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.

Musical Chairs

A few families this year have asked why I don’t do chair placement auditions with my 7th and 8th grade students. The question always seems to come from a similar place, “That’s the way my old band director did it.” Well, mine too. And while I love my old band director dearly, chair placements are one thing that I’m not a fan of. I’m convinced that rotational seating is the best thing for young musicians.

  • It’s not about competition. Especially not with middle school kids. Our culture has become incredibly obsessed with competition, and it can be found everywhere. The band room, however, is a place where we should all be working toward the same goals. At a young age, these students should be focused on building their musical skills, not beating out their classmates for first chair. It’s also very important to me that our classroom culture is based on supporting each other and celebrating the achievements of others. That’s difficult to do amidst competition for chairs.
  • It’s not an intrinsic motivator. I don’t want a student in my classroom to be motivated by their chair placement. Especially since that motivation can take a serious hit if you’re a student perpetually competing for last chair. I want to foster a sense of intrinsic motivation in my students, so that their own successes are what drive them to improve.
  • It’s all about skill building. Different parts require a different skill set, even when you’re talking about a 1st clarinet part vs. a 3rd clarinet. As young musicians, my students should be developing a well-rounded musical skill set, not just focusing on a single part. I want my clarinet players to be equally comfortable above the break and in the chalumeau register. I want my trumpet players to have a warm, strong low range as well as a solid high register.
  • Rotating creates balance. All parts are equally important, and by rotating seating on each piece we play, I can ensure that there are strong players on each part. Composers write those 2nd and 3rd parts for a reason, and having strong players on each part ensure a full, balanced performance.
  • Rotating fosters mentorships. I get a handful of students brand new to band each year. I make sure they get a lot of individual attention on their instrument, and for times when we can’t do a one-on-one lesson, rotational seating is great. I have a young clarinet player who just started eight weeks ago. At the beginning of the year, they were very uncomfortable with going over the break, so they ended up playing mostly 2nd and 3rd parts at our first concert while we worked on that skill. We have a few strong, experienced clarinet players in their hour, so I paired them up and kept them on the same parts for that first concert cycle. It allowed my new student to learn from a 3rd-year player, and it gave the 3rd-year player a valuable leadership experience.
  • Chaired seating means stress. Middle school is difficult enough already. I don’t want students already freaking out over more difficult classes and a bigger homework load coming to my room freaked out about an upcoming chair challenge. I definitely don’t want somebody brand new to band to have to worry about a chair placement audition before they even know how to put their instrument together. It’s about creating a safe, welcoming, inclusive environment.

Middle School Chamber Music: Student Feedback

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on middle school chamber music recitals, I’d like to share some of the feedback that I’ve received from students during the past week. This is actual feedback from real students.

  • “I did not have a least favorite part! I loved chamber music!”
  • “My favorite part was playing with my friends because we got to help other improve and got to learn more about them as musicians.”
  • When asked about their favorite part: “Learning how to work individually, and problem solving without help from Mr. Guarr.”
  • “…taking the responsibility for us to make the piece sound good.”
  • “Co-leading a ‘band’ gave us more confidence.”
  • “I like that we were on our own to work out our bumpy roads in music.”
  • “I loved it! Can we do it every concert?”
  • “My favorite part is that it was peer-led and we all had a say in how things worked.”
  • “[My favorite part was] bonding with my group because I was a new student when this started.”
  • “Independently having the ability to add/change dynamics.”
  • “At some points we would disagree with some parts and we would have to fix them by coming to a compromise.”
  • “My favorite part was being able to pick groups and pieces of music, because we got some independence.”

Some common themes emerged during the post-concert reflections we did as a class. Students were excited to step outside of the normal “band concert” box and do something new. They loved the independence offered by chamber music (though at times it was a double-edged sword). And perhaps most gratifying of all, with the exception of a few students, everybody said that they’d like to do this again.

It was definitely a strange feeling to give up so much control for a concert, but seeing the end result has been incredible. This kind of student growth and engagement is going to be a big positive for our music program; I’d encourage others to consider making chamber music an option for their students as well.

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