Wednesday, September 9, 2020

NCSSM Orchestra: My Plan for a Hybrid "Low Density" Approach

Now that we are a little over two weeks into the 2020-2021 academic school year, it feels like a good time to reflect a bit on the opening of school and the plan that I have created for my orchestra class moving forward this year. Obviously, with a global pandemic and many schools operating either remotely or in a hybrid model, most music educators and ensemble directors have been forced to re-examine their plan for rehearsal, performances, and their priorities for music students and classes. I am, obviously, no exception. As I begin my 34th year of teaching, I am aware that these are uncharted waters and that I need to re-examine many aspects of my ensemble teaching. My school, the North Carolina School of Science and Math, as many of you know, is a boarding school. We host 680 students each year in grades 11 and 12. They come from across the state of North Carolina and all attend on full scholarship. Students are selected to attend our school based on their grades, SAT scores, rigor of their past high school program, and interest in science and mathematics. Every congressional district in our state receives a minimum quota of placements. So, there are no socioeconomic barriers to attending our school. Furthermore, our admissions team works very hard to promote diversity in our student body. The academic program is very rigorous and students who attend are excited to learn. All music ensembles have only one prerequisite: previous musical experience. So, the ensembles have a very eclectic mix of playing levels and experience. The common denominators are a desire to excel and a high level of academic achievement. I have about 40 strings in the orchestra this year. Like many of you, we are heavy on violins. (So, I am encouraging all violins to play both the 1st and 2nd violin parts, and even learn the viola if they want.) I am fortunate to have a wonderful students every year in the orchestra.

NCSSM is operating on a low density model this year. Half of our student body is on campus and the other half is at home across the state. The cohorts will switch in October so that everyone has an opportunity to live on campus at some point this semester if they desire. Our registrar has worked hard to create relatively even cohorts. But, as you may imagine, some classes are skewed heavily to the remote or residential side. In any given class, I will have some students attending remotely and others in person. So, as I plan for any orchestra rehearsal, there is a technology element to work with or around.

I strongly believe that the best pedagogy starts with a system. I try to be very predictable in my teaching. I also operate best with sequential plan for instruction. I try to be articulate with my students about the values that I am bringing to my course and syllabus. My first step in devising a plan for this school year was to look closely at my syllabus, determine which elements of a traditional orchestra experience could be kept front and center this year, and also determine the elements that needed to be put aside for a little bit.

So, what elements are in and what elements are out? First, let's discuss those that stay. A number of years ago, I put together a Taxonomy for The Ensemble Musician on this blog. I encourage you to go back and check it out. I feel strongly that many of the elements outlined in the taxonomy are eligible for discussion even in the remote ensemble environment. Rhythm, pitch, dynamics, phrasing, accurate intonation, musical nuance, articulation, and many other skills can be developed during this time. Some things that will hold a significantly lower priority this year include watching the conductor, listening across the orchestra, developing rubato, live performance practice, and other similar skills and concepts. Obviously, for the time being, we will not be preparing for live performances. Furthermore, I do not foresee having my entire ensemble in the same room for at least the rest of this calendar year. Honestly, I believe it will be longer. So, we will be focusing on recorded remote ensembles. In the recorded remote environment, there is an added benefit of students listening to their own recordings, getting familiar with recording technology along with learning about the different type of stress involved with recording. These are new additions to the syllabus that match our current situation. Our goal will be to create a number of remote ensemble recordings throughout the upcoming year. We will begin with simple, short chorales and move sequentially towards more difficult (and diverse) repertoire. Initially, the priority is to get used to the system of rehearsing and ultimately performing a remote recording of an orchestral piece. As we move through the term, the difficulty of the repertoire will increase and we will endeavor to advance many string technique skills along the way.

In order to do this in an orderly fashion, I have developed a weekly plan to keep things organized. Here's how I am operating: I have three rehearsals per week. On Tuesday evening I have a 100 minute rehearsal with the entire ensemble in the room. On Wednesday and Friday, my Orchestra is split into two sections. On these days, we have 50 minute classes. Tuesday night large rehearsal is primarily content delivery only and is fully remote. In this rehearsal, I am primarily giving notes on the repertoire at hand. In addition, I am planning to invite guest speakers to a number of these Tuesday evening rehearsals. I will be focusing on inviting alumni who have gone on to careers in both music and other areas. This long rehearsal is at the end of a long "Zoom" day for everyone and I am trying to keep class light and fun, but full of important content and business. Students are expected to have their instruments and parts out and take very complete notes in their parts.  Wednesday is my most rehearsal-like time. There is two-way interaction throughout the class period. Everyone is playing, both those who are on site, and those who are remote. The hardest thing about these rehearsals, quite frankly, is trying to articulate directions and instruction through the mask. I find that I am speaking way too loudly and my voice gets quite fatigued by the end of the day. Fridays will be asynchronous with time for students to practice and seek individual assessment from me. I know it is odd and complex. But, after 2 weeks, I think the plan is going to work.

Just so everyone understands: I am creating recorded "audio guides" for every piece. They include all the parts and a click track. There will be no conducting in this environment. It is all done to a pre-recorded audio guide. It takes me awhile to create these audio guides, but it can be done and I am actually really enjoying the process. This also allows for me to play all of the parts for the recording and become familiar with the tricky passages, opportunities for alternate fingerings, misprints in parts (who knew there were so many!), and other performance issues. Yesterday, I created a complete audio guide for Fanfare and Frippery No. 2, by Richard Stephan. It took me a couple of hours and I was able to present it to my class last night. As we rehearse with these audio guides, we will focus on the stuff we CAN do: intonation, technique, accurate rhythm, musicianship, and the fun/magic of recording. 

Additionally, there is lots of student choice and opportunity here as well. The recorded environment is not for everyone. There can be a great deal of anxiety associated with recording a part and playing alone. Many students take ensemble music so that they don't have to be put on the spot individually. We recognize this at NCSSM and are trying to honor that situation as we move through this unprecedented time. If a student is freaked out by this plan and process, they can take a left turn to something they want/need to learn, such as vibrato, third position, shifting, scales, etc.

There is another very important element to all of this. Relationships are the most important thing. I say every student's name at least once a class. I ask how their day is. I acknowledge and encourage good humor. Our children are craving connection. It is our most important job as music instructors. The content follows the relationship.

So, you now have a much better feel for the plan I have created period what are your thoughts? How are you approaching ensemble music during remote or hybrid learning? What barriers have you encountered? I hope to hear from you and wish you all the best as you generate your plan for the upcoming school year.

Peace and good health.


Friday, September 4, 2020

Audio Guides and the Value of Direct Input with NS Design Violins


As I begin to navigate the world of orchestra in a pandemic driven hybrid learning environment, I am developing some important strategies for keeping my students engaged and maintaining many of the values of the scholastic orchestra environment. I truly believe that it is our duty to keep and promote as many as possible, of the standard musical priorities we have always had in the orchestra classroom. Some of those values include: accurate rhythm, accurate intonation, intentional phrasing, bow placement, articulation, attacks and releases, the orchestra community, and many others. I learned quickly that the art of conducting is not super valuable when I have half of my class in person and the other half participating via Zoom with a significant delay. So, I have pivoted to selecting repertoire that is relatively metronomical and creating accompanying audio guides for use in rehearsal and the remote ensemble recording environment. 

These are recordings of all the string parts from the repertoire we are preparing with the addition of a click track or prominent metronome guide. I create these guides as part of my planning and use them to keep everyone playing together in rehearsal. Rather than conducting, I play my instrument and demonstrate freely throughout the rehearsal. As a result, I have needed to record string tracks quickly and cleanly in a very efficient way. I have found that the best way for me to do this is by using my NSDesign CR5 electric violin connected directly to my computer through a standard audio interface.  The 5-string violin through a direct input allows me to get a very clean signal with very little background noise, magnificent tone, extraordinarily stable tuning, and a consistent balanced audio recording product. The 5-string violin allows me to record viola parts without changing instruments or my finger spacing. I simply play cello parts an octave up and then lower the octave electronically after the fact. For the bass lines, I use a fretted NSDesign Radius bass. The frets provide nearly perfect intonation and help to guide a rhythmic performance with specific articulations. In other words, the bass guitar keeps things from getting tonally or rhythmically ambiguous.

For those of you that haven't recorded with a solid body electric violin in a direct input environment before, there are many benefits to this action. First, as I stated earlier, the NSDesign CR5 provides a smooth accurate tone quality. It truly sounds like an acoustic violin, even when there are no added effects. I can recording completely in headphones if I choose. Or, as I prefer, I can record though the sound of speakers, which I could not do if I was using a microphone and my acoustic instrument.  Second, during the recording process, a little bit of extraneous noise or talking will not bleed into the recording. This allows me to record at my home while other things are going on and even allows me to count rests out loud or shuffle about my studio during the recording process as necessary. I mentioned stable tuning earlier. One of the great benefits of the NSDesign electric bowed instruments is the proprietary tuning mechanism and the fact that once in tune, these instruments rarely slip or change open string intonation. This is a great benefit while recording. I check my tuning early in the recording session and can generally count on those open strings staying very stable for hours, if not days! And, when creating audio guides, we really do want the intonation to be very consistent.

What equipment do I need to make this happen? It is all pretty simple. I have the CR5 electric violin, a quarter inch phone plug connecting it to an audio interface. I use a Protools system with the Digi 003 interface. But, at school I frequently use the Lexicon Omega Studio interface system which is no longer produced. In the end, there are many audio interfaces available which are relatively inexpensive.  All you need is a mono, quarter inch input which connects to your computer by USB.  Today, most of these systems are pretty intuitive and your digital audio workstation software will find the hardware automatically.

While I use Avid Protools as my digital audio workstation, this works just as well with Garage Band on Mac and with Audacity, the free open source DAW used by millions. The CR5 sounds great though any interface and in any digital audio workstation environment.

Anyway, I hope that this is helpful. Please keep an eye for another post in coming days which will go into more depth of my thoughts on hybrid teaching and learning as well as a bit more on our environment at NCSSM this fall.

For now, take care and stay healthy.


Thursday, May 28, 2020

Rev. Thomas Prosser and Westminster Highlands

I learned today of the passing of Reverend Thomas Prosser of Emlenton PA.  Throughout my childhood, Reverend Prosser was the Director of Westminster Highland's Presbyterian Church Camp in Emlenton. Westminster Highlands holds a very important place in my life in terms of my development in many ways. I had so many magnificent experiences there throughout my childhood and Rev. Prosser is part of nearly all of them. He was a fixture at the camp every time I went there and certainly was, for me, a trusted adult and role model as I grew into my adult self and belief system.

To say that I spent a lot of time at Westminster Highlands over the years is not an exaggeration. My family would take our travel trailer to camp in the family camping area every Memorial Day and Labor Day along with five or six other families from my parents' Bible study at Graystone Church in Indiana PA. I attended a standard summer church camp there every summer. (I think it was called Camp Calvin, in good Presbyterian form!)  In the early 1980's, Westminster Highlands initiated a MAD camp standing for Music Art and Drama. Of course, I was drawn to this camp and attended it for two or three summers. And, in addition to all of this, my youth group from Graystone Church would go to Westminster Highlands for a week, early in the summer, to do odd repair jobs around the facilities in preparation for the upcoming summer season. So, in any given summer, I could have ended up spending between 1 and 4 weeks at Westminster Highlands. I loved everything about going to camp there. 

First, on our Memorial and Labor Day weekend trips, it was always so social. There were typically five or six families all staying in our travel trailers. The weekends would be filled with campfires, softball games, swimming in the freezing cold water of the pool,  Hoopie rides (an old dune buggy that was a fixture at camp), and hikes on the huge boulders and swimming in the creek. The boulders on the camp property are absolutely amazing. They are the size of large buildings and have multiple hiking and climbing opportunities all over the place. They can definitely be dangerous, but as a adventurous kid, they presented endless possibilities for climbing and excitement. I just remember those family weekends as being full of laughter and happiness. These were good family friends with lots of kids around. My friends Norm Murdock and Shawn Taylor were a big part of those weekends for me.  We had grown up together in church and school.  These weekends of hiking, swimming, campfires, and goofing off just deepened our friendships even more. There were other families, too, in addition to the Murdock's and Taylor's, including the Gibson's, Stahlman's, and others.  It was so much fun getting to know older and younger brothers and sisters of my friends and just being part of a amazing communal experience. I remember it would drive my mother crazy that I loved to eat with other families and try their food. Mom liked for us all to stay together at mealtime. I wanted to see how other folks lived. I just found the whole experience to be so exciting.

The traditional camp experience was different. My parents would make the three-hour trek from Indiana, PA to Emlenton, drop me off ,and I would meet a whole group of new kids that I had never met before; just like every other kid who ever went to church camp. There was something about the excitement of meeting new people that really drove me. We would get placed in a canvas topped Adirondack cabin and meet our new roommates for the week. Usually there were one or two guys in the cabin that were cool and fun. Usually there were a couple that got on everyone else's nerves. Figuring out how to navigate this early in the week was always a challenge. But, I could always count on plenty of hi-jinx in the cabin, laughter after lights out, and opportunities for making friends and having amazing experiences throughout the week. The week always included Bible study of some sort. I am sure that many of the foundations of my faith became strengthened at these camps. Mealtime was always special. There was a main cabin with long tables. I can remember Rev. Prosser coming in to gently give directions on how to get our food and how to clean up afterwards. He was always part of the camp experience.

MAD Camp was particularly special for me. As an arts oriented kid, this seemed like a perfect fit. I could go to a church camp, focus on my music, and meet other kids from around the region that had similar interests. It became apparent to me very quickly that this was "my space." I could exercise my young leadership and team building skills in this environment and have a great time doing it. The MAD Camp week usually consisted of some type of preparation for a large performance at the end of the week. I recall one year that we made a musical out of the book,  The Singer by Calvin Miller. I played the lead role and wrote a ton of original music for that performance. It was definitely one of my first opportunities to branch out from my classical music roots and exercise my creative muscles. It was so much fun and life-shaping for sure. 

At some point in the late 1970's, my church youth group began heading to Westminster Highlands during an early week in the summer for work camp. This was a completely different experience. We went with kids that we knew and would spend the week fixing bridges, clearing trails, and doing odd jobs around the camp. But, in addition, we were developing relationships and galvanizing our friendships. We were talking about our faith and deepening our relationship with God. This too was amazingly life-shaping. Reverend Prosser, incidentally, was always around. He would give us our instructions for the day at breakfast. He would always stop by the work site to see how things were going. And, occasionally, when we broke the rules or didn't follow through on expectations, he would set us down and explain the importance of our work, probably get us feeling quite guilty for our transgressions, and move on in a very gentle way. Lessons learned. Some of my greatest memories of Westminster Highlands are from work camp. I remember singing Journey's "Lovin' Touchin' Squeezin'" at the top of our lungs, swimming in the creek with my friends, hiking on the huge boulders, and even some pretty fun games of "Truth or Dare" after hours. I couldn't begin to name all the folks that were at these work camps in this post, but you know who you are. These are the friendships that I think about and cherish to this day.

So, today Rev. Thomas Prosser and his family are on my mind. He was a great man and caretaker of an absolutely beautiful natural place in Northwestern Pennsylvania. He made it special for all of us. Every kid who went to camp at Westminster Highlands came away with a greater sense of what it truly is to be a person of faith. Reverend Prosser modeled and spoke of kindness, work ethic, faithfulness, and leadership for each of us everyday.  He will certainly be missed. I will carry so many great memories of him and Westminster Highlands in my heart for the rest of my life.



Saturday, May 23, 2020

Let's Take a Breath/Commencement 2020

"We don’t have to have all the answers for school openings in the Fall right now!!! It’s healthy to take a breath, take in what was just accomplished, and regroup.  Let the next few weeks unfold." ~Dr David Mouser via Twitter, 5/21/20

I ran across this tweet yesterday while mindlessly scrolling through Twitter. I gave it a quick look, and quickly hit retweet with the reply, "Could not agree more."

I am not a big retweet guy. But, this one resonates with me. Today would have been commencement exercises for the NCSSM graduating class of 2020.  Typically this Saturday in May is one of the most exciting days of the year for NCSSM students. For the last 19 years, I have spent this day on the beautiful lawn of NCSSM leading our rising senior musicians as they set the stage for their friends and colleagues to move on to the next step of their lives. Today is a beautiful sunny 80° day. It would have been perfect for the NCSSM Commencement. I would have met several colleagues for an early breakfast at the Cracker Barrel.  We would have listened to speeches encouraging students to go seek their dreams, played Pomp and Circumstance to set the stage, witnessed that sea of navy blue caps and gowns, and shared lots of hugs and tears. Then, I would have headed home, loaded up the car, and traveled to Pennsylvania for an annual reunion with four of my very best friends from high school. This has been the rhythm of Memorial Day weekend for my family for many years. I look forward to commencement and we all look forward to the "Annual Gathering of the Five Families. This weekend is truly the official start of summer for my family.

But obviously today was different. My mind has wandered to my graduating senior students many times today. I wonder how they are spending the day. Are they celebrating? Or, is it just another day of relative isolation? Did they put on their cap and gown? Did they call a friend? Or, perhaps did they go to a lake and have a picnic? I really do wonder. I have also thought a good deal about my rising seniors who will be my musical leaders next year. It really stinks that we didn't get a chance to play Pomp and Circumstance together. This is always a day of great bonding and preparation for transition into the next school year for my underclassman musicians. This year would have been particularly meaningful, because it would have been my last time to co-direct the Commencement Orchestra with my dear friend Phillip Riggs and to share the stage with my other dear friend, David Stuntz directing the Chorale in the National Anthem. Both of these colleagues are retiring this spring and next year's commencement ceremony will feel quite different. I can't wait to welcome my new colleagues into this wonderful community. But, I really wish I would have had this last commencement with my long-time friends and colleagues.

One of the things I love about working in academia is the flow of opening and closing school. It always feels so good to open school in August and to close school when commencement is over. I love the process of walking away for a little while and reorganizing my thoughts and energy before starting the process all over again at the beginning of August. This year, it doesn't feel like we get that transition. Will we be learning face-to-face in the fall? Or, will we be remote learning again? Or, will there be some sort of hybrid plan where we have students in the room and online? If we are not face-to-face, what does that mean for my syllabus? What does it mean for concerts? Will my enrollment go down? There are so many questions and, truthfully, not many answers right now.  And yet, this is what is on the minds of all teachers and administrators across the United States. I have noticed that everyone is starting to make plans. There are firm plans and contingency plans. There is speculation and clearly some misinformation. It is very hard to know what will actually happen at this point.

I would argue we all need a break. This spring has been taxing. I have been pushed to the brink pedagogically, physically, and emotionally.  We all had to rethink our course content and methodology of delivery as we went into remote learning. I am pleased to say that I feel pretty successful in this endeavor.  The feedback I received from students and parents following the spring term was overwhelmingly positive. It was hard to hit the mark, but I believe this worked for me. I cannot report the same about my physical well-being following the spring. I have tried to walk a minimum of 10,000 steps every day and have been committed to my standing desk while teaching. That said, I have aches and pains I did not have back in February. I have learned to deal with what I call "Zoom-fog" after many 8 to 10 hour Zoom days in the past several weeks. It is not a good feeling. I'm guessing many of you know what I'm talking about. With all of this, I still believe the emotional toll has been the greatest. While I have been generally fine during this period, I have some days when I simply break down and cry. This is not normal for me. My emotional swings are wide and fast. I really just don't think we are built for teaching or learning completely in front of a computer screen. Especially in the Arts, we live for human connection. If you scroll back through this blog, you will find many posts that remind us that relationships are at the core of great music making and great arts education. I still believe this and will fight you if you disagree. ;)

I am pleased to report I'm serving on a national task force for the American String Teachers Association, along with 10 or 12 esteemed colleagues from around the country. We are looking at creating some clear and thoughtful guidelines for our return to school in the fall in the String and Orchestra classroom. We are hoping to divide these guidelines into clear categories with guidelines for a successful re-entry to school. Every one of us doesn't need to invent this wheel. I believe strongly that education associations, local and state governments, and school administrations will help guide us through this process and allow us some latitude to make mistakes when they are in the best interest of student learning and emotional well-being.

But, we all need a break. We all need to simply let our brains rest. Our hearts need to rest. This has been hard. We need to step back, pay some attention to ourselves, our families, our bodies and regroup. I am fortunate that I have a wonderful home with some space that is special to me, where I find peace and rejuvenation. I encourage you to find the same. Put your feet up. Read a book about something other than pedagogy and remote learning. (I just finished Elton John's biography, "Me.") Take an emotional vacation and allow your brain to rest. School is going to start in the fall. You will be able to figure it out. Do I have all the answers right now? Absolutely not. Do I believe strongly that we will get there through the course of the summer? Absolutely, I do.

To the class of 2020, congratulations! You did it. I believe that your class will go down in history as one that learned to be resilient, that learned to pivot when needed, and that put the greater human good over your own personal wants and desires. I will miss each and every one of you. And I encourage you to lift up those around you while giving it your all. You have great things ahead of you.

To my friends in Pennsylvania, I look forward to seeing you guys on Zoom this evening. It won't be the same, but it will make me happy and allow me to reset a bit.

To my friends and colleagues around the United States in string and music education, hang in there. Take a break. You need to make some time to regroup so that you can come back strong in a couple of months.  It is that important.



Tuesday, May 12, 2020

A Happy Teaching Story in a Remote Learning World

Today I had a really wonderful teaching moment and I'd love to share it with you. I think I wrote in an earlier blog post that, in lieu of orchestra rehearsals since mid-March, my class has been doing a "deep dive" on the concerti that were programmed for our spring concert. In addition, every member of our Orchestra has been working on a concerto for their personal repertoire. It seemed like a good assignment for everyone since we are not able to do ensemble work as we finish up the school year. I have been so pleased with the way every individual in the orchestra has committed to this work. They have been practicing during our other two orchestra class periods each week and submitting videos for me to review and assess, as well as a personal journal entry for each class. I have really been impressed with my students work, reflection, and commitment to the project.

Last week I received an email from one of my violists asking me to give her some help with vibrato. I jumped at the opportunity to meet with her individually, assess her work to this point, and to give some tips for moving forward. We met today for about 30 minutes in the middle of the afternoon and had a wonderful lesson. I was pleasantly surprised with her progress and commitment to the tools I provide in some of my online videos. I was also pleased that she had done some personal research and found other videos to use in addition to mine. We took some time to talk about the calisthenic nature of vibrato practice and related exercises and etudes. As I said, she is well down the road to developing a nice vibrato and really just needed a little bit of encouragement and feedback. 

After the lesson, we spoke for a minute about the remote learning nature of the past several weeks and she gave me some feedback that really meant a great deal to me.  She told me that the opportunity to work on something for her own personal benefit as part of the orchestra class has really been refreshing to her. I imagine that she has primarily participated in ensemble work as her music and viola education in recent years. As a violist, we all know how that can mean lots of inner harmonies and rarely playing the lead part. She told me that her work on the concerto had been quite enlightning. I gave her some tips a few weeks ago about developing 16th note passages. She has applied those tips and is really seeing the difference in her playing and accuracy. That type of personal advancement, she told me, can be a little hard to see when you're always playing in the ensemble environment. She feels like she has advanced as a player throughout the course of the spring! Of course, she is also going to return to orchestra in the fall with a more fully developed vibrato. She will be a better violist in September than she was in March. This may not have happened if we were in our regular school and orchestra concert cycle and routine. She would have been learning the accompaniment parts to our programmed concerti, but perhaps not developing as a violist in the process. She also told me that the routine of practicing two times per week throughout the spring as part of our class has helped her to develop a habit that she believes will continue throughout the summer. Wow! What a side benefit to the remote learning environment. Of course, there was some accountability to those practice sessions. She had to turn in a video. She had to write a practice journal. So, in some ways we have developed the habit of practice and reflection as a by product this spring.  Anyone who hasn't read my thoughts on habits should head to that blog entry now! In the end, she found a cue, class time. She had some kind of routine, practicing during class time. And, finally there was a reward, her viola playing improved.

I can't tell you how happy this exchange made me. I am constantly trying to find little positives that grow out of our global pandemic. Hopefully we have all seen them from time to time. Some that I can think of off the top of my head include more family time, opportunities to record music, opportunities to write blog posts, and little teaching moments like this that have given me true joy in the midst of some difficult days.  My students have great timing.  This one came at just the right time!

I know that we all have had moments like this as part of our remote teaching environment this spring. Thanks for letting me share mine. I would love to hear about yours.



Saturday, April 25, 2020

Motivation in a Covid-19 World

A colleague recently asked me to spend some time in a Zoom class with her Orchestra students. She explained to me that her kids were a little low on motivation and asked me to speak with them about strategies for staying motivated in this time of social isolation. I was thrilled to be asked and decided to prepare for our meeting by bringing up the topic with my own students. This was the impetus for some vibrant discussion among my Piano and Guitar students and I was able to use some of the data I collected to develop concrete ideas to share with my colleague's class.

My classes are currently in their 5th week of social isolation and remote learning. I began by asking my own students to articulate their motivation on a scale of 1 to 10; 10 being highly motivated and 1 being struggling to get out of bed. Many of you know that my students are all enrolled in a school for academically gifted students who are have a strong interest in science and math. So, my classes are not necessarily a cross-section of all students. That said, I was a little surprised to find that the average stated level of motivation among my students was about 4.5. No response was higher than 6 and no response is lower than 3. Next, I asked my students if they had any recommendations for staying motivated in this social distancing atmosphere. They had a number of good thoughts which included the following:

  • Trying to see the bigger picture
  • Academic curiosity
  • College preparation
  • Keep a regular schedule
  • Staying motivated keeps them in a good mood
  • Be conscious of their momentum
  • Avoid distractions like the phone or television
  • Deadlines as a source of motivation
  • Remember not to be content

I felt like many of their answers were quite thoughtful and I will expand on a couple of them later in this essay. In the end, I took their responses to heart but also shared some of my thoughts with them. Several students told me later that they truly appreciated the ideas and dialog. After all of this conversation, I really felt like I was ready to present my ideas to my colleague's class.

My thoughts on staying motivated are multi-fold. I think that there are definitely some actions we can all take that will impact our overall level of motivation. First, I do believe that it's important to recognize the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. We all experience both on a regular basis. Humans are obviously extrinsically motivated in many ways. We go to work to earn a paycheck. A paycheck is extrinsic motivation no matter how you slice it. So, we get up in the morning, get a shower, and go to work everyday as a result of some sort of extrinsic motivation. However, folks like me, also develop a true sense of intrinsic motivation in our work and career. I have certainly learned during this period of social isolation that I am motivated to go to work not only for a paycheck, but also for the social interaction and the opportunity to interact with my students and colleagues.  This has been a good reminder for me that music education and perhaps all education really begins with relationships. I have stated this for years as a basic principle of my work and interaction with students, but this period of social isolation has certainly reinforced this concept in my mind.  So, with this as a guide for some of my remarks, let me share my thoughts.

First, endeavor to be a "creative" not a consumer. My thoughts here grow from a great deal of personal experience. I find that my motivation diminishes greatly when I am consuming someone else's creativity. This could include watching a television show, scrolling through Instagram, or playing a video game. All of these activities are primarily passive. There is no final product at the end of a period of time and truthfully, I find these activities to be more tiring than relaxing. I also notice that when I complete any of these activities or others like them, I am generally not happier than when I began. They may stimulate my brain at some level during the activity, but there is very little positive by-product afterwards. 

Rather, I would encourage folks to seek out activities where their imagination is strongly at play, their intellect is highly engaged, and there is some final product. This can take lots of different forms. While practicing and creating music is an obvious one in my life, there are certainly many others. Reading a book, baking cookies, trying a new recipe, drawing a picture, or even rearranging one's furniture in a room are all creative activities. We use our brain in a different way when we are creative. Last weekend, I built two awesome bridges in my backyard. I am not a particularly experienced woodworker or craftsman, but I went for it anyway. One of the great byproducts of creative endeavors is that we can admire our work after the activity. This falls into the category of intrinsic motivation. As I write this, I am sitting on my back porch looking at the bridges. I am proud of my work and satisfied that I spent my time well last weekend. When we read, we use our brain in a much different way than we do if we consume the same or similar material through a movie. We can sit back and admire the number of books or chapters we have read after that creative activity.  I remember as a kid I used to rearrange my bedroom quite frequently. There is something very satisfying, as far as I am concerned, in admiring one's handiwork after the work is done. So, consider painting a room, repairing something that needs a little updating at your home, make a great meal, or read a good book. All of these activities will certainly stimulate one's motivation.

A second recommendation is to make lists. The number of years ago I read a fantastic book by Atul Gawandi, called The Checklist Manifesto. The thesis of this book is essentially that checklists make us more accurate in everything that we do. I committed to this in my personal and professional life and can attest to the accuracy of that thesis. And, I would take it one step further. A checklist can be incredibly motivating. This, falls into the category of extrinsic motivation.  When I have a list of tasks to complete on any given day or week, I am significantly more likely to achieve completion of those tasks. And, I feel a great deal of satisfaction as I check each task off the list. I find this to be particularly important in the relative monotony of social isolation. I wake up every morning and make my "commute" to my office in my home and go to work. Everyday looks a lot like the one before and the one after. Checklists certainly help me to distinguish one day from another and help me to get my work completed.  Right now, every day I have a variety of tasks in front of me including meeting with my students, providing meaningful assessment for my students, administrative work for school, the number of recording projects, and maintaining my home life as well. It is easy to get overwhelmed with the number of tasks that needed to be completed. A checklist truthfully allows us to be more efficient in the way we think about the things we need to do on any given day or week. 

At the beginning of the social isolation, I created a list of some home-improvement tasks that needed to be completed. On a couple of occasions when I felt particularly down and unmotivated, I pulled out that list and was able to identify a short activity that I could complete without a great deal of stress. Completing these activities truly increased my motivation and as I finished one after another, I began feeling much better about myself and our current situation.  

Another way of thinking about the concept of lists would be to simply say don't lose sight of the forest for the trees. The small steps in our day and life eventually lead to large gains. This is been a concept that has always been easy for me to remember, but I do know that it can be difficult for others.

Another strong recommendation that I can make is to remain physically active. I have found that the extrinsic motivator of a step counter on my phone has been quite effective over the past several weeks. I am certain that there is a correlation between my motivation and happiness and the amount of physical activity that I get in a day. Yesterday was a low activity/high screen time day for me and it really showed in my level of motivation and mood at the end of the day. In fact, yesterday was probably my lowest day of the past six weeks or so. As I look back on the day, there were no creative activities and very little physical activity. Both of these factors contributed to my down mood. Fortunately today is a new day and even this blog post is representative of a new creative activity. Actually, Saturdays can be a little tough for me in this environment because the checklist of school work is a little bit lighter. I am quite aware that I need to create a list of things to do, even if some of the things on that list are relaxing activities. These might include taking a nap, going for a walk, reading a book, or enjoying a nice dinner with my family.

I want to come back to a comment that one of my students made about motivation. He mentioned that he feels there is a strong correlation between contentment and motivation. He suggest that when one is overly content, their motivation can certainly go down. He mentioned this in the context of school work and academic motivation. I certainly relate to his thoughts and wanted to share a personal anecdote. Back when I was 14 years old, I was very aware that my best friends were all better athletes than I. I, like many readers of this post I would imagine, was a musician and a very good student. But, athletics weren't necessarily a priority in my home. I was discontent with my level of physical talents and fitness. So, that discontentment led me to commit to a routine of push-ups and sit-ups in my bedroom every night. I decided that I needed to do 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups every single day. Over a period of time, I got into really pretty good shape. I started looking a little more thin and a little more fit. And, through those small successes began to have more successes on a fitness level. I was never a scholastic athlete or a member of a sports team. But, I developed somewhat of a reputation in the weight room and remember receiving a lot of positive feedback from my athlete friends about my strength and also my cycling abilities.  As a young adult, I went on to live a vibrant life of recreational athletics. I became a very strong windsurfer in the 1980's and have also spent a great deal of time both mountain biking and road cycling over the years. My life in the weight room continued well into my 40's and I am proud of many of my athletic accomplishments. While I was never a natural athlete, I definitely achieved a great deal in the area of fitness and activities as a result of my early lack of contentment in this area. I guess the broad idea here is as follows: if there is some area in your life where you are discontent, take steps to change it. Start small. Make a list. Be creative.

I see a great example of this in my 17 year old son during this period. He is a baseball player and is currently missing his junior year baseball season. This has been really tough on him as he has really been pointing toward this season as a opportunity to attract the attention of coaches at the next level. He, like many other high school athletes, is not quite sure what this setback will mean for him. He has committed to physical fitness during this social distancing environment. He works on his batting in the batting cages several times a day, lifts weights everyday, and has started a routine of running as well. I guarantee that he is in the best shape of his life. I am excited to see what gains this level of commitment will manifest on the baseball field when we get back to playing games. I am betting that there will be a huge upside. His discontentment has motivated him to become better.

So, these are my thoughts on motivation in the Covid-19 social distancing environment. I am sure there are many other strategies for increasing motivation. These are just a few that resonate with me. I would certainly recommend The Checklist Manifesto and I would also recommend a book which I read recently called The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. This book gives many concrete strategies for staying creative. It has nothing to do with our social isolation age, but there are certainly many great ideas in the book.

I wish you all well in this new working environment. And, as always, I welcome your thoughts and reactions to my ideas.

Stay healthy and be well.



Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Score Prep

I was recently asked about my process for studying and preparing scores for my classroom and rehearsals. I have seen many seminars and master classes on the topic of score preparation over the years and have always been impressed with the variety of approaches and detail with which conductors prepare their scores.  I always take something away from these seminars and apply it to my own work.

My answer to the question this week was necessarily shorter than the sometimes one hour or longer seminars I have attended on score preparation. This required more of a "quick hit" concise response do the question.

As I thought about it, I really came up with three important categories that I use for score preparation: Listen, Analyze, Play.  These three elements have become incredibly important to me as I squeeze score preparation into my already busy academic schedule. These apply to every level of score preparation that I endeavor. So, this would include string orchestra, full orchestra, Grades 3 to 6 and the standard repertoire. (These days I rarely find myself in the grade 2 and below setting but these concepts still apply.)

First, I typically begin the process by listening. I like to find a period of time where I can sit quietly with the score and a pencil in my hand and listen to the piece multiple times performed by multiple performers. At the beginning, I am looking for basic material: what voice has the melody? What voice carries the fundamental? Others include: specific entrances of winds, first entrance of every voice, tempo changes, meter changes, and other pertinent basic material. I try to clearly mark everything. As I become more familiar with the piece with the score in hand, I begin looking for places that I can make the score my own. Where does the tempo push, where does it pull?  What voice has the important rhythmic material at any given time? (Who is the rhythmic student and who is the rhythmic teacher?) Where do I need to be particularly conscious of any given voice or specific conducting techniques? This process of listening and marking the score is absolutely vital to my preparation. It allows me to be confident in rehearsals and frees up my intellect, permitting my imagination to move in different pedagogical and artistic directions throughout any given rehearsal. I would call this the nuts and bolts of score preparation for me. It is foundational and it is vital.

Second, in recent years I have spent a great deal of time analyzing a work. For me this includes form but is not exclusively form. Obviously, I want to have a clear vision of the various sections of the piece. I want to be able to articulate form clearly to students during rehearsal. Understanding form also allows me to be imaginative in my approach to phrasing, musicianship, and expression throughout the piece. But, in addition to form, I have been quite committed to harmonic analysis for the last several years. As I am preparing the score, I typically pick up my guitar and sketch out the chords, allowing me to really see inside the harmonic structure of the piece. This is a game-changer for me. By understanding the harmonic underpinning of a composer's ideas, again, my imagination can go in more complex directions as I endeavor to articulate function and meaning to my students.  In my early years of teaching I would skip this step. In fact, I really didn't even consider it. Now I understand how vital it is to teaching true functional musicianship in every single rehearsal. This process also permits me to step to a guitar or piano quite easily during a rehearsal process and explain harmonic function. It is so nice to be able to do this without analyzing on the spot. If I have done my homework, it is seamless and easy.

Finally, I play the parts. Those of you who know me well, know that I play in rehearsal rather than conduct during one out of three rehearsals per week. This process is vital to my score study. It informs how I approach technique, difficult passages, fingering, shifting, watching, and expression in profound ways. I find that I hear the score differently from within the orchestra. I hear mistakes more clearly with my instrument in hand. I am able to identify tricky sections in a significantly more holistic manner when I am playing with the orchestra. I am also much more able to articulate the performer's thought process when I have my instrument in my hand. Sometimes I sit in the front of the section, sometimes the back. I alternate between each of the stringed instruments. I'm not a very good cello player, so I often play cello parts on the violin or viola. It still makes a difference. A side benefit of this is that my students realize my proficiency at each of the instruments and (I believe) are the beneficiaries of my holistic thinking about ensemble performance and technique.

Obviously, there are more than just these three elements in solid score study. But, as I think about my top priorities, these hit them pretty strongly. I hope that you find these thoughts valuable and can possibly apply some of them to your own teaching and conducting.

What did I miss here? What are your priorities in score study and preparation? I would love to hear from you and add to the tools in my tool belt!