Wednesday, December 13, 2017

"Those who can..."

I grew up in a family of educators. My Dad was a teacher, Principal, and eventually Superintendent of Schools in my hometown. My Mom was a well-respected English teacher in a neighboring school district. The home I grew up in encouraged me and my two sisters to be academically curious and engaged in our school work on a daily basis. We were expected to get good grades. We were encouraged to learn how to play musical instruments. We were encouraged to participate in leadership activities. We were encouraged to join school clubs and student government. We were active in our church. There were high expectations in our home and each of us succeeded in our classes and in our activities.  We were also expected to be of the highest character and we took it seriously.  So did most of my friends.

When it was time to select a college major, I considered many different avenues. I had a feeling that music would be a good choice, but I wasn't sure what I should do.  In the end, it was clear to me that my parents felt that it would be a noble choice to choose education. They knew the life of a teacher and encouraged me to follow that path. They made sure that I knew that teaching was not a life oriented towards getting rich or owning a large home. It was a life built on scholarship, service to others, character, and true engagement in a community. While I wasn't sure that I wanted to be a teacher, education seemed like a smart initial choice for a college major.  It also offered the most clear path to an actual job following graduation for me.

While in college, I succeeded again. I was a top musician at my university, graduated Summa Cum Laude, and did my best to be a leader in the music community and broader community at my university. I still remember the day my professor told me, "You don't know it yet, Scott, but you are a teacher." I student-taught with distinction and graduated with a strong knowledge base, a high level of musicianship, and a real passion for teaching that was a result of contact with mentors who truly cared for me and helped me find my path. I left college ready to impact some community with my talents,  knowledge, and passion for music and string education.

It wasn't long after I graduated that I first heard the phrase: "those who can't do, teach." That phrase caught me completely off-guard. I couldn't believe it. I had spent my entire life going to school, enjoying school, and really investing my heart and soul into the process of learning. I respected my teachers. Yes, I even loved my teachers. My parents, whom I respected at every level, had invested their passion and intellect in public school education. Suddenly I was finding out that people disrespected the teaching profession. Truly, it caught me completely off-guard. 

As I continued pursuing the teaching career I couldn't have been more impressed with my colleagues I was around people every day who loved their jobs, loved their students and work, and completely committed to scholarship at the highest level. This has been the case nearly every day since I started teaching over 30 years ago.  My experience has been that the vast majority of teachers are very similar to me: committed, ethical, intellectually curious, and caring.

Of course everyone has some experience with "that teacher." The teacher who doesn't work so hard and isn't as committed to the highest levels of scholarship as all of the other teachers. But, that person is the exception to the rule. The vast majority of teachers that I have encountered over the years are true academics,  hard workers, and unbelievably committed to working for students and excellence at every level.

I recently opened my Facebook to read a scathing article about the incompetence of young people today and ultimately misguided teachers and public education.  The article asserted that young people are coming out of public schools with low knowledge and high sensitivity.  The article asserted that students from private schools and wealthy homes may be an exception, but that public education is producing a society of misinformed, low character, college graduates.  I read it as a complete attack on public education and teachers in general.  I can't believe that group of people who work so hard for the public good would be the brunt of this kind of misinformation. So, please hear me.  The vast majority of public school teachers I have encountered in my 30 year career are exceptional scholars. They are folks that are selflessly committed to the public good. They are people who are academically curious and of the highest character. They are people who love their students. They love their subjects. And they honor and respect people of all colors, races, sexualities, genders and backgrounds.

Now I know that you can find almost anything on social media nowadays.  Folks have all sorts of agendas and political leanings.  And, I certainly can't give that one article too much of my time and attention.  It is certainly representative of one groups misguided opinion.  As for me, I am proud to have chosen teaching as my profession and passion.  And I am pleased that teaching has chosen me. For all you teachers out there, these kids need us.  They need our  scholarship, our guidance, our care, and our encouragement.  Keep fighting the good fight. And remember: those who can, teach!

Fluency and Music

Music performance, at its best, must be fluent.  Listeners expect to hear uninterrupted lines that include clear communicative information.  Listeners desire accuracy and true competency from performers. From the simplest tunes to the most virtuosic concerti, the test of a fine performance is demonstrated fluency.

In recent weeks, I have been using a model/metaphor of fluency and music a great deal in my classes. Many of you know that my early music training is Suzuki violin instruction and the fluency model seems natural to me as a result of that instruction. I would like to take a little bit of time today to outline some of these thoughts.

Fluency is the ability to read a text accurately, quickly, and with expression. Fluency provides a bridge between word recognition and comprehension. When fluent readers read silently, they recognize words automatically. They group words quickly to help them gain meaning from what they read. Fluent readers read aloud effortlessly and with expression. Their reading sounds natural, as if they are speaking. Readers who have not yet developed fluency read slowly, word by word. Their oral reading is choppy. Fluent readers demonstrate accuracy, expression, pace punctuation, and comprehension.

So, in music it is very similar. Fluency in music would be explained as the ability to read and perform a score accurately, quickly and with expression. I often tell my students that there is a difference between  "comprehension level" music learning and "performance level" music learning. A fluent musician would demonstrate accuracy, expression, pace, punctuation, phrasing and comprehension within the context of the performance.

I am using the fluency model particularly frequently in my Classical Piano and Guitar course at the North Carolina School of Science and Math. This is a course designed for all levels of instruction. I teach beginning piano and guitar as part of the class and also work with more intermediate or advanced students who have some or extensive experience on their instrument. Many of these students come to me with a blank slate of experience and others come with varying levels of competency in music and music reading. In order to get all students moving in a similar fashion, I ask them all to consider their work in music using the fluency model.

The model is as follows:
Everybody learns to speak by learning individual words. As we learn a word we use it over and over. A great example would be the word "hot." A small child learns the word "hot" and then uses it in repetition until it becomes an active part of their vocabulary. The same is true for the repertoire my students are learning. They learn a musical concept, technique, or song, repeat that technique or song many times and it eventually becomes part of their active musical vocabulary.

We can also add the act of music reading into this model. Initially, small children read one letter at a time, then one word at a time, and eventually read full phrases and sentences with ease. The same is true for music. We can tell when students are reading isolated individual notes, then phrases, and eventually entire pieces.

For my beginning students, I explain to them that by learning repertoire and maintaining that repertoire, they are developing a vocabulary.  They must continuously use that vocabulary of musical techniques to become fluent. Thus, if a student continues to play a basic song over and over, the song eventually becomes fluent and flowing. The student can play the piece much like we speak, without overly thinking the individual aspects of the piece. Thus, they are operating in a fluency model.
My beginning piano and guitar students typically learn between 10 and 15 songs in a trimester. By the end of one term, they are fluent in each of those pieces and have a repertoire or "vocabulary" to build on.

Often times it is more difficult to convince my more intermediate students of this concept. So many students with some experience come to me thinking that they are much more fluent than they actually can demonstrate. Fluency involves a true understanding of all aspects of the vocabulary. In other words, one must know how to identify individual letters of words, define each word in a sentence, put the sentence together, and say and read it with inflection. That requires a great deal of skill! It is the same with music. The fluent musician must understand each individual note, its rhythm, its place in the musical phrase, how to read and perform that phrase accurately, and how to inflect that phrase accurately and fluently. So many students have spent all of their time working on simply notes and rhythms or just imitating their teacher or recordings. It is rare for students to arrive in my class fully fluent in every aspect of the repertoire they are used to learning. This sometimes causes problems because I want them to be able to demonstrate fluency in all aspects of their performance. Many of them have to revert to simpler repertoire to actually achieve this goal.

I find that the fluency model is also effective in my orchestra rehearsals. Early in the rehearsal cycle, we are reading. We are sounding out "words," finding connections and cues in the written score, and operating on a more remedial, functional level. As the students begin to learn a work more extensively, they can perform more fluently. The work is less about the minutiae and more about the larger ideas. Some students never get past the point of the remedial reading phase. Others get to the fluency phase much earlier.

One strong difference between an ensemble performance and my piano and guitar class is the fact that everybody needs to be fluent for the orchestra to perform with fluency. Even a small number of players that haven't achieved that fluent level can bring the ensemble performance down.  Right now, my orchestra is preparing for a performance of a Mozart Symphony and it is so imperative that every player is fluent in their part.  Even small inconsistencies can yield negative results.

I also find the fluency model to be applicable to the world of improvisation.  When we are speaking extemporaneously, we are effectively "improvising" with words.  In other words, we are calling on phrases and ideas that we have learned and prepared ahead of time that fit into the context of the conversation at hand.  This is improvisation at its best.  In order to improvise, we call on our experience with and preparation in concepts surrounding key, mode, rhythm, time, melody, and expression (to name only a few). 

Additionally, fluency in conversation requires listening.   So, this model provides a great vehicle for discussing the importance of listening in solo and ensemble music performance. In order to respond appropriately to a phrase or idea, one must be willing to listen to the information that precedes.  

I recently had a wonderful conversation on this topic with a student who is bilingual. English is his second language.  He learned English as a teenager and did so by putting labels with the names of objects all over house.  He had labels on the table, chair, desk, book, shirt, etc.   He told me that now he sees labels in his mind all the time.  And, in fact, now both languages require thought. For him, music does not have any labels.  It never did.  So, now music is his most fluent language.

In closing, I asked my students to articulate their understanding of fluency as it relates to both language and music.  One said, "Fluency is getting past small picture to big picture.  Another shared, "Fluency is not having to think specifically about the technical. It is simply expression."  Finally, a third remarked, "Fluency is like liquid: free and expressive."

I encourage to give this model a try with your students.  It has really resonated with my students and I feel like they have a more accurate picture of the true goals of rehearsal and performance.

I wish you all and your students many fluent performances!