Let’s stop calling the public “customers”

I worked at Jimmy John’s in college. A couple of them, actually. And I was pretty damn good at slinging sandwiches. It’s been at least 10 years since I put on the uniform, and I’m pretty confident that I could still get behind the counter and pump food out quickly.

When I was at JJ’s, I had a pretty clearly defined relationship with our customers. They pay for a sandwich, or sandwiches. I make said sandwich. We exchange pleasantries while I wrap their sandwich. I tell them to have a great day. They leave. It was different with regulars only in the sense that we would repeat this process with them on a daily basis.

That’s where it ended though. When that sandwich left the shop, the door closed on that relationship. I never stayed after my shift had ended to help any of the customers become better at consuming their sandwiches. I never lost any sleep worrying that the Italian Night Club I had made during the lunch rush didn’t have a warm home to go back to. I never had the urge to go check in with sandwiches that I had made years prior.

And after sitting through yet another meeting where somebody described the local community as “our customers”, I couldn’t help but realize just how terrible that label is. “Customer” doesn’t even begin to describe how deep the bonds are between teacher and community. We care deeply for our students even when they leave our classes for the day. We sacrifice our time and energy even when we are off the clock.

When I made a sandwich, there was no considering what impact that Beach Club with extra sprouts would have on the community. When I teach kid? That’s a huge part of my thought process. Is what we’re doing in here benefiting the school community, and the community at large?

When we call the public “customers”, we are selling them short. They are our allies, our supporters, our partners, our stakeholders. Calling them customers does them a disservice. We are just as invested in the students as they are, let’s start conveying that and think of ourselves as more than just customer service reps.

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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.

Competition Is Not The Answer To Everything

The Michigan state legislature is currently mulling a substantial financial bailout for Detroit Public Schools. If you’ve been following the news at all, you know that this aid is sorely needed. Schools in Detroit are physically falling apart. Students aren’t safe. Teachers are falling ill.

But don’t worry, education expert Betsy DeVos has an alternative solution!

I wish sarcasm translated better to text.

Ms. DeVos has joined the chorus of education “experts” who feel that all of the problems with our nation’s public schools can be solved with the magic bullet of competition.

Look, competition can be a good thing in some areas of life. Business pour money into product development hoping to gain new customers. We generally get better products as a result. Sports teams compete all the time, and it’s wildly entertaining.

But there’s one undeniable fact of competition, one that the education reform crowd always seems to ignore.

When two entities compete, one always loses.

This is fine if we’re talking about a couple of college basketball teams. This is not a game we should be willing to play when it comes to our children. The math just doesn’t work out. Forcing schools to compete for students and funding would probably work out great for districts that are already wealthy and high achieving. They would remain wealthy and continue to achieve. And some students will be left behind.

But what about school choice? Comes the reply.

Again, great for districts and schools that are already wealthy and high achieving. They would attract more students, and would no doubt change some lives. But many students would inevitably be left behind at their old schools, and the gap in the quality of education children receive would widen.

Look at this on a small scale. District A markets itself as a home for school of choice students. It offers a diverse curriculum, rich in the arts, filled with opportunities for students to create and grow. Thanks to the state funding that comes in with each student, District A’s budget grows with each student it attracts. District A is able to continue offering a fantastic curriculum, and the cycle continues.

Districts B and C are neighbors of District A. They were a little slow in adding programs to their curriculum, so they lost students, and thus lost money. Class sizes grow a little bit, parents continue to be attracted to the offerings of District A. More students leave, funding drops. Districts B and C are forced to cut programs to balance their books, only accelerating their decline. The students and families remaining in Districts B and C watch the quality of education drop. District A wins.

Look at it on an even smaller scale. I teach music. I could choose to foster a highly competitive environment with my 7th and 8th grade band students. Kids would compete for chairs, there would be challenges, all that stuff. Some kids would be motivated to practice more, and would thus win challenges and rise to the top of their section. Students who continue to lose challenges might lose their motivation, their passion, and may eventually leave the music program. Would my bands sound better? Maybe, but I’m not willing to pay that price.

We’re not talking about a battle between Comcast and Uverse for customers here. We’re talking about people willing to gamble with the education of their children. This isn’t something we should accept as a society. Instead, legislators and reformers should be proposing solutions that encourage schools and districts to collaborate. District A has some programs that have been very successful in enriching the lives of students? Great! Here’s some release time for the teachers in District A to share those lessons with teachers in Districts B and C. Everybody wins in that scenario.

Well, except for Betsy DeVos. And I’m okay with that.

Thank You, Ellen

Seriously. Thank you.

Thank you for noticing the struggles of Detroit Public Schools. Thank you for stepping up and using your considerable wealth and powerful connections to help these dedicated educators and their deserving students. Thank you for doing what the “privatize everything” crowd in our Republican-dominated state legislature couldn’t do, and actually giving a damn about these students. Thank you for putting the poor conditions at DPS into the national spotlight.

And here’s where my cynical side takes over.

This is only a drop in the bucket. Spain is far from the only public school in Detroit with serious problems. As wealthy and generous as Ellen is, she doesn’t have enough coin to fix everything that needs fixing. More importantly, our schools should not have to rely on the philanthropy of celebrities to safely serve our children. That’s a dangerous path to start treading.

I hope Ellen’s gift is just the start of helping Detroit’s schools. I hope the state follows her example, and pledges enough resources to give these educators and students the facilities they deserve. I hope we can look back on this in a few years, and say thank you to Ellen for getting the ball rolling.

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The Trombonist’s Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License