After a VERY productive summer (Dissertation defense is HAPPENING October 18th!!) I am ready to start writing about teaching again. SO much writing happened this summer. Shout out to my writing pal, Jesse, who set up a writing group. We met each morning Monday through Friday via the interwebs. We set goals for ourselves and then wrote for two hours. I honestly do not think I would have been as productive had it not been for that writing group.
In the music education world we like to play it safe. We often stick with our people: like-minded music educators who have dealt with the same battles: budget, schedules, numbers, frustrating administrators, concerts, pep bands, etc. The list goes on and on. While our struggles are similar I find that other areas of education often have similar struggles (minus the bus being late for the state tournament basketball game).
One of my professional goals this year is to build better connections with people who are in the same profession as me. Not music educators, but other educators. I have come to realize that I have taught in the same building for four years and there are still people that I have not spoken with, or who I don’t recognize. This became apparent at a staff meeting when a bunch of us from different subjects were sitting at a table together and we had to introduce ourselves. I know for a fact that we had all been teaching in the building for at least two years.
Our building is pretty big. We have about 2,000 students and I honestly don’t even know how many staff. Each department is pretty insular, at least from an outsiders view, and I get that. We have similar interests and often similar prep hours. However, I wonder would would happen if we got out of our safe places and got to know our colleagues a bit more.
One of my hopes this year is to visit other classrooms during my prep hour and either observe or participate as a learner. There are so many amazing teachers at South working with the students in really interesting ways and engaging in conversations I could only have dreamed about as a teenager. I want to learn from my colleagues about how to be a better group discussion facilitator. I think we can learn a lot from each other, even if it isn’t in our “content” area. I would also love to go and observe the ELL classes because so many of the students I work with are EL students, I would like to find better ways in which I can connect with students with limited English skills.
I’m genuinely interested in my colleagues beyond their skills as teachers. I want to get to know them more because I think that will strengthen our community at school-a ‘theme’ that is permeating many of the discussions occurring in and out of the classroom. Community and connections are important, but they don’t just happen. We also can’t force them. They need to be sincere attempts at getting to know the person.
What professional or personal goals do you have this year? How do you think these goals will be reached? Why do you have these goals?
Poster by Ricardo Morales.
I want to thank you for everything that you have done for me. So often, at the end of the year, I receive a letter of thanks, or a hug with a thanks. I am forever grateful for those, but I wonder if you ever realize the impact you have on me. This letter is to all the students that I have worked with.
I want to thank you for challenging me in ways that have encouraged me to think differently to how I approach teaching and working with young people. I want to thank you for encouraging me, and challenging me, to not give up in the face of adversity-either when working with other human beings or with myself. Thank you for getting in my face and questioning my intentions and to whom those intentions were for. Thank you for causing me sleepless nights to consider in what ways could I change my approaches to help you succeed.
Thank you for your persistence. You have taught me that persistence is important in learning, in teaching, and in relationship building. Persistence to push me to come up with new ways to challenge you to think differently, think harder, and try new things. Thank you for encouraging me to take risks. If I didn't take risks, personal and professional, we might not have ever met, and then I wouldn't be writing this letter to you. Thank you for letting me make mistakes, and letting try again. Thank you for your patience with me as I navigate new curriculum. Thank you for letting me learn alongside with you.
Thank you for teaching me when I didn't know or understand something. I really appreciate that you are ok being the teacher sometimes because I learn a lot from you. I have learned what it means to fall down, struggle to get back up, and phone a friend for help. I have learned that sometimes the love we feel isn't from the people we think it should come from, so instead we have to rely on others for that. I have learned that sometimes, school just isn't the most important thing and that day to day survival is what matters most.
I want to thank you, my students, for pushing me to be better. I have watched as you work with your peers with empathy and compassion. I have watched you challenge each other in friendly and critical conversations. I have watched you grapple with situations that are far out of your control and are bigger than what you should have to deal with in your young years. I have learned that humanity does exist and that we can all be better if we stop, listen, and learn from each other.
I want to thank you for keeping me humble. Too often we pride ourselves in getting you to work, but you have kept me working. You demand a lot from me, always asking for more and wanting to do more. It's amazing. You are all incredible human beings.
Finally, I want to thank you for letting me walk beside you as your teacher. We don't always get a whole lot of say in who we work with, but each and every single one of you has taught me how to be a better person. I hope you know that.
This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the NIME6 (Narrative Inquiry in Music Education) in Boston. My dear friend and colleague, Nick McBride, and I presented our personal narratives on our reflections on narrative research. I also attended a workshop by Patricia Leavy who shared with ideas on writing and encouraged us to write at least ten minutes every day. So, here I am at school at 7:00 writing. Jazz band is done for the year, but by contract we are supposed to be here, so I guess I will take advantage of the opportunity.
Today’s post is not really about teaching tips or ideas, nor is it about research. It is about self-care. I know. . . I KNOW. Self-care is all the rage, right? Everybody is doing it! BUT WE AREN’T. Today’s post is prompted by one of the conversations that took place after the delightful Tami Draves presented a paper “Class, “FirstGens,” and Music Education.” The paper itself was wonderful, but it was the conversation that took place after the paper that caused me to pause: self-care in music education and for music educators.
We live and breathe in a society that is fueled by the hustle; fueled by 60 hour work weeks, working on the weekends, working during dinner, working all.the.time. In the discussion after Tami’s paper, we discussed how schools of music perpetuate this in a potentially unhealthy way. Undergraduate music education majors attend class during the day. Between classes they practice ___ hours. Evenings are often filled with rehearsals, required concerts, more practicing, studying, and potentially a job to help pay for college. For music education students this often translates to when they come into the profession: during the day they teach, some stay after school for HOURS working with students, or grading. Many music teachers are gigging musicians in their after hours as well. Many high school music teachers find themselves at multiple pep bands during the week, musical rehearsals, district meetings….etc. OH….and sometimes teachers want to have a family, so they have to navigate the complexities of that as well.
Where does self-care fall into place in all of this? I am not talking about the occasional mani-pedi with your girlfriends, or a night of poker with the guys (sorry about the complete gender stereotypes there….). But what about taking time for YOU to bring alignment with your mind/body/spirit? Let’s be honest-this is so far off the priority list for many of us that when we realize that we need to take care of ourselves, it is often too late or we feel completely lost.
Case in point. This year has been a struggle for me. Not with school. Not with research, but with my self-care. I foolishly got myself involved in seven conferences, six of which I presented research or teaching strategies. This is just the beginning of what I overcommitted myself to and around late January/early February my body decided that it had about enough. My brain was going nonstop and my body could not keep up. This stress led me to have a resurgence of hepatitis A and adrenal fatigue. When my doctor looked at me point blank and stated, “you have to rest,” I actually replied “I am not sure I know how to rest.” Seriously. I had backed myself into a corner of constantly going that I wasn’t sure how to get myself out. It was scary. I didn’t realize what I had done because I had thought that this was the norm. It is not. Our bodies were not designed to be a work horse going all day. Our bodies, especially our major organs that deal with stress hormones, do not recognize the difference between mental/emotional/physical stress. I had ALL the stress going on. And I don’t mean “oh shit, I am so stressed out.” I felt like I was THRIVING on this. It kept me going. I felt like I was making a difference in the world. What I didn’t see, and what everyone else around me saw, was that I was starting to fall apart. In the wise words of my CrossFit coach, Logan, "Sarah, you need to chill the fuck out."
SO….self care. I have learned that simple things are REALLY important to the healing of my body, my brain, and my overall outlook. Everyday I take really big belly breaths when I start to feel anxious and that instantly centers me. Sometimes I have to take a few breaths in a row. This type of breathing brings my shoulders down, relaxes my faces, lowers my blood pressure, and reminds me to just ‘be’.
Every night I listen to a meditation to calm my brain. I never make it through because the voice is SO relaxing. In this meditation (there are a bazillion apps out there) I focus on breathing. . . again, breathing is just SO important. We often forget this when we are in the heat of a day of teaching and our shoulders rise up and we become tense.
Yoga. I used to think I needed to go to a yoga studio and get a major sweat on to receive any benefit from yoga. This is so not the case. I really love Yoga with Adriene because she is super real, her practices are very much about no perfection, self-care and self-love.
Therapy. Yep. Therapy. Talking with someone who actually doesn’t know me-someone who can look at me and my life objectively and provide some outside perspective has been super helpful.
Saying “no” and being ok with it. I’ve had the chance to turn down some opportunities recently and it has been empowering. Before I was saying ‘yes’ to everything because I was nervous that the experience would not happen again. You know what, it is ok because we can’t do everything all the time. I realized this in March that, as a perfectionist, trying to be 100% at 100% of the things I am doing 100% of the time is just not sustainable. Something will suffer.
Allowing yourself to just “be”. Damn, it was HOT yesterday. Our basement was nice and cool, so instead of cleaning and being outwardly productive, I watched two movies, stayed where it was cool, and just enjoyed relaxing. Five months ago, I would have deemed that as being lazy. Now I deem it as enjoying a day off.
Sitting in silence. As a music teacher, I spend 8 hours a day (or more) immersed in sound. Sound is everywhere. I have taken to turning off my radio on my drive home so I can just sit in silence. It is glorious.
Taking joy in the simple things around you. I really love the beauty of nature. Each morning I look outside my kitchen window, take in a big belly breath, and thank mother nature for creating such beautiful colors and sounds. This time of year is especially lovely as the birds are up bright and early, it is quiet in the morning, and flowers are starting to grow and bloom. The breath just brings it all together and just grounds me.
Some people find that journaling, walking, reading books, and other forms of exercise can be modes of self-care. As long as YOU feel better afterwards, are refreshed, feel more calm, and centered, I think you can do whatever you want.
But let’s be real here. This is super important. I would hate for anyone to go through what I experienced. I mean, it wasn’t the worse thing in the world, but it was incredibly frustrating and I am still figuring it all out. By no means am I a self-care expert. I am still on the journey and will always be on the journey. I do think it is important that we talk about these things as we can only get by on adrenaline and coffee for so long. I do think that it is important for our profession to understand that we should address these issues for the sake of the humans that are working with young humans. I do think that this is something that perhaps higher education needs to look at in how they model and practice self-care with future teachers.
I would love to hear how YOU practice self-care-even if you are not an educator. We can all learn from each other. Thank you and make sure to give your self some love today :D
Guitar 2 really took a turn the past week and a half. Students really enjoyed working in SoundTrap while they mixed the most recent album. As they were working in SoundTrap, many of them asked if we could do a project where they could create their own music. Why not? Music is music and guitar is one vehicle through which we create music.
Here's the cool thing about SoundTrap: it's cloud based, which means it is accessible on any device. There is even a SoundTrap app, so the students could access their songs via their mobile devices. It works on Macs AND PCs. Super cool.
I thought it would be fun if the students created a South High Soundscape, where recorded sounds from our school found their way into their songs. We listened to to versions of Soundscapes: Steve Reich's "Different Trains" and "City of God's Son" While these might push the envelope of a "soundscape" I thought they might provide two contrasting styles.
What the students put together is uniquely them and intriguing. When I asked them what they enjoyed about the project they replied that they enjoyed creating their own music (even if using pre-established loops), that everyone's creation was different, and there was freedom. Although-that freedom was met with a bit of anxiety at the beginning of the project because there was just SO MUCH for available for the students to work with.
Below is the project description along with some of the songs (students gave me permission to use their work.) Some students, like Diego who wrote "Doors" were very thoughtful in their approach. Diego shared that each section starts with a door sound that he recorded. He indicated that doors open and close to different sections of a school and therefore each time you hear the door in his composition, there is a new and different sounding piece. Woah...that's deep, man. (Also, this is Diego's first time being in a music class).
Please enjoy and please feel free to use this assignment in your own classroom. I believe this kind of music experience can work with ANY grade in ANY setting!
Perhaps I was naïve. I was finally sitting on the adjudicator side of the table. I had attended the Eau Claire Jazz Festival as a high school, then worked and played the festival as a college student. I brought bands to the festival (one of my students even won a scholarship to Shell Lake for outstanding musicianship), and now I was working as an adjudicator/clinician. Surely this meant I had broken down some of the barriers that women face in the jazz world. I should note that I was the only woman adjudicator and we were a pasty white bunch.
And then it happened. About four bands into the day, (all 15 or so bands were directed by men) the other two adjudicators and I were approached by the band director. (Shout out to John and Harvey-they were a blast to work with and I learned a ton watching them work with bands and tag-teaming with them). The band director shook their hands, exchanged pleasantries, gave them the scores, and walked back to his band. Yep. I was completely ignored. I muttered "did that just happen??" I was in shock. I was pissed. I honestly could not understand how this person did not see me as an adjudicator. Who did he think I was? A student aid working at the festival? (I have a bit of youthfulness to me, but not THAT much.) Maybe he saw me as one of the festival managers (perhaps a bit higher up on the ladder.) But the fact that he did not even acknowledge had me without words. I will come back to how I dealt with this.
Sexism in jazz has long been an issue. I experienced it first hand at Eau Claire in Jazz 1. Never from the guys that I played with. There was mutual respect there. (shout out to all the guys in the 2001-2002 bands-you rock!) Eau Claire does have a history of fewer females in the bands, but that generally is a reflection of the larger jazz community. I do remember playing at the Viennese Ball (a glorified prom for grown ups) wearing my red dress and playing bari, overhearing a listener refer to me as the "Title IX" of the group. I didn't understand that. I auditioned into the band. I worked my ass off to get into that band. I started out in Jazz 4 and worked my way up. I earned that seat at the table and I was invited to sit there. I worked hard and owned my hard work, despite nasty rumors that circled around about me and how I got into the band. (Keeping it classy, right?)I took lessons with Kathy Jensen (bari player extraordinaire, and spent some time touring with this guy Prince. You may have heard of him) the summer before jazz auditions to help me prepare and get me to a place where I could hang with jazz 1 ("hang" in the meaning of being able to hang musically) So to think that there were people out there that didn't know how hard I really worked to get that seat really was upsetting.
When I was in high school there were a ton of girls in our jazz band. My senior year, the saxophone section was all girls. I auditioned and played second alto in the all-state jazz band. It's not like I haven't been around this music. My dad is a phenomenal jazz musician. He actually is basically a walking encyclopedia of jazz, with an emphasis on early jazz. He coached me early on in my saxophone playing years and I was transcribing solos as early as 7th grade. I loved jazz, it was my music. (Don't make this statement more problematic than it needs to be. I identified with this music, and understood it's history and my relation, or lack there of, to the people who originated the music. I call it mine because this was the music that got me through my teen years....) It spoke to me. I was that nerdy kid that was learning all the Cannonball and Hodges solos while everyone else was digging in on the Backstreet Boys. My dad, being the jazz guy that he is, saw this passion and introduced me to the band "Diva" and bought me a book about women jazz musicians. It was in that book that I read about Ingrid Jensen, who I would then later meet when she was a guest at the Eau Claire Jazz Festival and who asked why there weren't any women in the band, and told me to "get your ass in there." So I did. I want to think that I didn't work any harder than those other guys. I worked hard because I needed to get better because that was a kick ass band.
I loved jazz in high school. I loved playing jazz, I loved soloing....it was freeing. When I was registering for classes the summer before my freshman year at Eau Claire, I remember the advisor discouraging me from signing up for jazz band. I needed to get X amount of marching band and regular band credits, along with private lessons (another blog post that needs to be written about the lack of equity that jazz receives in teacher education prep...) I was heart broken and didn't know any better. So that summer I spent most of my time getting my classical chops into shape. When I got to school in the fall, I remember walking around the practice rooms and listening to the amazing saxophonists. I came from a small school where I was a big fish in a small pond and now I was a minnow in an ocean. It was incredibly intimidating. I didn't audition for jazz band that semester, but I did the spring semester. I was disappointed that I got into jazz 4, so I took the following fall off again. But I missed it to much and ended up getting into jazz 3, then jazz 2, then....jazz 1. The first woman in about 10 years to get in the band. I also co-directed Jazz 5 with a friend. That was a great experience for so many reasons. Eau Claire is a magical place. The school is all undergraduates, but we are provided so many opportunities to play. It also is a place that allows for growth-an obvious story for myself.
So, back to yesterday. I had multiple emotions and thoughts running through my brain from "what the actual fuck" to "those students deserve better than that" to "I have to prove myself." I needed to let these young and beautiful students, and especially the girls in this band that women CAN play music. I wanted to make sure these girls know that it is ok to be a girl and be smart, beautiful, strong, confident, and create jazz. So, I marched past that band director and got to work. I had about five minutes to do something with them. So we talked about the importance of articulations and the feel. Then I gave them listening homework over the weekend. Their charts were 'inspired' (for lack of a better word) by jazz standards. I told them to go home and listen to "So What," "Lil' Darlin," and "Sidewinder." Those kids had no idea who Miles Davis or Count Basie were, and definitely not Lee Morgan. We had a good time together in those five minutes. I want to think that they took something home from that experience with me. I hope that ALL the bands we worked with saw that men and women can work together, but that women ARE capable of doing this job and doing it well.
It's going to take some time for me to process this whole experience. I am not going to give this guy any excuses. Not today. Not in 2018. This is not a women's fight. This is not just a white woman's fight. This is fight for all women to be heard and recognized. It's not just in the jazz world either, but damn, it is frustrating to see this happening to educators. Men, we need you to speak out and get with us on this. We need men to program more composers of color, and more women in their programs for concert band and jazz band. IT DOES MATTER.
Moving forward I am going to be reading some other stories to help me process this and figure out what we do next. My friend and colleague, and all around badass, Erin Holmes and I are planning on how to open up a dialogue this summer during all-state camp. BTW-she is the first woman to hold the Jazz Chair for MMEA. Like I said, a total badass, mother of three, and high school band director. I found this today, from a young jazz musician studying at the New School. This story is not unique. The comments are mostly helpful and empowering. Other articles of note include this New York Times commentary that celebrates women jazz musicians of 2017. Our very own local radio station recently highlighted 20 women jazz musicians here in the Twin Cities. But these are not isolated issues. And the women who are celebrated in the Times article and the Current blog are not being celebrated because they are just women. It is because they are strong, fierce, musical, smart, and talented. Those words can describe just about anybody (if they put the work into it). However, we do have to work *that* much harder (even in 2018) to be recognized. We are at the table. ACKNOWLEDGE us at the table. Have a conversation with us. Do not be offended if we might have more experience or understanding than you. We can learn from each other. But again, it takes both sides.
Organized chaos occurs on a daily basis in the South High guitar rooms. If you were to come into my room, you might find students working in pairs, groups of 3-4, or by themselves. You might find me working with individuals, mediating groups, or just sitting back and observing the learning that is occurring. Once in a while I may need to re-direct students to the task, but the generally rule of thumb is 80-20. Meaning, 80% of the time the students are on task, focused, and engaging in learning. 80% is a solid number and I think most them achieve that.
Today, I was inspired by the 6th hour class to start writing this blog. I am literally writing this entry while they are working in groups to put together a song. We have been working on "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons. Yesterday they listened to the song, and, as individuals, came up with their own strumming patterns. Volunteers from each class shared their patterns and we learned them from the students. I came up with an easy bass line. Today, they are working in groups to put the patterns together so they make a cohesive whole. So, one person is playing a bass line and others are creating or re-creating the strumming patterns we learned. I am watching students take on leadership roles in their groups, and other contribute their ideas. I am watching two young men work together. One young man who has struggled to find his place in class mentor another young man who has missed so much class that I barely know him. The mentor is an excellent teacher!! I am watching four girls who speak four different languages work together to figure out the song. It is really incredible. I am just sitting back and observing and watching the learning take place.
What happens when we get out of the way and let students experiment? There are eighteen different students in this class, eighteen different musical backgrounds, and eighteen different learning styles. These students are sometimes much better teachers than we will ever be, and it is important to let them take on that role.
"Remember focus on the music. Listen to what you are playing."-WOW. That just came from a student who has never had any "formal" music training. That's amazing. That is beautiful and so encouraging. I am going to steal that from him.
We have all had those students that have, for whatever reason, cause immense amounts of stress, emotional heartache, the sweats, and quite possibly hives. These students often act out in class, are insubordinate, don't contribute to conversations in a positive manner, or attract negative attention. THOSE students. I remember having a class of 6th graders that caused me so much anxiety that I would almost get sick to my stomach 5 minutes before the bell would ring. THOSE students, that you silently think, "thank god, they are not here today...." THOSE students.
Look, I am not a perfect human being. I am not a perfect teacher by any means and I have made my fair share of mistakes, but I have done a lot of thinking about these students and their role in my growth as a teacher. It would be naive to think that these students don't have a lot of baggage when coming to school. Baggage that we think they should leave at the door so they can focus on learning. However, for these students, that is heavy baggage that they just can't drop off-some of these students are dealing with some serious issues that go well beyond my understanding and my experiences. These are the students that need the most love from us. These are the students that need a caring relationship with an adult. Please allow me to clarify here-we are not here to "SAVE THE CHILDREN." No, this is not our role as teachers and puts us in a position of power that can not be exchanged. Rather, our role is to meet the child where they are at, and not give up. We cannot give up on these young people.
I have a new set of students this semester and of course, every class has a unique dynamic. One young lady comes to my class late every.single.day. She is defiant, she puts on a attitude that she doesn't care, she rolls her eyes at me, and just tosses my words aside. She struggles with most of her teachers. The young lady is a freshman and I don't know enough about her to understand what has caused this child to have such a negative life view. I have been struggling with how to connect with her and I and shared this with her yesterday. She responded with "Why do you want to connect with me? I don't care about you." That stung and caused me to have a nightmare last night. Today, I sat right by her and worked with her on the song "De Colores". I sat with her for 15 minutes (with 20 other students in room-who were all just happy as clams strumming and playing their melodies). I sat with her and told her that what she was doing was good work. When we were done, I looked at her and firmly shared with her "I will not give up on you." I looked at her again and said, "I will not give up on you."
I think, in my mind, I was saying that to her, but I was also saying that to myself. So often, we work with these students. They are frustrating and we wonder what went wrong with the student. But if we dig deeper, can we ourselves work harder to build a connection, even if a fraction of a connection. If these students see us believing in them, they might start to believe in themselves as well.
The hardest students to reach can be some of our best teachers. They will test us to limits of emotional and mental stress, but I firmly believe that we can learn and grow so much as educators. While I would not wish for a class of students like the one I described, I do know that I have re-committed myself to showing and demonstrating compassion for all of my students, and not giving up on them, or myself.
Rehearsals at 7:15 in the morning are rough....for anybody. However, I am grateful that I get to start my day playing jazz with a bunch of high school kids who enjoy playing enough to get to school an hour early (every day) to have some musical fun. We are getting ready for our next performance, which is Swing Night-a super fun experience that we share with Jazz I and the community jazz band. We are playing some standard charts, 'Woodchopper's Ball", "Darn that Dream", "It Don't Mean a Thing..."....you get the idea. Today I noticed that the students were playing pretty tentatively, even thought the rhythms and notes are familiar to them (I remind them that they have seen these notes and rhythms before, they are just in different configurations). The trumpets in particular are incredibly tentative in their playing and I have tried every trick in the book to encourage them to play with more volume, air, confidence....etc.
So, fast forward, I haul out my cornet and just sit in with kids. I haven't played cornet in forever---especially jazz. I mean...I don't play cornet/trumpet. I *taught* it for many years as a middle school band director and would regularly play along with my kids in lessons, band, and jazz band. But I don't actually play it. And I really only know how to play: loud (the only way, amiright fellow trumpet players??) Anyway, I got back there and started playing-missing notes, hitting the wrong partial-not on purpose, but mainly because I was just going for it (and not warmed up at all and likely playing on a mouthpiece that was way too small.) It was SO.MUCH.FUN!! And, the kids started to play a bit louder. After we got done, I exclaimed "WHO CARES IF YOU MAKE A MISTAKE?!! I mean, who really cares?? We are playing a chart at quarter note equals 160. How long does that note actually last? Nobody is going to stop you at the gates of wherever in your afterlife and say to you....'oh, no....you can't enter, because remember that one time in jazz band you played a wrong note...'' I went on to share with them that we should not fear making a mistake in place of playing with passion and energy. Mistakes WILL happen, and IT'S OK. They WILL happen in a performance, and IT IS OK. I countered this exclamation with the caveat that to purposely make mistakes is completely different than going for it and making a mistake. But that by focusing so much on playing the right notes, we are missing so much more of the experience.
Yes. Notes are important. They were intentionally put there by the composer and we as musicians have a responsibility to honor those notes and the meaning behind those notes. However, what kinds of disservice are we doing to the students with whom we work if that is the only thing we focus on? In what ways can we encourage students to make mistakes and reflect upon the experience and then in turn change how they approach the piece the second time around.
After my exclamation we started the tune over again, and by golly, it was a different band! The trumpets were playing with a newfound confidence, which encouraged the rest of the band to go for it. A few mistakes were heard, but it wasn't because the kids were purposely playing wrong notes, they were going for the notes. And I could not have been more proud.
Between classes I was going from my office to my classroom and one of the jazz band members (newer the past few weeks) stopped me and shared with me how much he enjoyed "today's lesson on making mistakes". He shared with me that he instantly became more confident because he was ok making mistakes and that only by trying and going for it, would he actually be able to learn anything. #daymade. So, while this post might ruffle a few feathers (and I welcome the conversation) I hope this offers a perspective of learning to gain understanding, versus learning out of fear-which actually does not really increase learning.
I hope to approach more things in life like this: embracing the wrong notes and all the mistakes because by doing so, we can only reflect and learn, try it again and hopefully do better.
Is it program numbers? Awards? Festival ratings? Awards you receive from various advocacy groups touting your program's numbers, awards, festival ratings? It seems that this is what we (the music education profession) deems to be "successful" in K-12 music education. I recently read an article that suggested what successful guitar programs teach their students. That sentence in itself seems problematic to me. Are the programs teaching? In all of this, where are the students? What role do the students play in all of this?
I have found that highly successful guitar classes and programs will cover similar fundamental performance techniques and employ a lot of notated music reading (solo & ensemble) to push and challenge students.
This begs the question, what does "successful" even mean? A quick search for the definition reveals the following definitions:
1)the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one's goals;
2) the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like;
3) a performance or achievement that is marked by success, as by the attainment of honors;
4) a person or thing that has had success, as measured by attainment of goals, wealth, etc.
It seems to me that in general that our profession tends to promote success as defined by a mash-up of these definitions. As educators, we have goals for our students and hopefully, we share these goals and involve the students in the goal-making. Ideally, the goals should come from the students first and we help them get there. But if this is what it means to see success, for the students to succeed, why are we not reading about their accomplishments? Why am I reading more about the teachers' accomplishments? This is not to dismiss the hard work that teachers do, we work our asses off, no doubt about that. But why? Do we work our butts off to receive awards, or do we work our butts off to watch the students struggle with a musical problem, only to work through the problem themselves and possibly others, and come out with a better understanding on the other side?
So, back to the quote that I posted. The program that was highlighted in this article is VERY different than the 'program' at South High. The program highlighted comes from a performance driven program, which is 100% ok and has lots of benefits for students. However, as someone who facilitates guitar experiences in my class, I wonder what the consequences are with a statement that suggests that if one does not employ these techniques for teaching guitar, is that program "less successful"? I doubt that is what the author intended, but it caused me some panic as to how I facilitate guitar experiences at South. We don't do anything that the article suggests, but I feel that the experiences that the students have with guitar are just as important and can encourage music making beyond the classroom. But we don't focus on traditional notation. While we do spend about a week with basic theory, the majority of what we do in class is what I would like to consider "functional guitar". I consider the class to be a successful experience if, by the end of the semester, the students have a better understanding of guitar through multiple experiences that include creative projects such as song writing and cover projects. Through those experiences they will learn the beauty of music making with others, but also develop some sort of vocabulary that will allow them to communicate musically through playing guitar.
If I may be so bold as to share a very cool experience that the Guitar 2 students had last week. We went to a recording studio at McNally Smith College of Music and the students spent all day recording covers and originals that will eventually be uploaded to Bandcamp where they will be available for a sliding scale donation. All proceeds will be going to a relief fund for victims of recent natural disasters. The students did ALL the work. I just sat back for 8 hours and watched them collaborate, work together, problem solve, and make music. It was incredible. Not once did they ask me for help. Today we got the tracks from the studio and the students started mixing their tracks in Garageband. The only thing I really needed to do was show them how to open a zip file. From there they just started experimenting with the program to learn how it works. I had thought about creating a tutorial, but there are enough students in the class that have worked with Garageband that I was confident they could work with each other. And they did. Again. Without me. Is that success? I don't know. I *think* it is. The album itself is not the success. It is what the students have experienced in the past month to put that album together that makes it a "success".
This is an excerpt from my written comprehensive exams that I completed in the Spring of 2016.
Creativity in music education has been a hotly contested issue. Those who teach performance based classes such as band, choir, and orchestra often argue that within those ensembles, students are creating. They are creating music with their peers in a collaborative manner that produces a final product. Some educators and researchers may disagree and suggest that students and teachers in these ensembles are not creating, but rather, re-creating music. Musical decisions have been already been created by the original composer and it is the ensemble’s duty, often at the discretion of the ensemble director, to ‘realize’ those musical directions that are on the page. So, based on this generalized description, it is hard to argue that large ensembles are truly embodying the process of “creating”.
It might be wise to consider the words “creating” and “creativity” and if there is a difference between the two. “Creating” may be best defined as the act of doing, whereas “creativity” may be best understood as the thought process that initiates “creating.” So there may be “creativity” in place but perhaps the act of “creating” has not occurred. Within this debate comes in “composing”, another word that creates angst among music educators for a myriad of reasons. (Dr. Sandra Stauffer has greatly influenced my thinking on this term and rather than use "compose" in my own classrooms, I use "create" and will refer to this term versus composition.) With a push from the National Standards for educators to embrace "composing" in their ensemble classes to further students creative and creating potential, it is no wonder our profession is having the sometimes heated conversations that we are having. To some educators, playing in ensemble, as described above, is a perfectly acceptable form of creating. However, we must look deeper to the student’s individual needs to perhaps have a better understanding as to why encouraging students to compose, actively engaging the creativity process to participate in the act of creating, might be incredibly beneficial to the student as a musical being.
Research related to creating in the classroom is mostly regulated to experiences of elementary students. Something happens when students enter a large group experience and no longer have the opportunity to create. The little research on creating in secondary ensembles attempts to understand how students create in quantifiable terms (Menard, 2015). While this is useful, especially measuring comfort levels of students attitudes towards composing via a pre-test and post-test and their ability levels, I believe this potentially undermines the greater affect of the process.
Research suggests that secondary educators are resistant to creating for a variety of reason that include: time, attitude towards composing, fear of quality and lack of preparation to teach composition (Hickey 2010, Menard, 2015). Many educators fear that devoting time to creating in the performance-based classroom will take time away from performances. With this time element is an attitude that creating does not belong in the large group ensemble experience. In a past conversation with a previous colleague, I recall sharing a great experience that I had with my bands as we negotiated a creating project within the confines of the space that was afforded to us, and the colleague responded with “band should be band, if kids want to compose, they should take music theory or a composition class..” While anecdotal in nature, this opinion is not entirely uncommon and raises a whole host of issues regarding the ways in which we teach creating and who has access to those experiences. Because performance-based classes are grounded in the "traditional' expectation of high quality performances, there is a fear among educators that a lack of quality in the student compositions may be reflective in the teacher’s inability or lack of training in composition. This raises another issue in regards to teacher preparation and how colleges and universities are including creating in their studies (Stringham, 2016).
While these issues and challenges are very real and cause for concern, perhaps we can take a look at what our elementary counterparts are doing to include creating in their classrooms as a way to reinforce musical concepts. Hickey (2010) suggests that every new concept that is being taught can be reinforced through creating. This is where the word “composing” starts to raise fear in music educators. There is a mis-guided belief that in order to teach "composition" we must start with theory and our students should be creating four part chorales. In reality, creating a short rhythmic motif is a form of creation. Stringham (2016) suggests that for more advanced students, using the current repertoire in their folders as a basis for creating will foster additional understanding of musical ideas but also encourage student’s to create their own understanding of music.
The concern of time is a huge issue for music educators, especially in high school ensembles where it seems, especially in the band world, there are performances that occur monthly, if not weekly, depending on how the basketball team is doing. However, how might music educators incorporate students’ compositions into a performance? Taking the lead of colleagues at a local high school in Spring Lake Park, Minnesota, I would encourage music educators to think about how they might create a unit on composition that reinforces a particular theme for the concert. For example, this particular music team (Nora Tycast and Brian Lukkasson) chooses a theme each spring; one year it was poetry, another year it was film music. Using this theme, students picked a silent film, or a piece of poetry and wrote music to accompany the film or represent the poetry. These were collaborative groups that students worked together in for two months. All of the creations were a part of the concert. The unit was embedded within the rehearsal structure so that ample time was given on music prep but also creating. When asked how this unit affected the overall performance of the ensemble, the directors both agreed that it only enhanced the experience because students became more aware of compositional decisions made by composers of the music they were playing, but it also encouraged the students to take musical risks. The directors prepared one or two fewer ensemble pieces so that the students would not feel overwhelmed by the whole process.
Allowing for these experiences encourages students to become more independent musicians. Through creating their own music, students think critically about musicial decisions and have specific reasons for the decisions they made rather than “that’s what’s on the paper”. Additionally for students who are in the large ensemble, but are more ‘section’ players versus ‘lead’ players, this allows opportunities for these students to perhaps develop a more personal musical identity. Finally, through creating music, rather than re-creating, students have the opportunity for a different musicking experience that may potentially carry with them when their large ensemble experience ends.
So, what am I doing?
We at the midpoint for the quarter and beginning band is well on our way into making musical decisions. Like I mentioned with the Hickey (2012), I use creating as a way to reinforce any sort of new concept. This entry from last year describes a bit more about what we do at the beginning of year. We are now into reading "traditional" notation. The students are doing really well and I think we are enjoying ourselves. Every couple of weeks we have "playchecks" that help inform the student and myself of how they have progressed and what they need to work on in the upcoming week. These are nice little check-ins that allow a little one on one time with the students, something that is often lost in a "large" group setting.
This upcoming week students are creating their own playchecks. Doing this allows for several observations: what is the student's understanding of what we are actually "learning". Do they really understand rhythm, or are they just using their ears? By creating their own melodies, they are demonstrating their understanding of rhythm and structure. By writing their own notes, they are demonstrating that they have an awareness of what notes their instrument can play. Then, they play their creation for me. Sometimes, not always, what they have written doesn't always translate to their instrument and that is OK! We talk, as a class, how sometimes the visual and the physical don't quite line up-that it might take our muscles (facial) to catch up to our visual. Again, it is OK! I try to not stress to much about their abilities to read music right away. I want them to have fun (what a concept, right) and encouraging them to write something that they can show off for me, encourages that. After all, isn't the whole point of participating in a communal activity such as music to have fun?