Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Semester Five of a Music Ed Student: Part II

In the past, I've had the nasty habit of holding this pattern : waste time in the beginning of the year and become overloaded with stress towards the end. This year was the end of that! Or, rather, the beginning of the end of that - this habit, like any, will take time to develop.

So what did I do to cut my stress? First, I got as far ahead as I could in all my classes and other responsibilities right off the bat. This was a huge blessing with my Counterpoint class; it's known for being a real beast and for people pulling long, difficult hours on their projects, but in reality, we were given plenty of time to do everything so long as we don't start the day before it's due. (Funny how that works out, isn't it?) My main goal was to finish, or at least get the best head of steam I could, on everything on the day it's assigned. All too often, the average college kid will begin something the day (or night) before it's due, so since it can be done in a day, I put it on the front end and thus spread out, minimized, and managed my stress, avoiding distress and maintaining eustress. Basic when it comes down to it, yes, but it really works.

Secondly, I took some advice and avoided the "teacher's lounge." In the music building, there are a set of flesh magnets called "the couches" that are kind of like the monkey bars: it's where all the cool kids hang out. It also happens to be the best place to get swamped in gossip and the worst place to be productive. Nothing against the couch-dwellers themselves, cool people in their own right, but when I stopped spending time there, I was more productive and more positive. More out of the social loop? Sure, but gossip won't help you with finals.

Finally, I dedicated time for sleep. I set hard limits for when I would make myself turn in, hard limits for how early I could get up, and tried to get no fewer than 7 hours of sleep. Many college students would wonder at the potential for so much sleep every night, but I found that if I made that a priority, other things just worked out around it. The flaw in this plan was that a series of concerts and tours put the people in both band and orchestra about two weeks behind in our classes going into finals, so I spent some late nights getting work done, but boy, could I tell the difference! I don't know how I had gotten this far on such little sleep, because seeing the difference back-to-back really made it that much more obvious that good sleep can be just as important as good study. The trick is finding the balance. (As an aside, I tried working my butt off for six days and doing squat-nothing on Sunday aside from Church, and I found that that's not enough time off; my body can't unwind that much in a healthy way in only a day. A lighter load overall really does the trick, plus an easy-going-but-still-productive Saturday to complement the God-family-and-friend-oriented Sunday)

For those in or just entering college : your mileage may vary, but I hope this helps.
For those of you working types, I'm curious : does reading this prove to you that 18-to-20-somethings are more alike or different than "in the day?"

Thanks, and a belated happy new year!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Semester Five of a Music Ed Student: Part I

This by far was my strangest semester - Three of my classes took the last month off, and I had five juries. Let me explain:

Juries first: my major and minor instruments each had one (trombone and organ, respectively), I had a jury for my percussion methods class, I accompanied someone's jury, and I had a conducting final. (sure, these last two might not really count as juries, but the conducting was for a grade, and the accompaniment was during an official jury time)

Now, the three classes that took the month off were two education classes and a counterpoint class. For Counterpoint, the month was to be spend composing a two-part Bach invention that followed a long set of guidelines and, naturally, followed all the rules of eighteenth-century counterpoint.

The ed classes, however, require some explanation to make my next point.
  • Students were to log all their clinical hours during the semester, and the scheduling would have to work around their already-existing classes
  • The instrumental methods course was one block long. That means that everything about how to teach band and orchestra and jazz band, marching band, and everything else, in half a semester.
The new system proved to be much more accommodating to the needs of your average college student:
  • Half of the clinical hours are done in the summer; nonetheless, most people I talked to actually logged two to three times the required ammount for various reasons.
  • For the remaining hours, the last month is set aside not only to give the students some breathing room in their schedule, but also to go more in-depth with planning for and following through with instruction
  • The instrumental methods course was expanded to a whole semester, to allow not only for that last month, but also to spend more time on everything, to talk about music ed advocacy and to write a personal philosophy of music education, and to give more time for all this information to sink in.
The moral to all of this, for all the teacher educators and all those in charge of scheduling, is that the best gift you can give a music ed student is the gift of time. This post is dedicated to the people responsible for making this transition possible; my hat goes off to you.

A restful break to everyone, and best wishes for this next semester,

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Whether you don't yet know or you just need a reminder, I refer you all to a short kid with a blue blanket.

Merry Christmas, everyone. May your travels be safe and your time blessed.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Fall Semester Recap

Wow, this has been a wild ride. The semester has flown by, and possibly been one of the busiest yet.

Some notable aspects of these past 4 months that I hope to cover in posts to come:
  • Out of all my classes, I didn't have any finals.
  • Out of all my classes, three of them took the last month off to work on large projects
  • I had five juries
  • I wore a unit plan on composing electronic music that I hope to revise and see used with a friend who is teaching in the Fargo public schools
  • I changed how I work
  • I stopped sitting at "The Couches"
  • I have become a better recording engineer
What I'm planning on doing this Christmas break:
  • Do lots of cross-country skiing
  • Spend time with my brothers
  • Write music
  • Blog
  • RELAX!!!
And I have these coming at me this next semester:
  • Becoming a better studio engineer
  • My first academic course (in the traditional sense) since perhaps freshman year
  • A semester of percussion lessons to reinforce and expand what I learned in my percussion methods class
  • The last semester for many of my very good friends; I'll miss them more than I can say
In the mean time, it's time to get a late lunch and do some of that relaxing I was talking about.
Merry Christmas,

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Beans in my Drumsticks

Really, I think there are jumping beans in the tips of my drumsticks; they won't stay still! I'm in a brass and percussion methods class that meets four days a week, essentially two days brass and two days percussion. Anyhow, we're working on rudiments and sticking right now, having gone through all the pitched percussion instruments in, oh, a week, and there's never a time where I don't want to play. That is to say, I always want to do something! Sound like any percussionists you know? Sound like your whole percussion section?

Anecdote : I taught a day of percussion this summer because we were down a teacher. They were playing wipe-out, and I was trying to get them to understand that if they practice the solo slowly, they'll be better when they speed up. You can imagine how a bunch of 6th-graders took that. :)

The funny thing is, though, my whole class is like this. Even in brass methods, these fine college musicians lost all sense of basic things like rhythm when they got a trumpet in their hands. It was like we were all 5th-graders again.

This has really got me thinking about how much we criticize our beginning students for doing things out of turn or for making annoying noises; the fact of the matter is this : it's a lot of fun to make new noises, whether you're 10 or 100. I know that it's a matter of courtesy for people around you and for the general good of the order that we restrain ourselves, but gol, it's fun to just play around.

I'll write more about this insane semester when I get a chance.
Peace out,

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

What's your secret?

Returning to this blog's founding idea of being "comprehensive" or "total," I wanted to reflect on a thought, share a story, and ask a question.

Tell me if I'm off-base...

Teachers often get put into boxes. If you have a math problem, you ask the math teacher. If you have a question about history, you ask the history teacher. If you want music, you ask the music teacher. But teachers don't end at their subjects; simply through living, people tend toward diversity of interests and abilities, and those often go unsung because the subject never really comes up.


Before I wanted to be a music teacher, I wanted to be a software engineer, and the decision to switch is another post altogether. Anyway, when I got this message the other day, I had to figure out what was up:

Hey ;) You have a secret crush.
Can you guess who it is??
Go Here to find out:
http://insert prefix

The URL naturally went to a phishing site, and the person from whom I got this had had her account compromised, and this was spread to the top half of her contact list, each person with their own prefix in the URL (just some junk characters).

Now, since a address led to a phishing site, there must have been some trickery going on to the tune of redirection. To see where to and what else was happening, I needed to get at the page source for that blogspot page, but since it redirected me, I had to use "curl" (would have used "wget" if I was on linux; I like it better than curl) to dump the page's HTML to my terminal. Turns out there was a block of javascript code that looked like total garbage...

var wevoswe='rhsjluaenoakbkewrt',mneuf='aqvngcwnsjhc',rbgmtdy=0,frlbdef,lsqato,shucocy='%',
lsqato+= String.fromCharCode(xqulosji);if(rbgmtdy>=lnmxsi)rbgmtdy=0;}

Basically, it's been scrambled. The variable names have been obscured so as to not give hints of what's going on, and it's made to look as unreadable as possible. After some work in VI, though, it came to look like...

var w='rhsjluaenoakbkewrt', // a "key" for a lewis-carroll-like cipher
rb=0, // an index through var. w
i, // iterator for a loop
doc, // document to write at the end
percent='%', // something to hold the escape character
m='aqvngcwnsjhc', // why is this even getting initialized?
str='rjweepocopg', // does this do anything? red herring?
str2='sodjlhmmu', // does this do anything? red herring?
doc='', // initialize blank document?
bignumber, // big number to be catted to document? - actually, no
useless; // never initialized, just used... default=0?

for(i=0;i<longLen;i+=2) // work our way through 'long' 2 chars at a time
tmpchar=unescape(percent+long.substr(i,2)); // decode every two chars
base=tmpchar.charCodeAt(useless); // get unicode of tmpchar
m=str+str2; // concatenate? red herring?
power=w.charCodeAt(rb++); // get unicode of w
str=m+w; // concatonate? red herring?
bignumber=base^power; // bitwise operator?
doc+= String.fromCharCode(bignumber); // decode from unicode
if(rb>=lenW)rb=0; // reset counter for shorter 'key' string
} // for

document.write(doc); // write it to where?

Sorry, I lost the indenting... I don't think blogger lets you keep it.

I've worked with C and Java, but not Javascript, so there were some places where I was a bit confused, but it's basically a way to decode a string and make the browser deal with it. What happens, if you don't want to look through the comments, is it starts with a key and a code, w and long respectively. The code is actually a bunch of hex escape codes with the delimiters taken out, so the first step is to decode those and turn them into letters. Then, a character is taken from the key, matched up with the corresponding letter in the code, and an operation is done on them to get the real letter. The fact that it uses a passphrase and not just a constant value as a key reminds me of polyalphabetic ciphers like the Lewis Carroll cipher, as my Dad will likely remember it from the science fair project on codes and ciphers from my early elementary school days. Anyway, I'm pretty sure the operator is a
bitwise xor operator
and not an exponent function, but in the end, you get your message.

And what is this message? It turns out that what it gives the browser (because document.print() prints to the main frame, I think) is a small script to redirect the browser to another website. What was going on on that other website, though, will stay a mystery because before I could get back and grab the html from it, someone had taken it down and it just forwards to a 404 page for what sounds like the hosting server for a bunch of phishing scams.

The hunt ended there, but it was fun to try my hand again at code hacking. The last time I did anything like this, it was a port over to my old Mac LC-something, redoing the save system and getting rid of all the myriad gotos and parallel arrays in a really fun game done in C by Griffin Knodle called "Bad King," an early project of his. But getting those neurons firing again was just like getting back on an old bike; the syntax may have changed a little, but the process itself never really left me, and it was still as fun as ever.

So now for the question, you who either read all that or skipped down here : what gets put outside your box? What don't people expect you to do? Are you glad you're in this box rather than the other? Do you ever get to use both boxes?

Well, I'm back to music history (mmmm... Wagner) until the next phisher tries messing with this band teacher. :)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Week Five and Beyond

My gosh, over already? It seems like we were just getting into the swing of things! The concert went very well; my beginning students nailed their instrument features (way to go, guys!!) and stayed together on the piece we weren't altogether prepared for. My intermediate kids did just fine, the timpani player on the piece I conducted got to play on real, full-size timpani instead of some ancient roto-toms, dynamics were pretty decent, and despite all the hubbub of people moving mid-camp, we did well. My advanced band really gave me a pleasant surprise on a tune called "Jamaican Holiday" by schooling a long-standing trouble spot and doing some killer dynamics; I'm nominating us for best section on the planet. :)

What I did well

I think I got a much better hold on finding that state of "approachable teacher" rather than a teacher you don't dare go near or person you view more as a buddy and less of an authority. I didn't win over all my students (how often does that really happen, anyway?) but I certainly got many more smiles and many fewer scowls.

What I didn't do well

I definitely didn't get as far as I would have liked with my beginners. Neither my trumpets nor my trombones got very far in Essential Elements (we had to skip forward to the concert pieces on p. 12), and while it would be easy to say that a third to a half of each group came in not knowing how to read music (so they claimed - I could have sworn they learned this in classroom music), I'd still say that it's largely my fault for not having gotten them through to that point.

What I'll do better next time

Well first and most important, I have to make some new secret handshakes; the low brass handshake is apparently on TV now! No, really first and most importantly, I need to get comfortable with the idea of setting goals not for where my students are, but above where they are. I need to get comfortable with the idea that my kids might have to get severely left in the dust before they kick it into high gear. I need to get comfortable with giving them more than they can handle at once just to show them that they really can handle all of it at once if they try. That ended up happening when they got three band pieces at the same time; I would rather it have happened during the first week or two.

I also need to work more on note recognition in class. I tried this year handing out flashcards with the notes, note names, and fingerings on them so that they could work on that at home and we could work on other stuff in class, but looking back, I realize I've got it backwards. What we did in class was the fun stuff, and what I was asking them to do at home was the mundane stuff; big surprise there that they didn't work on the boring stuff at home. During the summer. Where it competes with video games. And baseball. I seem to remember someone warning me about this...

I think I'll keep the flashcards, though; some kids really did benefit from them, and it's nice to be able to have that option for silent "practice," like in a car with teenage siblings or at a cabin over 4th of July weekend. It's not much, but it's something.

In other news, paychecks have finally started to come in the very week camp is ending!! No, that's okay, district, my car runs on happy thoughts, not on gasoline; I can still get to work. At least it means my bank account is back above single-digits and that I can buy things like food. In that time after graduation and before the first paycheck, I'd better find something that pays weekly. What did you real teachers do in that dead time?

Also, I got about $90 worth of music in the mail for my upcoming junior recital. I'm giving it a "trombone and organ" theme, so it'll be held at Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead just north of campus if anyone wants to come listen. The organ there is quite an instrument and a small giant at that, so if anything, come for that. I'm going to see if I can balance with its "tutti" on one of the pieces.

Anyhoo, more to come later. Take care,

Monday, July 7, 2008

Week Four in Review


Yessir, Monday, we put all of our beginners in one room and had them play notes at the same time. Oh what a happy, happy noise.

This means we've switched schedules to accommodate band so I only see each of the groups once per day instead of twice. When I tell my kids this, I always get the "oh my gosh, I'm going to have to practice" face; it's that kind of slight, innocent panic that I find a bit amusing.

In intermediate/advanced band, I lost my advanced horns and gained a group of intermediate saxes and horns. This means it's like week one all over again, so it's been a great opportunity for me to be doubly aware of setting guidelines and what not. ("Saxes, no squawking." "Horns, play louder." "Don't play while I'm talking.")

Funny update about my trumpets, too - they were super driven on Monday. Right from the get-go, two of them called out and counted off a tune! At first, I felt kind of threatened - "hey, this is my rehearsal!" - but then again, why push them when they're already running? They were really eager to show off what they had been working on over the weekend, and more power to them!

Thursday, I taped myself as part of a class I'm taking in the fall. I haven't watched any of the footage yet, but there's about an hour and a half worth of tape that I'll need to go through. Let's just say I'm not expecting it to be painless; I never like watching myself on tape in the first place, and I tend to be my own harshest critic, so we'll see how things go.

In other music related news, I'm playing the Carl Maria von Weber "Romanza" in church tomorrow - that's such a cool piece - and in other education related news, I got Ron Clark's "The Essential 55" yesterday, and "The Excellent 11" should be coming soon. I'm curious as to how I can apply Ron Clark's principals to music education, as they were originally intended for an elementary classroom setting, if I am not mistaken.

All for now,

Saturday, July 5, 2008

A thanks, a question, and advice on recording

First, I'd like to give a big thanks to Joel over at for his kind words and response to my entry on my last post with his brief philosophy on teaching beginning band.

I really admire his three points because they cover just about everything. The first, behavior skills, sets the students up for a good relationship with the teacher because it lays that groundwork for a healthy teacher-student interaction where the teachers aren't angry and the students aren't frustrated. The second, encouraging "band weenie" (or, as I've heard it, "band nerd") attitudes, sets them up for good peer relationships because that feeling of comradeship can go a long way in many ways. The third, having a characteristic sound, sets them up for having a good relationship with themselves; fewer things are more frustrating than that sense of "I can't get it," and a base of musical knowledge and ability will at least carry them through the summer until they can start lessons again.

Second, I'd like the poll the wisdom of those who read this and ask kind of a noob question : is it okay to advertise yourself as a private lesson teacher to your students? I used to take private lessons from one of my teachers, but he never advertised the fact that he taught privately, at least to my knowledge, and come to think of it, I've never heard any of my teachers offer private-lesson-style help at all. So, I don't know if it's just the precedent I've seen or something a little distasteful about saying "you can pay me later for what you're getting now once this ends." I mean, is there a tactful way to do this, or is it simply bad style in the first place?

Third, I've been meaning for a while to write something on recording. We used to have some recording gear at my High School, but it was really pretty inferior; the mics were little dynamic mics probably no better than an SM-57, and each track started with a huge "CLICK," which sounded like you were punching the internal mic, which doesn't make sense because there wasn't an internal mic.

Up at school, I've been doing a lot of recording and am becoming the lead recording engineer for Concordia's Beat next year. (more on this later, maybe; the site also badly needs updating) Being around the caliber of equipment you'd find in a recording studio, I've found that it's often true that you get what you pay for. So why, in a school setting, should you splurge and get a lot of expensive recording equipment?

  1. Most important, it's fun. I defer you here, to the Digital Music Educator, for a perfect illustration.

  2. Also importantly, audition tapes can be expensive for an individual to record professionally, and yet be the easiest for which to assemble gear. Plus, this is maybe one of your best reasons for your administration to hear - audition tapes lead to local, state, and national recognition for your students, which reflects well on the school, eh? Read on for more about this...
  3. It lets your students hear something on the other side of their instrument's bell. I still do this in my own practicing (just like the camera adds ten pounds, the microphone takes your tone back ten years), but are tons of ways to use a mic as a teaching system.

  4. Posterity - we made a recording back in ninth grade and got a copy at the end of 12th; it was cool of course to hear how far we had come, but also to reminisce over some old pieces I had forgotten about. I'm sure my grandkids will look at it some day, too, and have some kind of reaction or another to it. :)

Now, about this whole audition tape recording process - depending on your gear, a really good setup can cost as little as maybe $300 and would fit very nicely inside any wishlist you drafted up. This depends on you having a computer, but would get you an interface with phantom power (haven't used one before but it looks like it would do the job) and a condenser microphone (we have a couple of these in our studio and they're fine for recording close alone and far if you're backing them up with something else), plus a mic stand and XLR cable (you may already have a few of these lying around).

That's about all you'd need, if I'm not overlooking anything. Most audition tapes can be done well with one mic; for recording a group, you'd best have at least two mics, but then we're getting into more complicated territory. You plug the mic into the interface, the interface into the computer, and start running a free audio capture program. From there, burning the CD should be just like any other CD you burn.

There's a lot more on this topic, and I'll cover it later; this post has gotten long enough for one Saturday.

On the flip side of using high-quality equipment, by the way, the wise Dr. Carter suggested using the worst-quality recorder you can get to listen back to rehearsals you record and analyze; it makes it that much harder to take the pressure off and rest on your laurels. :)

Hope all's well with everyone, and enjoy any leftover 4th of July burgers.
Grill on,

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Week Three Highlights

So we're past the half-way mark in summer band and I didn't nearly mention it enough. When I mention it, kids often get this shocked, wide-eyed "what, you're serious??" look on their face and come back after a couple days sounding a lot better. I hate to say that my best motivator is the reminder of a deadline, but I think that's because I haven't really gotten the hang of playing teacher mind-games yet, complete with the guilt-trip, the inspirational speech, and the hundreds of other tricks in a good teacher's bag.

Today in particular was a very interesting one, being the 3rd of July. One of my classes was very small because three of the five kids were gone a day early for vacation. Fortunately for me, one of the two left has a lot of natural talent, and the other one is a very hard worker and is going to be just fine if he sticks with it. (and works on his note-name-and-fingering flashcards!) On the other hand, since one of the teachers couldn't find a sub, I was teaching two horns, five bones, and a dozen-odd trumpets. Having not planned ahead and rearranged my room, we kind of formed into a circle with in the middle dancing around and keeping things going. It was actually really fun, and I wish I had recorded it to see if I did as well as I thought I did.

By the way, I base the assumption that I did well on the fact that there were kids smiling in the I'm-having-fun way and not in the I-can't-wait-to-tell-Billy-about-this-strange-teacher way. This makes me both feel really good and also really cautious because I've heard many teachers give me the warning that if the students like me by Christmas vacation (ahem, Winter Break), I've already lost control. I'm really of a split mind about this advice, but that'll be the subject of a later post.

Anyhoo, also this week, I led my first warmup ever! The teacher who was supposed to have been doing it called out the piece but then was taken out of the room by a parent. I realized, "oh gosh, I'm a teacher now! I have to do something!" So I jumped up on the podium, said something about half notes, Bb, and listening - it was all so fast! :) - and started rehearsing the piece. Woot! I really wish I had caught that on tape; that would have been golden footage for my instrumental methods class this fall.

Finally, what's the deal with finding out a teacher's first name? I don't remember ever having wondered about that as a kid, but I've been asked half-a-dozen times this week. Have we lost respect for our elders so much that a first-name basis is expected of your teachers, or is the beard not fooling anyone? By the way, my first name is "Mister" and let's look at "Hard Rock Blues."

Anyone else notice that you don't really find blues influences in hard rock? Rarely will you ever find a blues-like progression, eighths are always straight, and what about blue notes?

In other news, I'm playing 18th- and 19th-century music with the Century Brass tomorrow at Murphy's Landing. They're such a fun group to play with because I always get my butt kicked; their ears are so much more finely tuned than mine, and they have such wise stylistic points. I'm learning a lot.

Okay, that's all for now. Happy 4th of July!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Trumpets and Motidispiration

Well, the trumpets did okay today. I'm really happy at how their mouthpiece sirens are coming along, but I was really hoping for more improvement on note recognition and such. I'm reminded of a talk I heard at the MMEA conference given by Dr. Peter Boonshaft on motivation, discipline, and inspiration. It was truly an inspiring talk, and I dearly wish I had recorded it because he was going through so much good information at such a break-neck pace.

One of his may points was (and correct me if I'm wrong, anyone else who saw it) that motivation, discipline, and inspiration are one in the same. Letting the reader mull that over for a second, I continue : I had given my trumpet players some motivation (the concert was soon), some inspiration ("Look! You can do it already! Just practice to make it solid"), but as for the discipline, I don't know what to think, exactly. They're all in a baseball league, and the progress I've seen in one weekend is great compared to what I've seen in other sports-minded kids who have the same kind of schedule, but there's always that feeling of "what if they had time to practice more?"

I'm reminded that we don't find time for things; we make time.

Still, today didn't sound like a Monday, and I am very very happy for that. Way to go, trumpets!


P.S.: anyone have any better grasp on motidispiration than I do? Dan? Dr. Boonshaft? :)

Friday, June 27, 2008

More thoughts on motivation

The bit about lighting fires in my last post got me thinking just now about something that happened my first time around in the classroom - it came time to kick things into high gear, and my approach was to walk into that classroom with all of my friendliness gone and and start saying "I'm going to whip you into shape because I need you to do these things for the concert and I don't think you're ready yet so I'm going to be expecting a lot more work out of you." Big mistake. All I got from them was a begrudging attitude.

This time, and I didn't do this on purpose - I was just struck by the difference - at the initial reaction I got when I came in with a concerned but driven air (what's a word for that?) and said "Okay guys, here's the deal - we're half way done with camp, and you know that G that we've been having trouble hitting? Well I just saw the pieces we're playing for the concert, and we have to hit a C above that six times just in one piece! Now, let's buckle down today and see how much we can get done because there's a lot of work ahead of us."

This got a hugely different response out of them! Instead of mirroring my antagonism, they mirrored my sense for urgency and really buckled down hard. I'll let you know what happened over the weekend when I see them tomorrow.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Week Two

What? It's over already?? That went far too quickly, methinks. Week two of summer band just flew by, and I've been left thinking a couple things...

First, I love this job.

Second, so far in my education classes, they've taught us absolutes - always establish procedures on the first day. Never lose your temper. All that. Still, I'm surprised at how much of a balancing act teaching is, not to say that I didn't get some idea of this in my classes - it's just that it's never the same when you're actually out teaching.

For example, I have one student whose teacher had him switch instruments three times within his first year of playing. He's only been on his current horn for about a month, and he's in a class with kids who have been playing for a year or two. He gets picked on by other kids, he doesn't get much slack cut from a sibling of his, and he has social disorders that make concentration neigh unto impossible. Is it any wonder that his self-efficacy is just about zero in regards to anything relating to music? Now, he's in the same class as one of the best musicians in the program. Keeping them both interested and invested in the lesson is not an easy task.

Similarly, there's one kid who seems to have a grudge against the world. He loves getting into arguments and people love getting into arguments with him. It's all I can do to keep the class from spiraling into disorder, much less rehearse songs that half the class doesn't like. If anyone knows any pieces like Bryce Canyon Overture but for one grade level higher, please let me know! Anyway, happy story with this kid - today, he brought in something that he had been lacking, and not only did he share it, but he offered to share it! I'm trying to think of the best way to thank him...

Also, I'm finding that group lesson balancing doesn't always have to do with skill or behavior - there's one kid who's coming to band a year late and is with the kids a year behind him; he's doing fine, but he's simply more mature in a lot of ways. A fun game is keeping the younger kids' attention while not losing him. There's only a year in difference, though, so the game is on "easy" mode.

Third, I love this job.

Fourth, I've been thinking a lot about how dropoff I've seen in music ed programs would be affected if students got to do stuff like this right off the bat - we've all seen people quit not because of the students but because music theory was hard or there was some departmental stuff going on even if they would have made fantastic teachers in practice. I feel like everything is backwards - first you go through all the drudgery and hard work, then you go out and teach and see if you like it - and that perhaps if it was the other way around, the people who decided to stick with it would have that to strengthen their resolve when facing 20th-century music theory and those things which are rarely used in a classroom. After all, I don't know about you, but I've got a lot more motivation to do things for my students than for my profs. (I still like you, profs!)

Fifth, I found today that the art of teaching is the art and timing of lighting fires under kids' butts - giving them motivation. I kicked it into high gear a little earlier than I have for my class of beginning trumpet players today - they still have to add a forth to their range by next week (up to C5) and if I did my job today, they'll be doing lip slurs and sirens and note flashcards every day this weekend. And if they do that, the rest of the program is going to be really, really fun.

Finally, I love this job. :)

Have a great weekend,

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Oh my gosh, I have been having the time of my life teaching the local summer band camp. It runs Monday through Thursday, starting this week and running for 5 weeks, and already, I am exhausted in the best way. Things so far are really going well, I think; the kids are settling into the routine and not constantly asking me either when they get out or where they go next, the beginners are off to a good start (not as much as I would have hoped I'd have gotten through, but still pretty good, especially for 4 days of playing!), and the beginning saxes are starting to understand what bad noises are and not only how to avoid them but that one should avoid them! That's probably the most exciting thing - a few sax players are already making a tone several years maturer than they are. Fingerings? Well, that's another story. One of the veteran woodwind teachers was telling me how different the learning curves of the brass and woodwind players are; trumpets and trombones are relatively easy to make noises on and learn those first five notes, but beyond that, there's a lot of work they need to do on their own to master much more. On the woodwind side of the coin, at this level, once your kids get a good embouchure and have their hands in the right position, they can learn all the notes you throw at them with little extra difficulty.

I'm also struck each year at how true all the music stereotypes are. A sample from each of my classes :

Trumpet :
*note note blat pause note honk*
"Geez, Billy, what the heck?"
"Come on, Mr. Albing, let me do it!"
"No way, Andy, I can do it better!"

Low Brass :
*fart noise on a low Bb*

Horn :
"Good morning, horns. How are you?"
*silent stares*
"How was recreation?"
*silent stares*
"Take out your essential elements book and open to page six."
*Instant, silent complience*
"Amy, can you show us how to finger the first note of 'Lightly Row?'"
*silent stares*
*silent stares*
"Raise your hand if you're breathing"
*silent stares*

The format is difficult in the absolute sense of the word, but a dream when put in context. For example, I know that each one of my sax players could already be playing ensemble music if we had taken all this time for group lessons and invested it in private lessons. We spend an entire period just reviewing how to put on the reed and learning how to hold the instrument. This was day two; day one was just learning how to put the reed, mouthpiece, and neck together, with some basic embouchure work. The class is pretty close to that point of critical mass where you either need fewer students or an aide; fortunately, I have one of the latter, but they know very little about woodwinds. However, it was AMAZING today to be able to take one girl aside and fix her sax while he led them in some basic songs for a minute. In a nutshell, if I had had maybe one more class with them or had *that* much more skill in classroom management, I could have sent them home this weekend with a more focused practicing plan than I did.

As for low brass, I have a few kids who are studying privately, and BOY does it show! A contestant in the most difficult challenge of teacher summer band contest is definitely keeping these kids un-bored. One person (I don't know if they study privately, actually, but they very well could, and if not, should) I told to think of phrasing in in this one melodic line we were working on; another, I've told to pay close attention to intonation; another, I tell him to help out the people around him - well, I tell everyone to work it out with your neighbor, so I keep him busy while I can work with another kid for a second.

Three more contenders in the above contest are letting things go by, staying on topic myself, and boiling everything down to one sentence. First, for as long as I've been taking private lessons, I've always been looking at the nitty-gritty of music-making. Now, to hear these kids who have been playing for a grand total of four days, my gut instinct is to talk at them about the soft palate and breath support and what not, but the other side of me is absolutely joyous that none of my trombones are holding their slides with a death grip, and fewer than half are slouching in their chairs! Second, as for staying on-topic myself, I just love teaching this age group, so it's hard for me to not stop the lesson and have a chat about the evolution of the Mario games or debate which of the pokemon are the coolest. (Oh my gosh, the original pokemon came out around when or before these kids were born! Get me my cane!) I don't have trouble breaking up those conversations before they get too far, most of the time, but I'd be a liar if I said that I didn't hurt a little for having to do it. Finally, in that same vein, it's hard for me to boil down everything I want to say into one sentence; people who know me know that I can tend to ramble (ha, look at the size of this post so far) and so I have the tendency to stop rehearsal and explain everything in minute detail (see the first point); still and all, I've found that nine times out of ten, the kids are less bored, learn more, play better, and have more fun if I say the same idea five pithy ways (Dr. Wohlfeil, anyone? "Give me a pithy summary of..." - now I know what he was doing for us) and have them play after each time, rather than take up five times the amount of time and have them play once. Come to think of it, that holds true with any age or level of musicianship.

I'm going to have to end this rather ineloquently; I feel like a nap is about to take me by force. I wish everyone a spectacular weekend, good luck to all of those involved in the Concordia College Wind Band Institute (I went last year and had a blast!! Learned a ton, got to meet some great people, and am only not going this year because it's scheduled over Summer Band here), and remember to only practice on the days you eat.

Take care,

Monday, June 9, 2008

Speaking of Electronic Music...

... I picked this up over at Tanbur this evening. For the more advanced types, look at this! Check out the links. Thanks!

Ooh, this one's really really good, too!

Now, anyone out there willing to port these to a portable device with a multi-touch interface?

Student Electronic Music Competition

I would like to offer my congratulations to the winners of the NSBA Student Electronic Music Composition Talent Search. (NSBASEMCTS?) The link to the MENC website is here.

A couple things about this in no particular order :

First, I'm surprised at how they talk about music in their essays and bios, the 9-year-old Spencer talking about musical themes and the composition telling a story; I don't think I was aware of either of these concepts in the third grade.

Second, only one one of the winning compositions used instruments electronic in nature. I suppose that this isn't so surprising, considering that it would be easier and cheaper to get the free Finale Notepad and hook your headphone jack into a line in, rather than get Cubase and a ton of plugins and learn pianoroll and and sequencing and mixing and all that.

Third, why on earth were the songs released in WMA format?? They could have gone with MP3, which everyone uses, or OGG, which is free and higher-quality, but they had to go with a lossy, proprietary format. I suppose I'm mostly surprised that they, as teacher types, weren't thriftier on the codec end of things, but also that as teacher types, they also probably have better things to do than worry about a system that they don't know about, so long as it works for them.

Fourth and fifth, in one paragraph... They all got their start young. This is a lesson for our school boards to not cut back on elementary music programs, but also a lesson to the rest of us that the best time to start any venture is now. No, not after you get done checking the blogs and watching the Simpsons reruns, now! But about their age, surely they must have had mentors and people helping them, and I don't mean that in the my-dad-did-my-science-fair-project-for-me way, which by the way, he didn't. I mean it in that Spencer did this as a game with his dad, or the way Erin's percussion lessons helped her solidify musical ideas, and how Daniel's uncle let him play in his band, which stimulated his musical growth outwards. (and how my parents gave me my first pad of staff paper; thanks Mom and Dad!) We teachers should consider it tantamount to a crime when we say "no" to helping a student explore something.

Finally, and along the same vein, I didn't look too closely at the scores, but it looked like they didn't always worry about the playability of something, and I mean that in a good way. I'd always get stuck in the practical matters of the music, like how the fingering here might be awkward or how I'd have to spell this with a flat instead of a sharp so it's easier to read or if I should put in a clef change or leave the section with ledger lines. This would, and still often does, hang me up when writing music; my first piece for band never got written because I didn't understand that 9 flute stands didn't mean 9 flute parts.

P.S. to the second point - does anyone know of any system of free synthesizers not unlike Reason that work pretty simply out of the box? I looked a while ago on the GPL and Linux end of things, but the difficulty in setting up JACK and ALSA and debugging MAKE files drove me insane.

That's all for now, folks. Please write in the comments section; no comment too off-topic!

Happy Monday,

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Live Concerts

Some of the best gigs I've seen are those with teachers I know playing. My former jazz director plays sax in a jazz quintet; my current trombone teacher plays in a funk band along with other faculty. Once, I was at a swing dancing venue and the band playing there was being led by a legendary former teacher of the area. Many of the Concordia faculty play in the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony, and it's always a pleasure to get to go see them.

The value of seeing live performances can not be understated or overlooked, no matter what level. There's a certain magic that happens between performer and audience that can not be captured in a recording and can not be reproduced no matter how many audiophiles approve of your stereo. And yet, there seem to be so many impediments in the way of getting students, especially young ones, to see live music.

At the most practical level, though, we are talking about the business end of music, and most venues don't cater to elementary students, one classroom at a time. Because of this, many jazz clubs are expensive, many serve alcohol and can't legally admit anyone under 21 years old, and many venues' shows start once many 5th-graders are in bed.

Here's what I have seen done to combat this :

First, our High School's winter jazz concert always invites the 8th-grade jazz band to come and play some and then listen to what's in store for them in the years to come. The High School bands aren't professional, but they're still impressive to the kids whose crowning achievement was to play an 8-bar solo on "Louie Louie." Also for this concert, our jazz director works the budget so that he can bring in a name artist from around the Twin Cities area to clinic with the bands and play a feature and some solos with the top two groups. This has often been a wonderful experience because although some times the guests talk above our level, they often can play at such a level that is completely wowing to even the best musician but also something that your average Joe can dig and get into.

Also, I've seen the Dakota Bar and Grill sometimes open up their stage to various student groups, the business incentive being that you get all the friends and family members in the club, looking at their ads and buying their food. I laud them for doing this because it gives some real gigging experience to a beginner group while forgoing the cover to a really prestigious venue that has seen a lot of great names play there.

The same jazz director as above has also often worked deals with the venues he's played at to reduce the cover or otherwise help get kids in and see good music well played. One especially cool night was when I got to see their quintet play to a packed house at Brilliant Corners, and packed not with students, but with serious jazz lovers; this really gave our director some credence with the students and parents who were there.

However, I know that I come from a really extraordinary program with some really extraordinary people. In my own teaching, I'd like to try and make as many of the opportunities I had available to me available to my students. However, this just opens up a host of questions : Would arranging group discounts make things feasible for low-income families? With the rising costs in transportation, how can I budget that in? Would my administration look kindly upon having parent volunteer drivers? What about the busier schedules that kids have these days? Could they find time to come? Would it be fair to tie students' grades (extra credit or otherwise) to something that they're not legally required to attend? (because I as a teacher can't make them attend things after school and make it count for a grade - isn't that the law as it stands?)

Still, there are so many good things that I've seen come of getting that kind of interactive experience that I find myself with no choice but to try and make ends meet. Ideally, what I'd like to see is this : in class the days before, we talk about what we're going to see; we also draft questions to ask the performers, learn a bit about their art and about the pieces on the program, and learn about concert etiquette for whichever venue we're going to. The day of, however we get there, we show up and hopefully will have arranged for some sort of pre-concert lecture or discussion; I've seen the SPCO and the Minnesota Orchestra do both of these things to great effect. Then, the concert starts, my students are perfect little angels (oh please oh please!), and the concert ends. Afterwards, we hopefully will have arranged for a post-concert talk, formal or informal, for which the students will have prepared questions so we don't waste the time with this person/people. They learn a lot, and we have a brief discussion the next day in class to recap and for me to get some feedback.

In a case where I'd really have some budget to blow, I'd love to bring in a musician from the group to do a clinic with the band and have some one-on-one time that way. Perhaps this could be part of a pre-concert talk if we're lucky enough to have the group come to our school so we can share a concert, have the clinic, and not have to pay for our own busing.

Also, there's nothing stopping me from teaming up with other local schools to help cut the cost by splitting it between two schools. I've already told several of my friends that I'm going to be calling upon them once we're all teaching to do this if we end up teaching close to each other. Heck, if I expanded to enough schools, I could turn it into a regular jazz festival.

Finally, I'd love to know how to get parents involved in this process. I know there must be a myriad of ways to do so, but which would be the best use of my time and energy? Perhaps, if there's really some problem about concert etiquette from the audience at concerts, I could use it as a way to show how people listen to non-rock concerts. Or perhaps I could parents as further cash leveraging, saying that I could double their numbers by bringing parents if they could give us more of a discount. Obviously, I'd need parent chaperons, but the more I can get, the fewer discipline problems I'd foresee.

I'd love to hear what the community has to think about this, and if you've got any ideas you wouldn't mind telling, please let me know. Before too long, I'll try and get a post about fund-raising this whole operation out there.

Happy weekend to you all,

Monday, May 12, 2008

Eductaion discussion on PBS

I just saw Randi Weingarten speaking on Charlie Rose on PBS. It was really quite interesting to hear someone speaking sanely about education and not blowing things out of proportion and making them seem cataclysmic. For example, many programs like NCLB, vouchers, teacher incentives, and the like are often talked about in a manner that makes it sounds like since something isn't working, nothing will ever work again! (there's a word for that, but I can't think of it now...) In fact, they played a clip from an earlier interview Rose did on education, and the man (whose name I didn't catch) was talking about, for lack of a better term at the moment, "lazy" teachers, and saying all the usual things about how impossible it is to be fired once they get tenure and how they destroy the system and all. Weingarten pointed out that the only difference between firing a new teacher and a tenured teacher is that the tenured teacher has to go through a hearing first (teachers out there : verification?) and that it's easier than people think to get bad teachers fired. However, she did seem to avoid the topic of whether the bad teachers really do get fired.

That was another interesting aspect to me - how Weingarten and Rose interacted. Rose obviously was trying to get certain answers out of her by steering the conversation and biasing the questions, but Weingarten dealt with it in two distinct ways - first, she turned the questions around to get across her own points, and second, she payed very special attention to the details about what Rose was saying so he couldn't back her into an answer, which, honestly, is a trap that she could have all to easily fallen into. However, she seemed like she was avoiding several questions simply because Rose was asking cut-and-dry questions, and she obviously was not willing to simplify the complex and multidimensional situations into a cut-and-dry answer for him.

I wish I could remember more of this now. Tomorrow, I'm going to look for a copy or rerun somewhere; there was a lot of good stuff in it.


P.S.: oh yeah, she gave a big plug for arts and music! Represent! Although, her "magic wand" list at the end of the program didn't mention the arts, she did mention getting, keeping, and working with good teachers and administration (one of several good points, but this was what stuck out because that's what Rose manipulated to be her main point at the end)

EDIT: so, I found the page where the video is eventually going to be, although I don't know how long that's going to take or how much video they're going to make available.

Also, I do now remember that they were talking about salaries, and Weingarten said something to the effect of using school-wide pay incentives to aid recruitment in certain core areas instead of just boosting pay in just the English or Math department, which is what Rose was trying to get at, I think. (I may have this a little muddled, but I'll find out for sure once the video is out) Now, I can see where Rose was coming with this, that in giving incentives to all teachers, you're rewarding those who aren't deserving of or needing incentives. But, look at it from the other way - what is it saying to the music or gym teacher who sees their core-subject co-workers not only getting more scheduling sway but also more pay? How demoralizing!

EDIT: The video has now been updated; you can use the link above. Enjoy!


Being in college, it's remarkably easy to seal yourself from the outside world. That's why it came as such a surprise to me when I finally was able to uncover my head from a load of books and saw that IAJE, the International Association for Jazz Education, declared bankruptcy!

Now, I don't know how old this news is, but it looks like MENC is stepping up to the plate to help fill the gap; good news?

Near as I can tell, yes and no. Naturally, it's good to have another national organization help promote jazz, but jazz is not the main focus of MENC and I have my doubts as to whether or not it can do IAJE's work nearly as well. On that note, though, the deficit was supposed to be more than $1 million. Simply blaming this on lower attendance at the last conference seems a little strange; if there were an extra 5,000 people, each paying $100 to attend, that only covers half of it. I'm just making up these numbers, though; can anyone else provide more realistic figures?

So, more importantly, what is to be done now? Should MENC risk over-reaching its boundaries like IAJE is said to have done? Personally, I hope to see some grassroots movement from the music-ed blogosphere - people writing articles, networking, and in the long term, trying to bring things back together, whether its scope is national or local.

Finally, after some quick digging, has at least some of the old IAJE journal articles stored in cache. Can a mirror be made of the old site? Copyright lawyer, anyone?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Phew! Finals are done! What a grueling race to the end this has been. My juries went fine, and I turned in all 11 of the papers (no joke) that were due in the last two weeks of school. Oy...

I want to explore for a minute one of the most basic concepts of music-making : listening. Obviously, every good musician does this, both with the horn on and off the face, but what I want to ask is how "interdisciplinary" a musician can effectively be with their listening choices? For example, you're not going to learn a lot about the ii/V/I progression listening to acid trance, but I feel that listening to and mimicking electronic music has given me a better ear in general because I have to be able to hear and process the differences in tones, what they mean, balance and blend, and a host of other things as I incorporate them into my own music.

However, I seem to get a twinge of embarrassment when I admit that I listen to and (nay) enjoy (!) electronic music; after all, it's associated with rave culture and the drug scene! We can't have our teachers knowing about that! Historically, though, formal music has lagged behind the popular or folk music; jazz music used to be a taboo, even, and now its theory and idioms are not only being studied as a subject, but studied as a pedagogy! How long may it be before hip-hop and punk rock go the same way?

So, why resist it? Why does academia tend to shy away from popular music as if there is no value in it? Is it because of contempt - that there must not be anything useful in "Classical Gas" because I can write a Schenkarian analysis on it? Why do teachers shy away from it - do they fear that the class may *gasp* know more then they do?? Or is it a simple matter of time, energy, and money? A full set of DJ equipment isn't cheap, and to learn how to effectively create and integrate, say, vocal trance into a curriculum would take a heck of a lot of time and effort. Perhaps more than it's worth, I will concede, if your ends are to make a better choral singer, using the vocal trance idea. But what about if your ends are to impart an enjoyment of music making? And if they aren't, why not?

Personally, I'd like to see more modern music explored in the classroom, or at least as an extracurricular. It may be expensive, and school budgets aren't a lot, but they're probably more than the allowance of your average 8th-grader. (teachers : am I correct in saying this?)

I see that I've diverged a bit; as far as rock goes, I really enjoy listening to Phish and Queen because they're so cerebral as far as the genre goes. They really take things outside of I, IV, and V and into the world of modulations, secondary-function chords, form, etc., but also because other aspects of musicality are so finely taken care of (intonation, rhythmic precision, etc).

Okay, I think I've raised enough questions for one post. Please, discuss...
Happy Monday!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

What is "comprehensive?"

What must be included in a comprehensive public school music program? This is the question that I want to explore with this blog. I feel that my own music education has been blessed in many many ways, not the least of which is the fact that I have had some of the best teachers music education can find, but also that in not having a marching band experience, I was able to delve into jazz and chamber music more than I feel was allowed to my peers. So, was my own music education really "comprehensive" by not having a marching band experience? If I were to have had that, could I have experienced jazz and chamber music in the same way, budget aside? That is to ask, would there have been enough time?

And so, with my own future students, how am I supposed to strike a balance between what administrators, parents, other educators, and the students themselves want to accomplish within the band program? I leave this as a question until I can write more, as there is one week left until summer break, and I have, at my last count, six papers due (well, two of them are actually compositions, but one has a paper that has to go along with it) : what programs/labs/opportunities would you wish to have available to your students if you could have only 4?

My own list at this time would be, in no particular order,
1) concert band
2) jazz band
3) music technology lab
4) student-run chamber groups

Hope all's well,

Edit: that is to say, the program at whatever level you teach. If we were talking the entire K-12 program here, that would be another story altogether.