Unthinkable. Unachievable! Unteachable? Part 2

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During the 1970s and beyond, Sylva-Webster High School set the gold standard for marching band excellence, including laying claim to a national championship in 1979. 

Yes, forty years ago bands were battling it out just as hard as they do today. The Golden Eagles won the Marching Bands of America Championship by outperforming 36 other groups from 13 states. Directed by legendary music educator, Bob Buckner, the Sylva-Webster High School captured the title with a score of 89.45 in front of a crowd of 12,500 at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Stadium. 

You can see their award-winning performance here. (FYI, the video quality is as bad as the band is great)

Sylva-Webster was able to achieve this honor without the aid of drill cleaning drones or computer-aided drill design. They had no access to a Harmony Director, clip-on tuners, or any electronics for that matter. Heck, they didn't even have staff.

In preparation for this article, I had the privilege and honor of speaking with then Sylva-Webster Band Director Bob Bucker about the band, and his fifty years of experience as a music educator. 

When I asked Buckner about staffing, he states, "We had someone come in and teach the choreography, but as far as cleaning it, it was up to my assistant and me. I wrote the drill and one of the charts, while a couple of buddies and my former theory professor rounded out the arranged the other selections. It's not like it is today, where a band director is much a personnel manager as they are band director."

And that's not the only change.

Marching band and music in general, has changed a great deal in the past forty years. Anecdotally speaking, I think it to be about 3% a year. In other words, if you play, sing, or move next year just as you play, sing, or move this year, your score goes DOWN approximately 3%. Why? Everyone else got better. Beyond the sheer volume of what we teach, the demand of what we are asking of our young people to achieve grows each and every year as well. Good is never good enough, and last year is the benchmark we are always trying to eclipse. 


Three percent may not seem like a lot, but when viewed over four years, it can be quite noticeable. In the span of your students' high school experience, the activity changes in very prominent and measurable ways. When viewed over more extended periods, the demand and achievement gap grows even more extensive. 


This isn't just anecdotal, we have evidence. The dot books grow larger as the set counts grow shorter. The demand within the percussion book is exceeded only by the choreography executed by the color guard. We're not just reaching a higher level of achievement, we're doing it with more material. 

"That national championship show had probably 40 pages of drill in it. As I judge, I am seeing groups with nearly three times that amount," Bucker states.

And this just isn't on a national level. It's occurring everywhere and in every part of our country and curricula. Concert bands are playing better. Choruses are singing better. Percussionists are musically stronger, and some high school orchestras rival semi-professional symphonies. Heck, just this past weekend, I went to watch my son in a marching band competition and was blown away by what my neighboring bands were doing. 

You're not just teaching more, you're teaching better. YOU HAVE TO. 

State departments of education require evidence of professional growth and development every 7-10 years to maintain your teaching certificate. How about you just hand them a performance tape of your group from 10 years ago and a tape of your last week's event and we call it good? 

Yes, we are asking and achieving more. What's next? I don't know. When will it end? Likely never. Perhaps it's not supposed to. But the what and when are not what matters. It's the HOW and WHY.

Bob Buckner shared, "I don't care who you are, you can't achieve at a high level without understanding how to create a culture of excellence, and the Sylva-Webster Band understood that. This small-town high school band in a county that only had 20,000 residents believed that they could do anything. And they did." 

Yes, with better teaching, we are achieving more than ever before. But more than that, we are also empowering students to take more responsibility for themselves and their fellow members. Leadership training, personal development activities, and good role modeling give students the tools to be successful in an ever-demanding landscape. Teaching, training, and modeling, that's the HOW.

The WHY? So students will be better prepared for life. 

Bob Buckner sums it up as eloquently as anyone when he said, "I recently went to a reunion of that championship band. The room was filled with over 150 adults, some educated, some not, but all successful in their own way. Through band, they had learned how to show up and commit every day. They learned to work hard, care about others, and make the most of what they had. I asked how many of them were still involved in music? I'll bet 75% of the people in that room raised their hands… It made me feel good. Made me proud."

And at that moment, I realized that even after forty years of escalating achievement, some things hadn't changed at all.

Not one bit!

Have a great week! 

Unthinkable. Unachievable! Unteachable?

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This is part one of a two part series on the evolution of music education.

"Early yesterday morning, in a misty park in Vienna, Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon in less than two hours. His time, 1:59:40, is the fastest any runner has ever covered 26.2 miles. Kipchoge carved two minutes off his previous world record and became the first marathoner to break the two-hour barrier. "

In a piece for The Atlantic author Paul Bisceglio notes that, "One hour and 59 minutes is fast in a way that's difficult to comprehend. Despite the formidable distance, Kipchoge ripped through each mile of his run in about four and a half minutes. This speed would feel like an all-out sprint to almost anyone who could keep up with him in the first place."

It's similar to Roger Bannister's historical feet of running a four-minute mile, but doing it TWENTY-SIX TIMES IN A ROW!

It wasn't quite an official marathon or record for that matter. Every detail was explicitly organized to help the runner break the two-hour barrier. Every detail was thought through, and orchestrated to give the runner his best chance at achieving his goal. Regardless of whether the record is official or not, the fact that Eliud Kipchoge actually completed a sub two-hour marathon is nothing short of astonishing. Some are calling it the greatest, fakest world record, but if you ask me, sprinting for two hours straight seems pretty darn real.

Kipchoge was not alone in his historical feet. This past weekend, Kenya's Brigid Kosgei won the Chicago Marathon on Sunday with a time of 2 hours 14 minutes 4 seconds, breaking the previous world record by 81 seconds.


Both runners credited their accomplishment to an advanced and systemic training regimen. One aimed not just at running fast, but aimed at breaking the boundaries of human performance.


Where will it end? Is there a finite capacity for what the human body can endure and accomplish? Is there a limit to how fast we can throw a baseball or run a marathon? Is there a hard ceiling to what how high we can jump or how much we can lift?

I suspect there is. I also suspect we have not seen that limit as of yet.

On a similar note, this morning, while at a teacher in-service, I spoke about being in awe of what kids are achieving in today's performing ensembles. Whether on a stage or a field, student achievement (musically and visually) is at a level that was unthinkable even as little as fifteen years ago. It seems like each year, I think to myself, "It can't possibly get better than this," and I find myself wondering, "Is there a hard ceiling to what kids can accomplish?"

And like our athletic counterparts, I suspect there is. I also suspect we have not seen that limit as of yet.

What is the reason for the growth? How did it occur? Have kids changed? Are they somehow more physically adept or musically inclined? Are they genetically bred to march more complex drill or play more demanding music?

No. They are trained to be better.

World-class marathoners needed world-class trainers and teachers to bring out their best. They needed someone who could see what they could not and help them find something in themselves that they were unable to locate. World-class athletes are who they are in part because of world-class coaching.

Who we are is determined in large part by who we are taught by. These Herculean feats of achievement were never unachievable; they were just unTEACHABLE. We lacked the time, knowledge, or experience to prepare people to reach these milestones. As we learn to teach better, people perform better. This is just as true in music as it is in athletics.

Student musicians are better today because teachers are better today

So as I sat this past weekend and watched world-class performances, I know that somewhere in the shadows lurks a world-class teacher. 

Have a great week!

KNIGHT SWEATS AND OUR SELF-ESTEEM

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If you met Christian Caruana, he would not stand out as remarkable in any way. Standing in running shorts and a hoodie, he is a bit undersized at 5-foot-6, has a lean frame, and a slight build. At first glance you would not think him an athlete, but hearing his training regiment might make you rethink that. Today's schedule: a 5-mile run, an hour of tennis, half an hour of basketball, and at least an hour of swimming.

And that's just his warm-up. When sufficiently warm, he will spend an additional six to eight hours in sport-specific drills and activities. 

What is his sport?

Chess. Yes, I said chess!

Caruana is, in fact, an American grandmaster in chess, the No. 2 player in the world. It turns out that competitive chess is physically challenging and burns a heck of a lot of calories. According to a recent article on ESPN's website, "A company monitored chess players during a tournament and found that 21-year-old Russian grandmaster Mikhail Antipov had burned 560 calories in two hours of sitting and playing chess, or roughly what Roger Federer would burn in an hour of singles tennis."

The article further states that "Robert Sapolsky, who studies stress in primates at Stanford University, says a chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day while playing in a tournament ... Grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners."

Some would snicker at the thought of chess being a sport or Caruana being an elite athlete, but apparently, the folks at ESPN would beg to disagree. 

Me? My first thought is that I have been dieting and exercising all wrong.

Music is not that different from chess. In fact, many of the great grandmasters were also musicians themselves. Both disciplines require:

  • a deep understanding of patterns and symbols

  • discipline and creativity

  • the ability to read ahead

  • an understanding of time, tempo, dissonance, and resolution

  • a great deal of time and training to understand

  • an understanding of math and artistic concepts


But more than anything, both are going through a renaissance of understanding and acceptance. Both are now seen as athletic as well as academic activities. Both are gaining the respect of not just their peers, but the world around them.


Music and chess are not alone in this renaissance. Cheerleading is now a highly respected competitive sport. Science fairs have evolved into state and national robotics competitions. DECA, FCCLA, and FBLA have nationally attended competitive events. Heck, ESPN, the self-proclaimed "worldwide leader in sports," now televises the National Spelling Bee.

More so than their adult counterparts, young people are open to change and are willing to respect people and things that are different than they are. They see and respect dedication and commitment, regardless of the craft. They are less likely to judge someone by the color of their skin, the contents of their wallet, the person they love, or the activities in which they compete. 

Young people have figured out what most adults have not; putting others down does not lift ourselves up. And being different can be more valuable than being the same. Today's young people, more so than at any time in our past, understand that it is not about what others think, it's about what THEY think. This is as important to music as it is to chess. 

Music doesn't need to be anything other than what it currently is. 

It doesn't need to be more or less important to be of value. It doesn't need to compete against anything else to prove its worth. It doesn't need to have a loser for someone to win. It doesn't have to be exclusively artistic or athletic; it can be both. It is perfectly perfect without trying to be something it is not. 

It is MUSIC. It cannot be compared to other activities, as there is nothing quite like it. It does not need to be justified, as it is omnipresent in our world and not going anywhere soon. It does not need to be defended, as it is not on trial for committing a crime.

Just as we should allow chess to be chess, we should let music be music — nothing more, nothing less. 


Trying to convince others that we are AS important, AS valuable, or AS athletic as they are doesn't make us any MORE important, MORE valuable, or MORE athletic than we already are.

We are who we are. And, as long as we know and are comfortable with that, we have already won the game. 

Checkmate!

Have a great week.

Problem Solvers vs Problem Creators

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America is a nation of problem solvers; it's a part of our cultural DNA. For over 243 years, entrepreneurs, corporate partners, and government agencies have been working collaboratively to address what ails, not just our country, but our world. Granted, we're not always quick to act, but once we engage, LOOK OUT!

Think about it, Americans have: 

  • Battled back tyranny, in not one but two, world wars.

  • Risen up to face natural disasters and help those affected.

  • Put a man on the moon. Ended polio (Jonas Sulk).

  • Created dwarf wheat to address a global famine and world-wide hunger (Norman Borlaug).

  • Changed the way the world travels (Henry Ford & the Wright brothers).

  • Illuminated our lives and changed the way we communicate (Edison & Bell).

  • Created the personal computer (Henry Edwards Roberts), as well as the internet you surf on (Robert E. Kahn and Vint Cerf).

I'm not saying that America is the ONLY place where innovation happens, just that our national identity is rooted in a strong work ethic and a can-do attitude.

Like I said, Americans LOVE to solve a problem.

And that's a problem for music education because WE'RE NOT A PROBLEM.

And that's a BIG problem.


If music education wants to get more time and attention, 
then we best stop acting like the problem solvers we are and become the problem creators we aren't. 


You want to get America to sit up and take notice? You want them to devote more time, energy, and resources to our activity? 

That's an easy fix.

Music kids just need to start failing more classes. And I don't mean, one or two. They need to start tanking in ALL of their classes. 

They can't stop there. These kids need to start mouthing off in class and picking some fights. 

They need to start smoking in the bathrooms and drinking during lunch.

And that's WHEN they go to school, which should be random at best. 

Eventually, these little underachievers need to drop out entirely and start meandering their way through the social services network until they emancipate at eighteen, where they can fade into a life of challenges, poverty, and heartbreak. 

If we can do that, music education will most certainly attract the focus of the masses and become the cause de jour for politicians and celebrities alike.

If you want to stand out in today's society, you have to make some noise, Break some rules and cause some chaos. Be a disruptor and go against the grain. To get people's attention, you have to focus on you and ignore others. You have to consider only the gain and none of the consequences.

But, that's not the way music kids operate. In fact, it's quite the opposite. As a general rule, music students are the very model of what you want a student to be: academically successful, involved, and responsible. They strive for excellence and are detail-oriented. They do what they're told and are kind and courteous to others. In short, they are the young people we want other young people to be.

And, that's no way to get someone's attention. 

Music education will likely never get the attention it deserves because our students don't create a problem to solve, and that is what America does best. By preparing our students for success in life, we have made them unsuccessful at failing.

I guess that means that WE are the problem. 

Have a great week.

Tim McGraw and My Musical Mortality

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Fifteen years ago today Tim McGraw's breakout hit "Live Like You Were Dying" was enjoying a meteoric and historic run atop the Billboard 100. The premise of the song was simple; how would you live if you knew you were dying?

Before you ask (and if you didn't, you should have), NO, I am not dying. I am entirely (well, relatively) healthy. 

However, I will die at some point.

I am not alone in my mortality. You will die as well. It's a universal fact of life: All living things eventually die. But the ability to contemplate, anticipate, and prepare for death is uniquely human. Moreover, it's often through contemplating death that we realize what is, and isn't, important in life. 

Back to the question at hand. if you found out you were dying, would you live differently?

For most of us, the answer would be a resounding YES. We would let go of the mundane burdens that have us plodding from one day to the next and pursue love, family, and happiness. 

Would your answer change if we were to add one word to the question?

Would you live your life differently if there were only a limited number of musical days to live? 

In other words, if you only had a small number of days to play and create music, would it change the way you approach music? For instance:

  • Would you hone your current instrument or learn a new one?

  • Would you play more and listen less? Or vice-versa?

  • Would spend time playing others' music or compose something of your own?

  • Would you learn a new idiom (jazz/baroque/etc.) or do a deep dive into your favorite artist?

  • Would you seek out an audience or play in the comfort of your own home?

I suspect that as is the case with life, if you knew your musical end was near, you would approach music-making very differently.

Thankfully, your musical end is nowhere in sight.

Sadly, the same is not true for many of our students.

We lose too many students too soon, to say nothing of those who never start. To be clear:

  • 40% of elementary students will end their instrumental journey after just nine months (or 40 classes.)

  • 30% of middle school music students will not continue on in music in high school.

  • 10% of high schoolers will return next year.

  • Seniors only has 135 musical days left.

Moreover, for those who make it through the musical gauntlet, 93% of them will not play again after high school.

THESE ARE SCARY NUMBERS

If this were a real disease with these mortality rates, it would be a national tragedy. If 40% of our youth were afflicted with an illness, there would be outrage. There would be a call to action by national celebrities and politicians alike working to raise money and awareness. Oh yeah, there would definitely be a telethon or two.

What is simultaneously disheartening and encouraging to me is that many of these pre-mature musical deaths are preventable. 

Quitting, apathy, boredom are treatable diseases. Academic pressures can be addressed. Bad information and bad decisions are correctable. Inexperienced teachers and ill-informed administrators can be guided. Awareness can be raised. With a concerted and coordinated effort, we can save these musical lives — not all of them, but many of them instead of seeing them cut short needlessly.

The issue of student retention is bigger than one teacher, one school, or one district. It's bigger than one publisher or one manufacturer. This is IMPORTANT, and we are losing too many kids to a CURABLE condition and it is unacceptable.

Back to our original question: If you know your students' musical lives were coming to an end, would you teach them differently? 

I know I would. I would teach like my student's to play like they were (musically) dying.

This is not the last time you will hear me talk about this. And I am not just talking. Stay tuned. 

Have a great week.

Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Re-inventing America’s Schools

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It was recently announced that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had created a two billion dollar charitable trust aimed at addressing two issues: homelessness and high-quality schools in underperforming areas. His educational initiative is called the Day 1 Academies Fund. 

He plans to launch and operate a network of high-quality free Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities. Bezos stated that the charitable trust will “create opportunities to learn, invent and improve, using the same principles that have driven Amazon's growth.”


(The following is my imaginary conversation with Jeff)

WELCOME to the education party, Jeff! 

You wanna help make America’s schools better?! You’re literally preaching to the choir in this room! Two billion to spend? WOW! 

You wanna help make America’s schools better?! You’re literally preaching to the choir in this room! Two billion to spend? WOW!

It seems like you might be staying awhile, so take off your coat and let me introduce you around. Don’t try the bean dip, it was repurposed from today’s lunchroom, which was repurposed from last week’s mystery taco day. Hungry? No worries, since lunch room improvement initiatives were rolled back, we got plenty of white bread and non-whole grain foods. Thirsty? You can wash it down with a sugary and caffeine-filled Monster energy drink from one of our vending machines.

Let’s make the rounds shall we? There are some people you may want to meet. They’ve been where you are and might have some good advice for you.

Oh, there’s Mark. HEY, MARK! Yep, he joined our club in 2010 when he gave two hundred million dollars to the Newark Public Schools. Impressive right? Well, it turns out that it was a five-year only project that yielded no measurable gains in student performance. Is he upset about that? Naahhh. He didn’t even participate in the project other than to close it down in 2016. He’s fine with it, but don’t mention anything about the elections, or Russia, he’s super touchy about that.

Wait, there’s Billy. Have you met Billy? He’s a swell chap that can rock a v-neck sweater like no one I know. Yeah, he’s all in on education. Since 2009, he and his wife Melinda have given over 215 million dollars to standardized testing and teacher performance initiatives. It turns out the premise that paying teachers based on student test scores was a faulty one and had no measurable impact. He doesn’t see it as a failure though as he said, “We now know what doesn’t work.” Such a positive outlook after so much money spent. He could have used that to improve Windows Vista or the Zune.

Ohhhh, look over there, in the corner, it’s the Waltons. No, they're not an acapella group! They're the board of directors for the Walton Foundation, or as you may know it, Walmart. They have dumped a ton of money into education and even produced the politically charged and profit oriented film Waiting for Superman

Hey guys, I want you to meet my new pal Jeff. He’s about to join our club. Can he get a t-shirt too? Only if he gives his money to charter schools? Ooooooohhhh, you’re not interested in public education? Good to know!

I am proud of you, Jeff. You are literally putting your money where your mouth is and are wanting to make a difference. It’s not every day that someone makes a gesture of this magnitude. I wish all billionaires followed your lead, and I mean that.

BBut keep in mind that by choosing to sacrifice salaries for a sense of purpose, teachers put their money where their mouths are as well. And while there are some exceptions by in large, America’s public schools are already more like Amazon than you might think. For instance:

  • 85% of your deliveries are successfully received and kept. Well, 85% of our students graduate.

  • In non-distressed areas (not an inner-city), your delivery rate is well above 90%. So are our graduation rates.

  • 67% of Amazon clients upgrade to Prime, similarly 69% of our students upgrade to college.

  • The average Amazon product rating is 4 stars, and 82% of people approve of their local school (4 stars).

  • Amazon operates massive data farms, we operate massive campuses.

  • Do you need to hire an additional 20,000 employees? So do we!

  • Lastly, Amazon seeks to be everything to every consumer, we are charged to be everything for every child

See, we’re not so different, but keep in mind that you can’t overnight academic success. Kids are not packages and schools are not fulfillment centers.

Anyway, Jeff, it’s been great getting to know you. I wish you all the best in your new endeavor, but I've got to run, my shift is over. Member of this club? NOOOO, I'm a server. This is my second job. I teach during the day.

Welcome to the club, please stay and mingle. There are lots of people to meet, but their stories are pretty similar. Spend lots, learn little. Be sure to bring a friend next week! Requirements? Well, being super-wealthy and having no experience with education is a good start…

Good luck, see ya around.

(end of my made up conversation)


Okay, back to reality.

Listen, I am glad that wealthy individuals are wanting to make a difference and invest in education. Really, I am.

But, it’s important to know that educational institutions can’t be governed by the same principles, values, and metrics that guide a for-profit business. The issues our schools face are complex and require a deep and nuanced understanding of student achievement and teacher development.

It should also noted that most of America’s schools are remarkably successful and are run by people as competent and successful as Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates. The ones that do struggle are almost always located in struggling communities, You cannot fix the problem without fixing the community. 

But most important of all, for our schools to rise to their truest potential we must trust, respect, and value these institutions for what they are, protectors of our youth and developers of our future.

Something to think about. Have a great week.

Scott

Re-consumption and Being a Creature of Habit

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I am a creature of habit. I run the same route, while listening to the same playlist, and come home to eat the same breakfast. 

My repetitive patterns are a source of great amusement in my house. My wife and children delight in mocking my repetitive life choices. They wonder aloud how I cannot be bored by listening to the same playlist or watching the same TV show over and over. 

It turns out that I require little diversity in my life and I like what I like. 

Based on recent TV and movie trends, I am not alone. Everywhere you turn, something old is becoming something new again. Whether it is fashion, food, or media, people are reveling in things from the past. To that point, The Office and Seinfeld are dominating Netflix, and fifteen years after airing it’s final episode, Friends just landed a record breaking syndication deal. Granted none of these shows are as good as West Wing, but we can save that debate for another time.

My love of all things patterned is not new and has been a part of me for as long as I can remember. But be fair, that’s just how children are. They crave predictability, patterns, and a sense of control. And if you ask my family, they will confirm that I am nothing if not an adult child.


It turns out that at an ever increasing rate, people are re-watching almost
as much as they are watching content.


A 2012 research paper by Cristel Russell and Sidney Levy explained this phenomenon as Temporal and Focal Dynamics of Volitional Reconsumption, which is a very long way of saying watching or reading the same thing over and over again. They break down the reasons for this behavior into four categories.

  • Joy: People who watch it simply because they enjoy the show.

  • Nostalgia: Humans like to revisit things from our past because of how it makes us feel.

  • Experiential control: KNOWING how the experience ends gives us a a sense of control in an uncontrollable world.

  • Re-consumption: By re-engaging with the same materials over and over we can more easily understand ourselves, our choices, and how our past differs from our present.

According to Russell and Lindsey, my desire to watch a 12-year-old episode of The West Wing is less about it’s political plot lines and more about experiencing a degree of quiet and control. It is a time where I can hear or think absolutely of nothing else, with no expectations of productivity or attentiveness. 

Teenagers today live in a whirlwind of expectations, academic and otherwise. They feel as if nothing is in their control as their minds, bodies, and feelings change on an almost daily basis.

This is where the redundancy and repetition of band, choir, and orchestra can be a source of comfort and quiet. Just as with media, students re-consume music for the same four reasons we all re-consume things:

  • Joy: We do it because we enjoy the activity of making music.

  • Nostalgia: We enjoy seeing progress and how it makes us feel.

  • Experiential Control: The predictability is a source of comfort.

  • Re-consumption: It helps us to understand ourselves and how we differ from others.

I think your music class serves a similar purpose for your students.

Spending months on end rehearsing the same materials, in the same way, provides an element of stability and control that is a source of comfort for many. They need not worry about what test is next, what they are going to wear, or what people will think. The ability only to focus on a tiny little dot (on a staff or on a drill sheet) with no other expectation is as much a source of distraction as it is an exercise in focus. They revel in the fact that the dot will remain unchanged and be a constant in their life. It is the same dot that was focused on yesterday and will be the same dot they will focus on tomorrow. Through it all, as the season comes to a close, they will grow nostalgic as they can see the incredible growth (musical and personal) that has occurred in such a short period of time.

Now if you will excuse me, it is 9:00 p.m on Tuesday night, and my couch and Martin Sheen are expecting me.

Have a great week.

The Troxler Effect and My Disappearing Students

Instructions: Look at the gif below for a period of ten seconds focusing only on the plus sign in the center of image. 

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If you stared at the image long enough you should have noticed that three things happened:

  1. A gap running around the circle

  2. The gap turned green

  3. The lilac circles disappeared leaving just the green circle rotating around the plus sign

This is called the Troxler Effect.

The Troxler Effect is named after Swiss physician and philosopher Ignaz Paul Troxler (1780-1866). In 1804, Troxler made the discovery that rigidly fixating one’s gaze on some element in a visual field can cause surrounding stationary images to slowly fade or disappear. This is known as filling-in, although it would seem to me to be doing the exact opposite.

How does it work?

Scientists aren’t exactly sure. But according to Wikipedia, "research indicates the effect is related to how neurons important for perceiving stimuli are adapted by the visual system. Unchanging stimuli will eventually disappear from our awareness while our mind will fill the areas where they used to be with the background information (or color)."


In the Troxler Effect, the magenta circles don’t actually disappear. If at the same time, someone else was standing next to you and looking at the same image but not focusing on the plus, they would clearly see the circles. Our singular focus (on the small plus sign) fools our mind into no longer seeing what is, in fact, right in front of us.


In short, by focusing on something small, we lose sight of the bigger picture.

I myself, have fallen victim to the Troxler Effect.

Many times in my career I stared at the little things for so long that I lost sight of the bigger picture. Many times I focused on the performance and not the process. Many times I obsessed over the product and not the process. Many times I was so singularly focused on the product that I lost sight of the persons performing it. I guess you could say that at times, I was so focused on the dots, drill, and scores that my students disappeared right before my very eyes.

With looming and immoveable performance deadlines, it’s easy, if not convenient, to fall victim to the Troxler Effect. It’s easy to forget that today’s rehearsal is one of hundreds, that Friday night’s performance is merely one out of dozens, and that next week’s score is just a small part of our student’s music education journey. 

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that music education is not a singular performance but is a collective experience meant to develop the young people in our programs. 

Just as in the Troxler Effect, when we focus on the little things, we lose sight of the bigger picture. Don’t worry though, it is still there. When Troxler gets the best of you, just stop focusing solely on the little things so you can see the bigger picture of what we do and and why we do it.

Have a great week!

Illusory Superiority and My Below Average Driving Skills

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Do you think you are an above-average driver? How do you compare with others as a parent? Are you better than most at dancing? On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being highest and 5 being average, where do you rank as a human being?

Regardless of your answer, statistically speaking many of you will answer these questions incorrectly. For some of these skills, you will think you are better than you actually are, and not by a little, but by a lot.

In a famous study from 1981, researchers asked people to rate their driving ability. More than 90 percent considered themselves above average. The irony is that by definition, only 50% of you can be above average, the remaining dolts must be considered below average. Yes, you might in fact be a good driver, but still be below average.

According to noted expert and Cornell psychologist, “The phenomenon, known as illusory superiority, (thinking you are better at something than you actually are), is so stubbornly persistent that I would be surprised if it didn't show up in all studies in which people rate themselves."

Now for the real question. Do you think you’re an above average teacher? Yes? 


If you answered yes, it turns out you're not alone. In an often cited study more than 90 percent of faculty members at one state university considered themselves above-average teachers. Even though you teach music, you know the math doesn't add up on this one. It turns out that as a profession, educators experience illusional superiority at a much higher rate than most other professions.


Yes, we teachers are a remarkably confident group. In fact, we're down right cocky!. How did we become so self-assured? How is that teachers have developed such a high degree of confidence? How do we know were so good? Apparently all you have to do is ask us. We'll be happy to tell you!

One group seems to be immune to such self-aggrandizement: our music students. 

Anecdotally speaking, student musicians are hard on themselves. I can tell you that in my travels I have found that most students vastly underestimate themselves as musicians. On a more empirical level, when I taught, as a part of every playing test, I would require the students to grade themselves prior to receiving my grade. In over 1,000 individual student tests, only once did a student ever give themselves a higher score than I did. On a personal level, my son refuses to believe that he is an above average player despite having taken private lessons for seven years and having a music teacher for a father. His self-doubt trumps my college education.

How could my students and my son be so wrong in their assessment? Was it something I said or did (or did not say or do) to make them feel this way?

  • Did I not help them to realize that they were learning a foreign language?

  • Did I not communicate that mastering an instrument was not something that could be done in just a few years but would require a few decades?

  • Did I not teach them that they were developing their brains in a way that their non-musical peers weren’t?

  • Did I not make it clear that just by being in the room, they were already in the top quarter compared to their peers?

Most importantly… How did I not teach my students that music was not a competition or something you compare and contrast. That they were all unique individuals, with different starting points, developmental speeds, and on different journeys?

I honestly don’t know and can’t remember but I do know that I wish I had been less concerned about how I thought I ranked and more concerned with how my students felt they ranked. I could have and should have done better.

And all of this time I thought I was an above average teacher. Clearly it was I who suffered from Illusory Deception.

FRIDAY NIGHT FIRSTS!

This Friday night my son, Brayden will perform in his first halftime show. In thinking about this momentous event, I was reminded of a blog I wrote five years ago. I shared it with my son, and thought you might enjoy it or want to share it with your students or parents.

- Scott


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FRIDAY NIGHT FIRSTS!

Admit it... There's a secret part of you that’s excited that the football season is FINALLY here. Gone are the long hot days of band camp and basics and now it’s finally time to see the kids in uniform! YEEEESSSS! 

You're likely just as, or more excited than your students.

For many of your students, this Friday night will be full of some very special firsts;

  • First pep-assembly

  • First high school football game

  • First time loading the bus

  • First time putting on a uniform

  • First time performing in front of a large crowd

  • First time under the stadium lights

  • First post performance pep-talk

It will also likely be full of some not so special firsts:

  • First wrong notes and bad tone

  • First missed drill spots and out of step students

  • First "time tear"

  • First electronic malfunction

  • First time where the melody can't be heard because of the drum line

  • First time a freshman cries out of fear and another out of joy!

Yes, today will be full of firsts, but not "lasts." All of these things will likely occur again (and again and again). Yes, not all firsts are good ones, but they are still special none-the-less.


Knowing how special this entire evening of firsts is, I encourage you to sit back, enjoy, and try and take it all in. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Celebrate the firsts for what they are, a starting point to a longer journey. There will be plenty of time for reflection and rehearsal afterwards, but THIS performance is different, for your students and for you!


For just ONE night, set aside your well trained ears and teacher goggles and enjoy the smiles on your students' faces. Take pride in the the memories you helped them to make. Enjoy the tear filled eyes of your freshman parents. Enjoy being under the lights instead of the burning hot sun. Enjoy the feel and smell of fresh cut grass instead of hot asphalt. Enjoy the friendships this activity fosters and the life lessons that are being learned. JUST ENJOY!

Saturday? That can be about analysis and correction. 

Friday is about celebrating the process and not the product, the people and not the performance. It's about celebrating the children who choose music and the impact you have on them. 

The first performance will be far from perfect. It may not even be good. But it sure beats the alternative, kids who have nothing to do, no friends to do it with, and no music in their lives!

Enjoy the firsts!