Back To Work!

Happy Summer Friends!

I hope you’ve enjoyed your summer as much as I have! Hopefully you got to spend some much needed time with friends and family instead of being chained to your classroom! As you know my blog has taken a little vacation too! It’s been a great break from school, but August is just around the corner which means it’s time to get back to work, and time for me to get back to writing about topics and issues that matter to you…hopefully making your job easier in the process.

Over the summer I presented a workshop that received such great feedback I decided to turn a part of my workshop into an ebook for you! My EdTech Ebook is great for music teachers, but applies to any teacher regardless of subject matter. The book shares simple tech tools I use daily that can make our jobs way easier while making our teaching more effective!

If you’d like to receive my free ebook, simply opt into my email list by clicking the email link below and you will get my EdTech Ebook in your inbox shortly.

Best wishes for the end of your summer and the beginning of another great school year!



Creating An Easy Transition

You may have noticed a silence on my blog recently. This has been due to a number of things, but mostly due to the craziness of finishing a school year. I just checked my calendar for the rest of the school year and realized that we have 20 days of school left. Of those 20 days of school, I will be traveling on school related business 9 of those days! It’s definitely a crazy time of year.

The other thing that has been occupying my time lately is a new job! I will be teaching at a new school next year in the DFW area (I’m not saying which one in order to give the current teacher time to make the announcement to their students.) The new position will allow me to teach courses that I absolutely love and will allow me to spend much more time at home with my wife and 17 month-old daughter. While I’ll miss my current coworkers, students, and administrators, I am definitely looking forward to a new school, new challenges, new people, and new opportunities with my family.

Being neck deep in a transitioning job has made me largely aware of the types of things that I can do to help whoever follows me in my current position. Here are some ideas I’ve come up with that you can use to ease the transition when you move on to your next job!

  • Leave a detailed calendar of your previous school year – I remember the first year at my current school felt like a game of Let’s Make A Deal where we were always wondering what was behind the next door. Never knowing what was expected of the band, or what unknown event was coming up next was a nightmare. This little move should help a new director plan out the year with pretty good accuracy.
  • Create an “important contacts” list – Names, phone numbers, emails, and a short job description of important people in the district, and those that service the district such as road reps and vendors, will aide the new director
  • Leave a list of those “expected” responsibilities – We all know that we often get saddled with duties that are not described in our interview or official job description. Giving the new teacher a heads up on what was expected but not detailed might save them a lot of hassle.
  • Prepare your students – Leaving without preparing your students will do nothing but poison their relationship with a new director. I had a negative experience with this once, and the way the director left their school totally devastated the program. The program has been a revolving door ever since. Be honest with your students, give them and yourself opportunity to say goodbye, and encourage them to give the incoming teacher a chance.
  • Take a thorough inventory – My wife and I worked until 3:00am trying to do an inventory because the school didn’t have any idea what it owned. We were getting ready to start summer band and had no idea if anything worked, or if there were instruments to issue to students. Nobody knew anything. Please don’t let this happen by providing a recent inventory for the new director.

Bottom line: Go above and beyond to make the experience of a new teacher following you as easy and enjoyable as possible. It’s common courtesy to be professional, but going a little beyond that will allow you to leave your program in the best situation possible.

Question: What else can be done to ease a transition?

Getting A Fast Start To Every Class

“What are we doing today?” That question is the very bane of my existence. Or at least it used to be. That is before I automated the whole process of preparing my students for each class period!

After hearing this same question from every student that walked in the door for 8 periods a day, I started looking for ways to answer their questions without having to repeat myself hundreds of times.

I started by writing instructions on the board, but by the time I finished teaching one class, I couldn’t get the new instructions written on the board before the question started circling my head. We came up with an idea that has saved us tons of time and energy answering annoying questions. It also helps us get a very fast start to every class. Here’s what we do!

I started posting the instructions for each class period in a Google Presentation slide. I also shared this slide show with my coworker so she could edit the slides that effect her primary classes as well. The slides include what is needed for the current class period, a brief description of what we are working on, as well as any other special instructions for the class period.

My coworker came up with the idea of linking a YouTube video of a timer into the slide so the students know exactly how much time they have to finish setting up and warming up before we begin class.

We simply bring up the slide for the next class as the bell rings, click play on the timer as the current class leaves. The timer ticking down as the next class enters the room ensures they hustle and stay on task…at least as on task as middle school students can be.

Here’s an embedded view of the slide show in Google Presentation, and a link to download it in PowerPoint.

PowerPoint Slides

A couple of tips for implementing this procedure in your classroom:

  • Use highly contrasting text on the slides to ensure your students don’t have problems reading the slides.
  • If your students have iPads, or other devices equipped with QR codes, feel free to paste them in the slide show as well.
  • Add as many slides as you need for each class for important upcoming dates, class discussion questions, or other resources you will use in your class.
  • Train the students to look at the screen before asking any questions when they come in the room. My default answer to any question when implementing this routine is  “Did you look at the slide?” Usually the students will look at the screen again (or for the first time) and the question is answered.
  • Stick to the routine! Post the instructions every day and refer the students to the screen every time they ask a question. It will take them a few days to catch on, but they will catch on.

It only takes us a few minutes to edit the existing slide show each morning, but saves us tons of time and frustration throughout the day. Feel free to create your own slide show, or download and edit our slide to fit the needs of your group!

The One Thing Your Students Really Want

There’s an old adage in the band world: “Play music you can play perfectly at contest, play music you can play well for concerts, and play whatever you like in the band hall.”

Conant 2013 Homecoming Game

I think most of us abide by that adage in our teaching…except for the last statement. “…play whatever you like…” When was the last time you played/sang something just because you wanted to? Or your students wanted to?

Stop for just a moment and think back to why you wanted to study music. I’ll share my story. I grew up in a musical family and studied music from an early age. It was sort of a given that I would be musically inclined, but I clearly remember the moment I decided I wanted to be in the band in school.

I’m pretty sure my reason for joining is the same as the students in your program. All I really wanted out of band was one thing. And if we as music educators can keep this reason in mind, I think it will transform all of our programs, as well as our teaching. So, want to know what your students really want?

I was probably in the first or second grade when my grandparents took me to a high school football game to see my older cousin perform in the marching band. Like other kids, I played around during the football game with my friends, but my grandparents made me sit still and watch the halftime show where the band performed Ghost Riders In The Sky.

I have no idea why I remember this one moment from over 20 years ago, but I clearly remember thinking how much fun the band looked like they were having as they played that piece. At that moment I thought to myself “I want to do that when I grow up. I want to have fun playing music!”

That’s it. That’s the entire reason I started studying music as a child, then in middle school and high school band, then through college, and now as a career. I learned from seeing a group of high school musicians that music is fun! Yes it’s beautiful, yes it’s moving and meaningful to life in a deep and spiritual way…I understand that now. But the reason I got started in music was because I wanted to have fun.

Let’s come back to today. When first and second graders look at your program, do they see student musicians having fun? Does your program project that music is truly a joy! How about your students. If someone were to ask them if your music program is fun, how would they answer?

We are all aware of the “fun only” approach to music ed, and it’s horrible. Students learn very little and goof off the entire time. But every year I encounter music programs full of students who look like zombies when they perform. They have no joy in studying music. And it’s a shame. If we want the power of music to truly transform our students, they have to experience joy in music making! Tweet This!

Please don’t turn your ensemble into zombies who perform well but hate music. Make sure your students are learning, but make sure they’re having fun doing it! Tweet This! The students in your classroom will grow up to have kids of their own. They’ll become school board members, teachers, administrators, politicians…who knows. Will they have a smile on their face when they think about their experience in your program?

We have to reach kids where they are. And middle school and high school students want to be wherever they can have fun. So, have some fun this week in your class! Perform some music in your class just for fun. Let the kids choose a new piece of music “fun music” to play through! It will work their sight reading skills if nothing else. 

Music is fun…if we allow it to be. Let’s bring a smile to our students faces this week and surprise them by doing something fun in music class.

The Best, Easiest, And Cheapest Classroom Recording Setup Ever!

Have you ever felt like you just can’t quite determine what your ensemble needs to sound better? Maybe they just need a little extra help to sound awesome, but you can’t quite put a finger on it? I think I’ve found the answer!

I have often heard knowledgable teachers and clinicians claim that you must record your groups regularly in order to objectively determine how they truly sound. I agree completely! My problem is I always “hear” what I know I should hear, and my mind and ears sort of block out mistakes. Listening to a recording, however, gives me a much more clear and unbiassed view of the group.

I’ve also found that students benefit tremendously from hearing their own performances. We always listen to our recordings from contest, but what if I could record every rehearsal? What if I could instantly allow students to hear the changes we were making? I thought this sounded like a good idea, so I got to work.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been recording my groups in rehearsals. I discovered several ways that don’t work, but I’ve finally found the best and most affordable way to record your groups every day! Want to know how I do it?

I bought a hand-held recorder and used it quite a bit, but it often gave useless, lousy, distorted recordings. When I did record, it was a pain to import files into my computer, then open them, then convert them, then save them, then….you get the idea…it was a pain.

I finally decided I needed a permanent solution in my classroom because I knew recording rehearsals would never become a regular staple of my teaching unless it was easy to do and always ready to go.

Here’s how I created a high-quality and very low-cost recording setup in my classroom. It’s easy to use and always ready to go! I chose to record to a Mac Mini computer, though a desktop PC or laptop would work as well. Essentially, you need three items: microphones, an interface, and recording software.  If you already have some of these items, then use them!

Here are my equipment choices, as well as some images of how I have it set up. Hanging Mics Edited.jpg

I use the Audio-Technica Pro 45 Hanging Condenser Microphone as my microphone of choice. It come attached to a 25′ thin mic cable, as well as with directional supports that you can bend to point the microphone at the area you wish to record. And if you or your admin are looking for something unobtrusive, the mic does come in either black or white.

As far as quality is concerned, these are quiet microphones, leaving almost no traceable hiss or noise on the recordings. They are also very sensitive to the nuances of musical performance. In addition, they are affordable, quality microphones, costing (new) approx. $80 each.

I chose to hang two in my room near the front, outer edges of my ensembles. The cables are run above the acoustic tile ceiling and down a piece of plastic conduit to my table, where they connect to a USB interface.

USB interface Edited.jpgI chose the Steinberg CI1 USB Audio Interface. The device is equipped to provide phantom power (required for condenser microphones) and is powered completely by the USB power of the computer. This device does require you to download drivers in order to function, but the ease of use and exceptional functionality makes the install worth the hassle.

There are two channels that have both gain and volume controls. It took me about 3 minutes to get the desired levels dialed in the first time we used it, and they’ve virtually stayed the same ever since. I just had my students do a little playing on their own while I adjusted the levels to a good full volume that would not overdrive the inputs. Also of note for those who like to use headphones, there is a headphone jack with separate volume control on this unit so you can hear the signal you are sending to the computer!

Audacity On Screen Edited.jpg

There are tons of options when it comes to choosing a recording software.  Some programs even come installed as standard equipment on new computers, but for the easiest and most cost-effective recording solution, you simply can’t beat  Audacity’s Free Recording Software. It works on either PC or Mac, is very easy to learn and use, and it’s FREE!

Files can be exported using nearly any audio format you would want. Just click the mouse to start recording and tap the space bar to stop. It really is that simple! There are also ample editing tools built into the program if you need them.

Here are some ways I’ve used this setup with my students.

  • My students like seeing what they sound like. With Audacity projected on the screen at the front of the room, they can clearly see a clean unison start to the sound verses a sloppy entrance. And if you have a metronome clicking in the background, it’s very easy to see where your tempo lines up with the click and when your tempo fluctuates. Also, as your dynamics change so does the size of the sound waves. Did you crescendo and decrescendo evenly? You can now hear and see the answer.
  • Has your group been invited to perform at an event that they can’t attend? Why not send a CD of your group instead? I did this with two of my groups just last week and the results were great! Our ensembles got credit for putting forth the hard work to rehearse and create the majority of the music for the event that none of the students attended. We rehearsed just as if we would be giving a concert, but instead recorded our pieces in class in the days leading up to the event.
  • I think it’s important to include students in making musical decisions when approaching a piece of music. Is there a question about whether we should ritard in measure 55, or should we attempt a more drastic crescendo in measure 63? Try recording the section in question a few different ways and allow your students to listen and vote on what they like best. You may be surprised at the very mature interpretive choices your students are capable of making!
  • The recording doesn’t lie to you.When I started recording my groups I found the recording rarely sounded like whatthought I heard on the podium, or what the students thought they sounded like. For some reason it is so much easier to hear mistakes on recordings than live. If you hear tuning issues on the recording, there were actually tuning issues when you played. Spending some time recording and listening to yourselves will insure there are no surprises coming from the judges at contest. You’ll know exactly what your group sounds like before you ever compete.
  • Listening skills have greatly improved for my students and for me! I’m not talking about simply how to listen to recordings. We have all discovered what we should listen to in a live setting based on our discoveries from the recordings. I receive much more educated comments coming from my students now. Even before hearing the most recent recording, my students can often tell me every mistake we’re about to hear. Before we started this process they didn’t have a clue!

There are countless ways you could use a setup like this, but I would strongly encourage you, if at all possible, to allow your students to be able to see what they sound like. This has been an enormous aid to our students from our high school ensembles all the way down to our beginner classes. Best of all, it’s cheap! Our entire setup cost under $150 (I purchased one mic used).

It took me about an hour to hang the microphones and run the cables, but it was a very easy install that I’ve done many times before. The educational value in this one setup far outweighs the cost, plus the return is endless! I encourage you to start recording your groups today!

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” 

The Best Teaching Prep Ever!

Have you ever made a lesson plan for a group you know nothing about? A week ago I was invited to teach a group of students that I don’t know from another school district. This is the first time I’ve been asked to work a group of musicians that I really have no prior knowledge of. I’ve worked groups of students I’m familiar with many times, but this one is new and exciting for me.

As I’ve been preparing for this upcoming experience (will happen this Friday) it’s made me really rethink my approach to teaching! This process will definitely change the way I prepare to work with my own group. Here are five things I’ve realized about the process of preparing to clinic an unfamiliar group.

1) Mark everything in the score – The piece of music the students are working on is only vaguely familiar to me. I’ve heard the work played twice, and looked at the score only once before this week. Not knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the group has made me extra aware of every little detail.

I searched out the most difficult syncopated rhythms and made sure I wrote the counting in just so I don’t bobble the counting in front of the group. I marked tricky fingerings and hard to notice accidentals. Basically I tried to mark every mistake that the students were likely to make.

If they can nail notes and rhythms the first time (and I hope they can) I need to be prepared to dive deeper into the score. What about phrasing? Style? Blend and balance? I asked myself, “If I’ve been working with group for six weeks on this piece, what would I want to hear?” Of course I’ve always advocated for marking up your music, but I went crazy on this one. Hopefully I’ve thought of every possible contingency and will be able to add value to the group in my time with them.

2) Play every part yourself  Yes you read that correctly. I sat here at my kitchen table this evening and played through every note in the piece myself. I can look at every student in that room and honestly tell them that I’ve played their part and can understand what challenges their part offers.

I should note that while I was doing this, I was making notes on each part as to the tricky segments. If nothing else, I can at least offer them an educated opinion as to fingering options, phrasing, and overall musical approach to those difficult sections. I can do this with some authority because I actually have played their part.

3) Be sensitive – This group may do things totally different from the way I do things, and that’s ok. But I need to realize that not only do I not know them, they don’t know me. There are things that I will joke about with my students, corny inside jokes we’ve had for several years, like calling a student a “unicorn killer” (long story) might not go over so well with another group. I have to be sure that if I do joke around, it’s 100% clear that I’m joking, and it’s in no way at the expense of the students.

4) Be considerate – Also musical choices that the group has made without me might not be apparent. I need to be careful to not tell them that I don’t like the way they’re playing a passage because they may have made an intentional decision to play it that way. I should instead suggest another way of playing the passage…not right or wrong, just another option they can choose from.

Everyone approaches interpreting music a little differently, and that’s a good thing. Can you imagine how horrible it would be to hear every ensemble play the same piece the exact same way every time?

5) Remember my role – My job on Friday will be to add musical value to the ensemble through making helpful suggestions. It may be fixing problems while I’m there, or suggestions on how to fix problems we can’t fix in the time frame I have. It could be confirming good choices they’ve already made, or possibly an adjustment in the mechanics of playing, or tuning, or ensemble awareness.

Or it may be none of these things. But I need to be sure that I remember at the this is not my ensemble, and the students and director are free to take my suggestions and use them or forget everything I ever said. But at the end of the day my goal is to add musical value to the group.

It’s difficult enough to clinic a group, but when you add the unknown factory, realizing I don’t know what I’m going to hear when the group plays… Well to me it adds an extra need to prepare so I can contribute something worthwhile.

Action Plan: If you have an hour to spare, go pull a score from your library that you’re not familiar with. Pretend you’re teaching a group you don’t know that piece of music and you only have 30 minutes to do it. What would you do? What will you say? I promise this will change the way you approach music with your bands!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”  

What a Genius Can Teach Us About Music Education

I have one favor to ask. If you haven’t taken my 2014 Reader Survey, please take a moment to do so! This will help me learn more about you and what type of content will be most helpful to your needs. Don’t worry, it’s completely anonymous and only 10 questions long. Now, on to today’s topic.

One of the primary goals we have as educators is to teach students how to think for themselves. Too often we get caught up in what our students know or don’t know that we do them a great disservice.  We end up telling them what to think instead of how to think (don’t get me started on standardized testing!) Click here to tweet this!

Everyone thinks, but not everyone thinks the same way. If we study the thinking skills of those regarded as geniuses, we can gain some insight into how we can improve our own thinking skills, as well as those of our students! It’s been determined that the most genius people around us have developed one skill in particular that allows them to out think us. Luckily for us, it’s a pretty simple skill to develop! Click here to tweet this!

Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein analyzes these thinking patterns. The authors devote two entire chapters to detecting and utilizing patterns…more than any other topic in the book. It’s been discovered in study after study that geniuses look for, and recognize more patterns in every day life than the average person. It’s that simple! If you want to improve your genius (and that of your students,) beginning with pattern recognition is a great place to start. I’ve always been a very pattern oriented person and I’ve developed a few ways of doing things that rely heavily on patterns. Here are a few tips to get you and your students started with thinking in patterns, just like real geniuses!

Go Back To The Score – This may sound a bit elementary, but most composers build patterns into their music.  We were all taught to analyze musical form (binary, rounded binary, rondo, etc.,) but most music educators I’ve encountered rarely pass this information on to their students.  Students miss out on a great deal of musical understanding when we fail to teach them this most basic element of music. The more of the large scale patterns that students can recognize in our music, the better.

My recommendation is to share the conductor score with your students (possibly project your score on the screen using a document camera.) Do a quick structural analysis with them watching and have them notate the form sections (A, B, A’, etc.) in their parts. Also, the more connections they can see between their part and their classmates, as well as the larger form as a whole, the better prepared your group will be to perform their parts in an appropriate context.

Look for patterns to help you memorize music. I’ve used this process with my students for several years during marching season to help them quickly memorize their parts. We take their individual parts (not the work as a whole) and do a structural analysis as this will be different for each instrument part. We break their part down into small sections, sometimes as small as a phrase or sentence, and have them pass off these small portions. It helps them to keep the memorized sections in manageable chunks, and it’s very easy to help the students remember their music when they forget. “Horns, measure 65 is a repeat of your ‘B’ section.” They instantly remember what they’re supposed to play, and we’ve basically eliminated all of our memorization headaches.

This can also be translated to fingerings during difficult passages. As a classical guitarist I sometimes rely on the visual patterns of my finger movements on the fingerboard to help my memory during lengthy, complicated passages of music. My students, especially my brass players, will use this at times to overcome very difficult passages as well.

When dealing with a fast, running chromatic passage we will sometimes focus on a valve combination momentarily to overcome the difficulties.  Yes my students know how to read the notes on the page, and yes they know the fingerings, but they sometimes get “black-note-itis” and bobble the fingerings all over the place.  If slowing the passage down and gradually speeding it up doesn’t work, I’ve found that stripping the passage down to a valve combination removes the confusion, breaks the ingrained wrong habits, and helps the stumbling fingers through the passage.

We often use this type of approach with lip slurs for beginners by discussing fingering/position patterns, and simply instructing the students to slur to the lower or higher partial before telling/showing them the exact pitch they are playing. We do this as well with percussionists…just look at the rudiments we teach them.  We drill sticking patterns into them so that when they see a rhythmic figure the sticking pattern comes naturally.  Please understand I am not advocating turning your classroom into nothing but rote teaching, but rather using the variety of teaching tools available to us to show our students how to approach problems on their own.

Start looking for patterns…they’re everywhere! Don’t believe me? Check out Holst’s Chaconne from the First Suite in Eb and look how he treats the melody (even in retrograde inversion!) Patterns are everywhere! Start looking for these patterns, and teach your students to look for them too!

How have you use patterns? Leave a message detailing how you use patterns.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”