MSU speech – rough draft

This evening, I had the privilege of being the guest speaker at Michigan State University’s annual Music Education Rally. I’m humbled and honored to have had the opportunity to speak at my alma mater. What follows are the rough transcripts of that speech.

Note: I mean “transcripts” here in the loosest sense of the word. I went way off book for this, but the big points remain the same. Including the sea cucumber metaphor.

If I could, I’d like to start with a 15-minute diatribe on our current quarterback situation…

If you pay attention to the news at all, you might believe that it’s not a great time to be a teacher. That’s certainly understandable, but I don’t think there’s ever been a more exciting time to be a music teacher. We have at our fingertips an incredible volume of resources, and thousands of people from which to borrow or shamelessly steal ideas. To paraphrase Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, “You have the internet in your pants.” If you make an effort to take advantage of these resources, you can be a leader in moving our field forward.

Given what’s happening in music ed today, you have to prepare yourselves to embrace both the traditional and the new. There are people out there who will tell you that large ensembles should be the one and only part of a school music program. There are also people out there who will tell you that large ensembles should play no part in a school music program. At the risk of offending someone, both groups are slightly crazy. Reality lies somewhere in between.

You’ll have tons of opportunities to branch out beyond and explore new things in music education. Thankfully, this program does a great job of preparing you to do just that. I remember when I went in to Dr. Robinson’s office for my advanced standing interview. He asked what my ideal music program looked like, and I replied with a description of a program with lots of students in lots of performing ensembles. If you asked me the same question when I graduated in 2009, or today, you’d get a very different answer. The answer I gave as a sophomore wasn’t a wrong answer, I just hadn’t properly explored yet.

I’d like to offer up just a few things that have helped me survive and enjoy my first few years as a music teacher. Hopefully you will take away something useful.

1. Be a sponge. You’ll constantly be surprised at how the skills you learn here manifest themselves in the classroom once you graduate, so take in as much as you can. Pick your professors’ brains, steal their ideas and adapt them for yourself. Dr. Taggart’s class told me that it was perfectly reasonable to ask my middle school band students to play in a key other than B-flat major. Dr. Kratus made me believe that every student can be a composer. Dr. Robinson’s class introduced me to the brilliance of Evan Tobias and other advocates of what I’ll call “Band, Choir and Beyond”.

2. Be a sea cucumber. When a sea cucumber feels threatened, it resorts to an unconventional defense mechanism – regurgitating its entire digestive tract. When you find yourself in a difficult teaching situation in your first year (and it will happen, believe me), don’t be afraid to do something a little unconventional. Turn it into an opportunity. I was hired to replace a well-liked, competent teacher, a tough job. I was having trouble getting my students to buy in to my way of doing things, so I decided to try something different. Rather than continuing to feed my jazz band a diet of Duke Ellington and other music they didn’t easily identify with, I had them work together to write their own piece of music for their spring concert. Not only did they love the project, the piece was actually pretty darn good. That project evolved into a concert last year where every group played one piece by a student composer. An act of desperation turned into a favorite project. Even as a new teacher, you will have the experience to survive a tough situation. Don’t be afraid to call on what you’ve learned at MSU.

3. If you don’t ask, the answer is always “no”. When I was a student, I remember hearing some great new ideas and thinking “Man, that sounds awesome. Don’t know if I’ll be working in a place that would let me do that though.” And of course, if you don’t even bother to ask, then it’s not going to happen. I pestered my principals about a music tech class for a couple of years, and we made it happen. Granted, it’s a low-budget operation riddled with computer issues, but we’ve still got students doing MIDI sequencing and recording podcasts. It’s a start, and it’s growing. And better yet, there are kids in that room who would never even consider band or choir, yet they’re still making music every day.

4. Expand boundaries, both your own and your music program’s. Seek out new things even after you graduate. Never stop learning. Take a class that’s out of your comfort zone, go to the tech sessions at MMC, connect with other music teachers on Twitter and Facebook. A huge chunk of my music tech curriculum can be traced back to ideas first shared on Twitter. Hearing great ideas from other teachers is a huge boost, so share and share alike.

Cherish your time here, move confidently into the future, and most importantly, GO GREEN.

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