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.


The 10-minute Check-In

At NCSSM, we have just completed the first week of the second semester. We continue to operate on a low density hybrid model during the pandemic. Students were remote this week but half of the student body will be returning to school today and stay for 5 weeks. At that point, they will go home and the other half of the student body will come to campus. Our first semester was quite successful from a health and program standpoint. I believe there was only one reported student case of Covid-19 throughout the fall among our student body and our administration is hopeful that, with our strong protocols, we can continue that positive trend.

Our first Orchestra meeting of the term was last Tuesday night. Class was largely administrative and organizational. While the students were fully remote for the week, I decided it would be a great idea to have a 10-minute check-in with each individual member of the Orchestra this week. I have about 40 members of the group right now and attrition was quite low from first to second semester. I count myself as fortunate.  I know the trends across the country have not been so positive. So, I created an asynchronous assignment for our remaining two classes of the week and scheduled individual meetings with each member of the orchestra during those class times. (This is one of the positive aspects of remote and hybrid teaching. I have such an incredible amount of control over the way I use my class time. This autonomy has proven to be quite beneficial in a number of cases. This week was certainly one of them.)

I have found these meetings to be wonderfully connective in our remote world. They have provided me an opportunity to ask students how they felt about first semester, their goals for second semester, ways that I can accommodate them individually, and also ask a little bit about their current stress and anxiety levels. 

I was quite pleased to learn that nearly everyone felt we did about the best we could during first semester. While not the same as actual Orchestra rehearsals, our virtual-orchestra format seemed to work for my students. They provided positive feedback on my approach, the tenor of the class meetings, musical instruction, and alternate assignments.  I asked each of them about their musical goals for second semester. I was pleased most had very lofty goals. Many seniors told me that the fall was full of stress for them due to college applications and they are looking forward to a stronger personal investment in Orchestra for the second semester. How great to hear that from them personally! 

I asked every one of them what I could do for them personally. Could I provide them more technique instruction? More musical challenges? Could I provide a more individualized plan for them? I really want each of them to know that I care about them personally and not just as one of a large group. Again, responses were generous. Most students felt that they are noticed and are cared for both musically and personally as part of the Orchestra. I was also pleased to learn that the orchestra community is strong. Many students told anecdotes of conversations between students after class about best practices for recording their part, practicing their part, and participation in this new orchestra format. This made me so happy. 

Perhaps the most important result of these meetings is simply personal connection. It was so great to share a smile with students whom I have grown to care for so deeply. I had the opportunity to ask about their winter break and J-term courses. Several students told me about their research and mentorship programs and other academic interests. I had the chance to ask seniors how their college application and acceptance process is going. Many juniors offered stories about research programs they have recently been accepted to. We also had a number of interesting conversations about the repertoire I selected for the fall and for the upcoming spring semester. Students offered feedback regarding the difficulty, diversity, and style of the pieces. It always makes me happy when students are thinking deeply about choices I make for the ensemble. This is clearly happening, even in the current remote and hybrid format of the NCSSM Orchestra.

In the end, these individual meetings will pay huge dividends for the musical community and musical product of our Orchestra this spring. I feel like each student was able to give me the feedback I need to be the best possible instructor at this time. I also truly believe that the personal connections that have developed between me and my students will will last well beyond their high school years. These are wonderful human beings who are on their way to great successes in many different fields. I am so honored to be their instructor and to provide them insights not only to orchestral music, but into a fulfilled life and career. My charge and mission is clear as their Orchestra director. I believe this to my core. And these individual meetings will only enhance the way I can connect with these students throughout the rest of the spring.

So, I encourage you to consider meeting with each of your students for a few minutes. Ask them how you have done so far this year. Trust me, it won't hurt. They appreciate your work. Ask them how you can serve them throughout the rest of this year. Again, the responses they will give you will be thoughtful and much deeper than you expect. Ask them where they would like to improve. My guess is they have a strong concept of their areas of strength and weakness both personally and musically. Finally, ask them about something unrelated to your class. Ask about college applications, current successes, recent disappointments, and anything else that they may care about. That note of personal connection in this time of separation might just be what they need today. 

Let's all keep going. You've got this.