Thursday, July 20, 2017

Blue Collar Education

Those of you that see my Twitter or Facebook feed on a regular basis know that I've been posting quotes from a book I am reading this summer,  Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, by Frank Bruni. This book is required reading for all incoming and current students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math where I teach during the regular academic school year. I have truly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it for parents and students alike. This book is full of stories and data that suggest there are many public and small, lesser known institutions across the United States which provide deep, challenging, meaningful opportunities for undergraduate education.  I know from experience teaching at NCSSM, an academically elite high school, that many of our students aspire primarily to Ivy League and other elite schools. I also see the incredible hit to their ego and feeling of self-worth when some are rejected from these institutions. The book makes the point that application numbers are elevated and rejection rates are at an all-time high from schools like Ivies, MIT, Sanford, Duke and many others.

So, as I have been reading the book, it has been easy to reflect on my education and subsequent opportunities in the world of music and music education. I did not come from a conservatory background. My parents were not professional musicians or even significantly music educated. Nor, was I ever sent to private schools, arts magnet schools, or elite summer music opportunities.  In fact, some of this is quite ironic, because, as I write this, I am on the faculty at Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, one of the nation's most highly regarded summer arts training facilities. I teach during the Academic Year at NCSSM, one of our nation's most elite STEM high schools. And, I frequently guest conduct elite high school honors orchestras throughout the United States. So, I thought that many of my readers would enjoy hearing about my educational background and musical experience, as well as my path to my current place in professional life.

I'm the son of educators. My father began his career as an elementary teacher and eventually worked his way to principal and, finally, superintendent of schools in my hometown of Indiana, PA. My mom was an English teacher for her entire career in a small rural community outside the college town I was raised in.  My parents had a HiFi stereo in the living room and I can remember listening to records that ranged from Tennessee Ernie Ford to Glen Miller to classical recordings. I can remember being particularly interested in a recording of Khachaturian's Sabre Dance, primarily because of the picture on the cover of the record album. I remember that it was a pirate with a sword and it inspired my imagination. I actually remember pulling a stick from a tree outside the front of our home and pretending I was a conductor.  I have early memories of attending orchestra concerts at the local high school and university.   At the age of six I expressed interest in learning to play the violin . And after a great deal of pestering and prodding, my father reluctantly agreed to buy a small violin for me and find a private teacher. I was fortunate to have a neighbor who lived a short distance from our home who was a graduate violin student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (Formerly Heidi Peterson, now Heidi Trevor Itashiki) and she was a fantastic violinist.

I began taking private violin lessons and excelled quickly. My sisters both followed suit and begin studying violin and cello within a short period of the time that I began. By the time I was eight years old I had begun taking piano lessons (in which I never invested too much thought or time) and music became a priority in our home.  Soon after, when my teacher finished her degree, I moved on to another teacher in my town, Gloria Johnson, who taught most of the top violin students. Her husband, Hugh Johnson, happened to be the conductor of the IUP Orchestra.  I studied with her throughout the rest of my junior high and high school years.  I played in school orchestra every year. I took private violin lessons. I played in numerous recitals in my town each year. I participated in performances for service organizations, church, and other community organizations throughout elementary middle and high school. I (with my parents support and guidance), invested in the music community of my hometown and they invested in me. Somewhere around age 12, I picked up the electric bass and started playing in rock bands in my community as well. Music was becoming a huge part of my life .

I attended summer music camp every year.  Interlochen was not within my family's budget, so I attended music camp at Edinboro State University.  I played under the baton of noted conductor, Walter Hendle and developed a lifelong friendship with Camp Director and Edinboro University Orchestra Conductor, Cliff Cox.  He became, in many ways, my model for what an orchestra conductor/pedagogue should look and act like on the podium.  I had experiences as concertmaster and as principal second violin in orchestra on various summers, played chamber music, played in pit orchestras for operas, had fun and learned so much while at camp.  I also attended Music Art and Drama Camp at Westminster Highlands each summer, a Presbyterian Church Camp in North Western PA, where we would create multi-art performances from scratch.  These camp experiences were incredibly formative in my music and leadership education.

I played in District, Regional, All-State, and even All Eastern Division Orchestras. When I was 16, I was invited to become a member of the IUP Orchestra and was thrilled to be part of a college performing ensemble at such a young age.  I also began taking music theory lessons with another local music student who was doing graduate studies at the University of Michigan. I remember learning about the circle of fifths and playing chords on the piano. This completely changed my life. I began writing music and found that I could move people with my art.  I was becoming a solid well-rounded functional musician.  I was also a top academic student. I was in all of the advanced classes in my high school, had a very high GPA, and graduated among the top students in my class. I was class president, had a wonderful social life, and enjoyed a fantastic high school education. I participated in clubs, music theater, weight-lifting, raquetball, and many other activities.  My senior year of high school was filled with music classes because I had finished most of the other academic offerings at my high school and I knew that I wanted to pursue music as a career.

When it came time for college, I had options. I was accepted to a private school in New York, a state university in Ohio, and my local state university, Indiana University of Pennsylvania . I initially made a decision to attend a school outside of my hometown. I was fortunate that the Music Department Chair from IUP knew me and my parents well and took some time to come to our home, sit in our kitchen, and explain to me that IUP had everything that the other schools could offer and more. I was convinced. Why drive 7 hours to college when I can simply go across town? I decided to attend IUP and would pursue a degree in music education even though at that time I really wanted to be a songwriter. (Actually I had no idea what I wanted to be! I just knew that I was good at music.)

IUP afforded me incredible opportunities. My violin instructor, Delight Malitsky, a former concertmaster of the Honolulu Symphony, was a world-class violinist and pianist. She nurtured me unconditionally through my four years of undergraduate education.  She truly provided me with conservatory-class private instruction.  I played in an orchestra that regularly prepared and performed the masterworks. I learned to love Beethoven Symphonies, Aaron Copland's orchestral works, Stravinsky, and many others. We performed classic repertoire as well as new music regularly. I had numerous solo opportunities in college and performed both a junior and senior solo violin recital.  My recitals included solo repertoire of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Kreisler, Bolling, Lalo, Sarsate and many others.  I played bass in the university big band, loved touring, and developed wonderful relationships with many of the jazz students. I excelled in music theory and the many other academic opportunities in the music department at IUP. I also loved my general education courses and I'm fairly certain that I had A's in all of my non-music courses.

One music education professor, Dr. John Kuehn, took a particular interest in my education and invited me to participate in the University Lab School music program even when I wasn't registered for his class. I jumped at the opportunity and quickly became interested in teaching and all that he could offer me in terms of training. By my junior year, he offered me an opportunity to teach the strings class (under his guidance) at the school. This was an unprecedented opportunity for an undergraduate at IUP and I jumped at the chance. By the time I student-taught a year later, I had already managed my own classroom for a full year in an elementary setting.  I knew that I wanted to be a teacher and that I could be good at it. I graduated Summa Cum Laude.

I student-taught at Williamsport Area School District in North Central Pennsylvania with well-known string educator and conductor, Walter Straiton. Walt was a wonderful mentor to me and continues to be to this day. I was given so many opportunities while at Williamsport. They seemed to sense that I had what it take took to be a master teacher down the road. I was green, but I was enthusiastic, and I had the training and tools to develop into a fine teacher.

I landed my first job at Palmyra School District near Hershey, Pennsylvania. I taught there for 6 years and had a wonderful experience learning to become a teacher in the elementary, middle and high schools. During my time at Palmyra, I pursued summer pedagogical workshops and was particularly enriched by a workshop at Central Connecticut State University which was taught by Dorothy Straub, Marvin Rabin, and Jim Kjelland. That workshop changed my life and gave me real tools to use in the classroom. I also knew that I wanted to continue to deepen my violin skills with Delight Malitsky, my collegiate violin instructor. So I went back to IUP and finished a master's degree in violin performance.  While at Palmyra, I played in the Lebanon Valley College Orchestra under the baton of Klement Hambourg, played numerous solo recitals, and took gigs at all of the local colleges and universities.

Soon, other teaching opportunities began to materialize. I moved to the Washington DC suburbs and began teaching at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, a Science and Technology Magnet School in Prince George's County and an MENC School of Distinction with a huge music program and lofty orchestral reputation. While there, I began to pursue post-masters studies at the University of Maryland. Most notably, I studied conducting with Professor William Hudson. I always took my conducting seriously and worked very hard to develop that art.  I never finished that degree, primarily because my first son was born and life simply took over. I also was beginning to receive numerous conducting opportunities outside of my school and began developing my reputation as a pedagogue, teacher trainer, and conductor of honors orchestras. The opportunities became plentiful very quickly.

Obviously, that's not the end of my education. Everyday is a learning experience. Other educational highlights include my National Board Certification and subsequent re-certification, numerous conferences and summer workshops, hundreds of books and articles, and probably most importantly, my broad experience.  But, that was the end of my formal education in a collegiate setting. None of it was at a conservatory. None of it was at a private school. None of the schools I attended were considered "elite." But all of them afforded me amazing opportunities, wonderful instruction, and met me where I was as a musician and a student.

So, how does someone experience such a blue collar music education and end up teaching at Interlochen and NCSSM? For me I think it comes down to a couple of factors. First, I believe in "active learning." I honestly believe that in every course I've ever taken, every lesson, every rehearsal, every gig, and every book I've read, I have been actively learning.  I try not to be passive about anything when it comes to learning. I try to engage my brain, think through process, and find connections in everything that I read, do, and experience.  I'm reminded of my experience while playing second violin Annapolis Symphony Orchestra back in the 1990's under the Baton of Gisele Ben-Dor , thinking that every rehearsal was a conducting lesson. She was a master. I learned so much playing second violin in that orchestra simply by watching her, taking mental notes, and incorporating many of her techniques into my own school orchestra conducting.  Another key, in my mind, is quite similar. It is to always "move with a purpose." My 3 sons get tired of hearing me say this on a regular basis. But, I believe it. In everything we do, it never hurts to hustle. The more we move with purpose, the more the people around us understand that we are serious about our tasks. I believe this has been an integral part of my development as a musician and as a professional. Opportunities don't just fall out of the sky. Someone has to think that you're worth the investment. Hustle and purpose is free and goes an awful long way!  Finally, I believe that my passionate pursuit of excellence has served me well. I have never been interested in being second-best. I have always been interested in being the best that I can possibly be. And, I believe that I have a palpable passion for the work that I do. Again, this can be a little bit abstract. But, when one is passionate about their goals and activities, combined with intellect and hard work, anything can be accomplished.

So, in wrapping up, I've been so fortunate. In attending public universities and schools, I have received some of the finest instruction that a music student could desire. I have never felt like my music education was lacking because I didn't attend an elite institution. I certainly received all of the necessary tools for musical and professional success as part of my education. I believe strongly that it is what you do with those tools that determine future success. I will continue to try to be a good steward of that education. I truly desire to pass all that I received through my education on to my students on a daily basis.

That is my goal today and every day.



(And, by the way, my oldest son is pursuing a degree in Music Education at UNC Greensboro, an absolutely amazing public institution.  He is getting a world-class music education!  Full circle.)

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