10 Ways for Adults to Make A Difference in Teen Lives

By John Gardner

Large group of smiling friends staying together and looking at camera isolated on blue backgroundTeen years can be trying times.  Parents may be fighting, separating, dating and remarrying, which means the teen now has to not only deal with a break up of a foundation in his/her life, but often now has to live in multiple households. Some have to adjust to step-siblings, job losses, financial struggles and more.

Then, there are the complexities of school with seemingly unending pressures to perform, trying to get through the dating games, often without an anchor or example to follow. Influenced by increasingly negative social standards, or lack of standards….. teens can get caught in the rise and falling tides.

Most learn how to negotiate life’s trying currents, but can turn the wrong way, make a miscalculation or poor decision — and find themselves high and dry on the beach…..and they need help. Not every student needs, wants or will accept a teacher’s help. Sometimes the teacher’s effort is both unappreciated and unsuccessful.

But try we must…because we CAN make a difference “to THAT one“.

Teens will listen if they respect and trust. Trust is one of the most valuable mentoring requirements.

Teens will listen if they respect and trust. Trust is one of the most valuable mentoring requirements.

Ten ways to make a difference:

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Posted in Communication, High Schools, Parenting, Public Schools, Teaching, Teaching Music Tagged with: , , , ,

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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Posted in College Prep, High Schools, How May I Serve YOU?, Music Department, Music Performance, Parenting, Solo Prep, Teaching Music Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Everything I Need To Know I Learned In Band, Part 1

Everything I Needed To Know in MB

by John Gardner

Searching at home for a book, I discovered a 1989 edition of Robert Fulghum’s book, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.

What an easy read of short, humorous, 2-3 page stories of events most can remember or associate with. I suspect 25th edition, available on Amazon addresses more from the cellular, computer and social media worlds.

Reading, I started thinking – two things, actually. First, that I agree with Fulghum’s Sunday school sandbox list, because much of what is eternally important, anyway, I learned in Sunday school. For the purpose of this article, however, I ask,

“Wouldn’t it be fun to have our very own list of life lessons learned in marching band?”

There are some marching band lists published, but most are specific, or include specific school or director names. After you read what I found on the back of the book cover and consider some guidelines, then GO with it – and have fun!

Here’s what is on the back cover, unedited:

Most of what I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sandpile at Sunday school. These are the things I learned:

Share everything.
Play fair.
Don’t hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life-learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
Be aware of wonder.

True, right?

What are some things you learned in band? Include marching, concert, pep or jazz bands, orchestras – from anywhere and any time. I am looking for honest encouragement, sarcastic humor and anything that is clean, fun and does not attack an individual or group. No names. It can be a specific instance as long as it would be understandable and appropriate for a general audience. Consider or elaborate on things like:

  • What happens on the bus… (confessions – anyone?)
  • Band parents are… (like parents, only better?)
  • When band directors say, “One more time”, what they really mean is…
  • Color Guard people need a bigger bubble on the field (like that time when the flag caught the trombone slide and flung it across the field in competition performance)
  • You really can’t go 10 yards in 3 steps (or can you?)
  • Warm water tastes great during a 95 degree rehearsal
  • Sun screen…
  • Things go better when everyone is on the same team
  • Wearing uniforms every week reinforces the need for showers and deodorant…

Parents, what have YOU learned in marching band?


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Posted in High Schools, Marching Band, Music Department, Public Schools, Teaching, Teaching Music Tagged with: , , , , ,

3 Scholarship Strategies That Worked for Me and Mine

By John Gardner

Dollar SignIt used to be that “March Madness” meant more than just basketball. The school would emphasize the mostly local scholarships that would be awarded and presented on “Achievement Night” toward the end of the school year. There is still a push in mid-spring, but the local Guidance Department now organizes scholarships by application due date and there is clearly a newer emphasis on working at the scholarship process throughout the (mostly) senior year.

As a high school teacher, I encourage students to go after all the scholarships available and too often hear responses like…

As a high school teacher, too often I hear variations of…..

“Everybody applies for that one.”“I don’t have the highest grades,
so what’s the point?”
“I’ll fill it out,
but I’m not going to spend
a lot of time on it.”

The PURPOSE of this post is to ENCOURAGE students (and parents) to implement 3 strategies as you go through “scholarship season”.

STRATEGY #1: Work harder and smarter. COMPETE to BEAT the competition.

My son David was applying for a “Fellowship” at the University of Pennsylvania, where he completed his PhD. A fellowship is similar to a ‘scholarship’ with generally bigger dollars. A fellowship is usually more like funding for a job. It would pay for a semester of teaching two Penn classes and a semester of research for his dissertation.

“The fellowship’s description clearly favored someone with 1 yr less experience than me. Knowing that, all things being equal, the fellowship would go to someone else, I determined to make sure things were not equal.

I devoted an entire week toward preparing my application. I knew few would spend that much time or commit that level of energy. Apparently it worked as they went outside their target group to pick me.”

Half way through his undergrad experience at Duke, David won a $32,000 scholarship for college expenses, including travel to potential grad schools.

Compete confidently.


In high school, he won a scholarship from the local ABWA (Women’s Association), whose literature said they give “preference” to a girl, but did not exclude guys. Also a $4000 from a Catholic organization even though he is not Catholic.

“I read the criteria for every scholarship.
If not specifically excluded, I applied.

There was a time during Spring Semester of high school senior year that our living room had numerous ‘stacks’ representing different scholarships. His attitude that scholarship season was that it was his ‘part-time job’ and he intended to make more money doing that than he would have made at a fast food restaurant job. He did.

Make scholarships worth your time and effort.


There is money out there. Part of the battle is finding it. Your high school Guidance Department probably has a listing. Here is a page from a local school Guidance Department page.

Scholarship providers are looking for LOTS of things, and grades are not always at the top of the list. They want achievers. Extracurricular involvement and community service indicate that you are a responsible person. Good reference letters from teachers are valuable. Hopefully you have cultivated and earned strong teacher advocates. Sometimes financial need is a factor. Memorial scholarships often focus on students pursuing particular majors.

Read about
How to get Good Reference Letters

Demographics can matter. There have been at least three people from our local high school accepted to a particular top-tier university in recent years. This school tends to attract students from wealthy east coast boarding schools — and from overseas…..but in trying to change that reputation/perception, some local students benefited. For example, they wanted to increase the percentage of white, public school mid-westerners in their “community”. Sometimes engineering schools want more girls while education departments may want more guys. As you write essays and complete applications, focus on and market your strengths. You are, after all, asking for someone to “buy you”. Why should they?

Going after scholarships can feel like the ice skater learning how to do the quad. They fall down and get hurt a lot before you see them nail it on TV. Go for the good scholarships. Go for all you can. Go hard. And don’t give up.

Dream, Focus, Follow and Never Give Up

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Posted in College Prep, High Schools, Parenting, Repost, Teaching Tagged with: ,

How to Write a Student Reference Letter

A former student who is now a 2nd year teacher contacted me about needing to write a student recommendation letter and asked if I had a template or something I could share.


referencesUse school letterhead when possible.

Address “To whom it may concern:”, scholarship committee or a name. 

P1. Either Re [Name]: or a sentence with student’s formal name, how you know and for how long. I usually then add a few sentences of personal experiences/observations related to my class.

P2. Grades, grade point, other school activities, school honors.

P3. Involvement outside of school, volunteerism, youth group, clubs, leagues.

P4. Summary: respected by teachers and peers, friend choices, makes good decisions, I trust, etc. Level of recommendation

  • Highest
  • Without reservation

Close w offer to answer questions or offer clarification.
Sign with title and contact information.

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

Excellence and Self Esteem

By John Gardner

I have been conflicted for years on the proper educationally correct balance between helping students feel good about themselves….and encouraging achievement by encouraging and expecting excellence.

In a scholarly paper entitled, “Self-Esteem and Excellence: The Choice and the Paradox“, Barbara Lemer compares the strategies of creating intellectual stimulation with a climate of high self-esteem vs the argument that a child’s self-esteem can withstand criticism of shortcomings in the quest of excellence against a set of standards.

On his “School for Champions” site, Ron Kurtus writes to students about The Importance of Striving for Excellence.

I came through a lot of “Old School” education, including techniques that could get a teacher in trouble today. But, for me….it worked. And so…the conflict.

My high school band director…

…recently retired after decades as the Director of Bands at a major university, did not care about our self-esteem. He never told us we were good and only commented that we were years after we were all gone from that place (see video and comment below). One of the few comments in a marching band rehearsal ever directed specifically at me was,

“Gardner, you march like a cow.”

So much for my personal self-esteem. I didn’t need to feel good about myself, I needed to improve my performance.

Toward the end of a competition once, as we were watching the bands that followed us, he pointed to one individual (fortunately not me) and said,

“If we lose this contest, it is YOUR fault.”

That one was harsh. I can’t imagine how that student would have felt. Fortunately we won.

He never told us we were an inner-city school, never said that we were under-privileged or under-funded. He never compromised when he demanded that every clarinet student acquire a top-line, pro-level Selmer Series 10 clarinet. No excuses. No exceptions. I sold lemonade on the local golf course and made a 50-50 deal with my dad to acquire mine.

At any moment, he would ask us to play a section of music in front of the band and, if less than perfect, he was brutal. Did we increase personal practice out of a search for excellence — or out of fear? Bottom line: we practiced and got better. Tell me the goal again.

Did it work? In terms of Achievement, yes. During my Freshman and Sophomore years, we never, ever lost a competition. We never got less than a “superior” rating in concert band festivals. When it came to All-State Band, our inner-city bandsters held the 1st chair positions for Flute, Clarinet, Alto Sax, Trumpet, French Horn, Baritone, Tuba and Percussion. Our concert band played at both a KMEA (KY) and MENC (National) music educator conventions.

We felt good about ourselves because we were good. Our self-esteem was the result of excellence, not encouragement. Is that wrong?

The most devastating comment soon to be Dr. Director ever made to me, a few years later when I met him at a collegiate conference, was….

“I was wrong.”

During the process of getting his doctorate (and during my college years of music education training), the prevailing theory became that creating good self-esteem was paramount, Self concept trumped both excellence and achievement. Was that the beginning of educational deterioration?

Here’s a YouTube video of the 1969 Holmes HS Band at the “Contest of Champions” in Murfreesboro, TN. Years later, this major mentor said,

“That was as close to perfection of any of my high school performances.”

Here’s a picture of his college band:

My high school clarinet teacher…

…was a high school band director at one of the communities outside the city. He taught private clarinet lessons and my band director wanted me to study with him….but there was no way we could afford his rate. My band director convinced him to give me an “audition” to be in his studio. My mother drove me to his house, I played the simple piece I had taken to 8th grade solo contest, and he responded with:

“You’ve got potential. I can make you a better, but we both have a problem. You can’t afford me while I, however, have a bad heart and cannot cut my grass, shovel my snow or rearrange my furniture.  If you ware willing to do those things for me, I will teach you until the day you show up here unprepared. Do we have a deal?”

He could have “given” me lessons by enabling me to “earn” them, he enhanced my self-esteem while enhancing my chances for achieving excellence. Would a “deal” like that be considered abusive today?  Actually, I’ve tried. No takers. Sad.

Roden was teaching the 1st chair clarinetists from three area schools. When it came time for senior year Solo Contest, he gave all three of us the same piece of music. His focus was not on helping each of us feel good…but rather, to play that piece of music better than the other two. You can read more about that story, along with the outcome, in “Four Influential Men“.

My college clarinet professor

As decision-time for college approached, I had two full ride offers from schools where I had participated in clinics and summer camps; Eastern Kentucky University and Morehead State University. My clarinet teacher recommended a different school/teacher and I took his advice.

Dr. Miller drove 70 miles to my high school to audition me. I performed that flashy contest piece from solo contest that resulted in a standing ovation from the judge and a I++ rating. When I finished, I pompously waited for the praise. Instead, I witnessed a man in pain, pulling on his short beard, trying to think of words that would inspire me to choose his school, right? After a pause that seemed like an eternity, he finally offered this dated comment…

“Not bad. Flashy, but NASA can teach monkeys how to wiggle their fingers. What else can you do.?”

Those hour-long 1-1 lessons each week were about survival. I recall sitting outside his office waiting for the person before me to finish. When the door opened, an excellent clarinetist came out of the room crying, took the reed off her horn and smashed it up against the wall as I heard him call out from inside the room, “NEXT”!

He did teach me how to play better. I accomplished a lot during college. But during my final semester, when he finally realized that I really was going to do the “education” thing and spend time student teaching, one of his parting comments to me;

“I wasted four years of my life on you.”

But now that I am a teacher…

…I find that I am not willing to talk to students that way. Actually, I probably would be fired for doing so.

Today it would be educationally incorrect (and probably unacceptable) to require a student to stand with arms outstretched parallel to the ground for ten minutes, or to do laps around the field (1 per each minute tardy) or push ups for making a mistake. Today we must make exceptions and allowances for the nearly 30% of the student population with IEP’s. To ask a student to play a part in front of everyone in the ensemble….oh my. It is okay that your instrument is a piece of junk, or that your parents won’t “give” you the money for individualized coaching. After all, I can’t say anything to forceful or you’ll drop the class or quit the lessons. What if you’re on medication? What if I missed a condition in the book of IEP’s? What if your parents call the school?

Not too long ago, I read an article (sorry, having trouble finding it again) that seemed to support my pre-IEP, pre-Self-Esteem-is-everything approach to education.

“…students should experience Self-Esteem as a result of Excellence Achievement.”

I would modify that slightly. ACHIEVING excellence may not represent reality for everyone, but everyone can STRIVE for excellence.

What do YOU think?

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Respect, Preparation and Appreciation for your Pianist

by John Gardner

January is a month that often includes preparation for solo festival. Many will have an opportunity to practice with an accompanist, perhaps a new experience.

Solo and Ensemble no frameAs instrumentalists, you should realize how long it takes to learn to play piano with the level of proficiency required to accompany your solo. Some pianists have invested thousands in private instruction and college educations. They are proficient at their craft just like an electrician, plumber, mechanic….or a teacher, professor, attorney or doctor. We are fortunate to have pianists willing to work with you. They deserve your respect, your preparation and your appreciation. This note should serve as a guide in working with your pianist.

Your accompanist will 1)spend time practicing your music, 2) spend time and expense coming to school to practice with you, 3) sacrifice part of an evening to help you in our practice recital, and 4) spend over half a day traveling to the contest site and performing with you at District. Group 1 Music is significantly more difficult AND… if you get GOLD at District, your accompanist is then committed to additional practice time and a whole day of time and expense travelling to Indianapolis.

RespectMost pianists will coach you with their expert advice. Unless they suggest something that conflicts with your private instructor’s instructions, accept their advice as authoritative.

PrepareDo NOT dis-respect your pianist’s time by not being prepared. You can’t be perfect, but you can be prepared.

Appreciate. Pianists don’t accompany for the big bucks, but some some rely on this as part of his/her income. Unless you have a different arrangement with your particular accompanist, consider an appropriate amount [locally we suggest @$25 min] to cover preparation, about two practices and performance (including recital) through District, and then a respectable amount to cover the additional time, and expense for state finals. Agree in advance with your pianist, including payment terms. And a thank you card is a nice touch…..

Thank you card dark


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

10+ Values Show Choir Students Learn

Choir Treble ClefBy John Gardner

See Teens At Their Best

This is a followup article to, “14+ Ways To Volunteer For A Show Choir To Help Teens Sing Their Hearts Out“, which focused on ways to share your talents and abilities and experience the youthful, enthusiastic atmosphere around a show choir during competition season. It is also a re-tooling of the article, “10+ Values Marching Band Students Learn“, with THIS article’s focus on values show choir students learn.

Show choir competitions can involve two dozen groups with two thousand students with nothing resembling the level of supervision in a high school before or after school or as classes change. For the most part, choir parents and the directors are the only ones with direct oversight….. and after a performance, most students are free to roam the building or move freely in and out of the performance areas as they mix and mingle.

In costume, before a performance, you’ll see focused faces as students prepare to do what they are there to do. You might see them move quietly, in lines or couples, from their homeroom to warm-up to performance.

Show choir students learn dedication, commitment and
that striving for excellence is a worthy goal.


Show choir operations are very structured with responsibility and accountability. There are seniors, section leaders, dance captain(s), staff, directors (where do I put parents in this list) all with authority over the ensemble student. They understand the ‘why’ of the structure – and they comply.

Show choir students learn the value of,
and respect for chain of command


Unlike a basketball team with its starting five, there is no bench in show choir. Everybody is in. Everybody is a starter. Few other types of groups will involve people from such varied backgrounds. There are children of doctors and lawyers performing with children of single-parents working multiple jobs or utilizing government help. There are the students who have their own cars and those who need rides, those with the iPhones and the free phones or no phone. You will find students from every church in the community and others who have never been inside a church. And yet, with all these differences, when they are in costume (actually, even before they dress)…..they are all on the same team, all equal. A good result requires the best from everyone. Students learn teamwork and cooperate with those outside their friend circle.

Show choir students learn to
cooperate and collaborate
with those from different
backgrounds and capabilities.


Go to a Show Choir competition and watch students cheer and applaud for good performances of other groups, including those with whom they compete. You’ll see them wishing each other good luck, especially when a group is transiting through the pre-performance stages and passing others who have either already performed or have a while yet to go.

Show choir students learn good sportsmanship.


Show choir is not a normal class-only choir activity. Unlike a marching band, which has about two full weeks of all day rehearsals prior to the start of school in the fall, show choirs are generally learning their shows during the late fall and early winter months in rehearsals that often start after school, go through the dinner hour (group meal in the hallway) and into the later evening – PLUS Saturdays. Some rehearse over the holiday break.

Show choir students learn to commit, persevere and endure.


You’ll see both excited and disappointed students as the results are announced, but they will display professionalism many adults would be good to observe and learn from.

Show choir students learn that there are no shortcuts to success.


Many students, probably for the first time in any significant way, are given tasks and responsibilities and held accountable for them. The choir student is responsible for maintaining outfits and accessories for rehearsals and transit to competitions. For dance captains, this is likely the first time with leadership, management and oversight responsibilities, including calling out a friend who os ‘out of line’.  At the end of a 4-yr career, graduating seniors will talk about how

show choir “taught them” responsibility and accountability.


Show choir students learn that they are individually important.

There is nowhere to hide in a show choir. All students are active participants. Specialized expert judges are evaluating vocal sound, the dancing, soloists, the backup ensemble, even the stage crew. Show choir students understand that a trained judge’s eye automatically goes to what is different; someone out of sync, out of formation, out of tune, and that an individual performance reflects on the total ensemble score.  Student leaders learn how to balance their role as a mentor and teacher/trainer for the newbie members, while also ensuring that even the newbies get up to speed in time for performance.
Students are trying to find their spots and make their moves in the routine. It is difficult to see the big picture from the stage, so there are directors or instructors watching from farther back (and sometimes higher up) who will adjust form and balance. Or perhaps it is to point out that an individual is not moving with others or extending, smiling, focusing, or whatever. This is contrary to much contemporary educational philosophy which emphasizes only the heaping of praise on what students are attempting to do. Show choir students know better, and expect to hear how to improve individual performance. Achievement through excellence enhances self-esteem . The challenge for the individual is to “not take it personally”.

Show choir students learn to accept criticism, and that
self-esteem is raised through the achievement of excellence

With the extreme time commitment, students must learn to prioritize their time and use it efficiently, especially when it comes to getting homework done.

Show choir students learn time management skills.

When you ask people who were in a show choir years ago, they may remember how their overall group performed or competed, but probably not likely that weekly score or placing that seemed so important at the time. But they will remember the values they learned, which is why former show choir students encourage their children to participate as well. This is not the article to argue that choir utilizes academics, multiple arts and significant athleticism….. but they get all that as well.
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ps I am a band director and an instrumental teacher at the local university, but I have also been a two-time show choir dad over a six year period, and volunteered one year as the backup ensemble director — so I have spent considerable time around show choir students as well as those of the band variety. Thanks for reading.
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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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Posted in College Prep, Personal experience, Repost, Solo Prep, Teaching, Teaching Music Tagged with: , , ,

4 Influential Men in My Life

By John Gardner

“Individuals who made it out of poverty usually cite an individual who made a significant difference for them.” -Ruby Payne, PhD

“I can cite four.” -John Gardner

On Thanksgiving Day 2014, I learned that James Copenhaver, my elementary and high school band director passed. I am reposting this tribute I wrote about four years ago in honor of the four most influential men in my life. Sadly, they are all gone now.

They are Carl Evans, who pastored my home church during my high school and college years, Robert Roden who taught me to another level of clarinet during high school, Phillip Miller, my college clarinet professor – and James Copenhaver who was my band teacher in 5th, 9th and 10th grades.I have tried to live my teaching life in such a way that maybe I might have such a positive impact on someone else’s life.

James Copehaver

Copenhaver honored for 34 years service as Director of Bands at the University of South Carolina

Copenhaver honored for 34 years service as Director of Bands at the University of South Carolina

James Copenhaver was my 5th grade band teacher and got me started on the clarinet at Tenth District in Covington, Kentucky. This was HIS first year of teaching. One of my first experiences of his teaching technique was his correction of an incorrect hand position I had. He came over to me, turned that gigantic college ring around so that the ball of it was facing downward and started patting me on the head (felt like poking a hole in the top of my head) while very calmly explaining why I should hold the horn differently.

I had different teachers for 7th and 8th grade before joining the Holmes High Band where Mr. Copenhaver was the director. My freshman year was his 5th year and the band, under his leadership, was established as a powerhouse in both marching and concert competitions.  One of his first talks with the incoming freshmen went something like this:

“Welcome to the band. You’re in the band. If you want to be in this band, you can’t be in anything else. You can’t have a job and be in this band. You can’t be in sports and in this band. You will be spending all your time in this band and won’t have time for anything else.” 

Freshman John Gardner in front of Holmes Sr Building. The Holmes uniform was flashy, colorful and complex, with a cape, cross belt that was the devil to get on correctly, brades and shoe covers.

Freshman John Gardner in front of Holmes Sr Building. The Holmes uniform was flashy, colorful and complex, with a cape, cross belt that was the devil to get on correctly, braids and shoe covers.

JC decided that I should play Alto Sax in marching band. He brought an instrument to my house one day after school. He was probably there no more than a minute or two. The instruction went something like, “Here’s a fingering chart. Figure it out by band practice tonight.”

Copenhaver was a strict task master. Push ups and laps were a part of most rehearsals. In concert band, one of his periodic punishments was to have someone stand with arms out to the side, parallel to the ground. Try doing that for 5-10 minutes. One of the rules for marching rehearsal was that we had to run a lap for each minute that we were late – or 10 laps if we failed to wear our white marching shoes. I recall one time returning from a doctor’s appointment and realizing that I couldn’t get home and get my shoes and make it back to school on time … and was literally calculating which would give me the fewer laps to run.

Here’s a story I don’t remember, but that my mother told. She claimed she was sitting in the bleachers one day watching a rehearsal and heard from the megaphone, “Gardner, you march like a cow.” Later, as Mr. C. walked by, she says “mooooo” and when he turned with a surprised look she says, “I’m the cow’s mother”.

Copenhaver was a chronic smoker and as one of the band geeks who was always in the bandroom, I was tasked multiple times with, “Hey Johnny….would you walk over to the store and get me a pack of cigarettes?” That was prior to the over 18 rules, of course.

Military inspections used to be part of some competitions. To practice those he would carry his paddle with him. Once we were at “attention” he would walk slowly in front of each of us, asking for instruments to inspect, checking to see who moved. If you made an error (i.e. moved, had an instrument that left a mark on his white glove, etc), he would say while he was in front of you, “that’s ‘one’”, but it might be 10 minutes before he would come up behind you and whack you with that paddle. And if you moved, he’d do it again.

1969-70 Holmes Band played at the Kentucky Music Educator's Association (KMEA) convention, the National (MENC) Convention in Chicago and as the Honor Band (Grand Champion previous year) at Virginia Beach Competition. I am 2nd chair clarinet.

1969-70 Holmes Band played at the Kentucky Music Educator’s Association (KMEA) convention, the National (MENC) Convention in Chicago and as the Honor Band (Grand Champion previous year) at Virginia Beach Competition. I am 2nd chair clarinet.

One of my most memorable recollections of his harshness happened during band camp. It was a really hot afternoon and we were not getting this drill, he named “La-Ti-Da”. He told us we would practice the drill during our water break. So, when it was time for that water break, he stood the band at attention and made us watch him dump the water out of the cooler (actually, I think it was a trash can) and then announce….. “Ok, so La-Ti-Da.”

My most memorable solo encounter came during a day at summer band. It was a break and several of us were entertaining ourselves by going through the Science building and using a fingernail file to slip into all those specialty on/off switches. If the light was on, we turned it off. If off, we turned it on. It was on one of my turns (I even remember which switch it was), I got the file kinda stuck in the switch. As I was trying to get it out I hear, “hurry up, Copenhaver’s coming”. Yeah, right, right? I wasn’t going to be fooled by that one. Everybody else scattered while I kept struggling until I got my file out. As I turned around ….. gulp …. There he was. He told me to wait for him in his office. I could see the paddle on the wall. I knew I was gonna get it. I was trying to convince myself not to cry. In what seemed like an eternity later (I think he gave me all that time on purpose) he walked into the office and closed the door. Instead of yelling at me, he calmly asked me to sit down. He sat down, facing me and said in a deafeningly soft a voice, something like….“Johnny, I’m disappointed in you. You’re better than that. That’s all I have to say. You can go.”That was much worse than the paddle could have been – but he knew me and knew it would be. What a master teacher.

Several years later, I visited Morehead State University to participate in a conference that Copenhaver was a part of, and even shared a dorm room with him for a night…and he blew me away when he confessed that he maybe shouldn’t have used all those extreme tactics. In fact, I recall him using the words, “that was wrong”. I was crushed.

Right or wrong, tho, it is hard to argue with success. During my freshman and sophomore years (the two with Copenhaver as director), the Holmes Band never lost a contest. In some of the contests, we would receive a standing ovation from the other bands as we entered the stadium.In addition to local area competitions, we travelled to Murfreesboro, Tennessee to participate in the “Contest of Champions”. We were Grand Champion (video below). We also competed in a week long contest at Virginia Beach, Virginia. That competition included parade, an inspection, concert band and field show components. We were declared Grand Champions.

copenhaver-conductorOur concert band was invited to perform at KMEA (Kentucky Music Educator’s) convention as well as the MENC (Music Educator’s National Convention) in Chicago. So, tactics and all, it is hard to argue with success. Following his 6 years at Holmes, Copenhaver went back to school and then spent a few years at Clemson University before putting in 34 years at the University of South Carolina. It was Copenhaver who got me connected to my clarinet teacher, Robert Roden, convincing him to give me an opportunity when I couldn’t afford his fee. And I suspect he had a hand in my full ride scholarships to summer music camps at Morehead State University and Eastern Kentucky University …..and to my selection for participation in the United States Collegiate Band that toured Europe and the USSR the summer between high school and college.

Just a few years ago, he was a clinician at Tennessee Tech University during the time my older son was a music major there. I got to visit that weekend and I think it was perhaps somewhat a memorable moment for him to see a second generation of musicians; a music major son of a music major student.

Aside from the fact that he is an amazing role model, what Copenhaver taught me was the concept of having high standards and high expectations and not accepting anything less than a best effort, no matter who you are. I can only imagine how many band directors there are in the world now because of his teaching.

What follows is a video from his final (and best) band at Holmes as it performed at the Contest of Champions in Tennessee. Because it is copied from an old, overused film, there are some gaps and jumps in the audio and video, but you can see the incredible accuracy of a military style of ankle to the knee marching that no one does (or can do) today.

Carl Evans

I was a college sophomore when one of the five guys renting a room on the same 3rd floor of a Civil War era house started trying to convince me to ditch my religion for his. He was relentless, day after day, month after month ….and gradually, he started making sense. I thank God that Pastor Evans had instilled enough trust for me to send him a note asking him to explain what this guy was saying that was starting to mess with my mind. He called me on the Thursday afternoon that he received my desperate note to tell me that he would pick me up at the Greyhound station Friday evening when I arrived back in town. When I tried to explain that I wasn’t planning to go home that weekend, he responded; “Johnny, I’m not asking you to meet with me at your convenience….I’m telling you that youare coming home tomorrow, except you’re not going home….you’re coming with me….and if you’re not on the bus, I’m driving to Lexington to pick you up.” He rescued me during that all nighter, and I shutter to think what path I might have gone down if he hadn’t cared enough to confront me. Pastor Evans was the preacher who came to Huntington from his retirement in southern Kentucky to preside over my deacon ordination.

Robert Roden

Robert Roden

By the time I was a freshman in high school, I was told I had potential to be a decent clarinetist. I was interested in pursuing music as a career….and my high school director (more on him later) insisted I study with this particular teacher named Robert Roden. At the time, he was one of the most expensive teachers in the area and there was no way my single-parent mother (who is also a polio survivor) was going to be able to pay his fee. Robert Roden had a full studio of students and really didn’t want any more, but agreed to let me “audition” as a favor to my band director, James Copenhaver. It was after my audition that he made me this “deal” for lessons:

“Okay, Mr. Gardner…here’s our situation. 1) You DO need clarinet lessons 2) I CAN teach you 3) you CAN’T afford me. I teach the 1st chair clarinetist at Simon Kenton HS, the 1st chair clarinetist at Campbell County HS and YOU are wanting to be 1st chair at Holmes. So, I’ll make you a deal. I have a bad heart and am not supposed to do strenuous work…..so if you are willing to cut my grass and shovel my snow anytime I need you, I’ll teach you how to play that clarinet until the day you show up at one of your lessons with me unprepared. Do we have a deal?”

Until I show up unprepared? Now that’s pressure, but it was the only chance I had and I took it. In my first year with him, I made All-State Band as a freshman. By the time I was a senior, I was 1st chair in the All-State Orchestra, the top spot in the state. Also senior year, Mr. Roden did something really unique. Since he taught the 1st chair clarinetists in the three biggest area high schools, he gave all three of us the same solo to take to the same contest, turning it into a bragging rights contest for those three schools. The Simon Kenton girl went first and she got a (I) rating. The Campbell County girl also got a (I). By the time I went, the room was so jam-packed with students from all three bands that the judge said they could leave the door open for those who couldn’t get into the room. When I got up to play, the judge, who was the clarinet professor at Eastern Kentucky University says, “Hey John….I don’t think I’ve ever heard this solo at a high school level venue and I’ve already heard it two times today. Can you tell me why it is so popular in Northern Kentucky?” I explained that we all three were studying from the same teacher. His response, then, was something like….”So you’re under some pressure, right?”

When I finished, Mr. Roden stood and applauded and so did the judge, scoring a (I+) on my sheet.  He called me over and told me to “always play in such a way to make people stand up.”I played that solo for scholarship auditions at Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky universities and got full tuition offers from both, but went to neither.

Robert Roden certainly did teach me how to play, and he did it without my ever hearing him play. He told me if I wanted to be even better, that I should go to the University of Kentucky and study with Phillip Miller, who had studied at the Paris Conservatory. Mr. Roden was one of 165 fatalities in a fire at a supper club in Northern Kentucky where he played in one of the stage bands. He got out of the burning building once, but went back in to get his music. And the really sad connection is that my dad was one of the Asst Fire Chiefs of the Covington Fire Department, one of the groups fighting that particular fire. Music can be replaced.

Phillip Miller

miller-2I played that flashy solo that got me that fancy rating and standing ovation and felt pretty good about it. When I finished, Mr. Miller was rubbing his beard, as if in pain….and eventually said, “Not too bad, but ya know, NASA can teach a monkey how to wiggle its fingers.” That should have been a warning.The third man who majorly impacted my life was that clarinet professor at UK that Mr. Roden had recommended, Phillip Miller. Mr. Miller came to Holmes High School to audition me. It was four years later that I learned that the reason he made the trip was to get me on an orchestra scholarship before the band director could tie me up in the band program. I think those guys hated each other.

During several of my sessions freshman year at the UK School of Music, Prof Miller regularly commented variations of, “That was pretty lousy….I can’t tell if it is you or that crappy clarinet of yours.” I realized that, if I was going to graduate, I was going to have to get a new clarinet. Not that the one I had was bad. It was a Selmer Series 10 – top of the Selmer line at that time. By the end of the year, I had purchased a Buffet R-13, the only clarinet Prof Miller would accept.

I wondered why he made me do a full Junior Recital and an hour-long (instead of a half hour) Senior Recital. I didn’t find out until second semester senior year when I was scheduled to student teach when Prof Miller was furious to discover that I was an education major. He thought I was a performance major. Turns out, that when he auditioned me, he turned in paperwork for me to be a performance major on an orchestral scholarship. The band director turned in paperwork for me to get a band scholarship. The Director of the School of Music went to the band director and explained that I could not have both of those scholarships, so the two of them decided to discard Prof Miller’s recommendation without telling him.

My senior recital was in the concert hall rather than the recital hall and I had a very good crowd. My biggest problem in playing has always been endurance and we had the pieces organized so that I could get through them as long as I played them in a certain order. But, right before going out, Miller knocked one of the clarinets off a table and bent a couple keys, so he told me to go out and play something else while he fixed that horn. I was so terrified about the change of order that I forgot to be nervous.

My last semester at UK, the orchestra was playing some really major works full of clarinet solos. Unfortunately, the earliest I could get from my student teaching school to orchestra rehearsal was about 10 minutes late.  He told me if I couldn’t get there on time, I couldn’t play the solos and would have to play 4th clarinet. I argued that I had earned my spot and wasn’t playing 4th. So, he kicked me out of orchestra and told me he had wasted four years of his life on me. What an ending.
He was one of the meanest humans I ever had to deal with, but he did teach me how to play clarinet pretty well. I would like to think that I could have made it in the performance world, but that really wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to be a band director, inspired by the band director I had.

Posted in Assistant Directing, High Schools, Music Department, Personal experience, Repost, Teaching, Teaching Music Tagged with: , ,