Walter Bitner

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My Secret Experiment in Music Education

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.

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On The Dark Side of the Moon Part 3

continued from
On The Dark Side of the Moon
Part 2

 

The Dark Side of the Moon

Side B

Money

The sound effects loop that Roger Waters made in his garden shed from coins jangling, paper ripping, and other cash-related sounds begins the B side of The Dark Side of the Moon, followed almost immediately by Water’s driving bass line – one of the most distinctive and instantly recognizable in the history of rock. Money was Pink Floyd’s most successful single from the album, and like many rock hits, it is based on a twelve-bar blues. The resemblance ends there, however: Money is set in the dark and serious key of B minor, with seven beats to the bar.

Money‘s three verses are a cocky paean to greed, a caricature of capitalist values. Waters lays the irony on thickly: clearly living one’s life in pursuit of money for its own sake or for the luxuries that great wealth can bring may interfere with the attempt to live consciously. Do greed and a distraction with materialism proceed from the irrational part of human nature?

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On The Dark Side of the Moon Part 2

continued from
On The Dark Side of the Moon
Part 1

 

The Dark Side of the Moon

Side A

Speak To Me

The opening track is a brief sound collage, little more than a minute long, which introduces and foreshadows some of the album’s themes in the manner of an overture. The opening heartbeat draws the listener into an intimate relationship with the music from the very beginning. It is nearly half a minute before snippets of sounds hint at what’s to come: clocks ticking (Time), a cash register (Money), the rotor sound effect (On The Run), lunatic laughter, and the first spoken words “I’ve been mad for fucking years, absolutely years” introduce the album’s primary themes as the sounds overlap, increase in volume, and build to a climax that features a woman screaming into

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On The Dark Side of the Moon Part 1

“All you touch and all you see
is all your life will ever be.”

~ Roger Waters, Breathe

 

Forty-five years after its release, Pink Floyd‘s monumental The Dark Side of the Moon remains the most important musical document on the human condition in the history of rock music. It is arguably the most important musical recording ever made to address its subject matter: universal humanist themes that include the finite compass of human experience, the passage of time, death, greed, conflict, insanity, and the irrational.

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The Cards

Around the country, the school year is coming to a close. For high school students, spring break is fast becoming a distant memory as students complete projects and write papers, cram for End of Course tests, Advanced Placement exams, finals.

Performing arts programs, too, are in the last stages of preparation for the final performances of the year: in many cases, a Spring Concert is the traditional event for youth choir, orchestra, and band programs. These culminating events showcase student achievement over the course of the year, and provide an opportunity for students and parents to to come together and share what has been accomplished.

The Spring Concert can also be an emotional event, as students who have completed their time in the program prepare to move on to the next stage of their lives, and say goodbye to their friends and their teachers. In many cases, the relationships students make in their arts programs are the closest and most impactful relationships they make in high school, and these provide cherished memories that last a lifetime.

Like many music teachers, I used a simple ceremony at each Spring Concert to mark this passage to the next phase for my students: The Cards. (more…)

SphinxConnect 2018

 

Last month I traveled to Detroit, Michigan for the 6th annual Sphinx conference – SphinxConnect – and 21st annual Sphinx Competition. SphinxConnect was held this year at the downtown Detroit Marriot at the Renaissance Center. This was the third year in a row I have attended the conference and competition, and my second as a speaker.

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Remember Their Birthdays

Photo: Omer Wazir/Creative Commons (click images to enlarge)

This weekend saw the third time my birthday came and went since I started writing Off The Podium, and each time I thought about writing this little article. It seems like such an obvious thing to do – a “no-brainer” – like other things I have written about here, and yet…it is these obvious, little, yet essential efforts teachers sometimes sacrifice with all the demands on our time in the classroom.

Remember their birthdays.

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Concentration

When I was 9 or 10 years old, my piano teacher assigned me a simplified arrangement of Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer. At that point in my piano study, I had not yet attempted to play anything that required such independence between my hands – this arrangement retained the typical ragtime style of a syncopated melody in the right hand set against the left hand alternating bass notes on the beat and chords on the division of the beat.

This piece was a struggle for me to learn, but it was the right piece at the right time. Despite the difficulty I had in coordinating my hands to play the two distinct rhythmic patterns against each other, I was captivated by The Entertainer and very motivated to learn it. My parents had taken me to see The Sting and had given me the film’s soundtrack recording on LP featuring Marvin Hamlisch’s marvelous arrangements of Scott Joplin’s original rags. So putting The Entertainer in my hands at that stage of my piano curriculum was timely on the part of my piano teacher and incredibly fortuitous for me. Thank you, Mrs. Stoike.

I clearly remember the day it happened.

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Best Effort

I think something about this idea as an axiom for work and life was always there for me. When I was a child my father admonished me many times to do my best. I remember him saying to me on numerous occasions “Be the best at whatever it is you choose to do. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you are the best at it. If you decide to be a garbage man, then be the best garbage man!” It made a strong impression on me as a young child, and I am sure had numerous (foreseen and unforeseen) consequences for the course of my life.

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What Your Students Will Remember

Nashville School of the Arts Choir students backstage before a performance, February 19, 2013, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville (click photos to enlarge)

At some point early in my teaching career someone told me:

They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

…or something like that. I don’t remember who said it or when, honestly. Someone might have quoted it at a faculty meeting, or as part of a motivational speech at a workshop or professional development training, or I might have read it in a book or article. Various paraphrases of this proverb exist, purportedly from a number of people including the great Maya Angelou, but the wisdom of the internet currently attributes the first known utterance of this quote to a Mormon official named Carl W. Buehner.

It doesn’t matter who said it. This idea arrived on the scene for me early in my career, and made me begin to seriously consider: what would ultimately be the impact I made on my students? What would the experience they had in my classes, in my program, have on the rest of their lives? What would they remember?

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