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Joel Smales

Mike Lawson • Archives • October 30, 2006

SBO: Let’s talk about how you got involved in music education.
Joel Smales:
 I got my Undergraduate degree from Crane School of Music in Potsdam, N.Y. (1989) and my Masters degree from Binghamton University (1991) – both in music performance.

SBO: So you didn’t initially study to become a teacher.
JS: 
To be honest, I didn’t think I’d enjoy teaching; I didn’t think I’d be any good at it.

SBO: What changed your mind?
JS:
Well, after college I played a lot of music, and then ran a not-for-profit school for the arts in Binghamton, giving lessons to kids. A friend of mine took a leave of absence from a local private school, Seton Catholic High School, and asked if I’d take over his duties. I agreed to do so and I absolutely loved it. I loved working with the students, the challenges involved in getting kids to play different instruments and to achieve greater levels of artistry. I started to think that maybe this is something I should’ve looked into, so I went back to school and finished up all of my requirements in order to be certified. Binghamton schools hired me as a teacher in 1997.

SBO: What was that first position?
JS:
 I was the Elementary Band and district-wide percussion coordinator.

SBO: At what point did you take on your current role?
JS: 
I held that position for two years and then became band director at Binghamton High School.

SBO: What have you found to be some of the differences between teaching at the elementary and high school levels?
JS: 
One of the biggest differences is that elementary school kids will do anything for you – the sky’s the limit. You ask them to do something and they want to try it. You could only go so far musically, however. The best thing about high school is all of the great challenges you can reach for, musically. Once I started teaching here, the kids at the high school really grasped onto my vision of reaching for higher standards: last year was good, let’s make this year better. That’s been a thrill and really makes coming to work very enjoyable.

SBO: What are some of the factors that you feel makes your overall program stand out?
JS:
 One interesting thing that we do here at the high school is we perform a lot of chamber music. Over the years we’ve had a woodwind choir, brass choir, brass quintet, saxophone quartet, percussion ensemble, marimba band, and steel drum band.

SBO: Are these groups active each year or does it vary, annually?
JS: 
Most of them stay – for example, the sax quartet, brass quintet, and percussion ensembles are in place each year and sometimes we’ll have a couple of each, depending on demand.

SBO: What do you see as being the specific upside to these smaller ensembles and chamber music?
JS: 
There are a lot of pros to teaching chamber music. There’s only one student on a part and that provides new challenges; there’s a lot more required of a musician in that situation as opposed to just being a section player. As a result, they start to understand more about melody, harmony, structure, form, balance, and blend. As teachers we’re able, in those small ensemble settings, to get more one-on-one with the students. In a large band of 80 the whole dynamic changes. When you’re only dealing with four or five kids, you can really get into details, such as tuning.

SBO: “Tuning” – that’s no minor detail.
JS:
 (Laughs) Good point. Well, let’s say: “fine tuning,” then. It’s easy for kids to hide in a large group when you have 20 clarinets in a band.

SBO: So you feel that these smaller group settings are something that sets your program apart?
JS:
 I think we might cater to small ensembles more than the average program. From what I can tell we offer more small ensemble opportunities and experiences. We try and allow the kids to get the most out of those groups. Over the years, we’ve brought in, say, a woodwind specialist come in to teach one of our woodwind groups.

SBO: When do these groups rehearse?
JS:
 Most of our small chamber groups meet at lunch or after school; sometimes we set them up as lesson groups. In the past, for one day in our six-day cycle, we’ve taken students out of band rehearsal, so they can go work with the specialist for their chamber group.

SBO: “In the past” – I take it you’re not currently operating in that manner?
JS:
 Not presently, no. Part of it is scheduling – that’s the biggest reason were not doing that his year. At one point we were doing it with all our chamber groups and, as a result, we never had a full band rehearsal. That was a nightmare, so we changed things, but we’re thinking of easing back into a more tempered version of that schedule.

SBO: Is there a lot of synergy between your efforts and those of Nate Kaiser, the orchestra director?
JS: 
We share a lot of students and some of our rehearsals meet at the same time, so we’re figuring out when kids can go to orchestra or band. So far it’s been a good working relationship. We don’t have a full orchestra yet, so if he needs a few brass or woodwinds he’ll borrow some of my students – same with the choral program, led by Sue Bachman. Whether she needs a soloist or small ensemble, we’ll send them over.

SBO: I understand that the arts are very well supported at Binghamton.
JS:
 No doubt. We have a great facility. We’re a school within a school, really – the Rod Serling [distinguished Binghamton alum – Ed.] School of Fine Arts – so students here can graduate with a fine arts diploma in addition to the Binghamton HS diploma. We have our own music suite with three large rehearsal rooms, keyboard lab, five practice rooms, and we have our own set of hallways. Once you leave our suite you’re in the rest of the school, but most music students have their lockers right here. It’s a great program. We actually have a small number of students who come to us from either private schools or other schools that don’t offer what we do, musically. Those kids participate in their school music program, but also come here either after school or during ensemble time for extra musical opportunity.

SBO: You mentioned that students can get a Fine Arts diploma – can you explain?
JS:
 Kids can decide, by sophomore year, to major in Music, Visual Arts, Dance, or Theatre while studying at the Rod Serling School of Fine Arts. Additionally, BHS offers a full International Baccalaureate diploma program.

SBO: Can you explain that, briefly?
JS:
 An IB diploma is an upper secondary school degree recognized by colleges and universities around the world. BHS has a very strong IB/AP program.

SBO: Fair enough. How often do your students rehearse?
JS: 
One to three times per week, depending on the group, for between 45 minutes and one hour.

SBO: How do you determine your repertoire?
JS:
 A lot comes from the NYSSMA manual because many of these groups compete in festivals. Also, a lot comes just from what we feel the students should cover. Each year, we like to make sure that they are exposed to different eras of music: baroque, some classical, every couple years we’ll throw in some 20th century, and we’ll mix in some jazz or ragtime. We also like to add some student arrangements or compositions. Our keyboard lab is set up specifically for student composition and we have a lot of students who like to write and we’ve even had some who’ve had stuff published.

SBO: You’ve also had success of your own in that area.
JS:
 Yes, I’ve had 18 works that have already been published and I also cowrote Teaching Music at the Secondary Level with Dr. Steven Porter (Phantom Publishing/Empire Music). Some of my music has also been selected for our state’s – and other states’ – manuals.

SBO: That has to be very gratifying.
JS:
 Yeah, it’s great – it’s a hoot!

SBO: Where do your groups perform?
JS:
 We perform in the Helen Foley Theatre on campus. She was Rod Serling’s English teacher. All our school groups perform there, but the school also opens the theatre up to a lot of community performances.

SBO: How about travel or festivals?
JS:
 There are a handful of community performances, but as far as travel goes, over the last several years we’ve been making our own concert trips. We’ve gotten away from the prepackaged festivals. It’s been cheaper, it’s been a little freer, and the kids learn a lot. This year, for instance, we’re going to Chicago. We’re taking a train, trucking our equipment out there, we’re playing a few performances at public venues, and then we’re going to see the Chicago Symphony, the Blue Man Group, and we’re having a clinic with Northwestern. We’re located fairly close to Boston, NYC, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, so we can draw upon those orchestras and arrange clinics and we’ll base a trip around that.

SBO: Any international travel?
JS: 
We’ve done some overseas trips – we’ve gone to England, Germany, and Russia on three separate occasions. We’ve also arranged trips with sister cities – the Russian trip was an example of that. We’ll look for an arts school or maybe a magnet school where we can go visit their classes, maybe play a concert, but still see the area. Every other year we take a major trip of significant distance with a band, a chorus, and an orchestra. Each year we do other things as well. Our percussion group, for instance, does a lot of travel. Every year we’ll do a spring trip – say, to NYC – and see a musical or something. We also try and bring in music groups when they tour the area. There are a lot of alumni who have gone on to amazing careers and we bring one of them back each year for a lecture. Those visits are great, one of my favorite things for the whole year – we don’t play a note, we just ask questions, and it’s great.

SBO: How do you get funding for the trips and projects?
JS: 
We do a few major fundraisers – spaghetti dinners, carwash, and so on. Then kids will do individual sales of candy, wrapping paper, et cetera. We have a few such fundraisers, per year, and students just put that towards their account and try to raise the money themselves. Ours is a bit of an inner-city school, but we have all ranges of income represented in the band. The school will help out with money on an as-needed basis, as well.

SBO: How about a booster program?
JS:
 I don’t have a booster program. Keep the parents away! (Laughs). In all seriousness, when I need extra help the parents are always right there, ready to do whatever I need, but we don’t have an organized group. We do involve them – before any trips we have meetings with the parents to go over everything and parents will go on the trips as chaperones.

SBO: What have you found to be most challenging about your job?
JS:
 Sometimes it can get so that there’s just too much going on. It’s great to have all these performances and opportunities for the students, but making sure that they keep balanced and keep their heads on straight with respect to their other academics can be a challenge. A lot of these kids are in so many of the ensembles and can get incredibly busy. Also, everyone faces budget woes. Needing to purchase new instruments and equipment and new music, as well as travel and moving our equipment for all of the different performances we do… it all takes money and there is a great challenge involved in finding and raising that money. I know it’s like that everywhere and our district does all they can to help us out.

SBO: You seem to love your work, despite any challenges. What do you find to be most rewarding?
JS:
 I feel that all of us in the music department are on the same page and have the same goal: not being content with what we did last year, last month, last week, but always trying to do more and to do it better. We always try to offer more in terms of repertoire, travel, and performance. It’s very rewarding, I feel, to really help advance the students’ abilities and appreciation of music.

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