Friday, September 18, 2009

Everyone say "Aye Matey!"

Yes, I lost my zeal for posting, I also lost all sense of ownership regarding time. None of it belongs to me really, I'm a graduate student, therefore am owned by the University. I wanted to get this quick post in however, because when I'm a teacher and am stressed and burned out, I want to be able to reset to the mindset that I now occupy.

Last spring, I shattered my preconceptions of what a junior high band looks like. I watched Clyde Quick interact with 7th, 8th and 9th graders and draw out of them musicianship I didn't think possible. Not only music, but behavior. He worked the kids so that they shared his enthusiasm for music and that overrode their egocentric little circuits to the point that they wanted to learn as much as they could about music.

When working at DHS, I never once thought that elementary music would interest me. The lack of musical maturity in the students was always a turn off. I realized that they all had to start somewhere, but I was only interested in working with the end result. Now I'm teaching general music in 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade classrooms and am completely enamored with my students and the concept of general music and am ready to champion the cause wherever I go - even if I have to do it myself. It's only the 4th week of school, I have 11 more to go with these kids, but I'm only looking forward to it.

Today I got to conduct a combined band of 6th 7th and 8th graders and again my preconceptions of beginning band were shattered. The students were engaged, they listened intently, and gave me what I asked for. I have to learn to let these preconceived notions go and believe that children are capable of doing anything as long as they are provided the right scaffolding to get there.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


This is something I wrote a few weeks ago and posted to facebook. I'm tired of seeing my last post here be right after picnic day.

This past week I was sequestered at National Camp School for the Western Region of the BSA (affectionately known by the staff at my camp as "camp camp"). The school trains camp staff in all the different aspects, from camp and program directors to aquatics and shooting sports.

I am now a certified BSA Climbing Director - which sounds awfully spiffy until you realize it's really no different than what I've been doing for the past 5 years, only instead I get to do all the site inspections myself an sign off on my own stuff (I still am subject to inspection from an annual "visitation team," however). Oh, and I get to train staff... which my camp can't support beyond Mike and myself, but it was a lot of fun, and will take a bunch of hassle out of my summers for the next five years.

I was thrown in a patrol with 13 other college aged kids (21 is the minimum age for a director) based on our program. We spent the week wading through powerpoint presentations and trying to stay awake as they piled on the mandatory standards and regulations, alternating with time spent out on the granite, setting protection and building anchors. We were in the high desert, somewhere between Temecula and the Salton Sea and I had expected it to be sweltering, but instead the temperatures lurked in the sixties and dropped into the forties at night. Although we weren't caught unprepared, I was certainly surprised by the weather. Whatever free time my patrol had was spent in the camp's dining commons, trying to warm ourselves in the shadow of the artificial rock wall, sipping inordinate amounts of coffee and benignly taunting our patrol's one LDS kid in a caffeinated blur. Beyond that, we were only expected to act in a sufficiently dorky fashion, putting together skits and songs for campfire and developing rivalries between programs and patrols.

The camp we stayed at was on a reservation, leased from a tribe. After driving through ten miles of what they insisted was a road, through nothing but scrub and dirt, the camp opened up into a meadow and valley floor filled with oak trees. The valley, "Lost Valley" was most impressive at night, when the wind died and huge banks of what could only be described as slasher-movie grade fog rolled in. The moon cut through the clouds and illuminated the far side of the valley, mountains seemingly caught above and below two sets of clouds.

Both the program and the site were impressive, but what left the greatest impression on me over the week was a story told by one of the staff, as the fog banks rolled in one evening and we headed inside the dining commons for our "campfire:"

The tale's teller recalled a conversation he had had long ago with a Cupeño woman, one of the Native Americans from the reservation. She had been born in 1890 and up through the great depression had travelled with her tribe to this valley (which they called
Wiatava, "the valley of the live oaks") every summer to collect acorns and grind them to meal against the rocks. The work had been deemed women's work, and it was a social activity. These summers were where she learned stories and songs, and the majority of her heritage, sitting around with the other women, grinding the acorns in bowls in the granite, worn over generations of this activity. She was being interviewed because the tribe was in negotiations to lease the land of the valley, and opinions varied as to whether this should or should not be done.

Those against leasing the land cited that it was Sacred, and the tale's teller was confused. He asked if there were rites conducted in the summers here in the valley or if spirits lived there. The old woman sighed and smiled. Apparently there is no similar word for her feelings in English other that Sacred. It was not something mystical or religious, but the importance of the land was great. She tried to explain: The valley was important to her when she was there, but it was more important to her when she wasn't there. This was where she grew up and the memories of it where part of what made her who she was. To her and to many others, the valley was sacred.

I smiled when I heard this story because I knew exactly what she had meant. I had used the word to describe Cody before, but had never heard the word defined so perfectly.

After spending seven years there as a scout, and another 6 as an adult, I've been heading into Cody each summer for over half of my life. Cody is an institution, steeped in tradition. The camp breeds a culture that keeps the kids coming back until they age out at 18. - and adults coming back long after their sons have gone off to college. Cody was where I developed friendships that had a definite impact on how I define myself. Beyond the institution however, the land itself commands reverence. Cody Lake and the three tiny cabins that make up the camp is a place that has shaped who I am. It is a place that I carry with me and it is a place to which I will return long after my affiliation with the troop or camp fades.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Far and wide many have tried, none have done it better.

One of my classes has spent the last few weeks on a very important aspect of being a band director, that of building and sustaining a marching program. Something the school where I teach lacks.  I marched for four years in college, but both in the music department at UCD, and at CSUS where I'm taking credential classes, it's a part of my past that I admit only sheepishly, seeing as the organization that I marched with, the California Aggie Marching Band(uh) is somewhat scorned by the music faculty and the band program at CSUS (which marches corps style) for their lack of... precision.

Granted, my experiences in marching don't come close to what is expected of a high school marching band - the CAMB is a show band; loud, boisterous and full of energy. They don't play standard literature, only arrangements done by bandsmen themselves, mostly of popular music, though the level of music is far above what I've come to expect from high school students.  The shows are charted by the student drum major and I have to say in six years I've yet to see one french curve. What I'm trying to say is that I'm surrounded now by people who march in drum corps and percussion ensembles and stress the importance of discipline and precision and the corps style of marching, and everything I'm learning contradicts my image of what a Marching Band should be. I talked to my instructor after class one day, and in mentioning my marching history, he laughed and joked that he would make sure to provide me with extra resources to help me "undo" my previous predispositions of band.

However, as I'm slowly being conditioned, I spent this weekend at Picnic Day, the one day of the year that the Aggie Band  lives for. The day they get to stand up and say, "Guess what, we're for real." Their parade show this year was tight and precise, surprisingly so, considering their fanfare was in 10/8 (3-2-2-3) followed by arrangements of Styx, Rush, and Boston. Normally I'm shamed into acknowledging that words like "phrasing," "blend," "balance" or "dynamics" have no place in the band - and it's true for the most part (when I want my students to pull out all the stops with dynamics, I say "Band-uh Loud" and they know what I mean) - but on Saturday, I felt pride for the first time in a long time, being an alumnus of the organization.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Audition Season

This post is part of a blog project on student teaching hosted at So You Want to Teach.

With 7 weeks 'til our next concert, I'm spending my time this week away from the podium. Mostly I've been prepping packets of audition material for next year's Symphonic and Jazz bands. 

March is a long a trying month for the music department at DHS - a school where seemingly everyone who tries makes the football team, but tryouts for the auditioned ensembles require two, sometimes three callbacks - no matter the program. Whether Choir, Orchestra or Band, it's pretty crazy if you think about it. 

There's only one high school in a town of 63,000 - one standard Jazz "Stage Band," one 32 voice Madrigal Choir, only 4 clarinet spots in the DHS Symphony, and only 12 available in the Symphonic band (we have to fight for French Horns, however). The whole school's schedule is planned around making sure the kids who get into those programs can take their other classes, and therefore the administration needs to know who they'll be well in advance. The process is intense, even students in the ensembles have to re-audition and by their senior year, a lot of kids are used to disappointment and the effort required to maintain the standard of excellence.

However, this year I'm finding I have to deal with the students facing a level of disappointment for which they're not prepared: UC admissions, or rather lack thereof. I was lucky enough to work with this same band last year as a Paraeducator, and it seems like half of the Band's seniors went to UC Berkeley, and the other half to UCLA, with a few stragglers to Columbia, NYU or Puget Sound. This year, with cutbacks in admissions and hikes in fees, one person out of about 70 got into UCLA. Berkeley is sitting on their admissions still, but that outlook is grim. This fact was brought to light when their teacher excitedly mentioned that we were going to stop by the UCLA campus on our trip to San Diego in May and asked how many got in. One student tentatively raised his hand to nervous laughter from the rest of the group. I've even had kids come up to me bummed about not getting into UCD, their hometown "backup school." 

These kids are bred overachievers, 5 or 6 AP classes on their plates, SAT scores above 2000 (they're out of 2400 now?). They're special, or at least have been told so all their lives by parents who all have Bachelor's degrees, many from UCs themselves. Now it's crashing down around them and the kids don't really know what to do, and I have no idea what to say to them. 

To counteract the anxiety we're digging through new music to play on our trip. I'm learning that finding literature that's perfectly fit for a particular ensemble is one of the most important parts of being a music educator. However, the Symphonic Band my teacher has spoils him, and me by proxy. We're scheduled to play on the deck of the U.S.S. Midway in San Diego and my teacher is pulling out all the stops. Although it would be a little too blatant to dig out Midway March again (we played it last year on our trip to Victoria BC.), the director is grabbing all the "shiny" he can and dropping his own cash on scores to the Hal Leonard "John Williams Signature Series" - basically arrangements for professionals, not rearranged for younger bands. They're really just transcriptions of Williams' symphonic music to wind band parts, signed off by the composer, and the premiered by the U.S. Marine Band. 

The music we choose is not just a festival set, but also enough to put on hour long "Pops concerts" around town while we're there and then come back and perform in the park in downtown Davis during the farmer's market to thank the community for their support.

The students have locked in Raider's March - the main title to Indiana Jones but the big problem we're facing is having to decide between the 1984 and 1996 Olympic Fanfares to kick off the set. This year we have an incredibly strong trumpet section. 10 kids - 7 of which are powerhouses and 3 are, well, third trumpets by definition. But selecting music like this requires a director to play towards the ensembles' strengths, and this year it's brass.

I don't know how he manages to pull it off time and time again, but their teacher has the ability to trick his students - baiting them with amazing music, and then saying something like "You know, I just don't know if you guys are up to this... " enlisting jeers and pleading from his kids to give it a shot, challenging them and forcing them to push themselves. This time though, I think he really means to cut "Summon the Heroes" the 1996 theme. Some worry or another about not being able to handle the articulation required of the piece. This kind of tears at me inside because it's absolutely gorgeous and our 1st chair trumpet player nailed the solo today. Music is supposed to evoke emotion and this piece does just that - not just fanfare, excitement and flourish, but something much more. 

Friday, March 20, 2009

One Month Later

This post is part of a blog project on student teaching hosted at So You Want to Teach.

It's done. 

It's done, and both my students and I came out the other side feeling a sense of accomplishment. I was able to rehearse a grade four piece (I Am, by Andrew Boysen Jr.) to festival readiness with a non-auditioned high school ensemble in four weeks. 

Performing arts programs are really a special learning experience. There's an immediate sense of accomplishment gained from performances. In high school, my parents never once cared about my english assignments or my history papers, much less my Trigonometry homework, but they made it to every orchestra concert. MENC sanctioned competitions are even better, with groups earning rankings and a sense of prestige amongst their peers; improving themselves with each performance and clinic. What's more, this builds a sense of group cohesion I found lacking in my other classes, due to the individual responsibility of each student to the ensemble.

Tonight was our "Adjudication Concert" which is a tradition that has arisen out of a compromise between budget concerns and the need for validation of the band program. DJUSD doesn't have school busses. They rely on the City and the University bus system to get kids to and from school. There are special lines just for the kids, the district pays the city, the city pays the university, and everyone's happy. Except when it comes to field trips. 

Chartering a couple of Unitrans busses to Sacramento costs several hundred dollars, which when added to festival fees tops $1000 - more than double the band program's annual budget. So instead of heading to the CMEA Golden Empire Festival, we invite one of their judges to come to us. Instead of 15 minutes in front of three judges, some scribbled notes and barely decipherable taped recordings, we have one esteemed director come work with all three bands for the entire day, and return to see the concert that evening, giving comments in front of parents on everything that we worked on and improved.

It's an awesome arrangement, and it's really helpful. It's also a tad nerve-wracking - especially when on Tuesday during my last rehearsal with my students, my bari soloist was having problems subdividing and missing his entrances, and all the brass couldn't figure out phrasing and breath. Even though we'd worked these problem sections four weeks running. 

I've watched my role as a conductor change over the past month. This piece wasn't difficult by the standards that the kids were used to, but it required a lot of difficult entrances and some serious counting issues (rhythms in four against my beat pattern of three for example) and I realized as much as I strive to bring intensity and artistry to the music, what's increasingly important is that I don't just give abrupt gestures to cue my students, but provide them with confidence, welcoming them in to their entrances. They can count, they know they're right, but still, I look up from my score and see eyes pleading me to confirm that they're right. Most of the time all I have to do is smile at them and they play beautiful music, but I have to cue them.

However, to cue them, I have to be absolutely certain that we're all on the same page. 

This afternoon I couldn't have asked for a better performance from my students, we did a mock concert for our adjudicator (my teacher never once called him a "judge") and he had comments a-plenty but what stuck most were those about air stream and intonation. My trombones were trying too hard to play softly and were a wee bit flat. 

This evening, they did just as well, but I almost fell apart. We were well into the piece and approaching an important juncture in the music. There's a canonic fast section that gives way to a series of metrical changes punctuated with a syncopated bass line. That probably doesn't mean a whole lot, but it's at 2:45 on an 8 minute recording, so about a third of the way on this recording

My score is like a security blanket, it makes me feel safe. As long as I have the music in front of me, I don't need it. I went to turn the page, and I knew what was supposed to be on the next one, except it wasn't there - I had turned too many pages. I felt the bottom of my stomach fall away and part of my brain started screaming a stream of expletives. 

Another part of my brain however, just counted: [...&4&] [12-12-123] [1.2.] [1.2.3.] My hands cuing half the band to come in on the "and of 3" beating a bar of 7/8 followed by 2/4 and then 3/4. It was like something out of an exercise from a conducting class but the rest of me was frozen in terror. My parents noticed it, my teacher noticed it, my conducting lost all expression for about a minute but the kids somehow didn't notice, or rather, care. It was their confidence in my ability to lead them that kept me in the game. I was a little shaken for the rest of the piece, I missed some cues, but they all got their entrances, even the Bari Sax soloist that had trouble earlier this week. 

I've mentioned before my terrible performance anxiety, and the thought of choking as a conductor - with all my students counting on me - is terrifying. At that moment I was paralyzed with fear, but I had cultivated enough trust with the band that they assumed I knew exactly what I was doing  - the same expectation I have of them when they head onto the stage. It's that interdependency on each other, and on me - that sort of trust that really brings the ensemble together and makes it more than another class. 

Just another experience confirming that the one place I know where I belong is at the podium in front of my students.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

What do you mean lesson plan? I just direct a band.

This post is part of a blog project on student teaching hosted at So You Want to Teach.

My director is going to be out tomorrow - this is when all the effort put into obtaining that pesky sub credential pays off. He's left a list of songs for the jazz bad to run, but it's a practice, and not a rehearsal. With their rhythm section, they're pretty much autonomous, and I couldn't really have much constructive input since most of the kids know more about Jazz than I do about Irish trad - or anything else for that matter.

However, everything about the other two periods was left to me. What to rehearse, and how. And more importantly, he wants me to rehearse the kids, even his audition ensemble, not just run them through their music. We only have a few weeks and he just dropped new music on them this Wednesday. This is the difference between being a conductor and being a teacher.

One small problem: I've never even seen a lesson plan for an ensemble course. I've put plenty together for the Music Theory course I interned in last year, but here I'm doing everything backwards. I've none of the credential programs under my belt, but have over a year's worth of observation and teaching experience in this same classroom. I fretted about this for a while until I realized, I put a lesson plan together before I step up to the podium every day. 

In preparing my score, I go through it, listen to a recording endlessly, or more often, sing it (much to my brother's annoyance). Anywhere I trip in singing it, I drop a sticky note. Anywhere I think a problem will occur, sticky note - usually covered with barely decipherable scribbles. These aren't notes to myself about conducting, they're to use to help direct a rehearsal. Anytime I come up with something to say about the piece that would help the kids in artistically shaping the piece - like "With Quiet Courage" being about a mother, who was later diagnosed with cancer, exhibiting the courage to face down anything and everything life has to offer without flinching, instead of the brash heroic deeds with which we generally associate courage - that's a sticky note.

Anytime we stumble in rehearsal, and I mention something to correct it, I go back through rehearsal after class and write down everything, and stick it in my score. After a while, if things are no longer an issue and the kids routinely get it right, the sticky note gets tossed.

Right now, my score for Chorale and Toccata by Jack Stamp is covered to the point where I almost can't read the music. Almost. They just got it on Wednesday, and hopefully in three weeks, the score will be clean and ready for the Festivity of Bands. Tomorrow I'm going to come in and pull down a few of his books on "Teaching Music through Performance in Band" and find the pieces we're playing to get another point of view on what's important in the piece, and a few more sticky notes will go into it.

The only other aspect is organization and pacing of the rehearsal, something I'm still working on perfecting. The pieces will be on the board before the class gets in, something my director doesn't often do and we'll tear through them with a lingering promise of giving the kids "the rest of the period off" if we accomplish everything I want. Which means maybe five minutes out of 50, but they won't know that. It's Friday, their teacher isn't there, they'll expect a bit of a break, which means they'll work for it. I just need to keep their instruments on their lips as long as possible. I say on their lips because I have ten trumpets and  seven trombones in my back row in one period. If you work with a school band, that actually means something.

My lesson plan needs to be modular and flexible, it's not seventh grade science or 9th grade english. Sometimes I wish it were, other times I'm glad it isn't. I have to adapt what I'm teaching to what they need to work on, what they're giving me and how it measures up to what I expect. Now, that sounds just like any other class, but I'm doing it beat by beat, second by second, and not chapter by chapter or test by test.

I have great respect for the music teachers I work with, after trying to emulate what they do for just two periods. Different music for each class. I work with a teacher whose mutters a litany with pride: "I teach 7 sections of 6 classes in 5 classrooms. I have 4 bosses at 3 schools, and I commute 2 hours a day for 1 job." After years of doing this, they just fall on their feet, as if they were airdropped onto the podium ready to go and can rehearse without too much preparation. But I need my sticky notes and an overarching plan, so here we go:

6th period: Symphonic Band. Theme for the day: LISTEN!

Warm up, tune.

Masada, the first fast part. I don't have the score with me.

Really tune.

Run the Times Square 1944 section towards the end where it pits 4 against 3, take them through it slowly, which will hamper their ability to match up, force them through it and speed up. Spend no more than 6 minutes doing so.

NEW MUSIC. Chorale and Toccata. Not technically new, they've read it once, and I'm sure my bass section has been going nuts. Skip the showery entrance straight to the beautiful bassoon/english horn solo. Normally, I wouldn't make the kids sit through a solo section, but it's important that the trumpets listen to the soloists. Make sure the soloists understand that they have a give and take dynamic in this duet. One pushes and the other gives, then pushes back. The trumpets come in right after and need to match not just the dynamics, but color of the solo. Something hard to do pitting 10 trumpets against two double reeds. together they need to bring out the warmth of their lower register, while sounding like one trumpet, over a hill somewhere for a measure or two then growing. The rest of the band needs to notice the dynamic (not volume, but dynamic) between the soloists and reiterate that when accompanying
the trumpets. 

So those four bars were a mouthful, that's why I generally speak in music instead of english at the podium. Tragically, I can't sing for you here. I know my timpanist was practicing this piece at lunch today, and I'm sure my bass clarinets are rocking the toccata and are ready for tomorrow.

7th Period.


Longford III.

New Music. (Mostly New) With Quiet Courage. The piece is thickly scored, so the lack of horns and oboe in my concert band is not going to be a problem (though always disheartening). The problem is going to be that without varying instrumentation, the piece starts to sound cyclical and isn't interesting. I'm going to try and combat that by focusing on the countermelodies and bringing them out more, even to the point of absurdity if it will bring about contrast in the piece. It's likely too easy for them, and we won't play it past tomorrow, but it's a really pretty piece, and they need to focus on intonation. They have enough technically difficult stuff on their plate and sometimes they're so focused on their fingers, they don't listen to what they sound like. This piece will force that. 

Then come the shape note pieces, Geneva Variations and Rhapsody on American Shape Note Melodies. The first in my opinion is too hard for the kids, the latter, too easy. We'll run them and see what they like and don't like about each piece and what they can accomplish. 

My brother just popped in to ask me a favor: if I'm going to be listening to the music I make my kids play all night, force them to play something awesome like the theme to Jurassic Park. As cheesy as it sounds, it's not a bad idea, especially for our band trip to San Diego this May. I at least started playing the soundtrack for his benefit. 

I've got a bit of system down, but I really don't know how anyone else does it. My lesson plan for tomorrow? Attempt to topple my biggest challenge: shut up long enough that the kids are listening to themselves instead of me. I hope I can pull it off.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mr. Obama's Package.

It's time I briefly revert back to my original intention of this blog; to provide completely unsolicited and relatively uninformed commentary on what's going on and how it affects me. I mean, isn't that the standard definition of the purpose of a blog? Evidence certainly seems to point that way.

Anyways, HR 1 for this congress is coming to vote today, otherwise known as "THE STIMULUS PACKAGE" (that was a big, booming baritone announcer voice.) All week we've heard how the house minority leadership has griped about this and that; not enough tax cuts, ridiculous amounts of spending and the magic word: Pork.

Though the bill has been meticulously searched and there are no congressional earmarks, Mr. Boehner has gotten a lot of airtime denouncing projects democrats have thrown into the bill to further stimulate the economy. Condoms and replanting the lawn on the national mall have gotten the most attention, and though it's hard to defend the programs with a straight face, some have done so.

What bothered me most, was tuning in to All Things Considered yesterday on my way home from Davis and hearing that somewhere around 50 million in support for the National Endowment for the Arts was being labeled as Pork.

Ms. Blair made an argument that stuck with me, the Endowment has means to get the money into peoples hands, and fast. There is a system in place that's governed by a peer reviewed grant making process.

Think of it this way: An artist in San Francisco gets his grant for a couple thousand dollars. He might leave his job at Starbucks that he's had to hold down to support himself to work on his project. He's not going to cash his check, take all the money home with him in small bills and make a giant paper maché penis. He's going to be living off of that money and supporting himself and his work with it, it's going straight into the economy and the government is supporting a part of our society that is shrinking under the shadow of the cult of prosperity and profit.

I think everyone should listen to more Bernstein, they may not like his music, but that's not necessary, his words will work for now:
"I think it is time we learned the lesson of our century: that the progress of the human spirit must keep pace with technological and scientific progress, or that spirit will die. It is incumbent on our educators to remember this; and music is at the top of the spiritual must list. When the study of the arts leads to the adoration of the formula (heaven forbid), we shall be lost. But as long as we insist on maintaining artistic vitality, we are able to hope in man’s future."
Then there's the issue of education and HR 1. The Grey Lady brought up a much missed point in the stimulus package yesterday. Granted, who would want to talk about schools when you could talk about condoms - but the stimulus package offers up huge aid for schools, federal aid, which has a lot of people worried. 

Opponents of the aid are afraid huge federal investment in schools at the state level will fundamentally change our system. Though our education is paid for in part by, we are not schooled by the federal government, something that's very important. But the question is, who's going to fund the public schools in California right now? California can't even pay its payroll of state employees, let alone fund programs. All state budgets are thinly stretched, trying to cut spending instead of raising taxes in this time of economic decline. States don't have the financial clout to borrow money, and they can't just print more like the federal government is doing. We need this support. Besides, money set aside for school construction will go far to shore up many jobs that have been lost since the the housing market crashed.

The federal government has already done enough damage to education at the state level with NCLB. They're involved in controlling what schools and teachers do with the ability to deny them funding, why don't we let them help instead?