Sunday, January 29, 2017

Weekend reflections

I am currently driving south on Route 501 towards my home of Durham, North Carolina. (I am dictating this post into my Samsung telephone on the Blogger app.) I am so glad that I have voice to text capabilities so that I can get a few of my thoughts on paper while I am driving by myself in the car.

As I drive home after a magnificent weekend of music-making with the PMEA District 2, 3, 5 Orchestra Festival in Indiana, Pennsylvania, I am reflecting on all of the complex systems that must come together in order to make a festival such as this so successful. Here are a few thoughts about the weekend.

First, I was thrilled to receive the invitation to conduct this Festival about 2 years ago. I grew up in Indiana, PA and graduated from Indiana High School in 1983. My older sister graduated in 1980 and eventually made her way back to our hometown to teach in the public schools and for the past several years has been the high school orchestra director in our hometown. She found out that she would be hosting this festival over 18 months ago and immediately asked me to serve as guest conductor. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity and have been looking forward to this event for a couple of years.

Throughout the weekend, I was humbled to participate in this event in my hometown. It was so moving to be welcomed back by longtime friends, colleagues, former teachers, current administrators, and many others. Everyone really rolled out the red carpet for me. In return I truly wanted to give them as much as I possibly could and to serve the event in every way that I could. I was a member of PMEA for the first six years of my career. And, as many of you know, have been a active member of NAfME my entire career. I have served in leadership positions both while in PMEA and the Maryland Music Educators Association as well as  the North Carolina Music Educators Association for last 16 years. These are all subdivisions of NAfME.

Throughout the weekend, itwas such a pleasure to meet all of my sister's colleagues from around Western Pennsylvania. They welcomed me into their community and generously made me feel like part of the gang. They brought their students to the event so well-prepared, ready to go to work, and ready make some great music together.

I have to say a few words about my sister, Julianne Laird at this point. In all of my years in music education and guest conducting, I have never been part of a more organized event. I am so proud of Julianne's work. She seemed to think of everything before the event. She solicited donations of food and products from businesses across Indiana County to support the event. She organized every aspect of the event to the smallest detail and had the most loving, energetic crew of volunteers that I have ever encountered at an event such as this. Her energy seems to be boundless. I know she was tired when the event drew to a close, but she can certainly rest easy knowing that it was a job well done.  Everyone that was there to volunteer and help out remarked at how happy they were to participate in the event for Julianne. It was really nice to see her in action. I could not have been more impressed.

Now, a word about the students. Again, I could not have been more impressed. From the first down-beat of the first day, it was clear that the students were there to learn. We immediately developed a wonderful rapport and I could tell that they were going to be open to my ideas and suggestions throughout the weekend. It is not as if we didn't have a lot to do. The repertoire was extraordinarily challenging and we all knew that it would be a monumental task to prepare this music for our concert on Saturday morning. The repertoire for the weekend included the Finale of Dvorak's Symphony Number 8, In the Company of Angels by William Hofeldt, Star Wars Epic Suite #2 arranged by Robert W Smith, and the centerpiece of the repertoire was Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet. Those of you that know the work, know that Romeo and Juliet is an extreme technical and musical challenge. And, I would be lying if I didn't admit that I was a little concerned about programming the work. That said, throughout each hour of rehearsal the piece materialized and came together in wonderful ways.

On Saturday night, Julianne arranged for the Pittsburgh Rock Cello Trio, Cello Fury, to perform for the students and the public in the Indiana Junior High School Auditorium. They were fantastic. What an inspirational performance for this fine group of young musicians to witness! Also, I was stunned to see the number of folks who came out for the concert both to hear this great group and to support Julianne and the efforts of the local school district.

After the concert, we even had another hour of rehearsal to run the program before turning in on Friday night. I must admit, I was wondering how strong the attention of my ensemble would be for that last hour of the evening. It was magic!

A Saturday morning rolled around the energy among the students was really high. We had about an hour to run the program and I decided to only touch up a couple of musical areas and go over concert etiquette.  This ensemble was ready to play!

The concert couldn't have gone more splendidly. We opened with Romeo and Juliet and literally hit all of our musical marks throughout the piece. I told the students before the concert that I had never conducted the perfect performance and wasn't probably going to do so today either. Of course, it wasn't a perfect performance. But it was a perfect performance for this ensemble. I couldn't believe the amount of active musical energy that was present on stage that day! Our next work was In the Company of Angels and many audience members shared with me that they shed tears throughout that performance. It is such a beautiful tribute peace and everyone, performers and audience alike, understood the significance. Next was Star Wars. I felt The ensemble relax just a little bit as we began this piece. They knew that the hardest part of the program was over and they could simply allow their musicianship to shine through. This popular piece of music was perfect for the group. They played it with passion, energy, and commitment. We finished with the Finale of Dvorak's 8th and it, too, couldn't have gone any better. As an impromptu encore, we're reprised the final movement of the Star Wars Suite, the main theme.

I want to thank my sister, Julianne Laird, the administration, school board, and staff of Indiana School District, all of the members of PMEA who brought students to this event, and all of the magnificent volunteers and sponsors of the PMEA District 2, 3, 5, Orchestra Festival. You all made my homecoming so wonderful.

I was reminded as I walked into the Indiana Jr High School Auditorium that I had not been on that stage since June, 1983, at my commencement from high school. That evening, I was one of the students that gave some remarks and I had the opportunity to perform a violin solo. I recently went back and looked at the text of the speech that I gave that evening. That speech was about the importance of community. Community building has been a cornerstone of my life and philosophy as a conductor, pedagog, and teacher for the last 31 years. The example that I witnessed throughout the past weekend as I was home in Indiana, reminded me of why that concept is so important to me. The Indiana School District community is a magnificent example of a successful community. The care that they put into all the day do is so very clear. Thanks to all that were involved. I can't wait till the next time that I get to come home and make music with the folks in Indiana.



Monday, January 23, 2017

Music to fill the air at IASD - - January 23, 2017

Music to fill the air at IASD - - January 23, 2017

I am very much looking forward to conducting at my alma mater this weekend!!
This article appeared in the local newspaper, The Indiana Gazette.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Southeast String Conference 2017

Hi all!
This post is for all that are attending my session at the UNCG Southeast String Conference on Jan 21, 2017.
Thanks for coming to my session!  I have some links that you will find to be helpful.

Finding and Maintaining Fulfillment in your Career in String Education:

Finger Patterns as a Vehicle to Major Scales and Upper Positions

Monday, January 9, 2017

Repetition of Rehearsal

I love rehearsal.  I love everything about it. 

As a conductor, I feel like my mind is in overdrive from the beginning to the end of every rehearsal.  There is so much to think about in every single minute: rhythm, melody, balance, phrasing, clarity, ensemble, voice, timbre, technique, articulation, and so much more!  Rehearsal is where the real work happens and where real ideas are shared.

I sometimes find that I am a little bit apologetic for simply repeating passages.  I will sometimes say, "Let's do that again, simply to get the reps."  But the fact is, repetition in rehearsal is vital.

The repetition of the rehearsal gives voice to the larger habits and truths of orchestral performance and participation.

Without the repetition of rehearsal, we would miss so much.  There are so many habits of orchestral performance that arise as a result of the repetition of rehearsal.  For, it is only in rehearsal that we truly learn what the other voices in the ensemble are doing.  In rehearsal we learn the vision of the conductor and the gesticulations that he or she will utilize to remind us of that vision during performance.  Through the repetition, the music becomes more than just notes.  It becomes phrases, ideas, pictures.  The repetition of rehearsal is the rigor that leads ultimately to the more natural, fluid creation of art.  The repetition permits the musician to graduate from the micro-picture of notes and rhythms to the macro-picture of the composition.  The repetition of rehearsal liberates the individual musicians from their personal rigor and allows them to get closer to the communal utopia of true ensemble performance.

My next rehearsal is Tuesday night. Can't wait.



Sunday, January 8, 2017

Theology of Scarcity

I was having coffee with a friend recently and he introduced me to the concept and phrase "Theology of Scarcity." I had never heard this phrase before and ask him what it meant. As I understand it, it refers to limited resources. It reminds us that resources are limited, so we must hold on to that which we have. I did a quick Google search on the phrase and really didn't come up with a clear definition. It is clear that the concept grows from Biblical origins and is bounced around in church circles to some extent. I've been thinking a great deal about this phrase and related implications.

As I think about this concept, it reminds me of some of the precepts that I have laid for my career and life. First, let me say that I try to think in the opposite terms of this phrase. Through some light research, this would be known as the "Theology of Abundance." I have always felt like abundance is a better way to approach life, work, family, and relationships. I guess it really comes down to glass half full vs. glass half empty.  In music education, there are so many areas that we find abundance. I'd like to outline a few of the ideas here and see if you agree with them.

Just yesterday, I was we had a student recital in my piano and guitar class. We were talking about the concept of applause. I always remind my students that applause is free. Applause is essentially a thank you. It doesn't cost a thing to give and we can give it with abundance at no cost to ourselves. I feel like we live in a culture of tepid applause. One of my overarching goals in all of my classes is to encourage students to give applause freely and abundantly. This is a great example where the Theology of Scarcity has no place. Applause and gratitude must always be abundant. We can develop this as a habit in everything that we do in our work and personal life. We've all heard it said that thank you are free. And so it is with applause. It feels so great to receive the affirmation of applause and I will always encourage my students to give applause abundantly.

Another area that the Theology of Scarcity has no place is in that of ideas and approaches to pedagogy. I think about this all the time. There are an infinite number of approaches to teaching concepts in string education and music education in general. That's the beauty of it. We can give away our ideas abundantly and without fear of them being stolen. The fact is, all of our ideas and approaches to pedagogy grow from some other approach. We tend to take that which has been used with us as students and modify or refine it in ways that we feel are effective for our students. As a result, I always try to give away my ideas freely and in abundance. I encourage you to do the same. Share your ideas.  Don't hold them in. Give them away and let others try them. The fact is, that your personality is an integral part of the effect of nature of your ideas. Ideas are not proprietary. Personality plus ideas is. No one can take that from you. And, your personality is not scarce. It's what you have.

One thing that is in fact scarce, is time. I experience this everyday in my rehearsals, in my planning time, and in my family life. This is why I believe that efficient use of time is really important. And, if we can turn this idea on its ear just a bit, we see that efficiency is in fact abundant.   We can always be more efficient.  I am always pleased when someone asks me how I accomplish so much in a day or a week.  The fact is that I am an efficiency expert.  I have learned this at NCSSM for sure.  I have learned to be efficient in rehearsals due to short concert cycles and minimal rehearsal time in any given week.  I have learned that my students don't have time to waste.  We get in, get settled, and go hard for the allotted rehearsal time.  This has served me well in other conducting experiences.  I have to be efficient when conducting festivals, at camps, and in other environments.  Strong planning leads to efficient rehearsals.  Strong preparation leads to efficient rehearsals.  

So, the Theology of Scarcity is a really interesting theory.  So is the Theology of Abundance.   I think I will choose the Theology of Abundance.   How do these apply to your life, work, and family?

Let me suggest that in our lives, there should be no scarcity of

As musicians, there should be no scarcity of
Repertoire to practice, hear, and experience
Emotions to express
Enjoyment to experience
Satisfaction in the joy of music-making, teaching, communicating, and appreciation

Mark me down for the Theology of Abundance.  It is a better way to live.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

21st Century Opportunities

I sometimes find myself wishing that I could go back to my college music major days and take another crack at being a full time music student.  

I graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1986 with a bachelor's degree in music education, concentrating on violin. I had a magnificent undergraduate experience and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I had a great private violin instructor, Delight Malitsky, who to this day is still the finest violinist and overall musician I've ever been around. My college orchestra conductor, Dr. Hugh  Johnson, was a magnificent mentor and role model for me and I still use many of the concepts and ideas that he taught me during my undergraduate years. Other instructors at IUP were absolutely fantastic. I had great private viola instruction with Dr. Larry Perkins. My research instructor, Dr. Carl Rahkonen was inspirational on many levels. I had great instruction in jazz Dr. Gary Bird and Dr. Dan DiCicco. Dr. John Kuehn changed my life by teaching and showing  me how to be a teacher. And, there were many others.

That being said, I am so aware that music instruction and opportunities are really different today. There are so many opportunities for young musicians to advance and to get really good at their instrument and their discipline. My son is a sophomore music education major at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and I marvel at the instruction he is receiving and the opportunities that he has.  He has been home on break over the holidays and I have loved hearing him practice and have enjoyed many conversations about his work, school, musical opportunities and expectations.

Let's begin with simple technological opportunities. Students have so many resources at the tip of their fingers that I had never imagined when I was a music student.  One can pull up multiple performances of any solo or orchestral piece that one is learning in order to listen, review, and exacerbate the process of learning a work. I had to go down to the local record store and buy an LP record or cassette tape. One can utilize metronomes that give a myriad of different feels and variations in order to enhance practice all located on a phone that we carry everywhere.  My metronome was huge, had to be placed on a level surface, and I rarely had it with me in the practice room.   One can practice scales and intonation with drones that are pulled up instantly on a phone or tablet.  I am note sure where I would have found this. Finally, one can practice his ear to hand skills by slowing excerpts down and playing them along with recordings using apps that make this easy and instant.  I would spend hours doing this at tempo, rarely succeeding. 

For those that are interested in non classical performance, there are so many tools to learn improvisation available at the touch of a button. There are magnificent instructional videos on music theory and improvisation all over YouTube. One can find background tracks for jazz and rock practice that simply didn't exist back in the eighties.  I can recall how difficult it was to get together with a few other folks to simply practice jazz and blues licks. Now I can do it in every key, anytime I want, with a click on Band in a Box or Youtube.  An aspiring music student can also find examples of improvisers and virtuosic musicianship all over YouTube , Pandora, Spotify, and other outlets. No one can claim that they haven't been exposed to musicianship of the highest caliber.  Music students can transcribe the best performers' solos by slowing them down and really hearing every note and nuance.  What an incredible advantage!

For music education students, there are magnificent examples pedagogical examples all over the web. Instruction in pedagogy has come so far over the past 30 years or so.  I sometimes marvel at how immensely prepared young teachers really are coming out of their undergraduate experience.

The thing that hasn't changed, however, is the requirement of discipline. It seems to me that the thing that separated the best music students from the pack back in the eighties was discipline. And, it still is today.  No matter the year or the opportunities, students that are purposeful, disciplined, and hard working still outpace the pack.  I often say that moving with purpose and hustle are the true predictors of who is going to succeed.  And so it is today.  Nothing happens without hard work.  Virtuosity is not achieved without the time in the practice room and the discipline to practice the right way.

Another thing that hasn't changed is that we need great mentors.  We all need hose people in our lives that inspire us, criticize us, assess our progress, and help us get to the next level.  Music student must seek out the finest instructor and those that truly inspire.  And, they are out there!   I marvel at the quality of studio string instruction that can be found right here in North Carolina and across the country. 

The fact is that in 2017 the student with true discipline and drive has the opportunity to be so much better, more schooled, so much more knowledgeable than we were in the 1980's.  The standard has certainly risen in a few short years.  And this all can happen by utilizing simple tools that we all now take for granted.  I hope I never forget how wonderful all of this opportunity and technological advancement really is for my students.