I'll have more to say about this soon (I'm still getting my thoughts together) but I think that, even in the midst of high stakes testing, we are going to see a window of opportunity for educational endeavors like the arts and other "hands-on", interdependent learning experiences.
You can Google the answer to many things, but you can't Google what it means to learn and perform Grainger...you have to experience it. And to be keenly aware that you arrived at the understanding through a shared journey with others....each student assisting the other in the creation of a work of art....this type of human endeavor is both irresistible and irreplaceable. I've been talking about "music for humanity's sake" but Yo-Yo Ma recently said it better...Art For Life's Sake.
The larger the human knowledge base becomes, the more important it will be to know how to corporately express, how to serve a greater good together, and how to create shared meanings. Reimer and Elliott mash up? Possibly, much to their dismay. Those of us that are actually teaching ensembles everyday see the realities of this thing we call ensemble music making.
I feel the need to express concern regarding a trend in the hiring of guest conductors for "all-state" and other honor bands across the country. Specifically I am questioning the practice of hiring composer-conductors for this important experience without proper scrutiny towards their teaching, conducting, and programming history.
Don't get me wrong, current composers are vital to our shared art. And I support the programming of new music at these events when the composition is of the highest caliber. Furthermore I am supportive of composer-conductors for honor bands under the following guidelines:
This has rarely been the case in my view, and I suspect the same holds true for you. What I see are composers who use the majority of performance minutes (and therefore the majority of the rehearsal time) for their own compositions, and their teaching/conducting is not on par with our nation's best wind band conductors. And I have rarely seen a composer program our great masterworks alongside their own compositions. I'll leave it to you to decide why that might be.
It is time for school band directors to end this star-struck behavior of hiring composers for honor band events without proper scruitiny. Our students deserve the best teacher-conductors, period. And they especially deserve to perform the masterworks of the wind band canon. If you want to show appreciation to a living composer who is not a great teacher-conductor, commission a (short) piece specifically for the occassion! There are many ways to pay tribute to, support, and encourage living composers.
If you are on the voting committee for an honor group and you are considering a composer who cannot meet the bullet points above.... please move on. These experiences require the adults in the room to put the students' musical experiences first.
Understanding the Pieces of the Puzzle
I think a lot of teachers dive into this process without really understanding the chain of events that take you from sound to a final product (a CD, mp3 file, or what have you). This is sort of like teaching students by rote rather than making sure they understand each concept. Let's take a look at the puzzle:
Your band takes care of this :-)
Obviously we need to capture the sound. You will use one or more mics depending on your situation (more later on this).
Audio Interface Box
The microphone(s) will attach to a box with an analog to digital ("A to D") converter inside. The converter takes the analog sounds and converts the sound to (literally) ones and zeros which can then be transferred into a computer and stored on its drive. Most audio interfaces also include the necessary "pre-amp" that will allow you to set the proper gain level(s) for your microphone(s). Many interfaces also include the reverse process, a "D to A" converter so that you can listen back to your recordings through the box. For the purposes of this article we will assume this is the case. Most modern computers have an audio interface built in (of varying quality), so you could just use a traditional mixer to do the pre-amp stage, and then feed that analog output to the analog input of your computer (more on this later as well).
The converter is going to take the analog sound, convert it to digital data, and send that via usb, firewire, or thunderbolt to your computer. You will use some software that will present that audio data to you and, if you desire, provide you with editing capabilities, the addition of effects, and ultimately allow you to export the sound file and/or burn a CD.
Powered Speakers (headphones) or Stereo System
You need to listen to what you have captured, right? For the purposes of this article I'm going to talk about powered (active) speakers, but you certainly could look at taking the D to A output of your converter to an amplifier (stereo system) which are connected to (passive) speakers.
OK, so let's review what we have so far. We make sound, the mics hear it, the converter makes it digital, the computer stores it. We listen back to it, perhaps edit, add effects, and burn/export the sound file. Got it? Now, there are various ways to combine these puzzle pieces, depending on your budget, convenience factors, and ultimately the level of sound quality you desire. Let's take a look at the options.
Many (and I mean many) musicians and teachers use hand-held digital recorders. Zoom is a very popular brand (so much so that it has almost become a ubiquitous name that describes the category, like Kleenex or Band-Aid). A hand-held is very convenient because it combines most of the puzzle pieces into one unit. If we took it apart we would find:
And to top it all off, these units can be very economical AND for many folks the quality of the recordings meets their needs. Additionally, many of these hand-helds allow you to connect the device to a computer and transfer the sound files for editing, sharing, etc. Have a look at these portable recorders.
USB Mic and Computer (iPad, etc.)
Now that you (hopefully) understand the puzzle pieces, what pieces are contained inside a USB mic?
Make sense? Many teachers and podcasters use USB mics because it allows them to get a better quality (large diaphragm) mic into the situation and essentially brings the number of puzzle pieces down to a couple of items. You can use headphones to listen back, or attach the headphone jack on your computer to your stereo/powered speakers. For stereo recordings (which I recommend) check out the Yeti Pro from Blue. See lots of options at Sweetwater. In fact there is now a dedicated iOS section on their website for those of you who want to use a mobile device as your workstation.
Are you ready to step up to the full enchilada? Don't worry, it isn't as complicated as you might think. Let's walk through each piece of the puzzle with some recommendations.
There are many directions you can go with mics, but the good news is that there are many budget-friendly options these days. And since I don't want this article to go on for years and years, I'm not going to go into a lot of detail on these mics. If you do some "googling" you will quickly see why these mics are popular and what plusses and minuses they have.
Stereo mics (makes life simple because the two mics are set up inside the housing at a good angle for stereo imagery). For example, take a look at the Shure VP88.
Matched pairs have been tweaked before shipping so that they are as equivalent as possible. Generally, you get what you pay for, and remember that the mics are the most critical piece of the puzzle. I would rather see people skimp on the computer than skimp on the mics! Ready to have a look at the choices? For good performance at a good price, I like Rode NT-1A and NT5.
If you go with a matched pair, you need a way to mount these mics in front of your group. I like to use one stand with this attachment from Shure.
I think that for some reason this puzzle piece is the most daunting, but it doesn't have to be. This little box is the go-between for your mic(s), computer, and speakers (or stereo system). So the mics "hear" the sound, it travels down the mic cables into the interface. The interface allows you to set proper "gain" levels (so your recordings don't clip/distort). It then converts the sound to data and sends it to your computer. When you play it back, the data goes from the computer to the interface where it is converted back to sound and travels over audio cables to your speakers (or headphones). A few important points:
Again, you don't want to skimp on this step. The pre-amps inside the interface are essential to capturing good sound, as is the conversion process. Recently Focusrite got into the consumer market, and though I have not tried their products yet, their mic pre-amps are legendary. Presonus is also a very popular brand, and I have used their interfaces. Ready to take a look at some audio interfaces?
I'm going to make this short and sweet: I'm a Mac guy, and Apple has made a real commitment to making recording "just work" on the mac platform. It really doesn't matter which mac you get, they'll all work beautifully for recording your band. You could get a mac mini and a cheap (non-apple) monitor and you are ready to go with whatever keyboard and mouse you have laying around. Garageband is built right in and works very well for stereo recordings. Most teachers don't want to hassle with more than that (and shouldn't have to). If you want more bells and whistles you can go with Pro Tools or Logic Pro. If you want something free check out Audacity. Make sure whatever software you choose is compatible with your audio interface (check the "Specifications" section or talk to a sales rep). Remember, the software does not really make a difference to the incoming sound quality... that is the job of the mics and audio interface. But it DOES have an impact on the quality of effects (if you decide to use them) and the various editing features, ease of use, etc. that you desire.
Other things to consider
At our school the music teachers all have 13" Macbook Pros that we use for recording, as well as for metronome during rehearsals, tuning, etc. Solid, reliable, portable. Before that we had a 20" iMac in each rehearsal room, which also worked well.
Also, years ago you really needed an external hard drive for recording. Today the internal drives are so large that you really don't need a seperate drive for simple stereo recordings. HOWEVER remember you need to back up your files, and sometimes an external drive can be nice in you need to take the project to another computer setup.
The output of an audio interface is not amplified (well, the headphone jack is, but let's assume you want to hear the output on some nice speakers) so we need to take the output of the interface box to a stereo system or powered speakers. Powered studio monitors are a nice option if you are working on your recording in a studio, your office etc. There are many nice options these days. If I were in the market right now I would be interested to hear this new "Airmotiv" line from Emotiva because they are quickly gaining a reputation for great sounding products at a reasonable price. Same goes for this line from Audioengine.
If you are looking for something to put in the rehearsal space I do not recommend using studio monitors. They are not designed to fill such a large space. If you want active monitors for that situation take a look at the QSC, JBL and Mackie powered monitors (15" speaker).
Oh, and if you are going to soley use headphones, do NOT use little iPod headphones! You can get excellent studio headphones for around $99 (I like the Sony MDR 7506).
One last thing
For many of us, we also want a system that we can use for rehearsing. Recording a section and then immediately allowing the students to listen and analyze is a great rehearsal tool. But oftentimes the stereo system is not near the podium, and we need a way to get the output of the audio interface to the stereo without running a 30 foot cord across the room. I use a wireless audio product from Emu that is no longer in production, but recently I discovered this product from AudioEngine that looks like it will fit the bill (no guarantees since I have not tested it myself).
"I have (x) percussionists in my band, and I need a good grade (x) piece that will keep them busy."
Does statement above sound familiar? Now I ask you... have you ever heard a band director talking about finding a piece that will keep other instrumentalists busy? Sure, "challenge the flutes" perhaps or "go easy" on some other "weak" section, but "keep them busy" ... do you see what I'm pointing out here? Implicit in the phrase "keep them busy" is the idea that we need our percussionists out of our way, occupied, or otherwise tied-up in some activity so that we can teach... the others.
Have you ever programmed a piece that had a third clarinet part with only one whole note in the middle of the piece, and one more at the end? Or a piece that called for no more than three trumpets, and demanded that the others sit out in order to preserve "the composers intent" or some other such nonsense?
Of course not!
You would never do that to your woodwinds and brass, would you? But how often do we program a piece that has no more than two suspended cymbal rolls, or make the decision not to double (or supplement) percussion parts, leaving percussionists sitting in the back of the room "causing trouble?"
I've been teaching a long time, and believe me I realize that there are many challenges when it comes to finding music that fits your entire ensemble. Lest this post be seen as nothing more than a rant, here are some suggestions:
Don't be a purest
Did you ever notice that most directors will program a piece even if the fourth horn part will be left out, yet they refuse to add mallet parts because "that's not what the composer intended?" Do we think the composer intended for parts to be left out either? So why do we worry about adding parts? Seriously, let's remember that our main objective is to teach all students to become self-sufficient, expressive musicians. That does not happen when students are sitting out. If I have to choose between composer intent and actually teaching every student in the room, that is an easy choice.
Don't program garbage just to keep percussionists busy
True, there are newer works that have many percussion parts, and we need to encourage composers to continue to treat the percussion section as an equal. But much of this new music is trite, repetitive, and requires very little critical thinking. And sometimes the percussion writing may be interesting but the woodwind and brass parts are not good. I would much rather see teachers program excellent repertoire and supplement and/or double the percussion parts than spend 8 weeks playing trite music.
Don't ignore the long-term problem
Most of us will readily address the issue of not having any tubas or clarinets. But few of us will address the over-enrollment of percussion. At some point, we must be willing to enact long-term solutions that get instrumentation in balance. If you are the only teacher you have control over this issue, and if you are part of a group of articulated teachers you must work together to solve it. But solve it you must.
Think outside the box. Couldn't you make it standard practice that all percussionists also double on another instrument? If you did, might some decide to play that instrument permanently? If you strengthened your recruitment efforts for instruments of need, might you see more students elect to play those instruments instead of percussion? Those of us who taught during the era of the saxophone's popularity had to solve these same issues of over-enrollment. But unfortunately some teachers only deal in the near-term (crisis mode) rather than looking at the causes and address those in order to insure long-term success. Is your problem that you can't find music to fit your band, or that you have no system for recruiting, promoting, and sustaining balanced instrumentation?
If this post aggravates you a little bit, I hope that you will count to ten and do a little soul searching first before falling into a defensive frame of mind. Yes of course, your situation is unique, and no one will fully understand what you are going through except you. But at the same time...if you won't solve it, who will? And let me be clear: Keeping your percussionists "busy" is not solving anything. I also want to be clear that I too struggle with this very issue. Finding repertoire that serves all students is difficult. And yes, sometimes a percussionist is going to have just two rolls on suspended cymbal. But that same student had better have some meaningful learning on the remaining pieces on the concert.
Start by shifting your focus. We are not paid to keep students busy. We are not paid to leave students out. We are not paid to put the composer's interests above our students' education. We are not paid to teach a woodwind and brass ensemble with percussion accompaniment. Get creative, get motivated, and get about the business of programming great repertoire and teaching all of your students to be great musicians.
Tough to look in that mirror? You bet it is.
But one of the problems in our society today is that we have associated self-criticism with "beating ourselves up." That's too bad, because people who are successful know that the most productive way to a healthy and happy career is a regular and honest review of:
What I am doing
The outcome of what I am doing
So, I am doing x,y, and z on a daily basis. Am I seeing evidence of learning based on those approaches, habits, beliefs?
If not, am I willing to change, or will I simply:
• bear down on my students
• tell them to work harder
• guilt them into "learning"
See where I'm going with this?
If we want our students to learn more, enjoy more, take more ownership for their musicianship, then we are the ones who must improve the most, not them. Are your students excited to learn from you each day? If not...who do you suppose in responsible for changing that?
Look, I struggle just like you do. I'm not getting my students to the depth of learning that they deserve to experience in music. But I know this, and I have been able to say it for several years now:
One week from now I will not be the teacher I am today. I will be moving forward, trying new approaches, and digging just a little deeper so my students can understand the joys of music just a little bit better than they do now. If I don't do that, nothing is going to change.
Like me, you are not the teacher you could be. Don't be depressed by that, see it as good news. Get excited about the fact that the better you become, the more your students will learn. It took me far too long to realize that very simple truth.
The Key: Evaluating your predecessor
Most teachers who have gone through multiple transitions have come to recognize that the process is definitely more of an art than a science. But there are some concrete things you can be aware of during this critical time. One essential aspect is understanding the type of teacher you are following. Some might say not to worry about this, but to me it is a key component. Everything you say and (especially) do during the first year will be compared to the previous teacher by parents, admins, and especially students. So let's take a look at the possibilities (in reference to graphic above).
1. Following a good musician/teacher who was well-liked
This is generally a good situation for you musically (if you are a strong musician...and I hope you are) because you are going to be able to continue to teach good technique and repertoire. However this will be a challenge for you relationally because the students are going to be dealing with feelings of abandonment and you are going to feel the brunt of this. You must remember that students are not mature enough to do otherwise, especially those who are in their last year in the building (seniors, for example). Do not add fuel to the fire by changing much of anything. Keep things the way they are and instead, focus on building relationships with students. Learn names quickly, engage students in conversations about future plans and their interests outside of music.
And here is another important one: building relationships with parents is just as important. Eventually the program will be yours but right now you are basically an invited guest, you need to realize that. You are going to have to work just as hard to build trusting relationships with parents as you do with the kids. Teach to the best of your abilities and be thankful that you are inheriting a strong program. Be patient.
2. Following a good musician/teacher who was disliked
After doing your research you may have found that your predecessor was a solid musican. You see evidence of good repertoire and a well-rounded curriculum. But if for whatever reason the teacher was disliked, you may find that students are resistant to things that make good musical sense because they associate those things with the former teacher. In short, they may desire change that is not good for them.
Furthermore they may assume that you, like the last teacher, will show little care and concern for them. Building trusting relationships needs to be job one in this situation. Each and every day you need to build one-to-one relationships with students. You have to break the cycle of distrust while maintaining as much musical integrity as they will allow. Be patient.
3. Following an incompetent musician/teacher who was well-liked
This is by far the most frustrating situation, especially if you have high musical expectations. You must remind yourself daily that you are asking for trouble by moving too fast with your musical expectations. Slow down. When students like a former teacher they will associate everything that was taught to them as correct, so conversely everything you try to do differently will be considered incorrect. Don't dwell on this...accept it and get through the year with as little change as possible. The program will be yours soon enough. Do not ever disparage the former teacher. Much of quadrant number one applies here as well. Be patient.
4. Following an incompetent musician/teacher who was disliked
While not a no-brainer situation, this is by far the smoothest situation to manage. Students will be glad you are there (thought they may not show it) and they may indeed welcome some change, but you must still be strategic and don't forget to build relationships and consensus with students and parents. Make them a part of this exciting new era. Identify a few positive changes that will be widely accepted and take your time with the rest. Remember that the students' weak musicianship is not their fault. Be patient.
This is where the art comes into play. Given the situation, you may feel like you just can't be the teacher you expected to be this year (this is especially true for first-year teachers). You will hear a lot of people suggest to "just be you." I'm going to very carefully disagree with that.
Your first concern in a transition year must be your students. If they are used to certain traditions, routines, practices that are not what you had envisioned for yourself, you need to consider their world first. If "being you" means doing things differently, think twice. There is a very fine line between being consistent with your predecessor and being too far out of your comfort zone, I get that. But if you stay focused on the fact that none of this is the students' fault, you will usually know the best way to proceed, and usually that is very slowly in regards to change. If your predecessor had high musical standards and the students liked him/her, well you'd better learn the extant repertoire, and have the score in your head and your head out of the score! If your predecessor chose substandard literature and was well-liked...breathe deeply and don't start programming masterworks this year. If your predecessor told a joke every Friday, and you aren't the joking type, suck it up for a year and tell some jokes. You get the idea. Put yourselves in the students' shoes...remember, even after the transition, it's not about you anyway.
Build trust, be empathetic, and be patient. You can do it.
Afterword: Several readers have mentioned the importance of never, ever, disparaging the former teacher. This is of course imperative. Don't do it... not in front of students, parents, or within the BDG. And if the students do it, don't condone it (and remember that ignoring it is the same as condoning it).
Good luck, and never be too proud to ask for help!
Yesterday our district had its annual classical festival for band, orchestra and choir. The guest conductor for orchestra was Don Schleicher from the University of Illinois, and I took the opportunity to spend several hours watching him rehearse.
What really made an impression on me was how much he loved the music. It was so apparent throughout the day, and I think it was as obvious to the students as it was to me. His decisions about balance, style, and his overall expectations from the students were centered around great repertoire and how much he cared for it...how essential it was for the students to honor it.
There is a subtle but important difference between expecting students to play well and expecting them to play well because the music deserves it. When the students sense that it is a priviledge to perform the music before them, their approach changes from being self-centered to others-oriented. Why? Because the only way to honor the music is to make the ensemble the focus, rather than oneself. This applies to the teacher as well.
This of course brings up the topic of how the teacher can be passionate about the music being taught when in fact it isn't great music. You can't, not unless you are a terrific actor, and even then the students are going to sense it. Great repertoire (not to be confused with difficult repertoire) is a mandate for us.
There is great music written for all grade levels (start here), so choosing repertoire that lacks depth and meaning is not only avoidable, but is essential in empowering you the teacher to be energized and passionate in ways that will remind you of why you decided to do this job in the first place....for the love of the music.
I believe that most of the good and bad experiences we have in our rehearsal rooms are fostered by repertoire choices we make. Put yourself in the position of teaching repertoire that will allow your love for the music to show through. The students deserve to see you at your best, and that just can't happen through careless repertoire selection. Make a commitment to share your love of music from the podium every day. You can do it.