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The Benefits of Staying on Both Sides of the Podium

Tom Merrill • Travel/Festivals • September 8, 2016

Many of us have just completed another summer of performing in community summer bands or orchestras— the once per week, concert in the park ensembles that play a wide variety of repertoire.

(I’ve often thought that an enterprising composer needs to write a 60-minute piece titled Medley: Selections from Great Memorable Themes. They could make a fortune.) One thing I have seen many successful music teachers do is continue this performing practice into the busy school year.

During my years as a school band director, one of the rules I set for myself was that I would continue being IN music ensembles as well as in front of ensembles. I’m proud to say that this was something that I always managed to do, no matter where I was teaching or living. Sometimes while teaching in rural Iowa I had to drive an hour (uphill, both ways, in three feet of snow, etc.) to find a concert band to play in on a weekly basis.

Sure, I was tired. I spent all week, many hours a day beyond school hours, to do the work necessary to build and maintain a band program. But I knew that the benefits this would serve would far outweigh the effort to grab my clarinet, get in the car and drive to rehearsal. And once I was there, it usually ended up being a very reenergizing time.

There are a number of ways that continuing to perform will make you a better educator:

• It helps you remember what it is like on the other side of the podium, and all the things that you constantly remind your students to do. Watch. Listen. Balance. TUNE. It keeps your ears sharp, your fingers nimble and proper breathing in check.

• It can be an ongoing master class in conducting and rehearsal technique. Watching any conductor in action is an opportunity to learn…not just what works, but in many cases what doesn’t.

• It can be a terrific way to learn and test drive repertoire that you may want to consider for your own ensemble. It can help you discover those “rehearsal traps” that you might not see studying the score. Or, it may eliminate some poor choices before you even put them in front of your students (and spend budget dollars on the music).

• The social aspect of a community ensemble can truly help you not feel so alone. Being a music teacher can often lead to a rather monastic lifestyle, especially in a small community. We spend all day in the same rehearsal room, and go home at night to study scores, write drill, plan rehearsals and listen to recordings. At the very least, you will meet new people with a shared interest and love of music (just like when you joined your college ensemble). Most likely, you’ll find like-minded music education colleagues and help build that all-important network of mutual support.

• Teaching by example. We tell our students that music making should be a lifelong avocation. This is the best possible way to “walk the talk”. A compelling demonstration from my own experience was when I arranged a shared concert between the high school band I was teaching and the community wind ensemble in which I was playing. It was eye-opening for the students, and as a side benefit it expanded the audience reach of both groups.

If nothing else, it gets you out of the house for a couple of hours. For my flutist wife and I, wind ensemble rehearsal has become our “date night”… giving us a break from household tasks and being with our kids to spend time with grown-ups who have become dear friends. This particular group has challenged us musically to skill levels we last experienced in grad school. And it’s been tremendous fun!

It doesn’t even have to necessarily be the same type of ensemble you stand in front of every day. For almost as many years as I’ve been in community bands I’ve also been a church choir singer; to this day I perform in both. It can have the same observational conducting and rehearsal benefits, and doing something new (and out of your comfort zone) can be a great perspective reminder of what our students experience as they are learning their instruments.

Something I have never done, but I have seen other music teachers do, is use this as an opportunity to pick up a secondary instrument and brush up on those skills. Often community ensembles like this will be short on double reeds, percussion or low brass performers. Certainly you’ll want to have a conversation with the conductor first so that there is an understanding of your ability level and whether exposed solos are a good idea.

The bottom line is this—keep playing and singing. When the day-to-day struggles start to bog you down, this is an outstanding way to remember the joys that led to why we decided to become music teachers in the first place. And keeping that firmly in your mind will help ensure you pass that passion along to your students.

Tom Merrill is a music educator and the Executive Director of Festivals of Music. A lifelong musician, he plays clarinet in the North Suburban Wind Ensemble in Chicago, sings in his church choir… and still blames everything on his reeds.

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