Music, Marching, and Our Connective (HE)ART Form!

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In a recent, and beautifully illustrated, article on the impact of the arts on our brains, the Washington Post eloquently and evocatively explained the effect that movement and music have on our cerebral cortex. 

Using the ballet Swan Lake as their course of study, the Post explored the impact on performer and audience members alike when music and movement are combined to create a symbiotic and unified message. 

The article explains, “When you go to the ballet — or any other show — you’re entering into a highly controlled experience. If everything works as planned, all the elements contribute to a kind of shared consciousness. In effect, your billions of brain cells are interacting with billions of other brain cells, busily making the microscopic connections that join together the brains of those present with an almost inescapable force.”


The combination of pairing emotion filled movement with emotion filled music changed the body responses of not just the performer, but the audience member as well. In short, the two actions in combination were more powerful than when separate.


“As an audience, we’re watching a story unfold that connects us with the performers, vicariously feeling and making meaning out of their actions on stage, responding to the magnetism of specific visual cues, experiencing heightened emotions as music and movement entwine and even bonding with those around us. It’s just as the artists — choreographers, directors, playwrights, composers, performers — intended. And this magical transformation starts within the architecture of one brain.”

It turns out that the audience is not just connecting with the performers, but with other audience members as well.

For the brain, and the heart, music and movement are the perfect partners, Which makes me wonder if there is something more to this thing called marching band.

Perhaps the draw to this activity for performers and audience members alike is not just the music and the pageantry or the precision and the pride. Perhaps its appeal is something far more neural and biological. Perhaps we do this for the sense of connection we feel with one another when we share in the experience. Perhaps it makes us feel less alone. 

Perhaps we are drawn to marching band as much for the HEART form as we are to the ART form.

Just sayin… 

Have a great week!

The success of being a flunky! 

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To be the class valedictorian is the dream of every high achieving student. The idea of sacrificing sleep, friends, and experiences all in search of the almighty GPA is as American as apple pie and insider trading. 

You remember your class valedictorian, right? Perfect attendance, perfect grades, perfect hair, perfect teeth… UGH! Just imagine the life they are leading now. Surely it is one filled with unimaginable riches and unending luxury. Although, if you’re imagining a life better than yours, well, you just might be imagining wrong. 

In his recently published book Barking Up the Wrong Treeauthor Eric Barker explores the life and legacy of these academic darlings and his findings were somewhat surprising. “Valedictorians do well,” says Barker, “but they don’t typically become titans of industry or people who change the world.” He further states that while high school success is a strong predictor of college success it is not necessarily a predictor of life success. Yes, valedictorians are known as reliable, consistent, and well educated, but out of the people he studied, he struggled to find success that was extraordinary. Simply stated, out of the the subjects he studied, guess how many had gone on to achieve greatness or life changing success? 

The answer is simple: ZERO! 


Meanwhile, lots of the “normal " or average students he looked at thrived after high school and beyond halls of academia. To that end, he cites a recent survey of more than 700 American millionaires that found that the average GPA of these titans of industry was a paltry 2.9.


Barker’s research indicates that students who have a greater breadth of experiences and are forced to balance their many demands and passions tend to acquire the skill sets necessary to be successful, not just in school, but in life. Specifically, students who are forced to prioritize their time and (sometimes) triage their academic work, learn valuable life and survival skills. 

This is yet another reason why participating in music is important for young people. Students who are involved in music face greater demands on their time and acquire skills necessary to be successful after their academic careers have concluded. By participating in music, students are not preparing for a life as professional musicians, they are preparing for a life in any and every profession. 

We've all heard the complaint from parent and students alike that "being in music takes up too much time and makes grades suffer!” And perhaps that’s the point.Remember, the average GPA of a millionaire is 2.9! 

So, yeah… There’s hope for me yet! 

Have a great week. 

The Sounds of Silence

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As a part of her new book project, Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched: Life and Lessons at the Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers, author Amy Sutherland spent her days watching exotic animal trainers do the seemingly impossible: 

teaching hyenas to pirouette on command, cougars to offer their paws for a nail clipping, and baboons to skateboard. 

Day after day the impossible became possible. She would listen in awe as professional trainers explained how they taught dolphins to flip and elephants to paint. Mind you, these were not your average animals, nor were these your average tricks.

As a part of Sutherland's observation, a dolphin trainer at SeaWorld San Diego introduced her to the Least Reinforcing Syndrome (L.R.S.). 

When a dolphin does something wrong, the trainer doesn't respond in any way. He stands still for a few beats, careful not to look at the dolphin, and then returns to work.

The idea is that any response, positive or negative, fuels a behavior. If a behavior provokes no response, it typically dies away. 

The central lesson: reinforce the behavior you want, ignore the ones you don’t.

If this can work for a two-toed sloth, then it certainly can work for the two legged saxophonist.

Typically speaking, music teachers are among the most loved and yet most negative teachers on campus. Where other disciplines search for ways to turn a negative into a positive, often times & inadvertently, as conductors we do the exact opposite. We harp on those who don’t practice instead of highlighting those who do. We scowl at the tardy students instead of smiling to those who were on time. We stop the group to tell them what they did wrong, instead of telling them what they did right.

Our intent is pure, but research suggests that our methodology might be somewhat flawed.

I’m not suggesting that the L.R.S. is a cure all or will fix every problem. I’m not suggesting that you attempt to fix wrong notes and wrong rhythms by ignoring them. Perhaps they hyenas are not learning from us but teaching us. 

Perhaps, while we were teaching Chimps to shred a halfpipe, they were teaching us something much more valuable. Perhaps they were teaching us that sometimes we learn more from the sounds of silence than anything else.

Just something to think about. 

Have a great week!

p.s. After last week's email about the devastating floods in Houston, many of you asked how you could help. The short answer is: we don’t know yet. Many of the schools hardest hit have yet to return to their buildings, so we don’t have an understanding as to how bad the damage is and what their most immediate needs are. If you want to make a general donation in support of music education in South Texas, you can do so via the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation and their Music Rising program. If you are looking to adopt a specific school or address a specific need, just shoot me an email letting me know and as I get more information I will connect you with a program in need of assistance.

Houston, we have a problem! 

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After nearly a week of unbelievable images coming out of Houston it feels like an end should be forthcoming, but it’s not. Meteorologists believe that after a week of torrential downpours and nearly 49 inches of rain, there is still more to come. 

The National Weather Service Office serving Houston described the rain amounts as unfathomable and has reached such epic proportions that they have had to create new colors for their color coded map. 

At a time when they should be doing damage assessment, Houstonians are still preparing for more flooding. 

Through it all, the citizens remain resilient, generous, compassionate, and even heroic. 

Next week, where possible, schools are set to reopen and students will return to class. I suspect that they will be seeking refuge from not only the physical storm, but from their emotional one. Their lives have been disrupted and in some cases, their homes destroyed. These students are seeking a sense of normalcy and a return to something familiar. They will be looking to return home. Last week I spoke of our rehearsal spaces being a second home, and for some, this will be truer than ever. 

Throughout the climatic crisis, I reached out to all my clients and friends in the Houston area to inquire as to their well being. To a person, each director stated that they were in constant contact with their students and that they were all “weathering the storm,” literally and figuratively. 

As I processed through all that they were dealing with, I found myself wondering how many other non music teachers and administrators in Houston were in contact with their students during this time. I wondered if this response was universal or if music teachers were just a little bit different. I am not suggesting that other teachers care less than music teachers, but that the community of music creates a different level of engagement. 

I don’t know how I would respond in a similar situation, as I have never been faced with such dire circumstances. I do know that while the rest of the world is saying, “Houston, we have a problem,” I know a dozen or more directors saying, “We’re here, and we’re working on it."

To Mike, Blair, Chris, Andy, Steve, Gene, David, Daren, Joni, and the rest of the music teachers in the south Texas area, know that we are all thinking of you and wishing you the best.

Have a great week and send some loving thoughts down south.

Going Home!

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This week I engaged in something of a pilgrimage; a wayfaring back to my roots, if you will.

In part through strategery (I know this is not a word), and part through stroke of luck, I am spending the milestone of my 50th year in the place where it all began: Buffalo, New York. 

I love returning home. I love the sights, the smells, the food. Most of all, I love the opportunity to connect my fading memories to real places, people, and things. As a part of my pilgrimage, today I will visit my old neighborhood, see my old home, and visit my brother. I will walk along sidewalks played upon long ago and stand under trees that I helped to plant, but are now fully grown. 

Maybe it’s too much time on the road, maybe my impending departure from my first half century, but I am feeling nostalgic today. I am thinking about all the places I have been and people who made me who I am, including YOU. 

Yes, I will visit my old house. The people living there now are different and the source of the squeals of laughter in the front yard will have changed, but even fifty years later, it’s purpose remains unchanged: to serve as a safe place of refuge and harbinger of hopes and dreams. 

We all know that our music rooms are more than a rehearsal space. They serve as a refuge, home base, hangout, and secondary cafeteria to our students. Our musical sanctuaries serve as a remembrance of the past, connection to the present, and launch pad for the future. They serve as a place to survive the growing pains of high school and safe harbor from the occasional storm of teenagerdom. They serve as a place to not only succeed and fail, but to take risks and be challenged. My high school band room did this for me and I suspect yours did the same for you. 

This was why I taught. This is what I love about this profession. This is what I remember, not just about my home in high school, but the one I attempted to create for my students. 

Yes, we worked hard and make some incredible music there. But, in the end, I suspect that those memories faded far quicker than those related to laughter, joy, and the feeling that there was a safe place where students could rise, fall, and be cared for regardless of the outcome. 

The inhabitants of your building may change from period to period, day to day, and year to year, but like my house on Grayton Road, it’s purpose remains the same: to be somebody's home, somebody’s safe space, and somebody's memory keeper. 

Today, as you unlock the front door, set your stuff down, and lay your keys on the desk, let me be the first to say, “ Welcome home!”

Forward Thinking and a Total Eclipse of the Start

In case you're living under a rock, or otherwise deep in the rabbit hole of starting school, you're fully aware that next Monday, North America will experience the celestial phenomenon knows as a total solar eclipse. 

I make no claim to being an expert on total solar eclipses, nor do I hold advanced degrees in astrophysics or celestial mechanics. I am not an astro enthusiast or eclipse chaser (which is apparently a thing).

In fact, despite having barely passed Astronomy in college (in a thinly veiled attempt at avoiding math), I am about as ignorant as one can be when it comes to this particular subject matter.

As long as we're being honest, I thought that looking into a solar eclipse and it causing blindness was an “old wives’ tale.” You know, like waiting thirty minutes after eating to swim or flossing daily? But, it turns out to be true. Evidence of why I shouldn’t be allowed to teach children, as I would be the guy that says, “Hey everyone, let’s go check out the eclipse... Be sure to bring your cell phones for some selfies.” 

I am told I experienced this phenomenon before in my life, but I was either ignorant or unaware, as I do not remember it. Perhaps that is because back then, I saw the event as an issue of alignment between the sun and moon. But now, with time and perspective, I understand it to be a powerful opportunity to feel connected to a shared experience. It is a chance to see the power and size of the universe and experience it on a grand scale. A chance to understand the yin and yang of relationships physical, spiritual, and emotional. A chance to embrace being small. A chance to be reminded that there is no shadow without light or light without shadow.

This celestial event represents a great learning opportunity for all of us in this crazy profession. It reminds me that in teaching there are times of light and times of darkness and that they are all cyclical. It reminds me that while the good and bad days stand in contrast to one another, they are both a requisite part of this profession. It reminds me that with time and perspective, my impact on young people only grows and that looking forward to the year ahead is more important than reflecting on the ones of my past.

Yes, Monday’s solar event will serve as a reminder that while I can't change my students' past, I can change their future.

Here’s to forward thinking and Monday’s total eclipse of the start.

Discrimination and Our Musical Triumph of Equality 

 

Hate filled rhetoric and divisive statements scream across our nation's headlines each and every day. Just this week issues related to Affirmative Action, immigration, police brutality, and institutional sexism at Google have brought discrimination to the forefront of our national agenda.

Why can’t we see past color? What can’t we value each and every human for who they are? What can’t we all get along? 

Why can’t we all be just like marching band?

To be fair, this activity wasn’t always a beacon of virtue. Music educators, myself included, once led the way in segregation. Sure, we didn’t do it based on the color of your skin or your gender, but we discriminated none the less. Yep, depending on who you were and what you played, some people were relegated, not to the back of the bus, but to the back of the field. Different location, but same concept; some instruments and people have more value than others. BUT NO MORE! 

Recent advances in technology and understanding have created a newfound sense of equality in our activity. Yes, marching band is LEADING THE WAY in creating an environment of peace, harmony, and equality. 

Don’t believe me? Check it out!

  • Freshman are the new senior. Freshman typically represent about thirty-five percent of an organization. If the freshmen are successful, than the band is more likely to be successful.
  • Color Guard is the new drill. Half time shows have evolved into mini (or not) theatrical productions with the auxiliary units becoming the main characters and story tellers with the musicians being relegated to the roll of pit orchestra and human curtains.
  • Front ensemble is the new drum line. With the addition of sound systems, the front ensemble moved to the head of the musical class by being able to change the tambre, tone, and texture of an ensemble with the change of a mallet or the flick of a switch. No other section has that capability.
  • Woodwinds are the new brass. Wireless mics and domed stadiums have pushed aside the button pushers in favor of the reed-lickers. Their musical dexterity and technical skills are now what sets apart some of our nation’s top marching ensembles.

Gone are the days where we discriminated against someone because of her age or instrument. Gone are the days when the auxiliary was in back and the pit was called a pit for a reason. Today is a new day of enlightenment. Yes, advances in show design and amplification have moved our activity to a place where EVERY student, regardless of age or instrument, has an EQUITABLE opportunity to contribute and has EQUAL value to the ensemble.

Yes, instead of focusing on what’s wrong in the world, our nation’s news headlines should be shouting: Music Education Champions Equality!

But before the pendulum swings too far, let's remember, BRASS LIVES DO MATTER!

Have a great week everyone! 

How can it get better than this?

If you were to sit down next to me right now and ask, “What’s new?" I would tell you that: 

  • This week I will cross the threshold of 1,000 workshops.
  • This week I have traveled more than one million miles on a plane.
  • This week I will enter the month of my 50th birthday.
  • Last week, my son started middle school.
  • Last week, my family said their final goodbyes to my wife’s father 

If you were to sit down next to me right now and ask me “What are you thinking?" I would answer, “Rituals, milestones, and how many we miss.”

Today is an important day to be sure. If not for you, for someone close to you. For instance:

  • Today is someone’s first day of music.
  • Today will be someone’s last.
  • Today is someone’s first day of teaching.
  • Today is someone’s first day of retirement.
  • Today is someone’s first experience with marching band.
  • Today is the start of someone’s last.

Each and every day marks a moment, musical, personal, and otherwise. Some we honor, while others we ignore. Some are joyful, while others are not. Some are within our control and some are outside of it. But, they are important moments none the less and they all deserve to be observed and acknowledged. 

As I mentioned, we recently lost my father-in-law, who was an incredible man. In the final days before his passing, his visitors spoke confidently of the great beyond and the bounty that would await him when he left this earth. Despite being in a great deal of pain, and imprisoned by a body ravaged by cancer, he would respond with, "I don’t see how it can get any better than this.”

As you stand on your podium or tower today, experiencing the heat and humidity, it would be easy to think about your next objective, rehearsal, or meeting. You may have a passing thought about your next job, or retirement, but instead, I want you to celebrate the moment. Celebrate the fact that we get to make a difference and have an impact in this world. Celebrate the fact that you get to work with kids instead of adults. Celebrate that while others are bemoaning how lazy millennials are, you get to stand in front of the hardest working kids in the school. Celebrate the fact that you are not in a cubicle. Celebrate that you have music in your life each and every day. Just take a moment and CELEBRATE.

This job is hard and not for the faint of heart. This job requires you to sacrifice on a personal, physical, and professional level. But as hard as it gets, I would have to agree with my father-in-law and say, "I don’t see how it can get better than this.”

Have a GREAT week and celebrate!

Handbooks and my NEW Terms & Conditions 

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One of the annual start of school rituals for our students and parents is the signing of the beloved (or not) handbook.

Having seen and read more than my fair share of these, I can’t help but wonder if there is a merit badge out there for the lengthiest, most verbose document. 

I am not sure if you know this, but entire sections of the Amazon rainforest have been cleared because of our handbooks, which means that WE are responsible for global warming. And, if you don’t believe it’s happening, then I invite you to spend a summer day with me in Phoenix. 

Truth be told, the vast majority of parents and kids don't read our handbooks, They just skip to the back page, sign, and hand back to their child to dutifully turn back in. Think about it, how many of you actually read the "terms and conditions" on documents?

Believe it or not, handbooks have little to no legal standing as the parent can't "sign away" the rights of a child. And, unless the child is eighteen, they can't legally "sign away" their own rights. 

So why have parents even sign it? Information disbursement? Legal standing? Vanity? C.Y.A?

Nope, we do this because it makes us feel better. 

Students don't learn how to behave or what to do by reading lengthy documents. Students learn through observation and modeling. Simply stated, if you want a new member to learn how to act, rehearse and behave, make sure that your student leaders model, and engage the desired behaviors. 

After ten years teaching, I realized that if I spent more time teaching and less time writing, I might have better students and ensembles. I removed 80% of my handbook and replaced it with the following questions for students and parents to ask themselves:

Did I do the right thing? 

How have my actions affected others?

Did I live up to our band motto? (insert motto)

Just something to think about... After all, I kind of like the rainforests. And, it's getting REALLY hot in Phoenix.

Have a great week!
 

Scott's Terms & Conditions

  • I agree to not to re-post Scott's stuff without citing the source (I work hard to steal my content and am deserving of the credit I am due).
  • I agree not to post fake ads on Craigslist with Scott’s cell phone number (John, I am talking about you!).
  • I agree that I am not an English teacher and will not send Scott snarky remarks about his misuse of a colon, as comments about Scott’s colon are inappropriate anyway.
  • I agree not to mark Scott’s emails as “spam” because I am too lazy to simply unsubscribe.
  • I agree to address Scott as "Broseph," “Big Deal” or “Hey you!” "Pint-sized jerkface dimwit" is not appropriate, besides my kids already have that one covered.
  • I agree NOT to mention the fact that Scott is turning 50 soon, as he is touchy about it.
  • I agree that, while each and every week may not be a literary masterpiece, Scott’s content goes to ELEVEN and should not be used or abused. In fact, don’t even look at it.
  • I agree that boneless chicken wings are just an adult way to order chicken nuggets.
  • I agree that I am not a bot, hacker, or spam junkie. Seriously, don't you guys have an election to hack?
  • I agree that “you get what you pay for” and promise to remember that Scott’s weekly e-zines are free. Refunds available upon request.
  • I agree when sharing Scott’s stuff on Bragbook, Instacrap, or MySpace (seriously MySpace?) to tag Scott Lang Leadership.
  • I agree that 90's rap was a bad idea.
  • I agree that none of this is legally binding.

I hereby “pinky swear" to these and any other future obscure terms that come to Scott’s mind. Any violations to these terms will force me to "lawyer up" on you. And by “lawyer up” I mean fold some laundry, as I don’t know any lawyers. 

Failure to agree to these terms requires you to send Scott a nice fruit basket and an assortment of dog toys for his neurotic Golden Retriever, Rexi.

Like father like son and my Da Capo! 

I am the son of a military man. Marines to be specific, and I was raised in his image. My father had a booming voice, and a temper to match. He wasn't particularly compassionate or patient, but he was loving and generous in other ways. He gave of his time freely, even when it was un-welcomed. He never missed a single concert, and he coached every team I was ever on. 

Until the end, my father was a proud man, and rightfully so. Pride was as much a part of his good qualities as it was his bad. In the end, as he began to slip, my brothers and I began to make decisions for him, including where and how he would live. He protested through it all saying, “I’m NOT moving…” He passed away suddenly the night before his move. 

He showed us! 

He didn't understand music, or my choice to pursue it as a vocation. But his support for me to do what made me happy was unquestioned and unwavering. When I told him of my desire to teach, he said to me, "Scott, any profession is honorable, as long as it is the profession YOU chose, and not one that life chose for you." 

As I sit here and writing my last e-zine of the year, I see now more than ever the truth in his words.

"I chose this journey of music education, and it has been an honor to call it my life’s work. I am blessed to be able to do what I love and serve others at the same time. I suspect that you feel the same way. "

Few writers are as flawed as me. I often lack brevity, clarity and any understanding of what a semi-colon actually does. You deserve better. You deserve the best, and at times I have fallen short of that standard. But know that my mistakes and missteps are never for lack of effort. I always attempt to speak my truth and to provide value and meaning to you each and every week. 

Never let anyone tell you that you don't matter. Never let them tell your worth is measured solely by ratings, accolades or awards. Music (and you) are so much more than that. 

You're a parent to some and a memory machine to others. You are accountability and standards as well as the hug when students fall short. You are their tears of joy and sorrow. You are their moral compass and proof positive that the world is full of decent and hard working people. 

For some of you, today’s email is your Fine!, your final missive from me as you prepare to retire or chase another dream. To you I say 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. 

To both of you, let me just say that is has been my honor to serve with you in this profession. 

When I return in six weeks, you will hear about some upcoming monumental milestones both personal and professional. I guess you could call it a prideful act. 

Like father like son I guess.