Friday, February 26, 2010

Musical "Ornaments"

By Mark T. Burke

"Your home is a reflection of your soul."

How about your home?  Does your home reflect your love for music?  This morning, I was looking around our house and decided to count the musical instruments we have displayed throughout.  I guess you could say we use some for "ornamental" purposes.  A few of them are past their prime so that makes sense. 

Here's the tally.

1 Lute
1 Violin (from my Great, Great Grandfather.  It is one of the first Strad copies - it even has the Strad label inside)
1 Wooden Clarinet (Albert system)
1 Silver, Metal Clarinet
1 Bugel
1 Baritone (Henry Distin from the factory in Williamsport PA)
1 Cornet
3 Recorders (2 plastic and 1 wooden - my favorite Hohner)
1 Harmonica (I can not figure this little thing out :-)
1 Native American Flute
1 Penny Whistle
1 Slide Whistle (What ???)
2 Alto Saxes (our axes)
1 Soprano Sax (my kid)
2 Selmer Clarinets (Judy's baby's)
1 Flute (again, for Judy)

If you come to our house, bring a reed, mouthpiece, pick or bow, there's most likely something you can play. 

How about your home?  Does it reflect your love for music?  How many musical "ornaments" can you identify in your home?   

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Integration of Music into the Curriculum: Where are the Music Teachers?

By Mark T. Burke

I attended the PETE&C in Hershey PA. yesterday. The conference attracts 1000's of educators, technology leaders, and curriculum administrators interested in helping their students through innovative educational tools and teaching strategies.  What struck me most was the absence, or at least the apparent absence of music leaders at this conference.  I attended a session on Music Maker led by a History educator from a local school.  I give him credit for wanting his students to harness the power of music in his class and his desire to show other educators how to do so.  The room was filled to the brim (100+ attendees).  I am hoping that will spark some emotion -- music teachers -- did you hear those numbers? 100+ educators seeking ways to integrate music into their classes.  After the session, I talked to a few folks about our upcoming GarageBand / MixCraft course.  Those I spoke to that were interested were all NON-music teachers. These are the teachers who want help and are seeking solutions.  How can we work together? 

Let me go on record as saying, this conference demonstrated those responsible for integrating music into our schools are often not music teachers.  Why is that?  I believe as musicians, we have focused on conferences that have the word "Music" in them, like the PMEA (in PA).  By doing so, we ignore other organizations who really are driving music forward in our schools in innovative ways.  At PETE&C, each session on GarageBand, Music Maker or other music related topic seemed to be filled to max capacity.  The story is the same for every teacher I talked to about why they came to the session.  The answer was "Because I want my kids to integrate music into their projects and we can't use commercial music."  When I asked them, "Do you teach them how to compose music?", the answer was "No, we just need something quick and easy and I am not a music teacher."

I am convinced now more than ever that music as an art is being pushed aside and as a teaching community we are letting it happen.  I met later in the day during our presentation with a few teachers.  The feeling from the group of 5 was, "we are probably the only 5 music teachers in attendance."  I am certain that number is not totally accurate but the point is, we as music educators need to look beyond music conferences to really get a sense of music's role in our schools.

To all of us, imagine attending a music conference presentation where the presenter was a non-musician, Math teacher.  Would you find that bizarre?  Our challenge is to take every opportunity to promote and present music as trained professionals who can ensure the integration of music is handled appropriately and to it's full extent.  If hundreds and hundreds of teachers are seeking ways to integrate music into their classes as demonstrated at just this one conference, with no mention of collaborating with their fellow music educators, and with no musical background themselves, what role does music education play in schools?

I am seeking ways and looking for help in PA to ensure this great conference continues to grow with a Music "track" to help guide our efforts and to ensure those seeking help get the professional help they need. Our mission at viaAcademies is to ensure music education moves forward with our help, not at the exclusion of our help.  

Who leads music integration at your school?  Do you know?  Is it the music teachers or the other curriculum areas?  What music is being taught outside the music classroom in your school?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

eLearning Will Save The Band

By Mark T. Burke

 As more and more students make a shift to eLearning, rethinking the way students learn to play instruments is a must.  In-school lessons provide the individual or small group instruction students need to build performance and musical skills.  Those skills enable students to participate in bands, orchestras, small ensembles, and jazz bands.  However, ten's of thousands of students are migrating to eLearning (often called online learning or virtual schooling) each year.  Here are the numbers.

 Number of K-12 students taking online courses
2002-2003 -- 328,000
2005-2006 -- 600,000 - 700,000
2008-2009 -- 1,030,000 (700,000 to 800,000 learning full time online)

Data Source 1 (Education World), Data Source 2 (Fox Business)

Now let me go on record as saying I support eLearning 100%.  No surprise there :-)  Having worked in both public and private educational organizations, I have witnessed the reality that for the 1000's of students represented in the statistics above, traditional brick and mortar education is not the best option.  On the flip side, for the other percentage of students, brick and mortar education is a perfect fit.  Students should learn how they learn best be that online, or live, or a combination of both (hybrid).

As students make the choice to enroll in eLearning courses and programs, they place their musical experiences at risk. Having spent my last 11+ years in the K-12 eLearning field I know there are few options for continuing their instrumental music study, that's why we opened viaAcademies. Simply put, as students make the shift to eLearning, the chance that they will drop their musical lessons is extremely high.

What can we all do to "save the band."  To save the band, we must ensure students who make the choice to enroll in an eLearning programs have options like viaAcademies.  Most eLearning programs are focused on the core subjects, leaving students and families to find community based solutions for music.  While that may sound feasible, doing so is not always possible.  Second, we must make the decision to ensure these students can participate in school band programs.  I know that statement alone is controversial with many passionate professionals against allowing virtual school students to participate in school music programs.  All I know is that when I conducted my band, I saw student musicians sitting in front of me who wanted to be there.  Ensuring they had a great band experience was my goal.  I could have cared less about where they came from or why or how.  At that moment, they wanted to make music and it was my job to make that happen.

I believe students making choices to ensure their own educational success is a good thing.  I also believe in the power of eLearning. The musical community must be proactive to ensure attempts to improve education for students doesn't mean the end for Band.  We've taking the first steps at viaAcademies by working for the past 14 months building an innovative solution to providing quality beginning instrument lessons through eLearning.  We are continuing to build our program while reaching out and educating others on how our program can benefit students and the field of music.  I know our team doesn't want to wait until band programs all but disappear because we weren't looking to the future.  Look at the numbers above and consider how a 40% growth over the next 1-2 years in the number of students migrating to eLearning could impact in-school band programs and music in general. 

Will eLearning save the band rather than hurt it?  It's up to each and every teacher, band director, parent and student.  We must innovate together, share ideas, discuss solutions and move forward.

How has eLearning affected your school music program?  What about your school in general?  If you're a teacher, can virtual school students participate in your ensembles?

Visit viaAcademies at  We provide online demonstrations to fit your schedule. School pricing is available upon request.  For questions, email us at

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow Days Defined: A Musician's View

By Mark T. Burke

Snow Day (def.):  An event created by the falling of snow in an amount considered sufficient to warrant the temporary closure of an institution, typically a school.  (2) The mental state caused by the actual temporary closure of an institution due to falling snow, creating euphoria as defined below.  (3) SYN(s)  Day off, vacation, sleep in, sleep late, sleep all day, lazy day, mental health day, recuperation. (4) A 24 hour high followed by several months of anticipation leading to the impending make up day (see "make up day.")  (5) ANT:  A wasted day, as defined by grandparents who attended school prior to the invention of "Snow Day(s)."  (6)  A justification for the use of technology to shrink standard TV shows into smaller visuals, combining on-screen opportunities to advertise "Mom's Restaurant" and "Quick Melt" products either at top left, top right, or bottom left (for English reading, left to right readers). (7) The euphoria experienced, often associated with an increased appetite, a desire to stay up later the evening prior to the Snow Day, and recognition that within your home, the world around you does not exist for 24 hours.

It's that last part of the definition I think is AWESOME for us musical folks.  Snow days bring great opportunity to do the things we love to do.  They often feel like "free passes" or days without structure or rules.  Playing or practicing our instruments during snow days can be incredibly rewarding.  Our minds are often freed from the many other things we have to accomplish during normal days when we have snow days.

I can't help but throw in some thoughts around why an innovative program like ours is a spot on resource for days like this.  Now I am not saying kids should stay in the house all day during snow days.  Heck, I know I can't.  As teachers, parents, and students, being able to remain active musicians during snow days allows us to harness their true "power" and keep moving forward.  Imagine as teachers having the ability to spend a bit of your day communicating with students about their recorded assignments, listening to their snow day activities and helping students have fun with music during snow days. WOW.

How do you combine snow days with musical activities?  How can we encourage students to take part in musical activities during these amazing days?      

Monday, February 8, 2010

R.I.P. my Reedy Friend: The Law Is On Our Side.

By Mark T. Burke

Just a few weeks ago I experienced a sad, sad day.  A trusted friend's greatest moments came to an end in the blink of an eye.  I'm still not sure what happened.  We were making beautiful music together and all seemed well.  Our tone was great, articulation, spot on.  We came to the climax of a beautiful phrase when it became  obvious something was wrong.  I noticed my friend was just not the same, weakness had set in.  I wasn't used to to my friend showing signs of weakness -- so I panicked.  One glance was all I needed to figure out what happened.  My friend had a....gasp....CHIP!

I've kept my friend around for the last few weeks.  I know there won't be a miracle to heal the wound, but it just felt right to keep us together for just a few more days.

As reed players learn, often the hard way, we need to surround ourselves with many reed "friends."  Interestingly though, most students (present ones included - hint hint), take a rather nonchalant approach to reeds.  Students almost NEVER have enough reeds (relying on just 1 or 2 reeds), don't take choosing the right brand seriously (after all, they are all the same - right?) and don't follow good care practices (too often left on the mouthpiece, thrown in the instrument case or laid on the table).  All of these behaviors are common AND diametrically opposed to what students should be doing.  I'm not exaggerating when I say 70-80% of sound quality issues can be related to reeds.  For those that play brass, relate this to your lip buzz.  If the buzz is good, you have a pretty good shot of creating a good brass sound.

It's time to create a few simple "laws" to guide us all.   

Law 1:  All reeds sound and feel different, even if they are the same brand and same strength.
Law 2:  Each box of reeds contains a few reeds that are great, some that work and others that are awful.
Law 3:  You get what you pay for when buying reeds. But, better doesn't always mean better for "you." 
Law 4:  Reeds for jazz are not good for classical and vise-a-versa.
Law 5:  We are totally in control of which reed we are using. NO EXCUSES.
Law 6:  Reeds must be matched to the mouthpiece.  Softer reeds work with open mouthpieces, harder reeds work with closed mouthpieces.
Law 7:  A student's or player's age has nothing to do with their need for a particular strength of reed.  So for anyone who has ever advised, "You are in 9th grade now, you need to use a 3 reed." -- ahh -- NO!
Law 8:  Reeds must be prepared in some way shape or form before they are played to ensure consistency and longevity.  I know some pro players who take reeds out of the box and play them. They are not the norm.  I'll listen to all arguments, but you won't convince me that reed prep is not worth the effort.
Law 9:   Reeds should never be purchased in singles.  This one blows my mind.  I have actually witnessed students buying "a" reed.  For beginners, this may be an OK practice.  For more advanced players -- ahh -- NO!
Law 10:  Even the best of the best will fall victim to use, age and damage.  R.I.P. my friends.

If you are interested in learning more, let's talk.  I would love to hold a viaAcademies "Reed" prep lesson for those interested.

So which laws have you broken?  Which are the most important?