Thursday, May 8, 2014

To All The New Maestros Out There

Advice for Music Teachers

Developed, mostly (read: completely) by painful mistakes.

1. Pick music you like. You’re going to have to live with it for a while, so you might as well like it. If you don’t like, say, The New World Symphony, don’t hand it out to 70 teenagers—they will use it as a musical weapon. You can find something good in any ability range. In most cases, if you like it, something magical happens—you teach it better. And when you teach it better, they perform it better. And when they perform it better, they feel better about their performance, and they start to like it!

2. “It’s about the kids! It’s about the kids!! IT’S ABOUT THE KIDS!!!” …Yes, but it isn't about the kids at your expense. If you don’t take care of yourself (health-wise, mental health-wise, fiscally, etc.), then you’re going to suffer. And then the kids will suffer. And then no one wins. So, take that half day to schedule that physical.

3. Plan long-range by long units. If you’re in a district with archaic, byzantine policies (like the School District of Philadelphia [just spell my name correctly in the lawsuit, Dr. Hite]), this is difficult because they want every godd@%n minute planned out of every class. And I've noticed that our ilk really hates lesson planning (me included). So save yourself by planning long-range. I don’t mean parse out every minute of your next month, but have a rough sketch that you can use when the lesson plan police come a’knockin’.

4. Take care of your car. While my 1998 Saturn SL4 provided much comic relief to the students and faculty of Ridley High School (culminating in the iconic moment where I held up a piece of the undercarriage and said to the band “You think you’re having a bad day, well THIS fell off my car, and I don’t know what it is!!!”), I really didn't need the stress. Get regular maintenance done and check the fluids regularly. Do you want to be stranded on the interstate on the day when Governor Write-In is visiting and you have to direct your kazoo ensemble in the playing “God Bless America” when he delivers his stump speech? Didn't think so.

5. Don’t give any kid a free pass to miss rehearsals or events for any reason. I don’t mean “I’m sorry that your grandmother lost her long fight with cancer and her funeral is tonight, but we have to work on our eighth notes”. I DO mean “No, I’m sorry, you can’t go watch your girlfriend’s basketball game. You made this commitment.” Work through the conflicts and be firm. Any perceived crack in your policies will quickly become a grand canyon. “You let Billy go to quidditch practice, why can’t I go to synchronized roller skating practice???”

6. For those of us in high school, go to the classics whenever possible. I got more mileage and student buy-in out of the Holst Suites than I did out of “Jensen’s Newest Grade 4 Hit”. I know we bandos can all solfege that Chaconne backwards, but remember—your students can’t. It’s perfectly OK to do “Suite From [insert latest summer blockbuster]” as a lighter selection, but remember—the English teacher is teaching “Great Expectations” and “The Scarlet Letter”. If you want our subject to be taken seriously, don’t program the theme from the Fat Albert Cartoon Series on your spring concert. …Even if my name is on the arrangement. OK, especially if my name is on the arrangement.

7. Work on your conducting, no matter what level you teach. I was never a great conductor, but I REALLY let it slide when I was at my second job. Now, I’m at a place where it matters and I’ve had to work to make up the deficiency. You don’t have to have moves like Muti, but if you’re clear and even mildly engaging as a conductor, they watch you. Even the little kids. Actually, ESPECIALLY the little kids. If, on the other hand, your ictus is everywhere and you look like an unmade bed, don’t holler at them for not watching. Would you?

8. Clean your room. I’m not the neatest person in the world, but I reach a breaking point with clutter. Your rehearsal room and/or classroom needs to be reasonably in order. It sends a message if it isn’t…and sadly that message isn't “Oh, what a free-spirit, artistic, laid-back guy Mr. Grunkin is!” The message is more likely “I wonder what else he lets slide.”

9. Talk with other teachers. Don’t kibitz about how much of a pain Calvin is or the evils of Mrs. Delacroix and her poisonous e-mails, but talking with other teachers about problems they’re having and they ways they've coped with them really helps, if for no other reason than to know you’re not alone.

10. Keep performing. I blew it on this one when I started teaching (well, I blew it on all of these, but this one sticks out). “I just don’t have the time…”. So…why’d you get into this business, then? You really like filing out purchase orders and entering attendance into PowerSchool? I know it’s hard, but blow the dust off your sackbut every now and then and remember why you started down this insane path. It just might seem less insane.

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