off the grid

Would you believe me if I told you this has been one of the most satisfying, rewarding and happy years of my career? The phrase, “going off the grid” is a spot on reflection of what every music teacher in the country has gone through the past 14 months. Nothing has been “normal”, and a lot has been taken from us and our students since March of last year. How that has individually impacted us is dependent on many factors including whether we’ve been allowed to be in person or not, what grade level we teach, general choral or instrumental, single teacher in a school district or one of many. In any given year prior to this one, each music teacher’s journey is incredibly unique. That’s never been more true than this one.

But a funny thing happened to me right around the middle of November, and it carried through to this very week: my kids and I were learning and growing, and realizing that we were learning and growing. We started enjoying this journey together.

If you’ve ever read a single post from this blog for the last nine years, you know my emphasis on music being an academic subject and how it is up to us to make it so. As a high school choral director, I consequently have given the same speech at the start of every school year to my choirs – on the very first day together – which goes something like this:

“For every one one of you in here, there is a different motivation for you having signed up. For those of you who signed up because you love to sing, I have a request for you. Before the end of the week is out, whenever you get a free moment, do yourself a favor and do me a favor, go down to guidance, and drop this course. The most irrelevant thing you bring in here is a love of singing. It doesn’t matter to me. IF, on the other hand, you signed up for this course because you love hard work, want to develop your own personal and musical skills and musicianship, further your knowledge, and your highest priority is to see the people around you succeed, I’ve got good news for you: you’re going to love this class.” Invariably, by the time I close out my course overview, I do add the following: “If you love to sing and you’re crazy enough to choose to stay in here, don’t be surprised to find out in the end that you love singing even more than you ever did before.” 

The worst thing about Covid restrictions last Fall? I didn’t give that speech. The best thing about Covid restrictions last Fall? I didn’t have to. Like everyone else, I sucked it up and dove into this new crazy world we were confronted with, a choral program with no singing together. I developed a skeleton of my curriculum last Spring, and with some modifications it served us well. Singing in my program at York High School was replaced with music performance critiques. And music history units. And units in interval ear training. And mastering sight reading complex rhythms. And music literacy. And discovering contemporary choral composers and literature. And talking. And connecting. And valuing what we each brought to the table and valuing what that is in each of us. We not only learned, we talked about what we learned. Watching Daniel Barenboim in Berlin in 2006 playing the 1st and 2nd movements of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” together in context to the months of music history we had studied leading up to it… tears. Students asking if we can work on ear training intervals today? Priceless.

Along the way, the students’ remote work included vocal work and video submissions of them singing so I could keep providing them feedback. I made a transition from Doctopus to Google Classroom embedded rubrics (if you want to find out more about that, contact me! and screencastify feedback in real time, recording myself as I was watching/evaluating their videos in real time. The most rewarding moments for me was when my students videos were accompanied by, “I am so sorry about my tone…” or “I can’t believe how bad my breathing has become…”. I had so many students ask for tips on how to keep their singing technique in check without being able to sing in class. That made me incredibly proud. It didn’t matter under the circumstances that their tone was poor and their breathing was much worse if not altogether missing: they were being analytical, and that’s been my goal all along.

When the singing restrictions were lifted a couple of months ago, we took a dual approach in our honors choirs of learning literature outside of class, and using the first 6 weeks of singing to redevelop our tone, breathing and reading skills in class. We’ve worked a ton on ear skills too. Ear exercises we used to do without blinking an eye were now really difficult again. We had to shore that up. 

Last week we started singing literature again. It’s felt great. It’s brought a bit of “normalcy” back into our lives. The first three classes we began by watching excerpts of Robert Shaw running his masterclass rehearsals, and the students filling out a google form to provide feedback on their takeaways. It really helped focus all of us on getting back to utilizing rehearsal for analytical purposes in addition to just feeling good. The result has been wonderful. Getting the kids back into an analytical mindset, utilizing literature to apply technique and musicianship has paid dividends. My Seniors never got to sing our annual Silent Night procession this year. They haven’t sung it in a year and a half. Thursday I passed it out to them (half the group; my cohort “B” with my seniors in it). 10 minutes later we went out to the hallway and performed it. They were nearly concert ready. It cemented in my students that singing with technique and analytical skills is what the choral program is all about. They experienced first hand what it was to go an extended period of time without either, and then what the change was when they were able to bring them both back in. Game on.

When you go camping, or spend extended time at a place with no wi-fi or first world luxuries, you adapt. You find other ways to spend your time, you change how you spend your day. You change your interactions with others, and most importantly you learn to view things differently while you are in that environment. The best result of going off the grid is when you come back and choose to alter your otherwise normal, every day life to incorporate the best parts of what you loved the most when you were off of it. For me, my choral program will never be the same again. What’s fun is that my choral colleague at the Middle School, Jen Etter, has had an absolute identical experience as me this year, and she is making permanent changes of her own. Our conversations around this have been a revelation.

When I saw on social media last Fall how difficult this year was going for so many colleagues in the field, I decided to just keep my mouth shut and focus on what I was doing this year. If I learned anything last Spring its that too many were comparing their programs with others and what they were doing. That is fine, as long as doing so is limited to learning from them. My fear is that too many were viewing other programs from a “comparing” point of view, and there’s not a lot that’s healthy about that. Everyone has been in a different boat this year, and it was no time for me to be putting out blog posts on music education. But as this year winds down – I only have 4 more classes with my seniors – I woke up this morning with just a lot of joy in my heart. I am one of the lucky ones who has had the ability to meet with my students in person all along (going remote last Spring will always be one of the low points of my career, if not my actual life). I finally started to find my footing by late Fall, and every day I’ve driven into school since Thanksgiving or so has been the same joy I woke up feeling this morning. I decided it was time to share it. But not to compare. It is about learning and growing and rediscovering why I chose this profession. I love teaching voice, I love teaching choir. But I love teaching music more, and the variable that never changed was teaching kids. I went off the grid for a year. I hope when I get back to the grid I don’t go back as the same teacher I was 14 months ago. I KNOW I will not go back with the same curriculum or objectives. Has this been one of the most satisfying, rewarding and happy years of my career? Yup.

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black lives matter

There are many reasons I “should not” write this blog post. I am a white, middle class male so I do not speak from any relevant experience. This post may come across as sanctimonious. I live a very comfortable life, personally, financially, professionally, as did my decedents on both sides of my family: I have no viable reference point. There are significant gaps in my knowledge and understanding of this topic. This blog is about music education, not race. And so on. And yet I have very strong feelings and emotions on this subject, so staying silent isn’t an option for me. Posting this now, after the wave of attention given the topic last Spring and this Summer has ebbed a bit, is intentional. This topic must not go away. The nice thing about reading someone’s blog is that you can shut it out any time you want, or move on from it at your own will. If you desire to do so in this instance, knock yourself out. For those of you staying with me here in the meantime however, here it goes.

I don’t know why, but ever since I was a little kid, I have always had a fascination with events of the past Century. I read and watch any documentary I can get my hands on, whether it be musical, political, cultural, social, whatever. When I retire someday, I think I may retire Goober music teachers too, and instead begin a new blog with reflections and commentaries on historical events of the 20th Century. My primary focus has tended to be the 1960’s and 1970’s. Anything Vietnam, Watergate, political and Presidential history, I’m your guy. Invariably, over time, my personal studies wandered into Civil Rights.

I will never forget the first time I dove into learning more about the Freedom Riders of 1961. The beatings, abuse, their bus being set on fire, because they were trying to get white officials to uphold an existing law. Learning about Freedom Summer, three Summers later, an effort by civil rights activists to integrate Mississippi’s segregated political system in the Summer of 1964. Young adults from across the country drove south and helped African Americans register to vote and to learn about history and politics in newly-formed Freedom Schools. In response, local municipalities foreclosed mortgages on black residents’ homes, fired workers from jobs, banned customers from shopping in stores, and shut down food pantries for the poor. And white supremacy groups such as the Ku Klux Klan inflicted violence on black residents and civil rights workers. In less than four months there were at least six murders, including those of activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, who were killed on June 21 near Philadelphia, Mississippi. The three were arrested for “speeding” and then released. As they left town in their car, they were followed by law enforcement and others. The car was pulled over, all three abducted, driven to another location, and shot at close range. Their bodies were then transported to an earthen dam where they were buried. In all there were twenty-nine shootings, fifty bombings, more than sixty beatings, and over four hundred arrests of project workers and local residents.

All because black Americans were being encouraged and empowered to vote, NINETY FOUR YEARS after the Civil Rights Act of 1870 was passed, and the same Summer the new Civil Rights Act became law:

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, segregation on the grounds of race, religion or national origin was banned at all places of public accommodation, including courthouses, parks, restaurants, theaters, sports arenas and hotels. No longer could blacks and other minorities be denied service simply based on the color of their skin. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act barred race, religious, national origin and gender discrimination by employers and labor unions

Less than one year later: the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.

Dec. 4, 1969, Black Panther Party members Fred Hampton, 21 and Mark Clark, 22, are shot to death by FOURTEEN police officers as they lay SLEEPING in their Chicago apartment. All according to plans made by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, the Chicago police and the FBI. Don’t believe me? Look it up. Anywhere, any source. The FBI.

1974, Boston, MA. and the desegregation of schools.

“I remember riding the buses to protect the kids going up to South Boston High School,” Jean McGuire, who was a bus safety monitor, recalled. “And the bricks through the window. Signs hanging out those buildings, ‘Nigger Go Home.’ Pictures of monkeys. The words. The spit. People just felt it was all right to attack children.”

“I had no idea what to expect [with] this busing thing, “I didn’t know anything about South Boston. I didn’t know anything about, you know, they didn’t like us. I didn’t know anything that was in store for us. But when we got there, it was like a war zone. I came back and I told my mom, and I’ll never forget, I said, ‘Ma, I am not going back to that school unless I have a gun.’ At 14 years old.”

Two years later, nothing had changed. image16_custom-4c9be3a24736e8ef26663debc2219333ed960566-s1600-c85

This isn’t ancient history, and this isn’t some third world country. This is us. This is our country as WE grew up in it.

In reflecting on the Black Lives Matter movement, I have a perspective that is immersed in the events of the recent past. The far reaching past is well documented (if not well exposed). We view all that and take solace in knowing “we’ve come so far.” But our currency is based on the tangible, and this is a problem for three specific reasons.

  1. Our tangible reality has never – never – been the tangible reality of our black brothers and sisters, and it is ignorant of anyone to suggest that our experience in this society has been or is the same as theirs. By mere definition, we are unable to understand and see what they experience daily, because our skin color insulates us from it.
  2. The tangible reality of black lives is that their world was made “better” because white legislators passed laws “giving” them certain rights already afforded white lives for hundreds of years.
  3. White people in this country were given the privilege of not having to overcome those obstacles – for those hundreds of years – that members of a different race put in front of them, and we – THIS GENERATION – have consequently been granted a head start politically, financially, emotionally, professionally over those whose skin color is different than ours.

The University of San Fransisco put out a great synthesis: Becoming aware of privilege should not be viewed as a burden or source of guilt, but rather, an opportunity to learn and be responsible so that we may work toward a more just and inclusive world. Check your privilege. Privilege: Unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social group. 

White Privilege is not a subjective opinion. How to move forward is… but actually moving forward must not be. It begins with empathy and continues with tangible change. My hope is that the decade of the 2020’s embraces both.

400 years ago white people brought black people over here and enslaved them. And sold them. And treated them as less than human. For 250 years. While white men built the country and created its laws and its systems of government. While 10, 15 generations of white families got to grow and flourish and make choices that could make their lives better.

And then 150 years ago white people “freed” black people from slavery. But then angry white people created laws that made it impossible for them to vote. Or to own land. Or to have the same rights as white people. And even erected monuments glorifying people who actively had fought to keep them enslaved. All while another 5, 10 generations of white families got to grow and accumulate wealth and gain land and get an education.
And then 60 years ago we made it “legal” for black people to vote, and to be “free” from discrimination. But angry white people still fought to keep schools segregated. And closed off neighborhoods to white people only. And made it harder for black people to get bank loans, or get quality education or health care, or to (gasp) marry a white person. All while another 2-3 generations of white families got to grow and pass their wealth down to their children and their children’s children.
And then we entered an age where we had the technology to make PUBLIC the things that were already happening in private– the beatings, the stop and frisk laws, the unequal distribution of justice, the police brutality (police began in America as slave patrols designed to catch runaway slaves). And only now, after 400+ years and 20+ generations of a white head start, are we STARTING to truly have a dialog about what it means to be black.
White privilege doesn’t mean you haven’t suffered or fought or worked hard. It doesn’t mean white people are responsible for the sins of our ancestors. It doesn’t mean you can’t be proud of who you are. But it DOES mean that we need to acknowledge that the system our ancestors created is built FOR white people. It DOES mean that we aren’t disadvantaged because of the color of our skin and it DOES mean that we owe it to our neighbors– of all colors– to acknowledge that and work to make our world more equitable.

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my 10 albums

A facebook tag has been going around asking people to post their top 10 favorite/influential albums. I got tagged today and decided to find out what I thought my top ten were. It was pretty revealing for me, so here’s an annotated Westerberg top 10:

#10 James Taylor, Dad Loves His Work


I was a senior in High School when a student in Chamber Singers with me, Tom Meyer, asked me if I’d be willing to sing bass on a couple of JT songs he wanted to perform at our pops night. We had no sheet music so he just said, here’s the two songs, see if you can learn the bass parts. One was “Traffic Jam” off an earlier album, but the other was “Lonesome Road” off of this one. I bought the album and immediately connected with JT’s voice. Loved the song, loved the album, and it began my journey into discovering that James Taylor was my favorite singer. He wasn’t the greatest lyricist, especially during this phase of his career, but his music I can listen to all day long.

#9 Paul Winter, Earth Mass

earth mass

My uncle was good friends with a member of the Paul Winter Consort in the 1970’s and when Paul Winter recorded this, I received the very first iteration of it, a double cassette of the Mass that included songs not released on the actual album. It really influenced my ear and my musical thinking. My favorite song was the Beattitudes, and 37 years after I first heard it, I got to sing it with Paul Winter himself in a dress rehearsal for our collaboration with him, PCC and Voices In Harmony in 2018. An out of body experience I’ll never forget. Revisiting it and teaching the Mass to a choir of my own two years ago was a reminder of how profound an impact this record had on me.

#8 Todd Rundgren, Hermit Of Mink Hollow


I could just as easily name A Cappella or Something/Anything? here, but this record really is my favorite of his. Maine Steiners learned his Hodja in 1996 and I used that experience to find out more about TR who I was not familiar with before. Turns out he’s a musical genius. Meat Loaf, Bat Out Of Hell? Yeah, he not only produced it, he financed it. The motorcycle on it was his guitar morphing into the song. One take. A lot of his music, especially the last 25 years – is not mainstream and I don’t tend to enjoy it. And much of his early music, along with that of the music of his group Utopia sounds a bit dated. But Hermit hits the sweet spot for me and is a great showcase of skill that is also musically assessible to my ear.

#7 House Jacks, Funkwich


Coming out of my year at U Maine, I really fell in love with the contemporary a cappella scene. My favorite group, with Five O’Clock Shadow maybe being tied with them, was the House Jacks. This particular CD is killer; their harmonies, as well as the production which expands the vocal sonorities intead of distorting them is still an amazing sound to me.

#6 Carpenters, The Singles


I was still pretty young when I got this album, as a matter of fact, it may have been my parents’. But I loved every single song on this entire thing. I’ve always been self conscious about the fact that this is one of my favorite records even to this day. It’s pretty shmaltzy, and a lot of it dated. But I watched a documentary on the Carpenters a few years ago and it dawned on me: this record is largely responsible for both my love of vocal harmonies, and my hearing of vocal harmonies. I have always – always – sung the harmony parts or made up new harmony parts when singing along with music. I realized that this album is the origin. I learned every voice part and could sing every voice part, low and falsetto and everything in between. In retrospect, it is INSANE what I learned and developed from learning and singing along with this album.

#5 Dvorak, New World Symphony

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When my parents bought new living room furnature, I got the old set for my room, including the turntable cabinet. One of the records they had was this one, and I remember vividly – even at age 9 and 10 – lying down on my bedroom floor with my eyes closed just listening to this. I still can’t listen to the Largo without tearing up, it brings me back to a wonderful place and really developed in me a love for classical music. In the grand scheme of things, this Symphony is not a heavyweight. But it was, again, a perfect album for a young kid just discovering the orchestral sound with accessible, beautiful themes.

#4 Toto, IV


The quality of musicians in this group is off the charts. This is esentially the same backround band for many tracks on Michael Jackson’s Thriller, among others. But at the time, it was just a wicked cool album to a kid in High School in the Spring of 1982. It was the first cassette I ever heard played in a walkman and, trust me on this, it blew my mind!! Ahhh, the 80’s…. but it really influenced my taste in pop music for a very long time, probably still does.

#3 Billy Joel, Cold Spring Harbor

cold spring harbor

Whereas many people think Piano Man was his first record, it wasn’t. This was. But he largely disowned it due to the recorded tracks (and his voice) sounding a bit higher in pitch due to a production error. The songs however were written at a very dark time in his life, and the result is one of the most extraordinary records I’ve ever heard. Spoiler alert: it is depressing! But from a sheer artistic standpoint, this is some of his most inspired work of his entire career. I first heard this as an undergraduate at Keene State College, and I took one of it’s songs – “Turn Around” – and arranged it for the KSC Jazz Ensemble which my director graciously allowed us to perform at our Spring Concert of my Senior year. The arrangement wasn’t great, but the song was, and every song on this album is a gem.

#2 Def Leppard, Vault

def leppard

I’m choosing Vault instead of Pyromania or Hysteria because it has the best songs from both and in my mind they are really a double album. After going through High School listening to Toto, the Carpenters and James Taylor, etc, you can only imagine what a mind warp it was to hear Def Leppard. This is again another time in my life where the vocal harmonies just grabbed me, albeit in a very different context. All these years later, I still get jazzed listening to them. Vault didn’t come out until 8 years after I left college, but when I bought the CD I just wore it out. If I was on the proverbial dessert island and could only have three records to listen to, this would be one of them. Hands down.

#1 Robert Shaw, Messiah


This album was the impetus for my Masters Thesis, comparing similar works recorded by Robert Shaw at different stages of his career. This Messiah, when released in 1966, turned the classical world on its ear as Shaw tidied it up and performed it pretty much as a chamber work – which he submitted was an original intent – and produced a recording where the treatment of the voices and the instruments are absolutely identical, a practice he actually reversed when he began recording with the Atlanta Symphony for Telarc records in the 70’s and 80’s. I will put this recording of the Messiah as one of the most remarkable of all of his, and a very significant one for all classical music in the second half of the 20th century. It’s that brilliant.

#.5? Poets Of The Fall, Carnival Of Rust



I’m including this because every year I discover new artists or groups that bend my ear and my taste in a new direction. I first heard Poets of the Fall just in 2018. I think they are brilliant. They’re unlike anything I’ve heard before, think of them as a cross between Pearl Jam and Phil Collins. With strings. They don’t perform in the United States and don’t receive airplay here either. I think it’s a shame because if they had, they would be a household name. The highlight of this release is the title track and the video for it is the most haunting, mildly disturbing and profound music video I’ve ever seen; a legitimate work of art.

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“The value of this experience transcends what you put into it. You will learn what it is to develop self esteem, teamwork and striving toward shared common goals. Getting out in front of hundreds of people who have turned out to cheer you on will make you feel seven feet tall, and you will have earned every opportunity to be out there to enjoy it. In turn, you’ll also inspire them as well. By the time you are finished with this program, you will have grown in many ways and made friendships and connections that will last a lifetime. Developing your discipline and skills – collectively and individually – will bring you to heights you could never have imagined and will never forget. You’ll forever be a better person for it.”

I don’t think there are many High School music teachers who would be surprised to read this and find themselves agreeing with how valuable the experiences are which we offer to our students. We each remember and know for a fact how the music programs we grew up in formed these in ourselves, and it is a joy and a labor of love to offer these same experiences to our own students now. I would argue, and perhaps so would you, that any music program devoid of these characteristics are flawed at best, inadequate at worst. It’s what drives us and keeps us working so hard to be at our best for our kids.

What MIGHT surprise you, however, is that the quote above is not an overview of a music program:

it’s an overview of the benefits of the York High School Football program.

Huh-7fz21k 2

I came across a post in the Facebook Music Teachers forum a month or so ago where a music teacher was second guessing a colleague for attempting to turn around a choral program by teaching academic fundamentals all the time. Their argument was that this is an impossible way of going about it, and instead suggested that the teacher should focus on the “why” of chorus: the social element; the sense of community part, the pride of contributing to something special part. And I cringed.

To rail against these things would be stupid. These are all desirable outcomes, even deeply essential outcomes. But there is a clear distinction being made here. If the “why” of what we do is to create the same outcomes as co-curricular drama productions, co-curricular service organizations and every athletic team in your school, it is not others who have marginalized music as being a “less than” academic, it is US.

The difference between teaching and being a coach? I would say not much. Maybe nothing. Some of the best teachers out there are the athletic coaches in our school. And some of the very best teaching occurs on the practice field. These coaches teach fundamentals and are brilliantly carrying out their objectives in ways that do change kids’ lives. So what’s the difference between being a teacher and a coach?  For one it is about academic content, and for the other it is not. Are the objectives for both valuable? Yes. Are both the same? No. I know that, and you know that. A school with all academics and no co-curricular activities would be a really, REALLY lame school. A school with no academics and all “activities” would be really awesome in many ways… but not at all a “school”. It certainly would be one with a worthless diploma. The best schools have both… but do not have them concurrently; there is a reason students do not get Phys Ed academic credit for being on the Football team. So then, why are students getting academic credit for being in band?

One is about academic content, the other is not.

Or is it?!? Let’s get back to the quote that starts this post. Is that quote the POINT to your music program? The goal? Then game on and congratulations: you have somehow conned your school district into giving you a full time salary to run a school-day co-curricular program. You also give legitimacy to the voice of every person who has ever argued that music should be placed outside of the school day.

On the other hand, is the POINT to your program to develop and assess concrete, measurable and rigorous academic skills in each of your students – individually? If so, then you are daily advocating for your profession as a core academic subject. You are dispelling the myth that music is not core, and you are developing in your students the ability to become emerging musicians. The quote above? That is your byproduct. It’s called good teaching.

You’d better be sure that your intent aligns with your practice. More to the point, your intent will ALWAYS align with (expose?) your practice, so you’d better do some regular, routine reflection to make sure that your intent is in fact moving this profession forward… and merely putting on inspirational concerts alone doesn’t get it done. “But they have to have developed those academic skills to get the inspirational concert.” I’ll say this one more time: intent. If you had to choose between doing away with concerts but still developing and assessing individual academic skills, vs. doing away with developing and assessing individual skills but still putting on your concerts, which would you choose? What is the foundational intent of your program? Be careful with your answer.

One is academic and the other is not.

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in my 50’s 2.0

Last June I wrote a reflective blog post on teaching in my 50s which was more cathartic than instructive. Closing out my 19th year in York, I was concerned about several specific things: my energy level, that I was finished building what I set out to create and “now what?”, and that I felt more powerless than ever about being able to be there for the needs of kids as people. It all felt very draining and very much like added weight to me last Spring. That scared me. Seven years ago I was starting to burn out because I was just overloading my life professionally. Now, was this what it felt like to be burning out because I’ve been doing it all for so long?

My “utopian” year was my 14 months in Orono from 1995-1996 getting my Master’s degree. It was a dream come true on so many levels. But being in school, especially grad school, is designed to be that utopia. It’s the point of it. All the work you put in never feels like work. I felt challenged and rewarded in everything I did and I had the time to really focus on my craft… it was fun. Deep down, I think I set out trying to recreate this same scenario in my own choral program. So what happens, 18 years later, when you finish building it, it’s exactly what you set out to create…

…and it ends up not feeling like you thought it would? That’s what I was grappling with all of last year.

Turns out that the reason it didn’t feel right wasn’t because of what I had done, it was because of me. There were a few things I needed to mentally “get right” and it has made all the difference.

The first was pure providence. What I did not write about last June, but felt strongly, was a gnawing self-doubt in my abilities as a choral director and teacher. I was alluding to it in my concerns about my energy, but it went well beyond that. Was my *spark* starting to wane and was that impacting my effectiveness and ability? Moreover, I felt like I was starting to stagnate. I had established my protocol and routine for entry level singers and choirs, established my protocol for honors students and choirs, and had practiced and refined them for years. Was it getting stale? Three weeks after writing the blog post I headed down to Laurel Music Camp to conduct their choir for the week. It was my 7th time conducting down in Winsted CT, but my first since 2011. The camp is a very special place in that it is as much a week-long family reunion as it is a music camp. But there are some very high hitting musicians there too. Many of the teachers and staff there had observed my work in the prior years, quite a few who were singers of mine at one time. We spent a lot of time talking about rehearsal technique and approaches to teaching in general. I was surprised to discover that much of what I was doing they had not seen from me before. It became evident that I had evolved as a conductor and had not regressed. It was another incredible week down there, but my biggest professional takeaway was, “I still got it.” I don’t need kudos for my work. That’s not it. But I apparently did need affirmation that I could still do what I thought I was getting worse at. I even came away knowing that in some ways I had even upped my game a bit since 2011. Instead of beginning my Summer in doubt about my professional abilities, I began it by putting those fears to rest.

The second was continuing something I began the Summer before: just getting away from it all. Instead of filling my time off with professional stuff, I put it away for awhile. That my Summer is longer as a teacher than most others get to enjoy has little to do with it. Five weeks, 2 weeks, 5 days or just a weekend, I needed to mentally remove myself from my profession. This was my second consecutive Summer doing so, and it was amazing. I spend my down time on the computer and being a couch potato much more than I care to admit. But I also love running and mountain climbing. ALL of it allows me to just decompress. A big, sarcastic, “Gee Einstein, who knew?!” moment should be inserted here. This isn’t a revelation I’m unveiling here for anybody. But it was something that I’ve never valued so much before. I value it now. I have an inordinate amount of “me” time week to week, month to month, and I’ve always felt guilt around that, especially during the Summer. Jettisoning those thoughts and feelings was a necessary thing for me to do if I was going to keep moving forward in my 50s as a mentally and emotionally healthy teacher.

The third is what I challenged myself to do at the end of that blog post. I needed to focus on merely being in the moment and taking one day at a time. That latter phrase has a negative connotation in our society, usually associated as a coping skill during difficult or challenging times. That wasn’t at all my point of emphasis however. It was instead just adopting a Bill Belichickian approach to my career: “On to Cincinnati” means leaving the day before behind (after learning from it) and not looking beyond the one game in front of you (without losing the big picture in the process). Day to day. This Fall I have made it a point to do precisely that. And you know what? It’s worked. It has made ALL the difference. It’s removed about 80 pounds of stress of my back, and it’s allowed me to be in the moment in a very authentic way when I’m at school. I’ve worked hard to practice Matthew 6:34 in my personal life. I’ve never worked very hard at applying it in my professional life. Turns out I should have.

I was reflecting as I left work yesterday on what I had hoped to feel when I completed what I set out to do at York High School in the Fall of 2000. I was reflecting on how I was feeling last year and how it was so disconnected from the happiness that I thought I should be feeling about it. This Fall, I realized, I’m totally feeling it. I could write an entire BOOK on the last 19 years of my career and what I set out to accomplish, but that isn’t the point here. Rather, I simply drive into school each day feeling ridiculously happy and fulfilled, and I leave work each day feeling ridiculously happy and fulfilled. Not every day is fun. I have “bad” days and some meh days. There are things that still may irritate me or days where I’m black and blue on the forehead from incessant face-palms. What separates this year from the past 33 – save my year up in Orono – is that none of it is really impacting my joy for what I get to do every day, the joy of teaching in a program I got to build with sweat equity over 18 years, the joy of being challenged and rewarded on a daily basis, the joy of day to day watching my kids grow… all this has allowed me the mental and emotional energy to really be there for them, to keep making it about them.

I’ve told my students for years: teens spend too much time concerned about having fun, and not nearly enough time concerned about being happy. I don’t know if as a rule every day at school for me can be categorized as “fun”. But when you are happy in what you do, then it becomes fun! And it’s the best kind of fun. School for me this Fall has been fun again.

I really just sometimes feel like an idiot, because my personal epiphanies are more often than not manifestations of merely common sense. 😉 I feel lucky and blessed that I have been able to create the program of my dreams. But I had to also learn – remember – that it’s all for naught if you yourself aren’t self aware of both your strengths and needs; fostering those strengths and addressing those needs, personally and professionally. Taking care of yourself is a good thing. When that happens, you end up being open to the day to day. And when that happens, you begin to rediscover the small little joys and successes that got you jazzed up about being in this profession to begin with.

Who knew? 🙂



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why even bother?

R – I’ve been yammering on for nearly eight years now on this blog about the need for authentic assessment practices in our PreK-12 (and college – it’s about time they started doing some modeling for us here!) music programs. We were in a different place back in 2011 – in the state and even in the country – with regard to this topic, our approaches and our values. Technology has predictably advanced us forward in remarkable ways to support our work in this area. But just this past week I had three different interactions in which the basic fundamental question around music assessment came up: “Why do it?”

There are very successful programs ALL OVER which don’t assess, and yet graduate future music educators, professional musicians and leaders in the profession. Clearly, valid and authentic assessment practices are not a prerequisite for accomplishing these goals. Ensembles all over the world achieve at the very highest levels in programs where assessment is not a cornerstone of what they do. At the collegiate level, I don’t know of a single program where the students’ performance ensemble grades are based on routine performance assessments on an individual basis, and certainly not via any rubric which articulates both the essential building blocks and the variations of achievement levels. Worse yet, where assessment is the cornerstone of music programs, especially at the middle school and elementary levels, most of the time it seems that no one even takes stock in it all, least of all administrators who are primarily concerned with making sure the kids are “having fun” and/or staying out of the way of the “actual” academic teachers’ way while they have their prep time.

Why even bother?

Is it to properly motivate students to practice? Chip De Stefano has a really great insight in “Rehearsing The Middle School Band”:

“Maslow states that individuals are motivated because they must satisfy specific needs: physiological, safety, belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. Ideally, we want students to practice because they are motivated to become the best musicians that they can be and because they want the band to be successful. However, if we look at the typical ways directors motivate kids to practice, they do not motivate in this manner. They use grades (esteem), chair placement (esteem, belonging, safety), playing tests (esteem), challenges (safety), fear (safety), intimidation (esteem, safety), guilt (belonging), or superficial rewards (physiological). While these methods can work with some students, they only meet the lower needs. We must get our students to take ownership of their learning to reach self-actualization.”

He’s not wrong. “Motivating” our students through assessment or the threat of assessment(s) may have short-term benefits but we know that elevating their motivation to an intrinsic one is our ultimate goal. Assessment practices could work against this.

Is it to “appear” impressive? I think our profession – name the subject area – suffers when there isn’t a connection between appearance and reality. Throwing the proverbial lipstick on the pig accomplishes nothing in the final analysis, though kudos may come in the interim. In the end, it has to be about substance, and appearances have to be tempered to align with what’s actually going on. I don’t believe that implementing assessment practices to “look good” accomplishes much at all; I can’t imagine wanting to use this as any rationale.

Is it to jump through the proper hoops? Sometimes you have to do what you have to do… and yet we all know as educators that doing something because someone tells you to do it never accomplishes any worthy goal. We err substantially when we tell our students to do something, “because I said so.” Their motivation goes down, the quality of their work diminishes, and we really do a disservice to their intellect. How much more so is this the case when we are subjected and succumb to the very same thing?

Is it because some bozo music teacher in southern Maine claims that “It’s a good thing!”? Nope. I have strong feelings on the topic obviously, but my opinion is no more worthy than any one else’s. Through Goobermusicteachers I’ve worked really hard to lay out the rationale and benefits for embedding authentic, valid and rigorous assessment practices tied to firm building block learning targets into music programs at every level. I would hope that along the way I’ve demonstrated a legitimate respect for differing opinions. I should also note that in no way have I ever insinuated that I hold any position of authority. Experience? Some. But if we did every little thing that someone was a proponent of, we’d go off the deep end just trying to implement it all.

Simultaneously, I have heard every argument imaginable not to go down this path.

“I don’t have time.”

“I don’t have the resources.”

“It gets in the way of my teaching.”

“No one even notices.”

“The kids don’t want it.”

“The parents don’t want it.”

“It would reduce the number of kids in my program; they’d drop the course/ensemble.”

“It stunts creativity and joy.”

“I’ve been successful for decades without it, why start now?”

“I don’t wanna.”

With all that staring us in the face, the essential question is a simple one: why even bother? The answer is an even simpler one. Better yet, it’s not even subjective. It’s as crystal clear as it is logical, it’s as non-negotiable as it is tangible. It has nothing to do with motivation or ‘doing it to do it’ or anything like that. It successfully overrides every single reason not to.

It’s because you signed a continuing professional ed contract stating that you are to be a classroom teacher of an academic subject, which in turn holds you to the same standard as classroom teachers in ELA, Science, Social Studies, Math, Physical Education, World Languages, Career and Education Development.

So option #1 is to understand that you are academic and that you have a legal and ethical obligation to follow through on all that it entails. Option #2 is to undermine this in every imaginable way.

Music without learning targets and assessments which track individual student skill development in each of them across time is a co-curricular activity. There’s no difference – none – between a performance class without academic standards and individual student accountability, and an after school club. That’s not a slam on clubs, it’s that there is a REASON those clubs are held outside of the academic school day. Every music program which behaves like a co-curricular subject, but passes itself off as an academic subject, eats away at the integrity of our profession. This practice has to stop.

Worse yet are the programs that give grades, but just not on academic criteria. Participation grades, attendance, “bringing materials to rehearsal”, dude, those aren’t academic standards. Necessary? Of course! List them under your habits of learning! But undermining the value of our profession by giving grades based on anything other than academic criteria is what got us into this never-ending cycle of having to defend the value of music education to begin with.

General public: “You say your music class is so valuable. Okay, what did your students get graded on yesterday?”

Music Teacher: “Ummmmm, their behavior?”

We have spent decades perpetuating the cultural belief that music is for the talented or “interested” and in no way does that pass the eyeball test as an academic subject, much less essential instruction for every student; music literacy must only be for the elite and talented and interested, right? We have to undo all that. We have a professional obligation to hold students accountable in all academic settings and we are oneWe created the mess we’re in, and we’re the only ones who can get us out of it. Educating our students, parents and entire communities to the fact that music is CORE must be our primary goal if we’re going to save this thing, and it’s not going to happen by perpetuating the appearance that we are – and I quote at least one Elementary School Principal in every school district in the United States here – a “special”. Every school that brags about having 37.3% of the student body involved in music is graduating 62.7% who will state unequivocally 10 years later that music education was in no way, shape or form essential. Don’t believe me? Take a look across the country. In a legislative hearing by the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee:

“If I was required to be proficient in the arts when I was in High School, I wouldn’t have graduated High School” – Representative Matthew G. Pouliot (R-Augusta), March 15, 2016

And you don’t think we’re in a cultural crisis which WE have perpetuated???

That’s why we have to bother. Listen, I have said dozens of times here in years before: you know the brick walls in front of you, you know the barriers, you know the reasons why this is going to be difficult. But you also have tens of thousands of colleagues who are in a position to help you turn the tide in your own school districts. Reach out to them. Utilize online resources such as Attend professional development opportunities which demonstrate strategies for implementing authentic assessment practices in a seamless way which enhance what you are trying to do instead of interfering with it. Experiment. Start small. But keep moving toward making music truly academic. Because the alternative is ‘not even bothering’ at all – and it scares the hell out of me to see how cultural perception of this profession has been trending…

…but it scares me even more wherever that cultural perception is dead-on accurate. We can DO this people, it’s simply time to finally commit to it.


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the value of boring

I poll each of my choirs a few weeks into every new year/semester, and it’s always two questions. 1) Has this course/experience been better, the same or worse than what you expected? 2) Why? The only caveat is that they are not allowed to put their name on it. I get really honest answers. The goal for me is twofold. They get to express their thoughts – which is always a good thing – and I get to see if my perception of their thoughts aligns with the reality of the situation. I polled my honors Treble Choir on Thursday and got precisely what I expected and we are mutually happy with the situation. I polled my Chorus yesterday and also got precisely what I expected: the responses are all over the place. I am thrilled with where they’re at after only a few weeks, but they had some interesting reflections.

The chorus is my entry level, one semester course that takes care of the YHS graduation requirement for music. Consequently, though there are many in it who sang in Middle School, it is also filled with students who didn’t and/or have no real interest in music, much less IMG_0636singing. My goal then is to treat the first month of school as my own choral boot camp. Our rehearsals have been filled with demonstrating and engaging the students in proper breathing and singing techniques. I do a pre-exam on note recognition on both staves, key signatures and time signatures. We’re in the middle of the actual assessments of those skills right now after a series of lessons on them and the kids are making sweet progress. The only singing we have done is warmups and establishing pitch, pitch matching fingers, and sight reading on projected on the screen in front of the room. We are beginning to really master skips and they have a functional range of a full octave now. They’re now singing in harmony in tune. They have submitted their first video assessment and did outstanding, their second one is due this weekend. They’re singing out aggressively and doing so with good technique. I begin every semester this way and it’s never failed them.

Mission accomplished.

Perceptions from the poll? It was split roughly a third each for better, similar and worse. This is not unusual for the chorus over the years. The “better” comments alluded to “I thought I’d hate singing but I kind of like it”, “I couldn’t sing before but now I can read music”, “I thought I was tone deaf but now I know I’m not”, we have fun, etc, etc. The “same” comments were along the lines of, I knew what it was going to be and it’s been that. The “worse”? “It’s boring”. Digging deeper, this feedback seems to be largely from the kids who already have many of these skills. They already know their key signatures, or they already know how to sing from their diaphragm or they already can sight read. A few mentioned that it’s boring because there’s no sheet music yet. One even mentioned that they didn’t realize they’d have assessments where they’d have to actually sing… that one made my day. 🙂 (“Wait… you mean in this math class you’re gonna make me ADD?”). Some of these kids were kind and mentioned that they like my teaching, it’s just that it this has not been what they expected so far. That’s fair.

What’s the takeaway for me? Not much different than any other semester, and merely reinforces the need for the boot camp. I refuse to have a program of “haves” and “have nots”. There’s no way to get them on the same page and playing field without, ummm, actually taking the time to do so. If my Robert Shaw mindset of smallest components leading to a larger synthesis is to be realized in this case, the process has to begin like this. It means developing the newcomers’ learning skills that enable them to succeed, but it also means the other students supporting them in that work. And that means looking beyond your own contentment as a singer. And that isn’t easy for a High School student to accept, much less a 14 year old.

“Boring” in this case means development of the entire group. I can’t wait to have this conversation with the kiddos next time I see them on Tuesday afternoon, because this is largely going to determine what I have for a maturity level in them. Either we move forward individually or we move forward collectively, and as a choir, there’s only one valid option there. Either the “bored” kids are going to start to see the process/big picture and buy in, or they are going to continue to feel held back. I think that in any classroom in any high school a wonderful lesson to teach kids is that when they set their own agendas aside for the betterment of those around them, the most rewarding experiences can then occur. This cannot happen in the YHS chorus without the process taking shape. And that means getting everyone literate and matching pitch and hearing intervals and reading music and singing with good technique and tone. When that is identified as boring for some, the teachable moment then occurs.

On the one hand it’s always a risk to begin each term this way. But as Ben Zander says in his Ted talk, “This isn’t really an experiment, because I already know the outcome.” 😉 When we get another month and a half into this, the choir progresses at a pretty crazy rate because the foundation was already cemented, all we had to do was build on it, and that IS the fun part the kids had been waiting for. It’s the most rewarding part of my job, watching the chorus take flight each semester in the weeks leading up to the actual concerts. But it begins with boring. I can’t imagine anything more… exciting.

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in my 50’s

I’ve been reflecting the last few years how teaching past your 30th year is simultaneously easier and more difficult than ever. I don’t suspect this blog post is going to answer why. But it is going to be an exercise in trying to articulate the difficulty.

A couple of years ago, Tom Brady spoke about how much easier it is to do your job with the benefit of years of experience. “I have the answers to the test now. You can’t surprise me… I’ve seen it all. I’ve processed 261 games, I’ve played them all,” Brady said. “It’s an incredibly hard sport, but because the processes are right and are in place, for anyone with experience in their job, it’s not as hard as it used to be. There was a time when quarterbacking was really hard for me because you didn’t know what to do.”

I’ve found this to be the case. I’m analytical by nature, and I’m analytical by practice. Everything I do passes through the filters of “why” and “how”. Through my guest conducting as well as my 20+ summer music camps alone, I don’t think anything new can be thrown at me in the rehearsal room. Through trial and error I can recognize vocal and technique issues on command and solutions to them that are effective the moment they’re applied. This sounds incredibly egotistical to write, but it is not due to intelligence or expertise so much as it is through what Brady alludes to: experience. You discover what doesn’t work, what is moderately effective and what is effective on steroids. Moreover, you can adapt it all to any situation. Belligerent students, eager singers, trained, untrained, doesn’t matter. I’ve seen it, I’ve addressed, and I know what can work in virtually any scenario.

So why is this getting more difficult for me?

I think there are several reasons. The first should be obvious: I don’t have the energy I used to. I run, I mountain climb. I think I’m in decent physical condition. But it’s remarkable how much energy it saps from me to do what I used to be able to do without even having to think about it. In my late 40’s I had to begin to alter how I guest conducted because it was apparent how I could not sustain the energy I used to be able to. I think I’ve effectively been able to make this transition, but it’s been remarkable to me how much I’ve had to make that adjustment. The trick has been to give as much of myself as ever, but to do so in a different delivery system. One that conserves what I’m able to do physically but honors what the students deserve. Same in my day to day classes. I know I’m physically less active, but I’ve tried to get creative in how to bring the same energy level I used to bring, just now through different means.

The second and more substantial reason this is more difficult for me now has to do with a favorite quote of mine from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.” My horizons have diminished it seems, and it’s taken a real toll on me. Once upon a time I had a crazy vision of having a music (specific) requirement at the High School I taught at. That goal got realized at my first job in Vermont, and again at YHS in 2004 and it remains my proudest – and happiest – accomplishment of my career; it’s everything I hoped it would be and more. At York 19 years ago, I also had a vision for a designated music wing and an auditorium that would allow us to showcase student accomplishments to a unique degree. Check and check. I am that rarest of music teachers in northern New England in that I get to run my program in facilities I actually got to design. My horizons over the years were laid out before me and over time I was able to see them through. The problem is that at age 53, those horizons are now behind me. I’m finding it exceedingly more difficult to do what I do specifically because the Emerson quote is holding true: I’m getting tired because my old horizons are gone and they haven’t been replaced.

I can give a third reason this is more difficult for me. Perspective has allowed me to discover that the world does NOT, in fact, revolve around the tenors singing the B flat on measure 57 in perfect unison and intonation with perfect tone and technique. And I’ve had a REALLY tough time being okay with that. Unlike my value system in my 20’s and 30’s in particular, world hunger is not solved, and world peace is not attained, by singing the anticipation chord on the second half of the third beat in measure 47 of Morten Lauridsen’s Dirait-on in absolute perfect intonation and balance and tone. At some point I realized – and I realize this now more than ever – that it’s about the kids. And it’s a pretty powerless feeling; when you are truly empathetic to the needs of your kids as people, you realize how powerless you actually are. And that saps more energy from me than anything else I’ve experienced. Every 504 meeting reveals layers to a student whose issues you know are impervious to merely singing in tune with a mature tone and proper technique. Every insight to a student’s life outside of your classroom yields emotions, actions and reactions that have little if anything to do with your job description. Certainly much more than anything you’ll be evaluated by the evening of your concert! The big picture becomes more apparent with every passing year. That’s a GOOD thing, by the way. But it also makes me feel more helpless all the time. And it’s incredibly draining.

I think I’ve gotten over reflecting on “the good ol’ days” too… I have VERY deep seeded reflections of years past. That’s another blessing and curse of being in this profession for so long. I truly adore my alumni. They are among the greatest blessings of my entire life. You not only remember those wonderful students from years past, you remember their successes, their concerts, their contributions to your program. But living in the past is as regrettable as it is easy to do. Staying in the present has sometimes been a challenge for me. I never saw that coming. It’s not that I don’t love and value my current students as much (I do!), it’s that former ones were never stacked up against as many other years of students, and we tend to put the former ones up on a pedestal. That’s all okay as long as it’s kept in perspective. Keeping the perspective is the challenging part as the years go by.

So I’ve discovered that the longer I teach, the more difficult it does become. But the second half of the Tom Brady quote is an inspiring one: “Now I really know what to do, I don’t want to stop now. This is when it’s really enjoyable.” I’m in constant search for that. My hope is that in my daily approach I can find energy, strength, enthusiasm and joy. So much gets in the way of finding this. But there’s so much in place that allows me to find more fulfillment than ever before as well. Perhaps the greatest challenge of my latter years is focusing on those things that provide for me the greatest joy, focusing on the here and now, loving my current students exactly as they are and realizing that all THAT is the horizon in front of me that I have yet to conquer.



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warmups for skills

Below is a link to my 5/17/19 MMEA presentation on warmups… it’s essentially a series of warmups which go after foundational skills rather than warming up the voice (knowing that these will accomplish both) for the purpose of providing a firm choral foundation on which to attack subsequent work on literature. It’s a premise that skill development in warmups + sheet music = choral rehearsal.

MMEA Warmups Workshop






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ode to small schools

I started this post 5 years ago but just couldn’t finish it up because I have so many emotions wrapped up in it. Every time I attempted to finish it, it just didn’t get across my thoughts very well. I’m not sure this is a vast improvement over any of the previous iterations, but at least it’s a published attempt. Take it for whatever it’s worth. If I have a chip on my shoulder (and I know that I have more than just one), it’s that the Middle and High Schools of northern New England will NEVER be able to compete artistically with most other school districts across the country. We are geographically too spread out, our resources are too spread out, and our per capita student population is dwarfed by even moderate sized school districts across the nation (a small high school in the midwest or southeast is 2,000+ students. The largest in all of Maine is currently at 1,700). So if we were to judge our programs by concert comparisons, programs in northern New England, on a national scale, would routinely receive a failing grade. Statement of fact.

There’s three reasons that’s troublesome. The first is that we even rank the success of our programs by the musicality of our concerts. We really have become (maybe always have been?) a profession obsessed with the “performance”. That’s understandable since that’s the one tangible thing others can judge us by. They aren’t in our classrooms watching our instructional practices, they don’t study our pedagogy. It becomes very easy for us to put a lot of emphasis on our performances because we feel that’s the measure of our worth. Second, we rank the success of other programs by the musicality of their concerts. We look across our own driveway to view our neighbor’s lawn. Whose is greener? How many kids made all state from that school? How large is their concert band? How many singers are in their 6th grade chorus? How do I stack up against them? The third is that we miss the entire point by judging our performances to begin with: we don’t teach music, we teach kids. OUR own kids in OUR own programs.

The challenges of a small school are wrapped up in those things. The net result education we provide our students is predicated on the skill level we get them at. If we are good at what we do, we simply take them where they are at when they get to us and elevate them as far as they can go before they leave us. What does that look like in a small school district? It might mean that no one takes private lessons. How do you make up for that? By devoting time to foundational technique instead of learning literature, or teaching literature at the expense of developing technique. It might mean that you have one trombone in your entire instrumental program. What do you do about that? Select literature that allows that trombonist to succeed… and that means selecting literature a grade level or two lower than that actual grade span would otherwise get. You have strings in your program. But because you are a small school, there are fewer teachers and sections of required classes, so the only way you’re able to meet with those kids is at 6:45 am two times a week (that’s an actual scenario).

And wrapped up in all THOSE things are the impact it has on you as a music educator. There were unfortunate changes going on in the local Middle School when I started my career at the High School in Bellows Falls, Vermont, and within 5 years of beginning my career I had a total 2 tenors in my Chamber Singers. By the time I left for graduate school, it was down to 1. I had other tenors in the program, but none who were ready for that kind of challenge musically or academically. This drove me to feel like such a failure as a teacher that I decided to quit the profession. I looked into Masters programs down the road at Keene State to become a guidance counselor, because I loved working with the kids but clearly was a failure as a music teacher. I was in the middle of that career transition when Denny Cox invited me to come up to Orono to spend a year up there with him (which changed my life). But my point is clear: I was evaluating MY OWN aptitude on the size and sound of my program. The fact of the matter is that, in small school districts, you are at the mercy of so much more than you have control over, and that does a number on your psyche. The mental and emotional well being of music educators in small schools has been a concern of mine ever since my first years in Vermont. My instrumental colleague at BF left Vermont after a few years and moved to a High School in Texas where he become the Freshman Marching Band director of 140 students. If he gained or lost 10 kids here or there, it wasn’t even noticed. In Bellows Falls? The addition or loss of 10 kids meant the difference between the program even existing or not. Did he have other concerns in Texas? Yup he did, but that’s a discussion for another day to be led by a music educator other than myself. When your very existence as a music teacher is predicated on recruitment or public perception, when your own self value is filtered through the lens of “how does my program compare…”, when you go to work each day wondering if the one bass who matches pitch is going to be in rehearsal that day or not, when you know that if you do superhuman work you still will not be able to program grade-level concert band music as long as you are employed by that school, and on and on, it adds up.

It’s impossible to write a blog post like this without running the risk of a perception of: he has it out for large programs, or he doesn’t appreciate the challenges we all face regardless of the size of our school districts. Neither is true, and anybody who truly knows me will vouch for that. Some of my greatest joys have come from watching strong programs grow and flourish under the direction and supervision of my most valued, talented and inspiring colleagues in the field. But when the crossroads of my early 30s was whether to go on and teach at the college level or stay in the public schools, I made a commitment to stay in the public school ranks in northern New England because I was inspired by my colleagues in Vermont who worked in schools with no resources, low numbers to draw from and little in the way of musical culture and yet brought meaningful music education and experiences to their kids anyway. I wanted to be in the middle of the geographical region where a “large” High School is 700 students, and the next closest High School is many miles away, not in the same school district. I wanted to be in a region where the music teachers are itinerant, and yet find the way to bring energy and enthusiasm to their students to a degree that would make any music teacher with their very own designated classroom blush.

I’m done going to ACDA conferences until the day comes that they stop accepting performance groups by audition tapes or videos. Just once I would love to attend a conference where the performing groups are selected by geographical region and by gradations of resources, not by how they sound. Just once I would like to attend a conference where a choir is selected based solely on the pedagogical approach of their director, and that session is a workshop on how to teach fundamentals. Just once I would like to attend a conference where a choral director brings their choir of 35 kids out of a school of 400, where they meet once or twice a week, where not one of them takes private lessons, where 4 of them have a working range of a minor 3rd (and we hear it in their performance), and we celebrate – and learn from – the music education that occurs there to make their mere existence possible. ACDA of course will never do that because, “…what if they don’t sound good?” I’m not even anti-ACDA here. I was a state president and am a life-long member for a reason. I’m just done with anything that feeds into the belief that what we sound like dictates our level of success. Because the moment you’ve done that, you’ve automatically diminished the work of some of the finest teachers I will ever meet but no one knows about because that work was done in programs nobody ever really noticed. Robert Shaw could have conducted choral music in Ludlow, Vermont: via audition tape, they would never have been accepted to perform at an ACDA conference. I don’t apologize for having a problem with a profession that thinks that’s okay.

I presented a workshop for NHMEA yesterday afternoon on Individual Assessment in the Large Group Ensemble. The topic is pretty un-sexy, and it was a 2:45 time slot up against quite a few other outstanding sessions including the state ACDA All-Member meeting. I was hoping for up to 20 attendees, expecting closer to a dozen. 70 showed up. It wasn’t attributable to me, it wasn’t attributable to the topic. It wasn’t even attributable to free chocolate (because I forgot to bring it!). It was attributable to the fact that these music possible-953169_1280educators, regardless of their circumstances in their schools, happy or otherwise, content or otherwise, fulfilled or otherwise, showed up because they want to be better for their kids. I saw all of them walk in and I wanted to cry. I know many of those who were there and in some cases an intimate knowledge of the struggles they’ve had to confront day to day, year to year. For those I didn’t know, I wondered as I was presenting what hurdles they have to overcome each week to make their programs viable. My emotion the entire time was one of admiration for them, as it is for my colleagues in Maine and those in Vermont – choral, instrumental and general – who fight the good fight in our smallest school districts. The ones where they don’t have the resources, where they don’t have the colleagues to collaborate with, where they don’t have the cultural support of their rural communities because the arts are simply not a priority. Randy Pausch in his Last lecture said, “I’ll take an earnest person over a hip person every day, because hip is short-term, earnest is long term.” Amen to that. If I had the chance to spend a day observing Eric Whitaker or a day observing Jen Nash up in Orono, guess who I’d select 100 times out of 100? That’s not a slam on Eric Whitaker, it’s a slam on what I feel this profession is sometimes guilty of. Some of the finest, most inspired work is being done in some of our smallest school districts and some of our smallest music programs in northern New England where the accomplishment lies with every trumpet player successfully playing a low “D” with the 1st and 3rd valves at the same time on cue in concert: lets make sure our criteria for truly “successful” programs encompasses that.

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