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Becoming More Involved Your Music Education Association

Becoming More Involved Your Music Education Association - Cathi Leibinger

Cathi Leibinger and Colonel Arnald D. Gabriel, Conductor Emeritus of the U.S. Air Force Band

[Editor’s Note] You attend your music education association conferences and clinics, right? Do you sometimes feel like an observer rather than a fully participating member? Ever wonder what the next step might be in increasing your involvement?

Cathi Leibinger has been in your shoes. Below she describes the awkward feeling she experienced attending her first district Florida Bandmasters Association. Today Cathi is the President Elect of the Florida Bandmasters Association.

Below Cathi shares what happened in the intervening years (and the lessons she’s learned). She begins with an excerpt from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Law of the Wolves:”

NOW this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky,
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back;
For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.

I recently attended a district meeting of the Florida Bandmasters Association. It wasn’t my district; I was taking a new band director to meet the colleagues who may become his support system in his new position. There were many young directors as well as many seasoned ones. I really felt like the organization is simultaneously grounded in tradition and full of new energy.

Remembering back to my very first FBA district meeting, I can still feel the intimidation and uneasiness. Here I was, starting my very first job in a new city in an entirely new state. I knew nothing about the organization that would oversee the activities in which my students were going to be participating. I didn’t even know a single person in the room.

Thankfully, Miami­-Dade County was a very big district. While the directors were friendly, it was easy to slip into the background and observe the workings of the group. By simply watching the interaction and reading the body language of the members, I could tell which directors were well-respected and therefore the ones I should seek out as mentors.

The Calendar and Handbook

The first thing I noticed was that I needed to understand the calendarthe dates of the various activities. Most importantly, I had to become familiar with the deadlines I had to meet in order to participate. I could feel the frustration of the leaders in the organization who warned of the trouble that missing those deadlines would cause to the flow of the events.

I also realized that to truly understand the organization, I needed to read through the handbook. This was no small task but again, the wisest directors in the room could redirect questions and discussions by simply stating what the handbook stated.

When Overwhelmed, Take on More

In the next few months, I felt overwhelmed and consumed by my new job. As a young teacher, I was focused on all of the things that needed to be done and was having some serious trouble creating a list of priorities. I reached out to a few of the leaders I had seen at that first meeting and while they were as busy as I was, I felt a bit safer knowing that I wasn’t in it alone.

At the very next meeting, there was a call for middle school directors to help out with the high school marching festival. I quickly volunteered and was placed as the monitor for the gate where bands lined up to enter the field for their performances.

This allowed me to meet every high school director in the district and have a short conversation with them. (There were 25 or more high schools in Miami at the time.) Looking back, this was the greatest assignment of the entire day. It allowed me to begin to know every member of this “pack” of directors.

Additional Responsibility

Over the next few years, I was asked to take on more responsibilities in the organization. First I was scheduling solo/ensemble festivals, then acting as the district secretary. In time I became chairman of the district and served as Junior High/Middle School Representative on the Executive Board.

Eventually I realized I might be one of the people the new directors watch for cues about things work. That is a responsibility that all seasoned directors need to take seriously. The future of your own organizations and our profession is in the hands of those just entering and we need to pass the torch, not guard the flame.

Best Practices

Here are some tips (for directors at all stages of their careers) to help keep things moving forward in your music education organizations:

  • Attend the meetings of your organization, both on the local and state level. You’ll get to know all of the people with whom you will be working and develop professional and personal relationships that will last your career and beyond.
  • Know the dates and details of all of the activities. Do your absolute best to adhere to all deadlines and rules regarding participation. Be proactive about making the job of those in charge as stress-free as possible. They are volunteering to do this work in addition to their own jobs.
  • Become active in discussions about the operations of the organization, especially regarding changes in policy or procedure. Change is often uncomfortable but hearing the rationale behind the discussions and being able to offer your own views may help streamline things or prevent hardship later on.
  • Understand the flowchart of leadership and of policy change. Don’t allow your great ideas to be overlooked because you shared them with the wrong person or at the wrong time.
  • Increase your involvement. Volunteer for a leadership position or simply for a small task that you will champion year after year. Find something that fits your skills set and become the expert on that one thing. Then find a younger director who can take it from you and train them. Make those transitions as smooth as possible.

We Are the Pack

I think it’s vital to remember that we’re in this together. We are often the “lone wolf” director in our own workplace. As a result we can sometimes feel defeated and isolated on a day-­to-­day basis. Coming together to meet the “pack” can excite and energize us to keep moving forward, becoming better and stronger as we grow.

Cathi LeibingerCathi Leibinger is the director of bands at Ransom Everglades Middle School in Coconut Grove, FL, and has taught in the Miami area for 28 years. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Millikin University and her master’s from the American Band College. An active adjudicator, Cathi’s currently President Elect of the Florida Bandmasters Association, a staff member of both the Western International Band Clinic and the American Band College, and a current NAfMe and FMEA member.

Cathi plays French horn in the Greater Miami Symphonic Band, is executive director of the Miami Worship Choir, and leads classes at Calvary Chapel Miami Beach.

Tips for Teaching Beginning String Orchestra

Tips for Teaching Beginning String Orchestra

Today’s music educators have learned to be flexible. It’s not uncommon for someone with an extensive band or choir background to find themselves directing an orchestra.

Sound familiar? If so, we’d like to help.

We’ve compiled a free e-book of tips for teaching beginning string orchestra.  Written by music educators for music educators, the e-book provides instrument-specific guidance, help with sizing, and a piece from the perspective of a band person placed in front of an orchestra.

Is Robin Hood the first thing that comes to your mind when someone says “bow?" If so,  maybe an owner’s manual for beginning orchestra is just what you’re looking for. Even if you're a seasoned orchestra veteran, we hope you check it out, and find some new perspectives on helping your beginners get started on the right foot.

Click on the button below to explore the e-book for free.


Please let us know what you think of the e-book, or suggest topics for future projects via Facebook or Twitter.

Three Conducting Etudes for Use in Your Classroom


As music educators we aspire to be better communicators. In spite of this, we oftentimes let our passion for our subject lead us to explanations that use too many words or lack true clarity. As we continue to develop we find those phrases that ring true with a wide audience. Our understanding of pacing improves. We become more attuned to what can be academically consumed within a single class period. However, as our verbal communication and teaching improve it is easy to neglect another form of communication; our conducting. 

It is particularly easy to let our conducting go in the classroom. This trend would seem counter-intuitive. In addition to its intrinsic importance, this skill serves for most of us as our primary performing outlet. Surely we pursued teaching music because we were affected by the power of performing at a high level. Yet after we graduate and enter the field it seems so easy to forget the power this non-verbal communication offers. Embracing conducting can help us become more be fully involved and positively influential in the successful performances of our programs.

I’d like to suggest three easy conducting etudes for use in the classroom. I claim no responsibility for these ideas. They simply represent good advice I have collected from great conducting teachers. I have practiced each etude with my students, who always seemed to appreciate the opportunity to become involved with my musical development.

Etude #1: Ensemble Critique

Pick a habit you dislike about your conducting – we all have them. It might be the way you hold your baton, a gesture you feel you use too often, or the habit of looking down at the score too often. It could even be verbal, such as repeating rehearsal letters multiple times before the musicians play a section. Tell your ensemble that you are working on this skill, and that you would like them to stop playing when you make the error. The kids will love holding you accountable, and you’ll get quick feedback.

Etude #2: Left Hand Isolation

We all generally feel comfortable showing time to our ensemble. It is the expressive elements of the music can become technically cumbersome. Take a piece with some music that has a single consistent tempo, like a march, and use only expressive conducting in the left hand to shape the music.

No beating time allowed!

Think about how you can show the difference between a long melodic line in flute and euphonium and buoyant offbeats in your horn section. Use the left hand to spotlight the primary voice and have the ensemble ear-map to that person.  

Etude #3: Silent Rehearsal

Remove speaking as a rehearsal tool! This isn’t a novel rehearsal strategy by any means, but we can use it as an opportunity to be hyper-critical of how we are moving and if we are communicating effectively. If your musicians are playing too legato, how can you change your pattern to encourage them to play staccato? You may find yourself with many more eyes on you than normal because all of your instruction will require your ensemble’s visual attention.

These etudes are only three suggestions for countless ways your can push your own musicianship in the classroom environment. Additionally, we can all benefit from seeking out other good teachers and conductors in our areas and having them watch us work. We can only gain through reaching out into our artistic communities. Every effort made to improve our skill as conductors and communicators will improve our effectiveness as an educator and provide invaluable growth to our efficiency.

Tyler AustinTyler Austin is a DMA wind conducting candidate at Michigan State University, where he studies with Dr. Kevin Sedatole. He previously taught band, choir, percussion ensemble, and general music classes at St. John’s Catholic Prep in Frederick, MD, and maintained an active schedule as a conductor and bassoonist.

Austin is the founding artistic director of the Maryland Wind Festival. This week-long summer concert and workshop series brings young artists together from around the country.

October Repertoire Spotlight on New Choral Music

October Repertoire Spotlight on New Choral Music

Last week we added 40 new ensemble titles to the SmartMusic Repertoire Library. Included are new pieces for concert band, jazz band, string orchestra and choir. View the complete list.  

Featured Release

This month’s additions include ten new titles of choral music. In celebration, we’re highlighting one piece in particular: Christine Donkin’s In Flanders Field.

The simplicity of this expressive, homophonic, hymn-like setting allows the listener to focus on the beauty of the well-known text (which was penned by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae during World War I). Scored in unaccompanied four-part harmony throughout, this piece is appropriate for high school, college, or community choirs.


Graphite Publishing offers the piece in both SATB and TTBB versions. This month we’ve added the SATB version, but the TTBB is coming soon. Follow this link to hear Cantus perform the TTBB arrangement in a live setting.

Is there a choral piece you’d like to see added to SmartMusic? Or something else? Please send us your requests here.

Increase Your Concert Attendance and Community Support

Increase Your Concert Attendance and Community Support

Have you ever wished that more of your teaching colleagues would attend your concerts? Wouldn’t it be nice if they could hear and see what your students are capable of?  How might you get more of your community involved in your program? Would you welcome having more than just the parents of your students in your concert audience?  

These are just some of the questions that I have asked myself over the course of 33 years of directing bands and choirs at multiple levels. While some answers remain elusive, I’m glad to share a few of the ideas I’ve come up with for increasing faculty and community involvement.

Fellow Educators

Getting your faculty colleagues to come to school concerts can be difficult.  They are all as busy as you are with planning, grading, and a multitude of other responsibilities. Nevertheless, there are ways to increase the likelihood of their participation.  

A quick search of led me to several “novelty” tunes that offer ways to include faculty members in your concert performance. These include (but are not limited to) James Ployhar’s Concerto for Faculty and Band and Second Concerto for Faculty/Band.

You might discover that a piece like this could become the perfect way to have the head football coach “play” along with the band.  

Imagine the laughs you’ll get when it all goes wrong and you have to “politely” remind the coach about counting or rhythm. If you’re a band director, and have had to lead the pep band at football games, this could present you with the ideal opportunity for some good-natured “payback.” Of course the coach, his family, and other members of the faculty will not want to miss this.

Community Narrators

You might also search for pieces that include narrator parts; there are many very good examples available. Jim Curnow’s Heritage of Freedom is one such piece that calls for a strong narrator as the music progresses.  Imagine having a local radio personality, doctor, or your mayor perform the narrator role.  Even if none of these people have ever attended one of your concerts before, they may be willing to participate – simply because you asked. And of course, when they take the stage their friends, family, and colleagues will want to be in the audience.

Community Musicians

Similarly there are likely many singers and instrumentalists in your community who have yet to attend one of your concerts. By inviting them to perform with the group, you may be opening a door to a potential music program supporter.  

Perhaps you know of a vocalist in your community who would love an opportunity to perform Somewhere over the Rainbow, but has never been approached or invited to do so.  You take a risk that the soloist may not bring the musicianship you would like, but you stand to broaden your audience and expand your connection with your community. Available pieces for guest soloists range from very easy to very difficult. It’s up to you to find the right arrangement – and level of difficulty – for this opportunity. Nevertheless, I believe the benefits you could enjoy have the potential to be far-reaching.

Taking it Further

I’d like to close by sharing an example of how it’s possible to take community involvement to the next level.

One year I decided that the theme of our fall concert would be “Dances from Around the World.” While playing in a local pit orchestra I learned that the director was not only an accomplished musician, but had also competed as an Irish dancer in a statewide talent contest.  I approached her, asked if she would choreograph a dance to Leroy Anderson’s Irish Washerwoman, and she kindly agreed.

Her dance performance at our concert was literally show-stopping. The audience response was overwhelming.

Also on the program was the Offenbach’s Schuller Polka. I had heard that a young woman on our campus was currently serving as Miss Czech Slovak of Iowa. What’s more, she was reputed to be a terrific dancer. She also agreed to participate.

At the concert she performed an incredible dance, in a traditional Czech dress. The polka, further enhanced by a strong lead clarinet, produced another memorable moment in a truly great concert.


We, as directors, are sometimes our own worst enemies. We often take ourselves too seriously and forget that there are many resources available outside of our own rooms. Engaging a faculty member or community leader to participate builds relationships that can provide tremendous rewards. Because of opportunities like these, I have become wonderful friends with people outside of the band room who have gone on to sing the praises of our music program.

Even if it doesn’t become a regular (or annual) practice for your program, offering an occasional “special” guest performance can be an added draw and a highlight. Filling the seats at your concerts is rewarding for yourself, your students, your school, and the community.  Why not give it a try?

Glenn PohlandGlenn Pohland, D.M.A., is the director of instrumental music at Loras College and an assistant professor in the communication and fine arts division. He conducts the wind ensemble, jazz ensemble and chamber groups; serves as instructor of the low brass studio; and teaches courses in music education, orchestration, music history, instrumental techniques and conducting. 

Previously, Dr. Pohland was an assistant professor of instrumental music education at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He served for 24 years as the director of bands and general music teacher in the Glencoe-Silver Lake, Minnesota, school district. He is also an active adjudicator, clinician and guest conductor.

The Dallas Brass: Projection Tips for Your Horns

The Dallas Brass: Projection Tips for Your Horns

The horn is a versatile instrument, capable of making beautiful, velvety tones, while also taking on the role of strong and exciting musical characters. Yet, we seem to often have a hard time hearing the horns clearly in the midst of all the sounds coming from the band or orchestra. Horn players are faced with some unique challenges that make it difficult to project.

These include the direction of the bell (facing away from the listener), and the hand being placed inside the bell where the sound comes out. There are also additional challenges having to do with the nature of the instrument based on its design. Regardless, the issue of projection can quickly become frustrating for both directors and players. Luckily, there are ways to overcome this and help your horn section to project better!

Hand Position

The placement and position of the hand inside the bell plays a significant role in the instrument’s sound. Addressing the hand position is probably the quickest and easiest way to help your horn section project more. This will also improve the overall clarity of the sound. As a bonus, it doesn’t  require much actual practice from the students just a bit of experimenting – and you will (hopefully) hear the difference immediately!

Straighter Tends to Be Better

Sometimes young horn players have a “woofy” or muffled sound. A common cause is that their hand is covering the bell too much. For that reason, I encourage horn players to use a straight(er) hand position with little or no cupping of the hand.

Try this: Have the student put the right hand out as if they were going to shake hands. Then, have them bring the thumb over to the base knuckle of the index finger. The hand should basically be completely straight and look something like this:

The Dallas Brass: Projection Tips for Your Horns 2

Placement and Positioning

Believe it or not, the positioning/placement of the hand in the bell makes a difference in the sound. This can be a “hot topic” in the horn world, but I think it’s safe to say that we want the hand to be as out of the of way of the sound as possible. This will produce more clarity, resonance, and projection.

Once the student has the correct hand shape, have them place the hand along the right or bottom side of the bell until the base knuckle of the thumb (or first knuckle for students with larger hands) is touching the bell.

The Dallas Brass: Projection Tips for Your Horns 3

The back of the fingers should ALWAYS touch the metal of the bell. This will ensure that there is a seal inside the bell, essentially making the opening of the bell smaller, and that the hand stays “open” and out of the way of the bell opening. This will allow for better projection.

This may require some bend in the wrist in order to maintain the arm in a more comfortable position while using a straight/open hand position.

Volume – Mindset and Perspective

Horn players will almost always need to play louder than they feel is appropriate for the printed dynamic. This was one of the toughest concepts for me to grasp as a younger player! As I could usually hear myself pretty well within the ensemble, I felt like I was playing at a proper volume.It wasn’t until I played in an orchestra horn section with one of my teachers that this reality sunk in.

Six horns sat in rows, and I was right behind my teacher’s bell. The first entrance for the horns is marked fortissimo and it was in unison. My initial reaction was that my teacher, and the players in front of me, were playing much louder than I considered to be ff. However, when I listened back to a recording I was shocked to discover the volume was perfect at that moment – and it was EPIC! This really helped me understand the perspective/mindset that horn players should have when it comes to volume.

That being said, here are some ways to help your students with this concept.

Basic Mindset

Play one dynamic level louder than printed. Horn players need to be comfortable playing louder than they think is necessary! This will vary depending on the musical situation, but it’s a great starting point for establishing the mindset and perspective horn players should have in regards to volume.

Tip: I always tell students to make it a goal to get “the hand” while they are exploring this aspect of playing. It is much easier to back off when you’ve gone too far, so this is a “good problem” for them to have!

Establishing Perspective

During rehearsal, have the horn section play a passage by themselves. Invite the rest of the band to listen. Ask the individual horn players to tell you what dynamic they felt they were playing at. Then, have 2 or 3 players in different sections/areas of the band say at what dynamic level they thought the horn section played.

You might select one student that is seated close to the bell side (preferably behind or to the right of the bells), one that is to the left of the bells, and maybe one that is in front.

Finally, provide your perspective from the podium. This will not only help your horn players understand the relativity of volume/loudness from their perspectives, but will inform the players around the horn section as well. That way, once your horn section is “kicking it up a notch,” those who are bell side/right by them will (hopefully) not be influenced to play any louder than they were, resulting in better balance.

Actually Playing Louder

Sadly, loud playing often comes with bad playing habits. We all grow up hearing things like “use lots of air,” “push the air,” “squeeze/use the core muscles,” or “support your air.” Yet, when we try without truly understanding what we need to do, it leads to tension in the body and improper use of air, resulting in working too hard for a less than desirable sound. For those reasons, loud playing can be a tricky matter.

Learning to properly and easily play louder will require students to be much more conscious of HOW they are using their air and bodies. At the most basic level, it boils down to good/efficient air and body usage. Playing loud is all about figuring out how to use the appropriate amount of blowing pressure while not manipulating the body too much. This requires maintaining a proper embouchure, making sure to not use/apply excessive mouthpiece pressure, and keeping the body as relaxed as possible.

Believe it or not, this is not supposed to be super difficult! It’s important to remind your students of all of these elements when they are working toward improving this aspect of playing. While there are many ways of “teaching” students to play louder, the following are some of my favorite exercises.


1. Blowing Against Resistance – Resistance/back pressure from the instrument often leads to tension in the body and “squeezing” or restricting the air. This air exercise can help the student to play in as relaxed a manner as possible.

2. “Blastissimos” – “Want to play loud? Practice playing loud!” Here I’m encorporating Exercise #4 from Joseph Singer’s book, Embouchure Building for French Horn.

3. “Balloon Swells” – This one will help with acquiring/improving dynamic control.

These are some of the strategies I find helpful and effective when dealing with projection. Hopefully, they’ll be helpful for your students as well!

Juan BerriosOriginally from Bayamón, Puerto Rico, Juan Berrios enjoys performing with a wide variety of musical ensembles from symphony and jazz orchestras to British style brass bands. Also a passionate educator, he loves working with students of all ages, at any level and musical setting.

As a member of the Dallas Brass, Juan performs hundreds of concerts and educational clinics across the country each year. He studied Music Education and Performance at the University of Central Florida, attended the Music Academy of the West and the Aspen Music Festival and School, and is a Hans Hoyer Performing Artist.

Gordon Goodwin on Balance and Improvisation

Gordon Goodwin on Balance and Improvisation

The search for balance is everywhere in our lives. The human condition is best expressed when things are in balance. This includes our emotions, our physical condition, our work and home life, the list goes on and on. We seek balance in the small details of our lives as well as in the big picture items.

I have noticed that the music that I appreciate the most, the music the touches me most, is music with the same balance. A balance of rhythmic complexity with rhythmic clarity, a balance of harmonic simplicity with harmonic density, a balance of melodic sparseness with melodic intricacy, and so on.

The Composer’s Balance

Balancing all these various musical elements is the composer’s primary job, and it can be a delicate dance. A complicated melody may best be accompanied by more simple and open harmony. A dense rhythmic pattern may overwhelm the listener when paired with an equally busy melody.

You get the idea.

As a composer, I make many of these decisions by instinct, and make some by careful analysis. But since composing is not a real-time endeavor, I have the luxury of stepping back to gain perspective. I can put a composition that I’m working on aside, go out and take a walk, and come back later with some new objectively and look at it with new eyes. Or, rather, ears.

The Improvisor’s Balance

An improvising musician has to make all of these same choices and decisions, but has to do it in real-time, in the moment. This is the real challenge in learning to improvise. You must train your brain to react quickly, to analyze the musical circumstances around you and adjust accordingly. Is the drummer playing a busy pattern behind your solo? Perhaps you will need to play fewer notes, or more sustained phrases so that the music has balance.

Having said that, sometimes your reaction to the other musicians will be to reinforce what they are doing, to take it to the next level. If your drummer is playing a tons of notes, and your respond accordingly, the music may indeed benefit, and on top of that, your musical relationship with your drummer will improve because you have, in effect, validated what he has played. You have said “Hey, a lot of notes, that’s a good idea! I’m going to do that too!”

When a group of improvising musicians gets together and listens to each other and responds positively to each other’s musical choices, you have the formula for some exciting music. There is no better feeling than the exhilaration of creating something spontaneously with others, to walk that line together, to take a chance and see where it leads.

Communication Breakdown

Of course, this gate swings both ways. I have experienced numerous times where I have perceived that my musical choices were being ignored by the other musicians I was playing with.

It’s not a great feeling either, partially because it is a passive-aggressive denial by the other players. It’s not like they will stop playing and say, “Look man, I just didn’t think we should have gone to double-time at the bridge, sorry.” That conversation doesn’t actually happen.  And really, it is not all that practical for it to happen because all this is going on in real time, on the fly as you are playing.

This may be the preeminent skill you will want to obtain as an improvisor. You want the ability to react instantaneously to the other musicians, without any preconceived notions or ego influencing your decisions. If you can acquire that kind of mental flexibility, along with the willingness to let the music go anywhere it wants to, then you are in for a wild and fun ride.

Build the Foundation

But this ride isn’t free. The cost of admission is that you must learn your chords and scales and how they fit together. You must learn the improvisational language of the great jazz masters. These tools will eventually go into your subconscious and inform who you turn out to be as a creative musician. So – come on, let’s get to it.

Learning that stuff isn’t that big a deal, just commit to it. Do a little every day and you’ll get the info you need before you know it.

Combine that info with your own emotions and passions and there’s an improvisor that we all want to hear!

gordon-bio-3Gordon Goodwin is a GRAMMY and Emmy award-winning composer, arranger, and performer. He leads Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, the critically-acclaimed ensemble made up of LA’s finest musicians.

Goodwin’s scoring and orchestration is heard in many films including The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Get Smart, National Treasure, The Incredibles, Remember the Titans, Armageddon, The Majestic, Enemy of the State, Star Trek Nemesis and even Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes.

As a composer, arranger or performer, Gordon has worked with Ray Charles, Christina Aguilera, Johnny Mathis, John Williams, Natalie Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, Brian McKnight, Quincy Jones and many more. He has also conducted world-renowned symphony orchestras in Atlanta, Dallas, Utah, Seattle, Toronto and London.

SmartMusic eLearning Courses Approved by the TEA

SmartMusic eLearning Courses Approved by the TEA

We’re pleased to announce that MakeMusic University’s SmartMusic eLearning Courses have been certified for continuing professional education (CPE) credits by the Texas Education Agency.

What does this mean for you?

If you are a music educator in Texas:

You can earn up to nine hours of CPE credit while you learn how to do more for your students. These course might be perfect for you, especially if your teaching certificate is up and you still need some credits. Learn More.

If you are a music educator elsewhere:

You can still take great advantage of the classes. These web-based courses offer an inexpensive way to learn SmartMusic on your schedule, wherever you are. Learn More.

Nevertheless, if you’re interested in getting these course approved for CPE credit in your state, please let us know at [email protected].

What Adjudicators WISH They Could Tell You

What Adjudicators WISH They Could Tell You

All of us have had our students evaluated at festivals, clinics, contests, or competitions. Ever wonder what the adjudicators did not – or could not – tell you? Today I’m going to violate our oath of secrecy and share some unspoken thoughts of those who have served as judges.

Repertoire Difficulty

Often, judges are presented with scores for bands or choirs that are woefully more difficult than the students can perform. They wish they could say,“What were you thinking?” or “Did your college perform this when you were a senior, and you thought it would be fun to perform again?”

So much of a music program’s success occurs with proper score selection. Please choose carefully and keep in mind the skill set of your students, instrumentation and/or voices in your ensembles. With the entire music world at our fingertips via the internet, don’t hesitate to contact other state and district teachers for recommendations of literature. I’d also suggest you reach out to  the music retailer of your choice.

Don’t forget the old music adage, “It is better to play Bach beautifully, than to play (or sing) Brahms badly.” Choosing appropriate music for every ensemble and student is a skill that takes time to acquire. Every music professional I know has – at one time or another – regretted a literature choice they’ve made. Learn from those errors and choose more wisely in the future.

Repertoire Variety

Another issue with literature occurs when directors choose a second or third piece that is in the exact same style and key as their other selections. Occasionally every piece performed is by the same composer or arranger. 

Sometimes we want to ask, “Do you know what contrasting means?”

Judges often cannot  comment on or lower points based on music choices. It is not the performer’s fault they are singing or playing pieces that are nearly identical. So, again, please choose carefully and make sure that there is indeed a contrast in the selections.

If you find yourself in a rut in choosing pieces, spend and evening or two on YouTube listening to performances or picking the brain of other colleagues. Reach out to retired directors in your area who would most likely love to offer some suggestions of literature that they taught for decades.

Measure Numbering

Improperly numbered measures can be a sticking point with adjudicators. Under no circumstances should this numbering occur on the bus while in route to the contest.  But I suspect they sometimes are. 

Adjudicators work hard to refrain from asking, “Did your three-year-old number this music?”

Honestly, clear and legible numbers on every measure help make the judging so much easier. An adjudicator is often juggling the music itself, a microphone, MP3 recorder, or tablet, and a written critique form while the music is being performed. It’s really tough to try to stop and figure out a horribly illegible number while trying to point out a rhythm error or compliment a section on a well-executed phrase.

Directors, do yourselves a favor, and check the numbering of your scores before any evaluation. Yes, it’s one of the many dreary tasks to add to your already incredible workload. In solo and small ensemble festivals, I have actually been handed a tall stack of books, and the director suggested I “figure it out!” True story! But, trust me, we love it when presented with clearly numbered music that is placed in performance order.

Student Attire

All of us have experienced our own students forgetting parts of their ensemble attire. Unfortunately, appearance does matter and attention to detail positively influences adjudicators.

As judges, we don’t feel that we can ask, “Why does someone in the front row have on lime green tennis shoes?”

We’ve all had last minute wardrobe malfunctions and directors have to manage the best they can. Ultimately, the disregard for ensemble uniformity reflects on the school, the program, and director. We live in a visual society and are frequently judged on attire. I often carried a bag of extra bow ties, black socks, a sewing kit, and other items to competitions. At school, I kept extra pairs of shoes, pants, shirts, choir dresses, and robes for emergencies. Second-hand stores, like Goodwill, represent an economical way to purchase many articles of clothing.

When traveling out of town, I took an extra suitcase of emergency attire. It paid off several times. Parent groups can greatly assist directors with this area. Even if your performance attire is “black and white” it can work beautifully when every single person wears the required colors from head to toe.

In solo or small ensemble performances, ensure that the student’s faces and eyes are not covered by their hair.  It is difficult to judge an expression or embouchure when they are hidden from view. Hair pulled off the face will also make a good impression.

Director Attire

Directors might not consider what their own personal concert attire looks like while conducting and in front of their groups.

I know that some judges have thought, “Why didn’t you coordinate your outfit with your group? “Why do you look casual when your students are wearing formal outfits?”

Consider matching or coordinating with the color and formality of your ensemble. If the students are in black and white, then brown is not necessarily a complementary shade to wear. I’m not condoning a director wear the same tuxedo or dress that their ensemble wears. I am merely suggesting that you be mindful about it.

Consider being videotaped from the angle of the audience and see what you think of your jacket or pants/skirt. If, for example, something is too tight while conducting, then switch sizes.

Directors should also be careful with skirt lengths. Because you may be placed on an elevated, lighted stage and actively conducting, consider the audience view. My advice is to err on the side of modesty. If your group attire is a choir or band T-shirt, you might try a collared version of the same shirt topped with a casual sport coat or jacket. Again, many adjudicators will be pleased with the director’s effort to look professional.

Music Etiquette

Please remember to acknowledge your audience applause, and to see if the judges are ready for your ensemble to begin their second or third selections.

Judges often think, “Hey, you did a great job, show the audience you appreciate their enthusiasm!”

Remind your students to use their best manners entering and leaving performance venues. Judges notice rowdy students, as well as well-behaved and polite ensembles. The music is always what is judged, but the ensemble can positively or negatively influence an adjudicator mindset before even one note is performed. In small ensemble and solo festivals, be sure your young performers know how to properly introduce their selections and to always acknowledge their accompanist.

One Director Willing to Go on Record

In preparing this article, I asked several music professionals for their thoughts on judging. Only one brave soul,Joseph Pappas, was willing to speak “on the record.” Joseph is a veteran high school and college band director and composer.

Here are a few direct quotes he kindly shared:

“If you would have chosen different literature (more appropriate, grade level, fits instrumentation, etc.) I wonder if your outcome would have been different.”

“It’s the student’s responsibility to practice and learn the music, but it’s the director’s responsibility to make it musical.”

“Don’t just play the notes, make it musical!”

“Music is like a piece of fabric; it has various threads of color and must be woven with each thread being important on its own to become the whole.”

Final Checklist

In conclusion, to ensure the best results at your next evaluative performance, make sure that:

  1. Your music selections showcase your students’ talents.
  2. You and your students are uniformly dressed.
  3. All music scores are clearly numbered, and that
  4. Proper music etiquette is observed.

This will ensure that your students and program are well served and your adjudicators will be impressed. Hopefully, their only unspoken thoughts will be, “That was wonderful,” and “Where are we going to eat dinner tonight?”

Laura VaughnLaura Vaughan has over 30 years of teaching experience. She received a B. S. in Music from Missouri State University and an M. M. in Voice Performance and Pedagogy from Webster University, with additional studies at the University of Exeter, England.

Her choirs were selected to perform at several Missouri Music Educator Association conventions. Laura is active as a choral adjudicator, maintains a private voice studio in St. Louis, and has been a SmartMusic clinician since 2004. She has performed as a soprano soloist in the US, England and Italy.

When Classroom Management Goes to the Dogs

When Classroom Management Goes to the Dogs

Nobody lands in a career teaching music on accident. At least nobody I know. You don’t sign on to wrangle a squawking flock of beginner clarinetists without a deeply held desire to help them learn and grow.

Yet, somehow, many of us still spend loads of time nagging students to stack chairs and stands, count rests, and keep a pencil handy during class. There has to be a better way!

In the time I’ve spent with my two Australian Shepherds, Cooper and Pip, I’ve found more than a few parallels between training dogs and teaching young musicians. The same methods I use to keep my dogs motivated and consistent can also help you improve your classroom management.

Setting Expectations from the Start

Most dog trainers start puppies with simple tricks like sit and stay because they lay the groundwork for basic manners that prove increasingly more important with age. Of course an 8-week-old puppy jumping up to say “hello” is adorable. When he grows to 40 pounds and launches himself onto your shoulders (a real risk in our house), it’s less cute.

That’s why we set expectations from the start. If my dogs greet me with all four paws on the floor, they know they’ll get attention and playtime. If they get too excited and start jumping, I walk away.

Because I set the expectations early, they behave appropriately without nagging on my part.

Basic Behaviors of Classroom Management

If your students know what fundamental behaviors you expect from them up front, you can more easily reward good etiquette and build great habits. Include all of your class expectations in a syllabus at the start of the semester, from assignments to seemingly minute concert etiquette.

Some examples of behaviors you may want to note:

  • When the conductor’s hands go up, students are silent and ready to play.
  • When a piece ends, students freeze until the conductor’s hands drop.
  • Students keep pencils on their stands and mark music when appropriate.
  • Instruments should be stored in their designated areas, out of the way and with cases latched.

Make sure students understand these expectations from day one and you won’t have to compete with bad habits formed on accident.

Operant Conditioning + Positive Reinforcement

I use a clicker (a “marker”) and kibble (a “reward”) to teach my dogs new, desired behaviors. When Cooper first started learning to army crawl on the ground, he got a click any time he scooted forward on his belly at all. Every click was immediately followed with a reward.

Over time, I raised the criteria for a click until eventually he was crawling down entire hallways on his belly in order to earn a click and reward. That kind of immediate feedback empowered him to make intentional choices to perform specific behaviors that always prompted rewards (you can read more about using positive reinforcement in operant conditioning here).

In time, he understands the task so completely that he’ll perform the behavior for much lower value rewards: a pat on the head or a simple “good boy.”

Though you can’t realistically hurl Skittles at your students every time they do something correctly, you can use this type of positive reinforcement to teach good classroom habits. In fact, it may be easier to do in a music classroom than anywhere else.

Music is the Reward

Do you remember the very first time your ensemble harmonized? Or when you clapped your first syncopated rhythm? Or that solo you nailed in your high school choir concert?  Many students strive for excellence independently because the gratification of being part of the music is such a powerful reward on its own. Algebra teachers may not share this same advantage.

As music educators, we must ensure students get positive reinforcement early and often enough to keep them motivated to make music. You can always use your own classroom expectations as a guide for which behaviors to reward. Recognize the students who listen for overtones in the milliseconds after a piece concludes and thank those who mark their music during rehearsal.

There will always be some students who continually struggle to follow the rules. For those individuals, you can try gamifying good behavior by awarding points to students when they meet or exceed expectations. Though you may not be throwing candy at students as they rehearse, it may help to let them earn it over time.

Incompatible Behaviors

The most popular criticism of positive reinforcement methods in dog training is that they do not punish bad behaviors. And anyone who has conducted a group of 60 middle schoolers knows that you can’t just ignore disruptive students indefinitely.

Let’s see how this happens in the dog world. Whenever a dog hears a doorbell, he goes absolutely nuts barking at visitors. Buddy thinks to himself “I am protecting my family! I am doing a good job!” The owner yells, “Be quiet!” over and over and locks Buddy away in the laundry room for time out while Buddy loses his mind. Buddy still doesn’t listen because he finds no reward in silence. The punishment doesn’t work.

Karen Pryor, founder of the clicker training movement, explains it best. “Punishment may decrease the frequency of an unwanted behavior, but usually results in producing another unwanted behavior. The results of punishment as a training method are difficult to predict and to control. “

When Classroom Management Goes to the Dogs (2)The Solution

Dog trainers around the world have found a totally delightful and extremely successful solution to this problem. When visitors come to the door, give Buddy a task incompatible with his barking. More specifically, teach Buddy to hold a pillow in his mouth. It seems totally ridiculous… and yet it works.

People most successfully kick bad habits when they instead replace them with good habits. That’s because the brain is wired to repeat behaviors (good or bad) it considers rewarding.

Let’s re-frame Buddy’s situation in the context of a music classroom. Imagine a tuba player shooting rubber bands at percussionists from across the room. You can call out the bad behavior and  tell the tuba player to knock it off.  Then you’ll pick back up where you left off, bringing attention to the behavior and wasting valuable class time.

Alternatively, you can flip the classroom by asking your students to identify interesting harmonies, syncopation, or motifs throughout the piece during long rests. Not only is this behavior incompatible with shooting rubber bands across the room, but it also teaches students to use their class time productively and engage during rests.

Focus on the Good

By focusing your students on what to do rather than what not to do, you help them set higher goals and achieve those goals day after day. Students invest themselves in the success of the ensemble as a whole. They start thinking musically and creatively where otherwise they might be daydreaming of a life with no history class. They make section shirts, show up early for rehearsals, and stay late to clean up. More importantly, they take pride in their music because they’ve worked hard to sound great.

It’s not as far-fetched as you may think. You’ll need a little patience and creativity, but since you are a music teacher after all, I suspect you’re pretty well prepared.

Kait CreamerMakeMusic’s conversion marketing manager, Kait Creamer works to share SmartMusic and Finale with musicians around the world.  She received her B.M. in music industry with a concentration in tuba from Middle Tennessee State University. Kait currently plays in the Gunbarrel Brass Quintet.

Inspired by work with herding dogs in New Zealand, she returned stateside to train two Australian Shepherds, Cooper and Pip. They are often seen doing tricks for popcorn at the MakeMusic office in Boulder, CO.