparison.

This year, I'm going to try to keep the ball rolling by continuing to give just that little bit extra. The students deserve it.

25 Things About Music Teaching and Education

~Download the eBook version:

1. Looking in the Mirror

I see you in Red you see me in Black amp White

A little joke that has traveled around the Illinois music teaching community is my book called What Is Wrong With Your Band? When you open the book, there is just a mirror. I am almost done with it, I just have to find the right mirror supply house. If it is successful I will work on editions for orchestra and choir.

The thought behind that (which some people miss) is that no matter what your situation, funding, location, demographic etc. what your students learn is still going to come down to you. If your ensembles are not everything you want them to be, it's not the students, administrators, or parents who are ultimately at fault. Don't get me wrong, those folks will certainly put some roadblocks in your way now and then, but it still comes down to how you are going to proceed.

Many of us talk ourselves out of teaching our best because of adversity. We convince ourselves that someone or something is preventing us from better teaching. "I have a weak senior class this year." "My principal just doesn't understand." "Oh sure, if I had his facilities and funding we'd be just as good."

Ever notice that some teachers succeed no matter where they go, and others don't, no matter where they go? Some teachers just have all the luck, right? Or is there more to it? Successful teachers know this: No one at your school is going to wake up tomorrow and decide that their number one priority is fixing your situation. What are you going to do to improve your situation for the sake of your students? Write down the things that are holding you back and spend some time deciding what you are going to do about it. In most cases the "ideal" job is the one you are in right now, you just haven't realized that it's up to you to make it ideal. Shut down the bitter little voice that says "it's not fair" and start addressing the situation.

2. Never Give Up on Your Students

BampW version 2

We've all been there. You're just about to enter the rehearsal room and you think to yourself, "I really don't want to go in there today." There's just something about the chemistry between you and your students... it just doesn't feel right. What happened? You've started to give up on your students. We've all heard teachers say that their group is having a "down year." Rarely do we hear the admission that the teacher failed his or her students.

"If the students aren't doing what they are told, then how can it be anyone's fault but theirs? Maybe next year's seniors will be stronger leaders."

Sure, maybe.

When have you given up on your students? When it has become you against them. When kids sense that it is no longer a "we" situation, that the musical endeavor is yours and not theirs, then you are losing them. Look in the mirror and accept responsibility for what is going on. Maybe you over-programmed. Perhaps you didn't set up the right accountability along the way. Now what? Are you expecting the students to make the first move? They are kids for goodness sake. You must rebuild the relationship. Yes, the ensemble needs to improve, but we need to trust each other and get there together. Students can't make meaningful music without trust.

Don't confuse "trust" with letting the students do whatever they want. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about creating a learning environment where students feel safe from ridicule. An environment where the students are not constantly looking to you to determine what happens next, or cowering after every mistake. An environment where students are striving to become more responsible for their own musicianship. You can have high standards without making your students feel as though you don't like them.You can put their musical experience ahead of your own and still have a great ensemble. The students must believe that they are fully capable of achieving what you have asked of them. And they must know that you believe in them.

You have to trust that your students are up to truly making the music rather than constantly being told how you want it to be, and you must begin to transfer the process from yourself to them. A great way to rebuild this responsibility is to stop conducting altogether for an entire rehearsal. Get them listening to one another and to stop depending on you so much. Do it in a positive way, not a punitive way. Remind them that they make the music, after all, and they need to take responsibility for their musicianship. They (and you) will be surprised at how much they can accomplish when they realize that everyone must be in the driver's seat.

It takes a long time to build trust, and even longer for students to reach musical self-reliance, but they can do it, and they will do it if you don't give up on them.

Never give up on your students.

3. Excellence is the Consistent Pursuit of Perfection

Rowing Team at Regatta Park Oklahoma City

Many music teachers talk about the pursuit of excellence. Perfection is unattainable, so there is no point in pursuing it. I don't agree, and I don't think it's just mincing words either. There is an important distinction (and relationship) between excellence and perfection.

Excellence is not something you pursue, like a destination or goal. I think excellence is the result of the consistent pursuit of perfection....knowing you can't attain perfection but always reaching for it anyway. That is excellence in music ensembles. Everything that students do in rehearsal must be approached with the aim of perfection: Every attack, every release, their tone, the way they blend with the ensemble. Every second must be spent pursuing perfection... and not because there will be repercussions if they don't, but because they truly desire to be an excellent ensemble. We usually see the pursuit of perfection in performances, but we don't expect it in rehearsal. Why is that? Remember, I'm not saying the students will play perfectly in rehearsal, I'm saying they should strive to do so. The difference in your rehearsals will astound you, and empower them. This mode of rehearsal represents major cultural change within an ensemble, so it can take months or years to get there. Don't rush it, but don't shy away from talking about it either. If your students trust you, they will give it a try. Have you ever talked about what your expectations are for rehearsals? Oftentimes we assume students should "just know" why they are in the room. Don't assume. Give them a clear vision for where the ensemble is headed.

It is frankly an exhausting way to rehearse and very few ensembles get to this level. And it really requires the teacher to be ultra-prepared for every rehearsal because things move very quickly. You too must pursue perfection. It is a tall order, but the musical rewards for students are better than any any trophy they can compete for. When an ensemble reaches excellence in this manner, each student has taken charge of his or her musicianship. It is a joyous thing.

Excellence and trust is what you need in order to make meaningful music, and to create and maintain an upward spiral. I think Steve Squires first talked to me about upward spirals. He is a master at getting ensembles to understand the pursuit of perfection.

4. Upward Spirals

Arc de Triumph

Everyone is familiar with the term "downward spiral" but we don't talk much about the opposite. Like downward spirals, upward spirals tend to continue once they get going. I think upward spirals are much more difficult to initiate though. I guess some people would call an upward spiral "momentum." But I think "upward spiral" is good for describing what we want a community of learners to undergo, particularly an interdependent class like an ensemble. Much of the musical discovery and refinement process is cyclical/circular like a spiral. You have spirals in the investigation of a piece of music, and you have ensemble spirals over the course of a year, and you have a big spiral that happens over your entire program over many years, or perhaps your career could even be an upward spiral. The important thing to understand is that spirals are not things that happen by luck or magic. Teachers are the cause of spirals, whether upward or downward.

In an upward spiral motivation, decision making, and achievement is spreading more evenly across the ensemble, and particularly away from you. At its peak it feels like you're hardly "teaching" at all, and excellence abounds. Jim Stombres and I call it "driving the Porsche" because it's so fun to teach. Colleagues will wonder how you got so lucky to be at a place where the students care so much, and surpass your expectations consistently, without any effort on your part. Don't try to convince them otherwise, you'll be wasting your time. Just be proud of your students for trusting you. You and your students know what has really taken place, and you need to be content with that.

When I student taught (20+ years ago) at Glenbard East High School, Ross Kellan and Greg Cunningham were in the midst of an incredible upward spiral. As a young college kid who came from a high school that was in a downward spiral, I was baffled. There was no anger, no yelling, no discipline issues. The students showed up every day on time with their music prepared. They were engaged and motivated. What the heck was going on?

What's in the water in this town? Little did I know at the time everything that came prior to bring a program to that stage. How could someone know, unless he or she had experienced it? Ross and Greg are great teachers. If you take professional days to observe other teachers (which you should) and you see a program in an upward spiral, don't think it's something in the water. You can create one too. When every rehearsal seems a little more focused than the last, when the students seem just a little more motivated each day, your upward spiral has begun. Don't waste it!

5. The Process of Building Trust

Another attempt

I don't like inefficiency/ineffectiveness, and when it comes to school I'm beside myself when an ensemble is not in an upward spiral. I take it as a personal failure when the students are not interested in the pursuit of perfection. At the same time, the way I get them to that stage is just as important to me as getting them there at all. It is a trust process. Trust is built. I don't want students to be there for me. I also don't want them to be there for themselves. They (and I) need to be there for each other on behalf of the music... making music together with excellence. Gene Corporon said "fear has no place in a rehearsal." I agree with that. I'm not interested in having a room full of compliant, fearful students. As I said earlier, I don't think music is meaningful without trust. Yes, you can have an ensemble that plays extremely well, yet it can still be full of fear. There is no trust in that situation. Some call that "old school" music teaching and wear it as a badge of honor. It doesn't interest me.

Helping students initiate and maintain an upward spiral is as important to me as the music itself. Actually they are inseparable. When students have this, they have educational joy. This is the most important of the 25 to me personally. Probably because I struggle so much in making it happen. Every community is different, every ensemble (every year!) is unique. It's a moving target, but it's a challenge we must undergo if we want meaningful music making for our students.

When students experience excellence and joy in your class... they have found significance and relevance in learning. Then your group will be on an upward spiral that won't quit. You will be "driving the Porsche."

6. Great Teaching

It is unusual to be empowered to "do" great teaching. Good teaching is not only easier, but in many schools it is actually preferred. I think some leaders think great teaching is taking place when all the teachers are doing things in a consistent/compliant manner, and with minimal internal or external (parent) conflict. While that could be a trait of a productive teaching community, it's more often detached conformity. I think many school districts see conformity as the goal instead of empowering great teaching where the uniqueness of each teacher and content area is valued. And when I say "valued" I mean in action, not in words. All leaders will say they value the great teaching, but what we truly value is seen in what we do not what we say. But I digress.

Back to the idea of faculty compliance. I think teachers are inclined to conform because (usually) they were successful students. Successful students are traditionally the ones who conformed and aimed to please. Over time a faculty will generally consolidate to wherever the leadership expects everyone to "be." So if great teaching is a clearly defined and "acted upon" value in a school system teachers will reach for it. Conversely, if good teaching is the goal they will gravitate to that, and you know which is more likely. We as teachers have to accept part of the blame. We know that going the extra mile can make our peers uncomfortable, and so we hold back sometimes. Our unions have had a hand in this move towards mediocrity too.

So the bottom line is that although administrators often argue that they can recognize great teaching in any content area, I could go on for some time about the ways that great ensemble teaching has little resemblance to great traditional classroom teaching. For example, many of us have had great rehearsals... learning-ful rehearsals... where almost nothing was said (verbally). There aren't any observation rubrics that would characterize that as great teaching, yet we know that musicians create, problem solve, inform, and yes think in sound. And therefore we evaluate that sound and help to shape it through the gestures we make in the conducting process. We spend a lot of our instructional time teaching non-verbally. Many days it is my primary mode of instruction.

We hear alot about "learning styles" but what that usually means is different approaches to learning things that are written. Thinking, learning, and communicating musically is not understood. It would be a major achievement for our profession if we could get administrators to stop thinking they can or should expect to regularly observe traditional classroom techniques in the interdependent music classroom. In general, administrators and school boards understand very little about interdependent classrooms even though our society is becoming increasingly interdependent. More on that later, but remember that ultimately it is up to you to improve this situation. Music teachers are not merely teachers of students.

Great teaching takes tremendous energy. Energy to make it through the day, energy to explain your methods again and again to leaders and parents who may not know anything about music, energy to reassess your own methodology. It's much easier to merely be a good teacher. It's a problem when you are viewed as a malcontent or a thorn in someone's side because you want to do great work, but don't give up if you know in your heart that you are trying to provide your students the best education possible. I believe that great teachers always prevail provided they don't give up. And remember that moving to a new school is not necessarily giving up. There are always wonderful students somewhere who deserve great teaching. Don't become an "escape artist" who avoids conflict, but at the same time if you have done everything you can do to improve your situation and you are still unhappy, don't be a martyr.

I also believe that most administrators really do want to understand how and why teaching music is different. Again, they can't understand this on their own, so it's up to you to help them understand it. Don't give up. Like students and teachers, they can learn if you are persistent.

Great teaching will prevail.

An aside: Currently it is not politically correct to even SAY teaching. Today we must only say learning. Apparently it's not about the teaching, it's about what the students learn. Well of course it's about what they learn! When was the last time you saw great teaching taking place in the midst of terrible learning? Effective learning is entirely dependent upon great teaching, and we should not be ashamed to say so.

7. Loneliness and Despair

lonely tree in the snow

It can be lonely trying to be the best teacher you can be. That is a telltale sign (feeling lonely), and you shouldn't shy away from it if you can stand it.

Unless you are lucky enough to work alongside a group of great teachers you are going to be thinking and acting in a manner inconsistent with, or even contrary to, many teachers. You are never a hero in your own backyard. Don't expect it, don't even wish for it. Just give the students everything you've got and don't worry about the naysayers. If you worry about it you will become bitter. There are few things worse than a bitter teacher.

Over time you will find colleagues who think about teaching the way you do, if you keep an eye out and strive to connect with them. In the meantime you'll probably get a lot of blank stares when you talk about what you believe. When you have the opportunity to take a job where the other teachers are pursuing great teaching... go. Who you teach alongside is as important as anything else. Iron sharpens iron.

Despair is very different from loneliness. I feel despair when my group has entered a downward spiral. I usually find myself just sitting at my desk after a rehearsal in a sort of a daze. Ever been there? You have to work with all your might to get yourself and your ensemble back on track as soon as you feel despair. The longer you wait the harder it becomes. I have found that the quickest way is to apologize for it. I have never regretted apologizing for poor teaching, though I have regretted waiting too long to do it. Addressing your weaknesses is related to this.

Great teaching requires that you consistently address your weaknesses.

8. Time as an Investment

Seedlings Common chickweed

Here's an analogy: A guy has all his windows open in the middle of winter and so naturally the house is cold. But rather than take the time to shut the windows before he leaves for work, he just cranks the heat instead. He figures it takes less time to just raise the thermostat, and I suppose he is right about that.

Teachers (and Education in general) can be very adept at a quick fix like cranking the heat, rather than taking the time to solve a core problem. But watch out for the utility bill based on a quick fix. The quick fix is a killer of the upward spiral. The upward spiral requires time investments that ultimately pay dividends. Obviously we should invest the time to REGULARLY discuss key signatures, rhythm, technique, just intonation, etc. yet somehow we just don't believe we have the time. Not teaching these things is precisely the reason we don't have time. If you can't afford the time to spend five minutes per rehearsal away from the concert music then you have over programmed. It's as simple as that. And we have all done this. We need to invest the time in fundamental concepts. If you want to harvest, you have to plant.

I first heard about the investment of rehearsal time from Ken Snoeck when talking about spending a large percentage of his marching rehearsal on marching basics. He probably spent more time on basics than most because he believed so strongly in the dividends. We waste lots of time fixing things that kids should be learning to fix themselves, or preempting altogether because they see the problem coming. Investing time in things that allow students to take possession of their own musicianship is at the center of great teaching. But it does take a certain amount of courage to "give up" some of those precious rehearsal minutes.

9. Opportunity

Sinfoacutenica de la Juventud Venezolana Simoacuten Boliacutevar en Corea

Your students need opportunities in order to maintain an upward spiral. One example is part rotation. Chamber music is another. A big one is performance opportunities other than playing for mom and dad. Parent support is imperative, but students need to perform at places other than the school building for other audiences. It's important that students get to perform for a "knowing audience" of musicians from time to time. They should also experience what it is like to perform in a space created specifically for music performances. They should work with trusted music educators other than yourself. Opportunities reshape students' perceptions about music, so be careful about which ones you choose. You must be sure they allow the focus to be on the music itself. That is one of the reasons you need to be very careful about your decisions to mix music with competition. Competition can be a positive opportunity but it is extremely easy for young students to replace musical rewards with hardware rewards. Teachers must work very hard to keep music at the core of a competitive experience and unfortunately many fail at that imperative.

Knowing that the vast majority of our students will never participate in ensemble again after high school, shouldn't they have the opportunity to play in a concert hall before they graduate? Shouldn't they have the opportunity to share what they have learned with other musicians, and learn from them as well? Shouldn't they have the opportunity to work with educators who are "better" than you are at some aspects of making music? Are you open to sharing the results of your teaching? You should be.

A quick aside about clinicians. When you bring a trusted conductor to work with your ensemble, don't kid yourself for a single second that the person is there to make your students "better." They are there to help you get better. Whatever your students bring to the table that day, and whatever recommendations are made are a direct reflection of your teaching. If anything YOU should be even more engaged at the clinic than your students are. The ensemble is your mirror, it is a reflection of your teaching, remember that. After the clinic, have the courage to sit down with the clinician and get the truth about your teaching.

10. Don't Save Your Best Teaching

Ethan Ableman Childrens Chorus of Washington

If you want a better top ensemble, spend twice as much time planning for your second ensemble. Over time your first ensemble will take care of itself. When I hear someone complaining about their top group this year, I know they didn't spend enough time with their second group last year. As a profession, we need a lot more (non-competitive) opportunities for "second" ensembles. Too often I see teachers putting far more effort into their top ensembles, and complaining about their other groups. If they were to step back and reflect, they might see the real reason for the lack of progress.

Basically what I'm saying is: Treat every group like a top group. Why reserve your best teaching for one particular group of students? The way I see it I teach my top ensembles for free, and I am paid for teaching my other groups. I work hard to earn my salary with those groups so many of those students will arrive at the top ready and able to take charge of their own musicianship. Are you saving your best teaching for your "best" groups? Consider turning that paradigm upside down.

The good news is that once you make this paradigm shift you will find much more consistency year-to-year in your top groups. You won't feel like you are starting over every year.

11. Music Teachers Are Insecure

Rooooxane I will bet anyone who is reading this that you can count on one hand the number of times you have taken a full day off of work in order to spend a full day observing someone who teaches the same thing that you do. No, you cannot count your undergraduate observation hours! Anyone? This is something that continually amazes me. No one knows better than a music teacher what it is like to feel so different from everyone else in the building. Even when you have more than one music teacher in your building, you are probably still the only person who teaches exactly what you teach. You are a "department of one."

So you would think that we would all be looking for ways to learn from one another, but we don't. As a profession we are incredibly worried about being judged. Or we don't want to offer suggestions or advice because we think we'll be viewed as a know-it-all. Personally I find it bizarre, given that we spend all day in a ensemble environment where everyone's contribution is essential. You'd think we would have learned that going it alone is much more difficult. I started a group on Facebook on a whim. Although it now has a "membership" of over 1,500 teachers, a minute percentage actually share their ideas. That needs to change if we hope to remain relevant in education. Before this school year is out, you need to take a professional day and visit a colleague. Don't get in their way, just observe. The next time you are at your district music festival, spend at least two hours observing the guest director instead of sitting in the teacher's lounge complaining! When someone asks you if they can visit you and watch you teach, say yes! There is no reason to keep great teaching ideas secret, and everyone has ideas that can help us become better teachers.

12. Interdependence and the Latest Magic Bullet


Music performance is one of the only authentically interdependent classes we offer in American education. What is interdependence? A situation where each person relies upon the other. Blue and yellow are interdependent in the endeavor to make green. Musical ensembles are inherently interdependent. Every contribution a student makes to the ensemble changes the the reality for every other student in the room, and reshapes their contributions moving forward. Music teachers need to help students, parents, and administrators to understand this important truth. It is one of the most important benefits of music education, but unfortunately we have not done a very good job of explaining it.

It can be frustrating when we are presented with a "new" non-traditional learning concept. Cooperative learning, differentiation, and most of the other latest "discoveries" are often things that regularly occur in music classrooms (and will still be after capital "E" education has abandoned it for the Next Big Thing). What each student brings to the rehearsal every day affects every other individual's educational experience, both in the moment and over time. This is how ensembles work, and is an incredibly sophisticated form of learning. If you believe that students relate "musically" (which I think most of us do) then an ensemble of 45 has hundreds upon hundreds of musical relationships going on, oftentimes simultaneously. Unfortunately educational interdependency is not well understood and many "cooperative techniques" poorly implemented in traditional classrooms. Worse, music teachers are sometimes asked to implement cooperative methods in ways that are less effective than what we regularly do (again, in an effort to be consistent).

"Think-Pair-Share" is a verbal or written exchange for pairs or small groups. I remember one point in my teaching career where everyone in the building was expected to implement this in lockstep fashion, regularly. But our students are already thinking and sharing at all times, across the entire class. It isn't something we do as a separate "activity." It is an extremely complex and sophisticated form of "sharing" and supremely relevant to learning the content in my class. Yet this did not "count" (remember, conformity/consistency).

I have also heard that some music teachers are not "allowed" to cite part assignments or part-altering as "differentiation" when anyone in our profession knows that this is a completely authentic form of the concept that we have been utilizing for decades; perhaps the most genuine form of differentiation in your school at the moment! These are the types of disconnects we have to work to rectify. However, bear in mind that we must also be cautious of invoking the "music is different" argument in an effort to rejectall new ideas without giving them fair consideration. Great teachers are open to new ideas provided they can work authentically in our situation. A good friend of mine says "great ideas can only enter open minds." You need to keep an open mind, you need to resist becoming the bitter, jaded, "checked-out" teacher that "nobody appreciates."

Anyway, back to the idea of the Next Big Thing. What is the buzz in technology right now? Social networking. We are "uniquely wired to as social beings" is what we are hearing, and we want to learn and experience life with others. Education will be late to this as with most things, but once again music performance is by definition a "social" learning experience. If you ask students why they elect to take music classes they will almost always mention this aspect. I think music teachers have swept those comments under the carpet. The word "social" has a bad connotation in education... it tends to be the opposite of "academic." Socializing is something kids do in the lunchroom. As social networking continues to come to the forefront I think the "socialness" of ensemble music will be seen for the sophisticated and joyous learning vehicle that it is. The students already know this. Jose Abreu knows this and has had over 800,000 poor children in Venezuela pass through his orchestra and choir program, "El Sistema." See more about him here.

13. If I Only Had One More Rehearsal

Concentration on the music

Something I'll never forget that Gene Corporon said to Jim Stombres and myself: "Everyone wishes they had just one more rehearsal. Well guess what... you just had it." The exact number of rehearsals that you have changes from concert to concert, and from year to year. So if you are consistently feeling as though you needed "one more" rehearsal there is a greater issue at hand, namely our tendency to approach early rehearsals lightly and wait to "get serious" until one week before the concert. Don't let the number of rehearsals you have dictate your productivity.

When you start treating every rehearsal like the last rehearsal, you will have what Steve Squires calls the "sense of urgency" that every great ensemble needs. Not frantic or desperate, but "on purpose." It's a bigger idea than "good rehearsal technique." Everyone wants a productive rehearsal. You can bet that any conference session with the work "rehearsal" in the title is going to be packed. But if you value the pursuit of perfection, invest time in your students' musicianship, give them great musical opportunities, teach with urgency, and look in the mirror regularly you will have good "rehearsal technique."

14. Directing Vs. Conducting

Traffic Cop

I'll get straight to the point: If you want to hear expressive music you need to request it, and the way we do that is by gesture, by conducting. I think teachers can make the switch from directing to conducting when they start to come to grips with the fact that the sound emanates from the students not from themselves. You need to help them shape their sound, that's what you're there for. You just can't do that very well by beating time, and communicating everything verbally is hopelessly inefficient.

I have heard many teachers scoff at the idea of being more communicative on the podium, and I believe that's a defense mechanism. If you can discredit conducting as "flowery, meaningless gestures" then you won't have to improve. We tell our students that musical technique devoid of expression is pointless. What are we showing them? Usually, it's technique devoid of expression. Again, we need to look in the mirror.

When was the last time you conducted at least one phrase without pattern? Give it a try. Stop thinking that you are in charge of the pulse (you're not) and using that as an excuse to refrain from showing the music to your students.

15. Why Music? Let's Get Real

2009-12-06 Bowling Green High School Symphonic and Concert Band Holiday Concert

I graduated college as a "band director." Later I preferred to think of myself as a "music teacher." More recently a "teacher of students through music." I think those frames of reference have been changing mostly due to an internal struggle to find the relevance of education generally and music education specifically. I've given considerable time to the question of why music "matters." But lately I think "Why Music?" is the wrong question to be asking. I'm not even sure it's a valid question frankly. Sort of like asking "why does yellow matter?" "What would life be like without the color yellow?"

Nobody cares "Why Yellow?" It sounds ridiculous to even ask the question. The same is true for "Why Music." I know I'm at odds with many music philosophers by saying that, but I find it to be true for myself so I'm not going to shy away from saying it. I think the idea that that all students will someday study music from kindergarten through grade twelve was a noble proposal but it is unrealistic. We do not need to present music as all or nothing in order to guarantee its place in education. It is impossible for every student to study music for twelve years, just as it is impossible for every student to study art, or dance, or even computer programming for twelve years.

Music has always been a part of the way humans are wired and we're always going to have it. We value what we do, so clearly musicians and consumers of music value music. "Why Music" is self evident. Let's focus on some questions that will help us improve as educators. "Why Music" is the wrong question to be asking.

A better question might be "how do I ensure that what I intend students to learn each day is what I am actually teaching?" Even more important perhaps is "how do I ensure that what I am teaching is relevant to my students' lives?" And all of that in the context of knowing that most administrators or board members will not know the difference, nor care as long as the concerts are "good" and parents are not complaining about something or other. It is not incumbent upon teachers to answer why humans "value" music. What we need to address for ourselves and our students is excellence, trust, and relevance. That's my current philosophy, and I try to live it out in my teaching. On some days I think I even succeed. If philosophy is not what what we say but rather what we do, how would your students characterize your philosophy?

The bottom line is each of us needs to spend time considering our own philosophy... why we are doing what we do each day in the classroom. Philosophers and researchers are important, but remember that the vast majority of them spent just a few short years in public education. Most of us have far more experience. We are in the best position to think through and research what will make us more effective. The question is... will we?

16. Repertoire

Aside from building trust, choosing repertoire is the most important thing we do. It's an essential tool in the upward spiral. Don't be flippant about repertoire decisions. Many of us choose repertoire that is too difficult. No wonder we cannot afford to invest time in conceptual teaching when we are killing ourselves (and the spirit of our ensembles) trying to get ready for the concert. Others choose music that is not well-crafted and does not "share the wealth" evenly across the ensemble.

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.

And catch this: Most of your successes as a teacher (and even more of your failures) are directly related to your repertoire choices.

17. Education: What's it all About?

More recently I've been preoccupied with "schooling" and education and the relationship between

  • great teaching
  • the exponentially growing "knowledge base"
  • "figuring out" vs. "finding out"
  • relevance
  • technology acceleration (also exponential)
  • and the convergence of all of these these

Technology--or particularly the acceleration of it--is demanding convergence. These are exciting times, but they are also scary times for education. You can read more about my thoughts on technology at You should absolutely watch this video as well

18. Stagnation and Growth

The decision to provide a public education to every child is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. "In the beginning" I suppose the goal was pretty clear: Prepare children to enter the workforce and become "productive" members of society. If you didn't finish school you probably entered the trades and you served as an apprentice to an artisan or craftsman. White collar: finish high school and go to college. Blue collar: Apprentice. We're basically still in that model.

But what did a child "need to know" 100 years ago? What do they "need" to know today? The historical developments alone, combined with virtually no change in the school day or year lays the groundwork for an insurmountable mountain of knowledge. Nowhere is this more apparent than in technology, where not only is there more to "know" but the tools have become so ubiquitous and revolutionary (so rapidly!) that schools cannot keep pace with their meaning and application. This has always been true to some degree, but exponential growth means that one minute something can be 50 miles behind you and the next minute 150 ahead of you. There very well may never be a crossroads or true convergence for education and technology. Technology could easily be 150 miles ahead before we know what happened. It may have already happened. We need to give serious consideration to the way school "works" and how we can use the tools of today to get kids up the mountain. We need to come to grips with the fact that we are educating children for jobs that do not currently exist.

You might want to read that again. Watch this talk by Ken Robinson.


I am a technology nut. Not the kind where I like to build computers from scratch: The kind that wants to use technology to make other things clearer or more productive, more efficient, more meaningful. Teachers need to invest time in this area. The dividends will come. However, like certain teaching methods, technology should not be the focus. You don't use it "just to use it." Creating a Powerpoint presentation doesn't mean much if the content is poor. So don't force it. The more you are exposed to it, the more genuine uses you will discover that will help you to be more productive and assist you in teaching music to your students. Also, remember that things like tuners, metronomes and recording systems are technology too. We need to remind administrators that technology is not only about computers. The addition of valves to brass instruments was also considered technology at one time... you get the idea.

20. Tools

I remember my dad fixing our cars. Then in the 80s they began installing computers into cars to regulate and control everything. That was an interesting shift for do-it-yourselfers. Game over for the most part. It caused problems in the repair shops as well. When cars started relying on microprocessors the automakers had to develop diagnostic tools that were themselves computers. The mechanics had to learn to use these "tools" back then and I recall it being a difficult shift. They couldn't tell you the first thing about how these tools were made or how the tools did what they did. It wasn't like a wrench after all.

You might have to have some experience with traditional tools to know what I'm talking about here, but knowing how a tool is constructed went hand in hand with knowing how to ultimately use it. The idea that you would use tools that you couldn't "understand" was a fundamental paradigm change for them, in that there just wasn't time for "knowing" at that level. They had to jump straight to "using." So it was very difficult to comprehend a computer as a tool. It seemed like hocus pocus to hook something up to a car and have it tell the mechanic what was "wrong." Kids that started playing with Sony Playstations at age three have always used technology this way. It's something that they don't need to fundamentally understand in order to use.

21. Ear to the Tracks

I feel very alone as an educator who senses the ground trembling from the oncoming technology freight train. Most schools are woefully behind in the implementation of technology. That in itself is not uncommon, but what is interesting (or scary) is that the vast majority of teachers and administrators are completely oblivious to this. Why? They are uncomfortable with/scared of/ignorant in/ the use of technology. They didn't have computers when they were in school, so while technology is clearly "the future" it is not essential, or so they think. The common adult sentiment is that their school's technology capabilities and implementation is perfectly adequate, in some cases even "cutting edge." Where does one begin to address the myriad of shortcomings given such a premise? The students know what the deal is. They have far greater technology capabilities at home (or even in their pockets!) than at school. They can hold a video conference (they don't call it that) with anyone in the world, but we can't observe another orchestra's rehearsal from the laptop in our offices. That should be a shocking concern (greater capabilities at home than at school), but it doesn't seem to be, not anywhere I have worked. If the best tools for learning are at home, where do you think the learning is migrating?

22. Take the Blinders Off

We are at a point where children have unprecedented access to information in order to learn, create, and interact through readily available tools and methods. The kicker: the tools (and what the students can do with them) are beyond the grasp of most adults.... by far. AND, not only are educators, administrators, and school boards unable to realize the implications of this, they are actively suppressing the use of these tools and methods in school. The fact is that students can (and do) use technology far more extensively, productively, and creatively outside of the school each and every day. Like blue collar jobs of the past, you don't learn to use these tools in school. But unlike those jobs, these are the tools of today's white collar jobs. Big difference.

I'm not sure if we need a longer school day, longer school year, or if we need to cut things from the knowledge base. Probably a combination of all three. But one thing is for sure: We need to be using tools that allow for speed, flexibility, portability, and the ability to let students work together interdependently, and by that I mean in ways that are mutually beneficial and true to the content at hand. I don't know how else we will be able to keep up.

Remember, many of the careers we are preparing students for do not yet exist. We don't know where the world is going but we do know the tools that are taking us there.

23. Exponential Growth

It's one thing (during my childhood for example) when a kid could set the clock on a vcr and the adult couldn't. It's another thing entirely when a kid can find virtually any piece of information, can instantly communicate with nearly anyone on the planet but at the same time schools are busy blocking and ruling out these very tools. Schools do not understand what is taking place, but the kids do.

Facebook didn't exist in 2003, even though it strangely feels like it has been with us forever. It has over 500 million users now. Why the exponential growth? If you ask someone why they use it, they will probably tell you "because everyone else is using it... I can "get" to just about everyone I know." People who don't understand what is happening will tell you "why do I want anyone I ever hated in high school to be able to find me?"

Now the sad truth is that Facebook and many other Web 2.0 tools will give way to the next technology before the schools understand what it really was. I'm not advocating that schools use Facebook with students (though we are using it for professional development). Facebook is just one of many Web 2.0 tools in use today outside the schools. I'm pointing out that students are learning how easy and powerful it is to communicate, to get information, to organize, to connect to each other.

Would you say that some schools struggle with these types of things? Do you think networking technology could assist? Of course it could. But instead the students are going to have us in their rear view mirrors while curriculum sub committees are discussing a class in "Advanced Dreamweaver" (which is right now nearly irrelevant to using today's web). We have plenty of time to catch up you say?

Watch this short video.

24. Everything School Ought To Be

Students are going home each day and teaching each other to use these tools. It is a perfect example of interdependent learning. I remember my daughter learning HTML from her friend who was 11 (my daughter was 10). She wanted to be able to customize her "Neopets" page. This was several years ago and now this type of learning is even more common in my opinion. Kids are teaching each other how to blog, podcast, how to make websites, how to create graphics. They are "tweeting" and using social networking sites. They are watching/creating "how to" videos on YouTube, and IM'ing each other to ask questions about their school work. It is dynamic, it is fast, it is engaging, it is is everything that school ought to be, especially the interdependency. It is not uncommon for many students who take a tech class to know more than the class can offer them. They are taking the class purely for the credit. Ask your students sometime about where and how they really learned to use technology.We are busy taking about No Child Left Behind. It should be no teacher left behind when it comes to technology use. We just have no idea how far behind we are as a profession. When you combine that with the exponential growth of technology you get a very clear picture of the crisis we are facing in education. If you want to get a clearer understanding of technology evolution, see this talk by Ray Kurzweil.

25. So far Behind

I got an email invite recently to attend an information session on using "clickers" in our school. It's a little RF (radio frequency) remote with a number pad on it. Kids can select a response and then the teacher can instantly see the aggregated results. Not a new thing, and potentially very useful. They'll pilot them in coming months, and then probably start to purchase enough so that years from now every classroom might have a set of clickers. Meanwhile right now, TODAY, you can use mobile phones as clickers. A tool they own themselves and use every day outside of the classroom (and one they understand how to use more effectively than adults). Are you getting the picture here? Fifty years ago we were telling kids "no gum in class." Now we say "no iPhones" which is altogether different but we think it's the same thing. Not even close. Just one example: schools could require iPod Touches much as they require scientific calculators. Custom applications could be written that turn the Touch into a clicker. But it could function as a far more sophisticated version. It can also be a scientific calculator, or a web browser, or a media viewer, or a data gathering device. If you have seen the App Store you know that mobile devices have almost unlimited application. A clicker will always be "just" a clicker.

So not only are schools usually late to technology implementation, but they often go about it in a way that is not open-ended and wastes money. You need an overall vision for what is happening with technology in order to implement it with purpose. If you can afford one hour, watching this video by Michael Wesch will probably turn your thoughts of the traditional classroom upside down. If you only have five minutes, start with this one. Youth has figured out how to leverage the tools for knowledge-finding, creativity, self-expression, and communication on a massive scale. And it has no more inherent dishonesty in it than a calculator. I remember when I was a kid and calculators hit the scene. They were considered "cheating." Now they are required. Go figure.

Academia is still assuming that Wikipedia is unreliable while meanwhile it is becoming the most vibrant factual aggregation of authoritative knowledge in the world, with fact checking and redundancy that dwarfs the resources of "genuine" sources. When did that happen?More importantly for education, how and why is it happening? Kevin Kelly, co-founder and chief editor of Wired, says "nobody is as smart as everybody." That is where we are headed. Fortunately music teachers have insight here because that is exactly how ensemble music works. But the exponential growth of technology and interdependency does not give us time to stand still at this point. It barely gives us time to blink.