ode to small schools

I started this post 5 years ago but just couldn’t finish it up because I have so many emotions wrapped up in it. Every time I attempted to finish it, it just didn’t get across my thoughts very well. I’m not sure this is a vast improvement over any of the previous iterations, but at least it’s a published attempt. Take it for whatever it’s worth. If I have a chip on my shoulder (and I know that I have more than just one), it’s that the Middle and High Schools of northern New England will NEVER be able to compete artistically with most other school districts across the country. We are geographically too spread out, our resources are too spread out, and our per capita student population is dwarfed by even moderate sized school districts across the nation (a small high school in the midwest or southeast is 2,000+ students. The largest in all of Maine is currently at 1,700). So if we were to judge our programs by concert comparisons, programs in northern New England, on a national scale, would routinely receive a failing grade. Statement of fact.

There’s three reasons that’s troublesome. The first is that we even rank the success of our programs by the musicality of our concerts. We really have become (maybe always have been?) a profession obsessed with the “performance”. That’s understandable since that’s the one tangible thing others can judge us by. They aren’t in our classrooms watching our instructional practices, they don’t study our pedagogy. It becomes very easy for us to put a lot of emphasis on our performances because we feel that’s the measure of our worth. Second, we rank the success of other programs by the musicality of their concerts. We look across our own driveway to view our neighbor’s lawn. Whose is greener? How many kids made all state from that school? How large is their concert band? How many singers are in their 6th grade chorus? How do I stack up against them? The third is that we miss the entire point by judging our performances to begin with: we don’t teach music, we teach kids. OUR own kids in OUR own programs.

The challenges of a small school are wrapped up in those things. The net result education we provide our students is predicated on the skill level we get them at. If we are good at what we do, we simply take them where they are at when they get to us and elevate them as far as they can go before they leave us. What does that look like in a small school district? It might mean that no one takes private lessons. How do you make up for that? By devoting time to foundational technique instead of learning literature, or teaching literature at the expense of developing technique. It might mean that you have one trombone in your entire instrumental program. What do you do about that? Select literature that allows that trombonist to succeed… and that means selecting literature a grade level or two lower than that actual grade span would otherwise get. You have strings in your program. But because you are a small school, there are fewer teachers and sections of required classes, so the only way you’re able to meet with those kids is at 6:45 am two times a week (that’s an actual scenario).

And wrapped up in all THOSE things are the impact it has on you as a music educator. There were unfortunate changes going on in the local Middle School when I started my career at the High School in Bellows Falls, Vermont, and within 5 years of beginning my career I had a total 2 tenors in my Chamber Singers. By the time I left for graduate school, it was down to 1. I had other tenors in the program, but none who were ready for that kind of challenge musically or academically. This drove me to feel like such a failure as a teacher that I decided to quit the profession. I looked into Masters programs down the road at Keene State to become a guidance counselor, because I loved working with the kids but clearly was a failure as a music teacher. I was in the middle of that career transition when Denny Cox invited me to come up to Orono to spend a year up there with him (which changed my life). But my point is clear: I was evaluating MY OWN aptitude on the size and sound of my program. The fact of the matter is that, in small school districts, you are at the mercy of so much more than you have control over, and that does a number on your psyche. The mental and emotional well being of music educators in small schools has been a concern of mine ever since my first years in Vermont. My instrumental colleague at BF left Vermont after a few years and moved to a High School in Texas where he become the Freshman Marching Band director of 140 students. If he gained or lost 10 kids here or there, it wasn’t even noticed. In Bellows Falls? The addition or loss of 10 kids meant the difference between the program even existing or not. Did he have other concerns in Texas? Yup he did, but that’s a discussion for another day to be led by a music educator other than myself. When your very existence as a music teacher is predicated on recruitment or public perception, when your own self value is filtered through the lens of “how does my program compare…”, when you go to work each day wondering if the one bass who matches pitch is going to be in rehearsal that day or not, when you know that if you do superhuman work you still will not be able to program grade-level concert band music as long as you are employed by that school, and on and on, it adds up.

It’s impossible to write a blog post like this without running the risk of a perception of: he has it out for large programs, or he doesn’t appreciate the challenges we all face regardless of the size of our school districts. Neither is true, and anybody who truly knows me will vouch for that. Some of my greatest joys have come from watching strong programs grow and flourish under the direction and supervision of my most valued, talented and inspiring colleagues in the field. But when the crossroads of my early 30s was whether to go on and teach at the college level or stay in the public schools, I made a commitment to stay in the public school ranks in northern New England because I was inspired by my colleagues in Vermont who worked in schools with no resources, low numbers to draw from and little in the way of musical culture and yet brought meaningful music education and experiences to their kids anyway. I wanted to be in the middle of the geographical region where a “large” High School is 700 students, and the next closest High School is many miles away, not in the same school district. I wanted to be in a region where the music teachers are itinerant, and yet find the way to bring energy and enthusiasm to their students to a degree that would make any music teacher with their very own designated classroom blush.

I’m done going to ACDA conferences until the day comes that they stop accepting performance groups by audition tapes or videos. Just once I would love to attend a conference where the performing groups are selected by geographical region and by gradations of resources, not by how they sound. Just once I would like to attend a conference where a choir is selected based solely on the pedagogical approach of their director, and that session is a workshop on how to teach fundamentals. Just once I would like to attend a conference where a choral director brings their choir of 35 kids out of a school of 400, where they meet once or twice a week, where not one of them takes private lessons, where 4 of them have a working range of a minor 3rd (and we hear it in their performance), and we celebrate – and learn from – the music education that occurs there to make their mere existence possible. ACDA of course will never do that because, “…what if they don’t sound good?” I’m not even anti-ACDA here. I was a state president and am a life-long member for a reason. I’m just done with anything that feeds into the belief that what we sound like dictates our level of success. Because the moment you’ve done that, you’ve automatically diminished the work of some of the finest teachers I will ever meet but no one knows about because that work was done in programs nobody ever really noticed. Robert Shaw could have conducted choral music in Ludlow, Vermont: via audition tape, they would never have been accepted to perform at an ACDA conference. I don’t apologize for having a problem with a profession that thinks that’s okay.

I presented a workshop for NHMEA yesterday afternoon on Individual Assessment in the Large Group Ensemble. The topic is pretty un-sexy, and it was a 2:45 time slot up against quite a few other outstanding sessions including the state ACDA All-Member meeting. I was hoping for up to 20 attendees, expecting closer to a dozen. 70 showed up. It wasn’t attributable to me, it wasn’t attributable to the topic. It wasn’t even attributable to free chocolate (because I forgot to bring it!). It was attributable to the fact that these music possible-953169_1280educators, regardless of their circumstances in their schools, happy or otherwise, content or otherwise, fulfilled or otherwise, showed up because they want to be better for their kids. I saw all of them walk in and I wanted to cry. I know many of those who were there and in some cases an intimate knowledge of the struggles they’ve had to confront day to day, year to year. For those I didn’t know, I wondered as I was presenting what hurdles they have to overcome each week to make their programs viable. My emotion the entire time was one of admiration for them, as it is for my colleagues in Maine and those in Vermont – choral, instrumental and general – who fight the good fight in our smallest school districts. The ones where they don’t have the resources, where they don’t have the colleagues to collaborate with, where they don’t have the cultural support of their rural communities because the arts are simply not a priority. Randy Pausch in his Last lecture said, “I’ll take an earnest person over a hip person every day, because hip is short-term, earnest is long term.” Amen to that. If I had the chance to spend a day observing Eric Whitaker or a day observing Jen Nash up in Orono, guess who I’d select 100 times out of 100? That’s not a slam on Eric Whitaker, it’s a slam on what I feel this profession is sometimes guilty of. Some of the finest, most inspired work is being done in some of our smallest school districts and some of our smallest music programs in northern New England where the accomplishment lies with every trumpet player successfully playing a low “D” with the 1st and 3rd valves at the same time on cue in concert: lets make sure our criteria for truly “successful” programs encompasses that.

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lessons from my sports legends, part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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R – I’ve believed my entire career that it is essential for all students to be able to critique works of art. The reason is that in our culture and society, the arts have a tendency to be boiled down to either “I’m talented or I’m not”, or “I like it or I don’t like it”, and both mindsets bastardize what it’s actually all about. The alternative metal band, Breaking Benjamin appears far more often on my iTunes playlists than any classical composer. That doesn’t mean I think they’re better.

The nut I’ve never successfully been able to crack open is how to approach the assessment of this standard from the Maine Learning Results:

D. Aesthetics and Criticism: Students describe analyze, interpret, and evaluate art (dance, music, theatre, and visual arts).

a. Describe, analyze, interpret, and evaluate art forms by applying grade span appropriate arts concepts, vocabulary, skills, and processes as referenced in Standard A: Disciplinary Literacy.
b. Analyze and evaluate varied interpretations of works of art using evidence from observations and a variety of print and/or non-print sources.
c. Demonstrate an understanding of the difference between a personal opinion and an informed judgment.

A student “doing” this is no accomplishment unless D.a. is in play. D.b. is less applicable to my performance ensembles, and D.c. is the desired outcome. I’ve already written a blog post on my approach toward my two seasonal concerts, where a critique and revision occurs as a class/ensemble. I schedule two identical concerts at least a few days apart for this reason and it’s really become an essential component of my program. But it fails to cover the individual student accountability part, and certainly fails to assess individual student understanding or application in any valid way.

I’ve tried my hand at several critique projects over the years and have never been satisfied with any of them. I took a stab at it again during an inservice day last month and came up with something that is apparently working. I looked for resources online critique 2that others have utilized and I shamelessly stole thoughtfully applied many elements of others’ work. The end product is a double sided, single page handout (you may view and download the pdf here). This is actually a third revision based on the trial runs I did this week with three different ensembles. Same with the lesson plan. I discovered that there was more writing time needed than I had allotted, and I ended up adding a question #10 that allowed students to articulate takeaways from peer pair/shares that followed immediately after. The lesson plan involves the following:

A. Review with your students the course performance indicators that they will be applying in their critique.

B. View a previously selected youtube video of a performance for the students to watch and listen to. Set them up with the info to #s 1, 2 and 3 on the critique sheet first.

C. Play the video twice through. During the first watch, students should be determining which three indicators they will be discussing (one for question #5, two for question #6). They may begin writing if they so choose. Between the first and second viewing, give 5 minutes of silence for students to begin writing their critique. During the second viewing students should continue writing. At the conclusion of the second viewing, provide between 4 and 10 minutes for students to finish writing. They should only have completed #s 4. through 9.

D. Students are to break into groups of 2 (an odd one of 3 is fine if an odd number of students). For 60 seconds, only one of those two students may speak. They are to give a general overview of their critique. At the end of that time, they are to take an additional minute and a half to have the other person articulate their general overview, but this time this is allowed to become a dialogue.

D. optional: repeat one more time in different pairs.

E. provide another couple of minutes for students to complete question #10.

F. optional: repeat B through E with a second video of a contrasting group or performance.

I did 5 trial runs of this exercise this week and the students – of all levels – responded positively to it. Moreover, they are concretely demonstrating an understanding of specific course indicators and applying them in a non-performance setting. Individual, academic accountability and measurement of learning/application is in place here. I thought my honors students would take this and run with it, I didn’t expect my general chorus to do so to the same degree. But they did. Game on.

Next week is the week before midterms and I will be doing this as a formal, summative assessment with all my ensembles. It is a nice way to wrap up the term, and requires students to be articulate and analytical as well as musicians. I like that 🙂 If you try this out for yourself in some form, or already do in some other format, let me know how it worked for you!


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R – I was having a conversation with a colleague this week about kids in general from the teacher perspective. One of the amazing transformations for me in my professional journey was the Randy Pausch head-fake when we implemented the graduation requirement specifically for music at York. I thought the challenge would be working with the hundreds of kids who had no desire to sing or take a music class. It can be, but the opposite has largely been true. In so many ways these students have provided some of my greatest joys.

When we view our students, do we view them as they have been in the past, as they currently are, or do we believe in who they can be? I’m not talking about academically: the POINT to being a teacher is to believe in their potential and to foster it. Um, we’re actually kinda paid to DO that. I’m talking about personally. We all have those students who hang out in our classrooms during their free time. Invariably there are those students who possess the maturity to be leaders in the classroom and make our jobs (and lives!) easier. We have our all-staters and kids who work their tails off. We give awards to those kids at graduation and recognize them as often as we can.

How about the other ones?

When I began my stint at Winnacunnet High School in 1996, I had half the football team in choir because they thought they could just show up, not sing and get the credit. When world war three broke out in that classroom in the days that followed, every last one of them dropped the course…. except for one. Nick. A senior. He stayed. He decided that he was going to stay behind and make this new teacher’s life a living hell. Initially, he succeeded. But I decided a) that Nick was not a “bad” kid, b) Nick might even be a great kid – and simply hadn’t shown it yet and 3) that I was going to make him the poster child for my chorus. Literally. After a few weeks I made a HUGE sign and posted it on my upright rehearsal piano facing the choir. I don’t recall exactly what it said, but it was along the lines of, “Nick, please stop that.” I announced to the ensemble that it was a time saving measure on my part so all I’d have to do during class was to stop, point to the sign, and continue with the rehearsal. The kids ate it up! So did Nick… which HE didn’t expect. He went from hating class to actually kind of looking forward to it. We started talking outside of class a bit. We’d joke about how funny he was in class the day before or how funny *I* was in response to him. 😉 What happened over time is that Nick stopped misbehaving altogether, the sign came down, and he became the face of the ensemble. That Spring, my dress rehearsal for the chorus concert fell on senior skip day. I had 17 seniors. I made an emotional speech to them the class before saying that if they had learned anything from me at all about accountability, they would be on that stage on senior skip day block 2. 16 of those 17 seniors showed. I’d never been more proud.

Nick was one of them.

Not only that, the next day I learned from another student that Nick got up in the face of the one senior who didn’t show up and reamed them out. You want to know the impact Nick had on ME? 22 years later I’m writing a blog post about him on a Saturday morning.

My colleague who I was talking to related a similar story more recently. She had been a substitute in a school system for elementary level kids, and not even in music. There was a student in the school who was always in trouble and all the teachers hated having in class. This wasn’t hyperbole, the teachers actually transparently said so, and was a routine topic of conversation in the teacher’s room. Let’s call the kid “Ty”. He was 8 years old and was always in trouble, always having meltdowns and his presence was always dreaded. My friend heard about him early on and ended up having him in class one day. She decided that NO kid deserved to be treated the way that whole faculty had treated him, and that she’d see what she could do. At the start of class she took Ty aside and said, “I really need your help today – I’m a sub, so I need a student helper to assist me, so that’s what you’re going to be for me today.” Here was Ty’s response: “But, I’m a bad kid.”

*insert breaking heart here*

She said that she hadn’t worked with him before so as far as she was concerned he wasn’t and that he was going to help. And he did and had an okay day. Her end of day report mentioned that Ty was the best student in the room and how helpful he was. The regular teacher the next day was more than perplexed. After that my colleague started requesting classes that Ty was in when she was called to substitute. Ty sometimes had his meltdowns, but he would be reminded that, “I really need you today” and he’d snap right out of it. Over time he showed what happens to a kid when someone believes in them.

Neither of these stories makes either of us a “good” teacher, or even a good person. And no one reading this today hasn’t had similar experiences I suspect. But when we stop looking at our role as teachers to love and support those who make our jobs and lives easier, and shift it to loving and supporting ALL our kids, ESPECIALLY the most difficult ones, a transformation occurs… in them and in us. All of the sudden our classrooms become a petri dish instead of a hierarchy. Our careers shift from looking for the best and brightest to looking for the neediest and least convenient for us. Who needs us most: the ones who are going to swim either way or the ones who are at risk of drowning? And is it a legitimate excuse for us to say we don’t have time for them, the energy for them or the wherewithal to seek them out in the first place? I rant on this blog all the time about academic accountability in the music classroom (are you a co-curricular activity in an academic subject’s clothing?). But I have also said that being academically accountable does not negate in any way our primary responsibility as people: to believe in our kids, ALL of our kids. Identify the Nick, identify the Ty. Make them your primary focus and watch what happens. You would think that the end result is that you make them better. It’s not: invariably, it’s the other way around.

believe 2


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R – Dan Sovetsky is my colleague at York High School and we went out to get a quick bite after his concert a couple of nights ago. We were both in a reflective mood as we talked not only about the concert but about our music program and how it’s morphed over the last 15 years since we started working together. Invariably, it led to conversations around our perspectives about our jobs.

I was mentioning to Dan that I noticed earlier in the day that his desktop picture on his computer is a picture of his current concert band and how much he really seems to be enjoying working with them this year. He agreed. Dan seems to be enjoying his work with his band even more the last year and a half than ever before. It’s not that he didn’t in years past, not at all. But there’s been something different in his demeanor and approach to his students more recently. He noted that his current Freshman are just about the same age as his oldest daughter and it’s given him a perspective that he never had to this degree. He lives every day in that teenager’s world at home and his empathy for his students has not only become more acute, it really changes how he views them. It has been so cool to see him locking in even more with his kids at school as the years have gone by.

We talked some more and I was reflecting on being in my early/mid 50’s now. It’s been funny… I loved being in my 20’s but even more in my 30’s and yet even more in my 40’s. The professional impact of those decades has been a scaffold, each built upon the other. Through each I’ve gained perspectives and skills that have brought so much happiness to me. But now that I’m in my 50’s, it’s been very weird: it’s tough to think of continuing the scaffold because in my next decade I’ll be retired. The end. It’s not that I won’t stay professionally active in some capacity. But it’s going to be a new start, not a continuation of the trajectory I’ve been on since January, 1988. That’s a bit scary to me. I’ve always been restless – if not miserable – unless I have a next mountain peak to climb. How do I approach my career now? I still work hard, push myself to grow, etc, etc. But what should I be feeling during my day-to-day?

What I have found myself doing the last few years is spending more and more time reminiscing about “the good ol’ days” of my career. Dan and I were talking for instance about our truly incredible summers working at MSYM in Orono. To this day those weeks during the July months have been the happiest of my life. The kids, the environment, our colleagues, our time just hanging out at Pat’s Pizza. The beauty of those weeks is that, while I was in the midst of them, I knew in the moment how special they were. I really did. I was able to ride that wave for 15 straight summers and I loved every one of them. I have been looking back on my career the last couple of years reminiscing about other significant happy moments or events or years too. But there’s been one difference. I don’t think I honestly appreciated to the same degree how special they were while I was in the moment of them.

I’ve realized something this Fall. It’s that, with the wisdom of experience, there’s always going to be times that exasperate and frustrate you. There’s always going to be highs and lows. There’s always going to be trials and dejection in this profession. There’s no way perspective-hand-e1417450105710around it. My scenario at York continues to be a genuine dream come true, but I obsess over the details every week and I get bogged down in them. I do so because I enjoy the challenge. I also do it because that’s my job (I don’t apologize for it). But I’ve come to realize this Fall that it truly – to a degree I never fully appreciated until now – is about perspective. I came across a meme yesterday that said something like, “you don’t appreciate the photographs… until they are all you have left.” Instead of making me sad to think about that, it reinforced my new understanding of how I want to approach my career for its remaining years. Simply put, every day, every week, every month, every colleague, every student, every class: appreciate it all in the actual moment. It won’t last. They won’t be around forever. The experiences and events you have will be gone soon enough. I’ve decided that I do not want to be guilty of not appreciating ALL of it as its occurring.

I think I wasn’t capable of realizing this until I was older. That’s too bad on the one hand, but I think it’s one of the gifts of becoming older on the other 🙂 Which current freshmen are the ones I’m going to be mourning losing three and a half years from now, and am I appreciating my time with them now? What days am I going to look back on and wonder how I didn’t see the good stuff in the middle of them? Am I going to keep putting my head down, churning forward, only to reflect on the happy moments down the road, or am I going to keep my head up enough to experience and appreciate those moments in real time like I did for MSYM? The choice is a clear one for me and it has already made a monumental difference for me since the start of school.

James Taylor has a line in a favorite song of mine that, “…the secret of life is enjoying the passing of time.” While I love the sentiment, it’s a bit too trite for me. I don’t always enjoy the passing of time. I don’t live in a Disney movie and I am not always thrilled in the moment. But instead, I think, for me, the secret of life is becoming more and more about appreciating the current time regardless. Perspective. Reminiscing about years past, former students and experiences, it’s all good. The proper perspective however is causing me to simultaneously recognize that every day I’m in school is a “good ol’ day” in and of itself. To appreciate it and love it (warts, frustrations, down moments along with it all) as it’s happening is going to spare me a lot of wondering down the road, “did I truly take it all in at the time it was occurring?”. My suspicion is that there are thousands of people much wiser than me who realized this long before I did. I don’t think this blog post is unearthing any great revelation. But it was neat to be chatting with my colleague Thursday night, both of us reflecting on how our perspectives have changed so much. And in every way, for the better.

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hello mr. shwa

R – Thursday afternoon I experienced a major development in my entire philosophy toward developing and, more significantly, assessing choral enunciation for teenagers. It is centered around the shwa (Ə): the neutral, mid-vowel of the vowel chart. I was confronted with a critical flaw in my academic approach with my honors choir students, and both the realization and the adjustment moving forward is a story worth sharing.

First, my premises to this point in my career. IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet, not the beer 🍺) is extraordinarily useful by any standard. Anyone with even rudimentary training in college level voice understands that and has experienced it. My issue with it has never been its value. Rather, at the High School level, it is not practical, certainly not in northern New England. With limited face-time each year, I can either teach pedagogy and foundational choral technique or I can teach IPA, but I can’t do both. For 32 years I have worked with teenagers, all of whom have been in dire need of instruction around vocal pedagogy and technique. It’s the nature of the teenage voice. Consequently, that has been a primary focus. Since 1996, it has been THE primary focus. That Summer I took a graduate vocal pedagogy instruction course taught by two voice teachers from New York City. At the time, they were the two primary vocal instructors for the Metropolitan Opera. And Whitney Houston and Mick Jagger. Game on. They taught me how to teach vocal pedagogy and they provided the class with ideas and techniques that were practical to the general classroom as well as to the studio. It changed me as a teacher. Since then, I have focused on two elements in my choral program: pedagogy and choral tone. By attaching choral tone with vocal pedagogy, I have been able to instruct both, allowing me to serve them to my students in a way that is both manageable and digestable; I can deliver this instruction within the confines of my student face time, yet also in a way that they can assimilate and apply relatively easily. It will take them months and years to master these skills, but we as teachers already know that. I need to make sure those skills have been introduced in a way that is functional for them to be able to develop over time. And by “them” I’m talking about the 97% of the student population who have never taken voice lessons. This approach has never not worked for me. General chorus, honors choirs, guest conducting, summer choirs, adult choirs. It has little to do (I’m convinced) with my instructional ability, but rather with my corresponding curriculum, developed and refined since that graduate course. The credit goes to those two voice teachers. I have been able to work with “tone deaf” kids who haven’t sung since 4th grade and turn them into singers who make honors festivals. It also takes the so-called “talented” kids and provides them with a collegiate level tool box to help them refine their craft.

With me so far?

Let’s go to the de-construction and assessment of some individual pieces of this. The three that are relevant to this discussion are around tone, mouth and diction. My approach to choral tone has been an amalgam of that Summer course and the English Choir tradition. When you listen to those choirs, you can literally “hear” their dropped jaws and lifted soft palates (“palates”, not “pilates” 🤸🏻‍♂️) Listen to this excerpt and see if you agree:

The one non-negotiable for Chamber Singers each Fall is the performance of at least a couple of these carols for the purpose of instructing these technical essentials, because without them you just kill the carols. Students can then apply these to their other literature. However, you can’t assess and hold a student academically accountable for the raising of their soft palate (ya simply can’t see the darned thing!). Instead I combine two indicators/rubrics, one for tone and the other for mouth:

TONE; Sings with proper balance of “ring” and “loft”: (4) singing voice is perfectly balanced, (3) singing voice is independent but developing, (2) some vowels have too much ring (speaking voice) or loft, (1) no unique singing voice
MOUTH; Sings with dropped jaw and light bulb space: (4) jaw is always low with open space (3) jaw is usually low with open space (2) jaw and space placement are inconsistent (1) the mouth is barely open

It ain’t perfect, but at least it gives me and the students two very clear, very assessable indicators. The other side of the tone coin for me has been diction. This is important to me, because you can’t possibly assess “enunciation”: there’s too much going on there to assess it as a single entity. And the articulators (teeth, tongue, lips) bring everything forward in the mouth, which then works against proper tone. Instead I break it down to diction combined with tone. Here’s my diction rubric:

DICTION; Performs with aligned consonants: (4) consonants are the same dynamic as the vowels, (3) consonants are the same dynamic as the vowels more than 80% of the time, (2) consonants are the same dynamic level as the vowels between 50% and 80% of the time, (1) consonants are usually quieter than the vowels

Again not perfect, but it does effectively tie in with what I learned from Dr. Peter Bagley many times over in my career, and is simultaneously eminently clear and assessable.

Still with me?

I’ve already written this Fall about my current intern Emma, and on Thursday afternoon she was scoring our students’ assessments; individual student videos. The song they were being assessed on is one she has been teaching Chamber Singers, Up Good Christen Folk And Listen, an English carol. We were only assessing notes, rhythm and diction (we’re always working on tone, but we are finalizing notes and rhythms this month so November is spent just polishing and shaping tone, phrasing, etc). Here’s the section of it she drew my attention to as she was assessing the individual students’ videos:

Our students were just butchering the four places with the letter “r” sound at seconds 5-7, 14 and 17. Emma told me she couldn’t score their diction because there was no way to address the “r” based on the diction rubric. I told her that she had to stick to the rubric, that we weren’t assessing tone yet but would be; we’d address the “r” when it came time for that assessment soon enough. She wasn’t buying it. Emma was claiming that you can’t address diction unless you address all the consonants and that you can’t ignore something as egregious as what the kids were doing with their “r”s this early in the game. What followed was a two and a half hour discussion/investigation of how to handle the “r”. I looked up some articles and dissertations. I wasn’t getting anywhere until I came across a truly brilliant and thorough site devoted to choral diction (check it out!!!), and I read this:

“W, R, and Y are pathological in the sense that they aren’t really consonants (and actually, in a sense, not really vowels either).”

Hold the phone, Verne. Huh? Neither diction NOR tone? I’ve been riding along peacefully for 22 years and I just struck an embankment. In my boiling down of choral pedagogy to the smallest digestive pieces, I’ve somehow left this part out of the equation. IPA covers this brilliantly of course: Ə. And I immediately thought back to when Brady Allred from University of Utah came to conduct Maine All State. He preached the shwa. My lack of enthusiasm for it was founded in a) my presupposition that if you sing with good choral tone with a lowered jaw and raised soft palate, it is redundant (i.e. English choirs), and b) I didn’t hear a big difference in the all state choir’s sound. Turns out it was due to their mediocre application of the concept despite his brilliant instruction, not the concept itself. I’ve always admired Dr. Allred’s work and have always been blown away with how his choirs can sing with so much resonance and yet blend as well as any choir from King’s College in Cambridge. And it instantly dawned on me: rich, resonant choral tone PLUS THE SHWA. Listen to his choir singing “A Savior is found”:

And there it is. My approach toward de-constructing choral tone and diction was missing the capacity to sing with more resonance (King’s College would never sing “Sav..” or “is” that far forward) but with similar blend. Emma and I talked more about it (it was now 4:15…) and agreed that I need to add another learning target to my honors choirs standards: the shwa. Here is an initial draft of what this is going to look like:

SHWA (Ə); Performs “R and “Y” as neutral vowels: (4) Shwa always applied, (3) Shwa applied consistently with minor errors, (2) Shwa applied inconsistently; between 50% and 80% of the time, (1) Shwa is missing most or all of the time.

I can easily assess this. Emma exposed one more weakness of my overall approach. I wasn’t assessing “diction”, I was actually assessing “consonants”. My rubric for it therefore remains, but the indicator name from here on out is going to be “consonants”.

If anybody needed a case study of why my blog post from last month means so much to me (Student Teachers), you just read it. But my biggest a-ha moment here (clarity of thought, not the Norwegian 80’s band 🎸) is a reminder of how critical it is to refine learning targets in the academic, group ensemble classroom. Assessable learning targets have to be clear, but also manageable. That means putting a limit on what indicators you assess AND boiling down what you feel is absolutely essential into the smallest bite-sized pieces. That looks different for each of us of course, but the danger in every instance is in boiling down too far and inadvertently leaving out essential pieces. I just discovered a piece two days ago that has been completely missing from my students’ list of accountability targets, but will now allow me to evolve my critique of individual singers’ tone and application of consonants with far more nuance and effectiveness. I cannot wait to implement it into my students’ assessments, and I cannot wait to see how its presence refines my instruction as a result.




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student teachers

R – I was going through goober music teachers and was somewhat surprised to realize that I’ve never written a blog post on student teachers. Working with them has been one of the great joys of my career for many reasons. I even started this blog with Jarika who student taught with me in 2011 – and I’m still trying to become half the teacher she is. I’ve written before about how I believe we give younger teachers short shrift (nothing to learn from beginning teachers) but not about those in the final phases of their training. Currently, Emma Donahue is a 5th year intern pursuing her Masters degree and she’s with me this Semester through December. Just four weeks in, it has been an incredible reminder of how lucky I am to be involved in this kind of work with preservice teachers.

Yesterday after school we made sure her new laptop was uploading student video submissions from google classroom to doctopus so she could also be assessing them along with me from home. We got it running and ran through a few of the videos together to calibrate our thinking (these were of the treble choir sight reading in class from earlier in the week). It was a fascinating time we spent. We watched the first singer and Emma noted that her voice was somewhat breathy. We had already assessed her jaw/mouth placement and were now onto tone. Our discussion was centered around the difference between tone; voice placement (ring/loft; resonance/space) and vocal production. My premise is that placement is post production and an entirely separate indicator. It’s not that one doesn’t impact or even inform the other, it’s that they are two separate things. In addition, I can hold a student completely academically accountable for placement – that’s a cognitive choice (as long as I’ve done my job) – but production goes to a point beyond what I can hold a student academically accountable for. We have to find the time to work with them on it for sure, but it is not a formal indicator. Emma and I talked about that. She was in the position of having to deconstruct that singer’s sound to the point of determining placement, all the while hearing and seeing other issues. It’s a challenging multi-task. She scored the student remarkably well on that and the other indicators, provided written feedback, submitted it, and we went on to the next student. Emma was surprised at hearing a strong, healthy production and placement from this Sophomore because this same student did not generally sing out in class to the same degree. We discussed why and Emma scored her indicators. We went on to one more. Breathiness issues again, but this time we could pinpoint some specifics why as they pertain to our indicators. The corresponding lower scores were put in place because of the rubric attached to them, and appropriate feedback was provided so the student could demonstrate improvement next time. Emma also sent the request of having the student sign up for academic intervention time to work with her on it for a few minutes for the purpose of giving her some pointers. I’m looking forward to watching that.

What happened here wasn’t just the routine assessment of some of our singers. It was a process that required us to dig deeper into student achievement and what building blocks are in place that we not only can control, but have an obligation to address. How do we address them? How do we tease out individual small grain size building blocks and address them individually and independently so that we can bring them all together and synthesize them by the end of the school year? What deductive reasoning can we use when we listen and watch the video assessments? What are the sequential steps we can take with each student? This time together was a microcosm of what having a student teacher is like. And while it is instructive for the student teacher, it’s a turbo charger for me because I a) have to articulate my own beliefs and understandings and b) do so in a way that is transparent and coherent. And if I can’t? That should be a huge red flag for me… and for my administration who has me under a professional contract to be a competent educator. A few other thoughts:

  • Emma is my 24th student teacher in my career, and there is one common thread every single one of them have: not one OUNCE of their success was attributed – in any way whatsoever – to how well they did on their Senior Recital. Thanks to higher ed, a ton of my time is getting my student teachers to transition from their “performance” mindset to an “analytical observation” mindset. My most successful student teachers are the ones who did so, and viewed the analytical observation part as the most rewarding component of their placement. Emma is one of them: she is already discovering that if she nails down 13 different things simultaneously while in front of her students, I can identify 2 or 3 things she missed 😉 What this is doing however is causing HER to become that analytical as well, and she’s now running with it. The resulting growth in her teaching pedagogy and acumen is literally occurring on a daily basis. She is feeding the analytical side of her mind, she is now standing in front of her classes with that approach, her lesson plans and on-her-feet thinking reflect it, and she is blossoming. Today, four weeks in, I would happily hire her as a teacher in my own school district for that reason.
  • What’s happening now for Emma with each new experience in front of the kids is a football quarterback analogy I’ve used so many times over the years. With regard to progression as a teacher, there are maybe five or six Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks in the last 50 years who have even been remotely successful in the pros. Talent really won’t help you any more at that point. Rather, if your approach and mindset is spot on, the game gradually starts slowing down. To a rookie quarterback, the safety blitz is a killer because it just comes out of nowhere too quickly to react in any positive way. To a veteran quarterback, they not only see it coming sooner, their thought process is so quick that they don’t even think of how to respond, they just already instinctively know and do the right response. The better ones even use it to their advantage because they have enough mental time to look at their options and make the defense pay for it. They think it that quickly. If you’re Tom Brady, it even gets to the point that you, “already have all the answers to the test”. Every blitz is literally slow-motion to him. The game slows down. That’s one of the most awesome transitions to see in a student teacher and facilitating this transformation is about the most fun a cooperating teacher can have.
  • I believe a misconception of student teaching is the “mini me” mindset, not only for the student teacher but perhaps too often for the cooperating teacher as well. “Watch what I do so you can learn how to do it too.” Obviously, if you’re worth anything at all, any student teacher (any peer for that matter) can learn from various things you do and adopt it into their regimen. On the other hand, I have told every one of my 24 the same thing when they began: that they can do anything they want. Anything at all, even if – ESPECIALLY if – it is different from what or how I do things, and that this time with the students is a blank canvas for them. But: I’m going to ask them why they do everything they do… and they had better have a pedagogically sound answer for me or it’s not going to end well. It is not sufficient to “do” the right thing, because the “right thing” is 100% subjective. The right thing for the choral program at York High School might be the polar opposite of the right thing at Keene High School where I student taught over 30 years ago. But if you – any teacher at all – can articulate the pedagogical “why” behind what you do, there is no discussion to be had. And isn’t THAT the goal for a student teacher to achieve? I could go on an on for hours about the impact Jean Nelson had on me when I student taught with her at Keene. The greatest gift I believe she gave me however was the gift of allowing me to develop my own teaching style and strategies while holding me insanely accountable. I’ll never forget her words to me when I started. Jean is a brilliant piano player and I on the other hand was a “claw”. I was very nervous about student teaching because of my lack of piano skills. But she began by telling me this: “…you have the rest of your career to learn how to become a good rehearsal pianist, but you only have these four short months with me to learn how to become a good rehearsal technician, and that’s what you’re going to focus on.” She never once allowed me behind the keyboard. I quickly started to wish she had! The minutia with which she asked me questions and held me accountable was never ending, but it caused me to start becoming a teacher. Better yet, she allowed me to become ME, not her. Did I take dozens of things she did and incorporate them into my own teaching? Of course. But she also allowed me to experiment with my own ideas, teach with my own style – not because mine was better, but because it was an extension of me. When I got my first teaching gig, I would stay through after school routinely, sometimes through supper, working on my piano chops. And I indeed needed more student face-time in the years to come to continually refine my craft. But I showed up on day one to Bellows Falls Union High School knowing the reason behind everything I did, and I knew it was pedagogically sound. Consequently, I showed up believing that I was a damn good teacher… thanks to Jean.
  • There is another myth about student teachers, that the actual students suffer when someone new and unexperienced get in front of them. Well, it depends on your definition of “suffer”. Do things slow down? Yup. Emma told me yesterday of her frustration that the Treble Choir is moving so slowly through a song much less challenging to them than a song I’m teaching that they’re flying through. But she’s not moving them any slower than I did 30 years ago. It’s part of the process. Mistakes will be made along the way too. So be it. The question is, do you have an environment in your program in which students are taught to learn from everything and everyone around them? How does a student teacher in that environment not invigorate the students’ learning process? Do you have an environment in your program in which you make it transparent that you, as the teacher, have much to learn and that it is equally transparent that you are learning too? Do you have an environment where the students take as much pride in watching a student teacher progress as you do? God bless you if you don’t, but my experience at KHS was extraordinary in large part because that’s the environment that was provided me. And I refuse to have one at York that denies a student teacher, and my students, and ME those same opportunities. We don’t suffer with a student teacher: we grow. I just about fell out of my chair taking notes on Emma’s teaching two weeks ago when, in something like her third warmup ever, she took the kids in a circle, and had them sing in four part harmonies on crunchy numbers like I do. But she instead decided to work on blend as a learning target for that warmup, and instead had them sing “ooo” while holding up the fingers of the numbers they were singing. I’ve never thought to do that. It was nothing short of emma trebleextraordinary, and suddenly there were overtones in the room which prompted further discussions about the essentialness of blending vowel sounds, including and especially the inconvenient ones (sorry solfege). That was the springboard for the work we are now doing with them on vowel formation. My mind was blown and now I have a new warmup I will be incorporating the rest of my career. I can give more than few other examples from my other student teachers in years past (precisely because they weren’t “mini me”s btw). Does this sound like my program is “suffering” from having a student teacher?
  • I’ve already alluded to it, but I have to state unequivocally: I am the teacher I am today because of my student teachers. Every one of them had and have strengths and weaknesses… just like me. When I teach, I require them to take notes as if they were my college supervisor and ask leading questions afterwards about everything I did. The pedagogical reason for this is so I can evaluate them on the types and the quality of the questions they’re asking me. I discover what they are thinking and observing… and what they are not! This informs my further work and discussions with them. But the Randy Pausch head fake is that I grow exponentially through this process too. I have to be accountable for every syllable I say, every action I do, every vocal and physical inflection I make, because my student teachers will eventually question me about each and every one. There is no greater professional development than a post observation discussion about the “why” behind the “what” (quick insert here, there’s only two reasons to question someone: 1. because it’s a passive/aggressive way to disagree or 2. because you genuinely want to learn from that person and asking them leading questions is how you do so… isn’t it a shame we live in a society where the cultural default assumption seems to be reason #1?). When you have a student teacher, this professional development of questioning and discussion occurs on a daily basis. Even when the roles are reversed. When I sit back and take the notes on my student teacher, I have to be really clear with my questions, and I have to be really sure I know what I’m talking about if I call them out for something. Yesterday, I quickly, almost subconsciously wrote down a three pronged approach to my philosophy of kinesthetic learning in the choral rehearsal. I’ve never done so before, I’ve never been able to before, and then I looked down at her lesson plan and my scribbling: and there it was. No joke, the growth in a student teacher is crazy significant during their time with you. But if you are authentic about providing pedagogical feedback, you will find yourself doing the growing too.

I interview every single potential student teacher before I commit to them, for the purpose of seeing if they actually want to be a teacher or if it’s just a peripheral interest. I have no patience for a twenty-something standing in front of my kids with less than a 100% commitment to all it takes to become a master at this craft. My students deserve better. But for those who are committed? After Emma and I finished calibrating our assessment scores yesterday after school, it was about half an hour beyond what we had planned. She thanked me for taking the time and also for the additional work it requires to have her with me this Fall. I told her right off that in no way is it extra work. She didn’t accept that. She came right back at me: “You find it fulfilling, but that doesn’t mean it’s not extra work. It is extra work. That’s not the same thing.” Color me called out 🙂 And yes, she’s dead on correct. Working with student teachers is extra work. It’s extra work, extra time, extra energy, extra commitment, extra expectations. But it is also hands down one of the most fulfilling things I can be a partner in, causing me to grow and become even more proficient at something that is the passion of my life. How could that ever feel like work? Every student teacher I’ve ever had has made me a better teacher, and each one has also made me a better student teaching cooperating teacher as well. Best yet, in every case it’s also been an opportunity to thank Jean Nelson for all she gave me at Keene High School by simply paying it forward. And all this is why, often as much as my students, my student teachers have been some of the greatest blessings – to me – of my career.

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