Monday, September 13, 2021

In Silence

I typically dictate my blog posts.  Ever since I picked up my Google Pixel phone several years ago, I have been dictating my posts as a first step.  I helps me get my ideas out with a bit of flow.  Then, I go back and edit for clarity, spelling, flow,  accuracy, etc. If you read my blog, I bet you have caught a mistake from time to time.  A misspelling. An odd use of a word.  That sort of thing.  

I do the same thing with my students' college recommendations.  Also with emails. This workflow really helps me get my ideas out quickly.  Then, I can always go back for accuracy and clarity. 

But, not tonight.  Tonight I am typing.  Why?  Because I can't talk.  Last Thursday I had a nasty polyp removed from my vocal chords.  So, I am now on extended vocal rest. Tonight is day 5. That's right. I haven't said a word in 5 days! Those of you who know me may find that hard to believe.  I think it has been a nice break for my wife. 

I started noticing a problem quickly after we went to all zoom classes at the beginning of Covid-19.  I was simply talking too much and over projecting to get through the computer on Zoom. I was limping to the finish line at the end of last school year when I led a sing-along/jam session for seniors on the last day of school.  I sang too long in the heat, with no water, and knew the whole time I was hurting myself.  As I went home that day in May, I knew the damage was done.  

I knew because I had the same problem in 2008, 13 years ago.  When I first came to NCSSM in 2001, one of my teaching duties was chorus.  I over-sang for several years as a crutch against my lack of pedagogical skills as a choral musician.  7 years of over-singing took its toll.  I had developed polyps and the only remedy was surgery.  

Back then they used a scalpel.  Now it is a laser.  (Much less invasive.) Back then, the recovery was 4 weeks and now it is more like 2.  One similarity is vocal coaching afterwards.  Tomorrow is my first session.  I am dreading it.  Back then I had little boys at home who needed my attention. Now they are all adults and my wife and I have the place to ourselves.  It is much quieter than in 2008.  I learned back then that there is a lot of one's identity tied up in voice.  How deep?  How does it project?  This is particularly, I believe, impactful for a teacher like me.

Tomorrow will be my first day back at school.  My orchestra students have been so nice.  They are concerned about me!  It is so hard for me to take time off.  I have definitely rested and allowed my voice to recuperate, but my mind goes a mile a minute.  I miss being at work. I miss all the social interaction.  

So, what does a guy like me learn in 5 days of no talking?  Let me see if I can give you a list.
  • I like to listen to podcasts
  • It is frustrating to not be able to respond to conversation or pick up the phone
  • Vocal surgery makes one tired!
  • I enjoy long walks
  • I really do enjoy listening to others
  • It is so easy to get lost in my phone
  • I like to cook
  • Anesthesia messes you up for a day or so
  • I appreciate my family
  • My wife is an angel and a saint
  • One notices the world around when you can't speak
  • I truly like my work and miss going to school
  • My students are the best!
  • It was so fun to watch the Steelers with my sons, without talking (or cheering)
I am sure there is more, but these are some starters.
I have been communicating with a white-board at home and plan to continue to do so at school for the next two weeks. Wish me luck!

For now, take care of your voice.  You need it.  I know I need mine.  And, I am hoping that it will be back in its old clear form in just a few short weeks. And then, I can go back to dictating my blog posts.  For now, enjoy the silence!



Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Spinach Dip Recipe

Back in 1992, I left my first job in Palmyra PA, to become the Orchestra Director at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt MD. As part of my move from Pennsylvania to Maryland, I had to do some professional development to keep my teaching certificate up to date. This included two summer classes. One was in reading and the other was in special education. My new position was at a science and technology magnet school teaching orchestra. At the time, I was having great difficulty finding the value in doing this professional development and was dreading the classes. My colleague, the band director at the school, encouraged me to go and find any positive in the work that was required of me. In her words, I should "seek out a really good spinach dip recipe" as a result of my time in the classes. Her point was that we can find positives in virtually any situation. I used that phrase for many years when I opened professional development sessions I was teaching. Professional development is not ever going to hit every participant in the sweet spot. Participants must be open to the little benefits of a day or more of professional development. Sometimes we making a new friend, gain a new perspective, or, find "a really good spinach dip recipe" shared among friends. 

Last Friday, the Friday before Labor Day weekend, our students were gone for a long four-day weekend. The day was labeled a professional development day and the faculty at our school were required to attend a professional development session on Restorative Practices. I have to say, the timing wasn't good. It has been a trying beginning of the school year. Faculty are working hard to teach through masks. We are just coming back together as a community after being in a hybrid learning mode for over a year. Folks are worried about health, large groups, and the spread of the virus. In addition, there is much discussion in our community about self care, workplace flexibility, and the emotional well-being of our staff and faculty. And, lots of folks were ready to get out the door for a much deserved long weekend of rest and relaxation. In fact, I was planning a weekend trip to the beach and was in fact a little annoyed that I would be getting away from work so late on this final day before the Labor Day weekend. However, in spite of all of these factors, the professional development session on Restorative Practices from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. was scheduled and was definitely going to happen. The facilitators had been booked and paid, and the plan was set in motion. But, it would be fair to say that a large portion of our faculty was apprehensive about participating in the in-person sessions throughout the day, skeptical about the facilitators ability to understand our unique community, and not in a good place to receive the information that was being presented. 

It would be fair to say that many folks were not in a place where they could be looking for "a really good spinach dip recipe" on that day. In actuality, it seems kind of ironic that a professional development day on Restorative Practices could possibly have so much potential negativity surrounding it. But, this is where we found ourselves last Friday. 

I didn't know much about the topic. I had looked it up on Wikipedia briefly before the session. But, in actuality I was starting from scratch. Restorative Practices is an approach that proactively builds positive school communities. It is defined as a social science that studies how to build social capital and achieve social discipline through participatory learning and decision making. The day was built on providing models and a framework for implementing Restorative Practices in the classroom and school community. Our first meeting of the day was in a large room with our faculty split into "small groups" of about 30 to 35 people and a facilitator. These numbers of folks together caused a lot of concern among my colleagues from a health perspective. It really was too many people to be sitting in a circle in a room indoors when we have been so careful about the health of our community up to now. The facilitator was a really great guy. He had a history as a high school football coach, graduation coach, and has been working for the Department of Public Instruction for several years, teaching Restorative Practices. He was articulate, friendly, and very knowledgeable on his subject. That said, it became clear quickly that he was used to a very different audience than my school's faculty. As many of you know, I do not teach at a traditional high school. NCSSM is a residential high school of academically motivated students. Classroom management and discipline are not our biggest issues at NCSSM. We, as instructors, are focused much more on students social and emotional learning, health and well-being, and obviously, high level content for high achieving students. Much of the early stages of the presentation were built around classroom discipline, challenging students, and other common concerns in traditional high schools. At NCSSM, we tend to get the students who are not causing problems in class. So, understandably, our focus and concerns are different. We operate in a unique school setting for sure. (Hence, our mascot is appropriately, the Unicorns.)

About an hour into the presentation, after a couple of challenging and difficult interactions, I could tell that the presenter began to realize that he didn't truly understand our community. But, like the professional that he is, he let us know that he was trying to figure out exactly who we are, and move forward with an open mind and curiosity about our students, faculty, and environment. In truth, he handled it perfectly.

Throughout the rest of the day, our facilitator went on to explain many of the principles of Restorative Practices to our small group and led a sometimes difficult discussion. I was impressed with his ability to pivot and flow with the curveballs he was thrown throughout the day. I must admit, as the day continued, a small wave of positivity went through the room and I could feel participation become more open as the day went on. 

As for myself, I found a number of wonderful nuggets in the models of restorative practices that were presented that day. I knew I had a 4-hour car ride to the beach ahead of me with my wife and made several notes about topics I wanted to bring up with her to discuss in the car as they related to our relationship, our family, and our work. I had found my "spinach dip recipes."

One of the topics that I found to be quite interesting were the Nine Innate Affects as defined by the Restorative Practices Handbook. The positive affects were listed as interest, excitement, enjoyment, and joy. Neutral affects were listed as surprise and startle. Negative affects included shame, humiliation, distress, anguish, disgust, fear, terror, anger, rage, and dissmell. I considered these fairly deeply during the day. I believe that I live most of my life in the midst of the positive affects. I tend to begin each day with interest and excitement. And, for the most part I am open to, and seeking, enjoyment and joy in all that I do. As I considered these ideas, it occurred to me that my wife and I both live primarily in the positive affects. That is probably one of the keys to our 31-year marriage. I was anxious to share this idea with her in the car.

Another model that spoke to me a bit was the Compass of Shame which was presented to us. Mind you, shame is not an emotion I relate to a whole lot. But, it is part of all of our lives. The East/West poles of the compass include attacking others (on the west) and attacking self (on the east.) These are two very opposite reactions to shame. The north/south poles are withdrawal (on the north) and avoidance (on the south.) Again, these are very opposite reactions to shame. I would equate withdrawal to stewing in the shame and avoidance to denying the shame or moving on to other things in order to to mask the feeling. This was a lot for me to consider in my own life and as it relates to the lives of others. Interesting stuff. When do I feel shame? Why do I feel shame? And how is it changed over the years? Which poles are my default reactions to shame? I thought about all of this stuff a good deal throughout the afternoon. It was a good topic of reflection for me on this day. It also made for great conversation in the car on the way to the beach.

There were a few other concepts throughout the day that provided food for thought as well. I found the Social Discipline Window to be interesting and spent some time reflecting on it. If you want to know more about the Social Discipline Window, spend some time in the Restorative Practices Handbook for Teachers, Disciplinarians and Administrators, by Bob Costello, Joshua Wachtel, and Ted Wachtel. It is a comprehensive handbook and covers these concepts in detail.

In the end, the professional development session on Friday isn't going to change my life. It also certainly didn't kill me to participate. I left the day with food for thought and some interesting ideas to consider throughout the weekend. I thought a great deal about how these practices apply to the orchestra classroom. Also, it was interesting to consider how many of the philosophies I have developed over the years fit firmly into the ethos of Restorative Practices. I was particularly pleased to see how my concepts of "Essence" as a rehearsal discipline fit strongly into the model. I had a wonderful conversation with my Dean over lunch where we discussed these ideas. Another "spinach dip recipe!"

Isn't this the way professional development goes. Sometimes it hits a home run and other times it can be a strikeout. But, there is usually a "spinach dip recipe" to be found. 

As we move through the upcoming academic year, I wish you all the opportunity to find those spinach dip recipes. Keep an open mind and an open heart. Good things will come from our work. And, if you have the chance, check out Restorative Practices as a wonderful model and tool for your interactions with students, colleagues, and family. I feel certain you will find some value there. 



Thursday, July 29, 2021

CodaBow and the Pedagogical Approach

 I vividly remember my first violin and bow. My parents purchased that little quarter size instrument in 1971 from a local luthier in Clymer PA. I believe it was $35. The bow wasn't much more than a long skinny stick of wood with hair attached. But, it was mine and, at age 6, I was now a violinist. I don't recall much more about the bow. But, I do know it was a very precious possession. My parents drove home the importance of taking care of my bow. I learned to loosen the hair after each practice, not to touch the hair, and to rosin it regularly. (Which, I am pretty sure I didn't do.) I'm not sure I understood the reasoning behind any of that but it certainly served me well during those early years. 

I remember my parents purchasing my first "quality" full-size violin when I was about 13 years old.  We bought it from Kschier Brothers in Pittsburgh and it, too, became my prized possession. I actually still play that violin to this day. The bow cost $375 and I recall that it was a Brazilwood stick. Again, I don't remember much about the performance of the bow. I didn't understand the importance of those issues at the time. But, I do know it became an important part of my violin package, and I made sure I took very good care of it. 

As a music education major in college, I purchased my first high-end bow around 1985.  It was purchased from the William Moennig & Son Company in Philadelphia and was made by Joseph Richter. Boy, could I feel the difference! I felt like I was driving a Ferrari when I played. Everything worked the way I needed it to work. I could achieve a beautiful, consistent tone from frog to stick. I had control of advanced techniques, and I could play with sonic nuance that I had never been able to achieve before. I could feel the difference. This was the right bow for me. I now had the right tool to develop my artistry.

Fast forward to my early teaching years. Almost all of my students we're coming to me with rental instruments and the old standard fiberglass bows. I would frequently pick up a student instrument to either tune it or demonstrate something and always be disappointed in the response of the bow. They never felt right to me.  They never sounded right to me. And, honestly, they just didn't work correctly for my students either. I never felt they produced a representative tone quality or allowed for appropriate beginning bow technique. They felt so clunky and really didn't appropriately meet the needs of my students. Honestly, I believe I grew to have low bowing expectations because of the limitations of those sticks. But, that was in the late 1980s.

In 2021, things have changed dramatically. There has been incredible advancement in the world of materials and construction when it comes to the bow. And, much of that advancement is a direct result of significant research done by my friends at Codabow International. In the old days, student bows were typically constructed from the throw-away wood that was unacceptable for "real" bow construction. If the piece of wood was faulty in some way, it would move to the student bow category. That simply isn't the case anymore. Through significant research, Codabow has ascertained there are really four primary variables that must be considered when creating a bow for any level of player from beginner to professional. And, with carbon-fiber construction, bows can be intentionally designed, and affordably manufactured and purchased, for students and players at every playing level. 

The four variables at play are balance, weight, action, and stiffness. Balance impacts dynamics and is defined as the inertial center the player experiences while playing. In other words, the bow's resistance to changes in momentum. Weight is defined as the mass the player feels or senses when playing. Action is the nature of the string connection the player experiences. We sometimes think of this as touch. Finally, stiffness is the force required to flex the bow. Through their extensive research, Codabow has realized each of these factors plays a role in how the player connects the bow to the instrument. And, with different skill sets and expectations, the needs are unique for all players and levels of experience.

Imagine a beginning player who is using a bow that is designed specifically for maximum success based on their skill set, and not from a throwaway piece of wood. For instance, a beginner needs the balance to be tip favored, a little bit lighter, firmer action, and stiffer than a more advanced player. This allows for maximum control. The student gives up a little bit in the area of nuance or action. But, this doesn't matter. Nuance and action are not typically qualities that are important to a "twinkler." I am referring here to students who would be in Suzuki Books 1 or 2, for instance, or first and second year students in a school orchestra program.

As the student moves into intermediate repertoire, the optimum bow is more center balanced, a little bit heavier, has a moderate action, and has a more moderate stiffness. This will allow for a more lively and articulate bow technique and experience. This bow would allow for a more relaxed bow hold, beginning double stops, some beginning off the string technique, and the beginning of a more expressive palette of tonal options. Think Suzuki Books 5 and 6, or standard high school orchestra repertoire.

For the string student who is diving deeper into all of the possibilities of repertoire and technique, a bow with a more expressive and responsive feel becomes a true asset. The balance of the bow must be more frog favored, the weight will be heavier, the action should be more supple, and the student will desire a softer stiffness. These variables will be appreciated as the student works for more speed and agility in their bowing and a wider dynamic range. They will experience more power and beauty of tone when they're playing powerfully. This is the student who is learning the concerti and more advanced repertoire, playing in chamber ensembles, and participating in regional and all-state orchestra events. It also is ideal for the pre-music major or even an undergraduate music education or performance major. 

For professionals, one can acquire a stick that caters to specific styles.  If you are a rock or jazz player and want power and resonance from the lower strings and stunning projection from the top end, a specific set of variables will help you achieve this.  For the professional orchestral player, chamber musician or soloist, exquisite handling and expressive sound once reserved only for the finest (and most expensive) master bows can be affordably achieved with intentional design.

Bow technology has come a long way in the past 30 years. I am so grateful for the many opportunities my parents provided me as a young music student and developing violinist. With that said, I am certain these technological advances would have significantly changed my performance experience at every level. Intentional design and the application of science to the art of bowed string performance is an incredible advancement. 

One word of caution. Not all carbon fiber bows are created equal. The time and effort taken to define these variables and implement them into bow construction changes everything. In other words, the material itself is not anything magical. It's how the material is used to build the bow and manipulate these four important variables. Trust the science. You will experience it in the feel and artistry of your playing and that of your students at every level.

My Codabow experience now spans over 25 years and I can truly say that my playing has benefitted immeasurably from playing these bows.  I play them exclusively on both my electric and acoustic violins and violas, and use them for every aspect of my musical life; playing contemporary styles, playing classical, indoor and outdoor gigs, teaching, demonstrating, and recording.  I recommend them for students and seasoned professionals.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

My Violin String Journey

I feel like today is a good day to just give a little bit of history of my experience with violin strings over the years. I began playing the violin in 1971. Strings for bowed instruments have changed quite a bit in the last 50 years. (It's hard to believe that it's been 50 years! I should probably celebrate the anniversary in some way.)

My first recollection of strings as an important component of my violin set-up and playing really goes back to the mid-1970s. As a young violin student, I am sure that I broke a string here or there and needed to learn how to change them. Learning to change strings was something that happened about the same time I learned to tune strings. It's hard to even remember the process of learning. I do remember that in the 70s, we used (Pirastro) gut strings. I remember that new A, D, and G strings took forever to stabilize once they were on the instrument. And, I remember that after a few months of wear and tear, I could see and feel the string beginning to degrade under my fingers. I was fascinated by the notion that there was some kind of organic gut material in the middle of the string. I also remember that the E string stabilized much quicker then the others.  I learned how to wind a perfect spiral up the peg and was pretty proficient at changing strings by the time I was 10 years old or so. 

I got my first full size violin when I was about 12 years old. That would have been around 1977. I remember learning about synthetic strings at about the same time. My teacher told me about the new material which was an important innovation and encouraged me to try Dominant strings right around that time. My first impression was that they stabilized so much faster. It didn't take three or four days for my strings to settle down. They would stay in tune within a couple hours of solid practice. I, like many other violinists of my generation, grew to trust Dominant strings and the innovation that they represented. I, like many other violinists, also learned that the Dominant E string probably wasn't going to do the job. I struggled with the E string whistle for several years and eventually switched back to the Gold Label E string as a compliment to the A, D, and G Dominant strings. This became my setup of choice for many years. Like most everyone else, I did this at my teacher's encouraging, and really never questioned the strings I was using.

Fast forward to the late 1990"s. I was doing extensive work with Zeta Music Systems, the electric violin company. As part of that work, I found myself frequently in the company of Sandy Neal, who worked as the Brand Manager of D'Addario Bowed Strings. I was familiar with D'addario as a guitar string company but didn't realize prior to that time that they were now designing and manufacturing strings for bowed instruments. Sandy encouraged me to try D'Addario Strings and sent me a couple sets to try. If I am being honest, I was very hesitant to try them. (How good could they possibly be? After all, D'addario is a guitar string company!) I remember putting the Helicore strings on my violin and immediately feeling good about their tone, stability, and reaction to my playing. 

Helicore violin strings are crafted with a multi-stranded steel core, resulting in optimal playability while producing a clear, warm tone. These strings are known for their quick bow response and excellent pitch stability, making them a go-to choice for players of all musical styles.

I also spent a good deal of time with D'addario Zyex strings on my violin.
Zyex violin strings are made from a a new generation of synthetic materials, which produce strings that are incredibly stable under drastic climatic conditions. Within a matter of hours, Zyex violin strings settle in on the instrument with a sound that is warmer than other synthetic core strings.

The Zyex strings were a little bit harsh on my violin and somewhat loud to my ear. Helicore, on the other hand, we're warmer and more subtle. They matched my style of playing and sounded great on my instrument. At some point, I settled on Helicore strings for my playing but I wasn't entirely happy with the E string. It had that same whistle as the Dominants and it didn't quite work for me. Within a few short years, D'Addario's non-whistling Kaplan E was introduced to the marketplace and it really did the job for me. I played Helicore strings with a Kaplan E for many years and really never looked back... until the introduction of D'addario's Kaplan Vivo strings. 

I liked D'addario Helicore's so much that I eventually (~2003) entered into an Artist/Educator agreement with D'addario and galvanized the relationship which has been so pivotal in my teaching career to this day.  Around 2015, I got a call from my friends at D'addario, encouraging me to give their new Kaplan Amo and Vivo strings a try and provide some feedback. 

Kaplan violin strings offer professional-level players an unprecedented combination of beauty and power in two options, Kaplan Amo and Kaplan Vivo. Kaplan Vivo delivers brilliance, clarity, and a robust feel for darker instruments. Kaplan Amo violin strings, on the other hand, provide warmth, richness, and flexibility for brighter instruments. These strings settle quickly, exhibiting a rich tonal color palette and superb bow response. 

My old German violin is certainly a darker instrument and the Kaplan Vivos really bring out it's wonderful character. It took me a while to get used to them, but I have grown to really love everything they offer me.

An important step in this process was gaining perspective of others in playing situations. I remember one day in particular that had a very strong impact on my decision. I play in my church very frequently. I have a dear friend, Leslie, who runs sound at the church. She has heard my violin for many years and knows the sound and character of the instrument. On the first day that I had the Kaplan Vivo strings on my violin, Leslie asked me if I had changed something on my violin. She told me that the instrument was cutting through the rest of the ensemble in a new and different way. She told me the sound was sweet and appealing, but different. That was a really encouraging comment and probably gave me the confidence to make the switch. She, a non-violinist, had noticed the upgrade. I felt really good about it.

After using Helicore's for nearly 20 years, this was a big change for me. But, the rich pallet of colors the Kaplan's offer, was a no-brainer change. I have fallen in love with these strings. 

I still recommend Helicore's for all of my students. And, in fact, I use Helicore's on all of my electric violins. But, for my acoustic instrument, the Kaplan Vivo is my string of choice. 

Choosing strings is a tricky process. It definitely takes time, patience, and a great deal of listening.  I had the sound of Dominant's under my left ear for nearly 20 years. Then, I had the sound of D'addario Helicore's under my left ear for another 20 years. Making a switch feels odd. My instrument truly does sound different (better) with Kaplans. I have been using the Kaplans now for about 2 years and absolutely love them. But, it wasn't instant. It took some time of playing with the strings and listening for their detail and characteristics.

Let me encourage you to spend some time with a variety of strings. I love D'Addario strings in every way. Helicore, Zyex, Kaplan Amo, and Kaplan Vivo provide an amazing array of tonal choices and variables. In the end, I always know that D'addario is doing everything in their power to provide an amazing string experience for players of every level. I have so much confidence in their products and recommend them without hesitation.

By the way, I have grown to trust D'Addario strings for all of my instruments. I used them exclusively on my electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitars, mandolins, viola, electric violins, and violins. 



Saturday, June 26, 2021

Rearranging the Furniture

When I was a kid, I used to love to rearrange the furniture in my bedroom. I would move the bed, my dresser, my stereo, and other important items in my life around to different places in the room about every 6 months. To me it represented something new, something different and fresh. And I always enjoyed walking in to a little surprise for the first week or so of the newly arranged furniture. When I moved into my first apartment, I did the same thing.  About every six months, I would move things around.  Now that we live in a house, have kids, and very busy lives, it doesn't happen as often. But, I still really enjoy the process of rearranging and redecorating. It keeps things fresh, less predictable, and a little bit exciting. My thoughts today are less about furniture specifically and more about changes in our lives. A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with a pastor at my church.   We were talking about some impactful personnel changes at the church and I told her about some other areas in my life where important people were coming and going. She said to me, "Wow! You are really rearranging the furniture right now!" Boy, was she right!  I have thought about that comment a great deal since then.  I have been keenly aware, over the past 18 months or so, that many of the stable friendships, relationships, and long-term pillars of my life have been shifting around a bit. This can be very disorienting. And, truth be told, it has been for me. But, in the midst of that shift, there is also good to be found.  There can be excitement, daily surprises, and potential for a fresh start. Let me see if I can explain.

School and Work

At NCSSM, I have enjoyed a very stable set of collegial relationships within the Music Department for about the past 12 years. My dear friend Dave Stuntz has been our part-time Choral Director and collaborator for 15 years. Philip Riggs, Grammy Award-winning Music Educator, has been NCSSM's Band Director and probably my closest professional colleague for the past 12. The three of us are all about the same age and had developed an incredibly stable and comfortable working relationship and rhythm over the years. Phillip announced his retirement in January of 2019 (and came back to NCSSM on a part-time basis for the 2019-2020 school year before retiring fully in May of 2020). Dave retired from NCSSM in May of 2020. We ran a search and successfully hired two amazing music educators to fill these positions. Carolina Perez and Chad Cygan have turned out to be magnificent colleagues and will carry on the great traditions we have in the music program at NCSSM for sure and certainly create new traditions of their own. But, that doesn't mitigate the shock to the system of two of my best friends and peers moving on to the next phase of their personal and professional lives. It changed my everyday life in profound ways.  

Blacknall Church

I didn't mention earlier that Dave Stuntz was also the long time Director of Music and Worship at Blacknall Presbyterian Church in Durham. I am a member of Blacknall and have participated fully in worship leadership as a violinist with Dave at the piano for the better part of the last 20 years. Dave also retired from Blacknall at the end of 2020. I was part of the search committee to replace Dave and we hired a wonderful music minister, Wen Reagan, to fill that role. Again, Wen is wonderful and I have enjoyed working with him so much. The church music program is in very capable hands.  But, it is different. It is still sort of a shock to the system every time I participate in worship leadership. To top that off, the head pastor at Blacknall also retired this spring. Allan Poole has been a incredible leader of our church for many years. He was there long before we began attending Blacknall in 2001. His steady voice, deep wisdom, and steadfast faith have been a constant in our lives for the past 20 years. We and the church will miss him greatly. The church is certainly in good hands with the remaining staff and I am sure that another wonderful pastor will be selected by the search committee. That doesn't change the fact that my furniture is being rearranged.


Many of you also know that I am deeply engaged in the work of both the American String Teachers Association and El Sistema USA. Around the 1st of this year, Monica Schultz, the CEO of the American String Teachers Association, announced that she would be leaving to take another position. I served on the search committee for that position and was pleased to be part of the committee who selected Lynn Tuttle to take over at the helm of ASTA.  Our organization is in good hands moving forward.  Additionally, my dear friend, longtime colleague, and former orchestra student at ERHS, Katie Wyatt, has recently stepped down from her position as CEO of El Sistema USA. I am currently treasurer of that organization and have worked very closely with Katie for the past 15 years on both the work of El Sistema USA and before that, KidzNotes here in Durham. Katie and I will certainly stay in close touch following her departure from El Sistema USA, but still, the furniture is being rearranged. Incidentally, El Sistema USA has selected a wonderful interim CEO in Angelica Cortez, and that organization is also in profoundly capable hands moving forward.

Home and Family

Here at home, my wife and I celebrated the graduation this spring of our youngest son, Cael. He had a tremendous high school career and is ready for the next step in his life. But, for any of you who have seen your youngest child graduate and prepare for college, you know that it isn't easy to think about those big steps. Particularly for the youngest one. It is different when it is the last one. To top it off, he is going a long way from home. He will be attending St Xavier University in Chicago on a baseball and academic scholarship. We are so excited for him and for his future. But, it doesn't change the fact that my furniture is definitely being rearranged at home, too.

So, today I have been thinking a bit about rearranging the furniture in my bedroom back when I was a teenager. I always loved that feeling of newness when I would walk in the room after rearranging it. I loved that little surprise of things being different. Of course, we all need stability and predictability to some degree. But, in the end, we have to embrace change and find the positives in it. As for the changes at school, I am so excited about the future and these wonderful music educators who have begun to take the lead on our program at NCSSM in Durham. They are bringing new ideas and new energy to the program.  I can now turn my attention to our new NCSSM institution opening in Morganton in the coming months.  Additionally, I am able to grow as a leader and supervisor in my new role as Fine Arts Chair for the two institutions.  There are a variety of surprises in my day and for now, many things are fresh and unpredictable.   At church, there is new energy as well. I have been participating in the new worship band format and am really enjoying the process.  We are learning songs and the congregation is being stretched with new ideas, a new way of doing things, and new leadership voices. While the search for a new pastor is only just beginning, this season will cause our congregation to stretch a bit. We will need to lean on each other more and the community will only grow closer. In my professional organizations, change is always part of the process. Boards change regularly. Volunteers change.  Staff changes. Leadership changes. My personal goal is to continue to be a steadfast presence in these organizations and to make the change a little bit smoother. Here at home, the changes are simply part of family life. Kids grow up. Seasons change. As parents, we must savor each season but embrace the change when it comes.  We must find the excitement in the new situation and embrace the possibilities.  

Through social media, I have noticed many folks rearranging the furniture in their own lives. I am noticing so many job and career changes, marriages, babies, folks changing cities, buying new homes, and other important life changes.  As your furniture is rearranged, I certainly wish you clarity to see the excitement of the new day and peace to accept the changes in your life. I will do my best to embrace the freshness of the newly rearranged furniture in my own life as well.


Friday, June 25, 2021

My Electric Violin Journey

It has been a little while since my last post. Wrapping up the school year and trying to finish up what has been a trying year of hybrid teaching at NCSSM has been my priority for the past several weeks. Finally, today I am finished with most of my teaching and administrative work at the school and have some time to sit down and write a bit. 

I have wanted for some time, to give a little bit of my history with electric violins. For most of my readers, electric violins are simply part of everyday life as a teacher and performer. But for me, there has been an interesting journey which really starts back in the 1970s.

High school/college

Many folks know that my early training was in a modified Suzuki environment. I began playing violin at age 6 and was consistently enrolled in private lessons and youth orchestras throughout my elementary, middle, and high school experience. In junior high I became interested in the electric bass guitar and began playing in various rock bands from the age of 12 or so. I was a standard Rock kid of the mid-1970s, listening to Boston, Foreigner, Queen, Donnie Iris, and my favorite, Styx. WDVE, the rock station in Pittsburgh, was my radio station of choice and I could pick it up all the way out in Indiana, PA. At some point, I became very interested in the music of the rock band, Kansas. I loved their musicianship, intense lyrics, progressive rhythms, and of course the electric violin.  I was thrilled to see them in 1978 or 1979 at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. Of course,  Robby Steinhardt playing electric violin captivated me. My parents also had bought me several Jean-Luc Ponty albums over the years and I was very familiar with his electric violin work through those recordings. By the early 1980s, I was in high school and playing bass guitar in a very good high school cover band which consistently performed around the Indiana, PA region. As part of that band, I really wanted to occasionally pull out a violin to play novelty tunes like the Bunny Hop, the Chicken Dance, and other similar songs which were expected as part of a party band's set list in those days. My parents purchased an old Sherl and Roth violin and we had a Barcus Berry pickup installed. I, like everyone who did that sort of thing, struggled with feedback and poor tone quality. It never sounded great and it really didn't feel right or fit my needs. At some point, that band ended and I went off to college to study music education.  Throughout my undergraduate years, I focused much more on classical repertoire as a violinist. I played bass guitar in the college jazz band, but otherwise I really was strictly a classical violinist.

Palmyra Bluegrass and Believer

My first teaching position was in Palmyra, PA, as the district-wide string teacher. I taught string students from grades 3 to 12 and was there from 1987 to 1992. While in Palmyra, I was fortunate to host several residencies of great musicians through the innovative Authors and Artists Series which was run by faculty member,  Jim Woland. (That is a story for another day.) One of those was with the Modern Mandolin Quartet.  One of the huge impacts on me from those events was an introduction to bluegrass music.  One of my significant accomplishments and strongest areas of impact in those years was the founding of the Palmyra Bluegrass String Camp. I didn't really know how to play bluegrass music, but I was very interested in learning and thought that my classically trained students would like to learn as well. Through that time, I began to lay some foundational groundwork for improvisation and also rubbed elbows with some wonderful bluegrass musicians. I still really didn't need any strong amplification in those years, but the experience played a part in my electric violin journey.  

Another significant relationship in those years was my friendship that developed with Kurt Bachman. Kurt was a junior in high school when I arrived at Palmyra in 1987. He approached me and asked me if I wanted him to play guitar in the orchestra for his senior year. I wasn't sure how that would work, so I invited him to learn to play the cello instead. Kurt came to school in the summer to take cello lessons and joined the orchestra for his senior year. In the midst of that year, his metal band, Believer was signed to REX Records, and they invited me to play violin on their first record. Kurt and I wrote a cool introduction to the title track of Extraction From Mortality and I performed all of the parts to that intro on my acoustic violin in my first recording studio experience. Again, no electric violin yet. But this all laid the groundwork for what was to come. That album and song gained some national exposure and the band asked me to write and play on something for their second record. 

In 1989, Believer released their second full-length album, Sanity Obscure, which featured a orchestral, operatic, epic take on the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) movement of the requiem mass. My sister, Julianne Laird, sang on that track and we again, garnered some national attention for the innovative work we were doing. You must remember that this was all before the S&M (Symphony and Metallica) projects and other similar metal /orchestral projects of the late 1990s.

By the time Believer set out to write and record our third album, my writing and playing was an important component of the Believer sound and reputation. We decided to write a extended metal/opera epic which we called Trilogy of Knowledge. Back in my Palmyra bluegrass days, through the Palmyra Authors and Artist Residencies, I had become good friends with Mike Marshall, the principal (and virtuoso) mandolinist in the Modern Mandolin Quartet. Mike and I had stayed in close contact and at one point I was telling him about my work with Believer. Mike mentioned that he had a Zeta solid body electric violin in a closet at home that wasn't being used. One day I came home from work to find a box with the electric violin in it. I called Mike to thank him and tell him I would return it as soon as I was done with it. He let me know it was a gift from him to me. This gift changed my life. I ended up using that Zeta Stratos on pretty much all of Trilogy of Knowledge which was released in 1993. That album, Dimensions, was nominated for a Dove Award and garnered a great deal of critical acclaim. It is still considered to be a groundbreaking album in the thrash metal genre. I'm very proud of the work that I did on that record, although I must admit, I was really just learning about solid body electric violins during that recording process. All of the effects processing and tone shaping on that record we're done after the initial tracking. I seem to recall that I recorded everything dry for accuracy and the sounds were added in during the mix down. 

I have to add that the first time I plugged in my Zeta violin, I felt that I had finally found my voice. This is what I had been preparing for my entire life. I was in my late twenties and I knew that my musical journey had been positively altered forever. 

Following the recording and release of Dimensions, I began experimenting more with the capabilities of electric violins. For a while, I played in an instrumental trio with Joey Daub (Believer's drummer) and Ted Hermanson on bass, who had engineered Dimensions. We were seeking to create a Jean-Luc Ponty type sound and I began developing some sensibilities for what the instruments could do. I bought a DigiTech multi-effects processor, a DigiTech harmonizer (DHP33), and a Lexicon Jamman which allowed me to do some basic looping. These tools for tone shaping became integral to my understanding of what the electric violin could do for me. A highlight of that band was a featured performance at a summer NAMM show in Nashville.  A lowlight of that trip, however, was that my original Zeta violin which was given to me was stolen. That was a really tough pill to swallow!


One consistent thread in my teaching life has been the notion that things that inspire me musically will probably also inspire my students. This had happened with bluegrass music back in Palmyra and now I was living in the Washington DC suburbs, teaching at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, MD, and felt like electric violins might really inspire my students.

I started reaching out to The Zeta corporation about the possibility of some sort of sponsorship with my educational background as the centerpiece. I shared Believer recordings with them and told them that I thought I could be an asset to the company. At the same time, I began thinking about how I could share what I knew about electric violins with other educators. I applied to give a conference session at the Maryland Music Educators State conference sometime around 1995. I had never spoken at a conference before but I felt like I had something unique and valuable to share with my peers. Initially, Zeta was hesitant about me. I am not sure that they fully understood the music of Believer and they probably received lots of inquiries about sponsorships and had some level of caution. (Believer is heavy, fast, rhythmically complex,  and features screaming non-melodic vocals.) When my conference session proposal was accepted for the Maryland Music Educators Association, I let Zeta know. I wanted them to know that I was going to move forward with or without their support, but I would love to show off some of their technology. When I had already set up this session, it peaked the interest of the folks at Zeta. I think this set me apart from the others. After a couple of phone calls and letters back and forth, we came to an agreement and I was now a sponsored artist with Zeta music systems. They sent me a little bit of equipment and I began working to fully master and understand their products. It is important to mention that this required a good deal of investment of my personal funds as well. They had an early MIDI controller in those days. So, I had to run out and buy a MIDI sound bank. I bought amplifiers, cables, effects processing, and other necessary tools of the electric violin trade. 

On the day of my conference session, I remember that a famous speaker, Tim Lautzenheiser, was scheduled at the same time as me. Tim's room for his session had easily a thousand chairs set up. Mine had about 30. (By the way, he was so encouraging that day.  He assured me there would be people there to hear what I had to say.)  But, people came. I had a small but enthusiastic audience and my first conference session presentation was a success. I talked about how the electric violins worked, how MIDI worked with violins, and how these could be used in the traditional public school classroom. Again, a significant course had been charted in my life and for the next decade or more, I spent a great deal of time speaking with teachers across the United States about the technology and applications of electric violins in the traditional public school classroom. 

While I was traveling around the country giving seminars on electric violins and their applications to the classroom, I met many wonderful people in the music industry. One significant friendship that grew out of that time was with Rich McKenzie, a sales representative for CodaBow International.  Rich would frequently stop in my sessions and listen to what I had to say. At some point he handed me a CodaBow and asked me to give it a try. He thought it would be a great compliment to the electric violin. Boy was he right! I fell in love with CodaBows immediately. At some point during those years, I met Jeff Van fossen, the founder of the company. We all became great friends and I have played CodaBows exclusively ever since. I have walked with the company through thier development of many different bows and technologies. It has been such a pleasure to be part of their organization and associated with them over the years. They are the perfect compliment for not only my electric violins, but all of my instruments. 

At one point in the late 1990s, I was working at Zeta HQ in Oakland California. Jean-Luc Ponty, another Zeta artist, was in town. I had the opportunity to meet him and talk for a while, and see his show that night. He was so generous with his time and treated me like a peer. Haha! One significant result of those conversations was that he suggested I use a viola bow with my electric violin. I made the switch to a Coda viola bow in those years and it really changed my sound. It gave me that heavy, beefy sound that Ponty is famous for. I used viola Codabows with my electric violin for many years until the Coda Joule  was developed. It is designed for exactly the same thing in much more of a "violin bow" package. (See any of my posts on Intentional Design) I encourage everybody to give the Coda Joule a try if you are an electric violinist.

The following year, around 1996, my school invested in a quintet of Zeta instruments and we began working to create a groundbreaking Electric Zeta String Ensemble at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt Maryland. That group of students performed all over the Washington DC and Maryland area for a variety of events. Some highlights included: a performance of the national anthem for all Prince George's County teachers at the then Cap Center. It was a huge crowd and a huge success, a performance at the Rayburn Congressional Office Building on behalf of NAfME (then MENC), performances at the MMEA State conference, and many many others.  

About this time, I was also experimenting with my own solo projects and particularly with looping technology. My work with the Lexicon Jam man had blossomed into quite a bit of solo material which incorporated guitar, bass, drum machine, and analog and MIDI electric violins. I became quite interested in recording technology as well and through my live performances and with the help of   an ADAT studio in my home, I produced my first solo record, Freeway. Most of the songs on that record were built using my looping technology and could be performed live as well. I spent a great deal of time in the fall of 1998 performing at Borders Books and Music stores all over the greater Mid-Atlantic region. I sold a lot of CDs in those days and it was a great deal of fun. However, I must admit that when I go back and listen to that recording, it sounds dated. 

In 2001 I took a new position at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham North Carolina. In those years, things at Zeta had slowed down a little bit and I could tell that my partnership with the company was probably coming to a close. This was not a bad thing, in my mind, because I felt I was becoming known only as the technology string teacher and it was very important to me that folks knew I was a traditional pedagogue as well. By 2002, Zeta and I parted ways and I focused on my guest conducting work and more traditional pedagogical seminars. 

Durham NC and NC School of Science and Math

When I moved to Durham NC, I had no idea that I was also moving so close to the Electric Violin Shop, the worlds largest retailer of electric violins. They certainly knew me from my time and exposure with Zeta Music Systems and eventually we all became close friends.  I began spending some time at the store playing all the different brands of electric violins. At some point, I told Blaise Kielar, the owner, that the only other company I'd ever consider working with was NSDesign Electric violins. I had met Ned Steinberger several years earlier at Berkeley's String Fling. He and I were both manning booths at the event. I for Zeta and Ned for his new company NSDesign. Traffic was fairly slow at the exhibits and we got to know each other pretty well. We had long conversations about music, ergonomics of electric violins, both of our backgrounds, and many other awesome topics. Ned is absolutely brilliant and I was honored that he was interested in my opinion about his instruments. Ned evidently remembered me and after my hiatus from the electric violin education scene for a few years, he reached out to me in 2005. 

We agreed to spend some time together in coming months and see if this would be a good match. Without going into all of the details, the partnership between Ned Steinberger and myself was a home run! I immediately fell in love with the instruments. I loved the sound, the feel, the look, and everything about the company.  To add to the serendipity of it all, NSDesign had a close relationship with D'Addario who had been long time supporters and sponsors of my work.  Ned and I were a fantastic match in terms of our personality, interests, and mutual respect for each other. I entered into a partnership with NS Design at that time and it still goes on to this day.

In the coming years, I would be featured in NS Design advertisements and their blog, give numerous sessions at national and regional conferences on their behalf, and become a featured educator/artist for the company in many other ways. Ned would often call me for my opinion on new products or other ideas. I would lean on them for technical information and new ideas of how these instruments could be used and how I could articulate the science and engineering behind the technology to teachers.

I continued my live looping performances and released a second solo record in 2005 entitled Simple Gifts. By this time I was using a three phrase looper, the boss RC-50 Loop Station. This allowed me to create a chorus, verse, and bridge on the fly in my performances and toggle between the three as I was soloing with my electric violin. My live performance tool was taking me to the next level in terms of my writing and capabilities. 

Over the next 15 years electric violins have remained a huge part of my teaching and performing life. I have been a featured soloist with a variety of orchestras including the Carolina Cool Jazz Orchestra on two different occasions performing my original music and arrangements. I have maintained a strong YouTube presence highlighting educational applications of electric instruments and my own performances as well. Electric violins have been a wonderful enrichment for my orchestra students at NCSSM. And, I continue to perform around the region with a variety of bands and as a solo artist with my looping capabilities. I now use the boss RC-300 Loop Station. It is an upgraded version of the three phrase looper that I began using back in 2005. I continue to speak at conferences around the country on applications of electric violins in the traditional string classroom. I am always looking for innovative ways to incorporate boat electric string instruments into my teaching and to share those ideas with others.

In the end, it has been an incredible journey with electric violins and it is really fun to look back on the progression.  And, I have to say, I am not close to being done.  Just in the past year, I have been experimenting with extended range strings, doing more multi-track recording, giving a ton of seminars for students,  and giving many live performances.  The possibilities really never end. 

Thanks for taking this little walk down memory lane with me. Until next time...


Sunday, March 28, 2021

Mission Mentality

Today is the last day of 2020. Obviously, it's been a challenging year for everyone. There have been huge health challenges for so many people across the world, income and economic challenges for workers, teaching challenges for folks in education, learning challenges for students across the world, social, racial, and political division and mistrust, and certainly emotional challenges that accompany all of these for folks in so many ways. 

Our world is in desperate need of healing. And, individuals are in desperate need of direction, purpose, and peace. This has been the topic of many conversations for me in recent days and weeks. and I would like to share just a couple of thoughts as we move into 2021.

I will begin with a quick story about my college age son. He is currently a sophomore at the University of North Carolina and has experienced his own challenges with the pandemic and all the uncertainty which accompanies it. Last year, as a freshman, he made the decision to become a leader in the Young Life program. As a Young Life leader, he is tasked with leading Young Life activities and club meetings at a regional high school. In addition, he will forge relationships with the high school students who attend the meetings and endeavor to be a positive role model in their lives. The Young Life leaders at his high school were very good to him and he is giving back in a similar way. During his freshman year, when he was deciding if this was a good activity for him, we had quite several deep conversations. At one point, he told me that when you are a Young Life leader, you wake up every day asking yourself, "How can I care for someone else today?" I have thought about that quite a bit over the past year or so. I am not sure that I could have said that when I was 20 years old. That is a pretty cool daily mission for a college sophomore.

My wife has been listening to a the Spotify Daily Quote recently which  encourages folks to consider a quote and then expands on that quote to some extent. Recently, the quote of the day was from reggae rapper, Bad Bunny. While the quote itself doesn't have strong application to my thoughts today, the insights that followed the quote precipitated some interesting thoughts for my wife. In the pandemic environment, we like so many others have been home constantly. So many of the daily tasks have become repetitive, mundane, and at times laborious. The one that is hit her hardest has been cooking for our high school senior son. He is an athlete and on a special high protein diet to build muscle and strength. In support of that diet, my wife finds herself making baked chicken, roasted sweet potatoes, and white rice every day. His diet involves five meals a day and the work to keep this specific food available to him is never ending. It could easily become a very negative chore on her list. She was explaining to me that it is so much more positive to view this to-do list as an opportunity, rather than a chore. She mentioned to me that the concept of chores was strong in her home growing up. And, it is so much more enjoyable to accomplish things, rather than simply complete chores. Her mission, in this task of cooking, is to support our son's athletic goals. Viewing those darn sweet potatoes as part of a mission is a much healthier way to approach the task.

I feel like I have been fairly successful in this pandemic environment.  I have been able to maintain a positive attitude, starting each day with a sense of joy. The word I have used with regards to my work over the years is mission, which brings me to the point of this essay. For me, approaching each day with a mission mentality is an important key to happiness, fulfillment, and a general air of positivity in my daily life. When I approach my tasks as mission, there is a much greater purpose. Mission implies importance. Mission implies commitment. Mission speaks of doing something for the greater good which is much bigger than one's self. I believe that we can find mission in virtually every move we make during the day. 

When I was a young man, I had an awesome job at a local jewelry store in Indiana, PA. My work at the store began as simply a way to make a little bit of extra money. I learned how to engrave jewelry, do basic bookkeeping, and greet the public on the floor of the store. But, after a period of time, the work at the store became more of a mission. I became much more committed to my close friend who managed the store, the ownership, and most importantly, to the mission of providing folks with friendly service, reliable quality, and a trusted voice in their purchases. I developed a true loyalty to the mission of the store and developed deep relationships with the folks that taught me about the business. I approached my job with a mission mentality.

As I finished up college and began my teaching career, my first teaching opportunity was in Palmyra Pennsylvania. I have written about it before, so I won't spend too much time on that work here. But, suffice it to say, that I approached that work with a mission mentality. The string program was quite small when I arrived at the school and I was challenged to develop the string program for the school district. I had a mission. It was clear. I committed to it fully and spent six years giving all of myself to that mission. (As a sidebar, I was having a conversation with my son about success in the workplace yesterday. I told him that I really believe that early in one's career, you must commit fully and be willing to put in long hours, hard work, and not be concerned about work-life balance so much. It's really not a popular stance in today's society, but in 1987 that was the way we did things. It was the era of the yuppie, long hours, and getting ahead quickly. I think this was seminal to my commitment to mission mentality.) My mission at Palmyra was successful and other opportunities came quickly. I had a similar experience at Eleanor Roosevelt high School and spent nine years there pursuing my mission before coming to the North Carolina School of Science and Math.

In the ensuing 20 years at NCSSM, my mission has changed from time to time. Most recently, I have been named Fine Arts Chair for the Durham and Morganton campuses. This is a new mission for me and I'm really excited about whatever the future holds. We are currently in the process of hiring administrators for the new school in Morganton and I am also happy to be guiding two new music faculty members through their transition into our school environment in Durham. I have a mission.

Obviously, the mission changed in March of 2020. Suddenly, the mission was to keep engaging students in Orchestra and music while caring for them as individuals through the two-dimensional Zoom environment. It is a tricky mission. And, throughout that time, to continue to support my other Fine Arts colleagues, advance the school’s mission, and navigate all of the stresses that go with working from home, family trials and tribulations throughout the pandemic environment, and personal emotional ups and downs. But, the great thing about having a mission is that one bad day doesn't change the mission. In fact, in some ways, it can galvanize one's resolve to do better in the future. That has certainly been the case for me. I have found that my failures of today become my challenges for tomorrow. This is the essence of mission mentality. 

So, I challenge you today to consider what is your mission? What is your purpose? What do you hold in highest importance in your tasks throughout the day? 

I believe there can be multiple answers to these questions. Some days, my mission is in family matters. I work to be a good example to my kids, a partner to my wife, and a helper wherever possible. Other days, my mission is in my art. I am practicing, writing new music, recording audio guides for my students, generating blog or video content, and other artistic endeavors. On the other days, I am a colleague, a teacher, a friend, a student, a son. Yet, in all these rolls, I can have a mission mentality. These roles and accompanying tasks are important to me. I approach them with purpose. And, I try to approach them with joy and good humor. As I often say in this blog, I am not perfect. I don't always achieve my goals. Sometimes, I lose sight of my sense of mission. Sometimes the tasks in front of me simply become chores. Those are my worst days. They are the days that I feel unfulfilled, unhappy, or downright depressed. So, I try to keep the days I lose sight of my mission to an absolute minimum.

Let me encourage you today to find your mission. It requires some deep thought.  What do you hold as truly important - so important that you are willing to dedicate your time, your heart, and thoughts. What is your true purpose? Certainly there are multiple answers to these questions.  You are likely doing many of these things already. But, are you committed to them as your mission?  Perhaps 2021 is your opportunity to refocus or refine your sense of mission. Even the exercise of putting my thoughts in writing today has provided that opportunity for me. I wish all of you the very best as we move into 2021 and the continuation of the academic year. I know that so many of us are growing weary of distance learning and the pandemic environment. Hang in there! You have a mission. You can do this! 



Friday, March 12, 2021


One of my favorite words and concepts is "steadfast." Lately, that word keeps coming up in my thoughts and ruminations about life, the pandemic, and teaching. I don't know exactly when I started thinking about this word. But I do know that the first thought that comes to mind around the word steadfast is my father. My Dad, who is now 85 and still very active and had an amazing career in public education. He's one of the few educators I know who spent an entire 42-year career in the same school system. First he was an elementary teacher, then Principal, then Director of Elementary Education, Assistant Superintendent, and finally, was Superintendent of Schools in my hometown for the final 25 years of his career.  He retired in 1997. Steadfast. But, it wasn't just in his longevity at one employer. He was in it for the duration from the beginning. He had enduring friendships and collegial relationships with virtually everyone I knew who worked for the school system. He was not only their leader, he was also their friend. He and my mom have been married for 66 years. Steadfast. He served the church for many years as a member of the session and for the last several years as Clerk of the Session. This was a leadership position that carries very little adulation and a great deal of influence and importance in the Presbyterian Church. He was steadfast for his church as well. 

So, what exactly does steadfast mean and how does it relate to my life today and the work that we all do in the midst of the pandemic?

To be steadfast is to be resolute. To be steadfast is to be unwavering. Steadfast is firmly fixed and immovable, firm in belief, determined, and loyal. It's funny because I can remember times in my young life when I was criticized for being loyal. And, in fact, sometimes I was loyal to a fault. But that's okay. It has manifested as I have matured into a quality I am proud of.

I truly desire to be steadfast in so many facets of my life and work. First and foremost, it is important that I am at steadfast member of my family. I have been married for 30 years and I can honestly stay that the longevity of our relationship and friendship is based on a common value of this concept. I also truly hope that my kids find my unconditional love for them to be steadfast. We don't go up and down based on daily actions, mistakes, or successes. The way I feel about my boys doesn't change from day to day. My love for them is steadfast. 

I'm celebrating 20 years at NCSSM this year. To some extent, I feel like my work at the school has also been reflection of this value. There have been some hard days over the years. But there have been way more fantastic days. There have been some failures. But there have been way more successes. And, all of them are a direct result of this inclination to be steadfast. Have there been other opportunities that have come my way? Of course. But none of them seemed quite right. It felt much more natural to be steadfast. As I move into a new leadership role at my school, I truly do think about this concept as it relates to my work in guiding curriculum, faculty, and programs.

I feel like steadfast can also be a daily approach.  Is my attitude unwavering?  Is my approach unwavering?  I guess no one is truly unwavering. We all have ups and downs, good days and bad.  But, can I be generally consistent?  This is my goal.  Can I be steady?  Predictable?  Our role as educators is exactly this.  Our students desire consistency.  They need us to be predictable in the manner we communicate, teach, discipline, correct, assess, and interact.  I really try not to get too high or low when things go well or poorly. Class didn't go well today? There is always tomorrow.  A performance was exceptional?  Excellent - that is what we were striving for! Now, what is next?

As I approach the end of this academic year, I continue to seek to be steadfast.  We are all getting weary of the pandemic and all of the inconveniences associated with its impact on education, learning, and life in general.  But, in the midst of the storm, I will continue to try to be steadfast, unwavering, and consistent.  And, when we get back to in person learning, I will do the same. I encourage you to consider this approach as well.


Monday, March 8, 2021

ASTA 2021: Relative Topics for High School String Teachers

 First, I want to thank all of the ASTA Members who participated in the moderated discussion on Sunday on Relative Topics for High School String Teachers. It was a great discussion and it was my honor to participate and moderate!!

I promised that I would seek out some more information on longitudinal involvement in the arts as a benefit toward college admission.  I will place it here as I find more.

Check out this article as a start: Why Extracurriculars Matter in College Admissions

Also this: How Colleges Weigh Extracurricular Activities

Finally: What Do Colleges Look for in Students

I believe that each of these articles will she some light on the process and give you some good talking points for your administration, colleagues, students, and families!

I will post more as I have it.

Again, thanks for participating and I look forward to the next time!



Monday, February 22, 2021

NAfME Orchestra Town Hall on Mission in Music Education

 I was recently quite honored to be involved in a NAfME town hall to discuss our "Mission" as instrumental educators.  The event was scheduled for Sunday, February 21st starting at 1:00pm (Pacific Time). 

The entire event was virtual and lasted a total of 2 hours. The first hour was a panel discussion  facilitated as a webinar. Attendees were encouraged to submit questions and comments through the chat feature.  In the second hour, everyone was able to join with their camera and microphones. The dialog was open to everyone in attendance! We continued with questions that were submitted during the panel and appropriately branch off into related topics fueled by the attendees. 

Following the event, the panelists were asked to submit some of our thoughts in writing.  I thought some of you may be interested as well. So, here are some of my responses from the Town Hall.

Why are missions/philosophies important in contemporary American Education? 

Missions and philosophies are important in contemporary American Education, in my opinion, for three specific reasons.  First, they provide individuals guidance for daily decisions and positions. When one is under pressure or faced with a difficult decision, core philosophies or missions serve as an important compass for thoughtful individuals.  They provide clarity in times of crisis. Next, they are an important factor in personal career and job fulfillment.  For me, approaching each day with a mission mentality is an important key to happiness, fulfillment, and a general air of positivity in my daily life. When I approach my tasks as a mission, there is a much greater purpose. Mission implies importance. Mission implies commitment. Mission speaks of doing something for the greater good which is much bigger than one's self.  Missions are honest and go beyond "chores or tasks" in our daily work. Finally, a sense of teacher mission can promote student buy-in and investment in the work and content of the course.  Students sense honesty.  Real learning isn’t about content delivery.  It is about modeling.  Our students are learning MUCH  more than our content every day in class.  

What is YOUR mission as a music educator?

At its core, my primary mission is to serve as a musical and personal model for students.  I seek to lead and serve in my every move as an instructor.  I seek to love and care for my students and colleagues on a daily basis.  But, in reality, my mission changes throughout the day.  I seek to serve students as an example of Artist/Educator and I seek to promote and articulate concepts in functional and creative musicianship every day. I seek to model as an example of the term “steadfast.” I try to “move with purpose” throughout the day and bring tasks to completion.  This goes hand in hand with my stated mission of “servant leadership.”  I seek to build healthy unwavering relationships and promote honest, unbiased communication.  Finally, another stated mission for me is to simply say “yes” to students whenever possible.

How do you craft your mission to best serve your community: what factors need to be considered, which factors are commonly overlooked? 

I believe clarity of mission develops over a number of years and with thoughtful consideration. Our longevity in career and expectations of our position can help to clarify our mission as well.  For me, early in my career, my mission was to become the best and most knowledgeable pedagogue I could possibly be.  In the end, I was developing the tools of teaching during  this time period. I was teaching in central Pennsylvania for 6 years and was charged with building a string program in my community.  The next phase of my career was about 10 years in suburban Washington DC. I stepped into a position where the expectation was strong string and orchestra ensembles.  So, my mission centered around conducting, building ensembles, and building community among my students. For the past 20 years I have been at the North Carolina School of Science and Math.  Here, my mission varies significantly.  I have many roles at my school and must nimbly move between them. I seek to serve as a model teacher, leader, colleague, mentor, and guide.  When I apply my priorities and philosophies to the practical responsibilities of my everyday work the mission develops.

How are models for instruction supported/limited by your mission?

There are so many examples of this.  The mission of modeling functional musicianship as an artist and articulating this as an educator guides virtually all of my pedagogy.  This is outlined in detail in Ensemble Musicians Taxonomy of Mental Habits on my blog, “Thoughts of a String Educator.”  I also believe that many of my models for instruction are supported by my mission to “Just say yes”, and “servant leadership.”  For example, I model performance practices all the time and frequently demonstrate on my instrument in class.  This is a direct reflection of a servant leadership model.  

Finally, I would love to share my recent blog post, "Mission Mentality" here as well. It was written just a few weeks before I was asked to serve on this panel. Some readers may find it interesting.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Trying To Be Better

As we start the second semester, I am coming off a period of reflection throughout the winter break and January term.  When we finished up the first semester of the school year, I felt quite good about the results of my planning and instruction throughout the fall. Teaching in this remote and hybrid environment is difficult. My Orchestra managed to put together some incredible virtual performances and, on the whole, I feel like I met the needs of my students. With that said, I know that I can be better. I have been reflecting on areas for improvement for the past two months or so and was able to outline some changes for the spring term to my Orchestra at our first rehearsal last Tuesday. I would like to share some of those changes today, in hopes that one or more of them may resonate with you or you may be compelled to consider how you can be better as well as we head into the spring.

First, many of you know that I have been creating audio guides for my students to use remotely in lieu of a conductor. To create these guides, I record all five parts of the string orchestra score using my electric violins. I have written and spoken about these guides extensively in the past. Even with the success of those guides, I have felt that I could probably do more. So, one of the changes I am making this term is, in addition to the full string orchestra audio guide with click track, I will be providing students with their individual part with click track. I am anxious to see how this impacts student performances. One or two students have already told me that there were sometimes rhythmic questions when they only heard the full ensemble audio guide.  The individual recorded parts will permit students to zero in on their part, associated styles, articulations, specific intonation, and other aspects of the piece. I will provide these at full tempo and at reduced tempi for further customized practice opportunities.

Another addition to my instructional model will be weekly videos outlining specific performance practices for the pieces we are learning and performing. Obviously, I gave this type of instruction through Zoom last semester. But, one would have had to dig through the Zoom recordings to find those specific instructions. This term, I will make a Youtube video for each voice in the Orchestra, outlining performance practice, dynamic considerations, tricky fingerings or passages, and potential use of essence for students who may not have the technical capabilities or confidence to fully perform a section or passage within the piece.

Another change or addition for second semester will be an increased live chamber experience for on-campus students during our Tuesday night rehearsal time. Due to the large size of our ensemble and the split nature of our rehearsals, I kept Tuesday nights as fully remote classes and group lessons. After some thoughtful conversations with our choral director, we decided to combine my string class and his choral class together in small chamber ensembles during our common Tuesday evening rehearsal time.  Singers will be masked with special singing masks and separated with plexiglass drum shields. The masked strings will double vocal parts. This will provide a small facsimile of the live ensemble rehearsal for small groups of students. We are hopeful that this opportunity to play and sing together will be meaningful for everyone.

Another change for this term will be a stronger plan for individualized performance and grading expectations. Last semester, I noticed a subset of the Orchestra did not complete all of the recorded performance expectations. Following my individual meetings with students, it became clear that some students felt overwhelmed as the semester went on. So, for this term, I will have a set of basic universal repertoire for everyone to learn and submit. This will include primarily Grade III and IV repertoire that is straightforward to learn and record. Then, there will be several additional, more challenging pieces which students can opt into playing. Following my individual meetings with students, I was pleased that about 75% of the orchestra indicated an interest in playing all of the repertoire. But, for the 25% that requested a lighter load, it is my pleasure to offer this alternative. Recording for a virtual ensemble experience can be stressful for some. I want to make sure that I honor these various levels of stress and the various amounts of time it may take for students of different playing levels to prepare a piece of music. This more individualized plan is a step in the right direction, I believe.

Finally, I intend to meet individually with each of my students more regularly this term. At the very least, I would like to have another 10 minute check-in at midterm and again at the end of the semester. As I indicated in my last post, these opportunities for personal interaction are invaluable.  

I believe each of these slight changes in my plan for the second semester will pay huge dividends.  What changes are you making as we begin the second semester? What worked during the first half of the year? What needs a little tweak? These are always important questions for us as teachers. I am certain that I will have new ideas as we finish this semester also. This is the beauty of teaching. We are never finished. We never have all the answers. I firmly believe that we can always do better. I invite you to consider these questions as well.

Here's to a great second semester and a great spring.