What Jack Nicklaus Taught Me About Teaching Music

You don't have to be a fan of golf to recognize the name Jack Nicklaus. One of the best of all time, several of his records still stand today in an era dominated by "forgiving" golf clubs, "spin reducing, extra distance" golf balls, and overly-athletic swinging that is leading to back/knee problems and shortened careers. Jack's biggest victories were spread out over 24 years.

To what does Jack credit his success more than any other factor? His ability to "manage the course." This essentially means his ability to know his own strengths, weaknesses, and the course well enough to make the best decision prior to each shot. Sounds simple, but it's not.

"I had always realized that golf is a two-part game: striking the ball and managing yourself and the course. Like most amateurs, however, I'd worked hardest during my learning years on part one....

As a handicap golfer you are always being told you would score better if you would think more about strategy and less about the swing -- to put tactics ahead of technique when actually playing on the course. This is almost certainly true, but as a piece of advice it's pretty useless unless you know or can discover exactly how to do that.....And here's the real rub: almost all golf instruction, both direct and written, focuses almost entirely on striking the ball rather than playing the game. In short, golfers suffer from too much information about its physical elements and too little information about the mental qualities necessary to use these to maximum effect."

How complete was your music education? Were you taught how to manage the course, or were you merely taught how to hit the ball? Did you have college professors who had "been on the course" long enough to help you understand course management, or were they really just your swing coaches?

Coordinating a band, orchestra, or choir program...or even an entire music department...requires excellent course management. We've all seen teachers who are a "show of force" musically but lack the planning, tact, and caring necessary for real teaching success. After a handful of years these folks are either looking for greener pastures as swing coaches or spending the latter half of their careers frustrated and jaded. They can surely hit the ball a long way, but as the great golf teacher Harvey Penick said:

"The woods are full of long hitters."

Spend some time thinking about the course. Jack had to teach himself, and so do you. Learn to manage that, and you'll be a more successful teacher...and a happier one as well.

Kirchhoff, Benson, and our national music standards

Thank you to whomever recorded this fantastic lecture by Craig Kirchhoff that every ensemble educator should review. He cuts right to the heart of the matter regarding our ultimate charge, which is decidedly NOT to teach students to love an ensemble or activity, but to transcend that and love music. This should be our core value as ensemble educators. We have heard this expressed in various ways time and again from Battisti, Reynolds, Kirchhoff, Green, and others who are deeply concerned with our profession's priorities.

During the lecture I was particularly struck by this quote from composer Warren Benson about performing compositions:

"What infuses life to cold print is imagination, creativity, and beauty."

That is the finest summation I've heard regarding the meaningful endeavor of bringing composed music to musical fruition. Additionally, in an obvious-yet-insightful statement, Benson says that what a composer does makes no sound (nor what a conductor does, we could add). He says it is in the musical performance where "my understanding, and your understanding, meet." This is simply brilliant. The music's true meaning is incomplete until that intersection occurs between the composer's understanding and the performer's. 

Performers and composers are all in the creative process together. Merely playing the printed music "correctly" yet devoid of personal creative decision-making is insufficient for bringing compositions fully to life. Learning and performing music intertwines technical requirements and knowledge with a uniquely creative interpretive, interdependent process that, when done well, results in a meaningful experience for the performer, listener, and composer. As ensemble teachers, we empower our students to realize their vital role in this association. It is their creative musicianship, after all, that should be primary....not our own.

I wish the NCCAS music standards writing team had understood this before creating a framework that forcefully divides composition (and improvisation) into the creating role and performing as merely serving "intent." Really? It's as if the performer is the waiter who carries the food to the table, or a FedEx delivery person bringing the pre-packaged goods to your door. Benson understands that the performer is doing far more than that, and so should the NCCAS.

What performer's do is learn, create, then reveal their own understanding of the composition. Not the composer's intent, but the music itself as understood. That is what interpretation is. To do this requires imagination, creativity, and beauty. When we teach students to do this, they learn to love music, and that's the goal. And that is how our national standards for performing should be designed... around a recognition of what is really happening within the musical learning and performing cycle.

Thank you Craig, and thank you Warren.

Afterword: I continue to hear the commentary that somehow we "need to" segment the standards as Creating/Performing/Responding/Connecting so that composition will have its due, or because the format is easily understood and managed, or because "otherwise ensemble teachers will just rehearse." None of these justify manipulating the realities of music making. It makes no sense to ignore the creative capacities required in performance in order to bolster another form of music education, or to make a framework that is convenient to process. 

The bottom line is the existing framework may look nice on paper but it does not reflect the realities/complexities of making music. We are coming up short at the exact moment we need to be embracing the creative process in every form of music making. We need to do away with the false divisions. Musicians are interdependent because bringing music into the world is almost always an interdependent process. Think about that....then look at the way the standards are structured.

There is probably a more delicate way to say this, but the framework and standards being developed for ensembles are not consistent with the philosophy and approaches of educators who have taught students to experience deep, meaningful musicianship over many years. The standards read as though developed by those with cursory knowledge of ensemble education before moving on to "bigger and better" endeavors. If that was your experience I am sorry, but the truth is that there are many of us out here who are empowering students to be creative, expressive musicians who think deeply and critically about their music making.

Read this before you post your next work-related rant


gerund or present participle: ranting
  1. 1.
    speak or shout at length in a wild, impassioned way.
    "she was still ranting on about the unfairness of it all"
    synonyms: fulminate, go on, hold forth, vociferate, sound off, spoutpontificate,blusterdeclaim; More
Origin: late 16th cent. (in the sense ‘behave in a boisterous way’): from Dutch ranten ‘talk nonsense, rave.’

Because I happen to be involved with several online professional development groups, I read quite a few "rants" about administrators, parents, co-workers, and students. They usually begin with "sorry in advance for this rant" or "I just had to share this with people who would understand." Maybe you've done this, whether as a cryptic Facebook status, tweet, or just venting away in the faculty lunchroom with colleagues. What I'm going to try to explain to you is this: It's not helping. You may feel better in the near term for having a good "virtual cry" but all those "likes" and retweets your rant is garnering is nothing more than proving that misery loves company. This post is about helping you to have less misery in your life. This post is about aligning yourself with successful peers, not commiserating with those who are convinced that the world is against them.

Now, take a moment. I want you to use whatever criteria you deem appropriate in order to choose one or two teachers who are successful to you. They can be "large-scale" successful or "under the radar" successful, it's up to you, just make sure they are people you truly admire. Now, ask yourself how often you've seen these teachers ranting? Chances are one of the main reasons you admire these folks is that they rarely seem to have troubles at all. How is this possible? How do these teachers seem to have all the luck?

I've been teaching for almost 25 years now. Like you, I've done my share of complaining about work, and here is what I've learned: Complaining is, in reality, an admission of my own inadequacies. Think about it. When we complain, what we're really expressing is our own frustration about not being good/clever/smart enough to solve a problem. We've run into a brick wall, and it doesn't feel so good. We don't have the savvy, the tenacity, the inspirational capability to overcome whatever it is that is happening "to" us. It's far easier to shout NO FAIR and to believe that there is nothing we can do. But this "woe, is me" way of walking through life is depressing....and not just for us, but for everyone with whom we interact...especially our students, who are far more perceptive than we give them credit for. 

Perhaps the reason you can't get your students to engage is because they can sense how defeated you are. If one of our responsibilities is to teach problem-soving, perhaps we need to look in the mirror and start solving some problems for ourselves.

Years ago I gave myself permission to complain, under one condition: The complaint statement has to be accompanied by "....and here's what I'm going to do about it." Once you start processing in this way, you begin to realize that you are the only person who really knows what your challenges are, and therefore you are the one who is uniquely positioned to do something about it. Sometimes when I complain in this way I don't know what to do about it, so next steps need to include seeking advice or constructive criticism from trusted colleagues. The point is to take action rather than looking for sympathy. As my friend Cathi says, "it may not be your fault, but it is your problem."

I've learned that complaining without taking action just leads to more problems. I've also learned that a successful career in teaching is achieved by willing yourself to look in the mirror every day in an effort to break through whatever brick walls may appear. Randy Pausch, former professor at Carnegie Mellon put it like this:

"The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something."

You may need to get better at people skills, strategizing, organizing, and yes....pedagogy, in order to solve whatever it is you are complaining about. All of these improvements are worthwhile (and frankly necessary) if you are going to become the teacher....no, the human you are meant to be. You are the only person that knows you are reading this right now. Will you...right now...make the decision to stop ranting and start taking steps to improve yourself so you can knock down some brick walls?

Remember....it all starts with "and here's what I'm going to do about it."

NCCAS Music Standards Draft--Taking Pages From Ken Robinson And Our Other Arts Colleagues

Yo-Yo Ma - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2008

I have been very concerned ever since the release of the K-8 draft for music, mainly due to the narrow definition of "creating" as composing or improvisation. As essential as those musical endeavors are (and they are essential), they are not the only ways of being musically creative. For example, making music through performance is absolutely a creative endeavor. We need a much more encompassing model of musical creativity. Much more. To quote the report from Ken Robinson's National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education (emphasis mine):

"We therefore define creativity as imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value."

And this:

"Creativity can be expressed in collaborative and collective as well as individual activities, in teamwork and in organisations, in communities and in governments." 

And especially this:

"The creative processes of the arts centre on the shaping and refining of a work in which its aesthetic qualities are central to its meaning. The look, sound and feel of work in the arts is inseparable not only from what it means, but from how it means."

You can't listen to Yo-Yo Ma play a Bach cello suite and tell me he is not being creative, that he isn't creating something original and of value, or that he is not demonstrating how it means. The same is true for ensembles that undergo the learning, refining, and creation of a shared interpretation of a work...and its collaborative/interdependent nature adds another rich dimension. As we undergo the revision of our national standards for music, we must include the reality that performing (making!) music, alone and with others, is not simply an action, but an essential endeavor that requires and develops creativity.

Our colleagues on the theater side have an excellent grasp on this matter. The following are excerpts from their K-8 "Creating" draft (emphasis mine):

"Experiment with, research, and challenge collaboratively and independently, various perspectives and multiple solutions to problems through created roles, design elements, and improvised and/or scripted stories in drama- and theatre- based work."

"Communicate and differentiate artistic choices in new work, ideas, and perspectives made by self and others through problem- solving, taking risks, and experimenting with peers in devised, improvised and/or scripted drama- and theatre- based work."

Teaching young actors to experiment, make artistic choices, and work collaboratively in order to create a shared interpretation of existing ("scripted") works is clearly a creative process to the theater writers, and I would highly suggest we take a page from our colleagues in this regard. Their approach is actually much more reflective of what is going on in thousands of music rooms across the country than what is currently presented in our own K-8 draft. Clearly we need to teach a multitude of musical avenues in our education system (such as composition), but that does not mean we should downplay or ignore the creative process of bringing composers' works into the world for all to enjoy. Perhaps Roger Sessions said it best (emphasis mine):

"Here it is important only to envisage clearly that the differentiation of composer and performer represents already a second stage in the development of musical sophistication. The high degree of differentiation reached in the course of the development of music should not obscure the fact that in the last analysis composer and performer are not only collaborators in common experience but participants in an essentially single experience." 

Now consider this excerpt from the NCCAS Visual Arts draft:

Enduring Understanding: Creativity and innovative thinking are essential life skills that can be developed.

Essential Question(s): Can all people be artists? What conditions, attitudes and behaviors support creativity and innovative thinking? Does collaboration expand the creative process?

Do you notice how, rather than thinking about creating "something" (like say, a composition), they are thinking more broadly about creative thinking, the way creativity works in artistic collaboration, and ultimately how it is developed? That is what we need to be talking about in all forms of music making.

In short, the current draft of the music standards should give pause to anyone who teaches music-making in collaborative groups (which is just about every music teacher in the country, in one form or another). Performing, whether that be in rehearsal or public presentation, brings written music to life, and it does so uniquely for each performer, ensemble, and audience member. It becomes something new each time, something that completes the experience with the composer and the audience. How we can say that one act (composing or improvisation) is creative but not another (performing) is beyond comprehension. Performers are not merely worker bees carrying pollen from the flower, they are partners in the creation process, shaping and refining the work. Orchestras, wind ensembles, choirs, jazz ensembles, chamber groups...all of these require creativity in order to bring music to fruition (see the Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice). If we wish to address the age-old criticism that students need to be more involved in (and ultimately be the owners of) the music making process in these settings, then this is not the time to reduce performing to merely obeying the composer or teacher. Every meaningful musical endeavor involves creativity, so let's broaden our thinking on this important process.

Finally, a word about public dialogue. While I was encouraged by some of the answers provided by Scott Shuler in his letter to Tim Purdum, I was discouraged by some of his language that gives the impression that disagreeing with aspects of the draft is a matter of "misunderstandings, based on incomplete information, that tend to inflame the blogosphere." The K-8 draft clearly reveals the philosophy and overall approach of the writing team, and that approach defines creating in a way that is too narrow and confined. Questioning that approach will result in an overall stronger set of standards, if the writers are willing to embrace the public dialogue that is currently underway. Being open to new ideas and refining existing ones is an essential component of being creative, so let's hold true to that as we hone our standards.

Understanding Assessment in Ensemble Land

Music time

At the end of each day, it all comes down to this:

1. What did you want each student to know/be able to do?

2. How do you know that each student knows it/can do it?

Ensemble directors are usually pretty clear on #1 (particularly the "doing"). But #2 is about being a teacher, not just a director. Assessment in simplest terms is finding out whether or not the teacher was understood by each student. The concept was not taught simply because it came out of your mouth, the concept was taught because the student understood you.

It is a perfectly reasonable expectation that a teacher (a) knows what each student does or does not understand and (b) modifies instruction accordingly. This is also the most challenging aspect of what great teaching demands.

And by the way, this expectation has always been the truth of the matter for ensemble directors...this is not news. It's just that these days we are being asked to "show our work" like our other colleagues in the building. This is a good thing.

~Brian Wis

Rehearsals: What is going on in there?

Santurtzi Music Band Final Rehearsal

One positive trend in band and orchestra classes is the increasing focus on authentic individual assessment. Band and orchestra teachers are doing a much better job at finding out what students know and can do in regards to individual technique, expression, and so on. Assessments, both formative and summative, are leading to refined instruction and grades that are more genuine. At the same time, this movement seems to have led to the unfortunate position that what the student demonstrates outside of rehearsal is the only measurable aspect of what students have learned. In fact, if we got into the nitty gritty of some ensemble syllabi we would find that students in many band and orchestra classes could skip all of the rehearsals and the concert, yet as long as they completed all of their individual performance assessments, they would pass...perhaps even with an A. Yet where do we spend most of our instructional minutes, and why? As we all know, what we value is borne out in our actions, so clearly music educators value the process of bringing printed music to life and sharing it with an audience. But if evidence of learning is required in order to justify how we spend our time (a fair expectation), and we have no evidence of ensemble learnings, then rehearsals (and performances) are by definition superfluous...right? How does that sit with you?

I find this trend disturbing on so many levels. I think most of us would agree that the processes and intricacies of students bringing ensemble music to fruition (and sharing it publicly) should comprise the core of any ensemble class. True, individual proficiency sets the stage (literally) for ensemble music rehearsing/performing, and is therefore essential. But once that stage is set, what are we teaching our students about ensemble musicianship, and how do we know they are learning it? I believe it is our inability to clearly address those questions that is leading to administrators telling teachers that they cannot require students to "participate" in concerts, or that a student who will not be a productive collaborator in rehearsal must be treated as a  "behavioral" matter. Yet if these same students do not turn in their assessments in their other classes, what happens? If a student is a member of a group project in social studies and does no work, what is the result, and why? Do you see the disconnect here? Now think about the importance that administrators place upon classroom observations in determining teacher effectiveness. They are typically observing our rehearsals...so clearly they believe there must be some learning taking place in that setting, right? And if so, there will be assessment (whether formative or summative), and there will be credit given. So...is there?

We have a lot of work to do on this issue. The fact is that we have been allowed to be mysterious about "what's going on in there" for too long, and now we are being told that rehearsals and performances have no place in our curricula. But we know that ensemble music is an authentic form of positive interdependence (perhaps the most authentic). We know that our students need concert performances (the presentation of the "group project") in order to complete their learning cycles and reap the most meaningful benefits of music performance. We need to articulate the aspects of being an ensemble musician, be more intentional about sharing the what/why/how of "ensemble technique" with our students, and devise authentic ways to measure it. Otherwise we might as well split our ensembles into "like" instruments, cancel the concerts, and treat our courses like class piano. If ensemble matters, it's time to articulate what we're really doing "in there."


Recently the Band Directors Group has been talking about what students should be doing in order to have productive rehearsals. This brainstorm list may be a starting point for creating lessons and other resources that will help students learn about the important aspects of becoming a great ensemble musician:

  • Eye Contact
  • Marking Parts
  • Correct Posture
  • Adjusting (Pitch) without being told
  • Asks clarifying/thoughtful questions
  • Helpful towards others (kindness)
  • Responsive to conducting gestures
  • Problem solver (musically and otherwise)
  • Productive with "downtime"
  • Initiates discussions about the music with others
  • Pleasant disposition
  • Does not give up
  • Has the pulse internalized
  • Takes creative interpretive/expressive risks with regularity
  • Holds peers accountable
  • Prepared musically (and equipment-wise) for rehearsals and performances
  • Interested in (and enjoys) the success of others, not just themselves, for the sake of the music being the best it can be
  • Takes instruction/criticism with a positive nature...understands its importance
  • Retains previous concepts and can apply them to new situations
  • Is thinking about solving musical problems rather than immediately asking for the answer
  • Can identify elements that are incorrect while they are happening (in themselves and across the ensemble)
  • Can provide effective evaluation of the piece at various points in the learning cycle
  • Is always on time and ready to collaborate
  • Can alter the shape of their sound to accomodate different blending situations and other requirements of the composition
Are these things that you specifically address/discuss, or do you hope they simply appear in your students?