Thursday, February 14, 2019

A Culture of Grace

A couple of days ago, a longtime friend reached out to me and asked if there would be an opportunity for us to talk about my experience in arts administration.  He is a retired Arts Supervisor in PA and is now teaching arts admin classes at a couple of different institutions.  Later that morning, we connected by phone and had a great conversation.

I was happy to share some of my story of serving as Fine Arts Coordinator at NCSSM for much of my 18 year tenure here.  The Coordinator position is a unique one, because I really serve as a peer-advocate for my colleagues in the arts at a variety of levels.  I am not their supervisor, but I do have the opportunity to lead our discipline in many ways.  I promote our programs, provide feedback on events and activities, allocate foundation funding, provide feedback, lead interview and hiring efforts, and generally set philosophy and tone for the arts at our school.  All of this is in addition to my role as Music Instructor and Orchestra Conductor at the school.

During our conversation, I had the opportunity to articulate many of the core philosophies that have driven our success over the past 15 years or so.  I brought the seeds of many of these ideas to NCSSM in 2001, but others have been developed or refined as a result of my unique experiences here at this unique school.  I have been privileged to teach in a variety of circumstances over the years and certainly bring expectations and models from each to NCSSM.  I was reminded in the conversation of the stellar organizational structure that I witnessed during my student teaching at Williamsport School District in PA.  I also worked with and modeled much of my teaching after one of the most dynamic teachers I have encountered in my career, Walter Straiton.  Walt was always quick to remind me to develop my own style and to be ever mindful of my style/substance ratio.  One without the other is significantly less effective.  I was also reminded of the wonderful teachers and mentors I encountered in my first position in Palmyra PA.  The music instructors at the elementary, middle, and high schools were all top quality teachers and incredible mentors to me.  The community embraced me completely and my colleagues cared for me as I navigated the difficult early years of a career in music education.  They let me make my mistakes and always encouraged me to find my voice.  As I moved on to Eleanor Roosevelt High School, I encountered colleagues and leadership that expected excellence at every turn.  They were truly "world class" educators, musicians, and directors.  They provided models of stellar leadership and musical outreach that positioned me to significantly expand my sphere of influence, not to mention my confidence as a pedagogue and conductor.  All of these experiences came with me to NCSSM.  But, I had no idea how my perspectives would change as I got to know this new and unusual residential learning environment.

After a few years of introduction to NCSSM, it became clear that the traditional K-12 music program philosophies were not going to be sufficient at this place.  Students come here as basically math and science "majors."  They are here for this unique academic residential program - not exclusively (or primarily) for the orchestra.  The academic workload is heavy.  The expectations are high in every class and department.  The residential experience can be exhausting.  Student and parent goals and expectations are different than even the science and technology magnet school I had worked in for the previous decade.  I had to come up with some revised guiding principles if I was going to survive here and if the music and arts program was going to thrive in years to come.  I must admit, I thought about leaving more than a couple of times.  It would be much easier at a wealthy suburban high school.  I knew that scene.  I could kill it there.  But, there was something about NCSSM.  I knew I had a mission here.

During our conversation, my friend asked me to describe the arts culture at NCSSM today.  After thinking about it for a few minutes, I responded that I believe we have a "culture of grace."  I heard him typing.  He had never heard of that before.  I told him that many years earlier I had read a book called Love Works, by Joel Manby  The booked helped to shape some of the ways we look at student involvement and participation and faculty leadership in the arts now at NCSSM.  I also believe that in our arts hiring over the past several years, we have looked for folks that understand the complexity of life at NCSSM and embrace the challenges (and sometimes frustrations) that go with teaching in the arts here.  We have built and incredible team who all embrace the concept of "grace."   It is also important to note that for grace to occur, there must be a great deal of trust.  We have to trust colleagues (within and outside our discipline), administration, and students. Students have to trust us and the school.  As a residential school, our students' parents must have an incredible amount of trust in us as mentors and guides for their kids in order to send them here for the last two years of high school. And, our administration must trust us to make good calls at every turn.  Yes - trust and grace go hand in hand.

Last Saturday, my orchestra performed Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C minor. The students did a wonderful job and I could not have been more proud of their performance.  One of my cellists was at the state swimming championships earlier that day and made the finals.  She had not expected to go that far and fully expected to be back in time for the concert.  She e-mailed me about the situation and I encouraged her to swim and miss the concert.  Grace.  I dropped her a quick note after the concert to see how she did.  I received this note in response:

"I actually did really well! I hate that I couldn’t be there and my mom was planning on coming to see the concert and then I realized that we were going to make finals and I was honestly crushed and stuck between two very hard decisions. I ended choosing finals because I knew my team was counting on me to be in our two women’s relays and I didn’t want to let them down. Thank you for understanding and I am looking forward to Trimester 3 :)"

I can't tell you how happy this note made me. She trusted me.  I trusted her.  Love works and a "culture of grace" works.

There are other guiding principles and philosophies that I haven't touched on here.  We try to consider the individual before the ensemble.  I try to always find a way to say "yes." We believe in mastery based learning.  I believe the concepts of "essence" and "functional musicianship" are key to great ensemble success - musical and otherwise.  I could go on.

But for now, I am so appreciative of that conversation.  It inspired me to reflect on how the heck I got to this point.  There are many new hurdles to clear in coming months and years at NCSSM.  My close colleague and friend, Phillip Riggs recently retired and I am trying to re-imagine what life and work here will look like without him here with me on a regular basis.  Another long-time colleague and musical collaborator is looking at retirement in the very near future. We are opening a new campus in Morganton, NC and there are many decisions to be made regarding curriculum, staffing, etc.   Technology keeps marching on.  We have to keep up!  New students, programs, and opportunities continue to show up in Durham and we will work to stay in front of all of it.  But, I am certain that I will continue to believe in and promote a "culture of grace."  This we need.  This, we ALL need.



  1. You, my dear friend and colleague Scott Laird, are the DEFINITION of grace. I looked it up just for fun: elegance, charm, courtesy, respect. These are all qualities you exude and those around you rise to be with you. Thank you for writing this!

  2. grace and respect for other's ideas and strength along with honest collaboration are definitely keys to success with students and programs...a strive for excellence and constantly putting yourself and students in situations where they can experience them are critical...I would love to meet you sometime...

  3. I've been obsessed with this concept of grace lately (which may be antithetical); thank you for articulating these thoughts so clearly. Have you read "The Book of Joy" by the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu? If not, I highly recommend it. Glad you are well, my friend.

    1. Looks like my name didn't show up for some reason - Rich Miller