K through 12

Professor Frank Battisti visits New Orleans

There is a lot I’ll recall from this experience with Professor Battisti. In him, I saw the way in which a conductor can stand on a podium and absorb the ensemble – know exactly what it needs after the first few sounds, and how to change his conducting style based on the ensemble’s skill-set as a whole. At times he went from communicating sheer expressivity with barely an ictus, to using his whole body to conduct each beat as if he was turning the ensemble into a beating heart.

(Steve Potter, myself, Professor Battisti)

He had so much to say about education – about the downside of a liberal arts education for college students. He spoke passionately about erasing the phrase ‘music teacher’ from our vocabulary and replacing it with ‘teaching artist’, about the need to eradicate 90% of our music education programs in the world and teach only performance as a music undergraduate degree – after all – you can only teach what you know. You can only teach musicians up to your personal playing ability. He believed teaching credentials should come after the student has proved that they are an artist on their on instrument, and never before… that it should be a revered honor to teach the art as an art.

He discussed music as a core curriculum – and that it never will be considered core as long as “band directors” keep purchasing music from lesser composers (his example, Swearingen), taking the easy way out and not teaching their students the core standards, by not taking it seriously. He compared it to English and Science – students don’t get past elementary school without learning the basics of Shakespeare, Milton, Einstein – they are classic. It’s core material. We no longer teach our music students (in schools) the core curriculum. We’ve dumbed it down so much that 90% of the students in America can get through 9 years of music education from grades 4-12 without having ever played Mozart, ever hearing of Shostakovich, ever playing Holst or Persichetti – our core. So then, the question came up – “Sir, how do we teach elementary students our core curriculum when the easy music of 100 years ago is the hard music of today?”… his response “Well, there’s not much out there. But consider this – most Bach chorales are half and quarter notes”. True. His other response: “Stop being lazy and arrange a Mozart piece to your kids’ abilities”. That of course, is exactly why he started the Ithaca High School commissioning project early on in his career, why he was so successful, and why we revere him today. The reality is that we use band/orchestra method books at the beginning because it is a way for us to teach skills in a sequence, to keep students interested (because new ones include familiar tunes to them), and quite frankly, it’s a script for lesser music teachers to be able to read from when teaching their heterogeneous-instrument classes.

It made me re-think my entire music program (the one I started, not the one I learn from). I’ve created the opportunity for these kids to learn the core curriculum, and yet even in my beginning instrumental ensemble, I’m using “fun” pieces that I know the kids will like, that teach them sequenced new skills as they’re confronted with them. This 8-hour music school that I run allows students to learn theory, music history, have a private lesson, and participate in ensembles. I’ve tried to integrate them all – and that is working well. Yet on the other hand, is the content core? I think it’s time to have a chat with the instructors. I struggle with stakeholders in the program who believe music education should not exist without jazz education – the heart of New Orleans. It’s one thing I regret not mentioning to Professor Battisti – I wonder what his thoughts would have been on that.

Doo-Wah Dixieland

The piece is by John Edmondson, and it was lurking inside my Queenwood ‘Developing Band Book 1″ set. My students love this piece. Of course being from New Orleans, they all have an idea of what Dixieland is.

It’s always interesting trying to find music for beginning band. People mislabel things all the time. Grade 1 pieces are really grade 2 (and yes, there is a HUGE distinction), or they throw out the standardized grading system altogether and just say “easy”, “medium-easy”, etc.. and of course their definition of ‘easy’ never matches with the rest of the world’s. It’s hard to create music for beginners. They’re limited both in range and rhythm. You already know their tone quality isn’t going to be fantastic, so doing a slow piece that emphasizes tone quality won’t work just yet (although we’re trying right now with Scarborough Fair). This one does.

It’s an original composition – also something rare for beginning band composers who tend to take extant works and water them down… a lot. It gives them publishing $ and credits. The piece introduces kids to some jazz techniques, which means A) It attempts to swing (we’re reading it straight for now), and B) the kids like it. It even gives all 3 of my severely-ADD percussionists a challenge.

What’s the point of all of this? Preparation. I’m sitting here looking over my score to the piece, writing out my lesson plan for ensemble (which I call “Quarter Notes”, as I live in the French Quarter of New Orleans and they’re a beginning band). I feel like one distinguishable attribute of good teachers is flexibility. I can create lesson plans ’til the cows come home, and it never goes as planned. I supervise some younger undergraduates teaching a general music class of kids and within 5 minutes they look like a deer caught in headlights when the kids do something to make the script change – or worse yet, when you write a lesson plan that for whatever reason just isn’t working that day with that particular group of kids – and you need to improvise a lesson based on what doesn’t work. They never taught me that as an undergrad. You always have these mock classes with “ideal” students sitting in front of you, and eager to learn.

I bring it all up because I just wrote an email to a particular undergraduate asking her if she wants to conduct the piece we chose together this week. I’m giving her 20 minutes to introduce the piece, work on it a bit, and give it to them to work on at home.

(Our concert program so far looks like: Doo-Wah Dixieland, Scarborough Fair, Harrowgate Festival, Medley from Pirates of the Carribean, Ancient Voices, & Harry Potter – I’m picking 3 of those to perform at the concert. We’ll see).

It will be her first time in front of the group, maybe in front of any group. I remember how that feels (it wasn’t too long ago!). My job is to prepare her in the best way possible and assist her with classroom management while she’s up there so her first experience isn’t bad.

Maybe I’ll play clarinet! 🙂

Back to Doo-Wah Dixieland…