Walter Bitner

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My Secret Experiment in Music Education

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Music City Youth Orchestra rehearses on the stage of the Polk Theater, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville, May 10, 2010

Continued from: Is Music a Sport?

In June 2007, I founded Music City Youth Orchestra with Tracy Silverman and a group of ten students, and I served as MCYO’s music director and de facto executive director until I resigned in August 2012. For more than five years, MCYO occupied my attention nearly every day as I worked to grow and develop the ensemble artistically: I conducted all of the orchestra’s auditions, rehearsals, and performances, chose and arranged repertoire and prepared it for rehearsal, contracted venues, generated publicity, recruited students, soloists, and adult musicians and educators to assist us. I recruited board members and we established the organization as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit; I filed paperwork, conducted meetings, sought funding, and served as the organization’s sole administrator for the first four years of operation. During most of this time I was concurrently both a full-time high school teacher and attending graduate school. It was an exciting and exhausting time.

What many do not know – I never articulated this plainly to anyone while I was involved with MCYO, and only came clean about this in conversations with a few former MCYO students and friends in recent years – is that during those five years I pursued a secret educational agenda in my work with the students. Music City Youth Orchestra was the grand experiment of my teaching career in which I put to the test some of my most deeply held convictions about the value and promise of music education in the lives of children.

The Origins of MCYO

From January 2004 – June 2007, I was employed as performing arts director for Linden Corner School, a small private school in Nashville that was in the process of becoming a certified Waldorf (Steiner) school (it is now called Linden Waldorf School). When I began teaching there the school encompassed a pre-K program and grades 1 – 5, and was in the final stages of growing into a full K – 8 school, at the rate of a new grade added each year. I taught there for three and a half years, introducing or developing many components of a comprehensive performing arts program to the school’s curriculum including choir, orchestra, a robust recorder program, traditional and ritual dance, and more.

beginning strings class at Linden Corner School, early 2004

Like Blue Rock School, where I began my career as a school music teacher in the early 1990s, Linden Corner’s curriculum incorporated a heavy emphasis on the arts (compared to mainstream American education) in which every student participated in every aspect of the curriculum. Literally, every student did everything: every child learned to draw, paint, build, dance, act, sing, play an instrument, and much more in addition to the other “academic” requirements of the curriculum. This truly “well-rounded” approach to the primary school curriculum for every child is true of Waldorf schools in general, as well as some other progressive or alternative schools.

Linden Corner already had a growing music program when I began teaching there, including mandated strings classes for every student beginning in third grade. During my first semester on their staff I assisted the school’s beginning strings teacher Jocelyn Sprouse and accompanied her classes, and in the fall of 2004 we placed all of the students in grades 5 & 6 (the two oldest grades at the time) in a beginning string orchestra class. With this group of students I began my work as a string orchestra director, and this work quickly became a major part of my activities for the last decade of my teaching career.

with Linden Corner School string orchestra, October 28, 2004
~ nine of these students were founding members of MCYO ~

Founded in Friendship

Over the next three years the school’s orchestra program grew to encompass two ensembles for students after they had spent two years in beginning strings classes: string orchestra for grades 5 & 6, and “full” orchestra (strings, winds, and brass) for grades 7 & 8. Through these early years of the program, I was given a unique opportunity to develop my own skills as teacher, conductor, and administrator alongside my responsibility for guiding the students’ growth.  I wrote dozens of arrangements for my student ensembles, and even composed an original song cycle for children’s choir and school orchestra on nine poems from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.

In the spring of 2007, as Linden Corner completed its first year as a K – 8 school, I decided it was time to part ways with the school and move in a different direction with my career. As the school year came to a close, a group of students who had cherished their experiences in orchestra class expressed the desire to find a way to continue to make music together despite the fact that most of them would be attending different schools from each other in the fall (most were graduating or choosing to attend another school at that time). One of these students was my son. I had several conversations with these students and their parents that spring, resulting in a meeting in June 2007 at which ten students and I officially founded MCYO. Tracy Silverman, whose daughter was one of these students and who is well known in Nashville and beyond as the finest electric violinist in the world, agreed to serve as our artist-in-residence.

Music City Youth Orchestra 2007-2008

MCYO’s mission statement, which I initially drafted myself and fine-tuned further with the assistance of the organization’s board of directors that first season (a group of parents I had recruited) summarized many of my ideals and attitudes about the practice of music education:

Philosophy

We believe that music-making should be a joyful activity, both in rehearsal and performance. We employ a disciplined approach and strive for high standards of accomplishment while at the same time relaxing some of the more formal attitudes commonly associated with the orchestra. We aspire to create a collaborative effort where the students take ownership and contribute to the work of the group beyond simply learning their parts. The collective contributions of the members of the group determine the identity of the organization. We also make use of the invaluable resources that we have here in “Music City” through an eclectic approach to programming that explores a diversity of musical styles, and by seeking opportunities for the orchestra to collaborate with world-class professional musicians.

Guiding Principles

~ Music making should be a joyful activity that proceeds out of love and respect.
~ Students learn best when they take ownership of a project.
~ Discipline and a rigorous approach to learning are most successful in an environment that also embraces enthusiasm, fun, and whimsy.
~ Sustained relationships with practicing professional musicians inspire developing student musicians to put forth their best effort.
~ Exploration of a diverse repertoire including a broad spectrum of western art music as well as traditional and popular styles is the most relevant approach for student musicians in the 21st century.

At the moment I am writing this article more than eleven years later, MCYO’s mission statement remains unchanged, and can be found on the organization’s website here.

Music City Youth Orchestra, Walter Bitner, conductor:
Arcangelo Corelli: Concerto Grosso Op.6 No. 2 in F Major
Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, May 22, 2011
Brianna Hugan & Elana Rosenthal, violins
Margie Way-Kiani, cello

Collaboration vs. Competition

Above and beyond the stated objectives of Music City Youth Orchestra, I strove to create an atmosphere in rehearsals and all of our interactions that fostered collaboration and friendships within the group. Although I did not articulate the extent to which I was willing to pursue this agenda to either parents or students during my five years with the group, in practice it was clear to anyone who was paying attention, and this attitude was hinted at in the MCYO mission statement:

“We employ a disciplined approach and strive for high standards of accomplishment while at the same time relaxing some of the more formal attitudes commonly associated with the orchestra.”

In practice what this meant was: I intentionally discouraged competition and omitted it from the ensemble’s activities to every extent that I could. In a youth orchestra – traditionally a hierarchical ensemble that promotes competition – this is easier said than done.

Orchestral music is one of the most competitive sectors in the fine arts. For instance, when the Nashville Symphony posts a single open position for the orchestra, it is not unusual for more than 200 musicians from across the country to apply to audition.  It is common for youth orchestras, and school orchestras as well, to emulate this competitive atmosphere in the educational environment they provide for their students. Many youth orchestras provide a sort of “professional orchestra junior” experience in which students compete to be allowed to be a part of the ensemble, compete with their peers for their position once they have won admission, and engage in competitive activities as individuals or ensembles alongside or through their participation in the youth orchestra, or both. I have written about this emphasis on competition in ensemble music education programs here.

Simply put, my MCYO experiment was this: to discover if it is possible to achieve robust musical accomplishment and artistic excellence through emphasizing teamwork, collaboration, and friendship, rather than competition.

Next: The Way of Blame (coming soon)

Music City Youth Orchestra at Ocean Way Studios, Nashville, May 3, 2009

*       *       *

Related articles:

Is Music a Commodity?

Wholehearted Attention

Trust

Concentration

Four Practices

What Kind of Human Being Do You Want To Be?

What Your Students Will Remember


7 Comments

  1. The answer is, of course, YES! High quality and beautiful music can be, in fact, is BEST made by students as a collaborative team. All winners, no losers! Everyone offering their unique contribution makes for the best of music and community!

  2. Margie Way-Kiani says:

    And it worked! I feel that I was touched by this as a students and have carried it into my teaching – even if somewhat unintentionally – because of my experiences with you.

  3. margiewaykiani@yahoo.com says:

    Favorite blog post so far. Love you, Walter!

  4. Linn Folger says:

    Attending MCYO performances when Mac was a part of the orchestra, watching and feeling the joy of their playing and of your conducting is, without doubt one of the most delightful and meaningful experiences we had during Mac’s high school years.

    I have a particularly fond memory of the joint MCYO/NSA choir performance in Spring, 2012– Mozart and Queen — there you go!

    Clearly, your collaborative, cooperative approach is successful! Would that all children had the opportunity to participate in the musical education you provided.

    Thank you, WB

    Linn Folger

  5. […] My Secret Experiment in Music Education […]

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