Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Core Pholosophies Part 1

At the recent Midwest Clinic in Chicago, December 2022, I had the opportunity to say a few words as part of a panel discussion on rehearsal philosophies in the orchestra classroom. As part of that brief talk, I mentioned that there are a number of core philosophies that I employ in my daily life and with my family and work. So, this is the first in a series of posts which outline some of those philosophies and give a little bit of background. I hope something here speaks to you.

First, I would just briefly say that these philosophies serve as guideposts in my life and leadership. They give me a solid foundation to use as I plan my strategies for navigating family life, work, relationships, personal ethics and integrity, and other elements of my daily life. Also, they provide a solid foundation for moments that are trying and difficult. It is so easy to waiver in difficult times. Having clearly articulated core philosophies is a great way to mitigate snap decisions that are regretted later. They are effectively a set of glasses through which to view the world. They make things just a little bit more in focus. When core philosophies are neglected, things can feel disorienting and uncomfortable. So, these are some of my guideposts.

Love Works
This philosophy grows from a number of experiences in my life. I feel like the phrase is probably self-explanatory. With that said, I will provide just a little bit of context. A number of years ago, I read the book, Love Works: Seven Timeless Principles for Effective Leaders by Joel Manby. During the time I was reading the book, I had had a bit of a down period in my joy and happiness in my work. This book was a wonderful reminder of a core value that I held but hadn't truly articulated and consciously applied to every element of my life and teaching. Following reading the book, I was able to very clearly grasp this as a strong and unwavering principle in my life.  Given any situation, try to find a way to love the person you encounter. This can be a person or people in need, a person or people who love you and need you, or a person or people who don't like you or even seek to harm you. In the end, I endeavor to approach everyone I encounter with love. Am I 100% effective at following the principal? Absolutely not! But it's a core philosophy of mine and I can honestly say that it has never let me down.

Move With Purpose
I borrowed this phrase from my dear friend, Drama Instructor at NCSSM, Adam Sampieri. I heard him use this phrase with his theater students as part of a rehearsal. Adam is a spectacular teacher and theatrical coach. The first time I heard him use the phrase, it struck me as so universal. I truly believe that a great deal of the success I have enjoyed as a music educator is a simple result of being willing to work hard and move with purpose. Some may call it hustle. I don't like the negative connotation of the word hustle. It's really simply being willing to work hard and move meaningfully through all of the tasks of a day, even when one doesn't want to or feel like it. We used this phrase with our kids quite a bit as they were growing up. I see so many students who "saunter" through their day, both literally and metaphorically. I never wanted that to be the impression my sons gave to a teacher. Show a little initiative. Work hard. Look alive. Move with purpose. It will get you somewhere.

There is Power in Steadfast
I truly believe that one of the highest compliments one can receive is to be referred to as "steadfast." I started keying in on this word and concept several years ago. When I hear the word steadfast, I think of my Dad. He is the personification of steadfast. He worked for the same school district as a teacher and administrator for 42 years. He and my Mom have been married for over 60 years. He has been right there, cheering me and my sisters on through countless musical performances, professional accomplishments, and parenting milestones in a way that is simply remarkably steadfast. He is a man of faith who lives out his beliefs quietly and consistently. My Dad is even keeled. He is unflappable. He is unwavering. He is steadfast. What a great example for me and my family. There are so many benefits to this type of predictability. I believe when one is steadfast, others know they can count on you. There aren't wide swings in emotion or in action or reaction. Can we do it all the time? Most of us can't. But I aspire to be steadfast.

I hope there may be something in these first three of my core philosophies that you find interesting or inspiring. There will be more of these posts to come.

What are your core guiding philosophies? Drop a few of them in the comments section here. I would love to hear from you. 



NCSSM Morganton

I've been spending a lot of time over the past year or so working on the opening of NCSSM's new campus located in Morganton NC. It has been a wonderful ride and we are now up and running with 150 11th grade students on our new campus. Programs are now moving forward and it is really the realization of a dream come true. I thought this would be a good time too tell the story of this new campus for those of you that are not familiar with this ambitious project.

About 7 years ago, the NC State Legislature gave us, the NC School of Science and Math, a mandate to open a second campus on an existing 800 acre parcel of state land in Morganton NC, about 3 hours west of the current Durham location.  After a great deal of planning, new construction, and renovations of 3 historic buildings on the site, we opened the NCSSM-Morganton campus in August.  Both locations are residential schools which serve 11th and 12th graders from across NC.  The Durham location, where I have served as a faculty member for 21 years, houses 680 students and the new Morganton campus will be home to 300.  (By the way- both are fully funded by the state. There is no charge for tuition, room, or board.  Full scholarships for everyone!) The new school has the same basic graduation requirements as the Durham location which was established in 1980, however with a general focus on Artificial Intelligence and Data Science, in addition to a course catalog comparable to the Durham campus.  I anticipate a great deal of cross campus collaboration.

In my role as Fine Arts Chair for both campuses, I was hiring manager for our new Art, Music, and Theater faculty positions.  My role in recent months has been to not only be to lead the hiring and onboarding of our new arts faculty and develop a compatible, but unique arts curriculum to the Durham campus, but also to help set tone and culture among all new faculty in the Morganton location.  We hope to develop many interdisciplinary offerings and for the arts curriculum to accurately reflect and utilize the distinctive characteristics of the region. This includes a complete music curriculum and a ceramics, pottery and 3D focus in the art curriculum reflective of that culture in the western part of NC.

As far as last summer is concerned, all administrators were asked to be "on call" for the entirety of the summer.  The joke was that the faculty even assembled bunk beds and dressers the summer before NCSSM Durham opened in 1980.  I stood ready to do that important work if called upon, but it was not necessary!  In all truth, I, along with our new hires, did a good deal of curriculum development over the summer and team building with the entire faculty.  As we build the program, truly, there are no rules here. Just possibilities.  So, dreamers are welcome and new faculty are being encouraged to think broadly about the possibilities.  

For the foreseeable future, I will be splitting time between Durham and Morganton.  I will continue to direct the Orchestra in Durham, but otherwise have primarily administrative duties at this point.  This hits at a great time as my youngest son is a sophomore in college and Barbra and I are finding a new rhythm at home without kids around.  NCSSM puts me up in a nice hotel in the middle of downtown Morganton and makes working out there very comfortable.

So, as you can see, I am really embracing the opportunity. How many folks have the opportunity to put their thumbprint on a school on the occasion of it's opening.  I am truly excited about the possibilities and to lead our new arts faculty wherever their talents may take us!

After only one semester of being open, the arts program at NCSSM-Morganton is in full swing. Music students, under the direction of Jim Kirkpatrick, have presented a full concert in our newly renovated barn performance space. Courtney Long, our talented Art Instructor, has students moving forward quickly with all kinds of art projects ranging from drawing to sculpture to pottery and other design projects. And, our Drama program is getting rolling and plans to present a performance of She Fights Dragons in the late winter.

So, that is a little bit of an update on NCSSM Morganton and my work as we open this new campus. I will continue to keep you updated as things continue to progress. 



A Christmas Story 1995

As we are in the midst of the holiday season, I thought it would be fun to share a little Christmas story of days gone by. 

This story takes place in Prince George's County Maryland around December 1995.  In those years, I was the Orchestra Director at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland. As many of you know, Eleanor Roosevelt had/has a incredibly vibrant music program with multiple orchestras, bands, and choirs as part of the school music program. In those years, Eleanor Roosevelt was the largest high school in Maryland and December was always an incredibly busy time. My work in December always centered around three primary activities. One was preparation and performance of numerous holiday concerts with my three orchestras. These included holiday concerts with the Symphony Orchestra and Concert Orchestra and a Concerto Concert with the Chamber Orchestra accompanying exceptional student soloists who were selected by audition in an extraordinarily competitive environment.. All music educators know that the holiday concert season is incredibly taxing and always carries a bit of stress along with the fun of performing. That was certainly the case for me in 1995.  Another of my regular activities were various gigs throughout the Prince George's County region and many performing opportunities at our church, Christian Community Presbyterian Church in Bowie Maryland. I love the holidays because they always mean that I will be spending a great deal of time with my instrument in my hands. This was certainly the case in 1995. Finally, as part of the instrumental music program at Eleanor Roosevelt, there was a huge citrus fruit sale and delivery which occurred right around the holidays. My dear friend, ERHS Band Director Sally Wagner would always say that the community surrounding Eleanor Roosevelt High School had "an inalienable right to fruit" and we would always keep that promise. The fruit sale always involved one day of unloading at least one and a half tractor trailers full of citrus fruit and sometimes it would be two full trailers. The next day folks would pick up their previously ordered fruit and we would distribute all of that fruit almost as quickly as it came off the truck. So, as you can imagine, December of 1995 was extraordinarily busy and not without its level of stress.

At home, my wife and I had a home we had purchased just a year or two earlier and were enjoying our new responsibility of decorating the house for the holidays. This included a fresh cut Christmas tree we had purchased and proudly placed in our new, albeit inexpensive, tree stand. We decorated the tree with all of the ornaments students had given us over the years and it was displayed prominently in our living room. One day, after a long day at work, I returned home to find that the tree had fallen. I picked up the tree and worked to rebalance it and make sure that it was stable in the stand. Within another 24 hours the tree had fallen again. When I returned home after a particularly stressful day of teaching and rehearsing, I found the tree down yet again. So, in a more frustrated state this time, I picked it back up and re-situated the tree in the stand hoping that it would stay up at this point. As we moved another day closer to the concerto concert and other stressful holiday activities, the tree was clearly unstable. After one particularly hard day I returned home to find the tree and all the ornaments spread across the living room floor and in a fit of rage I tossed it out the front door, ornaments and all. My wife, Barbra, came home and was mortified at the carnage in our front yard. She asked me if we were going to replace it and in my frustration I said, "Absolutely not. I am done with Christmas this year." I am sure she remembers this differently, but my recollection is that there wasn't much argument. She figured the Christmas ship had probably sailed. 

I went to work the next day and while in the midst of rehearsal with the Chamber Orchestra, I told them the ugly story of the Christmas tree. My 20 or so string students in the room just looked at me with complete horror and disbelief in their eyes as I recounted the story. Clearly, Mr Laird had lost the Christmas spirit. He had officially become the Grinch.

I continued through my day without giving it another thought. I had rehearsals all day, rehearsals after school, and other rehearsals for gigs into the evening. By the time I was able to return home I was absolutely exhausted and ready for a good night's rest. I walked into the house and things seemed unusually quiet. I stepped into my living room only to see a new tree setup in my living room completely decorated with all of our ornaments. I couldn't believe my eyes. Then, I heard a bit of a commotion in my kitchen and out came all of the students from the ERHS Chamber Orchestra. They had converged on the Laird household earlier that evening, brought a new tree, set it up, and decorated it while my wife quickly provided and imprmptu party with hot chocolate and popcorn. Even now, nearly 30 years later, my eyes are misty as I recall the incredible gift those teenagers gave me that Christmas. All they intended to do that night was to bring a little joy back into our little home. They did that and so much more. It was such an expression of love from students to a teacher they provided me that night. And for that matter, my wife as well. We talked and laughed and told stories for quite some time that night. 

Another strong recollection of mine is that the tree was a little too tall for our living room. Rather than cutting it off at the bottom to make it fit in the room, they cut it off at the top so that the tree had no point, but a flat top where they had whacked off 12 inches or so. It was absolutely hilarious to look at. I am not positive, but I think that was the brilliant work of cellist, Gil Min. (One of you can correct me if that is wrong!) That made it even more special and provided lots of laughter in good feelings as we celebrated their accomplishment of totally surprising me.

Isn't that what the spirit of Christmas is all about? Bringing joy into the lives of others. Caring for the people we encounter every day. And making life brighter for the people around us. I think of that act of kindness every year around the holidays. I hope those students do as well. They certainly impacted my life that day. I am so fortunate to hear from students frequently about how much I impact their lives. I hope they all know how much they impact mine. If you happen to be one of my former students and are reading this, please know that in some way you have made my day brighter, my life richer, my joy a little stronger over the years. 

I wish you all an incredibly happy holiday and some of the joy that I experienced back during the Christmas of 1995.

The End.

Midwest Clinic 2022

I am sitting in Midway Airport in Chicago waiting for my flight to arrive, reflecting on the events of the last 3 days at the 2022 Midwest Clinic in Chicago Illinois. This is always a special event for band and orchestra directors to gather, recharge, and reconnect right before the holidays. People often remark that it's an odd time to hold a conference, but it always seems to feel right. Chicago during the holidays is beautiful (and cold) but the friendships that are rekindled and made at this conference are well worth braving the cold weather.

This year, I was particularly pleased that three of us from the NCSSM Music Discipline could be at the clinic. It was great to see Carolina Perez and Jim Kirkpatrick, NCSSM Music Instructors, in their element with many other fantastic band directors. I'm truly blessed to work with them on a daily basis. Additionally, the opportunity to reconnect with pillars of Music Education like Philip Riggs and Sally Wagner is truly a blessing in my life. 

As for me, the primary purpose of my trip was to present as part of a panel of contributors to the new GIA publication entitled "Rehearsing the High School Orchestra," by Sandy Goldie. I was privileged to contribute a chapter to this book that takes a close look at a number of elements of high school orchestra teaching and features contributions by 8 prominent high school orchestra directors. Those categories include warm up exercises, left hand development, right hand development, articulation, developing musicianship, repertoire selection, community building, rehearsal philosophy, and others. In our session, each contributing author presented their perspective on one element of the book. I was pleased to give a brief overview of my thoughts on Rehearsal Philosophy. We had a great audience for the presentation and I think our ideas were well received.

Other highlights for me included a wonderful performance by the Walton High School Orchestra from Cobb County, Georgia under the direction of Perry Holbrook and Sarah Grimes. I had the privilege of spending a day with the orchestras at Walton a few weeks ago, offering some suggestions to this wonderful performing ensemble. I felt a lot of pride in their performance even as a one-day guest in their classroom. The performance was magnificent.

I saw several other orchestras perform and they were truly all fantastic. One of the great benefits of attending the Midwest Clinic is attending these concert performances to ensure that your perspective on superior musical performance is measured by the very best in the country. Performing at Midwest Clinic is really one of the highest honors a high school band or orchestra can achieve. The audition process is rigorous and all directors who have this opportunity know that they are in the national spotlight when they perform at the Midwest Clinic.

Another highlight was attending the panel discussion by contributing authors for the new GIA publication, "Inspiring a Love of Music," by Scott Rush and Frank Battisti. This is another collaborative publication which highlights the ideas of several prominent music educators around the country. Again, I was honored to participate in this publication. While I was not involved in the panel discussion at the Midwest Clinic, I was in attendance and thrilled to hear the thoughts of so many fine music educators. Most prominent in my mind (and probably all others in attendance) were the ideas and remarks of distinguished music professor, Dr Frank Battisti. It was such an honor to hear him articulate his thoughts about the purpose of music in our lives, and students' lives, and in the world we live in. He was so inspiring and clearly a wealth of knowledge. His remarks alone were worth the trip to Chicago!

There were many other marvelous sessions as well. I attended Margaret Selby's brilliant session on middle school orchestra recruiting and retention, a fantastic new music performance session with the Chicago land educators Orchestra performing, and several others. All were fantastic!

But now, with bad weather coming into the Midwest, it is time to get out of here. It has been a wonderful couple of days and I'm so sad to miss the Wednesday sessions and performances. I was particularly looking forward to the Johns Creek High School Orchestra performance today under the direction of my dear friend Young Kim. I am certain they will be spectacular. Young is a master at pulling the very best technically and musically from his students. I always enjoy seeing him conduct and hearing the exceptional results of his brilliant rehearsal technique.

For now, goodbye to Chicago and the Midwest Clinic. I truly look forward to the next time! Now back to Durham and Christmas Eve gigs!


Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Computational Thinking and the Orchestra Classroom

Computational Thinking and the Orchestra Classroom.
I recently had a incredibly interesting conversation with NCSSM's Instructor of Computational Chemistry. He is a dear friend and a long-standing member of the NCSSM faculty. He introduced this concept to me as part of a conversation regarding the direction of our school's greater program and I have thought about it a great deal over the past several months. I believe that we will hear more and more about this concept, especially in the areas of STEM education in coming years. Computational thinking, when defined, is easily related to the music and orchestra classroom. I believe that I have been engrossed in computational thinking for virtually my entire life as a musician; from the time I was a student, to young teacher, to now as a veteran teacher. We use computational thinking when we are playing instruments, when we are practicing, when we are playing in or conducting an ensemble, and when we are planning and creating pedagogy and instrumental lessons. So, let's dive deeper into the concept of computational thinking as it applies to the orchestra class.

"Computational Thinking (CT) is a problem solving process that includes a number of characteristics and dispositions. It is essential to the development of computer applications, but it can also be used to support problem solving across all disciplines, including the humanities, math, and science." ~Wikipedia

In this essay, we will focus specifically on music.

Students who learn computational thinking across the curriculum can begin to see a relationship between academic subjects, as well as between life inside and outside of the classroom.  This is, obviously, a goal of arts and humanities programs in all school settings. I believe it is additionally a strong goal of music education and ensemble performance classes. We continually seek to facilitate interdisciplinary ideas, learning, and expression on a daily basis.

Computational thinking involves a number of specific components. Let's begin to look at them here.

1. Decomposition: Breaking down data, processes, or problems into smaller, manageable parts. 

I would hope that every music educator who reads this is thinking, "This is what I do every day." The goal of all strong pedagogy would be to facilitate success with complex musical ideas and tasks by breaking those tasks into smaller, more palatable increments. We do this throughout every rehearsal cycle in an ensemble. We also do this in music lessons on a daily and weekly basis. I often say that the most important music lesson a student ever has is the first one they have. That first lesson is when a strong foundation of " setup " is established. This is the beginning of success in much more complex techniques. Think about how one might approach teaching a student the technique of vibrato. It is not haphazard. There are many individual steps towards developing that complex technique. One might argue that we are never finished with the process. I believe that the most successful music educators are those who take the time to fully decompose the most advanced of musical techniques and articulate the process clearly.

2. Pattern Recognition: Observing patterns, trends, and regularities in data.

Any student who has learned to play an instrument through the Suzuki method, understands the importance of pattern recognition. To this day I still hear and see the pattern of four eighth notes and two quarter notes as "caught a little bun-ny." That pattern was drilled over and over to me at the very beginning of my music instruction. We seek patterns all the time in music. Rhythmic recognition is truly pattern recognition. Jazz musicians understand this as learning figures. Key recognition is truly pattern recognition. Modal recognition is truly pattern recognition. Shifting is pattern recognition. I could go on and on. The best musicians are recognizing patterns all over the place. It is truly one of the strongest skills that a musician develops. The more we recognize and repeat patterns, the less we have to really think about fixed ideas during a rehearsal or a performance. I often say to my ensembles, "solve the equation once." What I am really saying is to find the patterns, recognize them, and repeat them. This will free your mind up to think about other things in that same moment.

3. Abstraction: Identifying the general principles that generate these patterns

This may be my most favorite element of preparing a score for rehearsal. I am continuously seeking abstractions that I can use to articulate concepts for my students. In the NCSSM orchestra, we just completed a performance of Beethoven's 6th Symphony. In the second movement, there are a series of 16th note patterns. As I lived with the score and studied it, I noted that the 16th notes really serve two purposes in that movement. In some cases, I identify the 16th note patterns as "the engine." The function of engine passages in Beethoven, in my opinion, is to establish rhythmic drive as well as a harmonic underpinning. Think of this as the rhythm guitar of the orchestra, playing chords and a driving regular rhythmic pattern. My students have grown to be able to truly identify "engine" passages whenever we perform Beethoven. The other type of 16th note passage in this movement is more of a "melodic" function. Beethoven embeds the melody within the 16th note undulation in these passages. So, during the course of rehearsal, I would have my students identify "engine" passages versus "melodic" passages of 16th notes. This type of abstraction should be prevalent in the work we do as music educators. And, ultimately, we want our students to be able to do this type of work as well. It is not easy. This requires us as music educators to step back from the fixed notion of notes and rhythm on a page. We need to see the score in a more functional manner. I have spent a great deal of time in recent years considering the functionality of every passage in the scores I conduct. What is the purpose of every single note and passage in any given score? When we can answer this question of functionality, we have truly begun to embrace the notion of abstraction within the score. When we help our students to think about a score in this way, we have offered them this notion of abstraction.

4. Algorithm Design: Developing the step by step instructions for solving this and similar problems.

This is sequential pedagogy in its most pure and basic form. Have you ever seen a video on YouTube of someone trying to explain a musical concept or technique who really hasn't developed a step-by-step process for solving the problem? I have! In the end, algorithm design is pedagogical design. We, as music educators, do it every single day. And, if it's not in the front of your mind when you are planning for teaching, I recommend that you begin to focus on this. I do not believe there is any one specific answer to algorithm design for music educators. But, this notion of creating step by step instructions is critical to the success of our students. Clarity always wins in the end. Many years ago, I had a friend and mentor encourage me to think in this manner. He cautioned me that folks to whom high level musical performance comes relatively easily, can have difficulties with this when explaining concepts to their students. I happened to be one of those musicians. Many advanced techniques came relatively easily to me for some reason. So, as a young teacher, I committed to decomposition and algorithm design in a significant way. It has paid huge dividends for me in the classroom over the years. I am so appreciative of that mentor's advice!

"The characteristics that define computational thinking are decomposition, pattern recognition/data representation, generalization/abstraction, and algorithms.  By decomposing a problem, identifying the variables involved using data representation, and creating algorithms, a generic solution results. The generic solution is a generalization or abstraction that can be used to solve a multitude of variations of the initial problem." ~Wikipedia

Another characterization of computational thinking is the "three A's" iterative process based on three stages:

Abstraction: Problem formulation;
Automation: Solution expression;
Analyses: Solution execution and evaluation.

These can also be easily linked to the process of ensemble rehearsal or instrumental music instruction. As conductors, we must first identify the problem through abstraction. Next, we express a solution which equates to automation. And then finally we execute a plan for solution and ultimately evaluate the success of that plan. This is what music educators do every single day.

"Some say that the four Cs of 21st century learning are communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity. The fifth C could be computational thinking which entails the capability to resolve problems algorithmically and logically." ~Wikipedia

As music educators, we commit to this on a daily basis. Our students should be observing the computational thinking process in our work every day. And, by extension, we must be encouraging students to think computationally in everything that they experience as a musician. This is yet another justification for music programs within the context of a stem education. The way we can encourage students to think when in the ensemble classroom has undeniable links to the science, math, and engineering classroom.

I would love to hear your reaction to these thoughts. I also encourage you to consider some of these ideas when advocating for your program. These are important facets of the work that we do as music educators and the work that our students do when they are in our classroom. But, if we are unable to articulate these outcomes, the greater concept is often overlooked. 

I wish you all the best as you continue your work in the music ensemble classroom. 

Monday, March 21, 2022

American String Teachers Association National Conference 2022: My Week and Experience

I woke up this morning in my own bed after being out of town for the past week. It is so great to experience the familiarity of my own place: my home, I own stuff, and the comforts of home. While I was staying in a magnificent suite at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta, it is always good to come home. This morning I was looking through Facebook and enjoying all of the moving posts about folks' experiences at the ASTA National Conference last week. The membership of this organization points toward our national conference as somewhat of a Mecca for reconnecting with friends and colleagues from around the country, acquiring new and unique ideas about string teaching and the art we love, and getting that annual reminder that we are not alone. 

My week was a little bit unique this year. Many of you know I have been serving on the National Board of Directors for ASTA for about 6 years as the Chair of the Content Development Committee. This was my last conference in that role. I will be rolling off the board in May and using my time to more fully commit to projects here at NCSSM, specifically opening our new NCSSM campus in Morganton North Carolina. So, as a result my week at the conference was a little different than many years. I didn't have much time to attend sessions, but it was no less meaningful and the work in which I was involved had, hopefully, a great deal of impact. This is my opportunity to chronicle my week a little bit and to give others a small window into that work.

Monday and Tuesday

I left home on Sunday evening to get a small jump on the long drive. It is about a 6-hour drive from Durham NC to Atlanta. I went about halfway and spent the night in Spartanburg SC. I got up early on Monday to finish the drive so that I could be ready for board meetings beginning at noon on Monday. I safely arrived in Atlanta and settled into my room. And after a nice lunch, the Board got to work. The board work on Monday and Tuesday centered around creating a new strategic plan to guide our organization for the next 3 years. I love all of the members of the board and these are opportunities for meaningful and thoughtful conversation about the work of ASTA, our membership, our mission, and how we want to spend our limited resources to make the field of string teaching and the United States a better place. Our conversations this year centered around many of the standard topics of the American String Teachers Association, such as professional development opportunities, and member resources, but wellness and diversity were really front and center as well. We were able to frame an outline and priorities for the new strategic plan through our work. That plan should be finalized by June and I am excited to see it implemented for our organization. For those who don't know, the organization has been through a great deal of transition in the last year as we have said goodbye to one Executive Director, hired an interim for 6 months or so, and welcomed our new Executive Director, Lynn Tuttle, to the organization. Lynn is a thoughtful and intelligent leader and I know she will guide ASTA with integrity and purpose in coming years. Truly, the entire board worked diligently and thoughtfully on this plan. We ended the day on Tuesday with a wonderful Board dinner.  I went back to the hotel fulfilled (and very full) ready to move into the rest of the Conference.


On Wednesday, the Board came together to finalize some of the details of the outline of the strategic plan in the morning. We worked for a couple of hours and then many of us had to move on to our work as facilitators for the Wednesday pre-conference sessions. I was honored to be conducting and guiding the ASTA National Conference Teachers Orchestra on Wednesday. About 23 teachers from around the country registered for this pre-conference session to come together and make music for the afternoon. This was the second time we have put this event together for ASTA.  The Teachers Orchestra was a wonderful success again this year. We came together at noon and rehearsed until 5:00 p.m. The rehearsal included great music-making, many smiles, new friendships, and was an overall fulfilling afternoon. We had a wide variety of repertoire that included an arrangement of the Day of Wrath (Dies Irae) from Verdi's Requiem, arranged by Deborah Baker Monday, works by composers Katie Labrie and Gabriella Frank, and even the winner of the ASTA 75th Anniversary composition contest, Nagyszentmiklos, by Todd Mason, a tricky but amazing work which is basically ah homage to the influence of Bela Bartok. There was plenty to do for the afternoon. Our time together culminated with a informal performance at the opening  reception of the conference at 6:30 that evening. What a pleasure to conduct the group. It was truly a joy to spend the day with these wonderful teachers from around the country. Again, I strongly believe everyone had a great time and enjoyed the process of music making and bringing a short program together throughout the afternoon. I was honored to be part of this. Following the reception, I ran to another dinner with all of the other adjudicators and clinicians for the National Orchestra Festival, which was set to begin on Thursday morning.

 Thursday Friday Saturday 

 As part of the National Conference each year ASTA hosts the American String Teachers Association National Orchestra Festival where student groups from around the country apply and come to our conference to perform for a set of adjudicators and receive educational clinics. This year, I was invited to be one of the clinicians who worked with orchestras following their adjudicated performances. My role in this event was to listen to orchestra performances and then give them a brief educational clinic immediately following their performance. I heard orchestras from Florida, Texas, Colorado, Indiana, and other regions of the country. Truly, all of the performances were magnificent and I was encouraged throughout the festival regarding the level of string teaching and playing that's happening in our country today. Over the course of Thursday and Friday I heard and cliniced 8 different orchestras. In my clinics, I tried to give students the opportunity to reflect on their own performances, consider their successes and areas on which they could improve in their performances, reflect on their trip,  and, I aspired to give them a few small musical nuggets to think about as they move forward in their playing as individuals and ensembles. I truly hope that the instructors walked away from each of my clinics with a little something new to think about. And, obviously, my goal was that each student would feel valued and honored in their efforts. There were also usually many parent chaperones in the room and I always try to make a point to thank them and honor them for the dedication it takes to be part of a music community in a school and to support their children in their orchestral endeavors. Following all of the performances, a National Grand Champion is named and all of the groups are ranked. On Saturday morning, the winners of the middle school and high school divisions were announced at a high energy award ceremony. Later on Saturday afternoon, the Middle School and High School Grand Champions performed as the closing session of the conference. The Grand Champions are Seven Lakes Junior High Chamber Orchestra from Katy, Texas under the direction of Jennifer Gingell and Bethany Hagin and  Eau Gallie High School Chamber Orchestra from Melbourne Florida under the direction of Erik Bryan.  The performances were absolutely stunning. I am also thrilled that my colleague Ryan Ellefson from East Chapel Hill High School in North Carolina took his ensemble to the event and they were awarded second place in the high school division. Sadly, I didn't see their performance because I was clinician another group at that time. But all indications were that they were absolutely spectacular. I know it was a huge weekend for Ryan and for every student and parent who participated in the event. I am so pleased for them!

Following a social gathering on Saturday evening, I got to bed early and set my alarm for 3:30 a.m. I left Atlanta when I woke up at that early hour and drove directly to my youngest son's baseball game in Raleigh. The game was slated to start at noon and I had missed several games being away this week. I didn't want to miss the game on Sunday. I made it to the game on time to see all of his at-bats. I was also so pleased that my middle son, Joe, could come and watch the games with me. He had been in London for the past 2 weeks with a class trip from UNC and just arrived back in Raleigh on Saturday. What a cool way to come home!

So, it was certainly a busy, but fulfilling week. As always, my best memories and takeaways include the friendships old and new, and personal interaction with my colleagues, from around the county.  There is no substitute for the smiles, hugs, conversations over coffee, and well-wishes for and from this like-minded group of folks.  The American String Teachers Association continues to be strong and continues to provide a welcoming community for all in the field.  Thanks to all of you who impacted me over the past week.  I look forward to seeing you all and others at Orlando next year. 

Monday, February 28, 2022

A look 14 years back

I was recently looking back over some of my first posts on this blog and thought it would be fun to revisit a few and see if I am still in agreement with myself.

Seating Auditions are Traumatic
September 12, 2008

Seating auditions are traumatic. Anyone that has ever played in an orchestra knows it. A musician's seating is a concrete expression of a musician's "rank" in the ensemble and one really can't hide from the number. (1st chair, 2nd chair, 14th chair, etc.) 

I have to constantly remind students in my ensembles that auditions are not a concrete ranking of musical expertise.  They are more like a quick snapshot, capturing a single moment in time. 

Sometimes photos give a very true impression of a person's image. Sometimes they really don't.  Sometimes our eyes are crossed and we look horrible. Other times, we see a shot of a person that just makes them look fantastic. They are all the same person, but that snapshot can go either way. 

Auditions are similar. Sometimes we go into an audition, get nervous, and end up being the subject of an audition "photo" that depicts our eyes crossed and hair totally messed up. Other times, we show better that we actually are. But, in the long run, generally speaking, the image is still us. And, in both "good and bad" auditions, we give some kind of general impression of the player that we are. 

The beauty of the orchestra and string ensemble is this: once the auditions are over, we all have the same responsibilities - to prepare our parts, participate in rehearsals, lead from any chair, and work to be as integral a member of the group as everyone else. Seating order ultimately does not matter. Yes, it provides a tangible "rank." But it really doesn't change anything. We are an ensemble. And, by definition, it is all about the entire group. Ensembles are only successful when everyone understands their importance to the sum and fully commits to that concept. (Just think of the last time you watched a dance ensemble performance where one of the dancers didn't operate at the same level as the rest of the group. Ruined the effect - didn't it.) 

Here is where I usually go into sports analogies and the need for team play, but I will spare you that line of argument today. My orchestra received their seating on Wednesday right before rehearsal. It was a weird rehearsal that day. Players were getting used to their new stand partner, adjusting to the reality of that new "ranking" that they had just received, and generally getting comfortable. I really hope that today is better. This is such a fantastic group of musicians and I have such high expectations for the year. For now, we move on as an ensemble. Seating doesn't matter. That is the first key to success as an orchestra. A chain is only as strong as the weakest link. Now we get to the real work of developing musicianship, artistry, technique, repertoire, and a commitment to the goals at hand. I will enjoy the journey! 

As I read this today, I certainly still agree with every word of this brief essay.  But, in 2022, we should also be seeing seating, particularly in the classroom, through a new lens.  How does your ensemble seating look when seen through a racial equity and inclusion lens?  How does it look when seen through a gender equity and inclusion lens.  Frankly, that would not have crossed my mind in 2008.  But, if the actual seat of player really doesn't matter, as I said in 2008, then what are we telling the student who is always in the back of the section about their value and worth? Or, better said, what are they perceiving we are saying to them? I tend to rotate seating much more than I did 12 or 13 years ago.  I try to be conscious of  unintended statements seating may be making about my students. I also try to pair up students in creative ways which help everyone succeed in the long run. There is no "right" answer here. But there is plenty of room for self-reflection and sensitive deliberation when making seating decisions.

I have conducted a few honors groups in the past few months as we are just getting ramped up again post-covid.  I have noticed a great deal of discussion about a new and different level of nerves in seating auditions. In fact, it was the topic of conversation just last weekend at the NCMEA Eastern Regional Orchestra Festival.  Our kids have become used to the comfort of the video audition and playing by themselves in a live setting is more foreign that it used to be.  It is time for us to start getting back to those live auditions.  There is value in feeling those butterflies in the stomach and maybe even making a few mistakes in the audition room.  Life doesn't end with a bad audition.  We simply learn about where we need to grow.  These are good lessons!

In the end, I still love the analogy of a snapshot. We recently had some family photos taken and in most of them, the wind had blown my hair into an odd place.  I absolutely hate when my bangs go straight down.  They should be combed to the side to look "right."  Only in the last 3 shots, after I had taken a look at the photos, did my hair look right to me.  Oh well...not the greatest look, but at their core, the photos still look like me.  My wife claims she really didn't even notice.  I know I did. But, I still can live with the photos.  And, there will always be another chance!