Friday, April 13, 2018

Developing a Personal Pedagogy

Many of you know that I enjoy thinking about pedagogy and how we teach. A friend and colleague who spends a good deal of time accompanying dancers shared the following blog post, "Developing a Personal Pedagogy," with me and I thought I would pass it along.  You may have seen my recent post about parallels between dance and music performance.  Here is another example of the parallels in pedagogy and pedagogical thought.

In this post, the author asks purposeful questions about your pedagogy and priorities in teaching and developing lessons.  I feel like these questions, in concert with some of my pedagogical thoughts in "The Anatomy of Effective Pedagogy"  can lead to some interesting discussions and/or trains of thought.

I hope you find this interesting as we move into what promises to be a beautiful spring weekend.


Thursday, March 29, 2018

Stumbling Into Spring Break

Today is the last day of classes at NCSSM before spring break. This morning we had midterm recitals in my Piano and Guitar classes and this afternoon I will give a lecture in my Music History course on sonata-allegro form and the Viennese era. It has been a wonderful academic year so far and the beginning of third trimester has been eventful and pleasurable. My Orchestra has been preparing for our annual Concerto Concert on May 18 and we just hosted a wildly successful ECU Four Seasons Next Gen Chamber Music Festival at our school last weekend. My students had the wonderful opportunity of working with the ECU string faculty and performed a movement of the Tchaikovsky Serenade and Holst's Holberg Suite. Life is good at NCSSM and it has been a wonderful year.

Yet, with all of that being said, I am truly stumbling into spring break. My nerves are definitely frazzled. I find myself to be overly sensitive to student  actions and reactions. I have been coming to work the last few days with the simple goal of not making others mad and not getting mad at others. The fact is, I need a break. My students need a break. The academic rigors of NCSSM are definitely catching up with everyone and we all need to step away for a few days.

This doesn't always happen to me at spring break. Some years, frankly, I would rather continue classes. But, for whatever reason, this year is different.

It has been cold outside and we really are just beginning to sense the onset of spring in North Carolina. I have spent a number of recent evenings freezing on the risers of the baseball field at my sons' high school watching JV and varsity games. The sun really hasn't been out very much and I think that has had some impact on my overall disposition. I could use some warm weather.

Also, I have simply been really busy this winter. I've been on the road a great deal with conducting appearances, conferences, and performance opportunities. All of these opportunities do impact me when they come at such a close proximity.

Here is the good news! We will all come back refreshed in 10 days or so. It will be great to have a little break from each other and come back to finish out the year in wonderful form.

I'm really looking forward to all of the spring concerts and celebrating the magnificent accomplishments of the class of 2018. I have so many seniors who have given so much to the music program over the past two years. It will be great to celebrate their accomplishments with them as we move towards commencement. I also look forward to what lies ahead next year. Our junior class is extraordinary and I know we will have a magnificent ensemble next year with rock-solid student leadership. There is much to celebrate and much to look forward to.

But for now, I must admit I'm feeling a little bit guilty about my general disposition. That said, I'm willing to give myself a bit of grace and understand that this, too, is a natural part of the academic year and the seasons that we encounter with our students.

So, if you are a teacher and feeling this way, just know that you are not alone. It happens to all of us sometimes. It's happening to me this year. I am really looking forward to this time away. I'm looking forward to spending time with my wife and kids. And, frankly I'm looking forward to spending some time alone as well. I think folks like me who love to be around people need a break every once in awhile. Mine is coming at a perfect time. I need a bit of a reboot.

If you are approaching spring break and have a few days off in the coming week, I wish you all the best. I hope that you (and I) will come back rejuvenated and refreshed. I know that I will do my best to be ready to encounter my students with love, respect, and grace as we move towards the end of the school year. I wish the same for you.



Sunday, March 11, 2018

Asta 2018 Wrap-up

As I reflect on the 2018 the ASTA National Conference through my haze of exhaustion and happiness, I feel like there are a few takeaways that I'd like to share with you today. The Conference has become for me and many others somewhat of a a family reunion. It's a time where like-minded professionals and friends get together to share ideas, encourage each other, and enjoy each other's company. There are so many wonderful informative sessions at the conference that cover topics including traditional pedagogy, K-12 strategies,  eclectic style performance,  advocacy and many other current topics and issues to mention just a few. In addition to the conference sessions, there is an amazing exhibit hall where manufacturers of instruments, accessories, publishers, and others can share their products and receive feedback from the people who actually use their product on a daily basis. There are meetings of minds throughout the course of the four day event and many new ideas are germinated at this time.

For me, this year's conference was particularly moving in a variety of ways. First, I have been struck by the opportunities that we have at the conference to look at our past and honor the folks that laid the groundwork for this organization and the profession of string teaching. Some were at the conference this year and others weren't able to make it. But, throughout the conference there were conversations about the ideas that started with the pillars of generations before us. We heard many references to folks like Paul Rolland,George Bornoff, Marvin Rabin, Dorothy Straub,Shinichi Suzuki, and so many more throughout the week.

At the same time, I was struck by the incredible number of young people at the conference. I feel like the collegiate chapters of the American String Teachers Association are stepping up in huge ways. The youthful energy in the sessions, the jam sessions, and the social events, was energizing for me in many ways. I was thrilled to meet up with many students that I have conducted in various honors orchestras, camps, and other events over the years who are now string teachers in the profession. It was wonderful to hear about their ideas, their passions, and their aspirations for their students and their professional lives.  I am honored to play a role in their lives and truly desire to encourage and inspire them moving forward.

I am also really excited to begin a new role as Chair of the National Committee on Content Development for ASTA.  I had many conversations throughout the week with individuals and groups about the power of web content and the various modes that can include.  It seems that we all are thinking about web content and how it can be most useful  to those  in the profession.  I am honored to play a role in the next phase of these decisions and initiatives for ASTA.

Another important facet of the conference for me is spending time with my friends and deepening those relationships.   I was honored to present a session with my dear friends Jim Palmer and Dr. Rebecca McLeod from UNC Greensboro. It was wonderful to prepare our session together and share our ideas with the enthusiastic audience on Friday.  I also loved getting to know Jim's students who served as our demo orchestra.  I had so many other meals and conversations with some of my best friends from across the country. In many ways , these connections are the real value of this organization . I find and inspiration in these relationships and genuinely appreciate my colleagues in the most profound of ways. 

(Side bar: Congratulations to Jim Palmer for being named the recipient of the 2018 Elizabeth A. H. Green Award for Exceptional Accomplishments in the K-12 String and Orchestra Education.  This is certainly well earned and well deserved!)

I love gaining new ideas from the sessions I attend.  This year was no exception.  I picked up several nuggets this year and will implement them immediately at NCSSM and in my conducting appearances.  Similarly, I gain so much from presenting at the conference. This is important professional development for me and I truly appreciate all of you that attended my sessions and encourage me to be better each year.  I particularly appreciate all of you who attended my 7:00 AM STEM Concepts in the String and Orchestra Classroom session.  You are troopers!

Each year, after the conference, I come home with a renewed appreciation for my colleagues and my profession. We are so privileged to be string teachers and orchestra directors in the United States today.  We need each other.  ASTA is the glue that brings so many of us together and continues to make us better in so many ways.  If you have never been to the conference, try to get to Albuquerque next year.  You will be transformed. Until next year...


Thursday, March 8, 2018

Bringing Stem Concepts into the String Classroom

Thanks for coming to my session to day at ASTA in Atlanta!

Bringing STEM Concepts into the String and Orchestra Classroom
Scott D. Laird
North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics
Blog: Thoughts of a String Educator

Click here for handout

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Act Like an Owner

This morning I saw an interesting spot on Good Morning America about Richard Montanez, the  Vice President of the Pepsi Company. His story is fantastic. He was working on a production line for Frito Lay and inadvertently invented Flaming Hot Cheetos. There is a new feature film being made about him and his life. The story is fairly simple but inspirational and a great lesson for all of us.

He was working on the production line and a few Cheetos were unusable because the cheese coating machine broke down and the delicious corn snacks we're unable to be coated. He decided to take the plain Cheetos home and experiment little bit. He put some chili' powder on them and tried them out. They were fantastic! He scheduled a meeting with the president of Frito-Lay and the rest is history. He had created Flaming Hot Cheetos.

I absolutely love this story because it illustrates one of the principles that I have preached to my students for about 10 years. It is the concept of "leading from any chair" in the orchestra that I initially learned about from Ben Zander's wonderful book, The Art of Possibility

In a recent interview, Montanez encouraged his colleagues at every level of the Pepsi Corporation to "act like an owner." In other words, everyone needs to take the responsibility for the larger success of the company no matter what their role is. This concept is exactly the same as encouraging every musician in the orchestra to lead from any chair. 

No matter who you are, from the middle of the first violin section to the back of the viola section to the middle of the bass section to the front players in every section, everyone should take ownership in the quality of the performance and act as a leader from the beginning of the concert cycle to the very end of the last performance. This is how great ensembles are developed. Everyone must buy in at the highest level of leadership and investment. 

Leaders are invested. Leaders are active thinkers. Leaders are prepared. And leaders think about how the group can be better.  Leaders move with purpose.  Leaders in the orchestra are artists from the first sight-read to the final cadence of the performance.

These are all traits of Montanez and his success story. And these can be traits of yours as well.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Do Ensembles ALWAYS Need a Conductor?

Do large ensembles always need a conductor?

Or, to be clear, do they always need someone beating time?  Of course they don't.  But, so many  music educators who are leading school ensembles make the mistake of beating time, all the time.  Let me provide a bit of perspective.

I was recently at a public school concert where an ensemble of terrific young string players were being accompanied by a bluegrass band on 2 fiddle tunes.  The conductor of the group, who is a fantastic musician and teacher, was beating 4/4 time throughout the entire performance. It really seemed out of place and even detrimental to the success of the performance.  He would have been so much better served to get the pulse out of the way visually, and to give some other meaningful information from the podium. This might include musical cues or appropriate style and/or dynamic information.  Instead, he was waving his arms (almost furiously) and not really providing any real visual information that could be used by the young musicians.   Ultimately, the pulse driving the ensemble was coming from the professional bass player that was accompanying the group, not from the visual information the conductor was providing.  It was a shame that the kids weren't informed of this and encouraged to direct their listening skills in the bass player's direction for the pulse-portion of needed information.

So, when exactly does a conductor discontinue giving pulse and allow the musicians to find that information from a different source?  Here are some examples from my experience.

Drum set:  Any time a drum set is involved in an orchestral performance, I believe the conductor need not beat time.  So many of us string educators are programming eclectic styles repertoire nowadays and a drum set is often part of that instrumentation.  In my experience, encouraging the players to use the pulse generated by the drums as their tempo and rhythmic guide tightens up the performance.  I look at it this way: if the best rock bands in the world can stay together with a solid drummer, so can my ensemble. The conductor can get out of the way here and give other appropriate cues and style information.

Groove section:   If a section of the orchestra is providing a clear groove - perhaps repeated, regular notes, they are essentially providing the information that a conductor would provide with the stick.  This can happen in repertoire from Mozart to Beethoven to modern stuff. There is something about repeated eighth or sixteenth notes that can be a great groove for an ensemble to "lock-in" on rhythmically.   I refer to this as "the engine" in my conducting work with student groups . I find that if I can get all sections referring to the engine for rhythmic subdivision and tempo information, it makes the performance much tighter.

Pieces that are imitating alt styles that would not normally use a conductor.  (ie: bluegrass, jazz, rock)  Here, I just find it odd to conduct these styles in the same way I would conduct a more classical piece.  Again, if it wouldn't happen in the original concert hall setting, I wouldn't do it in the orchestral setting when we are imitating the other style.  At least not continuously.

Music with a heavy back-beat: The idea here is that if a section of the ensemble is providing back-beat, then I would encourage the ensemble to listen to and react to that for tempo and pulse.  No, to be clear, I (the conductor) might be working to be sure that the section providing the back-beat is together and steady.  But, that probably doesn't involve simply beating time.

Music that is essentially chamber music:  This again gets to the idea of being authentic with your performance.  If a string ensemble is playing a work that was originally a string quartet or trio, perhaps it doesn't need a conductor beating time throughout the performance.  Is this an opportunity for you (the conductor) to pick up and instrument and lead with an instrument in your hands?

Think: Authentic.   If the style would not use a conductor in it's original form, it probably doesn't need a conductor in the orchestral form.   It also comes down to listening purposefully. Musicians need to know when to look to the conductor for meaningful information as opposed to when to listen for meaningful information from other members of the ensemble . Similarly, they need to know when they are giving them information as well.   I sometimes called this knowing when you are the teacher or when you are the student. Everyone plays the role of teacher at some point in a performance. Sometimes it's the conductor. Sometimes it's the first violins. Sometimes it's the celli. Sometimes it's the violas or 2nd violins.  It is a very empowering concept.

I took a minute to look up "conductorless orchestra" on the web and really didn't find too much.  Here is the Wikipedia entry:
Also, here is a great conductorless ensemble:

In the end, it comes down to the condutor providing meaningful information at all times.  If the information that you are giving isn't needed, then find something to give that IS needed. Always think about what you are doing and how that visual information is enhancing the ensemble's task and performance.



Monday, January 22, 2018

Immersive Experience

This past weekend was a busy one at the North Carolina School of Science and Math. We had a number of performances and the weekend finished up with the magnificent lecture by our current featured guest visual artist, Heather Gordon.

Heather Gordon is a magnificent, scholarly visual artist who's work centers around complex origami patterns based on a variety of data sets. Her lecture last night served to explain her current installation at NCSSM entitled "Elements." Her work centers around the concept of alchemy and features 4 large works which are made out of tape on two dimensional wall surfaces. They are titled, "Sun," "Moon," "Sulfur," and "Mercury." She explained the significance of these 4  "elements" as part of her lecture and went on to describe her creative process and the highly sophisticated mathematical equations that are required to complete this type of work.  The artwork is simply magnificent and inspires me every day when I walked into the building at the school. 

As part of her lecture, she introduced a couple of concepts that I can't stop thinking about today.  One is that "ideas + material =  transformation." The other is her commitment to what she referred to as "Immersive  Installation."  That is, that the consumer of her art is immersed in art. They are literally inside the art. This is achieved by creating an actual space that the consumer walks into. Obviously this requires large spaces and large artwork. The installation at ncssm is an example of this very thing. When viewing this exhibit, the consumer is literally in the middle of Sulphur, Mercury, Sun, and Moon.  The experience of being immersed in this exhibit is quite powerful. I was moved by her explanation and commitment to the immersive art experience.  (There is a great deal more to the implied metaphor here. I will stop short of explaining all of it now. But, if you are interested in it, there is much to learn about alchemy on the all powerful Google machine.)

Stay with me now as I draw a strong connection between these ideas and my experience of preparing for an orchestra performance and performing as part of an orchestra.

This past weekend, my Orchestra performed Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, No. 41. As we came to the end of the final movement, I found myself disappointed that the process was over. My students had been immersed in and in preparation for this performance for the past 3 months. To see it come to an end is certainly part of the process. Albeit, a somewhat melancholy aspect of the process.

As part of her lecture, Heather talked about the process of taking down her installations. She pulls this copious amount of tape off the walls of the exhibit space. Someone asked her what that process of tearing down the exhibit is like. Her response was,  "Well, at the end I have a big ball of tape." And that too is part of the artwork. It's part of the immersive experience.

This is not unlike the final release of the final note of a great musical work. In the end we have our memory of the experience. We have a "huge ball of tape," one that will last and stay with us forever in our memory and in our heart.

Another event of the past weekend was the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Southeast Honors String Festival. My youngest son, who is 15, participated in the ensemble as a string bassist. Now, it is important to know that his primary passion is not the string bass. Nor is it orchestra music. His primary passion is baseball. Given the opportunity to choose to do anything with his day, he would prefer to be on the baseball field. I love that about him. He is passionate about his sport and all of his activities. But, this weekend he was a bassist in a wonderful Honors Orchestra conducted by my dear friend Alex Jimenez from Florida State University. The concert was magnificent. They played works by Hovhaness, Kirk Mosier, and C. Armstrong Gibbs. On our way home from the performance, I was able to articulate to my son how important it is that he participate in this kind of activity. He, in fact, had the opportunity to be immersed in an artistic work. As a bassist he was part of the ensemble that created this incredibly beautiful sound. Sometimes that is lost on our students. The aesthetic opportunity to be immersed in a large ensemble making beautiful sounds is rare. Not everyone gets the opportunity to do this. I'm so happy that he has been exposed to these ideas and the materials and has this opportunity for transformation.  He will be a more complete human (husband, father, partner, teammate, friend) for having experienced this.

Which brings me back to that phrase, "Ideas + Materials = Transformation." Many of you know that I've been involved in KidzNotes, an El Sistema USA program in Durham, NC. This is a classic example of this concept of ideas plus materials equal transformation. Through the generous support of individual donors, kids notes provides both the materials and the ideas for underserved children in the area to be transformed. We have seen over and over that families and individuals, through the infusion of classical music and opportunities to experience and create art, are transformed.

Teachers do this every day. I think of my many colleagues around the United States who are providing ideas and materials to so many students who would otherwise not have the opportunity to participate in ensemble music. They are all experiencing the immersive art of the orchestral experience on a daily basis. They don't always realize this rare opportunity in the moment. But, as they move on to various careers, cities, family obligations, and environments, they will look back on their school orchestral experience as a transformative time in their life. I have seen it time and time again.

So today, I share with you these two phrases: the concept of "Immersive Installations and "Ideas + Materials = Transformation." I encourage you to consider these today and never lose sight of the fact that we are instruments of transformation in the lives of our students.