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.

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.

What motivates students to practice?

untitledToday, I watched a YouTube video that a friend had sent to me of a girls’ high school band from Japan. The group was playing a composition by Claude T. Smith and it was amazing! You can watch it here. Anyway, it got me thinking…

We are all familiar with great programs, whether its band, orchestra, choir, etc. What makes these programs different than mine? The students are the same age. Sure, they may come from all different backgrounds, living conditions, etc., but what is the real difference between students that are just average musicians, and those that are incredible? Is it that those students are really dedicated to practicing?

Let me digress for a moment. Yesterday, during my senior high concert band rehearsal we were rehearsing the first movement from Holst’s First Suite in Eb. If you are familiar with the piece, you know that woodwinds have a significant 16th note run in the beginning of the movement. Now there is nothing overtly difficult about this run. Most young students will just need to spend some time working out the technical aspects of the run. I may be stubborn, but I am refusing (at least for now) to work on this during rehearsal time, because it is something they can easily learn themselves with a little time in the woodshed.

So anyway, after seeing this amazing video of this girls school, I started really thinking about students and their motivation to practice. I know for me, I only became motivated to practice when I could see or hear the benefits of my practice. Then it became like a snowball effect. Once I realized that my practice time was really paying off, I could easily see how much better I was getting. This led to more enjoyment in playing music, which in turn led me to practicing more. I was intrinsically motivated.

How do I get my students motivated to practice? I really believe they have to be intrinsically motivated. That is, they have to want to do it for themselves. They will not do it just because I tell them to do it. In fact, they may just not do it for that very reason. I really think that if I can get past that first hurdle, and they can begin to realize the fruits of their labor, they will then be intrinsically motivated. Is this something that has to start in the elementary program? Should I be a stickler about their practice time at that age? Will this turn into a habit when they get into middle and high school? How do I get to the point that all of my students just practice out of habit? When will my program get to the point that students just practice because they know that it is expected of them? If this point in time ever does arrive, then I think we could really have an incredible group!

Your thoughts?

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!

Adjudication Experience – Great!!

This afternoon, my senior high concert band attended our first ever PMEA adjudication festival. I have wanted to do one for a few years, but have always been apprehensive about doing it. After some great encouragement by my colleagues, I finally decided to send my group this year. I must admit that I was nervous at the beginning of the semester, because I wasn’t quite sure if we’d be able to pull it off. But, as I commented earlier, preparing for this adjudication has really helped me to be a better teacher. We finally started to sight-read on a regular basis, and I was much more focused in my rehearsal time.

The students played great today, and I am so proud of them. They achieved an “Excellent” rating, which is the 2nd highest they could have acheived.  We performed Erickson’s “Air for Band” and Grundman’s “Kentucky 1800.” Anyway, after a wonderful experience here are my observations:

1. First and foremost, I will definitely do this again. I may even go so far as to say that we’ll do it every year. My students got so much out of the experience, and I’m sure that this will prove true when we begin to listen to the judges’ tapes as well.

2. I am impressed with how calm my students appeared to be throughout their performance. Either they felt very confident and were very well prepared and not nervous, or they did a very good job of hiding it. This is very good, because I always feel like we don’t always play as well as we could because of our nerves.

3. That leads me to #3…I don’t think my students could have possibly played better than they did today. I feel that their performance was a very accurate representation today of their true ability. I told the students before they played today to remember that no matter what happened today, that is was only a snapshot of how they played on this particular day. I’m just glad that they performed up to their potential. 🙂

4. The event was VERY well run by Gary Taylor from Wilminton HS. Everything ran smoothly, and the atmosphere at the venue was relaxed, yet formal, and very good for the students. Maybe this is why they were so calm during their performance.

5. My students did a great job on the sight-reading component! They really surprised me, because I thought that is where we would struggle the most. But, we actually read the piece from beginning to end without stopping once, and no train wrecks!

6. If you have not taken your groups to an adjudication experience, you must do it! It was a wonderful experience, and I know my students got A LOT out of it! Don’t keep putting it off like I did! Just go do it!

Middle & High School Winter Concert Recordings

Below I have posted links to our recordings from the winter concert. The first 3 songs were performed by a combined middle and high school group. I have done this the last few years because of lack of instrumentation in the middle school. The glaring thing that needs work in these recordings to me is intonation. I welcome your input upon hearing these as well. I tried to use the wordpress embedded player for these files, but for whatever reason, it didn’t seem to want to play them from drop.io. Any thoughts on that would also be appreciated, as I would rather use the embedded player than the links. Thanks!

I should also mention some info about the bands that you are hearing. These groups meet 2 and 3 days a week only, due to our scheduling. The Middle School Band instrumentation is as follows:
2 Flutes
6 Clarinets
1 Trumpet
2 French Horns
2 Trombones
4 Percussion
1 Mallets

High School Band:
2 Flutes
4 Clarinets
1 Alto Saxophone
1 Tenor Saxophone
3 Trumpets
2 Trombones
1 Tuba
8 Percussion
2 Mallets

The 7th & 8th grade bands perform together, even though the meet during separate periods. Also, 9th & 10th grade students meet a separate period from 11th & 12th, but they also perform as one ensemble.

Song for the Winter Moon – MS & HS
Do You Hear…? – MS & HS
Oh Hanukkah – MS & HS
Fa Una Canzona – HS
Prelude on Greensleeves – HS

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?

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


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!!