Monday, January 26, 2015

Good = Good: The Challenges of Programming for Scholastic Orchestra

I have been thinking a great deal lately about repertoire and programming for young orchestra and the challenges this task represents for music directors and all of those who have to decide on the type of repertoire students will endeavor over the period of a concert cycle.  A variety of factors go into this decision and the big one, from my perspective, is making decisions regarding the difficulty of the repertoire.  There are really several sides to the decision.

One school of thought is to program repertoire that is easily within the technical capabilities of the ensemble, with a plan to focus more meaningfully on ensemble-building, musicianship, intonation, and performance practice.  This philosophy also opens the door to more advanced students in the ensemble looking down on the repertoire and students, perhaps, claiming they are "bored" with the repertoire.  That being said, I am always ready to challenge those students with advanced musical ideas and concepts.  

Another would be to program music above the heads of the students from a technical perspective with the thought that the students will be challenged throughout the rehearsal process, and thus, motivated to practice and improve as musicians.  The pitfall here is the rehearsal process can be overwhelmed with the act of "chasing notes."  The conductor may never get to the heart of the music-making process and ensemble building so many of us truly enjoy and value. Another possible by-product is a less than satisfying performance.

Those of us who have lived in the Music Performance Adjudication culture understand over-programming is the kiss of death from a grading standpoint.  We have learned it is always a wise decision to go with repertoire that is a little easier so that the judges will hear rock solid intonation, exceptional technique, and well-shaped phrases.  A "superior" rating on a grade III program is more impressive than an "excellent" rating on a grade IV.  

I have been known to utter the phrase, "Hard isn't necessarily good.  Good is always good." to my students over the years.  I think many students (and teachers) fall into the trap of thinking performing a hard piece of music is a worthy goal.  I would submit that simply performing a piece, if the quality is not there, is not a very lofty goal.  As a conductor, I am much more interested in the musical impact a piece has on the audience.  I am convinced that audiences are rarely impressed with the difficulty of a piece, particularly if it is not performed in a aesthetically satisfying way.

So, at this point in this essay, you are probably thinking, "Well, I know where he sits between programming harder music verses easier music for his ensembles." And, in truth, you would be correct for the most part,  But, in recent days, I have been rethinking the degree to which I hold that belief.  Last summer, I had a wonderful conversation with a colleague who teaches applied violin at a major university.  She expressed some concern that another conductor/colleague had programmed music that was too easy for the ensemble they were conducting and that those students weren't being properly technically challenged for the amount of rehearsal time they were given.  She told me stories of her childhood at summer camps where she played music which was way over her head from a technical perspective and it motivated her to work even harder to learn the notes and rhythms, eventually propelling her to Julliard, and a successful career as a violinist.  I must admit, her stories reminded me of similar experiences I had as a student.  I participated in the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Orchestra beginning at age 15 and I know that many of the pieces I participated in were way above my technical capabilities, especially in the early years.  We certainly grow with these challenges.

I was discussing this idea with one of my Humanities Department colleagues today and she reminded me of the phrase, "No Pain, No Gain."  And, frankly, I agree to with the "no pain, no gain" philosophy to some degree.  Back when I was deeply into power weightlifting in the 1980's, we would often remind each other of this precept.  Not pain as in injury, but pain as in struggle.  We all have to struggle to improve.  We had to feel the bump up from one weight to the next.  After a few days of struggle, that weight would not seem so "painful."  Artists must struggle to ultimately communicate.  Struggle is good.  Struggle is essential.  For, only through struggle do we truly grow.  I can remember struggling with violin repertoire over  the years.  I am sure that I am better for it.

So, how does this fit with the idea of programming repertoire for a scholastic orchestra.  Is the struggle my responsibility as conductor.  Or, can I find and reveal the struggle to my students in repertoire that is more readily within their technical capabilities.  Or perhaps, programming requires a bit of both.  

For many years, I have felt that the bulk of the technical stretching should come in the private lesson studio.  The orchestra, I have felt, is for musical and ensemble stretching.  Those of you that know my conducting and rehearsal style, know that I am passionate about building great ensembles.  Students must learn what to listen for, how to think within an ensemble, how to move in an ensemble, how to lead from any chair, how to communicate with each other, the conductor, and the audience, how to refine intonation, and how to shape phrases.  These are always my priorities in rehearsal.  And, chasing notes, just takes away from my opportunity to share my perspective on these important ideas with  the students.  But now, I am softening on this position.  Sometimes, we just have to provide a technical challenge.  

The key to success, I believe, is to also provide tools for succeeding in this struggle.  We must provide practical solutions to technical problems and proper motivation to spend the time that it takes to overcome these difficulties.  We must have a plan.  We must have a system.  For more on my thoughts on systems, see my post from 1/24/15. I don't believe that it is a good idea to simply throw difficult repertoire at a student and not provide tools for mastery.  That is just a bad idea.  I am reminded of the old commercial that featured a 2 year old child looking at a plate with a whole steamed lobster.  The child simply had a look that said, "What am I supposed to do with this?!"  A technical challenge with under prepared students is like the child with the lobster.  We must provide them with the tools to crack that technical shell.  If we can't provide those tools, we shouldn't put the lobster in front of them.  

So, how do we make solid repertoire decisions that challenge students both technically and musically?  How do we select repertoire that encourages the best practices in ensemble playing and musicianship?  I think the answer lies in variety. Young music students must experience the value of the "perfect" performance. They need to experience the thrill of the "push/pull" that creates tension and release in great ensemble music without the fear of wrong notes and sloppy licks.  They need to experience that perfectly tuned chord; the exhilaration of  steady, accurate tempo with clean, accurate runs.  Similarly, motivated music students must have a sense of what they are striving for.  How will they know the goal if they can't see the horizon.  We can certainly provide both.  But it is a constant struggle and we will never be perfect in the endeavor.  All we can do is continue to evaluate and reevaluate the repertoire we select and be willing to admit when we make a mistake.  After all, from the audience perspective, good is good.  Hard isn't necessarily good.  

I promise, I will keep trying.


Updated Dates for the NCSSM Fine Arts Series

Hi Friends.
It has been called to my attention that a couple of the dates for the NCSSM Fine Arts Series that were posted on a previous entry have changed.  The updated dates are as follows:

·         Winter Musical  February 6,7,8 2015
§  7:00 Show on Friday and Saturday
§  3:00 Show on Sunday

·         Masterworks Concert, featuring NCSSM Orchestra and Chorale with Blacknall Church, Feb 13,14,  2015
o    7:00 show in Friday at NCSSM
o    7:00 show on Saturday, Blacknall church

·         Winter Music Department Concert Feb 15, 2015, 3:00PM (Wind Ensemble, Chamber Music, Jazz)

·         Eastern Regional Orchestra, Feb 20-22, 2015 Concert: Feb 22, 3:00, NCSSM Host

·         Community Dance Concert, Saturday, March 14 , 2015, 7:00 PM

·         All State Jazz (NCSSM Host), April 10,11, 2015, ETC Auditorium

·         NCSSM Jazz on Courtyard April 18, 2015, Noon (Welcome Day)

·         Spring Drama Production: A Weekend of Shakespeare, May 15,16,17, 2015
§  7:00 Show on Friday and Saturday
§  3:00 Show on Sunday

·         NCSSM Annual Concerto Concert, May 8, 2015, 7:00 PM

·         NCSSM Music Department Spring Concert May 16, 2015, 3:00 PM

·         Spring Choral/Vocal  Department Mother's Day Recital, May 10, 3:00 PM, 2015
o    Featuring NCSSM Chorale and Voice Students

·         Spring Unichords Concert, Tuesday, May 19, 6:30 pm, ETC Lecture Hall

·         NCSSM Chamber Music Recital – TBA, PM performance in ETC 140

or  and follow “NCSSM Calendar” and Fine Arts Series

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Anatomy of Effective Pedagogy

In recent weeks and months, I have been preparing for my session at the upcoming ASTA Conference.  I am doing a session entitled Finger Patterns as a Vehicle for Upper Positions and Major Scales.  This is a session that many folks have participated in over the years, but I have added a great deal to the content for this session at ASTA.  In preparing the session, I have really been thinking about what makes this strategy effective.  In doing so, I have come up a model for effective pedagogy that I want to share today.

As I think through much of the pedagogy and many techniques that I use, there are some common pieces that I have found to be effective over the years.  My finger pattern strategy employs these and I believe that is the reason I find it to be so effective.  So, here is the model.  Effective pedagogy, in my opinion, should include the following:  It must be a SYSTEM. It must be SEQUENTIAL.  It should include clear, descriptive NOMENCLATURE. It must then put the material into CONTEXT. Let's explore each of these categories.

First, any pedagogical concept should be delivered via a SYSTEM.  We have to have a plan.  I see so many folks try to come at ideas and concepts from a variety of angles without a true plan for getting there.  I often say that good teaching is really the process of taking the complex and breaking it into smaller simpler parts.  Isn't that true?  In order to practice effectively, we must be willing to break down the piece of music: practice slowly, create etudes out of hard passages, practice the shifts, practice the string crossings with double stops, and many more.  I do that as a conductor as well.  Over the years I have developed a system for almost any ensemble issue from the podium.  Is the group rushing?  I have a system.  Are they out of tune?  I have a system.  Are they not generating a representative tone?  I have a system.  Incorrect bow placement?  I have a system. You get the picture.  So, in my mind, "system" is defined as developing a plan that breaks the complex into smaller, simpler tasks.

Next, effective systems are SEQUENTIAL.  This should  be self explanatory, but not everyone does this in their teaching.  Music is a mastery-based subject.  One must be able to effectively demonstrate or perform "A" before moving to "B."  So many teachers want to jump over steps in order to get to more complex repertoire or techniques.   The sequential nature of music pedagogy is imperative to efficient and rapid achievement.  I believe that this holds true for teaching in many or most subject areas.  But, I know it to be true with music.  Once the student masters the first step, we move on to the next, then the next, etc.  It seems so simple, but it is often forgotten.

NOMENCLATURE is the devising or choosing of names for things or tasks.  We do it all the  time in string education: "Low 2," "up bow," "third position," etc.  Any effective system requires clear, concise and meaningful nomenclature.  We have to be able to refer quickly to the concepts that we teach.  Last summer, I watched a great rehearsal run by my friend and colleague, Liza Grossman at Interlochen.  In order to get her students to sit with a great playing position, she simply said, "Rumps on the Bumps."  At that moment, everyone in the young orchestra slid to the front of their chair and held their instrument in perfect position.  She had developed effective nomenclature for a complex task.  It was brilliant.  So, as you refine your pedagogy, I encourage you to think deeply about the nomenclature that you develop and utilize. Does your set of nomenclature effectively communicate the desired result.

Finally, great teaching of specific ideas or concepts must be put into CONTEXT.  In other words, once we learn a concept, where do we use it?   When do I play in the lower half of the bow rather than upper half?  When do I shift to third position?  How low is low 2?  In my finger pattern session, this comes in the form of incorporating a harmonic underpinning to the etudes and exercises that I will share.  Playing etudes becomes MUCH more musical and in-tune when there is a harmonic underpinning.  In recent weeks, my son has been really spending a great deal of time practicing scales.  He has been using a drone, generated by his smart phone and then sending it to a killer blue-tooth speaker that he has.  While it generally drives me insane while he is practicing, I have heard it make a huge difference in his intonation.  We can put ideas into historical context, harmonic context, rhythmic context, melodic contest, expressive context, etc.  You  get the picture.  Context is so important.  

I encourage you to think about  these as you develop lessons and rehearsals in the coming days and weeks.  Stay tuned for my Finger Patterns as a Vehicle for Upper Positions and Major Scales  session at ASTA and posts in coming months.  I will be providing numerous web resources for students, teachers and parents and I am really committed to this system. There will be resources for all bowed string instruments - not just violin.   I hope that you will find it to be as effective as I have.