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!



Saturday, January 23, 2016

Fulfillment Continued

It is Saturday, January 23, 2016, and I am sitting in my office at home thinking about the presentations I would have been giving at UNCG's Southeast String Festival and Conference had we not experienced this huge intersection with winter weather this weekend. Sadly, the conference was cancelled for this year and those of us that were slated to speak have been booked for the 2017 conference already. I look forward to that experience and to offering my session at that time. Meanwhile, I had solicited participation in my informal survey as part of my preparation for that talk. I promised that I would provide some information here regarding the session following today's conference. That said, I want you all to know that I also hope to present this session in the future at an ASTA conference, and continue to develop it for presentations at NAfME and perhaps Midwest Clinic conferences if proposals are accepted. My colleague, NCSSM Music Instructor Philip Riggs, and I intend to develop this further and add a few twists to it for future presentations.

With that in mind, I will simply outline a little bit of what I put together for the session here, and give a more detailed look at the model that I have created on Finding Fulfillment in Your Career in String (music) Education . For the session, I have pulled together six different models of fulfillment from a variety of resources. One of those models was a Venn diagram that made its way around Facebook several months ago. Another is detailed in the book Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. Still another is outlined in the book, Crazy Busy, by Kevin DeYoung . Another is drawn from the CNBC hit series the Profit. Finally, there are two others that grow from a variety of personal perspectives: one that I call the Organizational Model and another that I call the Teacher/Artist/Performer Model.  The Teacher/Artist/Performer Model is the one that I can really take individual credit for. So, let me outline that model for you here.

My life, experience, and career in string education has certainly been an interesting journey. I definitely feel that I have had one of the most fulfilling experiences that I could possibly have had. I don't know that I set out to be fulfilled in the beginning. But, I do know that over the years I've made a number of decisions and developed a number of philosophies that have led me to be able to look back over the past 30 years with a sense of true fulfillment. When I began working on this session, I sat down and thought about the areas of my professional and personal life that I find most fulfilling as a music educator. After all, if I feel fulfilled, perhaps there is a model here that I can share with others. I began jotting down various criteria of fulfillment that I have experienced. Over the ensuing weeks and months, I have tested this model out with my experience on a day in and day out basis. At this point I feel pretty confident that I can share the model that I've come up with as a sort-of personal story.

To set this model up just a little bit, I'd like to tell you a bit about my week last week. I came home on Friday night and said to my wife, “I just finished one of the most fulfilling weeks that I have ever had as a string educator.” How could that possibly be? It wasn't a particularly special week. There were no major performances. I wasn't given any awards. And, I really don't think there was any major recognition for me other than my own recognition that it was a great week. What could possibly have been involved?

On Monday I had taught my regular classes of two sections of Classical Piano and Guitar and my Recording Technology class. In each of these classes I felt like I was really connecting with students. They were meeting their personal goals and enjoying the interaction that we shared. As part of my Piano and Guitar class, I had encouraged students to consider the music theory assignments they were working on and apply the information to performance on their instruments. This became a catalyst for some wonderful conversation and interaction as well as some real “aha” moments. A number of the students thanked me for drawing their attention to this concept and I really appreciated their remarks. In my recording class, we were working on creative recording projects and there was a good spirit of energy in the room as kids prepared for this exciting assignment and sharing it with their classmates. On Tuesday, we had another round of Piano and Guitar with similar results and an evening orchestra rehearsal focusing on Dvorak’s Symphony No 8, 4th movement. everyone was in seats early for rehearsal , participated fully, and at the end of the evening we were ready for our performance scheduled for the following Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. On Wednesday in rehearsal, I took some time to tell the students about this session that I was preparing and their reactions were very favorable. Then, I invited a student who had attended a master class the evening before, missing rehearsal, to share what he had learned with the rest of the class. This was a springboard to a wonderful conversation about the Alexander Technique and how many of the topics covered intersected with concept I had outlined in orchestra in the previous months. This again made for an amazing class. Finally, I shared this session with my colleague, Adam Sampieri, Drama Instructor at my school and he really affirmed my work.  We had a deep and meaningful discussion as a result to end to the day. Thursday was similar to Tuesday in Classical Piano and Guitar. My recording students presented their projects to the class and were involved in a really cool self-assessment activity. Then, after school I attended a teacher award ceremony and celebrated the accomplishments of several distinguished colleagues at NCSSM.  Following that, I was involved in a strategic planning meeting where we had an invigorating discussion about real world experiences and the future of our institution. Friday brought another wonderful orchestra rehearsal and some opportunities for me to finish up some paperwork in my office and reconnect with a colleague who had been out the previous week.  I also moved a ton of furniture and prepared for a variety of events that were scheduled that weekend in our facility.  I also heard several individual students play their regional orchestra audition piece for me prior to their upcoming audition on Saturday.  Incidentally, I spent all day Saturday at Regional Orchestra Auditions as did many of my colleagues.  There were many great collegial conversations and reconnections throughout the day.  I came home on Saturday evening exhausted but invigorated from a very fulfilling week of work.

As I reflected on my week, I realized that my week had encompassed all of the criteria in the model that I had created and had been sharing with students and colleagues. What an amazing revelation. I was living my model. So, what is involved in the teacher artist performer model of career fulfillment?   Fulfillment in this model is based on the following criteria:

•             Individual Relationships (with students)
•             Ensemble satisfaction (Team climate)
•             Ensemble satisfaction (Performance Caliber)
•             Professional Growth
•             Personal Artistic Satisfaction
•             Professional Relationships

Each of these criteria had been met during my week. My interaction with and relationships with individual students had been off the charts. I have built my Classical Piano and Guitar class in such a way that individual relationships are the foundation of the class. And, I realized many years ago that at my institution, individual relationships really have to come first. I was completely satisfied with the climate in my ensemble throughout the week. We had productive rehearsals, students were invested, and there was a real satisfaction in this for me. Also, the performance caliber of my ensemble was wonderful. I love the repertoire that we are working on and I believe the students do as well. I had numerous opportunities for professional growth, including working on this session. I felt really good about the work I was doing and the things I was learning, and how I can apply them to my classroom. While I didn't have any violin performances during the week, I was finding strong artistic satisfaction in my conducting throughout the week and knew that there would be conducting opportunity on Monday, right around the corner. Finally, through discussions, regional orchestra auditions, and celebrations, my professional relationships with colleagues were extraordinary throughout the week.  I felt fulfilled.  My model held up. 

In the days following the week, I had several conversations with other colleagues about their level of fulfillment. It is been interesting to learn that I can pinpoint each of these criteria after talking with a fulfilled colleague. I can also pinpoint the criteria that are missing in a colleague's experience if they are less than fulfilled. How about you? How do these criteria resonate with you? Or, is there another criterion that I have missed? Think of your most fulfilling day, week or year of work. Have you met each of these criteria? Think of your least fulfilling day, week, or year of work. Which of these criteria was missing? Can you work to enhance that which is least fully met?  I do believe that I have built a career on this factors, albeit unknowingly.  These are the things that I care about on a daily basis and have pursued. (Obviously there are others, but these jump out.)

I value your reaction. Please don't hesitate to leave a comment. And, I wish you all a fulfilling day, week, year, career. I hope to see you at a conference in the future!



Friday, January 22, 2016

Rhythmically Accurate vs.Accurately Placed - NOTE GROUPING

In my recent post, Rhythmically Accurate vs Accurately Placed, I discuss the tension between metronomic accuracy in music and playing with a true musical inflection. Shortly after that post was published, I received a comment from a reader asking if I was speaking about the concept presented in Note Grouping by James Thurmond. I was not familiar with that publication and immediately purchased a copy which arrived at my home just a few days ago. Today, with bad weather in North Carolina and the rest of the East Coast, I had some time to dig into the book. Let me say that I am very excited to add the information in this book to my knowledge base, and, yes, in fact this is exactly what I've been talking about.

In Note Grouping, Professor Thurmond, of Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania, details his method for achieving expression and style in musical performance. He outlines the inherent relationship between speech and music , movement and music , motifs and phrasing , strong and weak beats, and then goes on to explain his theory of note grouping and applications . I am about half way through the book this morning and I'm already finding numerous direct applications to my teaching of this concept, conducting, and, to be honest, many other pedagogical areas.

Those of you that read my blog regularly know that I have posted many times about the need for a more concentrated emphasis on movement in the orchestra as a means to overall meaningful expression. I also draw parallels between speech, fluency, literacy, and music on an almost daily basis in my classes and throughout my teaching.  And, I frequently discuss the necessity of strong systems in pedagogy, which this book clearly outlines for note grouping. 

Ironically, I spent the first six years of my professional teaching career in Palmyra School District in Central Pennsylvania. Lebanon Valley College, where Professor Thurmond taught, is located in Annville, Pennsylvania, only a short 10 minute drive from my apartment back in the 1980s. I served as a member of and eventually Concert master of the Lebanon Valley College Orchestra for a couple of years in the late 1980s and early 1990s under the direction of Dr. Klement Hambourg and had a wonderful relationship with him and that institution. Sadly, I do not recall Dr. Thurmond, nor do I believe we ever met. I'm not sure if the concepts outlined in his book would have spoken to me at that point in my career in the same way that they do today. Isn't it interesting how our interests and insights change with experience and maturity? In those days, I was focused on the basics of string pedagogy and recruitment and development of a school orchestra program that was in need of a rebuild during my years there. It really is only in recent years that I have begun to think deeply about this connection between expression and accuracy in playing. It really has been a result of noticing trends while working with young musicians over a period of many years in many settings.

So, this morning, I simply recommend this little book strongly to all music educators that are interested in developing musicians and ensembles that are able to fully achieve musical expression and style.  And, I will continue to digest its contents and react here in my blog.

The book is available on Amazon for about $18 and is worth every penny. It is published by Meredith music and Hal Leonard Publishing the forward is written by noted Music Educator, Weston Noble of Luther College. The book also includes an exceptional glossary of terms and recommended recordings. So, on this wintery January day, I recommend you use up some of those Amazon or Barnes and Noble gift cards that you received from students over the holidays and pick up your own copy of this wonderful resource. I am sure there is much more to come on this topic.



Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Finding and Maintaining Fulfillment in your Career in String Education

On Saturday, January 23, I will be presenting the session, Finding and Maintaining Fulfillment in your Career in String Education, at UNCG's Southeast Honors Strings Festival and Conference. Back in the summer of 2015, Dr. Rebecca MacLeod asked me to put a session together on the topic of "teacher burnout" and this is the result of that work. The abstract that I put together for the session (before the session was actually formulated) reads as follows:

In this session, participants will consider their level of fulfillment with their work and career in string education. The presenter will provide a variety of focus areas for consideration and models for identifying and assessing career fulfillment.  Attendees will be asked to consider (and perhaps share) their roles as  artists/educators, motivations for embarking on a career in string education, sense of mission in the school and community, complexity of their work, perspective on workload, busy schedules, and a balanced life. Participants will walk away with strategies to find fulfillment in their careers while balancing their personal and professional life. 

In preparing for this hour-long lecture/discussion, I have accumulated a number of models that look at professional fulfillment and I even generated one of my own. I have had numerous interesting and in-depth conversations with colleagues and have found a genuine interest and passion for the topic. It is so interesting to dig deep and see how folks think about themselves and the work where they spend so much time and energy, as well as the motivation for the pursuit of success and fulfillment. I hope to offer the attendees the opportunity to identify strengths and growth opportunities as part of the session and, in the end, have an enlightening discussion.

As part of the session, I have generated a small survey/pretest for the participants. I am thinking that it will be more of a primer for discussion than any sort of real research. But, I got to thinking that it might be fun to have some broader input to the results. So, I am asking you, my readers and friends, to feel free to take the survey. I am particularly interested in music educators' responses. However, if you are an arts educator, you may certainly take it as well, substituting your art in place of music. If you are a non-musician, feel free to take the survey and simply don't answer the questions that are arts-related. The survey will take only a few minutes. Again, it is simply a primer for our discussion. Then, in the coming weeks, I will write a longer post here that will fill you in on the content of the session and, perhaps, some of the results. Thanks in advance for your contribution to this discussion!

Take Survey

All my best.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Rhythmically Accurate vs. Accurately Placed

In recent weeks, I've been thinking a great deal about the conflict between rhythmic accuracy and accurately placed rhythm. If this conflict title intrigues you, then I encourage you to read on. Let me explain the conflict as I see it and give you a few examples of my experiences.

About a month ago I was conducting an All County orchestra here in North Carolina. The group was fantastic and I couldn't have been happier with the students’ preparation and response to my work with them. On the second day of rehearsals, students were scheduled for a sectional rehearsal. For one reason or another, the person slated to work with the first violins was unable to be there. So, I grabbed my instrument and led the sectional rehearsal. As a violinist, it is always a pleasure for me to wear my “violinist hat” in the context of a conducting gig. Also, I really believe that in a sectional rehearsal, the leader should not be conducting. At its very best, the leader should be playing and offering insights into the mindset, technique, and performance of a violinist in the orchestral setting. I feel very fortunate that I have experience, and something to offer, both as a conductor and as a violinist in these and other educational settings. When I can use that experience to the advantage of an ensemble with whom I am working, it is all the better!

On this occasion, the orchestra was working on February: Carnival, by Tchaikovsky, arranged by Steven Brook. It is a piano piece that has been adapted for string orchestra and is perfect for this type of ensemble. We were working on a passage that had an ascending melodic line full of 16th notes , that finished with 1/8th note, 1/8th  rest, 1/8th note, 1/8th rest and then a triple stop chord to end the phrase at the apex of the melodic line. I was playing the first violin part along with the students in the section. It quickly became apparent to me that had I put a metronome on during that rehearsal, the students would have been spot on in their rhythm. The passage in the peace really didn't call for spot on rhythm. Instead it called for a stronger placement of the individual notes of the passage based on the direction of the melodic line and the role that the rest of the ensemble was playing at that particular moment.

I had been aware of the tension in this passage as I was conducting it earlier in rehearsals. But the real issue at hand became much more apparent to me when my instrument was in my hands. I began to work with the students on this notion of getting past accurate rhythm and working very hard to understand the inflection and subtleties in the musical line. It wasn't that that they were playing it incorrectly. It was however that they were playing it inaccurately for the passage at hand and the placement that was needed.

I brought this concept up to my orchestra the following week when I returned to NCSSM. We are currently preparing Dvorak 8th symphony for a performance in mid-February. There are examples throughout this work of the need for instrumental musicians to be conscious of accurate placement as a priority over accurate rhythm. (By the way, there are also plenty of examples of spots that simply require rhythmic accuracy!! Perhaps this is the reason that young musicians struggle with this.  When do I play with accurate rhythm and when do I accurately place notes in a passage??)

I mentioned the notion of inflection earlier in this post and I would like to expand on it just a bit. One might respond to my thoughts here by simply saying, “Watch the conductor!”  But, I actually don’t think that will achieve the desired effect.  Two of my students had the opportunity to attend a master class with Alexander Technique expert, William Conable this past week. Following their experience, I invited them to share some of their takeaways with our orchestra class. One of my violinists told of an example where another violinist was playing the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. Professor Conable worked with that student, who was playing the piece magnificently, on more accurately placing his rhythms rather than being so metronomic in his performance. As my student was describing the experience, I thought to myself, “This is it! This is accurate rhythm versus accurate placement.”  Later that same day, another student told of her experience in the master class and it was very similar. I was able to refer them back to this concept that I had mentioned earlier in rehearsals, and all agreed that it was the same concept. She is the one who offered this notion of musical inflection, which I grabbed onto immediately. You see, I really believe that strong musicianship is very much parallel to fluency and language. I use so many language and fluency references when describing my pedagogical approach or developing curriculum for orchestra, bowed strings, guitar, and piano. Of course, many of us do. Especially, those of us with a strong Suzuki background.

Suzuki, of course, coined the phrase the phrase Mother Tongue Method. And many of his pedagogical concepts and beliefs are built around ideas of how and when children learn to speak and understand language. The notion of inflection, fits right into this concept.   By the way, much of Suzuki’s early pedagogy is built around rote learning and listening.  I also believe that this notion of a deficit in inflection is a result of too little demonstration in a student’s musical training.

I have wrestled with how I might be able to articulate this issue to any ensemble I find myself in front of. You see, I find this issue to be universal. So many students today are focused on accuracy, and appropriately so. We must learn to play accurately in order to master any passage in music from the most simple to the most difficult. That being said accuracy without inflection is pretty boring. And, inflection is not just changes in the pitch of a voice. It is also changes in tempo and pace. So it is also with music. Those changes in inflection can be very subtle or not so subtle. But the dynamic that inflection creates in music is absolutely necessary to strong communication and performance.

I find a general shortcoming in inflection in the vast majority of student performers that I encounter each and every day. This includes not only the students that I see at NCSSM, but also those that I encounter in every musical environment in which I operate, including the All-County level, summer camps, music performance adjudications, All-State level, various private lessons and other encounters.

By the way, his is actually not a criticism of the students or teachers, but more of an observation of our culture. I believe that our children get very focused on “getting the right answer.”  This is really systemic to every area of school and education and I find it to be pervasive in my orchestra and others. Students are so interested in playing the difficult repertoire and being correct in that performance that the notion of inflection, musicality, and tone is often left behind.  Not only that, but also broad understandings of concepts in bowing, bow direction, phrasing, and other subtleties are never addressed. Or, perhaps if they are addressed by the instructor, they are not given priority by the student.

I would encourage each of you, as you are rehearsing your ensembles in the coming days and weeks, to consider this notion of accurate rhythm vs accurately placed rhythm.  Do you feel the tension between these two ideas in your rehearsals and performances questions? Do you feel this tension differently when you play rather than conduct? And how might you address this with your students? What nomenclature works in this setting, what words can you use and what examples can you give to strongly create an understanding of this subtle difference? Please don't hesitate to respond to this post. I would love to hear your ideas. And, as always, best wishes in all of your musical endeavors.



Saturday, January 16, 2016

String Shock

Currently, at the NC School of Science and Math, the orchestra and chorale are finishing preparations for our annual Collaborative Masterworks Concert performance. This year, the orchestra will be performing Dvorak's 8th Symphony in G major and will be accompanying the Chorale on movements selected from the Mozart Requiem, Brahms Requiem, and Mendelssohn's Elijah. Each year, we try to do a performance that involves collaboration between our choral ensemble and orchestra.  In addition, we welcome a number of community singers to join our Chorale for this performance. Hence, it is a collaborative concert. This is always a magnificent event. It is always great to see our high school students perform alongside adults of a variety of ages and to offer the opportunity for all of our students to participate in a performance of these great masterworks.

Each year, we know that the first rehearsal that involves both the instrumentalist and the singers will include something that Choral Director, Dave Stuntz, and I like to call STRING SHOCK. String Shock is the experience that the singers have singing along with instrumentalists and an actual orchestra rather than a piano accompanist for the first time. This phenomenon is very real and it is always stunning to witness many of the singers’ reactions.

For many, this is the first time that they've ever had this experience. One of the great things about being a high school music instructor is providing new experiences for our students. In this setting, we are not only providing new experiences for high school students, but also new experiences for musicians of all ages who are participating.

I was speaking with another music professional about this phenomena a couple of weeks ago and he suggested that I write a little bit about it. I think many of us have experienced string shock over the years in one way or another and, as a director, it is important to know that it is going to occur. There are a few facets of string shock that I think one should be aware of and prepared for.

First, is simply that the first run of a work with strings and singers together is going to be understandably distracted. The distractions will include the sonic experience, the visual experience, and the new ensemble experience. The singers will be interested to watch the movement of the string players.  The movement of  the bows and wave of ensemble movement is understandably visually interesting. They will be enamored with the different sound that the instruments create in conjunction with their voices.  The timbre of an orchestra is unique and really fun to experience "up-close" for the first time. And, in the end, that initial experience will be somewhat overwhelming.  I think that sometimes we conductors forget or, at least, take for granted the awesome sonic nature of the experience we get to have on a daily basis.  Additionally and understandably, the conductor's attention will be pulled in new directions with the additional musicians in the mix.  Thus, the singers will not be receiving exactly the same visual information that they had been receiving up to that point in rehearsals from the conductor.

Next, there is the issue of the accompaniment articulation. In a traditional rehearsal setting, the singers are used to hearing the accompaniment played on a percussive instrument, the piano. The articulation of notes on the piano is somewhat monochromatic in a rehearsal setting on piano as well. The singers get used to hearing that percussive nature of the hammer hitting the string and grow to count on it from both a pitch and rhythmic perspective. When the string section is introduced to the chorus, one of the first sonic differences is the string section's ability to articulate notes with a much softer edge. Legato is very different on a bowed string instrument than it is on a piano. This can lead to a number of rhythmic inconsistencies. The most notable however, is the tendency to slow down or drag the tempo on the part of the choir.

This can also be heard quite notably when a string orchestra is accompanying any corporate sing-along, like leading a congregation in singing. String players must work very hard to articulate each note and to stay on or just in front of the pulse in order to pull the congregation along. This same technique may be used in the accompaniment setting as well. It is often wise for the string section to be instructed to articulate notes just a little bit more than they might do otherwise in order to provide an important information to the singers. They must also pay close attention to the stick and work to avoid playing behind the pulse.  As the singers begin to get over the string shock, they may not need this added articulation quite as much. In the end, I find that the instrumentalist must hold the singers accountable for tempo and rhythm and must be very attentive to the conductor’s gesticulation.  It is easy for the string player to become complacent in this task.  So, frequent reminders are important and it helps to have a very proactive and aware front stand in each section.  My colleague, Dave Stuntz, and I have led many ensembles over the years, both in a scholastic setting and in a congregational setting, and one constant with a string section is the need for rhythmic accuracy and articulation. It just is a simple fact of the musical setting.

As the choir begins to get more familiar with the sound that they are hearing, the sites that they are seeing, and the new added information that is coming at them with the addition of the instrumentalist, they begin to get over string shock very quickly. As I said earlier, string shock is part of the beginning of the rehearsal process, and hopefully not a factor during performance. By the time this ensemble will reach a performance, both singers, instrumentalists, and conductor are all well prepared to provide an audience with the "shock and awe" of a great performance.

In summary, I certainly recommend that choral directors and instrumental directors, particularly string instructors, consider combining your ensembles for performances. The musical benefits to these collaborative performances are numerable. I have had many students over the years, return to my school or contact me well after their graduation, to let me know how important these performances were to their music education and to their overall memory of their experience in my ensembles. These collaborations can certainly bring generations together and bring musical communities together. But don't be surprised if you to have ensembles that experience STRING SHOCK!