If birds couldn't sing, all we'd have is a bunch of tweets

Feed Me!

Like most tools, Twitter is really great for its core purpose, yet 140 characters can make it woefully inadequate for other uses. Anyone who uses Twitter knows this very well, and as the teaching profession continues to "flock" to Twitter we are at the same time witnessing a desire for something that has been largely absent since the coming of "Web 2.0."

The missing "something" is organized conversation.

Twitter works OK for small talk, but when you want to go deep on a subject and include as many thinkers as possible, it just doesn't work well. Not to mention that Twitter is extremely "in the moment." Miss a little, miss a lot, with Twitter. Twitter was made for "here is what I think" and what is needed right now (especially in education) is "how can we put our minds together to improve?"

All this to say that if you are a teacher who is new to the Professional Learning Network (PLN) movement, you need more than tweets. For music teachers, Joe Pisano has just given the profession an incredible opportunity by launching musicpln.org, a site that has conversation at its foundation. This is an incredible opportunity for our us, and we need everyone on board in order to have the type of critical mass that a discussion board needs at launch. Sign up and say hello. Read, but more importantly, post your thoughts. For other teachers, check out the educator's ning at http://edupln.ning.com/.

The default behavior on the web these days is to take, not to give. We need more givers. We all have something to contribute. Give us a song or two in the midst of your tweets, the profession will be stronger for it.

Simon Sinek and the Why of Education

I just finished watching a great TED Talk by Simon Sinek about why the great companies, innovators, and leaders are successful. He encapsulates the reason in an model he calls the "Golden Circle" and it is by his own admission deceptively simple. The idea is that there are three realms of action:

  • What
  • How
  • Why

Sinek maintains that most companies work from outside (What) to inside (Why) whereas the most successful companies work from inside (Why) to outside (What).

Well, for any of us who even dabble in reflection and thinking about education, you will immediately recognize this as philosophy. The "Why" of what we do--philosophy-- is what consumes most of my writing on this blog. The "What" we do and "How" we do it must all stem from "Why" if schools are going to be relevant, directed, and ultimately meaningful.

Unfortunately it is not only possible but in fact the norm in education to work from the "outside in." I would maintain that very few schools ever deal with "Why" in a meaningful, ongoing way. It is possible to teach every day exclusively from the What/How realms and I propose that this is exactly why we struggle so mightily with how to properly shape reform efforts. Does this look familiar to you?

  • What do students need to know?
  • How we will know if they know it?
  • What will we do if they don't know it?
  • What will we do when they know it?

We assume (and therefore ignore) these "inside" starting points to be given:

  • Why are we expecting students to learn this at all?
  • Why are we adopting any particular model or reform effort?
  • Why are we moving in a certain direction? Where is our destination?

"Well" some might say, "isn't it obvious?" No, the Why is never obvious, it is never a given. But it is very difficult to develop a philosophy of education, and that is the main reason we skip it and work from the "outside in." And that, my friends, is why we have so few truly excellent schools in this country. Everyone is working hard, but in the absence of Why.

What subject do you teach? Do you know Why students need to know it, really? Why gives purpose, Why inspires. But Why is also elusive, and it evolves. I've been thinking about it for 20 years and it's still a work in progress for me. But I'd rather be on the journey than teaching on autopilot from the "outside in."

I hope you will take 18 minutes to watch Sinek's video. It's worth your time.

Ken Robinson: What's Wrong With Education

If you are currently teaching public school this video clip from Sir Ken Robinson will resonate with you. Robinson's comments about teen stress, depression, and falling prey to doing what society deems important at the expense of finding one's true passions are spot-on.The arts have a key role to play in bringing the joy of learning back to schools across our country. That is, if the government doesn't continue to stand back and let the current funding crisis snuff us out first.

Rewards, Musical and Otherwise

This is a paper I wrote during doctoral coursework almost exactly ten years ago. I have made a few simple edits, but it remains largely unaltered. Interesting how the school funding pendulum has swung this way again a decade later. In any case, I hope you enjoy it.



Rewards (musical and otherwise): A philosophical look at the performance-based music class.


If there was one thing I took to heart as I started my Ph.D. it was the need to develop a clearly defined personal philosophy of music education. And if there is one thing I have learned thus far it is this: The more I learn about philosophy, the clearer my ineptitude becomes. As Allen Britton said (1990), “[W]hat one knows, one knows, and what one doesn’t know, one doesn’t know one doesn’t know” (p.183). I am learning more everyday about what I don’t know, but was once sure I did. In this paper I will attempt to articulate my evolving philosophy as it relates to performing ensembles in the secondary schools.

The Purpose of Education

Kliebard (1985) has identified three types of reformists in the history of education in this country: Social efficiency, child-centered, and social meliorists. In short, their views were that schools should do one of the following: Prepare students for specific places within society; focus upon the unique gifts and talents of the student; function as an avenue for social change. As for my personal stance, I am inclined to agree with Jerome Bruner (1996), who talks of antinomies–views that, while they contradict one another, all hold truth. Certainly there are important sides to each of the reform arguments. In addition, I agree with Bruner that we should also consider culture (and the classroom as culture) as an integral component of schooling.

Consequently, I conceive of schools and preschools as serving a renewed function within our changing societies. This entails building school cultures that operate as mutual communities of learners, involved jointly in solving problems with all contributing to the process of educating one another. Such groups provide not only a locus for instruction, but a focus for identity and mutual work. Let these schools be a place for the praxis (rather than the proclamation) of cultural mutuality–which means an increase in the awareness that children have of what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why (pp. 81-82).

It is the word awareness that is key for me. Ultimately students must have an awareness of their educational situation if they are to be successful learners. I believe that this was Dewey’s main concern with the various efforts to reform education. The ultimate purpose of education is rather pointless without careful consideration of the process (experience) in which students interact. In fact, it is through careful consideration of process that the purpose of education takes shape.

In a certain sense every experience should do something to prepare a person for later experiences of a deeper and more expansive quality. That is the very meaning of growth, continuity, reconstruction of experience. But it is a mistake to suppose that the mere acquisition of a certain amount of arithmetic, geography, history, etc., which is taught and studied because it may be useful at some time in the future, has this effect, and it is a mistake to suppose that acquisition of skills in reading and figuring will automatically constitute preparation for their right and effective use under conditions very unlike those in which they were acquired (Dewey, 1938, p. 47).

Lest it be thought that I am avoiding taking a stance, I will attempt to summarize my beliefs as such: The purpose of education is to provide students with opportunities for experiential learning, in such breadth and depth that they are prepared to be successful members of society, contributing in whatever area their interests may lead. Experiences should be designed to reflect the interactions and situations that will be encountered in society.

The Value of Music

We now turn to the question of the value of music. Here again we have a topic upon which an entire dissertation could be based. It almost goes without saying that music educators must be prepared to justify the need for music education. Ironically–at least to me–we do not see teachers in other disciplines facing similar circumstances (it is difficult to imagine math teachers attending a school board meeting to convince members of the need for math education). At the core of the issue is time and money. I say this because we rarely see disagreement on any educational issue that does not have one of these factors involved.

The length of the school day and year has remained unchanged for several decades. Over this same time period however, few would argue that the knowledge base has increased exponentially. New knowledge has not simply replaced old knowledge. If we subscribe to the ideas of Dewey and Bruner, we know that people must have a grasp on what came before a new idea if they are to fully comprehend it. Current events, as they become less “current,” are not forgotten, but rather are slowly added to an ever-increasing historical record. How can students possibly comprehend all that is happening today in the same amount of minutes found in the public schools in (say) 1945? When adults are faced with time constraints in the workplace, the usual solution is to “prioritize.” They start with what is considered to be most critical, understanding that items at the bottom of the list may not be accomplished. It is natural that school boards and administrators, when dealing with a finite number of minutes, will prioritize offerings.

School funding has been a particularly critical issue over the past decade, although most would contend that it has always been an issue to some degree. When dollars are tight, the answer is once again to prioritize. Anyone who has a monthly household budget understands this issue. When there is plenty of money to go around, there is little need to prioritize because we can afford everything we want. When dollars are tight, we start to talk about what we really need, which is sometimes different than what we want.

The reason I raise the issue of time and money is this: Perhaps the justification for music (or art, dance, theater, etc.) would not be front-page news in every music education publication if we, as a nation, reformed school funding and reevaluated the length of the school day/year. I do not think that administrators and school boards are inherently opposed to music education. Rather I think they feel forced to prioritize based upon constraints of time and/or money. Of course, we still must have (as any discipline must) a strong rationale for music education. There are three main reasons that, in my belief, music belongs in our schools.


First, music is an essential form of creativity, expression, and non-verbal knowledge. Now, I fully realize the immensity of that statement and am further aware that the parameters of this paper will not allow for a full explanation of that claim. I will offer this comparison as justification. I believe we can agree that the ability to read and write is highly valued in our society. It would not be out of line to suggest that we teach English so that people have the ability to be creative, express themselves, and interact with our world verbally. This goes far beyond functional literacy, which is obviously important but not sufficient. To read Shakespeare or Robert Frost is clearly not something one does to merely get through the day. To fully grasp the meanings in these works provides a window to understanding humanity more completely. However it is not easily done, and to be able to present one's own ideas verbally is even more difficult, yet is clearly an essential component of participating fully in our society. Indeed, it takes years of experience with the English language–in an educational setting–to gain the insights needed in this regard.

And so it is with music. Music provides us with the ability to intereact with our world in non-verbal ways. I think we are on the cusp of reaching an understanding of the importance of non-verbal ways of knowing. As Michael Polanyi says, "we know more than we can tell." Music cannot be told in words. Music must be experienced to be understood. Creating and expressing oneself musically (with the exception of lyrics) has almost nothing to do with words. It is a unique way of thinking, and yields a unique type of knowledge.

The second reason relies upon the first. That is, if we believe that music is a unique way of knowing, we surely want to educate young people not only to consume music, but to compose and/or perform it as well. Beyond the creative and expressive aspects, it is also an essential means of the evolution of our culture. We dare not leave things out of education that we value so highly as music. To do so is to leave the future of our very culture in question, a gamble we should not be willing to take with anything so essentialy human.

The third reason has to do with the social aspects of music. There are few subjects taught in schools that promote the bringing together of people. Music in a live performance setting has what Peter Kivy (1991) calls a “culturally cohesive effect” (p. 91). This concept, in conjunction with the culture that exists within the musical ensemble itself, presents an interdependent group experience that is truly unique. We do not educate children in musical groups merely out of convenience. It is also because of our awareness that we are not alone in the world. Music, in its completeness, is not a solitary endeavor, it is social.

The Purpose of Music Education

Having mentioned three important reasons for music’s inclusion in schools, we now turn to the question of what music education contributes to schooling in general. This is an extremely broad area, and for the purposes of this discussion I will focus upon my particular area of specialization, which is instrumental music. Of special interest to me is the fact that instrumental music is almost exclusively an elective in the public schools. In other words, students choose whether or not they will study music. I find it interesting to think about the reasons students may “elect” to take a course of study–and particularly why they elect to return in subsequent years. Much of what I will discuss is based upon by own observations during my 9 years of public school teaching–what Bruner (1996) might call “folk psychology.” I have found this type of observation to be extremely helpful as I fuse it with my studies in an effort to form my personal philosophy.

The Concept of Reward

When students make the choice to study music, I believe they do so because they believe it will be worth their time and effort. But that is question begging–where is the payoff, the reward? I believe there are three types of satisfaction or reward that students seek: Affirmational, social, and musical. We will look briefly at each of these areas as they apply to both students and teachers.

Affirmational Reward


It is my experience that students desire regular affirmation as an integral part of the learning process. Ways of receiving affirmation include, but are not limited to: Competition, verbal/non-verbal feedback, and grades. Affirmation through competition can be seen through seating tests, entry into “higher” ensembles, contests, etc. Competition can easily become the focus of a performance-based class–we all know of at least one rehearsal room that is loaded with trophies. In my own experience and studies, I have come to agreement with Johnson and Johnson, as well as other researchers who have shown that cooperative endeavors can include competition, but cooperation is most successful when the competition is external and not amongst the members of the group. For example, I have found great benefit in the rotation of part assignments because it allows for a shared sense of leadership as the students aim towards a common goal. I noticed early in my teaching career that “seating” the students did not seem to help the morale of the group and in fact made the students reluctant to assist in each other’s musical progress.

However, when I taught marching band I was an advocate for competition (in addition to the more traditional service and school-spirit roles). I felt that competition between schools was healthy–and consistent with other activities in the school (that I considered marching band an extracurricular activity was key in the decision to compete). This was an especially important experience for those students who were not athletically inclined/motivated. Competition is a reality in our society, and therefore should have a place–a healthy place–in our schools.

Instructing the 'cello

Verbal and non-verbal affirmation is a necessity in any classroom setting, but particularly for students who elect performance-based classes. Performing daily in front of peers and adults can be a highly intimidating experience. On the positive side, affirmation from peers and adults can be a strong contributor to self-confidence. When I resigned from my high school position I received many letters from students, many of whom made mention of the fact that I affirmed them in ways that encouraged them or made them feel good about who they were. It was then that I realized more fully how important affirmation is to students. Sometimes, in an effort to “get the group ready,” teachers (myself included) find themselves too busy to dedicate time to affirming students. This generally indicates a misunderstanding of the educational environment, and specifically calls into question “whose musical experience is it anyway?” But more on that later.

Non-verbal affirmation includes facial gestures, body language, and the like. It is important to remember the deflating power of a sideways glance while conducting (or the dreaded “look of death”). Conversely it is important to remember the affirming power of a smile or nod. Lastly we must remember that all humans enjoy the non-verbal affirmation known as applause. Teachers would do well to remember that, most times, the applause for which they are bowing is intended for the students seated behind them. It is also important to note that, in my opinion, students can tell whether you are taking the bow for them or for yourself.

Grades have been a source of debate for some time. I will not take part in that debate here. I will simply state that assessment is in fact a form of affirmation, and can be a particularly tricky area for music educators due to the subjective nature of performing on a musical instrument. When a student answers “1493” on a social studies exam (concerning Christopher Columbus), it does not take much convincing for him to understand why the answer is “wrong.” But things are not so objective when we evaluate tone, articulation, and so forth. The fact is that society has placed grades in high regard, and therefore students consider their grades to be an indication of their self-worth–it is a form of affirmation. Therefore parameters must be clearly understood by students, and assessment must be regular and structured to reflect the learning experience.

Social Reward

Some aspects of social reward are very obvious. In the high school setting it is typical for students to have been playing an instrument for five years or more. To gather daily with friends year after year and do something fun(!) in school is quite a treat. Every year I would ask our seniors to list their favorite events or moments while in the band program. Time and again, friendships were listed among the favorite memories. It should not be a secret (nor should it be discouraged) that fellowship is an important component of performing ensembles. As previously mentioned, working together toward a common goal is one of the distinguishing factors of the performing arts, and the fact that friendships are cultivated through this learning environment should be cherished and nurtured.

Other social rewards include aspects of citizenship such as self-discipline, accountability, status, and responsibility. While these are clearly extramusical benefits, they are benefits nonetheless and should not be discounted–rather they should be touted, especially because they are important concepts of our society. The important point is that all extramusical benefits should be an outgrowth of the search for musical reward.

Musical Reward


We now turn to what is, at least to this educator, the most critical type of reward. But the challenging part of musical reward is in its definition. I believe that many music educators, if asked what musical rewards their students experience, would cite many of the clearly extramusical rewards already discussed. Indeed in many discussions with my colleagues I have heard of the benefits of teamwork, discipline and the like, which are “only available in band” (choir, etc.)–and are therefore musical rewards. There is a semi-logical reason that many music educators cannot come to grips with true musical reward, and I will discuss that point later. For now I must outline what I believe constitutes musical reward. And once again, this subject could very easily serve as material for and entire dissertation and perhaps more.

I have been grappling with idea of “discovery” or “truth-finding” in music. There are many terms that, I think, run along these same lines. Bruner (1996) refers to “meaning making,” Reimer (1989) to “knowledge of,” and Elliot (1994) “self-knowledge.” We can talk about aesthetics, praxis, constructivism, and so forth, but what I am getting at is not so much the Most Important Thing About Music, but rather the moment in time when an individual comes to a musical understanding, and the associated feeling of satisfaction (reward) that comes from this realization. The musical understanding is “truth” for this individual, for what we come to fully understand in music (or anything) becomes added to the things that we hold to be true. And the greater the  struggle, the greater the satisfaction. It is about experiencing music cognitively. I believe this problem solving/discovery approach aligns with Dewey’s views about experiential learning, because without such revelation or discovery there has been no real “experience.” The other important benefit of this “umbrella” is that it allows for many different philosophical ideas to be incorporated. Bowman (1991) has cautioned that perhaps we have become too rigid in our philosophical beliefs, and in doing so have denied our students the opportunity to experience music from a more pluralistic view. It is interesting that teachers can have such strong philosophical allegiances when many times even the authors themselves are the first to say that they do not claim to have all the answers, but more about that some other time.

Whatever the focus of our teaching–which should be determined by the music currently being experienced anyway–the goal should be to lead students to moments of musical reward. And ultimately it is their desire for musical reward that we are looking to cultivate, for this may be the only musical benefit that they take with them. Students who can play an instrument at a highly skilled level will not sustain our musical culture (most do not continue to play after high school) unless they have developed a desire for musical reward. I believe that a desire for musical reward will last, preparing citizens to consume music of the highest quality and partake in cultural/musical experiences long after they have left the rehearsal room. This has everything to do with replicating our society.

The Danger of Folk Pedagogy

Ironic as it may seem, the biggest obstacle between students and musical reward is the teacher. Much of this is due to what Bruner (1996) calls “folk pedagogy.” While most would agree that schooling contributes significantly to the replication of society, we must realize that there is not a magic filter that extracts the good from the bad. Just as a mother realizes she has become just like her mother when she yells “because I said so” for the first time, so too are teachers inclined to assume the ways of their former teachers. No matter how effective undergraduate curricula may be, I believe that the influence of former public school teachers cannot be underestimated. While in many cases this may be of benefit, we must nevertheless strive to analyze the ways we were taught, while at the same time constructing our own individual philosophies.

The Teacher’s Reward

1971 NWBBA trophy

I think I have made it clear that, while there are many types of rewards that music students can reap, musical rewards should be at the core. In fact, I believe that the other types of rewards will come quite naturally as the teacher focuses upon musical rewards. But more on that later. What I want to discuss now is this. What is in it for the teacher? Is the reward structure the same as that of the student? Clearly the affirmational and social structure is not the same for the teacher–at least in the classroom. But what of musical reward? Should the teacher desire and reap musical reward in the classroom? This is an important point that deserves careful consideration.

Largely due to folk pedagogy, it seems quite natural for the music teacher to “realize” a musical composition. That is, the teacher will oftentimes make all decisions regarding the expressiveness of the music, in addition to the usual corrections of notes and rhythms. Reimer (1989) feels that this takes creative artistry away from the students.

A curriculum claiming to be artistic, or musical, or creative, must be a developmental series of leanings about how to get better at being artistic, musical, creative. Creativity cannot be conceptualized as being the sole prerogative of the teacher-director, the students being artisans who only carry out his or her artistic wishes. The students must share in the creativity, under the insightful, unifying governance of the teacher. It will be difficult for many performance directors to give up complete ownership of creativity to become nurturers of it. But when they do, they become music educators . . .(p. 193).

And so it becomes clear that the reward for teachers is not musical at its core, but can be found in the musical rewards of the students. This is both a selfless and counter-intuitive act for a teacher-conductor, particularly if his/her previous teachers seized musical rewards for themselves. Everything in music majors’ pasts tells them that, upon graduation, it is their time. It is their turn to ascend the podium and create the music. In reality, a music educator will allow the musical experience to be explored and “directed” by the students. The true educator may not say “play softer here,” but might ask “what do you think about the dynamics in this phrase?” Does this mean that the teacher gives no direction whatsoever? Dewey (1938) cautions teachers from gravitating too far to the other side of the issue:

The plan, in other words, is a co-operative enterprise, not a dictation. The teacher’s suggestion is not a mold for a cast-iron result but is a starting point to be developed into a plan through contributions from the experience of all engaged in the learning process. The development occurs through reciprocal give-and-take, the teacher taking but not being afraid also to give. The essential point is that the purpose grow and take shape through the process of social intelligence (p. 72).

Just as the math teacher does little good for students by simply providing the answer, so we must be willing to let our students discover their  musical way with our guidance (which is different than our direction). But, as long as we continue to be the ones to “take the bow” and stand on the podium, the temptation to direct the students will always be there, especially when we know that we can create a better product through didactic means. We must not fool ourselves into thinking that, because the ensemble sounds “good,” the students have experienced the music. Indeed I think it is completely possible for an ensemble to present an excellent sounding performance without knowing much at all about the essence of the music they are performing. It is not our place to merely manipulate our students musically, nor teach them the part devoid of learning the piece. While it might be acceptable (even preferable) for the professional ensembles to be dictated to, it is not much of an experience for the educational ensemble.

Furthermore, when the director is reaping the musical rewards, he or she is more likely to manipulate the students through the other forms of reward. For example, a director might hold weekly seating tests, not for purposes of musical growth per se, but because doing so will insure that the students practice their parts–laying the groundwork for a “great” performance (and greater musical satisfaction for the teacher). Oftentimes students are so exasperated by this process that they are relieved (instead of joyful) when the concert is over. I can think of few educational injustices greater than this.

Not only should teachers make room on the musical path, but the same holds for affirmational and social rewards as well. Anyone who has hung around the “pub” at a music convention knows that some directors take bands to competition not because they believe it to be a healthy experience for their students, but because they are satisfying their own needs. The same can be said of the director who programs a certain composition because “all the college directors are programming it.” There are many other examples, but I believe these few are enough to raise the following questions. Whose experience is it? Can we be selfless enough to get out of the way and allow our students to reap and desire the rewards associated with their co-operative efforts?


It is the responsibility of our society to educate our children. Education should include all that we hold valuable, which unquestionably includes music. Within music education we have a responsibility to offer students musically rewarding, performance-based experiences. Performance, if it is to be musically rewarding, must be coupled with broad-based understanding, which only comes through in-depth experience in the realization process. Solving musical problems and discovering musical truths are facilitated by educators who understand that their own musical gratification must be relinquished and supplanted by a desire to facilitate their students’ musical rewards.



Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bowman, W. (1991). A plea for pluralism: Variations on a theme by George McKay. In R. Colwell (Ed.), Basic concepts in music education, II (pp. 94-110). Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado.

Britton, A. (1991). American music education: Is it better than we think? A discussion of the roles of performance and repertory, together with brief mention of certain other problems. In R. Colwell (Ed.), Basic concepts in music education, II (pp. 175-188). Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Elliot, D. (1994). Music matters: A new philosophy of music education. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Kivy, P. (1991). Music and the liberal education. Journal of Aesthetic Education 25 (3), 71-93.

Kliebard, H. (1985). What happened to American schooling in the first part of the twentieth century? In E. Eisner (Ed.), Learning and teaching the ways of knowing (pp. 1-22). Chicago, IL: The National Society for the Study of Education.

Reimer, B. (1989). A philosophy of music education. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Photo attribution:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mtsofan/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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.

Technology is a force, not a computer

Kevin Kelly of Wired gives a TED Talk on the history of technology. This is a "must watch" for anyone who thinks they understand what technology is, where it has been, and where it is going. It is especially pertinent for music educators who can't get any technology funding unless it involves a computer or something else that "plugs in." We must learn how to educate the holders of the purse strings so they understand how something like Remo's Renaissance Hazy timpani heads represent a technological advancement that changes the learning environment for the better, or proper acoustical treatment of a rehearsal room.

Teaching to the lower ninety five percent

LC Contest  2005-09-10_15

This Friday I will be speaking to music education majors at my undergraduate alma mater.

I'm not looking forward to it.

That may sound odd, but it's true. When I taught at the college level I was passionate about the need for undergraduate students to take Philosophy of Music Education. I spent the better part of the semester unpacking the assumptions that music education majors bring to college, most of those assumptions being formulated (naturally) by their own high school experiences. By the end of the semester I was hopeful that some of them had at least considered a different way of viewing their future profession. I would routinely tell them that many of things we discussed would not "click" until they were in the field, occasionally during student teaching but more likely a few years into the profession. In this "why do I need to know this" generation, this requires a massive amount of trust, trust that I cultivated over time. Planting those seeds that would take root years later was essential and as I said it took many weeks of persistent, thought provoking questioning and dialog, not to mention a continued follow up in subsequent years. Many college faculty members think that philosophy should be reserved for graduate study. I think that is far too late, but sadly most undergraduates across the nation do not take such a course.

So this week I will have about one hour to "enlighten" a group of music education majors, one hour to somehow make a lasting difference. It seems one of the main reasons for inviting me was my 25 Things About Teaching Music and Education. That article is a summation of everything I've learned and been thinking about for the past twenty years. Any one of the twenty five points is worth several hours of discussion by itself. You see my dilemma.

If you've done any amount of presentation work, you know how to do the magic tricks that get everyone engaged, laughing a little, and leaving an hour later with good feelings..... that rarely turn into lasting change. That doesn't interest me. In this one hour session with what I'm sure is a typical got-it-all-figured-out, mainly (like myself) trumpet-playing music ed. group, I'll be lucky to get one point to stick with them. So what should that be?

Well, for those participants who read this post before Friday, you're getting a sneak peak (not to mention proving yourselves by doing some preparation prior to the discussion). What I want to talk about is this: The way that most music education majors arrive at the decision to become music teachers is diametrically opposed to the reality of what most public school students need.

Great, that should be a very inspiring talk.

But the facts are the facts. If you look at the way most high school music programs are structured, they consistently reward the very "best" music students.

  • Students sit in chair order from strongest to weakest.
  • Students who get a first place at solo contest are given medals, certificates, or trophies.
  • The Drum Majors are heralded and given (oftentimes too much) teaching responsibility over their peers.

Each spring the "senior soloist" performs (usually with a very weak accompaniment from the band or orchestra), and the audience is informed that this senior will be attending such-and-such university and will major in music education. Everyone nods knowingly. The inspired student heads off to college, taking all of those experiences with them, and is typically met by faculty members that taught a little public school (usually five years or so) before leaving to pursue their dream of teaching at the collegiate level. This leaves the music education major in a situation where their beliefs about how music programs should be approached go largely unchallenged, as their former high school teachers usually have far more practical experience than most professors. Five years later (even though you were told it would be four) the student emerges ready to go out and create a near carbon-copy of their high school program that will inspire and empower the few, producing one or two future music educators per year and garnering accolades for the program. And so it goes. The problem?

What about the other ninety five percent of the students?

Are we really supposed to be in the business of gearing our programs to the top five percent? To read that statement it simply rings as ridiculous. Yet that is exactly what happens more often than not.

It's always interesting when my own graduates go off to college and send me an email that usually includes a statement like "everyone here was a drum major" or "I'm surrounded by people I saw at All State last year." Right. Young people who are inspired to teach music usually get to that point because of the wonderful opportunities they had. They rose to the top, they achieved, they loved it. It makes perfect sense. The problem is that we are perpetuating a cycle whereby music programs are designed to inspire and reward the few. As teachers we know that the main purpose of public school music is not to prepare students to be music educators. How could it be? At most only five percent of our graduates will enter the profession, and even then there are not enough jobs to go around.

Out of the remaining ninety five percent of the students, the vast majority will never perform again after high school. What exactly are those students getting that makes our class invaluable? Are we focusing our attention there, both in the profession and in our college methods courses? Or are we continuing to buy into the thought that as long as the band, orchestra, or choir is "successful" that the experience will be meaningful to the lower ninety five percent automatically?

Music education majors need to grapple with this subject if they are going to be able to break the cycle of teaching to the top, and get focused on the learning of all students, especially the "lower" ninety five percent. Music education needs to be relevant and meaningful now more than ever before.

So that's what I'm going to be talking about. Wish me luck.

More on the pursuit of perfection in music

Below is the audio of a short speech by Jack Stamp regarding the importance of music education, specifically as it relates to pursuing perfection (though he doesn't use that term). I've talked about excellence as the consistent pursuit of perfection in a previous blog post. Where else in education are students experiencing this? Isn't it essential that students learn the importance of interdependent excellence? I think it is.

Music Education Majors: Stifling The Little Voice

Shadow of a Doubt - S5isShadowDoubt

Over the years I've known quite a few music education majors, whether they were students in my college philosophy class, former public school students of mine, or student teachers that I have mentored. One thing I started to notice was that most of them experienced a phase during college whereupon they would be giving serious consideration to abandoning their career before even giving it a try. They had somehow determined that they should do something (anything?) else. There is a powerful wave of doubt that creeps into their thinking, sometimes resulting in drastic changes like dropping out of school or changing their major to something completely foreign. I've dubbed this wave of doubt the Little Voice, although that can be misleading because the Little Voice is not so little. Where does this doubt come from?

It comes from fear.

When it comes right down to it, being responsible for educating hundreds or even thousands of children over a career can be a scary proposition. Music education majors are so busy taking so many classes (for so little credit) that the future isn't something they have had much time to think about. So I believe that there are periods of anxiety that arise whereby entering the profession feels completely wrong. We all went through it, in fact I've started to think that the more you've worried about it, the better teacher you might become. It's ironic to say the least, but sensing the responsibility can seem too much to bear, yet being able to sense it is integral to becoming an effective teacher.

When you are a student, it's all about you, so conversely when you become a teacher it needs to be all about the students. The problem is, that is a completely counter-intuitive mindset for education majors, and when it hits them, it hits hard. Education majors like being students. The thought of leaving the student role one day and being responsible for students the next day is both uncomfortable and frightening. Logic has a way of going out the window at times like these. Even though these students have been preparing for this career for years, and been musicians for half of their lives or longer, leaving the comfort zone of being a student can be paralyzing. As a result, going into an entirely unknown profession can now seem like a rational decision. Or suddenly teaching 60 private students a week for the rest of your life rather than standing in front of an ensemble sounds like the better alternative. Like I said, the Little Voice is very, very powerful.

The Little Voice starts its attack at different times. It might be during an observation, during practicums, or just prior to student teaching. The Little Voice starts telling students that they aren't good enough, aren't fully prepared, really shouldn't be doing this. The Little Voice tells them that they've "lost the passion to teach" and kids "don't deserve to have someone in front of them who isn't passionate." Then, even more insidiously, it starts to tell them that they would be really good at something else. The next thing you know they are looking to transfer or "take some time off." If they get that far, it's probably over. Another potentially great teacher lost to the Little Voice.

I don't think a year has passed within the last decade where I have not had a "Little Voice Discussion" with one or more college students. More and more I'm initiating the discussions as I've learned to see the telltale signs. It's important to have the discussion before these students make drastic, often completely illogical decisions about their future. What do I say to them in this quasi-intervention?

I tell them to stifle the Little Voice. I help them to realize that abandoning something they have been working towards for so many years makes no sense whatsoever. I try to help them to admit that it's not about losing the passion to be a teacher, it is about simple fear. If they can admit they are afraid, they can start to realize that fear makes you do stupid things, like give up on everything you've worked towards. It also helps them to hear that so many education majors go through this. It's OK to worry, what isn't OK is throwing everything away before you find out if you can do this.

The Little Voice has a crafty way of making you think that people who are cut out for the profession have no doubts. That just isn't true. We all had doubts, and overcoming them is part of the process. Student teaching is a time where you realize that you can do this. The challenge is shutting down the Little Voice so you can get to the student teaching experience. And no, it isn't the same as practicums and no, it isn't the same as some bitter and burned-out teacher you observed. Stick it out, you'll see. And if I'm wrong, well at least you know based on some actual teaching experience.

So for all of the music ed. majors out there whom I have not had the pleasure to know, please learn to recognize the Little Voice for what it is, and stifle it. You have worked too hard to give up now. I'm not saying that everyone is ultimately cut out for this profession, but I am saying that almost nobody under the age of 22 has any clue if they are cut out for this profession until they get in there and find out. See it through, you owe it to yourself, and frankly your future students need you.