The second week of school is almost over and it has certainly been a fantastic start to the school-year. My classes and students are wonderful and I am really pleased with the prospects for the academic year. My Classical Piano and guitar classes and full and the students are right into the swing of things. My Music History class is a bit smaller than usual (10 students), but they are really into it and are offering thoughtful preparation and responses to the music that is discussed. My orchestra is as big as it has ever been at NCSSM (55 strings) and is already producing a wonderful sound.
Early in the year, I like to really challenge the orchestra members to consider why they are participating in the ensemble and to reevaluate their commitment to their art and their instrument.
At NCSSM, many students are driven by grades. The students are high achievers and have spent a lifetime working to get A's in class. Orchestra is a little different animal. Of course, I have a very clear set of course expectations and grading policy which I outline for the students on the first day of class. Everyone understands the expectations and the vast majority of the students earn A's in Orchestra. I suspect that this is the case in most public school and university orchestras as well. The students want to be there, they want to receive an A, so they fulfill the requirements.
But, for an arts class, that seems a bit hollow to me. It has bothered me for years, to be honest. Don't we really want our arts students to be invested at a much deeper level that simply meeting the baseline expectations that are outlined in a grading policy?
This notion was driven home for me a few years ago while reading "The Art of Possibility" by Ben and Rosamund Zander. (If you haven't read it, I recommend it highly. I'll try to remember to write another post that covers more of the ideas in the book at a later time.) In one chapter, Zander outlines an exercise where he asks students to write him a letter detailing what they intend to do for their A, as well as what they intend to invest and hope to gain from the course. It is a marvelous and inspiring chapter and I decided to adopt a modified version of his idea in my class. I still have the course expectations, but ask the students to take it one step further and to write me a letter about their self-expectations for the course, explaining in more detail what they plan to invest, techniques they hope to develop, ideas they hope to gain, and experiences they hope to have.
This has turned out to be a wonderful activity in my class. Many students write deeply personal letters to me, detailing their reasons for playing their instrument, struggles they have had, anxieties that they ahve regarding orchestra, and unbelievable expectations that they have for themselves and their colleagues. I get to know my students in a much different way by doing this activity and it provides me incredible insight into the individuals in the ensemble. (Let me also be totally honest and say that not every students gets it. Some provide a very basic letter that doesn't really get into these details and seems more like an assignment than a heartfelt letter to me. But, this is the minority.)
I have been receiving and reading these letters this week and it has been and incredible experience. As you probably know, if you have been reading my blog, I believe in community first. Strong communities make strong orchestras. It has been clear to me in reading the letters this year, that my message is getting through to my students. I am hearing this in many ways from many of my students. I would like to share an excerpt of one such letter with you. It moved me tremendously and I don't believe that I could say it any better.
Dear Mr. Laird,
It’s hard for me to articulate exactly what my expectations are for orchestra at NCSSM this year. I could say that I expect dedicated classmates who care about our ensemble and our community, but I couldn’t really imagine a more committed and hard-working group of musicians than the ones we have at NCSSM. I realize that the orchestra as a whole will exceed any expectations I might have. So, as the year begins, I have found it more appropriate to address certain expectations I have for myself, in the hope that I may live up to the standards of musicianship and community set by both you and my fellow orchestra members.
1. I expect myself to love playing in the orchestra. Though I am far from being an advanced player, I have been blessed with the opportunity to play in some amazing orchestras. More than anything, playing in the Eastern Regional Orchestra, my Youth Orchestra at home, and the NCSSM Orchestra has shown me what a joy it is to create music with good musicians. I have neither the talent nor the ambition to be a soloist, but I have found that there is nothing better than making beautiful music with a group of my peers and being a part of something so much bigger than myself. To truly love and appreciate this, though, a few things are required of me:
One, I have to practice. I remember realizing something so simple yet so profound last year: I enjoy orchestra rehearsal when I have practiced the music, and I hate it when I have not. To truly love playing in an ensemble, I have to feel like a contributing member. When I am stumbling through passages as a result of not practicing, I cannot take pleasure in rehearsing.
Two, I have to be focused and play musically. I must have good posture, pay attention to dynamics, and watch the conductor. I must actively count. I must listen to the ensemble as a whole. Simply playing notes will get boring all too quickly. To love playing, I have to be truly engaged in the music and in the sound being produced by the group.
2. I expect myself to love my fellow orchestra members. This year, I have the responsibility to help create the community that you were talking about on the first day of class. I expect myself to be an encourager, a listening ear, and a friend to the rest of the orchestra. I expect myself to love much and love well. I will have wasted my time in orchestra this year if I play every note correctly but fail to love the people around me.
I am looking forward to a great year in orchestra!
This is my hope for all of my students and yours!