Math and the Magical Chalk-Apocalypse

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My dislike and disdain for math has been well chronicled in this blog for may years. I hold no contempt or ill will for the subject, I just respectfully keep my distance. Given my butchering of geometry in high school, I suspect math holds a similar viewpoint towards me.

As a general rule mathematicians are not known to be an overly superstitious or sentimental group. Known more for their analytical skills than people skills, their personas appreciate facts and figures in lieu of flights of fancy. They see the world in more black and white terms and typically find comfort in the ability to not only see problems, but systematically and methodically solve them in a provable way.

Or so I thought.

Recently, an 80-year-old Japanese chalk company went out of business. Nobody, perhaps, was as sad to see the company go as mathematicians who had become obsessed with Hagoromo Fulltouch Chalk, the so-called “Rolls Royce of chalk.”

Being neither a mathematician nor a chalk artist, I heard about Hagoromo through an article I read. The article talked about the cult like following the chalk has developed among mathematicians and the chaotic effect its demise is having on this distraught community. In fact, the demise of Hagoromo chalk has created such a demand that some professors have begun hoarding and hiding their supply. Professors have begun stashing chalk to the extent an underground black market has begun dealing in a very different white dust than we are used to.

Satyan Devadoss, a Williams College math professor, even wrote a blog post calling it “dream chalk.” He explained:

We are truly in the midst of a chalk-apocalypse!

What is it about this chalk that makes it so special? What possible property could it have that turns these otherwise sane and rational people into people who believe in “mystical and magical properties that must surely emanate from the tears of angels?” 

Sounds more like a Grateful Dead concert than a math convention to me. 

Is it a unique gloss coating? Is it a manufacturing process? Is it the actual chalk used to create the sticks? It doesn’t really matter. 

What matters is that a mathematician's days are filled with concrete concepts and absolute answers. They deal exclusively in binary states of right and wrong and while mathematics can be a very creative field (so I am told), that at its most basic element is not as creative a space as the human spirit requires. 

More than anything, for me, this shows that:

These people want to be a part of the community.
They want to believe in something that isn’t provable.
They want to appreciate that which can’t be measured.
They want to feel something that can’t be explained.

I can appreciate and understand this. It’s likely some of the same reasons I like playing a wood marimba or why I like the chalumeau register of the clarinet. Their love of all things Hagamoro is not that different than my love of all things Grainger. I can’t explain or measure it. I just know it.

Not everyone in the world will be a musician. Not every child will participate in music. But the reasons for its existence are so universal that they manifest itself across every country and throughout every civilization. As humans, we are a creative being. We need to exist outside of just our minds and the vacuum of our own little world.

This is why what we do is important and why you make a difference. MUSIC MATTERS AS MUCH AS MATH! And that is a theory that I can prove.

Just don’t tell Mrs. Stone, my high school geometry teacher. She always said I would one day appreciate math.

- Scott

p.s. You can still buy this chalk here

I Am No da Vinci… Thank Goodness!

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Leonardo da Vinci is known to one and all as the iconic figure of the Renaissance era. His area of interest were ass wide ranging as they were impressive and included invention, drawing, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography. Whew!

This week the world paused for a moment to celebrate his extraordinary life and accomplishments on the 500th anniversary of his passing. As a part of the homage CNN produced a retrospective and timeline of his life. The interesting and interactive web portal allows you to enter your age and see exactly what Leonardo was working on when he was your age. (Do not proceed if your ego is frail or you're struggling with self-esteem issues).

Ugh… Well here it goes. I typed in my age (52) and here is what appeared:

"At the age of 52, having completed the sketch of the Vitruvian Man and painting of the Last Supper, Leonardo began work on his most famous masterpiece, the Mona Lisa (I don't need to hyperlink that do I?). He was also working on a monumental mural at Florence's Palazzo Vecchio, (The Battle of Anghiari) which would have been his largest painting at more 56 feet in length."

Seriously!? Like my feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt weren’t enough, now I have to use the "Grand Master of all things" as my mid-life (crisis) measuring stick? 

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That not enough to make you want to crawl back in to bed and contemplate the insignificance of your life? Well there’s more. It turns out that in addition to painting some of the world’s greatest masterpieces, by his 51st birthday he had about had enough spare time to sketch out designs for the first helicopter, adding machine, parachute, military tank, double decker bridge and wait for it…. city of the future!

Clearly, I am no da Vinci.

Many historians regard Leonardo as the prime example of a Universal Genius and marvel at the fact that his singular greatness seemed to know no bounds. 

After extraordinary life and art, expression and invention, Leonardo da Vinci died at 67 years of age on May 2, 1519, leaving two notable holes in his expansive body of work.

Music and education.

Yep, that’s right, to the best of our (documentable) knowledge, da Vinci was never a true musician or a teacher. Yes, his work inspired and helped to educate but there is no evidence that he formally taught. And while It is considered Leonardo thought music second only to painting in the importance of his artistic talents, history has left us with little in the way of written evidence regarding his musical abilities other than a few very brief melodies. And while he designed several musical instruments, there is no evidence he could actually play them.

After celebrating his enumerable impact and incomparable mind last week and this incredible profession we call our own this week. Let’s wonder in the fact that the things that eluded history’s greatest mind, are things you do with ease each and every day.

Yes, it’s true, I am no da Vinci. But then again, he was no music educator.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week. 

-Scott

Social Media Influence, Impact, and Vanity Metrics

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Late last year the Daily Mail identified Ralphie Waplington as Britain’s youngest social media influencer. Ralphie, who is two, has twenty thousand Instagram followers. For most of his life he has been an unknowing model of baby clothes and other infant paraphernalia. His parents photograph him according to briefs they receive from commercial partners; members of his extended family must seek approval before posting their own photos of Ralphie, as an off-message or picture might harm his brand.

Ralphie Waplington has a brand? Or should I say, Ralphie Wapligton is a brand? Seriously?! Ralphie Waplington sounds more like an accountant or distant relative to Paddington Bear than he does a social media icon. But as famous as he is, he’s nothing next to the social media behemoth that is the Kardashians.

They are the queens of the social media influencers and are known world wide despite my having no desire to keep up with them whatsoever.

Maybe it’s just me, but the term “influencer” also sounds slightly sinister, and could be and should be a cast member in the new Avenger’s End Game movie. Seriously… 1.2 billion dollars in revenue in three days?! That’s what I call influencing people to spend money. 

According to Webster’s Dictionary an influencer is a person or thing that influences another. In a more modern era, an influencer is someone who utilizes their status to get others to behave in a way they want or purchase things they endorse. And in this respect, the Kardashian’s and their sister Kylie Jenner have hit the ball out of the park. In fact, they have so much money, they built a newer even bigger park to hit it out of.

Social media influencers have a massive world wide audience that includes tens of millions of people. And yes, people will buy things because the Kardashian name is on it, but for me, that is not influence, that is marketing and there’s a difference.

Marketing is selling something. Influence is changing a behavior. And one is far easier than the other.

Take Kim Kardashian for instance. She has 60 million Twitter followers and 130 Instagram followers. Impressive numbers to be sure until you realize that it's just a vanity metric (something that makes you feel better but has no real value) and does nothing to actually measure influence. For instance, her latest string of tweets talk about her visit to Bali and encourages others to visit soon. The tweet which was sent out to 60 million viewers got 56,417 likes and 3,453 re-tweets. But how many people will actually be moved to visit Bali because of her tweet? Let’s just put it this way, I don’t think Bali will be seeing a sudden and unexpected influx of tourists in the coming months? Her reach was wide, but her influence was small because we did not act upon it.

Is she an entertainer? Yes
Is she a distractor? Yes. 
Is she popular? Yes. 
Is she smart? I suspect so.
Is she an influencer? No.

At least not to my way of thinking.

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True influence requires you to be a real part of someone’s life. It requires that you show up each and every day in good times and in bad. It means that there is mutual respect between the influencer and the influencee and that you are acting in good faith and looking out for them more than yourself.

Does Kim Kardashian really want me to visit Bali because she thinks it is best for me? Or, is she wanting me to visit Bali because there’s money in it for her? Intent, is what she is suggesting benefiting me or her? That’s the difference between influence and marketing.

Yes, Ralphie, Kim, and every other social media star may have a massive reach with their audience, but they are not influencers. They are marketers and entertainers.

You know who the real influencer is? YOU ARE! 

Yes, you are the daily voice that reminds, specifically your students, that;

The group is more important than the individual.
Hard work is required for success.
Commitment means doing what you say and saying what you will do.
Tolerance for others is part of being a part of a group.
Selflessness and self-sacrifice are a part of being.

You “follow” their lives. You truly “like” and “heart” them and when they REALLY need it you skip the emojis and give them a real smile and a hug. 

As a music educator, your influence is as real as it is profound. And that’s no vanity metric.

Ba(n)d Driving and My Illusory Inferiority Complex

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I willingly admit (and my wife will attest to the fact) that I am a bad driver. It’s not that I lack the requisite skills, it’s that I lack the necessary attention span. So much to see and look at as I cruise down the road…. RED LIGHT! 

Apparently, my willingness to acknowledge this shortcoming puts me among the small minority of Americans.

In a famous study conducted in the 1980’s, researchers asked American motorists to rate their driving skills. An astonishing 90% of people responded that they were "above average drivers", which as you know is a mathematical impossibility. With the mean average being 50%, this meant that 40% of respondents were either blissfully unaware of their lack of skill or just outright lying.

This act of self-deception is not limited to specific skills and abilities, as similar self-congratulatory results have been found in many other arenas and professions, including education. In a recent study, and at a prominent state college, when professors were asked about their classroom performance more than ninety percent of faculty respondents considered themselves "above-average" in the classroom.

Wait, if asked the same question, how would I have answered? How would you? I think we both know the answer to those questions.

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What is the reason/rationale behind the cognitive disconnect? Arrogance? Pride? Ignorance? How did we get to a point where we have become hyper-critical of others while being blind to our own inadequacies?

So what brings our illusive superiority/inferiority? Researchers determined that there were four reasons why someone’s perception of their skills might not match their actual skill in both good and bad ways. They are:

1. Your personality. People tend to be overconfident of skills that reflect one’s underlying personality or character. For instance, if you are naturally outgoing and gregarious, you might have an inflated sense of your ability to tell a joke or make a friend.

2. Your gender. People tend to have a misguided perception of their skill sets when it comes to tasks typically associated with gender, i.e., women tended to over inflate their ability to cook a fine meal, while most men saw themselves as being better able than others to fend off a Zombie apocalypse (both of these are real examples from the study)

3. Your measurement rubric. If the evaluation of the skill set was more subjective (such as being a good friend), they rated themselves higher than if the evaluation was objective (calling or writing your friends regularly).

4. Your experience. The greater the level of experience someone has, the more likely they were to be over-confident.

It turns out that the confluence of persona, gender, measurement, and experience determines how we feel about not just the task, but how we feel about ourselves as well. Scientists believe that as an act of self-preservation most people will seek areas in which we are comfortable in our persona, role, assessment, and experience.

I know this to be true of myself.

As I teacher I believed in myself and what I was doing but was I truly pushing myself. My school(s), were low SES (socioeconomic status), but that was my personality. I was an authoritarian teacher, but that is my personality. My accolades were aplenty, but to be clear, I knew how to choose literature that would be received and rewarded well. This is what I learned from my experiences.

To any and all who surveyed the landscape, it appeared I was the captain of my ship, but secretly wondering how I had managed not to hit an iceberg after all of this time.

Whether out of vanity or embarrassment, I kept my weaknesses hidden and my blindspots covered. I worried about being found out for the “hack” of a conductor I secretly believed I was. I may have been the captain, but I wasn’t charting a course in untamed waters, but rather in waters I knew where the dangers might lie. Social scientists would suggest that I am not alone in these behaviors.

But as music teachers we cannot completely escape the exposure that comes with our weaknesses. Our professional world cannot be completely filled with things that match our natural personals. We must deal with the certain and uncertain. And our work is measured by both objective (ratings/scores) and subjective (artistic) ways of making art. And while each day has its rituals and routines, it is often accompanied by the unpleasant and unexpected.

So there we are, bouncing in-between the bi-polar status of illusory superiority and inferiority, and just trying to balance it all in some manageable and meaningful way.

No matter how hard I put on the “front” of being the man & musician in-charge, I was often secretly just hoping that nobody would notice, that in some situations, the man was nothing more than a scared little boy.

It is part of our human nature and our profession to be self congratulatory and self loathing from time to time. Just remember, it’s okay not to be as confident as you appear, because I promise that you are not as inferior as you sometimes think you are.

We are all perfectly perfect just as we are. We are also all perfectly imperfect just as we are. It just depends on the circumstances.

And remember to wear your seatbelt when I’m driving.

Have a great week.

Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more…

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In 1999 my band’s competition show was Shakespeare’s Henry V. We took the music from Kenneth Branagh’s iconic film score and married it with Shakespeare's text to create an unforgettable production. At one point, the entire ensemble actually recited one of the play’s most iconic lines, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead.”

This iconic soliloquy is among Shakespeare’s finest. The literal meaning of this phrase is “Let us try one more time,” or “Try again,” but also speaks to perseverance, brotherhood, and fighting for what is right.

This applies to more than just war, it applies to music and education.

In their recently published book, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, researchers Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine spent six years traveling to some of America’s highest performing high schools in search of excellence and innovation. 

Mehta, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Fine, who runs a teacher preparation program at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education, were convinced that they could and would find commonalities among these standard bearers that could be qualified, quantified, and replicated in other lower performing schools. They were convinced that high performing schools would be incubators of innovation and would have the answers. 

They were wrong.

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They found that, “In lower-level courses, students were often largely disengaged; while in honors courses, students scrambled for grades at the expense of intellectual curiosity." When they asked students to explain the purpose of what they were taking and learning, their most common responses were “I dunno.” and “I guess it’ll help me in college.”

They went looking for excellence and innovation but were unable to find it, until they happened upon it by chance.

As they spent more time in schools, they noticed that “powerful learning was happening most often at the periphery — in electives, clubs, and extracurriculars. Intrigued, they turned their attention to these spaces. They followed a theater production. They shadowed a debate team. They observed elective courses and extra-curricular activities.”

They noted that, “Students who had slouched their way through regular classes suddenly became capable, curious, and confident. The urgency of the approaching performances lent the endeavor a sense of momentum. Students were no longer vessels to be filled with knowledge, but rather people trying to produce something of real value. Coaching replaced ‘professing’ as the dominant mode of teaching. Apprenticeship was the primary mode of learning. Authority rested not with teachers or students but with what the show demanded.”

More radically, what was powerful about extracurriculars is that students were supported in leading their learning. They were taking responsibility for teaching others and gradually becoming the ones who upheld the standards off the field. The researchers concluded that the" more we can create similar opportunities in core subjects — giving students the freedom to define authentic and purposeful goals for their learning, creating opportunities for students to lead that learning, and helping them to refine their work until it meets high standards of quality — the deeper their learning and engagement will be."

After reading this I was truly shocked. (And I say this with genuine sincerity and without sarcasm.) I was SHOCKED that they were shocked. I was stunned that with all of their training and experience that they were unaware and did not understand that:

  • Innovation and excellence were exclusive to high performing schools. 

  • Advanced rigor does not necessarily mean advanced achievement.

  • Students are being shepherded towards classes for academic prestige.

  • Students in the arts are more successful in school.

  • Student ownership and engagement are increased in the arts.

  • true learning and education does not begin or end in a classroom.

  • Life-learning replaces wrote-learning in the arts.

  • That leading (in the arts) is as important as learning.

  • Higher standards of learning and behaving exist in the arts.

Frankly, I am also shocked that they would need six year to come to this conclusion. I would think six minutes would suffice. I am also surprised that this is seen as so revolutionary as to warrant a book or be published as a treatise in the New York Times.

I would expect this from a lay person or a parent. I might be more understanding if this had been written by someone who had no children or experience with our education system, but these are two thought leaders who are influencers in educational circles. They shouldn’t need a microscopic analysis to see the obvious.

I truly wonder how could this be. How did these two people and everyone else no know what we knew?

As advocates and artists, where and how did we fail? How have we not properly communicated the message that MUSIC MATTERS to our professional community? After all, we have a captive audience (parents), willing participants (students), and a mountain of data (empirical and anecdotal) which paints a clear and compelling rationale for the arts as a part of every student’s daily life.

And still, the experts remain unaware, unimpressed or apathetic.

The fight for music in our schools is real and must be fought with zeal. We must wage an informational war without fear of being wrong and absent an apology for being right. We must not be willing to accept defeat or be dismayed by small setbacks. We must pursue this with a vengeance and ferocity that is unmatched as we fight for not only our professional lives but our students future s. 

So join me my brothers and sisters and head,

"Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more…"

Have a great week.

p.s. Our profession recently lost not only a giant of a musician but a giant of a man. Sam Pilafian, a pioneer in brass performance and pedagogy passed away from colon cancer at the age of 69. The New York Times did a wonderful job of eulogizing him. You can read it here. God speed Sam… God speed.

p.p.s. My summer calendar was released yesterday. Click here to request a date.

Tim and I are Barnstorming Down the California Coastline

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As I mentioned last week Tim and I are on the road and making our way through the golden state in search of the perfect guacamole.

AND WE MAY HAVE FOUND IT!

But more on that in a bit.

Prior to our session in San Jose, Tim and I sat down with Saratoga High School director extraordinaire Michael Boitz (chapter 3 in my book Leader of the Band) and answered some of the questions you submitted last week. Just prior to the taping I learned something new about Tim that was a bit surprising. Take a look at the clip below and see what it is.

By the time you read this, our week long adventure will be almost half-over and I can honestly say that it has been everything I had hoped for, PACKED houses, great kids, and some real quality time with a man I truly respect and admire. I put together this trip for selfish reasons. I did it for me... And guacamole!

If you are looking for more than the perfect recipe, you will want to watch the video. Chucho took us through the art of making and presenting the perfect guacamole.

We hope you have enjoyed this little snippet of our trip. For those of you who chose to follow us on our journey, you will get more updates throughout the week or you can follow us on social media below.

- Scott & Tim

Questions & Answers...

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Last week I asked for your questions and the response was amazing. I received over 100 questions. I sorted through all of them and choose a few that I thought might have a broad appeal. I hope you enjoy!

Where do you see band in 10 years? - Jonathan

I'm not buying into the doom and gloom naysayers. In fact, I believe music education is experiencing a renaissance. The economic downturn and decreased funding “thinned the academic herd” and left fewer offerings to lots of kids which means an opportunity for growth. If you need evidence, know that instrument manufacturers are reporting higher sales than in recent years and are projecting growing demand for the foreseeable future. Beyond that, it is getting harder to ignore that music also offers a high profile and cost effective (it is cheap, trust me) educational option that helps boost academic performance. 

What’s your best travel tip? - Travis

Don’t! STAY HOME! Seriously, after spending 45 hours in the Denver Airport two weeks ago during the Polar Vortex Bomb, you’ve got a lot of nerve asking that one Travis! Jeesh, show a little sensitivity would ya!

Okay, this might not be the best tip but it’s one most people don’t know about. When booking a trip, look for flight numbers with three digits (Flight #423). Most of the time, this means it is a full jet and is not operated by a regional carrier. Smaller jets/regional carriers have more maintenance issues and fewer people and parts to fix them. So when things go wrong (and they do), you have more chances of getting to where you need to go.

Oh yeah, and don't go through Denver in March!

How do you earn students' trust and get them to buy in when you’re a new director? -Samantha

Director transitions are like elections. There will always be a small faction of students who are happy, a small faction of students who are sad, and the majority who are sitting in the middle and just want to move forward. Don’t play to either extreme. It might make you popular with one group but will make you the villain with the other. Above all, be consistent. Show up every day. Teach every day. Treat kids with respect and smile every day. You fight drama with consistency.

What some of the most successful (profitable/easy ) fundraisers? -James 

James, I have been hearing a lot about a Colombian Cartel that has met with modest success with drug trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion. If that seems too remote, consider putting that color laser printer to good use and just printing the darn money yourself. I am not printing in your state, just in case you decide to pursue these revenue streams.

I think that increased demands on kids' time and safety concerns associated with door to door sales have rendered most individual forms of fundraising to be largely ineffective. I believe in telling the parents up front what all the costs will be and let them choose to pay or fundraise. Honestly, when my own son comes home selling stuff, it frustrates me that I have to buy something I don’t want in order to give 60% of the revenue to someone other than my child’s school.

I am a fan of things that do not involve selling products and have low over head and high margins such a “a-thons, change drives, and donations.” (Ethical disclosure here: I am part of Fundraise Genius, a new startup geared specifically towards crowd sourced fundraising for music groups.

How do you deal with those days when you make great lesson plans, only to have reality set in, or everything fall apart, when the students come to class (way) less enthusiastic than you? This seems to happen more on Mondays. - Richard

Only Mondays? Heck that happened to me four days a week! You must be doing something right. In fact, you ARE doing something right: YOU ARE LESSON PLANNING. Regardless of whether the class goes your way or not, I applaud you for studying your scores and making a plan! Sounds like the kids are not as enthusiastic as you are. Consider mixing some things (or everything) up. Change seats, music, lighting, temperature, warm-ups, testing, rewards, grading, programming, etc.

I am starting out the school year at a middle school 6-8 band program with no music prior at the elementary level. What is the best progression? - Nathaniel

If you want to know how to give a giraffe a bath, you should ask someone who gives giraffes baths. I taught high school my entire career. I would sit down with a successful beginning band teacher, buy them a cup of coffee, and ask for their advice. By the way, when bathing a giraffe, you will need a ladder. 

How do you build a relationship with an administrator that constantly, publicly touts his support of your school's music program when there are awards and accolades to be announced, but not when it comes to the brass tacks of building, running, and supporting the music program? -Anonymous

Keep in mind, you have one administrator and they have 50 different programs. Consider it your job to support him and not the other way around. A bit of a paradigm shift perhaps, but effective. To get him to join your team, you must first join his. I have not yet met an administrator that WANTS to do the wrong thing, but I have met plenty that disagreed with me on what the "right thing" was. Stop by his office every couple of days with a quick hello or question. Let him know that you support him and appreciate him… See if he returns the favor down the road. If not, sign him up for every Kardashian fan mail account you can find.

No question, I just wanted you to know that I think you are wonderful in every way -Mom

Thanks Mom! I love you too. Sorry about choosing percussion, in hindsight that was a mean trick to play on you!

Can we fix music education by adopting a more reasonable method of class scheduling? -Jeremy

In short, NO! It is not about “reasonable methods of scheduling,” it is a question of time. Increased rigor and accountability, coupled with higher graduation requirements only work if there is adequate time to meet those requirements. "A" hour classes and summer school are now the home of any kid wanting to keep music in their day for all four years. This isn’t about reasonable class scheduling so much as it is about needing to extend the school day and or year!

What do you suggest for dealing with a (percussion) section that NEVER listens. - Mike

Scotch! Not for them, for you! Seriously, if I knew the answer to that I would write a book and be rich. As it stands, I have written six books and am not rich, so clearly I am not the guy to ask, plus I am a percussionist, so I am sticking with my answer… SCOTCH!

Hope you enjoyed! Have a great week!

- Scott

p.s. Check out tomorrow's email for something kind of fun.

Chess, Big Mac's and Music to Your Ears

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Tanitoluwa Adewumi, age 8, skidded around the empty apartment, laughing excitedly, then leapt onto his dad’s back. “I have a home!” he said in wonderment. “I have a home!”

A week ago, the boy was homeless, studying chess moves while lying on the floor of a shelter in Manhattan. Now Tani, as he is known, has a home, a six-figure bank account, scholarship offers from three elite private schools and an invitation to meet President Bill Clinton.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote last weekend that "Tani is a reminder of the principle that talent is universal, even if opportunity is not. As a Nigerian refugee who had learned chess only a bit more than a year earlier, [Tani] had just defeated kids from elite private schools to win the New York state chess championship for his age group. He lugged a trophy nearly as big as he is back to the homeless shelter."

Now, the story gets even better!


After Kristof’s column appeared a GoFundMe drive was created and raised more than $200,000 for Tani, his parents, and his brother. A half-dozen readers offered housing — in a couple of cases, palatial quarters. Immigration lawyers offered pro bono assistance to the Adewumis, who are in the country legally and seeking asylum. Three film companies are vying to make movies about Tani.


The best part of all is that one week after being homeless, with the world as their newly found oyster, the Adewumis chose to; 

  • Forgo the opulent homes in favor of a modest apartment they could afford.

  • Use the $200,000 to start a foundation helping other homeless refugees.

  • Take on a third job that was offered so as to be self reliant.

  • Return to PS116, their local public school.

Kristoph wrote, "The family was tempted by the offers of full scholarships at top private schools. But Tani and his parents decided that while he might accept such a scholarship for middle school, he would be loyal and stick with the public elementary school, P.S. 116, that taught him chess and waived his fees for the chess club.

'This school showed confidence in Tanitoluwa, his mom, Oluwatoyin Adewumi, told the P.S. 116 principal, Jane Hsu. 'So we return the confidence.' And then, overcome with emotion, the mom and the principal hugged.”

In an era of school choice, with every option on the table and their child’s future at stake, they chose a public school. 

I don’t think I am incorrect in saying that Americans are a spoiled bunch. Myself included. We take things for granted that others in less fortunate places do not. We ignore the good and complain about the bad, when truly there is little to complain about. The Adewumi’s story is exceptional but not necessarily unique and serves as a reminder of the work our public schools do on a daily basis for the fifty one million students it serves.

We pick kids up and take them home.We feed and clothe and care for them before, during, and after school.We exercise their bodies and their minds.We provide structured, supervised, and safe social interaction.We expose them to art, music, poetry, and other forms of beauty.We provide therapy, counseling, and intervention when needed.

And it’s not just the WHAT we do, it is the HOW and SCALE that we do it on. To put it all into perspective, America’s public schools:

  • Help more people each day than Amazon.

  • Employ more people than the federal government.

  • Have a higher customer satisfaction rate than Mercedes, BMW, and 32 other auto-makers.

  • Teach a foreign language to a higher percentage of people than Rosetta Stone and DuoLingo.

  • Have a lower failure rate by far than other small-medium sized businesses.

  • Serve more Americans food each day than McDonald’s and Burger King COMBINED.

  • Have four times more locations than Walmart, Target, Krogers, and Costco COMBINED.

  • Transport more people each day that Uber, Lyft, and all airlines COMBINED.

  • Provide physical activity for more students than all sports COMBINED.

  • Watch more children before & after school than all child care companies COMBINED.

  • Provide music to more children than Apple Music and Spotify.

But most importantly, we provide a host of quality adults to serve as role models, sherpas, and servants on children’s pathways to adulthood. Yes, you are proud to be a music educator, but sometimes we forget to just be proud to be educators. We don’t just serve America’s future, we ensure the SUCCESS of it!

And that should be music to EVERYBODY’S EARS.

p.s. I am thinking of doing a question & answer blog next week. Send me your questions, doesn't have to be music related. I will attempt to answer anything!

p.s. Sound Leadership, is now back in stock and shipping. Thank you for your patience.


Operation Varsity Blues, Snowplows, & My Failure as a Teacher

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While the rest of America is obsessing over the college admission bribery scandal, I am too busy reminding my boys to clean up their mess, practice their piano, and close the cabinet they opened to care very much. As a former guidance department chair, my wife is a little obsessed with it, but it hasn’t slowed her down from packing their lunches, doing their laundry, and planning their playdates.

Are we doing too much? Perhaps, but we're not alone in doing it.

recent poll conducted by The New York Times and Morning Consult showed that if parents don't stop handling things for their children, the fall out is significant when they become adults. Children of these parents are often woefully unprepared not just for post secondary schooling but life as an adult.

Helicopter parenting, the practice of hovering anxiously and monitoring your child’s every activity, is so commonplace that it has become more of a norm than an outlier. Taken to an extreme, these Hollywood parents have resorted to lying, cheating, and bribing their children’s way into college.

Code-named Operation Varsity Blues, the college entrance bribery sting operation has shocked the country as privilege and wealth were traded for access and opportunity at some of America’s most prestigious universities. Celebrities and millionaires buying their children’s way into college is certainly an extreme example but the underlying desire to help, assist, and shield children from risk, failure, or disappointment is as common as can be regardless of your social status. It even has a name. It's called Snow Plowing.

And in it’s less outrageous — and wholly legal — form, lawn-mowing and bulldozing (synonyms for snow plowing) has become more and more commonplace among not just the privileged elite, but for the everyday child.

After reading the article I sat and reflected on my own children and my parenting choices. Was I guilty of snowplowing? Yes. The sad part was, my snowplowing lifestyle was not just limited to my personal life, but extended into my professional life as well. As band director, did I ever:

  • Choose literature that shielding my students from risk or exposure? Yes.

  • Attend an event or contest that best suited my ensembles? Yes.

  • Feature an accomplished soloist over a novice in order to score higher? Yes.

  • Ask my music arranger to write to hide exposure to error? Yes.

  • Excessively remind my students to practice instead of having them fail? Yes.

  • Ever take a pollyanna approach to take a negative and make it more positive? Yes!

OMG! I’m not just a snowplow, I am a world class SNOWBLOWER!

I am sure at the time I was able to justify my choices. I am sure that they were rationalized with educational objectives and couched in student centered decision making. But, I am also relatively certain that there was some risk aversion going on as well. While stating that I was making my decisions for the good of my students, I am certain that there was an element of self-protection involved as well.

Being a music teacher involves risk. Unlike most other educators, our product/performance is on display for the world to see, hear and be judged (literally). Then our results are published for all to cheer and jeer. 

Knowing this, can you blame me for snowplowing? Can you see a little of it in yourself? I suspect so.

Darwinian thinking states that the strongest will survive. And that placing oneself in unnecessary peril is not an act of strength and bravery but one of cowardice and stupidity. We do what we must to avoid risk and exposure to pain. We seek to find more joy and hide from most anguish. In short, we do what is necessary to not just survive, but thrive as a person and a professional.

Is it right? I don’t know. If I were to return to the classroom would I continue to be something of a snowplow? I suspect so.

As a parent and a professional, I am trying to do what is best, and protect those in my charge. I mean no harm and do it from a place of love. Have I crossed the proverbial line into a place where I should be wearing snow pants? Perhaps, but it's hard to know since I don’t know where that line is. Can you show it to me? I lose sight of it from time to time.

All I know is, look out Ivy League, because here come the Lang boys! 

Now, anybody got 100K I can borrow?

Have a great week.

p.s. In all candor, when I was stuck in the Denver Airport for 44 hours last week due to the Polar Vortex Bomb, my mother checked in on me every four hours and even offered to buy my hotel room. So yeah, I come by my snowplowing naturally.

p.p.s. If you ordered a copy of Sound Leadership, please be patient. I ran out of stock TWICE! Your books will be there shortly.

p.s.s. I am playing around with the look and feel of the newsletter. Give me some feedback.

Bill Murray and the Brain Drain of February and March!

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Imagine yourself hosting a party or a family gathering. You invite a group of friends and are celebrating a milestone or a special event. The party is going strong and you realize you are out of glassware. Not wanting to slow the momentum and energy, you sprint to the kitchen to get some glassware and you see Bill Murray in your kitchen doing your dishes.

No, you're not imagining it. It really happened.

Murray has been an iconic figure for nearly half a century. Through it all he has remained as accessible to the every day man as he is elusive to the paparazzi. To that point, for years now Bill Murray sightings have been the stuff of urban legend. In recent years, without any notice, the internationally known comedian and film star has:

According to IMDB, He’s popping up in so many random places that there’s even a website and a documentary by Tommy Avallone to tracking the actor’s whereabouts and activities. "The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man is an inside look at rare and never-before seen footage of the comedic icon participating in stories previously presumed to be urban legend. Whether it be singing karaoke late at night with strangers or crashing a kickball game in the middle of the afternoon, Bill Murray lives in the moment and by doing so, creates magic with real people. "

Why does Murray do it? What’s his motivation?


According to Avallone's, the answers lie both in Murray's films and the reflections of those he's touched in real life. “For Murray, life itself is a form of improv: When a situation arises, he meets it head-on and responds not as it should be but as he wants it to be.


To the person, everyone who has been a part of his impromptu drop-ins says they came away from it feeling not like they'd met a movie star, but like they'd been lifted up by the experience. He lives entirely in the moment, they say, and it's never about him. 

I have never been especially good at living in the moment. I rarely savor a victory or revel in an accomplishment. My instinct is to move on and tackle the next problem. For most of my life this was more than my mentality, it was my identity, and I suspect will always be. You may be similar in this way. But, in recent months, like Murray I have felt more compelled to stop, watch, and listen. I am wanting to be a participant more than a leader and be WITH them instead of in FRONT of them.

Why do I share this? Because I know how BRUTAL February and March are for a music teachers. Registration deadlines, contest, school musicals, all-region auditions, concerts, and the like have us running ragged and always wondering, “I don’t have time to go to the bathroom, how am I going to find time to fill out a purchase order?” The demands and deadlines are as real as they are non-negotiable. But as you navigate through your day, perhaps you might remind yourself that we work with children. We create art. And that spontaneity and joy are more than a part of the artistic process, they are necessary parts of a healthy human experience. In the end, no one will remember your contest scores, they will remember how you made them think and feel.

Bill Murray’s adventures teach us an especially poignant lesson for an age when so much of life is lived outside the moment, via social media, where so many make it all about themselves. In the end, Avallone's film isn't really about Bill Murray at all, but his example. And it might be easier to emulate it than we think.

p.s. Look for a special announcement in your inbox tomorrow.

p.p.s. If you see or know Bill, please tell him he is welcome to "drop in" on any of my sessions!