Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Orchestra is My Favorite Class

This week, my son started middle school. He is 11 years old and in the 6th grade. He has been so excited to get started and finally, the big day came on Monday. I thought about him all day as imagined what kind of exciting things must be going on for him. Did he get lost in the hallways? Was he late to any classes? Did he like his teachers?

He called me as soon as he got home from school on Monday. It had been a great day! The first things I heard about were the larger portions of food in the cafeteria than the elementary school had. And choices! He had Salisbury steak and rice! Yum! Also, the locker was a big deal. He mastered the art of opening a combination lock on day 1.

But the kicker was this one. I asked what his favorite class was. He immediately responded, "Oh that's easy. Orchestra." Well, wasn't I proud. Of course it was orchestra. So, I decided to press on a bit. "Why?" I asked. "Because the teacher let me go to the restroom without a hall pass!"

Here we go. Middle School is upon us. I really used to feel like I understood the kid. But, if I have learned anything as a teacher in the last 20 plus years, I know this. The next couple of years will be an adventure. For him and for me. Bring it on. Let's have this adventure together!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Cycling to Make a Difference

This fall, I am, once again, riding in the MS Bike Tour to raise funds for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Many of you know that about 3 years ago, I started at bike team at the NC School of Science and Math as part of that effort. Over the past 3 years, our team has raised over $30,000.00 for the MS society and over 75 students, parents and faculty members have gotten involved. This year, Team NCSSM will have team members at two different MS rides. One is in the Greensboro, NC area (Tour to Tanglewood) on September 6-7 and the other is in New Bern, NC on September 13-14. I will be riding in both of these events.

As many of you know, MS has touched my family and we have certainly benefited from the ongoing research that is supported by fund raisers such as the MS Bike Tour. About 10 years ago, shortly after my oldest son was born, my wife began having trouble with her vision. She was quickly diagnosed with MS and we found ourselves completely unsure of exactly what that meant for her longterm health, our "plans" for more children and our future as a family. Over the past 10 years, Barbra has been fortunate to have very few major difficulties and our family life has remained vibrant, exciting, and healthy. We now have 3 sons and you would never know that Barbra had MS to see her. We feel very blessed to be in this situation. Not all MS patients are so fortunate. Much of that health that Barbra enjoys can be attributed to the medications that she takes (Beta Seron) and the research that is ongoing in the area of Multiple Sclerosis. I can tell you first hand that the MS medications that have been developed in the past 10 years have done wonders for folks that are afflicted with the disease. Beta Seron wasn't around when Barbra was initially diagnosed.

Initially, as the spouse, I felt very helpless. I knew that I would support her in whatever she encountered. (Although, I didn't really know what that might be.) But, there wasn't much else that I could do. A former student, who was an avid mountain biker, came to me and told me that he wanted to ride in an MS 150 bike tour in support of Barbra. I had never done any distance riding at that point, but I had a bike and felt like that was something that I could do. I knew how to ride a bike and at least I would be doing something. Students and parents from my former school stepped up and that spring, with their support, I raised over $5000 and rode in the event with my friend and former student, Mike Gray. I remember that we were riding mountain bikes with knobby tires that made a loud whirring sound as we flew down the road and all of the road cyclists kept remarking about our overall speed and determination. I think I had tears in my eyes for well over half of that ride. I can't tell you how important that ride was to me as the husband of a newly diagnosed MS patient. Over the years, I have participated in at least one MS Bike Tour event every summer and sometimes two or three. I have graduated to road cycling as well as mountain biking and have logged thousands of miles over the years.

This post is not intended to be a request for donations. I simply want you know know about the efforts and the background behind my commitment to the MS Bike Tours. Of course, if you want to donate, you are welcome to do so through the linked pages and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. If your are interested in tracking my progress with fund raising or the efforts of Team NCSSM, I have a separate page for each of the events in which I am riding. Our team page is linked to my personal pages. They are:
Many of you have contributed to this effort in the past and I so appreciate your ongoing support.
I am so excited to be riding with students at NCSSM. It is my mission to get them involved in supporting the National MS Society and introducing them to the joys and health of cycling. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to e-mail me or comment on this post and I will occasionally be posting notes about my training and the events here.
Thanks to all of you for your continued support and friendship and your support for the MS Society.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Don Houpe

Today, I found out that my friend and colleague at NCSSM, Don Houpe, passed away last night. Don taught Spanish and French as well as Esperanto at NCSSM. He was also the Foreign Language Coordinator for the school. Don was a wonderful man and exceptional teacher in so many ways. He had a gentle manner and always had a pleasant word in the hallway. Everyone that knew Don, loved him. He was sort-of an old school guy in all the best ways. He loved his students and his subject matter. He was a great role model for me as a teacher. He was dedicated to this institution and proud of the folks that he worked with. He also loved music and loved to discuss various composers and musical experiences. I think he was partial to Strauss.

I had the pleasure of sitting down to breakfast with Don last Friday. We had a great conversation about the past summer and the upcoming school-year. I am glad that we spent that time together.

Last spring, Don need to have an audio cassette transferred to CD. I ran into him in the library, trying to figure out the computer set-up in there. He wasn't going to ask me to do the transfer for him. He never would. Fortunately, I had a little bit of time and offered to take it over to my office and take care of it. Don really appreciated it and came over while I was doing some of the work. We chatted for quite some time about his house in Virginia, Esperanto, the upcoming summer, and life at NCSSM. I will cherish the memories that I have of Don. He was a wonderful man and a true role model.

I hope that you all have a Don Houpe in your life at some point. If you do, tell them that you appreciate them. Life is fleeting. Take the time to be a friend now. You don't always get to do it tomorrow.


First Day of Class

Today was the first day of class for the 2008-2009 NCSSM Orchestra. It is a great group of students that all seem eager to get started. I love the first day. It is filled with anticipation of the work that is ahead of us and the great fun of meeting each other for the first time. One might think that I, as the conductor would talk about the literature that we are going to play, our rehearsal and seating procedures, and various other "orchestra" topics. But, no. Today, I went philosophical on them right from the beginning.

Back in February, I spoke to a group of orchestra teachers at a conference in Albuquerque. Following my session, one of the attendees came up and enthusiastically recommended that I read the book, Better, A Surgeon's Notes on Performance, by Atul Gawande. I read the book this summer and loved many of the concepts that were presented. Since I teach at the NC School of Science and Math and many of my students will find themselves in the medical field following graduation, I thought that starting the year in orchestra with a book by a surgeon about medicine might surprise inspire them.

At the end of the book, Gawande offers 5 suggestions for making a worthy difference. I decided to challenge my students with his suggestions. They are:
1. Ask an unscripted question
2. Don't complain
3. Count something
4. Write something
5. Change

Let me say a few words about each of these as they apply to my student and the NCSSM Orchestra.

1. Ask an unscripted questions. Think about everything that you do in orchestra. Ask the question that others haven't thought of. Don't just sit back and let the information come to you. But, instead, be proactive in your thought Be unique in your thought. Be inquisitive in all that you do. Ask the unscripted questions every day.

2. Don't complain. Instead, work to make things better. Nobody wants to hear me complain. And, nobody wants to hear you complain. Instead, work to change the tide. Work to make things better.

3. Count something. Be a scientist in all that you do. Don't let opportunities to find trend pass you by. If today you missed 5 of the c naturals in a passage, tomorrow only miss 4. Count something.

4. Write something. Back in 1988, noted string educator Jacqueline Dillon told me that the way to have impact in the field of string education boiled down to one word. Write. Share your ideas. Write something that is creative. Start a blog? Just write something! Her advise to me has carried me in many ways to this point in my career. I really do believe she was right. Gawande must know the same thing. I want my students to know it, too.

5. Change. Be willing to try new things. Try new music, new styles, new practice methods. Just be willing to change. Be the first one to change, too. Don't be the skeptic. Be the front runner. if it doesn't work, it isn't the end of the world. Just be willing to change and look for opportunities to change.

So, there you go. That, in a nutshell, was the first day of class for the 2008-2009 NCSSM Orchestra. I think they get it. Do you?


Saturday, August 16, 2008

New Beginnings

I spent the morning weloming new students to NCSSM on "Jr. Move-In Day." It was great to be the first person to greet the vanloads of Moms, Dads, students, brothers, sisters, and in some cases, more relatives as they pulled onto the NCSSM campus to begin their new life there. Some folks were visibly nervous, others emotional. Everyone was excited at the prospect of things to come in the new school-year. There were definitely tons of musicians filing into the dorms. Of course, that made me happy! It was also a new beginning for some of the faculty at NCSSM. My new colleague in the music department was there to help with the move-in as well. It was great to see him meeting that new 11th grade band students with whom he will be working. At the end of the morning, he told me he "sure was having fun!" What more could I ask for? It is going to be a great year.

While I was at NCSSM welcoming in the new students, my wife and kids were at my kindergartener's preschool, picking up pinecones and participating in the annual "clean-up day" before school starts. He can't wait to get started! I have a 2nd grader that can't wait to find out who his new homeroom teacher and soccer coach will be. This afternoon, my 11 year old son received his team and class assignments in the mail today as he prepares for his first year of middle school. We looked over his classes, called friends to compare team assignments, and made carpool arrangments.

I think this is one of the reasons that I love teaching so much. I love the new beginnings. The year is filled with possibilities. Anything can happen. And, today, as we anticipate the new school-year, all we can imagine are the great experiences that everyone will have. What music will we program this year? Who will be in his classes? How many wins will we have? What great new concepts will fill up our minds and hearts?

I sure had fun today. It was great to meet so many nice families. I will certainly do my best to help fulfill the promise of this new beginning for the students at my school and for the kids in my family. I hope we can all keep this day in mind throughout the school-year. It was a good one!


Thursday, August 14, 2008

So much to admire, so much to learn

Tonight, in the Olympic broadcast, Bob Costas said, "Even though our countries have fundamental differences, there is so much to admire in the people of China and so much to learn from them."

What an important statement with broad implications. Even though groups of people may have fundamental differences, there is always something to admire. There is always something to learn from each other. Wouldn't the world be a better place if we could always keep that in mind? Wouldn't we better teachers if we could always keep that in mind? Better friends. Better citizens. Better community members. Better people.


Sunday, August 10, 2008

Cycling makes me better

Ok - lets get this out of the way- I am not fast. At least by cycling standards I am not fast. By non cycling standards, I am fine. I just got home from a fantastic 27 mile ride. It is a beautiful Sunday afternoon and I can't think of a better way to spend some of it. I averaged about 16 mph today and that is a really good day for me when riding alone.

I just love what riding provides for me. Obviously, it is great exercise and it definitely makes me feel a little better about that dish of ice cream that I am sure I will have later today. But, there is so much more to it.

I love the personal challenges that it provides me. I love hills and the challenge of not down-shifting too early. The idea is to maintain your power and speed as long as possible before down-shifting and, ultimately, slowing down when ascending hills. It takes a great deal of willpower not to down-shift too early. But, if you can focus on maintaining your speed and power long enough, hills become less daunting and your goal (the top of the hill) is attained with significantly less pain and suffering! There are great lessons to be learned on hills that pertain to so much of life.

Another great benefit for me is the time alone with my thoughts that an hour or two on a bike provides. I spend so much of my life "switched on" while working with students that it is just great to get on the bike and just think for a while. This morning, our pastor encouraged us to consider the landmarks of faithfulness in our lives. That is, the places that we can encounter God's grace in our lives. For me, my bike is that place. On my bike, I am able to appreciate the beauty of the world around me: the wind, sun, rain, grass, trees, winding roads, beautiful homes. I could go on and on. In this environment, I can be thankful, meditative, prayerful, reflective, reverent, and even creative. Yes - in many ways, my bike is a landmark of faithfulness in my life.

Finally, when I get home after a great ride, I am better. I have more focus and concentration. I am happier and generally more positive. I pay better attention to my kids. I am more attentive to my wife. I feel better. Yesterday and the day before, I spent about 13 hours in a state music educator's association board meeting. Don't get me wrong, the work that we do is important. But, afterwards, I felt terrible. Today, I got on my bike and rode away that 13 hours. I just feel so much better.

Recently, my sister and her daughters have started cycling. I am so proud of her and the girls. She called me a few days ago and told me how much fun they are having and how good this new activity has been for them. I hope that they can find some of the enjoyment and enrichment that I find on a bike. I think they are on their way.

So, if you are considering it, do it. Buy a used bike. Start out slow. Ride around the block. You don't need to break any records. But, trust me when I tell you. Cycling makes me better. Maybe it will make you better, too!


I love the Olympics!

How exciting!
The competition is fantastic. The background stories are inspirational. We can all learn something about perseverance, dedication, commitment to excellence, and true performance from these athletes. Another thing that I love about the Olympics is that, at least on the surface, it isn't about money. I watched the three fencers on the medal stand last night and realized that in all likelihood, they won't be on the a Wheaties box next month. Nor will they make a living in the sport of fencing. They have simply committed to excellence in their area of interest for an intense and extended period of time and they will carry the experience with them for the rest of their lives. It will permeate its way into everything that they do from now on. They will be goal-setters, hard workers, and high achievers at work and at play because they have experienced the results of these traits in a tangible way.

I wish the same for my students. It is my mission to provide them the opportunity to be achievers. It isn't easy. They need to know that great accomplishments only come through great sacrifice. And, that there is always something to be gained by striving for excellence, regardless of the potential financial gain at the end of the line. These are difficult lessons to learn, to internalize. If I am being honest, they are lessons that I need to continue to learn on a daily, weekly, monthly basis.

So, it is great to have the Olympics in my living room for a period of time. I am inspired by these athletes in so many ways. I think I'll go for a bike ride.....


Saturday, August 9, 2008

Getting Started

Hi all.
I am just getting started with this. I am totally looking forward to the beginning of the upcoming school year and posting my thoughts on teaching, learning, and music on this space. Please check back often.