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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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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lessons from my sports legends, part 3

R – I have been inspired by stories of athletes throughout my life, especially those who I admired as they were still active in their profession. At the top of that list of athletes is Larry Bird. When he began his career with the Celtics, I was a month into my Freshman year of High School. When he played his last game in the NBA Finals, I was a month removed from my College graduation. He gave me some of my greatest joys as a teenager and some of my favorite memories growing up.

I played 1 on 1 basketball virtually every day after school with a friend of mine down the road, Mark Dexter. Mark was a year older and several inches taller. He was also an athlete and I was not 😉 But I loved being on the court, playing basketball the way I imagined Larry Bird would. Mark and I would sometimes just play as if we were on the same team, seeing who could come up with the most creative pass. And there is my lesson #1. It was always more fun to share the spotlight than to own it. In March of 1985, Kevin McHale set the all time Celtics record for points scored in a game with 56. This was the first year McHale was a regular member of the starting 5 and he was just setting the league on its ear. After the 56th point, coach KC Jones asked him if he was ready to finally sit down and McHale said yes. Larry Bird approached him and said that he shouldn’t have done that because it just made it that much easier for him to break the record. Nine days later Bird scored 60. He was that good. He could have scored at will on command all the time. But he knew his true value was in making those around him better and given the choice of the spotlight or passing to teammates who could elevate the entire team, he made a career of choosing the latter. He was a prolific scorer, but his greatest contribution to his team’s success was his passing. That made a big impression on me.

Larry Bird grew up in poverty and literally did not realize at the time that there were those who didn’t know poverty. All he knew was what he knew in rural Indiana in the early 1970’s. When he became well known, he hesitated to do interviews and had no desire to become someone he wasn’t. He had a tragic childhood: his parents divorced and his father committed suicide while Larry was still in High School. But he Larry-Bird-Dive-on-Floor-Small-881x551.jpgcontinued on his own path that he carved out for himself. He never allowed circumstances to determine who he was, who he would be, or what he would accomplish. It was never easy for him. But “ease” was never part of the equation for him, and he made it a point to move forward with what he wanted his life to be regardless. Even as he was winning MVP awards, traffic would routinely halt in front of his house every week because he would be out mowing his own lawn. He never forgot his roots, he never forgot who he was, and he always stayed true to who he was.

Larry Bird’s work ethic is legendary. Unfortunately, it comes across now as something mythical rather than a simple tale of sweat equity. But it was real. He would run before games, he’d run after games. He did what needed to be done do make himself the best possible “him” he could be. He would do it out of the spotlight though there were times TV cameras would catch him doing it. The lesson is clear: it doesn’t matter how good you are or what you’ve done, there is always more work to be put in.

His preparation led him to be ready for anything. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, after winning the MVP award one year, he decided in the offseason to learn how to shoot with his left hand. He did so and became virtually indefensible. It wasn’t sufficient to just be “the best”. Instead, he was analytical about his skill set and abilities. He measured himself against himself. Instead of dwelling on what he did well, he focused on his weaknesses and turned them around into strengths by sheer will and intentionality.

Larry Bird was famous for making claims and backing them up. One of the “legends” of his career – all of which is pure truth – is that he would routinely tell the opposing defender what he was about to do to them. Here’s the deal: he set himself up for success. All that work allowed him to trash talk but simultaneously back it up. This game that was supposedly so serious, he prepared himself so well that it became what it was supposed to be all along: a game. How cool is that? He always had the antidote for what he was up against because he was always prepared.

When he was physically unable to do what he normally did, he still gave it everything he had. At the end of his career, his back was so bad that he would wait to go in by the official’s table by laying down on his stomach. On March 16, 1992, his last year in the NBA, he was not scheduled to play that day. He had an achilles injury and various other ailments. In addition, the Celtics were to play the eventual Western Conference champion Portland Trailblazers. Bird ended up playing. He reached into a reservoir of determination and put in a triple double which included 49 points. Nearly 27 years later, I vividly remember watching this game on TV. It was an unbelievable effort by someone who wasn’t at their best. I knew it then, as did anyone else watching, that it was the last great game he’d ever have. He wasn’t physically able to continue. But through sheer force of will he found a way to bring his A game and it was there one more time.

One of my very favorite memories growing up during my High School years was watching Celtics games with my Mom. She would get so riled up she’d be yelling out loud at the TV. I would be so entertained by her! But it’s something she and I will always share together that’s uniquely ours. Larry Bird of all people will never know about that. But he provided some of the most special memories I have of my Mom and I. And that too is an important lesson: you never know the impact you have on others.

I clearly have my sports idols, and Larry Bird may be my very favorite. He was larger than life during very formative years of my own life. I love that I can look back on him, what an impact his playing years had on me, my memories of it all and see some wonderful lessons that I still value. I don’t believe that all we have to learn in music education comes from music educators. If we’re smart, we learn from those around us, no matter who they are. On the surface, reflecting on the impact of a star basketball player from the 1980’s is a pretty shallow exercise. But lessons can be learned from the most random of places: this includes a Boston Celtics basketball player from the Ronald Reagan years. I feel pretty lucky about that.

“If I had to choose a player to take a shot to save a game I’d choose Michael Jordan; If I had to choose a player to take a shot to save my life…I’d take Larry Bird.” – Pat Riley

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