Monday, September 12, 2011

Tuning with your Ears 1

In my last post I shared a terrific article by Si Millican in the August issue of SBO Magazine.  It discussed the concept of making students use their ears to adjust their pitch rather than relying on a tuner to find what is "in tune".  In this post I want to share why both a CD with Perfect 5th drones and a Yamaha Harmony Director 200 can help students understand these concepts and put them into practice.  In a second post I will share some practical ways to use these in the classroom setting to help students use their ears better to tune as they perform.

The Perfect 5th Drones CD (5th CD) has perfectly tuned drones at an interval of a 5th.  These drones are in all 12 major keys in both low and high registers.  When a student plays any note in that key it becomes very evident when they are not in tune with the drone because they will hear loud beats when the sound waves do not match up.  The interval of a 5th is the purest interval (next to the 4th)  and, basically, the note that is played fills in the chord causing the student to adjust to both notes rather than just the single sustained note.  This allows for little if no wiggle room to be out of tune with the intervals. This is a practical way for students to hear their note as compared to a set (in tune) interval and decide what adjustments need to be made.  However, with only the two notes sounding, you can't adjust chords and other intervals involving more than one note for students to hear.  You also have to make sure that your CD player is on Single Track Repeat so the drone can continue for a long time.

The Harmony Director Keyboard takes the these concepts of playing against a 5th and adds the ease of a keyboard with the ability to play more than two notes at a time, the ability to have real tuning for chords (as apposed to even tuning like any other piano) and to instantly change the notes as the students play.  For instance, when my students play a chorale, I will set the keyboard for the real tuning of the key they are in and give them the beginning chord before they play, but then play the major (long) chords as they get to them.  We will pause on that chord long enough for them to adjust their tuning before we move on in the chorale.  This takes many weeks to get the hang of and the students often want to "get bored" and complain about the drone sound before they begin to grow excited about getting it right.

Next, I'll share some daily drills using these tools to improve student's tuning tendencies.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Great Article on Tuning

I saw this article in this last month's SBO Magazine and I thought it was worth sharing with those who maybe don't get that magazine. 

Article: Turn Off the Tuner for Better Ensemble Intonation

In this article Si Millican plainly speaks to the concept of making the students use their ears to tune rather than the wheel or needle of a tuner.  For years I have been working this concept with my students and I have seen a dramatic change in their tone quality and their performance.  At that time I was using a CD that sounded a drone of perfect 5ths in all keys for students to listen to and match.  Recently, I moved schools and one of the first purchases I made with my new budget was a Yamaha Harmony Director 200.  Those who work in my district asked me why I bought it and how I use it.  When I saw this article, I thought it put together all of the reasons I believe in using the Harmony Director into one article so I immediately shared it with them.

You don't have to have a fancy keyboard to work this idea, though.  Sometimes, when I don't have access to my Harmony Director, I will play the note on my instrument (trumpet) for the kids to match.  This will remind them of the concept of unwanted beats in the sound and begin to make them want to fix it. 

I so appreciate the way Dr. Millican provides a basis for this idea of listening rather than seeing to tune in his article.  In my next blog installment I will share some ways that I have used the 5th CD and the Harmony Director Keyboard with my classes to work the students' ears to become independent tuners when they play.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Prize Shirt

This last week we have hosted a Band Camp for my students.  The purpose was to begin learning the "football" music for the Fall and to get the cobwebs off of our instruments before school begins in a few weeks.  We have had a great week with over 30 kids committing to come up to school for 3 hours and play their instrument rather than sit at home and play video games.  I'm really proud of them for being so dedicated.  As an incentive I told them that if they come to all 5 days they would get a prize for their effort.  I did not tell them at all what it would be.

So, I thought all summer, "What would be cool to a middle schooler that is affordable?"  My wonderful wife had a great idea that turned out to be amazing.  We will give them a shirt that looks like this:

With our great Tshirt companies offering affordable prices on shirts, it turned out to be a great thing that the kids will love.  I can then use these as incentives for the entire year.  Make District Band - get a shirt, Pass off all your scales - get a shirt, Earn "Good Discipline Points" - get a shirt, etc., etc., etc...

AND when they wear it on spirit shirt days at school and someone asks why they recieved the "Prize Shirt" they can tell what accomplishment they did to earn it.  I think it will be a really positive thing for the band this year!

I'm even to going need to earn my "Prize Shirt" this year by accomplishing something big - yet to be determined.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"You've got to come hear this..."

I was thinking and dreaming today about what it would be like to have a band at a certain place where I could call my friends and supervisors to invite them to my rehearsal and say, "You've got to come hear this..." because the band is sounding and performing at such a high level. I've not had that so far in my career, but of course would love to experience that and I think I can have that at my current school in the coming years. I would love to have comments from anyone of you that has experienced that with a group.

But then the other side of me makes me ask, "Is it truly about that?" "Is that a worthy goal?" "Am I looking at it wrong?". (I so quickly doubt myself so much.) I wonder if I am setting myself up for failure or if I can hang on to those dreams until I achieve them.

I am excited about the potential that I have coming in the next year. It really challenges me to be even better to make sure each day is productive. Maybe that's why I'm thinking about this even while on summer vacation? Go figure...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

End of School Reflections

The end of every school year is an interesting time for me. I find myself genuinely excited to close a chapter and take a break. But at the same time I miss the rigor of doing what I really love best...teaching kids to appreciate music in their lives.

This year has especially been tough because I was at a new school. Sometimes learning "the ropes" about my new school got in the way of the ability to do my best teaching. So I look forward to next year and starting again. This time feeling more comfortable in my surroundings.

But at the same time how sweet is it that I am blessed with the chance to take a break to plan and grow as an educator. This summer I want to attend some workshops that my district has provided. I want to plan my bands webpage more fully and take time to make it great. I get a real chance to plan well the approach I will use to accomplish our goals as a band for next year.

Personally, I want to finish at least one composition of the 4-5 that I have started right now. There are some books I'd like to take in. I have new friends that I would love to play golf with or just go to that great burger joint that my friend Ben tells me about.

Most importantly, I get the chance to play with my boys and spend quality time with my wife before the craziness begins again in August.

What are your goals for summer break? I'd love to hear them.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Band Clinic/Concerts

Today, I was at a District Band Clinic that ends with a concert later this afternoon. For those of you that are not sure what that means, I'll explain...

I blogged before about how music students audition for the prize of a place in a District or Region Band. Well, the prize includes a day of rehearsing with students from other schools under the direction of a guest conductor. This culminates in a Concert performance for parents and the community after only 12 hours of rehearsing. Picture an All-Star Game of the sport of your choice.

This is great for the students. But what good is it for the Band Directors who have taught these students?...

We as directors are given a tremendous opportunity to not only network with other directors, but to literally go to school for a day and learn from the guest conductor as well. The guest conductors are considered Master Teachers in the Music World and display some of the highest levels of teaching models. It is priceless to watch another director work with a group and pick up new tools of teaching to use with my students. I have begun to have a notebook with me when I come to take notes and reminders of the things I should take back to my classroom (I have a horrible memory). And it's free... with no registration or convention fees.

I, as a director, cannot wait until these days in the school year when I can sit down or stand in a hall with fellow directors in the area and brainstorm. After years of teaching, I am not afraid to bounce ideas off of others to test and see if they are really great ideas or just stupid ideas that I should change or forget all together. It is a pride issue when I risk the chance (and often it is the case) that my idea is truly off-base and I am embarrassed to have spoken. However, I have most often discovered that my colleagues are forgiving and willing to help me find a solution to my issue. Sometimes, I will even come to the conversation having a full knowledge and be able to help someone with an issue they are struggling with. Still further, is the chance to make connections and schedule with fellow directors from another school a time when they can come and work with my students during class time. These conversations are such an encouragement for me as I go back to my classroom the next Monday to work at improving my students. We cannot be the best teachers we can be by ourselves. We may be very intelligent. We may have loads of experience. We may even have 5 degrees to our name. But, the world of teaching music is changing almost daily and the only real way to keep up is collaboration and communication with others who may have different contacts with the music world than we have.

The Band Clinic/Concert experience is a microcosm of the best in Music Education. Students work hard like athletes for 12 hours. Teachers go to school to improve their teaching. Friends and colleagues are given an open opportunity to network and brainstorm for the betterment of the students who are not even at the event.

Because, after all, it really is all about improving student's lives in the end... Right!!

Saturday, January 1, 2011


Whenever I have taught a General Music Class I have always begun with the same question: "What is Music?" When I have asked this question, my students usually answer with nothing more than blank stares and the sound of crickets. Granted they are usually not music students and are simply in the class because nothing else was available, but I hope the wheels begin to turn for them with that question.  I also hope that it serves as a background for the discussions that we have over the course of the semester.'s first definition of MUSIC says it is "an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony and color."  I love this definition because it opens up so many discussion points and I think it boils down four years of university education in one succinct sentence.  I especially love that "color" is a part of this discussion about sound.

Beyond the dictionary definition, though, it must be noted that music is a very emotional and personal thing as well.  You may enjoy listening to Speed Metal Rock music while your close friend cannot tolerate the noise and prefers to listen to Mexican Tejano instead.  Personal preference is inherently emotional and many people have rather strong feelings about others' preferences concerning music choice.  At this point, I could easily begin my own rant about my personal likes and dislikes of the music that comes on my radio or in the various stores I walk into or the car that drives by my apartment or that pulls up next to me at the stop light, but that is not what this is really all about.  Maybe another day...

So, after an inspirational talk with my wife (my biggest fan), I am going to focus on my views of music (music education, music composition, and the music heard on the radio) as I see it.  After 13 years of teaching music and many more years of listening to and analyzing the music around me, these are my thoughts for all to read.  I plan to discuss music that I have discovered and music that I have written.

I hope that you gain some knowledge and inspiration from my musings on this subject.  I'd also like you to be entertained as well.  If there is something you would like me to discuss specifically or if there is something you would like to share yourself, feel free to share via comment.