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.

Making Musical Connections: Hip Hop and Russian Folk Music

This particular musical connection was brought to my attention by a student of mine. My students had to prepare a melody for our end of semester playing exam, and she chose a section of Brian Balmages’ Moscow 1941, which is based on the Russian folk song Meadowlands.

Turn up your speakers, it’s a little quiet.

Anyway, this student walked into class one morning after practicing the piece, and asked if I was a fan of a group called Jedi Mind Tricks. Turns out her brother was listening to her practice, and noticed that the hook of a Jedi Mind Tricks song entitled Design In Malice also used this melody.

Check it out (some NSFW language):

Making Musical Connections: Beethoven to Bonerama

Today’s entry in the Musical Connections series will be a lot more obvious than in the first entry. That’s impressive, because the link between Dies Irae and Juelz Santana was not at all subtle.

First, we have one of Beethoven’s lesser known works, a trombone quartet entitled Drei Equali. In musical terms, ‘equali’ was a piece of music for a homogenous group of instruments.

There you have the faculty of the Southeast Trombone Symposium performing Drei Equali. Musically, it’s a fairly simple piece from the performer’s point of view. There aren’t any demanding rhythms. The performers do have to take great care when addressing dynamics and intonation, and there are some upper register demands on the first part, especially if that trombonist is using a tenor trombone and not an alto. But, it’s not nearly as technically demanding as some of the other famous trombone quartet literature.

These musical characteristics allow the listener to sit back and soak in the gorgeous harmonies, and simple-but-effective counterpoint. Drei Equali is a beautiful piece of music, one that really displays the trombone timbre at its best. Beethoven composed this piece in 1812, for a performance at the Linz Cathedral, which looks like a beautiful place to take in a trombone performance.

New Orleans-based musicians Bonerama (comprised of the Harry Connick, Jr. Big Band trombone section, and some friends) have a decidedly different take on Beethoven’s work. For roughly the first 40 seconds, we’re led to believe that we are going to hear a fairly traditional interpretation. And then, well, I’ll let you take a listen.

Drums join us first, followed by some brilliant work on the sousaphone by Matt Perrine. The bass line he lays down is infectious, though not at all Beethoven-esque. And at first listen, you might think that Bonerama has abandoned Beethoven entirely. But then, at about 2:05…

And again at 3:13…

And finally at 4:46…

This is a brilliant merger of old trombone literature and the new school. Bonerama is paying homage to the roots of their instrument while pushing it forward at the same time. How many other bands could so seamlessly blend Nawlins brass band, funk, rock and Romantic-era music?

Making Musical Connections: An Introduction

Welcome to the first post in what (I hope) is a series of posts exploring interesting musical connections. In each entry, I’ll be taking a look at a couple of different pieces of music and exploring their relationship. Up first…

This is the Dies Irae, a piece of 13th century Gregorian Chant. You can explore the notation here (WARNING! NEUMES!) It’s just simple chant, in the Dorian mode.

Now, I could share quotations of the Dies Irae by Holst, Mahler, or Berlioz. But we can find something a little more…unexpected.

In 2007, Nike put out a commercial for their special 25th Anniversary Edition Air Force One shoes. For music, they went with a tune by New York-based rapper Juelz Santana. Just listen to the opening hook.

Yep, that’s a note for note Dies Irae quotation. By a 21st century hip-hop artist. And you know what? It fits the song perfectly. The string/brass/chime timbre combined with the Dorian mode lends the song a certain amount of grittiness, and the repetitive ostinato effect really propels the music forward.

I love that this piece of hip-hop can trace its musical roots back 700 years. It’s probably safe to say that Gregorian Chant-inspired hip-hop songs are few and far between, which makes this find that much more enjoyable.
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The Trombonist’s Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

(More Than) Ten Things Your Music Teacher Loves To Hear

As a follow up to my previous sarcastic and deeply cynical post, here’s this. Luckily, these are the comments from students that tend to stick with us and make our day. If you’re really lucky, these are things that you hear with far greater frequency than the comments in my previous post.

1. Thanks. Doesn’t really matter what you’re saying “thanks” for. If you’re thanking me for a good class, or for spending a few minutes with you at lunch working on some music, I’m going to be deeply appreciative. It shows that you care, and you appreciate my efforts.

2. Look what I figured out at home! I love that you took your instrument home. Even more than that, I love that you were passionate about what you did once you took the instrument out of its case.

3. Can we play [name of piece]? Even if it’s not in the plans today, I’m excited that you’re excited about a piece of music.

4. Do you have any extra music you can give me? You’re looking for an additional challenge – awesome! Here’s my library of chamber music and solo pieces, let me know what you’re interested in and we’ll make it happen.

5. Ohhhhh, I get it now. That understanding is my ultimate goal. I don’t care if it takes five tries or five hundred tries for that concept to make sense; I’ll do whatever I can to help you get there.

6. Can I come in early for some extra help? Yes! I’ll bring the coffee! The fact that you’re volunteering to wake up early to come make some music warms my heart.

7. The other bands/musicians sound great! A good music program is a big family. A student has fully embraced that idea when they’re being supportive of their peers. This isn’t something that can be forced, either. It’s genuine, and it’s fantastic.

8. How would it sound if we did this? I try to encourage my students to form their own musical opinions on things. A question like this (“Hey, can we try a crescendo at measure 25?”) tells me that they’re experimenting with and curious about music. That can only lead to good things.

9. Can we come in and sit in with the 7th grade band? I teach 7th and 8th grade, and every year, my 8th graders want to come in and play along with the 7th graders. It seems like they genuinely enjoy offering their time and help to the younger kids. The 7th graders love it because an older student is showing personal interest in their success.

10. Can you give me the names of some private teachers? A million times, yes.

11. Check out this cool piece I found. I love that you’re exploring some of this music stuff for yourself.

12. I really liked your class. When a former student comes back and says this, it means the world to me. Hearing something like that is enough to erase a lot of the frustrations that we feel on a daily basis.

13. I’m excited for the concert. Me too. I’m glad your friends and family are getting the chance to see the results of all your hard work.

14. We’ve really gotten better. Sometimes, it’s tough for the students to recognize the huge strides that they take. They’re in class every day, and might be desensitized to the incremental improvements made each week. But, when they reflect back to where they were at the start of the year and realize how far they’ve come…it’s a real confidence booster for them.

15. I wasn’t sure about joining band, but now I’m glad I did. Every year, especially with younger students, it seems like quite a few are on the fence about joining my class. It’s a new building for them, with a new teacher, so the uncertainty is understood. I’m always thrilled when a student decides to give it a chance, and I get even happier when they decide that they made a good choice.

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

Ten Things You Should Never Say To Your Music Teacher

Inspired by an excellent post by SamPsychMeds.

We teachers hear lots of different things from our students throughout the day. Some of it brings a big smile to our faces, some of it warms our hearts, and some of it reaffirms why we became teachers. This post is not about those things.

1. Are we playing today? No, we’re not making music in music class today.

2. Can I go down to [insert teacher here]’s class for some extra help? Sure, as long as they send you down here during their class so you can catch up on some of the stuff you missed.

3. I forgot my instrument. That’s cool. I forgot to wear pants today.

4. This piece is dumb. Actually, if you can give me a couple of valid musical reasons for not liking a piece, I might let it slide. Maybe.

5. I can’t make it to the concert, I’ve got [insert sport here] practice. Definitely understandable, especially since my concerts have been scheduled since the beginning of summer and we could easily work out a compromise with your coach.

6. I can’t play this. That’s okay, trying is the first step towards failure. You can’t play it…right now. Work at it, let me help, and then see what happens.

7. Do I have to practice? Only if you want to improve.

8. Why are we listening to [insert piece students have not heard before]? Because if I only taught you about music you already know, would you really learn that much?

9. That’s not how [previous music teacher] did it. Very perceptive. You probably also noticed that I’m not [previous music teacher], so that might explain the confusion.

10. My parents bought me this cool purple [instrument]! Ugh. Just…ugh.

Edit: Now in poster form!

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

Rethinking Practice Charts

At the urging of a couple of colleagues in the music department, I started requiring practice charts of my students a couple of years ago. My kids turned in the charts with few problems, but there was definitely some grumbling on their part. I had insisted on doing practice charts the same way that I’d done them as a student…practice x hours per week to get full credit. All the charts required were for the students to write down the total minutes practiced each day, and a parent signature.

Probably not the worst thing you could do, but not the best either. Students could just play a few things mindlessly, not necessarily working on anything specific. Or, parents could just sign off on the chart without really checking that their student had done the work. The kids were basically just checking a box and not getting any value out of the practicing.

I decided to change it up this year. Practice charts are still required, but not any specific amount of time. My kids now just have to fill out a certain number of practice reflections each semester for full credit. They’re required to set a goal for their practice session, explain how they worked toward said goal, explain what they need to work on in the future, and tell me what specific help they would like from me to achieve their future goals. Basically, they have to think meaningfully about their practicing and approach it with a specific purpose.

I set up a Google Form on our class website for the kids to submit their reflections. This new approach has already yielded positive results. Instead of kids saying “I played for 30 minutes”, I’m getting responses like:

  • I really need to work on Hercules Vs. the Hydra with articulations and rhythms. I probably also need to do tuning more often with my flute.
  • I worked on posture position and air flow.
  • I wanted to improve my tone on some of the higher notes.
  • I wanted to improve my dynamics.

Even better from my point of view, the reflections give me a better understanding of what my students want to accomplish. With large classes, sometimes individual needs can fall by the wayside. Not the case here, since now I’ve got a written record of my students’ musical goals, and can incorporate those into class on a daily basis.

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