Best In-Ear Headphones for the Buck

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

Thoughts on Wind Band Repertoire

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Free A Child's Cry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 exhausting 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.