New Podcast! Lunchtime Conversation with Dennis Hritz

In what I hope to become a semi-regular series in the podcast, we discuss several topics including early childhood education and music, practicing, and our students. Enjoy!

You can see my podcast page over at http://dougbutchy.podomatic.com

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Why My Students Make Me Cry

The best advice I ever received in my teaching career came from another band director in the area. He is kind of a mentor to all other band directors around here, as he has been around for quite some time, and has a marvelous program. In fact, I can remember looking up to him as a young middle school student back in the early 90s. I will never forget seeing him at a band show during my first few months of being a band director. I said, “Well what words of advice can you give me as I embark on this endeavor?” He said, “Make sure that you love your students. And, make sure that they know that you love them. Tell them.” So, I did. And I continue to do it to this day. Frequently.

I’m not sure how this relates to my concert last Tuesday night. I guess I just feel like they are willing to work really hard for me because they know that I care about them. Now, my students would be the first to tell you that I am pretty easily moved to tears by them, but last Tuesday was the first time it actually happened while I was in the middle of conducting a piece. We worked on the first movement of the Holst First Suite for the entire semester. This was a huge challenge for us on many levels. Mainly, it was the first time any of those students had even attempted to perform a piece at that difficulty. You see, we finally got a new rehearsal schedule this year…I see all of the 9-12 band kids every day for the whole year. I used to see them in two different periods and only 2-3 times per week. I knew that the students had the capability of playing music of this difficulty, we just never had the time to put it together in rehearsal. So, we worked on that movement almost every day from September through the beginning of December. Believe me, there were some days that weren’t so great. In fact, there were many days that I was not proud of myself as a teacher. But, I knew I had to push them, because I knew that they could play it great. And, I won’t ever accept anything but their best effort.

So, we began the concert with Charles Carter’s Overture for Winds, which the students played very well. Then we continued with Grainger’s Ye Banks and Braes O’ Bonnie Doon, and it was just beautiful. They have come so far in their ability to play with control and expression. So I was already feeling great for them. We were truly seeing all of their hard work pay off. Then we came to the Holst. Of course the woodwind sixteenth-note section was not as clean as it could have been, but it was certainly the best they have ever played it! And that is what got me about the entire performance of that piece – It was the best they had ever played it! I think as performers and teachers, we always want ourselves or our students to have the best performance possible at the concert. But, much of the time, this does not always happen. We lose some of our preparation to nerves, and we always have little errors here an there that we wish we could get back. But, during the Holst, the kids played marvelously, and then I began to think about the blood, sweat, and tears that we had all been through TOGETHER in preparing the work.

I looked at some of the faces of these students that I had been teaching for the last 6 years, thinking back to their abilities when I started working with them and their abilities now. I was overwhelmed at that point, and I could not hold back any longer. The tears just began to flow. I looked at them and remembered how mad they made me on some days, and how absolutely wonderful they were on other days. I started to realize, maybe a little bit, the impact that I may have had on them as a music teacher. Maybe they actually were learning something from me! I realized how far this program had come in 6 years. I could remember just hoping that my senior high band would end together on middle school-level music! I could remember what these kids were like when they had just started playing their instruments in the elementary program. And now look at them…Look at how much they have grown as musicians, and as people. It was easily the highlight of my career thus far.

After the concert I made sure that I told them how much I loved them, and how proud of them I was.

Fostering Musicality and Creativity in Rehearsal

150301737_3776586bbc_oEver since I started teaching music, I have wanted to teach my students how to play musically and creatively. I have always wanted my students to play with emotion and feeling. However, these are pretty advanced concepts that I think are pretty difficult for many young students to grasp, even in senior high. I think a lot of this stems from years and years of directors telling students how to play musically and expressively and dictating emotions to them. They have not been encouraged to make musical choices on their own.  I don’t think this is something that you can explain. Anyway, I came up with an interesting idea “on the fly” today during my senior high concert band rehearsal, and the results were exciting!

First, I had put the students in a circle (we only have about 15 winds) in order to work on our listening skills for a previous piece. Then we began rehearsing Grainger’s “Ye Banks and Braes ‘O Bonnie Doon”. The students actually did a really good job with ensemble pulse and I didn’t conduct time, just phrases. But, what I really wanted them to do was play expressively. What inevitably happens is that while they play in time together, in tune, and with a really nice blend, it is almost always the same dynamic level with little or no expression.

So I told them that they were going to go out of their comfort zone a little. I told them that in the next section, I wanted them to play with expression wherever they thought it was appropriate. I told them that no matter what they did, it couldn’t be wrong, and that they should do whatever they felt was right. I stepped out of the circle, because I didn’t want my conducting or gestures or anything from me to influence the way they played at all. I sat outside the circle and just listened.

Then, really exciting things started to happen. I heard a little dynamic change…I could tell a few of the students were really trying to play with some expression and dynamics. So then I asked them to do it again, except this time to make what they were doing more obvious to the audience, which was me. As I have told them many times, in order for dynamic contrast to be evident to the listener, it must sound almost extreme to the player. So, they played it again…and I about fell out of my chair!!

Here were a group of students that I have been trying for years to get to play expressively doing it right in front of me! The best part was that they were making these decisions completely on their own! I had absolutely nothing to do with it. I sat and listened as my students played more maturely than I have ever heard them.  They were making musical decisions on their own that were not only appropriate, but beautiful as well! I could even tell that as some students made some musical choices, it influenced the rest of the group, too! It was so exciting!

When we got to the final fermatta, I told the student to fade into nothing, after holding the chord for at least 8 counts. Guess what? It was probably the best release they have ever played!!

Why did they play so well today? I took my conducting and gesturing out of the equation. I allowed them to make musical choices on their own without my influence. I think that if I want my students to make appropriate musical choices, then I have to allow them to do it on their own, without my influence. How exciting!!

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!

Musicianship & Musicality vs. “The Entertainment Factor”

Last night, I attended an excellent choral concert given by our new choir director here in the district. While I was impressed with the concert, I couldn’t help leaving there somewhat down. I talked with the choir director this morning and asked him if he thought the level of musicianship in our groups was about the same. He actually told me that he thought the band was slightly better, which I was pleasantly surprised by. At any rate, what made me down was that even though I thought our groups were musically equal, I knew that he and his program would receive much more recognition for their performance than the band ever would. I think this is due in part to a few things – 1) There are hundreds of kids in the choirs, as compared to a mere 40 in the middle and high school bands – Thus increasing the concert attendance for the choir 10-fold. 2) The choir program here has a rich history of outstanding groups and programs. The choir program also includes an outstanding show choir, which generally performs about 20-30 public shows per year. This helps to fuel the program, and get public recognition. I wish that I could get my jazz band going enough to act in a similar fashion for the band program. When I was in high school, our jazz ensemble performed in the community regularly, and it was a great ambassador for our band program and school.

While talking with the choir director this morning, something occurred to me. I don’t think it will matter how “good” my ensembles get musically. It will matter to me and possibly the students, of course, but I don’t think the audience will care much. What the audience wants is entertainment. So, then, the great question becomes How do I get the group playing at a very high level, and yet entertain my audience? Do I need a gimmick? Do I just do a “light piece” or two on my concerts? What do you do to combine the two? If I can successfully do this, will my bands get more recognition? And, I guess a more broad question – How am I going to improve my band’s visibility in the community, thus gathering more recognition? I may need to launch a PR department! Thoughts?

Band Camp Wrap-Up

Well, I am mentally and physically fried!  I think the sun has partially melted my brain!  But in all seriousness, it has been a truly excellent two weeks!  I think I probably touched on this in my last post, but there was definitely something different this year.  I don’t know if I can put my finger on it, but I’m going to try.

1. Better Attitudes – I’m not sure why this year is any different than any other…well I think I have an idea, but I’ll get to that later.  The kids really worked hard this year, and I was able to do things with them that I haven’t been able to do with any of my groups for the last 4 years.  A perfect example of that is in this cheer that I like.  It gets the kids pumped and proud of what they’re doing.  It goes like this – I yell the words in bold, and the students respond.  Feet…”Together!” Shoulders…”Back!”  Chest…”Out!”  Chin…”Up!”  Eyes…“With Pride!”  Eyes…”With Pride!”  Eyes…”With Pride!”  Anyway, when I’ve tried to do this in the past, it just didn’t go over well.  The students then would just roll their eyes at me and laugh and think it was silly.  This year, the attitudes have been much different, and the students are very enthusiastic about it.  They are actually proud of what they are doing, and it is palpable.

2. Better Discipline – I think this probably has more to do with me than with the students, actually.  For whatever reason, I was determined to really hold the students accountable for what they were going to be doing.  I think I probably set the tone early on in camp.  My group has had a chronic problem with starting on time, and I’ll be the first to admit that I became a little too relaxed about it.  I have talked the kids’ ears off for the last few years about “to be on time is to be late” etc, etc, but it never really made any difference.  So then I used to make them run laps for being late, but most of them were in cross country or track anyway, so it wasn’t really a punishment for them.  Well, this year, I started thinking about what I would really hate to do for punishment for starting late….push-ups.  I can’t even do probably 8 in a row, and I absolutely hate them.  So, I decided that for every minute that rehearsal started late, we would do 10 push-ups.  So the first day of band camp came, and we ended up doing 40 push-ups together, as a group.  You can’t just make the people that are late do them individually, because this band is a team, and we stand or fall together.  So that’s what I did.  And it worked!  Especially after one of our new officers was late for her meeting the next morning and had to do 140!  I think the word spread fast.  We maybe only started late 2 more times the whole rest of camp…even after water breaks and whatnot!  I also think the kids appreciated seeing me do 20 because I started 2 minutes late one morning!

3. Better musicianship – I think this result may be attributed to my outlook as well.  I have a young group this year, and when I started picking out music, it was very difficult, because I was trying to avoid my groups weaknesses:  2 7th grade trombones, 1 alto and 1 tenor sax, 1 tuba who was switched from clarinet, etc.  But then, I remembered an experience I had a few years ago with this group.  My second year, I tried to pick music like this that wasn’t as difficult.  And guess what?  The music tanked.  The kids didn’t like it, they weren’t challenged, and I was just generally not happy with it at all.  You see, I have learned something very important about my students in this program.  If I challenge them with music, they will rise to the occasion.  They always have, and I have never been disappointed with the results, except in the year that I tried to pick “easy music.”  So, I picked probably the hardest music I’ve done in 5 years, not because it was hard, but because it was just the music I wanted to play.  I decided I wasn’t going to worry about those trombone parts, etc.  I knew that if I had to, I could re-write some things here and there, but for the most part, I banked on the students stepping up and learning the music.  I’m glad that I did, because they proved me right!

4. All of “my students” – When we got to about the 4th day of camp, and I was trying to figure out why everyone’s attitudes were so good, I realized something.  My seniors this year were in 8th grade my first year.  My large group of juniors this year were in 7th grade my first year.  None of these students had ever had anyone else as their marching band director.  Consequently, they have been used to the way I run the group, etc. for the last 4-5 years.  They know what my expectations of them are.  They know what to expect from me.  I guess I probably know what to expect from them too, and that has made a huge difference in the students’ attitudes this year.

I think really, really exciting things are going to happen for this group this year.  I don’t think that I’ve ever looked forward to a marching season with so much anticipation and excitement.  And, I think the students are feeling that way too!

When you take over a new job, lots of people in music ed. talk about when the program is going to become “your program.”  Usually people say 3 years, but for me, I think it is going to be this 5th year.  I am walking away from this camp saying, “Finally, this is my program.”  I hope that the students are walking away saying the very same thing, because they are what make this program great!  It is very exciting, and I can’t wait to see what happens!!

2008 PMEA Summer Conference & Summer Catch-Up

While my wife is out and my daughter is taking a nap, I finally have found time to catch up on the summer so far. First, beginning July 2, I have been holding optional music rehearsals for my marching band students. We have been meeting on Wednesday mornings each week. This is the first year I have done this. Experience has taught me that since this is the first year that I have done this, the entire group of musicians would probably not show up. And, this has held true, and it’s what I expected. However, each session has been productive and has yielded positive results. The way I figure it is that anything that we get done before our regular camp in August is a positive. This will put us ahead of the game, and can only be a good thing. Other than that, the only thing left to do for camp is write drill…which I am currently dragging my feet on!

At this time last week, I had the absolute pleasure of attending the Annual PMEA Summer Conference in State College, PA. This is the first time I have attended, and I will continue to come back every year. I encourage all music educators in PA to attend this event! It is cheap, and is full of great information…not to mention that it helps you get charged up for the impending school year! As a blogger, I was particularly excited about this conference as the title was “Tools for the 21st Century Music Educator.” I was especially impressed by our two opening morning speakers, Mr. David Warlick, and Mr. James Frankel. Both presentations were excellent!

David Warlick talked about our 21st century students, and how they learn. He also talked about why it is important for us as educators to look at how we teach them in this ever-evolving technological age. You can find much more information on his pages at http://handouts.davidwarlick.com and http://landmark-project.com

James Frankel discussed current trends in music technology, and shared with us some really interesting new things in the field. Well, they were things that I wasn’t aware of anyway. He also gave other presentations as well. You can hear his entire presentations from the conference here. He has many great podcasts. Be sure to check out the ones on the Korg Kaossilator! Very cool!

Our afternoon session was in the band “strand” and we played an rehearsed under Dr. Edward Lisk. This session was especially enjoyable for me, since my college wind ensemble director, Dr. Stephen Gage is a student of Dr. Lisk’s. Dr. Lisk’s session was divided into two parts: 1. A new dimension in teaching, thinking, practicing, and playing and instrument. The clinic addressed instrumental teaching and rehearsal strategies for developing a successful instrumental music program. The rehearsal and instructional concepts are designed to enhance and accelerate student performance skills. 2. New considerations for interpreting expression beyond the unadorned markings of music notation. The concepts and instructional techniques address the uniqueness of expression, ensemble interpretation, characteristic qualities and the decision making process surrounding the subtle details of artistic response. You can see Dr. Lisk’s website with the concepts covered in this session here.

The rest of the first day concluded with dinner and our variety show. Tuesday morning began with an update from the Pennsylvania Dept. of Education, and then followed with a jazz reading and improvisation session.

After our closing general session, it was time to head back to Sharon, PA! I want to thank Eric Schrader, Director of Bands at Greenville HS, and Jim Scanga, Director of Bands at Farrell HS for being great roommates during the trip. Special thanks to Eric for driving the whole way!

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!

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.