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!!

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! 🙂

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!

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.

Adjudication – How it has helped me to be a better teacher.

This year, I finally decided to have my senior high concert band attend it’s first adjudication. Here in PA, this is simply a process where the group performs 2 prepared pieces and some sight-reading. The ensemble is evaluated by a small group of judges, and the band is then given a rating. I like this system, because it does not necessarily compare the group to any of the others that are performing. This process also gives the group some positive feedback for improvement and also I think lends some validity to what we do as music teachers.  This is kind of like our “standarized test” for band.

Anyway, we have just begun our preparations for the adjudication in March. I have noticed that preparing for this event has already made me a better teacher. Let me explain why. First of all, this has forced me to be much for focused and goal-oriented in our rehearsals. I know that we will have to sight-read, so we are working on that every day during our warm-ups. After listening to our winter concert, I knew that we had to work more on intonation, so this is something that we are also addressing on a daily basis. Focusing on these two prepared pieces has also helped me to be better in my rehearsal planning process.  What I have found myself doing is just selecting certain concepts that I want to work on that day, or selecting a small section of the music to perfect. In just two weeks, I have found the group’s progress to be very exciting, and I think we are now getting more done in a shorter period of time.  I should also mention that I am careful to make sure that the adjudication is not all-encompassing. I think that this may be part of the reason that I shied away from doing it initially. I worried that I would focus too much on the adjudication, and not about teaching music.  But, I have been pleasantly surprised to find out that with the right mindset, this is actually helping me to be a better, more prepared, more focused teacher! Stay tuned for more updates as we continue to prepare!

Concert Reflections

Last evening was our annual spring band concert. The middle school concert band, senior high concert band, and jazz ensemble performed. The kids did a pretty good job, and I am so proud of them. As I was driving home last night, and reflecting again today, here are my thoughts:

1. Why is it that I have such a small audience at my programs? Do I not advertise enough? Is it that I have so few students (20 in middle school & 25 in high school)? Is it just the culture of the area in which I live (socio-economically depressed, broken homes)? Is it a combination of all of these? How can I make it better? I feel bad for the students when I look out into the audience and don’t even see 100 people there. Maybe I am being unrealistic?

2. My students get so nervous! One of the most influential teachers I ever had in college told me that you should be 110% prepared for your performance, because you loose 10% right away to nerves. I wish I could accomplish this level with my students, but we never get close to that. I attribute this to a few possible factors: lack of rehearsal time (we only meet 2 days a week for 40 minutes each due to scheduling), lack of student practice at home. I never feel that the kids performance is near their actual level of ability, because they are always so timid at the concert. It is also possible that they lack confidence because of the lack of instrumentation in the group: 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, etc.

3. Sometimes we focus too much on the concert as being the representation of our programs.  Yes, the concert should reflect the culmination of the semester’s work, but we should also not forget that one short performance is not what our programs are all about. If I can walk away from my concert (even if the performance wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be) and I can answer yes to the following questions, then the semester was a success: Did the students improve musically? Can they walk away from these pieces with a greater understanding of them? Have they learned something valuable? I think these are the questions that are most important – not necessarily “Did they play well at the concert?” We must remember that our programs are more about what the students accomplish during the other 178 days of the year that they are in our rehearsals. Focus more on the process, rather than the product. (Please do not think I am down-playing the importance of a good performance!)

4. Why do students not show up for their concerts? I have had a few students not show for any concerts this year. Aside from the fact that they will not receive a passing grade from me – Why would you want to be in band, but yet not want to perform at the concert? I must touch base with these students and find out what is going on. I took a summer clinic/class that was taught by Gary Smith from the University of Illinois, and his advice was not to get angry at students for missing things like performances until you get the full story. He related a story about when he taught at Illinois and a student of his punched a hole in a wall at the hotel they were staying at. Gary immediately kicked the kid out of the band, and came to find out later that the student’s father had just passed away. Don’t react to the situation until you get the full story! I need to find out why these students aren’t showing.

5. Seniors – It is always a pleasure to reflect back to when I first began working with these students. I can remember how they played (or didn’t) when they were younger. There is a great sense of satisfaction for me to listen to them play at their final concert, and know that they have improved as musicians and human beings dramatically! That is what this job is all about – knowing that you had something to do with that student’s musical – and many times – social development. I’ll miss them!

6. Sometimes, Murphy shows up! You can’t let these situations panic you…they are inevitable! During our first senior high piece last night my first trumpets sounded like they were dying! I asked what they problem was after the selection was over.  “My first AND second valve are sticking!” So, I proceeded to talk at length about the next piece while another student ran downstairs to the band room to get valve oil, because of course, no one had any on stage!  Lesson learned for the brass players!

Overall, it was a good concert, and the students did well. I’m sure I’ll feel differently when I hear the recording, as I am always very critical!

To those of you with concerts still remaining, good luck and enjoy!

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.