Being a musician and a teacher

As I was driving home from playing a gig tonight, I thought about how glad I was that I am still a “gigging” musician.  I remember before I started teaching so many people said, “You’ll never have time to play anymore”, etc. I always thought that if I really wanted to, I would make sure that I had the time to do it.  And, so far (4 years into teaching) I have been successful in continuing to play.

Now, I know there are a lot of us who did not continue to play much after college, and if this applies to you, let me first say that that is okay.  My comments here are not to chastise you for not being a working musician. However, if you find yourself wishing that you were still playing, I encourage you to get back into it. You do have time…you just have to make it. Don’t make excuses!

That being said, I would like to express my feelings about being a “practicing musician.” 1. If I continue to play, I am able to relate my experiences as a musician when I am conducting and teaching. I feel this greatly helps my students because I can easily bridge the gap between musician and conductor. And, as a side note, I have always considered myself much more of a musician than a conductor! 2. Students need to know that you are a great musician. If your students see that you can play, then that gives validity to what you are “preaching” on the podium. Case in point, a former student told me this year that his opinion of me completely changed the minute that he saw me play with my group at a summer concert at a local park.  It was my first year, and according to him, his first impression of me was “Who is this guy?”  And apparently, after he heard me play, he said that he knew that I knew what I was talking about. It’s one thing if the kids hear you play during school in rehearsal or something, but for them to hear you perform as a professional musician is extremely validating.  I have always believed that, in order to be a great teacher, you must first be a great musician.  If we do not continue to perform and be great musicians, then how can we continue to be great teachers? So, dust off those horns, and get back at it!!

Concert Reflections, Part Deux

As I type, I am listening to a CD recording made of our concert by Bryan Helsel of Helsel Music. He does excellent work, and has very quick turn-around. My concert was only last Thursday, and I received my CD today, less than a week later. He also does a very nice job printing the inserts with all of the students names and a complete track listing. Thanks Bryan!!

Anyway, just some more reflections as I am listening. I like to see if the recording really reflects what I thought about the concert. In this case, the recording does reflect accurately what I thought after the performance. The pieces that I thought sounded good do sound good, and the pieces that I thought didn’t go so hot didn’t.

While I am listening, I am reflecting on how both the middle and high school groups sounded when I first arrived here. I may even pull out the recording from my very first holiday concert, even though I know exactly what it sounds like and even shudder at the idea of hearing it! It was not good! HA! Anyway, it is a good feeling to know that this program has progressed so far, and that maybe I actually am teaching these students something!

I really challenged these students this semester with the difficulty of music that they were playing, and I am very proud of their performance. They gain more confidence with each performance, and they become better musicians with each performance. Some particular points: 1. Intonation within the group is getting better. Still a few “nasty” spots, but overall really MUCH better (darn those high clarinet parts!) 2. Balance and blend is MUCH better as well. We always talk about “playing inside the bubble” of the group’s sound. For the most part, the group does a pretty good job of this (darn those high clarinet parts!) 3. Dynamics are getting better as well. The students are finally starting to figure out that dynamics are what make a piece more interesting than just playing notes. 4. The kids are finally starting to play with some emotion! This is very exciting! They are finally starting to figure out that playing with emotion makes a piece more interesting than just playing notes!

Overall, I think it has been one of the best Middle-High School band concerts yet! There are clear signs to me that the students are improving musically, and this is very re-assuring!

Concert Reflections

Last evening was our annual spring band concert. The middle school concert band, senior high concert band, and jazz ensemble performed. The kids did a pretty good job, and I am so proud of them. As I was driving home last night, and reflecting again today, here are my thoughts:

1. Why is it that I have such a small audience at my programs? Do I not advertise enough? Is it that I have so few students (20 in middle school & 25 in high school)? Is it just the culture of the area in which I live (socio-economically depressed, broken homes)? Is it a combination of all of these? How can I make it better? I feel bad for the students when I look out into the audience and don’t even see 100 people there. Maybe I am being unrealistic?

2. My students get so nervous! One of the most influential teachers I ever had in college told me that you should be 110% prepared for your performance, because you loose 10% right away to nerves. I wish I could accomplish this level with my students, but we never get close to that. I attribute this to a few possible factors: lack of rehearsal time (we only meet 2 days a week for 40 minutes each due to scheduling), lack of student practice at home. I never feel that the kids performance is near their actual level of ability, because they are always so timid at the concert. It is also possible that they lack confidence because of the lack of instrumentation in the group: 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, etc.

3. Sometimes we focus too much on the concert as being the representation of our programs.  Yes, the concert should reflect the culmination of the semester’s work, but we should also not forget that one short performance is not what our programs are all about. If I can walk away from my concert (even if the performance wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be) and I can answer yes to the following questions, then the semester was a success: Did the students improve musically? Can they walk away from these pieces with a greater understanding of them? Have they learned something valuable? I think these are the questions that are most important – not necessarily “Did they play well at the concert?” We must remember that our programs are more about what the students accomplish during the other 178 days of the year that they are in our rehearsals. Focus more on the process, rather than the product. (Please do not think I am down-playing the importance of a good performance!)

4. Why do students not show up for their concerts? I have had a few students not show for any concerts this year. Aside from the fact that they will not receive a passing grade from me – Why would you want to be in band, but yet not want to perform at the concert? I must touch base with these students and find out what is going on. I took a summer clinic/class that was taught by Gary Smith from the University of Illinois, and his advice was not to get angry at students for missing things like performances until you get the full story. He related a story about when he taught at Illinois and a student of his punched a hole in a wall at the hotel they were staying at. Gary immediately kicked the kid out of the band, and came to find out later that the student’s father had just passed away. Don’t react to the situation until you get the full story! I need to find out why these students aren’t showing.

5. Seniors – It is always a pleasure to reflect back to when I first began working with these students. I can remember how they played (or didn’t) when they were younger. There is a great sense of satisfaction for me to listen to them play at their final concert, and know that they have improved as musicians and human beings dramatically! That is what this job is all about – knowing that you had something to do with that student’s musical – and many times – social development. I’ll miss them!

6. Sometimes, Murphy shows up! You can’t let these situations panic you…they are inevitable! During our first senior high piece last night my first trumpets sounded like they were dying! I asked what they problem was after the selection was over.  “My first AND second valve are sticking!” So, I proceeded to talk at length about the next piece while another student ran downstairs to the band room to get valve oil, because of course, no one had any on stage!  Lesson learned for the brass players!

Overall, it was a good concert, and the students did well. I’m sure I’ll feel differently when I hear the recording, as I am always very critical!

To those of you with concerts still remaining, good luck and enjoy!

A Successful Rehearsal Idea

During my senior high band rehearsal today, I decided to ask the winds to get up and move their seats next to an instrument that is not the same as theirs. I could not believe the difference in the sound of the group. It was almost immediate. The group sounded more balanced, more in tune, and overall just had a warmer sound. I think there are a few things to take away from this: 1. The band sounded more balanced because of the actual physical set-up; instruments were in different places, and thus the sounds were mixed together. 2. It forced students to listen to other parts of the band; it was really an exercise in listening. In order to hear the rest of their section, they had to “listen across” the band, and, they listened to other parts in the group that they probably did not hear before. 3. The students really enjoyed sitting by different folks for a change, and it really livened up the rehearsal. 4. Surprisingly, students that had been having trouble with certain parts of the music suddenly seemed to play fine on their own, when they were away from their section. Had they been “hiding” and just following along this whole time? Hmmm…

Anyway, I will definitely do this again. Not every day, because I think it would loose it’s novelty, but I would like to do it on a more regular basis. This gives me some other thoughts too: If my group sounds better balanced in this configuration, why wouldn’t I have them sit like this at this week’s concert?? I am going to try it at our dress rehearsal and decide then. And, perhaps I should mix up the instrumentation in my marching band on the field, in order to achieve this more balanced sound. I know this is not traditional, but I wonder if anyone else mixes up their instrumentation for performances.

The Influence of Our Better Players

As I am a young director in a program that is rebuilding, I have not yet had many students in my group that were influential on the other students musically.  And by influential, I mean in a good way.  I have had plenty of students who were not a good influence.  But I digress…that is another topic for another post!

Anyway, for the first time in the 4 years that I have been here, I have found that students who are good musicians can truly have an effect on the way that the other students around them play.  I have a trumpet student who has really taken off this year, and he is really beginning to make some very good musical choices (see First Post).  I have noticed that when this student plays good dynamics and articulations, the other students sitting around him will follow suit.  I was so impressed by this; I finally realized that if you had a few really stellar players in your group, that they could improve the musical level of your group dramatically.  Perhaps this is common knowledge to those of you that have been in the profession for a while, but this was literally a light bulb turning on for me.

This tells me that I should encourage more students to pursue private lessons.  I always knew that I should encourage them to take lessons anyway, but I guess I never realized how much of an impact it could have on the entire group.  I will now be making a concerted effort to do this.

So, what I gather from this experience is this: Push students individually to be the best musician they possibly can be, because when they become better players, they can only help the group as a whole when they are sitting in the rehearsal or performance.  I know this sounds logical, but I guess I just needed the wake-up call to bring it to my attention more clearly.