Another MMC In The Books

It’s about 9:30PM and I’m back from another excellent MMC. While there was definitely an impending sense of doom hanging over the weekend, everybody I spoke with was thankful for the distraction provided by the conference this year. At the exact same time Donald Trump was using his inaugural address to attack, frighten, and divide, a community of music educators were using their time and money to collaborate, communicate, and inspire.
At the exact same time Donald Trump was accusing our education system of depriving American students of knowledge, the great teachers of Michigan were sharing innovative ideas to help their students become creators and leaders.
At the exact same time Donald Trump used the bully pulpit to further divide America, conference attendees were treated to fabulous sessions about how to make our classrooms more inclusive and welcoming.
At the exact same time Donald Trump was painting a bleak picture of a destroyed country, these great teachers were proudly sharing great art their students had created from scratch.
My fellow music educators, you have inspired and refreshed me these past few days. We’re not going to let the continued attacks on our profession stop us, we’re not going to back down. We’re going to go back to our schools and communities, and fill them with music. We’re going to model respect and tolerance for our students, and make sure they know they are valued. You all make me proud to be your colleague, and I know your students are proud to have you as their teacher.
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Let’s Celebrate MIOSM 2017 By Collaborating

Each of the past three school years, my students have celebrated Music In Our Schools Month (MIOSM) with an evening of chamber music. Starting after our December concert, the students pick their chamber groups and music, and they begin rehearsing together. This collaborative experience has been very empowering for the students.

This year, I’d like to expand that collaboration beyond my classroom walls. What if several ensembles around the country performed the same piece of music during MIOSM? What if these schools recorded their performances and shared them with the other performers from around the country? How cool would it be for students in Michigan to hear how students in California interpret and perform the same piece of music? What if we were to create new music for these students to perform during MIOSM?

The seeds for this idea were sown back in my college days. Trombonist Brad Edwards composed a series of fanfares for International Trombone Week, and made them freely available to any interested musicians. My plan is to compose a fanfare for concert band, and make it freely available to any groups who would like to perform it as part of an MIOSM performance.

I invite any interested composers/educators to join this fanfare collaboration by contacting me here. Ideally, I envision several short new pieces being created each year that encompass a wide range of styles and ability levels. Any groups that perform these pieces and have access to recording equipment would send in a recording of their performance, which we would then post online to share with every other group that performed the same piece.

I hope some of you will find the potential of this project as exciting as I do. The potential for interaction between performers and composer is great, and I love the thought that my students could start some deep musical discussions with students from all over the country. Again, if you’re interested in participating in this project as a composer or a performing ensemble, drop me a quick note here.

More on the NAfME situation

It’s a been a few days since some racially charged comments allegedly made by NAfME CEO and Executive Director Michael Butera have come to light. Both NAfME and Mr. Butera issued statements on the matter. So far, the response has left me feeling a little underwhelmed and unsatisfied. It’s led to more questions that need to be answered.

  • Mr. Butera’s argument seems to be that his comments were taken way out of context. If that’s true, then what was the context? It’s hard to imagine any scenario in which those words would be okay. Perhaps Mr. Butera was trying to make the point that many school communities with high populations of minority students often lack access to rich arts education experiences. That’s a valid discussion to have, but an incredibly poor choice of words with which to start it. I would happily welcome a more substantive statement from both Mr. Butera and NAfME that elaborates on the context of the situation.
  • A great letter from some of the music education faculty members at Arizona State University has made the rounds in the last day or so. The statement calls for a more detailed response to the incident from NAfME, as does a similar statement released by the SMTE.
  • The ASU letter does contain something that was troubling to read. “While we understand questions may revolve around what Mr. Butera did or did not say, we understand that the actions described in Keryl McCord’s account were corroborated by others and that there is no question that Mr. Butera left the meeting on diversity, inclusion, and equity in an abrupt manner.” It seems that when given the chance to clarify or re-word his statements at the meeting, Mr. Butera decided to leave. If true, it’s difficult to reconcile his stated desire to foster “inclusion, diversity, and equity” with the act of walking away from a conversation on that very matter. Hopefully some of these corroborators will come forward and shed some more light on this situation.

This situation has upset a good portion of the NAfME membership and we would welcome a more detailed response from the leadership in the organization. Hopefully Mr. Butera also opts to provide a more detailed statement on the events, something which I believe is necessary if the organization is going to move past this.

Time for change

It’s clear that NAfME has a serious problem on its hands, and they need to part ways with executive director Michael Butera immediately. Apparently on April 26 at a meeting hosted by the NEA, Mr. Butera decided to publicly share some remarkably prejudiced and wrong-headed beliefs. According to Mr. Butera, NAfME’s membership lacks diversity because “Blacks and Latinos lack the keyboard skills needed for this field” and said something to the effect of “music theory is too difficult for them”.

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Look, everybody is entitled to their own personal views, no matter how stupid and ignorant those views are. I would like to assure the author of this article that as a NAfME member, I do not share Mr. Butera’s beliefs, and I will be reaching out to NAfME to let them know I believe his views have no place in the organization and neither should he.

It’s laughably easy to come up with a list of musicians to counter Mr. Butera’s beliefs. I’m pretty sure Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, Robin and Kevin Eubanks, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Hilliard, James Reese Europe, Adolphus Hailstork, Billy Strayhorn, Gustavo Dudamel, Astor Piazzola, Manuel De Falla, etc, all demonstrate a great understanding of music theory, great keyboard skills, or both. Several of the professors, graduate students, and teachers that I’ve worked with in my short career are also living evidence against Mr. Butera’s beliefs.

I can not in good conscience remain a NAfME member if Mr. Butera is allowed to continue in his leadership role. As teachers we would not dream of excluding students based on their nationality or the color of their skin. It’s massively disappointing that somebody in a position of power in our national organization seems to believe differently.

Celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month

April is Jazz Appreciation Month, a great excuse for music educators everywhere to bring this fantastic art form into their classrooms. NAfME has a list of ways to celebrate on their website, here are some more things you can do to get your students involved with jazz.

1. Incorporate the blues scales into your warmups. Learning a blues scale is an excellent gateway to basic improvisation. The scales are fairly accessibly even to your younger students (I teach them to 7th graders), and open up a lot of musical possibilities. You can create some short riffs for your students to mimic as an ear-training exercise, or you can even just use them with any major/minor scale exercises you already do. I’ll play some very basic comping rhythms, and we’ll play the scale as a class using that rhythm on each note.

2. Learn a jazz standard by rote as a class. If your students know even just a single scale, you can teach them the melody to C Jam Blues by using scale degrees. It’s a very quick process that can lead to teaching swing style, getting percussionists involved, and improvising. Here’s how I do it (and you can do this with ANY major scale):

  • Okay class, find the fifth note of this scale. Let’s play and hold that together.
  • Now find the eighth note of the scale. Play and hold together.
  • Repeat after me (do this in the rhythm of C Jam): five five…five five…five five…fiiiiiive eight. That’s the whole melody! We just play that little riff three times in a row.
  • Now I’m going to use some hand signals to help you guys remember those notes while we play it as a class (I use five fingers and eight fingers).

If your students are very comfortable with that, there are plenty of other standards out there that only require some basic blues scales knowledge (Manteca, for one).

3. Have an improvisation conversation. Trading fours is one of my favorite ways to introduce my students to improvisation. We set up a few basic parameters and go from there.

  • Pick a single note from the B-flat blues scale. That’s the note you’re going to use for this conversation.
  • You can play any rhythm you want, just stick to that note you chose.
  • You get four measures, and then it’s somebody else’s turn.

I’ll put a basic swing beat on our stereo system using the GarageBand app, and then I’ll take the first four measures to give the students an example. The first few times we do this as a class, just so the students feel more comfortable, I’ll play, then a student, then me, then a new student, then me, etc. As they get more comfortable, I’ll step aside more and let the students take over.

This can be expanded to riffs using multiple notes as the students progress. The reason I choose to start with a single note is so that the students are not overwhelmed by choices. It’s one less thing for them to think about as they’re starting to learn a new concept.

4. Write a short 12-bar blues composition as a group. I’ve done this project with my jazz band many times. Your students don’t have to be great with notation for this project to be successful. The last time we did this project, we started with an improvisation conversation. Students came up with some very short riffs using the B-flat blues scale, and we recorded the session.

Step two was playing back the session for the students and asking them to identify some riffs that they liked. I spent a few hours over the weekend transcribing those riffs and labeling them (A, B, C, etc) so I could put some sheet music in front of the students.

Next, we experimented with putting those riffs in a different order. One student might feel that riff B is a great opener, and we should follow it with riff E, and close with riff A. Another student would suggest going ABD. Since the students had each labeled riff right in front of them, we could try out these combinations right away and figure out what we liked best as a group.

If you want, the project can stop there. You’ve got a 12-bar blues melody ready to go. If your students want to go deeper though, you can start digging into the chords that make up a 12-bar blues, and start coming up with some background harmonies to support your melody. This is where I would revisit some of those basic comping rhythms, and we would have some students play the melody while others played I, IV, or V on those comping rhythms. Now you’ve got a more complete piece to work with.

Chamber Music For Middle School Students

Back in college I took a course titled Secondary Instrumental Methods. One of the projects for the course involved arranging Amazing Grace for a small chamber ensemble. I credit this class, and that project in particular, with getting me to start thinking beyond the traditional school large ensemble structure. Activities like composition, orchestration, and chamber music now seemed like realistic possibilities for my own band classes as a teacher.

Fast forward to three years ago. It was my fourth year at my current job, and I felt comfortable enough to start taking some musical risks. When scheduling the concerts for that year, I decided to take the plunge and set up two chamber music nights in March instead of our traditional spring band concert. Each grade would have its own chamber music recital in a more intimate performance venue.

The first year was a lot of trial and error, and here in year three of the annual chamber concerts, I’m still tweaking a few things. I’ve also learned quite a bit during these three years, and I encourage any teacher considering doing something like this to just go ahead and take the plunge.

Why chamber music? It’s simple. My basic goal as a teacher is to provide my students with the skills and thought processes necessary for them to function without me. Rather than me dictating things from the podium, I want them making their own decisions about dynamics, phrasing, tempo, balance, and blend. I want them to have total ownership over the final musical product. Chamber music does all of these things.

Dip your toes in the water. Several months before our first chamber night, I wanted to make sure my students would have just a taste of what they were in for. There’s safety in numbers, and to be successful, they needed to be comfortable playing in an environment where they would be more exposed. The week before Christmas break, they divided themselves into groups of 4-8 students, and we got to work learning some selections from Quick And Easy Carols, by Scott Watson. Each group then went around the school right before break and caroled to several classrooms. They gained performing experience without the pressure that comes with a formal performance.

Flex arrangements are your friend. I let my students choose their own chamber ensembles, because they know who they work well with. This results in some strange instrumentation, which is fine. There are several books out there that will work with any combination of instruments, most notable the Duets/Trios/Quartets For All.

Find a rehearsal schedule that works. I eventually settled on spending 1-2 days per week focusing on just chamber music. On those days, each group goes into a different practice room or spreads out around the band room. I spend 5-10 minutes working with each group on those days. For the other 3-4 days per week, we work on some full ensemble music, and I have the flexibility to send groups that might need some extra practice out to work. It seems to be a good balance for us, and I’ve noticed increased engagement among my students during this concert cycle each year.

Take time to teach decision-making skills. With younger students especially, they might not have much experience reaching a consensus democratically. A strong personality can threaten to take over the whole chamber group. I stress that each individual in the ensemble has a valuable contribution to make, and no decision should be reached until all members have a chance to give their input. We do a few exercises with our warmup chorales as a full ensemble to give students a peek into this process. We’ll play through a chorale, and then I ask for student input on things like dynamics, tempo, and phrasing. If we get three different suggestions for dynamics, we perform the chorale three different ways, and then as a group choose the one that we feel makes the most musical sense.

Find a way to hold students accountable. Since you are not with every chamber group all the time while they are rehearsing, you might need a way to keep them on track. I created a simple rubric, and ask groups to rate themselves in categories like teamwork, preparedness, use of time, rhythm accuracy, pitch accuracy, etc.

Show them how the process works. I’ve got a basic map for the students to guide them through learning a piece. The first step is learning your own individual part, just notes and rhythms. From there, we move to learning how the parts fit together, to making decisions about dynamics and phrasing, to polishing things like blend and balance for the final performance. This gives the students a more tangible goal for each step in the process.

Be encouraging! For many students, this might be their first time in a “1-2 players on a part” situation. There will be some growing pains, so make sure you celebrate the successes. This will keep your students motivated to continue with more chamber music in the future, and they will keep developing these valuable musical skills.

On Bowie

This morning definitely did not play out the way I pictured. My alarm went off at 5:30 as it usually does. A minute or two later, as I was still gathering the motivation to get up and make coffee, I got the “school’s closed, stay home” phone call. As I was climbing back into bed, my wife had her phone out and was checking Facebook.

“Oh my god, David Bowie died!”

“WHAT?!”

Equally as surprising as his death was the fact that he had been battling cancer for 18 months. It’s an astounding feat that he was able to keep his health issues a secret in the age of social media. And, he released an album just three days ago. Only his very closest confidants could have seen this coming.

The tributes that have been coming across my feed today have been incredible. There’s no doubt that David Bowie was an amazing artist, somebody whose impact on music will be felt for many years to come. He was also a man who fought for social justice, as evidenced by this challenge to MTV.

On a personal level, I’m touched by his contributions to music education, a legacy that will continue after his death. I’ll also fondly remember the first time I ever heard “Space Oddity”, back in high school. The hauntingly beautiful vocals sucked me in right away. The melodic lines are gorgeous. The entire song is beautiful in its simplicity, it has a timeless quality. It’s been one of my favorite songs ever since that first listen. He took part in some other incredible recordings, but Space Oddity remains my favorite. Plus, how many other musicians could say that one of their songs was performed in outer space?

His art has touched millions. Friends my age all have their own stories of how they were first introduced to Bowie. Even a fair amount of my students know some of his work. Their parents definitely do as well.

The stars look very different today, indeed.