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Commentary

  • Guide for the Middle School Band Director

    Mike Lawson | October 12, 2012

    Part I of this article, which appeared in SBO's September 2012 issue, contained a list of books and literature guides for the middle or junior high school band director. The second half of this guide contains musical resources for use in the band rehearsal, such as warm-ups, chorales, and other specific technique-building exercises. Most of the resources contained in this document have been written since the year 2000; however some published prior to that date were included if deemed significantly appropriate by the compiler. Musical resources are identified with publisher-assigned grades when available.

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  • The Power Needed to Learn an Instrument

    Mike Lawson | September 12, 2012

    I remember a junior high student I had back in Missouri. He showed up to class one day with bandages on his knees, elbows, hands, and even his forehead. The ones on his knees and elbows still had blood seeping through.

    When I asked him what had happened, he reluctantly admitted, "I've been playing this video game. It's really cool and I've gotten really good at it. It's a skateboard game and, basically, it starts you as a beginner and then you get better and then you start to learn these really cool tricks. I played it a lot and had it down. It's a very realistic game. So, I thought since I had played the game so much, I'd give it a whirl on an actual skateboard. Dude, it didn't go so well."

    This may be a rather extreme example, but in many ways it encapsulates the challenges facing those who want to learn to play a musical instrument: what does it really mean to play one, what does it entail, and what's the best way to learn how? And, in today's educational environment, what role can technology play?

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  • Stronger

    Mike Lawson | July 10, 2012By Nicole M. Denton

    I have faced many difficult issues within my career. Not only did I walk away from playing the French horn with the American Band (a dream come true to play with fantastic people), but I also lost stability in my job due to financial problems in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and two mentor-friends passed away. RIMEA has lost two incredible people that have truly taught me the meaning of advocating for children: Ed Drew and Ron Stabile. How can I advocate when I am so down? How many more times can I let my advocacy team down?

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  • “Pasteurizing” Music Classes: Making Learning Impossible

    Mike Lawson | March 9, 2012

    By Tracy Leenman

    An alarming trend is emerging in music classes in my state of South Carolina: band and string classes are being scheduled for the same classroom, at the same time, with only one teacher assigned to teach both classes simultaneously. Well-meaning administrators, faced with budget and staffing cuts, are trying to save programs by combining classes (“After all, they’re both music classes!”). But the result is that both the band and string students lose their access to a quality, sequential music education. And the result of this plan is often the antithesis of the intent, i.e., the music program is decimated.

    Would these same administrators ask a teacher to teach French I and German I in the same room, simultaneously? Or worse yet, French, German and Spanish I (“after all, they are all foreign languages!”)? Probably not, because they know instinctively that the vocabulary, grammar and literature learned in each class are very different. The same is true to a large degree with band and string classes.

    Because few administrators come from music classrooms (nationally, some 70 percent were formerly coaches), we have tried to explain this situation so that it makes sense to the non-musician. But if you are facing this threat, or know a colleague who may be, please pass along this list of reasons why administrators should consider any and all other alternatives to “pasteurizing” their instrumental music classes.

    Multi-tasking to the Nth Degree

    In most South Carolina schools, a beginning band director usually teaches students who are learning anywhere from six to 11 different instruments in the same class at the same time. Each of those instruments requires different fingerings, a different embouchure, and a different characteristic tone. These instruments are pitched in three to four different keys, and read music in two different clefs. Then, there is also the percussion section, where students need to learn several instruments and varying techniques simultaneously. For this reason, some states allow students to start band in small, like-instrument (“homogenous”) groups before they are placed into a full-band (“heterogeneous”) setting.

    Most beginning string classes have three to four different instruments that read music in three different clefs. Combining band and string students into one class makes it virtually impossible to attend to each child’s needs and monitor each child’s progress.

    The Vocabulary

    While there are a number of musical terms that are used by virtually every musician, the terms students must learn first are those pertaining specifically to their chosen instrument. String players must learn terms and symbols that describe bowing techniques, which are foreign to band students; while band students learn breathing and tonguing techniques, and various exercises (like lip slurs), which are basically useless to string students.

    Key Signatures

    Band students learn to play first in the key of concert B?, a key that suits all band instruments, including what are called the “transposing” instruments, such as the trumpet, clarinet, horn and saxophone (these are the instruments that are based in keys other than C, so that the music they play must be transposed appropriately by the publisher). The next keys usually learned by band students are concert E?, F, and A? – what are often called the “flat keys” because their key signatures are formed with flat signs. The “sharp keys” – whose key signatures are formed with sharp signs – are more difficult for wind instruments, and not begun in method books until level two or later.

    String students, on the other hand, begin in the key of D major, a key that is very difficult for those “transposing” band instruments, who would have to negotiate from four to five sharps, and a whole host of alternate fingerings that are not usually taught until much later on.

    Beginning strings students would normally learn the keys of G and A next, also “sharp keys.” Sharp keys are especially difficult for clarinetists, who must learn alternate fingerings for a number of notes just to be able to play a basic scale in that key.

    While this may be too technical for the non-musician, have them consider asking half of a typing class to learn typing the traditional way (ffff jjj fgf jhj, and so on) and the other half by typing, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” over and over!

    Textbooks and Repertoire

    There are no method books that address beginning band and orchestra together, just as there are no books that teach both French I and German I together. This adds to the music teacher’s already difficult load the task of creating learning materials from scratch that his class can use, if that is even possible.

    French students read Voltaire. German students read Goethe. Spanish students read Cervantes. Each language has its own standard, classic literature that students should have the opportunity to experience. The same goes for band and orchestra – they each have their own body of classic repertoire that students should have a chance to learn. Not until very advanced levels of literature are wind instruments included in orchestral repertoire (and then, only a very few) – and virtually never are stringed instruments included in standard band literature.

    Are there some acceptable alternatives to this situation? Yes! While meeting every other day is far from ideal, having band and orchestra meeting separately on alternate days is vastly preferable to combining the two classes daily. The best alternative, of course, is to view both band and strings classes as they are defined by our national educational policies – as core academic subjects. Provide adequate staffing (and facilities, and equipment) for both programs. Make it a priority. Give every student access to a quality, sequential music education, and therefore to the many proven benefits of studying musi

    Tracy E. Leenman has over 40 years of teaching experience at the elementary through college levels, including instrumental music, choral music, classroom music, private teaching, church choir directing, and teaching conducting and rehearsal techniques. 

    Currently the owner and CEO of Musical Innovations, a school music retailer in Greenville, S.C., Mrs. Leenman has served on the boards of NASMD and SCMEA, and served for 14 years as the president of the South Carolina Coalition for Music Education. A noted author and guest clinician, she performs regularly with the Palmetto Concert Band. 

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  • Brain Rules #5: “Repeat to Remember” (Short Term Memory)

    Mike Lawson | August 2, 2011

    Have you ever experienced something in your life where you could later remember every detail – what you wore, who you were with, what you had for dinner, and each conversation you participated in?  Paradoxically, have you ever forgotten where you put your keys, or your password for an online account? How many times in a given week do you have to remind students of a particular F#, or to pay attention to the crescendo going into the B section? And why is it that learning seems so tedious leading up to a concert, but there is a sudden leap in the learning curve right after a concert?

    In his best-selling book, “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Home, Work, and School,” Dr. John Medina speaks of encoding as the brain’s intellectual process of collecting and organizing information.  There are different types of encoding one uses to process new information, and the specific type has much to do with recall later.  Structural encoding is considered the simplest form, and involves identifying shapes like naming notes, rhythms, or musical expressions.  That’s how we recognize a “C,” an eighth note, or a crescendo.  Semantic encoding involves being aware of the definitions of words, such as understanding what a crescendo means.  Phonemic encoding involves comparisons of how words sound. There are many other types of encoding processes, but they share common characteristics among them.  Three of these characteristics germane to our discussion:

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  • Brain Rules, Part 3

    Mike Lawson | July 26, 2011

    Brain Rules 4 and 6: Attention & Memory

    After an introduction and overview of John Medina’s Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Home, Work, and School, as well as a close look at rules 1 and 2, in this installment we will concentrate on brain rules 4 and 6: “We don’t pay attention to boring things,” and “Remember to repeat.” Perhaps more than any of the other rules, these two exemplify the daily teaching goals of school ensemble directors in keeping their students’ attention, and teaching them in a way that they will retain the desired knowledge and skills. These two concepts are also interdependent and should be considered in tandem, or as Medina insists, “The more attention the brain pays to a given stimulus, the more elaborately the information will be encoded – and retained.”

    According to research, we all have a tendency to “check out” of a presentation, lecture, or class after about 10 minutes of concentrated focus. Although we don’t yet know why this is true, we do know that understanding human attention can help us design instruction to hold students’ focus long enough to effectively assure strong understanding and retention of the material. One’s attention is influenced most by memory, personal interest, and awareness. Normally our past experiences (memories) inform us as to what we should pay attention to. Different environments and cultures create different memory priorities, which is why one student can recall the exact words you used a day before but can’t say what you were wearing, while another vividly remembers the color of your shoes, but not what you taught!

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  • Using Exercise & Survival Instincts In the Band Room

    Mike Lawson | June 23, 2011

    Those of you with fully functioning memory might recall that we recently discussed an overview of Dr. John Medina's best-selling book: Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Home, Work, and School [SBO May, 2011]. We examined each of Medina's 12 "Rules" and briefly looked at how they might apply to the school ensemble rehearsal.  Now it's time to look more closely at how these findings can contribute to a better instructional experience for our students!

    It's important to note that the molecular biologist-author warns us that his principles are not prescriptive, but rather "a call for real-world research." He stipulates that brain research in one context can't be assumed or predicted as to how it works in another field. Medina does, however, give us ideas on how this research might apply in the real world, and this series of articles will explore some of these possibilities as they relate to music ensemble teaching and rehearsing. Let's start at the beginning then and see what we find!

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  • Brain Rules

    Mike Lawson | May 19, 2011

    Tony DeBlois represents a captivating example of the unique relationship between music and the human brain.

    DeBlois was blind and weighed less than two pounds at birth, and was diagnosed with autism at age five. But at age two, his mother bought Tony a toy piano on which he immediately was able to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” This was the very first time he ever touched an instrument! He soon won a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music, and graduated summa cum laude with a Certificate of Achievement for his work from the prestigious Boston school.

    Now in his 30s, DeBlois plays 22 instruments and has been performing professionally since he was 9. His precocious ability has been the subject of several media features, including CBS’ “Sixty Minutes.”

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  • Why Are You Still Here?

    Mike Lawson | February 3, 2011

    Can you believe that there are high school band directors who are still teaching band long after they have retired? In fact, most of those who continue on are still teaching the very school bands from which they retired. How and why would they do this? Classroom teachers might find this surprising, even unheard of, but for music educators, it so happens that this is a fairly regular occurrence. Could it really be possible that some educators love what they are doing?Can you believe that there are high school band directors who are still teaching band long after they have retired? In fact, most of those who continue on are still teaching the very school bands from which they retired. How and why would they do this? Classroom teachers might find this surprising, even unheard of, but for music educators, it so happens that this is a fairly regular occurrence. Could it really be possible that some educators love what they are doing?

    There is a phenomenon in public education that has been around a long time, but is now growing dramatically in many states: music educators, especially high school music teachers, are not fully retiring from the positions they have held for so many years. Instead, you might call it entering "semi-retirement." The idea is not new, but it is growing in popularity. In my state of California, there are many high school band directors all over the state who are continuing to teach band well beyond retirement. This may turn out to be the one of the few ways school districts feel they can hold on to their elective programs until the financial crises is over. Or it could be they really just don't want to let go of good teachers who are making a difference in the lives of kids.

    The process is quite simple. When a teacher reaches retirement age, he or she approaches the school district to see if retirement is a possibility. At the same time, that director requests to continue part-time and hold on to classes and/or programs he or she loves, still has a unique passion for, and has worked so hard to build over time. In most states, school districts can allow these teachers to work around 1/3 time and still make between $30,000 and $35,000 per year without penalty. This is not an automatic process, because the school district must first want these teachers back, but it does enable school districts to hold on to important educators and the programs they don't want to lose at a far lower cost.

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  • What Happens When Game Technology and Music Education Collide?

    Mike Lawson | November 27, 2007

    Some would argue that the answer to the question posed in this month's column's title would be: "nothing good."

    For years there has been an ongoing debate about technology and its use in music education and music making. A lot of this concern has centered on the issue of the technology getting in the way of the teaching.

    Many feel that technology actually harms the music education process since it could allow students to create music without actually knowing what they were doing. Other concerns often focused on how complicated technological applications are.

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  • “Look Ma, No Notes!” – Distinguishing Memorization from Music Illiteracy

    Mike Lawson | September 19, 2007

    K.M. Griesinger earned her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in music education from the University of Akron, where she is adjunct faculty. She has been teaching strings in Ohio schools for four years and privately for nearly ten.

    I played the piano quite well as a teen. I remember learning simple tunes at first and repetitious pattern-based exercises that I easily memorized, progressing gradually to Beethoven and Rachmaninoff. But I can also still remember my dear teacher playing through each new piece for me, then coaching and pointing as I stumbled painfully through a first attempt: "No, no, that is A-flat• no, a triad• right here." I simply watched and tried to make my hands create something that sounded like the melody I had just heard. I don't know if I ever would have known that treble and bass clef were different had I not studied flute and cello later. But then I got to college. As a music major, I spent my first two semesters panic-stricken, trying desperately to keep up in theory classes and quietly despairing in the back of the cello section in orchestra.

    I look back now and wonder: Did she ever know? Could my very first music teacher have overlooked the fact that I couldn't read all those years? And shouldn't that have been a priority in our lessons? The unfortunate truth is that many students are able to play or sing, but are essentially musically illiterate. We live in a culture that even promotes it; how about those infomercials with enthusiastic "experts" claiming you too can learn to play the piano by ear? Of course, to professional music educators, this method would be comparable to learning to speak the English language by listening to books on tape. Yet many music teachers will admit the problem is common, especially in large school ensembles where students can watch or ask each other and slip by unnoticed. As both a private teacher and an orchestra director, I have made the mistake of missing the warning signs. In recent years, I have begun to recognize potential non-readers and find they generally fall into one of three categories.

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  • Marching Band’s Place in Music Education

    Mike Lawson | October 22, 2006


    By Stephen Pratt

    Dear Mr. Smith,

    I am enjoying my first year here at Central State College. I just wanted to write and let you know how much band meant to me in high school. I?ll never forget all of the hard work, all of my friends, the thrill of competing against the other bands, bad times when we didn?t win, but also the great times when we did! You helped teach all of us how to work hard to be the best we can be, to set a goal and strive to accomplish it.

    If you ever put together an alumni marching band at Chathom High, be sure to let me know. I?ll be right there with my marching shoes on and my lucky reed in place!

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