Monday, February 22, 2021

NAfME Orchestra Town Hall on Mission in Music Education

 I was recently quite honored to be involved in a NAfME town hall to discuss our "Mission" as instrumental educators.  The event was scheduled for Sunday, February 21st starting at 1:00pm (Pacific Time). 

The entire event was virtual and lasted a total of 2 hours. The first hour was a panel discussion  facilitated as a webinar. Attendees were encouraged to submit questions and comments through the chat feature.  In the second hour, everyone was able to join with their camera and microphones. The dialog was open to everyone in attendance! We continued with questions that were submitted during the panel and appropriately branch off into related topics fueled by the attendees. 

Following the event, the panelists were asked to submit some of our thoughts in writing.  I thought some of you may be interested as well. So, here are some of my responses from the Town Hall.

Why are missions/philosophies important in contemporary American Education? 

Missions and philosophies are important in contemporary American Education, in my opinion, for three specific reasons.  First, they provide individuals guidance for daily decisions and positions. When one is under pressure or faced with a difficult decision, core philosophies or missions serve as an important compass for thoughtful individuals.  They provide clarity in times of crisis. Next, they are an important factor in personal career and job fulfillment.  For me, approaching each day with a mission mentality is an important key to happiness, fulfillment, and a general air of positivity in my daily life. When I approach my tasks as a mission, there is a much greater purpose. Mission implies importance. Mission implies commitment. Mission speaks of doing something for the greater good which is much bigger than one's self.  Missions are honest and go beyond "chores or tasks" in our daily work. Finally, a sense of teacher mission can promote student buy-in and investment in the work and content of the course.  Students sense honesty.  Real learning isn’t about content delivery.  It is about modeling.  Our students are learning MUCH  more than our content every day in class.  

What is YOUR mission as a music educator?

At its core, my primary mission is to serve as a musical and personal model for students.  I seek to lead and serve in my every move as an instructor.  I seek to love and care for my students and colleagues on a daily basis.  But, in reality, my mission changes throughout the day.  I seek to serve students as an example of Artist/Educator and I seek to promote and articulate concepts in functional and creative musicianship every day. I seek to model as an example of the term “steadfast.” I try to “move with purpose” throughout the day and bring tasks to completion.  This goes hand in hand with my stated mission of “servant leadership.”  I seek to build healthy unwavering relationships and promote honest, unbiased communication.  Finally, another stated mission for me is to simply say “yes” to students whenever possible.

How do you craft your mission to best serve your community: what factors need to be considered, which factors are commonly overlooked? 

I believe clarity of mission develops over a number of years and with thoughtful consideration. Our longevity in career and expectations of our position can help to clarify our mission as well.  For me, early in my career, my mission was to become the best and most knowledgeable pedagogue I could possibly be.  In the end, I was developing the tools of teaching during  this time period. I was teaching in central Pennsylvania for 6 years and was charged with building a string program in my community.  The next phase of my career was about 10 years in suburban Washington DC. I stepped into a position where the expectation was strong string and orchestra ensembles.  So, my mission centered around conducting, building ensembles, and building community among my students. For the past 20 years I have been at the North Carolina School of Science and Math.  Here, my mission varies significantly.  I have many roles at my school and must nimbly move between them. I seek to serve as a model teacher, leader, colleague, mentor, and guide.  When I apply my priorities and philosophies to the practical responsibilities of my everyday work the mission develops.

How are models for instruction supported/limited by your mission?

There are so many examples of this.  The mission of modeling functional musicianship as an artist and articulating this as an educator guides virtually all of my pedagogy.  This is outlined in detail in Ensemble Musicians Taxonomy of Mental Habits on my blog, “Thoughts of a String Educator.”  I also believe that many of my models for instruction are supported by my mission to “Just say yes”, and “servant leadership.”  For example, I model performance practices all the time and frequently demonstrate on my instrument in class.  This is a direct reflection of a servant leadership model.  

Finally, I would love to share my recent blog post, "Mission Mentality" here as well. It was written just a few weeks before I was asked to serve on this panel. Some readers may find it interesting.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Trying To Be Better

As we start the second semester, I am coming off a period of reflection throughout the winter break and January term.  When we finished up the first semester of the school year, I felt quite good about the results of my planning and instruction throughout the fall. Teaching in this remote and hybrid environment is difficult. My Orchestra managed to put together some incredible virtual performances and, on the whole, I feel like I met the needs of my students. With that said, I know that I can be better. I have been reflecting on areas for improvement for the past two months or so and was able to outline some changes for the spring term to my Orchestra at our first rehearsal last Tuesday. I would like to share some of those changes today, in hopes that one or more of them may resonate with you or you may be compelled to consider how you can be better as well as we head into the spring.

First, many of you know that I have been creating audio guides for my students to use remotely in lieu of a conductor. To create these guides, I record all five parts of the string orchestra score using my electric violins. I have written and spoken about these guides extensively in the past. Even with the success of those guides, I have felt that I could probably do more. So, one of the changes I am making this term is, in addition to the full string orchestra audio guide with click track, I will be providing students with their individual part with click track. I am anxious to see how this impacts student performances. One or two students have already told me that there were sometimes rhythmic questions when they only heard the full ensemble audio guide.  The individual recorded parts will permit students to zero in on their part, associated styles, articulations, specific intonation, and other aspects of the piece. I will provide these at full tempo and at reduced tempi for further customized practice opportunities.

Another addition to my instructional model will be weekly videos outlining specific performance practices for the pieces we are learning and performing. Obviously, I gave this type of instruction through Zoom last semester. But, one would have had to dig through the Zoom recordings to find those specific instructions. This term, I will make a Youtube video for each voice in the Orchestra, outlining performance practice, dynamic considerations, tricky fingerings or passages, and potential use of essence for students who may not have the technical capabilities or confidence to fully perform a section or passage within the piece.

Another change or addition for second semester will be an increased live chamber experience for on-campus students during our Tuesday night rehearsal time. Due to the large size of our ensemble and the split nature of our rehearsals, I kept Tuesday nights as fully remote classes and group lessons. After some thoughtful conversations with our choral director, we decided to combine my string class and his choral class together in small chamber ensembles during our common Tuesday evening rehearsal time.  Singers will be masked with special singing masks and separated with plexiglass drum shields. The masked strings will double vocal parts. This will provide a small facsimile of the live ensemble rehearsal for small groups of students. We are hopeful that this opportunity to play and sing together will be meaningful for everyone.

Another change for this term will be a stronger plan for individualized performance and grading expectations. Last semester, I noticed a subset of the Orchestra did not complete all of the recorded performance expectations. Following my individual meetings with students, it became clear that some students felt overwhelmed as the semester went on. So, for this term, I will have a set of basic universal repertoire for everyone to learn and submit. This will include primarily Grade III and IV repertoire that is straightforward to learn and record. Then, there will be several additional, more challenging pieces which students can opt into playing. Following my individual meetings with students, I was pleased that about 75% of the orchestra indicated an interest in playing all of the repertoire. But, for the 25% that requested a lighter load, it is my pleasure to offer this alternative. Recording for a virtual ensemble experience can be stressful for some. I want to make sure that I honor these various levels of stress and the various amounts of time it may take for students of different playing levels to prepare a piece of music. This more individualized plan is a step in the right direction, I believe.

Finally, I intend to meet individually with each of my students more regularly this term. At the very least, I would like to have another 10 minute check-in at midterm and again at the end of the semester. As I indicated in my last post, these opportunities for personal interaction are invaluable.  

I believe each of these slight changes in my plan for the second semester will pay huge dividends.  What changes are you making as we begin the second semester? What worked during the first half of the year? What needs a little tweak? These are always important questions for us as teachers. I am certain that I will have new ideas as we finish this semester also. This is the beauty of teaching. We are never finished. We never have all the answers. I firmly believe that we can always do better. I invite you to consider these questions as well.

Here's to a great second semester and a great spring.


The 10-minute Check-In

At NCSSM, we have just completed the first week of the second semester. We continue to operate on a low density hybrid model during the pandemic. Students were remote this week but half of the student body will be returning to school today and stay for 5 weeks. At that point, they will go home and the other half of the student body will come to campus. Our first semester was quite successful from a health and program standpoint. I believe there was only one reported student case of Covid-19 throughout the fall among our student body and our administration is hopeful that, with our strong protocols, we can continue that positive trend.

Our first Orchestra meeting of the term was last Tuesday night. Class was largely administrative and organizational. While the students were fully remote for the week, I decided it would be a great idea to have a 10-minute check-in with each individual member of the Orchestra this week. I have about 40 members of the group right now and attrition was quite low from first to second semester. I count myself as fortunate.  I know the trends across the country have not been so positive. So, I created an asynchronous assignment for our remaining two classes of the week and scheduled individual meetings with each member of the orchestra during those class times. (This is one of the positive aspects of remote and hybrid teaching. I have such an incredible amount of control over the way I use my class time. This autonomy has proven to be quite beneficial in a number of cases. This week was certainly one of them.)

I have found these meetings to be wonderfully connective in our remote world. They have provided me an opportunity to ask students how they felt about first semester, their goals for second semester, ways that I can accommodate them individually, and also ask a little bit about their current stress and anxiety levels. 

I was quite pleased to learn that nearly everyone felt we did about the best we could during first semester. While not the same as actual Orchestra rehearsals, our virtual-orchestra format seemed to work for my students. They provided positive feedback on my approach, the tenor of the class meetings, musical instruction, and alternate assignments.  I asked each of them about their musical goals for second semester. I was pleased most had very lofty goals. Many seniors told me that the fall was full of stress for them due to college applications and they are looking forward to a stronger personal investment in Orchestra for the second semester. How great to hear that from them personally! 

I asked every one of them what I could do for them personally. Could I provide them more technique instruction? More musical challenges? Could I provide a more individualized plan for them? I really want each of them to know that I care about them personally and not just as one of a large group. Again, responses were generous. Most students felt that they are noticed and are cared for both musically and personally as part of the Orchestra. I was also pleased to learn that the orchestra community is strong. Many students told anecdotes of conversations between students after class about best practices for recording their part, practicing their part, and participation in this new orchestra format. This made me so happy. 

Perhaps the most important result of these meetings is simply personal connection. It was so great to share a smile with students whom I have grown to care for so deeply. I had the opportunity to ask about their winter break and J-term courses. Several students told me about their research and mentorship programs and other academic interests. I had the chance to ask seniors how their college application and acceptance process is going. Many juniors offered stories about research programs they have recently been accepted to. We also had a number of interesting conversations about the repertoire I selected for the fall and for the upcoming spring semester. Students offered feedback regarding the difficulty, diversity, and style of the pieces. It always makes me happy when students are thinking deeply about choices I make for the ensemble. This is clearly happening, even in the current remote and hybrid format of the NCSSM Orchestra.

In the end, these individual meetings will pay huge dividends for the musical community and musical product of our Orchestra this spring. I feel like each student was able to give me the feedback I need to be the best possible instructor at this time. I also truly believe that the personal connections that have developed between me and my students will will last well beyond their high school years. These are wonderful human beings who are on their way to great successes in many different fields. I am so honored to be their instructor and to provide them insights not only to orchestral music, but into a fulfilled life and career. My charge and mission is clear as their Orchestra director. I believe this to my core. And these individual meetings will only enhance the way I can connect with these students throughout the rest of the spring.

So, I encourage you to consider meeting with each of your students for a few minutes. Ask them how you have done so far this year. Trust me, it won't hurt. They appreciate your work. Ask them how you can serve them throughout the rest of this year. Again, the responses they will give you will be thoughtful and much deeper than you expect. Ask them where they would like to improve. My guess is they have a strong concept of their areas of strength and weakness both personally and musically. Finally, ask them about something unrelated to your class. Ask about college applications, current successes, recent disappointments, and anything else that they may care about. That note of personal connection in this time of separation might just be what they need today. 

Let's all keep going. You've got this.



Thursday, December 31, 2020

Mission Mentality

Today is the last day of 2020. Obviously, it's been a challenging year for everyone. There have been huge health challenges for so many people across the world, income and economic challenges for workers, teaching challenges for folks in education, learning challenges for students across the world, social, racial, and political division and mistrust, and certainly emotional challenges that accompany all of these for folks in so many ways. 

Our world is in desperate need of healing. And, individuals are in desperate need of direction, purpose, and peace. This has been the topic of many conversations for me in recent days and weeks. and I would like to share just a couple of thoughts as we move into 2021.

I will begin with a quick story about my college age son. He is currently a sophomore at the University of North Carolina and has experienced his own challenges with the pandemic and all the uncertainty which accompanies it. Last year, as a freshman, he made the decision to become a leader in the Young Life program. As a Young Life leader, he is tasked with leading Young Life activities and club meetings at a regional high school. In addition, he will forge relationships with the high school students who attend the meetings and endeavor to be a positive role model in their lives. The Young Life leaders at his high school were very good to him and he is giving back in a similar way. During his freshman year, when he was deciding if this was a good activity for him, we had quite several deep conversations. At one point, he told me that when you are a Young Life leader, you wake up every day asking yourself, "How can I care for someone else today?" I have thought about that quite a bit over the past year or so. I am not sure that I could have said that when I was 20 years old. That is a pretty cool daily mission for a college sophomore.

My wife has been listening to a the Spotify Daily Quote recently which  encourages folks to consider a quote and then expands on that quote to some extent. Recently, the quote of the day was from reggae rapper, Bad Bunny. While the quote itself doesn't have strong application to my thoughts today, the insights that followed the quote precipitated some interesting thoughts for my wife. In the pandemic environment, we like so many others have been home constantly. So many of the daily tasks have become repetitive, mundane, and at times laborious. The one that is hit her hardest has been cooking for our high school senior son. He is an athlete and on a special high protein diet to build muscle and strength. In support of that diet, my wife finds herself making baked chicken, roasted sweet potatoes, and white rice every day. His diet involves five meals a day and the work to keep this specific food available to him is never ending. It could easily become a very negative chore on her list. She was explaining to me that it is so much more positive to view this to-do list as an opportunity, rather than a chore. She mentioned to me that the concept of chores was strong in her home growing up. And, it is so much more enjoyable to accomplish things, rather than simply complete chores. Her mission, in this task of cooking, is to support our son's athletic goals. Viewing those darn sweet potatoes as part of a mission is a much healthier way to approach the task.

I feel like I have been fairly successful in this pandemic environment.  I have been able to maintain a positive attitude, starting each day with a sense of joy. The word I have used with regards to my work over the years is mission, which brings me to the point of this essay. For me, approaching each day with a mission mentality is an important key to happiness, fulfillment, and a general air of positivity in my daily life. When I approach my tasks as mission, there is a much greater purpose. Mission implies importance. Mission implies commitment. Mission speaks of doing something for the greater good which is much bigger than one's self. I believe that we can find mission in virtually every move we make during the day. 

When I was a young man, I had an awesome job at a local jewelry store in Indiana, PA. My work at the store began as simply a way to make a little bit of extra money. I learned how to engrave jewelry, do basic bookkeeping, and greet the public on the floor of the store. But, after a period of time, the work at the store became more of a mission. I became much more committed to my close friend who managed the store, the ownership, and most importantly, to the mission of providing folks with friendly service, reliable quality, and a trusted voice in their purchases. I developed a true loyalty to the mission of the store and developed deep relationships with the folks that taught me about the business. I approached my job with a mission mentality.

As I finished up college and began my teaching career, my first teaching opportunity was in Palmyra Pennsylvania. I have written about it before, so I won't spend too much time on that work here. But, suffice it to say, that I approached that work with a mission mentality. The string program was quite small when I arrived at the school and I was challenged to develop the string program for the school district. I had a mission. It was clear. I committed to it fully and spent six years giving all of myself to that mission. (As a sidebar, I was having a conversation with my son about success in the workplace yesterday. I told him that I really believe that early in one's career, you must commit fully and be willing to put in long hours, hard work, and not be concerned about work-life balance so much. It's really not a popular stance in today's society, but in 1987 that was the way we did things. It was the era of the yuppie, long hours, and getting ahead quickly. I think this was seminal to my commitment to mission mentality.) My mission at Palmyra was successful and other opportunities came quickly. I had a similar experience at Eleanor Roosevelt high School and spent nine years there pursuing my mission before coming to the North Carolina School of Science and Math.

In the ensuing 20 years at NCSSM, my mission has changed from time to time. Most recently, I have been named Fine Arts Chair for the Durham and Morganton campuses. This is a new mission for me and I'm really excited about whatever the future holds. We are currently in the process of hiring administrators for the new school in Morganton and I am also happy to be guiding two new music faculty members through their transition into our school environment in Durham. I have a mission.

Obviously, the mission changed in March of 2020. Suddenly, the mission was to keep engaging students in Orchestra and music while caring for them as individuals through the two-dimensional Zoom environment. It is a tricky mission. And, throughout that time, to continue to support my other Fine Arts colleagues, advance the school’s mission, and navigate all of the stresses that go with working from home, family trials and tribulations throughout the pandemic environment, and personal emotional ups and downs. But, the great thing about having a mission is that one bad day doesn't change the mission. In fact, in some ways, it can galvanize one's resolve to do better in the future. That has certainly been the case for me. I have found that my failures of today become my challenges for tomorrow. This is the essence of mission mentality. 

So, I challenge you today to consider what is your mission? What is your purpose? What do you hold in highest importance in your tasks throughout the day? 

I believe there can be multiple answers to these questions. Some days, my mission is in family matters. I work to be a good example to my kids, a partner to my wife, and a helper wherever possible. Other days, my mission is in my art. I am practicing, writing new music, recording audio guides for my students, generating blog or video content, and other artistic endeavors. On the other days, I am a colleague, a teacher, a friend, a student, a son. Yet, in all these rolls, I can have a mission mentality. These roles and accompanying tasks are important to me. I approach them with purpose. And, I try to approach them with joy and good humor. As I often say in this blog, I am not perfect. I don't always achieve my goals. Sometimes, I lose sight of my sense of mission. Sometimes the tasks in front of me simply become chores. Those are my worst days. They are the days that I feel unfulfilled, unhappy, or downright depressed. So, I try to keep the days I lose sight of my mission to an absolute minimum.

Let me encourage you today to find your mission. It requires some deep thought.  What do you hold as truly important - so important that you are willing to dedicate your time, your heart, and thoughts. What is your true purpose? Certainly there are multiple answers to these questions.  You are likely doing many of these things already. But, are you committed to them as your mission?  Perhaps 2021 is your opportunity to refocus or refine your sense of mission. Even the exercise of putting my thoughts in writing today has provided that opportunity for me. I wish all of you the very best as we move into 2021 and the continuation of the academic year. I know that so many of us are growing weary of distance learning and the pandemic environment. Hang in there! You have a mission. You can do this! 



Thursday, October 29, 2020

A Letter to My Orchestra Students

As we are winding down the month of October, in the midst of a pandemic and hybrid teaching and learning, I am compelled, this morning, to write a letter to my students. I certainly hope that they have a sense of how much I miss regular orchestra rehearsals and our music department environment. Hopefully, this letter will say a little bit of what I am feeling today.

Dear Orchestra Students, 

Hey folks. I wanted to drop you a note today just to get a few things off of my chest. Rehearsals are so fast and feel so distant as a result of masks, zoom, some folks in the room and others across the state of North Carolina and a general environment that is strange and different. This feels like the best forum to say a few words as we are closing in on the end of our first semester.

First, I know I probably don't have to say this, but I am sorry. I am sorry that we all find ourselves in this situation. I am sorry that I can't provide a more authentic orchestra experience for each of you. You seniors deserve better. There are so many strong leaders in the room and you deserve a real senior year orchestra experience. You juniors deserve better, too. You came to NCSSM with an expectation of a high-level orchestra experience and in many ways I just feel that I can't provide that. I know it's not my fault, but I want you to know that I am sorry.

I truly wish that we could play the great orchestral repertoire that I try to program every year. We are so handcuffed by the hybrid environment. I wish that each of you could feel the amazing wave of sound that washes over each of us during rehearsals and performances. I wish that you could get chills down the back of your neck as we make a great release or an amazing crescendo together. I wish that we could share smiles without masks in between our faces. I wish that you could have the experience of interacting with me and each other as thinking, caring, feeling musicians. And, I wish that we could share our common love for music, the arts, and expression together in an orchestra, the way we are used to doing.

I wish each of these things, but I am also aware that they probably aren't coming back this year. We are in a pattern that probably isn't going to change in the next few months and that makes me sad.

So, even though I am so sorry about these things. I want to be sure that you know what I am trying to do as part of the orchestra and our class each day. I want you to know that I will not give up. I want you to know that there are very clear goals for me and for us as an ensemble. I am truly trying to provide orchestral playing concepts and help you galvanize beliefs about string technique, orchestral playing, and the ensemble environment. I am truly trying to help you expand your knowledge of strings, repertoire, and orchestral playing. I am truly trying to keep class fun, informative, and interactive. I am trying to individualize and provide more advanced experiences for some and more rudimentary experiences for others.  I really don't want to stress you out. I really don't want to give you too much to do. I simply want to keep music as part of your life on a daily basis. I want to keep the beauty of orchestral music and the inspiration of playing your instrument as part of a large ensemble part of your experience at NCSSM. 

So, in short, please hang in there with me. It is my goal that we keep your hands on an instrument throughout your time at NCSSM. I truly hope that Orchestra provides you with a little break in the otherwise crazy busy schedule of NCSSM.  I truly hope that you find your friends and community in and around the orchestra. I truly hope that you find my smile and positive attitude to be an outpost in the midst of an otherwise uncertain and unstable world in which we live.

Please know how very much I care for each and every one of you. I care about your musical development. I care about your personal happiness. And I truly care about your time at NCSSM. 

I certainly know that creating virtual ensembles is not the same as a true orchestral experience. But, you are doing a great job with it. I am so pleased with your attitude and your commitment to the cause. Let's finish this semester strong. And we will continue to do all we can to lead and express through the arts and orchestra at NCSSM for the rest of this school year.


S Laird

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.