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Safety, Transparency and Reputation when Coaching Students

trustBy John Gardner

For a short while during my earliest teen years, without concern about walking to and into his home, I studied piano with a single guy who lived a few blocks away. During high school freshman year, I took clarinet lessons with a college girl who came to our school and went with me into a sound-proofed practice room. Later in high school I would travel weekly to an area band director’s home for clarinet instruction. Concerns about safety, transparency and reputation never came up.

But times are different now. Priests, coaches and teachers are convicted of having inappropriate relationships with children and students, creating a sensitive and suspicious society that dissuades good teachers and students from participating in the time-tested tradition of individualized instruction.

The concept of innocent until proven guilty does not apply. No one can afford even an accusation. A School of Performing Arts that provides private lessons for area children put windows in the all the classroom doors, instituted a parental sign in/out procedure and has a staff member walk in on every lesson every time. Band directors schedule lessons in busy offices or in large ensemble rooms full of distractions. College students video lessons with middle/high school students they are teaching, not only for critique, but also for security.

One band director told me that

…you don’t have to be guilty….an accusation can destroy a reputation and/or cost your job. And unfortunately, even after proven innocent, the doubts, questions and hesitations can continue to damage a reputation that took decades to build. Teachers have to be soooo careful.

The very nature of individualized music instruction almost mandates that student and teacher be alone in a room with a closed door. How do we take the legitimate safety concerns that student, parent and teacher share along with the teacher’s concern for reputation (and employment) and and still provide specialized, accelerated training?

SAFETY is everyone’s concern even if from different perspectives. Be aware and be careful.


  • invite parents to sit in or be nearby during lessons.
    • My experience: When I taught lessons in my home (not any more), parents could relax in my living room while I worked with the student in the dining room. A 6th grader’s mother would bring a book and sit in the room at the high school or college.
  • leave a door open or at least ensure it is unlocked and/or has a window. Enable anyone to walk in on you. That delay while you get up to open the door from the inside can cause undue suspicion or concern (and increase interruption time).
  • schedule lessons when others are around. Avoid evenings or non-school days when teaching at school or make sure someone else is home if the student is coming to your home studio. Do everything reasonable to remove any question andensure both student and parent are comfortable. Keep in mind that teens are increasingly cautioned to beware of one-on-one situations with adults. Respect that.
    • My experience: When a mother requested I work with her student over holiday break, I scheduled it at school along with an appointment for another teacher to drop something off to me during the lesson time. I left the band room door opened and set up the chairs in clear view from the hallway so passing janitors could see and hear.
  • video or audio record the session. CAUTION: If using video, place the camera so both teacher and student are visible, but NOT in a way that makes student uncomfortableor  or could set you up for a different kind of complaint.
    • My experience: When I teach lessons via Skype, I ask that the camera be pointed so that I can see either fingers, embouchure or both, so I am usually looking at a profile view of the student’s top front. When girls start adjusting their clothes because you are pointing a camera at them, there is some discomfort. Be aware, and be careful.
  • if you have a regular coaching schedule, post the schedule. If you have a website with a calendar, parents (and students) are better reminded and informed.


  • check references. In addition to safety, you want to make sure you’re getting a good product (teacher). If the teacher is an outsider coming to the school, the school should have conducted a background check. Ask.
  • sit in or be in the area, at least periodically. Sitting in an adjacent room can provide reasonable privacy while often enabling you to hear your child play. They won’t do that for you at home, right? Bring a book.
  • for virtual lessons (via Skype, for example), be in the area. You don’t have to stand over the child’s shoulder, but listen in and even walk in a couple times….say hi to the teacher.


  • meet a new teacher for the first time with a parent and in public.
  • go with your gut.
  • if anything makes you uncomfortable, speak up or get out. Nearly 100% of the time, you are either mis-interpreting or the teacher is completely unaware and will respond and adjust. Don’t destroy an opportunity based on your misunderstanding a teacher’s oversight.
  • if a parent is dropping you off, have a cell phone to call if the teacher is not there, you finish early (or going over), or you otherwise need parental pick up.
    • My experience: It was during a storm and I was mid-lesson after school when the power went out. Emergency lighting came on, but not enough to continue.
  • if you are going to a lesson, tell your parents (or someone) when, where and for how long.
    • My experience: I’ve had an unnecessarily disgruntled parent when I scheduled some after school coaching with a student who never got around to communicating and mom didn’t know what was going on ’til the student didn’t get off the bus. My mistake was assuming the parent knew.

TRANSPARENCY helps everyone.

Sometimes there is a drop off in parental involvement and in student/parent communication during high school. Teens want more responsibility and independence and both parent and teacher should strive to help them in those areas. Assumptions often cause problems, however, and most issues I’ve ever experienced in the triangular relationship with parent and student elevate because somebody “assumed”. Several years ago, I gave each of my business office employees a personalized, engraved magnet that said, simply:

Assume Nothing!

TEACHERS…provide a list of expectations and policies. Read mine here…

  • Payment. How much, how often and what happens when they don’t. Are materials (music) included?
  • Cancellations when you cancel, when student cancels, how much notice and what if there isn’t any?
  • Minimum requirements; lessons per month, practice time, materials such as tuners or metronome, functioning instrument with adequate supplies (reeds, etc)…
  • Privacy. Don’t share student/parent contact info or details about what happens during lessons. That is why they are called “private” lessons.
  • Communication. Be easy to contact. Determine whether your communication is to be with student or parent. Any written communication with student should be copied to a parent, when possible, including texts, emails or other types of media messages.

REPUTATIONS are slow to build and quick to crumble.

Students and parents need to realize how important that is to the teacher, especially when their very livelihood depends on it. Younger or single teachers need to be hyper-aware, but no one is too old, fat, bald or ugly for legitimate concern and caution.

Without an element of TRUST, this simply cannot work. Hopefully the teacher has ‘earned’ some trust from both the student and the parentl. It is unfortunate that we hear via national news when trust has been abused. That is horrible. But it is also a very, VERY small percentage of people. My advice to all…. in a nutshell:

Be Aware & Take Care!

Thanks for reading.

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Posted in Classroom Teacher, College Prep, Communication, Consulting, High Schools, Parenting, School Security, Teaching Music Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

Teens I Admire #1

By John Gardner

Large group of smiling friends staying together and looking at camera isolated on blue backgroundAdults who are afraid of teenagers or who feel like teens of today are nothing like those from their day (adults have been saying that forever, right?) ….. or who think the quality of teens is crumbling….. should come hang out with the teens I get to spend time with.

As a teacher, I can’t use the “love” word, must avoid the “creepy” label (they DO use that word too much), have to be careful how I compliment the way someone looks, and often settle for handshakes and high fives when a good pat on the back or a hug seems so much more appropriate for the circumstance …. but I thoroughly enjoy my time on the school clock. I LOVE the youthful enthusiasm. I ADMIRE their dreams, goals and aspirations. And I RESPECT those who make the best of their circumstances as they strive for excellence. I am all about encouraging achievers and I think it is because they recognize that, that they allow me into their lives. I “love” this job AND these teens.

My response to the parent who asked recently, “How do you put up with a room FULL of teenagers?” is “I feel sorry for those who DON’T get to experience a room FULL of teenagers.”

Some of the “types” of teens I admire…. (first in a series)

I admire teens who thrive because of their parents… Band students have complicated schedules that can challenge parental patience. There is the expense of instruments and extras (reeds, valve oil, drum sticks) — not to mention private lessons, summer camps, etc. Vacations get adjusted and, especially until the teen can drive, there are countless trips to drop off and pick up.

Some parents sacrifice soooo much in time, energy and money so that their teen can focus on being a better student, athlete, musician, academic or whatever. But all of that is for naught if the teen doesn’t take advantage of it. I admire teens who appreciate what they have and commit themselves to “getting their parents’ money’s worth”.

I admire teens who thrive in spite of their parents.

I was outside Door 34 prior to a rehearsal when she jumped out of the car and ran up to me, crying and wiping tears from her eyes, “G… I’m sorry…..I’m so sorry.” As she ran off into the building I got the impact of her emotion when I saw the approaching papa angrily waving a copy of our schedule.

Additional random examples….

“We’re going to pull our son out of band…..his room is a mess.”

“I can’t come to band today. I’m grounded and part of my punishment is whatever consequence I get from you for not being here.”

” He really loves band…..which is why this has to be part of his punishment.”

“She can’t major in color guard in college….so there is no point in the expense for her to be in this activity.”

“My parents took my band card money and my paycheck money. What do I do?”

“Here’s my paycheck to pay you back for letting me go to Disney. I will be able to pay you back from my job over the next three months.” (And did.)

“I have to stop taking private lessons because my dad says if I have money to waste on music lessons that I can pay rent.”

“G, I just got kicked out of my house.”

“Why are you telling my kid (s)he needs extra money for music lessons? Aren’t you the teacher? Why don’t you do what you’re getting paid for?”

“Why should I buy another [instrument]? I bought the one they told me to buy when (s)he started.”

Some of the most determined to succeed band students have parents I never meet. I understand busy and I understand the struggles of single parenthood (there were five kids in my single parent home) and it can be hard….yes, it can be hard. But it is sad sometimes to watch students try not to show disappointment when the parent is not there…. just sayin’.

I admire students who, despite the potential negatives of their circumstances…..are determined to succeed…..

….to be continued

Posted in College Prep, High Schools, Parenting, Teaching, Teaching Music

Using Band as Punishment

Band PunishmentBy John Gardner

Teens can be quite the challenge sometimes, but I thoroughly enjoy engaging their youthful enthusiasm as they shape their futures by making decisions and learning from the decisions they make.

Sometimes they make poor decisions and need instruction, correction or discipline, but using band as punishment is excessive and harmful. Using band as punishment is like using water boarding for failing to cut the grass. Help teens thrive, don’t treat them like terrorists.

Thriving Teens – 3 types

1. Good Teens BECAUSE of their parents

For one group, I give much credit to good parenting. Good parenting doesn’t guarantee good teens, but it certainly increases the odds. These are the parents who are active and involved in their teen’s life. They’re on the PTO, in the band/choir/athletic booster groups, they come to watch practices, performances or games, they volunteer to help and they put up the money that most worth while ventures require. Some, are more behind the scenes supporting, enabling  and encouraging. Outside of school activities, the family is together a lot. Maybe there isn’t a lot of money for fancy vacations, but they find ways to do things together anyway. Single parents and those who have remarried can also do fantastic jobs. My heart goes out to those super parents who are experiencing what author James Dobson calls “the strong-willed child”. Keep the faith and keep doing what you’re doing. The teen will figure it out eventually.

2. Good Teens IN SPITE of their parents

A second group, and one that I especially admire, are those teens who turn out great “in spite of”  their parents. These are the teens who have every reason (mostly by example) to crash and burn, and yet, they determine NOT to follow the paths of their parents and instead, commit themselves to a better life.

I’m not faulting single, lower-income, laid off or otherwise challenged parents doing the best they can, but rather those who don’t share or support the child’s enthusiasm for a worthy activity.

Your child knows, is hurt, embarrassed and deflated by your lack of support.

A high school clarinet student once tell me,

“my dad has never heard me play.”

You will only have that child in your care for a short time.

I was outside our band entrance door greeting students arriving for rehearsal. The car stopped and both student and parent got out. The girl ran to me, in tears, frantically exclaiming, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” before running into the building. Behind her came the papa with the band schedule in hand. There was no warm, fuzzy response to my “Hi, how ya doin’?” Instead, he almost slapped me in the face with the schedule as he grunted, “How much of this schedule is mandatory?” After my response, “All of it.”, he mumbled something I wouldn’t print even if I heard it clearly. The daughter was waiting for me in the office, still crying, and apologizing for what she was sure I had endured. My respect and admiration for her attitude and work ethic skyrocketed after that.

A sophomore asked me for some personal clarinet coaching. Things were going great until she came in one day tearfully explaining she had to quit. She had gotten a job to pay for her lessons, because her parents would not, and when they learned how she was spending her earnings, they started charging her rent.

Another student came in from the parking lot to ask for some help with a flat tire. He called his mother while the other director and I taught him how to change a tire. To get to the spare, he had to unhook the huge woofer in the trunk. The mother and boyfriend arrived and, instead of thanking us for staying or trying to help, boyfriend starts screaming at the teen, “How dare you let somebody else touch my car. This isn’t over, kid.”

3. Good Teens Naturally

Some teens naturally have what it takes for greatness. Natural greatness combined with good parenting is definitely a winning combination.

Struggling teens and families

I understand some of the hardships. The 5 children in MY family were successfully raised by a determined, suddenly single, polio-surviving mother who was a stay-at-home mom 12 years before landing the single-parenting role. Some of her start-up challenges, in addition to parenting alone, included finding a job, day care and a car. I’m not sure where my life would have gone if mom had used band as punishment for some of the teen mischief and turmoil I instigated.

Single parents are extra busy working, exhausted from working one or more jobs. When I encouraged a student to encourage her mother to chaperone so she wouldn’t have to buy gas to the competitions, the girl replied,

“My mother can’t come. She is working three jobs.”

Living arrangements, transportation, schedules, finances and family politics aren’t easy. Juggling bedrooms in two houses, or spending summers with the non-custodial parent adds to teen stress.  There is only one car and the parent has it at work. Older children must babysit younger siblings, making after school activities difficult. Some become pawns for their competing and vindictive parents. They mature quickly coping with blended families, step-siblings, step-parents (and entire new families) and parents’ new loves. Many handle it better than I did.

In “functional” families, when one parent avoids the student’s activities, even when a genuine work conflict, teens perceive that their activity doesn’t rate with the absent parent.

I had a student several years ago who’s father NEVER came to anything. Even at her high school graduation, the father walked into the gym at about the time his daughter’s name was to be called, shot a 2-minute video, and left the arena. I don’t meet some parents until I visit the graduating senior’s open house party.

Using Band as Punishment

Good parenting sometimes requires a consequence for bad behavior, but using band as punishment is not a good choice.

A common tactic in disciplining teens is withholding something valued; driving privilege, cell phone, Internet, freedom (grounding). I can’t tell you how many times I hear variations of

“I get my phone back in 5 days”….

In that spirit of taking away something valuable, however, some parents include band. A few examples from recent years:

  • ….student must come home after school, even though there is a scheduled rehearsal. Part of the punishment is the grade cut and the confrontation with the director.
  • Parent: “We want to pull him out of band. We’ve just been having lots of problems with him lately.”
    Dir: “Are any of those problems related to band?”
    Parent: “No, but we’ve already grounded him and taken away his cell phone. He likes band, so we want to pull him out so he’ll get the point.”
  • Parent: “Here is a copy of our contract with our child. We’ll let him stay in band if he adheres to this agreement.”
    Dir: “According to this, you want to pull him out of band if he misses a single homework assignment or gets a C on any quiz or test? If that is your absolute standard, then you might as well change the schedule now, because very few teens can guarantee you that they will NEVER have a bad day on a quiz or test and I don’t want to have to fill that hole later.”
  • Parent: “This just isn’t working. She needs to come straight home after school every day.”
    Dir: “On days were we have after school rehearsal, can she not come straight home immediately following rehearsal? What did she do?”
    Parent: “Her room is a mess.”

Problems of Using Band as Punishment

  1. It affects the grade. Some short-sighted parents see an advantage in this. As a teacher, I don’t. Grades matter when it comes time to apply for college admission, scholarships and jobs.
  2. It hurts the band. Band is a team activity. Grounding someone from a rehearsal, performance, or pulling them out of the program mid-season hurts everybody.

For some people, band is the best thing that could happen for them. They gain acceptance as a valued member of a group made up of a wide variety of people. They make friends, some lasting a lifetime. They learn things that will help them in the corporate (or whatever) world; chain of command, respect, discipline, work ethic, commitment, and more. Some, who will never be the highest academically or the strongest athletically can find and use their leadership skills in band. Or they discover the value of being an active, valued participant in a large team effort. One student, when receiving his show shirt almost teared up as he said to me,

“I’ve never been a part of a group before.” 

A graduating senior told me how grateful she was for band “because of what it kept me away from”.

Everyone knows that only a small percentage of those in band will actually make a vocation from music. But having been in band can be something treasured for a lifetime. When visiting some of my former students in a band reunion in southern Indiana, a former flute student, who is now a doctor, credited band for helping her get thru the 10 or so years of schooling it took for her to become a physician. A bi-vocational pastor said band got him away from his drinking/drug buddies and helped him turn his life around.

Why then, other than the fact that they can have some satisfaction that they truly “hurt” that mis-behaving teenager, would a parent want to take a child out of an activity that has so much to offer?

Take using band as punishment off the table. Stick with grounding or withholding privileges if you must, but don’t use band or athletics as a bargaining chip. No on wins in that scenario, including the parent.

Thanks for reading my vent. Am I wrong? Need help?

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Posted in High Schools, Parenting, Repost, Teaching, Teaching Music Tagged with: , , ,

5 Steps to Cleaning Technical Passages for Instrumentalists

By John Gardner

Solo and Ensemble no frame

“If the notes are on the paper, it is your job to play ALL of them.” -John Gardner

Too often, when I have heard high school (and college) students perform a piece, there are then inevitable technical passages. Rarely do I hear long technical passages played cleanly and correctly. The word ‘slop’ comes to mind. The reason the performance contains slop is because the practice contained slop.

Here’s how a typical high schooler practices:
     Start at the beginning
     Play to the technical passage
     Go back to the beginning and start over.
     Repeat the above steps.

Cleaning technical passages

  • Stop repeating what you CAN play and concentrate on what you can’t. I suggest circling those 3-5 most problematic spots in a solo. Then, when you start to play the piece, instead of starting at the beginning, start with the problem passages. Play them first — and last, twice as often as the rest of the piece. Don’t always start at the beginning just so you can sound good.
  • Always, ALWAYS stop and fix it. 
  • Break longer passages into smaller pieces
    • Play the first 4 sixteenths plus the first note of the next beat.
    • Do that until you can play it PERFECTLY 3 times in a row.
    • Play the next set of 4 sixteenths plus one note. Get it perfect 3x.
    • Play beats one and two. Perfect.
    • Play beat 3.
    • Play beats 1-2-3.
    • etc.
  • Slow it down, get it right and speed it up GRADUALLY.  
    • Use a metronome (free apps available for iPod, iPad.
    • Start with a tempo at which you can play it perfectly.
    • Increase the speed on the metronome no more than 5 beats per minute.
    • Don’t increase until you are consistently clean and correct.
  • Change the rhythm. What you are doing is practicing small groups of notes quickly without playing all of them quickly at the same time. By reversing and changing these rhythms, you are playing different groups of notes quickly.
    • Play 16ths as if you’re playing dotted eighth/sixteenth combination, exaggerating the quickness of the 16th.
    • REVERSE. Now play pairs of 16ths as sixteenth/dotted eighth. This is harder to do.
    • Then play them as three triplet sixteenths and an eighth note.
    • REVERSE to play eighth plus three triplet sixteenths.

Practice your performance, record yourself, critique your performance, mark your music and repeat the above cleaning steps.

A youth baseball quote I recall from years ago comes to mine;

“Be sure you catch the ball before you throw it.”
Musical translation:
“Play it right before you play it fast.”
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Posted in College Prep, High Schools, Music Performance, Teaching Music Tagged with: , , ,

Play Everything on the Paper

By John Gardner

Part I: If the notes are on the paper, it is your job to play ALL of them: 5 Steps for Cleaning Technical Passages

everything on the paperPart II: Play EVERYTHING on the paper

Senior year in high school, I played a technical solo for contest and was using that same piece to audition for a college scholarship.

Phillip Miller, Clarinet Professor, University of Kentucky

Phillip Miller, Clarinet Professor, University of Kentucky

The clarinet professor travelled 70 miles to hear me play at my high school. After nailing the piece that got me a standing ovation in the solo contest room, I was ready for heaps of praise. Instead, I finished and watched a guy in agony before finally commenting,

You know….NASA can teach monkeys how to wiggle their fingers.

So you can play the notes? Good for you. There is no festival rating system I am aware of that will award the top rating (Superior, Gold, I) to someone who plays ONLY the notes.

Think of driving a car. Playing the notes is like staying on the road. Staying on the road is a good strategy and you won’t get far if you are unsuccessful, but if the only thing you’re watching are the edges of the road, you might miss the other signs along the way; stop, yield, speed limit, deer crossing, If you drive like that, you’re going to get a ticket (at best) or have an accident (at worst).

When playing an instrument, you must be able to multi-task.

Honda damageI was able to reinforce this common analogy I use when my car was struck recently by a high school student apparently not multi-tasking, i.e. watching out for other vehicles and yielding appropriately in the school parking lot.

While playing all the notes, the good performer also watches for dynamics, articulation, rhythmic accuracy  and stylistic instructions.

Musicians must multi-task as he/she plays the notes. How do you play those notes; slurred, articulated, what kind of articulation, at what dynamic, in what rhythm and with what style? Let’s address some of the major common errors.

Dynamics. The two more common mistakes related to dynamics are; 1) no dynamic contrast (everything is the at the same volume level) or 2) not enough dynamic contrast (softs softer and/or louds louder).

For most people, if you are playing without thinking about dynamic level, you are at a mezzo forte (mf). You have to work at playing both softer and louder. That is one way to find a starting point, but there are others.

Look at the piece you’re playing and find both the softest and loudest dynamic marks. Those are your most extreme….emphasize those and gauge the rest accordingly.

300px-Pipe.organ.console.arpIf a phrase of music is repeated, unless markings specifically indicate otherwise, make a distinction between the two.  Historically, one technique often used was that of the echo; a phrase played at a louder volume and then immediately repeated at a softer level, similar to the effect of using multiple keyboards on the pipe organ to repeat a phrase at different dynamic levels. If you play a repeated phrase with no distinction, you risk a judge making a comment like,

I already heard that.

You speak at different dynamic levels; the cell phone call answer in the restaurant should not be the same as your second attempt at getting a parent’s attention. Dynamics is an important judging category. Get it right.

Articulation. Two main concerns; following the markings on the music …. And the method or technique used.

Few things are more obvious to a trained musician than to hear the errors of sloppy articulation; slurring everything, tonguing everything or a random combination of the two.

Music performance can include articulation interpretations, but if you are changing what is marked on the paper, you need to mark your changes on the judge’s copy. Make sure the judge knows that what you played was what you intended.

If you have an extended 16th note run that is market all staccato, and you struggle with playing that, and you don’t want to reduce the tempo, then you might want to slur two, tongue two in a grouping of 4 sixteenth notes, for example. Mark the judge’s copy. He/she could still ding you a little for your articulation interpretation, but less than if you made the change without marking the original.

articulationThe other main weakness in articulation is the technique, i.e. HOW you articulate. Have you ever heard someone with a speech impediment? The challenge in fixing those is that most of what is happening is going on inside the mouth. Speech therapists are trained to do that. Do you need a specialist?

For a reed player, are you touching the reed, the roof of the mouth, or are you making some sort of ‘k’ or other throat sound to stop the air?  Not all articulations are created equal. If you make the judge spend time trying to figure out what is going on inside your mouth (articulation technique), you are hindering your success.

Rhythmic Accuracy. (Accuracy of Note Values, Rest Values, Duration, Pulse, Steadiness, Correctness of Meter). Note values covers a lot. When a quarter note is followed by a rest, do you go all the way to the rest? When you have a dotted eighth-sixteenth pattern, do you sub-divide to ensure the dotted 8th gets 3/4 of the beat….and not 2/3? A common rest mistake is similar; not giving it enough value or rushing to the next note, which gets into Pulse. If it were possible to hook up a heart monitor to the way you play, you don’t want the screen to look spastic, or as if you are having a heart attack. You should have a clear, easy to read (hear) ‘beat’.

heart monitorIs your tempo Steady, i.e., you don’t slow down during the faster parts and increase tempo in the easy sections?

Your heart rate increases when you run, but your tempo should not change when you play runs.

Practice with a metronome. If it feels like the metronome is pushing you, you’re dragging. If it seems like it is slowing you down, you’re rushing. If possible for 8th note meters (5/8, 6/8, etc), set the metronome so the 8th note gets the click. Obviously that becomes more difficult the faster the tempo.

Stylistic Instructions. Once you get past the basics of notes, dynamics and articulation, there are the finer stylistic instructions. Terms like “dolce” and “furioso” mis-interpreted or ignored could result in a total misrepresentation of what the composer intended. You wouldn’t play a “march” at a funeral or a “love song” at a basketball game. The composer uses terms and markings to tell you how to play what you play. It is important that you see, understand and observe them.

Here are a few music theory terms that deal with much of what I’ve mentioned in this post.

Don't try to figure out what all the words on this word wall mean. Let me go to work for you instead.

Don’t try to figure out what all the words on this word wall mean. Let me go to work for you instead.



Posted in College Prep, High Schools, Music Performance, Teaching, Teaching Music

Solo Contest and Life Lessons

By John Gardner

Solo and Ensemble no frameThere are surprises every year at Solo/Ensemble contest. I spend the day encouraging, listening, supporting, congratulating and consoling. Without question, the experience students gain from participation are strong.

Life is not always fair, and neither are judges. A high school principal once commented to me after a disappointing marching band result that…

They should judge these things the way we do basketball; points happen when the ball goes through the basket.

At the end of the day of a Solo/Ensemble festival a few years ago, when two directors were complaining to the site official about the same particular judge, the official response was that…

…that score represents a personal, professional opinion. That is what we hire them to do.

There are three types of problematic (for me to justify) judges in solo/ensemble festivals: Read more ›

Posted in College Prep, High Schools, Music Performance, Parenting, Solo Prep, Teaching Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

How much student testing is too much

Check out this post on another of my blogs.

Exam Hallexam_hall


Posted in Teaching Music

Dear Indiana Legislators and State Board of Education,

Guest post – posted with permission. (Emphasis added)


Test Teaching ToFebruary 2, 2015

Dear Indiana Legislators and State Board of Education,

Since many of you do not work directly with our Hoosier students, I thought I’d share some stories of just a few past students* who frequently surface to the top:

Christopher moved into our district as school started: All his mom could tell me was, “He’s bad. I can’t control him. He’s a bad kid.” The state of Indiana now deems that I am an effective teacher only if I can get him to pass a ten-hour standardized test, not that I helped Christopher understand he’s not a bad kid.

Jonah slept in class all morning or was seriously agitated. He confided in me that his father “raged” a lot at night. One early morning in April his house was involved in a drug bust and all his adult family members were arrested. The state of Indiana now deems that I am an effective teacher only if I can get him to pass a ten-hour standardized test, not that I gave him a warm blanket and a snack most mornings.

Lilah was just one of the homeless students I came to know through the years. She had moved in about a month into school from out of state. During the seven months she lived here she stayed in four different locations, including the homeless shelter. The state of Indiana now deems that I am an effective teacher only if I can get her to pass a ten-hour standardized test, not that I visited her at each house and usually brought her mom groceries.

Ricardo was big for his age and a real prankster, too. That was his way of communicating since he did not speak much English. We would sit together and read books in Spanish and English. The state of Indiana now deems that I am an effective teacher only if I can get him to pass a ten-hour standardized test, though I cannot even imagine how difficult that test is for him in English.

I never saw William smile once. He had witnessed his mother brutally attacked and wanted to be home with her. Every time I see one of those hard metal chairs they had in that school it reminds me of the one that he threw at my head. The state of Indiana now deems that I am an effective teacher only if I can get him to pass a ten-hour standardized test, though the best I ever managed was convincing him not to rip it to shreds.

Then there was Kaylah. She was mentally impaired and only recognized a few sight words. She loved stories, especially the repetitive ones with the slightly different surprise endings. She’d burst with excitement and “read” that part with me. The state of Indiana now deems that I am an effective teacher only if I can get her to pass a ten-hour standardized test. I cannot. Neither can her resource teacher, who cries along with her in frustration during the test.

I could tell you more stories; students who grew up in crack-houses, parents abusing the foster care system, autism, severe paranoia, molestation, blindness, loss of siblings and parents.

I care about each of the children mentioned above. I care about each one I know today and each little one coming to me in the future. I do not fear your evaluation. What I fear is never breaking the cycle of poverty and abuse that is pervasive in our culture. Please trust me when I say the tools you are giving me now are implements of more hurt, more pain, more destruction of lives. Please, begin to give me the real tools and proper resources we all need to make meaningful change in this state.

*All names and possibly the gender of former students have been changed to protect their identity.


John Stoffel

Posted in Classroom Teacher, Factory Education, Guest Post, High Schools, Public Schools, Respect, Storytelling, Teaching, Types of education Tagged with: , , , ,

If pro orchestra conductors were evaluated like HS music teachers

By John Gardner

I am pouring over spreadsheet data for my “Evaluator”. How many administrator evaluators have music ensemble experience? My boss will use this data to determine [exact terminology altered] “Amazing”, “Satisfactory”, “Help-me” or “Almost Outta Here” teacher status, which, in turn, affects employment status and pay. What would happen if professional orchestra conductors were evaluated like high school music teachers?

A professional orchestra conductor must select repertoire, rehearse and perform entertaining music at an excellence level to attract large audiences purchasing expensive tickets regularly.

Chicago Symphony Tickets

I like that the current emphasis in education is in making sure every student is learning, as it should be. But how do you prove it? A concert demonstrates the overall effectiveness of the teacher/conductor, but it does not prove individual ensemble participant improvement.

OrchestraIf pro orchestra conductors were evaluated like HS music teachers…

Read the following as
instructions to the conductor.
NOTE: Official terms
and designations
intentionally altered in this article.

As you write your objectives, keep in mind that your Professional Orchestra objectives and your effectiveness as a conductor will be determined by your evaluator who, in your case, is the Police Chief. The data you present will affect your employment status and pay increase/decrease.


Read more ›

Posted in High Schools, Job Search, Music Performance, Personal experience, Teaching, Teaching Music Tagged with: , , ,

Double tongue technique for woodwind and brass instruments

Solo and Ensemble no frameBy John Gardner

My high school band was playing “Masque”, which has some fast articulation passages better played via double-tongue.  Below are some videos I also posted for my students. If you have better ones or others that you recommend, please send me the links. Thanks….enjoy….and let’s get better.




This next guy does a lot of detailed demonstration. Try to duplicate what you hear. Remember that you have a metronome on your iPad. The school portal provided Clock Pro includes a metronome. Then, I like one called SilverDial (free) because it also uses a flash option (for when you can’t quite hear the click).

SAXES and Double Tonguing. This Conservatory professor is really good, even if he does use Rico reeds. First minute is demo, then he talks through it. Good points.

CLARINETS. This guy is not a good presenter, in that he is obviously reading everything he says…..but he has a valid point to try….. to use da-da-da instead of ta-ta-ta. Not true double-tonguing, but a way to go faster.

FLUTES. She’s fast. Wow! Talks both double and triple tonguing. She has several videos and appears (and sounds) like she really knows her stuff and explains it well. Watch her videos on sound and vibrato also.

DOUBLE REEDS. Ok, this bassoonist is kinda boring and gives more historical data than you might want to hear, but then he has some good graphs of what happens on the inside of the mouth.

VMO Business Card

Posted in Teaching Music Tagged with: , ,

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