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.