Another school shooting leave me searching

When will enough be enough? Another school shooting leaves us angry and confused. We must be the change this world needs. It starts with us.

Typically, I use my blog to share thoughts on music, provide tips and tricks I have learned over the years, and present some of my favorite pieces to whoever stops by. Not today. This may be more a spewing of the emotional mess my brain currently holds. After another school shooting, I am left hurting and angry. I know many of you are as well.

Why does this keep happening? What motivates these kids to commit such radial actions against those they grew up with? The people they know.  I have no doubt they all attending birthday parties together, rode bikes down the street, or played video games at each others’ house.

The fact is school shooting keep happening. They have been since I was in high school. I still remember the Heath High School shooting on December 1, 1997. At the time I was attending Murray State University and Heath HS was less than an hour away. A couple years later, one of the survivors roomed next door to a friend of mine in a dorm. We got to know each other a bit.

April 20, 1999, was the Columbine HS massacre, where two perpetrators killed 13 people. They were also both killed.

None of this hit as close to home as the shootings at Mattoon High School – a community in which I lived for three years – and Marshall County High School – where I know teachers at the school and people from the community.

This is not a new thing. Since the 1950s, the United States witnesses at least 17 school shooting per decade.  However, since 2010, we have already witnessed 143 shootings. As much as I want to say there is good news in this, whether it is the fact no one was hurt or killed in many of these atrocities, I can’t.

Enough is enough

Look, I don’t have the answers to the solution. More control of guns? Sure. Better identification mental illness and access to treatment? Yes. Teaching our boys that being a man does not mean acting tough and responding with violence? Absolutely. I believe these events occur for a multitude of reasons and I am not here to hash them all out.

After the Columbine Massacre, composer Frank Ticheli was commissioned to write a musical response to the tragedy. In the work, Ticheli incorporated a quote from the Alma Mater of Columbine High School. To this day it is one of the most moving pieces in the wind band repertoire.

While I don’t know the answers to the situations that our nation faces, here is what I know we can do.

  • Love people. Care for the people around us and provide them a shoulder to cry on and an ear for listening.
  • Stand up. When we see injustice, including bullying or acts of oppression, stand up. Let people know we will no longer tolerate hate. No based on religion, creed, orientation, or race.
  • Raise your voice. Contact your governmental representatives and let them know we desire change.
  •  Love yourself. Take care of yourself. Find joy in who you are and what you do. I have always found it interesting that Jesus says in the Bible to “love your neighbor as yourself.” If we hate ourselves, we hate our neighbors.

We want change, and we must start the change.

As for me, I take this quote from Leonard Bernstein as my guide.

“This will be our reply to violence:
to make music more intensely,
more beautifully,
more devotedly than ever before.”

Back in action

Good morning, friends.

It has been a long time since my last post on here. The reasons are numerous, but that does not matter. What does matter is that I return to the space where my writing career began just over a year ago.

Much has transpired since that time. Learning, trying, struggling, failing, triumph. These are things we all experience, some every day. My writing career is no stranger to these, as now I write for FanSided.com covering MLB and NFL.

Yet, it is back to my roots. Here is what is coming in the next few weeks:

  • Book review of “The System” by Gary Smith
  • Testing to the test does happen in music
  • Finding the right graduate program for you
  • What music teaches that other classes do not

I look forward to the coming weeks and seeing how you, my readers, respond to what I put forth. Until then, you can find my resent works in sports writing at www.fansided.com and www.cubbiescrib.com.

Welcome back, music world. I have missed you.

6 Things You Learn in Music Class

For years the debate has raged on regarding the need for schools to focus on academics areas, such as math and science, over classes in the arts. While I do understand the need to improve in areas of deficiency (and am not diminishing their importance), the lessons learned in band and choir (I was never in orchestra in high school, but I am certain these lessons were taught) have been more valuable in my daily life.

Photo Credit Sandy King
Photo Credit Sandy King

Strong Work Ethic: Music, when done well, requires hard work. Practicing on one short phrase or section could be required in order for the “correct answer” to be achieved.

These Is Not Always a “Correct Answer”: Speaking of “correct answer,” these are often a subjective matter in music class, and rarely are they answer replicated or achieved in the same manner.

No “I” in Team: Music demands a team effort. The performance of the whole ensemble depends on the efforts of all members. You have to work together, pay attention, adjust what you are doing to coordinate with others, and share the credit. In other classes, your grade does not effect my grade (for better or worse).

Diversity is Celebrated: In music classes, there are soprano, altos, tenors, and basses. There are flutes, saxophones, percussion, French horns, English horns, trumpets, cellos, viola……you get the idea. It is a community of instruments or voices, all performing different parts, at the same time and place. Oh, and people from all demographics can participate.

Being the Best is Challenging: In music, if you want to be good, you have to work hard. Once you are good, you can be on first part. You can audition for All-District or other Honor Bands. If you keep working, you can be first chair. You can participate in All-State, Solo and Ensemble, or audition for a competition. But then, there is probably someone else that is working just as hard and wants to be just as good. It is much like a career: work hard to be effective, do well and get promoted but earn more work.

Music is science, mathematics, and history: Let’s not forget this. Music requires understanding of creating waves and manipulating them in time and space. It is knowing fractions, division, multiplication, addition and being able to calculate this vast formulate over a specific time frame. And, music is about knowing cultures and historic events, and being able communicate them through use of science and math…….with a group of others that understand science and math.

Less conversation, more action

It may be late in the year, but there are still many things to learn and work on. Everything that happens in April and May not only finishes the growth and success for the year, but sets the ensemble up for the future. It is also a great time of the year to grow as conductors. One of the main problems many directors face (as I did and still do) is talking too much and not allowing the students to play. We spend a large amount of time trying to explain every last detail of what we hear and how to improve that we use more time than it takes to be successful. Here are some ways to say more while talking less.

Use of facial expression

The face is the most telling and expressive features of the human body; however, many music educators suffer from “Thinking Conductor Face.” This is the default express that we as conductors have while intently listening to our ensemble and assessing their performance. The problem is this expression shows nothing or looks displeased. The expression in your face will effect how the ensemble performs, for better or worse. If your ensemble plays timidly or with a great deal of tension, the problem may be their interpretation of your facial expression. A simple smile of approval when the trumpets articulate the correct way or a raised eyebrow for the saxophone that forgot that to play F-natural can go a long way. These expressions, or the thousands of others, are great ways to provide feedback and students will have a better chance of remembering how to play those areas.

Try this. Take 5 emotions (happy, sad, surprise, fearful, triumphant, etc.) and the 5 vowels in the alphabet (a, e, i, o, u). Each emotion and vowel have a different facial formation. Start by looking in the mirror a saying the vowels. Do this slowly in order to see and feel the difference in the mouth shape for each vowel. Then, apply each vowel to your chosen emotions (i.e. happy-a, happy-e, happy-i, happy-o, happy-u). Notice that each expression shows the emotion in a different way. By implementing these into your conducting while in rehearsal, you will notice some subtle changes in your students’ performance and attitude.

Photo Credit Sandy King
Photo Credit Sandy King

Minimizing feedback

I am guilty of over-explaining things. It has always been a struggle for me to say what is needed in a brief way. And, sometimes, there are 3 or 4 things that need to be mentioned when stopping the ensemble and provide instruction. Come up with a routine to help manage time of instructional talk and provide more time to performing. Any time you stop the ensemble, try giving two statements of feedback: a praise and a correction. It may sound like this:

“Flutes and clarinets, I really appreciate the blended sound you played with in measures 159-166. Nicely done. Low Brass, to my ears up here, you are playing too peasante. Try to not be so forceful, especially in measure 163.”

Play, stop, say something positive and a correction, and we move on. If you didn’t address it that time, be sure to make eye contact with the performers during the next run-though and show them show you want that part played. Also, limit time working with one section or one group performing the same thing over and over to 5 times. By then, another section is losing focus and we start wasting rehearsal time.

Using musical vocabulary

This one is pretty straightforward. Too often, we use non-musical words in the place of true musical vocabulary (play lighter/shorter for staccato for example). Be sure to incorporate musical terms in your instruction as this will reinforce your students’ knowledge and execution of their parts. If you do not know the definition, look it up before rehearsal and write it down on a note pad next to your stand. Additionally, using the truest definition is ideal. For example, the term “forte” is translates from Italian to English as “strong” instead of loud. I prefer using this definition as it seems to help students (especially low brass) to manage their air support and not overplay the volume of the ensemble.

Video taping yourself

This is one of the most difficult things do to as no one really wants to watch themselves on video. However, this exercise is very enlightening. You will start to see patterns of speaking and movement that you did not realize before. For me, I looked down at the score right before my downbeat to start a section. This broke lines of communication and lead to my ensemble not starting together. I also said “okay” quite a bit. Through videotaping myself, I was able to watch improvement in myself and my students. I noticed less talking between times we played, entrances were together, and my conducting patterns were more clear.

Marching Band Show selection

It is that time of year again! That time when band directors and their staff members are gathering together to begin the process of selecting the marching band show. During these meetings, idea after idea will be presented and discussed in hopes of finding the best show for the season. But the overall success or failure of these selections is not understood until the season is complete in October or November.  In order to set up the students for success, there are several key areas that band directors and their staff members should consider before making the final selections.

What do you want your students to be able to do at the end of the year? This is a question that often does not get asked in March while putting show ideas together, but one that must be. The marching band season, while lasting for several months, should be considered part of the overall band program and not separate from concert band. The sound concepts and performance ideas ought to be aimed to the ultimate goal of year end growth and not just the last contest of the marching band season. The standard of performance need to be set from day one of the marching season and expressed daily.

J Corey Francis, Indiana State University

Know your students.  The shows designed for our students should reflect their abilities. Consider the ensembles strengths and weaknesses throughout the entire process. For example, if endurance is a problem for your brass, work on long tones and lip slurs, but also consider utilizing them less in the show by featuring another section. If you have a saxophone section that can play rippin’ jazz solos, show them off! If your French horns are weak, but your Euphoniums are strong, consider doubling their parts together in the score.

As important as knowing your students’ abilities is understanding their collective culture. Some musical selections fit your ensemble better than others. I can recall a year that, when wanting to perform some swingin’ jazz tunes, I found that modern rock compositions from the Foo Fighters and Fall Out Boy felt musically and emotionally natural. Additionally, I worked with two different ensembles that performed the same music by Phillip Sparke. One ensemble performed the parts well and it felt comfortable, while the other seemed never to provide the energy needed to succeed even though they performed it well.

Know your community. This is probably the most overlooked concept when selecting a show. Each community’s traits may require special consideration for your performances. Performing a show that is artistically pleasing to students, contest adjudicators, and a football audience is a challenge; however, if we want more support, finding selections that fit the community should be considered. As support builds, find ways to educate your audience as well. When speaking with Alfred Watkins (who was the band director at Lassiter High School in Marietta, Georgia) many years ago, I asked how he got to the point to where his students could perform John Barnes Chances’ “Symphony No. 2” on the football field. His reply was enlightening:

“It took lots of time, and I don’t just mean this season. This school opened in 1981, and I started in 1982. I had to teach the students and the audience. We didn’t play classical music on the field at first – we had to build support from the audience. Once they started to support and enjoy what we were doing, and we as the ensemble improved, I could push the envelope a bit. Now, we can perform anything because our students are capable and our audience understands what we do.”

Know your season.  Each school’s marching band season is different. Some ensembles perform only a few contests and end in mid October. Other schools attend state and national competitions that go into November and in venues like Lucas Oil Stadium or MetLife Stadium. Understanding the level of competition, the length of the season, and the places you will perform should guide your selections. Longer season require shows that have more challenges as being too easy could lead to a lack of learning later in the season. Shows during shorter seasons, while still being demanding, should not be too challenging, as the students may get a sense of failure and not progressing.