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.

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?

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


Catching Up

I have not posted much in a while, and I’m going to make an effort to post more regularly, even if they are just short posts, in order to avoid marathon posts, like this one could turn out to be.  Anyway, here are some of the things that have been on my mind and going on as of the start of the year (in no particular order):

– If you have been reading past posts, you know that I have been struggling with getting numbers up in my elementary program.  Things have gone remarkably well here at the beginning of the year.  I started on the first day with about 60 kids signed up, and now I have about 78.  These extra 18 students simply have been showing up and saying that they want to play, so that has been really good.  But, lately, I have been thinking about how to get the elementary students motivated to practice.  Now, I do have a rewards system with “band bucks” where students who practice an hour get 1 “dollar” from me.  They can then use that dollar to buy things like music pencils, erasers, etc.  This works well for some students but not many for some reason.  Maybe I just don’t make a big enough deal about it.  But, I have been thinking this week that maybe I would institute “quizzes” for the students.  What I have thought about is telling them that they will have a quiz on an assigned excercise for next week, and simply grading them out of 10 points.  My thinking here is that this will help to make the students accountable for practice time.  I just feel like I have far too many students who do nothing all week, and then we wonder why they can’t get passed number 15 in the book the whole year.  Any feedback/thoughts on this matter would be appreciated.

– Also somewhat related, I have been considering the possibility that I rely too heavily on the “method book” to teach elementary lessons, rather than just using it as a tool.  Maybe my approach to teaching elementary has been all wrong from the beginning.  Perhaps it is better to teach these students what I think is best, and simply use the method book as a resource, and not necessarily the curriculum.  Thoughts?

– Please hear me out on this next one.  Sometimes I feel like I need to remind myself that this is “just a job.”  Now, before you jump down my throat for saying such a thing, let me explain myself.  I know that all great teachers think of this as much for than “just a job.”  I do as well.  But, I think having a child has changed my perspective quite a bit.  I have to admit that my family is now the most important thing in my life to me.  There are many days that I find myself at school thinking about getting home and seeing my family.  But, what I find is that I still am very motivated to do the absolute best that I can when I step in front of my students.  So, here is what I think I mean when I say that I have to remind myself that this is “just a job.”  Sometimes, I let the BS that I have to deal with really get to me.  We (those of us in education) all know what I mean….all of the stuff not related to teaching music.  When I start getting bogged down with the administrative directrives that I don’t necessarily agree with, high school drama (“she’s being mean to me!”), etc., I find that I just have to tell myself that this really is “just a job.”  This helps me to let all of that unnecessary baggage go, so that when I am home, it does not weigh on my mind and have me pre-occupied when I’m with my family.  (I think that is also partially why I haven’t blogged in a while…I simply do not want to think about school when I’m at home.)

-Finally, it looks as if we will be extending our football season once again this year.  The team is 7-1, and has been looking good.  I predict we play at least 3 weeks into November.  I have to admit that for the first time since I’ve been in this position, I’m not really looking forward to it.  I don’t know if it’s because I’d rather be home with my family, or because we have been in the playoffs just about every year since I’ve been here, but I’m ready for the season to be over.  It probably has something to do with the afore-mentioned “high school drama” too!  But, I really do wish the team good luck….deep down, I probably do want them to succeed.

-PS – Don’t remember where I heard or read this recently, but a good thought nonetheless.  Someone said something to the effect of “We do not teach subjects, we teach people.”  I like that – sometimes it changes my perspective on handling certain situations.

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!!