Elementary Program Changes Successful

In the spring of 2009, I approached my administration about the possibility of making a significant change in our elementary band program. I wanted to eliminate 4th grade from our program and just focus on the 5th and 6th grade. This freed up a little time in my schedule, and now I am able to see my elementary students twice a week at 30 minutes each (instead of only once). I get to see them in a small group with like instruments, and also in a full ensemble setting. I asked for this change in the hopes that it would improve the elementary program, and I have been very pleased with the results!

Without officially crunching the numbers, I can safely say that student attendance for elementary band has improved by at least 50%. I used to have students that would consistently miss lessons, and thus fall way behind their peers. This simply does not happen any more. Now, out of approximately 60 students that I have in 5th and 6th grade only 2 students have chronic attendance problems. I don’t even have to send other students to remind others of their band time – everyone shows up on time and ready to play!

Another significant improvement this year is a reduction in the number of students that I have had drop out of the program mid-year. I suspect that the attendance improvement probably has something to do with this as well. Out of all 60 students in elementary band this year, I have only had one student drop out! This is a significant change from last year as well!

Finally, the level of the music that the students can play this year is also vastly improved. In the past 5 years, most all of our concert selections consisted of two to three 8-measure exercises from our method book. Now, we are able to perform entire band arrangements and the kids love the music! I think this is strongly tied to the improved attendance and participation…the kids like to play the music (it is enjoyable for them) so they want to be there more than ever.

So in summary, I am proud to say that this change in our elementary program has been everything that I hoped it would be. This is also probably one the largest 5th and 6th grade groups that I’ve had in the last few years. Hopefully, the attendance and participation with stay high and it will translate into a larger number of students participating in our middle and high school programs.

Slava! performed by an Elementary Band? Sure! Why not?

Just wanted to share this AMAZING video of an elementary band in Japan performing Leonard Bernstein’s Slava! Enjoy!

Ironically, this YouTube video directly relates to an online class that I just started through Wilkes University and Discovery Ed. I will post about that later. Anyway, I had my wife listen to the audio of this video first before seeing who was performing. Then, we she came into the room and saw who was performing the work, she was as flabbergasted as I was.

I have just begun reading Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind for my graduate class. In the first chapter, he writes about left brain versus right brain thinking and how our educational system has traditionally catered to the left – the logical, language-centered, essentially more “academic” side of our brain, all the while more or less ignoring our more right-brained compassionate, artistic, emotional side. This video is a direct correlation to that.

My wife says, “What’s wrong with this country that we don’t focus enough on the arts?” As Daniel Pink would point out, it is largely in part due to education being based on preparing a workforce to participate in the Industrial Revolution where artistic and creative thinking were not as valued. Somehow, folks in other countries have at least figured out that the arts are a vital part of their school’s curriculum.

I could go on and on about the effects of high stakes testing, and how I believe our educational system is skewed, etc. but many other folks have written much more eloquently on the subject than I ever could. I would like to leave you though with this talk given by Sir Ken Robinson in 2006 for TED Talks.

Where did the summer go?

I can’t believe that I haven’t posted anything since the end of the school year! Well, the school year ended up great, and I’m actually very excited for the school year to begin. Maybe even more excited than I have been in a while!

I just finished up attending a 2 day ed tech conference at a local school. It was the first one, and it was a great success. We had sessions on Wikis, podcasting, Web 2.0, and I even gave a presentation on blogging. It was a wonderful first year, and I am looking forward to attending future events.

We have some major changes coming to my music program this year, which is very exciting. First, my senior high band will be rehearsing all together in one period every day of the week. In the previous 5 years, they rehearsed in 2 separate periods, and only 2 days a week, since we shared the students with the choir program during the same period. I really think the group will now be able to play music at a level that is up to their potential. They are very talented, but we just didn’t ever have the time to prepare anything more challenging than a grade 3 level piece.

Another change to our band program is that we are going with only 5th and 6th grade participation in band, instead of 4th, 5th, and 6th. This will allow me to see the elementary band students 2 days a week…once in a small group with like instruments, and once in a large group “band” rehearsal. This is very exciting! We will actually be able to perform complete arrangements at our concerts, instead of silly 8-measure exercises out of the book!

Finally, we a receiving new marching band uniforms this year! After 3 years of asking, they were finally ordered last spring, and should be here in time for our first game, which is at home. I can’t wait to make our traditional march to the stadium in those brand new uniforms!!

So, things are shaping up to be a great year! Band camp begins on Monday! Just don’t ask me if I have finished writing my drill charts yet! 🙂

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?

Trying Out SmartMusic

I have recently begun using SmartMusic, mainly with my elementary band students. I am LOVING it, and my students are really enjoying it as well. In fact, on the 2nd day of using it with my small sixth grade group today, when I asked who wanted to go first, all hands immediately shot up in the air. I have never seen students so excited to play in class! The more I learn about the program, the more impressed I am with it. The integrated online gradebook, called “Impact” is really amazing. When students complete assignments, they are sent directly to your gradebook, and it calculates everything for you. You can even add other assignments that are not necessarily SmartMusic assignments.

Right now, I do not have any students currently enrolled in my classes, but most students have shown interest in getting the program at home. We are currently using the program on my personal laptop. I also am using the program weekly for graded assignments with the students. However, I am not factoring in these SmartMusic grades with their report card grades until next year. I still want to find out how much the software will impact their grade before I really “make it count.”

I am already noticing the added benefits while using it in class. First, the students are really excited to work with the program, and I can see this being a good practice motivator. What is also great about the program is that it forces students to play at a steadytempo. This is something that my students struggle with regularly. If they are playing along with the software at home, it will really help their time. Our Standard of Excellence books now come with accompaniment CDs, and I have found that students that practice with those CDs have a much better sense of time than those who do not.

What I worry about with the program is that it may frustrate those students who struggle. I hope that it motivates them to practice more, but I can see it becoming a deterrent. My concern is that those who struggle will get frustrated and lose some confidence as a result of getting “bad grades” on their playing tests. But, I have also found that students who struggle can consistently see improvements in their grades after repeated playing.

I am also a little worried that students will not utilize the “loop” feature that is offered in the software. In other words, I am concerned that they will simply play exercises from beginning to end over and over without just focusing on the areas that they need to work on. I guess I should remember that this software is a practice aid, and does not simply replace the teacher. This brings me to another point. The major drawback to the software is that I don’t think it can accurately measure articulations, dymanics and/or note lengths. Mostly, the program can only recognize correct pitches and rhythms. But this is half the battle, and the teacher must be diligent in still teaching musicianship, not just “button pushing.”

So these are my observations so far in about 3 weeks of using the program. I have also used it a little with my middle and senior high students with concert and jazz band music. I plan on rolling out the program fully in the fall for next year.

What are your experiences with the program? Have you used it? Are you currently using it? I look forward to your feedback.

Still Here

So when I realized that my last post was OVER a month ago, I decided I had better write something. To tell the truth, a lot has been going on, I just haven’t had the time/motivation to write about it. So, I’ll see if I can go over what’s new:

1. Taking masters level lessons with my undergrad saxophone instuctor. I have been slowly working on getting my Master’s in Music Ed., but after taking a number of classes, I have been extremely unmotivated to even finish it. I think this is due mainly to the fact that I am doing my Masters at the same school I did my Undergrad at – Therefore, I feel like the classes that I’m taking are exactly the same stuff I did in Undergrad, just with more reading and writing of papers, which I can’t stand! So when I found out that I could take a lesson as an elective and it would still count towards the MusEd Masters, I decided to go for it. My teacher is Jim Umble, easily one of the 10 best in the world. Anyway, I have been loving studying with him again, and now am even considering changing my Masters to a Performance degree. Stay tuned for an update on that! I had been longing to really study music “seriously” again. What I mean is that I have longed to work on the saxophone again at a level that really challenged me. I have been playing consistently even since I finished my undergrad 7 years ago, but have not really “practiced” much since then. It has been great to get “back on the horse.”

2. Renewed energy for teaching in my current position. I’ll be the first to admit that I have been less than enthusiastic about my job, or at least where I am, for most of this school year. However, after a few happenings lately, I have been more energetic and encouraged. I have had the opportunity to work with some of the other teachers in the building who are really dedicated and who a really great teachers, and they have really invigorated me! I have also found that since beginning the work on my instrument again, my mindset about teaching has changed slightly for the better. I don’t know if I can put my finger on it, but I feel like I am expecting more from my students, and I am getting better results.

3. Considering major changes to our music programs’ curriculum and scheduling. I am hoping to drop our 4th grade band program in an effort to give more time and attention to the 5th & 6th grade students. I feel this will lead to greater interest and better retention in the program. I teach in three elementary buildings in addition to the middle-high school, and right now, I only see the elementary students once a week for 30 minutes. It is just not enough time to have a solid program…it has not worked in the 5 years I have been here. I also hope to get my senior high concert band scheduled at a different time than our choir, so that I can have the whole band in one period and 5 days a week. (I don’t have either right now. – This makes it difficult to work on more advanced concepts like blend and balance.)

So, that is the quick update…I hope to be more productive on the blog in the near future. In the meantime, you can always follow me on Twitter.  That is where I have been doing the majority of my “blogging” lately.

This American Life – Music Lessons

Someone forwarded this episode of “This American Life” from NPR to me, and I found it very entertaining as a music teacher.  Below is the description from the TAL website.  Click on “Full Episode” under the graphic to stream it.  Enjoy!

104: Music Lessons

What’s frustrating about music lessons, what’s miraculous about them, and what they actually teach us. This show was recorded in front of a live audience at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, with help from KQED-FM, during the ’98 Public Radio Conference in San Francisco.

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=104


Grading & Elementary Band

In my district, my 4-6 elementary band students receive a grade for band on their report card.  Even though this is my 5th year of teaching, each year I have struggled with how to grade these students.  For the majority of this time, I have relied simply on a participation grade.  That is, if they show up with all of their materials, they receive the full credit of 10 points.  Let me first state that I do not wish to grade students on their abilities, as all students are at differing levels. However, over the past few years, I have realized some things about the elementary band program.

Students do not take elementary band seriously enough.  – Now, before you accuse me of making elementary band too rigorous and serious, let me assure you that my main goal is for the kids to enjoy being there.  If they didn’t have fun, I would have no students.  But, at the same time, I think the students need to begin taking some responsibility for band – after all, it is a class, and they do get graded for it.  I think keeping the band time enjoyable is all a matter of the teacher’s state of mind. I have found that my elementary students do not practice, and for most of them, the only time they take their instrument out of the case is when they come to their weekly band lesson. I have found that this is greatly affecting not only the ability of the elementary band, but it is also affecting the students’ progress at the middle school level.

With all of these thoughts swirling in my mind for the last few weeks, my student teacher and I have come up with a new grading policy for the elementary band students that is based half on participation (similar to how they were graded before) and half on their assignment, or what I’ve been calling it – “homework.”  The participation grade is broken down into 10 points – 2 for attendance, 2 for bringing an instrument, 2 for bringing their book and pencil, 2 for getting their practice journal filled out and signed by a parent (more on this later), and 2 for behavior and attitude.  The other 10 points is based on their ability to play the assigned excercises or song(s). Of course, this grade is based on their improvement, and not just ability.  As other veteran music teachers know, it is very easy to tell if a student has practiced or not, and that is how I base the grade.

The other thing that I have resolved to do this year is to communicate better with elementary parents.  At the end of the first 9 weeks, I sent out an individual progress report to each student’s home, indicating the student’s current grade, and where their strengths and weaknesses were.  So far, I have already had great response, as I can see students are now practicing and some have even improved their behavior.  Imagine that! Some students have even commented about receiving the progress reports, and a few parents that I talked to really liked receiving them.  One teacher friend even suggested to make the process easier that I could have the students’ teachers put them in with the report cards when they get sent home, instead of mailing them.

So, other elementary teachers out there…what are your thoughts?

A Question for Brass Experts

I had a thought today when I was teaching my beginning trumpet students.  They have been stuggling with buzzing and producing a good tone.  I believe that they have a handle on how to buzz, since I have them do that for me without the mouthpiece.  Here’s where my question comes in…I know some brass players have to angle their mouthpieces down in order to get the most effective buzz.  How do I know when to direct a student to try that technique?

On a somewhat unrelated note….Here’s something that I’ve been thinking about for some time.  When do you decide to try to switch a student to a different instrument so that they may be more successful?  Do you have students that you find are struggling on one instrument, and then switch them to something else? When do you determine that you’re going to do that?  In other words, how much time do you give the student to be successful on their instrument before moving them somewhere is that you think they may have more luck with?