R – “What are you going to do with your life to be more than a dinosaur fart? Think about it! Can you imagine what that must have been like back then? A big deal, right? But what lasting impact did it have, and how are you going to be different than that?” – Stephen Smith, Keene State College Education Professor, Spring, 1985.
I’ve always wanted to write a blog post with this title, but I never had the guts. Now I’m just too stupid to care 🙂 But I want this blog post to be more than one too, so here’s an application of the point: what are we doing in our music programs that linger long after the concert is over?
I was fortunate enough to spend the last year and a half of my own High School experience in a program where pride in the music program was simply overwhelming. In a school of 400, 180 were in the choir. The concerts were not only phenomenal, but one of them was THE reason I transferred from a private school halfway through my Junior year. Yet if seeing that Christmas Concert in December, 1981 made me switch schools and in the end determined my professional life path, I want to assure you that the lasting gift of that program was not, in fact, the concerts. It wasn’t even the pride that it developed in students or the community for the program.
Jarika and I have talked a lot this month about developing foundational building blocks as the primary purpose of our rehearsals right now. As she articulated last week, she has moved back north to begin a new set of adventures, but alas in the middle of it all she has taken on a full time, choral director sub position at a Middle School in New Hampshire. We’ve shared notes on how we’ve been approaching our students and there’s a lot of similarities.
Essentially, in a standards based approach to ANYTHING, it’s about skills. In the choral classroom we’ve broken that down to: tone, visual interaction with conducting, physical alignment (posture and open, relaxed jaw), ear training (accurately singing intervals and forming chords with precision) and literacy. The literacy piece includes identification/application of key and time signatures, and physically being able to read/interpret musical notation. Jen Etter at York Middle School has worked diligently to make this all a grade 5 through 12 priority. How lucky am I?
None of this is “news”, and it certainly isn’t original. But if I want to have a program of value beyond a dinosaur fart, it is a program that is going to have to put the concert performance a distant last place in deference to developing in my students all these other priorities. Take a triangle and stand it on it’s tippy-top (I like that word). At the top there is now room for lots of things. But as you get closer and closer to the foundation, there is less and less room, and you have to prioritize what’s most important. As long as I live, that tippy-top priority will be the interpersonal component that makes the performing arts so extraordinary when carried out accordingly. But just above that are all the building block elements I listed. The last priority is concert week.
Quick: from Spring 2012, name ONE song you performed on your concert program. If you can’t, neither can your students. And I don’t even want to get into what their parents don’t remember! Want another example of a dinosaur fart? The undergraduate music ed paradigm. Go ahead, name one art song some well intentioned studio teacher EVER made you learn in college that helped you one iota in your first year of teaching. I DARE you to answer this honestly and come up with even a mediocre answer (“…it’s completely acceptable that you haven’t mastered the tenets of Robert Shaw or Howard Swan yet Timmy, but you better make damn sure that you’re ready for your jury!!!”). What if the undergraduate jury was a Q & A with the music ed (and ed) faculty asking of learned and applied teaching strategies and philosophies? Nahhh, that would actually make undergraduate music ed majors prepared.
So then, think back to your own High School experience: what skills did you learn? What skills didn’t you learn but the moment you hit college you wish you had learned?(!!) There’s not one song I sang in High School that made me better equipped for College. There’s not one song I ever learned in college that helped me become even an adequate teacher. But I could write a book on all the other elements that did… and this certainly includes how the literature often reinforced those skills. Concerts can be more than dinosaur farts, but they rarely are. Skill building is the polar opposite and lasts for a lifetime.
Listen, I know the value of the concerts, and so do you. But have we given them such a place of preeminence in our programs that we – and our students and their parents and our communities – have lost sight of what is most important, and why we are academic and not co-curricular?
So as this year begins, Jarika and I will be writing some blogs on each of those building blocks, NOT because they’re news, but because we love sharing how we integrate them into what we do with kids in the choral classroom (food for thought). We may have a guest blogger or two along the way. In the meantime, If you’ve already started rehearsing sheet music in your choral program, is it because there is public pressure to perform a concert with “x” number of songs in it and, “man, I’ve got to get going on this stuff to get it all learned in time!”, or is it because you’ve already spent days and even weeks first establishing the building blocks and now you are systematically integrating them into choral literature as a practical application? Do you spend 5 to 10 minutes on warmups so you can quickly get to “the music”, or do you you spend 20 to 30 minutes on warmups/sight reading/skill building because you know that is where the good stuff is developed?
I gave a pat answer to the title & teaser, but I will say that i *do* remember playing trumpet in 8th grade in an orchestra accompanying the high school chorus on Mozart’s Regina Coeli. To me, the concert is where the skills actually hit the road. I do 4 concerts a year, and I know you disagree with that Rob, but my sense is that getting them to know and love great pieces of music (yes, we are doing Mozart’s Regina Coeli this October) has inestimable value in a dry, instant-gratification culture.
For me, I really do think it comes down to what I hope they DO remember, and I have it on decent authority that they DO remember some of the pieces they did, because those pieces DID change their lives.
I am trying to do too much, because I also am trying to work them through Bowyer’s Creative Sight Singing at the same time… And I DO see that some of the skills are lacking. In the end, I have to balance my program the way my professional experience leads me, and I am not ready to give up the October Orchestral/Choral concert yet.
But I want to see your program up close!
Scott, your reflections remind me of something I said this past weekend at a graduate arts assessment course I taught: none of us ever went into music education because we remember how excited we were when we passed our key signature exam! 🙂 I would simply say that the discussion isn’t about the number of concerts, or if skills can be developed through literature, but rather about asking if our programs align with what we hold as most essential. While I’m in complete agreement that the concert selections are – or at least should be – about the skills hitting the road (serious ramifications to literature selection, right?!), my concern is that for many, concerts drive our programs to a greater degree than skill building… and if that’s the case, our administrators have EVERY right to move us out of the school day and turn us into co-curricular activities. There is a significant difference between a during-the-school-day co-curricular activity which is all about love of the art through performance while some skills get applied along the way, vs. a core academic course which builds its foundations on assessable skills first and foremost… and provides concerts as showcases for this academic growth. My only fear is that, institutionally, we claim the latter while practicing the former.