It was really nice hearing from Emily, a freshman music major, a couple of days ago. Her journey is just beginning, and knowing who she is studying with – I cannot be more excited for her. In one of her music education classes she was asked to pose some questions to a current teacher about how they arrived at being a music educator. The answers I provided to her are not earth-shattering, but it was a nice opportunity to reflect back to decisions and thoughts that have been brewing for about 20 years. If they are help and inspiration to you, then they have done their job. If they give you pause to consider where you are now or where you want to go – brava! I hope these thoughts are help to Emily and other young educators to consider along the way. My choices are not perfect – they are the best choices I could make at that time in that context. Thank you Emily for helping me remember a few things that I need to hold onto as I continue on my journey and you begin yours…
Despite having not having the greatest high school band experience, during my senior year our choir director (who I was taking a music appreciation course from) shared this advice with me “work at something you love, because you will be working at it for a long time.” I became open to a lot more musically because it was and still is a love – I am 37 years old and still in love with sound. Not so much in love with pizza fundraisers and study hall duty – but sound? Now we are talking. It is something by which I am continually fascinated.
At the end of the day I owe my parents – for instilling in me faith and family that have become the core of my character which in positions of leadership is needed. My college band director – “Doc” Arnold – my second father who showed me how to be a professional. Lou Collela (who passed away last March – the first of all my teachers) who taught me to conduct and to seek out and challenge students with great music. Linda Walker – who during my studies at Kent State has challenged me view a much bigger picture, to consider all points of view, and live with grace every day. My wife – who is so wonderful about listening, reminding me to see other points, and making sure I stay in balance. My own children – who remind me all students are products of heredity and environment. I want the best for my own children, so that means doing the same for others. I don’t mean to disrespect other teachers with whom I studied, I just don’t want this letter to have to be hardbound at a printer!
I am a bit of a moderate in my views on music education. Ultimately the only thing I am philosophically opposed to is experiences that turn students from music. That being said part of the reward is watching personal connections begin to blossom in the lives of music students. I try to remain open in finding ways to connect students from “school/academic music” to music and musical opportunities engrained in our culture and society outside the school. Today was a victory of sorts. I have been pushing chamber music the last two years with my students as an avenue in which they can continue to play beyond graduation. When I spoke to them about a two performance opportunities in February and April, they immediately began rattling off pieces they would like to revisit and prepare. Molding life-long lovers of music is rewarding and at time easy – but we need more life-long performers or “musicers” as Elliot would say.
In my current position, I have the good fortune of working for a Superintendent who used to be an art educator. My former principal was the High School Band director for 15 years prior to my appointment (which made for some interesting discussions…), and one of our guidance councilors is a former Choir Director. We have new administrators this year at the High School/Middle School where I am working – it has been good transition. Much of it was done the past few years in the work the bands did to build bridges through our performances, and reputation. I am guilty of not interacting much with the rest of the staff – I teach lessons over lunch breaks, with family and graduate school commitments I cannot go to social gatherings. It does isolate me to a degree, but when I do interact I work to understand their schedule, academic demands, and identify how their personality might react to certain requests. The parents have been good over the years, but again much of that is part of my responsibility to establish open lines of communication, establish goals and visions for the program in line with my philosophy and their expectations, and to make one deal with parents: The deal is I will teach your child, share music with them, put them in the best possible position for success, and demonstrate a sincere passion for this art.
I have served in various functions with PMEA an officer which has been revealing to me in learning about programs across the state of Pennsylvania. I am headed towards my comprehensive exams at Kent State in October – absolutely mind boggling at times in reviewing everything I have covered. I find myself out of good answers frequently, but I have plenty of good questions. This results in a lot of reading – journals, research, and texts. On the flip side, I do a fair amount of reflection – some formal, others pure streams of consciousness. Finally, composition has been a great and wonderful step for me as a musician. I felt the musician in me withering because I never did anything for it – it was always teach, teach, teach. Composition has made me a better conductor, better educator, and a better person.
The first thing I would tell a young music educator is to listen to and for their “coaches”. I can hear Lou Collela and “Doc” when I am in rehearsal, I can hear Mike Formeck during a lesson. Many of the teachers we all have studied with did not arrive at their position by accident – their experience amongst other things got them there and they have important perspective to consider. Second, find opportunities to teach as often as you can with people who are in a position that a) you aspire to be like, or b) you would like to teach. The act of teaching is an art, and to be better at it, you need to spend time doing it. Third, don’t let classes get in the way of your education – this is sort of an extension of 2 but you must see the bigger picture. Ear training matters. Music History matters. Brass Methods matters. Seeing how all your course work connects into teaching is important. Four – We are all apprentices of observation – we have seen teaching our whole life. Some good, some…not so good. Some of it was the person teaching, some of it was the context, some of it was the materials or medium. As Yoda once said to Luke – “Mind what you have learned, save you it can.” Five – it is a very big world out there. Begin building a network of colleagues and friends. Part of our society does place a premium on “who you know” – good, bad, or indifferent. That does get you so far – but most of my dealings thus far has been “They know somebody, but can they use what they know?” I have had 9 different assistant band directors at Mercer during my career – all of them have started with me as either while in college as an undergraduate or graduate student. It is a small extra-curricular contract, but a big opportunity to teach, lead, and apply what they know. All of them are now music educators, many with their own bands. On Saturday of Labor Day Weekend I was especially proud of David as he directed the University of Hawaii Marching Band on ESPN2 in the Colorado game. Could David use what he knew? Absolutely, which is what catapulted him to the top for the search committee.
Finally, music teaching to me is about living a life-style. You will have a career in music yes, but look at the hours we keep. Look at the inordinate amount of time we spend getting an eleven minute field show in pristine condition. Look at the emotions that stir in us both on the podium and in the conference with the parent. We live a very rewarding life-style. It comes with free t-shirts, occasional pizza parties with adolescents, and long bus rides to obscure performance destinations. It involves rebarring Orff instruments for composition exercises, circle games and dancing, typing names into programs, all the while sucking down so much coffee Juan Valdez agrees to name his next donkey after you. Find a patient spouse who will accept your weird schedule and your quirky faults that are so endearing to your students. Oh – and as a father to 3 daughters and a son – start your 403b early – Have you seen how much it costs to pay for a wedding and college lately? ;^)
Good luck Emily!
Your friend in music and life,