Muzakical Maestros and Background Noises

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For most people background music means Muzak. The much maligned soundscape was created in the 1920s by George Owen Squier, a former US Army officer who developed a new way to transmit audio through wires. 

His invention led to the creation of a company called Wired Music, which enabled businesses to broadcast music in offices and commercial premises. In 1934, in homage to the wildly successful camera company Kodak, Wired Radio was renamed Muzak.

Music, even when you are barely aware of it, can be surprisingly powerful. Over recent decades researchers have found that it can affect how much time we think, how we shop, and even how sweet or bitter food tastes. One study found that shoppers’ preference for French or German wine shifted according to which of the respective countries’ traditional music was playing from a nearby set of speakers.

There are two main ways psychologists think about the effects that music can have on us. The first is physical. Numerous studies have confirmed our common sense assumption that we often subconsciously match what we are doing to what we hear. In 1985, for instance, one study found that diners chewed at a faster pace when higher-tempo music was played. 

The second approach focuses on the associations that music can trigger and how the environment we are in affects those associations. One 1998 study found that diners in a cafeteria were willing to spend more money when classical music was played in the background than when there was no music at all. 

Sooooo....


We know for a fact that background music affects us. Now the question is, does the background noise of our lives affect our music?


Every person who walks through your doorway has background noise in their lives, including you. The noises can be intellectual, physical, or emotional. It can be professional or personal. It can be joyful or filled with sorrow. It's a fight with a spouse or sickness in the family. It's struggles with money or issues with children. It might be an impending celebration or a new relationship. It might be a spilled cup of coffee on a new tie or a traffic jam on the way to work. Whatever it is, these noises have an effect on our teaching and our student's learning. 

How does the background noise affect our teaching and our students' learning? I don't know, but I wonder:

In times of sadness does the music we make have a darker sound?
In times of joy are our tempos slightly faster?
In times of angst are our articulations harsher?
In times of anger are our fortes louder?
In times of confusion do we play more wrong notes?
In times of extreme sadness or joy do we play more sharp or flat?
In times of exhaustion, does the precision of our rhythms suffer?

It would be hard to quantify, mediate or account for all of the background noises our students bring each and every day, but it is possible to be aware of our own noises and how they affect our students. I know for myself, too often, in ways good and bad, I let the background noise of my life affect the music education experiences my students received.

And in that way, I guess I was their Muzakical Maestro.

In My (Musical) Life

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There are places I'll remember

All my life, though some have changed

Some forever, not for better

Some have gone and some remain

-The Beatles, In My Life

In the pantheon of iconic bands the Beatles’ stands above them all. And for me, In My Life sits in the upper echelons of their song catalogue. 

Set in a simple musical setting, the song's poetic lyrics tell the story of the totality of one's life. It reminds us that even long ago and forgotten places & people helped to shape who we are today. It also remind us that our daily interactions are just as powerful in shaping who we are as grand events or traumatic experiences.

This is equally true for our musical lives.

Setting aside the small possibility that a child will choose music as a profession, her musical education likely begins in Kindergarten and ends when she graduates high school. We hope and want our students to continue on but typically college or community bands are more music recreation rather than music education. In other words, the focus is more on enjoyment than for instruction.

So what does a "musical life" typically consist of?

  • 1,526 total classes*
    - 231 general music classes
    - 555 middle school rehearsals 
    - 740 high school rehearsals

But there are other milestones to mark...

  • 26 concerts

  • 40 halftime shows

  • 182 rehearsals in a year

  • 110 rehearsals left in this year

And ways to quantify time...

  • 167 pieces of literature

  • 7 broken stands

  • 240 reeds

  • 2 instruments

  • 3 method books

And then there is the unquantifiable…

  • Tears 

  • Memories

  • Friends

  • Laughter

And through it all they will likely have just FOUR teachers


It’s important to remember that while music making is infinite, for most,
music education is not. It has a defined start and end date.


And while each and every child is in a different place in his progress and process, they all have the same ending place. Like life itself our musical life has a clock that continues to countdown with the passage of each and every day.

Through those thousands of experiences YOU are among the precious few teachers who have the opportunity, responsibility, and privilege to shepherd these young children through this process. The task is not an easy one. It requires vision, patience, skill, commitment, and a caring heart. It requires skill and mastery that extends beyond the instrument and into the understanding of young people. It requires your all.

I have always said that "Teaching music is a soul sucking, life draining profession because music is a soul enriching and life changing activity.” And through it all you were there and you will be remembered and loved for it. Paul McCartney said it best when he sang:

Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I'll often stop and think about them
In my life, I love you more

Your days as a music educator may be finite but the depth of YOUR impact is not.

Have a great week!


* The numbers above are based on 182 instructional days, for twelve years, with general music every fourth day and daily instruction beginning in the 6th grade. The rest of the data is based on this formula.

Halloween, Non-Linear Sounds, & the Source of Our Angst

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I love Halloween! 

I mean, sure, it’s no Christmas, but in the pantheon of holidays it sits at the cool kids table and can rightfully make fun of its lesser counterparts like Groundhog and Talk Like a Pirate Day. 

Now I’m NOT advocating for bullying, but when a glorified mole is your mascot and your day centers around loose fitting shirts and talking like a four year old, I’m just saying that you're asking for problems. 

So yes, I like Halloween. I like the spookiness. I like the costumes. I like the communality of your kids coming to my door and my kids going to yours. I like the signaling of the start of the season of giving thanks. I like the candy! And, I love the music! Well, love might be a strong word because it incites more fear and angst than love. But there it is, music!

I know what you’re thinking, “Wait, Halloween has a soundtrack?”

Sure it does!

Think about Psycho, or The Twilight Zone . Not sold yet? What what do you feel when you hear these two chords?

In fact, it turns out that music is one of the necessary components needed to artificially create fear. Don’t believe me?

Wanna go swimming now? Me neither and research is showing us why.

It turns out that the key to having your heart race is just as much within the purview of John Williams as it is Steven Spielberg. What makes the suspense-building chords of the Jaws theme so scary? It is the density of the chords? Is it the lower register voicing? Is it his ominous scoring? Nope.


It turns out unpredictable and irregular patter in which they occur are the source of the terror? Music that has no perceptible melody, rhythm, or harmony are called non-linear sounds, and our terrified response to them is ingrained in us from birth.


Sounds without a perceptible reason for occurring (i.e. melody, tone, rhythm, & harmony) are most associated with fear. In fact, a 2012 study has found a connection between horror movie music and the screeches of young frightened animals. 

Researchers believe there are biologically-ingrained reasons why sudden, dissonant sounds and minor chords make us apprehensive. According to a study conducted by the University of California at Los Angeles such sounds, a dissonant chord, a child’s cry, an animal’s scream, trigger a biologically ingrained response by making us think we are being threatened!

This sound driven stimuli is not limited to the big screen either, it is used in pop music, television shows, and even in political attack ads. Which explains my unnerved response every time I see one of those. 

For many music is a source of beauty. For others it's a creative outlet. And for some, it's a chance to feel things on a deeper level. 

But apparently for ALL of us it is a source of consistency, predicability and comfort. Whether we realize it or not, music innately reminds us that moments of tension will be followed by a release. That dissonance will eventually be resolved and that loud can and will be balanced by quiet. It is not written in a text book but it is known within us just the same.

Music is yet another reminder that on some level, our minds and souls require some semblance of balance and blend. That darkness requires hope and that sadness will one day yield to laughter. What the study shows is that music can provide angst and imbalance when it is not serving its intended role, which is to remind us of balance.

This is among the many reasons why music matters for young people, because it provides BALANCE.

Being a young adult is a turbulent time, and whether they realize it or not, music makes it slightly more tolerable. It balances the highs with the lows and their sadness with joy. In their ever changing world, music and YOU serves as a necessary and consistent source of reason and rationality. For many young people, YOU represent someone and something that is truly dependable. 

Yes, they need music, but more over, they need you! 

See, that’s not too scary is it? 

Have a Happy Halloween!

p.s. Just so you know, later tonight I will be pillaging my son’s Halloween haul for Butterfingers. Don’t judge me, he’s my child and I changed his diapers, so I'm taking what I want.

March.com and Part of Your World

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A couple of weeks ago my buddy Dan said he was ready to try online dating. Tired of the club and bar scene, he was looking for something new. Like any supportive friend I told him I thought it was a great idea and that I would be happy to help. He said, "GREAT! Now, go write my profile.” And so I did.

But a lot has changed since I was single. When I exited the dating world in 2003, online dating was in its infancy and was a sign that you'd given up on real people. 

Fifteen years later, even the greatest hope for online romance has left the shadows and stepped into the sun as the primary place people turn to when seeking romance. While the Match Group (the Amazon of online dating) shows that digital matchmaking is big business, and that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of niche dating sites that are experiencing success by catering to the most specific and peculiar areas of interest.


There are sites for lovers of bacon, sea captains, and farmers. There are sites for smokers, Filippina Christians, Ayn Rand enthusiasts, and people who have the hots for hot sauce. If you can find a way to categorize a future mate based on a mutual love of something -- anything -- there's an app for that. But can you actually find love when you've narrowed your options in the name of, say, a common love of the movie The Little Mermaid? It turns out that the answer is an emphatic YES!


So, forget Match.com, where’s March.com?

I’m being serious. How do middle aged farmers get a website and a national TV ad campaign but 10% of America’s population get nothing? I smell opportunity here, well, that and sunscreen. I say YES to March.com! Ready for my ad campaign?

  • Want a dedicated spouse? Our clients carried around 32 pounds of sheet metal all summer. 

  • Looking for someone who can make a commitment? Our clients will show up six days a week, morning, noon, and night for months at a time!

  • Want someone who enjoys the outdoors? We're connoisseurs of bug spray.

  • Trying to find someone to share your Friday nights with? Just look two bleacher rows down.

  • Like going to concerts? Connect with someone here and create your own!

It’s not just me… My wife would (and did) say the same thing!

Full disclosure here, my wife and I taught at the same school when we started dating, and if I needed something I would just send one of my band kids down to her office to grab it. On one particular occasion I sent two of my favorite knuckleheads (Brad & Charlie Utter) to deliver something. They made some wise cracking joke as they were leaving, and as the class giggled, my wife said, “Laugh all you want, but those boys are special. Go on a date with the jock, but marry the band geek!”

And she did! (Wait, does that make me a band geek?)

In love and in life, we tend to look for people who share our values. We want people who are willing to make a commitment and can stick with something, or someone, until the end. We want people who are dependable. We want someone who is willing to put others before themselves and understand that the world does not revolve around them. We want someone who wants to part of a team and someone who respects that we all bring something valuable to the table.

In short, we want people who were once music students.

We want them as co-workers and neighbors. We want them as colleagues and community leaders. We want them as patrons and partners. We want them teaching our children and caring for our elderly. We want music people in every other facet of our lives, so why not our love lives?

So who’s up for a little coding and a lot of mockery as we tell the world: If you want the best of Match.com, go to March.com and let us show you some real (e)Harmony.

Remember, Ariel didn’t say she wanted to be part of your world, she SANG it!

p.s. FYI, within twenty minutes I had my buddy Dan online and getting responses such as, “This is the best profile on here.” and, “Best read on this site.” So, if this speaking thing doesn’t work out, perhaps I could be your "marchmaker." (see what I did there)

Our Nation's Store, and getting SEARious about Time!

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Sears was once the nation's largest retailer and its largest employer. In its heyday it was both the Walmart and Amazon of its time.

Formed in 1886 by railroad station agent Richard Sears, the company started as a watch business in North Redwood, Minnesota. Sears moved to Chicago in 1887, published the Sears catalog in 1896, and opened the first store in 1925. 

Sears' stores helped reshape America, drawing shoppers away from the traditional Main Street merchants. Sears brought people into malls, contributing to the suburbanization of America in the post-World War II era. Its Kenmore appliances introduced many American homes to labor-saving devices that changed family dynamics. Its Craftsman tools and their lifetime guarantees were a mainstay of middle-class America.

It wasn't just appliances either. Sears sold (and until Monday, still sells) instruments. Yep, that’s right, the American behemoth sold instruments to the likes of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Elvis Costello, and little Susie who sits third chair in your second ensemble.

Sears truly changed America and music education. And then Amazon and Walmart changed Sears.


We are a "want it now" and "want it cheap" society. This culture didn’t just appear, it has existed for over a century. In fact, it is how Sears came to be the nation’s largest retailer. They provided access to cheap products quickly (relative to their time). And I don’t suspect that we will be any more patient or less thrifty moving forward. The need for efficiency and the want for ease is what drove the invention of the wheel and fire, so we’re dealing with some serious historical evidence that says it’s here to stay. 


Don’t get me wrong, people see the value in investing time and energy into long term solutions. They also understand that, sometimes, you get what you pay for and that less expensive is not always the right choice. But, to override their initial reaction, you have to take the time and effort to educate them why fast and cheap does not necessarily mean the best value. 

This is where Sears failed. And, this is where music education fails.

Learning to play and instrument is NOT quick or cheap, and while we music educators understand that, most people do not. But, the ROI (return on investment) and value proposition is undeniable. Each and every person will benefit from this experience if they are willing to invest the time and stay the course. This is not a one semester or one year course. This is a multi-year commitment that requires TIME to be successful. This is where we are different from any other class in school. 

Think about it.

If my child takes a year of Algebra it is likely he will become proficient in Algebra. If he takes a year of American History, he will become proficient in American History. If he takes a year of Physical Science, he will become proficient in Physical Science.

If he takes a year of music, he will be NOWHERE near proficient in music.

If he takes two years of music, he will be a ways away from proficient.
If he takes three years of music, he will likely be approaching proficient.
If he takes four years of music, he will likely be proficient and or competent.

Perhaps one of the key issues that plagues music education is not lack of awareness or understanding of its importance, but the lack of awareness/understanding of the time it takes to be proficient. 

Awhile back I talked about the need for more time in student schedules (Time’s Up for Time to Be Upped) and I believe we need to be equally vigilant in educating students and parents about the time needed to be successful in playing a musical instrument.

As a part of this awareness, we might also find new and better ways to:

  • develop new ways to measure and show the student progress.

  • help parents better understand not just where their child is, but where they will be in six months, 12 months, 24 months, etc...

  • celebrate more mini-milestones of progress throughout the year

  • find different ways to assess progress other than ratings/grades/chair tests

  • use performances not as an act of finality, but as a measure of growth

  • help parents understand that saying NO when their child wants to quit is the right thing to do.

It’s time for us to create more time in this activity by dedicating more time to rethinking the perception of time required of the activity.

Music education, and our programs can (and will) stand the test of time. However, we might find greater success if we learn from the fallen iconic brand and get SEARious about teaching our school communities about the value of staying the test of time.



Jackson Pollack, Politics, and My Seasonal Angst!

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Anyone who reads this blog or has met me in person knows that I am a very opinionated person. Everyone would expect that as we near yet another election cycle I would be giddy with excitement, but in reality I hate election years. 

In fact, I hate the entire campaign season. I know I am not alone in this and I would speculate the most of America wretches at the thought of this bi-annual exercise in patriotic self-loathing.

I used to wonder about the credulity and the the wisdom of having a republic (in which we choose representatives to choose our leaders) versus a democracy (in which we vote directly for our leaders) but recent elections have me believing that the founding fathers were on to something when they decided to send delegates to decide whom should lead our country. Honestly, I would be happy at this point to send some people to represent me and make the decision if it would spare me going through the next four weeks.


What is the source of my grand frustration? Is it the nasty rhetoric? Is it the venom of our national discourse? Is it the misleading and degrading ads? Is it the fact that regardless of the outcome 50% of our country will be in celebration while the remaining balance will be in depression? 


Nope! It’s all of those flipping *%$#@### campaign signs on my street corner.

They drive me insane! 

Beyond the fact that I am a visually oriented person and all of these signs turn every street into a Jackson Pollack painting, it’s the simplicity of it all. All of these signs are trying to reduce the complexity and nuance of a complex governmental organization into a leadership quip or patriotic McNugget. 

Aaarrgghhhh!

This past week, while driving my son to school, I came across a sign for State Superintendent of Public Instruction which read, “Fix our Failing Schools.”

Really? Our schools are failing? Hmmmm. Despite the fact that there is NO EVIDENCEto support such a slanderous claim (in fact, all indicators show our schools to be performing at historic highs), he believes he will gain support by publicly shaming and insulting 100,000 teachers and the 350,000 students they teach.

Upon returning home I called the candidate and informed him that I had just dropped my son off at his highly successful public school, where he would be educated, exercised, & fed for pennies on the dollar all under the watchful eye of highly trained and skilled college educated professionals who would love him as if he were their own. I further let him know that I would like to see a list of these “failing” schools and the dates he visited them.

There was a long pause… and then a brief apology.

It’s easy to complain. It’s easy to point out the problem when you're not required to provide a solution. Admittedly, there is a self satisfying element of martyrdom in believing that only you can see and solve what others can’t. But this type of thinking is self aggrandizing and panders to the lowest common denominator by dealing in partial (if any) truths.

What does this have to do with this e-zine?

Sometimes, as music educators, we are no better than our political counterparts. We tear each other and this profession down bemoan rather than lift it up. We speak of what’s not working in music education instead of what is. We celebrate the negatives and ignore the positives. We speak in generalities that cloud the true facts and obfuscate the truth and beauty and impact of this art form. 

In short, in search of personal or public affirmation, we sometimes become our own worst critics. We become a living, breathing campaign sign against ourselves.

As the antidote to the political circus we are all about to endure, perhaps for the next four weeks we could all campaign for what is right with music education and our nation's public schools. 

We might not win an election but you can bet our street corners would look a whole lot better as our signs would be uniformed and stand in straight lines.

Psy-sticks, Anxiety, and Quieting My Very Loud Mind

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I have a friend who has a very successful professional life. This person is a serious and studious individual who is widely regarded as a thought leader in his field. People come from far and wide and pay considerable sums for his advice and counsel. As I said, this person is a serious and sober professional.

This person is also a psychic.

Yep, a real life bonafide tarot-card carrying paranormal. He sees, feels, and hears things that most of us do not. It has been this way for him for a long time and although he did not understand it at first, he has come to accept it as a part of who he is. He keeps this part of himself private and as he is concerned that his "day job" would suffer if his clients found out. 

As for me, I was fascinated!

My friend offered me a reading, to which I said, "HECK YEA!" 

Over the next hour I watched and listened carefully as he spoke of things and people in my past, present, and future. As we began to wrap up our session I asked if there was anything else I should know.


He paused, not as if he was unsure of what needed to be said, but how to best say it. He then said, “You need to quiet your mind. The cards I read and the voices I hear all say the same thing. Shut up! Stop talking. Stop thinking. Quiet your mind. STOP and BE QUIET! 


This was not the first time I had heard this. “SCOTT, STOP & BE QUIET!” was the mantra of my childhood. 

But I could tell he meant something different.

He followed it up with, “You need to take a breath, take a moment, and just be still. Still in your thoughts. Be still in your words and still in your actions. Be still.

Sometimes, in order to allow your better self to come out, you have to sit still and say nothing. But it's hard for you because but you fill every second of every day with something… The voices I hear and the people who love you are all shouting, Scott, be still and be quiet."

I must admit, his words gave me pause.

Being still and silent is uncomfortable for me. When not fully occupied my mind races and I am filled with anxiousness over things left undone and tasks left incomplete. I suspect I am not the only one who feels this way. In fact I know it.

Anxiety is now the most common illness in the US. And the stakes for our physical, mental, and emotional health couldn’t be higher. A recent study by Harvard concluded that stress either exacerbates or increases the risk of health issues like heart disease, obesity, depression, gastrointestinal problems, asthma, and more. In fact they further stated that health issues from job stress alone cause more deaths than diabetes, Alzheimer's, or influenza.

Their statement, be still or be sick. Their prescription for getting healthy? Music!

A study was conducted on participants who attempted to solve difficult puzzles as quickly as possible while connected to sensors. The puzzles induced a certain level of stress and participants listening to music produced a greater state of relaxation than any other thing tested to date.

They found that listening to certain music resulted in a striking 65 percent reduction in participants' overall anxiety, and a 35 percent reduction in their usual physiological resting rates.

In this age of constant bombardment, the science is clear: If you want your mind and body to last, you've got to prioritize giving them a rest and music is one of the best ways to do that. 

So let’s put away the fidget spinners and adult coloring books and do something that can actually quiet our anxious minds. Let's listen to my psychic and pick up our "psy-sticks" and make music! 


Tsundoku, Bernstein, & Bigger Bang for Your Bruck(ner)

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Tsundoku is a Japanese word for those who habitually and routinely acquire books without actually reading them. According to Wikipedia, the term originated in the Meiji era (1868-1912) as Japanese slang and combines elements of tsunde-oku (to pile things up ready for later and leave) and dokusho (reading books).

To be clear, Tsundoku is not akin to hoarding and the people who practice it are far from reality TV show contestants. 

The act of purchasing a book without the intent of reading is no accident. In fact, these bibliophiles are as proud of their carefully curated stacks as they are passionate about finding their next, soon to be un-read, novellas. 

And, it turns out that stacking books isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Multiple and well documented studies have linked student academic success to the size of their home libraries. In a 20-year study of 27 countries, researchers at the University of Nevada said the most important predictor of education achievement comes down to one thing: owning books. It further states that a homes with books in them can increase a child’s education level by 2.4 years.


Mariah Evans, University of Nevada, Reno associate professor of sociology and resource economics, stated that, “Even a little bit goes a long way,” in terms of the number of books in a home. Having as few as 20 books in the home still has a significant impact on propelling a child to a higher level of education, and the more books you add, the greater the benefit. 


In other words, Evans said, “You get a lot of bang for your book."

Whether it's nature (just being in the presence of the books) or nurture (having parents model the importance and value of reading) is irrelevant. What matters is that when young people are in the presence of or in contact with knowledge, they become smarter.

Taking that same concept to a more musical place, if we are in the presence of or in contact with music, would we become more musical?

What would the effect be if our music libraries were out and accessible to students. Imagine our rehearsal halls being more like libraries than acoustical cathedrals. What would happen if we had children rehearse along side Grainger, Mahler, and Persichetti. I wonder if we gave copies of scores to students, would see the same leap in musical achievement as having access to books does for academic achievement.

In short, I wonder if we give too much attention to what our students play, and not enough to how much they play.

When I was a teacher I would dedicate two full weeks of every school year to sight reading through the classics. I would pick out two to three new pieces each day and work through them. These works were not appropriate for contest as they might feature a weakness, or a soloist we lacked, but were worth playing nonetheless. 

Although I might not have the woodwinds to take Candide to contest, my students should still be exposed to this monumental work and its prolific composer. The same could be said for Mahler, Mozart and Hindemith and so many more. I will tell you that rehearsing master works without the pressure of a performance was one of the highlights of our year.

In my mind, I was just trying to cover for my shortcomings as a teacher. It just didn't seem fair to the students that just because I couldn't be successful at contest with a piece, than they couldn't experience it. I didn't know that I was "Tsundoku-ing," but there I was, surrounding the students every day with stacks of music that I knew would never be performed.

Perhaps (and I mean perhaps) as music educators we spend so much time rehearsing and perfecting our "contest literature," and not enough time being imperfect with non-contest literature. As a profession we leave so little time for kids to just be around and explore music. Think about it, from the moment they start on an instrument to the moment they stop playing, we dictate virtually every note a student plays and every rhythm they read. 

Perhaps instead of focusing on our ensembles volume, they and we might be better off focusing on their volume of materials.

That would provide the biggest bang for the BrUCK(ner).


Elevators, Crosswalks, and Pushing My Buttons

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I am a button pusher.

I am, by nature, not a patient person. Throughout my life this has proven to, at times, be both a blessing and a curse. But, over time I have come to accept it as a part of who I am. 

If you were to observe me in an elevator or at a street crossing you would likely witness me pressing the call button multiple times with such fervency and urgency that you might think that I was sending a signal with morse code. 

You say, “But Scott, the call button is already lit.” 

I don’t care! And yes, I am fully aware that pressing the call button over and over doesn’t speed up the process, and yet there I am pressing it anyway. And I’m not stopping there either!

Once in the elevator, I will press the “door close” button to no obvious avail. Upon reaching my room I will promptly press the thermostat buttons to adjust something that has already been pre-programmed and and surf the internet using a router with set speeds that will not vary, no matter how many times II refresh my browser. 

Argh! All of these useless buttons are starting to push mine!

It’s true, our lives are filled with buttons that do absolutely nothing.


Crosswalk buttons have been overridden by traffic algorithms. Elevator door speeds are dictated by the American with Disabilities Act, thermostats are set for energy optimization, and the internet, well, it’s just the internet. 


And yet the buttons remain... Why?

It turns out that while they have no functionality, they do have a purpose. They provide a calming placebo effect for the user allowing him to believe he has control. In fact, they are called "placebo buttons" -- buttons that can be pushed but provide no functionality. Even though they lack functionality placebo buttons remain because, for most people, doing something (pressing a useless button) typically feels better than doing nothing.

In your ensembles you have some students who are true musicians. People whose talent is as evident as it is effortless. Budding artists who could, and should, make a career of this activity. It is also likely that you have students in your ensembles who are little more than button pushers. People whose musical contribution is as suspect as it is awkward. 

But that does not mean that their musical experience is without value.

Although pressing the buttons on their instrument may not achieve the desired musical result, it still provides a positive result. The placebo effect for these young people is that for 52 minutes a day they have the illusion of being in control. Their time in school is not wasted, is of their choosing, and is something they enjoy. It occupies their mind and calms their soul. If nothing else, your class allows their teenage mind a much needed hit of dopamine and they are doing something, which feels better than doing nothing.

So for today, and perhaps only today, let’s acknowledge and appreciate your button pushers. Yes, they may not be achieving our desired results but the placebo effect is achieving a great deal. 

So let us celebrate the button pushers, as long as they aren’t pushing yours!

Have a great week!

Middle School Mania and Our Non-Musical Development

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When Marsha Richins started researching teens and materialism in the early 1990s, it was a subject that had mostly been left to philosophers and religious thinkers. In the intervening decades, Richins, a professor of marketing at the University of Missouri, and others, have contributed a good deal of academic research that backs up some of the wariness people have for millennials and their pursuit of worldly things.

As parent of a middle school child and a former middle schooler myself, I can confidently state that for both the parent and the child, middle school is less than a pleasant experience. Angst, anger, and raging hormones create a cocktail of emotional insecurity that is challenging for everyone involved. I think Ms. Richins sums it up best when she says,


"I think of seventh grade as being the worst age of a person’s life. It’s fraught with all this insecurity that kids have about, “Who am I? Do people like me? What kind of person am I?” 

How do we navigate that? 

"Well, our appearance and the things we own are some of the ways we do that. And so a kid who’s not very self-confident is going to maybe feel a little more self-confident if they’re wearing the right kind of clothes or have the right things. Here we’re learning, right off the bat, that having things can help us define who we are.”

So how do we wean kids off of “things” and help them feel more confident about who they are? It turns out Ms. Richins thinks that music might be part of the answer.

"I have this hypothesis, which I’ve not really been able to test. It seems to me that if a child has certain intangible resources—maybe they play a musical instrument and they’re in the band—they would maybe develop some friendships based around that shared experience. Maybe their parents are saying, “Wow, I’m so proud of you for sticking with band and you’re practicing your trumpet.” This can give a child a sense of who they are beyond just possessions, but that’s an intangible thing. So if kids have more things like athletic skills or activities that they can talk about or form connections with friends over those things, they can feel good about themselves through many different kinds of things. And if you’re lacking other kinds of things—if you’re lacking intangible resources—you might want to fall back on tangible resources.”

I think few, if any, of us would need for Marsha to prove her hypothesis for us to believe it. 

She is intuitively and instinctually coming to understand what we have know for years, which is that music education is about more than music, it’s about how we teach it. It’s about providing a safe environment for young people to thrive. It’s about being able to make mistakes in a pressure free environment. It’s about understanding that it’s not what you wear or the things you have but who you are on the inside. It’s about emotional expression and personal development. It’s about the person holding the horn and not the horn being held by the person.

In my blogs I don’t do enough to celebrate middle school music educators, but Ms. Richins reminds me that my son’s middle school experience would be a whole lot worse without his band director, Mrs. Fisk.

Now, if she could just teach him to clean up after himself.