Playing an Instrument Like Driving a Car

Periodically, as the band is playing a new piece of music, they tend to put their focus on getting the right notes and maybe the right rhythm. Dynamics, key signature, accidentals, etc…… are often missed. Two quotes I use in situations like these:

“If the notes are on the paper it is your job to play ALL of them.”
and “Play EVERYTHING you see.”

And sometimes, especially with the younger band where many of the students are not yet driving, I will compare playing an instrument to driving a car.

“You want to turn the key, start the car and go…..
and hopefully, no one is coming up beside you;

You think you’re good as long as you stay on the road,
but what about how fast to drive, that school zone sign or crosswalk?

If you drive the way you’re playing, you’re dangerous,
you’ll hurt yourself, or someone else,
or you’ll get the cop’s attention and get a ticket.”

If time, I’ll go into some detail.

BEFORE STARTING THE CARYou fasten your seatbelt, adjust the seat and mirrors. Make sure you have your license. Put the key in the ignition. Do you have enough gas?BEFORE YOU PLAYCheck to ensure your instrument is ready; (reeds, valves or slide moving freely). Look at the music. Observe the tempo, time signature, key signature, dynamics — and listen to the conductor’s instructions.
AS YOU DRIVEMake sure it is clear to pull into traffic. Don’t just look straight ahead, check your mirrors. Watch for other traffic, watch for signs (speed limits, road curves, stop signs, traffic lights, railroad crossings, etc).AS YOU PLAYBe award of the others around you. Blend in. Watch the conductor. Note any accidentals, articulation, dynamic or tempo changes that come along. Follow the road maps; fermata, cesura, DS, DC, Coda, repeat, etc.

Some additional comparisons during the rehearsal might include:

Wrong note/accidental – You hit that pothole

Missed cesura – You ignored the railroad crossing and got hit by the train

Dynamics / tempo changes – You missed that curve in the road sign and just crashed

Have you ever watched someone learning to drive? They are super cautious and focused on everything. Pretend like you’re learning to play this piece and focus on ALL the details.

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Dr. William Revelli

William Revelli was a legendary Director of Bands at the University of Michigan for decades. I didn’t know that when he stepped on the podium to rehearse the high school clinic band I was in at the Morehead State University. There were six bands. I was in the top (Honor) band and had earned the first chair. That was a pretty big deal — and so was he.

Two remembrances of that Honor Band experience. These are the only two things I remember. I can’t tell you what we played or anything else. But these made a lasting imprint.

At precisely the start time for the rehearsal, Dr. Revelli stepped onto the podium, introduced himself, pointed to two empty chairs and asked that they be removed. Some of us could see the two girls walking quickly toward the stage via the auditorium isle. When they got the the stage, Revelli asked what they were doing.

“We’re in this band.”

“No. You’re not. There are no more chairs.”

“What are we supposed to do?”

“Go tell someone to put you in a different band.
My rehearsal has already started.”

And then, he turned to ME and asked me to stand. He asked my name and turns to the band and introduces me as their Concert Master. And then, he asked me to play a tuning note. I did.

After a pause, he asks me to play it again. I did.

“No, play the same note you played the first time.”
(He was saying I didn’t match my first pitch.)

“I can do that.”, said the 4th chair clarinet guy

“No, you cannot. You are not the Concert Master.”

And then, rehearsal proceeded.

Is this what is coming?

Is this what’s coming? This teacher, who had this student two years prior (as a female) was now to use masculine pronouns. He did use the new legal name. But because he wouldn’t agree to say he (even in the absence of saying any pronoun), and because he apparently ‘slipped up a couple times’, he was terminated. So far, I’ve had one transgender student in a class. I had no problem with the new name and don’t ever remember using pronouns at all — either way. But…. I didn’t have this student for three years with a new identity in the third. I struggle sometimes calling people by the right name anyway. If they start changing them…


Music Teacher Unreasonable (?) Expectations

Three things prompted this post:

  1. The Meme (below) about putting students on a stage, because….
  2. Our Christmas Concerts are next Fri/Sat, and
  3. A recent discussion involving music teachers and an administrator

In a recent Professional Development event discussion involving middle and high school music teachers and an administrator, one of the question prompts had to do with what we expect from our students. The admin was mildly surprised when the nearly immediate response from multiple music teachers was – 100%. I saw him write that response in his notes.

But it is true. I’ve shared this video before, but it is a good demonstration of our level of expectation from our students. In a math or english class, for example, if you miss one out of one hundred, that is still a high ‘A’. When this director gives everyone in the band the opportunity to miss one (only one) note, you can hear the tragedy. Then he goes for the second note, which would still be a high ‘A’ in any other class.

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Why are YOU (and me) here?

Why are you (and me) here?

This was a presentation I prepared in case there was timing and appropriateness for it at the Fall 2018 Marching Band Banquet, which was scheduled shortly after my birthday. There was not….so I expanded my outline to what I would have said…..


Nothing quite like a birthday to make you feel older, right? You know how you hear from people via social media on your birthday. Cheaper than birthday cards, right? This past October birthday was not THE big one, but was pretty close. I want to tell you about some people I heard from on social media and locally related to my age, and then ask (and answer) a couple questions.

He and I were good friends and fierce competitors in high school. He was 1st chair alto, I was first chair clarinet. He got 1st chair all-state. I got first chair all-state. The big drama going into our senior year band banquet was the discussion about which of us would get the “Most Outstanding Band Member” award. We went to different universities and both became band directors. He retired….and his one word birthday message to me was….


This guy was a trumpeter in my first school. He wrote,

“I recently retired. Why are YOU still there?”

And from one of YOU band parents, probably during a golf cart conversation earlier this summer, I heard,

“You’ll be retiring.”

Got me thinking…..

Why AM I still here?

Not because I MUST keep working. The Teacher Retirement wing of the State of Indiana says I’ve met the required qualifications. My financial guy says he’s ready when I am. For money and prestige? Hardly. Prior to this job, I was making more than 3x my current income and I was the president of a small, profitable corporation that employed a handful of full-time employees and up to a couple dozen part-time workers. I was the boss. Now I am the part-time help.

So why am I still here? – YOU!

But then, THAT got me thinking… Why are YOU here?

We ask you to move around quickly in heat and humidity on shiny, freshly applied, highly reflective blacktop. Also when it is windy, cold and wet. There was one week this Fall where the heat index on Tuesday was 95 and then 54 two days later. We invite a Marine recruiter to lead you in relay races carrying weighted ammo cans. You invest a couple HUNDRED hours in this all-weather sport. Then, in addition to three afternoons during the school week, we ask for several of your Friday nights and most of your Saturdays during September and October.

Why do you do this? For some, marching band provides some needed structure and discipline in your life. Maybe you’re here for the exercise. Or to keep you out of trouble. My first year here, the drum major was a senior. I got to know her well enough, apparently, that she came back to see me a few months after graduation to tell me two things:

  1. Marching Band kept me out of trouble in high school, and
  2. I’m pregnant (not by anyone connected with band)

Perhaps you’re here because of the friends and family atmosphere. There was a guy in one of our concert bands that the director and I thought could really benefit from marching band. We successfully encouraged him to join to fill a hole for the remainder of a season. When we distributed show shirts, he cried and said, “I’ve never been part of a group before.”

Whatever it is, we’re glad you’re here. You made us better than ever. You achieved Regional Gold for the first time since 2009 with the highest score since at least 2001. You earned the state music association’s All-Music Award for the second year in a row and for only the third time in school history. You missed the first in school history qualification for Semi-State … by 1 point.

If there are other reasons for your being here, I’d appreciate your sharing so I can add it to my list for future.

Now back to the first question, why am I here? To make that point, I need to share some personal history.

Because of my family situation, my prospects of getting to go to college to become a band director were not good. My parents got divorced when I was in 7th grade and that left my mother, a polio-survivor limited in types of work she would be able to do, to raise and mostly support five children. We never went hungry. We had what we needed, just not much extra.

Two men took a life-altering interest in me. The first was my band director. Realizing my family situation, he pulled me aside early in my high school career;

“I know you’re worried about college. You’re probably not going to get an academic scholarship and you’re definitely not getting one for athletics, but you are pretty good on that clarinet — and if you focus on that for the next four years, you can make music and that clarinet your ticket to college.”

He contacted a fellow band director who gave clarinet lessons. Among his students were the first chair clarinetists in two area bands. My band director approached him with the idea that I could be his third. The problem was, he was the most expensive teacher in the area and there was no way we could afford him.

Somehow, I got an invitation to “audition” for a spot in his studio.

I went to the man’s house and played for him. His resulting offer went something like this:

“You’re pretty good. I can help you. You can’t afford me. So I’ll make you a deal. I have a heart condition and am limited in the physical work I can do around my house. If you will cut my grass, shovel my snow and do any other odd jobs I need around the house, I will give you clarinet lessons until the day you show up here unprepared.”

I took the deal. He taught me to play every note, no matter how many they were, how fast they went or what key or articulation were required. He was the original source of my often used quote, “If the notes are on the paper, it is your job to play ALL of them.”

He taught me to aim high, go always for the first chair, because “the view is better from the first chair.” By the time he finished with me senior year, I had earned the first chair in the Kentucky All-State Orchestra, the top spot in the state. He did something for solo and ensemble contest that, at the time, I thought was really cruel.

His students included the first chair clarinets from Simon Kenton, Campbell County and Holmes high schools. He gave the three of us the same solo to take to festival.

That made for an interesting day at contest because now the three bands were unofficially competing.

The room was crowded when the girl from Simon Kenton performed. She got a Superior (I = highest) rating. It was more crowded when the girl from Campbell County performed. She also got a Superior. Then it was my turn and the pressure was on.

The room was packed an more standing in the hall. The structure of this particular piece was a Theme and Variations with piano interludes in between. My biggest strength was my technical proficiency and my biggest weakness was my endurance. As I’m standing, waiting for the go ahead to perform, the judge (the clarinet professor from Eastern Kentucky University) both scared me and caused me to focus on something other than the pressure of the crowd or the competition, saying:

“I don’t know that I have ever heard high school students play this piece — and this is going to be the third time I’ve heard it today. I’d like for you to skip the piano interludes. Just pause between variations and start the next one.”

Somehow I got through it. Two notable things. 1) The judge stood up for me when I finished, and 2) the score he put on my sheet was a “I+”, so I won. Yay.

The summer between high school and college, I earned the first chair of the “United States Collegiate Wind Band”, a group of high school and college musicians from twenty five state that toured Europe and the U.S.S.R. under the direction of Purdue’s Professor Al Wright.

I got to go to college on a full ride from the University of Kentucky. By second year in college I was first chair in the University Orchestra and had won the School of Music’s Concerto Competition.

Here’s what I’m getting at. My success in getting into college to pursue my dream was absolutely the result of these two men, my high school band director and clarinet teacher.

Because of them, one of my core life goals — is to do for some of you at least some of what they did for me. It is the motivation for my spending so much time and effort in trying to develop healthy, appropriate, trusting relationships. Sometimes it is hard to tell how I’m doing at that, although some of you (parents especially) have been very generous with your praise and appreciation. One of my favorite band parent quotes was,

“Thank you for believing in my [child].”

I do periodically hear from graduates and I’d like to summarize four of them for you…

[Girl #1] wrote me, years after graduation, to tell me that she realized that band was about more than just the music — and credited the things she learned in band with helping her get through med school. She has been a medical doctor and a school board president. All three of her children went through band.

[Guy #1] is a corporate pilot who gets to travel the world. He posted on social media a year or so ago, “Walking down the streets of Shanghai China, listening to ‘Belevia’ and remembering Mr. G.” Belevia was a piece of music we playing when he was in my high school band — nearly forty years ago.

[Guy #2] went through this high school band since I have been here. He was in a theory class with me and was a drum major. Last year he graduated college and is currently a middle school band teacher. His mother caught me in a grocery store isle and brought tears when she told me how much he had been influenced by some things I had said to him. Some of those were things I didn’t even remember saying.

And [Girl #2] was a freshman here my first year here. I zeroed in on her because of her obvious high work ethic and expectation of excellence. She got mad at band (I don’t think it was me personally) her senior year and went off to a college that didn’t offer a music degree. Feeling that was some sort of rebellion, I did try to keep in touch. We met 1-1 twice while she was in college. She transferred to another school, got her music degree and is currently a middle school band director. She wrote me a beautiful note thanking me for helping change a life.

Why am I here? Because some day, when you are looking back at who was a positive influence in your life — I WANT TO BE ON THAT LIST.

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e-Learning and Band Class

Prior to an official “e-learning” flex day, I made a post on social media. A parent (not of one of my students) responded and that got me thinking. A following from me is below. I’d appreciate your feedback. -John

My post:

I hope everyone takes tomorrow’s e-Learning day seriously, because: 1) If it is successful it becomes a way to make up snow days without adding make-up days to the spring break or end of year calendar, or 2) If it is NOT successful due to lack of participation and cooperation, we could lose the rest of our first spring break week (M-T-W are already gone) or go later at the end of the semester.

If only we could figure out how to have BAND REHEARSAL via e-Learning.


A parental response:

I would have thought that teachers would be opposed to this. I know some parents who are. E-learning means that a parent has to stay at home and monitor the student in their progress. We’ve been the homeschooling route. It was not as good as a hands-on in person teacher taught education. After a substantial amount of research, I will pose this question: If e-learning is the way of the future why do the wealthy creators of the technology send their children to technology-free schools?


My response to parent

Not all teachers, parents or students are in agreement on e-learning. We don’t know enough yet. It is a lot of additional work for the teacher to make up these lessons. Teachers will need to either bank some lessons, or create them from home after a 5:40 am decision to close for the day. Some teachers teach the same subject all day. In Band, we have 5 completely different classes, so that would not be easy to do on the fly.


From the band perspective, we didn’t volunteer to give up today’s potential rehearsal toward next week’s Christmas Concert. We lost last Friday to fog, today to e-learning and part of this coming Friday to a school convocation. But the community will expect (as do we) a high degree of excellence in performance. We don’t get to put a note in the program to excuse our wrong notes due to missing school. We like being in front of our students and interacting with them collectively and individually. I love teens and agree with you on that point.


The eventual purpose of e-learning is to allow schools an alternative to tacking make-up days on the end-of-the-year calendar. We had five snow-makeup days built into this year’s calendar and have already committed three of them. Once we go past five we can use e-learning to make up some additional instead of adding to the end of the year. For one thing, we can now publish a date for graduation instead of waiting to see if it will have to be postponed (it has been) due to makeup days.


The parental supervision on a snow day would be the same as on an e-learning day. Today was an exception because this was a practice run — for all of us….to find out what works and what needs additional tweaking. I think we have another practice run in January. No doubt there will be plenty of facebook posted comments.


At the high school, since most teachers use Canvas to post assignments, students home sick or out for extended periods of time can make up their work in an e-learning environment already in use.


Your technology question is excellent and I don’t have a definite answer or position on that. Some of the pure goals of using technology in schools include developing research and collaborative skills and to become familiar with types of technology that are becoming more and more common in the workplace. In the Music Dept we allow students to use their computers to record themselves playing assignments. I can listen to a playing assignment from a class of 60 students in about an hour. Done live (bringing each student into the office to listen and critique them) would take over a week of class time. Yesterday we used a program called Smartmusic to project auto-generated sight-reading exercises on the big screen for the class to read/play together. We will use that same software next semester to enable students to practice a piece of concert band music that he/she can follow on screen and have the software help analyze mistakes. We use to teach and practice music theory and aural skills. For the band department, today’s e-learning assignment utilized that software. Students are assessed instantly online and then they send us a code that tells us how they did. We periodically record or video a music selection for students to hear online and demonstrate their critical listening skills via computer and Canvas. Used properly, Canvas enables the parent to see the student’s ongoing progress vs waiting for report cards to come out. Is it always properly used? Absolutely not.


The downsides to technology in its current use are also significant. Primarily that not all teachers are utilizing it and students can (and do) misuse it.


I understand the technology-free schools, but that can be the other extreme. One son is homeschooling (Grades, K,2,4) without (much) technology. My other son teaches in what has been described as the “Best High School in America”. Tuition is $53,000/yr and they definitely serve a component of extremely wealthy families. Since he is in the news, I’ll point out that several in the Bush family [Herbert Walker, George and Jeb] all attended that school. Anyway, they “allow” technology but don’t focus on it.


Wow. Thanks for making me think through some of that. I hope several comment on this discussion because I think it is a good one. Thanks for your contribution.


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Solo and Ensemble Contest Prep: Scoresheet Categories

By John Gardner

Solo and Ensemble no frameMusic students from my school participate in ISSMA (Indiana State School Music Association) sanctioned solo and ensemble district and state level competitions. ISSMA copyrights their judging forms.

Many categories for solo contests are fairly universal, and as a template for the categories I will use here, I have selected categories posted on a high school site outside Indiana. For each category; the title and considerations are copied, the comments are mine.


Accuracy to printed pitches.

In Solo performance, are you in tune with the piano (or the recorded accompaniment)? You should tune carefully before you begin, both to check intonation and to ensure the instrument is ready to go, especially if you have been waiting for a while. No instrument is completely “in tune”, i.e. tuning one note is not enough. You need to know what notes or octaves have what tendencies on your instrument and adjust accordingly. Flutes can roll in/out to help, trumpets have a 3rd valve slide and all brass instruments have alternate fingerings to compensate for typically out of tune notes (especially 1 & 3 valve combinations). Trombones are almost without excuse, right? Otherwise, you can bend your pitch up or down by adjusting your embouchure — or by using alternate key combinations. Practice with a tuner to determine which notes are in/out of tune. If you study privately, hopefully your teacher is helping you with the lesser-known key combinations and techniques as you strive for a higher level performance.

In Ensemble performance, try to tune before going into the performance room, but take the necessary time to get it right before you start. If the last sound the judge hears before you start is noticeably out of tune, you are in trouble in this category.


Resonance, control, clarity, focus, consistency, warmth.

Tone is influenced and affected by many factors; instrument, mouthpiece, reed, and performer. If you have a step-up instrument and/or a better mouthpiece than the one that came with your 6th grade year instrument, then you should have some equipment help in tone production. But a good musician can make even lesser quality equipment sound good, while a poor musician can fail to produce what the equipment will allow. In other words, it is more than just the equipment — the judge is judging YOU!

Vibrato will likely be considered here for those instruments that are, at least at the higher levels, expected to play longer tones and melodic sections with a warm, controlled vibrato, typically oboes, bassoons, flutes, saxes, trumpets, trombones and baritones. French horns and clarinets generally are not expected to use vibrato.

Resonance, control, clarity, focus, consistency, warmth….all go to the currently accepted tone for your instrument. The best way, even if you are studying privately but especially if you are not, is to LISTEN to professional recordings. Online videos can be helpful, but some of those are posted by people not better trained or farther advanced than you. Resonance implies a deep, full, reverberating sound vs one that is weak and tentative. Is yours controlled or does it change drastically per octave or when you have skips of large intervals? When I think of clarity, I want to hear the instrument and not the reed, tone without fuzziness or buzziness. Consistency requires control. When someone talks of warmth, I think of a full flavored soft-drink or coffee vs something watered down. Warmth implies some emotional involvement (more below) in your sound.


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’.

Is 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.

TECHNIQUE (facility/accuracy): 

Artistry, attacks, releases, control of ranges, musical/mechanical skill.

A question I’m often asked in a playing test setting where the student is going to be graded on how he/she plays something is; “How fast should I play it?” My answer is always,

As fast as you can play it accurately.

Facility speaks to how quickly or effortlessly you can play something, to your mechanical skill. Are you up to tempo on a technical passage or are you slowing it down so you can get all the notes. Balanced with facility is accuracy. If you slow it down and get it right, the judge might ding you a little on facility but should credit you on accuracy. The opposite is not true, however. If you play at tempo and miss lots of notes, you have demonstrated a lower level of both facility and accuracy. For the highest credit, practice it slowly, get it right, the gradually speed it up (with a metronome) to tempo. Accurately at tempo is the goal.

Is it better to play it slower and accurately, or at tempo and miss some notes?

Judge response: If you want MY highest rating, play it correctly at tempo.

Two terms above go together; artistry and musical skill. Have you interacted with Siri on the iPhone? That is a mechanical voice. Failure to demonstrate artistry or musicianship (musical skill) would be like listening to someone who speaks in a monotone, or someone who writes without any capitalization or punctuation. Similarly to the impact of a well-delivered preacher’s sermon, politician’s speech or orator’s dramatic reading, your artistry will affect your audience…and the judge.

When it comes to attacks and releases, most attack better than they release. Work at both. In a slower, melodic passage, can you start the note on pure air minus the tongue, or at least get the sound started without the sound of the articulation? Sometimes thinking of a football can work with a picture of how sound (or phrases) begin and end. Don’t start with a thud and don’t end with a chop off. Sometimes you need the tongue to stop the sound, but ending with the air is preferred.

Do you struggle with low notes on a saxophone or high notes on a trumpet or clarinet? Or any instrument? That is about consistency and control. It is more than just blowing and wiggling fingers. Can you maintain a dynamic level as you change octaves? A clarinet descending from high to low actually needs more air at the lower levels to maintain the same volume. Do you have some notes that pop out? That demonstrates a lack of control.

Record yourself using a computer device (such as iPad free app “Recorder Plus HD”) that shows your recording level. When you review, look for sudden peaks or valleys in volume… Sometimes you can get a visual of control issue.

And notice that, with this judging sheet category, “note accuracy” is assumed rather than mentioned. Playing right notes is the minimum of any performance and if that is all you do, you should expect a mediocre rating or result. In a previous article, I likened this minimal notes-only approach to driving a car and staying on the road while avoiding the other signs along the way.

Interpretation: Musicianship

Style, Phrasing, Tempo, Dynamics, Emotional Involvement

There is a lot of overlap in these categories. Interpretation involves HOW you play WHAT you play. Are you in the style of the piece. Trills and grace notes in a Mozart piece are different from those from more recent composers. The style of a rondo is different from that of an intermezzo. When it comes to phrasing, are you adding fluctuation to the sound? Is it going somewhere? Is there a beginning, a peak and an end to a phrase? Do you play the way you speak? Phrasing can also include articulation (next category) and dynamics. Just as tempo was a part of fluency and accuracy described earlier, it is also part of interpretation. If you play a technical concerto by Mozart or Weber and you take the allegro section at half tempo to get the notes right, you have mis-interpreted the tempo.


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

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.


Performance Factors

Choice of literature, appropriate appearance, poise, posture, general conduct, manerisms, facial expression. 

I wrote an article about selecting literature. Read it….

Choice of literature: Demonstrate your strengths, hide your weaknesses. If you struggle some with rhythms, have trouble with fast passages, perhaps you should choose a slower piece. If you struggle with vibrato, don’t select the slow, melodic romantic-style ballad.

Appropriate appearance has nothing to do with your beauty or your weight. If you go to a job interview that would require you working in a business office and you arrive in jeans with holes and a t-shirt advertising an alcoholic beverage, you start with the wrong impression. Most solo/ensemble festivals will accept clean casual. Understand that most of the judges are college professors, where their performers are often required to wear tuxes and formals. Don’t shock them. If you come to the performance room looking like you have dressed for success, that you are showing respect for the judge, the audience and the event, you will earn credit in this area.

Poise and posture. Look like a performer. If standing, consider having both feet flat on the floor. If sitting, move forward on the chair with both feet on the floor. Poise includes the idea of selling both yourself and what you are doing. A college professor was advising a modest, yet talented musician and explained it this way:

Humility is a virtue. It is okay to be meek and mild….UNTIL you put that [instrument] in your hands and walk out onto that stage. THEN I want you to be an arrogant, confident, mean son-of-a-[band parent]. Take the stage. Command and control the audience.

My college professor told me to…

…make them stand up.

General conduct / manerisms, facial expression. Avoid toe tapping. Don’t grimace when you make a mistake. You’re in the spotlight and everything is important.

This is generally a catch all category and judges can use it to give you a higher rating here than maybe they were able to on other areas. This should be the category in which everyone can do well.



Respecting, Preparing For and Appreciating your Pianist


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Halloween 2018

I enjoy Halloween. Most of it. Gets a little expensive, but the kids are cute. Several parents dressed up. Yay! Most kids were very polite. Some of the older ones were even friendly. Good for you. The teens were impressive. They must have good parents and/or teachers. The out of town van fills showed up. Twice the street was car/truck blocked in front of our house – 3 across in the middle of the street. Saw a few bandsters. Missed getting a pic. Two parents really got me. One was a mom who tells dad to go to get the candy cause the kid is asleep in the stroller. Nope. Doesn’t work that way. The other was a mom trying to convince a screaming toddler to come get candy. Kid screams nooo. Overall a better show of decent parenting than some years. We had enough candy this year. Maybe band candy tomorrow (?).

Individualized Music Coaching: Why, When, Where, With Whom, How Often and How Much?

Treble CleffBy John Gardner

Dear music student,

There is only so much that can be done within the large ensemble setting. The director must focus on the total sound and can find it difficult to use rehearsal time for significant individual technique teaching. And besides, your director is a specialist on at least one instrument, but probably not on every instrument.

When your director was in college, he/she had a crash course (called methods classes) on every instrument group. For example, a “Woodwind Methods” class will roate people every 2-3 weeks so that they can experience most instruments within that 12 week semester. Similarly with brass, percussion and strings methods classes, the idea is to give the student an overview (not an expertise) of every instrument so he/she can offer general instruction in ensemble class.

Why individualized coaching?

  • Your director is NOT a specialist on your instrument
  • You are BEHIND the ensemble and need some help catching up
  • You are AHEAD of the ensemble and need a challenge
  • You are considering music as a major in college

Studying with a specialist on your instrument is the fastest way to improve.  With individual instruction, you get all the attention for faster progress that others will notice.

What can I do with individualized instruction?

  • Develop solid fundamentals in embouchure, finger position, stick/mallet control and quality sound
  • Learn how to maintain your instrument, and select and care for reeds, mutes, etc.
  • Conquer major, minor, chromatic (and other scales and technical exercises), plus lip slurs, double-tonguing and other instrument specific skills
  • Advance technique with etudes and specialized studies
  • Become more familiar with music terms plus music history and theory
  • Use solos and duets to learn how to perform – and then perform
  • …and have a good time becoming a better musician

What can the coach do with and for me, now and in the future?

A music coach can help with…

  • Current band and audition music
  • Preparation or critique for a playing test — catching the things you might miss
  • Selecting and preparing solos and ensembles for competition
  • Recommendations and selection of step-up instruments
  • A coach who gets to know you well can be an influential mentor in more ways than just music. He/she can provide positive reinforcement, encouragement, direction and support as you progress and achieve
  • Advocating on your behalf when the time comes to apply for jobs, college admissions and scholarships. A common scholarship application question for your coach is: “How long have you known the applicant, in what capacity, and how well do you know him/her. You have most teachers for one year. A music teacher or private study coach can work with you for years…..and that is a good thing.

When, Where, How Often, How Much, and How?

When should I start?

It is never too soon, and never too late, but a late start can be problematic for music majors going to top rated schools. Beginners can get a good foundational jump start. Everyone can move faster and get better. Once a student has a serious desire to pursue music in college, it is really important to get some specialized training. Top rated schools will likely expect more than you can do on your own, even for admission. And then, depending on the size of the program, if inadequately prepared you can find yourself starting farther down the proficiency chain than you’d rather. You’ll be auditioning for scholarships, for participation in the top ensembles, for chair placement and even for the right to study with the top professor.

How often can be financially driven. Ideal is weekly, but even twice monthly can accomplish a lot. Any specialized help is better than none.

Where can I find a coach?

  • Ask your teacher. If you just need a little help with your music, the director should be able to do that….or maybe he/she can have another student help. For higher level or more sustained study, if not qualified or comfortable doing it, he can help in your search. 
  • The local college music department may have a music major who would be thrilled to utilize some of that music ed training. And they should not be very expensive. Studying with the college professor can be significantly more expensive, but you are getting a higher level of expertise as well.
  • Music stores often maintain a list of private teachers in the area. They know if you are studying privately that they have a better chance of selling you a step up instrument.
  • Professional orchestra musicians. Similarly to college teachers, this offers you a high level of expertise. Once consideration, however….. these are often musicians who are amazing players but not always as good at telling you how to do what they are doing. I know of one instance where a college, utilizing a professional as an adjunct, had to sever the relationship because of unacceptable teaching methods and communication.
  • Summer music camps usually offer some lessons with the professor at the college where the camp is being held.
  • Remote (visual, virtual, vs personal on site) instruction. If you live in a rural area, the above options may not be available. There are people (like me) who can utilize Skype or some other method to offer professional help. Once you get past the potential creepiness of someone watching via camera your face or fingers, it can be a very effective tool. Other than the slight delay that makes playing duets unrealistic, you should consider it. Be sure to check references, have the parent or teacher involved in at least the initial contact, and utilize this powerfully effective internet tool.

=====> Virtual Music Lessons or Critique <=====

How much will it cost? I am writing from Northeast Indiana. Locally the going rate is about $15 for a 30-45 minute lesson. To study with a member of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra (nearest professional group), the rate can be about $40 for an hour.

What if I can’t afford it? Ask for help. There are sometimes community organizations that will help. In the past handful of years, I have had underwriters sponsor a student for a period of time, helped students win local scholarships for lessons, and negotiated special arrangements with teachers. In multiple cases, once parents have realized the improvement and excitement, they find a way to justify or to pay for continued training. In an article called Excellence and Self Esteem, I include a description of my high school clarinet teacher, including how I couldn’t afford to study with him and the solution he offered. I had help when I was in high school and am always looking for ways to help others as well. And most teachers will want to work with a student who wants to work hard. Never give up!


Hope this helps. Let me know if I can help.

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Trust: Today I failed.

This is a re-post – not a current event. I try hard to build, earn and enjoy healthy, appropriate, trusting relationships with students. I want them to be comfortable coming to me — and I think most are. About anything. Yes. I want to believe what they tell me — and try to. I’m not so naive to think that I’ve never been lied to, but I’m willing to take that chance by trusting first — and until I can’t. Through the years that I’ve taught, I think I’ve done pretty well most of the time. Today I failed.

I’ve written about this before =====> “I WANT to trust you. I WANT to believe you. I WANT to say ‘Yes’. I WANT you to be truthful with me and I’M willing to take the first reasonable risk. The danger, for me then, is that some people are so accustomed to saying what is convenient at the moment (situational ethics?) that they do that with ME (automatically or intentionally – doesn’t matter) …..and I get burned, disappointed, even hurt. Why do I take it so personally? I wish I didn’t, but I do.”

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