Busy, busy, busy

I had the great opportunity to be hired as the director of bands for a new high school that opened in North Dakota. It has been a humbling experience to be granted the opportunity to teach in brand new facilities, especially given the state of many other schools in smaller districts in Minnesota and North Dakota.

My blog sat on the backburner for the past two months as I prepared to receive students. The first day I was allowed into the building was on July 25th, and I spent every single day up until school started in late August preparing for students’ arrival. I appreciate that I am single and have few summer commitments… I calculated that I spent 721 hours working out logistics, assembling instruments, putting together a band library, etc. To those who complain that teachers have it easy: I worked the equivalent of 18, 40-hour weeks this summer for no compensation.

Our principal has a great philosophy, that we think of each day as part of the bigger marathon, not a sprint. It has been a bit of a struggle to get my Type A-personality used to this; but one can’t expect perfection when opening a new building. Thus, our library is not completed,  our band room is freezing, some instruments still need adjusting, and uniforms are still arriving. But the process of music-making is well underway, and the students are great at understanding that there will be transitions, new policies, and all sorts of changes as the year progresses.

It’s been fun getting to know high school students, and noticing the differences between middle school students and high school students. Initially, I was nervous about my own musicianship and being able to conduct high school wind ensembles and jazz bands, but ultimately I’ve come around to the realization that kids are kids. They might look older, they might be principal chair in All-State, but we all (students AND teachers) have something to learn from each other.

I am very fortunate that my closest colleague is a friend from college, who balances my brass pedagogical knowledge with his own woodwind expertise. Pep band and pit orchestra are well under way, honor band auditions are coming up, and I’m excited about a pull-out chamber ensemble experience that we are starting with our most advanced students that will go far beyond the traditional “Ensemble Contest” in scope.

Right now I am thankful for these many blessings, am seeking guidance and wisdom as our program continues to grow, and am looking forward to building meaningful personal and musical relationships.

Avoiding Music Student Burnout

Being a professional musician is regarded as one the top five most taxing professions, along with nursing, teaching, and social work. Entry into the profession comes to only a select few, after years of rigorous study, often beginning in childhood and continuing through college. Regardless of whether a student’s major is in performance, composition, teaching, or business, studying music in college is particularly hard at the undergraduate level.Students pursuing degrees in music suffer the same stresses and distractions as all college students, whether they are studying in a conservatory, liberal arts college, or even an online school. Emotional and physical exhaustion, information overload, constant distraction, sleep deprivation, and lack of time to pursue social activities are common.Yet oftentimes Music students have additional stresses on top of the normal load. Emphasis on solo performance, thousands of hours spent in solitary practice, and extra hours of outside private instruction create added personal stress. A study conducted by San Jose State University notes that 66 percent of undergraduate music students report extremely high levels of stress. An even higher percentage said that their music classes were far more stressful than their general studies.Economic difficulties further add to the load of stressors. Music education is expensive, scholarships are few, and students may be of modest means. This leaves many music students offering private instruction as a way to make money, or performing at local bars, nightclubs, and other venues to make ends meet.

The combination of these factors can lead to burnout, due to the brain’s attempt to protect itself by refusing to absorb new information. Consistent overwork in the competitive arena of music, where memorizing large amounts of information and participating in auditions are common, can cause adrenaline overload, placing the student in a constant fight-or-flight mode.

Burnout in turn can lead to poor physical condition. Back and neck pain, tension headaches, stomach problems, carpal tunnel syndrome, and eyestrain are common physical aliments among music students at the college level. Similarly, a student may turn to unhealthy habits like substance abuse for relief. Unfortunately, music culture and the music industry take this for granted, and habits learned during college can be come entrenched, causing further problems down the line.new balance running shoes men

Music teachers who know what to look for can see concrete, observable symptoms of burnout. For instance, apathy, fatigue, boredom, and depression are clear signs. Thus, a student who is feeling burned out may appear cynical, detached, and talk about quitting. Panic attacks and feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness, and despair may also be frequent.

How can a music teacher help? Awareness of the many factors that influence a college music student is key, and understanding the underlying causes of burnout is critical to helping a student recover from or avoid it altogether.

Gentle questioning about the student’s experience of classroom instructors is one way to start. If it reveals that the student receives constant negative feedback and tactless, even angry correction, it may be a major factor behind feelings of low accomplishment and progress.

A music teacher may then examine his or her own methods by comparison. Are they similarly negative, or do they counteract the problems of an overstressed student? Many students report feelings of dread before class with a particularly difficult instructor and will often form feelings of self-recrimination in order to beat that teacher to the punches they are sure to receive. An outside instructor who creates an atmosphere of calm, constructive work combined with support for the student’s personal commitment to music can do much to alleviate these feelings.

Caring for the whole student and not just technique is another key point of awareness. Encouraging good health, diet, and hydration helps an overloaded student cope. Very few colleges offer courses in wellness for undergraduates, and it is an area in desperate need of improvement. Exercise, meditation, and deep breathing can alleviate stresses ranging from physical tension to performance anxiety.

More often than not, music students choose their field for love, not money. If their emotional investment is not recognized or rewarded, but rather denigrated and undermined, that emotional investment diminishes. Performance becomes a task done by rote, and the art of it is lost.

Therefore it is imperative to keep goals clear and demands reasonable. Recognize success and praise it. Sharing the joy of music does far more to increase engagement and avoid the depersonalization that causes student burnout. In fact, one of the main coping strategies music students employ comes in the form of spontaneous, informal jam sessions with peers. Though a student doesn’t take on additional instruction to jam, that teacher can reconnect the student with the joy of music in after-hours instruction.

Encouraging this kind of social activity will also help students cope with feelings of isolation and depression. Interaction with family, friends, and loved ones is proven to reduce stress and anxiety. Due to the fact that students must practice for long periods in relative isolation in order to progress, that isolation should be counterbalanced by healthy social activity.

Ultimately, music teachers and their methods are a critical part of preventing student burnout, and that includes non-faculty instructors who may only see a student after a stressful day. Teachers can model behavior and influence attitudes toward music study more than anything else in the student’s life and their influence, good or bad, lasts a lifetime.

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Getting Experience Before Your Master’s Degree

For most music educators entering into the music education field, the logical choice is to get your bachelor’s degree with teaching certification and to enter the workforce. After all, let’s look at it from a fiscal decision: a typical payscale for teachers includes years of experience on the y axis, and credits on the x axis. Beginning music educators straight out of college start at the upper left-hand corner (the very smallest salary) and increase salary over time and by pursuing advanced degrees and certification. If, however, you start with a master’s degree and no experience, you start at the middle of the chart (MA) and the 0 step for experience. Why would an employer want to pay you more for no experience, than another person with the same amount of experience, who could be paid less?

But I was a TA for undergrad students! While this is a great experience to have, there is really no comparison with hands-on, daily, sequential music teaching. As someone who logged over 1,000 hours of public school teaching during my undergraduate experience, I can still say that nothing prepared me more for teaching than teaching itself. Being collegiate president of any number of music organizations prepares you for academic leadership and organization, taking lessons on multiple instruments makes you more versatile while teaching, being the best performer gives you the best insight for deep musicianship; but being the best teacher comes from having the most successful teaching experiences.

I’m a performance major, so clearly it makes sense for me to continue on in higher education… I can’t even fathom the amount of music performance majors I know/knew. There were a lot. Some were fantastics musicians, others just didn’t know what to do with their lives after college. If you don’t know what to do with your life after college: TAKE TIME TO FIGURE IT OUT. The more advanced degrees you have makes you more specialized and less well-rounded. If you graduate with a master’s degree in performance, and you can’t hack the top orchestral jobs (which are few and far between due to competition and bankruptcy of major orchestras) then you’ll probably end up in a totally unrelated field or trying to get into music education. Do you know that saying, “Those who can’t, teach”? Being a great performer but lacking the social and pedagogical skills to teach your craft does not make you a great studio professor. Having the desire and passion to teach, with the performance experience to back it up, does.

Aside from the pedagogy and philosophy, think about the practical side. Pursuing advanced degrees often delays “real world” experiences, especially when it comes to financial responsibility. Most undergraduate students receive financial assistance from the government, their school, and their parents. If you’re book-smart, you might be able to receive a free ride by doing research or being a TA, but most students end up prolonging the amount of time that they are in debt, whether simply elongating their undergraduate debt, or adding to it in graduate school. A high proportion of medical doctors go bankrupt, simply because they never learned how to handle their debt and spending until after their education (some 12+ years later). And unlike doctors, few musicians of any type end up with a salary of over $100,000. And while some graduates are simply in denial of the financial problems, most don’t look down the road at the financial obligations that await them (middle class suburbia, buying a house, getting married, buying a new car, having children, etc.)

Take time to think before pursuing your master’s degree. Getting experience in your field while being able to save up money and pay down debt will give you a tremendous sense of freedom and clarity when it comes to making important life decisions.


The Importance Of Staying Hydrated During Marching Band Season

Marching band members, like athletes, need to take time to re-hydrate themselves during rehearsals. Physical activity aside, the recommended amount of water consumption each day is eight glasses. During periods of extreme physical activity, the body requires even more water so that it can regulate the body’s internal temperature. The National Athletic Trainer’s Association (NATA) recommends 7-10 ounces of fluid every 10-20 minutes. For most band directors, the thought of taking a break every 10-20 minutes seems cumbersome, especially as band camps become shorter and shorter.

1. Keeping students hydrated will improve morale amongst the band. Extended periods of time without a water break will increase complaints and decrease focus.

2. It’s our responsibility as teachers to keep our students safe. By not taking the time to rehydrate, we risk the potential for a student to faint and hit their heads, get heatstroke, or any other medical issue compounded by dehydration.

3. Providing a giant water cooler at each rehearsal is helpful for students who forget to bring their own water bottles, and can keep cooler for longer periods of time. Designate a section or group of students to be in charge of water maintenance, filling it up before each rehearsal. Make sure to take care of the environment, however. Providing stacks of paper or styrofoam cups to be littered around the area is harmful to the environment.

4. Encourage camel back-style water containers. Students will be able to hydrate themselves whenever they need to, and it is strapped to their back so that they don’t have to set down their instrument or drill charts as they rehearse.

5. In addition to water, a short snack to boost energy and concentration can be very helpful. Ask parent volunteers or groups of students to bring a healthy snack to share.

6. Consider rotating sections. Brass rehearse charts 13-28 while the woodwinds take a five minute break. Since drill is often written for sections in blocks or similar areas, this can be an effective way to constantly be rehearsing without losing the entire group.

Music Education Blog: How To Increase Your Blog Traffic

1. The blogosphere is collaborative and interactive in nature. While it’s true that you can write blog posts in isolation, and hope that people stumble across your content, it is much more effective and rewarding to interact with other bloggers in your niche. Take time to comment on other blogs, and respond to comments on your own blog. But be careful, commenting and reading other blogs can consume much of your designated blogging time. Make sure you leave enough time to add new content to your own blog.

2. Participate in the music education blog carnival. In all honesty, I am a little disappointed that the carnival is published only once per month, many other niches like personal finance have multiple carnivals, and they are published on a weekly basis. But, as a whole, our lack of frequent posting is probably a good thing; we’re busy in our schools and concert halls, shaping meaningful musical experiences for our students!

3. Link to content on other blogs. While this is typically seen as a selfless deed, many bloggers will notice that you pinged their content, and return the favor by linking back to you. Karma of the blogosphere: what goes around, comes around.

4. Write meaningful, timely content. If summer is approaching, an article about marching band is probably more appropriate than in the winter (As a side note, I wish the major music journals and magazines would publish a proportionate number of articles about marching band, instead of making the concert band look like an afterthought).

5. Develop your own voice. As educators, we are taught two things very well: be careful not to step on anyones’ toes, and look to others for a model of success. What ends up happening often times, is that I see a number of blogs that look cookie-cutter copies of other successful blogs on the internet. While I love many music technology blogs, it seems strange to me that there are more blogs about music technology than music education. Develop your own voice as you write about music: what moves you, excites you, and empowers your students to learn and achieve? By writing content with a strong voice, you’ll find it much easier to write regularly updated content.