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 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.