Friday, November 30, 2012

This time, it's personal.

Oh hi! Remember me? I started a blog about teaching music and didn't write very many posts? Yes, I did that.  But guess who's back?  Me.  Because I work loooooong days on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (and during most weekends); but have Tuesdays and Thursdays (until the evenings) off.

And guess what? Nobody else in the world is free on Tuesday or Thursday mornings.  And I don't want to do actual work then, either. I use those days to recover from my 12-hour Mondays and Wednesdays.  But what I might have a little bit of energy for, however, is blogging.  Specifically about the thing that inspires me most (besides my boyfriend, which is a new development since last time I updated). I am inspired by teaching music.

What is my employment situation?  Let me count the jobs.  In chronological order of employment: I am a lecturer at the local university on Tuesday and Thursday evenings (which is also the obligation that eats up many of my weekends), I teach music at a very, very rural k-8 school from 2pm-6pm on Mondays and Wednesdays (let's call this one C. Elementary), and I teach at another rural (though less than the former because this town is actually incorporated) k-8 school from 8am-1:30pm on Mondays and Wednesdays and 8am-3pm on Fridays (let's call this one F. Elementary).

Gosh but coming into this situation was clumsy. Last year was a challenge for sure. Especially because I had a freak injury to deal with in the middle of the year that practically crippled my ability to communicate. Especially because it was my first year of teaching.  But I survived.

The two elementary schools at which I teach are very different from each other.  Different school structures, different populations, way way different socio-economic make-ups.  Things that work for controlling one group of kids and advancing their understanding don't even phase another group.  But that's the way the world is, and I like it.  

I'm a musician.  Did you know that?  When I was student teaching my main mentor asked me, "Why do you play music?"  I couldn't answer. I didn't know. And that startled me, having just received my B.A. in music performance and education. That I would start learning something at the age of 9 and advance so far without even knowing why. How in the world could I serve children in their endeavors if I didn't even know why I did it?  Why would children learn music if there was no reason?

I didn't know at the time why I didn't know, but I do now.  I'd grown up shy.  So shy I could count the number of times I said anything in pre-school on one hand.  And was shy forever. And still am.  Talking to people can be very scary for me.  Negative interactions (especially with adults) are something I never, ever want.  Somewhere in the course of last year, tucked in the conversations I'd started having with my sweet and very contemplative boyfriend, I figured out that the vast majority of my anxieties are social.  My motivations are social, too.  I was afraid to talk to my teachers in high school, but maybe if I did really good work they would talk to me and like me.  Conversely, if I felt like a teacher didn't like me, I didn't want to give them the satisfaction of my best work in class. (I got a D in calculus on purpose. I got a 4 on the AP test. The teacher just made me feel so crappy; I never wanted to finish my homework for him.)

When I started making music with other people, in high school and college, I discovered something really nice.  Music students playing in all the studio recitals--I knew them.  Soloists in the symphonic band--I knew them.  It wasn't long before they knew me.  Hearing people play music. Playing with them. Communicating with them. Interactions.  In the midst of my difficulties connecting with people through conversation, I could connect with them through music.  I had to be the best clarinet player I could possibly be. I practiced an average of 2.5 hours a day.  I owed it to the people I made music with.  I had to make my communications very clear.

So why do I play music? The music I make is a very personal part of myself.  I'm sharing part of myself with others.  Other people play music and we have moments and conversations.  It is a big deal to me, as a person who has always been shy, that I can share my sound with others for the sake of the bigger sound.  Suddenly I have a voice.  Suddenly I don't feel run over in every group conversation by someone who asserts himself better.  My line is written in the music. I am important. I'm part of something bigger.

The reason I was thinking about this recently is because of one boy I teach at C. Elementary.  He is in fifth grade and is learning the baritone for the first time.  He's been identified as a GATE student and often asks me questions that challenge what I know about music and sound in general.  I can see huge potential for musical growth in this student.

However, when I teach classroom music in his 4th/5th grade class, he is very reluctant to show effort in singing. I've been able to engage most students in vocal warm-ups, and in learning songs and practicing them. This boy's facial expressions show me that he is far from engaged.  He'll roll his eyes, giving half-grins like this is the silliest and most useless thing he has ever encountered in his life.

Two days ago, on Wednesday, I asked him after his baritone lesson if he really doesn't like singing.  "I don't really like it," he said. "Can I ask why not?" I asked. He said it's just not that enjoyable to him.  "I see you sometimes doing silly things in class and looking like you could be doing something better," I said.  "Singing is a very personal thing for lots of people. It took me a long time to be able to sing with others. It's pretty special to be given an opportunity to make music with other people."

I asked him to give singing another chance.  My guess is that he's afraid to open up in front of others. My guess is that he's afraid of not being good at it if he were to really try.  Watching how he interprets the world around him, and how he can really engage in something if he is interested, I think he could probably do a good job singing. But there is the social aspect. There is the human voice, and the way a voice is so ready to make errors in pitch if it hasn't been trained.  I think if this student can make training his voice into a personal endeavor, singing will be a more meaningful experience for him.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Yes. I have just titled this post after what butterflies, salamanders, frogs and lots of things go through in life when they change.  It's a metaphor that's been used over and over again, but there are reasons for that.

I have caught a glimpse of the beginning of my personal metamorphosis.  I spent so much time as a larva studying, working on my skills, collecting experiences and synthesizing meanings for them, and creating visions of what in the long run could make me happy.

The first time I saw the change was two Tuesdays ago.  I subbed for one of my mentor teachers at her other school site.  All day long, I taught one song to 8 classes of kids grades k-3.  All day long, I sang with children.  I was elated.  I smiled about it all week long.  I sang "A Frog Went A-Courtin'" to myself all week long.

10 months after I first spent a day at work with my mentor, I still can't believe her job is a job.

Yesterday I subbed for a woman who is locally famous for her high school music program.  I played trumpet for 2 years in the community symphony that she conducts.  All throughout my music ed undergrad career I would hear about how her fundraising skills were brilliant, her conducting was brilliant and her groups were brilliant.  I got to conduct an incredibly sensitive group of high school orchestra musicians. Even though that was at 7am, I was elated again.  And again, three hours later, when I conducted the madrigal choir.  Never in my life have I conducted a choir.  (Or an orchestra, for that matter--my real experience in leading groups is with wind players.)  But seeing that I could, after cacooning my skills for several months for the sake of earning any income, that was when it became apparent to me.  

I can teach music.  Any music.  To any person who wants to learn.

After subbing I went to the university to rehearse a chamber piece. (Schubert's Shepherd on the Rock--I'm playing clarinet.)  It was our first run-through with voice, clarinet and piano.  I remembered how nervous I used to get about performing.  Then I remembered how lucky I am that I still get to do it.

Then I went to the symphonic band rehearsal where I am working on a piece with them.  Talking to a group about music, showing players how to experience playing it.  That is what I want.  I get comments from friends and from people in the group I've never met--"I love the way you conduct the symphonic band."

Then I went to the marching band rehearsal where I'm the instructor.  Elections for the new student leaders are next week, and all of the candidates to conduct the band got a chance to practice at that rehearsal.  I didn't play because I needed to save chops for the brass band rehearsal after that.  But I took notes on everything I saw, and gave the notes to each candidate.  I felt like a champion just because I could provide real feedback, like an instructor should.

After that was the dress rehearsal for the brass band concert that will happen tonight and tomorrow night.  Cornet, cornet, cornet for nearly 3 hours.  I was so tired at that point, that during the break, watching the civil war music group from the audience, my eyes started leaking tears.  I don't think anyone saw.

Then, for the encore, the conductor handed his baton to me and I got to conduct the second half of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" while he played the solo piccolo line on cornet.  Amazing.

And so we come back to the metamorphosis.  This is me, right now, looking back on yesterday and the last two weeks, and seeing a real person who wants a life where she can make music and help other people make the best music they can, and is taking every step possible toward that.

This is the transformation into becoming the person that I want to be.

Monday, October 24, 2011

My Pool

Yesterday I realized that my life is a mishmash of things I've dug up and slapped together with Scotch tape.  I live a flimsy lifestyle that I keep trying desperately to make more substantial.  Nothing grounds me.  Nothing pulls the pieces together.

I'm kneeling on a slippery rock next to a small tide pool with water so deep and dark I can't see beneath the surface.  Everything I have has come from this pool because I stuck my hand in and grabbed it. The things that could potentially nourish me, I keep, no matter how small or weird.  

I can't retain everything I catch.  Most creatures bite and sting and I have to let go.  Sometimes, even when I scoop it out of the water thinking it's finally mine, the creature wiggles out of my grasp and flops wildly until it plops into the next pool down.

The things I have kept are easy to keep.  They are small and benign.  They practically jumped into my hands.  I hope, desperately and in vain, that they will grow if I nourish them just enough.  But initially the smaller creatures don't nourish me, so they take a back seat in my mind as I search blindly for more, for better, for anything else that can supplement what I have.

My life at this point is frozen at the edge of this tide pool.  The deeper I search, the more trinkets I find but cannot have.  Most of them hide at the bottom after they realize I'm up there trying to catch them, not knowing I only want to make it into something even better.  Every time I stick my arm into the pool it becomes more painfully clear that I can't pull enough trinkets to glue into a cohesive life.  My conflict is, I don't want to abandon what I have already collected.  I want for them to grow into something wonderful.

But it's not enough. I need a bigger body of water to search through, or better tools to help me keep my grip on what I want.  I feel trapped on my rock.  Something needs to change.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Frustration and Affirmation

I am a real working person with a job.  A few jobs, actually.

I got scared from writing in this blog because I'd had it reserved for my intrapersonal intellectual battles.  They've been there, but writing them down is a pain.  And thinking all of my thoughts all the way through. What's the point? I thought.  I'm not a student anymore. I don't need to think about everything anymore.

That's stupid, though. Just because another person doesn't offer me a grade or a job for my thoughts doesn't mean I can't still have them.  Just because I'm no longer a music student doesn't mean I shouldn't practice. Just because there's a possibility that nobody could ever read these words and respond back, doesn't mean I shouldn't record them.  So there.

Here is my situation.

I got my teaching credential.  I did not get a full time teaching job, because music ones don't really exist. I did everything to the best of my ability to get my dream job in the area I'm in.  I did not even get an interview. (Why would I? They will not give a full-time music teaching job to someone who hasn't spent a considerable amount of time in the "hot seat" of having a preliminary teaching credential and not being able to make it permanent because they haven't had a consistent enough situation yet.)

So I got some other jobs. Which I wasn't too excited about, because it wasn't one place with my own space and my own control over my destiny.  I don't get to do that yet because I am a kid who has friends and doesn't really want to move somewhere new and make new friends. No offense to most of the world, but only a few people get to really be my friend. They are the people that get me. I get along just fine with almost everyone.  I am a very pleasant person. But most people don't take the time to really get me, and get the fact most of my interactions with others only scratch the surface of my person.  (Hence the name of this blog, really.  I cannot really be friends with a person who doesn't expend the energy to interact with me one-on-one.)

So I want to keep the friends I have close to me, because it is hard to make new friends when you're young and single and don't have children.

I have two jobs with somewhat regular hours.  One of them is teaching music at a k-8 school, for three hours, two days a week after school.  That's pretty neat, except that the school is a 45 minute commute from where I live.  The school is gorgeous, though. And the principal hired me on the spot. No resume. No cover letter. No letters of recommendation.  After working so hard at that other job application, I couldn't believe my luck that I just fell into that.

My other job is at the local college. (I haven't figured out yet if I want to keep my location here private, because it's a pretty distinctive location.  I guess I will just say I'm on the west coast and I'm somewhat rural.) I'm a lecturer, but don't let that position title fool you.  I'm the instructor of the marching band, in charge of all class aspects of the group.  Most of my job happens outside of rehearsal.  I run around from department to department, getting other people to sign this and approve of that, and take care of money, and eventually give people grades.  In rehearsal, I don't do much.  I occasionally tell people to play music better and listen to people complain to me with no intention of asking me to do anything to remedy their problems.

It's an okay job.  It's challenging because I used to be heavily involved with the group as a student, then disappeared for about three years, and am now coming back needing to get used to a whole new group of people, and know what's going on socially without really being involved.  It's also challenging because outside of rehearsals, which I don't even have to go to, I don't have regular hours.  It's supposedly 20% employment, and yet I end up going to campus on most days. I get things done on my list and find more things to do.

Somewhere along the way I ended up being in the right (or wrong) place during the music department's symphonic band rehearsal, and my friend, a fellow clarinetist, who graduated and is heading off to grad school in two weeks, found me sitting and talking to someone I knew between errands.  She told me there weren't enough clarinets in the band, just her and one freshman.  So, I joined.

And here we get into the meat of my day today.  (Sorry that took so long.)  I got to symphonic band rehearsal eventually, after having a money meeting for my job.  Symphonic band has been frustrating for me for several reasons.  One reason is that I haven't been playing my own clarinet.  I stupidly left it at the camp I worked at in the summer.  My clarinet isn't great, but my mouthpiece is.  I also had some pretty nice reeds and reed-carving tools in that case.  So playing on a school horn has been frustrating because the sound quality I'm producing is inferior to what I can make on my own setup.  Another frustrating thing on my own part is that, because I have to play the instrument differently to make an "okay" sound, my technique has really been suffering and I can't simply blow through technically challenging passages.  I get hung up on different registers and certain notes pop out that I've smoothed over on my own instrument.  Plus, I don't have the endurance I used to have after focusing mainly on brass last year.

The other frustrating aspects of playing in that group are external.  The conductor, with whom I bonded a lot last year after being the only music credential candidate (and him being in charge of music education), is in his first semester of directing this group after two and a half years of someone else (actually my current supervisor--it's a small school) leading the group.  And, while I've gained a lot from him as an educator, it's been awhile since I've had him as a conductor in that situation.  Maybe I'll go into more detail later, but he is not good.  And the group is young.  So this use of my time is not terribly musically fulfilling.  Frustrating indeed, but I have dues to pay apparently.

My friend asked me to pick up her baritone so I could bring it to the brass band rehearsal later that evening.  I've been playing in the local brass band for the past two years.  This group is also affiliated with the university, but a big fraction of the players are from the community (including me, now).  I've been playing 1st cornet.  Because our rehearsal was off campus today (starting with a performance), I had to bring that instrument home with me as well.  I live about a block away from campus, but it was incredibly strenuous to walk home with a cornet, a baritone, and a bag that must have weighed upwards of 20 pounds on my shoulder.

I got to rehearsal and found out that the flugelhorn player would not be there, and that I would be playing that part for the performance and rehearsal.  I had no problem with that.  I've been playing 1st cornet parts for two years, but it was always kind of a drag because 4 people play 1st and I was always last-first.  I only had my cornet there, and the repiano player who had a horn for me to play was running late.

And then we got to playing.  One of the pieces started with a flugelhorn solo I didn't know was a solo.  My conscious brain jumped about a mile as the music poured out on its own.  It felt so easy after struggling so much in the other group.

And then the flugelhorn arrived.  It was a gorgeous satin-finished Getzen.  Playing that instrument was like playing silk.  I felt at home, in hearing the sound and in the feeling of playing the horn.  My consciousness was all over the place.  My shoulders and arms were tired from carrying so much stuff earlier and it was hard to hold the instrument up.  I worried about intonation because the valve slides didn't have a way to move while playing.  But all I had to do was vaguely think about the sound I wanted, and the instrument made it happen.  And I remembered what my life was all about.

And here is the part where we come back to the idea of external motivation, or influence, or affirmation.  Just because about 7 people came up to me after and told me I should always play flugelhorn, does that mean it was meant to be?  It sure felt good to sound how I sounded.  And to finally have an opportunity to be expressive in a group like that, instead of having to share a part with 3 other people and never get any solos.  I felt like every musical due I'd ever paid had finally bought me a chance to show the group, the conductor, and anyone who was listening what I was all about as a musician.

The conductor came up to me after and told me I had to play those solos in the concert.  "Sometimes it just happens to be that one person is so right for a part and finally gets a chance to show it," he said, "And the other person misses out because they weren't here."  The other person has been playing flugel in the band for years and years.  

The conductor took the flugel and repiano folders back with him.  He really doesn't know what to do about parts and instruments.  I hope I get to play flugel in the band, though.  Suddenly my life feels like it's going somewhere again.  I have a place that can fulfill my musical needs, a platform on which I can use my own musical voice to contribute to the whole message of the music.  It feels amazing.  Silly as it is that such a small thing can change my entire state of being. But that's how it goes.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Music as a Language and Vessel for Communication

This is my final for my Content Area Literacy class, and I wanted to share it here.

Music in its own rite is a strange content area. Implemented the way it is at my school site, learning to read music comes about five years after learning to read English. But as with a spoken language, students begin hearing and producing musical sounds much sooner. Music (like math, as the Carnegie report points out) is a language, and I believe it should be taught as such. About five years after listening to and beginning to speak the language of music, students begin learning to read it. Just like when learning their own spoken language: Babies receive spoken messages from birth. Five years later, they can finally start to connect sound with symbol. The Suzuki method of teaching music is built on this philosophy: understanding how exactly to "speak" music comes long before reading anything off of a page.

Something that truly fascinates me is how different the experience of learning to read in music is from the experience of learning to read in math or other content areas. The difference is especially striking at the secondary level. As a middle school, high school and college musician I was continuously being taught and taught again how to read. Part of this phenomenon, I suspect, might stem from the fact that musical text looks and is interpreted very differently from English text. We do not see it in everyday life. One of my colleagues (I can't remember who at the moment) made mention of the importance of reading, and how language on a danger sign could mean the difference between life and death. There are no danger signs written in musical notation. Our survival in the world does not depend on being able to read both bass and treble clef (or alto or tenor clef).

But music is a common language, and a way to communicate to others without necessarily using words. It is incredibly important to students' health and well-being that they can hear the message of something non-verbal, and that they can express the rationale behind emotions or aesthetic experiences that they experience (their own or those of others) in their lives. The language is fully comprehensible without needing to read it in some situations. Some people have the time and discipline to learn an instrument, or to train their voices, without any guidance from the written word. They can express themselves beautifully, play with others, and have their message be understood by listeners. In our society, most situations where a student will be able to start out and develop as a musician must involve reading notation.

As I mentioned in my second paragraph, music reading skills and strategies must constantly be taught throughout the entirety of a young musician's development. It is the skill of taking a visual cue, decoding what it means and how to interpret it, and producing the right sound at the right time using a man-made machine (except for voice...that's a nature-made machine). Not only does a musician have to interpret the page and produce what it's asking for, but s/he needs to know where s/he fits in the group! The page might say to play loudly, but if our hypothetical student is playing clarinet in the high range for a rhythmic background part, s/he needs to know that the definition of "forte" is going to be different in this situation. Or a student might need to know that a marking that usually indicates one technique for strings, means something completely different for winds or percussion or voice.

The Carnegie report explains that "As readers we construct meaningful patterns from word to word, from sentence to sentence, and from paragraph to paragraph, looking for connections across these textual elements toward some understanding that we can take away from reading the text." The authors then go on to explain that what we interpret from the text varies widely depending on our prior knowledge. This is absolutely true, but another corollary I'd like to add is that as teachers that hopefully do our jobs well, we will be on the students' lists of prior knowledge sources when they walk out of our classrooms. In other words, students who went through elementary school consistently handling bigger things that made lower sounds and smaller things that made higher sounds (and had that consistently pointed out to them) might be coming to beginning band with a better understanding of the basic idea of how a trombone works than a student who did not share that experience. Of course these connections need to be explicitly pointed out to everyone, all the time.

My final thought is this: when properly cultivated, musicianship is an extension of one's self. In an ideal situation, people can find ways to grow all the time, and when continuously practiced their musicianship will grow with them. Conversely, I cannot fathom that the discipline involved in growing as a musician would not lead to the musician growing as a person. Personally I walk out the door smiling every day when I can see evidence of both.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Why I Play Music

I can't say I've ever taken the time to think about why. Even as a music performance and education major, attending a workshop for one of the most famous jazz pianists in the world, as someone asked him, "Why do you play music?" and he responded, "Because I have to." My gut response hit me like no ton of bricks ever had before. It retorted, "Well, I don't have to."

That was a tough feeling for my brain to chew on for a few days. There I was, in my last semester of college, one of the top (if not the top) students in the entire music department, a star clarinetist, a pretty damn good trumpet player, participating in 10 different ensembles both through the school and not. And I didn't even have to play.

So why was I there? Why be a musician if I didn't really have to play? After discussing it some with one of my professors, I came to this conclusion: "I do have to teach." I was teaching private lessons and small groups at the time. It gave me validation in the world. Being a More Knowledgeable Other (yay, Vygotsky!) and sharing my view of the world and music with students who are trying to find their's a wonderful feeling. Watching students grow as musicians. They had to grow on their own, but only if I exposed them to just the right amount of regular sunlight and watered them with only as much as they needed each time.

And then, a year later (two days ago) as a student teacher, my mentor teacher (wife of the aforementioned professor) was trying to explain to me the process of writing a unit based on a piece. What do I want the students to get out of this? she asked. What is important here for them to know? What is going to enrich their experience of this piece? I don't know, I kept saying or thinking. She asked, "What do you want to learn about when you learn about a piece?...Why do you play music?"

Like an honest fool, I answered "I don't know." The reaction I'd had to that exchange last year hadn't answered the question. She said, "Well, it's probably time to start thinking about that." And so, here I am.

To be honest, I'm not sure what kind of person I am. I must be some kind of diligent, having the patience to learn and develop good tones on several (very different) wind instruments. I must be some kind of thoughtful, having written the ridiculous amount of some 30 single-spaced pages in the Reflection task of my PACT. But I do strange things sometimes. I make choices that in the back of my mind, I know are not the best choices. Like becoming a music major simply because my high school gave me a scholarship for it once. Like having schoolgirl-crushes on guys who would never consider me in that way. Like creating a blog at midnight when I have a rehearsal plan to write. So, one reason I play music is because it was a choice I made. Nobody told me to play music. Nobody ever said I needed to. I just wanted to. And I made it happen and was successful at it. Music represents a lifestyle choice that my soul embraces with every fiber of its being. Music is a good choice that I made.

A significant reason I play music is the social aspect--the feeling of belonging in a group and contributing your own voice to the sound of the whole. I am intensely shy. I've always been that way. It comes in waves--sometimes I feel confident and can say hi to a stranger, but most of the time I feel more comfortable as the approach-ee. If I were to estimate, I would say about 80% of my friends, if not more, are people with whom I have played music. A really good musician can tell you all about his or herself by how s/he plays (or sings). Heck, I know middle schoolers who show up on the musical floor and have something really poignant to say with their instruments. Playing music with people is how I can get to know them--their strengths, weaknesses, concepts of the world. And it's a way I can share parts of myself that many people would never know unless they pried it out of me. Music saves me from falling into an abyss of loneliness and depression.

The third and final reason I will share with you tonight about why I play music is this: I believe that our experience of time and the world is an aesthetic experience. If we are lucky and have use of all five senses, we are continuously stimulated, consciously or not, by each and every sense. When I play music, it feels good. The sound of my clarinet floating gently through time, the smells of cork grease and a freshly sharpened pencil, reading music on a page or communicating to other musicians with eye contact. The feel of my moderately moderate model of clarinet on my fingertips, the sound waves resonating within me and out of the bell. And yes. Even the taste of a reed. The very woody, sweeter taste of a new reed, the slightly sour taste of an old one. Playing music significantly enhances my aesthetic experience of time and the world.

Those are three of my reasons. I'm not sure if any of them will help me write my rehearsal plan. I suppose we'll see. :)