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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

 

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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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intent

“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.

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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 Maineartsassessment.com. 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 sightreadingfactory.com 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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