Discipline in Music study: Competing against the screen and modern culture

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I would like to start with the premise that music study is a discipline that needs to be a studied with an approach similar to the study of any language.  Whether its French, Japanese or computer languages (C++, Java, Python, etc.), music takes years to master and time to cultivate.  Even athletics at very high performance levels require countless hours of time on task to master.  Like any long term pursuit, this requires patience, perseverance, commitment and focus.  Traits like these are hard to find in today’s youth, or are they?

The world is changing at an accelerated rate. 

We are in a new age, and making it up as we go along.  This statement pertains to teaching, parenting, career advisement, and general pursuits.  What do we tell our youth!  What we knew yesterday will be totally different in 5 years.  Its scary to think that internet only really caught on in the mid 90’s!  20 years ago we just started seeing Amazon, Ebay, Netflix, etc.  1998 was when Google’s search engine first appeared!  Then began the dot.com craze…..flash foward: can anyone say “Bitcoin”  Lol…..I do hold some now, hope it continues to grow!  However, the dot.com bubble burst in 2000, and many jobs that had been created were now lost.  However, the advancement in technology was a relentless force that continued to create new exciting opportunities for our young workforce.  Tech careers were here to stay.  Whether it was website development, online commerce, or tech item development, jobs that were not even imagined a few years ago spread across the landscape at an ever increasing rate.

Our Lives have never been the same since…….

Then came the Ipod in 2001, followed by the Iphone in 2007.  Facebook started really spreading in 2004, Youtube was founded in 2005, spread like wild fire and “You” became Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006.  Was that really only 13-14 years ago!!!!  Since then our necks have been craned downward as we constantly access our phones.  The ultimate communication devices connect us with beautifully streamlined apps that have been designed to tap our natural system’s dopamine responses to pull us back over and over again.  This is just the start… more is coming.  The VR possibilities are endless.

We are living in a virtual world already.

If you notice what is going on daily with our youth, many have already been fully absorbed into the virtual reality experience.  Well, I guess they are following our lead, right!  Mom and Dad, and Aunt Mary, all spend countless amounts of time on Facebook and Pinterest.  For our students, this is old tech already.  Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, WeChat, Groupme, Kik, Tumblr, etc.  Social Media is king, and we all are in unchartered territory.  Kids disappear into virtual battle fields and talk with their competitors in a live environment.  Incredible visual landscapes are shown and kids spend hundreds of hours exploring without ever leaving their living rooms.  So, is this good or bad?  Dr. Spock’s parenting guide….well, that was centuries ago with how things have developed. So how do we parent, how do we teach our youth?

Icons of mass appeal….the evolution of our heros

Well, I guess Elvis wasn’t so bad after all!  If you ever listen to the lyrics of the music that our kids adore, well, it can be quite shocking.  Promotion of social deviance has always been popular.  Whether it was Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Ozzie Ozzbourne, etc. we have always cheered on the rebel.  However, the fascination with the club, the money, the power, the narcissistic tenor of today’s popular music has taken it to a new level.  What do we revere?  Well, our youth become fascinated with this culture, and are bombarded with it not only in the music they listen to, but the online culture surrounding it.

Tuning out and tuning in

So….. what to do as teacher’s and parents.  How do we encourage our students to pursue the zen-like discipline of music study when the competition is so fierce from this virtual world.  In a world where the value of learning the trumpet doesn’t seem nearly as cool as interacting online, how are we to encourage the value of a traditional study of music?  Even adult attention spans have been shortened as we move from one tweet to another post.  I will admit, it is super fun going down the rabbit hole on Youtube or Twitter.  However, should we embrace this or fight against is?  We need to teach our youth that regular consistent work will lead to good things.  Even computer coding at first is not glamorous, but the apps they eventually will build can be breathtaking!  Any zen disciple will learn to tune it all out, and find peace and energy in the pursuit of perfection.  This needs to be instilled in our youth when studying music, or any discipline.  Sports icons sell this….well they are pretty cool right?  Sports themselves sell this because the thrill of victory comes pretty quickly.   It can take years before one gets this type of feedback from a concert……unless it is set up well by the teacher.  This is our job.  Give them an awesome experience and they will keep coming back.

Embrace or Ignore

I would suggest that the tech that our students are developing will become the cornerstones for their future.  At MIT, it is know that if you can hack into their grade books and give yourself an A, they will give you an A.  Companies regularly employ hackers after they are caught hacking into their own companies!  This is not meant to condone illegal activity, but we as educators have to encourage exploration.  In music, can we compose music that our students will draw towards?  Music of the age?  Yes, many are already doing this.  Good music grabs kids….this is the key.  I love Holst, and most students do, but we are still clinging to the traditional band/orchestral instrumentation.  It is time that we embrace music that utilizes electronics, sound tracks and effects, non-standard percussion, visual elements, etc.  Name me one person who isn’t absolutely captivated when they see a Cirque du Soleil show!  Make the experience awesome!

Connecting with the past and future

In the professional world, traditional instruments are regularly combined with contemporary sounds and effects.  I think we are missing the boat if we do not embrace this.  One example.can modern day hip hop and band mix?  Well, you might be surprised.  If you look across much of the modern music written by young composers, there is an ever increasing influence of modern music appearing in their works.  We need to start opening up what and how we teach.  This can be different based upon everyone’s skill set, but anyone can set up learning environments where creativity, even in our modern environment, can blossom.

Final thoughts….

Quality is quality.  Students love to learn and grow.  I will never advocate for teaching what feels good in a temporary experience if that doesn’t build skills and develop musicianship.  Students know when its fluff versus music with depth.  They want to learn.  So, the Zen advice carries forward with the idea that balance must be observed.  Challenges are often NOT appealing at first, but must be encountered for growth.  Nudge them to work, push them to achieve, inspire them to dream.  

Good luck and feel free to add to the discussion and leave comments below.



How to teach band and orchestra: The conductor as a leader, coach, director and artist

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So…..you have just landed your dream job! After years of music study, methods classes, recitals, degree(s) earned, searching for a job, and countless hours hoping and dreaming, you are now about to start your career as a music teacher in a school district. You are a going to conduct ensembles every day and lead young men and women to great things!!! I wish I could tell you it were that easy. You have now signed up to be the most important musical influence of many young lives. Talk about pressure! It will be fine…don’t worry. The most important thing that I can share with you to help you with your success is to realize that the baton work is only one part of the package. You must now learn to be a dynamic artist, an inspiring leader, a organized director and a multi-dimensional coach. Although music is our craft, we are in the business of people.


The Leader

“The most powerful leadership tool you have is your own personal example.” -John Wooden

I usually have a talk with my older students at the beginning of the year about the fact that they are our leaders, no matter what.   They will lead even if they do not want to-either in a good direction or not so good direction.  This is the same for the teacher.  It is often said the team takes on the personality of its coach.  I have been told this as well regarding my bands on several occasions, especially at festivals.  I really try to “keep my head when all about you are losing theirs…:” (-from Rudyard Kipling).  This was especially challenging on concert night when I first started teaching.  There is often so much nervous energy in the room, especially with younger students, that it is super important that the teacher is the calming and guiding element.  Conversely, you will see a stark contrast in energy at 7:35am on a Monday morning when you stand on a podium in front of 52 teenagers!  It is at both these times, and the many countless hours in between, that you will “set the tone” with your students.  You must make your music room environment one that students really love coming to. 

Here are some quick tips:

  • Have music playing when they come into the room.
  • Greet them with a smile.
  • Feel free to share a joke.
  • Call them by name and look them in the eye.
  • Engage them with a short conversation and show interest in them.
  • Handle problems or issues in a graceful manner.
  • Listen, no I mean really listen, when a student is talking to you.  Give them your full attention.
  • Handle any unexpected adversity with a positive reaction.  “It will be okay, we’ll be fine”  Don’t freak out.
  • End rehearsal on a good note or exciting section.  They should leave the room pumped!
  • Smile and engage them as they are packing up and leaving….end on a positive note!

I truly believe that if you lead by example, others will follow in this manner.  Model excellent musicianship and behavior, and your students will likely do this as well.  Students will treat you with respect if you treat them with respect.  It is also good to thoroughly recognize when students are showing good leadership traits.  These also become good examples for everyone in the room.  As a conductor, you should challenge students to step out of their musical box and take chances.  Insist on top quality effort and attention to detail.  Get them to see the beauty in great expressive music making.  Do this in a supportive but challenging way.  Be careful here.  When I first started teaching, I had it all wrong.  I was more old school than I now care to admit.  I was more of a commander than a leader.  Fortunately, no one expects perfection when you first start anything.  I have been guided through the years by many of my own failures and successes. You will make mistakes, don’t worry….nobody is perfect.  Just remember to do your best to treat them with dignity and respect, and then challenge them daily!  Raise their expectations and you will raise their level of performance!


The Coach

“Coaching is about helping young people have a chance to succeed.  There is no more awesome responsibility than that.  One of the greatest honors a person can have is being called ‘Coach.'” -Lou Holtz

I have enjoyed directing bands for over 21 years, and coaching golf and hockey for at least half that time. If I could, I would make it a requirement for every music teacher to coach a sport. There are many related challenges that both the coach and conductor deal with on a day to day basis. Focus, attention to detail, motivation, drive, organization, and passion are all traits that are essential to instill in the young mind. Some students will become their own driving forces, and you then can thouroughly enjoy guiding their efforts. It is in these situations that both the teacher and student are on a journey and are facing the same way. This can be very rewarding for the educator, as you see the spark within your student. For many students, music is a part of their overall existence, not their life guiding passion. Not everyone is a star athlete, but the best teams are made up of individuals who have bought into a shared purpose. No matter what the level, everyone has something to contribute. My most successful golf team was made up of many average to above average golfers, but one that did not have any rock stars. That team had leaders, but not the type that just strutted around thinking they were better than everyone else. Some of my best bands through the years have had great players that were interested in a shared focus with the other members, not just whats good for them individually. Getting them to think like a team where everyone is accountable to everyone else is the beginnings of a great ensemble. Must of this coaching happens off the podium, and it continues on the podium as well. It is the “We” vs “I” mentality……like any good team exhibits.  I am a big fan of small ensembles.  It can be especially affective if they are mostly student run.  There is nothing like playing in a chamber ensemble to develop the sense of individual responsibility.  Students from these chamber groups bring their energy back to the large ensemble.  They lead by example, and are now developing new leadership roles within the larger group.  This would be where I would begin my focus as a young teacher in a new program.  Give it a try!


The Director

“Lead from the back, and let others believe they are in front.” -Nelson Mandela

You know you are headed in the right direction with you band or orchestra when you truly realize how much each of your students are amazing!  They have so many unique contributions to make, some small and some very large.  It is in realizing that when they work together and appreciate each other that the real team building begins.  They just need guidance to be pointed in the same direction.  The Director part of being a music teacher is in charge being organized in the multiple facets of the music program.  This includes things like: choosing great music,  running affective fund raisers, organizing sign ups and music for solo festivals, concert programs, public relations, information sharing via websites and parent meetings, being a travel agent, repairing instruments, school paper work, organizing budgets, dealing with purchase orders, did I mentions running band/orchestra trips?  etc.    Learning to delegate and using the talents of the people around you is essential!  Trying to micromanage everything will drive you crazy.  Students have more ownership in a situation if they are co-creators.

Some quick examples:

  • Ask them to help set up the band each day
  • Let them design the t-shirts for the band/orchestra trip
  • Give them projects like working on the sound and recording the concerts.
  • Teach them how to do some basic instrument repair troubleshooting
  • Ask them to look for a feature piece online that might show off their section
  • Get them to help with folding letters and stuffing envelopes, sorting music, or any similar paper work tasks
  • Put them in charge of organizing their peers, ie. lining up the marching band during practices.
  • Have them help when cleaning out, flushing, and lubricating the instruments at the end of the year.

I have found that when I involve the students in projects, it can either save time or take more time depending on the situation.  Either way, the main point is they are being actively involved in the program.  Everyone loves to know that they are a valued contributor in an organization.  They are extremely talented young people!  Get em going!


The Artist

“To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.” -Beethoven



The devil is in the details…however, without artistry music is just sound.  The one thing that every young musician is able to relate to is how music can connect to how they feel.  It is a vehicle for the soul to express itself.  The best way to grab a student’s interest is to show them how to perform music passionately.  Whether it is shaping an extended simple phrase, or performing in a highly rhythmic fashion, they will connect with your  instruction if you connect them with artistic music making.  Young people are naturally expressive.  When they learn how to artistically perform a passage of music, they will be hooked.  Here are a few quick suggestions on how to incorporate this from the podium:

  • Share with your students the background of the music they will be working on.  How was it inspired?  What was the composer thinking about?
  • Share with them the background of the composer.
  • In a particular passage of music, have them write in pencil on the sheet music what would be going on in the movie that the music would be the soundtrack to.
  • Have them close their eyes and imagine a beautiful scene from their memories before they are to play a beautiful passage of music.
  • Listen to professional examples of the music they are playing so they may have a model(s) of how it may be performed expressively.
  • Work on specific musical gestures or performance practices with them to teach them how they may play a passage of music with more musical impact.  In other words, develop a vocabulary of expression with them.  For some students, this may not be as intuitive, so they need specifics on how to make it expressive.
  • Insist on detailed performance with expression.  Do not let mediocre playing slide on by.  Insist on impactful dynamics and accenting.  Make good expressive playing a habit.

I have seen that the more creative/expressive demands I place on the students, the more they respond.  Challenge them and they will eat it up.  Everyone loves to play expressively.  Lukewarm average playing becomes boring for the player.  It takes more attention and focus on detail to play truly expressively, but this becomes infinitely more rewarding for the young player.  They will follow you, and will want even more.  Inspire them to love the art of music making.  Enjoy the process!

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