Saturday, August 29, 2009

Teaching the Nitty-Gritty: Who Has Time for Anything More?

I am happy to announce that I will be participating on a wonderful panel discussion at the 2009 Midwest Clinic in Chicago in December. My dear friend, composer and educator Doris Gazda, will be leading this discussion on the orchestra classroom and the prioritization of activities and techniques. I am honored to be part of this panel and am really looking forward to the discussion. If you are planning on being at the Midwest Clinic, I hope you will check this session out!!

For those of you that aren't in the Music Education field, The Midwest Clinic exists for educational purposes exclusively; to raise the standards of music education; to improve the methods employed in music education; to develop new teaching techniques; to disseminate to school music teachers, directors, supervisors, and others interested in music education information to assist in their professional work; to examine, analyze and appraise literature dealing with music; to hold clinics, lectures, and demonstrations for the betterment of music education; and in general, to assist teachers and others interested in music education in better pursuing their profession. It is one of the biggest gatherings of music educators nationally each year and always a blast!

Here are the details:

Clinician Name(s): Doris Gazda, Scott Laird, Sean O'Loughlin, Matt Turner, Larry Clark

Clinic Title: Teaching the Nitty-Gritty: Who Has Time for Anything More?

Clinic Synopsis:
What is the most important ground to cover in terms of technique and literature? What are the best ways to enrich traditional skills? How many alternative styles should you add to a program? At what level of instruction do we have time to make use of the numerous enrichment resources available? This session will answer these questions and provide an overview and evaluation of the many facets of teaching, offering various ways for teachers to place all opportunities in manageable perspective.

What is the target audience for this clinic? Instrumental teachers at all levels of instruction.

What will the audience take away from this clinic? A better sense of what should be essential in curriculum, tips for better time management, and the knowledge that good curriculum incorporates as many different styles of music as time will allow.

What is included in the handout?
A full outline of the clinic’s topics and discussions for reference, helpful classroom tips, and a list of suggested resources.

Is there anything else you would like attendees to know about this clinic?
Attendees will be afforded the unique experience of a panel discussion between respected teachers, editors, and composers from varied and prestigious backgrounds.

Biographical Information:
String educator/composer Doris Gazda, string educator/clinician Scott Laird, orchestral/band composer and conductor Sean O’Loughlin, improvisational cellist and jazz/composition educator Matt Turner, and educator/composer/Carl Fischer Music Vice President Editor-in-Chief Larry Clark join in a riveting panel discussion about the essentials of a dynamic music program.

Sponsor: Carl Fischer Music


Friday, August 28, 2009

What are YOU going to do?

The second week of school is almost over and it has certainly been a fantastic start to the school-year. My classes and students are wonderful and I am really pleased with the prospects for the academic year. My Classical Piano and guitar classes and full and the students are right into the swing of things. My Music History class is a bit smaller than usual (10 students), but they are really into it and are offering thoughtful preparation and responses to the music that is discussed. My orchestra is as big as it has ever been at NCSSM (55 strings) and is already producing a wonderful sound.

Early in the year, I like to really challenge the orchestra members to consider why they are participating in the ensemble and to reevaluate their commitment to their art and their instrument.

At NCSSM, many students are driven by grades. The students are high achievers and have spent a lifetime working to get A's in class. Orchestra is a little different animal. Of course, I have a very clear set of course expectations and grading policy which I outline for the students on the first day of class. Everyone understands the expectations and the vast majority of the students earn A's in Orchestra. I suspect that this is the case in most public school and university orchestras as well. The students want to be there, they want to receive an A, so they fulfill the requirements.

But, for an arts class, that seems a bit hollow to me. It has bothered me for years, to be honest. Don't we really want our arts students to be invested at a much deeper level that simply meeting the baseline expectations that are outlined in a grading policy?

This notion was driven home for me a few years ago while reading "The Art of Possibility" by Ben and Rosamund Zander. (If you haven't read it, I recommend it highly. I'll try to remember to write another post that covers more of the ideas in the book at a later time.) In one chapter, Zander outlines an exercise where he asks students to write him a letter detailing what they intend to do for their A, as well as what they intend to invest and hope to gain from the course. It is a marvelous and inspiring chapter and I decided to adopt a modified version of his idea in my class. I still have the course expectations, but ask the students to take it one step further and to write me a letter about their self-expectations for the course, explaining in more detail what they plan to invest, techniques they hope to develop, ideas they hope to gain, and experiences they hope to have.

This has turned out to be a wonderful activity in my class. Many students write deeply personal letters to me, detailing their reasons for playing their instrument, struggles they have had, anxieties that they ahve regarding orchestra, and unbelievable expectations that they have for themselves and their colleagues. I get to know my students in a much different way by doing this activity and it provides me incredible insight into the individuals in the ensemble. (Let me also be totally honest and say that not every students gets it. Some provide a very basic letter that doesn't really get into these details and seems more like an assignment than a heartfelt letter to me. But, this is the minority.)

I have been receiving and reading these letters this week and it has been and incredible experience. As you probably know, if you have been reading my blog, I believe in community first. Strong communities make strong orchestras. It has been clear to me in reading the letters this year, that my message is getting through to my students. I am hearing this in many ways from many of my students. I would like to share an excerpt of one such letter with you. It moved me tremendously and I don't believe that I could say it any better.

Dear Mr. Laird,

It’s hard for me to articulate exactly what my expectations are for orchestra at NCSSM this year. I could say that I expect dedicated classmates who care about our ensemble and our community, but I couldn’t really imagine a more committed and hard-working group of musicians than the ones we have at NCSSM. I realize that the orchestra as a whole will exceed any expectations I might have. So, as the year begins, I have found it more appropriate to address certain expectations I have for myself, in the hope that I may live up to the standards of musicianship and community set by both you and my fellow orchestra members.

1. I expect myself to love playing in the orchestra.
Though I am far from being an advanced player, I have been blessed with the opportunity to play in some amazing orchestras. More than anything, playing in the Eastern Regional Orchestra, my Youth Orchestra at home, and the NCSSM Orchestra has shown me what a joy it is to create music with good musicians. I have neither the talent nor the ambition to be a soloist, but I have found that there is nothing better than making beautiful music with a group of my peers and being a part of something so much bigger than myself. To truly love and appreciate this, though, a few things are required of me:

One, I have to practice. I remember realizing something so simple yet so profound last year: I enjoy orchestra rehearsal when I have practiced the music, and I hate it when I have not. To truly love playing in an ensemble, I have to feel like a contributing member. When I am stumbling through passages as a result of not practicing, I cannot take pleasure in rehearsing.

Two, I have to be focused and play musically. I must have good posture, pay attention to dynamics, and watch the conductor. I must actively count. I must listen to the ensemble as a whole. Simply playing notes will get boring all too quickly. To love playing, I have to be truly engaged in the music and in the sound being produced by the group.

2. I expect myself to love my fellow orchestra members. This year, I have the responsibility to help create the community that you were talking about on the first day of class. I expect myself to be an encourager, a listening ear, and a friend to the rest of the orchestra. I expect myself to love much and love well. I will have wasted my time in orchestra this year if I play every note correctly but fail to love the people around me.

I am looking forward to a great year in orchestra!

This is my hope for all of my students and yours!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

I have been thinking a great deal lately about how I want to frame the upcoming year in the NCSSM Orchestra. As you can see from my last post, in the 2008-2009 school year, I had a wonderful book and concept to work with and I referred back to it all year. I have been mulling this over a great deal lately and tonight I found my framework for the year. I am getting a bit tired tonight,so I will expand on this more tomorrow but, I will begin to set it up tonight.

Many of you know that I have been working my way through Daniel Barenboim's latest book, Music Quickens Time. It is heady read and I have really been taking my time with it. I have re-read most chapters before moving on to the next and have been trying to take some time to think about the concepts presented before just moving on to the next chapter. Tonight, I found my framework for the year in orchestra in Chapter 4 of this thought-provoking book.

Tonight, I will give you these three concepts: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. We will be looking at these ideas as they relate to the musical endeavors of the orchestra and as they relate to the community of the orchestra. I encourage you to think about these three ideas and their relationships. Can EQUALITY exist without LIBERTY? Can FRATERNITY exist without EQUALITY? How can music demonstrate this? How can an orchestral community find meaning in this? I spend a great deal of time thinking of the orchestra as a community and, really, isn't a community a fraternity. If so, can the community of the orchestra exist without Liberty and Equality? And don't liberty and equality ultimately lead to Fraternity or the community of the orchestra? How does all of this apply to the music... to the literature?

Liberty identifies the condition in which an individual (musical line) has the right to act according to his or her own will. Classical liberal conceptions of liberty relate to the freedom of the individual from outside compulsion or coercion.

Equality is a state of affairs in which all people within a specific society or isolated group (or musical lines and ideas) have the same status in a certain respect.

A fraternity (Latin frater : "brother") is a brotherhood, though the term usually connotes a distinct or formal organization. I often refer to the orchestra as a community. Fraternity works just as well.

I believe that there is much for use to explore here. More to come on this later.

These (and other ideas from the book) will become our framework for the year. Should be fun!


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Better and Orchestra

The following is a reprint of my post from August 20, 2008. Since that time, the book, Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance, by Atul Gawande, was selected to be the summer reading for the NCSSM Community. For my students, this may be a good time to revisit some of my ideas and for the new members of the NCSSM Orchestra community, this will be an interesting way to get the year started. Enjoy!

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 question. 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?


Thursday, August 6, 2009

Orchestral Seating Arrangements

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from an old friend with a question about orchestral seating arrangements. I wrote a rather extensive response and thought that some of you may be interested in my thoughts. So, I have copied it below. I welcome your comments.

Hey Scott! I hope that you are enjoying your summer. I have a question and I thought that maybe you'd have some good input. Can you shed some light on the various orchestra string arrangements? I've been having long discussions about it and I would like some more input. What I mean by that is I see the following set ups and I would like your input.





I have actually tried all of these. I think they can all be effective in various settings.

The following is from the Wikipedia Entry on String Orchestra Seating:
The most common seating arrangement is with first violins, second violins, violas and cellos clockwise around the conductor, with basses behind the cellos on the right.[2] In the 19th century it was standard[3] to have the first and second violins on opposite sides (violin I, cello, viola, violin II), rendering obvious the crossing of their parts in, for example, the opening of the finale to Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony.

If space or numbers are limited, cellos and basses can be put in the middle, violins and violas on the left (thus facing the audience) and winds to the right; this is the usual arrangement in orchestra pits.[4] The seating may also be specified by the composer, as in Béla Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta which uses antiphonal string sections, one on each side of the stage.

I have reverted to the traditional 1st-2nd-Vla-Cello at this point in my conducting life - most because I have a set of gestures that seem to be most effective with that set up.

Having 2nds on the left outside seems to bring them into a more prominent role, but the downside is that they are sort-of set up for their sound to go backwards into the stage. It is good, however to get the fundamentals that are being played by cello/bass into the middle of the orchestra. Everyone seems to tune differently/better with them in there.

The other set up - with the violas on the outside/left grows from a string quartet set-up. Same deal though - the viola sounds tend to get swallowed up, in my opinion. It is hard enough to get their sound out there. I would only use this if I was doing string quartet literature with a string ensemble - like a Mozart Divertimento or something.

It is funny - because I was working at a camp this summer where another conductor was using the set up with the 2nds on the left and I felt the ensemble was really lacking between the 1sts and 2nds. Anyway, I sort of revisited the arrangement issue and, again, decided that the traditional arrangement works best for me.

I don't like switching around, especially when conducting difficult literature, because I throw cues to the wrong place. Also, if I used one of the other set-ups in my orchestra and then go to guest conduct with a traditional arrangement, it is easy to get confused and I just don't like that. I want my gestures to be accurate and predictable from the first rehearsal.

I hope this helps.
Take care!!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

MS Bike Tour Event

Dear friends,

I am raising money again this year for the National MS Society. By now, most of you know that I have been doing this for several years and this will be the 5th year of sponsoring a team from NCSSM. Following last year's event, we had raised over $42,000 in the 4 years of team sponsorship at NCSSM. I am, obviously, very proud of that number. This cause is one that is near to my heart as my wife, Barbra, was diagnosed with MS in 1997, shortly after my oldest son, Matt was born. Since that time, her health has really been fantastic and we have been blessed with 2 more healthy boys. Barbra has truly been the beneficiary of the dollars that have been raised for MS research and has had great success with the medications that are available today as a result of that research.

This year, due to a schedule conflict between the MS Society rides in New Bern and Tanglewood and our NCSSM Family Day, I decided to organize and run our own MS bike Tour Event at NCSSM. It will be on September 19-20 and will involve a ride from NCSSM to Spruce Pine Lodge, in Bahama, NC. We will have bike routes of 25, 50, and 75 miles for our riders on Saturday, camp out overnight, and return to NCSSM on Sunday morning. Several local businesses are helping us out with supplies and funding. For example, I just had an exciting meeting with the folks at Whole Foods. They are excited about our event and really stepping up to help us out.

Please consider sponsoring me and making a donation to the National MS Society through me. It is really easy to do on-line.

For those of you around the Triangle, if you would like to volunteer that weekend or ride in the event, we have a spot for you, too. In addition, we will be sponsoring a bike safety course on the first morning of the the event. Families are welcoe to attend that as well. Just drop me a note and I'll give you more information.

I truly appreciate your friendship and support. So many of you have contributed to this cause over the years and it means so much to me. Thanks for all that you do and thanks for considering supporting me and the National MS Society again this year!