Remove the Music!

Take some time to instill great thinking!

This is the time of year when directors and staff members are gearing up for a successful marching band season. There are so many pressing issues including beginning work on the brand new marching band arrangement. Plans have been made for for a competitive show and we are now ready to hit the ground running. When we get to camp, and place music in front of the students, what thoughts are running through their heads? Have we taken any time to give the students the right thoughts to play the music at a high level WITHOUT our hours of spoon feeding?

I think a good comparison is learning to drive a car. I would be skipping a step if I bought a new car for my daughter and turned her loose on the road without teaching her how to do it. She needs to have the right thoughts and decisions going through her mind when executing this skill. There is no way she could be successful without that training process. The same is true for music. The music is our car, and there is no way to be successful driving it without the right thoughts & decision making skills.

How do we do this, and when do we find the time?

One thing that I have started doing with schools is offering once per week brass clinic sessions in the summer. Sure, some people are on vacation or at camps, but each week there is an opportunity for students to come and learn as much as possible about playing like professionals. We cover topics such as breathing, tone production, tuning, articulation & dynamics, balance and how to be a great leader and teacher. Usually, when directors inquire about this they always ask if I have music to pass out to the students ahead of time. That is the LAST thing I want to do during this time of training.I want to take advantage of time to educate, and then put the thoughts into practice without “note” distractions.

When do the students get the opportunity to just think solely about the fundamentals of playing instead of the notes on the page? If I place music in front of them without their thoughts being correct, there is little to no chance the music will sound successful. It blows my mind when I work with students, and we take a 2 hour session to talk about breathing. Then, the very next sessions we talk about a characteristic tone, we set up to play a concert F, and the thought about breathing has completely gone out the window. Just by asking them to play one note, it caused them to now only think about that note and not the things that make the note successful. Can you imagine if they have a full page of new music?

We must make time to train the students how to think in order to be successful. By mid band camp, they have so many things to think about that if the right thoughts have not been instilled, they just do whatever they want. Eventually, if we teach them correct thinking, they will do it enough that it will begin to happen naturally.

Before beginning this marching season, take some time to educate without music. Help give your students the right thoughts to be able to drive their “vehicle” successfully.

Hearing What is Really There!

The students' growth vs. the actual sound

If we are in the business of music education, we are extremely passionate about our students and their success. If you are anything like me, ideas pop into your head consistently on new and exciting ways to help your students improve. It is exhilarating for us to see a student realize their potential through our training and their work ethic. The growth of a student and program is so important and exciting, but can this excitement cloud what we are really hearing?

As much as we like to think we hear what is actually there, most of the time we do not. Have you ever had a guest come in to work with your group and been awakened at that moment to reality? Probably at first you might have thought the guest was a bit harsh or picky, but then you say, “Oh my, he/she is right. I never heard that.” It is not that the guest knows more or is better, but he/she doesn’t know the growth of the ensemble. It is much easier for that person to hear reality because he/she never heard the beginning.

It is natural to have some bias toward our students. It is also natural to think what we are doing is great, especially if we are pouring our souls into our work everyday. The growth of a student and program is the most important thing and it is why we spend our lives educating. When a student/ensemble performs, the pride we feel as educators is off the charts. We see little Judy’s growth from 6th grade, and we see Johnny’s growth from moving from trumpet to tuba. We hear the program migrate from lack of musical skills to playing a beautiful phrase with better tones and intonation. We basically have a cloud of judgement no one else has that is listening to our ensemble. So, we take the group to an adjudicated event, and do not do as well as hoped. While the score is not the most important thing, and neither is the rated event, why did the group not do as well as hoped when we thought the group was great?

Here are some things you might consider doing to help see past the growth to reality.

  • Record the Ensemble

This is best done with a high quality mic and a good recording software or app.  I would recommend Rode record for the iPhone with a Zoom IQ7 mic. Listen back with headphones and you will be surprised what you hear that you most likely have never heard before. Also, let your students hear the recording for the same reason.

  • Invite professionals to listen to your ensemble

It is nice to get some feedback from folks who have never seen/heard your ensemble. You are not asking them to fix your ensemble, just let you know what they are hearing, and you decide what to adjust.

  • Listen to successful ensembles at the same level

How does your ensemble compare to what really successful ensembles at the same level are doing around the country. Constantly expose your ears to the best to cleanse yourself from what you hear daily.

  • Practice your instrument

Being excellent at your main instrument helps you give better advice. Being proficient at your instrument will help you expect more professional quality from your students. You can also demonstrate for your students what a professional sound, breath and articulation look and sound like.

  • Do some adjudication

Being able to adjudicate an event that has many different ensembles will help you hear what other ensembles are doing and help expose you to a comparison of your group to the world. It also helps you realize see more clearly the detailed criteria.

  • Be a constant learner

Never settle and always look for ways to improve. Talk with other great educators, read, watch and learn from professional musicians and be humble in the process.

Do you find yourself blinded by your students’ growth?

Tri-State Ensembles Advanced Jazz Combo

Live at the Greenwhich

Tri-State Ensembles is the only program in the Cincinnati area that focuses solely on the power through training in chamber ensembles. The mission of the program is to rehearse less and perform more, placing more personal responsibility on the student to prepare outside of rehearsals, like professionals. Each chamber ensemble plays at least one gig during the run of the program (which is 4 months).

The Advanced Jazz Combo recently performed at the Greenwhich Jazz Club in Cincinnati and this is a video clip of their performance. Check out Tri-State Ensembles website for more information as well as their Facebook and Twitter pages.

Excuses, Excuses!

What's holding your marching program back?

Each year music educators spend time reflecting and contemplating what went wrong in previous year’s competitive marching band shows and what can be done to make things better. This can be a very rewarding process but sometimes things get in the way. A professional trombonist friend of mine always used to say to me, “No excuses, just results.” This is so true in the reflection process. It’s not the ideas or reflection process that holds programs back, but rather the constant excuses.

Some of you might be asking, what do you mean?

Here are 5 common excuses that infiltrate the competitive marching season.

1. There is a problem with the judging panel!

Plain and simple, judges want to see programs succeed. While there may be a very small percentage of time where a specific judge may not be what you perceive as “the best”, or “qualified,” it isn’t the majority. A panel of 5-6 judges is put together for a specific reason and that is to give programs the best chance to have a fair and equal evaluation from many different angles. If one judge gives a program an ordinal of 2nd place and another gives the ordinal of 5th, does that mean the judge who gave 2nd is correct? Not necessarily. It means the program is somewhere in between. It could mean the judges were in different parts of the press box, and saw or heard things differently. It does not mean the judge who gave 5th is “out to get” a program. Really, there is no denying a program that is great, so if you do not want an ordinal of 2nd or 5th, just be better. Instead of looking at those placements as mean spirited, try to look at what your program can improve on as to not receive those placements in the future.

2. Our circuit doesn’t reward our type of shows

There are certain type of shows that fit certain circuits better because of the content of the adjudication sheets. Isn’t it the job of the directors and staff to pick a show that has music and effect according to the criteria in which the program is judged? Instead of using this excuse, reflect on why the show might not be doing as well as hoped, and make necessary changes that are guided by that circuits judging criteria. Study the sheets and present a program that guides the adjudicators through those sheets in a very organized manner.

3. We drew a bad spot at contests

This one does matter slightly, but again, being great is hard to deny. Trust that the adjudicator is competent in being able to recognize and reward greatness, and be amazing as the first band. It is when bands are in the “just ok” area that going first has a bigger impact. Make a statement with tone quality, musicianship, performance, confidence and appearance and programs will almost always get the credit they deserve.

4. Other schools’ shows are so much easier than ours

Placing blame on other programs and focusing on what someone else is or isn’t doing is a big mistake. If another program is doing better than yours, it is usually because that program is performing on a higher level. Whether it is perceived as easier or more difficult really doesn’t make that much difference. It is the performance quality of the material that the director has given their program. Sometimes, other programs might appear easier because they are performing it with such ease that it comes across effortlessly.

5. It’s political!

This is a very popular statement, and has some merit. However, being undeniable in what you are doing can trump any political stereotype. It just takes one or two unbelievable performances for any preconceived notions to be broken. It is hard to deny greatness. Is your program great?

Focusing on ourselves, being humble and working hard are the only things we can control. Wasting mental energy on anything else takes our focus off the main thing, which is high level music education. Try a whole season of no excuses and quite possibly you may see what is holding the program back.

Is there another excuse you have heard during the competitive marching season?

How are Music Programs Defining Success?

We as music educators love the time of year when district auditions, all-state auditions, honor band/orchestra auditions and solo and ensemble festivals happen. It is a time to socialize with other educators and watch the students grow from each varying musical opportunity, right? Well, not exactly. While networking and education are important, it seems the main importance are the numbers! The number of “ones” or “golds” on solo & ensemble, or the number of kids that auditioned and made all-state. The number of students that auditioned for district band or the number of students that made the “top group.” The list goes on and on.

I have seen this taken to the extreme with emails circulating comparing the different schools in an area with how many students auditioned and made different groups. Directors give young musicians “days off” of class to have individual practice days to work on the audition material. They have each student play privately for them after school (when this would have never happened otherwise) and even make  their own ensemble audition material  the same music. Many students are convinced and coerced to audition to “help” the numbers. I have seen legal pads with names written on the page with check marks as a way to keep track with how many students are auditioning or participating. It all seems like too much energy spent on things of little importance.

What if the same energy was spent on educating students about the high level extra curricular programs in the area, or convincing or coercing students to sign up for a field trip to the symphony or to hear a masterclass by a professional musician.

Do the amount of students that make all-state define a program or director’s success?

Sadly, I believe for many it does. It is a way that a director can appear a really great educator on the surface. Music programs appear successful and thriving from students auditioing. Students making all-state or district programs doesnt say much about the music program, however. While the student, director, private lesson instructors and parents should be congratulated, these things do not define success for music education in that program. It is one audition or test.

What is a better way to define success?

That is a great question.

  • The students’ ability to sight-read and understand music on a deeper level by knowing basic music theory and aural techniques.
  • The students’ ability to feel and create emotion from music through advanced phrasing and shaping.
  • Creating and fostering a love of music education in students through deep thought about daily educational experiences provided.
  • The students’ awareness of what steps to take to be more like professional musicians.
  • Students playing and performing regularly a wide variety of music in varying size ensembles.
  • Giving students opportunities to perform solos and ensembles without a conductor.
  • Giving students practical information that can be applied both now and in the future. Caring less about the test and more about the process. Schools do the same thing when comparing standardized test scores from school to school. Is that one test a definition of succcess for that school?

I am not saying that auditioning for these programs is not a good thing, and I am certainly not saying that directors who ask students to audition for these programs are doing the wrong thing. I am simply saying that there is a problem with how some music programs are defining success if it is based on numbers involved in these programs. Students should be presented the opportunities, and then should be able to make their own decision about auditioning or participating. We should care more about the process and less about the “test.” Instead of sending emails about numbers, maybe send emails inviting other educators to come check out a chamber ensemble concert or come to one of your many performances. Or send an email or newsletter discussing different educational methods and asking for ideas from others. It will soon be evident through observation what program/director is most successful.

How do you define success in your music program?

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Do Kids like your Class?

I think we as educators would all agree that kids are much different these days than even ten or fifteen years ago. When I was in high school, in the early 90’s, I would sit in band class in awe of my amazing band directors. I took their word as the law and never questioned WHY I was being told to do something. My music teachers sat on a large throne in front of the class and were the kings and queens of band. They waved their white baton around so proudly and purposefully and we knew they were the conductor, and we were the students. The band director/conductor in those days were untouchable and hard to approach. Music lessons consisted of contest solos, method books and auditions.

Times have changed since then for sure, but how?

The experience for the student is much more important and vital than it used to be. Now, students will quit because they did not have “fun” in one lesson or class. Students are tired of being victims of emotionless lectures and experiences and they want their instructors to show love and care in their lessons. They want to learn practical information that they can apply immediately. They want to be entertained and feel something from each session. They want to be able to walk away from a class or lesson and tell their friends something new and fresh that happenend that day.

The student wants to know HOW and WHY and to feel very deeply that the instructor not only knows the information, but is confident, professional, an expert and is helpful. The days of the conductor being “God” in a mach turtleneck and a sportcoat are dead. The days of lifeless classes with no other purpose than to just present information are gone.

Do kids like your class?

What are you doing to show individual students that you care about them? What are you doing to help kids understand the information beyond just tellling them? Are you presenting information on different levels for the different learning syles? Are you helping the individuals be the best version of themselves by providing creative and practical ways to present information?

If you answered no to any of those, you are not alone. It takes passion, energy, creativity, initiative, forward thinking and most of all self reflection to evlove with the times. What does this look like for you? It depends on the type of class and type of students, but here are two ideas any music educator can incorporate:

1. Make time for relevant music to young students

Kids start playing an instrument for many reasons, but the answer I keep hearing form the majority of young students is: “I want to play fun music and music enjoy playing,” We all know that the classic band pieces and solo pieces have their place in education, but adding some time for pieces that students enjoy might just be the way to keep their trust, attention and help them improve. It might just knudge the student to start practicing!

2. Remove the music altogether

WHAT? Yes. Take time for communication between musicians without any music in front of them. Take time for improvisation. Do you know, most students have never had the oportunity to play by ear or create. Since the day they started playing the instruments, they have been given music and rules to follow. It is amazing the first time I begin this experience with students, they ask: “What do I play?” They are so used to rules and being told what to play, their creativity and musicianship is stifled. Take some time to improv together, and maybe even program a piece on your next concert that has no music. Below is a recent rehearsal I had at Madison Central High School where we removed the music and created a work of art through improvisation.

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Take care and pride in the students you have been given, and look closely at what makes them tick. How do they learn? Help each student be the best version of him/herself and start seeing radical results.

Have you incorporated new and fresh ideas into your music classes?

Well-trained vs. Well-rehearsed?

An insight into the differences

Can you tell the difference when listening to a student or an ensemble, or watching a winterguard that is well-trained vs. one that is well-rehearsed? Is there any difference in the end product?

Do the students get the same level of education with each philosophy?

When judging different events during the year, I always ask myself the question: “Is this group/student well-trained or well-rehearsed, or both?” There are many similarities but the differences are glaring to educators who have their philosophies wrapped up in the “main thing.” So, which one is right? Which one is the most beneficial for the student? Is one better than the other?

Well-rehearsed groups/musicians can play a piece of music very well and can perform and execute at a pretty high level. They have been rehearsing the music/routine for the performance for many months and “have it down” thanks to the instructor who has spent countless hours rehearsing them. They spend less time rehearsing basics and fundamentals and more time rehearsing pieces for performances. They go through the motions without thinking much as the rehearsals have become routine. The performance goes well, but not spectaular because of how performance based rehearsals were. When groups/musicians focus solely on being well-rehearsed, it puts more emphasis on the outcome instead of the experience. The performance can lack energy and emotion.

Well-trained groups/musicians spend more time learning basics and fundamentals and less time rehearsing pieces/routines. These groups/intructors spend more time discussing why and how the “what” operates instead of just the “what” itself. Each rehearsal is a new learning opportunity that keeps students engaged in the musical process placing emphasis solely on daily education instead of the final outcome. When groups/musicians focus solely on being well-trained, it puts less emphasis on the outcome and more on the experience. The audience in turn will feel more emotion and energy from these performances.

Is there a happy medium?

It is my belief the most beneficial option for the student is to be well-trained through expemplary teaching, and rehearse enough for the training to shine. Be confident in your ability as an educator and the students’ ability to learn and grow from what you have to offer. Try to put more responsibility on the student to take the education to the next level on their own, coupled with interactive, motivational, intentional and thoughtful education from YOU the educator.

Do you have thoughts about well-trained vs. well-rehearsed?

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Keeping Student Musicians Engaged

Varying musical experiences to add variety

Why do we educate young musicians? What is the philosophy behind our daily routine? I think so often we meander down the same hallway or drive the same drive to work stuck in a rut that is driven by habit instead of intention. Why are we actually doing what we are doing and how is it benefiting our students. . . .and us?

We have the same schedules, the same concerts and the same educational experiences everyday which in turn can drive us to be complacent and bored. If we as educators become bored and tired then most certainly the student will reflect the same feelings. I think we can become stale and sterile in our techniques and offerings without even knowing it. Life gets in the way. We get busy and pushing the limits educationally takes time, mental energy and further education. Then we think these thoughts to ourselves . . . .”I wish I had a better studio,” ” I wish I had more students,” “I wish I had a more successful band program,” etc. Well, there is a way but doing things the same way over and over and expecting different results is the actual definition of INSANITY.

It can be scary to think that if we spend less time working on concert literature and offer more varying musical experiences, our students will actually be more proficient at the concert literature. Let me try to explain.

For example: Most band directors rehearse their band music over and over and also add after school rehearsals because they cannot quite get the music learned in the time alotted during the school day. The problem is not the time, its the engagement of the student. Because the student is bored with the same thing over and over, they are engaged less than 50% of the time they are in rehearsals. Because of this, it takes 50% more rehearsal time and drives the director crazy to get things accomplished. The same can be true for private lesson instructors. Because of the recitals and exams, teachers feel pressure to teach for the test and the student becomes bored and lacks enjoyment practicing the material. Adding varying experiences to your daily educational routine will provide more enjoyment, more variety and keep the brain engaged and growing. The concert material will improve faster by spending less time working on THAT specific material. That is hard to believe I know. . . .but it’s true!

What are the varying experiences?

They are different for each instructor and each situation but it could look like the following:

1. Creating a chamber ensemble program that thrives and works as consistently as the actual band. These experiences can happen certain days of the week during the band class to break up the “same old” band rehearsal, and to provide new sight-reading experiences and enasembles without conductors.

2. Implement improvisation into private lessons and/or music class. It doesn’t neccessarily mean jazz improvisation, but getting the student to be more creative and learn to bring the passion and musicality out without being “stuck” behind the page. Let them learn the fun and excitememt from creating their own musical product.

3. Bring professional players in to work with your students. Do not be afraid of not knowing everything, or not be able to provide your students with everything. Showing humility and knowing weaknesses will help strengthen the core program by filling those voids. One cannot be expected to be proficient on every instrument. As a music educator, give your kids the opportunity to learn from the best players that are actively doing it on a daily basis. Have those players work with your chamber ensembles, do masterclasses and get students excited about the possibilities on their instrument.

4. Take field trips to hear professional concerts. Get your students excited about all different kinds of music. Talk to them about the experiences and why you feel the importance of each trip. What are you trying to gain by the experience?

5. Perform more often and more music with less rehearsal. Make the students (and the educator for that matter) feel a bit uncomfortable with the lack of “spoon-feeding” and put the responsibility on the student to do well because of their individual responsibility.

6. Take a day out of class for a performance day. Have students prepare solos, or bring in a CD they love and let them talk to the class about what they love about it and the history of it.

Think outside the box. Enjoy the daily education with your students and the possibilities are endless.

These are just a few experiences but each requires just a bit more thought. Each requires the educator to take a different daily route, to self educate and be more prepared.

Do you have another experience that might be great to implement as a music educator?

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KMEA All-State Trumpet Excerpts

All-State auditions are approaching in the state of Kentucky and I thought it might be a good idea to record these excerpts for high school students that are preparing for the audition.  There is a technical excerpt and a lyrical excerpt. Both are recorded below.

The technical excerpt should be played at a minimum speed of quarter note = 80. This recording was made with a metronome at this speed. The judges will be looking for accuracy and some musicality under the technique. One trick on the octave leaps is to play false fingerings for the top notes. If the tempo is faster than 80, it becomes very difficult to do octave slurs so the top A can be played 3rd valve, the top G can be played 1&3 and the top F can be played 1&3 as well. Do what works best for you but on this recording, false fingerings were used for those octave jumps.

The lyrical excerpt is in the style of a cadenza which means it can be played at your liberty and with varying style. This is my interpretation of this excerpt but there are many different ways it can be played. Just pay special attention to musicality and find ways to make it your own.

KMEA All-State Technical Etude

KMEA All-State Lyrical Etude

Indiana State Fair Band Day

I want to say THANK YOU to Mr. Mark Culp and Mr. Jimmy Haskell for asking me to be part of the CITSA this year and adjudicating with Team Pagentry in the 2015 Track Band season.


If you have never seen this activity, you really need to check it out. Bands participate in their marching activity over the summer months for a much shorter season than fall marching band. They work up a 4:30-6 minute show for a final performance at the Indiana State Fair on a horse track. Yes, you heard me correctly. They actually perform their final show on dirt.


It was spectacular to see what these fine programs can accomplish with a smaller field and less time to rehearse. I enjoyed getting to know all of the band directors and staff this year and hope to be part of it again in the future.

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Also, thank you to Music for All and Mark Harting for sponsoring this event.

Congratulations to the “Force” of Winchester on their 2015 First Place victory at Indiana State Fair Band Day.