Saturday, March 29, 2014

Let's Climb That Mountain Today

I wrote this article in January, 2010.  I have never published it before today.  I have revisited it several times over the past 3 years and decided that I wanted it included in my blog.  I still feel very deeply about the ideas presented here.  

Anyone who has spent much time with me socially or professionally knows I believe in the power of strong communities. Strong communities are built on close, communicative relationships.  As an orchestra director, I see the performing ensemble as a community, and I believe the best musical results occur when the performers understand the importance of their relationships, both musically and personally.  Relationships are the foundation of great music, great ensembles and strong communities.

 I recently have been thinking a great deal about the two-way relationship that exists between instructors and students and the unique environment NCSSM provides.  Clearly, students at NCSSM, and all institutions, need their teachers.  They rely on their teachers for information, feedback, tutoring, academic and emotional support, recommendations, information on academic opportunities and mentoring among a wide variety of other things.  Yet, in recent weeks, I have become aware of how much we, as instructors, need our students as well.  We certainly thrive on that “a-ha” moment of discovery and how it motivates us to find new and different ways to explain concepts and facilitate discovery learning.  We enjoy the exuberance of our students as they navigate the social and academic landscape of our institution, and we are all aware of the limited amount of time we are given with them. 

I have heard it said more than a few times recently that the best teachers are the ones who are continually learning from their students. I know I go into every day with a true knowledge I am going to learn something new that day, and my students will play a huge role in the learning process.  I believe we, as teachers, need our students’ genuine enthusiasm for our passions. For, without it, our lives wouldn’t be nearly as fulfilling.  As a colleague recently said, when it is working the way it ought to, we are not just filling our students’ cup – they are contributing as well.   

We also sometimes need our students in more tangible ways.    I was pleased to recently attend a conference session where Jacqueline Dillon Krass, one of the pioneers and leaders in the field of string education was speaking.  She is now in her early 90’s and mentioned she needs her students as much as they need her.  And, she had become more aware of it in recent months following knee surgery.  She literally needed her students to help her get around, while confined to a wheel-chair.  During this presentation, I reflected on the relationship NCSSM teachers have with students. I have always believed great education begins with strong relationships between student and teachers. Great communities are built on these relationships. Ultimately, that is what I am speaking about here.

While connecting with alumni has always been important to me, Facebook and other social networking sites have facilitated meaningful daily dialogue and renewed relationships with many former students. As a result of this social media, I have reconnected with students from the past 20 plus years, and I have been humbled and enriched by these rekindled relationships.   I have been in regular touch with students that I haven’t seen or heard from in that time. I am thankful for these renewed relationships. They have brought meaning and new insights to my teaching and life today.

Shortly after the new year in 2010, our community was stunned to learn of the passing of Corey Dunn (’06).  Corey held one of those important places in my life for the time he was here at NCSSM from 2004-2006.  Corey truly was one of those rare students I could tell would be part of my life well after he left NCSSM.  We had a special connection that resulted from common interests and attitudes about life, family, and fun that we both sensed beginning the first day he showed up at my office, bright-eyed and eager to let me know he would be my new work-service student.  I never had Corey in class. He was my work-service student during his junior year, and we stayed in close touch throughout his senior year, spending a great deal of time planning for and participating in the first Team NCSSM MS Bike Tour Event in the fall of 2005.

Corey was an adventurer, and he always had an infectious glint in his eyes.  I told Corey, on several occasions that I often thought my kids might grow up to be like him.  (They looked very similar to Corey – blond hair, blue eyes, and small stature.  And, they have a similar love for action and fun.) And, if they grow up to be like him, I will be thrilled. During his time at NCSSM, Corey and I had many conversations about his life and his adventures with friends and family. He wanted to know about my family, too.  He was interested in my boys, our family life, our activities, and my music.  It was this mutual interest and the type of communication that builds rich relationships.

Corey had an incredible ZEAL for life. I remember asking him one day why he was so fidgety, and he replied, “I just have to keep moving – I have so much energy!”  One of his best friends told a story at his memorial service about a particular day they shared while traveling in Europe. Corey woke up, looked out the window, pointed to a mountain in the Swiss Alps and said, “You see that mountain over there?  We are going to climb it today!” That was Corey.  Every day, there was a new mountain waiting to be climbed just outside the window.

In 2004, when we began to plan the first Team NCSSM bike event, Corey was the first to sign up.  He was so excited to be part of it and his enthusiasm encouraged me through the event. When it was all said and done, only two students participated, Corey and Michael Lavarnway (06), along with faculty members Kevin Cromwell, Michael Reidy and me.   Corey became the center of the event. His boundless energy and eagerness were contagious, and we all fed off his liveliness. He was enthusiastic about every aspect of the weekend, from our 4:00 a.m. departure, to the unlimited food, the camping, the people and the cycling.  He even got a new bike in preparation for the ride.   At the event, Corey rode over 200 miles in two days.  We were all amazed at his approach and were even more stunned when we found out he rode the first day without a pair of bike shorts (which make a long bike ride much more comfortable).  Corey knew he was a pioneer in this event.  Somehow, I think he knew his efforts would keep me going.  They certainly did. In subsequent years, our MS Bike event has grown quite large and we have had much success with Team NCSSM. But, it would have never happened without Corey and the relationship we developed through the event. 

I have thought of Corey a great deal lately. The relationship we shared was a special one, and I am keenly aware of the strong relationships that are developed at NCSSM between students, faculty, SLI’s, staff, and others.   I believe our strength is in our relationships.  Never before have I been so aware of the wonderful things that I learn and gain from my students. Corey has certainly been a part of that awareness.  Today, I think I will climb that mountain.

Teaching Habits of Mind for Young Orchestral Musicians

As orchestra directors and string instructors, we always strive to develop our skills in teaching students how to play an instrument.  We find creative methods and interesting metaphors so they will master the necessary skills.  We ask them to play a lower c natural,” or to “use more bow.”  We, essentially, work every day to help them to develop good playing habits.  We want that good bow hold, playing position, and lovely vibrato to become second nature and completely habitual.  

I have grown increasingly aware in recent years, that in addition to reinforcing all of those good playing habits, the students I encounter are in need of instruction and reinforcement on productive habits of mind during a rehearsal.  In other words, I find that there is a need to instruct them on what to think while playing in an ensemble, when to think about those things, and musical cues to guide them into those lines of thinking.    I divide these concepts into three categories:  dynamic, rhythmic, and technical habits of mind.

First, I find that students need to be reminded that a rehearsal requires an active mind and an interest in the dynamic.  This requires dynamic habits of mind.  Rehearsal is not a passive or reactive endeavor.  It must be full of thought and motion.  Ultimately, it is the players’ responsibility to keep rehearsal dynamic.    I believe that students are empowered by an expectation of active minds.  We live in a culture of the standardized test, and I believe that our best students fall into a mindset of right notes verses wrong notes as opposed to engaging in an active artistic activity while in a rehearsal.  Players must be encouraged to think about their roles in the dynamic nature of each piece.  This may include the direction of the melodic line, the overall energy of the movement, and the dynamic ebb and flow of a piece.  This can be achieved by challenging players to engage visually and to communicate physically with you as a conductor and with each other (much like a chamber musician) within the scope of a piece.  Give small goals, such as, “make eye contact with at least one member of your section, one member of another section, and the conductor during this passage.”  It is also vital to define and demonstrate the purpose of this engagement.  Have students consider what this engagement brings to the sum-total of the performance for both the listener and performer. 

Next, we must teach our students to exhibit thoughtful rhythmic habits of mind.   These include noting which section of the ensemble is driving the rhythm, listening to the static or dynamic nature of each voice of the arrangement, and making decisions about when to establish visual contact with the conductor and other members of the ensemble.  So many conductors only ask students to look up at particularly difficult passages and tempo changes.  I would argue to it is equally important to establish contact with the conductor and other players during repetitive passages, including repeated eight notes and long sustained passages.  There are numerous exceptional times to engage with other musicians and affirm the collective rhythm and ensemble beyond times of tempo change.

Technical habits of mind include a variety of decisions that musicians must make from the sight-reading stage of preparation until the time of performance. This may include thinking of appropriate fingerings for seemingly simple passages and trying them out in the context of rehearsal.  It also includes considering appropriate bow placement for passages and comparing their bow placement to others in the section.  Bow direction based on the phrasing and rhythm of the work and comparison to others within and outside the section also falls into the technical category. Thinking about specific pitch issues and the function of each note that is played within the harmonic structure of the piece is also included.  Technical habits of mind include the process of marking parts as well, including simple markings as reminders where a part may be just slightly counter-intuitive.

These are just a few examples of habits of mind that are essential to the well-rounded ensemble musician.  By categorizing them as dynamic, rhythmic, and technical, we can aid students in focusing on these important habits.  I encourage you to consider these as you play in ensembles and as you bring that experience to your work in front of your own ensemble.  

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

My blog is safe again!

Hi friends.
Some of you had let me know that there was malware attached to my blog.  After a couple of weeks of no luck in trying to get it removed, it is safe again.  I am sorry for the hassle.  We should be good.  Please let me know if this site re-directs you to something else.  At this point, we are good.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

An Explanation of My Orchestra Tuning Procedure: My Twist on Cross-tuning

In recent weeks, a number of folks have asked me to detail my orchestral tuning procedure. So, I will do my best here to describe and explain my routine for tuning a string orchestra.  This is sometimes called cross-tuning, but I think I have some ideas that make my procedure particularly effective.

In this routine, students will develop listening skills and particularly listen across the classroom, establish and develop greater eye contact with the conductor, tune their instrument with a general "A," assess their tuning in relation to those around them, settle into the work of the day with a thoughtful tuning, work as part of an effective ensemble, and practice tuning their open strings to an open 5th. In the end, this is a tuning procedure, a warm-up routine, and an ensemble development exercise.

To begin, I think it is important that you know this will take a while the first time you do it.  It will take less time each time that you put it into practice, and eventually, it will only take a few minutes at the beginning of class and set you up for much better ensemble intonation throughout all of your rehearsals.

I let students know that the only way it will work is if there is absolutely no talking and that everyone participate fully.  Each individual must stay on track or it really will not work.

We begin with a general "A" and everyone tunes their instruments to the best of their ability.  I don't usually do this for younger groups, but there is no harm in everyone giving it a try!  When tuning to the general "A" encourage all to only tune at  a dynamic of piano.

When everyone is satisfied that their instrument is in tune, sound another "A."  Ask everyone to sound their A in unison, beginning at the tip of the bow.  Allow that they can adjust that A if they need to.  When they know that their A is in tune, have them make eye contact with the conductor.  (About 1/2 of the musicians will need to make small changes to the A.)  When you are satisfied that you have a truly unison A, ask the viola, celli, and bass to move to a "D."  The violins continue sounding their A. The viola, celli, and bass will tune that D while listening to the violin unison A.  When they are satisfied that they are in tune, they should make eye-contact with the conductor.  When you are satisfied that the low D's are in tune, have the violins move to D while the violas, celli, and bass continue to sound their D.  When you have eye contact from all violins, the violas, celli, and bass may move to the G.  When they are satisfied that they are in tune, they should make eye-contact with the conductor.  When you are satisfied that the low G's are in tune, have the violins move to G while the violas, celli, and bass continue to sound their G.  Do the same for the viola and celli C string.  Basses should stay on the G for this, along with the violins.  When finished with the low C, have everyone stop playing for a second or two.  Then, go back to a unison A.  Invariably, some students will need to adjust.  By now, they are really listening.  Have the violins move to their E while listening to the viola, celli, and bass A.  When I have eye contact from all violins, I have the viola, celli, and bass stop playing and we listening to the E in unison alone.  That usually yields some more adjustment.  When that E is in tune, I have the basses drop their open E or harmonic E in below the violins.  At the end, there may be one or two that need to make a few more adjustments.  That is certainly fine.

I think that there are several factors that lead to success with this exercise.  1. Everyone has to be on board.  If even one students pulls away from the group, it won't be successful.  2. The eye contact piece is really important.  It leads to much better visual communication between the conductor and ensemble throughout the rest of rehearsal.  3. Students need to understand that this is a refining exercise.  I have found that my ensembles sound so much more in tune when we use this.  If the open strings don't match, there is little likelihood that the fingered notes will sync up.  4. The procedure must be thoughtful.  If student adopt that attitude and posture, it will work.  5. After the students understand what to do, it should be a non-verbal exercise.  I simply nod to the sections when it is time to move to the next pitch and they know what to do.  the less talking, the better!  It is also great when a student leads the way!

I hope that this helps and it is something you can try in your own ensemble. Let me know how it works for you. it has been really effective for me!


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Lots of Successes at GA All State Orchestra

Hi all -
In my last post, I said I would let you know how the Georgia All State went.  It was great!

It was a wonderful of music-making that had a great feel from the opening minutes of the first rehearsal, right until the last folks trickled out of the hall following the concert.

I just re-read my previous post and really feel that all of those precepts for ensembles were met with great enthusiasm and buy-in.  The culminating performances was fantastic and there were numerous moving moments in the music.  Thanks to all of the folks that had such nice remarks after the concert!

I want to thank everyone at GMEA, the Orchestra Manager Whitney Tinley, and especially all of the wonderful student musicians for making my work so pleasurable.  There were so many smiles and good feelings throughout the weekend.  I really can't express how fulfilling the whole trip was for me.

Now I am home and getting ready for the upcoming ASTA National Conference in Louisville.  I will be part of a team that is teaching the pre-conference session on the new ASTA Curriculum, serving on a panel discussion called "My Passion in Music Education," and doing my new session, "Ten Practical Strategies for Incorporating Electric Strings into Your Classroom."  Should be a blast!!