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.

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Sharing An Experience

In one of my summer classes this past year, we discussed the concept of “An Experience”. Basically (and this was a philosophy discussion, so my understanding is basic at best) “an experience” refers to a musical moment that has a significant effect on the listener. Not an entire piece, not a singular note, but a brief musical moment with a strong impact.

After watching the Chicago Symphony’s phenomenal performance of the Verdi Requiem the other night, I began thinking about the moments that would go on my list of “An Experience”. I came up with a list that includes a range of genres, and when possible, included a clip of the musical moment itself.

Each of these moments is special to me for different reasons. With some, I’m captivated by the composer’s choice of harmony, with others it’s the use of rhythm, and others are linked to important events in my life outside of music. What musical moments would go on your list?

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

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

What is relevance?

This post is inspired by a post on Reddit by therelevantclassroom (/u/gw225)

Relevance is one of those nebulous things that’s hard to nail down, kind of like “rigor”. What’s “relevant” to you or I (say, the killer guitar solo in Bohemian Rhapsody, for example) isn’t necessarily “relevant” to our students. We all connect to different things. And even if we connect to the same things, we might connect to them differently (I’m mesmerized by Freddie Mercury’s pipes, while a student might think “sweet mustache”).

Despite its mystique, relevance is hugely important to teachers. Is what we’re teaching relevant – both to our students and in the modern world? As somebody who teaches a few concert bands, the question of relevance is something that I struggle with on a daily basis. Are my kids connecting to the material? How does the concert band fit into the modern world?

The concept of relevance discussed in the aforementioned blog post is defined by the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham. Professor Willingham’s description of relevance in education led to this statement “If I’m continually trying to build bridges between student’s daily lives and their school subjects…” Based on that, it seems that Willingham sees “relevance” as analogous to “connecting a student’s school world to their outside world”.

That’s but one facet of relevance in education. Yes, when I’m teaching students about the harmonic minor scale, I might mention that Led Zeppelin uses it in the opening bars of Immigrant Song, or that Maynard James Keenan uses it in the vocal melody of Tool’s Schism. That’s me utilizing that facet of relevance, so my students can see that they’ve already had some exposure to a “new” concept.

But there’s another, bigger part of relevance. Something that the students might not even be aware of until well after they’ve left your classroom. I’m talking about the long-term skills and abilities we hope to develop in our students, things that will be with them much longer than we will.

The last math class I took was in my junior year of high school, 2002-2003. I’d finished up my required math credits, and decided to fill the empty slot in my schedule with an independent study in music theory because how the hell is delving deeper into trigonometry or calculus going to help me be a music teacher?

Well, flash forward a few years to my sophomore year of college. Thanks to some courses in the College of Education, I was starting to develop a slight understanding of what my math teachers were trying to do all those years. I wasn’t solving for x, or figuring out the length of a hypotenuse based on some angles and possibly witchcraft, because I needed to know how to do those specific things. My old teachers probably would not be too upset to realize that I couldn’t do a geometric proof to save my life at this point.

What I can do is figure out how to solve problems.

Working through those math problems back in the early 2000s gave me a blueprint for logical thinking and problem solving. These skills helped me work out the harmonic analysis of a Chopin etude during my sophomore music theory class, and I still use them every day when trying to figure out the unique problems that arise in a middle school music classroom.

Suddenly math seems very relevant.

There’s the thing that I would add to Willingham’s concept of relevance. Yeah, using things from the modern world as a tool to reinforce concepts is all well and good if done thoughtfully. But the really important part of relevance is what sticks. Are the skills my students are developing going to be with them long after they’ve forgotten how to play a low E-natural on their clarinet? Will my students still have an understanding of music after they’ve played their last paradiddle?

I certainly hope so.

Who are you, Comrade Questions?

If there’s one thing that grad school has made me exceptionally good at, it’s questioning the why of what we do as music educators. That’s something that’s simultaneously great, and terrifying. Great because asking difficult questions will make me a better teacher, and terrifying because some of the answers I’ve been coming up with don’t really fit with what we currently do.

Why [insert large ensemble here]?

The easy answer is because that’s what I did as a student, and I loved it. It’s what parents and administrators have come to expect out of a secondary music program. We teach what we teach because that’s what school music has looked like since 1920. Change is tough.

But over the past five weeks, I’ve read in quick succession, John Kratus’ Music Education at the Tipping Point, David Williams’ The Elephant in the Room, and Thomas Regelski’s Musicianism and the Ethics of School Music. Each author in their own way questions how long we can maintain our current model of music education. And while I don’t agree with all of their ideas (Williams, for example, advocates removing large ensembles from the picture entirely), they raise some salient points.

Are large ensembles the best way to reach the maximum number of students? Are they relevant to a large percentage of students, including the ones who currently participate in them? What changes could we make to our approach to large ensembles that might revitalize their role in music education?

Some potentially scary questions, and equally uncomfortable answers.

Why elevate Western art music?

Look, I love the works of Gustav Mahler, I take a lot of pride in the fact that I’ve performed the Holst Suites, and Lincolnshire Posy. But, is music like that the best thing for my students? You can easily make the argument that music of that nature can really help our students develop excellent technical skills, and help make them proficient with regards to expression. But, how many of our students go home and listen to Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms on their iPods?

Regelski says we fail in our ethical duty to “do no harm” to our students when we select music that disengages them. He says that imposing our own musical values, elevating our own choices above theirs, infringes on their right of musical self-expression. Is that something that you find agreeable? Again, difficult things to consider, and we might not like the answers that result.

What should we add?

The quote from this summer that has most strongly resonated with me is David Williams’ belief that “it is essential that we offer interesting, relevant, and meaningful musical experiences for all students.” On the surface, I think we all agree that music education is something that all students should experience. Disagreement sets in when we think about how to accomplish that goal.

What can we add to existing music curricula to reach more students? Is this something we can accomplish without adding staff (a big consideration in today’s age of massive budget cuts)? Should we try to add new musical opportunities even if it means stepping way outside our comfort zones? How do we present these opportunities to skeptical superiors?

Who are you, Comrade Questions?

I’m not going to pretend to have the answer to any of the questions posed here. An answer that applies to my reality would not fit all other realities. These are merely things to consider if we’re going to push ourselves to be better teachers.

Visualizing the new standards

On June 30th, the drafts of the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards was released. It’s a major revision to the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education. I’m curious to see how the new standards progress as they go through the revision stages, but for now I’ve got a few critiques to share.

First, the strength of the 1994 Standards was in their simplicity. Nine basic guidelines for creating a rich, well-rounded music experience for our students. This draft of new K-8 general music standards is over ten pages. That’s a lot of information to digest, and that’s before we even get to standards for performing ensembles and other strands. Simplicity and adaptability should be the priorities, so that these standards can be accessible to music teachers in vastly different situations.

The draft as it stands right now is based on Scott Shuler’s concept of the ‘Three Artistic Processes‘, listed as creating, performing and responding. I don’t take issue with those three processes, but I do find it strange that they are kept separate when laying out the standards. The reality of music is that there is often a great deal of overlap between Creator, Performer, and Responder. In many cases, one single entity will be engaged in all three processes simultaneously.

It’s important to show the relationship between these standards, especially if they could be used by a non-musician as part of our evaluations. Part of the richness of music is the complex way in which all aspects interact with each other. We musicians can take our understanding of that concept for granted, but we can’t safely assume that a non-musician will have that same understanding.

I’d like to see a different visual representation of the Standards than what we currently have. I’ve created a simple graphic that could help a non-musician understand some of these relationships and redundancies. Understand that it is by no means complete, it’s just an example of the type of visual representation that could be beneficial when it comes to understanding the standards and how they interact.


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That graphic represents just a small number of the ways in which different musical experiences can intersect and interact. It can definitely be adapted to include a greater level of detail. Something like that visual could be a very helpful tool to accompany the new Standards.

One Last Question to Consider

There has been a lot of grumbling about the legitimacy of the Common Core Standards. Do we want to align our arts standards with an education movement that has involved minimal educator input? Do we want to pin ourselves to a framework that may be deeply flawed?

Michigan Music Conference 2011—Day One

I apologize for the somewhat disjointed nature of this post. I was scrambling to get as much information down as possible during today’s MMC sessions. When I went back to look at my notes, I realized that they were perfectly clear…for me. Others may not find that to be the case, so I provided links to the original material wherever possible.

Utilizing Twitter in Music Education

The morning started with a presentation by Theresa White on how to utilize twitter in music education. The overarching theme of her presentation was connectivity—with other teachers, students, parents, musicians, etc. Twitter is a great resource for teacher because it allows us to constantly expand our knowledge base by providing a continuous stream of resources and thoughts.

In the education world, there are a couple of live twitter chats that have can be very fertile ground. For general education discussion, check out #edchat every Tuesday night at 7PM Eastern. It’s a general education discussion that isn’t specific to any subject area. Hundreds of teachers from around the world participate every week to offer up their own insights and experiences. The music-specific version of #edchat is #musedchat, which takes place Monday nights at 8PM Eastern. Musedchat has grown tremendously in popularity since its beginnings.

Both #edchat and #musedchat cover a wide range of topics from week to week, and a transcript of the discussion is posted online in case you miss it for any reason.

Theresa also discussed several practical ways to use twitter. Pose a question looking for help on a topic, and you’re bound to get several responses over the course of a day. Use twitter as a way to remind students and parents about important dates, assignments, schedule changes and everything in between. And perhaps the most exciting way, use twitter to share ideas with colleagues. It’s on-demand professional development.

Sharing Ideas for Student Compositions

Session number two for the day was presented by Joe DeMarsh, and he discussed different ways to get students of all ability levels to experience the composition process. His school offers a music technology class at the middle school level, and the kids in that class frequently don’t have any prior musical skills, so Mr. DeMarsh has spent years building up a library of projects that still allow those students to successfully create music.

The first, and most interesting project from my point of view, project presented by Mr. DeMarsh dealt with pentatonic scales. Using MIDI workstations, eMacs and GarageBand, he has the students create a three-track composition project. Tracks one and two must contain melodic lines using only the black keys on the keyboard (hence the pentatonic scale), and the third track must contain some sort of percussion. Using this setup, even the most musically inexperienced student can create something that makes rhythmic and tonal sense.

The PDF file of Mr. DeMarsh’s presentation can be found here. It includes over a dozen different ideas for composition projects that can be done with both a general music class and an instrumental ensemble.

Keynote Address—Dr. Joseph M. Pisano

Last year’s keynote, presented by Dr. Jim Frankel, was very informative and entertaining. This year’s was no different. Dr. Pisano discussed reasons for integrating technology into the classroom, questions to consider before integrating technology, and the benefits from integrating this technology.

Dr. Pisano began by discussing several important skills that are necessary for educators to integrate into the classroom.

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Information literacy
  • Media literacy
  • Information, communication and technology literacy

It’s worth noting that these skills are already being practiced on a daily basis in the classrooms of quality music educators all around the world. They are doing a good job of preparing their students for the reality of the 21st century—a high value is going to be placed on creativity, and right-directed thinking.

Methods and considerations for integrating technology into the classroom were also discussed. Dr. Pisano offered up one nugget of wisdom that should provide the rationale for using technology in our classrooms—How can we connect with our students if we are disconnected from their world?

  • Does the technology allow us to accomplish a task more easily and efficiently?
  • Does it allow me to teach more effectively?
  • Does it allow me to do something that I couldn’t otherwise do?
  • Does it make for more efficient and better learners?
  • Does it provide a more effective means of communication?
  • Is the technology something that is fundamental to the 21st century world?
  • Are we proficient with the technology?

All questions to consider before we implement technology in our classroom.

Dr. Pisano’s Keynote presentation can be found here.