Bringing the Saxy (and the Sousaphone) BACK!

 

Perceived as "ultra cool" by just about every elementary band student, for decades, the saxophone has long been the instrument of choice for students and bane of existence for music educators.

Once seen as the "go to" instrument for boys and girls alike, the sax has struggled as of late, and has seemingly fallen from it's lofty pedestal of popularity. 

Adophe Sax would (rock and) roll over in his grave if he could see his beloved instrument as it is today. 

According to a recent article in The Outline, from 2000-2010, our longstanding love affair with all things saxamaphonic (I invented that word) waned considerably. As evidence of that, The Outline magazine has discovered that during this decade, the Billboard Top 40 contained fewer hit records with a saxophone than any other time in it's history. This was shocking because for most of American pop music’s history, the saxophone was the backbone of making a song a hit. 

Blame it on Bill Clinton. Blame it on Kenny G. Blame it on the Russians (my personal favorite!). Regardless of who you blame, it doesn't change the fact that during the formative years of many of our current students, the saxophone was going the way of the Eb alto hornvalve trombone, and the Omnichord. (I inserted links in service to those under the age of 30 who are unaware of these musical dinosaurs.)

Okay, the dinosaur comment may be a bit of a stretch, but you get the point. 

The saxophone was invented by Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax in 1840 and was to be used in European military marching bands. The concept was to create a woodwind instrument that could match the volume of the brass instruments, thus requiring fewer personnel to balance the sound of the band. 

But fear not (or fear a great deal), the trend is reversing and the SAX IS BACK! 

Yep, that's right! In recent years the sax has been making an appearance with some of the world's most prolific pop artists including Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce, and even Lady Gaga.

These times, they are a changing. Geek is the new chic and computer coding has given way to social entrepreneurship. The tastes and preferences of today's teens are changing and so is their definition of cool! 

Kids today want to be different. Their idea of fitting in is to stand out. They want to belong to a cause and feel that they are making an impact. They are searching for ways to lead but are also wanting to be led in meaningful endeavors. They see greed and consumption as more of an avarice than an aspiration and want their academic experience to be surmised by more than just a G.P.A.

For these reasons and many others, yes, the sax is back... But so is the viola, the cello, the sousaphone, the trombone, and every other instrument, because MUSIC IS BACK! 

Now, if we could just make the bassoon cool!

Hot buttons, bottle flipping & my first fidget spinner!

My two boys are both the greatest source of joy and madness in my life. If you're a parent, I need not say more. If you aren’t, there is little I can do to explain it. I LOVE my boys, but every parent has their hot button. My hot button? STUFF! 

Children require LOTS and LOTS of stuff. 

Some stuff is born out of necessity. Some is required for health and safety. And yes, some is necessary for entertainment and play. But where does the madness end? My children's toys could entertain a small elementary school for weeks and I am fairly confident that the food remnants in the back seat of our family truckster could end starvation in Africa.

So when my children came to me with a “must have” toy request, I was somewhat “skeptical” (or as my kids described it: cranky). What was the object of their latest fancy? Something called a fidget spinner. 

I asked, "What's a fidget spinner?” 

After their explanation, my only question was, "If I buy you this, will you stop flipping those stupid water bottles?" 

I'M IN!

So, as it turns out, the next day, Easter Bunny showed up with fidget spinners for both boys AND ME (my wife is GOOD!). For the next two weeks we learned tricks, played games, and argued over who could make theirs spin the longest. Last night while playing with our new spinners (yep, we upgraded to better ball bearings) my son Brayden asked, “Did you have fidget spinners when you were a kid?” 

I thought about all of the toys in my life that might be considered a spinner or a manipulative. You know, something that was tactile and allowed my mind to rest while my hands were at play. Hmmmmm. 

“YES,” I responded… Music! 

As a drummer, I was always tapping on something. Tapping my fingers, hands, and legs. Practicing rudiments and patterns. It didn’t require an instrument and could be done in relative quiet through all hours of the day and night. 

Like many of you, music allowed me to have an outlet, physically, cognitively, and emotionally. It occupied my mind and provided kinesthetic engagement and feedback. It provided a break from math and science and the rules and rigors of school. It excited and calmed me at the same time. 

Maybe your “fidget spinner" had twenty seven keys. Maybe it had three buttons. Maybe it had a slide or strings. But unlike my NEW toy, I've carried my old fidget spinner with me for over forty years. 

Have a great week!

"The System" and Your Nobel Peace Prize! 

Nobel_Prize.png

 

While attending a recent conference, I had the opportunity to sit in on a presentation about the National Network of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela, commonly known as "El Sistema" (the system). Started in 1975 in an underground parking garage by José Abreu with just eleven students, El Sistema has grown into an international phenomenon with programs spanning the globe. 

During the session, the presenter spoke of the passion and sacrifice of El Sistema teachers. He spoke of their rich curricula that took their student musicians from zero to the national concert stage. He spoke of its power to transform lives and lift children from dire circumstances to some place better. He spoke of the fact that this program gave its deserving students the skills, musical and otherwise, to lead successful and productive lives. He showed multiple videos with young children smiling, happy, and making music with trumpets, violins, and flutes. 

It was a provocative and evocative session, but something was amiss or missing. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but then it hit me. What was missing in the presentation was YOU! After all: 

  • Don’t you teach kids music with passion? 
  • Don't you sacrifice personally and professionally to be a teacher of music?
  • Don’t you (or your colleagues) start kids from zero and take them to the national stage? 
  • Don’t you work with kids from dire circumstances?
  • Don’t you give kids the skills needed to be successful in all of their lives?
  • Don’t you create smiles and joy with trumpets, flutes, and violins?

The answer is YES! 

In Venezuela, El Sistema is servicing a country where music is NOT a part of the school day, where music is not a mandated curricula, and where children don’t have access to ensemble experiences, which is tragic. But in America, WE are “the system.” 

As the world recognizes and celebrates the work that they do, LET'S ALSO CELEBRATE THE WORK THAT YOU DO!

While were at it, let’s also recognize the fact that America has time and time again made the conscious choice to make music a part of EVERY child’s life. Let’s spread the word that there are a tireless group of college educated music evangelists traveling from cafetorium to cafetorium and eating lunch out of their cars to do so. Let’s rejoice that we have national events, competitions, and festivals that allow our students to perform in the finest of halls and receive feedback from the most qualified adjudicators. Let’s celebrate that we are not teaching in an underground parking garage but in well equipped facilities. Let’s celebrate that America stands alone in this world in it’s commitment to make music accessible to EVERY child that wants it, everywhere in this land as a part of the their school day. 

Listen, we’re all trying to move the SAME needle in the SAME direction. And I say BRAVO to the good people of El Sistema, What they are doing, both abroad and here in America, is INCREDIBLE and I believe that José Abreu deserves a Noble Peace Prize for his work in Venezuela. 

But if they give one to him, they're gonna have to print 122,000 more of them for each one of you. 

Wouldn’t that be a special treat for Teacher Appreciation Week?! 

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week

During Teacher Appreciation Week, I try and send some send extra love (which means extra emails). While I hope that your inbox are heart is full of love and affirmation, I still intend to do my share! The email below is something I wrote several years ago and to this day remains one of my favorites of all time. Please accept it once again as a sign of my love and respect for all that you do. I will return to my normal email schedule next week. 

The leader of the band is tired and his eyes are growing old 
But his blood runs through my instrument and his song is in my soul 
My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man 
I'm just a living legacy to the leader of the band 

- Dan Fogelberg, Leader of the Band 

Scott: 

If you don’t know this song or the artist who wrote it, you should. In 1981 Dan Fogelberg wrote a musical tribute to his band director father that shot all the way to number one on the Billboard Music Chart. Through his poignant lyrics and soulful melody, Leader of the Band spoke in a powerful way to this crazy profession and the impact it has on people. The song and sentiment are truly touching and although the he wrote it for his father, it could have just as easily been written for you. 

Your life and legacy live on through every student that passes through your program. Through your teaching you provide students with more than music lessons, you give them life lessons. This tribute song reminds us that teaching music is so much more than a profession and it can be accompanied by as much sacrifice and pain as joy and fulfillment. Music education is a calling, one that chooses us as much as we choose it. 

In the coming days and weeks your students will leave you. Some of them forever, but that does not mean that you are gone from their hearts and minds. In part, they are a living legacy to THEIR leader of the band. But before they go, perhaps you could close the door of your office, take a break, sit back, and listen as Dan Fogelberg reminds us of the power of the Leader of the Band

Please share this with every music teacher you know so that they are reminded how special they are.

With gratitude for all that you do... 

p.s. If you would like a modern take on this classic tune and are a fan of the Zac Brown Band check this out.

Sixteen Years of Teaching Accidental(ly) 

 

I spent sixteen years in a classroom. Through it all I had NO IDEA what my curricula was. Sure, I had the black binder labeled “CURRICULUM” that the district gave me, but I never read it. Its sole purpose was to keep my other unread binder (District Policy and Procedures manual) company. 

I wasn't TOTALLY lost. I knew what music I was playing and what page we were on in the method book, but in terms of really knowing the scope, sequence, and expected outcomes, I was basically clueless. What’s worse, I was the Department Chairperson and served on the District Curriculum Committee, so yeah, let’s just keep this our little secret. Yep, as an instructional leader, I wandered from class to class, concert to concert, and year to year gleefully unaware of what I was actually SUPPOSED TO BE TEACHING. 

As long as we're being honest…

I never read the National Standards, or the No Child Left Behind Act. The only thing I knew about either one of those was that music was listed as a “core subject.” I liked to drop that little nugget at booster meetings and band concerts.

Recently, whether out of guilt or a sense of professional (in)competence, I sat down to read the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). I didn’t just do the Cliff Notes version, I really hunkered down and dove in. How hard could it be? I mean, if I can understand the voicing rules of the Italian, German, and French second chords, then I can understand this, right? Seriously… I GOT THIS! So I sat there for more than an hour, reading and studying. I used a highlighter and took notes in the margins and everything. It was quite an undertaking, and after finishing, I gotta be honest with you… 

I didn’t understand any of it. Yep, NOTHING. Zip, squat, nada

I mean, I understood the words, I just couldn’t translate how it would look and feel in my second period JV band class. Was I a bad teacher? Was I doing this teaching thing wrong? Was I the only one? I panicked! 

I bet science teachers know their science curricula. I bet English teachers know their English curricula. I’m pretty sure history teachers know their curricula, after all, it’s sequential and historical and stuff. HOW COULD I NOT KNOW THIS! 

Then it hit me...

Music is not like other classes, and our curricula is different. Yes, there are outcomes and objectives, but it’s not the same. Our curricula is as much in kids life experiences as it is in a manual. It's as much in children's hearts as it is in their minds. It's measured in smiles and tears and giggles and laughter as much as it is on spreadsheets and performance rubrics. Our curricula is NOT in a binder, it is living and breathing thing capable of changing at any moment. It’s unexpected and unpredictable as the children who learn it. And yes, most times it is anything but sequential.

Yes, we have curricula but even after sixteen years of teaching accidentals, I was still teaching a lot of my curricula accidentally.

That was my favorite part. 

Have a great week!

p.s. Today is Administrative Professionals Day, so maybe you could invite all of your para-professionals down to the rehearsal room for a private concert. Just a thought!

Lounging at Lang’s Place & our (re)imagination...

Years ago, in an effort to keep the creative juices flowing and his idle mind in play, Daryl Hall (of Hall & Oates) established an online show called Live From Daryl’s House (LFDH). Each show features collaborations, cocktails, and cuisine in an informal and spontaneous way. Developed by Daryl as an alternative to live touring, the show has hosted a WIDE variety of eclectic talents. Recent guests have run the gamut from Sammy Hagar to Ben Folds to Cee Lo Green. 

The concept is simple. Daryl brings in a fellow famous musicians for a weekend of fun, food, and music, after which they have a jam session. The guest artist plays a few of Daryl’s charts and then Daryl plays a few of the guest artists charts, with the goal being to make old songs new and new songs feel old through collaboration. I have included two of my favorite episodes below.

I think Daryl might be on to something here. I mean, other than the fact that he is TERRIBLE at naming things (Seriously! Hall & Oates? Live From Daryl’s House?), the idea of taking opposites and collaborating has some merit. Think about it:

  • What if John Mackey were to reimagine Holst’s First Suite in Eb?
  • How would Asphalt Cocktail be different if re-scored by Holst
  • What would a duet featuring Trombone Shorty and Joe Alessi sound like?
  • Would choir be different if they were required to march?
  • Would band be different if they were required to sing?
  • Would orchestra be different if they had to improv?
  • How would music publishing change if it were run by a music educator?
  • How would your band change if it were run by a businessperson?

The possibilities are endless and could present some unique collaborations as well as some entertaining television. 

Listen, like Mr. Hall, we ALL get in a rut. Teaching the same classes day after day, year in and year out, it is easy to get comfortable and complacent. The real challenge is doing the same thing day after day but doing it in a new way. I've been focusing on this lately myself, but like Daryl, I think I would benefit from a collaborator. To keep it in the style of LFDH (most people just know it by it’s acronym), I am looking for my opposite… You know: young, tall, and talented? 

Any takers? We just have to come up with a better name than Lounging at Lang’s Place!

Have a great week!

Teens, Adults and My Personal In-vest-ment!

This week I went in search of a vest. Yes, a vest!

You know, the three piece suit afterthought and staple clothing article for accountants.

Tired of polyester dress pants and ties, I went looking for a way to take something casual and comfortable into the realm of professional and polished. When I announced this to my fashion forward wife this is what she said...

“Honey, I'm not sure you're the type of guy that can pull off a vest." 

OUCH!

Listen, I am a Gen X'er and am WIDELY seen (at least by me) as incredibly hip and cool. Sure, I'm not living in my parents basement, growing an artisanal beard, and drinking craft beer, but I am still hip, aren't I? 

According to the students at last night’s workshop, the answer is a resounding, “NO!"

DOUBLE OUCH!

As educators, we live in a world dominated by a younger generation for whom classical wind band music is about as relevant to their lives as Engelbert Humperdinck. Our world is different than their world, and I believe that’s the point and any attempt to blend the two is likely to leave us both tragically embarrassed.

Kids don't want their teachers to be like them. And frankly, I don’t want to be like a teenager. Been there, done that, and it wasn’t that great. Sure, I lack the elasticity and energy I once had, but gone too is the angst that Jill Cederlof will laugh at me when I ask her to Prom and the wonderment of how I am to fill my tank of gas with my last forty-three cents. I like being an adult, just like they like being teenagers, so I am all in favor of letting the young people be young and I will handle the old part. They can have their Drake and Chance the Rapper; I will keep my Journey and Rush!

Teenage people don't want adults to participate in, or even understand, their world. That's what makes it their own. When adults try to fit in like me buying a vest, we actually become LESS relevant because we are not providing them with anything they don’t already have. Young people are surrounded with an abundance of youth and cool, so in order to become more relevant, we have to provide them with something that’s a scarcity to their lives: wisdom and experience. 

Teenagers know what they want, but have no clue what they need. They can take care of their wants, and we should be concerned with their needs. They can be teens, and we will be the adults. And the two need not meet in the middle.

But I’m still gonna wear my vest!

p.s. The picture above is the actual vest I bought. And yes, I look that good wearing it!

My Musical Matryoshka Doll

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A matryoshka doll is a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside another. More commonly known as nesting dolls, a set of matryoshkas typically consists of a wooden figure which separates, top from bottom, to reveal a smaller figure of the same sort inside, which has, in turn, another figure inside of it, and so on. 

The figures inside may be of either gender; the smallest, innermost doll, is typically a child turned from a single piece of wood. The dolls often follow a theme. The themes may vary, but they typically try and tell the story of a family or of a life.

Matryoshkas are used metaphorically as a design paradigm, known as the "matryoshka principle" or "nested doll principle". It denotes a recognizable relationship of "object-within-similar-object" that appears in both man-made objects as well as mother nature (Wikipedia).

Music education is akin to a matryoshka doll. We are programs within a profession: band, choir, orchestra, jazz, and general music. We have Suzuki, elementary, middle school, high school, collegiate, adult, and professional ensembles. We have teachers, performers, therapists, conductors, and yes, leadership trainers. Although we are all different sizes, shapes, and are decorated in different ways, we are part of the same matryoshka doll called music education.

Everyone wants to feel special and unique, myself included. And, if we're being honest, being a music teacher is not exactly hard on the ego. Every day we play to a large and captive audience that is usually willing and wanting to hang on our every word. Well, usually! But rather than celebrate our uniqueness, perhaps we would be better off as a profession if we celebrated our sameness, because, like the matryoshka, all of us have the same final core: a young child willing and wanting to make music.

Have a great week everyone!

The Gig Economy and My Lie!

I lied to you last week. Well, not so much lied, but I left out some pertinent information, which, if I were lecturing my boys, would be called a lie. What was the lie? It was the following sentence:

Since I am out of the country this week…

Okay, it wasn’t a huge lie, but a lie none the less. I WAS out of the country, but I left out some important information. I was on a cruise with my friends and family. Yep, that’s right, I was (poignant pause) ON VACATION!

If I were to come completely clean, I should also tell you that I have been playing loosey goosey with the truth for years.

Every time I write “unavailable” or “private workshop” on my calendar it's a lie. It is almost always a personal or family commitment. Don’t believe me? Just look at my calendar. It says that July 24th is a private workshop. In reality, it’s my sons' first day of school.

Why would I lie? Why didn’t I just write family commitment or today I will spend time with my kids instead of yours?

After reading last week’s e-zine on the ship, my wife looked at me and asked, “Do you think that implying you're working is more prestigious than saying that you're going on vacation?” My answer to her was an unequivocal YES!

How sad is that? What is wrong with me?

The “Gig Economy” is a recent economic term used to describe a labor market with an abundance of short term contracts and secondary work. Think Uber or FIVRR. To the rest of America, this is a new found phenomenon, but to musician educators, the term is as old as our profession. Why do you think they used the term “gig” in the phrase? Most of us have been doing extra gigs for most of our profession lives. You gig as a lesson teacher, adjudicator, drill writer, clinician, MEA officer, etc. Heck, sometimes it feels like we gig more than we work; however, if we, and this profession, are to survive, it needs to stop! I need to stop. My lies help perpetuate other lies. 

I need to be and will be more truthful.

So in service to honestly, let me say this: I didn’t work at all last week. And just so you know, I didn’t miss it one bit. As long as we are being honest, I also plan to be more “unavailable” in the future, starting with this weekend when I have my next gig coaching my son's football team. And as my final act of honesty, I will tell you that coaching is my favorite gig of all.

What’s your favorite gig? 

Have a great week!

Leader of the Band and more...

Several years back, as a part of a larger project called Leader of the Band, Tim Lautzenheiser and I teamed up to film a series of impromptu leadership videos. Designed to be accessible and informal, these videos take a look at the role of student leaders in school music programs.

Since I am out of the country this week, I thought I might provide these as an alternative to the insightful, pithy missives you have come accustomed to receiving. I hope you enjoy!