Monday, April 25, 2011

Read Music?...Not Enough to Ruin My Playing

By Mark T. Burke

It's Easter Sunday, the family has gathered to celebrate life, individual spirituality, the gifts we all have.The food is being prepared, the sweet treats are enticing us all, the sun is shining.  On this day, we look forward to sharing what is most near and dear to us.  We talk about the past few weeks, the past year, work, accomplishments, future endeavors, travel, school, health, relationships and, of course...MUSIC.

My wife's family is filled with talented musicians.  She and her 4 siblings...all musical.  Her twin plays clarinet with my wife in the Williamsport Symphony and Saxophone in our quartet.  Her older sister is a music teacher from New York State. Her younger sister played clarinet in high school and her brother...well...he's got the music within.  The list of musicians goes on, but this year, one family member, Atom, my wife's grandson, made a big musical impression on me, on us all.

Atom is the model of the musician described in this fantastic article by Dr. Robert Woody.  This Easter, Atom walks into the house carrying his guitar and amp.  As I mentioned, at times like these, we share what is most near and dear to us.  It makes sense that on this day, he would want to share his music.  Atom has had some instruction over the years.  But, mostly, his talent comes from within.  His desire and abilities to listen and replicate what he hears is amazing.  But, he's also creative. For sure, he is intrinsically motivated to be musical.

Interestingly, structured music at school doesn't work for him.  He's tried band and chorus. For him, music is more personal, more intimate even.  As several us sat and talked and listen to his impromptu performance on the outdoor deck, I started to think of where his interests and talents fit into his schooling and life.  My first though was, "Wow...I wonder how many band trumpet, saxophone or flute players brought their instruments with them to their family gathering today and are now performing for the family?"  With no disrespect, I chuckled at my own thought.  Then, I felt bad. I felt bad because I chuckled, and because I too am an instrumentalist as are many of my friends and family. Does Atom exemplify a passion for music that is unknown by many who are labeled "real musicians?"  The answer I gave myself was..."soft of."

As a teenager, Atom serves as an example of how true inner passion communicates so much better at times than talent or skills.  He reminds me that as an educator, kids like him scare me....that's right, I am not afraid to admit it.  I am not alone.  Kids with talents like Atom's scare many teachers, so much so that providing educational outlets for students like him is rare.  But, this type of music education is exactly where we need to put our efforts.  The lesson we can learn from students him, is to learn from them.

Before Atom finished his family concert, I turned to my brother-in-law, Wayne, a musician himself, not a formal musician, but one heck of a guitar player.  We talked about Atom and his music.  Wayne passed on a quote that I know will stick with me for a long time. While listening to an interview highlighting an elderly folk guitarist, the guitarist was asked, "Do you read music?"  The guitarist from the Appalachians responded, "Not enough to ruin my playin'." 


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Music Teachers; Lessons Learned from House Calls

By Mark T. Burke

Dr.'s of the 1800's through the mid 1900's made house calls.  In fact, treating patients at home was a core service not only for convenience.  Treating someone at home provides Dr.'s with a first-hand view of a patient's diet and living conditions that impact their health. Fast forward to today and only 4000 Dr.'s make house calls today but doing so is making a come back.

The point of this comparison is that jobs do change because entire industries change. If I were a medical Dr. and someone said, "You're job is changing from an office-based practice to a mobile care model, conducting house calls," I would certainly be thinking of the significant changes this meant for me. I would have significant travel time between patients, I would no longer have access to the same level of equipment and supplies, I would have to participate in training on how to learn more about patients in their homes....the list goes on.

It's April 2011, and in Central PA, the music education "industry" is drastically changing. By industry, I mean music in our schools.  Budget cuts are sweeping local schools and as a result music programs are being gathered up and toss out.  Those teachers who find themselves out of work as well as those who remain on the job will find teaching music a very different job next school year.  The industry has changed and now we have to explore options for keeping music alive.

The tendency will be to think about what these changes mean for us, the teachers, the music educators.  If I loose my job, what will I do?  Do I teach private lessons, do I go back to school, do I....?  What if I am the teacher left in a district where cuts eliminated my colleagues?  What will I have to teach, will I be able to teach new things, what will my schedule be, will I need to spend a lot more time planning, will I...?

While time must and will be spent trying to find answers to those personal questions, real progress can only be made if the questions around the industry are our focus.  Questions that strive to find answers to the global issues will guide us in redefining the industry better than focusing on the one by one, individual issues.  I am a believer that we solve our own problems when we think about the problems of others.  By doing so, we create a demand for our services and talents.  That demand creates opportunity and provides personal direction.

So while I absolutely consider the lose of music educator jobs sad, I believe in "change creates opportunity."  Just like the Dr.'s who are rethinking the value of house calls, we have a new set of challenges.  

1.)  First and foremost, we must consider how countless students will receive music education starting now.  When the new school year rolls around, how will students participate in music education?  With fewer teachers and offerings, are we "OK" just saying, "Well, there is less to choose from"?

Options:  Private lessons, community based programs, after and before school programs, online programs, and other innovative programs yet to be discovered.  I know I am thinking about these options and making moves to create new programs within as many of these areas as I can.

2.)  Employment opportunities.  Where will the many teachers who loose their music teaching jobs work?  Not all will reenter the field, that is certain. While we must all live, creating new programs from scratch can be an exciting adventure.  Will those affected consider spending a year or so helping to build innovative solutions so that the future of music education is more certain?  I hope so.  I also invite those affected to join others in this quest.  (Hint, Hint :-)

3.)  Take charge of personal learning.  While this sounds harsh, I don't believe learning about the same old, same old will pull us through this industry shake up.  Learning to conduct a band if I am a chorus director or learning about music history....those are fantastic intellectual and musical experiences, but they will NOT help create a new music education industry.

Options:  Learn to write courses, learn to build online communities, learn to use an iPad, learn to compose, learn to use music in creative ways, learn to create media, learn why kids are using Social Media, learn to love music again! 

I think every Dr. who's bringing back house calls is doing these things.  They are learning to love medicine again.  They are giving themselves the opportunity to once again feel the pleasure of connecting with their patients, knowing them as people, as friends.  They are learning to appreciate their patient's day to day life and how it influence their health and medical care.  They are taking it on themselves to learn FOR themselves how to provide a new service. They are committed to not allowing patients to fall through the cracks.  They are innovating with an appreciation for history.  That too is our challenge.



Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Re-boxing the Snare Drum Rental for Students

By Mark T. Burke:  For a printable version:  Download a PDF version of this article.

Facing higher than acceptable drop out rates, Mr. Brian Barckley of the East Lycoming School District in Hughesville, PA set out on a quest to gain and maintain the interest of budding young percussionist. I learned about Brian's innovative solution while talking with Alysha Sides of Robert M. Sides Music in Williamsport Pa. (viaAcademies preferred provider). Alysha is the Director of Institutional Sales at Sides, working closely with companies such as Roland to build great educational products for schools.  After just a few minutes, I realized I had to see what Brian was doing with his kids.

Teaching snare drum is tough, much tougher than other instruments in my opinion.  Brian's experience mirrored my days teaching elementary and middle school band.  Kids generally hate playing on a drum pad and guess what....that is exactly what we give them to learn on.  The pad is cheap, produces less than exiting sounds and is easy to push under the bed and forget.  If we get brave, we have beginners buy or rent snare drums.  Again, they are often cheap, make bad sounds or even worse make REALLY LOUD sounds that parents and neighbors dislike.

Brian's experience is that while he may start a lot of "drummers", many of them drop out. He attributes that high dropout rate to the many negative characteristics of the drum pad including the sound, the cheap quality and the ease with which it is forgotten ( is easier to forget about a $30.00 drum pad than a $400.00 trumpet). His goal was to provide a high quality instrument, one that could create good sounds, was portable, provided volume control and provided built in motivation to beginning students.  He found a solution in the Roland RMP-5 Rhythm Coach.

As you can see, the RMP-5 provides a drum pad surface and an electronic brain.  The pad is a synthetic, adjustable head (notice the tensioners). The pad feels like a snare head when played.  The brain provides a number features, the best of which is the ability to output  a variety of sounds triggered by the head.  The brain also has output to headphones (which are included in the pack) or the unit can output to an amp.

You can learn more about the RMP-5 at Roland's site.

The aspect of Brian's solution that is important, is that he worked closely with Sides (his vendor) to develop an "out of the box" instrumental rental solution. Sides provides the RMP-5 kit as a rental option for Brian's students.  This is a brave step forward for both Brian and Sides in my opinion.  The traditional pad cost $30.00.  The RMP-5 alone has a value of $200+.  Add to that the stand, the headphones and the backpack and you can see, the total package is much higher priced than the standard pad. BUT....the results are amazing according to Brian.

First, he said this kit motivates kids to play and practice.  I observed a lesson yesterday...and let me tell you, the students ARE excited about this instrument. They know how to use the settings like pros.  Brian even said., "If you ever forget how to do something, the kids will know."  I could see and hear their excitement for sure, something I have not witnessed in a lesson of several 5th graders on drum pads.

The RMP-5 requires a commitment.  The expense means the parents and students are involved for a longer term.  There are no guarantees, that's for sure. BUT, Brian's experience thus far, in this first year, is that he no longer has high snare drum drop outs. In fact, he has as 100% retention rate this year.

The best benefit in Brian's opinion is the ability to output sound to headphones.  This option keeps kids practicing without disrupting the household.  But, as we all know, we all want to hear our instruments "free from tethers." The kids were so excited to come into lessons and hook their pads to the amp. Brian uses a portable Roland AMP for this job and the kids LOVE it.

The kids aren't to the point in their first year where using the advanced coaching tools built into the RMP-5 are being used. But, they are close.  For sure, I can say they are ready to move on to that feature.  They are motivated to play on this device and to explore its abilities.  I have never said that about a drum pad.

I look forward to following Brian's percussion students and seeing how they progress.  I applaud him and Sides for thinking outside the box to "re-box" the snare drum rental.  This level of collaboration, innovative thinking and willingness to take on education and business risks to help students is exactly what the music education world needs.