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,