Monday, December 19, 2016

Christian Howes Creative Strings Podcast

Today I had the pleasure of being interviewed for Christian Howes' Creative Strings Podcast.  What a blast! I was so excited when Christian called me and asked me to be part of this and today was really a thrill.

The podcast features ideas and interviews with folks from all over the greater string music community. It features artists from both the classical and improvising world, business people, publishers, retailers, and others. in addition, Christian provides lots of great tips on music business, playing gigs, songwriting, social media, and getting known as a musician and artist.

As I said, I was really thrilled to be interviewed for this and to have the opportunity to express a number of my ideas on string and music education, functional musicianship, teaching, eclectic backgrounds, and a variety of other topics.

I encourage you to check out the podcast and many of the past entries. I'm not sure when my interview will go up but I will certainly let you know here at my blog. You can also check out Christian at


Friday, September 23, 2016

Fundamentals Are Critical

I don't know how many of you are football fans. But, if you are, you surely watched the Houston Texans versus New England Patriots game last night on CBS. I was really looking forward to this game . It featured a rookie quarterback for the Patriots going up against one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. I felt certain that the Texans were going to win this game going away and was completely surprised by the Patriots dominance by the end of the game. The Patriots won the game 27-0 and it was for one reason: attention to fundamentals.

When you watch the Patriots play, all of the fundamentals are in place. They tackle well. Their blocking schemes are basic but extremely well executed. They don't try to do too much offensively. They simply dominate with great fundamentals. This translates to wins on a regular basis.

Last summer I was at a picnic with a bunch of my friends from high school. My group of friends includes some fantastic athletes. In particular, my friend Harvey was a standout point guard on our high school basketball team. During a lull in the conversation and festivities, I went out to the basketball court in his driveway and was shooting the ball. I've never been a very good basketball player and that was showing in my shoot around that day. Two of my sons play rec league basketball and I have never been able to coach them very much due to my lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of the game. Harvey came by and I started to ask him about the fundamentals of shooting. He gave me a few tips . He told me to square my shoulders to the hoop, to set my feet, and to follow through on every shot. These three basic fundamentals completely changed my success rate. Suddenly, I was able to hit jumpers from all over the court at a much higher rate than before.

And so it is the same with bowed string technique. The fundamentals can never be ignored. Even the most advanced students require some reminders of the fundamentals from time to time . For me, and for my students, these include anchoring your feet to the floor, proper left hand and arm position, proper bow technique, and proper bow hold. If a student can master these basic fundamentals, they will be set up for much higher success with advanced techniques.

It is the same with orchestral and ensemble playing. I feel that there are some basic fundamentals for ensemble playing that, when adhered to, precipitate a much higher level performance. These include a well tuned group, feet anchored to the floor and proper seated playing position, effective orientation to the conductor, effective orientation to other musicians, fundamental understanding of uniform bow technique, and a commitment to dynamic contrast. When these basic ideas are in place, an ensemble is much better positioned to perform at a high level.

What fundamentals do you find to be critical? I feel like half the battle is knowing your own perspective on the basics and fundamentals. So many teachers get enamored with advanced techniques, but they neglect the fundamentals. It seems to me that we must be reinforcing fundamentals every single day. I'm sure that the New England Patriots do that. It seems like if it is good enough for arguably one of the most successful franchises in the NFL, then it is good enough for my orchestra. In the end, the most successful teams, athletes, musicians, and teachers, are the ones that make sure the fundamentals are properly taught and internalized for all students. 

As you move into your classroom next week, I encourage you to think about the fundamentals. Encourage your students to think about fundamentals. Where are your priorities? Where are their priorities? I believe that this will yield excellent results for you and your students in a variety of ways!

Best wishes considering these ideas.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


Back in May, I had an outdoor gig at local sports bar/restaurant, Devines in Durham. It was a Saturday night and happened to be prom night for my school, the North Carolina School of Science and Math.  Throughout the evening, I was delighted to notice lots of my students coming out of other area restaurants, on their way to the prom following dinner.  Many of them stopped in order to hear me play a bit and take photos of me and my fellow musicians.  The crowd that was at the bar to hear me play could see the joy and fun in the students eyes of seeing their music teacher in a performing setting, outside of school.  What a fun experience for all!

Today I am thinking about the importance of maintaining a life as a performing artist while pursuing a career as a music educator. In the weeks around that performance, I was involved in a series of interviews, seeking a new visual arts instructor at NCSSM. One of our stated priorities for the candidate was that they, in addition to being an exceptional experienced teacher, had a vibrant life as a working artist. We believe that there is true value for students in having a role model that is a working artist. (By the way, we certainly found that person and are thrilled to have her on Faculty today at NCSSM!!)

I have worked hard over the past 30 years to maintain an active performing life. Many of you know that I still perform as a violinist both in the classical and in a variety of improvisatory arenas. I perform regularly in churches, as part of a string quartet, as a solo artist, as a recording artist, and as part of numerous pop and rock bands around Durham & the Triangle region of North Carolina. I also frequently pick up my violin and perform as part of conducting appearances.

I believe strongly that modeling a performing life is a vital part of the educational process. Students want and need to see their teacher actively engaged in the art that they themselves are working so hard to master.

That Friday night was a really cool experience along these lines. I couldn't help but think that this was actually another important part of the educational process for my students. It is not often the students get to see me as my alter ego, improvising violinist. They're used to seeing me in rehearsal, conducting the orchestra, and running the various programs at NCSSM.  In the end, we all have a responsibility to maintain our life as an artist and practitioner in our chosen field. That's how students really learn. They see their mentors doing the thing they love. Students learn by example. And, they find an interest and passion in that same area as their mentors. For those of you that are young music teachers or perhaps even pre-service teachers, I encourage you to set concrete goals for both your teaching life and you're performing life. 

Don't ever let your chops deteriorate to the point that  you won't play for the public. Find time to practice. Find time to perform. And find ways to model your passion and expertise in performance for your students. Build advancing your performing skills into your professional development plans and time.  Use some of your summer time and other breaks for practice, lessons, or other performing opportunities.  You owe it to yourself and you owe it to your students!



Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Pedagogy of Positivity

The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.” ― Charles R. Swindoll Nearly 30 years ago, my wife gave me a framed print of that quote. It has lived on my office wall for my entire career. I have pondered those words on many occasions and feel they are a career-long friend. I have been told I am innately optimistic. It is apparently one of my best assets. I tend to see the glass as half full and embrace the opportunity to solve problems. Yet, we all have our optimism tested on a regular basis as educators. While in college and as a young educator, the concept of "style versus substance" was brought strongly to the forefront for me. While style is important, I became keenly aware it must be backed-up with the substance of solid teaching techniques, pedagogy, and musicality. I began a career journey of balancing the substance which is required of a master educator with my innate positivity that I want to share with students and colleagues. While never having lived or taught in Texas, I have a deep and meaningful connection to the state. I am certain my friend and mentor, Dr. Ken Raessler (1933-2015), former Professor and Director of the School of Music Emeritus at Texas Christian University, would be excited and proud that I am coming to the state he loved so much to present at TMEA in 2017. Dr. Raessler was Supervisor of Music in Williamsport, PA, back in the 1970s and 1980s when I student-taught as a pre-service teacher. Throughout my career, he remained engaged with me, supporting my various endeavors as a music educator and encouraging me to share my ideas with teachers around the country. He was a pivotal figure in my young teaching career, and I continue to owe him an incredible debt of gratitude. Among the many important conversations I had with Dr. Raessler during the time in Williamsport, none were more pivotal to my early teaching experience than our conversations regarding the ratio between a teacher's style and substance. Dr. Raessler always recognized I had a strong musical and performing background too lean on heavily as a teacher. He also encouraged me to find my style and incorporate it properly with my background in technique and performance practice. This consideration has continued to be important for me as I speak with teachers young and old around the country. It also has proven essential as I encounter young string students with a variety of backgrounds and levels of experience throughout any given school year. Content is important, but delivery is often what grabs their imagination! I recently encountered a colleague who had an opportunity to attend a large in-service conference. When I asked her more about the conference, she proceeded to tell me all the reasons she did not want to go. She emanated a negative attitude and seemed to be dreading the opportunity. As I pursued the topic further and asked her more about the details of the conference and her work, she began to articulate all of the wonderful things she contributes on a daily basis and how she might be able to share and learn as part of the conference. She began to consider opportunities for networking, obtaining new content, and implementing new ideas and requirements into her unique situation. Within a 30-minute conversation, her perspective on this professional development opportunity turned from generally negative to incredibly positive. I walked away from the conversation feeling very good that I was able to help her see all of the benefits of this in-service opportunity. But more importantly, I began to consider just how important our perspective is to the students we encounter on a daily basis. Those around us will be more open to our ideas when we describe our work and mission from a perspective of positivity. As we begin the new school year, I encourage you to speak authoritatively. Speak hopefully. And, approach your students, colleagues, and daily tasks with a can-do spirit and approach. It has become abundantly clear to me that when I approach my tasks in this manner, good results follow. With that being said, I am mindful of the fact I am not speaking of simple optimism. Rather, I am referring to a can-do quality true leaders demonstrate on a daily, task-by-task basis. But where does that quality grow from? I am convinced this mentality is a result of meticulous, long-term preparation for all that can possibly go right, as well as preparation for all that could possibly throw us off our planned path. I was reminded of this recently while reading An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield. In this book, Hadfield details the importance of extreme preparation for every possible scenario as an astronaut. Certainly the same is true for teachers. At its core, this is the "substance" I referred to earlier. We must be proactive in our preparation in order to exude positivity and a can-do attitude. When we react in the moment, we undoubtedly get frazzled in crisis. Teachers are dreamers. We dream of the highest expectations for our students' and ensembles' success. The realization of those successes hinges on our ability to prepare and remain ahead of the roadblocks we encounter. Teachers encounter four areas of interaction where this preparation leading to a positive approach regularly comes into play. These include: daily teaching and student interaction, involvement with colleagues, administrative duties, and professional development opportunities. Each of these areas presents its own unique challenges and will test our approach in different ways. There are several ways to accentuate the positive with students in our daily teaching. I have found a great starting point is showing interest in students' outside activities and life outside the classroom. The prepared instructor understands that time caring for individuals is time well-spent. I recently heard a fantastic interview with heralded Kentucky head basketball coach, John Calipari, who referenced what he calls, "You and Us." This is his system which rests on his belief that the power of YOU (student) first leads to US (ensemble) stronger. Secondly, I never understood the old adage that good teachers "don't smile until Thanksgiving." I actually bought into this during my 2nd year of teaching, and it failed miserably. Be prepared and be yourself. Your substance will gain you respect, not a negative attitude. Additionally, master teachers make a point to use students' names every class-period. (The Profile of a Master Teacher (1989) by Bob Culver) They need to know you truly know them and care about them individually every day. A couple of years ago, I noticed some of the wonder and optimism I regularly experienced in teaching throughout my career was not as palpable for me. I had a couple of years of ensembles that lacked top student leadership and, perhaps, I was experiencing a bit of a mid-career lull. At the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, I decided when tempted to quickly and simply say “no,” I would think it over, and try to find a way to say “yes.” This was no easy task. I frequently had to step back and not respond to emails and requests immediately. I found after a few hours, there was always an affirmative option in my response. At the end of the school year, I was pleased to feel a renewed sense of accomplishment and success. I felt like my students responded to me in a much better way at every turn. Of course, this didn't mean simply letting students run all over me. It did, however, mean I was considering every possible way to support and affirm students and their learning experience in and outside my classroom. With colleagues, show a genuine interest in their work and look for opportunities to create interdisciplinary learning opportunities for students. In An Astronaut’s Guide, Hadfield reminds us, “Investing in other people’s success doesn’t just make it more likely that they will enjoy working with me. It also improves my own chances of success.” The ability to think outside the curricular box and get creative with colleagues has been immensely enjoyable and enlightening to my work over the years, and I have found it has enhanced my success both within and outside my institution. I find when we bring our respective expertise on varying disciplines and unique perspectives and passions, magnificent learning opportunities occur in the classroom. Look for common ground with colleagues that don't see eye-to-eye with your teaching style or specialty area. Be aware each of us come from a specific or unique culture and pedagogy and celebrate those differences. Success isn’t proprietary or finite. We can certainly support and encourage each other toward success for everyone. Professional Development opportunities are often the source of negativity when, in reality, they are intended to make us better. Approach institutional professional development exercises with a sense of openness and leadership rather than cynicism. If the material is not appropriate for you, it may be just what one of your colleagues needs. Facilitate their learning and never stand in their way. Enjoy the process and offer your expertise. This is an opportunity to share your ideas and perspectives and lead within your organization. A close colleague once encouraged me to come back from every conference with at least "a really good spinach dip recipe." In other words, the benefits of professional development can come in many packages: a new idea, a new professional contact, an opportunity to help other teachers, or even a well-deserved break from the routine. Administrative Duties can be very similar. These include paperwork, grades and comments, forms, recommendations, and other tasks that pull us from the task of teaching music. Be aware of the importance of these duties and exercise your expertise by performing them well and in a timely manner. This is an opportunity to "lead from within the section" and demonstrate a proactive approach to your colleagues and students. This is certainly noticed by time-strapped administrators and students as they rely heavily on our ability to handle these tasks with positivity and substance. Each of these areas, interaction with students, with colleagues, professional development, and administrative duties make up the majority of our work as music educators. When we are proactive and positive with our approach to the work, we will find true success and satisfaction in the process. I look forward to bringing many of my pedagogical ideas to the TMEA Conference in February and sincerely hope you will find a wonderful "spinach dip recipe" in one of my sessions. I hope, in fact, you find much, much more, and that I can bring a great deal of substance and information to the string teachers of Texas.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

More Habits

A few weeks ago I published a post entitled Five Habits of Successful Musicians. A few days after that post was published, I was discussing it with my orchestra at Interlochen. The kids listened with great interest and really took the notes to heart. Following my remarks, the kids begin adding their own suggestions of habits that are important for successful orchestral musicians. I promised them that I would publish them as soon as I had some time to sit down and write the article. So, here it is. More Habits of Successful Orchestral Musicians as discussed by the Interlochen Intermediate Concert Orchestra in the summer of 2016.  The habit and the person that suggested it are in bold, followed by my commentary.

1. Stop playing immediately when the conductor stops conducting. ~Abigail
Nothing derails a rehearsal faster than students playing past the conductor's direction and wastes valuable time. It is such a good habit to stop immediately. Also, by playing beyond the conductor's direction, there really is a question as to whether the musician is truly mentally with the ensemble. Great advice!

2. Listen to each other at all times. ~Yael
It seems so simple. But, listening is key. So often, students get tied up in reading the notes and the part that they forget to listen. This habit must be developed very early in a young musician’s life.

3. Mark Your Parts independently without being prompted. ~Alma. 
Student who mark their parts independently are clearly demonstrating that they're thinking independently. Ultimately, that is the goal in any orchestra rehearsal. We want students to be independent musicians that are tied into the greater good of the group. And, we want them to mark their part so much that it will be impossible for them to make the same mistake the next time.

4. Ask questions when you are confused. ~Julietta.
This is such great advice. So often, if the student has a question, they worry about being the only one with that question. The fact is, if one student has a question, probably many are thinking the same thing. As hard as conductors try to be clear, sometimes it just doesn't happen. Ask questions when you're confused. More than likely, others need that answer as well.  We can handle it!

5. Practice the most difficult parts first outside of class. ~Charlie.
Human nature is funny. We want to practice the things that sound the best. The fact of the matter is that we don't need to practice the stuff we already can play. Go directly to the most difficult passages and practice them first when your attention is at its highest. Practice them slowly and accurately. Then go back and play the stuff that you can play well and like to play. Those passages are much better held until later in the practice session.

6. Make a plan for turning Pages. ~Katelyn.
So often, student musicians turn pages way too late. The inside player should always stop well in advance of the page turn and be prepared to get that page turned before the downbeat of the first measure of the new page. It is always the inside player's responsibility. Anytime the outside player feels compelled to turn the page, the inside player has dropped the ball. This is standard etiquette of orchestral playing and should be adhered to in every situation.

7. Be prepared for every entrance two bars early. ~Gloria.
I always instruct my ensembles to have instruments up and ready to play two bars before any entrance. This consistency helps everyone in the section know exactly when to enter. If someone has lost track of a long series of rests to be counted, they can jump back in if the entire section is bringing their instruments up exactly to bars early. Consistency is the key here.

8. Bring water to rehearsal. ~Eva. 
I am not sure that I would have included this in my list. But, at Interlochen where we were making the list, it is close to 100 degrees in many of the rehearsal spaces during the summer months. Hydration is absolutely key for these kids. And, as I think about it, having a bottle of water on the floor is actually a pretty good idea in any rehearsal setting. As long as it doesn't distract from the rehearsal, a sip of water can be quite refreshing in the middle of rehearsal and can actually provide a little bit of extra energy toward the end of a long rehearsal. 

9. Mark your mistakes so you can go back and practice them later. ~Eva.
It is always good to put a little note in the music on passages that need to be reviewed. This, again, demonstrates independent thinking and musicianship. Anything that makes practice more efficient is always welcomed by a conductor!

10. Look through the section not just at the conductor. ~Julietta
Musicians that get in the habit of looking not only at the conductor, but also at the front stand and those around them tend to be the most accomplished ensemble musicians. They should be paying attention to the bow placement of those around them, bow direction, style, articulation, and many other facets of the ensemble's work. This would include those in their own section and those in other sections around them.

11. Breathe into phrases. ~Yael
I always ask section players to breathe into every entrance, just as if they were playing in a string quartet. Every player is the conductor.  That breath and preparation into a phrase is vital to strong ensemble performances. And, it is a great habit to take to the chamber ensemble as well. (By the way, soloists need to develop this as well!)

12. Look the part.   Play the role.  ~Yael.
I always tell students that if they don't look like they know what they're doing, they probably don't. The first step is always to look good in an ensemble. That means sitting on the front edge of the chair, having feet firmly planted on the ground, and holding the instrument in a beautiful, perfect playing position. Other aspects of looking the part include bow hold, position relative to the conductor, general posture, and many others.

I hope that you find these helpful and encourage you to share them with your students.  What have we forgotten?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section.  

Best wishes for a successful 2016-2017 academic year!!


Sunday, August 7, 2016

ICO 2016 Interlochen Final Concert

Before I close the door on my 2016 Interlochen experience, I want to make sure that I say a few words about the repertoire that I selected for our final concert of the season. That concert actually took place several weeks ago.  I am sorry I didn't post about it prior to the performance. I do, however I encourage you to check out the audio recordings of the concert at the Interlochen Public Radio website. I will attach the link here as soon as it is available.

For this concert we did 5 selections.

We began the program with Mandolina by Gabrielle Faure, arranged by Tom Sharp. Those of you that know me, know that I frequently perform alt styles works arranged and composed by Tom Sharpe. This, however, is a wonderful piece by Faure, originally scored for piano and soprano solo. Tom Sharpe has brilliantly arranged it for string orchestra. Let me Begin by saying that this is a pretty difficult work. We actually had to modify some of the viola and cello parts to accommodate some of the less experienced players in the Intermediate Concert Orchestra. That said, it was quite easy to transcribe the bass line for these areas of the piece. This work includes beautiful melodies for each section of the string orchestra. It begins with a lovely soaring cello line and then hands the melody off to the violins. The B section is led by the violas. The melody then returns to the cellos  featured on the A' section to the end. I must say that this addition does require a good deal of editing. The bowings also must be modified for young orchestra in order to make the phrasing really speak. Also, it takes some time to really figure out who has the melody at any given moment and how the accompaniment parts fit in underneath the melody. That said, when all assembled, this is an absolutely beautiful work. I would rate this as about a grade 5 piece. It is absolutely stunning when performed.

For our second piece, I continued with the French theme. We performed the Minuet from Le Tombeau de Couperin, by Maurice Ravel, arranged by Carrie Lane Gruselle. I became aware of this work 2 years ago at a new music reading session that ASTA presented in North Carolina. It is a little outside the box of what I would normally Program for young orchestra. Each voice in the string orchestra is very independent and it requires attention to dynamic detail, as well as attention to details in phrasing, bow technique, hooked bowing, and other techniques associated with the impressionistic period. This piece features lovely melodies in each section and requires students to be very cognizant of conductors' nuances in the stick. The B section of this work features a muted string section performing a haunting minor melody.

Third, the orchestra presented the world premiere of Peter Terry's Blindsighted. You can see my notes on this piece in my previous post.

Following that, we performed the world premiere of another String orchestra work. This piece, the Colosseum, by Macenna Hanson held a place very near and dear to my heart. Miss Hanson, you see, was the concertmaster of this very ensemble during the summer of 2015. She approached me at the beginning of the summer of 2016 and informed me that she was now a composition major at the Interlochen Arts Camp. She told me that she had been working on a piece for string orchestra. I offered to read the piece in one of my rehearsals and she enthusiastically accepted the offer. After looking at the score and hearing a midi recording of the work, I offered to spend some time on the piece and see if it might be performable. It became clear very quickly that this piece would be a favorite of the students and myself and we could certainly perform it on the stage of Kresge Auditorium. Of course, Macenna was thrilled and we, in fact, performed the world premiere of that work on our concert. It was such a thrill and pleasure to perform a work by a young composer and see her hard work come to fruition in such a magnificent performance space.

Our fifth and final selection for this concert was Bert Ligon's Bossa Rojo for string orchestra. This is a wonderful, light bossa style piece for string orchestra that features opportunities for teaching articulation, improvisation, and pop style playing for young string orchestras. This piece is a grade 3.5 and is truly a pleasure to perform. The melodies have been stuck in my head for the past several weeks! We decided to feature Interlochen faculty piano instructor, Alejandro Bernard  Papachryssanthou on the electronic keyboard as part of this performance. He added a solo on keyboards that was a true face melter! What a blast! It was a wonderful way to end the 2016 concert season for the Intermediate Concert Orchestra.

Again, I encourage you to check out the recordings of these pieces. I could not have been any happier with our performances. I look forward to continuing to write about repertoire that I select for the various orchestras I am working with in coming weeks and months.

Until next time.



Wednesday, August 3, 2016


This week, on the final intermediate concert of the 2016 season, the Intermediate Concert Orchestra at Interlochen Summer Arts Camp will be presenting the world premiere of Blindsighted for String Orchestra by Dr Peter Terry (Carl Fisher Publishing). This has been a great summer of world premieres at Interlochen and I really think that we have saved the best for last. Peter Terry wrote this work with the Interlochen Intermediate Concert Orchestra in mind and he has really hit the mark with this piece.
It has been a great experience for the students to participate in the process of learning a new piece of music. There is so much that goes into this process that is unique in the ensemble music world. In that it is a new work, I have actually been formulating my opinions and approach to the work as part of the rehearsal process, rather than prior to rehearsals per usual. It has been great for the students to participate in those moments of discovery and decision-making. Some of these moments are very concrete. They might include bowing concepts, tempo decisions, style, articulation, and other clear technical decisions. Additionally, however, there are the more abstract realizations that come as part of living with a work for a period of time. For this piece, this has been the really fun and enlightening part of the process.
As I began to dig into this work, one of my first impressions was that the A section is very angular and geometric in nature. There are clear angular rhythms and ostinati throughout this section which create a somewhat aggressive, almost hard rock, driving impression. The angles and geometric figures are somewhat "black and white" in their presentation. I explained to the orchestra that one of our jobs as an ensemble is to take those black and white figures and begin to make them three dimensional and colorful through the use of dynamics, style, movement, and contrasts in the work.
The slower, more lyrical B section of the work features a small, initial battle between the anglarity of the A section and the softer more muted ideas of the slow middle section. I told the students that the the transition almost reminds me of the process of coming out of a dream state; that moment when you feel yourself waking up but still are pulled back into a dream. I feel like the students really responded well to this concept and will perform it very well with this idea in mind.
As the piece transitions back to the  A' section, that battle between dream state and lucidity reoccurs. Finally, the geometric, angular, dream re-emerges and the piece drives to the exiting end.
Within these changes, it is certainly the orchestra's responsibility to generate dynamics, direction, approaches and arrivals, and interest through articulation, accuracy, and drive.
Yesterday, for rehearsal, Dr. Terry came and listen to some of the work that we have been doing on the piece. In my preparation, I had somehow neglected to look up the definition of blindsighted. As I told Dr. Terry my impressions of the piece, that I have already written about above, a pleasant smile came over his face. He told me that the word blindsighted is actually a reference to the dreams of people that are blind. You can look up this concept at the following link. In the end the impressions that I had of geometric figures, dream states, and 3 dimensional images in the mind, all relate to this title. What an amazing coincidence! I think that Peter and I both felt a real satisfaction in this realization that we had connected on the meaning behind the work based entirely on the music that he had written.
We had a wonderful rehearsal yesterday and the students really gained a significantly deeper perspective through the opportunity to talk with the composer and hear his impressions. He will come to another rehearsal on Friday, too. I loved the fact that he was willing to articulate to the kids that a world premiere only happens once in a piece's life. He really charged them with the excitement and immediate sense of the situation and performance that is in front of them. The students are totally excited to have this opportunity.
He will come to another rehearsal on Friday to conduct the work for the students as well. I will be conducting the world premiere on Saturday, August 6th, 2016, at 4 o'clock in Kresge Auditorium on the Interlochen Center for the Arts campus.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Interlochen 2016, ICO Concert #3

Today we are making our final preparations for the 2016 Intermediate Concert Orchestra's third concert of the summer season. It has been a wonderful week or so of rehearsals and ICO is really ready to give this performance. We have three pieces to perform on this concert and I know they are all going to be well received.

We will open the concert with Mendelssohn's Sinfonia # 7 in D Minor, Mvt 1. This is a wonderful String Symphony movement that will challenge any young string orchestra. It features wild dynamic swings, a contrapuntal texture at times as Mendelssohn is known to utilize, and requires independent counting from each section of the orchestra. I particularly love how the viola section is challenged in this piece. The ICO viola section in this session is certainly up to the task. This piece always requires a great deal of detailed rehearsal and the orchestra has risen to the task. My goal for the last two rehearsals is to really accentuate the rhythmic motion and variation in the peace and develop a little bit more of the dynamic nuance within each line of the work. This piece also provides ample opportunity for encouraging students to listen across the orchestra in an effort to solidify rhythmic stability.

Next, we will feature two of our esteemed cello faculty members, Dr. John Marshall and Dr. David Carter on the Vivaldi Double Cello Concerto in G Minor. It has been a wonderful experience to prepare the accompaniment for this work and I feel that providing the opportunity for these young musicians to accompany such fine soloists is rare, indeed. Again, this accompaniment provides ample opportunity for teaching young orchestral musicians to look past the notes and rhythms and to find the direction in a piece of music. I always tell students that their first job in playing Vivaldi is to make every note "sparkle." I am also pleased that my bassist in this ensemble, Jonathan, will be performing the continuo part along with a student harpsichordist. Again, this is a rare opportunity for such a young musician and he has truly risen to the task. The smile on his face during rehearsals has been truly gratifying for me.

We will finish our portion of the program with another great jazz string orchestra chart from my friend Tom Sharp. This one is called Mayfair Drive and is listed as Medium Difficult by Lucks Music. This chart features a cool solo bass line and some really cool string riffs and sounds. Since I had a harpsichord player around rehearsals for the Vivaldi, I asked Tom to give me something that a keyboard player could use in playing this piece.  He quickly send me the changes and a lead sheet for the pianist.  (It pays to know the composer!!) Then, one of our piano instructors, Alejandro Bernard-Papachryssanthou tweaked the part just a little bit more and we will be featuring our piano player, Isabella, with the orchestra on this piece. Like many of Sharp's charts for string orchestra, this requires no improvisation on the orchestra's part and allows for teaching the orchestra swing style and a variety of other idiomatically jazz concepts.

This concert will be live-streamed and broadcast live on the web on Wednesday, July 27 at 6:30 p.m. I hope that you can tune in and check out a great performance by the Interlochen 2016 Intermediate Concert Orchestra.


Sunday, July 17, 2016

Reconnecting with Friends

Today I had the pleasure of reconnecting with a couple of friends from many years ago. While here at Interlochen during the summers, I often have the opportunity to see folks from around the country and rekindle old friendships. Occasionally, however, I have the opportunity to reconnect with friends from long ago in my life in ways that are completely unexpected. Today was one of those days.
First, this morning I had lunch with Mike, a student from the early 1990s at Eleanor Roosevelt High School. Mike was a trumpet player in the Wind Ensemble and in my Orchestra. He was one of those students that  involved himself deeply in the lives of his teachers and allowed us to be deeply involved in his. I could always tell that we would be lifelong friends as he became an adult. Following his graduation from Eleanor Roosevelt High School, he remained in close touch with me and my colleague Sally Wagner. Mike had two very significant influences in my life during those years.
First, when my wife Barbra was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1997, Mike came to me and asked if he could ride in her honor at an MS 150 Bike Tour event. Of course, I was honored that he would think to do this, and
upon not very much reflection, I asked him if he would mind if I rode with him. Mike and I rode in that event and the Eleanor Roosevelt High School Music Community really rallied around us. We raised over $5,000 between us for that Bike Tour event and it represented the beginning of many years of cycling events raising money for the MS Society for me. I believe that Mike and I rode in two or three MS Bike Tour events in those years.  We always had a blast.  I continued riding in them for many years after. Mike started it all for me. I continue to be a cycling enthusiasts today and all of that is due to Mike.
Secondly, many of you know that I love progressive rock music. Mike is responsible for turning me on to one of my all-time favorite progressive rock bands, Dream Theater. I will never forget the day he came into my office, handed me a Dream Theater CD, and told me to give it a listen. That CD was their early recording, Images and Words. I immediately loved it. It's still is one of my favorite recordings to this day. I think I own every Dream Theater record that has been made since. Mike had a good sense of my musical tastes and even as a young guy, he was confident enough to turn me on to this awesome band.
Mike and I had a great breakfast this morning. We swapped stories about our lives, families, work, and involvement in our respective churches. It was so comfortable to get together, drink some coffee, and catch up on 15 or 20 years of absence. What a wonderful way to spend my morning.
As I returned to Interlochen, I was exchanging text messages with a friend from my high-school days in Indiana, Pennsylvania.  She was dropping off her son at Interlochen for 3 weeks of intensive jazz bass study today. My friend, Jeanne, had called me several weeks ago to find out a little bit more about the camp when her son was encouraged to attend by a potential college professor who would be teaching here. As she researched the camp, she found out that I was on faculty here and reached out to me to get just a little more information. Today was their day to drop off their son. Jeanne and her husband Dan, another friend from high school, are just like I remember them from the early 1980s. I pulled into the parking lot just as they were saying goodbye to their son and we exchanged 15 or 20 minutes of wonderful conversation. We exchanged memories of classes, friendships, and musical activities. They told me a little bit about Scott's musical background and also of his sister's activities. They are such a lovely family. I know that their son is going to have a great time here at Interlochen. I am so excited that I can be a small connection to home while he is here. I am also thrilled that toward the end of camp we are going to be able to spend a little bit more time together catching up on the past 25 or 30 years.
It is so wonderful to rekindle old friendships. I really believe that our friendships and relationships make us who we are. Today, I was reminded of how fortunate I am to have so many wonderful people in my life. These folks we're a great reminder for me today. Thanks to all of you that are involved in my life and care for me. We all need each other; sometimes more than one could ever know.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Beneath the Irish Sky

Today, I have the pleasure of conducting a World Premiere Performance of a new piece of music by Peter Terry entitled, Beneath the Irish Sky. It is published by Carl Fischer Publications and is available for purchase at this time. This is a work for string orchestra and is a challenging grade 2.
I was absolutely thrilled last summer when Peter Terry approached me, here at Interlochen, regarding the possibility of collaborating on some new string orchestra music. I have been familiar with Peter's work for a number of years. The Intermediate Wind Symphony (Mary Land, conductor)  here at Interlochen frequently performs his works as part of their concert performances. He and I have known each other for several years but really became closer friends in the summer of 2015, when we meet several times for coffee and conversation. We talked about what might be appropriate for my ensemble here and Interlochen and other young string orchestras around the country.
In October of 2015, I received a note from Peter along with a PDF of the score for Beneath the Irish Sky. I read the work with my orchestra at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, we made a quick recording for Peter, and the rest is history. I loved the work from the first time we played it and I think it is very appropriate for young string orchestras in many respects.
The work starts with a lovely tune in a fast 3-4 time. It is reminiscent of broad landscapes, large skies, and features beautiful sounds with an Irish flavor. It is wistful, forward moving, and beautiful. As the opening section progresses, Terry introduces some rhythmic and sonic tension into the work which remind me of, perhaps, some dark clouds coming into the picture without a full-on storm developing in the Irish Sky.
Rather than continue down the line of a stormy, agitato "B" section, the metaphorical "Sky" clears up and a spontaneous Irish dance breaks out. This section is in 2/4 time and features a wonderful melody beginning in the first violins that eventually moves throughout the ensemble. It is rhythmically energetic and continually accelerates until the work ends with a rhythmically interesting and fantastically exciting presto.
Every section of the string orchestra is featured at some point in this work and there are particularly interesting parts for the second violin and viola sections. The work provides ample opportunities for instructors to develop an ensemble's skills in articulation, phrasing, and an intricate interplay between the voices and sections. All of the parts are very accessible and there are no significant technical challenges in the work that one wouldn't expect from a grade 3.5 piece.
The performance is at 7 p.m. this evening, Friday, July 15, 2016.
The performance will be live streamed at the following link:
A recording is also available on major music retailer websites and through the publisher, Carl Fischer.
I encourage you to consider this work and hope that you enjoy the challenge and beauty of this fine writing.

5 Habits of Successful Musicians

Today is the penultimate day of rehearsals for my current group of musicians at Interlochen. Our concert is tomorrow and we are ready to give a great performance.

Yesterday, in rehearsal, I wanted to give the students something very concrete that they could take home  to their school orchestras and individual work as orchestral musicians. In response to some of our conversations this week, I decided to give them 5 concrete recommendations of habits that top level musicians should develop. Make no mistake about it, these habits will not make one a great musician. But, they are part of the expectations of any good musician and strong leader in all musical contexts. Thus, it is better to develop them early and have them in your lexicon as you continue to develop as a musician.  I often encourage my own children "move with purpose" These are my orchestral "move with purpose" encouragements. So, without further ado, here are the 5 vital habits of a successful orchestral musician that I offered to my students yesterday.

1. Always have a pencil at rehearsal. Now, I know that every orchestra director in the world requires their musicians to have a pencil. But, the number of students that I see scrambling during rehearsal to find a writing utensil is unbelievable to me. I told my students yesterday that not only should there be one pencil on every stand, but, there should be one pencil for every person in the room. Every player should have their instrument, music, and a pencil as they go into any practice or rehearsal setting. Passing one pencil between two stands is simply unacceptable. It wastes time and is distracting to the entire ensemble.

I find that writing in music is one of the most important skills that I have developed over the years, both as a violinist and as a conductor. I try in all my rehearsals to tell the students what a musician would write in any given circumstance. And I encourage students to always be thinking about what they might write in a part without my prompting. So, it is vital that each student get in the habit of picking up a pencil every time they pick up their instrument.

2. Arrive at every rehearsal a minimum of 10 minutes early. It is vital that young musicians get in the habit of arriving at rehearsals with plenty of time to settle into the rehearsal space before the downbeat of rehearsal. This allows for time to communicate with stand partners, effectively tune their instrument, warm up a little bit, and simply to mentally settle into the task that is at hand. So frequently, I see musicians running into rehearsal at the last minute and never fully settling into the mental space of the rehearsal. This is certainly not an efficient way to maximize the time that they are spending in rehearsal. And, at the very least, and early arrival shows great respect for colleagues and leaders in the rehearsal setting. I know that I notice it as a conductor and really appreciate and respect those who arrive early.

3. Look at the conductor when you don't really have to. I tell musicians all the time that there are numerous opportunities for making visual contact with a conductor in the context of a piece of music. Of course, one must make visual contact with the conductor during important changes in a piece of music. These include tempo changes, style changes, and important articulations. However, I think it is also important that young musicians understand that it is important to make visual contact with a conductor during the more static passages as well. I encourage students to be cognizant of opportunities such as whole notes, repeated notes, and rests. These are times when an ensemble musician can let the conductor know that they are fully engaged in and on the same page as the other musicians in the room. This visual affirmation also gives the conductor full confidence to maintain the highest expectations of musicianship and expression for the ensemble. Thus, developing the habit of visual contact during static passages, while sometimes overlooked, is of the utmost importance.

4. Actually listen to the tuning note.  So frequently, when I arrive in a new orchestral setting, a tuning note is sounded and musicians begin loudly tuning their own instrument without fully listening to the pitch of the tuning note. Years ago, I became aware of some research that indicates that there is a significantly higher rate of memorizing a pitch with a minimum of 5 seconds of listening time. I always encourage my young musicians to listen to a tuning note for 5 seconds before beginning their own tuning process. Additionally, it is so vital that the tuning be done at a piano (quiet) volume level. The vast majority of young students that I encounter tune significantly too loudly. It distorts the pitch of the strings and does not lead to an exceptional sounding ensemble.

5. Prepare your own part outside of rehearsal. I recently saw a post on Facebook that simply said "rehearsal is not for learning your own part, it's for learning everyone else's part." This really resonated with me. It is vital that musicians get in the habit of practicing their ensemble music in the practice room and understanding that rehearsal is for just that: rehearsing. The art of rehearsal and the art of practice are definitely mutually exclusive. All too often, students play in ensembles where the expectation is that they do both simultaneously. This is inefficient at least and rude at best. Nothing drives me more crazy than hearing a student workout a passage while I am in the middle of rehearsal. That is work for another time. Much of this, again, goes to the concept of respect for peers and for leadership. If a young musician really respects those around him for her, he will take the time necessary outside of rehearsal to prepare the passages for performance. I never expect things to be perfect from the beginning. But, I do expect that there is an understanding of the difference between the two activities. Practice involves slow thoughtful repetition. Rehearsal involves broader concepts and developing an understanding of all of the pieces of the puzzle. It is a much more "macro" activity. I simply think it's important that students grow to understand the distinction between practice and rehearsal.

These are my thoughts for today. I hope that you have found them to be interesting and applicable. If you feel that your students might benefit from these from this list, please feel free to share it. I know that I will keep working to develop these habits in my students. I hope that you will as well.

Best wishes for rehearsal rooms full of students with exceptional habits of orchestral musicians!



Getting Out of the Way

I had a wonderful experience yesterday in my rehearsal with the Intermediate Concert Orchestra at Interlochen that I would like to share with you today. Every Tuesday, the ICO string faculty attends my rehearsal and participates in a side-by-side experience with my students. The string faculty at Interlochen are fantastic players and teachers and it is a real honor to share in these collaborative rehearsal situations with them.

In these rehearsals, I try to use the faculty members to provide examples of style, bowing, and habits of orchestral playing for my young students to emulate. After we play a passage, I often ask the faculty members to give any thoughts or ideas to their section or the ensemble. These rehearsals are wonderfully positive and productive each time we have them.

Yesterday, we were working on the first movement of Haydn's Symphony Number 107, arranged by Robert McCashin. During the rehearsal, rhythmic accuracy was less than desirable and I felt like there were many moments where the individuals in the ensemble were sort of fighting against each other. I decided to stop conducting and simply get out of the way. What a magnificent change that created for the ensemble.

As soon as I stopped conducting, the entire ensemble began to watch and listen to the leadership that my colleagues were providing. Almost immediately, they became more unified in style and expression, not to mention rhythm and accuracy. As I watched my colleagues hear this change as well, it was fantastic to see the smiles on their faces. It became clear to all of us that the students were having one of those magical, impactful musical experiences that happen occasionally in rehearsals. This was one of them!

So, my thought today is a brief one, but important. Teachers, get out of the way of your orchestra. When they don't need you swinging the stick in front of them, don't swing the stick in front of them. The answer to unified ensembles is not always "watch the conductor." Sometimes it is "listen to each other." I think that we all need to be reminded of this from time to time. As teachers and conductors, we tend to be somewhat conductor centric. It's not always about the guy with the stick in his hand.  Sometimes it is about listening. Students must be encouraged to open their ears, listen to each other, and act and react to each other as thinking feeling expressive musicians.

These are my thoughts this morning as we move towards our performance on Friday. I wish you many magical moments in rehearsals and performances.



Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Things I Learned in Nashville

A few weeks ago, my son and I had a few days with no scheduled activities, (which happens very rarely in my home) so we decided to head to Nashville for a few days to check out some music and the general atmosphere.  Neither of us had  ever been there and it seemed like a great adventure to begin the summer.  As an added bonus, the Country Music Association, CMAfest was going on that week, so we were treated to a big week in the area.  Here are some things that I learned while there:
  • Nashville is fun. CMAFest is fun. I recommend that music lovers, and specifically country music lovers make it a point to get there at some time. CMAFest treated us to so much great music and a magnificent atmosphere throughout the week. I will make every effort to get back to CMAFest again in the future.
  • We are doing ok in Durham. My son and I really enjoyed going to Broadway in Nashville.  That said, so much of the live music that we enjoy in Durham (local and touring) holds up completely!  We have a great music scene right here!
  • It takes a lot to get noticed.  We saw some pretty great musicians that werre toiling away in small honkey-tonks.
  • It is the place to go to make it big.  The folks that do get noticed, really have a chance!
  • Money is there.  Wow!  Music row clearly isn't hurting for cash!!
  • Everyone wants to be a star.   The dreams are palpable!
  • Fans are silly.   I am not a fan.  I am an enthusiast and appreciator.  The folks that are just out to get a photo or an autograph seem silly to me.
  • Strumming chords and singing isn't enough.  You've gotta have a look, a certain cool, and real talent.  The honkey tonks are full of strummers.
  • You gotta have a good look.  Enough said.
  • Girls wear short denim shorts and boots.  If you aint wearin that, you aint cool.
  • I love checking out bands.  I learned this from my friend Jeff Tart from Infinity Road!
  • I am fortunate to make my living in music.  Everyone wants to.  Few are privileged to.   I am living the dream!
  • I want to keep getting better at my craft.  There is always more to learn and achieve.  I am not there yet.
  • You have to play to get noticed.  No one is going to get famous sitting in their living room.  You have to hone your craft on stage.  I know this.  I get better every time I play out.  When I don't play out, I get worse.
So, those are my thoughts.  I have to get back to work here at Interlochen.  I have rehearsal in 25 minutes.  My craft awaits!!


Friday, July 8, 2016

Interlochen 2016 - Getting Started!

Hello friends.

I am very excited to finally be situated in Interlochen, Michigan and ready to begin my work with the Intermediate Concert Orchestra at Interlochen Arts Camp for the 2016 season. This is my 6th season conducting this Orchestra and I have grown too love the process of turning these kids from all over the world into a high-level musical ensemble.  Many of you know that I had a little delay in arrival. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, I had to request a substitute for the first concert of the 2016 season. I am very pleased that my dear friends Aaron and Wendy Tenney were able to fill in in my absence.  I made it to camp in time to see their performance and was truly pleased with what I witnessed. The performance was beautiful and I was particularly impressed with the beautiful strings sound of the ensemble. The sonority was absolutely stunning!  Congratulations to the Tenneys and all of the students for their magnificent performance.

Many of you know that I frequently write about the repertoire that I select for this ensemble. I intend to do that again this summer. My remarks on the repertoire for the first concert will be a little more brief than usual, simply because I haven't been immersed in that repertoire like I would have been had I conducted the program. The first concert included 4 selections:

  • Pendleton Suite, Mvrt 3, M.L.  Daniels
  • Of Glorious Plumage, Richard Meyer
  • Concerto in G Major, Vivaldi, Arr. LaJoie
  • Nanigo, Sharp

The third movement of the Pendleton Suite includes a driving rhythm creating an exciting concert opener. Tom Lajoie's arrangement of the Vivaldi is one of my favorites and the students performed it with a true musical energy and understanding. Of Glorious Plumage is a beautiful, epic work that highlights the ensemble's ability to play long, lush lines with beauty and grace. Finally, Nanigo is a West African folk tune and is always a great way to end the program.

As we move forward with this summer, I will continue to write about the repertoire that the Intermediate Concert Orchestra is preparing, concepts that come up as part of rehearsals, and other general themes that arise as part of camp and my time in Northern Michigan. I look forward to sharing my experiences with you. If you are seeing my blog for the first time, I also would encourage you to find me on Twitter where I am "Orchestraguy."  I will post shorter thoughts about rehearsals and camp there as well as links to various videos and, of course, new blog posts.

I am looking forward to a great summer full of wonderful music-making, happiness, and new rich friendships.

Peace .


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

I Don't Care How Much You Know

I don't care how much you know.  I want to know how much you care. ~Pat Summitt, 1954-2016

Wow! Does that quote resonate with me. Of course, it does matter how much you know. It matters a lot. But , you can know an awful lot and if you don't care you can't move people. It takes heart to move individuals. It takes heart and passion to move groups.

I was talking with a group of stage crew members here at Interlochen Arts Camp last evening. I was telling them how impressed I was with them. I wasn't impressed with how much they knew about setting a stage. (Although they knew a great deal about it!) I was, however, impressed with the passion and purpose with which they approached their jobs. Each of them owned the activity in a way that made me respect them and appreciate them fully. They were effectively moving with real purpose and getting the job done in a way that was positive, energetic, and proactive. I could tell how much they cared.

This is yet another example of how I am constantly reminded that "moving with purpose" is an essential key to success in this world that we live in. I can't tell you how frequently I remind members of my ensembles that real musical success requires disciplined mental activity. It requires an active mind and mental habits that are proactive and forward-thinking. Musicians must be anticipating not only their next move, but the next move of other sections, and the conductor. They must be prepared with knowledge and practice, but they must always be in the game mentally.

All of this starts with, as Pat Summitt said, how much you care, not how much you know. Don't get me wrong. Scholarship is important. We have to know a lot. And in this age of Wikipedia and instant information at our fingertips, you still have to know what you're talking about. The learning process from a facts perspective, is so important. But knowledge without passion is flat.

As a teacher, we can articulate the need for passion and caring in many ways. But, I really think modeling passion and caring is the way that students truly learn that aspect of any discipline or activity. Students learn by example. Passion speaks. Passion moves.

Lots of folks know. Show me how much you care. I sure hope that those of you who know me have a sense of how much I care. 



Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Form is Important

This week I have been thinking a great deal about form.  Specifically musical form, but form in general as well. I teach a Western Music History course at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics where we cover the history of music from the Baroque era through the Romantic era. This week I am introducing the Classical or Viennese era of music history. Two primary ideas come to light when I am introducing this era between 1750 and 1825. First, I try to get the students to understand that this is a prosaic age. Music, speech and literature have many parallels during the era. Second, I want students to walk away from the course knowing that FORM really dictates all music composition of this era as well. This is the case not only for music but for all the arts during the Viennese era.

In the class, we have been discussing Sonata Allegro form which is used throughout the Viennese era in much of music composition. I have explained how the Sonata Allegro form can be related to the introduction of characters and development of plot in prose writing. We have covered the three major parts of Sonata Allegro form including the exposition, development, and recapitulation. I have drawn the following parallels: the exposition can be considered the introduction of two characters (theme A and theme B). The development can be considered the development of the plot. This is where the characters are involved in some kind of transition or conflict as the composers take small fragments of themes A and B and manipulate them , changing key and showing off their skills in variation. Finally, the recapitulation in many ways is like the resolution of the conflict. It represents the wrapping up of the plot of the story and the reintroduction of the themes in their original form. I find that this type of parallel really brings Sonata Allegro form to life for my music history students.

We also cover concepts of phrasing in the Viennese era. The concept of an antecedent/consequent relationship between phrases and small portions of phrases in the Viennese era is vital to understanding the music of the age. This notion of question and answer in prose writing and drawing that similarity to the phrasing in the Viennese era, I think,  is very important. I love introducing the concept of antecedent consequent to my bright students at NCSSM.

In my experience much of the general public really doesn't understand how to listen to Viennese era music. So often, folks find it to be light and whimsical and perhaps even thin. When my students begin to understand the values of the era and the importance of fitting the music in to this strong Sonata Allegro form or other forms and the value placed on these antecedent consequent musical relationships in phrasing, they begin to understand the depth of the writing during this era.
It is always my goal that students listen to and understand the music with a strong appreciation of the values of the age. If one listens to Mozart or Haydn without understanding this high value on form and prose style musical phrases, they really can't begin to fully understand and appreciate the compositions.

Within the context of the course we also cover other important forms of the age. We cover Theme and Variations as they are found in many slow movements. We cover Rondo form and Minuet and Trio form as well. My goal is that students have a strong understanding of each of these forms of the era so that if they happen to attend a concert that includes music of the Viennese era when they go away to school or following their schooling, they will approach music of this era with a foundational understanding of what they will be hearing.

Finally, I love to then make strong points about how we as human beings are drawn to strong form. One concept that I am always reminded of when we cover this material is the way human beings are drawn to the form of the human face. I talk about how the front of a car looks like a human face with the two headlights as eyes and the bumper as a mouth or nose. I remember when my now 15 year old son was a baby he would look at the cabinet doors in our home and run around the house singing "two eyes and a face, two eyes and a face." This draw to the human form is strong in all of us.  Another example that I always use is that of a baseball game. When we go to a baseball game we have certain expectations of form. We expect the visiting team to bat first. We expect 9 innings. We expect a seventh-inning stretch. We expect a hot dog to be available to eat.  Those who don't understand the form, don't enjoy the game nearly as much. Form is very important in baseball design, literature, and music. We all want form in our lives. We desire structure and familiarity. The music of the Viennese era provides us this structure in our musical consumption. We really just need to understand it as we approach this music. With that understanding, comes greater appreciation.

Currently in my Orchestra, we are preparing for a performance of Carl Maria von Weber's Concerto for Clarinet. Weber, a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, also demonstrated strong prosaic leanings. Noted for his compositions in the field of opera, Weber depicts a variety of characters and scenes with in much of his instrumental music. Last night in rehearsal, there were big laughs and lots of smiles when I suggested that one of the themes might represent the "Damsel in Distress" and another of the themes might represent the "Heroic Young Prince." This provided yet another opportunity to drive home the points of form and prose writing for the music of this era.

So today is a day that I am thinking about form. As you move throughout your day, I wish you much  predictability, form, and ultimately, great satisfaction.



Thursday, March 3, 2016

Pedagogy from the Podium #ASTA2016

Hi to all who are attending my session at ASTA 2016!
Thanks for coming to my session!!

Here is a link to the completed handout

Also, here is a link to the Finger Pattern Playlists

And, here is a reprint of my October 2015 post on this topic.

This weekend, I have been conducting an Honors String Orchestra Festival at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN. My thanks to Emily Crane and all at Austin Peay for inviting me.  It's been a wonderful event and, as a result of my rehearsals here, throughout the weekend I have been giving a great deal of thought to my upcoming educational sessions at a couple of different conferences. A session that all be presenting in coming months, including at the National ASTA Conference in Tampa, is "Pedagogy From the Podium." This is a session that I began giving many years ago while I was still teaching in Palmyra, PA, based on some of the "best" practices that I had discovered in my daily teaching life. But, as you can imagine, over the years the content and the approach have changed a great deal. 

 Those of you that pay attention to this blog know that last year I was strongly considering the anatomy of any strong pedagogy. I presented a model where there were four components of any pedagogical concept that needed to be addressed. Those components are as follows: 

1. A SYSTEM is developed 
2. The system is SEQUENTIAL
3. There must be strong NOMENCLATURE introduced to clarify the system
4. The instructor provides a HARMONIC UNDERPINNING to any skill that is introduced modified . 
So, my task over the last several months has been to consider the systems that I have developed over the past several years. As this has been in the front of my mind, I've become more and more aware of the myriad of systems that I've developed or utilized over the years. Last year, I spent a good deal of time discussing, creating resources for, and teaching about the system of Finger Patterns that I had acquired from other great pedagogues and modified to suit my particular needs. Continuing on that theme, I have become more and more aware of other systems that have become an integral part of my teaching over the years.  Some of these were developed by others, some I have modified, and others I have developed.

Those of you that attend Pedagogy From the Podium, will get a strong dose of my belief in the model for these systems, and a number of specific systems that you can use in your classroom which utilize the model. I am still weeding out the final content of these sessions, but right now these are the areas that I will potentially be addressing. 
  • Ensemble Tuning
  • Ensemble Playing Position
  • Finger patterns as a vehicle to ensemble intonation
  • Rhythmic stability and Inner Rhythm
  • Watching the conductor and general ensemble awareness
  • Movement and breathing into phrase
  • Dynamics and the dynamic nature of ensemble playing
  • Spiccato and other intermediate to advanced bow techniques
  • Bow speed/placement
  • Pizzicato accuracy and technique
  • Musical "essence" and the art of self editing difficult passages
  • Precepts of bow direction
  • Bow weight as it relates to bow placement
  • Bow style as it relates to historic era of composition

Obviously, this won't all be addressed in a one-hour session. So, as you can see, some of this will be "weeded out" in coming weeks and months. I hope that you find some of these topics interesting and truly hope to see you at one of the sessions. Please let me know if any of these areas particularly resonate with you, or if there is something missing here that you would like to see.  Here's what I can promise: I will certainly be thinking about these systems and my approach to the ensemble development in the coming weeks and months. I will do my best to offer specific and pertinent content for everybody who attends.

For those of you on the East Coast: stay dry and safe this weekend. To those of you here in Clarksville TN, thanks for an awesome weekend of music making, sharing, and collaborating. You all have been wonderful to work with and I know our concert today is going to be magnificent!



Thursday, February 25, 2016

Sound Art

Today marked the first day of mini term at NCSSM. Mini term is a 7 day period when all classes at the school stop so that students can focus on a single course for this short period of time. This year, along with my friend and colleague Adam Sampieri, I will be teaching a course called Sound Art.

In this course we will be encouraging students to think creatively about how they might use recording technology and their imaginations to create generate works of art in the recording medium.  These works may be musical, poetic, dramatic, journalistic, avant-garde or something completely different.  The idea for this course grew from an experience that Adam and I had working with students last year during mini term.  We were working with students on a musical in development entitled "Coal" and spent one particular day work-shopping numerous songs from that musical with our students.  Adam and I perform together regularly and found that creative process with students to be particularly inspiring. As a result, we began considering ways that we might be able to bring that creative energy to students for the entire 9-day mini term.

Today, we introduced the course to our 28 students. We began with introductions and a brief articulation of each individual's dreams and expectations for the upcoming week. We then took a look at the blank canvas of the recording space and I taught the students about a particular mixing theory that draws on the concept of a three-dimensional space as the recording canvas. We listen to a number of examples and began to encourage the students to imagine this three-dimensional space as they listen to music. From there, we introduced the technology and put a recording system into every student's hands. They then had a small multitrack project to complete. From there we began to introduce the software and methods for exercising their creativity within the capabilities of the software.   In many ways, we were setting the technological table for the creative work of the upcoming week.

It was a wonderful first day and I really believe the students left class excited about the week ahead. Tomorrow, we will begin encouraging them to think about their own recording projects and how they might complete them. Its sure to be an exciting week of technology, creativity, and musicianship. I will keep you posted as we take this journey together.



Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Advantage of a Diverse Perspective

During a recent conversation with my colleague Dan Teague, Math Instructor at NCSSM, we were telling each other a little bit about our respective personal and educational backgrounds. For those of you that don't know Dan, he is one of the most highly respected math instructors in the United States and is it true leader at NCSSM.  He is a humble and understated scholar who lives his life as a role model for others. Both students and colleagues look up to him in a variety of ways. It would be impossible to overstate the number of lives that he has impacted in his time at NCSSM, both through student interaction and teacher education, as well as curriculum development. He is certainly a trusted friend and respected colleague.

 During that conversation, Dan told me that as an undergraduate he was a physical education major. I was a little bit surprised at this and asked them to tell me a little bit more. His answer was really interesting to me. He went on to tell me that he had decided to go into physical education and was thinking that as a coach or athletic director he would be a bit more marketable in the world of education and have more career options at his disposal.  And, as a non-math major, he would be free to take whichever advanced math courses interested him, rather than taking the classical math curriculum that his peers in the math major path were required to pursue.  So, he did just that.  He enjoyed the a la carte nature of his math courses. In his words, he sometimes comes at math problems from a non-traditional perspective as a result. This non-classical training led to his unique perspective on math, problem solving, and math education which he has championed and shared for many years at NCSSM.   This has proven to be a great benefit to his students.  His diverse perspective has led him to develop strong teaching philosophies, methods, and curricula in math modeling, combinatorics, complex systems and a number of other advanced mathematical topics.

 As he told me about the benefits of his diverse perspective I couldn't help but think of the benefits that a diverse perspective in music provides as well. Music students that have a strong background in classical repertoire and technique certainly have a leg up on their competition. But when that is combined with a deep understanding of music theory and analysis, skills in improvisation, skills in composition and songwriting, background with both the melodic and harmonic role of their instruments, interest and ability to be creative with their music studies, or even multiple instruments, they are so far ahead of the game.  I strongly believe that the more diverse a musical perspective the student gains, the more functional that musician will be in the long run.  So, for me, functional musicianship is a primary goal for my students.  Classical training is certainly important.  But, when training in the classics is brought to life through functional experience and perspective, a true musician may truly develop. 

 I feel strongly that those of us that began our musical training with a Suzuki background and a strong philosophy of rote learning and ear training are certainly functionally ahead of the game. The ear to hand skills that I had the opportunity to develop as a six and seven year old music student have been invaluable throughout my life as a musician and music educator. The experiences that I had as a middle school student learning the bass guitar, drum set, guitar, and mandolin provided me a diverse perspective that I brought back to my violin studies on a daily basis. Every rock band that I played bass or drums in has made me a better violinist. Every day that I sang in chorus made me a better violinist, conductor, and musician. Every music theory class and lesson that I attended with Jeff McGee during my junior year of high school made me a better musician. I took those skills and began songwriting which definitely enhanced my functional musicianship. In high school and college I  played bass in jazz band which enhanced my violin playing and musicianship. All of the harmonies that I learned and sang in church during the hymns added to the skill set.  Even in my thirties when I began seriously improvising on the violin, I could sense my classical violin skills growing.  And, my classical skills certainly informed my improvisation and sense of melody. This diverse perspective makes me a better classical musician and my skills as a classical musician make me a better pop and rock musician. My skills as a conductor make me a better violinist and my skills as a violinist make me a better conductor. My understanding of the guitar, mandolin, and bass guitar fretboard definitely makes me a better violinist and conductor. All of these skills come together to build a core of functional musicianship for me.

 And so, I make this a priority for my students. I try to bring a diverse perspective to class every single day. In my classical guitar and piano class, I stress the importance of applying music theory to music performance.  I also stress both reading skills and improvisatory skills.  In my orchestra class, I try to stress understanding functional harmony and melodic line as they apply to the repertoire at hand and I encourage listening and rhythmic skills that improvisational musicians use on a daily basis. I often ask my orchestras to develop the type of listening skills that are used in rock and pop bands. In these types of performance settings, the players naturally listen for the inner rhythm and groove of a piece. This is an important skill that many students in orchestra have never been encouraged to develop.

 It was such an eye opening experience for me to learn of Dan’s background and diverse perspective. It gave me a greater understanding of his broad range of interests and the way he relates so perfectly to his students and colleagues. Many of us who teach at NCSSM aspire to the level of instruction that Dan demonstrates on a daily basis. And, through conversations like the one that I had with Dan, I feel like I have a more diverse perspective is well. He is always teaching. I will continue to learn.



Sunday, January 24, 2016

Standards Matter

Colin Cowherd is by far my favorite radio talk show host. For those of you that are not familiar with him or his work, he spent nearly 15 years as the midday talk show host on ESPN Radio, presenting his views on everything from sports to business to social attitudes and behaviors. He really isn’t an X’s and O’s guy.  He doesn’t really break-down game tape or schemes.  Rather, he is an excellent editorialist.   I found over the years that I agreed with the vast majority of his positions and that I could almost always apply his thoughts to my work and life as an educator and professional in some way. His show became appointment listening for me and if I missed the show or parts of it during the day, I would seek it out via his podcast in the evening. In the summer of 2015, he made some off the cuff remarks that were certainly inappropriate and misplaced (and that I could never endorse or support) and was removed from ESPN Radio. Fortunately for him and for his listeners, he was already signed to another network and began his new show on Fox radio and television broadcasting in the fall. I was so happy to see him back on the air. I love his new show and always look forward to considering his positions. His work is usually smart, insightful, sometimes controversial, and always thought provoking. There is no doubt that there are many who dislike his work. I think he is smart and I like generally always like smart entertainment and ideas.

Almost a year ago, he spent a great deal of time during several shows talking about the fact that standards matter. He has always been critical of quarterbacks that wear their hat backwards, show up in compromising videos and photographs, misrepresent their organization, or don't live up to the many standards one might expect of someone that is the face of a multi-million dollar organization. He argues that we all have the right to be casual or not to meet the general standards of society. But, if that is the case, we shouldn't expect to be the leader and the top paid employee. In many ways, I agree with this position.  Leaders, rather, should be willing to look and act the part in every way. Sometimes that means putting on a tie.  Sometimes that means simply being discreet.  Sometimes that means getting your hair cut or shaving off that stubble. And sometimes that means conforming to some other element of society in order to inspire others to follow. This doesn't mean selling out. And, it doesn't mean that we should be someone we're not. But, if one desires to have the respect of a broader segment of society, one must act the part.

I feel like there are numerous evident examples of this in our current political season and I find many applications of this concept in my own professional life in education.  Back in the 1980's when I was a young teacher, I was fortunate to have 3 very strong mentors in Palmyra school district in Pennsylvania. One was an older elementary general music teacher named JB Yorty. JB was a dedicated elementary music educator who dressed to the nines every day for work. He was a Type A personality in every respect and had his lessons planned out to the minute. He garnered a great deal of respect from the other teachers and was an exceptional music educator and musician. His students respect learn the material and always performed at the highest levels. I can remember one particular day when I came to work dressed very (overly) casually. JB looked at me and said, “Scott Laird! If you want respect, you must dress in a respectable manner." Let me tell you, I went out and bought some decent dress shoes and wore a tie to work every day the rest of that year. After I moved away from Palmyra, I worked for Dr. Gerald Boarman at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt Maryland. Jerry was also an “appearance” guy. He was always dressed impeccably and definitely respected those who acted in the same manner. For many years, I wore a suit and tie to work every day. Now, I have been in the south for 15 years, and admittedly, acceptable standards and my daily attire have become a bit more casual. But, I still think about how I look and what I am saying with my appearance on a daily basis when I head out the door.  JB and Jerry showed me that standards matter.

One of the current political candidates in the presidential race has a habit of wearing jeans to events. I simply can't stand this. If one wants to be elected president, one must look and act presidential. For my money, jeans don't cut it. There are other candidates that don't live up to standards that I would endorse. Hate speech is not presidential. Condescension is not presidential. These standards absolutely matter as we are selecting candidates for the presidency of the United States. To me, this delineation is easy to make. I expect smart. I require high standards.

Standards, however, go way beyond appearance. Another area that I think about a great deal is simply how we must be willing to hustle to get work done on a daily basis. Moving back to my football reference, one always hears that the best quarterbacks are those that are the first one in the training facility and the last one to leave. I believe this to be true for anyone who desires to be a leader and the face of an organization. I feel very strongly but there is delineation between folks that “move with purpose” and folks who don’t. I know that my three sons get tired of hearing me say “move with purpose,” “show some hustle.” But, I truly believe those that work harder and longer are the ones that ultimately succeed. Sometimes simply “wanting it more” is the difference. I try to exemplify hustle and want-to on a daily basis and I expect it from my sons.  I definitely learned this from my parents. I also try to instill this in my students on a daily basis through word and example.  All too often, folks are concerned with the hours that are listed in their contract expectations or protecting their personal time. Especially early in one's career, but really for all of us, this can't really be a factor if you want to truly be a leader. I feel like it is much more important to get the job done thoroughly and expediently, without regard to the time or energy that a task requires. One has to move with purpose.

Another standard that matters a great deal is use of language. My wife and I attended a party recently where one of the guests was cursing loudly and often. This went on for quite some time and I have to admit that I lost a fair amount of respect for that person. Yes, we were in a social setting.  But, we make judgments about other folks based on the way they act. In this case, their standards of appropriate language caused me to make a judgment. I would not hire that person to be a leader in my organization.

Another standard that matters is how we treat others. Those that generally treat everyone with kindness are much more likely to hold a place of respect in my eyes. If I were hiring someone to be a leader in my organization, I would always choose the person that treats others kindly. I think that most of us aspire to kindness on a daily basis and we all probably fall short in one way or another. But, as a quality of true leadership, kindness is very high on the list in my book. Standards of kindness absolutely matter.

There are lots of other areas where standards matter as well. Do you get to work on time? How do you behave in a social setting? Do you drink too much at parties? Do you go through the fast food drive thru window at every opportunity? Do you watch your weight and level of fitness? How do you treat your wife or husband? How do you treat your kids? Do you keep a tidy office or home? Your standards matter at every step.  If one desires to lead at the highest level, all of these standards matter.  By the way, musical standards matter, too.  If teachers are willing to accept less than the highest musical standards, they can't expect to rise to the highest levels of leadership in their school, community, or field.  The same goes with classroom management.  Those standards matter too.  You can tell a great deal about the leadership potential of a colleague by their classroom management skills.

Please remember, I'm talking about standards for those who truly desire to be leaders. These are standards for those who want to be the face of an organization. These are standards for those who want to be paid the most. These are standards for those that want to be respected the most. These are standards for those who want to be the difference makers in society. We all have the right to disagree with standards or to disregard them. But, we also have to be realistic when passed over for leadership positions.

In the end, I simply encourage you to think about your standards. Think about the people around you as well as yourself. Who would you hire to be the face of your organization? What are the standards that person upholds and you value? How can we share these values and standards with our students? One thing I can say for sure is that I certainly notice when quarterbacks wear their hat backwards now!