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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.
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.
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?
“I’m so bored. What is wrong with me? This is what I’ve always wanted. I won Nationals. I’m in charge of this committee. But it feels so meaningless. Do all teachers feel this at some point?”
~ (character) Will Schuester
Glee, Season 4, Episode 3: Makeover
Although advocates for music education – especially music education in public school settings – often speak to ideals about “music education for all children”, or the importance of the inclusion of music education in a well-rounded education, the reality of the state of music education in the United States is that music education is not for everyone.
Alongside the inequality of access and inclusion already being discussed by many throughout the country, the role that competition plays in the activities of music education presented to our children has become so pervasive that by their very nature, these activities exclude and discourage many children, who as a result are not receiving a music education, or are receiving an inadequate and impoverished music education.
Confirming what math, english, and other academic teachers have known for generations, recent research indicates a strong correlation between student academic achievement and musical performance. Although a distinct causal relationship between these activities still remains elusive for researchers to pin down, a growing body of evidence asserts that students who excel in their academic classes – students who actually study, do their homework, read books, and pursue good grades in subjects like the sciences and humanities – are also better musicians, with more highly developed rhythmic skills, more accurate intonation, and stronger abilities to concentrate and memorize.
This is good news for music educators across the country, who are always looking for new ways to improve student performance and motivation in band, orchestra, choir, and other ensembles. School districts all over the United States are taking action steps based on these enlightening new scientific findings, expecting to see dramatic increases in the quality of their music programs as increasing numbers of students opt to take more rigorous honors and Advanced Placement® (AP®) classes in hopes of improving their chances of winning a seat in a more advanced wind ensemble, being selected for the honors choir, or simply moving up a chair in orchestra.
Earlier this month – February 9-12, 2017 – our entire Nashville Symphony Education & Community Engagement Department attended the Sphinx Organization‘s 20th annual Competition and 5th annual conference in Detroit, retitled SphinxConnect this year.
We spent an eventful four days attending concerts, interviews, panel discussions, and presentations, several networking (and celebratory) receptions, and other meetings. Some 500 people were there from all over the country (and some from other countries as well), many of whom only see each other a few times per year. The entire conference was imbued with a heady excitement.
I’m thrilled to share here that my column Off The Podium made its first appearance this week in the October 2016 issue of Choral Director magazine. Off The Podium will be a regular component of Choral Director going forward, featuring the kinds of articles about music education I have been posting here on my blog since March 2015.
And as if this weren’t sweet enough: to launch my column with a splash, I am also featured on the cover!
Why you shouldn’t always tell your students the truth
For more than half of my teaching career, I taught music & performing arts at elementary or K-8 schools – six of these schools in all, with a wide range of approaches to education between them. One common aspect among all my experiences at these schools, however, is that I spent the majority of my time at each school – thousands upon thousands of hours of my life – as the only adult in the room, in front of a group of children. We spent most of our time together singing or playing music, dancing, rehearsing plays, or working on developing our skills to do these things, but over the years we had a lot of interesting and sometimes amazing conversations – both on and off topic.
Early in my career I began to practice intentionally not answering all of their questions, hoping to spur their imaginations and spirit of inquiry, and that they would develop the habit of trying to find things out for themselves. My experience was that often students would come up with very interesting and insightful ideas about the world if I could refrain from shutting down the possibilities that opened with a question by slapping a pat answer on it.
Sometimes, especially with younger elementary school children (K – 3 or so), I took this practice a step further, and intentionally told them things that weren’t true. The story of “The Rhinoceros” that I told to first grade students at Carrollwood Day School when I taught there from 1999 – 2003 is the tallest example of these tales that I told over the years, and became something of a tradition and a legend there among the students, some of whom would even corroborate my story and help maintain the myth among the younger students once they discovered I had been leading them on.
The Count is a concentration exercise – a group activity – that I used with my student ensembles in the last few minutes before going on stage for a performance. It is a very useful thing to do! and became something of a special ritual with my ensembles.
I didn’t invent The Count, although I had never heard it called by any name before my students began calling it this. I first encountered it in the early 1990s when I witnessed Ellen Provost, a teacher at Blue Rock School, use it with a group of 6th graders before the performance of a play – I believe it was either The Conference of the Birds or Monkey. I began using it myself at Carrollwood Day School years later, and it was at CDS that it became a regular practice – something I always did with my students before a performance, if possible, for the rest of my teaching career.
The Name-Learning Stunt®
I urge every teacher who works with groups of children to do this. At the beginning of the school year, or whenever you are beginning to work with a group of students you do not know for the first time – or perhaps a group that is a new constellation, some of whom you know and some you do not – take the time to learn all of their names right from the beginning, and make a special effort to do so. It will take some time and effort, but will reap big rewards in the long run and begin your relationship with the students on a sound footing by demonstrating concretely that you care about them.
It occurred to me to write about this yesterday. I was making a “guest appearance” at a summer choral music day camp to work with a group of students I did not know – I was given a 45 minute period in which to bring them some singing activities. Without any consideration at all I planned to begin my work with them with the name-learning stunt (described below) that I developed at the beginning of my career, and which I used invariably whenever I found myself in front of a new group of students. I did this even though it used up several precious minutes of my brief 45 minute window, because I knew that if I did this first, the rest of the class would go so much better.