Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Big Sister!

Hi all.
The following is a wonderful interview with my older sister, Julianne, that appeared in the Indiana Gazette in Indiana, PA, today. She is a magnificent string teacher and is a magnificent example of the phrase that I use so much: "teaching music is simply a vehicle for loving children."
Her love and energy for her students is boundless. I think that comes through in the article!

MONDAY Q&A: Teacher offers music education -- with strings attached

Posted: Monday, December 13, 2010 3:00 am | Updated: 11:45 am, Mon Dec 13, 2010.

Editor's Note: The Indiana Area School District offers the only stringed-instrument training program in the county, and one of the few nationally, thanks in large part to the efforts of instructor Julianne Laird. She recently sat down with Gazette staffer Nicole Roser to discuss the establishment of the program and the importance of music.

Question: How long have you been a teacher?

Answer: I've been a teacher for 17 1/2 years.

Question: Where do you teach?

Answer: I began my teaching career at Commodore Perry School District. I taught for three years and then I went back to get my master's degree in voice performance at the University of Akron. And after that, I sang for a while and had some wonderful experiences, including singing for several years (with a Pittsburgh choir). Then, I had an opportunity to return to teaching through long-term subbing and I long-term subbed in the Marion Center, Punxsutawney and Indiana school districts, and then a position opened up in Indiana and I was fortunate enough to have that opportunity, and I've been here ever since.

Question: When did you decide to become a teacher and why did you choose to study music?

Answer: I chose to study music because I made a lot of music in school as a kid and I got to the end of my senior year of high school, and I knew that music was calling me. Truly I wanted to be a singer -- that was my dream -- and some day after I retire I still hope to be a singer again. I loved teaching when I started to teach music right after college and I started to teach that fall. I loved teaching then, but I really knew that I was meant to be a teacher when I returned to teaching after singing for a while. I do love, love, love my job. The most important reason why I teach music is for the children, and I just feel so grateful to have this opportunity. I have this wonderful job that every day I get to sing, dance, play music and make music with these wonderful students.

Question: What do you enjoy most about teaching?

Answer: I love teaching and working with the students and young people and offering to them the opportunity to love music because music is a lifelong skill. It is something they can learn forever and, in our global society, music is a language that crosses all of the barriers so they can have that music with them for the rest of their lives. It gives life to life.

Question: You are in charge of the string-training program at Horace Mann Elementary and Eisenhower, which is supposedly one of the few in the whole country. What can you tell me about its establishment, and how did you get involved?

Answer: When I was a little girl, I went to East Pike Elementary School, and my teacher Mr. Stanley Servinsky knew that my brother had been playing the violin for a couple of years and he was younger than I was, so Mr. Servinsky said, "Julianne, you already play guitar and piano, you should play a string instrument," and he said pick one. … my brother already played violin so I picked the cello and I started to play it, and I played all through school. I took a few private lessons, but not very many, and I played through college and some in graduate school, but it wasn't until I came back to Indiana and I was teaching that I had the opportunity to teach strings. Some of my colleagues said I should teach strings because I have "chops" -- "chops" is a music teacher term that means that you can play something. There was some concern for not having time for someone to teach the third-grade violin program, which had already been in place for 30 years, so I said I would be willing to take that job at Horace Mann and Eisenhower. I was already the general music instructor for several years before the third-grade program opened up.

We are one of the few third-grade violin programs in the country. It started in the early '70s when Mr. Servinsky went to the Music Educators National Conference Convention and saw violin programs in the third grade. He got some money through our district and some money from the Monday Music Club to start a program. Together with the grant and money from the district, he bought some cardboard violins, and that's how it all began. Now, what I inherited was a whole cabinet full of violins at both schools. We had already acquired real instruments, because Mr. Servinsky then went out and found school districts that were stopping their string program and he got the administration to help him and they would go in and buy used instruments from other school districts for very, very cheap. So that is how our elementary string program really built here in Indiana.

I've been continuing to carry that torch so every child in the third grade in the Indiana school district has the chance to learn the violin. At the moment, I only teach the third-grade violin program at Horace Mann, because we had such increased enrollment at Eisenhower that the band director now teaches it, but I am hoping to have the chance to teach it again because I truly, truly have a passion for teaching strings.

Question: How often do they practice?

Answer: Once a week for a half hour.

Question: Do they have special concerts?

Answer: Yes, we will have a program in January for the end of the first semester. Then other classes will start and then they will give another program at the end of the school year.

Question: So the kids really enjoy this special experience?

Answer: Yes, what we call it in the string-teaching world is "alternative styles," and it is a buzzword right now in teaching strings. Traditional teaching of strings is one aspect of learning to string, but alternative styles open up a whole new world of playing.

Question: Are there other string ensembles in the district?

Answer: We have in our school district an elementary string ensemble that Dr. Jason Rummel and Mr. Jason Olear teach, our instrumental teachers, and that is for anybody who is in elementary school who wants to play in a large ensemble. We also have an orchestra at the junior and senior highs that is directed by Mrs. Beth Grafton. We are the only string program in Indiana County, and we have had the only string program in the county for more than 30 years. I think strings are such an important part of the curriculum and they really make a round music program. If you have band and orchestra and chorus, then you truly have a round program. And wherever we have that wonderful rounded program, strings are a necessary component of the finest school music programs. We are so privileged that we can offer this to our children in our schools.

Question: Do you direct any other ensembles?

Answer: I do. I am the chorus teacher at both schools for fifth and sixth grades and I have a very active girls' chorus and I have a very active boys' chorus. The other string group that I have -- I've tried a couple of things to start string programs at both schools -- one was called fiddle club, where students would come in the evening and have a chance to play all different styles of music with local adults who play string instruments such as fiddles, string base, cellos and some guitars. We had a bagpipe in one time, which isn't a string instrument, but we had fiddle club and a great time. I also had a small chamber ensemble at both schools for a while. But this year what is happening that is special at Horace Mann that started a couple of years ago is called String Lunch, and the students who are playing string instruments can choose to do this. They come to my room and bring their lunches at lunchtime. We do this once a week when they bring their lunches and we eat lunch in the room and then we play the rest of the time. It is for playing by ear. We play standard rock tunes, Irish reels and jigs, 12-bar blues improvisations, old-time fiddle music and contradance music. Boys and girls who come to that really have a lot of fun and we jam and we are about to play our first gig ever.

Question: Where is that going to be held?

Answer: At Bethany Place. We are really excited about that. It is coming up for the holidays.

Question: Does musical talent run in your family?

Answer: My mom and dad are amateur musicians, but my mom's father and my dad's mother were both musicians. My dad's mom was a church organist and my mom's dad played the piano, played ragtime piano and cornet and he taught dance at Kennywood Park in the big pavilion. My brother, Scott, and my sister, Stephanie, and I never knew our grandparents and my parents never had any idea that we would have this ability in our family. As children we were drawn to it and then it became a lifestyle for all of us. After I went forward with my instruments, Scott was already playing violin, and he also played drums, bass guitar and piano, and then Stephanie played violin and she picked up saxophone, flute and piano.

Today, Scott is an orchestra director and travels all around the world and teaches teachers how to be better string teachers. He works in Durham, N.C., at North Carolina School of Science and Math, and he does orchestras and he is a string clinician for teachers all around the country. My sister is the orchestra director at Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School and she teaches in the district. All three of us still play music and we all play traditional music, as well as fun and nontraditional styles. Scott also plays and writes a lot of jazz and he is a recording engineer and my sister also has an Irish group with her husband and children and is also principal of the second violin section with the Altoona Symphony. So, yeah, music runs in our family and we are really grateful for that, too.

Question: What advice do you have for future music teachers?

Answer: The most important thing that a future music teacher can do is work on their skills right now -- their playing skills, their singing skills, playing piano, playing guitar and maybe some type of instrument that you can accompany singing. What I like about singing is all children have a singing voice and everybody can sing, but that singing becomes a jumping-off place for playing instruments and playing in a group, and there is nothing like playing an instrument in a group -- that is the coolest thing ever. So my advice to aspiring teachers is to play and sing and make as much music as possible now so they are ready to share that love of music with children.

Next Week: Jeff Wacker, ArtsPath assistant director at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Editor's Note: Do you know someone who would be a great subject for the Monday Q&A? If so, please call Jason Levan at (724) 465-5555, ext 270.

JULIANNE LAIRD, at a glance....

Occupation: General music teacher, chorus and string instructor

Family: Parents, David and Nancy Laird; husband, Richard Workman; and brother and sister, Scott and Stephanie

Residence: Indiana

Where I grew up: Indiana

Hobbies: Music, fishing, going to the beach, stand-up paddle boarding, reading, traveling and steampunk

Favorite food: Ice cream

Food I refuse to eat: Liver

Favorite movie: "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"

Last book I read: "The Clockwork Three," by Matthew Kirby

Favorite way to spend a day: With my husband

Pet peeve: People who are unkind. I try really hard to be kind to people.

People who most inspired me: My parents

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Christmas Story

Back in December, 1995, I was teaching at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, MD. I was fully immersed in the rigors of running a high powered string program in the suburban Washington, DC area and the stress was catching up with me. The fall had included All State Orchestra auditions, numerous concerts, including a concerto concert that need to be prepared and performed in a very short time, a couple of fruit-sale fundraisers, and the rigors of my regular teaching schedule; not to mention the traffic, cost of living, and real-life stresses of living in that area. My overall attitude had become pretty gray – especially for me, a generally enthusiastic and positive guy. I loved my work, but my outlook wasn't generally positive. Life had become a treadmill of school, fundraising, musical performances, negotiating traffic, church obligations, and a variety of other stresses. I certainly wasn't in the mood or frame of mind to appreciate the Christmas season in all of its richness.

As we moved toward the holidays and I was immersed in concerto concert rehearsals, my wife and I ran out one evening to get a Christmas tree for our home. We were still relatively new homeowners, but we had a nice tradition already of putting up a live tree at Christmas and enjoyed the process. We had a number of ornaments that were quite important to us, many of which had been given to us by students over the years. Our tree was an important symbol of faith and friendship and really represented us and our, albeit, short history at that point.

This tree, however, had a mind of its own. I don't know if the trunk was a little bit curved or if it was never mounted properly in the stand, but it just didn't want to stand up in the corner of our living room. If memory serves, I even used some wire to try to tie the top to a curtain rod to keep it in a vertical orientation. My recollection is that it had actually fallen down a couple of times and I thought that I finally had it up to stay. It was fully decorated and looked great.

One evening, after a particularly stressful day of teaching and rehearsing for the concerto concert, I arrived home at a late hour. I walked in the front door of the house, only to be greeted by my wife and a tree that was lying in the middle of the living room floor. That was it. The proverbial straw had broken the camel's back. I picked up the tree, ornaments and all, and pitched it out the front door. I was done with it. There would be no tree in the Laird's house this Christmas. My wife was mortified. I was resolved. I was done with trees for the year. The tree, effectively, had come to represent the sum total of my frustration with life, work, over-commitment and all that was out of control in my life.

I went to school the next day and related the story to my Chamber Orchestra, a group of exceptional string musicians that would be accompanying all of the concerto soloists that weekend. As I told the story of my previous evening, I could see the horror on their faces as I told the story of throwing the tree out the front door. At that point, I had more clarity of perspective and thought it was a kind of funny story to relate to my students. They however, perceived it as a result of something much deeper and apparently felt the depth of my frustration with life and work and took my state of mind to heart.

I went on with my crazy schedule for the next couple of days and basically forgot about the situation. I had too many obligations to dwell on any one thing and simply moved on. About two nights later, I was at a rehearsal at my church until fairly late. We were preparing for our annual Christmas Eve service and I would play a fairly large role as an instrumentalist. As I arrived home on that week-day evening, and walked up my driveway and onto the porch, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It was just another quiet night and I was looking forward to getting home and relaxing after a long and busy day.

As I walked into the house, I could tell something was different. I walked into my living room and there was a fully decorated tree all set up in the corner of the room! I could hear some shuffling around in the kitchen and quickly turned around. Like a bunch of clowns climbing out of a phone booth, out came orchestra student after orchestra student from my kitchen. There must have been 15 or 20 of them there: kids from all over Prince George's County, MD. They had contacted my wife and asked if they could come over and set up a new tree. They went and picked one out, cut it down, and came over to my house where my wife had made hot cocoa and cookies for them and made a little party out of it. They weren't just kids that celebrate Christmas, either. There were kids from Jewish and Hindu backgrounds there as well. They were at my home as an expression of kindness and caring for their teacher. It was just the most perfect expression of love that I could have imagined at that time. They cared about me and they wanted to help me find the joy in the season. Did they ever! I still think back to the joy I felt that night and the selfless act of those kids from Eleanor Roosevelt. They gave me a magnificent gift.

One of my favorite aspects of the tree itself was the fact that when they got it into the house it was a little too tall for our 8 foot ceilings. Since it was already mounted in the base, they cut the extra 12 inches or so off of the top of the tree! It made for a perfect look for the living room. I think, in many ways, that made me love that tree even more. They ended up staying at my place for a while that evening. We talked about each of our family traditions and shared a great deal of conversation, laughter, and holiday treats.

Today, I took about 10 of my current students to play a Bach Cantata at a local church. It was such a pleasure to spend some extra time outside of class with this group. In many ways, they remind me of that group back in 1995. Then again, I have been blessed with great students every year. The relationships that we develop are deep and rich. The friendships that we develop, in many cases, last a lifetime. As I was driving the school van, filled with fine student musicians and lovely people, I felt so very blessed to have these opportunities to develop deep relationships with these kids. The cantata went great. It was really a rich morning with them. I am so looking forward to class tomorrow!

Happy Holidays to all of you. I wish you all the true joy of giving and receiving. Today, I am celebrating all that I receive from my students. Thanks to all of you. And, thanks to all of you that have passed through my classroom in the past. You have no idea how much you have given to me. I receive your gifts with love and gratitude.




Friday, December 10, 2010

The Orchestra Experience

A few things happened this week in and around my orchestra class at NCSSM that started me thinking about why orchestra is important to students and what they get out of participation in my class and other orchestra classes around the country. For me, it is important to constantly identify why we are doing what we do. Because, if we don't know way we are doing it, how could the students possibly know why they are doing it. As I pondered this thought over the past 48 hours or so, I came up with 4 primary reasons for participation in orchestra (or any musical ensemble for that matter) and thought that I would share them with you. I might add that for some students, all of these come in to play. For other students, there may be one of these reasons that really stands out as their primary motivator. That is fine. What is important is that we all understand that they are the motivation for participation.


The most obvious motivator for taking any class in school is to acquire the content. That is, to get the information that is covered in class. In orchestra, this includes playing technique, standard accepted practice and styles based on the style of music, date of the composition, and composer, ensemble and rehearsal techniques, and a bit of music history and background on the works being performed. This is really the most obvious stuff. And, many that haven't participated in an orchestra in a high school or college may think that this is the whole experience. After all, it is what we do in orchestra. We learn music with the expectation of performing it for the public at some point.


Anyone who has participated in a high school music ensemble knows that the experience itself is one of the great motivators. For many,(in fact the vast majority), the high school ensemble experience is the last time they will participated in this kind of activity and probably the highest level of performing they will experience. Yes, some go on to play or sing in college and beyond, but many more do not. I can't tell you how many of my students have come back to me after many years out of high school and reflected on the amazing experiences that had as musicians and members of a team in their performing ensembles. These memories last a lifetime and the experience is priceless. In many cases, the experience far outweighs the actual notes, rhythms, and techniques that are learned. There are many times that I, as a teacher, need to be reminded of this. The relationships and friendships that are developed in a musical ensemble often times last a lifetime. Many of my closest friends, to this day, were people that I played with in my high school band. We went on trips together, went to football games on the busses, stayed after school for rehearsals, and became very close in the process. My wife's closest high school relationships today are also with former fellow band members. I am sure that many of you have had the same experience.

I know that in my school, some would say that their participation is an opportunity to think about something other than their regular academics. Others would say that it is "relaxing." To me, this is also part of the experience. It is an opportunity to exercise a different academic muscle. When we make music, our brains work in different ways than they do when we write a paper or do a math problem. For many this is an important variation in their academic life that allows them to change pace for that period of rehearsal or practice. I know that I am very much motivated by this part of the experience.

There is another important to the experience component of participation. It is the "aesthetic experience." I was recently reminded of this by a former student when he told me the following: "For me, the music itself was more the motivation. Not just the notes on the page, or the sound coming out of my own instrument, but the full sound of the orchestra, of everyone playing together. Being immersed in the music is one of those sensations that is hard to describe. There is a sense of communication between the players, between the conductor and the orchestra, and even the audience." This was an important reminder for me that the aesthetic experience is a strong motivator for many students. It is certainly a motivator for me. There has been much debate in music education circles in recent years regarding music advocacy on the relationship between aesthetics-centered and extrinsically-centered music programs. I have always believed that there is room for both. My student's words have, yet again, reminded me of the huge importance that the aesthetic experience of the ensemble plays for our students.


With participation comes opportunity. In most states, one must be a member of their school orchestra in order to audition for All County, All Region, All State and other honors ensembles. These opportunities for experiences are invaluable to the advances music student and for many of them; this is the prime motivator to hang in there with their colleagues that don't play at their same level of expertise. There are other opportunities as well. At NCSSM, we have an annual concerto concert that features our top soloists. I have often thought how much I would have enjoyed that opportunity as a high school student. This is a huge event and the students that participate as soloists and ensemble members really benefit from the experience. There is also the opportunity for leadership woven into the orchestral experience. Students that show a propensity for leadership are given principle chairs and the opportunity to influence the performance of works and to lead their peers. Many of the leadership opportunities that I had as a high-school music student certainly shaped my life in profound ways and motivated me to remain part of that group.


The final motivator that I will highlight here is the opportunity for contribution. It is my firm belief that student must understand that they are making a contribution to a community when they are participating in orchestra. Participation isn't all about what you get from the experience. It is also about what you contribute. And, every member of a musical ensemble contributes something. The most advanced players contribute musical leadership and example. The intermediate players contribute musically as critical mass, but also find many other modes of contributions, from humor, to dedication, optimism, challenge, and other examples of success. Finally, the weaker players in any group contribute musically as much as anyone, for a musical ensemble is only as strong as its weakest players. So these musicians must be willing to go the extra mile and prepare the literature in the best way that they can, with a strong motivation to make the ensemble better. These folks are often the true examples of contribution to an ensemble. I do not believe in entitlement for the strongest players in an ensemble. We all must give our best contribution in order to make an ensemble truly excellent.

It bears mentioning that musical ensembles also contribute to the greater school community. They provide music for special occasions and this is a vital role of musical organizations. My orchestra performs for our annual convocation and commencement, dinners, events, awards ceremonies, and other community gatherings. We send quartets out to other community events such as celebrations and receptions as well. Bands play for football games. Pep bands provide music for basketball games. Music students often play or sing the national anthem for other sporting events. We provide a pit orchestra for the annual musical. These are all examples of contribution. Students must be encourages to use their skills and talents for the betterment and enhancement of the community experience. We, as musicians, get this opportunity all time. We as music teachers must weave this perspective into all that we teach.


So, these are my thoughts on what students are gaining from participation in my class. I am sure that I have missed a few. I hope that this provides you with some food for thought as you ponder your motivators for the things that you do or teach. I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.



Tuesday, November 30, 2010

November was busy!

Hi all -
I just realized that I went through the entire month of November without posting anything here on my blog. I guess that it is a testament to how busy things can get at certain points in the school year. Throughout the month of November we had the NCMEA Annual In-service Conference and Honors Orchestra, I played bass with the NC Honors Chorus, guest conducted the New Hanover, NC 8th grade All County Orchestra, hosted a number of fine arts events at NCSSM, ended our first term and had a week of exams at NCSSM, and enjoyed 5 days of vacation over Thanksgiving. This week, NCSSM is holding auditions for our annual Concerto Concert and we are gearing up for the onslaught of upcoming holiday gigs.

In the midst of all of this craziness, it is easy to forget the things that are really important in our lives. Ultimately as music educators, we are teaching kids. Even with all of our activities, we need to keep reminding ourselves that it is the people that matter in the long run. Let's all strive to lift each other up as we navigate our busy schedules. Let's lift each other up. Smile at someone today. Take a minute to affirm a friend or acquaintances good work. I will try to as well.


Saturday, October 30, 2010

It is always better to do it right

I had an experience yesterday that I want to share with my music educator friends out there.

Let me start by saying that it has been a fantastic start to the school year in my orchestra. My ensemble is a nice mix of seasoned seniors and talented juniors that are figuring out the NCSSM way of doing things. Most of my students are super-busy and have really made a big commitment to participate in orchestra. We are a busy community. We are primarily busy academically. Our students all take a rigorous schedule of science, math, and humanities courses and have very high expectations of themselves. A good way to describe it would be to take your top 5% of your students and put them together with about 600 more of them. That would be us.

Over the past term, we have been preparing for our October 31 concert, among other things. One of our planned pieces for the concert was to do the Carl Simpson adaptation of Pictures at an Exhibition. We were to do it with our Wind Ensemble and Orchestra combined. As many terms go, we could have used a bit more rehearsal and sort of came down to the wire on this one. Things were a bit ragged at our penultimate rehearsal and we decided to have one last extra rehearsal on Friday after school.

At this point, it is important to mention that there is plenty of other material for the program tomorrow. The orchestra has several numbers that they will do, along with a couple of accompaniment pieces to do with our Chorus. The Wind Ensemble has several pieces as well and will also welcome a local community group to their concert as a guest. All other pieces are very well prepared and will go really well.

Friday after school, after a long day of finishing up classes for the term, prepping for exams, and a variety of other details to finish, everyone showed up after school for our last rehearsal on Pictures. I couldn't have asked for anything more. Everyone was into it. They were on task, prepared to work, and very focused. There was only one problem. We were still under-prepared. These fine young musicians and scholars just needed some more time on this difficult and mature piece of music to fully pull it off in a concert setting. We were certainly getting closer, but we just were not there yet.

Decision time. As I sat and weighed our options, it occurred to me that we could go one of two ways. We could play the piece with a bit of an apology to our audience. "We really wanted to tackle this piece." Or, "It really is a hard piece, so please excuse the wrong notes." Or, we would do what I consider the right thing and hold off on the piece until it is fully prepared. So often, I hear orchestras perform music that is only partially prepared. Or, music that is simply too hard for the ensemble. It never really makes sense to me. Why try to play something that is not fully achievable?

So, as I sat, trying to decide what to do, I knew there was only one solid and appropriate decision; table the piece until our next concert. I touched base with our Wind Ensemble director and he agreed. As I told the kids, I could almost see and feel a collective sigh of relief. They knew it too. Their standards were and are the same as mine. If we can't do it to our standards, let's hold off and do it right later. I told them how much we respected them and never wanted to put them in a position of embarrassment. I thanked them for such a dedicated and focused rehearsal. Rehearsal ended. Everyone headed off to dinner. As my colleague that leads our Wind Ensemble and I talked it over, we knew we had done the right thing. We respect the musicians under our baton too much to put them in an awkward position. We fully agreed. Decision made. Suddenly I felt a real "peace" about the decision.

We will still give a concert tomorrow. It will be fantastic. Every piece will be fully prepared and musically fulfilling for the audience AND the musicians. After all, isn't that our role - to teach solid musicianship and decision-making skills. I feel like we did a good thing yesterday.

For you young teachers out there, I encourage you to give this a bit of thought. I can't tell you how many orchestra festivals that I have adjudicated where an orchestra played a piece that was either under-prepared or simply too hard for the ensemble. I really don't know what could possibly be accomplished by this. In fact, some of my more seasoned colleagues could probably benefit from hearing this too, come to think of it. I am reminded of a festival that I adjudicated a few years ago, where a long-time string educator who really knows their stuff, simply butchered a well known piece. All in the name of, I imagine, "at least we can say that we did it." I can't imagine that it was worth it.

We will do "Pictures." Probably in February. And, it will be something that all in the orchestra can be proud of. I promise. I can't wait for the concert tomorrow.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

You CAN Come Home

In the fall of 1987, I was a new teacher, fresh out of Indiana University of PA. I had graduated with a music education degree and was eager to start my career as a string educator. My first job was as district-wide string teacher in Palmyra, PA, a small town just east of Hershey, about 4 hours from my childhood home of Indiana, PA. Sometime in October of that year, I attended my first PMEA District 7 In-Service day. I am sure that I spent most of the day hanging out with my friends Fred Otto, Bruce Weaver, and Dan Hoover, all instrumental music teachers at Palmyra. I don’t remember a great number of details from that day, but I do remember feeling like part of the group. I felt accepted by the other string teachers and even remember a few of the other teachers from the Harrisburg area including me in conversations and discussions that they were having about strings, orchestra, and the craft of teaching. I was part of this community. Yes, I could make this my home.

Yesterday, I was back in Central PA as a guest speaker for the PMEA District 7 Fall In-Service. I was scheduled to give 4 1-hour sessions throughout the day. My appearance was put together by Sandy Neill of Menchey Music and facilitated by D’Addario Bowed Strings. I was pleased to be presenting at this in-service, but never considered how strongly I would feel about coming back to District 7; back to my first adult home.

When I arrived at Central Dauphin High School for the conference, I immediately ran into my friend, Marie Weber, from Lower Dauphin High School. Marie actually hosted the PA All State Orchestra the year that I participated in 1983. I remember her well from that event! But, in the years that I taught in Palmyra, we developed a warm friendship and have had several opportunities to communicate in the ensuing years. Soon after that, my friends Rich and Tawny Miller arrived and we reconnected quickly. Rich and I worked together in 1990 as he filled in for me while I finished my Master's at IUP and subbed for Bruce Weaver as he took a sabbatical near the end of his career. Tawny even reminded me that I once made spaghetti for them when they were over to my place for dinner!

Throughout the day, there were many conversations of colleagues that had since retired or moved on to other areas. We mentioned old friends like Kathy Yeater, Shirley Miller, Cathy Santiago, and Priscilla Howard. These were all folks that cared for me in one way or another while I was getting started in this field. We also mentioned my old friend, Klement Hambourg, who directed the Lebanon Valley College Orchestra and violin program in those years, and who with I had developed a deep and meaningful relationship. There were also several other colleagues at the conference that knew me “way back when” and we enjoyed rekindling those friendships and getting reacquainted. I even met the young teacher, Travis Pierce, that has what was my position back in the late ‘80’s. He is young and energetic and I know that he will do a great job with those kids in Palmyra.

But, by far, the most meaningful re-acquaintance of the day for me was with my former Palmyra colleague, Gina Parkison. Gina teaches instrumental music at Northside Elementary School in Palmyra and has been steadfast in that position for many years. She has reached thousands of children in that time, expressing her love for them and for the music that she teaches every day. It had honestly not occurred to me that I might run into her at this event. I am not sure why – it just didn’t. When we first saw each other, she quickly said hi and extended a warm hug hello. We spent a few minutes catching up on the last 18 years or so and then we both had to move on to our sessions for the first hour. Gina attended my second session of the day and participated in the session in such a way that I knew we were really connecting. My friend and colleague not only came to my session, she supported my ideas and was enthusiastic about the content. I can’t tell you how meaningful that was to me. When I arrived home late that night after several hours in airports, lines, and planes, there was a lovely note in my e-mail from Gina. My heart simply filled up. I just didn’t see it coming. I was still that 23 year old new teacher, pleased as can be to have the support of his friend and colleague. It meant the world to me.

Central PA hasn’t changed. As I left the school at the end of day, there was a certain familiar atmosphere outside. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it was familiar. It felt like home: the place where I started my career, the place I became a professional educator, the place where I lived when I got engaged and married, and the place where many of my philosophies and teaching practices began. In many ways, it is the place I became an adult. And, without question, it is the place where I first felt a part of the music education and string education community and that has been such a huge part of my life ever since.

Thanks to each of you that I encountered yesterday. I hope that you got even a fraction from me that I received from you. My day was a blessing.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hello to PMEA District 7 Fall In-Service October 11, 2010

This is just a quick note to all of the folks who attended my PMEA sessions on October 11. My goal for the day was to share some of my teaching secrets with you, renew some old friendships and establish some new ones. I certainly hope that all of these goals are realized during the day.

My blog is the spot where I share secrets all the time. It is for my students, my friends, my colleagues. Please feel free to share it with your students and colleagues. I write about music and music ed, performing and favorite performers, products that I use, great books that I have read, and philosophical ideas that I encounter.

I also encouraged all of you to try to leave the in-service with at least one good spinach dip recipe. So, if for some reason that didn't happen in my sessions, here is your recipe, courtesy of foodnetwork.com. Trust me, I have tried it and it is great!

It has been a pleasure to be back in PA this week and I truly look forward to the next time! Also, let me say a special word of thanks to Menchey Music and Sandy Neill as well as D'Addario for their efforts in putting this together.


Spinach Dip

(Recipe courtesy Barbara Smith)

Prep Time:
15 min


* 1 large clove garlic
* 1/2 cup chopped scallions (white portion only)
* 1 (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained well
* 1 cup sour cream
* 1/2 to 1 cup mayonnaise
* 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
* 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
* 1 dash hot pepper sauce or more to taste
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
* 1 round loaf crusty bread (country white, pumpernickel, etc.)
* Paprika


In a blender or food processor, finely mince the garlic and scallions. Add the remaining ingredients, except the bread and paprika and blend until smooth. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Refrigerate for up to 2 days. Just before serving, make a bread bowl: Cut about an inch off the top of the round of bread and save it for a lid. Remove the bread from the center, hollowing out the loaf. Stir the dip well and place in the bread bowl. Sprinkle lightly with paprika. Serve the removed bread chunks along with crudites for dipping.

Where Does Your Hypocricy Reside?

I heard a profound statement this morning. It goes like this: "The gap between belief and behavior is the space where hypocrisy resides." I can't get it out of my mind. It is so true and so applicable to many facets of our lives. I just had to take a minute to explore it in a bit of detail and the many applications to my life, my colleagues lives, and my students' lives.

First, it calls us to do some serious self-exploration. What do you believe? What do I believe? Of course, I could be referring to spiritual beliefs. But, let's go past that for now. How do believe you should treat others? How do you believe you should react to adversity? How do you believe your should spend your free time? Your money? Your talents? How do you believe that teachers should approach their students? How do you believe students should approach their studies? What are your beliefs on morality, right vs. wrong, forgiveness, love, service, politics, and certainly your spiritual beliefs?

Second, it calls us to examine our behavior. Do my actions line up with my beliefs? Are my actions consistent with the the statements that I want to be making? Self examination is tough. Mirrors don't lie. Photographs don't lie. Audio recordings don't lie. It is tough to see myself as I really am, to hear myself as I really am.

Finally, we must consider the concept of hypocrisy. I can't imagine that anyone wants to be labeled as a hypocrite. And yet, I'll bet all of us can find some gap between our beliefs and our behavior. I know that I can. The truth hurts. I can't think of anything that I would less like to be called than "hypocrite."

To me, this concept is a strong call to consciousness. It forces us to think about this gap between belief and behavior and to do some serious reflecting on where we are in this continuum. And, it is hard to be conscious. So often, we walk through our lives, caught up in our business. We forget to actually think about our actions, the way we are treating others, the way we forgive, love, and interact. So often, I remind my musicians to be "conscious" in rehearsal and not just go through the motions. Here, I challenge them (you, myself) to be conscious in life and not just go through the motions. For my students, you are away from home and on your own for the first time. How does the ratio of your beliefs to behavior stack up after a month or two of school? Trust me, it will be a lifelong struggle. I have been considering it as it applies to my marriage, parenting, teaching, friendships, relationships with those that I encounter on the street, and many other facets of my life.

It was also suggested that the longer we permit the gap to exist between our beliefs and our behavior, one of them has to give out. And many times (most times), it is the belief that fades away, not the behavior. The fact is, that it takes real courage to change our behavior. It is hard. It takes effort. It takes consciousness. I also think that it requires accountability. And believe me, I am as bad at that as anyone. I want to be accountable to myself and rarely permit others to fill that role in my life. Definitely something for me to work on.

I am sure that I will ponder this concept more in the coming days and weeks. I may write more at a later date. But for now, I know that I will be working to narrow the gap between my beliefs and my behavior. I want to strive for honesty and integrity. The last thing I want is for hypocrisy to be part of the definition of me. I encourage you to do the same. Let's walk this path together and narrow the gap between our beliefs and our behavior. I know that I will be the better for it.


Friday, September 24, 2010

Music and the Mind at NCSSM

This past week, I had the pleasure of team teaching an interdisciplinary class with NCSSM Anatomy and Physiology Instructor, Dr. Ashton Powell. We held two of his Anatomy and Physiology classes in the NCSSM music suite with the hopes of convening some thought provoking discussions on music, the mind, and their inter-connectivity.

We began each class with me giving a brief performance. My primary solo mode, as many of you know, is to create live audio loops on guitar (using a Boss RC 50) and then using my NS Design 5 string electric violin to play melodies and associated improvisations above the chord progressions. Following the performance, we began the class with discussions regarding the music, the process of making music, the process of listening to music, and a variety of other lines of thought that grew from the discussion. We discussed the communication process, the similarity to speech, the "spirit" of the music and relationship to tonality, and other a variety of other topics.

Next, we watched and discussed three extraordinary videos which I am sure that many of you have seen.

A. The TED Video of Bobby McFerrin leading an audience in a magnificent sing-along using the pentatonic scale.

Following this video, I gave a brief explanation of the pentatonic scale and then showed the students how one can create basic melodies with the pentatonic scale. Next, I showed them how other scales can generate a very different aural reaction. For these, I used a major scale, a mixolydian scale, a blues scale, and a chromatic scale. The student reaction and conversation was quite interesting and thoughtful.

B. A news clip of Oliver Sacks undergoing an MRI study of his brain's reaction to an excerpt of Bach vs. a similar excerpt of Beethoven.

The general idea of the clip is that Sacks' mind was significantly more active when listening to the Bach clip, possibly because he generally likes Bach more than Beethoven. Further, even when he wasn't sure which composer was being played, his mind was still more active during the Bach clip. I must admit, I found this news clip to fall a bit short for me. As I listened to the excerpts that they used, I found the Bach clips to have more dissonance and tension, therefore, potentially requiring more brain activity. The Beethoven clips seemed to be more consonant and I didn't find them to be indicative, at all, of the emotion that one finds in Beethoven's greatest works: his symphonies. On the other hand, this was not a referendum on Bach vs. Beethoven. It was merely a referendum on Oliver Sack's preference of Bach to Beethoven. The study, itself, was very interesting and I do find it quite interesting that our mind is significantly more active when listening to material that we find pleasurable or challenging at some level. No surprising, but fascinating.

C. A news piece of an MRI study of brain activity when playing composed music vs. playing improvised music.

I found this clip to be quite interesting, especially as I perform both composed classical literature and improvised music on a regular basis. The general idea is that the brain is exceedingly active when playing composed music and many parts of the brain essentially shut down when improvising. I must say that I don't find this hard to believe at all. Here is an example from my personal experience. Last night, I played my music for a reception held by the Eastern NC Chapter of the National MS Society. I performed my own music and spent approximately 80% of the evening improvising over my own melodies. This was an enjoyable evening and I did not find it to be physically taxing in any way. On the other hand, last June, I was invited to play the prelude music for our NCSSM Online Commencement ceremony. It was slated to be about a 20 minute recital. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, the ceremony was late in starting and I ended up playing for about a solid 75 minutes. This was one of the most exhausting performances I have given in many years. It wasn't that the music was so difficult. But, the mental energy that it required was clearly significantly more than a comparable length improvisational performance. Thus, I found this study to be on the mark in many ways. Interestingly, when polled before seeing the film clip, the students almost unanimously, felt that the improvisational performances would require more brain energy because the performer would be doing something extemporaneously. Now, all of us improvisers know that there isn't a great deal that we do in an improvisational performance that we haven't tried at some point or another prior to permutation of the song. I would liken in to speech. Which takes more brain energy: an extemporaneous conversation for 10 minutes OR a recitation of a 10 minute poem by another author. I believe the "composed" poem requires a great deal more brain energy. Again, the correlations between music and speech are apparently quite strong.

We ended the class with a short drum circle, giving every student the opportunity to experience music performance and improvisation in a non-threatening way. I think that the kids really enjoyed this and would have kept going with the drum circle long after the class period had ended!

This was a wonderful day of thoughtful scholarship, intelligent conversation, and free exchange of ideas and academic curiosity. It was everything that NCSSM should be. It was everything that school should be.

I went home that day with a real feeling of satisfaction that we had facilitated some higher order thinking and potentially unlocked some real interest for many of the students. I also really feel strongly that making connections between disciplines is an important part of the educational process. I feel like that happened in a concrete way today. I love being a teacher! May we all have similar experiences in our unique teaching experiences - in and outside of the classroom!


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The CATS Method of Learning

Many of you know that in recent months, I have become more and more involved with KidzNotes ( www.kidznotes.org )the Durham-based non-profit that is part of El Sistema USA and modeled after the well-known Venezuelan Youth Orchestra Program, El Sistema. The primary goal of this organization is to bring children out of poverty through classical music training in an intensive after-school program. Kidznotes will be launching this weekend in East Durham and I am thrilled to be involved. I am a member of the Board of Directors of Kidznotes and have been working on a variety of fundraising efforts as well as doing some teacher-training and performing to promote the cause. I am also proud to say that my corporate partner and sponsor, D’Addario Bowed Strings, has also jumped on board and has generously participated in preparing instruments for our young students to use. The will certainly be set up with wonderful instruments as a result of D’Addario’s generosity and the generosity of many other organizations and individuals.

One of the models that El Sistema uses is the concept of each student being part of the “CATS” model of teaching and learning. “CATS” stands for Citizen, Artist, Teacher, and Scholar. When I heard the acronym for the first time, it resonated with me on so many levels. In many ways, this has been the model that I have used with my students for almost 25 years of teaching. But, it was never stated so clearly and succinctly for me before my work with El Sistema USA.

For my students at NCSSM, I want you to take some time to think about the challenges that this model offers us. It is easy to think your job as a member of an orchestra or a class is fairly one-dimensional. That is, to assume that you are to come to class, participate fully as a musician and student, and move on to the next class. But here at NCSSM, we want to challenge you to be so much more than that. We want you to be engaged in class. We want you to own the environment. And we want you to pursue scholarly excellence in all that you do. So, let’s look at each word in the acronym and consider them individually and collectively.

First, we encourage you to be a CITIZEN. We expect you to own your citizenship. With citizenship comes responsibility. We expect you to care about the environment from start to finish. What does that entail? Citizenship, to me, equates to affirmative community membership – encouraging others, leading when appropriate, following when appropriate, caring for the injured, supporting the weak, loving the unloved. It requires a lack of self and a concern for others. In short, ask not what your organization can do for you. Ask what you can do for it and the good of the whole.

Next is ARTIST. It may seem like a reasonable expectation that a member of a musical organization or class be expected to act and think like an artist. Personally, I never really became comfortable with the notion that I was an artist until well into my adult musical years. I am not sure that I was ever really encouraged to think that way. Or, if I was, it was never really articulated in a way that I understood or incorporated into my life in a meaningful way. What is it to be artist? One definition claims that an artist is one who is able by virtue of imagination and talent or skill to create works of aesthetic value. So, an artist must be imaginative, talented, skillful, creative, and aesthetically inclined. One who is interested in aesthetics is interested in the creation of beauty. I believe it is my job to encourage you in all of these ways. When you are truly using your imagination, talents, skills, and creativity with a goal towards creating beauty and moving people’s emotions, you are on your way to being an artist.

TEACHER: On the surface this is a curious one. After all, you are, by definition, a student. First off, trust me when I tell you that I have learned ten times as much as a teacher than I ever did as a student. When we teach, we really must understand process. We have to much more clearly define objectives and goals. We have to exhibit patience, too. When students teach, they develop much deeper understandings of the processes that they are going through. Students teach every day. Just ask my seniors. I look to them to set a tone in the classroom. A section in an orchestra is always better when there are a strong front couple of stands. They are modeling for the rest of the section. They are, for all intents and purposes, teaching. And every player can in some way, teach their stand partner from time to time. We teach when we do it right and we can also teach when we do it wrong. I have learned a great deal from less-than-exemplary models in my lifetime. We must all be teachers.

Finally there is the aspect of being a SCHOLAR. I would seem to be a no-brainer that we should be scholars. But, I want you to bring true scholarship to everything that you do, including orchestra. Again, how often I see students that come to class just expecting to go through the motions on a given day. That is not true scholarship. Scholarship requires a thirst for knowledge that has been accumulated by many over the years. It includes a desire for accuracy, an appreciation for history, a respect for the science, and understanding of the mathematical principles, a desire to comprehend the theory of everything that we undertake. True scholarship requires academic curiosity and academic enthusiasm. Do you bring scholarship to every rehearsal that you attend?

I understand that these are lofty goals. They are all-encompassing. They are a challenge. But why would one want it any other way. You are here to “accept the greater challenge.” So here it is. Adopt a fundamental commitment to the “CATS” model of learning. Every day, in every class, in every endeavor, I encourage you to be a Citizen, Artist, Teacher, and Scholar. Let me know when you succeed. I will celebrate with you!



Thursday, August 19, 2010

Christian Howes: Out of the Blue

Hey everyone!
Check out the new CD from my friend and extraordinary violinist, Christian Howes.

August 10th marks the release of his newest album, "Out of the Blue" on Resonance Records featuring the legendary jazz and blues guitarist, Robben Ford. Also on the album: the amazing organist and pianist, Bobby Floyd; Joel Rosenblatt on drums and Ric Fierabracci on electric bass;bBassist Kevin Axt, and Chris' labelmate, Tamir Hendelman, a genius of a pianist and arranger.

You can get a free download from the new CD by clicking here :

And I know this is crazy, but he has decided to offer anyone who posts this link to his blog about the new album and tour (Twitter, Facebook, your own blog, or wherever you wish to share it) a FREE CD from his back catalog.

All you have to do is email me a link to the page you posted on, and we'll send you a zip folder with 10 free songs!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Welcome to the 2010-2011 School Year

Hi all!
Today's post is specifically for the 2010-2011 NCSSM Orchestra, but I would encourage all to read on. There may me a thought or two here for others of you in education, music, or other fields as well.

We are at the beginning of a new school year. Today is the first day of class for the NCSSM Orchestra. The room will be filled with anticipation. We will all meet each other for the first time, find out what instruments everyone plays, learn where each other are from, and find out what to expect from the 2010-2011 orchestra experience. The excitement will be palpable!

By the time my students read this, the first meeting will have occurred and hopefully most that is true. So, now what? Sit back and wait for the next rehearsal? After all, that will be our first "playing day;" the day that we actually unpack instruments and make music for the first time.

Rather than simply waiting, I want you all to consider the upcoming year for a bit. I want you to think about your expectations for the year in orchestra. I want you to think about your contributions to the upcoming year in orchestra. What will you give to the ensemble and the experience? What will you take away from the experience?

I grabbed this idea from one of my favorite books, The Art of Possibility, by Ben and Rosamund Zander. The chapter entitled "Giving an A" outlines the notion that grades in a course often say so little about the work that has actually been done by a student. That, in fact, grades simply compare one student to another and that competition can put a strain on the classroom community and often consigns students to a more solitary academic journey. The Zanders, rather, write instead about focusing energy on "chipping away the stone and getting rid of whatever is in the way of the student's developing skills, mastery, and self expression." The real question to be asked is, "What are YOU going to bring to the table to receive that A?"

So for my class, here is your assignment. I want you to think about how you are going to feel at the end of this school year in the most idealistic of terms. I want each of you, in the next week, to write me a letter. I want it to be dated May, 2011. I want you to begin the letter with the words, "Dear Mr. Laird, I had a great year in orchestra because ..." Don't use phrases like "I hope," I wish" or "I intend." Rather, I am interested in the person that you have become, the musician that you have become, the attitude that you have developed, the feelings that you felt, and what you have done to become the person you wished to be. Fall passionately in love with the person you are describing in the letter.

For those of you that are not my students, I encourage you to write the same letter to yourself. After all, you ultimately will be the one giving yourself the grade for the upcoming year. Think about who you want to be at the end of the school year. What are your expectations of yourself? What are the mountains that you want to climb? What personal goals will you achieve and how will you feel about your successes and failures in the upcoming year.

I recently heard a really cool statistic. This is from The Center for Creative Leadership, Greensboro, NC as adapted from their document, Goal Setting: A Motivational Technique that Works

. It is as follows: If you set a goal, there is a 6-8% chance that you will achieve that goal. If you set a goal AND write it down, it jumps to a 25% chance that you will achieve it. If you set a goal, write it down, and share it with a friend, there is a 55%-60% chance that you will achieve it. Finally if you do all of the previous things and ask a friend to hold you accountable, there is an 80% chance that you will achieve that goal. This is remarkable, isn't it?

Through this assignment, you will accomplish the 25% range. Maybe you could share it with some friends and increase that percentage.

For today, I want you think creatively and passionately. Let your hopes and expectations for the coming year at NCSSM or wherever you are flow freely. Write it down in a letter to me. My bet is that you will exceed your expectations and dreams. I have seen it happen before. I know it will happen again.

Best wishes to all of you for a successful 2010-2011 school year!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Colorado ASTA and Coloroado American Bandmasters Summer Convention

Greetings to my new friends at the Colorado ASTA and Colorado American Bandmasters Summer Convention in Denver. It is great to be speaking with you all today and tomorrow. I sincerely hope that I can give you some food for thought over the next two days and truly look forward to getting to know you all and hearing about the great things that are going on in the Colorado Music Ed community.

I am looking forward to my sessions and hope that you can attend one or more of them.
They are:
*Inspiring the Net Generation Music Student with Instructional Technologies
*Sound Innovations by Alfred
*Inspiring Students with New String Technology
*Science and Math in the Music Classroom

Please drop me a note if you get to my blog at some point and let me know you were here.
Best wishes for a successful conference!
I look forward to seeing you over the next few days.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Flight Delayed - Time for a Book

Hi all. This summer, I find myself doing a good deal of traveling and, as a result, I am pleased to be catching up on some long overdue reading while on flights. My reading list for the summer is pretty long and it includes a number of books that have been recommended to me over the past several months, as well as some new potential gems that I have discovered.

Last night, as I sat on a flight from RDU to JFK that lasted much longer than it should have, I cracked open the NY Times Bestseller, Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. Many friends that know of my reading habits and general thought life have recommended this one to me and I was long over-due to pick it up. I read his previous efforts, The Tipping Point and Blink, several years ago and knew that this would be one that I would enjoy and find several useful points within. As it turned out, I was able to go cover to cover as a result of crowded air traffic over NY City and a slow ground crew at JFK. Fortunately, I had a good book to occupy my time.

This book has been the topic of many a conversation in recent months and I am sure that many of you are familiar with two of the primary topics of the book. First, there is the 10,000 Hour Rule. This is the notion that in order to truly be an expert at anything, one must invest a minimum of 10,000 hours into the activity. Secondly, the Matthew Effect, which centers on the Canadian youth Hockey Leagues and the fact that the vast majority of kids that make it to the pros were born in Jan, Feb, or March! As an instructor at a school for academically talented kids and as a Dad, both of these concepts are fascinating and well worth the time spent reading the book. I had been in conversations with friends and colleagues on several occasions this year about both of these issues and must admit, I didn’t realize that they were from this book. I believe that these two concepts are certainly the two that resonate with the American public today and have driven the book’s popularity.

These topics, however, were not the primary points for me. There were two ideas in the book that really resonated with me. The first was a result of some studies on a community in Pennsylvania where the incidence of heart disease was exceedingly low. Researchers sought explanations for this health anomaly, seeking some explanation for the fact that this community was full of “outliers.” The best way to summarize the findings is to simply say that they were healthier due to their community. This was a place where three and four generations of family and friends lived together, in work and in play, in a nearly perfect world that they had created for themselves, in a “powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world.” Now, those of you that know me well, or read this blog regularly, know that I believe in the power of community. I believe that our best work gets done when we are happy in the social structure of our environment. We are absolutely at our best, most creative, and most productive when our community is strong. This study of a group of outliers seems to support this idea in a very strong way.

A later chapter of the book presented data on a variety of trends among Jewish immigrants and the garment industry in New York in the early 1900’s. It is quite involved and I won’t go into all of the details here. (You can read the book for that!) But, as part of that chapter, Gladwell notes three qualities that lead to satisfying work, and ultimately, success. They are autonomy, complexity, and a relationship between the effort and the reward. He goes on to make the point that money is not one of the three “drivers” of this concept, although many that find these three criteria as part of their work make a great deal of money. Work that fulfills these three criteria is meaningful.

Think about these three criteria. Autonomy: My son is 13 years old. He is mowing 4 lawns this summer for spending money. He gets to decide when he does his work. He can do it early in the morning, before it is too hot, he can go to soccer practice in the morning, rest in the afternoon, and do it later in the day if he wishes. He can do all four in one day or spread them out over a week’s time. He has autonomy. It sure beats being tied to a summer schedule that is rigid and inflexible. Trust me; the same is true for adults. I see it all the time. Complexity: Humans want to be challenged. Humans need to be challenged. We want to find careers that are interesting and engaging in a variety of ways. I think this is one of the reasons I love conducting orchestras. I never do the same thing twice. Every rehearsal is different and unique. I am continually challenged by the complexity of the activity. Relationship between effort and reward: Simply stated, the harder we work, the greater the reward. When we burn the midnight oil, we see a palpable result. Gladwell sums this all up nicely when he says, “if you work hard enough and assert yourself, use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.”

So, for those who are choosing careers right now, or coming to NCSSM in the fall, or in the midst of summer vacation, or just surfing the blogs, give this a little bit of thought. I highly recommend the book, Outliers. It is a quick read and provides some really interesting food for thought. I wonder what I will read on my flight back home.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Positions Available at EVS!

I received a phone call late last week from my friend, Blaise Kielar at the Electric Violin Shop in Durham, NC. He is getting the word out that he has at least one open position that he would like to fill. This would be a sales position, but he is interested in filling it with a string teacher that has lost their job recently due to budget cuts.

The Electric Violin shop is a small violin shop, run by musicians, that boasts the world's largest selection of electric bowed string instruments from nearly every manufacturer. These are great folks with a real passion for electric bowed strings and for education.

So, if you are finding yourself out of work due to budget cuts in education or know of someone that fits that description, contact The Electric Violin Shop today!


PS -
I just received this note from Blaise:
Career Opportunity at Electric Violin Shop
We have two full time openings for a musician with experience in retail, lutherie, or strings education. Join our team to serve our domestic and international customers through e-commerce, phone, and walk-in sales. Ours is a growing and exciting musical specialty, with job satisfaction and variety of duties not found in many professions.
In 1978, I answered a newspaper classified in Philadelphia for a ”Violin Maker with trade school experience.” The job description confused me, for there were only three places I knew of in the world that trained violin makers, and they were not what I considered a trade school. Bill Moennig invited me for an interview, and it became clear immediately that I was not suited for that position. However, he later offered me a place in the Bow Department. I was relieved to change careers from searching for a musicology teaching position (which was not going well!) to working with my hands. I learned my new skills (yes, it was after all a trade) and then, with a partner, opened the first violin shop in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
As times changed, I opened my own shop, and added electric violins, seemingly to satisfy my own selfish interests. The rest, as they say, is history! Electric Violin Shop has grown organically into one of the most interesting niche businesses in the world, by carefully answering each player's questions about how best to be heard in an amplified setting.
So if you, or anyone you know, might be interested in educating musicians about string amplification through superior customer service, please contact me. North Carolina is a beautiful place to live, with affordable housing still available!
And, thank you for placing your trust in EVS as your source for electric strings gear!
Blaise Kielar
Read the full job description, here.
PS - Duncan is moving to Galveston, where his wife landed a teaching position, and Mike is switching careers to his first love, choral music.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Music Instinct

A couple of nights ago, I was killing some time, flipping through the channels, looking for something to watch on TV. I ran across a PBS Special that was absolutely fascinating. The Music Instinct was premiering that evening and encompasses a number of areas that really interest me. Those of you that read my blog regularly, know that two books on music and the brain have really grabbed my attention in recent years: This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin; and Musicophelia, by Oliver Sacks.

Well, this special expands on both of these books and tackles a variety of related issues dealing with music, learning, and the operations of the human brain. This is a great primer for anyone that may be interested in these topics, but doesn't have the time to dig in to these interesting books. I would also encourage educators to check out the link to the show's website above. It contains several video clips, resources for teachers, a bunch of applicable links, and a variety of other resources.

Here is a excerpt from the PBS description of the show:

Researchers and scientists from a variety of fields are using groundbreaking techniques that reveal startling new connections between music and the human mind, the body and the universe. Together with an array of musicians from rock and rap to jazz and classical, they are putting music under the microscope.

“The brain is teaching us about music and music is teaching us about the brain,” says Levitin.” Music allows us to understand better how the brain organizes information in the world. There are a lot of different factors that go into our emotional appreciation of music [like] the memories we have of a particular song that we heard at a particular time in our lives.”

Internationally renowned performers Bobby McFerrin and cellist Yo-Yo Ma describe the way musical intervals are used or combined to create melody and harmony. McFerrin, together with the “World Singers,” sing a cappella to demonstrate that basic elements of music; pitch, tempo, rhythm and melody create specific reactions in our brains. Yo-Yo Ma plays two notes and then five more notes and then plays different combinations that demonstrate the way musical intervals are combined to create a melody or harmony.

Percussionist Evelyn Glennie encounters music in a unique way, as fundamentally a “physical phenomenon.” Profoundly deaf, Glennie “hears” music not through her ears, but by feeling vibrations through the floor and in her body: low frequencies through her legs and feet; high sounds in particular spots on her face, neck and chest.

Rock stars Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley were asked to participate in a new experiment to reveal the difference in the brain when two people perform music together – as opposed to solo. Neuroscientists wonder how two brains interact since music is fundamentally a social activity. Cocker was asked to enter a fMRI machine, while Hawley played his guitar in the room. When the Scan was analyzed it showed a measurable difference in brain activity when Cocker sang alone compared to when he sang with Hawley playing guitar. During the duet, Cocker’s brain was more active in areas for phrasing and coordinating music as well as cognitive and emotional interaction.

Research also shows that music has enormous potential to help explore the complexities of human brain function. For example, there’s a strong connection between the auditory and motor regions of the brain, and music seems to engage the motor system in a way that other modalities do not. People with motor disorders like Parkinson’s disease have improved their ability to walk while listening to a rhythm track, and stroke patients who have trouble with speech show signs of improvement when they receive music therapy. And there’s new evidence that music can actually change the physical structure of the brain – a fact that has critical implications for both education and medicine. One thing is clear, proven and agreed upon; music has a profound capacity to influence and alter the human experience.

I would encourage everyone to check this one out. It is appropriate for musicians, teachers, students, administrators, arts advocates, and anyone that has been impacted by music at some point in their life. I also happen to know that it is available for free if you are a member of Netflix.

Seek this one out. You will be gripped!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Lamar Stringfield Summer String Camp and NS Design Instruments

Hi all! Today, just a quick note about the Lamar Stringfield String Camp and NS Design Instruments.

For the past two weeks, Meredith College in Raleigh, NC has been hosting the Lamar Stringfield String Camp, a day camp for students to focus on string playing, technique, and ensemble playing. Students may attend for 1 or 2 weeks and the camp is open to students ranging in age from early elementary students through high school age students.

As part of the final concert on Friday, Orchestra Conductor, Kirk Moss programmed a really cool funk tune called Mercy, Mercy, Mercy (By Josef Zawinul, arranged by Bert Ligon, and published by Latham Music) that includes several open sections for improvisation. Kirk invited me to play on the tune and opened it up for student solos as well. As part of that performance, my son, Matt (in the photo on the right), and violinist Jacob Henderson (in the photo on the left) jumped in on the fun and performed improvised solos on their NS Design Wav violins. The performances was really well-received and the Wavs were perfect for the guys.

Thanks to NS Design for making such great instruments and making performances like this possible for so many!


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Universal Online

Hey all -
I have added a new blog to my blog list. It is The Universal Online. It is an online radio show, hosted by Tom Maxwell, formerly of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. My friend, Thom Canova will be engineering the project. Tom will be interviewing musicians on the show and has started with the Old Ceremony and then did a fantastic interview with my friends, Lost in the Trees. I had the pleasure of working in the studio with Tom a little over a year ago as part of a string quartet. It was a fun experience and I love the spirit of this project. I hope that you will check it out!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

String positions!

For my friends in string education:

New Hanover County, NC (Wilmington area) is undergoing some changes and movement this year. They have opened a new middle school and will be obtaining a new orchestra position for the fall! They also have a vacancy at Hoggard High School in NHCS. Although the position postings have been put into processing, they won't actually post until July. The arts supervisor has given us all the official "go ahead" to send out the word.

The jobs that will be available will most likely be:
Noble Middle School (close to Wrightsville Beach) and Holly Shelter Middle School (Castle Hayne)
Both orchestras will have enrollments of around 50 each. Holly Shelter is a new facility with a small 300 seat auditorium; Noble has great parental support and has the highest academic achievement in the county. This program needs someone energetic and committed to continue growth.

Myrtle Grove Middle School (Monkey Junction area) and E. Ashley High School (Carolina Beach)
The middle school orchestra has an enrollment of around 50 students and the high school has enrollment of close to 70 students. Myrtle Grove MS is a program that is still growing and needs continued support. Ashley High School is an impressive facility and the school is attached to a 1,000 seat auditorium. I've heard the administration at AHS is very supportive of the arts.

If you know anyone interested, they need to apply online with NCDPI and send resumes to Georgeann Haas, Arts Education Supervisor. Teachers love their job there, and they are really supported. Local benefits and salary schedules can be found at www.nhcs.net.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


For those of you that check out my blog regularly, you know that I have written about honest musical performances. As a listener, you can just feel it. It takes an honest and trusting person to truly give an honest musical performance. Take a minute to check this one out. This is just such a sincere performance of Bruch's Kol Nidrei.

Monday, May 31, 2010

NCSSM Concerto Concert, May 2010

Hi all.
Many of you know that the annual NCSSM Concerto Concert was held about 2 weeks ago at our school. I am so proud of the orchestra and all of the soloists. I'd love to share the performances with you. So, over the next week or so, I will post each of the 5 soloists here on my blog. If you would like to check out all of the soloists at one time, they can be found on the NCSSM Fine Arts Youtube Channel.

The first is Oboist, Suna Li. this is Movement 1 of the Vaughn Williams Oboe Concerto. It is a beautiful piece and Suna does a great job with it, as do the strings!

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Lesson Room

Hi all!
Today I want to give you a little bit of insight on using the new teaching resource from D'Addario, www.thelessonroom.com.

This new resource is an exciting tool that can be used as a supplement to any solid instrumental music program. It is populated with video and other content that can be used by instrumental teachers, regardless of the method book or curriculum that they are using. Students can find good lessons that cover technique and ideas, taught by master teachers in an easy-to-use, free package.

In the coming months, we will be populating this site with solid video instruction on violin, viola, cello, bass, and guitar that you can use in your classes or as a resource for homework. We also anticipate that teachers will be able to use these videos to enrich their own understanding of the nuances of the individual instruments and techniques. Or, maybe to just pick up a tip or trick to use in their own teaching.

Much of the instruction on violin and electric violin is already there and can be found at this link: http://www.thelessonroom.com/LessonRoomResourceLibrary.Page?query=laird

Our planned content includes the following:

Introduction/Explanation: Scott Laird, NC School of Science and Math
1. Welcome
2. Students: How to use
3. Teachers: How to use

Violin: Scott Laird, NCSSM
1. First Year Technique
a. Playing position – Seated and Standing
b. Left Hand set up
c. Right Hand (Bow hand) Set-up
d. First year finger patterns
i. Upper strings: 2/3, ½, 3/4
e. Basic Note Reading
f. Rhythmic Patterns
g. Long tones
h. Tuning Tutorial (how pegs work, tuners vs. fine tuners, getting in tune)
2. Second Year technique
a. Finding third position
b. Finger Patterns
c. Shifting
d. Major Scales (with or without music)
e. Changing strings

Viola: Scott Laird, NCSSM
1. First Year Technique
a. Playing position – Seated and Standing
b. Left Hand set up
c. Right Hand (Bow hand) Set-up
d. First year finger patterns
i. Upper strings: 2/3, ½, 3/4
e. Basic Note Reading
f. Rhythmic Patterns
g. Long tones
h. Tuning Tutorial (how pegs work, tuners vs. fine tuners, getting in tune)
2. Second Year technique
a. Finding third position
b. Finger Patterns
c. Shifting
d. Major Scales (with or without music)
e. Changing strings

Cello: Mira Frisch, UNC Charlotte

1. First Year Technique
a. Playing position – Seated and Standing
b. Left Hand set up
c. Right Hand (Bow hand) Set-up
d. First year finger patterns
e. Basic Note Reading
f. Bow Placement and use
g. Tuning Tutorial (how pegs work, tuners vs. fine tuners, getting in tune)

2. Second Year technique
a. Extensions
b. Shifting
c. Major Scales
d. Changing strings

Bass: Paul Sharp, University of North Carolina School of the Arts
1. First Year Technique
a. Playing position – Seated, Standing, Bent Endpin
b. Left Hand set up
c. Right Hand (Bow hand) Set-up – French and German
d. Basic Note Reading
e. 1/2 steps, whole steps, introduce 1/2 and 1st position,
f. Early scales: G, C, D, and F and Bb

g. Early thumb position
h. Basic Instrument set-up
i. Tuning Tutorial (how pegs work, tuners vs. fine tuners, getting in tune, harmonics?)
2. Second Year technique
a. Simandl and Rabbath method
b. Advanced thumb Position
c. Shifting
d. Major Scales
e. Changing strings

Guitar: Todd Miller, Wake County Public Schools

1. First year Technique
a. Finger patterns-basic right hand/left hand technique
b. Natural notes on the guitar
c. Open chords primer and 1st song
d. Intro to Tablature
e. Basic note reading
f. Basic finger Picking
g. Basic Strumming
h. Blues in A

2. Second year Technique
a. Strumming Technique
b. Finger-picking Technique
c. CAGED Concept

Various Round Table Discussions oriented towards teaching and pedagogy.

This content should all be posted by the start of the 2010-2011 school year and we hope that teachers and students all around the country and world will take advantage of the content on the site. We have plans for worksheets, hoework assignments and quizzes as well.

It is definitely an exciting time at D'Addario and we look forward to your feedback on this cool site.


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Underground Caverns

Hi all! the following is a video that was created by the NCSSM Distance Education Department. It centers around a performance of the NCSSM Orchestra and Ligon Middle School Orchestra in Wake County, NC. This was a really cool performance and a marvelous technological and artistic experience for the students of both schools. I think that my music technology friends around the country will be pleased with this one. I hope that you enjoy the video!

NCSSM Music Instructor Scott Laird explains a collaboration with Ligon Middle School Music Instructor Ruth Johnsen. Interactive Videoconferencing was used to conduct 'Underground Caverns for Double String Orchestra' by composer Martha Bishop, a piece specifically written with the built-in latency of videoconferencing in mind. Student musicians from both schools got to experience a unique musical collaboration using IVC technology.

If you are interested in more information on this performance, the following is a link to an interview with Ruth Johnsen from Ligon Middle School that is posted on the WakeCounty Schools website.



Saturday, May 1, 2010

Technology Jones

Lately, I have had the technology jones. April was not a good month for me and technology. My technology at school and at home has let me down and I have a few thoughts as a result of these technology disasters, now that I am on the other side.

First, early in the month, the NCSSM Moodle site, a course management software system, completely crashed. those of you that know me, know that I have COMPLETELY invested in the blended curriculum concept and that crash really handcuffed me in all of my courses. I have created instructional videos for all of my classes I have students taking quizzes and turning in audio projects via Moodle for my recording classes. And, I use it extensively in my orchestra class for instructional videos, distribution of recordings and other related music, as well as for jury sign ups and other purposes. In my piano and guitar classes, it is simply the portal for the entire course organization. So, when it crashed and the backup servers didn't do their job, I lost a ton of information and work. I would estimate that I have something like 50 to 60 hours of work to bring my courses back to a fully functional place. Not to mention the fact that I lost several assignments that students had submitted to me electronically earlier in the term. That makes giving mid-term grades pretty dicey. Not fun.

Second, at about the same time as the great Moodle crash of 2010, i decided to take the leap and purchase a Blackberry. I stepped up my wireless plan to an unlimited DATA plan and picked up Blackberries for both my wife and me. We felt that we had arrived at a place where we really needed to have phones that would provide us with our e-mail and calendars on a portable basis, as well as the ability to get to the web on a moments notice for information purposes. Our scheduling has become so complex that it felt like the right thing to do at this point. No problem - right? Wrong!

In my zeal to get the Blackberry synced up to my computer, I somehow removed all of my calendar info from my laptop beginning in June of this year. Now, for those of you that know me, this is a huge problem. I am booked sometimes as much as 18 months out for various appearances and performances. I am constantly juggling a busy school, performance, and family schedule and pride myself in my organization. This was a DISASTER. I spent the next several days trying to hook up with the nice folks at Sprint. I must say, they were very helpful and after two LONG days of troubleshooting at the store, my data was restored. This situation caused me a ton of stress, at least one sleepless night, and several hours of troubleshooting at this store and at home.

Add these two major catastrophes together with the usual Windows freeze-ups, I-pod battery dieing, cable out, and other day to day tech issues and it was an April to remember.

I think that I could have handled one of the two major tech disasters this spring without much of a problem, but the two simultaneous problems definitely left me with the technology jones.

So, I have a couple of big reminders for everyone today. First: back up your information. This is a hard lesson to learn. We had been assured at school that our Moodle courses were being backed up weekly. It didn't happen. I actually bought an external drive to back up my Moodle pages at Christmas time. It never happened. I also intended to back up my Outlook Calendar. This, too, never happened. We have to do it. We are all relying on technology for the organization of our lives more and more each day. We, as individuals, can't afford to lose it. It isn't that hard and it doesn't take that long. Take a minute today to find out how to back up your Outlook calendar. A quick Google search will give you the procedure.

Second: Listen to the cues that your technology gives you. If things aren't working properly, that is the time to back things up. right now, my fan in my laptop needs cleaned. It has been shutting down intermittently due to overheating and I haven't found the time to get it into our IT guys for a cleaning. I have to make the time. Otherwise, it could spell disaster.

Our technology is so important to us today. I use it for my teaching, my social life, my bookings and performing life, my family schedule, my creativity, and for so much more. Be smart about the way that you care for your information. I know that I have learned the hard way. I am hoping the this season of the "Technology Jones" is about over. As I work today to rebuild my courses, I am hopeful that I won't have to do this again. The ball is in my court.


Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy

Hi all!
I know that this video has made the rounds lately, but I would like all of my students to see it. It makes some really great points.

To my seniors: as you move into this crossroads period of your life, heading off to college and preparing for life after schooling, you will have many opportunities to be a leader. In addition, you will have many opportunities to be the second one to join a movement. That, as the narrator says, is really the hard spot. It takes courage and discernment to know when the potential movement is worthwhile. Be thoughtful about your actions and allegiances. Have the courage to lead and the wisdom to seek out worthwhile endeavors.

This is just a short video, but I hope that you find some value and application in it.