changed the dry-erase calendar to “august”

There are a few days left in July.  However, due to a refridgerator-water-splashing accident (don’t ask), I had to re-do my dry-erase calendar.  Which meant that it was time to put August on it.  Which meant that the first day of In-service is now on it.  I will miss being home with my children every day (and being in pajamas until 10 am), but I love my job.  Changing the calendar to August is a good thing in many ways and I am almost ready to go back to the classroom.

I just finished reading a really sweet and inspiring book that is helping me to get there.  32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny:  Life Lessons From Teaching, by Phillip Done.  The author has taught 3rd grade for around 25 years, he has a great sense of humor and an obvious love of children.  The book is a series of lists and short stories that range from laugh-out-loud funny to tear-jerking.  I identified with Done in many ways, both as a teacher and as a parent; as an observer of education, children and their lovely quirks.  I have turned down the corner of a bunch of pages that I plan to return to throughout the years to come.

The first chapter, I Am a Teacher, has four pages of great comments like “I fix staplers that won’t staple and zippers that won’t zip, and I poke pins in the orange caps of glue bottles that will not pour.  I hand out papers and pencils and stickers and envelopes for newly pulled teeth.  I know the difference between Austria and Australia”.  Most of the things on his list are not taught in college, but they are a huge part of the job and part of one’s identity as a teacher.  For me, I suppose that Austria = fsharp and that Australia = bflat.

I can tell that Done has a love of standarized tests, just like me.  The chapter Testing tells of the day in March when he realizes that the time has come for filling in bubbles.  No more discussions.  No more reading after lunch.  No more questions.  Everything must be taught right away even though there are three more months of school to go.  He says to his class (p. 187):

“You don’t like these tests?” I asked.  “You don’t want to do these tests?  Don’t you realize that these scores are published in the newspaper and parents and real estate agents everywhere look at these scores?  Don’t you realize that your parents’ property values are affected if you don’t know how to find the diameter of a circle?

“You want to paint?”  I continued.  “You want to run?  You want to sing?  You want to do a play?  You want to go on a field trip?  You want to play your song flute?  Ha!  What do you think this is?  A school?”

It is nice to know that I am not the only teacher in the country with a nice sense of humor sarcasm about testing.  Thank you, Phillip Done!

He has a musical background too, and several of his comments reveal a good understanding of what music teaching is like.  The chapter entitled Why for instance asks many questions about why kids do the things that they do, “Why do kids choose to play instruments that are similar to their own personalities?”  That is so funny to me, because I have wondered about that for years.  I swear, I can meet someone, and guess their instrument of choice in just two guesses.  He also jokes about how the band director in his building will feel when she figures out that the entire class has signed up for trumpet.  Eeeek!  At least it is not saxophone, right?

One of my favorite chapters is Teacher Speeches, where Done comments about the speeches that teachers make repeatedly throughout the year.  “It would be so much easier if I could just shout out the number of the speech.”  #479 is my absolute favorite, one that I have stood by and proclaimed for years.  “Do not ‘Sorry’ when you make a mistake.  Never say ‘Sorry’ if you make a mistake.  I want you to make mistakes.  If you make mistakes, then I have something to teach you.” 

I tell that to kids all of the time.  I love to tell them about my beloved beginning band teacher.  She always said “if you are going to make a mistake, make a big one!”  I wish she had lived long enough for me to have gone back and asked her about that one.  It has been 25 years since I heard her say that; I think she meant to be bold and brave and to not be afraid of making a mistake.

I laughed out loud when I read Spring is Here.  I was sitting at Starbucks, enjoying a latte and honestly burst out laughing and probably looked like an idiot.  Mr. Done writes that he knows it is spring when the song flutes are passed out.  Me too!!!  For a couple years now, I have teased my colleague Nancy about how I know it is spring when I hear her flutophone classes tooting.  I walk down the hall for a quick cup of coffee and I can hear their oh-so-sweet song.  I know that Nancy loves teaching classroom music and that she is a big advocate of using flutophones in her classroom, but let’s be honest… 25 flutophones chirping out “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” at 9:15 am is enough to test the fortitude of any teacher.  It even tests her patience, I suspect. 

Still, those flutophones mean spring to me, and that vacation is just around the corner!

How to Know When You Need a Vacation helped me to realize that I am almost ready to be done with vacation, almost ready to feel like I do not need a vacation anymore.  Last on his list of when one needs vacation:  “When it is three in the morning and you are humming ‘Frosty the Snowman’ for the 157th time with your eyes wide open in bed.” 

Oh, how I have been there.  Except that for me, it is “Jolly Old St. Nicholas”.

I am almost ready to hear it again.  Almost.  Not quite, though… just this morning, my daughter Marissa wanted to play it on the piano for me.  I cowered, cringed and cried “NO!!!”  I am not ready for that yet. 

Nancy is coming to my house to teach Marissa’s lesson today… I wonder if she is ready to hear St. Nick yet.  We shall see!

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brad schoener

A few days ago, I received an email from Mrs. Jennifer Schoener; she was replying to a question that I sent to her husband last month.  In her email, I learned that Mr. Schoener passed away on March 19, after a lengthy battle with cancer.  She is a band director as well, and from her short email, I have to say how much I admire her and her dedication.

To be honest, I did not know very much about Schoener before this week.  I knew he was a fellow Pennsylvanian and an elementary band teacher.  Mostly, I knew that he wrote band music that my kids loved.  In fact, his website was, which was no exaggeration.  He had a way with picking tunes and voicing parts that were fun for students to play and were tremendous crowd-pleasers.  You could tell, from his work, that he knew young players.  He knew how to write for them, and to challenge them, and how to make them sound COOL!  He also wrote works that were flexible and very user-friendly in an elementary school.  One of his best techniques was his “all-inclusive” arrangments, which were written for kids with a year or more experience AND for beginners.  The set included regular parts and “easy” parts. 

After reading Mrs. Schoener’s email, I did some googling and my goodness, her husband must have been a truly amazing man.

He would take only a half day off, or even go on a Boy Scout trip (assistant scoutmaster in his son’s troop) on a chemo day.  He obviously inspired and motivated many, many students over the years, and I am sure he is very much missed.  Like I said, I did not know him, but I am very saddened to hear of the passing of such a great man, husband and father.

Rest in Peace, Brad Schoener.

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what’s going on next year

As I mentioned in a previous post, this is the day after try-outs in my school.  There is actually one more building to go, but my own recruiting is done for the year.  Right now, I am working on putting kids into the databases that I have to use and I am preparing my end-0f-year report that I need to submit.  Actually, these blog entries are pretty much what I will submit, so I am getting double from this work.

We (myself and the other 3 elementary band teachers) saw a TON of kids yesterday.  70 students, in fact.  I currently have 109 students on my roster for 09-10, not counting the 3-5 classes that I will teach at another band director’s building.  I had 105 at this time last year, and ended up with 83 last month, so I am not really holding my breath on having 109 students this time time next year.  On the upside, I am pulling from around 225 this year (smaller classes than last year), so my percentage is higher; getting close to 50%, which is my goal.

4th Grade:  1 oboe, 4 flute, 14 clarinet, 16 alto saxophone, 1 fhorn, 11 trumpet, 2 trombone, 4 baritone and 5 percussion.

5th Grade:  1 oboe, 5 flute, 4 clarinet, 12 alto saxophone, 17 trumpet, 7 trombone, 1 baritone, 5 percussion & 1 keyboard player (covers tuba parts).

I have concerns again about 5th grade beginners, but am sending home a list of private teachers and suggesting that the kids get a few lessons in over the summer. 

I am kind of laughing about instrumentation, because I will repeat something like what I said last year:  “The instrumentation is not perfect, I know that.  I would like to have some more horns.”  Last year, I would have liked less percussion and more clarinets.  This year, I am starting a ton of clarinets and not many percussion students.  Too many trumpets, but hey… maybe they can convert to french horn!

Just like last year (and every year so far in my career), I am perfectly fine with my instrumentation.  I have a few theories about recruiting and retaining kids and #1 there is getting the right instrument in the right kid’s hands.  I aim to make sure they all get a chance to hear, see and touch each of the instruments and then Let Them Decide. 

I have never bought into the idea that I should sit there with a list of perfect instrumentation and put the kids in a place that suits the program.  That is backwards to me, and I know that many directors do not believe in that at all.  But, I have talked to too many kids (and adults, for that matter) that told me that they were forced into playing an instrument that wasn’t their first choice… and I have yet to find one of those people who played the forced instrument for more than a couple years. 

Who cares if I have dream instrumentation if the experience here does not lead to a lifetime of learning and loving in music?  What is the point, if they just quit because they do not like the instrument?  For the most part, kids have to enjoy playing the instrument to stick with it and to succeed. 

Last year, I wrote that I have a Field of Dreams approach to recruitment.  If I build a great band, they will come.”  Well, my Field of Dreams is working, I think.  59 out of less than 100 upcoming 3rd graders tried a band instrument yesterday.  Of course, many of them played a string instrument in 2nd grade, which brings up a few bald spots in the grass of my Field of Dreams.  Some kids are conflicted about moving to band and/or are considering playing in both next year.  The past few days have been interesting for me; as you might imagine that moving from one ensemble/teacher to is … uh … stressful for some colleagues.  It is very strange to walk into a room and see people stop talking when they see you, and to feel a chill.  I really do not feel comfortable blogging about this with great detail, but I will say that I find this all to be very stressful for me.  We start strings in 3rd grade.  We start band in 4th.  There are going to be kids who leave strings and I expect some stress.  But I did not expect it to be like this.

In any case, I did my best to make sure they kids had an appropriate level of exposure to the instruments.  I do things similar to what my colleagues (in band and strings) do in recruiting.

I think the biggest part of recruiting and retaining happens at other times of the school year.  Lots of little things along the way are seen by the younger students… things that benefit my students and are for them, but I am aware that they have an effect on the younger ones. 

For instance, I like to have my students perform in December; they love playing holiday songs, but the winter concert isn’t until late in January.  So, during the last week before winter vacation, I arrange for my students to go caroling in the cafeteria, during lunch groups.  Historically, that week is poorly attended and/or challenging to focus kids on regular lesson material.  I have found that caroling works really well, in terms of getting them to perform in a small group and to achieve on a number of songs that they love.  Of course, the January and May assemblies are also another thing that is really for the current band kids, but I think it has an effect on the younger students.

In March, I (again) held a petting zoo in my classroom, so the 3rd grade general music classes could see and touch the instruments.  This is done at around the same time as when they study the instruments in music class, so it suits their curriculum.  Last year, the music teachers brought over grades K-3 and I invited the string teacher to bring over her instruments, but that much was pretty disruptive in my classroom.  The instruments take up a lot of space and I lost a bunch of instructional time, having so many classes in to visit the “animals”.  This year, I opted to keep it simple and in line with general music and band curriculum.

My 3rd Grade instrument demo, last month, was same as last year.  I have a PowerPoint presentation about band and had middle school students come over and play each of the instruments.  45 minutes, quick, no Q&A… just a nice class period of listening to instruments and finding out how lessons/band works.  Last year, I made trading cards for each instrument, which I did not do this year.  I never got around to it, and I didn’t think it really did anything for the program anyhow.

In the past few weeks, we had the parent pemo meeting and try-outs and now that I look back on things, I actually did less this year.  Less petting zoo, not as much paperwork, etc.  I tried to streamline things and I feel pretty good about how it all went.  It has been a great year, I feel like I have grown so much as a teacher and I really can’t wait to start a new crop of students next year!

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looking at last year’s june entry

It’s the day after instrument try-outs, and I have taken some time to look over next year’s numbers.  I also read through the post that I made at this same time last year.

At that point, I had 105 students on my list and walked into school in August 2009 with 105 students on my roster.  Those were not all the same kids, however.  There were some that never made it on the 2nd list, as they informed me that they were not going to be in band, that they would continue with orchestra.  It was nearly an “even-Steven” situation, though, as I received a few move-ins and new papers at the beginning of the school year.  I ended this school year with 83 students.

When I wrote last year’s entry, I was fresh out of the 5 days of instrument try-outs and was thinking about a few things regarding instrument selection.  I had a really nice list of students, and a good variety of instruments.  But, I knew that there would be changes.   I had concerns about the 16 5th grade beginners, because I cannot offer them a true beginning band class.  They have lessons with other beginners, but because of the way that my schedule works here, they cannot attend a beginning band.  Instead, I have to put them in with 2nd year students and it is hard on those kids.  It is very challenging to structure the class in a way that challenges the 2nd year students, and doesn’t “lose” the beginners.  Even more challenging to retain those beginners.

Of the 16 5th grade beginners, 1 of them quit band and stayed in orchestra (yay, still on an instrument), 11 stayed in band (I am pretty proud of how far they came, and most are going to continue in middle school) and 4 quit.  Those 4 make me sad, because each of them were in orchestra in 3rd grade… tried a band instrument at the end of 3rd grade… did not start band, stayed in orchestra… quit orchestra at the end of 4th… started band in 5th and could not keep up with their peers.  I cannot help but wish that they had been encouraged to start the band instrument in 4th, as they had expressed interest in doing so.  They could have started with their peers and I think they would have had a much better chance of succeeding with 2 years of instruction.

Anyhow, back to the starting with 105 and ending with 83 (that doesn’t look good, does it?).  Here are the stats:

3 moved to another school district.

3 never started lessons with me, opted to stay in orchestra (1 of which quit orchestra and was back in my room yesterday, trying out a band instrument again!).

2 never started lessons with me, no instrumental music in 08-09.

2 were in band in 4th grade, quit before 5th grade began (1 was a really good player, who I was sad to lose).

5 were in band and orchestra for several months, and eventually quit band; stayed in orchestra and are still playing.

7 quit after a few months of band, all had some struggles, no instrumental music by the end of 08-09.

2 were in orchestra in 3rd grade, band in 4th (or part of 4th), went back to orchestra for part of the year and are back in band.

All of that is probably not of interest to anyone but me, but I like to look over the lists and reflect on my instruction.  I try to take a look at who quit and why… and consider their history of instrumental music.  Hopefully, I can see some trends and improve my recruitment and instruction in future years.


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spring concert program notes

Beginning Band

The first band to perform is the 4th grade Beginning Band, our first song is Bugler’s Dream, arranged by Paul Lavender.  The original melody was written by French composer Leo Arnaud.  It was later arranged by famed American composer John Williams, as a theme song for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.   Our arrangement uses only 6 notes and serves as a wonderful fanfare to begin our concert.

Galactic Episode is an original composition by John O’Reilly and Mark Williams.  It is part of our lesson book, which is called Accent on Achievement.  In composing it, Reilly and Williams used everything we learned in the first three-quarters of our lesson book.  It is our most challenging piece.  In it, we have to play a soft and slow section and then a loud and fast section.

The Flintstones Meet the Jetsons uses the theme shows from two of Hanna-Barbara’s most popular cartoons.  It is arranged by Gerald Sebesky, who has combined the themes into one rockin’ and futuristic song. 

In 2002, composer Ralph Ford published the piece Cango Caves.  He was inspired to write it after having visited the caves in the Western Cape Province of South Africa.  The caves were discovered in 1780, and in the years since then, scientists have recovered artifacts used by the Bushman during the Middle Stone Age.  We hope you will enjoy Ford’s musical depiction of the natural caves of South Africa. 

The Beginning Band’s last number is a piece written by Andrew Balent, called Band Room Boogie.  Boogie-woogie style started early in the 20th century and was often played by swing bands such as the Tommy Dorsey and the Glenn Miller bands.  Playing it has been a great chance for us to learn how to play in a swing style, it has been one of our favorites this year, and we hope you enjoy tapping your toe to our Boogie.

 Select Band

This year’s Integrated Arts theme has been “Pittsburgh”.  A number of our upcoming numbers have a connection to Pittsburgh, including our next one.  Many famous jazz musicians have lived and played here, including Harold Betters, Johnny Costa, Lena Horne, Billy May, Joe Negri and Sammy Nestico.  River City Blues, by Steve Hodges, was not really written for our river city.  But it is a fitting tribute to it and the impact that jazz has in Pittsburgh and around the world.

The H.J. Heinz Corporation is well-known in Pittsburgh for many reasons.  Ketchup is probably the number 1 reason.  Over 640 million bottles are sold world-wide.  We suspect that composer Dean Sorenson may have been inspired by this amazing condiment when he wrote our next number… Ketchup Is Not A Spice.  It is written in a Latin style, which will sound totally different from our last blues-y number. 

The Select Band portion of the program concludes with our favorite piece.  Called Walkin’ to Band Man!, it is written in a funk style, where the rhythm is the main focus.  This rhythmic focus is sometimes called a “Groove” and has been the preferred style of great bands, such as “Tower of Power”, “Earth, Wind and Fire” and “Average White Band”.  It was written by Brad Schoener, a Pennsylvania composer who has his own publishing company called “Band Music Kids Love”.  He is right, we love his music!

Advanced Band

Sousa Spectacular, like the 4th grade’s “Galactic Episode,” is from our lesson book.  The arrangers, John O’Reilly and Mark Williams, used several of John Philip Sousa’s most famous marches, including “High School Cadets”.  It is the most challenging piece in book I, with an entertaining percussion part, fast fingerings for the wind instruments and a key change midway through the piece.

Our next piece was written by composer Anne McGinty, in 1990.  She has strong ties to Pittsburgh, as she earned her Bachelor and Masters of Music degrees from Duquesne University in flute performance and music composition.  She has written more concert band pieces than any other woman in the field, and has published over 225 titles.  Prelude and Dance is in two movements, one slow and one fast, both using the main melody in a canon.  The most common form of a canon is a “round”, where the same melody is repeated at different times, like in “Row Row Row Your Boat” or “Frere Jacques”.

As the opening theme to the show “The Mickey Mouse Club,” this music is easily recognized all over the world.  It was written by the host of the show, Jimmie Dodd.  The TV show ran from 1955 to 1959.  But the Mickey Mouse March can still be heard in the Walt Disney Resorts all over the world. This arrangement was done by Devon Lippmann, who grew up in suburban Pittsburgh.  He is currently a band director in the Norwin School District.

The theme to the mid-60’s TV show “Secret Agent” is featured in our next number.  Secret Agent Man, arranged by Ralph Ford.  The main melody is inspired by that of Bond 007 and has been recorded by many groups in the past 40 years, such as “Devo” and “Blues Traveller.  Many movie-watchers recognize it from and was used in “Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery.”

Our next piece, River Trilogy, is a medley of three well-known American folk songs.  It opens with “Deep River,” then features clarinets and flutes with “The Water is Wide” and concludes by featuring our trumpet section in “Shenandoah”.  It is arranged by John O’Reilly and is a wonderful tribute to our city, with our three rivers.

Our last song for the evening has a very strong connection to Pittsburgh.  It was commissioned by North Allegheny band director Mr. Steve Kraus, specifically for McKnight and Peebles Elementary Schools.  The world premiere of this number was here in our own school District.  The composer is also a Pittsburgher as well.  Sam Hazo has published numerous pieces for concert band, all very well-reviewed and popular worldwide.  He travels all over the world, serving as a guest conductor and has worked with stars such as Brooke Shields and James Earl Jones.  We hope you enjoy As Winds Dance as much as we do!

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who wants to teach elementary band?

During my junior year of college, I took an Elementary Methods class at IUP, taught by Dr. John Kuehn.  I absolutely loved the class.  Dr. Kuehn had many years of experience with beginners, and he had the best stories about them.  I was inspired by how excited he was about the adventure of teaching beginning band and I thoroughly enjoyed learning and thinking about how children learn in music.  That was the start of when I became an education-junkie.  Toward the end of the semester, Dr. Kuehn pulled me aside and asked me, “Linda, what is your dream job?” 

I was 22 years old, on a college-marching-band-wind-ensemble “high” and answered “High School Band Director!!!”  I wish I could remember exactly what he said to me in reply.  I can only remember that he suggested I consider beginning band and I recall feeling disappointed.  I thought he was trying to talk me out of high school band.  I assumed that he must have thought that I did not have what it took to do high school band, because why else would he discourage me from it?  I was in this college-mode, where directing grade 5 pieces, going to competitions and leading a marching band was the ultimate.  He was the only professor to talk about beginning band, everyone else had taught high school, and that what was in my head.  High school is where you got to conduct and perform intriguing music by outstanding composers!  

I could not understand why my this adored mentor of mine was suggesting I do something other than high school.*

I know that I was not alone in feeling that way about high school being one thing and beginning band being another thing (perhaps “lesser”); my college friends expressed similar ideas (some of them probably still do!).  From what I know, this is pretty common and many college graduates feel this way. 

To be honest, when you are 22, what musical experiences do you have the most memory of?  The most excitement about?  The greatest confidence in?  It is probably high school / college performing group experiences and those are the experiences that you can translate and use most easily, when you start out teaching.  Additionally, most professors come from a secondary-education background and have never taught elementary band.  The experiences that they bring with them to the undergrad classes are rich in work with students who already have a lengthy musical background.  Not in “fsharpbflat” things, which is a whole different world.  

I know that, for me, it was very easy to picture myself directing a high school group.  I could not imagine what elementary band teaching would be like and could not picture myself doing it.  Not because it was unappealing to me, but because I had very little exposure to it OR to people who taught it and could share with me their experiences.  It did not take me long to picture and imagine those things, but for some music educators, I think it takes a lot longer.

I have heard many comments here and there over the years, about beginning band.  They usually start with lines that serve pretty much the same function as Seinfeld’s “not that there is anything wrong with that”.  “Beginning band is of course where it all starts,” or “the most important job in the program,” or “we couldn’t do it without those who are starting these kids”.  My favorite is “I could NEVER do your job!” which I guess is a complement, but I am never quite sure.  In any case, the remarks usually go on with a “BUT…” that somehow ends up placing beginning band back down into that “lesser” place. 

I know this job is important within the program, I am confident and secure in that.  This is not about me when I say this:  I worry that we are not doing our best job of recruiting beginning band teachers.  Undergrads should have meaningful experiences with young children.  They should observe a lesson during the first month or so of instruction (hear the squeaks!).  They should try scheduling pull-out lessons and see what instrument fittings and recruitment is like.  They should teach young children and get a very good sense of what is possible to achieve during those first few years.  We should recruit people who love children, who are strong musicians and advocate high standards that are age-appropriate.  We should nurture and share ideas about what it takes to hook a child into band, keep them on the line.  We really need more people like that in the profession.

* As it turned out, Dr. Kuehn ended up doing a wonderful job at recruiting me into a beginning band teacher.  At that time (early 90s), he split his time between teaching private clarinet/saxophone, elementary methods and the (now defunct) University School.   It was during that conversation we had, or not long after, that he asked if I wanted to do an internship at the University School.  That internship at the University School was beyond value at that time in my life.  Before I had even set foot in a public school, I had already taught 9 and 10 year olds.  I had already ran portions of beginning and advanced (2nd year) band rehearsals.  I was also very comfortable with using Edwin Gordon’s Comprehensive Music Learning Sequence.


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whoo, ensembles scheduled

I attended that PSSA meeting this morning, and it wasn’t painful!  I think I may survive.  I will be working with a small group of students who have the accomodation that their math tests will be read to them.  Bummer!  I was so hoping for the “extra time” group, as reading those tests is rather Mind Numbing.

In any case, I was able to do some fancy scheduling, and my ensembles will be able to rehearse on Monday of testing week.  Phew.  A lot of lessons will be cancelled, but I am hoping I can make that work too.

Next year is going to be bad, though.  The state has published their testing dates for next year, to be three straight weeks in April.  You know, the three weeks before spring concerts.  I honestly have No Clue how we (performing group teachers) can make things work.

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