Tag Archives: music student

The Journey from Music Student to Teacher

Valerie DemmaAn Interview with Valerie Demma, Winner of Alfred’s 90th Anniversary Sweepstakes and recent music graduate from St. Xavier University

By Anna Wentlent, Editor of School Choral and Classroom Music

Did you begin making music with your family, or were you introduced to it in school?
My musical upbringing started in fifth grade when I first joined my grammar school’s choir. I initially joined because a few of my friends did, but I enjoyed it so much that I decided to stick with it!

Do you have any favorite Alfred choral pieces?
My favorite Alfred piece would have to be the piece that Sally K. Albrecht dedicated to my grammar school’s district choral festival in 1997 when she was our guest clinician: “Gloria Deo!” (2-part, 00-16955). Out of the hundreds of choral pieces that I’ve sung in my life, I can actually remember singing this one! The memory of this particular choral festival is one of my favorites, because as a young singer, I thought it was neat that we were actually working with the person who wrote the song that we were singing (and that she autographed a copy of the music for me).

Why did you decide to become a music educator?
I first thought about becoming a music educator after seventh grade, when working with Dr. Sandra Snow, another guest clinician at one of our district choral festivals. She is the most supportive person that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. She made me feel so positive about singing that I decided that I wanted to devote my career to inspiring students in the same way that she inspired me.

What has your experience in music school been like so far?
Collegiate music has been a welcome challenge. As a choral singer, I have been eager to get into the “meat and potatoes” music—major works that require a substantial, large chorus. I’ve had the opportunity to sing works like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Handel’s The Messiah and Coronation Anthems, and Brahms’ Zigeunerlieder and Neue Liebeslieder.

What do you plan to do after school?
I’m planning to obtain my graduate degree in choral music education. After completing that degree, my career goal is to teach high school choral music and sing in a professional chorus.

How do you plan to use your prizes from Alfred’s 90th Anniversary Sweepstakes?
I have actually decided to donate the majority of my prizes from the Sweepstakes. I kept three of the smaller prizes for myself, and then I donated the other prizes and split the online credit to the Alfred website between two very deserving choral music programs: my former high school director’s choirs (Meredith McGuire at Oak Lawn Community High School) and my current voice instructor’s choirs (Dr. Stacy Eckert at Providence Catholic High School). The decision was immediate; I didn’t even give it a second thought. I have been looking for the opportunity to give back to these two very deserving teachers who helped shape my musical career, and winning this contest provided me with that opportunity!

What Should Graduating Seniors In a Performing Arts Program Be Able to Do?

Thomas J. West
By the time a student who is actively involved in a band, chorus, or orchestra program graduates high school, what skills should they have? How are music education programs designed for these self-motivated, team player individuals? What should their “exit interview” sound like?

For me as a music educator finishing his 13th year in the profession, the answers to these questions have changed several times. Honestly, my goal when I started teaching was to build the highest quality concert and marching band performance program I could, focusing on bringing the ensemble members a broad and deep exposure to great musical literature in search of that ever elusive “summit” moment when an ensemble plays something so excellent, so moving, that everyone witnessing it is affected by it.

While these are admirable sentiments, and certainly do leave long-lasting impressions on the students who have those kind of experiences, I realized that those “summit” moments really weren’t for the students – they were for me. “How great of a music teacher am I that I can open their eyes to such an aesthetic experience?” I got into music teaching because I wanted to keep having those “summit” experiences, and being a teacher allowed me to share those experiences with young people so that they too could have their lives shaped by music performance.

Do I still want them to have those summit moments? Of course, but it’s no longer the solitary focus of my performing ensemble programs. The pursuit of performance excellence has been redefined and altered in proportion to make room for the pursuit of musical creativity. The “buzz” of a great performance is only one way to experience what music has to offer the individual.

Giving Students The Tools to Be Life-Long Musicians

My goals as a music educator are much broader and long-term than just giving them a great high school experience. By the time seniors leave my program, they will:

Be able to play their primary instrument proficiently. This includes playing all twelve major scales and arpeggios, natural minor scales and arpeggios, and be able to sight-read music of a grade 3 level. They will understand the music theory behind all of those goals and will be able to handle transpositions for their instrument (if applicable). For vocalists, it means having full control of their instrument in all ranges, singing with pure vowel sounds, proper support and phrasing, and singing a wide variety of styles.

Be able to improvise melodies over simple chord changes on their primary instrument. This is not limited to jazz music. This includes the music theory behind common tonic, sub-dominant, dominant, tonic chord progressions, and the construction of melody lines.

Be able to write a quartet in four-part harmony for their primary instrument. This obviously includes skills obtained from all of the above skills, plus the music theory necessary to write effective voice leading. Along the way, the study of musical form is incorporated into performing repertoire, sight-reading, and improvisation, leading to the student making their own creative decisions about writing an original work with a logical form.

Be able to record, edit, mix, and master their own music. This is a new goal for me, and one that has not become a reality yet. My vision is to give every one of my students the ability to write their own music, record it, give it a basic editing and mixing job, and be able to upload it to SoundCloud or YouTube. By the time my current middle school students reach twelfth grade, this goal will be a reality.

A Culture of Creativity

One of the greatest things about America as a culture is that we allow innovation and individualized thinking to exist. It’s okay in our culture to speak your mind, chart your own course, create your own destiny. American culture and government makes it possible for creative ideas to grow and the originators of those ideas to be monetarily compensated. I could easily diverge at this point on how copyright law no longer benefits the artist directly, but that is another article. For the purposes of this writing, it is the pioneering spirit of America combined with today’s modern communication tools that make it more possible than ever for artists of all kinds to find an audience.

It is no longer enough, in my opinion, for high school graduates to simply play an instrument or sing in a large ensemble. With as much personal growth as they receive from being a member of a band, chorus, or orchestra, the average American high school ensemble member does one of three things after high school: perform in similar groups in college, then quit, find community groups to continue their hobby, or become a professional musician in some fashion. Of these three, the vast majority quit performing music after high school or after college. Why? Work and family, of course.

I believe that more graduating seniors would continue music making into adulthood if they were better equipped to make their own music. If all they can do upon graduation is play their part in a concert band piece, or sing an alto part with the help of a section leader feeding them their pitches, their chances of continuing to make music are slim. Imagine how much more art, music, dance, and theatre would be out there if high school graduates were better equipped with the skills to exercise their own creativity.

If music improvisation and composition is nurtured in primary and early secondary grades, students are less likely to develop inhibitions to creativity, becoming more expressive and communicative. More original intellectual property can do nothing but good for the individual, our economy, and our culture.

The future of our internet-powered society is in more individuals trading their talents and ideas, collaborating to produce amazing results such as Wikipedia, Whitacre’s Virtual Choir, and many more. Our music education programs in public schools, I believe, need to continue the strong traditions of our performing ensembles, but need to make room in their school year for the parts of the study of music that make student more capable of being individually creative.

Thanks goes to Thomas J. West Music for letting us use his blog!

Thomas J. West is an active music educator, composer, adjudicator, clinician, and award-winning blogger.

Keeping Your Eyes (and Ears) On the “Prize”

Danny Ursetti
Around this time of year most high school programs are in the thick of their competitive marching season. Rehearsals during the week are intensifying and weekends only exist for Saturday rehearsals and competitions.You’ve spent months preparing for your band’s 12-minute time slot to perform your show for an audience and the judges. The band performs its best show of the year but does not earn the score that you think they deserve. What now?

This happens all too often in this sport called marching band. That’s right, I said it, marching band is a sport. Hours and hours of rehearsal time are spent practicing and perfecting a drill set or a musical run, all for everyone to end up disappointed at the competition. We have to remember why we do marching band or music at all for that matter. It’s not for the thrill of winning a trophy, or taking the top score. Music is fun. It’s fun to listen, dance, sing, and play. And not to mention march to!

Art is subjective
Unlike other sports, where you have more control over whether or not you earn enough points to win, marching band is a judged competition. You can tune every chord, align every form, nail every transition and still not get the score you were hoping for. Music is an art form. Art is not created to be judged and/or critiqued.That being said, I do believe unbiased feedback is essential in getting the best out of your students and staff to help them improve throughout the season. It’s ok not to win. Competition is a great way to motivate students to do their best and to encourage them to learn how to deal with the end results, no matter what the results may be. But the most important thing is: If you perform your best, you win!

Take pride in your work
In a high school setting, playing music for fun isn’t quite enough. We have to help the students take pride in the work they are putting in. Yes, music is fun, but you know what’s even better? Sounding and looking your very best. The hours and hours of rehearsal time should not be geared at winning the competition or beating the cross-town rival. The goal should be to perform the best show of the season every time the band steps on the field. One thing or another will most likely go wrong at a show, but if the band takes everything the staff has given them and plays and marches their very best, that is a successful show and season.

Most students will not remember what score they received, place they took, or what trophy they won (which will most likely be covered in dust on a shelf in the band room), but what they will remember are the times they spent learning, practicing, and performing music with their friends to the best of their ability. That is something to be proud of. So as you are starting to go to competitions this season, and with championships on the not so distant horizon, try to remember why we learn (and teach) music: It’s fun!

Do you have any “fun” ways to motivate your students? In what ways do you motivate younger musicians to do their best? Please share your thoughts and insights below!
Good luck and have a great season!

Danny Ursetti
Music Caption Head, Royal High School

Magical Travel Tips: Traveling Efficiently

By Elizabeth Geli
Posted June 2011
Courtesy of Marching.com

Traveling with hundreds of marching band students can sometimes be a headache, but with proper preparation and communication, your trip can go smoothly and without hold-ups. Band Director Matt Lovell from the Burlington (Mass.) High School “Red Devil” Marching Band shared some of his tips for efficient and speedy travel.

Evaluate Your Students For smooth travel, a good ratio is to have one adult chaperone for every six to 10 students.

Before he even starts to pick a trip location, Lovell carefully evaluates that year’s band — including the students’ level of maturity, behavioral history and the strength of the student leaders.

“That’s the key to it: the first thing is you have to make sure that the band you go with is a band that can take the responsibility of a trip,” Lovell says. “I know them at their best, and I know them at their worst. The question is not how they are at their best but how will they be at their worst. If I know that they will fulfill their responsibilities even when they’re not ‘on,’ that’s a group that can go.”

Find a Travel Planner

Once Lovell has decided to go ahead and take a trip, he looks for a good travel planner or student tour operator related to the trip location, in this case, one with personal contacts at Walt Disney World and Boston Logan Airport.

“Travel has gotten a lot more complex since 2001,” Lovell says. “We used to be able to be pretty happy with putting the trip together ourselves, but now we go with a travel planner who works specifically with bands, and it was much more successful.”

To read the full article, please visit Marching.com.

Teaching Students to Teach Themselves

Amy BarloweAmy Barlowe

Weekly or bi-weekly lessons generally build a healthy rapport and often begin a lifelong mentoring relationship between serious students and their teachers. However, concurrently, it is also easy for students to assume a sense of dependency stemming not only from the weekly assignment/check-up routine, but simply from the need for approval. What can we, as teachers, not only of string instruments, but individuals, do to help our students find a path to independence? The holidays are the perfect time for students to take short forays into new realms of self-enlightenment.

By cultivating an interest in discovery, and encouraging them to surround themselves with curiosity and wonder, not only can we keep fanned the joyful fires we’ve kindled throughout the first semester, but also, we can attain a sense of personal peace knowing that even while away from our students, they will continue to enjoy the rewards derived from effective practice.

Having taught young people since I was a teenager myself, I have found that “imagination” is the key component of meaningful teaching and learning at all levels. It is unfortunate, however, that although stimulated by the most compelling teachers, imagination often remains behind in the studio. Instead, boredom, its evil twin, invades the practice rooms of even the most gifted students. How then, can we teach students to bring home the enthusiasm that fuels productivity even at the most distracting of times – the holiday vacation? We need to teach them to be their own teachers.

Keen observation, imagination, a constructive internal monologue, patience, and passion are at the core of successful self-teaching. With guidance, these essential components of learning can be fostered at any level, becoming habitual by the time students must be left on their own. Removing the “drudgery” from practice will keep it challenging and fun!

The Next Level: Breaking Young Musicians Through The Intermediate Ceiling

Thomas J. West
In a successful performing music curriculum at an American public school, students move successfully from their first experiences in singing, instrument mechanics, tone production, ensemble techniques, and so on and upon graduation have acquired a skill set for performance in the intermediate to lower advanced range. Their exiting proficiency depends on many factors: their aptitude level, the music learning environments K-12, the goals of the secondary music program and so on. It is common for many graduating seniors to reach upper intermediate proficiency in actual music performance, but lower proficiency in areas such as rhythm reading, and advanced basic in areas such as music theory, ear training, improvisation, and composition.

There are many teaching philosophies that come into play here. What is the goal for every student of a K-12 public music program? In so many places, the goal is to produce the highest quality high school performing ensemble possible, thereby enriching the lives of the participants in multiple ways and if nothing else making them intellectually aware of quality music-making as they enter the work force. This is an admirable goal and certainly has its place. It is my belief, however, that all music curricula, regardless of its mode of learning (band, chorus, orchestra, theory, electronic music, etc.) should be providing students with enough training in all aspects of music-making with the goal of nurturing them into adults who can create their own art rather than producing a musical “has-been” that has a dust-collecting instrument case in their attic.

For music performance, students need enough training in sight-reading, theory, scale study, and improvisation to be able to know and understand “the next level” of musicianship – the one that requires complete proficiency in all twelve major and natural minor scales on their primary instrument. It’s the level that allows singers to successfully sight-read vocal music without having to have the part played for them first. It’s the level where students understand the rehearsal process and what it means to move their performance into the mastery stage, where spontaneous sub-conscious recall has been drilled into place.

For non-traditional music students taking electronic music, music theory, or composition classes, they need to develop proficiency on a primary instrument of some kind, whether that instrument is their voice, a guitar, a piano, or the computer itself. To create music, they need a medium that can be transferable, which is either traditional music notation, music sequencing, or both.

The goal is to give them the skills to be life-long participants in music, whether that means performing in community groups, writing and sharing their own music, or at the very least supporting quality music-making that advances our collective culture rather than devalues it. That means giving them the training to get them out of the beginner level into the intermediate level in all aspects of music making, not just music performance.

So, as the title of this article applies, is “breaking through the intermediate ceiling” into advanced levels of performance, improvisation, and composition even a valid pursuit for public school programs? The answer is a qualified “yes.”

The next generation of music teachers, performers, and composers comes from within the ranks of our performing ensembles and electronic music classes. In many states, opportunities for further enrichment in performance music exist in the form of honors ensembles, all-state ensembles, and state adjudications. But where are the opportunities for composition? NAfME sponsors programs for student music composition as well as electronic music, as do some states, but it is a slowly developing field.

Our culture suffers from the delusion that to compose music, you have to be a genius like Mozart, an innovator like Beethoven or Paul McCartney, or a trend-setter like John Williams. It is certainly true that composition requires the composer to have a depth of knowledge in more than just performance, however, which is why the traditional performance-centric public school program doesn’t give students the skills necessary to compose at even the most basic levels.

We as a music education profession have bought into the notion the commercial music is a bunch of fluff and we are “fighting the good fight” to keep our band in the stands on Friday night, our orchestras attempting to play Tchaik 5, and our choral programs singing whatever Eric Whitacre writes next. There are commercial musicians who come from a traditional background, such as Cake and Ben Folds, but until we as a profession begin to embrace the idea that there is more to learning music than having the most professional high school performing ensemble possible, the music industry will continue to be populated by a small pool of “the selected” who do all the creating in the name of profit with little connection to the depth and aesthetic beauty of our cultural musical roots. That, quite simply, is why commercial music is rife with quarter-inch deep content, why 80% of our students can’t relate to our music programs, and we are constantly fighting to maintain our legitimacy and our jobs.

To read more ideas, check out Thomas J. West Music’s blog: The Next Level: Breaking Young Musicians Through The Intermediate Ceiling

Thanks goes to Thomas J. West Music for letting us use his blog!

Thomas J. West is an active music educator, composer, adjudicator, clinician, and award-winning blogger.

Does Teaching Make a Difference?

By Larry Henry,
Alfred Concert Band Composer

Back in the 60′s, if you looked into the percussion section, in the bandroom at Dresden Elementary, you would pick me as least likely to become a composer for Alfred. I started band a year late. But Mr. Crane took time after school to have 8-10 students begin. Three days a week, his Ford station wagon was last car to leave the lot. In seventh grade, I heard a jazz band and begged my director, Mr. Middleton to start one.

Not much music was written back then for young jazz bands, so he told me to write something. Every day after school he taught me what amounted to the first year of college theory and orchestration. Every night, his Chevy was the last to leave the parking lot. At the end of the year, our little 14-piece jazz band performed an arrangement I had written.

During my years as a middle school band director, I became interested in music engraving with Finale. I showed my students the powerful aspects of the program. One day after school, Ryan, a saxophonist, brought me a tune he had written. He wanted to give it to his dad who was celebrating his fortieth birthday. We spent a few hours engraving it and burning a CD. We created a title page and had a pretty nice little present for his dad.

As we were leaving, I was taking some large instruments home to repair. Ryan offered to help carry things to my car. He said, “I know it is the green Dodge. It’s the last one to leave most nights.” Ryan just graduated from the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. I wonder how many nights his car will be the last one left in the lot.

How many times have you been the last to leave after games, concerts, and band trips? Yes, you do make a difference, possibly for generations to come.

Compositions by Larry Henry range from the musical stage to the marching field. His Concert Band compositions are published through Alfred Music Publishing. To view his works that are currently in print, click here.