• From the Trenches: 2013 Holiday Wish List

    Mike Lawson | December 16, 2013

    My Annual Holiday Wish List for Santa


    Dear Santa,

    How are you? I hope you and the missus have had a fabulous year! How are the reindeer? Great, you say? Things here in the United States have been, let’s just say, interesting. There has been a lot of activity in education reform, work on the new standards for arts education, and some brilliant innovations in music education. We lost a few good people along the way, as well. Anyway, you know why I am writing. I’ve been doing this for 10 years now. After a very careful review, I have assembled my annual gift list so all those who have earned their place here – both naughty and nice – may be rewarded appropriately.

  • End Note: The Great Suzuki Debate

    Mike Lawson | November 19, 2013

    As SBO readers will have noticed by now, this publication recently began running a column, “String Section,” authored by renowned performer, clinician, and educator Mark O’Connor. While unquestionably one of the great innovators in string playing today, as well as an eloquent writer, O’Connor can be somewhat controversial, particularly regarding his unflagging criticism of the Suzuki method.

    Hopefully some of the readers who responded to the String Section column’s debut with vitriol aimed at this publication will see that SBO has no interest in entangling itself in the debate about which instructional method is best – or worst, for that matter. SBO’s goal is to empower and support music educators through practical, accessible articles covering the array of topics that band and orchestra directors face throughout the school year. A discussion of the nature of string education, including how to prepare music students for success in a changing professional landscape, is relevant, but only in so far as it stays constructive. (And it bears mentioning that the String Section columns which have appeared in this publication have largely focused on positive examples of innovative performance and learning opportunities for young string players.)

  • UpFront Q&A: Marilyn Kesler, SAA

    Mike Lawson | November 19, 2013

    Today’s Suzuki Method: A Conversation with Marilyn Kesler of the Suzuki Association of the Americas

    Decades before El Sistema thrust the youth orchestra back into the international spotlight through its widely acclaimed achievements with underserved children in Venezuela, Japanese violinist and pedagogue Shin’ichi Suzuki revolutionized string education with his philosophy of early childhood music education. Emphasizing rote memorization and learning by ear with students as young as three years old, Suzuki’s method quickly gained a major following among music educators in the U.S. and around the world during the second half of the 20th century. While Suzuki success stories abound, the method has also faced its share of criticism, particularly in regards to its de-emphasis of the importance of reading music, limited repertoire, and a purported lack of creative development.

    After teaching orchestra in the public schools of Okemos, Michigan for more than 40 years, Marilyn Kesler now chairs the Board of Directors for the Suzuki Association of America. In this conversation with SBO, Kesler talks candidly about the strengths and limitations of the Suzuki method, while addressing some of the larger challenges that face music education today.

  • Perspective: Equal Opportunity

    Mike Lawson | November 19, 2013

    Unfortunately, some people tend to have preconceived notions of what students who have physical, mental, or other challenges may accomplish with their musical aspirations. In most instrumental teaching, it is typical for a standard technique to be taught for a particular instrument. In most cases, this makes sense. A bow needs to be handled in a certain way, an embouchure should be set in a certain position, a horn should be held at a certain angle. However, is it possible that the same result could be accomplished by being creative and flexible in our thinking? And, to what degree of achievement or level can the student reach based upon our own conceptions? Well, I’ve learned a great deal on this topic, quickly and soundly, after having recently performed with Adrian Anantawan, the virtuoso violinist, who just happens to have been born with only a portion of his right arm. His dazzling technique on the Brahms violin concerto that he performed absolutely mesmerized the audience. And it wasn’t because of his “challenges”: it was simply due to stunning technique and interpretation of the piece that they experienced.

  • String Section: Making Strings a Part of the Future

    Mike Lawson | October 18, 2013

    Innovative string curriculum at the University of Miami’s  Frost School of Music

    Five years ago, I was booked to perform my American Seasons violin concerto with the Miami Philharmonic. One of my former students at Vanderbilt University, Ross DeBardelaben, was working on his doctorate at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, so I arranged to have lunch with him while I was in town.

    Two weeks before my concert, I received the very disheartening message that the Philharmonic had gone bankrupt, so my guest soloist spot, along with the rest of the concerts that season, had been canceled. I called Ross to tell him I wouldn’t be able to meet him, since I wasn’t coming to Miami. But Ross had an idea.

    He told me that the Frost School’s new dean of music, Shelly Berg, was making some waves on campus. Ross thought Berg would like to get acquainted with me and perhaps arrange for my canceled performance to take place at Frost with student string players. I thought it would be a wonderful idea if he could pull it off. I already had the weekend free and the plane tickets in hand.

    If I had known then as much as I know now about Shelly Berg, there wouldn’t have been any “ifs” about it. Of course, Berg pulled it off. And after he watched me warm up for the concert that evening, he told me he had plans to make many major changes at the school. And he wanted me to take part in them.

  • MAC Corner: Teaching is a Performing Art

    Mike Lawson | October 18, 2013

    Strategies for the instrumental music teacher from the Music Achievement Council

    Teaching is an art form. Great teachers are great artists. Great teachers share information, concepts, and skills again and again while making everyone believe it was their first time. Great teachers exude powerful senses of energy, love, passion, excitement, knowledge, wonder, inquiry… the list goes on and on. They are role models that remain in the minds and hearts of their students for the rest of their lives.

    For some, teaching is a difficult, tenuous career that wears them down on a daily basis. As you look in on their classes and listen to them teach, you sense their dismay. Discouraged, they give instructions and little more. Feedback is nothing more than another direction such as “do it again,” or a reaction like “that was not very good.” For others, teaching is an invigorating lifestyle that serves as an elixir to continued youth and health. Walking into the classroom of a great teacher one can immediately sense the energy. Students are engaged and excited. In addition to directions come expectations filled with specific steps to help young musicians grow and develop.

    Like all educators, music teachers are working within three domains: the Cognitive, the Psychomotor, and the Affective, and often all three are being taxed at the same time.

  • End Note: Get Out and Play

    Mike Lawson | October 17, 2013

    One of the primary tenets of music and arts advocacy is getting the action out of the classroom and into the public eye. In addition to showcasing talents, creating awareness, and providing entertainment, public performance can also have a strong impact in terms of building community.

    Take, for example, the growing “Play Me, I’m Yours” art installation, which has just made its way to Boston. Forgive me if you live in Cincinnati or New York or Omaha or Austin or one of the other lucky few cities across the country where this art installation is old news, but I’m pretty ecstatic about 75 pianos being planted in public spaces in neighborhoods around my hometown, decorated by local artists, inviting people to step up – or sit down, as it were – and be musical.

  • String Section: A Microcosm of Creativity

    Mike Lawson | September 19, 2013

    The Mark O'Connor/Berklee Summer Strings Program as a model for creativity

    It has been very rewarding to witness the Berklee College of Music in Boston deeply integrating American string music into its school year and summer curriculum.

    One of the key programs in this curriculum is my weeklong Summer String Program, which has been held at Berklee for three years now. (This was my 20th year of directing string camps, which have been held at a few different locations around the country.) This program is innovating and changing the standards of string education in this country.

    The 2013 Summer String Program lineup was like something out of a string player’s dream:

  • From the Trenches: Cheating

    Mike Lawson | September 19, 2013

    When our leaders cheat, our students are cheated


    Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a nation with a vision for education. This nation believed in the right of all children to have a well-rounded education regardless of economic or demographic backgrounds. This nation believed that professionally trained educators were the only people who should be employed in the institutions that develop young minds. This nation believed in using educational methodology and curriculum that were steeped in research with a proven record of effectiveness. This nation believed that students are much more than just test scores. This nation allowed the facts to inform decisions, not to allow desired outcomes to manipulate the facts. Lastly, this nation believed in the rights of parents to have an input and say in the education of their young people.

    If this sounds like a fairy tale, maybe that is because… it is. Nothing can be further from the reality of what is being passed off as “education reform” in our nation than the paragraph above. And the potential outcomes could undermine the very premise of public education.

    Let’s review some of the most recent developments.

  • Commentary: Electric Strings

    Mike Lawson | September 16, 2013

    Getting Your Feet Wet with Electric Instruments

    As repertoires of orchestras and educational ensembles have kept up with the times, so have string instruments. Electronic strings can be intimidating, since wires and amplification are required, but there are many reasons to adopt these newfangled violins, violas, cellos, and basses, and making them sound great is not as difficult as it seems.

    Electrifying your ensemble introduces new sounds and approaches to any genre of music and presents opportunities to discover innovative ways to teach traditional and contemporary curricula. For one thing, using bowed Solid Body Electric (SBE) string instruments is logistically easier and musically more effective than using a microphone to amplify acoustic instruments. They are also impervious to humidity and maintain their tuning and intonation in all types of weather. Other benefits include the ability to play silently through headphones, a helpful feature for beginners and students who are too shy to practice or solo in front of others or who live in close quarters.

  • Guest Ed: Strategies That Work

    Mike Lawson | August 15, 2013

    Simple Ways to Build and Promote Your Band

    When Kelly Middle School opened up in Springdale, Arkansas 18 years ago, 20 percent of the largely middle-class, Caucasian student population qualified for free or reduced lunch. Currently, the school is 87 percent free and reduced lunch, and serves mostly minority first-generation immigrant students. As educators, our challenge is keeping a historically strong band program healthy through this dramatic shift in demographics.

    Embrace the Challenge

    Like many other schools with high poverty levels, it is often difficult for families of Kelly Middle School students to imagine funding an instrument when basic needs are a challenge. In addition to financial barriers, our population often lacks familiarity with the band experience. Gaining community trust is critical before parents will enroll and fund students in band. All the performances, promotional materials used throughout the year, and community chatter really make the difference when it comes to gaining the support of parents and exciting students about joining band.

    Everything the beginning directors do is important. Their actions affect not only the beginning band program, but also all of the subsequent programs. The sustainability of a program is affected by teaching interactions and how the program is presented and documented for the public. Everything from the first meeting with a potential band student up to the time students move on to the next level is encompassed in the overall band experience. Maintaining a viable program in a high poverty setting is possible, and certainly rewarding, but it takes a team of dedicated teachers supporting the vision and each other to make it happen.

  • String Section: What is the Future for String Players?

    Mike Lawson | August 15, 2013

    These days, the only viable professional outlet for most classical string players is the symphony orchestra.

    Why is that? Why, after years or even decades of musical training, are classical string students afforded basically one job option aside from teaching?

    Granted, the job market is challenging in most sectors, but the field of orchestral strings is perhaps one of the most competitive out there. There are way too many qualified string players relative to the number of available symphony orchestra spots. Case in point: The Chicago Lyric Opera recently held auditions for its principal viola position. More than 150 world-class violists (not violinists – violists) were granted the opportunity to audition. None of them was selected. The Opera instead promoted a current member of the orchestra to the principal seat. So, where do those 150 violists go? What option do they have other than simply changing careers? I know far too many wonderfully talented players facing this very problem.

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