The Benefits of Being A Little Nerdy

SBO Staff • ChoralFestivalsMarch 2019 • March 15, 2019

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In the April/May 2018 issue of Choral Director I wrote a piece entitled “The Importance of Our Ancestry,” which discussed the value of knowing the leading conductor/educators in our field.

(Want to go back and read it? Go ahead, it’s okay….I’ll be here…. Done? Awesome.)

After writing that piece, I decided to conduct an informal, tremendously unscientific experiment. I wanted to get a general sense of our awareness of these leaders in our profession, to see whether it makes a difference…and whether it has meaning.

Let me preface all this with something, loud and clear: what I’m about to share isn’t meant to shame or be judgmental. It’s not meant as an exposé, and I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers. At the heart of this was the desire to answer a question of marketing for our festivals—specifically, does promoting who is adjudicating our festivals resonate with directors. What I got was far more eye opening and perhaps worthy of contemplation, and I share this entirely in that spirit.

I created a list of 29 conductors—what I could fit on a single page. The criteria to be on the list was 1) they had to be living and 2) were leading educators based upon seeing them associated with state or national level honor ensembles, high profile guest conducting performances, etc. It was by no means an “all-inclusive” list…more of a random sampling. The list had 11 band names, 11 choir names, and 7 orchestra names. Beside each name were check boxes in three columns with the headings “band,” “choir,” and “orchestra.”

The object of the quiz was this: for any names you recognize and know which type of ensemble is their area of expertise, check the appropriate box. There’s no points for guessing…choose only those you recognize. Each participant would indicate what area(s) they teach, and how many years they’ve been teaching. And they weren’t limited to just marking those in their area—if they knew one from another discipline, they could answer those.

I then took this list to five music education conferences that I attended as an exhibitor, and offered this up for anyone willing to take it at the booth (with a free Starbucks coffee card as a thank you for their time). Three of the conferences were state level, one regional level, and one national level. I eventually had 50 people take me up on the offer; 12 college music education students and 38 teachers with anywhere from 1 to 30+ years teaching experience, with the average length of teaching time 9.45 years.

At first I thought maybe I made the quiz too difficult. So, like any good experiment, I had a control group… directors I know personally with 9 to 26 years of experience who also wouldn’t be hesitant to tell me whether I went overboard. Theirs were the highest scores, which somewhat ruled that out. The results? Among experienced teachers, with the control group removed, the average score was 4.5 correct answers. Among the college students, the average was 2.33. Ouch.

One anecdotal result was particularly interesting. Paula Crider, Professor Emerita and past band director at the University of Texas—and arguably one of the most respected in the profession—was on the list. At one of the conferences (I won’t reveal where), not a single person identified her on the quiz.

Dr. Crider was there that weekend, conducting the honor band. Double ouch.

There’s a number of possible takeaways from all of this. It’s understandable that the college students and teachers in their first or second year might not know these names. At the same time, I personally found it helpful early on in my career as a music educator to know who to seek out for reference recordings as I prepared works or was striving for a particular “sound” or interpretation. (A note of encouragement: most of the college students took a copy of the list so they could study up on conductors.)

Certainly the argument can be made that directors have so much going on in their programs that this awareness takes a back seat to more pressing day to day matters—and that would be understandable. Yet, the directors in the control group manage very active and highly successful music programs. It begs the question—can some of that success be attributed to knowing our history, and more importantly knowing whose examples to follow?

Friends have told me that it’s a matter of whether an individual finds value in this knowledge. Speaking for myself—guilty as charged. Because I would hate to see the lessons these educators could teach us and our students lost to the sands of time.

Perhaps it can best be summarized with this interaction. There was one young director who very quickly raced through the quiz, and ended up correctly identifying 15 conductors across all three disciplines. As I handed him his coffee card, I asked how many years he had been teaching. I was shocked when he replied, “Only five.”

“Wow!” I said to him. “I’m impressed. How did you know so many of these?” He replied that he spends time reading books and articles about the profession and watching conducting and performance videos. He summed it up with this: “I guess I’m just kinda nerdy about that sort of thing.”

There’s a quote attributed to James Baldwin: “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.” And being kinda nerdy probably doesn’t hurt either.

Tom Merrill is the executive director of Festivals of Music. He has over 25 years of experience as a music educator, travel planner, and festival organizer.

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