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Preparing young musicians for 2018. Or not.

Lately, my guiding question has changed again.

Only six years ago, all an up and coming musician needed to know was how to play an instrument well and how to adapt quickly musically. That isn’t enough anymore. To survive and prosper in the artistic and entertainment worlds today, musicians need also know how to compose, record, edit, share and promote their creations. The times when record companies took care of everything (including cashing in your pay cheques until all the money they had lent you to record your album had been paid back, with interest of course) are over. With a bit of time, a MacBook, a few online tutorials, some software and a 300$ microphone you can record an album that can put a 1990’s 350$/hour studio to shame. The average cost of making an album just 10 years ago was about 50,000$. You can do the same for less than 3,000$ today! The rules of the game have changed, but so have the roles that a musician must learn to play.

How can I honestly consider myself a competent teacher if, by the content I’m teaching them, I’m preparing my students for a world that doesn’t exist anymore? I can’t. Ouch… Just when I was so proud…

Here’s the problem: if I take time out of my already overpacked government issued curriculum (aren’t they all?) to teach new skills, my students won’t progress enough to feel competent and they will opt out of their Music option. And even if they stay, those who will be considering applying to college in a music program will never be admitted; they would be too far behind technically on their instrument to compete with students from other schools. I can always tell them that they must practice at home but, let’s be honest, it will never happen. And there is no practical way for me to check. Or is there?

Enter technology (insert inspirational music here!).

Up to just a couple of years ago, this would have been an unsolvable problem. But with all the Tweets, blogs and books I have been reading, many possible solutions have come to mind. I have to teach these new skills; no question. I will not feel competent if I don’t. Which means that I have to take time out of my ‘playing’ routine in class. I can’t just add hours to the day. And even if I wanted to, which I don’t (remember, I’m a family man), over 90% of my students are bussed to and from school. There’s no way around it. This means that, if I want my students’ level of instrumental proficiency to either stay the same or, in an ideal world, even get better, I need to ‘flip’ some of the learning over to them, at home.

Now, I stated earlier that there is no practical way for me to check if they practice at home, which is still true. But would it be possible to transfer some of the actual learning to home? What if each student had a progressive book of short songs and exercises at home, that we would never use at school, and that each week or so a few of these exercises would be assigned? What if the student, through some kind of collaborative online document (Maybe a Google Doc spreadsheet managed by the Chrome script ‘Doctopus’? I need PD!), would check off his/her progress and, at the end of the week, would record himself/herself playing the last exercise and then send it to me for feedback or evaluation? If timed correctly, the lessons learned at home would prepare the students for the lessons learned in class. They would progress at a faster rate, thus freeing up time for me to teach them other skills!

So far, four concerns have come out of discussions with other teachers, but I think I have them all covered. I consider the first one to be a byproduct of how we were taught to teach: “How will you know if the student hasn’t only worked on the song or exercise they recorded and ignored the previous ones?” My answer to that is; “Does it really matter?” I mean, in a perfectly tidy world, every student would do everything we ask at exactly the right time and in the right order. But that will never happen, will it? We have to deal with it. This being said, it might be convenient and comforting for us, but our students would become our clones. If we want the next generation to be better than us, we can’t expect them to follow every one of our rules, all the time. Besides, if the kid can play the last exercise well, he/she has probably already assimilated to previous content. The exercises will be progressive.

The second concern is actually funny when you stop to think about it: “It wouldn’t be fair! The student can re-record the same piece 30 times, yet only send you the best version!” I don’t know about you but, if a student cares enough about his/her performance to re-record it 30 times… What’s not to like! It’s called ‘practicing’!

“What about cheating? Another student could help them or, even worse, record the exercise in their place!” Ah! Cheating… It’s going to happen. You shouldn’t deprive a majority of a learning experience just because a minority might jump through the cracks of a system. This being said, I plan on doing in-class evaluations once in a while as well, just to be safe. If a student has sent me a brilliant recording of exercise #94 and can’t play exercise #27 in class… Well, let’s just say that we’ll need to talk.

The fourth and last concern that has so far been brought to my attention is, in my humble opinion, very valid: “What about the kid who doesn’t have any means of either recording or accessing the Internet at home?” Once again, this will be a minority but, unlike the ‘cheaters’, an unwilling minority. The only practical solution I have found so far is to have a hard copy of everything available and to have these students play the exercises for me either at recess, at lunch or at the beginning of class, whichever they prefer. My school may have a ‘sign out’ technology cart in the near future; this would certainly help.

This is just a start. Well, not even… It’s a start to a start. But I need to start somewhere, right? More ideas will be posted shortly.Thanks for reading. Fell free to share!


Why I teach what I teach and how I’m trying to teach it (part 2)

Strange as it may seem, after a new School Board, a few different subjects taught and a brief stint in admin, I needed a change. I had a good life: I was (and still am!) married to an extraordinary woman, was the father of 2 amazing boys and had a quiet yet satisfying social life. But I had been working towards a career; I needed to work towards something else. I was going back to teaching but, this time, I was doing it on my own terms. No longer was I the inexperienced apprentice playing the role of a teacher. I had been around. I could debate pedagogy with the best of them. Well, maybe not the best, but at least the better ones. I was good at establishing relationships with my students, which I still think is at the heart of every educational act. I now knew myself enough to identify my own strengths and weaknesses, and working with my strengths is what I decided to do.

My first love had been teaching Music, so that’s what I decided to do. But instead of going into it like an underserving impersonator, I would accept who I was and, not only work with it, set it at the core of what and how I would teach.

Did I mention I’m a part-time Jazz musician? Jazz music is, of all art forms, the one that moves me the most. I love it almost unconditionally. All I need to hear are a few notes or snippets of a rhythm pattern to get goosebumps (When my students play a song really well, and the know it, they always check if I have goosebumps on my arms to confirm that they sounded great!). So the guiding question changed; instead of : “How can I become a real Band teacher?”, it now became: “How can I use my love of Jazz for the betterment of my students?” I no longer felt the need to teach it like everyone else did. Their had to be a better way. A more honest way. I’ll admit that my happiness was still part of the equation, but I still believe that, although our students’ needs should to be at the heart of every pedagogical decision we make, loving what I do and being passionate about what I teach makes me not only a better educator, but a better role model as well.

Once again, I had to start from scratch. The overwhelmingly vast majority of band programs focus on Concert Band material (essentially what most would call ‘Classical’ music); would it be so wrong to have my bands focus on Jazz instead? What could Jazz offer that would justify the change? How could my students actually benefit from Jazz? To most non-musicians, this will probably sound like a detail. Who cares what music you use… Music is music, right? But this change of musical culture has huge implications. While Concert Band repertoire tends to focus on the students’ ability to express the composer’s ideas, emotions and esthetics, Jazz music is about personal identity and expression. It encourages individuality and, through the art of improvisation, creativity of a very high level. Having been around teenagers for a while, this was certainly a selling point! Most teens need to feel special, different (from their parents, usually!), yet they still require a sense of belonging to a group. We were the same way, and perhaps still are… Remember when we used to identify with a certain musical genre or style? At my school, we had the Rockers who were into, well, rock! The had longer hair, wore leather jackets and tried to look angry all the time… We had the Preps who only listened to top 20 Pop tunes and adopted any fashion coming through town. We had the ‘Alternative Freaks’ who were into bands like The Cure, Depeche Mode or almost anything musical either electronic or requiring black mascara around the eyes… But one thing was certain, you didn’t listen to your parents’ music! You were different! Modern! Evolved! Aware of the world around you!

Today, listening to and playing Jazz is certainly not be considered ‘mainstream’ for adults, and even less for teenagers. And its main characters may not all be adequate role models, but they certainly are colorful! As well, most working professional musicians have a Jazz background. It enables them to play almost anything, anytime. I would be better preparing my students for a possible career, if they so chose, as well as opening them up to an entirely new musical universe! (I’ve never actually felt comfortable pushing my students towards a career in Music. Not that it can’t be immensely gratifying, and I do try to prepare those who are considering it to the best of my ability but, being a family man, I find it difficult to encourage youth onto a path that will make juggling family life and professional life very complicated.)

So the decision was made: I would rebuild my newly acquired Music program from the bottom up, with Jazz as the ‘matériau de base’!

Six years later, I still stand by that decision. It was a bit risky, and seen as a few as a bit ‘cocky’, but the kids loved it, parents were thrilled that their kids loved it and my school admin loved that the parents were thrilled that their kids loved it. To be fair, it wasn’t just me: the music program was a bit of a mess before I took over. I probably could have just stood in a corner and smiled all day without doing anything else and people would have been happy! But it was the perfect time to act. And I did. And I was proud of myself. Not ‘I’m such a genius’ proud, but content that I had turned a weakness into somewhat of a strength.


Why I teach what I teach and how I try to teach it (Part 1)

I was proud of myself. Not ‘I’m such a genius’ proud, but content that I had turned a weakness into somewhat of a strength.

Although the curriculum I’ve been asked to deliver has varied substantially over 14 years, I started off, and presently am, a High School Music teacher. And I love it! But unlike most of my wonderfully patient and passionate colleagues, I wasn’t a Band kid myself. Not that I wouldn’t have liked to, but Music was only offered in grades 7 and 8 in my school and the only instrument we played was recorder… I did have inspiring teachers, thought, who let me experiment with different recorder sizes so I wouldn’t be bored out of my mind. It worked! It got me thinking about how different pieces of a musical puzzle fit together to create beauty. They planted a seed that is still growing today.

So when, my Music Teaching Degree in hand, I got my first gig as an actual, official, stand in front of the class Music teacher (which, being a new teacher, happened to be in one of the most economically needy neighborhoods of the city, of course), I didn’t have a clue as to how a ‘normal’ music class was taught! Add that to the fact that I had no allocated budget whatsoever and that it took me 3 months to actually get the instruments for my students that had conveniently been absorbed into the inventory of a community band program and you get a sense of what my Fall of 1999 was like. We worked a lot on rhythm and played cool beats on our body parts for a while. And, some time a bit before the Christmas Break, our barely functional wind instruments arrived and we started our Band program.

I’d like to officially thank Bruce Pearson for getting me through that first year. I was able to get my hands on a minimum amount of copies of his ‘Standard of Excellence’ Band method book series. That first day, once everyone was holding something to blow into, I asked the students to open to the first page of the book and look at exercise number 1. I counted to 4 at roughly 80 bpm and internally crossed every finger I could imagine and… It worked! The kids were playing what in a somewhat skewed parallel universe could be misinterpreted as a concert Bb! From then on, it was mostly repeating, motivating and repeating again. I had become a Band teacher!

This continued for a few years until I was bumped by a teacher who was only in it for the money a steady gig would get him. And of course, as often happens in these cases, admin closed down the Music department I had built up and handed them, almost literally, on a silver platter, just to get rid of him. (I later found out that the administration at his previous school had done the same thing. It must be a difficult decision to make; what’s in the best interest of students? Do you give them the opportunity to learn the art of making Music at all costs? Do the advantages outweigh the damages caused by being taught by a role model who shows no empathy, no interest in you or your well being?)

My principal was thinking about offering computer science classes to the kids and was looking for a way to keep me around, so he offered me the job. I’d always loved technological gadgets and the job was tenure track; how could I refuse? But once again I found myself in the situation where there was no real set curriculum and I had not a clue as to what I was doing… We were getting a brand new computer lab packed with 32 machines running Windows XP, equipped with the latest Microsoft Office software, so I started asking myself: “How could my students actually use these machines? What could they learn that they could then transfer into other classes?” As a Music teacher I had felt like an impostor, constantly trying to emulate ‘legitimate’ band teachers, those who knew how it was ‘supposed’ to be done. But as a Computer Science teacher, something I was even less prepared for but for which a ‘standard’ model of teaching (even less a curriculum!) had yet to be created, my concerns were beginning to shift from being self-centered to student-centered. I had always cared deeply for my students’ well being and, especially in a community where most parents were still teenagers either physically, emotionally or economically themselves, I had strived to be a positive role model at all times. But this was different. This was what I now identify as my very first ‘How can I best prepare my students for real life?’ moment. It didn’t last, but it was a start.