Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Call to Action: Collaborate to Create the musical community of our dreams.

We are witnessing a lot of change, destruction, and unrest in the world today from the political upheaval and revolution in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and other parts of the middle east, to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, to the domestic spending battles in D.C., to the changing of policies on collective bargaining in Wisconsin and Ohio as well as other states. No doubt that on every level one can witness and feel the changes happening and seemingly at a faster and faster pace. In the music world we recently witnessed the musicians strike of the Detroit Symphony as well as many other arts organizations struggle and/or fail because of the unrest and rapid change. So what are we to make of all this change and how do we survive if not thrive in it?

There is an economic theory that was put forth by a man named Joseph Schumpeter in 1942 called Creative Destruction. It basically describes how innovation and entrepreneurship destroy the value of established companies and laborers who once enjoyed a monopolistic advantage. For example Polaroid was destroyed by the arrival of digital photography. 8-tracks were made obsolete by cassette tapes, which were made obsolete by CD's, which are on their way out via mp3 players and digital downloads. Even Microsoft, once a target of Anti-trust lawsuits in the 1990's, is no longer the power player it once was because of the innovation of companies such as Google, Apple, and now Facebook.

There is no doubt that the new technologies are changing the way people teach and learn as well. As music educators we must ourselves adapt to these changes and create new, more efficient ways to teach our students to engage in creating, performing, and responding to music. As musicians we must create new ways to present to and engage our audiences. We ourselves must continue to grow and learn or else we will become obsolete. Certainly music is being consumed more than ever, but it is up to each one and all of us at the same time to create and shape the music community of tomorrow.

So I challenge you with a call to action. How can you help change and shape the music community of tomorrow? I would like to suggest that a good first step would be to jump in and learn the new technologies to boost your personal growth and learning. As music teachers, especially those of us who teach privately, are many times isolated from our peers. If we even teach in a place that has multiple teachers more than likely we all have our own schedules and very little time to interact with one another. Even classroom music teachers are usually the only or one of few music teachers in their buildings. Social media provides us with a great tool to communicate with our peers on our own time. The community feature here at ohiomtasouthwest.org is designed to give anyone with an interest in the music education community of southwest Ohio; teachers, parents, students, and others, a place to come to share their ideas, learn, and work together to improve the music education landscape of our region. Sign in, create your profile and tell everyone who you are. Create a group to start a discussion or collaborate on a project. Create events and share them with people for the activities you are involved in. Invite members you know and don't know to join the group. Invite your colleagues to join the community and do the same.

What will the music community of southwest Ohio look like 5, 10, 15 or even 20 years from now? I certainly don't know the answer but I do know the answer doesn't lie in any one of us, nor does it lie in all of us. I believe the answer lies BETWEEN all of us and the best way to access that is to collaborate with each other. Collaboration with colleagues keeps us in dialogue with each other: sharing ideas, vigorously debating important issues, and working together. Through all this dialogue we find and create solutions to the problems we face and improve our abilities to vary our approaches to match the needs of our students and also our abilities to impact more students directly and indirectly. We now have the tools so lets get busy shaping the music community of tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Few Ideas for Education Reform

Education reform gets a lot of talk these days. Amongst all of that talk there is little agreement except the fact that our system of education needs to be reformed to match the challenges of the 21st century. I have a few ideas that I think would solve a lot of problems while also letting students and parents create the education they think is best for their kid.
  • Open enrollment/Open employment: Where you live should not decide your quality or level of education and teachers get paid by the amount of students they attract.
Students should be able to enroll in any school in the state without any consideration of where they live and also choose the teachers they feel are best for them at any particular school.  I would open this up even more to mean that if a student wishes to pick classes a-la-carte at a few different schools then let it be. Its not the state's responsibility to get them to all those schools but if they choose to go that route they should be able to do it that way. With today's technology in many instances students wouldn't even need to leave one building to take a class at another.

In addition, teachers should be able to offer their class(es) at multiple institutions if they have the demand heavy enough for their services. If a teacher is creative enough to be able to effectively reach a lot of students or create high enough demand for their classes than they should get paid for it. I would imagine the really great ones will train others in their methods as they need people to assist them and this would allow great teaching methods and teachers to grow and spread. While at the same time discourage the mediocre or poor teacher from keeping the status quo because if they don't have students, they don't have income.

  • Students and Parents; NOT TEST SCORES; should evaluate teachers, and what better way than with the choice of who teaches them.

To make the openness of choice described above work, the money flow needs to be reversed with students paying teachers they choose and teachers paying administrators/buildings to teach there. This type of system would flip our current school system upside down as administrators would be rewarded for creating an atmosphere that great teachers and students want to be in, earning their money from teachers using the facilities they manage. Students know who their most influential teachers are and should be able to choose who teaches them. This would challenge schools to rethink how they do everything including school hours and schedules but ultimately it would let the relationship between students and teachers as well as teachers and administrators create the type of education that the students feel they need. I see this as the same type of change that is happening all over, of building bottom up power structures instead of top down power structures.
  • Getting Credit for ALL learning: Give kids credit for all of their activities and license the teachers/coaches of those activities because students learn through doing them all.
  • Defining a Highly Qualified Teacher-must be able to clearly communicate their curriculum with well defined learning objectives as well as established competence in their subject of study.
Kids learn in everything they do in life so why not give students credit for the learning that takes place in their extra and co-curricular activities. Also, if teachers/coaches are licensed by their curriculum and expertise than this allows many people who may not even realize they are teaching get credit for what they are contributing to our students' education. For example if a sporting coach is teaching lifetime fitness, leadership, and life skills through a sport as opposed to just the fundamentals of the sport they should be able to show it in their curriculum. Students would then know what they are getting out of an activity they choose to participate in. This would create a much more diverse selection of paths for students to choose from in many subjects while at the same time inviting and adding incentive for more people to get involved in education even if only on a part time basis. The really great thing is that a lot of it ALREADY exists, its just a matter of opening the door and letting it in.

When a teacher has to communicate what they are teaching to parents, students, and administrators, they become very aware of what they are teaching and how they are impacting students. This forces them to think about what and how they are teaching instead of just blindly following a presripted school curriculum and teaching the same way they were taught.

Certainly my experience as a private music teacher influences these ideas. I have to recruit and retain my students on a weekly basis. They always have a choice of whether they want to continue to study with me. And certainly to implement some of the changes I have described above how funds get to students/parents hands to spend on education is a huge decision. Also, the government does have a right to demand certain parts of an education, such as the study of how our government works and the rights and responsibilities of a citizen, when it pays for the education and after all it is for the betterment of the whole society to have an educated citizenry.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Leaping in to Teaching Improvisation

As I was growing up and learning to play the saxophone, I got taught very little about improvisation until a little bit in high school and then some in college. For me I was always so afraid of playing wrong notes that it was always a terrifying experience for me, especially when reading music was so easy for me. Whenever I asked for help, I got an overload of theory of which I amazingly could process but never fast enough on the fly to be able to feel comfortable to improvise.

Since improvising was never an easy, fun, or successful activity for me, trying to teach kids to improvise is even more intimidating than doing it because it brings up all the scars from my past plus the anxiety of actually having to do it with kids listening. Never the less; knowing that teaching kids to allow themselves to be creative is an integral part of music education, I have taken the leap.

I started with a project with one of my students who sent me a YouTube video of a pop tune from an Indian movie. It was a pretty simple tune, right at his level, and it used only I and V chords for harmony. After the student had learned the tune itself that I had written out for him, I had the student just practice making up rhythms and then create melodies with those rhythms using a pentatonic scale. He was able to do this but he said it wasn’t the most fun. Using Garage Band software, I created a backing track for the tune that he could practice with as well as some call and response melodies for him to practice with at home. When I brought in the Garage Band tracks for him to use, he said “Oh now this is fun.” Here is what I have figured out so far that is really important to teaching young kids improvisation.
  • Keep it simple: using very simple parameters such as only using a pentatonic scale or certain notes of  a scale or chord  is very important so that the task does not seem overwhelming and too scary or complex. This also means that using helpers like pre-determined rhythms is helpful for students to focus on one element of the music at a time.
  • Always be a model: This is the hardest part for me as it terrifies me because of the experiences in my past. The call and response melodies seem to be key for home practice. They allow the student to practice with you while at home even when your not there. I don’t even worry about the student playing the exact melody that I recorded although he is very aware that skill can and should be developed. Having the student create his own melodies using your rhythms not only allows him to gain the confidence of creating melodies but also eventually sparks his own creativity to create his own rhythms. There is something about having the presence of the teacher (even if it be on CD) that gives a student comfort in what he/she is doing.
  • Always relate exercises back to the musical product: Students may not find improvising all that fun in and of itself  but if they can see how it works in a song in performance they will see it differently. For example, when introducing the tracks I started with playing through the whole tune, improvising and all, for my student at the beginning and then moved to the call and response tracks. The students need to see the product to continue the process of learning to improvise.

I can't express my terror enough in doing this project. It brings back every improvisation horror from my childhood. The reality is that I want to be able to improvise and so by forcing myself to teach it, there is no better way to get over these fears. I imagine using more of the same techniques down the road with this student, and am also looking to expand to a few other students already.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

My Introduction to the Blogosphere

Hello all and welcome to my very first blog post. Never before had I thought about the power of a blog in teaching until I heard an undergraduate music ed major (Andrew Zweibel at University of Miami) present last week at OMEA conference on how to use blogging and microblogging (i.e. Twitter) to increase professional development and enhance the classroom. So here I am, adding my voice to the conversation in hopes of making impact on someone else as sure as I have already been impacted by others in my short time in this medium.

I am an independent private music teacher (saxophone) in the Cincinnati area and am also Lecturer of Saxophone at Muskingum University in New Concord, OH. I have been teaching privately for 15 years now and I also have two years experience as a middle school music educator where I taught band, arts appreciation, and choir at a northern Kentucky school district. I love what I do. I struggle sometimes with the lifestyle that it brings me and I am doing my best to shape that in every way but I try not to underestimate how fortunate I am to be able to say "I love what I do." This doesn't mean that it consumes my life as i also enjoy doing triathlons and spending time with my family and friends. I could never do the corporate daily grind that I see so many people do and yet find themselves miserable. Sharing an activity that brings you so much joy with young people is like coating chocolate with chocolate. It just keeps getting better.

I hope that with this blog, I will be able to share my ideas of how to impact kids, implement change and also get feedback from others on the obstacles that come my way. I am a deep thinker; so I have a strong interest in the education system as a whole in addition to my specialty of music. While I am a saxophonist and at times I may have to share things that may seem specific to my specialty, I really am more concerned with issues of teaching kids in this ever-changeing, fast paced society of ours. Thanks for your time and enjoy the ride.