First Year Music Teachers: The Adventure is Just Beginning



The 2016-17 school year is now or very soon will be underway. Our teenage sons are continually reminding us of this. And not in an enthusiastic way.

With the new year there will be a new wave of music educators, out of college and leaping into their first teaching job. And to any new teachers reading this we say, congratulations...welcome to one of the greatest and most important professions in the world. We've been where you are. Your adventure is only beginning.

Part of our mission here at Festivals of Music is to do all we can to provide helpful resources to teachers--whether new or experienced--in order to make the job somewhat easier and contribute to reversing the trend of shortened teaching lifespans among the music teacher population. Speaking for myself, burnout on the profession is something I know all too well.

Don't get me wrong--I'm very happy with my lives as a performance travel planner and now festival organizer. I've still considered myself an educator in these roles. But there are things I regret not having achieved or experienced during the time I was in the rehearsal room and concert hall.

Well, so far anyway...who knows what the future could bring. I could still be asked to conduct Lincolnshire Posy on a future Eastman Wind Ensemble concert. Admittedly, the only qualifier I have to that possibility is the fact that I'm still taking in oxygen. But there's always hope. 

Because being a resource for music educators is at the core of our philosophy, we have begun partnering with organizations such as the National Band Association to create online resources for music educators to assist not only musically, but with the day to day administrative tasks and challenges. These are the topics for which there is not as much collegiate training and is by nature "on the job" training. And, sadly, often the factors that lead to short tenures in the music education world.

We're tapping into a network of experienced teachers to bring together best practices on a number of topics, and you'll see more of that on our blog in the weeks and months to come. Stay tuned.

To jump start that process--we wanted to present some of the blog posts from the past year that might be most helpful to young teachers that are just beginning on their journey. Or, for that matter, experienced teachers just needing to see things through new eyes.

Here they are, at the risk of producing the equivalent of our blog's first "clip show":

  • Upon reflection of 25 years in great professions that can still be stressful, here's some thoughts on self care so that you can make it for the long haul.
  • One of the best things you can do for yourself is recharge at music conferences. For band and orchestra directors, here's some of the great things experienced last year at the Midwest Clinic. Consider attending if you haven't--we would love to see you there.
  • If one of the "to-dos" on your list this year is to take your ensemble on tour, we hope you'll give some thought to why and how this can best benefit your group.
  • If you are going to plan to tour with your group, here's reasons to consider a professional travel provider.
  • If on that tour you are considering a festival performance (and we hope you are!), here are ten reasons it can be the best option for your group. And, here are suggestions on how to get the most out of the experience.

There's more to come, and we look forward to sharing the journey with you. Bon voyage!


Ten Reasons to Perform in a Festival While on Music Tour




We lived in the Boulder, Colorado, area for nearly 15 years. If you've ever been there, you know that it is a bit of an eclectic place. Legally now.

One of our favorite things to do was to go downtown to the Pearl Street Mall, an outdoor open air plaza that was usually filled with street performers demonstrating a wide variety of talents. Poets, singers, and activists. Sometimes musicians with guitars or other instruments, always with a case open for spare change. The one that always drew a crowd was "the ZIP Code Guy." This was a person who could tell you the city and state where you lived if you told him your ZIP Code. Freaky, yet entertaining.

I often felt badly for the truly talented ones--and there were several. Here they were, pouring heart and soul and emotion into their performance art...surrounded by shoppers hustling about, the occasional siren screaming by, small children noisily running past them, and any number of other distractions that merely made them part of the scenery.

As the economy slowed in 2008, one of the natural trends in performance travel was to work to keep costs managed to allow as many students to participate as possible...it was a wise move and likely helped preserve travel traditions in countless music departments. One of the ways this was done was to find locations where groups could perform for low to no cost, thus being able to maintain the premise of a music tour and satisfy administrations and school boards by having musical content...while saving money in the process.

Open air plazas, shopping centers, lobbies or entrance areas of attractions and even observation decks in skyscrapers became places where groups could perform for little or no cost (besides the price of admission). The unfortunate trade-off was in the quality of the performance setting, and the acceptance of "good enough" for the cost. These talented musicians became simply part of the scenery, and this became a new normal for music tours.

As the economy improves, perhaps now is the time to reconsider this approach. And while it will obviously appear self-serving to hear this coming from a festival organization...in the bigger picture should consideration be given to the impression that use of these free locations makes regarding the value placed on music education? Is it truly "good enough" for our young musicians?

Compared to a free performance at an open public venue, a festival offers much more:

  • You are performing in a venue meant for music performance, in a location of acoustic and aesthetic quality where your musicians will be able to sound their best and truly showcase their talents.

  • You are in an indoor venue and not at the mercy of weather conditions. Many free venues are outdoor locations.

  • Nearly all equipment needs—large percussion instruments, piano, choral risers, music stands, chairs and sound systems—are included in your festival cost and readily available for use, rather than being rented and carted to and from the site. A self-contained performance location greatly simplifies your planning and allows you to focus on the performance.

  • You are not subject to repertoire and ensemble restrictions (as you may be in a church), noise levels (as you may be in a museum) or extraneous sound interruptions (as you may experience in an open plaza).

  • Audiences in a public venue are generally passive and transitory. At a festival, those in the audience are people who are engaged in and appreciate your work—whether they are adjudicators, other student performers or music booster parents (your own and perhaps those of other groups). They understand the hard work you put in to achieve what you do.

There is deeper educational and musical value added to your tour:

  • The commentary and clinics from the adjudication panel provide a variety of ideas, opinions and feedback from several experienced educators with differing viewpoints and expertise. This provides a wider range of ways to improve musicianship, all from a single performance.

  • The opportunity to hear other ensembles provides insight on what you may be doing well musically, what areas you can improve upon, and may introduce you to interesting unfamiliar works in the repertoire and other new ideas.

  • Listening to and supporting other ensembles develops community in the music education world, providing the opportunity to hear and interact with student musicians from many different areas and backgrounds. It makes our musical world more connected.

  • An accomplishment quality rating at a national level festival can provide a benchmark that can be a point of pride and program advocacy within your home community.

  • Even if not all of your ensemble members are able to attend, quality adjudication panels at an educationally focused festival understand these tour realities and are able to provide constructive observations in a confidence building manner.

Quality over Quantity. A meaningful music tour should include setting and achieving goals that lead to growth for the individual musician and the program as a whole, rather than a “checklist” of activities. If a performance is to be a part of your music tour plans, you want it to be a worthwhile opportunity that enhances the education and growth of your students and your program.

Ultimately a successful music tour is about balance--putting equal weight on the musical aspects and the fun activities. Making certain that the music portion is worthwhile and rewarding makes it easier to justify the truly long-term value of the experience.


In Memoriam: Jean-Baptiste Lully (Or, Don't Let the Job Kill You)


Last week was the anniversary of the death of Jean-Baptiste Lully, who died in 1687. A French composer of the Baroque Period, he was also one of the world's first conductors. And the job killed him.

No, seriously. Here's how it happened, and immediately qualified him for music history's first and, still probably best, Darwin Award.

He was conducting a performance of his Te Deum at a celebration of Louis XIV's recovery from surgery (irony alert). In those days, a conductor's baton was actually a long staff--somewhat similar to a mace like you would see a ceremonial drum major carry today in a military band. They kept time by banging the pointed end of the staff on the stage floor, which ultimately led to the creation of Dr. Beat...but that's another tragic story.

In his excitement, at one point Lully missed the stage and instead struck his toe. The wound developed gangrene, but Lully refused to have his leg amputated because he still wanted to be able to enjoy dancing. He died of blood poisoning in two months.



Fortunately, thanks to new advancements in modern baton technology, this is less of a problem.

We're about to dive into a time of year that, in all seriousness, can be hazardous to our health as music educators, festival organizers and travel planners. It is perhaps our busiest and most stressful time of year, and I have experienced it in all three of those vocations.

For music educators, we are simultaneously managing such things as solo and small ensemble contest, production of spring musicals, preparing for spring large ensemble festival and final concerts, submitting ever-shrinking budgets for the following school year, fighting over the calendar for the same coming school year, coordination of music for numerous end of year celebrations, possibly embarking on a spring tour, researching summer music camp options for our most dedicated students, hiring summer band camp staff, and finalizing and promoting multiple fundraising efforts to even be able to afford it all.

For travel planners, this is the point where everything you have been working on for the past 12 months or more comes to fruition in the span of three months of long days and short, sometimes worry-filled nights. Will a bus break down in the middle of Nebraska? Will that blizzard hit Denver and shut down the airport at the same time six groups are trying to fly to both coasts? Will that hotel forget about the 200-member group arriving tomorrow?

The festival organizer has similar worries. Will an adjudicator get the flu the night before the contest? Will the trophies arrive at the right place? I'm finding this is where the internal conversation of "festival organizer OCD" kicks into high gear. ("Did you order those four timpani to be delivered? Better check. Are you sure? Better check again.")

Behind all of this is one simple truth--we are this way because we want these experiences to be the best possible. We're all artists and we're wired for nothing less than excellence. If there is anything I've finally learned after 25 years experiencing the spring rush in these vocations, it comes down to two things.

First--be kind to yourself.

  • Take breaks--mental and physical--when you can. Preferably away from a computer screen.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help.
  • Eat well, even (and especially) when you're on the road. I force myself to order salad more when I'm away from home.
  • Sleep well, or at least as best as you can. I've started using a sleep mask, and besides feeding my inner super hero it works wonders.
  • Exercise. This in my opinion is the world's best stress buster. We have a treadmill here that just recently broke down after 12 years of almost daily use. (Yeah, bad timing on that.) It has probably saved me more than I know.
  • Find a fun stress buster. One year during a particularly rough spring I got really good at Tiger Woods Golf on our Nintendo Wii. (Sadly the skill does not transfer into reality.)
  • Finally, when you mess up (and you will), simply this--take responsibility and own the problem. People will respect you infinitely more, and hiding it and being found out makes you feel infinitely worse. Then whenever possible fix the problem, because nothing feels better than that. Then move on.

Second--be kind to those around you.

  • Remember you're working together toward the same goals.
  • Remember to take care of each other.
  • Say "please" and "thank you". A lot.
  • A fun little surprise will make you both feel better.
  • Find the humor in the everyday. Laugh about the ridiculous things that happen. Because they do.
  • Finally, when someone else messes up (and they will), simply this--don't waste time playing the blame game. Focus on solving the problem. Give kindness and service, because nothing feels better than that. Figure out how to make it better the next time.Then move on. 
And, hopefully unlike Lully, you'll live to dance another day.


More Than You Can Chew...and Even Harder to Swallow

It was one of those moments where stubbornness and inexperience collided head on.


It was my first job, and reality was setting in. I had impatient dreams of soaring to the top of the band world pyramid....and here I was in what I felt was the most isolated antechamber possible. It was a small northwest Iowa school where I was responsible for all things band and at least one lunch duty per week, in a position that had been a revolving door for much of the past decade.


This was not what I signed on for. But, being the optimist....I was going to make the most of it and bring a high quality music experience to these high school musicians.


All 23 of them. 8 clarinets, 6 flutes, 3 saxes, 2 trumpets, 2 baritones and 2 percussionists.


I was determined to help this ensemble stretch and grow as musicians, and expose them to the finest repertoire that we could cover with the limited instrumentation we had. One afternoon, after scouring our ancient library top to bottom, and quite possibly in a moment of desperate exhaustion, I had found my solution. Fantastic literature. Limited voicing, not extreme ranges or tremendously difficult technique required. Here it was: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring by Johann Sebastian Bach. Transcribed by Eric Leidzen.


Most of you reading this now can likely imagine the musical train wreck that followed.


Somewhere, I just KNEW this guy was laughing at me.


In my heart, and in the rational parts of my brain, I realized this was not working. Instinct was screaming find something else. But that little voice, the one you usually think is your friend, kept saying don't give in.....if you do you'll regret it. They'll know you're a pushover when things get tough. If you quit on this they'll OWN you. And in a moment of weakness I listened and bought in, and pressed on all the way to the concert. To this day, quite possibly the worst moments I've had on the podium. Ever.


Sadly, we see this happen sometimes on the festival stage. The groups that program over their capabilities. And it's a terribly uncomfortable moment for all involved--the adjudicators, the audience, the person on the podium and most of all the performers. There can be any number of reasons why this happens, but the results end up the same regardless.


The great news is this--compared to when I led my group down the path to implosion, there are now a wealth of works out there at multiple levels being written by established composers with artistic merit. This makes it possible for you to provide works of quality to your musicians without having to constantly push the envelope of their abilities.


This isn't a suggestion to take the "easy road"--certainly a degree of challenge promotes growth in your ensemble, and that's important as well. But finding the balance point of challenge and accessibility has tremendous benefits in the festival setting:

  • This ensures that your clinicians or adjudicators will have something to share with you that can genuinely make a difference. If you're still chasing notes and rhythms on a complex work, they can't get to the musical aspects....the factors where their expertise leads to the most growth.

  • If your musicians are less worried about getting notes and rhythms right, you can focus more on pitch, blend and tone quality. This INSTANTLY can lead to a better performance.

  • It is more intrinsically rewarding to perform something of artistic quality well rather than a formulaic work written to make ensembles sound good. And your choice of substance will likely be viewed better with the adjudicators who will see the educational value of your choice.

  • It shows your group at its best abilities, which is optimal for everyone involved....the students, the staff, and of course...YOU! (And the adjudicators don't mind either.)

Hindsight is always 20/20. Had I to do it over again, I would have realized that finding a different work that would challenge my group but still have the potential for success was a much more positive and less stressful and embarrassing outcome. I learned then that the voice (call it ego, call it fear, call it what you will) had no business dictating the direction of my ensemble. I learned to find that balance, and it led to better performance and education as a result through my conducting career 


What do you feel are the "gems" out there that are achievable yet can challenge an ensemble and have artistic value? Where do you go to find them? Share your thoughts and titles!



Getting the Most out of Your Festival Experience

NOTE: This story appeared in the November 2015 Choral Director Magazine and December 2015 School Band and Orchestra Director Magazine.


As soon as I saw my French horn section taking a nap outside the auditorium, I knew we were in trouble.


It had been three long days in the theme parks, including a parade performance that consumed much of an afternoon. Late nights taking in every last ride and fireworks finale was beginning to take its toll. And now on the day of our adjudicated performance that we had worked so hard to prepare musically, the energies were starting to fade.


Well, I thought. So Childrens March and Nimrod are going to go really well today.


Fortunately, the troops rallied. We somehow, somewhere, got a second wind, went onto stage and performed wonderfully….ending up receiving first place in our division. Deep down I knew we had dodged a bullet that could have shot down weeks of preparation and deflated the confidence of the students in the wind symphony. I had learned my lesson.


It's no surprise that bringing your ensemble to perform in a quality festival experience can be an educationally rewarding opportunity for musical growth. As a teacher, the ability to have your group perform and receive feedback from experts in the field helps them improve as musicians and helps you improve as a conductor--and usually reinforces the lessons you teach from the podium every day!


Along with the musical preparation necessary for success, an additional important ingredient to remember is to set a pace for the performance day that will allow your group to be at its best. This means not packing every moment of the day full of activities, but rather building a lighter and more flexible schedule into the day. And while it may run antithesis to common thought, you will likely find that it will make for a more optimal experience in the long run.


Conventional wisdom usually falls into one or more of the following camps:

  • A full schedule means less idle time for problems to arise

  • We've come all this way to "x" destination so we need to make the most of every minute to get our money's worth

  • I don't want the students complaining that they're bored

  • This may be the only time some of these students get to travel to "x" location, so we need to see everything and can't spare any down time

All valid reasoning, but consider the following as well: your musicians need to be in a condition (physically and mentally) to perform at their best to avoid all your preparation being for nothing. That means they need to have had adequate rest and arrive at the festival with sufficient time to warm up, tune, and otherwise prep for the performance.

 

I can't tell you how many times I've seen groups arrive at a festival (or clinic, or workshop, or rehearsal with a guest conductor) where the students are in a "fog" or even beginning to nod off because they have been running at such a breakneck pace since they arrived in the city and are exhausted from getting little sleep combined with being "on the go". This becomes magnified if your group is performing as part of a mass ensemble (such as a bowl game performance or collaborative choir) and affects the performance quality of fellow musicians who have also worked hard--and often paid a substantial amount--for this opportunity. Now your sluggish and seemingly unprepared or uncaring musicians are branded as "that ensemble" for the duration of the event. Not a fun place to be.

 

Add to that the effect of "sensory overload" present in some locations. Believe me, I love Times Square and theme parks as much as the next person....but the constant lights, sounds and crowds are cumulatively overwhelming. Throw into the mix doing this all while probably on a diet of more fast food, snacks and caffeinated sodas than usual....even for teens. This is where exhaustion can very quickly transform to sickness and take performers out of commission.

 

Then there are the cases of the groups who arrive for their event late due to unexpected traffic issues because they were squeezing in another attraction. Or had "that one student" who got stuck in the museum gift shop, or lost track of time, etc. The students leap off of the bus, hurriedly grab (or toss) instruments and concert wear out of the bus bays and go dashing to a warm up room while slapping a reed on a mouthpiece or organizing their music....all while harried chaperones and directors are prodding them to move quickly. Not exactly conducive to creating a memorable rendition of a lush, serene Grainger work.

 

Being a parent gives me a new perspective on this. You know those parents that you see at “X” theme park? The ones who look like they’re on their last nerve, about to fall over, with two kids under 10 in tow having the “meltdown to end all meltdowns” due to missed naptime because they didn’t want to sacrifice having a magical experience?


Yeah, this is you now. Except its performance time and you have to hit the stage, not take everyone for Dole Whips.


This was me. Frazzled. Don't be this guy.


While you can't control the atmosphere of the city, and try as you might you can't completely control when they actually go to sleep or what they're feeding themselves, you CAN control the itinerary to make certain that you're not setting the group up for failure. Just as much as you want to gain the most "value" of your sightseeing time, don't overlook getting the most value out of the cost of your festival experience.


Plus think of the ancillary advantages:

  • Having one or two fewer attractions might save you some overall cost.

  • One of the things that we know is always good for young musicians is to listen to other ensembles. Taking the time to sit in the audience to listen to other groups in the festival is a great and usually no-cost way to make this happen. (And, it teaches the importance of concert etiquette and being an appreciative supporter of fellow musicians.)

  • It's always possible that one of the other ensembles will perform a work your group is doing later in the year, or that you're planning to introduce next season. Who knows....you might even hear a new or unfamiliar work that will be perfect for your ensemble.

  • This will help you avoid having to deal with possible schedule conflicts. The reality of most festival situations is that for many and varied reasons performance schedules often can't be finalized until closer to the date, or may change at the last minute. We all know there are times when events unexpectedly run behind schedule. Setting up an admission activity for that day could lead to losing funds that were spent on tickets that will go unused....and the associated unnecessary stress.


Instead, plan flexible activities for the festival day that are not dependent on a particular time--exploring parts of the city in chaperone groups, seeing unique neighborhoods or parks or doing some souvenir shopping, for example. Or simply take the time to hear some of your fellow performing ensembles--they'll likely be grateful for having you in the audience, and maybe will return the favor and stay for your performance. What a tremendous way to build community.


Certainly you always want your musicians to have a fun and memorable experience. However, you also want them to take full advantage of these opportunities to have a performance that reflects the hours of preparation you've dedicated (and the true quality of your program) or to completely absorb the wisdom of a renowned clinician. A "less is more" approach will usually lead to a quality over quantity result...and allow you to keep the musical and educational focus that is critical to the success of your program always at the heart of what you do.


It's Not Where....It's WHY. Performance Tour Philosophy.

I was 16 years old, it was my first year as drum major, and this high school band trip to Washington, D.C. was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me.


Little did I realize at the time how this was the first step in a journey that has taken me thousands of miles to see amazing locations, introduced me to countless incredible people (including my wife), and given me the opportunity to experience once in a lifetime events.sometimes even more than once!


This initial spark led to ten years as a high school band director and a masters degree in conducting. Upon leaving the podium, I spent another decade as a tour consultant for one of the most successful and well-respected organizations in the performance travel field. That led to a role as a concert developer for an organization that produces and promotes collaborative concerts in some of the most famous concert venues in the U.S.among them Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and Orchestra Hall in Chicago. And now finally here to Festivals of Music, creating a series of educational adjudicated festivals across the county.


It is through that lens of experience that I offer these thoughts. Within all these roles in my life, the constant has been the sameto provide musicians the kinds of life-altering opportunities that I had the good fortune to enjoy. Because I understand first-hand where that can lead. And as music educators, it is an enormous responsibility that demands thoughtful consideration of the why to include a performance tour as part of your program.


Begin With The End In Mind


With full credit to Steven Covey and his Seven Habits, this is perhaps the most important (and effective) thought that needs to be addressed when you begin the planning process. How do you ultimately want this to impact your musicians and your program?


This will be different for every program, and you as the director have the opportunity and responsibility to set that course. Speaking for myself as a music educator, I would want my student musicians to have a performance opportunity that is high quality and meaningful, a chance to improve their musicianship by working with a skilled conductor/educator, and the ability to hear a remarkable professional level performance.all while having a fun and memorable experience.


Fun, incidentally, doesnt necessarily mean time on a roller coaster. Ive seen adult and student musicians having the time of their lives in rehearsals and clinics, experiencing those "bonding" moments with an outstanding teacher. You can clearly see that on their faces! The Boy Scouts have a mantra of fun with a purpose; that line of thinking applies here.

 

I would even take this a step further, beyond a single tour experience, and think in terms of a multi-year plan. This is especially true if the group has no established history of performance travel. Since I used to live in Colorado, here's the metaphor I use: each hike should have a "mountaintop" moment....but you don't have to climb a Fourteener every time out!

 

Often times Ive advised groups to start small to test the watersfind out how well the students travel, what the financial thresholds are and how to reach them, and give yourself the opportunity to set the tone for your goals. Biting off more than you can chew, simply to generate a lot of excitement or interest and get lots of students involved, will often lead to disaster. Which leads to my next point.

 

Big Does Not Equal Distance

 

This is a concept in need of redefinition. So often we hear groups say that this is a big trip year.meaning a destination like New York, Orlando, Los Angeles, Hawaii, Europe, etc. as opposed to something more regionally based. Usually this is a connotation attached to the amount of distance that it takes to get there, and consequently the time and financial resources to make that happen. 

 

Over the years Ive seen groups put in enormous resources just to get to the destination, and then be limited to their time at the location or ability to experience the location in depth. I once saw a group drive over 20 hours to New York City, spend one night with two partial days in the city and drive back home..all for the sake of being able to say they visited New York City. While certainly there can be merit to wanting to expose students to a place they might not otherwise experience, wouldnt it be more rewarding to stay closer to home but give them something with depth and meaning that could be a truly life changing experience?

 

What if a big trip was instead defined as a big experience”….something out of the ordinary that could be a game changer for both your program and your musicians? Perhaps youre only traveling 4-8 hours down the road from home, but instead of the cost for a bus or plane to take you farther you use that budget to participate in an experience that is remarkable and more in-depth. Something with qualities that they will remember and make a true difference in their lives and in your program.

 

This relates to my next point, "Make It Meaningful," which we'll begin with in the next post.

 

 

 


"If nothing's ever said, then nothing's ever heard."

Wise words from one of my greatest teachers and life-influencers. Its a mantra Ive worked to live by, with the goal of always striving to create better experiences and better performances. After all, its why we do what we do, right?


As we dive into what I plan to be an ongoing feature on this site, I thought the best place to start might be to answer the most likely question -- Who is this guy?


First and foremost, I am a fully-fledged, self-avowed, unashamed, dyed in the wool band geek to the bone and proud of it. How so? Permit me some examples (I swear I am not making any of these up):


  • As a high school drum major, I once confronted the captain of the football team regarding why he had missed a critical band rehearsal. (Side note: do you know how to tell a well-constructed band uniform? The lapels dont stretch when youre lifted by them.)

  • My reception cake at my senior clarinet recital was decorated like a marching band drill chart. I actually fashioned flags and sideline pit equipment decorations made of paper and toothpicks. (Side note: yes, I should have been practicing more.)

  • My wife and I met at band camp.