Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Stretch Goals can Become Strains In Music

By Mark T. Burke

We all understand the value of "S-T-R-E-T-C-H Goals."  Stretch goals are goals that at the time we set them seem somewhat, but not totally, unreachable. If we reach a stretch goal, we've most likely reached a new level of performance, a level that may have significant consequences in our lives.  Positive consequences come from the benefits of obtaining a new level of proficiency such as more enjoyment of what we do or more and new opportunities. Negative consequences of reaching stretch goals can come from giving up time working on other things and the associated lessening of skills as well as passing up opportunities outside those relating to a stretch goal. Where the REALLY painful consequences come into play are working and working to reach a stretch goal that is NEVER (or can never be) met. Unreachable S-T-R-E-T-C-H Goals quickly turn into STRAINS...and they hurt.

It's hard to say some goals can NEVER be met.  In reality, a S-T-R-E-T-C-H Goal that can not be met most likely requires a few intermediate goals be met first.  Imagine a hurdler setting a goal to jump a 42 inch hurdle but keeps getting injured because it's too high.  They REALLY want to jump the 42 inch hurdle, so they keep at it thinking that this is a good S-T-R-E-T-C-H Goal.  At this stage in their development, this S-T-R-E-T-C-H Goal is out of reach.  This runner needs to set some intermediate S-T-R-E-T-C-H Goals in order to build on new levels of fitness and athletic ability.  The same should be applied to teaching music.

I was recently asked to serve as a judge for a local band festival.  100+ students came out to play a solo in order to earn a seat in a festival band.  The solo literature comes from the ranks of professional level, performance literature.  Works like the Hummel Trumpet Concerto, the Brahms Sonata for Clarinet and the Jacobi Sonata for Saxophone.  These are all great works for sure.  As a saxophonist, I listened to the saxophone auditions.  For 100% of the students, this piece was certainly a S-T-R-E-T-C-H Goal. For 99.5% of the students, this piece created significant strain.  By setting just a few intermediate goals, I believe that number could have been reduced to 50%.  So, what would those goals be from a student perspective?

  • Ensure my instrument is always in sound working condition.
  • Develop good reed choice and preparation techniques.
  • Ensure my mouthpiece and ligature match the style of music I am attempting to play.
  • Ensure my reed is assembled correctly on my mouthpiece at all times. 
  • Ensure I know when to wet my reeds and that I recognize the poor quality of sound created when it isn't.
  • Ensure I can play a chromatic scale within the range of the music I am attempting to play.
  • Ensure I can play, and sound good, on a whole note of any note within the music I am attempting to play.
  • Ensure I can play a crescendo and decrescendo on a whole note within the music I am attempting to play and sound good.
If students in the audition group had met those intermediate goals, only 50% of the students would have found the S-T-R-E-T-C-H Goal to play the piece a strain. As you read these intermediary goals, do they sound out of reach for high school students?

Reducing that 50% would require additional intermediary goals.  Goals around articulation, proper chromatic fingerings, and increased familiarity with the music will reduce that 50% to 30%.  As we help students prepare for festivals, it is up to us, the teachers, to create a plan to reach the S-T-R-E-T-C-H Goals.  Festivals are always going to be S-T-R-E-T-C-H Goals in my opinion.  How we help kids reach those goals however is where we must shine as professionals.

There is an element that I can not avoid however.  Working toward the goal is up to the student.  But, the cycle has to shift somewhere.  At this point, I can see clear indications that festival performance levels have dropped.  Until students who strain on festival stretch goals drops below 50%, the music is simply too hard and causes strain on our music education systems.  I fear we are inflicting serious harm, just like the runner above.  If the runner keeps failing at 42 inches, they will continue to injure themselves and ultimately, never reach their S-T-R-E-T-C-H Goal.

Please share your experiences with festivals.  How do you help kids reach S-T-R-E-T-C-H Goals?  Are S-T-R-E-T-C-H Goals good or bad?

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