The Secret Ingredient of a High-Quality Music Program

Mike Lawson • MAC Corner • June 15, 2020

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Every music teacher’s dream is to create and foster a quality program where students enjoy performing life-altering repertoire at the highest level possible.

Getting our students to that level while enjoying the journey of preparing for performances and learning the necessary skills is our daily task. While many teachers are able to accomplish this and do it alone, the truly successful music teachers are the ones who reach out for help and provide inspiring experiences for their students through inviting guest artists to work with their ensembles. If you are looking for a “secret ingredient” to raise the bar of achievement with your students (and yourself), start inviting guest clinicians to help nurture the process of music making.

You can’t and shouldn’t do it alone! Here are five ways guest clinicians positively affect your music program, even using Zoom or Google Classroom.

Connections. Music-making and learning is a people business. Students and teachers need regular reminders that there is a large music community beyond the walls of our classrooms, and by bringing a guest artist into the school, you are expanding the view of music education for young minds. It’s not just a “school” activity, it is something going on at all levels and in all areas. It is also important for you as the teacher to connect to the musicians in your area and have a relationship where you can call on them for help and guidance. Having another voice of reason is helpful with programming concerts, finding out about new composers, and learning new ideas and methods for teaching an ensemble. You don’t always have to bring in big names that cost a lot of money – sometimes a person that teaches nearby can be just as effective since they have different approaches than you. That being said, don’t shy away from asking for help from companies like Conn-Selmer or Yamaha. Many times, their education artists will come to your school, and you don’t have to pay anything, or very little.

Perspective. The students in your ensemble may have the utmost respect for you, but that respect goes even further when they have to welcome a new teacher with new ideas. One of the strongest ways for students to learn is by connecting what they hear you say regularly, to what a new teacher may support or enhance. One of the most beneficial experiences of having a guest teacher conduct your ensemble is having a chance to sit back and listen to your ensemble – you hear things differently when your hands aren’t busy conducting and turning pages. You also get to watch! When you are observing your ensemble, you see things you never would have been able to notice while managing the class. Lastly, you will undoubtedly learn a new way to explain something, rehearse something, or conduct something – take notes and add these methods to your ever-increasing instructional “bag of tricks.” Get in the habit of having a quick debrief conversation the day after with your students and see if you can gain some traction in certain areas of your ensemble (posture, tuning, rhythm, anything that the clinician zeroed in on).

Deadlines. It is wise to bring in a guest clinician because it forces you and the students to meet a deadline. That deadline might not be a concert, but it is an important checkpoint in the preparation process which may help motivate yourself and the students to be ready for that clinic. I would suggest bringing in a guest clinician midway through the concert cycle so there is room to improve after the clinic. Invite them to work on fundamentals too! Some of our most successful guest clinics have been when conductors take the time to teach about tuning, ensemble skills, and fundamentals that have a long-lasting impact on the ensemble and the entire music program. If you wait until the end of the concert cycle and everything sounds perfect, you are actually stifling the opportunity for the guest clinician to have a chance to teach and the students to learn!

Hosting. Your administration, co-workers, and students should be excited about hosting guest artists. This is a chance to have a service-minded attitude. Provide water, coffee, a small gift (think school swag or a thank you card signed by your ensemble), take them to lunch, invite students to eat lunch with the guest. The sky is the limit, and when your students get to be a part of this they will always go beyond your expectations. Take pictures, post to social media or to your school/parent news – make sure people see that you are introducing students to new people. Perhaps the best aspect of inviting a guest artist is the time spent hosting them and chatting before, in between, and after classes. Be sure to have them arrive extra early and build in some time after rehearsals are over so that you have time to visit. Often casual conversation and questioning can lead to great times of learning if you engage with your guest clinician. Ask them for advice about programming, education, conducting, topics you feel might be a weakness, or a brief overview of what they observed and suggestions for improvement. Be humble and listen!

Credibility. Nine times out of ten, when you bring in a guest clinician, you are solidifying the amazing things you have taught your students. Think of all the things your students have to do to be prepared for a guest clinician – cleaning up the room, setup, posture, notes, rhythm, watching, being flexible, connecting their prior knowledge and skills to new ideas, being creative, saying thank you, being professional and inviting, taking feedback (whether good or bad), and the list goes on. You taught them how to do all of this, so in the end it will allow you to be one level prouder of your students.

I wish you the best as you finish the school year. It’s still not too late to bring someone in to serve as a guest clinician. Start making this a habit and you’ll reap some huge rewards.

Glen Schneider is a music educator at Metea Valley High School in Aurora, IL, where he teaches a variety of wind and percussion classes. He also serves as director of the symphonic band at Wheaton College, and as an adjunct instructor at VanderCook College of Music.

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