Siri vs. Clippy and the Hard Truth About Music Education!


If I asked to you name a company that has more subscribers than Netflix, collects more cloud computing revenue than Google, and has recently been the most valuable company in the world, could you do it? Go ahead and take a guess. I’ll wait (insert timely pause).

Buuuuuuuzzzzzz! Wrong answer!

(Well, I am assuming you had the wrong answer, because I did). 

Facebook, you say? Nope! Feeling pretty smug with your answer of Apple? Well, wipe that smug look off your face because they're not it! Amazon? Turn that smiley face upside down because you’re wrong!

It’s Microsoft. Did I just say Microsoft? Word! (mic drop)

Online columnist Dave Pell writes, "In short, it has become the start-up story of the year. Only, the company started up in the year 1975. Yes, they seemed to miss the early promise of the internet, they wildly misjudged the potential of the iPhone and couldn't create a half-decent competitor, and the social networking movement passed them by. I'm not even mentioning Clippy. But these days, the evil empire turned unlikely underdog is back on top. And did I mention they also do Windows?”

The perception is that Microsoft is dated and on the downside but the reality, and the data, states that it has never been healthier. In an article from Bloomberg News, authors Austin Carr and Dina Bass paint a surprising picture of a dynamic company on the rise.

As an avid Apple user and fanboy, this pains me. How is this possible? I thought for sure the newer and shinier FAANG companies (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, & Google) had long surpassed and were far superior investments and organizations. But the true data would suggest otherwise.

Despite the old adage, perception is not in fact reality. Reality is reality. This is just as true in music as it is in business.

If I asked you what the trends are in music education, you would likely say that participation is down and that music in schools are struggling. And you would be wrong. In a recent report released by Music Trades Magazine, a well respected industry trade magazine, last year was a successful year in almost every measurable way. 

In 2018:

  • Overall school music sales accounted for $763,000,000 in revenue, up from $737,000,000 in 2017

  • Brass instruments accounts for $297,000,000 in sales, a year over year increase of $1,000,000

  • Woodwind instruments account for $333,600,000 in sales up from $308,830,000 in 2017

  • String instruments accounted for $132,300,000; a slight uptick from 2017’s number of $131,920,000

  • Educational percussion sold $60,000,000, up from $58,000,000 in 2016

  • Sticks, mallets, hand percussion, and drum heads generated an additional $162,500,000, up from $133,000,000 in 2017

  • Print music (educational and non) sold $475,000.000. That’s nearly a half a billion dollars!

The fact is as plain as the abacus in front of your face, music is not contracting, it is growing. Is it growing fast enough? No. Is it growing large enough? No. BUT IT IS GROWING!

“The music industry has been singing the blues of doom and gloom for the past 25 years, but the data just doesn’t support that conclusion.”

-Paul Majeski, Music Trades Magazine

Some other observations based on the data

  • EVERY area (except print music) has experienced year over year growth for the past five years.

  • Over $420,000,000 worth of brass, woodwind, and string instruments were sold last year compared to $357,700.00 just five years earlier.

  • That’s a growth of 18% percent in five years!

  • Annual sales of individual instruments has increased to 981,000 instruments sold from 917,000, a 14% increase from five years ago.


Other indicators music education is on the rise? In the past decade we have seen more:

  • Community bands

  • Professional music educator associations/organizations

  • Drum corps

  • Bachelor's degrees granted in music

  • Professional development clinics and online courses

  • Technology, making us more efficient

And if you ask me, it’s not just more, it’s better. 

I think teachers today are better than twenty-five years ago. I think ensembles in general play better than they did twenty-five years ago. I think that looking at the entirety of the profession, the quality and quantity of performances are significantly better than they were a quarter of a century ago when I started teaching.

The list of indicators goes on and on, but they all seem to point in the same direction, upward! 

Look, I’m not saying that everything is perfect, because it's not. I’m not saying that some schools and programs aren’t struggling, because they are. I’m not saying that programs aren’t understaffed and underfunded, because they are. And I'm not saying that we don’t have a long way to go, because we do. 

What I am saying is that our perception can and will become our students', parents’, and colleagues’ reality, so let’s base that perception in truth and fact. Music education is growing and getting better with each and every day, and that is because of the people who teach it.

When you feel threatened or scared, keep in mind that music has been around not just since the beginning of schools, but since the beginning humanity. And while we have work to do, remember that music is alive and well because music makes us feel alive and well.

Hope you enjoyed the stats and data! Have a great week.

- Scott

p.s. Thanks to my friends at Music Trades Magazine for helping me with the number crunching!



Balance, blend, & harmony are the Holy Trinity of the musical art form. To achieve all three simultaneously is the goal of every composer, musician, and conductor. It requires skill, attentiveness, and most of all, flexibility. When achieved, it transcends the composition, the artists, and audience to a different place. 
All things being equal, achieving this is difficult at best. But, when given the obstacles of intonation rigidity, instrument idiosyncrasies, and individual player tendencies, the pursuit can be a worthy but maddening, pursuit. 

Consider the following... In order to achieve our musical goal we must blend:

  • Piccolos and tubas, clarinets and trombones

  • Instruments in different keys, ranges, and clefs

  • Rhythmic and melodic sounds

  • First, second, and third parts

  • Sharp and flat keys

But as music educators we must also blend:

  • All-state players with beginners

  • 18 year olds with 13 year olds

  • Boys and girls

  • Good instruments with bad

  • Visual with musical (marching band)

  • Various ethnicities and socio-economic statuses

As I said, at times this can be maddening. 

It would be easier if the instruments were all in the same key and made of the same materials. It would be easier if the instruments were in the same clef and had the same intonation tendencies. It would be easier if the students were all the same ages and skill sets. 

It would be easier if all things were equal, but then by definition it wouldn’t be balance, blend, and harmony, it would just be the SAME. Balance, blend, and harmony REQUIRES us to not only be different, but to work together to overcome our differences.

The ability to strive for true balance, blend, and harmony might be the most important lessons our students learn from us. Not for musical reasons, but for personal ones.

Recent (and not so recent) events have left our country as fractured as anytime I can remember. We don’t seem to be looking to balance or blend our differences so much as isolate and avoid those who are different from us. The left only talks to the left. The right only talks to the right. We elevate discussions to disagreements and discourse to debasing. I have watched political debates become dehumanizing. We don’t celebrate or appreciate our differences, we divide and isolate based on our ideologies. We aren’t seeking balance, blend, and harmony; we are seeking uniformity, isolation, and polarization.The result is anything but harmonious.

Remember, balance, blend, and harmony CELEBRATES differences but REQUIRES flexibility.

Music education has NEVER been a more important or worthy pursuit. We need music in our schools and in our lives, not just because of what it does for young people but for what it does for our cities, states, and countries. Students involved in making music are not just learning about balance, blend,and harmony in music but in life as well. They are learning to work with others to achieve goals. They are learning to be observant and flexible. They are learning to lead and to serve. They are learning about LIFE.

Recent events tell me that we need music now more than ever. They tell me that we can’t give up. We can’t back down. We can’t give up. And that what you do makes a difference. MUSIC MATTERS!

Here’s to a year full of balance, blend, and harmony. For you, for your students, and for our country.

Welcome back! We need you more than ever.

A simple note of thanks...

Logo only blue.png

Some newsletters are effortless and joyful to write. They practically write themselves in a stream of consciousness style that leads me to believe I could have, and perhaps should have, been a writer. 

Other newsletters, well, they confound me and remind me of why I am not, and probably should not be, a writer. I will let you decide privately which one is the better choice. 

Most weeks are a mixture of the two.

As a teacher and a speaker I have found that academic years are like newsletters. Some that are so joyful and effortless that they are a treasured experience that goes all too fast, while other are so arduous and frustrating that they can’t come to a close quick enough. 

Most years are a mixture of the two. 

Few writers are as flawed as me. I often lack brevity, clarity, and truth be told, any understanding of what a semi-colon actually does. I suspect that your affinity for the subject matter of music education, provides me a “writers halo” under which to operate safely and with a wide latitude concerning the formal rules of writing. Through it all, despite my flaws, I always attempt to provide value and meaning to you each and every week. But as I bring this years e-zines to a close, I should share a little secret with you. 

I do this more for me than for you.

Through this weekly missive I find a community: a group of people who share my professional values and passions, a place to use for my skills and experience, a place where my voice has meaning, and a creative space where I am simultaneously challenged and inspired. 

In this community I find a place where I have purpose. And for this, I wanted to offer this simple note of thanks. 

Thank you for making our schools and communities a better place. Thank you for helping young people reach their potential even when it came at a personal cost to you. Thank you for taking me in each week and allowing me to be a part of this incredible profession called music education.

But most of all, thank you for bringing out the best in me.

For some of you, today’s email is your Fine!, your final missive from me as you prepare to retire or chase another dream. THANK YOU for your service and may you reap all the blessings you deserve. For others, this is your Da Capo, a brief pause before returning to "the top” in a few short weeks to begin again. To you I say, recharge, refresh, and return as a blank slate for the benefit of both you and your students.

Either way, thanks for all you do for music education and for all you do for me!

— Scott



This past Thursday the College Board (the company behind several U.S. standardized tests, including the SAT) announced that students' SAT scores will now be reported alongside a new indicator. 

Widely referred to as an "adversity score," the index aims to quantify a given student's structural disadvantages, by accounting for an area's rates of crime and poverty, among other factors.

The College Board is calling it an "Environmental Context Dashboard," and although it will not directly affect a test-taker's score, it will be presented to college admissions officials in order to provide a better context for where the student is coming from and what they had to overcome in order to achieve the results they achieved.

clips .png

As a part of the announcement the College Board's David Coleman explained:

If it works for the SAT, why not for MUSIC?

This is not the first time I have asked this question. In a 2015 blog post I specifically asked what would happen if as a part of the adjudication process we factored in the following: 

  • Enrollment/retention growth

  • Crime and poverty in the attendance boundaries

  • Number of students who study privately

  • Number of faculty & staff

  • Size of the organization

  • Number of student owned horns

  • Size and condition of the school inventory

  • Number of years in the classroom for the teacher 

  • Instrumentation of the ensemble

  • Is the ensemble audition based?

I fully recognized the logistical problems associated with making such a change. After all, what we do can’t be graded by a scantron. 

And while I am not suggesting that we alter an ensemble score, I am suggesting that we acknowledge and discuss the underlying premise that we perform/compete on a very unlevel playing field. After all, it’s easier to:

  • Play with a characteristic sound when you have a quality horn in working condition

  • Have blend and balance when you have 150 kids

  • Play in tune when you have new high quality reeds

  • Have better quality musicians if students study privately

  • Be successful if you are able to hire instrument coaches/techs

  • Be successful if you have program designers, drill writers, and music arrangers

This is NOT meant to say that you can’t overcome some or all of these obstacles. We know that with great teaching there are schools in impoverished areas that are creating highly competitive and artistic ensembles in challenging environments. I have seen it and know it to be true. 

But…It’s harder to do and statistically less likely to happen.

Maybe we can learn something from the College Board and their newest addition. Keep in mind, the "adversity score” doesn’t change the score of the student, it merely gives the admissions officer (or adjudicator) a more complete picture of the applicant so they can make a more informed decision. Similarly, we wouldn’t change a music score based on the environment of the school. But, perhaps a more complete picture of the ensemble (demographics, enrollment, teachers, etc.) might help to provide a more complete and better evaluation for the directors and students to learn from.

Now if we can just keep rich people from going on a crime spree in their own neighborhood to help boost their kids adversity score.

Have a great week.

Math and the Magical Chalk-Apocalypse


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!


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? 


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. 


Social Media Influence, Impact, and Vanity Metrics


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.

Quote 3.png

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


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.


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…


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.

APRIL 15.png

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


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.


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