Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Computational Thinking and the Orchestra Classroom

Computational Thinking and the Orchestra Classroom.
I recently had a incredibly interesting conversation with NCSSM's Instructor of Computational Chemistry. He is a dear friend and a long-standing member of the NCSSM faculty. He introduced this concept to me as part of a conversation regarding the direction of our school's greater program and I have thought about it a great deal over the past several months. I believe that we will hear more and more about this concept, especially in the areas of STEM education in coming years. Computational thinking, when defined, is easily related to the music and orchestra classroom. I believe that I have been engrossed in computational thinking for virtually my entire life as a musician; from the time I was a student, to young teacher, to now as a veteran teacher. We use computational thinking when we are playing instruments, when we are practicing, when we are playing in or conducting an ensemble, and when we are planning and creating pedagogy and instrumental lessons. So, let's dive deeper into the concept of computational thinking as it applies to the orchestra class.

"Computational Thinking (CT) is a problem solving process that includes a number of characteristics and dispositions. It is essential to the development of computer applications, but it can also be used to support problem solving across all disciplines, including the humanities, math, and science." ~Wikipedia

In this essay, we will focus specifically on music.

Students who learn computational thinking across the curriculum can begin to see a relationship between academic subjects, as well as between life inside and outside of the classroom.  This is, obviously, a goal of arts and humanities programs in all school settings. I believe it is additionally a strong goal of music education and ensemble performance classes. We continually seek to facilitate interdisciplinary ideas, learning, and expression on a daily basis.

Computational thinking involves a number of specific components. Let's begin to look at them here.

1. Decomposition: Breaking down data, processes, or problems into smaller, manageable parts. 

I would hope that every music educator who reads this is thinking, "This is what I do every day." The goal of all strong pedagogy would be to facilitate success with complex musical ideas and tasks by breaking those tasks into smaller, more palatable increments. We do this throughout every rehearsal cycle in an ensemble. We also do this in music lessons on a daily and weekly basis. I often say that the most important music lesson a student ever has is the first one they have. That first lesson is when a strong foundation of " setup " is established. This is the beginning of success in much more complex techniques. Think about how one might approach teaching a student the technique of vibrato. It is not haphazard. There are many individual steps towards developing that complex technique. One might argue that we are never finished with the process. I believe that the most successful music educators are those who take the time to fully decompose the most advanced of musical techniques and articulate the process clearly.

2. Pattern Recognition: Observing patterns, trends, and regularities in data.

Any student who has learned to play an instrument through the Suzuki method, understands the importance of pattern recognition. To this day I still hear and see the pattern of four eighth notes and two quarter notes as "caught a little bun-ny." That pattern was drilled over and over to me at the very beginning of my music instruction. We seek patterns all the time in music. Rhythmic recognition is truly pattern recognition. Jazz musicians understand this as learning figures. Key recognition is truly pattern recognition. Modal recognition is truly pattern recognition. Shifting is pattern recognition. I could go on and on. The best musicians are recognizing patterns all over the place. It is truly one of the strongest skills that a musician develops. The more we recognize and repeat patterns, the less we have to really think about fixed ideas during a rehearsal or a performance. I often say to my ensembles, "solve the equation once." What I am really saying is to find the patterns, recognize them, and repeat them. This will free your mind up to think about other things in that same moment.

3. Abstraction: Identifying the general principles that generate these patterns

This may be my most favorite element of preparing a score for rehearsal. I am continuously seeking abstractions that I can use to articulate concepts for my students. In the NCSSM orchestra, we just completed a performance of Beethoven's 6th Symphony. In the second movement, there are a series of 16th note patterns. As I lived with the score and studied it, I noted that the 16th notes really serve two purposes in that movement. In some cases, I identify the 16th note patterns as "the engine." The function of engine passages in Beethoven, in my opinion, is to establish rhythmic drive as well as a harmonic underpinning. Think of this as the rhythm guitar of the orchestra, playing chords and a driving regular rhythmic pattern. My students have grown to be able to truly identify "engine" passages whenever we perform Beethoven. The other type of 16th note passage in this movement is more of a "melodic" function. Beethoven embeds the melody within the 16th note undulation in these passages. So, during the course of rehearsal, I would have my students identify "engine" passages versus "melodic" passages of 16th notes. This type of abstraction should be prevalent in the work we do as music educators. And, ultimately, we want our students to be able to do this type of work as well. It is not easy. This requires us as music educators to step back from the fixed notion of notes and rhythm on a page. We need to see the score in a more functional manner. I have spent a great deal of time in recent years considering the functionality of every passage in the scores I conduct. What is the purpose of every single note and passage in any given score? When we can answer this question of functionality, we have truly begun to embrace the notion of abstraction within the score. When we help our students to think about a score in this way, we have offered them this notion of abstraction.

4. Algorithm Design: Developing the step by step instructions for solving this and similar problems.

This is sequential pedagogy in its most pure and basic form. Have you ever seen a video on YouTube of someone trying to explain a musical concept or technique who really hasn't developed a step-by-step process for solving the problem? I have! In the end, algorithm design is pedagogical design. We, as music educators, do it every single day. And, if it's not in the front of your mind when you are planning for teaching, I recommend that you begin to focus on this. I do not believe there is any one specific answer to algorithm design for music educators. But, this notion of creating step by step instructions is critical to the success of our students. Clarity always wins in the end. Many years ago, I had a friend and mentor encourage me to think in this manner. He cautioned me that folks to whom high level musical performance comes relatively easily, can have difficulties with this when explaining concepts to their students. I happened to be one of those musicians. Many advanced techniques came relatively easily to me for some reason. So, as a young teacher, I committed to decomposition and algorithm design in a significant way. It has paid huge dividends for me in the classroom over the years. I am so appreciative of that mentor's advice!

"The characteristics that define computational thinking are decomposition, pattern recognition/data representation, generalization/abstraction, and algorithms.  By decomposing a problem, identifying the variables involved using data representation, and creating algorithms, a generic solution results. The generic solution is a generalization or abstraction that can be used to solve a multitude of variations of the initial problem." ~Wikipedia

Another characterization of computational thinking is the "three A's" iterative process based on three stages:

Abstraction: Problem formulation;
Automation: Solution expression;
Analyses: Solution execution and evaluation.

These can also be easily linked to the process of ensemble rehearsal or instrumental music instruction. As conductors, we must first identify the problem through abstraction. Next, we express a solution which equates to automation. And then finally we execute a plan for solution and ultimately evaluate the success of that plan. This is what music educators do every single day.

"Some say that the four Cs of 21st century learning are communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity. The fifth C could be computational thinking which entails the capability to resolve problems algorithmically and logically." ~Wikipedia

As music educators, we commit to this on a daily basis. Our students should be observing the computational thinking process in our work every day. And, by extension, we must be encouraging students to think computationally in everything that they experience as a musician. This is yet another justification for music programs within the context of a stem education. The way we can encourage students to think when in the ensemble classroom has undeniable links to the science, math, and engineering classroom.

I would love to hear your reaction to these thoughts. I also encourage you to consider some of these ideas when advocating for your program. These are important facets of the work that we do as music educators and the work that our students do when they are in our classroom. But, if we are unable to articulate these outcomes, the greater concept is often overlooked. 

I wish you all the best as you continue your work in the music ensemble classroom. 

Monday, March 21, 2022

American String Teachers Association National Conference 2022: My Week and Experience

I woke up this morning in my own bed after being out of town for the past week. It is so great to experience the familiarity of my own place: my home, I own stuff, and the comforts of home. While I was staying in a magnificent suite at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta, it is always good to come home. This morning I was looking through Facebook and enjoying all of the moving posts about folks' experiences at the ASTA National Conference last week. The membership of this organization points toward our national conference as somewhat of a Mecca for reconnecting with friends and colleagues from around the country, acquiring new and unique ideas about string teaching and the art we love, and getting that annual reminder that we are not alone. 

My week was a little bit unique this year. Many of you know I have been serving on the National Board of Directors for ASTA for about 6 years as the Chair of the Content Development Committee. This was my last conference in that role. I will be rolling off the board in May and using my time to more fully commit to projects here at NCSSM, specifically opening our new NCSSM campus in Morganton North Carolina. So, as a result my week at the conference was a little different than many years. I didn't have much time to attend sessions, but it was no less meaningful and the work in which I was involved had, hopefully, a great deal of impact. This is my opportunity to chronicle my week a little bit and to give others a small window into that work.

Monday and Tuesday

I left home on Sunday evening to get a small jump on the long drive. It is about a 6-hour drive from Durham NC to Atlanta. I went about halfway and spent the night in Spartanburg SC. I got up early on Monday to finish the drive so that I could be ready for board meetings beginning at noon on Monday. I safely arrived in Atlanta and settled into my room. And after a nice lunch, the Board got to work. The board work on Monday and Tuesday centered around creating a new strategic plan to guide our organization for the next 3 years. I love all of the members of the board and these are opportunities for meaningful and thoughtful conversation about the work of ASTA, our membership, our mission, and how we want to spend our limited resources to make the field of string teaching and the United States a better place. Our conversations this year centered around many of the standard topics of the American String Teachers Association, such as professional development opportunities, and member resources, but wellness and diversity were really front and center as well. We were able to frame an outline and priorities for the new strategic plan through our work. That plan should be finalized by June and I am excited to see it implemented for our organization. For those who don't know, the organization has been through a great deal of transition in the last year as we have said goodbye to one Executive Director, hired an interim for 6 months or so, and welcomed our new Executive Director, Lynn Tuttle, to the organization. Lynn is a thoughtful and intelligent leader and I know she will guide ASTA with integrity and purpose in coming years. Truly, the entire board worked diligently and thoughtfully on this plan. We ended the day on Tuesday with a wonderful Board dinner.  I went back to the hotel fulfilled (and very full) ready to move into the rest of the Conference.


On Wednesday, the Board came together to finalize some of the details of the outline of the strategic plan in the morning. We worked for a couple of hours and then many of us had to move on to our work as facilitators for the Wednesday pre-conference sessions. I was honored to be conducting and guiding the ASTA National Conference Teachers Orchestra on Wednesday. About 23 teachers from around the country registered for this pre-conference session to come together and make music for the afternoon. This was the second time we have put this event together for ASTA.  The Teachers Orchestra was a wonderful success again this year. We came together at noon and rehearsed until 5:00 p.m. The rehearsal included great music-making, many smiles, new friendships, and was an overall fulfilling afternoon. We had a wide variety of repertoire that included an arrangement of the Day of Wrath (Dies Irae) from Verdi's Requiem, arranged by Deborah Baker Monday, works by composers Katie Labrie and Gabriella Frank, and even the winner of the ASTA 75th Anniversary composition contest, Nagyszentmiklos, by Todd Mason, a tricky but amazing work which is basically ah homage to the influence of Bela Bartok. There was plenty to do for the afternoon. Our time together culminated with a informal performance at the opening  reception of the conference at 6:30 that evening. What a pleasure to conduct the group. It was truly a joy to spend the day with these wonderful teachers from around the country. Again, I strongly believe everyone had a great time and enjoyed the process of music making and bringing a short program together throughout the afternoon. I was honored to be part of this. Following the reception, I ran to another dinner with all of the other adjudicators and clinicians for the National Orchestra Festival, which was set to begin on Thursday morning.

 Thursday Friday Saturday 

 As part of the National Conference each year ASTA hosts the American String Teachers Association National Orchestra Festival where student groups from around the country apply and come to our conference to perform for a set of adjudicators and receive educational clinics. This year, I was invited to be one of the clinicians who worked with orchestras following their adjudicated performances. My role in this event was to listen to orchestra performances and then give them a brief educational clinic immediately following their performance. I heard orchestras from Florida, Texas, Colorado, Indiana, and other regions of the country. Truly, all of the performances were magnificent and I was encouraged throughout the festival regarding the level of string teaching and playing that's happening in our country today. Over the course of Thursday and Friday I heard and cliniced 8 different orchestras. In my clinics, I tried to give students the opportunity to reflect on their own performances, consider their successes and areas on which they could improve in their performances, reflect on their trip,  and, I aspired to give them a few small musical nuggets to think about as they move forward in their playing as individuals and ensembles. I truly hope that the instructors walked away from each of my clinics with a little something new to think about. And, obviously, my goal was that each student would feel valued and honored in their efforts. There were also usually many parent chaperones in the room and I always try to make a point to thank them and honor them for the dedication it takes to be part of a music community in a school and to support their children in their orchestral endeavors. Following all of the performances, a National Grand Champion is named and all of the groups are ranked. On Saturday morning, the winners of the middle school and high school divisions were announced at a high energy award ceremony. Later on Saturday afternoon, the Middle School and High School Grand Champions performed as the closing session of the conference. The Grand Champions are Seven Lakes Junior High Chamber Orchestra from Katy, Texas under the direction of Jennifer Gingell and Bethany Hagin and  Eau Gallie High School Chamber Orchestra from Melbourne Florida under the direction of Erik Bryan.  The performances were absolutely stunning. I am also thrilled that my colleague Ryan Ellefson from East Chapel Hill High School in North Carolina took his ensemble to the event and they were awarded second place in the high school division. Sadly, I didn't see their performance because I was clinician another group at that time. But all indications were that they were absolutely spectacular. I know it was a huge weekend for Ryan and for every student and parent who participated in the event. I am so pleased for them!

Following a social gathering on Saturday evening, I got to bed early and set my alarm for 3:30 a.m. I left Atlanta when I woke up at that early hour and drove directly to my youngest son's baseball game in Raleigh. The game was slated to start at noon and I had missed several games being away this week. I didn't want to miss the game on Sunday. I made it to the game on time to see all of his at-bats. I was also so pleased that my middle son, Joe, could come and watch the games with me. He had been in London for the past 2 weeks with a class trip from UNC and just arrived back in Raleigh on Saturday. What a cool way to come home!

So, it was certainly a busy, but fulfilling week. As always, my best memories and takeaways include the friendships old and new, and personal interaction with my colleagues, from around the county.  There is no substitute for the smiles, hugs, conversations over coffee, and well-wishes for and from this like-minded group of folks.  The American String Teachers Association continues to be strong and continues to provide a welcoming community for all in the field.  Thanks to all of you who impacted me over the past week.  I look forward to seeing you all and others at Orlando next year. 

Monday, February 28, 2022

A look 14 years back

I was recently looking back over some of my first posts on this blog and thought it would be fun to revisit a few and see if I am still in agreement with myself.

Seating Auditions are Traumatic
September 12, 2008

Seating auditions are traumatic. Anyone that has ever played in an orchestra knows it. A musician's seating is a concrete expression of a musician's "rank" in the ensemble and one really can't hide from the number. (1st chair, 2nd chair, 14th chair, etc.) 

I have to constantly remind students in my ensembles that auditions are not a concrete ranking of musical expertise.  They are more like a quick snapshot, capturing a single moment in time. 

Sometimes photos give a very true impression of a person's image. Sometimes they really don't.  Sometimes our eyes are crossed and we look horrible. Other times, we see a shot of a person that just makes them look fantastic. They are all the same person, but that snapshot can go either way. 

Auditions are similar. Sometimes we go into an audition, get nervous, and end up being the subject of an audition "photo" that depicts our eyes crossed and hair totally messed up. Other times, we show better that we actually are. But, in the long run, generally speaking, the image is still us. And, in both "good and bad" auditions, we give some kind of general impression of the player that we are. 

The beauty of the orchestra and string ensemble is this: once the auditions are over, we all have the same responsibilities - to prepare our parts, participate in rehearsals, lead from any chair, and work to be as integral a member of the group as everyone else. Seating order ultimately does not matter. Yes, it provides a tangible "rank." But it really doesn't change anything. We are an ensemble. And, by definition, it is all about the entire group. Ensembles are only successful when everyone understands their importance to the sum and fully commits to that concept. (Just think of the last time you watched a dance ensemble performance where one of the dancers didn't operate at the same level as the rest of the group. Ruined the effect - didn't it.) 

Here is where I usually go into sports analogies and the need for team play, but I will spare you that line of argument today. My orchestra received their seating on Wednesday right before rehearsal. It was a weird rehearsal that day. Players were getting used to their new stand partner, adjusting to the reality of that new "ranking" that they had just received, and generally getting comfortable. I really hope that today is better. This is such a fantastic group of musicians and I have such high expectations for the year. For now, we move on as an ensemble. Seating doesn't matter. That is the first key to success as an orchestra. A chain is only as strong as the weakest link. Now we get to the real work of developing musicianship, artistry, technique, repertoire, and a commitment to the goals at hand. I will enjoy the journey! 

As I read this today, I certainly still agree with every word of this brief essay.  But, in 2022, we should also be seeing seating, particularly in the classroom, through a new lens.  How does your ensemble seating look when seen through a racial equity and inclusion lens?  How does it look when seen through a gender equity and inclusion lens.  Frankly, that would not have crossed my mind in 2008.  But, if the actual seat of player really doesn't matter, as I said in 2008, then what are we telling the student who is always in the back of the section about their value and worth? Or, better said, what are they perceiving we are saying to them? I tend to rotate seating much more than I did 12 or 13 years ago.  I try to be conscious of  unintended statements seating may be making about my students. I also try to pair up students in creative ways which help everyone succeed in the long run. There is no "right" answer here. But there is plenty of room for self-reflection and sensitive deliberation when making seating decisions.

I have conducted a few honors groups in the past few months as we are just getting ramped up again post-covid.  I have noticed a great deal of discussion about a new and different level of nerves in seating auditions. In fact, it was the topic of conversation just last weekend at the NCMEA Eastern Regional Orchestra Festival.  Our kids have become used to the comfort of the video audition and playing by themselves in a live setting is more foreign that it used to be.  It is time for us to start getting back to those live auditions.  There is value in feeling those butterflies in the stomach and maybe even making a few mistakes in the audition room.  Life doesn't end with a bad audition.  We simply learn about where we need to grow.  These are good lessons!

In the end, I still love the analogy of a snapshot. We recently had some family photos taken and in most of them, the wind had blown my hair into an odd place.  I absolutely hate when my bangs go straight down.  They should be combed to the side to look "right."  Only in the last 3 shots, after I had taken a look at the photos, did my hair look right to me.  Oh well...not the greatest look, but at their core, the photos still look like me.  My wife claims she really didn't even notice.  I know I did. But, I still can live with the photos.  And, there will always be another chance!


Monday, September 13, 2021

In Silence

I typically dictate my blog posts.  Ever since I picked up my Google Pixel phone several years ago, I have been dictating my posts as a first step.  I helps me get my ideas out with a bit of flow.  Then, I go back and edit for clarity, spelling, flow,  accuracy, etc. If you read my blog, I bet you have caught a mistake from time to time.  A misspelling. An odd use of a word.  That sort of thing.  

I do the same thing with my students' college recommendations.  Also with emails. This workflow really helps me get my ideas out quickly.  Then, I can always go back for accuracy and clarity. 

But, not tonight.  Tonight I am typing.  Why?  Because I can't talk.  Last Thursday I had a nasty polyp removed from my vocal chords.  So, I am now on extended vocal rest. Tonight is day 5. That's right. I haven't said a word in 5 days! Those of you who know me may find that hard to believe.  I think it has been a nice break for my wife. 

I started noticing a problem quickly after we went to all zoom classes at the beginning of Covid-19.  I was simply talking too much and over projecting to get through the computer on Zoom. I was limping to the finish line at the end of last school year when I led a sing-along/jam session for seniors on the last day of school.  I sang too long in the heat, with no water, and knew the whole time I was hurting myself.  As I went home that day in May, I knew the damage was done.  

I knew because I had the same problem in 2008, 13 years ago.  When I first came to NCSSM in 2001, one of my teaching duties was chorus.  I over-sang for several years as a crutch against my lack of pedagogical skills as a choral musician.  7 years of over-singing took its toll.  I had developed polyps and the only remedy was surgery.  

Back then they used a scalpel.  Now it is a laser.  (Much less invasive.) Back then, the recovery was 4 weeks and now it is more like 2.  One similarity is vocal coaching afterwards.  Tomorrow is my first session.  I am dreading it.  Back then I had little boys at home who needed my attention. Now they are all adults and my wife and I have the place to ourselves.  It is much quieter than in 2008.  I learned back then that there is a lot of one's identity tied up in voice.  How deep?  How does it project?  This is particularly, I believe, impactful for a teacher like me.

Tomorrow will be my first day back at school.  My orchestra students have been so nice.  They are concerned about me!  It is so hard for me to take time off.  I have definitely rested and allowed my voice to recuperate, but my mind goes a mile a minute.  I miss being at work. I miss all the social interaction.  

So, what does a guy like me learn in 5 days of no talking?  Let me see if I can give you a list.
  • I like to listen to podcasts
  • It is frustrating to not be able to respond to conversation or pick up the phone
  • Vocal surgery makes one tired!
  • I enjoy long walks
  • I really do enjoy listening to others
  • It is so easy to get lost in my phone
  • I like to cook
  • Anesthesia messes you up for a day or so
  • I appreciate my family
  • My wife is an angel and a saint
  • One notices the world around when you can't speak
  • I truly like my work and miss going to school
  • My students are the best!
  • It was so fun to watch the Steelers with my sons, without talking (or cheering)
I am sure there is more, but these are some starters.
I have been communicating with a white-board at home and plan to continue to do so at school for the next two weeks. Wish me luck!

For now, take care of your voice.  You need it.  I know I need mine.  And, I am hoping that it will be back in its old clear form in just a few short weeks. And then, I can go back to dictating my blog posts.  For now, enjoy the silence!



Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Spinach Dip Recipe

Back in 1992, I left my first job in Palmyra PA, to become the Orchestra Director at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt MD. As part of my move from Pennsylvania to Maryland, I had to do some professional development to keep my teaching certificate up to date. This included two summer classes. One was in reading and the other was in special education. My new position was at a science and technology magnet school teaching orchestra. At the time, I was having great difficulty finding the value in doing this professional development and was dreading the classes. My colleague, the band director at the school, encouraged me to go and find any positive in the work that was required of me. In her words, I should "seek out a really good spinach dip recipe" as a result of my time in the classes. Her point was that we can find positives in virtually any situation. I used that phrase for many years when I opened professional development sessions I was teaching. Professional development is not ever going to hit every participant in the sweet spot. Participants must be open to the little benefits of a day or more of professional development. Sometimes we making a new friend, gain a new perspective, or, find "a really good spinach dip recipe" shared among friends. 

Last Friday, the Friday before Labor Day weekend, our students were gone for a long four-day weekend. The day was labeled a professional development day and the faculty at our school were required to attend a professional development session on Restorative Practices. I have to say, the timing wasn't good. It has been a trying beginning of the school year. Faculty are working hard to teach through masks. We are just coming back together as a community after being in a hybrid learning mode for over a year. Folks are worried about health, large groups, and the spread of the virus. In addition, there is much discussion in our community about self care, workplace flexibility, and the emotional well-being of our staff and faculty. And, lots of folks were ready to get out the door for a much deserved long weekend of rest and relaxation. In fact, I was planning a weekend trip to the beach and was in fact a little annoyed that I would be getting away from work so late on this final day before the Labor Day weekend. However, in spite of all of these factors, the professional development session on Restorative Practices from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. was scheduled and was definitely going to happen. The facilitators had been booked and paid, and the plan was set in motion. But, it would be fair to say that a large portion of our faculty was apprehensive about participating in the in-person sessions throughout the day, skeptical about the facilitators ability to understand our unique community, and not in a good place to receive the information that was being presented. 

It would be fair to say that many folks were not in a place where they could be looking for "a really good spinach dip recipe" on that day. In actuality, it seems kind of ironic that a professional development day on Restorative Practices could possibly have so much potential negativity surrounding it. But, this is where we found ourselves last Friday. 

I didn't know much about the topic. I had looked it up on Wikipedia briefly before the session. But, in actuality I was starting from scratch. Restorative Practices is an approach that proactively builds positive school communities. It is defined as a social science that studies how to build social capital and achieve social discipline through participatory learning and decision making. The day was built on providing models and a framework for implementing Restorative Practices in the classroom and school community. Our first meeting of the day was in a large room with our faculty split into "small groups" of about 30 to 35 people and a facilitator. These numbers of folks together caused a lot of concern among my colleagues from a health perspective. It really was too many people to be sitting in a circle in a room indoors when we have been so careful about the health of our community up to now. The facilitator was a really great guy. He had a history as a high school football coach, graduation coach, and has been working for the Department of Public Instruction for several years, teaching Restorative Practices. He was articulate, friendly, and very knowledgeable on his subject. That said, it became clear quickly that he was used to a very different audience than my school's faculty. As many of you know, I do not teach at a traditional high school. NCSSM is a residential high school of academically motivated students. Classroom management and discipline are not our biggest issues at NCSSM. We, as instructors, are focused much more on students social and emotional learning, health and well-being, and obviously, high level content for high achieving students. Much of the early stages of the presentation were built around classroom discipline, challenging students, and other common concerns in traditional high schools. At NCSSM, we tend to get the students who are not causing problems in class. So, understandably, our focus and concerns are different. We operate in a unique school setting for sure. (Hence, our mascot is appropriately, the Unicorns.)

About an hour into the presentation, after a couple of challenging and difficult interactions, I could tell that the presenter began to realize that he didn't truly understand our community. But, like the professional that he is, he let us know that he was trying to figure out exactly who we are, and move forward with an open mind and curiosity about our students, faculty, and environment. In truth, he handled it perfectly.

Throughout the rest of the day, our facilitator went on to explain many of the principles of Restorative Practices to our small group and led a sometimes difficult discussion. I was impressed with his ability to pivot and flow with the curveballs he was thrown throughout the day. I must admit, as the day continued, a small wave of positivity went through the room and I could feel participation become more open as the day went on. 

As for myself, I found a number of wonderful nuggets in the models of restorative practices that were presented that day. I knew I had a 4-hour car ride to the beach ahead of me with my wife and made several notes about topics I wanted to bring up with her to discuss in the car as they related to our relationship, our family, and our work. I had found my "spinach dip recipes."

One of the topics that I found to be quite interesting were the Nine Innate Affects as defined by the Restorative Practices Handbook. The positive affects were listed as interest, excitement, enjoyment, and joy. Neutral affects were listed as surprise and startle. Negative affects included shame, humiliation, distress, anguish, disgust, fear, terror, anger, rage, and dissmell. I considered these fairly deeply during the day. I believe that I live most of my life in the midst of the positive affects. I tend to begin each day with interest and excitement. And, for the most part I am open to, and seeking, enjoyment and joy in all that I do. As I considered these ideas, it occurred to me that my wife and I both live primarily in the positive affects. That is probably one of the keys to our 31-year marriage. I was anxious to share this idea with her in the car.

Another model that spoke to me a bit was the Compass of Shame which was presented to us. Mind you, shame is not an emotion I relate to a whole lot. But, it is part of all of our lives. The East/West poles of the compass include attacking others (on the west) and attacking self (on the east.) These are two very opposite reactions to shame. The north/south poles are withdrawal (on the north) and avoidance (on the south.) Again, these are very opposite reactions to shame. I would equate withdrawal to stewing in the shame and avoidance to denying the shame or moving on to other things in order to to mask the feeling. This was a lot for me to consider in my own life and as it relates to the lives of others. Interesting stuff. When do I feel shame? Why do I feel shame? And how is it changed over the years? Which poles are my default reactions to shame? I thought about all of this stuff a good deal throughout the afternoon. It was a good topic of reflection for me on this day. It also made for great conversation in the car on the way to the beach.

There were a few other concepts throughout the day that provided food for thought as well. I found the Social Discipline Window to be interesting and spent some time reflecting on it. If you want to know more about the Social Discipline Window, spend some time in the Restorative Practices Handbook for Teachers, Disciplinarians and Administrators, by Bob Costello, Joshua Wachtel, and Ted Wachtel. It is a comprehensive handbook and covers these concepts in detail.

In the end, the professional development session on Friday isn't going to change my life. It also certainly didn't kill me to participate. I left the day with food for thought and some interesting ideas to consider throughout the weekend. I thought a great deal about how these practices apply to the orchestra classroom. Also, it was interesting to consider how many of the philosophies I have developed over the years fit firmly into the ethos of Restorative Practices. I was particularly pleased to see how my concepts of "Essence" as a rehearsal discipline fit strongly into the model. I had a wonderful conversation with my Dean over lunch where we discussed these ideas. Another "spinach dip recipe!"

Isn't this the way professional development goes. Sometimes it hits a home run and other times it can be a strikeout. But, there is usually a "spinach dip recipe" to be found. 

As we move through the upcoming academic year, I wish you all the opportunity to find those spinach dip recipes. Keep an open mind and an open heart. Good things will come from our work. And, if you have the chance, check out Restorative Practices as a wonderful model and tool for your interactions with students, colleagues, and family. I feel certain you will find some value there. 



Thursday, July 29, 2021

CodaBow and the Pedagogical Approach

 I vividly remember my first violin and bow. My parents purchased that little quarter size instrument in 1971 from a local luthier in Clymer PA. I believe it was $35. The bow wasn't much more than a long skinny stick of wood with hair attached. But, it was mine and, at age 6, I was now a violinist. I don't recall much more about the bow. But, I do know it was a very precious possession. My parents drove home the importance of taking care of my bow. I learned to loosen the hair after each practice, not to touch the hair, and to rosin it regularly. (Which, I am pretty sure I didn't do.) I'm not sure I understood the reasoning behind any of that but it certainly served me well during those early years. 

I remember my parents purchasing my first "quality" full-size violin when I was about 13 years old.  We bought it from Kschier Brothers in Pittsburgh and it, too, became my prized possession. I actually still play that violin to this day. The bow cost $375 and I recall that it was a Brazilwood stick. Again, I don't remember much about the performance of the bow. I didn't understand the importance of those issues at the time. But, I do know it became an important part of my violin package, and I made sure I took very good care of it. 

As a music education major in college, I purchased my first high-end bow around 1985.  It was purchased from the William Moennig & Son Company in Philadelphia and was made by Joseph Richter. Boy, could I feel the difference! I felt like I was driving a Ferrari when I played. Everything worked the way I needed it to work. I could achieve a beautiful, consistent tone from frog to stick. I had control of advanced techniques, and I could play with sonic nuance that I had never been able to achieve before. I could feel the difference. This was the right bow for me. I now had the right tool to develop my artistry.

Fast forward to my early teaching years. Almost all of my students we're coming to me with rental instruments and the old standard fiberglass bows. I would frequently pick up a student instrument to either tune it or demonstrate something and always be disappointed in the response of the bow. They never felt right to me.  They never sounded right to me. And, honestly, they just didn't work correctly for my students either. I never felt they produced a representative tone quality or allowed for appropriate beginning bow technique. They felt so clunky and really didn't appropriately meet the needs of my students. Honestly, I believe I grew to have low bowing expectations because of the limitations of those sticks. But, that was in the late 1980s.

In 2021, things have changed dramatically. There has been incredible advancement in the world of materials and construction when it comes to the bow. And, much of that advancement is a direct result of significant research done by my friends at Codabow International. In the old days, student bows were typically constructed from the throw-away wood that was unacceptable for "real" bow construction. If the piece of wood was faulty in some way, it would move to the student bow category. That simply isn't the case anymore. Through significant research, Codabow has ascertained there are really four primary variables that must be considered when creating a bow for any level of player from beginner to professional. And, with carbon-fiber construction, bows can be intentionally designed, and affordably manufactured and purchased, for students and players at every playing level. 

The four variables at play are balance, weight, action, and stiffness. Balance impacts dynamics and is defined as the inertial center the player experiences while playing. In other words, the bow's resistance to changes in momentum. Weight is defined as the mass the player feels or senses when playing. Action is the nature of the string connection the player experiences. We sometimes think of this as touch. Finally, stiffness is the force required to flex the bow. Through their extensive research, Codabow has realized each of these factors plays a role in how the player connects the bow to the instrument. And, with different skill sets and expectations, the needs are unique for all players and levels of experience.

Imagine a beginning player who is using a bow that is designed specifically for maximum success based on their skill set, and not from a throwaway piece of wood. For instance, a beginner needs the balance to be tip favored, a little bit lighter, firmer action, and stiffer than a more advanced player. This allows for maximum control. The student gives up a little bit in the area of nuance or action. But, this doesn't matter. Nuance and action are not typically qualities that are important to a "twinkler." I am referring here to students who would be in Suzuki Books 1 or 2, for instance, or first and second year students in a school orchestra program.

As the student moves into intermediate repertoire, the optimum bow is more center balanced, a little bit heavier, has a moderate action, and has a more moderate stiffness. This will allow for a more lively and articulate bow technique and experience. This bow would allow for a more relaxed bow hold, beginning double stops, some beginning off the string technique, and the beginning of a more expressive palette of tonal options. Think Suzuki Books 5 and 6, or standard high school orchestra repertoire.

For the string student who is diving deeper into all of the possibilities of repertoire and technique, a bow with a more expressive and responsive feel becomes a true asset. The balance of the bow must be more frog favored, the weight will be heavier, the action should be more supple, and the student will desire a softer stiffness. These variables will be appreciated as the student works for more speed and agility in their bowing and a wider dynamic range. They will experience more power and beauty of tone when they're playing powerfully. This is the student who is learning the concerti and more advanced repertoire, playing in chamber ensembles, and participating in regional and all-state orchestra events. It also is ideal for the pre-music major or even an undergraduate music education or performance major. 

For professionals, one can acquire a stick that caters to specific styles.  If you are a rock or jazz player and want power and resonance from the lower strings and stunning projection from the top end, a specific set of variables will help you achieve this.  For the professional orchestral player, chamber musician or soloist, exquisite handling and expressive sound once reserved only for the finest (and most expensive) master bows can be affordably achieved with intentional design.

Bow technology has come a long way in the past 30 years. I am so grateful for the many opportunities my parents provided me as a young music student and developing violinist. With that said, I am certain these technological advances would have significantly changed my performance experience at every level. Intentional design and the application of science to the art of bowed string performance is an incredible advancement. 

One word of caution. Not all carbon fiber bows are created equal. The time and effort taken to define these variables and implement them into bow construction changes everything. In other words, the material itself is not anything magical. It's how the material is used to build the bow and manipulate these four important variables. Trust the science. You will experience it in the feel and artistry of your playing and that of your students at every level.

My Codabow experience now spans over 25 years and I can truly say that my playing has benefitted immeasurably from playing these bows.  I play them exclusively on both my electric and acoustic violins and violas, and use them for every aspect of my musical life; playing contemporary styles, playing classical, indoor and outdoor gigs, teaching, demonstrating, and recording.  I recommend them for students and seasoned professionals.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

My Violin String Journey

I feel like today is a good day to just give a little bit of history of my experience with violin strings over the years. I began playing the violin in 1971. Strings for bowed instruments have changed quite a bit in the last 50 years. (It's hard to believe that it's been 50 years! I should probably celebrate the anniversary in some way.)

My first recollection of strings as an important component of my violin set-up and playing really goes back to the mid-1970s. As a young violin student, I am sure that I broke a string here or there and needed to learn how to change them. Learning to change strings was something that happened about the same time I learned to tune strings. It's hard to even remember the process of learning. I do remember that in the 70s, we used (Pirastro) gut strings. I remember that new A, D, and G strings took forever to stabilize once they were on the instrument. And, I remember that after a few months of wear and tear, I could see and feel the string beginning to degrade under my fingers. I was fascinated by the notion that there was some kind of organic gut material in the middle of the string. I also remember that the E string stabilized much quicker then the others.  I learned how to wind a perfect spiral up the peg and was pretty proficient at changing strings by the time I was 10 years old or so. 

I got my first full size violin when I was about 12 years old. That would have been around 1977. I remember learning about synthetic strings at about the same time. My teacher told me about the new material which was an important innovation and encouraged me to try Dominant strings right around that time. My first impression was that they stabilized so much faster. It didn't take three or four days for my strings to settle down. They would stay in tune within a couple hours of solid practice. I, like many other violinists of my generation, grew to trust Dominant strings and the innovation that they represented. I, like many other violinists, also learned that the Dominant E string probably wasn't going to do the job. I struggled with the E string whistle for several years and eventually switched back to the Gold Label E string as a compliment to the A, D, and G Dominant strings. This became my setup of choice for many years. Like most everyone else, I did this at my teacher's encouraging, and really never questioned the strings I was using.

Fast forward to the late 1990"s. I was doing extensive work with Zeta Music Systems, the electric violin company. As part of that work, I found myself frequently in the company of Sandy Neal, who worked as the Brand Manager of D'Addario Bowed Strings. I was familiar with D'addario as a guitar string company but didn't realize prior to that time that they were now designing and manufacturing strings for bowed instruments. Sandy encouraged me to try D'Addario Strings and sent me a couple sets to try. If I am being honest, I was very hesitant to try them. (How good could they possibly be? After all, D'addario is a guitar string company!) I remember putting the Helicore strings on my violin and immediately feeling good about their tone, stability, and reaction to my playing. 

Helicore violin strings are crafted with a multi-stranded steel core, resulting in optimal playability while producing a clear, warm tone. These strings are known for their quick bow response and excellent pitch stability, making them a go-to choice for players of all musical styles.

I also spent a good deal of time with D'addario Zyex strings on my violin.
Zyex violin strings are made from a a new generation of synthetic materials, which produce strings that are incredibly stable under drastic climatic conditions. Within a matter of hours, Zyex violin strings settle in on the instrument with a sound that is warmer than other synthetic core strings.

The Zyex strings were a little bit harsh on my violin and somewhat loud to my ear. Helicore, on the other hand, we're warmer and more subtle. They matched my style of playing and sounded great on my instrument. At some point, I settled on Helicore strings for my playing but I wasn't entirely happy with the E string. It had that same whistle as the Dominants and it didn't quite work for me. Within a few short years, D'Addario's non-whistling Kaplan E was introduced to the marketplace and it really did the job for me. I played Helicore strings with a Kaplan E for many years and really never looked back... until the introduction of D'addario's Kaplan Vivo strings. 

I liked D'addario Helicore's so much that I eventually (~2003) entered into an Artist/Educator agreement with D'addario and galvanized the relationship which has been so pivotal in my teaching career to this day.  Around 2015, I got a call from my friends at D'addario, encouraging me to give their new Kaplan Amo and Vivo strings a try and provide some feedback. 

Kaplan violin strings offer professional-level players an unprecedented combination of beauty and power in two options, Kaplan Amo and Kaplan Vivo. Kaplan Vivo delivers brilliance, clarity, and a robust feel for darker instruments. Kaplan Amo violin strings, on the other hand, provide warmth, richness, and flexibility for brighter instruments. These strings settle quickly, exhibiting a rich tonal color palette and superb bow response. 

My old German violin is certainly a darker instrument and the Kaplan Vivos really bring out it's wonderful character. It took me a while to get used to them, but I have grown to really love everything they offer me.

An important step in this process was gaining perspective of others in playing situations. I remember one day in particular that had a very strong impact on my decision. I play in my church very frequently. I have a dear friend, Leslie, who runs sound at the church. She has heard my violin for many years and knows the sound and character of the instrument. On the first day that I had the Kaplan Vivo strings on my violin, Leslie asked me if I had changed something on my violin. She told me that the instrument was cutting through the rest of the ensemble in a new and different way. She told me the sound was sweet and appealing, but different. That was a really encouraging comment and probably gave me the confidence to make the switch. She, a non-violinist, had noticed the upgrade. I felt really good about it.

After using Helicore's for nearly 20 years, this was a big change for me. But, the rich pallet of colors the Kaplan's offer, was a no-brainer change. I have fallen in love with these strings. 

I still recommend Helicore's for all of my students. And, in fact, I use Helicore's on all of my electric violins. But, for my acoustic instrument, the Kaplan Vivo is my string of choice. 

Choosing strings is a tricky process. It definitely takes time, patience, and a great deal of listening.  I had the sound of Dominant's under my left ear for nearly 20 years. Then, I had the sound of D'addario Helicore's under my left ear for another 20 years. Making a switch feels odd. My instrument truly does sound different (better) with Kaplans. I have been using the Kaplans now for about 2 years and absolutely love them. But, it wasn't instant. It took some time of playing with the strings and listening for their detail and characteristics.

Let me encourage you to spend some time with a variety of strings. I love D'Addario strings in every way. Helicore, Zyex, Kaplan Amo, and Kaplan Vivo provide an amazing array of tonal choices and variables. In the end, I always know that D'addario is doing everything in their power to provide an amazing string experience for players of every level. I have so much confidence in their products and recommend them without hesitation.

By the way, I have grown to trust D'Addario strings for all of my instruments. I used them exclusively on my electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitars, mandolins, viola, electric violins, and violins.