further adventures in concert revision

I’ve done a blog post on the topic before, but I thought I’d update with a really cool process that occurred this month with my Treble Choir. I hold two concerts for the expressed purpose of preparing for a public performance/demonstration of learned skills through their literature, having them listen to and analyze how they did, revise their work based on their feedback, and then repeat the process via a second concert of the same literature.

The class this year is a year-long honors course with 28 students. These singers are brought in via teacher recommendation only, based on video submissions from prior chorus classes: if/when they consistently earn indicator scores in their video assessments that warrant an honors choir opportunity, I invite them to join. Jen Etter is also allowed to recommend 8th graders who have earned this opportunity so they may enter as Freshman. This year the group is comprised of 5 Freshman, 17 Sophomores, 4 Juniors and 2 Seniors.

In addition to two combined selections (our annual Malcom Sargent arranged Silent Night processional with Chamber Singers and the combined finale with all three choirs of There Has To Be A Song) I ended up working on four songs with them. First was Wondrous Morning Star arranged by Phillip Keveren for the purpose of developing tone, part independence and ear training as there is a fair amount of chromaticism. Second was Song For Christmas Day by Peter Warlock. I discovered this song online a year ago, and found that it has never been published nor performed in the United States. I got ahold of the original manuscript from the choir in England who performed it in 1993 and decided it would be a combined selection for the Treble Choir and Chamber Singers sopranos and altos. The Treble Choir’s skills developed so well by November that I decided to give it just to them. It requires a lot of technical skill to pull off, as it is not only chromatic at times, the tempo flies and incorporates some crazy skips and harmonies along the way. Third, I gave them a pretty arrangement of the English Carol, On Christmas Night arranged by B. Wayne Bisbee. This brought in the opportunity for some solos and great homophonic singing. I switched up the voice parts, bringing the soprano 1 part down the octave and giving it to altos, and then soprano 1s and 2s sliding down to the voice part below them. It was a much better fit for their voice ranges. Finally, we concluded with a song I arranged over the Summer for them, a beautiful song by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys called Love and Mercy. I felt this would be a nice opportunity for them to learn to apply choral tone to a contemporary selection.

The journey to the first concert was an interesting one. The ensemble was a bit younger, so developing their ears and especially their tone took some time. One of the challenges we really struggled with was the concept of not allowing the vowels to determine their tone; their tone was changing to speaking voice tone whenever they sang their brighter vowels. They also took awhile to start refining both their pitch accuracy and their intonation. Both were inconsistent, even leading into December. They came a long way and demonstrated growth. But it was still a work in progress. At the core of my program is my goal to teach my students through three overarching levels:

  1. teach my singers the skills and vocal pedagogy necessary to become a vocal musician, regardless of genre.
  2. establish these skills in my singers – individually – so they can display them when required to demonstrate them.
  3. transfer their skills from the, “I can do this when I think about it and focus on it” box over to the, “I do this now automatically without even thinking about it” box.

The intent is for each of my students, over time, to developmentally move from one of these to the next one, landing on the final one if they stay with me for multiple years. Treble Choir as a group this Fall was struggling to get to the second level. I could hear their skills at level 2 in their usual video assessments/submissions, but it wasn’t always translating to the work we did in class as I kept adding new layers of expectations on them.

When we approached December, I moved our final rehearsals into the performance space and there we discovered where the real gaps were in their skills. You have to listen differently in a new space without necessarily singing differently. They started doing the exact opposite. They were a bit wigged out by the different space, feeling more exposed on stage to the point that they really did start singing differently and many times their foundational training was weak if not missing altogether. By the time the first concert came on Monday, December 12, we had worked hard to get as much of our skill set shored up as possible. We put it all to the test that night in front of our first audience.

Our following class on Wednesday, I put a grid up on the board. Across the top is our performance indicators, and in a column on the left are the songs we performed. What we do is listen to the concert recording, one song at a time. Then I have them vote on each indicator how they think we did. For instance, for the indicator for notes/pitch accuracy, I will say “1”, and all those who felt it was a “1” (did not meet) raise their hands. Then I say “2” (partially meets) and have those who felt it was a “2” raise their hands. I repeat this for “3” (meets) and “4” (exceeds). I then take the average for the class and put it in that box. So, if all my singers vote a “3” but there are a handful who voted for “2”, I might put in the box a score of “2.8”. Once they have cast votes for every indicator for that one song, I go around and take comments/thoughts/reflections (up until this point they are required to stay completely silent) from anyone who raises their hand and has something to say. Anything that is helpful for us to consider on our revision rehearsal gets added under the “thoughts” column. At the conclusion of class on Wednesday, here was our grid:

I circled the lowest indicator scores from the grid, and this became our lesson plan for the following rehearsal.

The revision rehearsal was next class on Friday. It was the last block of the day of a trying week. One of our singers in the program lost her brother in a car accident the weekend before… and while the impact on us as a school was absolutely nothing compared to the trauma endured by that family, it certainly had a residual impact on all of us. The singers’ energy was low by Friday afternoon, but their focus was very high. I could take that. We began in the chorus room for the first 40 minutes and focused only on the details from Wednesday’s listening that needed the most help. It was a combination of singing, discussing technique, and practicing strategies to better implement them. They did well with it and the improvement was noticeable. One point of emphasis was singing with more confidence, leaning on and trusting in the technical skills they had developed since the start of the term. We then went to the auditorium stage to try them out for the last 30 minutes of class. The results were mixed but it was what they were capable of in the moment. Again, I could take that.

The following Monday, December 19, we had our second concert. I had one singer who alerted me in September that she would be unavailable for Concert #2 due to a family conflict and she was 100% excused. But I had 4 others who also did not make it due to illness. One of them was one of our strongest sopranos, and two of my absent singers were Altos, already my smallest section and the one voice part which needed to sing out much stronger for balance issues we identified on Wednesday. For a choir that had confidence issues, missing 5 of our 28 students was not insignificant. We talked about it during warmups and then just went for it. As they got on the risers that night, no one was more fascinated to see how they’d do than me! The concert went well and we could tell it was a much more musical performance.

We met in class the next day. We went through the same listening process as the previous week, filling out our grid based on the concert #2 recording. They did NOT see their scores previously assigned from concert #1 when they did so. It was only afterwards that I added those scores to the grid. Here it is, their scores from concert #2 listed in black, the scores from concert #1 added underneath afterwards in red:

We all found it interesting that the only song that appeared to sound not as musical the second concert (On Christmas Night) was the only song we did not focus on during the revision process. Yet those song scores for concert #2 met our goals (any score between a 2.9 and a 3.1 or so is the target score for every indicator) and were closely aligned to the scores of the other songs. In other words, we were significantly more consistent for concert #2. I was extremely proud of the students in Treble choir after the second concert – not because they did “well”, but because they showed so much musical growth where additional musical growth was most needed. It was a real learning experience for them and reinforced that the class is not a talent-based course, but a skills based course in which they can continue to demonstrate growth over time.

The benefits of going through this process each concert season? Too many to even begin to mention. But the overarching benefit is to get my students to understand the role and responsibility that they have as musicians. My favorite analogy is to reference the Impressionist painter, George Seurat who used “dots” of pure color on his canvas to create his paintings. Below are two pictures of the exact same painting:

We know that our audiences look at the lower picture. But training my singers to look at the same painting from the top picture’s vantage point is one of the great joys of my job. I believe that this is an essential component of training my students to become musicians, not just performers. And when they do understand that it’s the essential pieces that make up the whole, it is my hope that they will never approach either their singing pedagogy or their music the same way ever again. This remains my own annual Big Audacious Goal. The concert revision process each term is a really cool microcosm of developing that.

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Oct 7 PD: Standards Based Awesomeness for the Arts

For our session today – here are some great resources to reference in moving forward with your work!!!

General Resources worth checking out:

Visual Art K-12

Music K-12

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video assessments

Nothing philosophical here, just a thread showing how I assess my singers’ video submissions. I just finished my first song submission of the school year (Riu Riu Chiu), assessing 31 Chamber Singers kids over my morning coffee, took less than half an hour and was a joy to do. Here are the basics for me:

  1. Have a folder of practice tracks. I have traditionally done my own (on garage band transferred over to itunes) which provides me the benefit of my knowing down cold how each voice part goes. Now however it’s a combination of my own recordings and Matthew Curtis recordings, a year subscription for $650 I believe if your budget can support that.

2. Have your Standards and Indicators in place. Ours at York High School are linked here. I think it’s essential never to score an assessment “event”, but rather to assess the skills embedded in that event. This reinforces that the assessment/video is not a hoop to be jumped through to complete, but rather a demonstration of specific learning targets. It also reinforces that the music is not the goal but the delivery vehicle!

3. Decide which indicators you are assessing for your singers’ video assignment, and rubrics ready to roll for them. In my case I’ve created a rubric library, transferable directly to Google Classroom assignments.

4. Assign the video in google classroom and then score directly IN google classroom. Their videos are assigned usually with a cushion of 4 days to complete them, and they are sung with a practice track in the background (I can assign “practice track of your choice” or a specific one such as the full group equal or their part predominant or missing). You will notice here that I’ve done two things with each video submission. First, I merely click on the indicator score the singer has earned for each target. This gives the raw score for the singer so they can see how they did against the rubric. Second, I use Mote to voice record my feedback to them. This is me giving them feedback on their technique, formative feedback on their tone, elaborating why they may have had a specific indicator score low, or commenting on general points. It’s my personal communication with them that is invaluable.

5. As I score each submission in one browser window on my left, I transfer those same scores for those same indicators to powerschool in a separate browser on my right. In the time it takes to hit “return” on my student’s video in google classroom, that’s how long it takes to add the numbers to powerschool; it takes zero extra time.

A few other quick things:

  • You’ll notice a fifth indicator, “D1”, this is my “meets deadlines/personal responsibility” indicator. The promise of standards based reporting 5 or so years ago in Maine was that we could report out grades, and completely separate out habits of work and learning on transcripts(!) which means Colleges could have identified bright students who don’t work particularly hard, as well as students who might struggle academically but are dependable and diligent. But, alas, it was not to be. As a result, I now have to be transparent about that distinction in my grading. Students who are tardy with their submissions (you’ll notice two of them above) can ALWAYS submit their videos later for full credit on their academic indicators… but the “1” for D1 remains.
  • You’ll also notice that I display their indicator scores but they have overall percentage and letter grades for the course. My tech folks over at the central office worked with me about 8 years ago to create a system where I punch in a “4” and powerschool spits out “100”. It’s wonderful, and anyone can do it. 4 = 100%/A+, 3.5 = 96%/A, 3 = 88%/B, 2 = 70%/D-, 1 = 60%/F, 0 = 0%/F (failed to submit). The best thing about this is I can still weight each indicator individually if I want to, if their tone for instance is their primary objective for an assessment. But each indicator gets a score which feeds into the overall course grade, just like traditional grade books.
  • Manageability is key. Several things I do to ensure it for me is: 1. I always have my assessments due Friday evenings by 9 pm. That way I have my weekends, usually Saturday mornings with my coffee, to score them. I could just as well make them due Wednesday evenings giving me Thursday/Friday at school to score them. 2. I never assess all my classes at the same time. This week I assessed Chamber Singers. Next week I’ll assess my Treble Choir and maybe my chorus as well, though a more rudimentary recording for the latter group. 3. I never assess a portion of music longer than 25 or 30 seconds long. Anyone who has ever judged knows that 90% of what you need to hear you hear in the first 10 seconds or so. I’m strategic as to which section needs the work on notes and rhythms, but every other indicator can be assessed within a few measures. On average, I’ll assess between 2 and 4 pages of music at any given assignment.

Assessing my students is one of the joys of this profession for me, because I know how much I WASN’T able to do for my kids before technology caught up with our needs. Reach out if you have questions, thoughts or want any resources shared with you! rwesterberg@yorkschools.org

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off the grid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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black lives matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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my 10 albums

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

#10 James Taylor, Dad Loves His Work


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

#9 Paul Winter, Earth Mass

earth mass

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

#8 Todd Rundgren, Hermit Of Mink Hollow


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

#7 House Jacks, Funkwich


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

#6 Carpenters, The Singles


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

#5 Dvorak, New World Symphony

new world symph

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

#4 Toto, IV


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

#3 Billy Joel, Cold Spring Harbor

cold spring harbor

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

#2 Def Leppard, Vault

def leppard

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

#1 Robert Shaw, Messiah


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Huh-7fz21k 2

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

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

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

One is about academic content, the other is not.

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

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

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

One is academic and the other is not.

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in my 50’s 2.0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knew? 🙂



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why even bother?

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

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

Why even bother?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t have time.”

“I don’t have the resources.”

“It gets in the way of my teaching.”

“No one even notices.”

“The kids don’t want it.”

“The parents don’t want it.”

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

“It stunts creativity and joy.”

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

“I don’t wanna.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music Teacher: “Ummmmm, their behavior?”

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

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

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

That’s why we have to bother. Listen, I have said dozens of times here in years before: you know the brick walls in front of you, you know the barriers, you know the reasons why this is going to be difficult. But you also have tens of thousands of colleagues who are in a position to help you turn the tide in your own school districts. Reach out to them. Utilize online resources such as 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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