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.