Sunday, March 28, 2010

Top 10 Lessons Learned from the PITS: Pit Orchestra That Is

By Mark T. Burke

I've posted before on my beliefs about music teachers and performing.  Here's the serious stuff:  Check out Teach, Practice, Perform.  Since I've spent the past week playing in the PIT with another 2 weeks coming up over the next month, this is the perfect day to reflect, share...and have some FUN!  Okay, okay, my duty is to deliver valuable content so intermingle are a few serious "lessons learned" as well. 

  1. Always have 2 pencils.  The first one will be for marking in every accidental since PIT music composers only seem to be able to write the key signature once per page.  The second pencil will be used to throw at fellow players when they are supposed to be playing but are too busy watching the on-stage action..WAKE UP!  
  2. Use reverse psychology to your advantage.  Rather than "thinking" about the 7 sharps and 2 double sharps you're supposed to be playing, think about the notes that are NOT sharp. Try circling all the "natural" notes rather than all the "sharped" notes. WARNING:  This hasn't worked for me yet...If it works for your, great!
  3. Carry 3 chair cushions and you are certain to make at least 1 new friend.  The other person you give one to will never like you, so just give them the cushion so they stop complaining about the hard chairs.
  4. If you think what's going on on stage is funny, LAUGH, sometimes the audience needs CUE cards.  <>
  5. Practice your part before the first rehearsal...please.  If you haven't, don't walk into the first rehearsal and make the announcement, "Wow, what a busy 3 months I've had, I haven't even had time to look at the book yet. Thank god for FIRST rehearsals."  Ahhhhh....what?
  6. Take a bowl of chocolate and pass it around at every rehearsal.  You want to be the HOLDER of Chocolate.  This title alone brings great power....take the responsibility seriously.
  7. Listen to the singers...oh sorry, I shouldn't have just blurted that out. Yes, there are actual singers in musicals who deliver the story of the show through song.  They accompany all pit music believe it or not.  Once in awhile, listen in to see what they are up to.  But whatever you do, never throw your spare pencil at them or pass them the bowl of chocolate.  Your perceived power as a pit member will quickly be eliminated.  I do not know why, but this is true.
  8. Find security from all of the power cords running throughout the pit which power the stand lights and various electronic instruments.  They actually create a powerful electromagnetic field around the pit that keeps flying objects from harming us.  To increase the power, wrap the cords around your chair legs, music stands and even your own legs if you really want the boost the field.  Just remember they are there when you need to escape the protective field at intermission.
  9. Before agreeing to play in the PIT, do these simple 2 pre-tests.  First, jump up onto a strong counter top.  That's right, just jump up there.  If you can do this, move on to test number 2.  Crawl under your dining room table, setup a music stand and start playing your instrument.  If you can do both of these, you have the physical flexibility to play in both types of PITS.  The first type is the "drop in" pit. To get out of the pit, you will most likely need the first skill of jumping up onto some other level to get out.  The second PIT type is the "underground" pit where you'll be warmly nestled under the stage thus requiring the second skill mentioned above.  
  10. And finally the biggest lesson learned, or to be learned by all.  The person with the conductor's baton is in charge.  I will say no more...
There you have them, my Top 10 Lessons Learned from the PITS.  How about you?  Can you add to this list?

Monday, March 22, 2010

What eLearning Organizations Can Learn from Classroom Teachers

By Mark T. Burke

I walked into my friend's band room the other day and within seconds we're talking about the Smart Board, then about the MACs and then about the KORG digital recorder and so on and so forth. The conversation wasn't focused on the bells and whistles though. For each tech tool, he immediately provided the benefits to the educational process.  Having spent 3/4 of my professional career involved with instructional technology, online course development and virtual school management, I've had numerous conversations just like this one. I guess with passing time, and experience, I now feel I can say this with nothing but good intentions: Classroom teachers can teach us "ed-techy" organizations a thing or two about educational technology.

What I've learned over the years is that just because an organization harnesses online tools to deliver education, that does not mean that organization is at the top of the heap regarding educational technology. I've always found it rather amazing that well educated and innovative teachers in face to face classrooms often integrate technology 10 times as much as virtual programs do. Remember, virtual programs and true hardware and software based technology tools and gadgets are different beasts. Virtual programs excel at providing usable yet powerful options for delivering and supporting quality education. Tech tools on the other hand are tools meant to enhance any teacher's ability to reach and teach kids in the classroom.

But are the two meant to live their lives on their own islands? In the virtual world, many of us have stayed away from integrated tech tools and gadgets because of the expense to the individuals who often take our classes or use or services. We try to simulate as best we can using online applications.  This keeps costs down as much as possible while supplying a close to reality experience all wrapped in an incredibly flexible and accessible environment. 

On the other island, face to face teachers have the advantage of the "1 ed tech tool to many" student relationship.  In other words, my friend can buy 1 digital recorder and impact MANY students.  He can have 1 MAC with GarageBand installed and give a ton of kids a great musical experience.  However, his reach is limited to the classroom.  But in his world, the purpose of education is to impact many while being innovative, motivating and frugal. 

What virtual programs can learn from classroom teachers is that we can never sit back and assume because we deliver online education that that alone makes us cutting edge. In fact, my friend is little impressed with online education as a whole (but very impressed with viaAcademies I must add).  He reminded me that as a virtual school leader, it is our job to stay not only abreast of new ed tech tools and applications, we must have hands-on skills. These skills ensure when we think about integrating ed tech tools, we will thoroughly know how they are used in a variety of situations, including a live classroom. We must also learn how to speak to classroom teachers to ensure we are using the same dialect. As we (virtual) programs continue to see a 40% growth in K-12 online enrollments, we must be aware that many of those enrollments are taking place in hybrid learning situations. In this case, we must have programs that provide resources for teachers to make more efficient use of their "1 ed tech tool to many" relationship.  Also, we must not be blinded by the fact that we provide innovation solutions, so much so that we forget to open our eyes to the many innovations falling outside the world of online delivery.

For more information on viaAcademies innovative instrumental music programs, contact us at We can help you Make Music Click! 


Friday, March 19, 2010

Teach From the Beach: Summer Band Lessons Go Virtual

By Mark T. Burke

It's 9am on a beautiful summer day and you've just finished your morning bike ride.  You've read your daily blog feeds and even gotten in 2 cups of favorite morning beverage. You check your watch and it's now 9:20, time to setup the laptop and prepare for your summer lessons scheduled for today. You head out to your sun deck, setup the laptop and get your instrument ready. 9:28 am and you're camera is showing your picture as you await the arrival of your first student.  Right on time, Joanne logs in and joins you online. 

"Good morning Joanne. How's your first week of summer vacation going?" you asked Joanne.

"Great Mr. Clarino, how about you?", asks Joanne.

"Wonderful, thanks for asking", you respond.  "Joanne, before we left school, we covered the first Lesson in Unit 1 of your online course, and since then I reviewed your 2 submissions online. Did you see my comments in the Message Center?", you asked Joanne. 

"I did Mr. Clarino, but I am still having trouble moving from the E to the F and not stopping. What can I do?" asked Joanne. 

"Let's hear number 3 on page 7 Joanne.  Use the software based metronome I showed you and set it to 80 BPM.  After it starts, begin playing when you are ready", you instruct Joanne.

The lesson proceeds for the next 30 minutes.  Before you disconnect with Joanne, you give her the assignment for the next lesson.

"Joanne, for next week, lets again review number 5 and 6 from Unit 1, Lesson 1 as well as start on Lesson 2.  I know we talked about half notes so the written descriptions will help you review the materials. And, check out the hands on activities described in the lesson. Once you feel you understand all the topics, take the online practice quiz and let me know how you do. In Lesson 2, there is 1 assignment to submit to me. Follow the same process as you did last week and submit your recording to me.  I'll listen to it and give you feedback before our next lesson.  By the way, I understand you are going on vacation next week" you say to Joanne.

"Yes, we leave Sunday and will be back on Wednesday. Can we have our lesson on Friday next week?", Joanne asks. 

"How about Friday at 3:00pm?" you ask Joanne.

"Great!  I'll submit my assignment recording before I leave. I'll have my computer with me, so I'll review your feedback.  I won't be taking my instrument with me, but my mom says we can check your suggestions. Is that ok?, Joanne responds.

"Sounds great Joanne.  Have fun on vacation. If you need input, send me a message through the message center. I'll check in each day and get back to you", you reply to Joanne.  "See you next Friday."  
This entire scenario is not a dream for the future, this is a 100% real life application demonstrating the benefits of our online instrumental music courses.  Summer band programs can pull teachers, students and families away from life so much that they become more of a hassle than a beneficial education program. 

The benefits of using our program for summer lesson are:
  1. No need for students or teachers to travel to the school for lessons.
  2. Create flexible scheduling to meet student, family and teacher needs.
  3. Keep a line of communication open "BETWEEN" lessons through submitted recordings and assessments.
  4. Provide instant access to music concepts for student reference. Students no longer have to wait to work directly with you to learn what music symbols mean, or ask parents that are not musicians for help.  No more web surfing only to find incomplete or inaccurate descriptions. Online courses provide full content explanations to help students when and where they need help.  
  5. Encourage open question and answer interactions with secure, Message Center communications (no emails sent to personal accounts, no phone calls to teacher's homes, no using outside Social Networking).  All communications are maintained in a teacher account for future reference and record keeping.
  6. Make the best use of teacher time should a student need to reschedule.  There is nothing more frustrating than being at the school without the ability to be productive on other tasks. 
  7. Use technology to motivate students during a really busy summer routine (we all know students are distracted by the long, sunny days -- not us teachers though :-) 
  8. No need to schedule facilities over the summer, during times when maintenance crews are working on building projects.
  9. THE MOST IMPORTANT:  Keep year 1 and 2 students musically active over the summer.  If teachers don't meet with them each week, tracking their progress online can be done through a series of recordings and messages.  Teachers can easily tailor interactions with students to include more web cam lessons, or more submissions, whichever works best for the students.
Creating a summer program just got easier than ever.  Maybe you have a summer program that's been windling over the years due to various conflicts and lack of family support.  Give us a call 570.437.8826 or on SKYPE at "viaAcademies". Let's talk about how we can help your summer program grow and prove more valuable than ever.

For more information, contact me directly at 

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Students Get "Doubling" Vision

By Mark T. Burke

School musical season is here and it's the time of year when I think most about instrumental doubling.  Why?  If you've ever played in a musical pit orchestra, you know the concept:  Cram a few musicians into a small space, usually under a stage or cat walk and have them play the equivalent on an entire orchestra's worth of instrumental parts. Every musical I have played in required "us" woodwind and percussion players to pull instruments right and left out of our bag of tricks.  Is there value in teaching students multiple instruments and what's the right time to start teaching a second, or even third instrument?

Raise your hand if you agree:  Being a musician has nothing to do with the instrument or instruments we play.  First and foremost, we are musicians who happen to play specific instruments.  If you don't agree with this statement, stop reading now and go back to practicing :-)  If you do agree, read on...

Here's my list of considerations for students, families and teachers regarding students learning a second instrument.
  1. Learning to play a second instrument is not an alternative to learning music.  I've seen kids struggling to learn half and whole notes decide they want to learn another instrument and for sure, that can be a mistake.  I like to call this fun little game instrumental "pin the tail on the donkey."  If there seems to be a physical trait keeping a student from succeeding at an instrument, then by all means, a new instrument may be the ticket in motivating them to learn.  As professionals, teachers must assess this situation carefully.
  2. Learning to play a second instrument doubles the fun and doubles the time. I've had students learn a second instrument think, "great, now I practice the first instrument only 1/2 as much."  Adding an instrument is an additive process meaning our love for the first instrument must be strong, or by nature, it will fade from our desires and become a dust collector (or maybe a nice lamp).  As educators we must instill in students the joy of learning new instruments by highlighting their ability to play more parts, participate in more ensembles and reach more ears through their broader abilities.
  3. A yard sale approach.  Yepper, I've seen this a ton.  When a student decides to play a second instrument, too often the family goes running for the nearest yard sale looking for "Uncle Joe's" old clarinet for $20.00.  That $20.00 will soon be the worst investment possible.  Uncle Joe's clarinet has most likely been collecting dust and mold for 20 years meaning it will need an overhaul.  Most older instruments have nasty cases that often smell like a wet basement.  Kids love that!  Add in a new case that actually can protect the instrument, has storage for books and accessories and doesn't harbor any unknown viruses.  You get the point.  When buying a second instrument, be smart, visit a reputable music store and look at all options from used, to demos, to new, rentals and purchase plans.  
  4. A reason is a reason.  We are wired as humans to learn more efficiently when we have a need to learn.  The most successful second instrument experiences I've witnessed come when a student is given a performance opportunity, a REASON to learn another instrument.  My wife is currently working with a student learning to play the Soprano Sax.  The learning process involves her band director having her learn a sax solo to be played at their upcoming concert.  This is a win-win for the student.  She is very interested in learning the instrument because she knows she will be heard and her contribution to the musical event important.
  5. Musical alignment is important.  Lastly, I do think learning to play a second instrument has to make musical and performance sense.  For example, the trumpet player who learns to play french horn, that seems to make sense.  This enhances the brass player's ability to play in a variety of ensembles while relying on similar physical aspects of playing the two instruments.  The trumpet player learning to play saxophone (now there's a stretch :-).  But seriously, there's no right and wrong combination.  I just think a flute player wanting to learn the clarinet is right on target.  The sax player learning to play flute, again, right on.  The violinist learning to play cello, a home run as well.  There's no wrong combo, but thinking about the potential to use skills and knowledge between the instruments can help students avoid making the wrong choice.
Looking for more ways to help kids learn a second instrument, send me an email at

What have I missed?  Which combos work and which do not?  What is the oddest combo you have ever taught to a student?   


Monday, March 15, 2010

Don't Tie Me Down to a Time: How kids should NOT practice

By Mark T. Burke

"My son practices daily Mr. Burke, trust me. Every night before dinner, he gets his instrument out, goes into his bedroom and puts in at least 30 minutes.  If he forgets, I remind him to practice. He's dedicated and wants to learn."

"Yeah, but he can't play!" (my usual reaction). 

I've lived this scenario, oh, at least 1000 times in my life.  See, it's clear that during these conversations, the art of practicing has been boiled down to time.  In this case, the parent knows what time their son practices, and for how long and most disturbing, when it's a good time for him to practice. With all bases covered, the kid should be a child protege :-) 

Now I know some will criticize my comments saying, "kids need structure."  I think structure is a good thing.  Providing them with a point by point "to do" list however, is not.  If kids are expected to truly love music, we have to provide a structure that makes sense and teaches them to make choices.

I try to instill in students the value of understanding the following aspects of a solid practice routine.

  1. When:  Having a set time each day is not the greatest way to practice.  If something interferes, practicing may get pushed off the schedule due to inflexibility. Also, I don't know about all adults, but sometimes, I am in the mood to practice more than other times.  If I had a set time, goodness - I would hate that. Students should recognize their attention span and physical abilities change throughout the day.  Making music should be something we can do at various levels of attention and energy, something impossible to do if we always practice at the same time each day.  In the example above, if I had to practice each day before dinner, I would be thinking more about how hungry I was than on practicing.  
  2. Duration:  We live in a society where the amount of time we spend doing something is more important than our accomplishments.  As professionals, we should be instilling accomplishment rather than dictating "practicing each day for 30 minutes is a must for a student your age."  What is accomplishment?  When a student can play the assignment, right?  Figuring out how long to practice is more about mapping out a weekly plan to reach the goal, not a simple task of setting an arbitrary elapsed time on all practice sessions.  
  3. Ease:  Every student past the beginning year should have an instrument stand.  Their instrument should always be available for them to pick up and play, when the spirit so moves them.  I know that's how I am. If my instruments were tucked away in a closet or under my bed, I would find it much too hard to start a practice session.  Kids should have easy access to their instrument at any time of the day and from various locations in the house. With an instrument stand, students can take their instrument into various rooms and locations to play.  Now I'm not saying kids should be practicing in the middle of the kitchen while family members are working on other projects, let's be sensible.  I do believe kids need to feel comfortable just picking up their instrument and making music.  If that bothers other family members, then life around the house has to change.
Kids make choices all the time.  Yet, we seem to want to tell them way too much about how to become engaged musicians.  I say it's time to give them the tools for success and stop focusing on the things that have little impact on their long term growth.  Don't tie them down to a time or a duration and make it easy for them to just pick up their instrument and create great music. 

What do you think?      

Friday, March 5, 2010

Is This Thing On? Simple Rehearsal Recording Tips

By Mark T. Burke

Once you have a great digital recorder in hand, then what? First let's review the benefits of one of these little devices.  Just for clarity, I'm talking about REAL digital recorders, not those little voice recorders you can get at a local office supply store.  A great example is the Zoom H2 pictured here. 

  • Easy to setup
    • They are light, easy to carry and put to use.  The H2 for example comes with it's own little tripod for setting on a table or you can use the included microphone stand adapter and pop it into any mic stand.  No need for external mics for simple recordings, just make use of the on board mics. 
  • Low cost of ownership
    • These devices use non-consumable media (ie - no tapes).  No more racks and racks of stored media.  As I mentioned above, most recordings turn out well using the internal mics so there's no need to invest in external mics. 
  • Sound quality
    • These devices provide amazing sound quality.  Instruments actually sound like instruments when recorded with these devices...go figure.  
  • Flexible recording options
    • The H2 for example can record in 2 track or 4 track, from the front of the device, or from both the front and back.  Other options include several sound file formats to meet your needs. 
  • Built in features
    • The H2 includes a metronome and a tuner for those that want an all in one device. 
  • Connectivity to other devices
    • I use the H2 as PC mic as well for applications such as SKPE and online meeting software.
Now that you understand the benefits, here are my tips.

Turn It On and Leave It On 

When practicing, record the entire session.  Listening to your entire session provides you with a chance to learn more about your practice or rehearsal pacing. As an individual, you can discover how efficiently you use your time. You may find that you spend a ton of time looking for the right music and flipping through pages or you may find you spend a lot of time warming up and little time working on drills and music.  

If you're a band director, using the recorder for rehearsals allows you to hear what you say in between the music.  You'll discover if you are consistent in your messaging and advice as well (maybe you pick on the flutes for articulation but say nothing to the trumpets on the same subject).  You can also learn more about your pacing.  Are you spending most of the rehearsal warming up and tuning and little time working on phrasing and making music?

Don't Hog The Recording

This only applies if you record a group.  After you've recorded the session, make a copy in some way (either burn it to a CD or post an MP3 file on your site or blog).  I find the CD's work great for longer sessions and are easy to send out to others.  An MP3 of a several hour rehearsal can be pretty big :-)  I know I said these devices don't use consumable media.  At some point they may, but it is an option here, not a given.  

Your task is to share the recording and let others make observations about the rehearsal.  Try not to say anything to others first, just send the recording and ask others to listen.  When the group gets back together, ask others what they observed, heard or felt about the recording.

If you or the group like something on the recording, share it with others.  Posting sections of songs on your blog or website is a great way to get others interested in your work or the work of your group. Remember to consider copyright laws though, that is always your responsibility.  Nothing advertises a musical group better than the music itself.

Spread the Love

Volunteer to record others once in awhile.  Taking your little device on the road can be a great way to improve your own musicianship.  Let's say you have a friend who doesn't have one of this little devices.  Volunteer to bring the recorder and record a session of that person practicing or playing.  As you use the device with another person, you'll be amazed at how well you listen (probably better than when you are practicing yourself).  Of course, don't judge the other person, just record and give them any advice they ask for.  But the key is, give them the recording.  As you make the recording for them (again putting it on CD or creating a sound file), listen and think about the music they made.  You'll no doubt hear great things that you could benefit from.

Making recordings of others also gives you a chance to improve your recording and processing skills and IT'S FUN!  Since you're volunteering, try different placements of the device during the rehearsal.  Make sure the person or group knows you want to get something out of this session as well.  If they are looking for a professional recording session, make sure you tell them that may not be the intent.  The session gives you a chance to experiment with file types and file processing as well.  Over time, those skills build into a really nice skill set that can benefit you, your group or even others IF they do call on you for a more professional recording.

Look around and you'll see the world has become a media driven.  We consume all type of media as a way of learning and growing.  Informal music recordings are now easier to create than ever with these little devices.  The benefits are many with just a little bit of technique and thought toward how to integrate them into your musical routines.

How do you use your digital recorder?  

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Teach, Practice, Perform

By Mark T. Burke

I am inspired by how many of my friends live the life of truly professional musicians.  By committing to teaching students, practicing on their own and performing frequently, these folks epitomize the definition of a professional musician. 

To really inspire students to love music, they need to see that WE love music.  The best way to convey our passion for music is to BE musicians. To BE a musician, WE must improve our skills through diligent practice.  If one of the bubbles in the graphic above gets pulled out of the diagram, the balance is broken and our level of professionalism lessened.

I remember having a gym teacher in high school who obviously was NOT interested in fitness or being active.  That teacher had no ability to model exercises or specific sports skills.  I often wondered why this person had chosen to become a teacher.  I believe their view of the diagram above was that "Teach" was placed differently. 

When we place "Teach" at the center of our profession as musicians, what are the surrounding skill sets that support our musicianship? My gym teacher placed teaching above all and had lost sight of how best to inspire students.  For some reason, he felt going through the motions of teaching was sufficient to be considered a professional.  Was it?  It wasn't for me.  I spent most of my high school years hating gym class and learned little about personal fitness or how to improve my skills in specific sports.  I feel I was robbed by not being really inspired by a professional.

I'm going to print this diagram and post it on my office wall.  I want to remind myself each day that my mission is to be a professional, supported by improving my abilities to teach, practice and perform.

Did the teachers who really inspired you follow the first or second model?  How about you?