Why I Do What I Do

Every once in a while, we are reminded why we teach. Today is one of those days for me. I received a copy of a letter from one of my principals that a former student wrote to him on my behalf. It was written by a former student who graduated in 2007.

This student was a part of the band program when I starting teaching here in the fall of 2004. She was a sophmore at the time, and an outstanding flutist and student. Anyway, the letter is very nice and validated a lot of the things that I do and that I believe in as a teacher.

I believe that being the band director is so much more than just teaching music. I have always wanted to teach my students responsibility. I have always wanted my students to push themselves to be the absolute best they can be at whatever they do. I have always wanted to be there for my students to lend an ear, or offer advice when needed. The extrememly kind words from this student validated all of these things for me.

Sometimes, as teachers, we do not always see the fruits of our labors, especially if our goals for our students are “life lessons” or other things that are not immediately tangible in the classroom. Every once in a while, a student will let you know that your efforts are indeed paying off, and this is why we are reminded why we do what we do!

UPDATE: My Top Ten Songs

If you read my last post, you know that I was given a challenge of coming up with my top 10 favorite songs or recordings.  Well, after sifting through some 8000 or so songs on iTunes, I have finally picked 10 (well, 13 actually). Here they are in no particular order, and my reasons for picking them.

1. Chameleon – Maynard Ferguson – The first time I ever played a saxophone solo in public was a junior high jazz band concert in 7th grade. This was the song.

2. Hello City – Barenaked Ladies – When I first met my wife, she introduced me to the Barenaked Ladies. Every time I hear this song (or any song from the “Gordon” album) it makes me think of her and when we started dating. I like that.

3. The Rain Song – Led Zeppelin – I had to include a song from my all-time favorite band, and I just think this song really showcases how well they wrote music. I have always enjoyed music that was written with a lot of creativity.

4. Third Symphony, Mvt. 3 – Mesto (for Natalie) – James Barnes – One of the most moving pieces of music that I have ever played in an ensemble. I can remember weeping while playing this piece several times.

5. Shiny Stockings – Count Basie – This is the tune that introduced me to the Basie Band. I can remember specifically playing this song at a jazz festival in high school. It has been one of my favorite big band charts ever since.

6. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy – Cannonball Adderley – This is the song that introduced me to Cannonball. He has since become one of my top two favorites and biggest influences.

7. Irish Tune from County Derry – Percy Grainger – Hands down, my favorite wind band piece of all time. To me, this piece is the standard of beauty in the wind band literature.

8. Ornithology – Charlie Parker – This is from one of the first jazz recordings I ever owned – Charlie Parker at Storyville. I can remember just being amazed when I first heard it as a young saxophone player.

9. Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag – James Brown – I can remember hearing this recording on the local oldies station that my parents listened to. Probably my first introduction to soul/r&b music. I have always loved this tune!

10. Daphnis & Chloe – Suite No. 2 – Maurice Ravel – When I played this piece in college, it was the first time I really connected emotions to performing music. I mean deep emotion. I had always heard directors and conductors talk about playing with emotion and feeling, but it never really clicked with me until I played this piece.

11. Delta City Blues – Michael Brecker – This one is from my other biggest saxophone influence. What Michael does with overtones in this recording just blows my mind. He is one of the all-time greats. I wish I could have seen him live before he passed away.

12. Cheese Cake – Dexter Gordon – I was introduced to this recording at a jazz camp that had a huge impact on my life when I was in high school. I wish I could have picked every track from this album entitled “Go.”

13. Bu’s March – Benny Green – I always wished that I could play piano, and I love this album from Benny Green recorded live at the Village Vanguard. This recording has one of the hardest swinging shout choruses I’ve ever heard.

So there you have it. Looking back at this list, I noticed that each song has had a particular impact on my life as a teacher and musician, and I suppose subconsciously, that is why I picked them. I hope you get a chance to check out any that you are not familiar with, and I challenge you to do the same and pick your top ten. Please share the results here!

Top Ten Favorite Pieces

This idea is somewhat related to a conversation that Travis Weller started a while ago with a post entitled “My Band Room is On Fire.”

My ever-faithful assistant director Dennis Hritz, posed this question to me the other day: If a dinner was being held in your honor to document your life as a musician so far, what 10 recordings would be played at that dinner? So, my mission is to come up with 10 songs or recordings that are my favorites, regardless of genre. This is something that I’m going to have to think about! I’m not quite sure if I can narrow it down to only 10 favorite recordings, but I have starting thinking about what I might include. Some ideas I’ve had are to include things like my first jazz album that I owned or the first jazz recording I ever heard. I have to also include some of my all-time favorite players like Cannonball Adderley and Johnny Griffin. What songs have I listened to over and over again and still loved just as much as the first time that I heard them?

On a somewhat related note, if you haven’t checked out 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, you need to do that! I have found some really great stuff there!

I would be interested to hear what is on your top ten list! I will post mine here as soon as I decide!

Keep Them Coming Back for More!

And by “them”, I mean my elementary students. I had a great conversation last night with my graduate saxophone teacher, Dr. James Umble. I had mentioned that I was struggling with teaching elementary band. I lamented about how the students don’t show up for their small group lessons, they don’t practice, etc. Then I mentioned a conversation I had with my assitant band director. His son plays trombone in my elementary program. He is also taking private electric bass lessons. This student practices the bass a heck of a lot more than his trombone. Why? Because playing the bass is fun for him. Playing the trombone is not. Why? Because he gets to play what he wants on the bass. He gets to play music that appeals to him.

At this point, let me just say, I am old-school. I was raised on the old Rubank method books, and that is how I tend to teach, especially at the elementary level. For someone that claims to be a techie geek, I am extremely outdated in my approach to teaching elementary band. I am so into Garage Band and SmartMusic, etc…why am I not using these in my elementary band classes?? I don’t know. I think it is because I’m somewhat afraid to go out on a limb and stray from the class method book. But, I think I have to.

This goes back to the conversation I was having with Dr. Umble. How can I still teach the important basics of playing an instrument that are included in the method book, and yet make it interesting for the students? Let’s face it…how many kids are pumped about going to band to play “Hot Cross Buns?” Not many in my school!

So here is what I think I have to do. I have to find a way to use the method book in addition to some kind of supplemental material that is going to be “cool”, “awesome”, or even “rad!” What am I going to do to make the students want to look forward to coming to band every week? What am I going to do so that students are counting down the days until the next rehearsal? It has to be interesting and egaging for them, or they will leave it behind. And, that is what is happening at my school.

Some ideas I’ve kicked around include looking at my method book and identifying the key concepts that are introduced and reinforced, and then creating my own exercises that are handouts to supplement what is in the book. These handouts would be songs or etudes that are popular songs, or other things that the students would be interested in playing. This may even motivate them to practice!

Dr. Umble even suggested that I use Garage Band to loop something for the students to play with. Why didn’t I think of this?! We could play the exercises out of the book, and I could create loops for the students to play along with! Also, why don’t we have the students create podcasts? We could have them doing improvisation with Garage Band, record it, and then post it as a podcast!

So these are the things I’m thinking about doing with my elementary program, in addition to using SmartMusic to some degree.

What do you do with your elementary programs to keep the kids coming back for more?? What motivates them to come to your rehearsals? What motivates your students to practice?