imperfect offering

R- As I tuned in the car to MPBN one day last Summer, I was listening to a social scientist by the name of Richard Matthew talking about his work in the Congo and some pretty interesting stories and perspectives. As he spoke, he referenced a friend of his by the name of James Orbinski who referred to humanitarian work as an imperfect offering: “There’s never enough resources to help, and sometimes you do the wrong thing and sometimes you don’t understand things fully. But you still have to do something.” That really resonated with me as an educator.

If you’re now expecting me to find a connection between humanitarian work in the Congo and teaching in America, don’t hold your breath. But I would argue that there is a profound correlation between teaching in America and the idea of an “imperfect offering”. Good teaching to me has the following components:

  • Integrity. Honesty and consistency of character is either at the forefront of who you are as a teacher or you shouldn’t be in the profession. Students and colleagues see what you do. You are either a reflection of the better world we all want this to be or you’re something less. There’s only one road to follow here.
  • Pedagogy. If what you practice and do is not founded in research, exploration, study and observation, don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re doing okay. There is a reason there has been so much research and academic reflection on good practice. You’re equally kidding yourself if you think that your undergraduate and even graduate studies successfully check off this component for you. It’s the year-to-year learning through reading and discovery that allows you to teach with authority. The key is to not follow every tenet like a lemming, but rather to know “why” you do what you do. If the answer isn’t reflected in foundational pedagogy, you’re building your house on sand.
  • Originality. There are so many great lines out there, and I don’t even know who to attribute most of them to, but I’ll use an appropriate one here: “Be the best ‘you’ that you can be.” Look through history, look even through your own past. The people who made great contributions to you, your life, none of them were trying to be someone they weren’t. I think the great transition for teachers is morphing from 1) learning what to do and when, 2) knowing what to do and when without having to think about it, 3) incorporating #2 into their own unique style and presence. I believe anyone can be a great teacher. But only Steve Smith could ever have been Steve Smith. Only Jean Nelson could ever have been Jean Nelson. Only Dennis Cox could ever have been Dennis Cox. Get the point?
  • Empathy. Again, if you don’t possess this to a high degree, you’re in the wrong profession. Get out of your own self while in the classroom and get into the minds and psyches of your students. Individually, how are they doing? What do they need? Where are they coming from? Your “agenda” as a teacher is barely worth the paper your lesson plan is typed on until you incorporate this one component into your teaching. After doing so, you are an incredibly invaluable link to your students and their future. They need assistance from caring, empathetic people in their lives. One could argue that teaching with “tough love” is equally important. I would argue in response that tough love is still love, and tough love still requires empathy. The opposite of empathy, to me, is actually apathy. If you complete your day of teaching, and you don’t know how your kids were doing as people that day, you really missed the target and I question your true value to your school and to your students.
  • Consistency. This to me is the toughest one. We aren’t robots, we’re actual people with good days and bad days. Having to be consistent with our expectations, how we treat people, how we deliver our curriculum, how we keep kids first. I know as a statement of fact that this is a great, great challenge. But the degree to which we accomplish this facet is the degree to which we build trust in our students. And the degree our students trust us is the degree to which we can make an impact on them, academically and personally/interpersonally.

Good teaching does not however include being perfect, because it isn’t possible. There’s never enough resources, sometimes you do the wrong thing and sometimes you don’t understand things fully.¬†My first few years of teaching I would come home every day and beat myself up over how I didn’t successfully carry out one or more of my goals as I tried to be a good teacher. 30+ years later that’s been reduced to only 1 time every week or two ūüėČ But here is where the great yet simple quote from Fleetwood Mac singer¬†Lindsey Buckingham comes in: “If you’re any good at all, you know you can be better.” An imperfect offering is not accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders. It’s accompanied instead by self reflection and the final, most important component of great teaching: Perseverance. In the history of mankind, there has never been a “perfect” musical performance. By anybody. That hasn’t stopped any of us from trying. I hope every colleague reading this blog post enjoys a wonderful school year of their own imperfect offering and all it entails while practicing that never ending journey of becoming a great teacher.




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why proficiency worked… in the arts

R – This is Goobermusicteachers‘ 100th blog post. It’s fitting that it’s on this topic. The Maine Proficiency Law, ¬ß4722-A. Proficiency-based diploma standards and transcripts was voted into law in 2012. Six years later, it is removed from law. I have my own theories of why. Technology was fundamentally unable to transparently support the work. Communities across Maine made it clear that they were more interested in how their High School kids did compared to other High School kids (grades) as opposed to transparently reporting what their kids actually knew… or didn’t (standards). Schools were given no direction from the Department of Education because, after all, this is a “local control” state. Schools were all over the map with regard to implementation. Post Secondary Education largely doesn’t concern itself with the issues directly confronting High Schools, and therefore did not universally adopt standards scores for admission (can’t fault the parents for that one). The crime here is that thousands – tens of thousands – have said all along that this all won’t last. It will be rescinded, it will end up being like every other “big thing” that’s come down the pike: worthless and a mistake.

This big thing was not worthless and it wasn’t a mistake. And not just because I say so.

Big picture, this big thing was the first one that required us to look at student achievement, as opposed to achievement tools (see “Assessments; Common Local” ca 2006…). And we actually had to be precise about what students knew. This forced us to have very deep discussions about why we do what we do, measure what we measure. And there is no way an educator with an ounce of integrity in their bones could claim that this process of self-examination – for those with equally enough integrity to have authentically done so – wasn’t exceedingly valuable for that reason if nothing else.

How does this apply to the arts? The topic for this blog post.

Looking back to when a few of us founded the Maine Arts Assessment Initiative (now Maine Arts Leadership Initiative) in 2010, it is too easy to forget the landscape back then. We were just coming out of the Common Local Assessment saga and the DOE was in the process of a re-boot. For the arts, we were still wrestling with the pros and cons of the 2007 re-release of the Maine Learning Results and not really moving too fast in any productive direction. The objective of MAAI was the following:

1. Create an environment in Maine where assessment in arts education is an integral part of the work all arts educators do to promote arts education.
2. To build on the exemplary work of curriculum, instruction, and arts assessment to continue to provide and expand on quality arts education programs for all Maine students.
1. Devise a statewide plan for arts education
2. Include professional development opportunities, regionally and statewide to expand on the knowledge and skills of teachers to improve teaching and learning
3. Build on the capacity of arts educators. Utilize technology to gather existing resources, make resources available and create new resources

My own informal goal was based on my experience at the New England Arts Assessment Institute at Plymouth State that Summer: that if we are to ever move the needle with regard to essentialness of Arts Education for our PK-12 students and in our PK-12 schools, then we’d better start getting serious about actually being academic. I’ve written many blog posts over the years alluding to fraudulent high school music programs all over the country practicing as fundamentally co-curricular activities but doing so cleverly disguised as academic subjects, bastardizing our entire profession as a result. It was time in 2010 to put put up or shut up about music education being an essential academic subject. My conviction then and my conviction now is that this is embodied and informed through our assessment practices. This also happens to hold true for visual as well as performing arts.

MAAI’s first attempt at bringing assessment into the arts dialogue was met in-house with a LOT of trepidation: if we hold a conference devoted to assessment, will anybody actually show? “Assessment” in the arts was a dirty word. After much debate we decided to be transparent about our goals and our process as it tied to the importance of assessment. We ended up holding our first¬†biennial statewide conference in October of the following Fall. Back to the Future: Arts Assessment For Learning was held at USM in Portland. We decided that our big, audacious goal would be to have 200 attendees. We knew we wouldn’t get anywhere close, but believed we could at least bend that needle a bit. Not only did we meet the 200 threshold, we had to expand that number the week of the conference when registrations kept pouring in. When it was all said and done, 225 visual and performing arts teachers attended 17 workshops on assessment (a¬†month later Jarika and I started this blog). Proof that the time was right for this work? This was the Fall PRIOR to the Proficiency Law being introduced and passed in Augusta. Once it was, the work of MAAI took off.¬†Exactly two years later, that same biennial statewide conference saw 230 visual and performing arts teachers attend 35 workshops on assessment related topics. MAAI teacher leaders presented their workshops multiple times to over 300 educators during the 2013-14 school year at the regional and state level.

What happened after this is that the Proficiency Law started to drive arts teachers’ work. This meant now having the same conversations with Math teachers and Science teachers. English teachers and Social Studies teachers. What we discovered in many districts around Maine is that it was the arts teachers LEADING these discussions with their faculty, and even their administrators because of the professional development they had already undertaken and built upon in their own classrooms. Proficiency worked… for the arts.

Fast forward to this past year or so. Schools’ failed attempts at proficiency. Schools’ failed attempts at implementing standards based report cards. Schools’ failed attempts at rallying all subject areas around even the concept of proficiency. For all the reasons I stated in the first paragraph and then some. But here’s my takeaway. Ready for it? The essential role of authentic assessment of individual students in our ARTS CLASSROOMS – music and visual arts in particular – was never tied to the Proficiency Law to begin with.

It was a movement that was grass roots.

It was a movement that began because we deemed it important and not because someone told us that it was.

It was a movement that began to move us from a co-curricular mindset of “developing the whole person” to a curricular mindset of actually doing so; academic accountability does not stifle creativity or “love for the subject”, it enhances it.

It was a movement that allowed us to move beyond the idea that assessment was a barrier to student creativity and success, to one of assessment unlocking potential for both that we had never previously imagined.

It was a movement that – for the first time ever – put us on the same equal playing field as the other 7 academic subject areas.

It was a movement that caused and causes us to reflect and refine our work for the expressed outcome of doing right by our individual students.

Best yet, it was a movement that is still moving.

Here’s my hope as we begin the 2018-2019 school year in Maine. Now that the law is gone, take whatever stand you want on standards or proficiency, I couldn’t care less. Those who have bought into it have done so via their own discoveries, firm foundations and convictions. The rest can only do so via a similar journey. That onus is on them 800px-Music_class_usaeither way. But all arts educators must remember that refining their assessment practices – with or without an 11th commandment coming down from the state house – is the booster rocket that will continue to drive us where we need to go in this 21st century, individually and collectively in the arts. We cannot tolerate any longer ANY academic program in music or visual art that isn’t academic in practice any longer. A Math teacher who bases 10% of their grade or more on “participation” ought to be fired for that practice. It’s no longer acceptable to have it accepted in our arts classes. We can’t accept it from ourselves and we can’t accept it from our neighbors. We need to keep after academic integrity by examining sound individual assessment practices based on sound and very transparent academic expectations. Call it proficiency, call it standards, call it good practice, call it common sense, call it being responsible. Call it being a professional educator. Call it whatever you want. But let’s remember that the practicing of this tennet is more important to us now as a profession than it was even back in 2010.

And we aren’t dependent on any stinkin’ proficiency law to keep it moving.


This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Phil Martin (1954-2018): a remarkable educator and even more remarkable person, who served on the staff of the New England Arts Assessment Institute.




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the concert: promoting literacy #2

R – When two of television’s most popular shows are called “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent”, we had better be doing something to keep music education on the front burner of being an academic subject. There’s nothing wrong with either show, but there is a cultural myth in this country that singing is about interest and/or talent… and that’s about it. Name one other core school subject area where either matters, and yet somehow both are perceived as virtually essential to being enrolled in a music class. Worse yet, this view is shared by students, parents, administrators, guidance counselors and so on.

What are we doing about it?

6 and a half years ago Jarika did one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen a music teacher do when she began her first ever concert as a music educator by teaching the audience to read music. It was extraordinary on two fronts. First, it was a demonstration by a beginning teacher that it is okay to be professionally brave and take risks. I think we can all learn from that. Second, she demonstrated to the entire assembled audience that literacy and singing are academic skills. The audience left her concert that night buzzing about what a game changer it was. We have the technology, ability and opportunities to change our community’s perception of what it is we do and why it is essential.

I have not been able to hold my concerts in a space with either a sound system or a projector/screen so I have done my best to replicate this with a small piece of sheet music placed inside each program. It actually worked pretty well but I’ve planning for the day I could finally do this in an auditorium as well and my first concerts in our new one allowed me to do so. I hold the same concert twice in a week’s time so I can implement an evaluation and revision process with my kids between them. So I got to do the audience music reading twice. This video is of the second time: teaching the audience to read music.

The reaction from the audience was positive, but the details coming from the kids in the following days showed me that this has to be a regular part of all my concerts from now on. I had stories of kids telling me that when they got home their parents actually initiated conversations about reading music and showing them even more!

If a concert has the potential to cause our communities to discuss and think about music as a skill, why would we not be tripping over ourselves to make that happen? Let’s spend some time thinking about our public performances and what messages they send to our schools and communities. The best music education advocacy is a proactive one. Our concerts are largely untapped resources for providing this.

Screen Shot 2018-06-23 at 7.18.39 AM

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sond advice

That isn’t a typo. A few weeks ago I finally got around to watching the brilliant Stephen Sondheim documentary, Six By Sondheim. Directed by his friend and collaborator of over 35 years, James Lapine, it dives into Sondheim’s inner thoughts, not just his story. My admiration of Sondheim’s work is shared by millions – he single-handedly transformed the very genre of the Broadway Musical.

For me, I have spent my career discovering similarities and parallels between his work and that of the late choral director, Robert Shaw. Both beckon to my sense of analytical-ness. Both based the emotional content of their work on an excessive (obsessive?) attention to the smallest technical details; the paradox of their work being that out of the technical minutia comes the emotion and spirit of what they aim to convey. The criticism of both, Sondheim throughout his career and Shaw as early as 1952 in a Time Magazine article entitled, “Too Much Perfection”, has been that their work is too technical. And yet their work brought music to life in a fashion that often made others seem ridiculously superficial by comparison. I found myself taking notes as I watched the Lapine documentary and, as is the case with so much of Sondheim’s work, found underlying meaning that wasn’t readily transparent on the surface. In this case, I discovered so much of what he articulated transferred wonderfully to teaching in general and music education in particular. Some of my notes:

“I love inventing. The hard part is the execution, obviously. But even that’s fun. And when I say fun of course, I’m talking about agonizing fun, I’m not talking about ‘pleasant’ fun.” What teacher hasn’t agonized over their students, classes, expectations, daily routines and so forth? I think the key to this statement is that the execution of our work is not supposed to be easy, nor is it supposed to be fun (which is why I have always felt that “loving music” is a lousy reason to go into education: it’s not relevant). It is, however, unlike any reward one could ever dream of as you go through it and get to the other side of the efforts. A lot of teachers try to avoid the “agonizing” or get weary from it. Sondheim states it as core of the fun. This isn’t bad advice for any teacher of any subject area. As Shaw put it, “The wonderful thing about the amateur chorus is that nobody can buy its attendance at rehearsals, or the sweat, eyestrain and fatigue that go along with the glow.” As Sondheim put it, “If you didn’t get those moments, you couldn’t put up with the rest of it: the loneliness and the tedium and the endless amounts of work, you know, the sweat.” Get what they’re driving at?

“To make art sound effortless takes a lot of effort.” Many of my student teachers over the years have come in and immediately wanted to get to the goosebumps and the emotion. One of them introduced a new song to the choir and 10 minutes into it began talking to them about reflecting on the text and feeling what the song was getting at… before the students had any idea what the notes were yet. After a post-class briefing where I reiterated that job #1 is to be technically precise (the composers deserve at least that much from us), before long that same talented teacher was getting down and dirty into the minutia and getting wonderful music out of the kids. But, man, it takes time to get the kids there. My fear in our current educational landscape is that we feel (legitimate) intense pressure to have a large enough music program to justify our employment. That is a very real reality in programs in every single state, ours not being the least of them. Consequently, we feel the need to keep our music students happy and engaged, whether through the literature we select, our class routines or by going straight to the aesthetic as soon as possible; appealing to their emotions, all so they will continue to stay involved with it. I get it. So do you. But if we are in the business of not only making art but also fostering real musicians, we cannot shortcut or downplay the essentialness of the work. This quote, it seems to me, must be at the forefront of what we are teaching our students. If we’re not teaching them this, what are we teaching them?

“You can’t learn in a classroom, and you can’t learn on paper. You only learn by writing and doing and writing and doing. That’s how everybody who’s ever been good got good.” I love this quote. Obviously, Sondheim is referencing the art of writing lyrics here, but every molecule of this translates to the art of teaching. Inherent in this quote is the understanding that there is an analytical component that goes hand in hand with it; “doing” is a great vehicle to learning, but not without introspection. For the newer teacher, it isn’t good enough to emulate or model other teachers: you need to begin to emulate who you are going to be. That happens through experimenting, trial and error, falling down and getting back up, risk taking, and so forth. For the veteran teacher, it has to do with applying what you have observed at conferences, rehearsals and coursework. It isn’t enough to “know”; “knowing” never transformed a classroom of students. You have to “do”, you have to apply.

“You must be able to defend every single word and note.” As music teachers, we make dozens of choices daily, often within a single class. Can you defend every single choice? Educationally? Sure, anyone can “justify” a choice, but I have seen many music teachers fall into their own self-made pits by making choices they had a tough time defending when push came to shove. There was music program in a different state a few years ago that was in danger of being removed from the school day to allow more time for the other academic classes. Advocacy efforts went into high gear. A colleague contacted me asking if I could help them out. I went to that music program’s website and read press releases they were putting out. The web site provided nothing in the way of what they were doing academically, 40% of the students’ grades were based on “participation”, and their argument for the program being essential was that it promoted teamwork, self-esteem and the concerts were really great. I never lifted a finger for them. To state it plainly: if you cannot educationally justify every single syllable of what you say, what you write, what you think, what you do, do not expect your program to be viewed as an educational necessity. There are a lot of co-curricular music programs in this country cleverly disguised as academic subjects. Don’t let yours be one of them.

“Teaching is the sacred profession… my life was saved by teachers.” He referred specifically to his latin teacher and then to his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein. It’s a reminder that a teacher is someone who reaches out and positively impacts a person. Your area of teaching expertise is irrelevant to this; the prior paragraph notwithstanding, we have an obligation to simultaneously get out of “music teacher” mode and just get into being a good teacher too… for every student. Oscar Hammerstein was not a teacher by profession and yet had a profound impact on a young man who viewed him as one. How much more of an obligation do we have, those of us in the profession, to model this impact? His other teacher wasn’t even a music or english teacher. We need to get out of this mindset that somehow our effectiveness as true teachers is confined to our aptitude in music (go back to what I said about going into teaching because you love music). My own High School music teacher had the greatest impact on me growing up, and he utilized his music program to impact kids in that fashion. You can get there from here, but my point is that it does not have to be mutually inclusive, and that just caring about your students as people can transcend merely the music.

“The people who like my work are expecting so much, and it makes me… tense.”¬†Cautionary to newer teachers, and essential for veteran teachers: this has the potential to eat away at you. Early in my career I had to each year “outdo” what I did the year before or else I felt like a failure. It ate me up inside. I’ve already spoken to two colleagues of mine this Summer going through the very same thing in their careers. As Sondheim went on to add, “It’s not that you want to ‘top’ yourself, it’s that you want to write something fresh. It requires more courage as you get older.” We become our own harshest critics and, while that can be a healthy thing in process, we need to – in equal measure – be able to reflect on each school year as it’s own entity. In the concluding song from his Sunday in The Park With George, Sondheim wrote the dialogue between the contemporary George and his muse, Dot. For this coming school year, these are profound words to remember:

[Dot:] Are you working on something new?
[George:] No
[Dot:] That is not like you, George
[George:] I’ve nothing to say
[Dot:] You have many things
[George:] Well, nothing that’s not been said
[Dot:] Said by you, though. George
[George:] What am I to do?
[Dot:] Move on…
Stop worrying where you’re going-
Move on
If you can know where you’re going
You’ve gone
Just keep moving on

I chose, and my world was shaken-
So what?
The choice may have been mistaken,
The choosing was not
You have to move on

Look at what you want,
Not at where you are,
Not at what you’ll be-
Look at all the things you’ve done for me

Stop worrying if your vision
Is new
Let others make that decision-
They usually do
You keep moving on.

Stephen-Sondheim 2.jpg

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a year gone by

It has been a calendar year since I last posted posted here on goobermusicteachers after averaging one every three weeks for 5 previous years. I was aware it’s been awhile, but I honestly had no idea it had¬†been that long. Ironically, I know precisely¬†why. It’s a funny thing that happened to me this year: I rediscovered my own classroom.

My entire career, 30 years to this point, has been spent looking at the big picture of music education as a profession. It’s led to my involvement in more district, state and national work than I think I can honestly remember. I’ve never done this because I think “I’m all that” and somehow my voice is more important than anyone else’s. On the contrary, my goal has been to carry out the wishes of others and to further the profession through service. This drive was instilled in me during my undergraduate years at Keene State College and it’s stayed with me ever since. Goober Music Teachers was started because Jarika and I would talk philosophy all the time, and I found myself wanting to speak to those big picture topics. Towards that end, this blog has been heaven sent for me – a vehicle to articulate thoughts and beliefs, a forum to state opinions, an opportunity to help me think through and articulate fuzzy concepts that I need to solidify for myself if for no one else. Starting this with Jarika was twice the fun as well. But for me personally, it helped me to find my own voice. Tie this in with my desire to “think globally and act locally”¬†as it pertains to music education, and you can begin to see the significance of this blog to my personal and professional well-being.

So what happened this year?

I have gradually been able to sense myself getting tired. In the late Fall of 2011, I felt myself¬†starting to burn out, and it scared me. I was in the throes of quite a few professional activities including chairing our YHS accreditation and the tank was beginning to approach empty. I responded by reluctantly (and temporarily) removing as much as I could from my plate to focus on “me” for bit. It not only worked, it largely reenergized me. I didn’t dive back into things to the same degree as before, but I hopped back on board many things outside of school and went back on my merry way. All of this coincides with the blog posts I’ve written since. But last year I felt myself slowing back down again. The difference was that I was beginning to almost resent everything that was shifting my attention away from myself and my teaching. I am also unable to emotionally detach myself from what I do ¬†– it took me YEARS to reconcile that “what I do” is not “who I am” for instance. But I felt myself¬†becoming emotionally drained last year and mentally worn down. Whereas before it was fueling me, pending a reasonable professional load, now it was doing anything but. Consequently, I made a vow¬†that the 2016-2017 school year would be all about my classroom, my students, my choirs, my own teaching. I think, in a very warped way, it took me this long to finally feel like I could do so without feeling guilty about it. That is a larger issue I guess I’ll have to investigate¬†on my own time for another day, and certainly not one for inclusion in this¬†blog ūüėČ But I finally reached the point in my professional life, at age 51, that my focus can just¬†be on what I do. I ditched everything else in my professional life last Fall and moved forward.

And what a miraculous school year it’s been. For decades I would lie awake at 2:17 am thinking about the problems and issues of the profession. This year, for the first time, I found myself awake at 2:17 am thinking about my kids, my curriculum, my classes. And it’s been¬†so cool! “So this is what this feels like!” I don’t feel like I’ve been shortchanging my employers/students for the first¬†few decades of my career – I’m very proud of what I’ve been able to do with and for my students and my programs. I know I’ve given¬†it everything I had. But I always simultaneously had my other foot somewhere else. This year they’ve both been “all in.” I am present with my students in a way that has truly made me a better teacher. It’s felt¬†remarkable. I spend my time outside of class being more analytical of each day’s successes and failures and why they were or were not. I notice myself making adjustments to my teaching and curriculum more often and more sharply. I communicate more and better with my students outside of class about their work in class. I became so enamored with skill development in my warmups, that I devoted my mid-term exam time with my students¬†to¬†filming them as they incorporated my techniques and then having them write¬†analytically about each one. Not only was it the most meaningful exam I’ve ever given, it yielded footage which led to my creation of the Choral Warmups Project and youtube videos of my techniques and approaches. This was invigorating not only because it forced me to look at MY OWN classroom, MY OWN students, but because it also¬†gave me a new outlet to deliver resources for¬†others in the field to think about. I have been so energized to focus on my own assessment strategies. What a difference that has made.

My work with the Portland Community Chorus was transformed when they became my focus last Winter over December break, culminating in a survey – the results of which shifted our policies and beliefs and practices. As a result, PCC this past term became a brand new entity in so many exciting ways. They have never achieved the level of musical and motivational uniformity/excellence that they achieved this Spring, and their concerts reflected it. In 13 years I’ve never felt so excited about working with them as I do now.

A year ago I was asked to serve on the New York Board Of Regents review committee to redesign¬†their state music assessments, a great honor. I was contacted by NEASC to join them in reimagining and rewriting their accreditation standards and process. I was contacted to take a lead role in our district move toward proficiency. I was contacted by the Maine DoE to take a leading role in the development of statewide proficiency exemplars for Music Education. I turned them¬†all down. You don’t get a second chance to get involved in amazing opportunities such as these. But this year I guess I also discovered something much more important and much more substantial. I realized that you go through your career believing you have total control over so many things and that you are the captain of your own ship, but that it’s never really true. You go where the wind directs you. You go where you physically and emotionally are called. I realized that the crime is not in what you do or don’t do, it’s in the not listening to the wind or¬†to your own self. If I could write a letter to my younger self, I’d tell myself that.

I don’t regret one single thing I’ve ever been involved with even though there was a price to pay for each of them. I had to decide 20 years ago if I was going to immerse myself in the trenches or get my PhD. I chose the trenches. I received an invitation from a Superintendent one year to become a High School Principal though I never took a course in administration. I turned it down. I had to decide several times in my career where I was going to plant my roots. Each time I made the choice that was best for me at that moment at the sacrifice of other opportunities in front of me. I had to decide several times how my personal life was or was not going to impact my professional life. Each time required a sacrifice of one or the other. The difference this year is that I felt like this choice was made for me, I really didn’t have a say in it. A leap of faith? Yes. Disconcerting? Yes. New? Yes. A sacrifice to elements of my life I’ve always believed were essential to my professional happiness? Yes. An amazing year as a result of all this? You betcha. The epiphany is that apparently this getting-old dog can learn a few new tricks, and it happened by concentrating on what was right in front of me the whole time.

I’ll post again in this blog, and Lord knows I’ll move forward with the choral warmups project. But It’s been a year since I’ve posted anything here and I wanted to make sure to do so this month. In thinking on¬†what¬†was most near and dear to my heart to write about, this is all what came to mind. I apologize that it is so introspective and self-serving, but it feels really good to finally write it all down. Maybe I’m not so¬†sorry after all. ūüėČ



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tug of war

R – I just saw a funny post on facebook, a collection of memes; teachers reactions at common circumstances (“Teachers in May”, “When a student reminds me that I forgot to change the date on the board”, “When a student asks what to do after having just given directions”). ¬†I laughed but also thought about why teaching is so unique.

I am not one of those teachers who believes education is the most difficult job in the world, we’re underpaid/under-appreciated, blah, blah, blah. But I do believe that teachers are by definition fighting¬†a perpetual, never ending tug of war between being a professional and interacting every moment of every day with students who are at a profoundly personal level. Students do not attend school as “professionals”. We do, but they don’t. Consequently we have a moral and ethical obligation to meet them where they are as people, develop them as people, foster them as people and hold them accountable for their actions as people. All the while, we are expected to be professional.

Explain to me exactly how this works?

Additionally, I’ve used the analogy that teaching a classroom of students is like programing 20+ computers to do the exact same thing at the exact same time (curriculum). But instead of just PC and Mac platforms, there’s 20+ different platforms, only 10+ if your class is completely homogenous. At any given moment, two of the computers have the power off and you don’t know why, the keyboard is missing from one of them, the keyboard is there¬†for two of them but inputs letters different than the ones on their keypad, three of them randomly turn off for no apparent reason multiple times during class, some of the computers have been through the ringer and others are virtually in brand new condition… you get the idea.¬†We are expected to be consummate professionals and program them the same way academically.

Now throw¬†in that every computer is a person with feelings, moods, perceptions, emotions. Fears, beliefs, biases. Hates and loves. If we program the computer successfully but don’t meet these emotion needs, we’re looked at as poor teachers and get (appropriately) called out by parents. If we meet the emotional needs but don’t get every computer to the same programming goal, we’re looked at as poor teachers and get called out (appropriately) by administrators. Oy.

Truth be told, we LOVE this challenge. That’s why we teach. Or is it? I wonder if the disillusion of so many in this profession is based on the fact that they entered their career based on the love of their subject matter as opposed to loving the challenge I just articulated above. I hate to say it, but I believe this is a question that holds even more weight when applied to music teachers. Did we go into music education because we first loved music, or because we first loved working with kids? Caveat: when I say “kids”, I am referring to all of them, not just those who love music as well. Do we love working with those students just as much as we love music? There’s the other tug of war.

As we approach concert season again, I think it’s good to be reminded that this is not about the concert, it’s about our kids, even as our programs are evaluated as¬†the product by so many (I’ve written posts asking if we are guilty of having perpetuated that). As we get weary over the professional expectations of assessment, accountability, instructional practices, teacher evaluations, it is good to be reminded: that’s our job; that’s what were HIRED for. Remember? But we cannot forget all the while: it’s about the kids. I find this tug of war exceptionally draining, more so every year. But I still find it fulfilling, I still look forward to it, and I still believe that I do it relatively effectively so I know I’m still in the right profession for now. It’s exhausting but so worth it. Keep fighting the good fight as the school year winds down, keep the tug of war going. A lot of people are depending on you to do so.


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why solfege worked


R – This is lengthy even for me, but please stay with me on this. I have spent over¬†25¬†years trying to put this into words,¬†so¬†this is not going to be brief. Many times when¬†I have told¬†colleagues that I don’t teach solfege to my students and that I use numbers instead, I have often been met with Baby Ruth Bar In The Swimming Pool Expression. I want to spend some time¬†discussing my choice and why I believe¬†it works.

Bruce Bower is a behavioral scientist who reflected on a study which is profoundly relevant to our work as teachers of musical literacy in general, and sight reading in particular. As he wrote in the Science News, June, 2010, excerpts:

Sight-reading is the ability to play sheet music on an instrument with little or no preparation. Any piano player who practices sight-reading for thousands of hours will get pretty good at it, say study coauthors Elizabeth Meinz of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and David Hambrick of Michigan State University in East Lansing. But having a strong ability to keep different pieces of relevant information in mind while performing a task — known as working memory capacity — aids sight-reading regardless of how much someone has practiced, the psychologists report in a paper published online June 9 in Psychological Science.¬†In the researchers’ investigation, the best sight readers combined strong working memories with tens of thousands of hours of piano practice over several decades.¬†Working memory appears to be a capacity that gels early in life and can’t be improved much by learning.¬†When sight-reading, a piano player‚Äôs working memory capacity may determine the extent to which he or she can prepare for upcoming moves on the keyboard by looking ahead in a music score, Meinz and Hambrick speculate.¬†Psychologist Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto Mississauga agrees. Schellenberg sees the new findings as a challenge to the influential view, championed by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University in Tallahassee, that expertise in sight-reading or anything else depends on skills acquired through extensive practice. Novices at a particular activity rely on general mental faculties, such as working memory, Ericsson argues. But after roughly 10 years of practice at a task such as sight-reading, he suggests, specific mental mechanisms for getting the job done emerge and general-purpose faculties are jettisoned.

In other words, working memory capacity, the multitasking component of the brain when performing a single task which requires compound synthesis, generally cannot be developed any further than what a student already possesses when they walk into your classroom, though after TEN YEARS a difference can be seen. I have been fascinated by this¬†phenomenon for years, long before this study was published. I¬†can work on tone for example, for an extended time in warmups and really cement it. But the moment I switch to an exercise where dexterity or diction or sight reading is concerned, tone goes back out the window because the focus and brain function transfers to a different set of skills or focus. The only way I have found to work around¬†this is to reinforce tone so much and so incessantly that the outstanding tone becomes my singers’¬†default tone. In other words, my singers have transitioned tone from a “must focus on it to get it right” concept to a default, “it happens without even thinking about it” concept.¬†When this finally occurs, it is called bypassing working memory.¬†I have had colleagues and college professors walk into my rehearsals and comment on my choir’s tone. They often think it’s because my singers are talented or because they are well trained. Neither is true. I do the same thing each¬†one of them do, probably not even as well. The difference is that I have transitioned their tone from the realm of working memory so that it is always in place no matter what. I have presented workshops for years on how to reimagine¬†choral warmups as¬†a way to entrench foundational skills,¬†training¬†our singers to¬†bypass working memory in¬†as many musical¬†elements as possible. I’ve never been able to really articulate the need for this very well, this article does so brilliantly.

Let’s transfer this concept now to sight reading on an instrument. There is a physical dexterity required to manipulate a physical instrument into pitch. It pretty much lies there dormant until a person walks up to it and does something to it. There are four domains¬†required to for¬†an instrumentalist to sight read. The first is the accurate recognition of a pitch¬†on paper. The second is the accurate recognition of the length of that note. The third is the physical manipulation of the instrument, the fourth is to do so for the successful generation of that tone. We know that intonation, phrasing, et al are the ensuing desired simultaneous steps, but for working purposes here let’s just stick with those four. So, these four steps must occur simultaneously. With our understanding of working memory, the stated fact is that doing all this at the same time – while ALSO analyzing HOW¬†to do each of them simultaneously – cannot happen and is in fact virtually impossible for any average person. In other words: doing something while also figuring out how to do that something does not¬†happen simultaneously. It can not. How do we overcome this impossibility? Simple: transfer the first three domains over to automatic pilot. I go back to the researcher’s findings above:¬†the best sight readers combined strong working memories with tens of thousands of hours of practice. That’s why we insist that there is no alternative to practicing in general, and sight reading in particular. I am familiar with the saying and so are you, that you learn to sight read by doing it. This is why. The prerequisite to success is a mastery of those¬†first three domains. If you have to think about what the note is, or you have to think about how to play that low D with the first and third valves in order to do it, you can’t get there from here. The first two domains are music theory skills that must be developed regardless of instrument. The third domain is the application of the instrument. Let’s focus on that now as it relates to the human voice.

I have had 21¬†student teachers in my career. To varying degrees, they each had one thing in common: their biggest challenge was hearing multiple voice parts independently when performing simultaneously. The mere act of “hearing” a written note is complex. It gets even more complex when determining issues of intonation. Not whether or not something is in tune or not, but the degree to which it is out of tune. Throw in the qualifier of understanding and being able to articulate WHY something is out of tune, and you have on your hands a very complex working memory issue on your hands. Running a rehearsal is that difficult. Why is this relevant to the discussion around solfege? Because if accurately hearing a written pitch is a difficult skill, I would argue that the actualization of transferring a visual cue to a specific frequency of sound coming from your own mouth, and analyzing its accuracy for the purpose of constantly adjusting that pitch, is one of the most complex acts a human brain can facilitate. It is akin to rubbing your belly while tapping your head on command…. aaaaaaaaand you’re an octopus. Tap dancing.

How then do we get our students to learn how to do this most complex of functions? Simple. I didn’t say “easy”, I said simple: remove¬†every possible domain¬†from working memory. It’s as simple as it is for an instrumentalist, even though¬†just as difficult. But it’s crystal clear that this is how to accomplish it. And guess what? The person who realized this first did so over 1,000 years ago.

Now we’re getting to get to the heart of the matter. Solfege used to work. As a matter of fact, there was a time when it ut queantworked brilliantly. Here’s how.¬†Guido di Arezzo (ca. 995-1050)¬†was a monk from a monastery in Arezzo, Toscana. In 992, Guido noticed that the chant, Ut Queant Laxis ¬†contained ¬†sequential rising pitches to begin each phrase.¬†He began pointing out this fact to his fellow monks and soon¬†the syllables UT RE MI FA SOL LA were used on a regular basis to indicate specific¬†sounds.¬†With the help of this system he could notate all of the churches melodies. Henricus Glareanus in his landmark music treatise Dodecachordon (1547) expanded the standing system of church modes to accommodate the increasingly common major and minor modes, and this system known as solfege was applied to what we now know as the Major Scale.

Here’s why it worked: Guido D’Arezzo applied syllables from a musical selection THE MONKS ALREADY KNEW. It required NO working memory whatsoever. NONE. There is absolutely no scientific proof that¬†“Do, Re, Mi Fa” works better than “Ho Yu Do In”. None at all. The REASON it worked for Guido was simple: because the chant¬†was already familiar to his fellow¬†singers who used it, which meant that,

it did not require working memory capacity to recreate pitches.

Got it? Guido D’Arezzo’s contribution to sight reading was not solfege, it was the discovery that bypassing working capacity memory allowed singers to recreate pitch with accuracy. Do, Re, Mi¬†wasn’t the great, grand discovery, it was his culture-relevant application of it. But my concern is that this is egregiously¬†misunderstood¬†even to this day.¬†Want proof?

If you have taken so much as a rudimentary ear training course in college, you are familiar with the concept of utilizing familiar tunes to accurately hear specific intervals. Tri-tone = the opening notes to Bernstein’s Maria, right? ¬†Here are a few more as they relate to the major scale: 2nd scale degree¬†= happy birthday, 3rd¬†= mor-ning has broken, 4th¬†= A-ma-zing grace, 5th = Twinkle, twinkle, 6th = Dash-ing through the snow, 7th = Take On Me (if you are a child of the 80’s…). In other words, you were taught that if you can HEAR the note in one¬†context, you can apply that sound in a different context automatically (starting to connect the dots here yet??). In other words, if you already know¬†the initial context, the application is a snap. Well, Guido applied this application in a way appropriate for his day. Let’s apply mine based on what a person already knows from the songs above:¬†Ha, Buh, Ni, May, Twink, Ing, On. But that would be crazy, right?

How is this crazier than Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti???

Answer: It’s not. It’s just that solfege has been so ingrained in us over ten hundred years that this has become¬†the “correct” way to learn to sight read. We don’t question it. It’s been defended as being more pure to sing. Well, no kidding Sherlock, it’s from a latin text which has all pure vowels – – – which in no way whatsoever translates to the demands of texts which we sing today. Solfege has names for the chromatic variations as well, “ee” for raised, “ah” for lowered. But this is a Kod√°ly-method¬†intended for that specific approach. Nothing wrong with that, but it demands instruction from childhood age in it. And if that training didn’t occur?? Uhhh…..

So¬†let’s go back to our¬†accepted goal in developing sight reading skills: to remove as many domains¬†from working memory capacity as possible. Today, we do not have a song which everybody knows, save for Julie Andrews singing “Do, a deer…” which, trust me, everybody does NOT know. So we must take a different approach than Guido who, after all, was only working with Monks (I can use flowery descriptors to describe my wonderful students, but “Monks” is not one of them). Instead, my hypothesis is that we are best served by using a different symbol to identify the 3rd note of a scale. Or the 6th note or the 2nd¬†note. My solution is to use terminology that is both transparently obvious and deeply entrenched in the¬†part¬†of the brain which stores memorized items so working memory is not required. It’s called… wait for it…. numbers. It may be a leap for some to think that the 4th scale degree is better¬†identified by “4” than by “Fa”, but I have five¬†case studies to support my convictions about this.

1. When I student taught at Keene High School in the Fall of 1987, I watched Jean Nelson utilize numbers, not solfege, to teach sight reading. The results were astounding. The state of New Hampshire had to limit how many students were allowed to audition for All State each year because at Keene High School, the acceptance rate was 100%. Why? Their sight reading was better than that of a typical¬†college. But there as an essential detail at work in making this happen. Jean constantly – and I mean constantly – referred to the notes in the students’ music by number. She referred to them as letter names too, but she called them what they were by scale degree. When a note was raised or lowered, students sung them for what they were: sharp 4, flat 3, and so on. They applied this technique and¬†could read with a proficiency¬†I have never seen surpassed at¬†the High School level.

2. My overt goal in coming to York High School in 2000 was to create a culture of musical literacy at the High School. In June of 2004 the school board unanimously approved a graduation requirement specifically for music and it was first applied to the graduating class of 2008. In the 8 years since, an average of 71% of all graduates have performed in concert as a member of one of my choirs. This is relevant only in that my chorus is a semester class with the vast majority singing in High School for the first time, most¬†of whom did not sing in 7th or 8th grade either. Many know the note names for one clef or the other, virtually none for both. Their pitch matching skills are all over the place. By the end of the first day of class, 100% (not 92%, not 47%, 100%)¬†are accurately sight reading melodies on the first three scale degrees. On the second day they are all accurately sight reading melodies on the first five scale degrees. How? They do not need to access working memory to know what a note two above the first one is called. They do not need to access working memory to know what a note four above the first one is called. Literacy. I do have students who sang solfege in Middle School, many quite successfully. When they ask if we can sing solfege I always do this test, and it has never deviated in its result. I say, “Please raise your hand the milisecond that you know the correct answer to these next two questions, ready?”. They nod. First question: “What solfege symbol comes before la”? It takes them a moment. Some take a quick yet thoughtful glance up at the ceiling looking for¬†their answer. Hands slowly go up. A few right away, but most after a few seconds. Some longer than that. Then it’s time for my second question: “What number comes before 6”?

If it REQUIRES YOU TO THINK¬†to get the answer, you’re making my point for me; if it takes time for¬†you to to come up with the answer, you¬†cannot POSSIBLY simultaneously utilize that information to sight read a line of music. It isn’t possible. Try asking those same two questions to your choirs – not just your honors kids but ESPECIALLY your foundational entry level choirs, the ones we are purportedly¬†“training” to become better musicians – and watch what happens. See if I’m wrong about this.

3. My¬†Portland Community Chorus. A remarkable thing happens each Monday night. As we are learning music, invariably we come across difficult intervals (I’ll talk more about that in a minute but I have always said that there is no such thing as “Difficult Notes”, just difficult intervals and harmonies…) which a section has difficulty getting. I routinely have the section stop, sight read my fingers (hold up 2, then 6, then 4), and they have successfully sung the difficult passage, write in the numbers, and they cease to have the issue again. Once they know what they are hearing, then they can accurately match the pitch. This is a choir I am extraordinarily proud of, but they are largely not¬†classically trained. They generally show up on my doorstep not knowing¬†solfege (they are auditioned). If they were required to learn that language as well, the gears would start grinding in rehearsal quickly. The numbers would also drop. Instead they are functionally literate in numbers: they have a system of reading music which they can apply successfully to help them perform their music.

4. One of the bravest things I have ever seen was Jarika at her first concert as a music teacher actually teaching the audience to sight read. But she did. I was there and the effect on that audience was astounding. They actually sight read music. I replicated this a year and a half ago when I went onstage 10 minutes prior to the concert. The audience had a sight reading example in their programs and I went through the steps to teach them how to read it (hearing the numbers, identifying them on my fingers, transferring that skill to a staff). At the end of the 10 minutes the audience sight read the selection together. When they finished, a lady in the second row literally let out a yell – I’m not making this up. And she said, “I just read music!” Trust me on this: unless that audience already knows solfege, they can’t learn to sight read in less than 10 minutes. People¬†already “hear” what a 3 sounds like in our culture. If you don’t believe me, watch this video at 42 seconds into it. We already KNOW the third scale degree. Are we going to confuse the matter for our entry level students by giving it a random name like “Mi”?

5. A few years ago I came up with a warmup that trains students to hear and accurately sing difficult intervals. We all know the pattern on 8th note/quarter note, “1, 1 – 1, 2 – 1, 3 – 1, 4, etc where the reference number is “1”, or Do. What I do is then change it up and make “2” the reference number (2, 1 – 2, 2 – 2, 3 – 2, 4 etc) and so on. Up and down the scale, making different scale degrees the reference number along the way. It happens pretty rapid fire so there’s no time for thinking, you actually automatically sing what you already hear. It works well I believe, exposing¬†the intervals my students have the most difficult time hearing and allowing me to train them. But I have always done this on numbers. I have had some teachers try it themselves on solfege instead and you know what happens? It’s more difficult to sing the correct solfege symbol. This is teachers we’re talking about now. Hmm. I wonder why singing on solfege makes this more difficult?

For students who are high achieving, those who have taken private lessons, those who are highly motivated to learn these skills on their own outside of class, solfege rocks their world. They are ones who don’t look up at the ceiling to figure out what symbol comes before La. They are the ones who get amazing sight reading scores. I can hear teachers involved in NATS screaming at me right now through their computer screens, “Of COURSE solfege works you stupid man! What are you talking about? I’m not saying that solfege doesn’t or can’t “work”. But I am asking what we are doing¬†in our schools that¬†provides literacy to the greatest degree. The answer for some IS solfege. A few years ago I spent a day shadowing¬†a valued colleague of mine at Goffstown High School in New Hampshire, Josh Desrochers. I worked with his choirs a bit and I observed him working with them. One of his choirs did their usual morning routine sight reading, and they did so on solfege. Brilliantly. And it wasn’t the typical case of a few strong singers in each section carrying the rest of the weak readers along. Every member of that ensemble sight read brilliantly. But as Jean Nelson did on numbers in Keene, the students at Goffstown learn all their music on solfege before they are even allowed to sing on text. Is it a wonder that they read so well? And Josh has worked to see to it that his students recognize notes by solfege as a normal function. Ask those students which solfege symbol comes before La, and their hands go straight up. Cathy Murray at Thornton Academy is another brilliant example of a teacher who has made a commitment to solfege and her students and alumni are functionally literate and tremendous¬†sight readers. I could easily name more.

I do not buy for a moment however that solfege needs to be learned for the benefit of future music majors. I have very successful alumni of my own who have gone on to teach music and become very accomplished singers. There are two common threads between all of them as they have reported out to me, progressing¬†through their undergraduate training. The first is that they all had a difficult time learning to sight read on solfege. It was a new language for them and they immediately fell behind the 8 ball. But here’s the second: virtually without fail they also arrived as being among the best sight readers in their classes. Got that? Their college professors weren’t terribly concerned with whether or not my kiddos could sight read well, only that they “knew” how to do so on solfege. I will save my rail against higher ed music education programs for another day, but for now I will simply say that MY¬†priority remains¬†developing foundational sight reading skills in all my students. Contrary to the belief of many in higher ed, style points do not count. My alumni who did have to learn solfege? They did it. Do they report being better sight readers for using it when they were¬†already trained how to identify pitch without accessing working memory? Take a guess.

So what is my point in writing this blog post? Embedding effective¬†musical literacy in our students must be our A-1 priority as educators. It is irrelevant how we do it, so long as we actually and authentically do it. Research and Guido D’Arezzo make the case that removing more¬†working memory components equates to greater success. I have yet to have anyone make the case that learning the language of solfege itself accomplishes this to a greater degree NOW than a system which incorporates terminology our students have memorized and utilized every day of their lives since the age of two. Solfege¬†was not sent down as the 11th Commandment. It is not, in any way whatsoever, scientifically superior to any other system of reading music. Every study – and I mean every study – that has been published on sight reading¬†has discussed variables that positively and negatively impact abilities and success. The specific use of solfege has yet to be reported as one of them. The biggest factor is finding a process and sticking to it, not whether a student sings “Mi” or “3”.¬†I have heard the effective argument that solfege, especially movable Do as Kodaly envisions it, has unique benefits that assist the development of musicianship in any student. I buy that. But what population are we talking about? Do YOU work in a school district in which every student receives music instruction in every grade including High School? In which you never have students transfer in with a gap in their music knowledge? In which students are given enough time in the semester to master these skills to the point of properly applying them? That’s the population Kodaly is referring to, how about yours? Let’s stop kidding ourselves, buying into the collegiate myth that if you don’t know solfege you’re not musically literate. It’s merely my suggestion that we individually reflect on, and do¬†some deep digging into, our literacy strategies to see if they are in fact attaining our most desired outcomes for all our students. I am convinced that of all people, Guido D’Arezzo would have wanted it that way.


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