Some Empathy for Music Teachers

Folks may not be aware that there is no real off-season for music teachers.

So… I basically travel the locality calling on band and orchestra directors. Since I sing (a lot) I often drop by the choir classes as well.

And I can tell you this:

If you are a band or orchestra director you are trying to figure out how to get everyone who needs to be entered in solos and ensembles entered and matched up with music. And eventually accompanists but hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day. And that P.O. that has to be in place to pay for the entry… that has to get done before you enter to keep the auditors happy.   And if you are also a high school director in OK making sure everything is set for All-State or other OMEA stuff.

If you are a choir director you have OMEA and ACDA to deal with in terms of getting everyone there for all-state groups and p-slips and and and, but in the mean time you are working on sight reading big time and sometimes you even have the kids working on sight reading while you look at email or text parents or other directors about all the other stuff. And same as everyone getting ready for solos and ensembles.

And it would be nice if the parents involved in all that would just read the information you send home and understand that you have LOTS of students to deal with this time of year but you will go ahead and patiently explain things to them in calls and emails because being a parent is hard too.

And in the mean time the rest of the school things you have nothing going on right now because the concerts and contests are later and you must have it easy as pie in January, lucky you.  Sure.

It brings back a lot of memories. Hang in there, folks.
Eventually you can retire. Your parents and students don’t really need to know how crazy you go making it all look easy.

The Big Lie: “We need to help schools but sales tax is not the way”

If you have already read this scroll down and read the dissection of that SQ799 ad.

Oklahoma Education Reality Check

While a sales tax is not an especially fair tax, it is really our only choice for improving school funding in Oklahoma.   I know this makes the decision difficult.  But please be aware that those who a promoting ads against SQ779 are the same ones that have no politically viable alternative for  any other way of funding preK-16 education in our state.

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Consider this.  The only bill to address a teacher raise during the last legislative session was to give teachers a $5,000 raise and cap their insurance benefits.  This bill died in committee. In fact, it was technically not introduced since it was a proposed alternate version to a shell bill.  Senator Mazzei’s measure to rescind the last income tax cut went nowhere.

Given the realities of yearly increases in both cost of living and health insurance premiums, the move to cap insurance benefits  (which I expect to…

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With Malice Towards None

This blog is intended to be uplifting and encouraging.  I felt the need to leave this post here. Perhaps it will fulfill the same role.  My apologies in advance if it fails.

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Those of us that live in the USA have had a lot to consider lately. For some reason, four words from the final paragraph of  Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address came to mind.  It is simple enough to find such things these days.   The Civil War was not over, but the end was in sight and there was no expectation that the South could win.   Lincoln could have celebrated, even gloated.   But he chose to frame the war as a divine consequence of the entire nation.   Today one might say, “karma.” His intent was to unify a nation that had been violently torn.  He did not point the finger of hate   His speech was four paragraphs long.  It is packed with meaning because of his stinginess with words.

Here is the final paragraph.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Even if one does not know the historical context, the modern implications are stunning.  (I am sure I didn’t need to point that out.) I would highly recommend reading the entire speech.  It will not take long to read.  It might take longer to consider.  Go ahead and have a look.  If you choose you can finish this later.

There are many ways for humans to discount other humans.  We seem to have an innate ability to consider that another creature that has a surface resemblance to another person is not really a human.  The chief mechanism for this is to label another person as part of a group.  A less-than-human group.   Once this is done, little else needs to be done to validate the treatment of this group as less than human.

Given a label as the mechanism, there are several power sources.   But a quick, efficient, and easy power source for the labeling machine is hatred.  It is OK to treat someone as less than human because they have a less than human label and they are bad and evil.

As much as we do not want to admit it, there seems to be a force in the world that has a desire for us to be separated by our hatred for one another.   And anyone who pretends that it is easy to sort out is suspect from my point of view.    Besides the obvious labels revolving around race, religion, and politics, I have seen people treated as less than human because they had a speech impediment, they were nerds, they lived in the wrong side of “the tracks”, or because of any number of physical characteristics.  There always seems to be someone who, for their own reasons,  wants to empower hate.

I started to make a list of reasons humans hate other humans, but I was embarrassed and discouraged about how easy it was.  The list can quickly get long.

I have decided on some responses.

First, endeavor to confuse disagreement with hate.    I have deeply held political beliefs and I have spent various personal resources in supporting them.   But that does not excuse hating the “other side” or immediately deciding they are evil.  Or even evil AND stupid.   There is plenty of evil to go around in politics and not all of it is on the other side.  That is just one example.  If you ever dehumanize a person you place your own  humanity in jeopardy.  And, in my belief system, this also damages your relationship with God.

Next, I choose to actively an intentionally resist the efforts of others, whether in my personal life or in national media (news and otherwise) to convince me that hating certain groups of people is OK.

From this point, the decisions get more difficult.  I do not to pretend to give solutions in every instance. The best thing that can be done is to develop a personal decision process.  I outline some of my process, but I would prefer that you be challenged to do the same rather than accept mine whole cloth.

When hate is directed your way it is nigh impossible to e coldly rational. But making the effort is good.   We are not expected to be a doormat in the face of verbal or physical violence, nor of violent threats.  Sometimes it is a matter of avoiding negative situations or people..  But sometimes we must take steps in defense of ourselves or others in our circle, whether it be family, friends, or people who are in our care.   We are allowed defense.  Hopefully we can make the right decision when it must be made in fractions of a second.

It is hard enough to draw this line for ourselves.  It is doubly hard to draw the line for people we have never met about events that we have not seen when we are considering if the actions of others are appropriate.  It is really so easy to make up an explanation when we really have none.   A better path is to reserve judgement when facts are not known.  Virtually any “hate” incident also generates competing narratives about what happened that also build hate, and it hardly seems accidental.  Rather than accept a a lie that fits our personal believe situation, just stay out of the fray.   You are not required to judge.

Reserving judgement is difficult.   But it is good to make the attempt.  It is good to break the circle of hate.

Revenge is a different story.   And those that call for vengeance are as guilty as those who through their own hate to actively kill, injure, or engender more hate.  Revenge is an ineffective and inappropriate solution, especially on the personal level.

It is a most vexing challenge to avoid the temptation to join the hate war.  Too often it sounds something like this: “We should end all hate.. Except for the people I hate.  That is OK. Because they are so bad.”

So in the end I can offer no final solution.  But becoming aware of the hate machine is a start to resisting its influence.   I don’t know that humans are capable of perfection in this matter. But most all of us are capable of doing better.   So maybe make a start  towards living life with “malice towards none.” Even if we fail, we seek to fail upwards.

I have attempted to work out my thoughts on paper an they are in a form that I am ready to share.  But they are far from final.  I reserve the right to revise and/or extend my remarks.

Rob Reck
July 9, 2016
Tulsa, OK

On OPE4PE

Per my usual practice, this is subject to revision.

Oklahoma Education Reality Check

A  note from a group member about who we are and what we do in OKPE4PE.

We have a lot of new members in Oklahoma Parents and Educators for Public Education. This is awesome. There are some real concerns that keep surfacing in discussions that I thought I would attempt to address. I do not pretend to speak for the group leadership or for everyone who has been helping in the fight. So if what I type is not helpful maybe one of the list leaders can just delete in a hurry.  Civil feedback is appreciated.

Here is what I have come to understand about this group and why it is working. And it is working, I am sure of that. We may not be where we want to be, but we are far better off because of the efforts of the members of OPE4PE.
1. We support public education…

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Are You Ready?

We do a concert with a hired orchestra every spring at my church. A few years ago we did Elijah.   My son was singing the “boy” solo.   We had just finished with our warm up and were waiting for the word to leave for the choir loft.   I had half an ear on the conversation between the soloists who were standing to my right. I was listening to see if my son joined in with the chatter.  He did not.

I believe it was the tenor who asked the bass, “Jeffrey, are you ready yet?”  Dr. Jeffrey Snider is a large bear of a man who has a huge voice.   He replied, in his resonant bass soloist voice, “No, but it has never stopped me before.”  Everyone who heard it had a good chuckle.

During the concert, Dr. Snider certainly sounded like he was ready.   Maybe he was trying to be funny.   Maybe not, though.   I am not sure if we are totally “ready” to perform music.

I think it is more about being “prepared.”  I believe we more naturally understand preparedness in terms of degree.    Being prepared is not a yes or no thing.  It is possible to be more prepared and less prepared. Sometimes the music is more challenging.   Sometimes the are more people auditioning.  Sometimes less.    Even people who are very well prepared may not be perfectly ready.  But the more we practices (and practice right) the better we perform and the more our standards grow.  One high school student realized that the Freshman at his high school weren’t really getting worse every year.   He was getting better and was more able to hear smaller and smaller mistakes.  You will take your improved skill set out of the audition room and into the next adventure no matter how the audition plays out.

Musicians sometimes have performances or auditions that loom in importance.  You may have something important in the near future.   How prepared are you?  I would venture to say that a huge number of those who audition are far more prepared on audition day than they were when the first audition pieces were.  Far, far more prepared.  But given their improved musical sense most students auditioning do not think they are perfect yet.

Once upon a time one student walked our of his audition and self-proclaimed it “acceptable.”  Not awesome-super-good-amazing.  Not the best run ever.  But acceptable given his level of preparedness.   When the list was posted he was principal on his instrument in the all-state  orchestra.   It was a successful audition, even though it was not perfection.

So after all the practice is done and you are waiting to play it is most productive to mentally review what you are doing and go for your personal best.  Your personal best as well as your personal average are going to be much higher since you have practiced.   Are you “ready”?  Maybe not, but it has never stopped anyone.   The practice time is over.  You are as prepared as you are.  Go perform!  Make music.  Go for tone.  Even mistakes sound better with good tone.    Keep your head in the game.  If something happens like, say, a mistake, for get it and keep going.  People actually make the gig after making actual mistakes.  If  their practice has increased their performance standards they will be more able to hear mistakes.   And so if you make a perceived mistake just go on and perform the next thing.   Keep your head in the moment of performing, concentrating on the moment and perhaps the near  future.

There is no room in the mental apparatus for reviewing the performance during the performance.   So perfomr and have fun and make as much music as you can.  There is another day after auditions.  But if you have prepared at all you are going to be a much better player for the next thing, whatever it is. Auditions are as much about learning as they are about the outcome.  If you learn from auditions and, yes, performances, you will continually hone your craft.

Ready or not, here it comes.   Go for it.

Practicing 101

woodshed
Taking it to the woodshed…..

We talk about a lot of things to do to bring your “A” Game to the audition room in my class at SWOSU Band camp. For those that have not been (and to remind those who have) here are some practice basics that might be helpful in the big final push for a performance, jury, or audition.

1.  Work on fundamental issues in your warm up.  Five to fifteen minutes spent working on tone production, fundamental positions, posture, breathing, articulation – both correct technique and speed, can work wonders.  Brass players need to work flexibility studies.  Everyone needs scales, at least some every day..  .   I always had to work a lot on tone and flexibility because those were my biggest problems.  Others might have to work scales and other figure speed exercises more.   A few minutes concentrating on your “worst thing” in warm up can pay off through the entire practice session.    If you are not sure what your worst thing is, ask your teacher.  Keep the warmup period short unless there is a big issue that is holding you back.

2. Spend the most time on the worst places. This is not something anyone does naturally.  We like to sound good and we want anyone hearing us practice to hear good things.  Get pass all that soon! Slow painstaking practices on the measures or parts of measures (sometimes just three notes-sometimes just two back and forth-sometimes the attack/tuning/tone quality for one note) that are the most pesky will pay off. Sometimes intentional, focused, accurate* practice at a very slow speed will actually cause it to be better the next time you run the piece at a much faster speed. Use a metronome. Speed up gradually. If you reach a daily tempo plateau then back down to your accurate speed, play it really well at that speed, and let your brain process. (It takes the brain some time to process your practice each day. Remember to get some rest.)

3. Spend some time running longer passages focusing on tone and musical expression.  Some suggest that you go back and forth between small practice and large.  I think this is a good idea.  Since most auditions are cuts, pick some cuts and practice playing them without stopping. You can to this with an entire etude etc. Since there are cuts in all-state auditions in Oklahoma you should practice cuts. When you are doing this you keep going no matter what as you will in an audition. It would be silly to stop after a mistake, work on it for a bit, and then take up playing the piece from there. So when you are practicing a run-through of piece you should do it audition style. People who make all-state make some mistakes. So you need to practice staying on task when there is a mistake. If you run a section several times you will have a better idea of which places need the practice. So go back and circle the places you missed and practice them separately. Again,alternating between micro sections and macro runs can be highly effective.

There is some more to this, but this is a good over view.

4. For Oklahoma All-State, there are specific scales and ranges in the audition. Remember to practice these scales. Band students need to remember to work the chromatic scale up to speed and not just the major scales. You can do micro practice on scales if you need to. but they usually come around faster than etudes.   Your state practices may vary outside Oklahoma.  The sooner you get this done the better.  You can review a lot of scales in a hurry after you know them.

5. At least once a day the week of the audition  practice an entire mock audition. Warm up. Leave your practice space. Stand outside the door and do calming breaths and focusing exercises if you know how.  (There is more about breathing on this blog if you do not know how.)   Re-enter and arrange your music on the stand. Pick and play scales for your instrument as required. Play cuts from the music with no stopping. (No talking or swearing!) Stand or sit – which ever is right for you. Imagine a judge asking you for each thing. Then leave the room. Forgive yourself for any mistakes. Next, go back in and review any issues this uncovers.

6.  This is actually a big deal:  You must get away from it all for awhile.  Get your practicing done.  Then spend some time with friends.  Walk the dog.   Read a good book.  Meditate. Sleep. Dance to the Wicked cast recording and sing along, especially with “Defying Gravity.” Whatever works for you. Your brain needs to process and store everything you processed.  The little IT guy in your brain may have to upgrade or add new wiring.   Give that little guy half a chance to use the information from your practice session to upgrade your neural circuits.

During the run, focus on the moment. I could list a million things to avoid, but I don’t want to give anyone ideas. If you are playing and you notice yourself not into the music just easily move from wherever you are back into the music. You can think about whatever you want after you leave the room.

You can also do mental practice of the audition any time and place. Riding the bus home or to a performance. Waiting for the teacher to answer questions from kids who are not in band or orchestra and never understand anything. Anywhere. Mental practice is a good thing. But practice a good audition that goes as intended.

*About “accurate”
Accurate means practice on getting everything right when you go slow. Everything.
Fingering
Rhythm
Intonation
Bowing/Articulation – Correct technique and musical attacks and releases.
Good tone (and everything involved in that) on EVERY note.
Posture
Position (of everything)
Make sure the instrument and everything about it (strings/reeds/valves- stuff like that) is in top shape.

If you develop good habits about these things when you go slow they will stay with you when you are playing faster and, ultimately, become part of your every day playing.

Getting In Touch With Your Inner Nerd

It just seemed like time to remind everyone about this.

The Happy Rock Way

happyrockonblackbgurinner nerd

This happened:
It was the last few minutes of the last period of the middle school day.  My seventh and eighth grade orchestra students were putting their instruments away.  One student, Aundrea, was still seated and putting her violin in the case while most of the rest were putting their instruments in storage or lining up to take them home.  Aundrea was a delight to have in class.  She worked hard on her music and had exceptional manners.  It was obvious that there were high expectations in her family.  On the other hand, she also had a purple streak in her hair, which was a little wild in a way that seemed to work for her, and a pierced eyebrow.   She seemed surprised when I told her that some of the sixth grade beginners who met her on their way out of orchestra were a little scared of her.   (I…

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Rock Your Corner

As usual, updated and refined. Rock on!

The Happy Rock Way

Happy Rock Your Corner

One of the pillars of the Happy Rock way is the concept that we are meant to let our lights shine wherever we are and however we can. I don’t usually say it that way. I just say, “Rock your corner of the world!” This may not be a geographical space in this day an age. It can be your corner of your family, your city, your school, or nowadays your online presence.  Make a difference in the world by making a difference wherever you are.

There are some famous people who do seem to rock the world. But it all starts with that space where you happen to be right now. Since Edward Lorenz coined the term Butterfly Effect it has in some fashion seeped into our group mind set. You can search “Butterfly Effect.” Lorenz contended that small things could have a big impact over time. The Butterfly…

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Is it the Destination or the Journey?

I cheaply posted this in a Facebook comment tonight. So I looked it over and decided there was more. Revised again…

The Happy Rock Way

[Big revision on 9/15/2015]

“It’s not the destination, but the journey.” I was checking on this quote because I have been thinking about it lately. It is a little hard to pin down because, it seems, the idea has become a part of human thought these days.  It is hard to tell who is quoting whom.

Perhaps it is stopping to smell the flowers.   Cliches aside, it really seems like it should be deeper than that, though flowers are nice.  (I know that this refers to taking time to appreciate beauty and not just flowers.  But still…)

It is not the journey, as such. Nor the flowers or works of art or  beautiful scenic vistas. Or even the great concerts and performances.  Or learning something new. I consider all of these things and more part of the fullness of this life I have been given.  All of those things have…

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Breathing for Focus and Relaxation – The Happy Rock Way

Candle Flame

Breathing for Focus as taught by Rob Reck at the SWOSU Band Camp

I am writing these instructions to provide a resource for students who have taken my Psychology of Performing Music class at the Southwestern Oklahoma State University Band Camp. We call it the SWOSU (pronounced Swazoo or Swoh-soo) Band Camp. The hope is that this will allow students to do even more with the breathing techniques we learn in class when they return home. I have had many wonderful students and I hear back from them about how they have used what they learned. (I relish this feedback. It is how I learn.) I have gotten request for written instructions as well as an audio or video to provide a guided “breathing” session. It seemed best to do the written instructions first.

For those who have not been in the class, I feel sure printed instructions may not be the best way to learn this. But a lot can be done with just the basics, and a second goal of this piece is to keep it simple. I wish everyone good fortune in learning to balance focus, relaxation, and positive energy by using some simple breathing techniques.

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First, a little about the science behind what we do. Some will want to skip down to the how-to section.

The principal behind a relaxing breath is to breath in and out as you count slowly and steadily.  A quick breath, even a deep quick breath, is of little value.   The rational behind this idea is the theory that breathing slowly and deeply at a measured speed turns off the Flight or Fight Response, first described by Walter Bradford Cannon. (You can do your own research about this response and the amygdala, the part of the brain that seems to trigger it.) The flight/fight response would be useful if you were actually needing to run away from physical danger (flight) or go into physical combat (fight). Otherwise it just adds stress to our modern life. It is not nearly so helpful when a person is getting ready to perform music or make a speech. Or, for that matter, take a high-stakes test. The flight fight reaction does not respond to verbal language. Telling yourself to “calm down” does not work. If someone tells you to “Calm Down!” it can make it worse. But, there is no way that you would  count and breath slowly (and deeply – deep is important) if there was a bear in your cave. And this incongruity (five syllables- Yay!) communicates with your lizard brain where flight=fight begins. In short, the theory is that the deep slow breath communicates with the inner brain to convince it to calm down.  While I may have taken liberties in simplifying this explanation, the point is that it works and does not require a long time to learn or any special skill.

I have seen it work countless times in my performance psychology classes and with individuals. There is research that shows that it works.  However, the point of this post is to get you to do your own research by doing your own counted breathing.

One last thought: People are different. Some do better with one breathing technique and some with another. This is fine. For most the third technique is the best. But if you like another one better you are not alone. Take what works best for you.

A word of warning: Do not perform an extended breathing exercise while driving or similar activities.  A breath or two to avoid road rage is fine.

The Basics of Counted Breathing:

Three variations in counted breathing with my names for them…

1. Two dimensional breath: Four counts in and four counts out. Some people are good with this one and do not need to proceed to the others. Breath deeply and slowly. And breathe smoothly. Make sure it takes all four counts to breath in and the entire four counts to breath out. It seems simple. It is simple. But it works. This is a “mindfulness” meditation. If you notice during your session that you aren’t actually counting your breath because your mind has wandered,  just easily move back to the counting and continue. This is true for all the variations.

Think at a slow speed: In, two, three, four and Out, two, three, four. But slowly!!!! Try two to five breaths and notice how the tension leaves your physical system each time you exhale.  Do this before you do a five to ten minute session as described below.

2. Triangle: Breath in for four counts, hold four counts, and out four counts. Everything else is the same. You are just gently hold your breath in this one. Once again, use all four counts for each step..

3. Square breath (my favorite): In four, hold our, out four, hold four, repeat.
For most people twenty minutes is more than enough. Sometimes if I have a big performance coming I will do more than that. People who have compromised lunh or heart function) should consider whether the “out four, hold four” section is right for them.

As an aside, counted breathing works a lot better when you are going to sleep than counting sheep….

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Many people get everything they need out of counted breathing without proceeding to the extended session described next.  That is fine.  The next section those who want a regular program of breathing to instill calmness and reduce stress generally.

I want to encourage you to explore this, but many positive benefits are available if you  haven’t gotten everything prepared for the session described below.

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What you will need:

A quiet place (at first) where you will not be interrupted. After you are an experienced “breather” you will be able to do this on the school bus, in the subway, on stage or back stage before a performance or in the hall waiting to be called in to play your solo or to audition. But initially you should begin in a comfortable quiet place.

Some way of timing your session. Sometimes people fall asleep unintentionally when they learn to calm themselves. (Counted breathing can be an effective drug free sleep aid.) You need a sound that will signal you that your session is over that is not truly alarming. There are timed meditation sessions on YouTube that start and end with the sound of meditation bells. It is not necessary to actually watch the video. These bells are an excellent traditional sound for easily ending a breathing session.  Some modern phone ring tones which are soothing also work well.

Some people use a soft metronome beat, especially at first. I did not, but it is OK if you find it helpful. Metronome apps can also be found online. Once a person gets a sense of the timing the exact speed of the breath is not important. You can define your own “slow” speed.  One beat per second (60 on the metronome) is a good place to start.  Some people do, however, prefer to keep the metronome going.   Experiment and learn what works best for you.

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Before you begin your first home meditation session

Sit or recline comfortably in a place where you will not be disturbed. Have the metronome and meditation timer handy if you intend to use one. It is also possible to have a friend help you count by counting the breath slowly. They can also serve as a timer. Comfortable clothing is good too, but is not required. A counted breath can be effective even when you are in an uncomfortable theater costume, choir robe, tuxedo, or marching band uniform. When you are doing a counted breath each segment of the breath will be four counts long. (For now.) Make sure to think about breathing in lots of air in a relaxed manner. Do not try to force a big breath in, but do think of filling up easily and naturally. Let your body figure out how to get the air in.

A word to the wise: During a timed session you may notice that you are nice and calm, but you have stopped counting and breathing deeply. This is a normal occurrence. Not only is it normal, it can be a good thing. When you notice the counting has gone you may also notice your mind is rather floating in a very good place. This feeling will, if you are laying down, lead to sleep. As soon as you notice it just return easily, effortlessly, and smoothly to your counted  breathing.

When you are through, rouse up slowly to give your mind time to transition from your relaxing breathing session to everyday life.

 

There are advanced techniques that go beyond what is here.   These are much better explained in a lesson or a live workshop rather than on paper.

I want to give a big thank you to who ever is sharing this in the UK.  It is nice to know that it is sparking some interest outside my circle.