Archive for October, 2012

Standard 10

With great power comes great responsibility.

“So, what about Jedi Knights?” I thought to myself.  We were in the middle of Concert Band rehearsal and I had just stopped the students to correct a mistake.  As I spoke I was looking around the room to see who was paying attention when I saw Keagan with his arm stretched out toward me and his hand shaped as though it were holding onto something.

“What are you doing, Keagan?” I asked.

“Trying to Force Choke you,” he answered in his best Darth Vader impersonation.

“Of course you are, but your powers are no match for mine,” I told him.

“We shall see,” he said.  Then, as though it was the most normal thing in the world, he kept trying throughout much of the rehearsal, sometimes on me, sometimes on other students, though never with any visible effect… (Of course, when it became disruptive, I quietly asked him to stop, which he did.)

At the end of rehearsal he tried one last time, so I decided to play along.

“Must…reach…my…grade book… Must…block…powers…with…Force Points Deduction… Minus… one…thousand…” I gasped, pretending to collapse onto my music stand.  At this exact moment the bell rang.

“You lose.” I said.


Years ago the Indiana Department of Education established curriculum standards for all courses taught in public schools.  The standards written for classes like English, Math, Science, and Social Studies are concrete and easy to follow.  They spell out in clear detail exactly what is to be taught at each grade level.  The idea is that if, for example, a 7th grade math teacher follows the standards, the 7th grade math students will be well-prepared for the annual standardized test.

The nine standards for music are, in my humble opinion, less helpful.  First of all, they are “music standards,” which means they were written for all music teachers.  So, some apply more to Choir classes, others to Band or Orchestra, and others to General Music.

Second, they are not as specific those for core courses.  To be as clear as the math standards, Band standards would say precisely what skills each instrumentalist of the band should master during a specific year of study.  For instance, the skills a flutist must master are not all the same as those of a trombonist.

Third, some of the standards are, well, nice, and even admirable.  However, you would never read something like the following in a math standard:

7.8 RESPONDING TO MUSIC: Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts

7.8.5 – Identify life skills developed in music studies and activities such as cooperation, effort, perseverance, and respect that transfer to other disciplines and contexts.

Laudable as these goals are (and I believe they are), strictly speaking they are not curriculum standards.  As 7.8.5 states, they are life skills.

At any rate, whatever one may think of our music standards, it occurred to me the other day that as long as we are dealing with standards like this, there should be one more standard, which I have now typed up and added to the standards displayed on the BandLand wall.  It reads:

Standard 10:  Having Fun with Music (Having a good time making high-quality music).

This is one of those “full circle” moments for me.  Early in my career I would react strongly against those who said that the way to get students to sign up for Band is to “make it fun.”  “Band and Music are fun,” I would say.  “Playing instruments and performing well on them is fun.”  And I still believe this.  I often complained, and still do, that students are too entertainment-oriented.  Some things just take hard work, but achievement is enjoyable.  Most things that are fun take effort; Band is one of those.

But as schools have placed ever more importance on standardized test scores, I have noticed that many of the fun things students used to enjoy in school have been disappearing:  Backpack Middle School students go on fewer field trips than they used to; there are fewer convocations or special presentations to attend; our literature students used to put on a yearly Renaissance festival, but no longer.

So, while I still believe that work and fun can coexist, and that good music is worth the effort and brings its own rewards, I have lately been consciously trying to find new ways to make Band as enjoyable as possible, and also dusting off some tried and true tactics.

For instance, and this is certainly not an original idea, occasionally I let the students choose what songs we will play in their method books; even better is to let them try conducting the band.  This can be a real hoot, while also providing a number of “teachable moments.”

When we practice scales we often play them in rounds (try this with the chromatic scale on Halloween – very spooky), or with different articulations, or with changing dynamics.  The chorale books we use on Tuesdays and Thursdays (Bach and Before for Band and Classic Christmas Carols) have all four voice parts written in every student’s book.  So sometimes we turn the music “upside down” and let the bass instruments play the melody while the soprano instruments play the bass line, etc.

My wife lets her instrumental students earn prizes for practice time.  She also takes her groups to perform in public at nursing homes or, last year, at the Statehouse in Indianapolis.  This got me thinking, so this year I have organized a field trip for my band students to perform Christmas carols at the local nursing homes during school and I invited the Choir director to bring along some of her students, as well.

Three years ago I began offering students the opportunity to buy Band t-shirts with slogans like, “It’s O.K., I’m With the Band!” or “Backpack Bands:  Fighting for Truth, Justice, and the BandLand Way!” which even featured artwork designed by a talented high school band student.

This past Wednesday was the last day before Fall Break, so I brought my dog Schroeder to school with me.  The kids always love seeing him (for more, see blog entry “Is That a Dog?” from May 20, 2012).

And this past Wednesday I engaged in a life or death struggle with a Jedi Knight wannabe…

I suppose all of this is a reaction against the stale, test-driven environment toward which schools are trending.  But it is all good to do anyway.  After all, music actually is fun!  Why shouldn’t we enjoy learning how to make it?  Yes, it takes discipline and effort, but so does almost everything worth doing.


Don Quixote?

The Indy Star printed my recent letter to the editor today.  You can view it at

Or, you can read it here:

I am writing out of concern over the new evaluation systems being put into place in our school system, and all over the state. Among teachers like me there is a lot of misunderstanding about why these changes are being made. Exactly what changes are required by new state laws? Is the RISE rubric necessary? Why?

I was honored to have Tony Bennett visit my band class last year. Indeed, I have been a supporter of his, especially on the issue of teacher certification; the reforms he advocated are sensible and helpful. However, he has not made a convincing argument explaining how this new evaluation system would improve the quality of education. Instead, my fellow teachers and I are being required to devote a great deal of time and energy to paperwork in preparation for evaluations, as are our administrators. That time would be better spent preparing lessons or running our school. Furthermore, our school system already had a rigorous evaluation system in place. Surely, the new student achievement requirements could have been incorporated into our current system to achieve the desired outcomes and satisfy the legal requirements.

Of more basic concern is the philosophy behind the new law mandating that teachers’ pay be determined by student accomplishment. Because teachers have no control over students’ lives outside of school, we cannot expect teachers to ensure success even if students make no effort to succeed in school. To define the quality of a teacher based largely on student outcomes is to deny the responsibility of the student or the student’s family in the process.

I am convinced that most educational problems can best be solved at the local level. Therefore, most control should be at the local level.

Also, while our schools can always do better, the pendulum of public opinion has swung decidedly against teachers without any regard for the responsibility of students and parents. If we want to see real change, we must stop blaming schools and teachers as the sole source of our educational problems when in truth our schools reflect society as much as they mold it.


When I showed this letter to a colleague last week, she called me Don Quixote and said I am tilting at windmills.  I believe she was saying that I am fighting a hopeless battle.  But out of curiosity, I looked up the reference:  it actually means “attacking imaginary enemies.”  (Tilting means jousting, by the way, and Don Quixote thought the windmills were giants.)

Well, wait a minute…  While the battle may be futile, are the enemies imaginary?  My goal is to point out that efforts to improve our educational system will be unsuccessful until our society holds parents and students as accountable as teachers and schools.  If there is a hopeless battle being waged, it is by those who seek reform without including parents and students in the equation.


“It’s Alive!” I cried out, a little maniacally.  “Did you hear that?  You’re starting to get it.  I actually recognized the song that time!”

My sixth grade band students were caught off guard.  They have been working on a simple version of the Hallelujah Chorus for the Christmas Concert (I’m glad the Backpack School System still lets me call it a “Christmas” concert) and they are just starting to figure out the notes and rhythms.

“Now for the real work,” I said.

“What?” they asked.  “You said it sounded pretty good.”

“Oh, no, we have only just brought our creation to life.  Unless we’re happy to let it stumble clumsily around BandLand, babbling incoherently, and knocking things over – not unlike some of you – we will need to make it do more than walk and talk.”

“What do you mean?”

“Rhythms and notes are the bare bones of music; now we need to dress it up with good intonation, phrasing, articulation, dynamics, and balance.  It needs to be graceful, with good manners.  So let’s get to it.”

And with that we set out to make our creation presentable in polite company.

Here We Go a Caroling

I recently invited a few select BandLand middle schoolers to participate in a special ensemble that would play Christmas carols at the local nursing homes in December.  I made it clear that we would need to do all of our extra rehearsing after school.  But what I originally envisioned as a small group of half a dozen students has quickly blossomed to more than 25.  I had thought I would limit the size so we could focus on quality, but in the end I decided that I would take advantage of this opportunity to get students playing their instruments.  After all, they are only improving when they are playing.  So the more they play the better.  Besides, they know by now that quality is not an option.

One student, when asked if he would like to participate in this caroling group, asked if I was going to have him sing.

“Good Heavens, no,” I replied, “Those old folks over there have it tough enough.  We are supposed to be cheering them up!”

I know it is only the the first week of October, but we are already working on music for our Christmas concert.  And I am pleased to report that both bands – Cadet and Concert – seem to be moving along rather quickly, so much so that we may eventually take a break from Christmas music and work on some pieces for later in the year.

My students must be getting the hang of this music reading thing.  What a difference it makes when they begin to comprehend the meaning of a key signature; they are then able to look ahead in their new music and mark notes they are likely to miss.  This is why we work so hard on the most common scales used in middle school music:  Concert Bb, Eb, F, Ab, and C, and also the chromatic scale.  The first thing I have them do with a new piece of music is mark notes.  Of course, I am constantly teaching and re-teaching what notes each instrument has to watch out for.  For instance, in Eb concert, the flutes will need to mark Ab; clarinets – Bb; alto/bari saxes – F natural, and so on.  (I know this is tedious shop talk, but I thought a few of my band friends might find it interesting… or not, since they already know all this).

The point is:  there is value in systematically teaching this sort of information.  Early in my teaching career I did not understand the importance or significance of these skills.  As a result, my bands played a lot of wrong notes.  Our first year at contest both of my bands got Silver awards.  One of the categories the judges unanimously agreed needed work was intonation.  So I made it a goal to teach my students how to play in tune only to realize that our problems were much more basic than that.  As a new teacher I hadn’t been listening closely enough to all the different instrumental voices in the band.  I could hear the melody, and maybe the bass line, but I wasn’t paying attention to the inside parts.  Too many students were playing wrong notes for us to even begin playing in tune.  It only takes one wrong note to ruin the efforts of the rest of the band.

So I made it my mission to teach my students – and I mean all my students – how to read the notes in the music.  I even made a big banner to hang on the wall that read, “You Can’t Play Wrong Notes In Tune.”  I know this sounds really obvious, even to non-music people, but you would be amazed how difficult all this can be to accomplish.  There are a lot of ways for students to play along and sort of “get it right” without really understanding what they are doing.  In reality they are just following their neighbors, sometimes not even playing the parts they don’t understand.  It takes a great deal of persistence on the director’s part to ensure that every player understands the notes on the page.  Here is my system in a nutshell:

1.  I require that all students have a pencil every day.

2.  I require that all students know the scales listed above.  Of course, beginners will learn key signatures before they learn scales, but they can learn what the key signature is telling them to do.  For the Concert Band students, though, knowing what scale the key signature represents makes the job a lot faster and easier.

3.  I require that all students write everything in their own music even if they are sharing a stand and music with someone else.  For instance, if a clarinet player misses a Bb, all clarinets are to mark it in their own music.  If they don’t mark it and then they miss it sometime later, they lose participation points because they didn’t do everything they could to get it right.  In other words, they did not make their best effort, and in BandLand that is not acceptable.

4.  Repeat.  Keep at it.  Do it again the next day.  You get the idea.  Eventually it will pay off.

Easy, right?  And I do all of this while teaching rhythm counting, and technique, and breath support, tone quality, balance, dynamics, and everything else it takes to make a band sound good.  Challenging?  Yes.  Impossible?  No.  Worth it?  Absolutely.  Just wait until you hear those Christmas carols.