Developing a Culture of Musical Excellence

Mike Lawson • ArchivesChoral • March 8, 2013

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By Eliahu Sussman

The Foxborough (Mass.) High School music program, led by director Stephen Massey, features nationally renowned jazz and concert groups that have performed at some of the most venerable concert halls in the country. In spite of significant competitive success, Massey describes his program not as festival-driven, but curriculum-driven, crediting his students’ achievements to the philosophy that thorough and consistent instruction are the best avenues for performance preparation.

Of the 840 students in Foxboro ugh High School, some 250 participate in music classes, in large part because of the diverse array of musical opportunities, which include an impressive complement of instrumental and choral ensembles. While having more than 25 percent of the student body in the music program is a tremendous accomplishment by most standards, Massey’s current goals are focused on finding ways to engage the other 75 percent of students in the high school, guided by the understanding that surely many of those students must also have an interest in music, latent though it may be.

In this recent conversation with SBO, Steve Massey discusses his approach to teaching across a wide spectrum of musical styles, the role of non-performance music classes in the curriculum, and best practices for nurturing a “culture of musical excellence” and long term success in what he calls a “very noble profession.”

School Band & Orchestra: How do you go about preparing your students for the experience of being in ensembles that travel, compete, and have fairly rigorous performance schedules?

Steve Massey: We have been involved both with the jazz bands and the concert bands in various festival programs for decades. In the jazz world, we’ve done the MAJE and state and regional festivals here for over 30 years, the Essentially Ellington festival in New York City, the Charles Mingus combo festival, and so on. And with the concert band, we do the same with the MICCA festival for band and orchestra and we also do a tour every year, which has an adjudicated festival component. But I don’t think any of those things are goals of the program.

The goals of the performing groups are performance-based within our own program. Our concerts here are as important to us as any of those other events, and the festivals are really an extension of that. In other words, this is not a festival-based program; it’s a curriculum-based program trying to teach the elements that each genre demands. In the case of jazz, that includes improvisation, styles, tradition, and jazz history. So, for example, in the top jazz band we’re going to study anywhere from 50 to 60 pieces of music each year. We’re going to look at high-level arrangements and work on the history of jazz through that – everything from 1930s Benny Carter and Duke Ellington arrangements through more contemporary current arrangers today. We are going to learn as much as we can about all of the styles, about the standard repertoire, and certainly about improvisation within those elements. That’s the focus of the curriculum. The students work hard, we have some great private teachers, and there are some summer camp programs that support it, so we’ve been fortunate enough to go to various festivals and be recognized for outstanding achievement. But I don’t think it’s ever been festival-driven; it’s curriculum-driven and the festivals are an outgrowth of that.

I’m convinced that this is the correct way to build a program. We’re going to a festival in a few weeks and I can’t honestly tell you what we’re going to play there. But we have at least 25 or 30 pieces that we can choose from. So rather than working towards that contest, we’re working towards the curriculum that leads us to the contest. We also do a recording every year, usually in January, and that recording session is very much about concept-based learning and assessment. From that session we’ve been able to produce the material that we send out as an audition tape to, for example, the Essentially Ellington festival. But we’re going to do a recording whether we’re invited to a festival or not – it’s just a part of our process.

SBO: You teach a number of distinct musical idioms. Do you tailor your teaching style depending on the ensemble and material you’re working with?

SM: I don’t think so. Good ensemble playing is good ensemble playing. The concepts that we work on in terms of ensemble playing are really identical – breathing, articulating, phrasing, listening, and so on. The styles vary, but the styles also vary even within those idioms, and we have certain adjustments that we have to make stylistically depending on each song. The most significant thing about the jazz band is the need to cultivate and develop a rhythm section, which is distinctly unique from anything you’re doing in concert band. That’s an area that, candidly, is a weakness in many high school jazz ensembles. The rhythm sections are often the weakest section of the group. And that’s because what they’re trying to do is the hardest: they’re trying to improvise all of the time, and they have to have a lot of knowledge, a lot of skill, and a lot of technique to be able to do that convincingly in the various idioms that they’re trying to play. So I spend a lot of time with the rhythm section and rhythm section players trying to develop that. We start that in the middle school, but that is an issue.

SBO: Have you picked up any tips on how to make sure that the rhythm section isn’t a problem by the time it comes to the advanced high school groups?

SM: There really aren’t any tricks; it just takes a lot of time. The pianist, bassist, and guitarist have to learn a lot about chord and chord theory and they have to develop techniques through sectional work – and through private study, as well – to achieve characteristic voicings and comping techniques.

Steve Houghton, the acclaimed jazz drummer who teaches at the University of Indiana, used our rhythm section and band to teach a series of videos on working with a rhythm section.  [The videos, produced by Vic Firth, are online at:]

SBO: Speaking of instructional videos and the influx of resources available online, how useful are those materials for you?

SM: It’s fantastic. Kids can type in “Sonny Rollins” and see tons of performances in a way that they never could before. They have immediate access to some of the great musicians in all genres that have ever lived. It’s a tremendous resource that many of us are just beginning to learn how to use. The kids are pretty active with YouTube and other sources. Many people in the music industry have extensive videos available in all areas of music where you can see some of the greatest musicians in the world perform and give clinics and workshops.

SBO: Is it something you integrate into your teaching?

SM: Yes, I’m trying to. Maybe not into a formal way, where I’m giving out specific video assignments, although we have done that on occasion. Even in the area of concert band and orchestra, there are great videos that make it possible to see and hear music that we’re studying. Obviously, there are a whole bunch of different levels of performance on the Internet, but a discerning listener can find great recordings to emulate. All of our teachers here do a lot with YouTube, in particular.

SBO: Has the influx of technology been challenging to deal with in any particular ways?

SM: We haven’t had any problems. We have a very active local cable access group that has been filming our concerts for 30 years. They do an excellent job because they have some people who have been involved for a number of years, including television professionals who happen to live in the area, so our work has been on video display – initially in the town here, and now on YouTube – for quite a long time. I don’t see that it’s been anything but positive for our kids. I suppose it could be a negative that you lose control over what might be sent out, but I’m not going to worry about that. The quality of our work is significant enough that even if there’s a concert with some mistakes in it, that’s just how concerts go. It’s worked out great for us.

I’ve been shocked with the number of people that I’ve run into around the country who are familiar with our work through YouTube. It’s happened to me on more than a few occasions where someone has come up to me out of the blue at a conference or something and said that they have been watching our concerts on YouTube. It comes as a shock to someone of my age – I just don’t think in those terms – but it’s actually happening that way. And our local music parents website gets hits from all over the world. That, too, comes as kind of a shock to me. It just shows how through the Internet, music has opened up on a worldwide basis. And how can that not be good?

SBO: Your program is now well established and the recipient of community and administrative support. What are your thoughts on the process of reaching that point in today’s educational environment?

SM: I think it’s a challenge, but I suspect it’s always been a challenge. It almost always comes down to the skill set of the teacher and the commitment that the teacher has to developing the program. There are obstacles that vary from town to town: sometimes they’re budgetary, sometimes they’re political, and sometimes it’s about scheduling. But what we are actually attempting to do is develop a culture of musical excellence, and, in a way, educate a whole community to understand, appreciate, and support that. So by its very nature, that’s a long-term project. Nobody’s going to be able to do that in a couple of years. You have to invest long term in a community because it’s really your second or even third-generation students who are going to spread this culture of excellence that you’re trying to develop in a broader way.

I sometimes talk to college students at seminars about teaching and learning, and one thing I try to encourage them to understand is that they’re probably going to have to invest a lot of time in a program to build it to the level that they want it to get to. They’re not going to be able to just change a culture immediately, to create a culture of excellence out of nothing. In a way that’s kind of daunting and maybe discouraging because I think in some other professions – and maybe in some other disciplines – excellence is mandated by standard testing, community values, or whatever it may be. When you’re hired into a domain where excellence is already mandated, you’re kind of brought along by the system.

In music, it’s different. A wise old music educator once told me, “One of the greatest problems we have is that nobody really cares about music education. And one of the greatest benefits we have is that nobody really cares about music education!” This means that we can, in fact, build programs the way we think they should be because nobody is necessarily going to fight against that. Now that’s a simplistic statement, but I think there’s some truth to it. In a way, it gives us a certain freedom to create the sort of excellence that we want to create, that we believe in, and that may not be possible in all disciplines.

SBO: With all of that in mind, what do you see as the future for your own program?

SM: We are consciously trying to create programs and reach out to students who are not currently involved in our music program. We’re currently servicing about 25 percent of the student body with music, which is a great percentage on a national level. But we’ve decided that we want to try to reach everyone, and we’re going to try to develop programs that will ultimately do that. It’s a challenge and there will be a wide variety of types of programs, but that is something that we – the music faculty – believe in.

SBO: Surely of that 75 percent of students who aren’t in your performing ensembles, there are many kids that have an interest in music.

SM: Absolutely!

SBO: So what can you do to reach them and service that interest?  

SM: Part of it comes from trying to reach them through courses like Beginning Guitar and Music Technology – there’s a wide-ranging interest in technology among students anyway – and we’re trying to expand, in other words, non-performance-ensemble classes. This is something that is almost mandated by MMEA and MENC, organizations that have long been encouraging music departments to reach out beyond band, chorus, and orchestra into curricula that can attract more students. That’s something we’re trying to do a better job with.

SBO: When thinking about adding courses like those you’ve mentioned, how do you approach potential conflicts with teachers of other disciplines?

SM: It’s hard to say how it will evolve. It could be displacement of other courses or it could mean more of a paradigm shift into more interdisciplinary types of offerings in general. In that model, perhaps schools don’t function in such discipline-based, divided curricula as they currently are, and there is more crossover as students study subjects that may interrelate: music and history or music and science or music and literature. Realistically, that’s one way to deepen the curriculum in many disciplines: by trying to expand the ways in which they might integrate together. Now that might have logistical issues connected to it, but still, it is certainly worth thinking about.

We already tend to do that to a larger extent with younger children. We tend to not teach in as many boxes. We tend to teach the whole child and interrelate songs and poems and connect many of the disciplines. As kids get older – in public middle schools and high schools – for decades now, if not longer, we have started to isolate disciplines, because it is a little easier to teach that way. But in the long run, what do we really want our kids to experience? And how can we find ways for them all to experience it in a meaningful way?

This is a profound question that I think effects everyone. I don’t have any simple answers.

SBO: So you’re saying, for example, that an English teacher might include a section on relevant Latin rhythms or percussion when teaching Latin American literature?

SM: That might alleviate the displacement – the idea that, “My classes are going to beat out your classes and therefore your faculty is going to be cut.” That’s not how we’re thinking about this, nor is it how we want to be thinking about this. We want to be thinking about this in terms of what the students’ needs are. My feeling is that we need to find courses for them so that they can have some profound musical experiences in their high school career without having to learn to play the violin, which might be a ten-year process. So we don’t want to eliminate performing ensembles, especially successful ones; we want to expand the other things we’re doing.

SBO: Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share on achieving success as a music educator?

SM: When I talk to young music teachers, I always tell them that they should take pride in what they do, because they are a part of a very noble profession: teaching music to children. I can’t imagine a more noble profession than that. Sometimes in the day-to-day life in education, with the obstacles that come up – budgetary or otherwise – I do think that music teachers can get discouraged. The retention rates of young teachers imply that. So the first thing is to encourage teachers to be proud of what they do and to realize that it’s really important work. The other element is to not be afraid to commit time, energy, and effort over a longer period of time to build the kind of culture of musical excellence that they believe should exist.

Sometimes young teachers get discouraged because it doesn’t happen fast enough. I know in many other professions, people tend to change jobs at a very rapid rate nowadays, and that’s something that maybe didn’t happen decades ago. But in this profession, it takes so much time to build programs of excellence in music, to build community support, and to develop tradition – which is what you’re really doing – that young teachers have to be patient in trying to make that happen. I also strongly recommend that music teachers reach out to their music teaching peers in the area and their peers in other teaching disciplines in the school to see what they can do to foster this curriculum that they want to develop.

Sometimes young music teachers are waiting for some principal to say, “Here’s the program, and here’s how it’s going to be funded, and here’s how it’s going to work.” But you’re going to have to build what you want and it’s going to take time to do that. And I encourage young teachers to be patient about that, because it is a slow process.

I’ve seen this culture evolve here over 30 years and get deeper and deeper in terms of the quality of the student work, the quality of the teaching, the quality of the community support, and the quality of administrative and parental support. That persistence and that effort has paid itself back to us many times over here, but there isn’t a simpler answer to it.


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