Morning email and my Dear Abby response!

CONTENT WARNING: If you are thin skinned, have severe reactions to thoughtful conversations, or are just in a general cranky mood, please do not read any further. You need not unsubscribe as I will be back to my normal cheeky self next week.

Please understand that this weeks e-zine is not a blue print for institutional anarchy. Nor is it an excuse for musical mediocrity. These are just some of my honest reflections after receiving a heartfelt email this morning in my inbox...


Yesterday I returned from our state contest with a rating of straight threes and 30 heart-broken kids. I was devastated. I hated myself for not being able to do more for my kids, for not being able to give them what they deserved. Where did I go wrong? Did I pick the wrong pieces? Are my teaching methods ineffective? More than anything I wished the judges knew how hard these kids have been working and how far they've come.

I wished they knew what this group sounded like back in August. I wished they knew that this ensemble hasn't qualified for State in almost a decade. I wished they knew that we've been rehearsing in a gym all year because the administration thought two band periods was excessive and decided two bands could rehearse at the same time when we only have one band room and not enough instruments to go around.

But they didn't know any of that. All they knew is that we were poorly balanced, out of tune, and only had three percussionists. So we got straight threes and a snide comment from a judge that alluded to, "It's ok, you're young and you don't know what you're doing yet". And I hated myself for it.


In need of a friend

ear In Need,

I am sorry that your recent experience has left you and your students with the belief that you have in some way failed. Trust me, you have not.

Please know that what you are feeling is not by design or intent. Also, know that the judges truly want what to do what is right. They are acting in a way that they think is best for you, your students, and every other young person who strives for excellence on the field, stage, and in the classroom.

But that likely does not make you feel much better... You know that life isn't fair and neither are music contests.

Truth be told, on a philosophical level, I have always struggled a bit with some of the ways that we adjudicate ensembles. I understand and support both the need and desire to reward excellence; however, despite our best attempts, like most large undertakings, our festival system is imperfect. Specifically, I struggle with the following fact(s):

  • We often measure product more than process/growth. As an educational activity, perhaps we should measure student growth more than the final product. Educationally speaking, would it be more appropriate, in selecting a "champion," to take all of the group's score from their first competition and compare their final performance at state? We would then award first place to the ensemble showing the greatest differential.
  • Socio-ecomonics are not more of a consideration. When assessing school performance, our Federal Department of Education recognizes the unique challenges associated with poverty and adjusts the school's performance rubric accordingly. I wonder if we shouldn't be doing the same in music. We all know the unique challenges organizations serving impoverished communities face, it just doesn't seem as if we have accounted for them in our adjudication rubrics.
  • We're measuring adult achievement as much as we are student achievement. I am confident that you are a fine teacher. But, you are just that, ONE fine teacher. I would further guess that if you were accompanied by other fine teachers and world class drill and music, your same students would have had a markedly different experience. So who was really being judged more on Saturday, the students or the teacher?
  • We don't better account for the challenges associated with size. My guess is that had you returned with 130 students from contest, they would be a little less devastated. It is hard to wow an audience visually or musically when your ensemble resembles a singular math class more than an outdoor performance ensemble. It is even harder when your group is classified by school size and not ensemble size. Enrollment numbers help with depth, musical & general effect, instrumentation, inner ensemble competition, and parent/financial support. Numbers are the currency of this activity, musically, educationally and financially. This does not mean that bigger is always better, just perhaps presents fewer obstacles.

Please understand that the people who put on shows are serving you and your students in the VERY BEST way they know how and are doing all of this IN ADDITION to running their own program. Also know that there are no "one size fits all" answer or contests and someone will always be left under-served. Also keep in mind, this is part of the process of getting better, both for the teacher and the students.

But more so than anything, I believe your job as their teacher is to give your students materials and opportunities that gives them their best chance at success. And regardless of the results, to role model and guide them through the learning process in a way that gives them their best opportunity to grow and learn about life.

Keep in mind that in the end, your students are unlikely to remember their ranking or score, but will always remember YOU and how you responded to the moment.


Been there too

My response to "In Need" is intended to provoke thought and remind you that the contest experience is what we make of it. I understand that my thoughts/suggestions create just as many problems as they do solutions along with some VERY complicated logistics.

I also want to say THANK YOU to every person, parent, or organization that runs these events and to you for attending them. No other curricula puts itself on the line in such a public way, and I want you to know that YOU have my (and others) unending gratitude, respect, and support.