Jackson Pollack, Politics, and My Seasonal Angst!

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Anyone who reads this blog or has met me in person knows that I am a very opinionated person. Everyone would expect that as we near yet another election cycle I would be giddy with excitement, but in reality I hate election years. 

In fact, I hate the entire campaign season. I know I am not alone in this and I would speculate the most of America wretches at the thought of this bi-annual exercise in patriotic self-loathing.

I used to wonder about the credulity and the the wisdom of having a republic (in which we choose representatives to choose our leaders) versus a democracy (in which we vote directly for our leaders) but recent elections have me believing that the founding fathers were on to something when they decided to send delegates to decide whom should lead our country. Honestly, I would be happy at this point to send some people to represent me and make the decision if it would spare me going through the next four weeks.


What is the source of my grand frustration? Is it the nasty rhetoric? Is it the venom of our national discourse? Is it the misleading and degrading ads? Is it the fact that regardless of the outcome 50% of our country will be in celebration while the remaining balance will be in depression? 


Nope! It’s all of those flipping *%$#@### campaign signs on my street corner.

They drive me insane! 

Beyond the fact that I am a visually oriented person and all of these signs turn every street into a Jackson Pollack painting, it’s the simplicity of it all. All of these signs are trying to reduce the complexity and nuance of a complex governmental organization into a leadership quip or patriotic McNugget. 

Aaarrgghhhh!

This past week, while driving my son to school, I came across a sign for State Superintendent of Public Instruction which read, “Fix our Failing Schools.”

Really? Our schools are failing? Hmmmm. Despite the fact that there is NO EVIDENCEto support such a slanderous claim (in fact, all indicators show our schools to be performing at historic highs), he believes he will gain support by publicly shaming and insulting 100,000 teachers and the 350,000 students they teach.

Upon returning home I called the candidate and informed him that I had just dropped my son off at his highly successful public school, where he would be educated, exercised, & fed for pennies on the dollar all under the watchful eye of highly trained and skilled college educated professionals who would love him as if he were their own. I further let him know that I would like to see a list of these “failing” schools and the dates he visited them.

There was a long pause… and then a brief apology.

It’s easy to complain. It’s easy to point out the problem when you're not required to provide a solution. Admittedly, there is a self satisfying element of martyrdom in believing that only you can see and solve what others can’t. But this type of thinking is self aggrandizing and panders to the lowest common denominator by dealing in partial (if any) truths.

What does this have to do with this e-zine?

Sometimes, as music educators, we are no better than our political counterparts. We tear each other and this profession down bemoan rather than lift it up. We speak of what’s not working in music education instead of what is. We celebrate the negatives and ignore the positives. We speak in generalities that cloud the true facts and obfuscate the truth and beauty and impact of this art form. 

In short, in search of personal or public affirmation, we sometimes become our own worst critics. We become a living, breathing campaign sign against ourselves.

As the antidote to the political circus we are all about to endure, perhaps for the next four weeks we could all campaign for what is right with music education and our nation's public schools. 

We might not win an election but you can bet our street corners would look a whole lot better as our signs would be uniformed and stand in straight lines.

Psy-sticks, Anxiety, and Quieting My Very Loud Mind

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I have a friend who has a very successful professional life. This person is a serious and studious individual who is widely regarded as a thought leader in his field. People come from far and wide and pay considerable sums for his advice and counsel. As I said, this person is a serious and sober professional.

This person is also a psychic.

Yep, a real life bonafide tarot-card carrying paranormal. He sees, feels, and hears things that most of us do not. It has been this way for him for a long time and although he did not understand it at first, he has come to accept it as a part of who he is. He keeps this part of himself private and as he is concerned that his "day job" would suffer if his clients found out. 

As for me, I was fascinated!

My friend offered me a reading, to which I said, "HECK YEA!" 

Over the next hour I watched and listened carefully as he spoke of things and people in my past, present, and future. As we began to wrap up our session I asked if there was anything else I should know.


He paused, not as if he was unsure of what needed to be said, but how to best say it. He then said, “You need to quiet your mind. The cards I read and the voices I hear all say the same thing. Shut up! Stop talking. Stop thinking. Quiet your mind. STOP and BE QUIET! 


This was not the first time I had heard this. “SCOTT, STOP & BE QUIET!” was the mantra of my childhood. 

But I could tell he meant something different.

He followed it up with, “You need to take a breath, take a moment, and just be still. Still in your thoughts. Be still in your words and still in your actions. Be still.

Sometimes, in order to allow your better self to come out, you have to sit still and say nothing. But it's hard for you because but you fill every second of every day with something… The voices I hear and the people who love you are all shouting, Scott, be still and be quiet."

I must admit, his words gave me pause.

Being still and silent is uncomfortable for me. When not fully occupied my mind races and I am filled with anxiousness over things left undone and tasks left incomplete. I suspect I am not the only one who feels this way. In fact I know it.

Anxiety is now the most common illness in the US. And the stakes for our physical, mental, and emotional health couldn’t be higher. A recent study by Harvard concluded that stress either exacerbates or increases the risk of health issues like heart disease, obesity, depression, gastrointestinal problems, asthma, and more. In fact they further stated that health issues from job stress alone cause more deaths than diabetes, Alzheimer's, or influenza.

Their statement, be still or be sick. Their prescription for getting healthy? Music!

A study was conducted on participants who attempted to solve difficult puzzles as quickly as possible while connected to sensors. The puzzles induced a certain level of stress and participants listening to music produced a greater state of relaxation than any other thing tested to date.

They found that listening to certain music resulted in a striking 65 percent reduction in participants' overall anxiety, and a 35 percent reduction in their usual physiological resting rates.

In this age of constant bombardment, the science is clear: If you want your mind and body to last, you've got to prioritize giving them a rest and music is one of the best ways to do that. 

So let’s put away the fidget spinners and adult coloring books and do something that can actually quiet our anxious minds. Let's listen to my psychic and pick up our "psy-sticks" and make music! 


Tsundoku, Bernstein, & Bigger Bang for Your Bruck(ner)

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Tsundoku is a Japanese word for those who habitually and routinely acquire books without actually reading them. According to Wikipedia, the term originated in the Meiji era (1868-1912) as Japanese slang and combines elements of tsunde-oku (to pile things up ready for later and leave) and dokusho (reading books).

To be clear, Tsundoku is not akin to hoarding and the people who practice it are far from reality TV show contestants. 

The act of purchasing a book without the intent of reading is no accident. In fact, these bibliophiles are as proud of their carefully curated stacks as they are passionate about finding their next, soon to be un-read, novellas. 

And, it turns out that stacking books isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Multiple and well documented studies have linked student academic success to the size of their home libraries. In a 20-year study of 27 countries, researchers at the University of Nevada said the most important predictor of education achievement comes down to one thing: owning books. It further states that a homes with books in them can increase a child’s education level by 2.4 years.


Mariah Evans, University of Nevada, Reno associate professor of sociology and resource economics, stated that, “Even a little bit goes a long way,” in terms of the number of books in a home. Having as few as 20 books in the home still has a significant impact on propelling a child to a higher level of education, and the more books you add, the greater the benefit. 


In other words, Evans said, “You get a lot of bang for your book."

Whether it's nature (just being in the presence of the books) or nurture (having parents model the importance and value of reading) is irrelevant. What matters is that when young people are in the presence of or in contact with knowledge, they become smarter.

Taking that same concept to a more musical place, if we are in the presence of or in contact with music, would we become more musical?

What would the effect be if our music libraries were out and accessible to students. Imagine our rehearsal halls being more like libraries than acoustical cathedrals. What would happen if we had children rehearse along side Grainger, Mahler, and Persichetti. I wonder if we gave copies of scores to students, would see the same leap in musical achievement as having access to books does for academic achievement.

In short, I wonder if we give too much attention to what our students play, and not enough to how much they play.

When I was a teacher I would dedicate two full weeks of every school year to sight reading through the classics. I would pick out two to three new pieces each day and work through them. These works were not appropriate for contest as they might feature a weakness, or a soloist we lacked, but were worth playing nonetheless. 

Although I might not have the woodwinds to take Candide to contest, my students should still be exposed to this monumental work and its prolific composer. The same could be said for Mahler, Mozart and Hindemith and so many more. I will tell you that rehearsing master works without the pressure of a performance was one of the highlights of our year.

In my mind, I was just trying to cover for my shortcomings as a teacher. It just didn't seem fair to the students that just because I couldn't be successful at contest with a piece, than they couldn't experience it. I didn't know that I was "Tsundoku-ing," but there I was, surrounding the students every day with stacks of music that I knew would never be performed.

Perhaps (and I mean perhaps) as music educators we spend so much time rehearsing and perfecting our "contest literature," and not enough time being imperfect with non-contest literature. As a profession we leave so little time for kids to just be around and explore music. Think about it, from the moment they start on an instrument to the moment they stop playing, we dictate virtually every note a student plays and every rhythm they read. 

Perhaps instead of focusing on our ensembles volume, they and we might be better off focusing on their volume of materials.

That would provide the biggest bang for the BrUCK(ner).


Elevators, Crosswalks, and Pushing My Buttons

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I am a button pusher.

I am, by nature, not a patient person. Throughout my life this has proven to, at times, be both a blessing and a curse. But, over time I have come to accept it as a part of who I am. 

If you were to observe me in an elevator or at a street crossing you would likely witness me pressing the call button multiple times with such fervency and urgency that you might think that I was sending a signal with morse code. 

You say, “But Scott, the call button is already lit.” 

I don’t care! And yes, I am fully aware that pressing the call button over and over doesn’t speed up the process, and yet there I am pressing it anyway. And I’m not stopping there either!

Once in the elevator, I will press the “door close” button to no obvious avail. Upon reaching my room I will promptly press the thermostat buttons to adjust something that has already been pre-programmed and and surf the internet using a router with set speeds that will not vary, no matter how many times II refresh my browser. 

Argh! All of these useless buttons are starting to push mine!

It’s true, our lives are filled with buttons that do absolutely nothing.


Crosswalk buttons have been overridden by traffic algorithms. Elevator door speeds are dictated by the American with Disabilities Act, thermostats are set for energy optimization, and the internet, well, it’s just the internet. 


And yet the buttons remain... Why?

It turns out that while they have no functionality, they do have a purpose. They provide a calming placebo effect for the user allowing him to believe he has control. In fact, they are called "placebo buttons" -- buttons that can be pushed but provide no functionality. Even though they lack functionality placebo buttons remain because, for most people, doing something (pressing a useless button) typically feels better than doing nothing.

In your ensembles you have some students who are true musicians. People whose talent is as evident as it is effortless. Budding artists who could, and should, make a career of this activity. It is also likely that you have students in your ensembles who are little more than button pushers. People whose musical contribution is as suspect as it is awkward. 

But that does not mean that their musical experience is without value.

Although pressing the buttons on their instrument may not achieve the desired musical result, it still provides a positive result. The placebo effect for these young people is that for 52 minutes a day they have the illusion of being in control. Their time in school is not wasted, is of their choosing, and is something they enjoy. It occupies their mind and calms their soul. If nothing else, your class allows their teenage mind a much needed hit of dopamine and they are doing something, which feels better than doing nothing.

So for today, and perhaps only today, let’s acknowledge and appreciate your button pushers. Yes, they may not be achieving our desired results but the placebo effect is achieving a great deal. 

So let us celebrate the button pushers, as long as they aren’t pushing yours!

Have a great week!

Middle School Mania and Our Non-Musical Development

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When Marsha Richins started researching teens and materialism in the early 1990s, it was a subject that had mostly been left to philosophers and religious thinkers. In the intervening decades, Richins, a professor of marketing at the University of Missouri, and others, have contributed a good deal of academic research that backs up some of the wariness people have for millennials and their pursuit of worldly things.

As parent of a middle school child and a former middle schooler myself, I can confidently state that for both the parent and the child, middle school is less than a pleasant experience. Angst, anger, and raging hormones create a cocktail of emotional insecurity that is challenging for everyone involved. I think Ms. Richins sums it up best when she says,


"I think of seventh grade as being the worst age of a person’s life. It’s fraught with all this insecurity that kids have about, “Who am I? Do people like me? What kind of person am I?” 

How do we navigate that? 

"Well, our appearance and the things we own are some of the ways we do that. And so a kid who’s not very self-confident is going to maybe feel a little more self-confident if they’re wearing the right kind of clothes or have the right things. Here we’re learning, right off the bat, that having things can help us define who we are.”

So how do we wean kids off of “things” and help them feel more confident about who they are? It turns out Ms. Richins thinks that music might be part of the answer.

"I have this hypothesis, which I’ve not really been able to test. It seems to me that if a child has certain intangible resources—maybe they play a musical instrument and they’re in the band—they would maybe develop some friendships based around that shared experience. Maybe their parents are saying, “Wow, I’m so proud of you for sticking with band and you’re practicing your trumpet.” This can give a child a sense of who they are beyond just possessions, but that’s an intangible thing. So if kids have more things like athletic skills or activities that they can talk about or form connections with friends over those things, they can feel good about themselves through many different kinds of things. And if you’re lacking other kinds of things—if you’re lacking intangible resources—you might want to fall back on tangible resources.”

I think few, if any, of us would need for Marsha to prove her hypothesis for us to believe it. 

She is intuitively and instinctually coming to understand what we have know for years, which is that music education is about more than music, it’s about how we teach it. It’s about providing a safe environment for young people to thrive. It’s about being able to make mistakes in a pressure free environment. It’s about understanding that it’s not what you wear or the things you have but who you are on the inside. It’s about emotional expression and personal development. It’s about the person holding the horn and not the horn being held by the person.

In my blogs I don’t do enough to celebrate middle school music educators, but Ms. Richins reminds me that my son’s middle school experience would be a whole lot worse without his band director, Mrs. Fisk.

Now, if she could just teach him to clean up after himself.

A Dream Deferred and a Memory Ensured!

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There are milestones in your life that deserved to be observed and celebrated. A time to reflect and rejoice, not just at the destination, but at the journey that brought you there. The highs, the lows, and everything in between. 

I think we can all agree that the big 50 is one of those moments. Last year for my 50th birthday I had a grand plan. It involved some time off, a celebration, and a trip to New York City to see Billy Joel Live at Madison Square Garden

But plans change.

The passing of our familial patriarch necessitated us to put things on hold and tend to our grieving family. 

Before I knew it, I was back on the road, watching summer turn to fall from the windows of planes and hotel rooms. The dream would be deferred.

Six months later, sitting with some close friends and neighbors, they shared with me their conundrum of not knowing how to celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary, which coincidentally was on the same day as my birthday. After bandying ideas back and forth they declared they would likely just do nothing.

“That’s a mistake!” I said. “You never get these moments back, and it is something worth celebrating. DO SOMETHING!” I implored.

"What would you do?” my friend asked.

"Billy Joel at MSG!” I said without hesitation.

What followed was a excited conversation about this historic monthly event and how I had wanted to see it since it began four years ago.


Without missing a beat, my friend Jeni said, “We'll go if you will!” 


Within minutes the decision was made. Within hours, show tickets were bought and travel reservations were made.

This past weekend, four of our closest couple friends (yes, I said four) traveled to NYC to see the icon in an iconic place.

The dream deferred became the memory ensured.

What took me so long? I don’t know. 

I am not a believer in destiny, but I am a believer that you can find good in just about everything, this trip being no exception. Had the trip not been postponed, it would not have turned into the spontaneous four couple combustion of fun that it was.

Whether you are three weeks in or starting school next Tuesday, you likely already have a pre-destined idea as to what this year will be about. A year of triumph, a year of rebuilding, or something in-between. Regardless of your pre-determination the year will unfold and unfurl exactly as IT chooses to. The trick is to teach your students to accept what comes, embrace the moment (good and bad), and remember that… 

A dream deferred just might be a memory ensured.

p.s The concert was AMAZING! At times it was emotional for me, and not just because of the songs, or the setting. It was the celebration of being in the moment, a very special one, with special people. The only thing missing, he didn’t play Summer Highland Falls. Maybe I just need to go back. Who is in?

Squirrels, Forests, and Grand Theft Almond!

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Hey Scott,

If you live in a rural area, or near a park, you’ve undoubtedly observed the annual and ritualistic behavior of squirrels burying their nuts. When the weather turns chilly, these bushy-tailed little creatures begin preparation for their annual Darwinian scavenger hunt. 

Scientists themselves aren’t sure of everything that goes into this stashing/locating behavior, but they have some ideas. For one, scientists have observed squirrels frequently burying and reburying the same nuts time and time again. This kind of odd behavior raises a lot of questions for squirrel enthusiasts (yes, their are such people)—the most pressing being, why do they do this, and how do the squirrels find their nuts once they are buried? 

The answer is, for the most part, they don’t. 

A study done at the University of Richmond found that squirrels fail to recover up to 74% of the nuts they bury (see, I told you there were squirrel enthusiasts). That means that they don’t see the fruits of nearly 3/4ths of their labor. CRAZY! 

Did they forget where they put them? Did they have an overabundance of food? Are they on a diet? Is there foul play at work?


Scientists believe that the behavior of "re-burying" not only helps keep a fresh memory of the nut’s location, but also combats graft and theft. It turns out that the squirrel community is rampant with nut theft. Squirrels can lose as much as 25% of their cached nuts to thieves! 


Who knew?

Whether the loss is due to absentmindedness or nefarious intent, it must be frustrating for squirrels to lose their carefully hidden nuts. After all, they put in the time and effort to locate, curate, and bury said nut. This type of work is not for the feign of heart. These little furry creatures work hard for their money!

Being a music teacher is a little like being a squirrel. And no, it's not because we get paid peanuts.

It's because we tend to work alone and possess a laser like focus and work ethic. IIt's because each and every fall we begin again anew, with no carryover and a daunting task. It's because we must be mindful of the here and now while still planning for the future. It's because we teach, re-teach, and teach again, always circling back to ensure that nugget of knowledge is still buried within each child. It's because we trust those around us, but are mindful that sometimes bad choices are made. And, because regardless of our heart's desires, 74% of what we teach will likely be forgotten.

But our efforts are NOT in vain.

Scientists credit the squirrel with a great deal of the greenery on our planet. It turns out that the misplacing of so many acorns (the seeds of oak trees) is in part responsible for forest regeneration as these buried acorns eventually grow into full oak trees! 

The squirrel will not be around long enough to see or know his impact or efforts, but is truly making an impact.

And like the squirrel, you may not be around your students long enough to see the impact of your efforts, but please know that you are helping to create a forrest.

Yes, music teachers and squirrels are more alike than we might want to admit. While others look at us and think we are nuts, we know we’re really saving the planet.

Have a great week!

Meet Don Jaramillo, You'll be glad you did!


"When we say kids struggle... So do adults. It's important to remember that. Remember, teachers are people too and need understanding and empathy."

- Don Jaramillo


If you don’t know who Don Jaramillo is, you should. The longtime director of the incredible Etiwanda High School Eagle Pride Regiment has found as much success in the admin building as he did on the podium. 

If you want to know what success looks like as a teacher, administrator, and person, take 10 minutes out of your day and watch this video podcast. Don has created a culture of kindness and respect that is truly transforming lives of the student and faculty of Etiwanda High School.

Sudden Savant Syndrome and My Impending Genius

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Savant syndrome comes in several different forms.

In Congenital Savant Syndrome the extraordinary ability surfaces in early childhood and is believed to exist from birth. 

Acquired Savant Syndrome appears unexpectedly in ordinary persons after a head injury, or other traumatic incidents and they develop astonishing new abilities, typically in music, art, or math.

In Sudden Savant Syndrome an ordinary person, with no such prior interest, ability, or injury, has an unanticipated, spontaneous epiphany, like moment where they become instantaneously gifted. Because there is no underlying event, sudden savant syndrome would be better termed "sudden genius." 

Those are two words NEVER used to describe me.

If you need proof, I can't draw or sing, and my disdain/dislike for mathematics has been well chronicled in these weekly missives. It doesn’t take a genius to know that I am no savant. 

But, do I possess the potential to become one?

What makes all three forms of “savantness” interesting is the fact that each of the three forms implies that the talent was within all along. Experts believe that in each case the extraordinary abilities were not suddenly “created,” but were always within and were somehow suddenly “unlocked.”

Always within us...


Is it possible that we all have an inner “savantness” waiting to come out? Is it possible that each and every child (and adult) was meant to create music at a high level? Is it possible that the reason music has existed in every known society is because it exists in every known person?
Is every person a musical savant in waiting?

If so…

Then every child was meant to play, sing, and create. Regardless of their physical, emotional, or cognitive obstacles, they were BORN to make music! And as music educators it is our role and responsibility to facilitate, elevate, and provide experiences that allow each and every young person to find their “inner savant.” 

Yes, even students who struggle have enormous unlocked potential. Today’s beginner is tomorrow’s all-stater. Today’s struggle is tomorrow’s victory. Today’s challenge is tomorrow’s triumph because today’s student is tomorrow’s savant.

In short, our role as teachers is to be their savant sherpa.

Except...

The average age of a sudden savant event is 47.5 years old. 

So, there’s hope for me yet. Right?

Global Warming, Polar Bears, & My Decreasing Intellect!

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I’m baaaacccckkkk!

Well, sort of. Okay, not at all. But next week, I’m baaaaacckkk for sure.

For the past two weeks I have been contemplating restarting the e-zine, but I’m just feeling, well, unmotivated. 

Don’t get me wrong, I cherish this time together and enjoy writing and sharing ideas, honestly, I do. But,I just couldn’t get myself to hunker down and do what needed to be done.

Blame it on a brutal travel schedule, or lack of sleep. Blame it on my other writing commitments or cluttered inbox. Blame it on my 8 year old (a favorite tactic of his sibling), but none of it would be true. The real culprit in my lack of productivity?

It’s global warming. 

Yep, let the blame fall where it belongs, on green house gasses. Seriously, your inability to carpool is killing my productivity so KNOCK IT OFF WOULD YOU?


Sure, everyone is talking about abnormal weather patterns and rising sea levels and I know that watching the plight of the polar bear and our disappearing ice caps is profoundly concerning, but can we all agree that I’m the real victim here! Seriously, my once razor sharp mind and witty sartorial skills are of paramount concern. Will THEY be put on the endangered species list? 

Yes, global warming has made me dumber (and you as well).

In a recent study, scientists from the Harvard Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment observed that students who lived and studied in well air conditioned environments performed better academically than their warmer counterparts. 

Specifically, students who were placed in optimal learning environments (72 degrees) showed greater cognition speed and memory than those who studied in temperatures closer to 80 degrees. It was also discovered that in higher temperatures that test answers were not just more inaccurate, but the answers came slower.

In short, researchers found that cognition efficiency and effectiveness decreased by 10% in sub-optimal temperatures.

The study did not evaluate what happens to students exposed to temperatures in excess of 90 to 100 degrees, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the expected results. So what does this mean?

I think we can all agree that there’s certainly a level of absurdity in this outdoor activity we call marching band. Did marching in the heat make us dumb or were we dumb for even going outside in the first place? Chicken or egg type question, I suppose.

As many of you approach your summer camps in this scorching heat, be mindful of the sacrifice that is made in pursuit of perfection. These kids are not paid to be here. They strive to achieve in the face of obstacles physical, financial, academic, and emotional. They pursue perfection, even at their own peril. 

They do it for love of the activity. They do it for love of their friends. They do it for love of performing. But, they all do it to show their love for you also. And that should make you feel all warm inside, which according to Harvard is making you dumber.

But don’t take my word for it; I’m getting dumber by the second, I live in Phoenix.