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Teaching Improvisation by Ear

Teaching Improvisation by Ear

Improvisation is Scary

The excitement of playing in an environment with “no wrong notes” quickly turns ugly when a student realizes that only the “right” notes will create a solo that sounds like their favorite artist. Students should have an introduction to improvisation (jazz or otherwise) that generates confidence while also developing musicianship and ear training.

Rather than being force-fed music theory (“Play these notes over this chord!”), students will develop better improvisation skills if they are able to use their ears to hear what they want to play instead of concentrating on every change. Generating a musical conversation with motives and phrasing will ultimately result in more fluent musicians and improvisers. Professional improvisers aren’t guessing, and they aren’t puzzling their way through the changes as though improvisation were a game of Tetris. Soloists with excellent motivic development, phrasing, and musicality are successful because their ears tell them what to play.

So how do we approach teaching improvisation? Here’s a basic, flexible exercise that will get your entire class working on ear training and improvisation simultaneously.

The Exercise

Arrange students in a circle. Explain that you are going to “pass” a one measure musical figure to the next person in the circle by playing it twice, with a one measure rest in between.. Once the second person in the circle has heard the figure twice, they should (in rhythm!) repeat it exactly. If they don’t get it, rest for one measure and try again. Once the figure is correct, the second person will play a new figure and “pass” it to the third person, and so on around the circle. Notated, the exercise looks like this:

Teaching Improvisation by Ear

The best part of this game is that it can be customized for students at any skill level by controlling pitch and rhythm. Even beginner students can get around the circle without too much trouble when the requirements are “play exactly a whole note” and “your note must be from the Bb major scale.” Students can then advance to two half notes, four quarter notes, any combination of quarter notes and quarter rests, minor keys, alternative modes, and more.

High school jazz band students, for example, could do quarter notes, swung eighth notes, and triplets, but only on the notes of an C7 chord. Now students are practicing swing feel and part of a ii-V progression. However, rather than running patterns against an Aebersold track, they are listening to each other and generating their own ideas for use in a full-length improvisation.

improv exercise example 2

While this rhythm may be difficult for some high schoolers to recognize by ear, knowing that the only possible notes in the example are C-E-G-Bb keeps the example manageable.

The Benefits

This exercise deliberately connects improvisation to ear training. However, it offers many other benefits as well. The exercise:

  • Encourages all students to improvise by generating their own musical idea to pass on to the next student. In this way even the most hesitant students are exposed to improvisation.
  • Focuses on specific concepts — for example, odd meters can be practiced by passing a measure in a challenging meter (but with simple pitches!) around the circle.
  • Fosters sound rhythmic foundations by putting an empty bar between each attempt that students must count.
  • Teaches students melodic dictation — plus, having them reproduce dictation on their primary instruments generates an ear to arm/fingers/lips connection.
  • Helps students internalize the idea that improvisation (and music composition in general) is the result of collaboration and conversation with other musicians.
  • Introduces transcription (an important tool for advanced improvisers) by having students essentially transcribe short solos from their peers.

But the biggest reason that this exercise has been so successful for me as both a player and an educator is its flexibility. I’ve used this exercise in private lessons with a single student and with a 20 piece jazz ensemble. I’ve used this exercise with flutes, cellos, and more. It’s an inclusive approach to teaching jazz improvisation that engages students with a game-like exercise.


Here are some additional ways I’ve customized the exercise:

  • Have the rhythm section play behind the improvisers. This can help improvisers with time and pulse and gets more students playing at once. If your students are having trouble, a metronome can also come in handy!
  • Use a progression. Limit the rhythmic options (only quarter notes and quarter rests) but have the exercise use two bar segments that mirror a progression in a piece the group is performing. This is particularly effective for teaching students to improvise over a bridge or B section.
  • Have each student start their original figure on the same note that the previous student ended on.
  • Have each student’s original figure use the same melodic shape (leap up, step down, step down, for example). This trains motivic development in a deliberate, organic way.
  • Use the same “passing” concept to practice articulation and intonation. In this case, the figure is not improvised, but the goal of “matching” is applied to technique.

Students should fall in love in improvising because it offers an unparalleled opportunity for creativity, not because there is a “right” answer. Teaching techniques that encourage creativity help teachers push students in that direction. I hope this exercise helps your students feel more confident improvising and trains their ears!

Ryan SargentIn addition to his role as MakeMusic’s social media manager, Ryan Sargent is an active teacher and performer in the Denver-Boulder metropolitan area, and a member of the music faculty at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

A graduate of Baylor University, he has studied jazz composition and improvisation with Art Lande and Alex Parker.

SmartMusic Update October 2015

SmartMusic Carousel

Today we released an exciting SmartMusic update. Upon launching SmartMusic you’ll now see an updated carousel on the home page (pictured above). Not only does it include new content, the carousel now rotates, placing more playing options at your students’ fingertips.

In this same vein we’ve also added additional genres below the carousel, including Spooky, Holiday, TV and Toons, Latin Feel, Spiritual, and Romantic.

As mentioned yesterday, we’re delighted to have added some keyboard repertoire to SmartMusic. These titles are designed for use with a MIDI keyboard. Included are several solo collections including baroque, classical, romantic, and jazz repertoire, as well as three collections by Lorie Line.

Speaking of jazz, five books of Gordon Goodwin solos, for trumpet, alto and soprano sax, tenor sax, trombone, and drums were also added. These titles include stunning solo transcriptions from Gordon’s Big Phat Band, and accompaniment controls that let you choose to hear the soloist or not, making it possible for every student to improvise along  with Gordon’s incredible group.

Again, the goal of these updates is make all SmartMusic repertoire more discover-able for your students.

Have questions or observations to share? Please let us know by clicking on “Comments” below.

SmartMusic Repertoire Released: Ensemble & Solo Titles

SmartMusic September Repertoire Release

This week we added 30 new ensemble titles to the SmartMusic Repertoire Library. These additions included choral titles as well as pieces for concert band, jazz ensemble, string orchestra and full orchestra.

But that’s not all. We also released:

  • Several new keyboard collections for use with MIDI keyboards
  • Three books of keyboard solo collections by Lorie Line
  • Five books of jazz solo collections by Gordon Goodwin

All the titles and details appear in the two charts below:

Large Ensemble Titles

Title Comp/Arr Publisher Music Type Pepper Level
Undercover Bossa Jarvis, Jeff Kendor Music, Inc. Jazz Ensemble E
Variations on a Russian Hymn Connor, Mark J. Grand Mesa Music Publishers Concert Band M
Fires of Bandai, The Sheldon, Robert FJH Music Company Concert Band VE
Fanfare Supernova Clark, Larry Carl Fischer LLC. Concert Band B
Spirits Awake Calhoun, Bill Carl Fischer LLC. Concert Band E
Legacy of Honor Clark, Larry Carl Fischer LLC. Concert Band ME
Silent Night Gruber, Franz Xaver; O’Loughlin, Sean Carl Fischer LLC. Concert Band ME
Better Get It in Your Soul Mingus, Charles; Ford, Ralph Belwin Jazz Ensemble M
Shout, Stomp, and Swing! Sabina, Les Belwin Jazz Ensemble E
Scarborough Fair Traditional English Folk Song; White, Terry Belwin Jazz Ensemble E
Wayfaring Stranger, The Traditional; Collins-Dowden, Mike Belwin Jazz Ensemble E
Cheaha Sketches Roszell, Patrick Belwin Concert Band ME
Mi Bossa Es Su Bossa Edmondson, John Neil A. Kjos Music Co. Jazz Ensemble ME
Beyond the Forest (From The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) Shore, Howard; Phillips, Bob Alfred Publishing Co., Inc. Full Orchestra M
Allegro Molto (from “Gran Partita,” K. 361, First Movement) Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus; Wagner, Douglas E. Alfred Publishing Co., Inc. String Orchestra M
Sinfonia No. 9 in C Major (Movement 1) Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Felix; Moss, Kirk Alfred Publishing Co., Inc. String Orchestra MA
Three Lyric Pieces Grieg, Edvard; Brook, Steven H. Alfred Publishing Co., Inc. String Orchestra M
Larghetto (From Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 12) Handel, G.F.; Dabczynski, Andrew H. Highland/Etling Publishing String Orchestra VE
Winstride Spata, Doug Highland/Etling Publishing String Orchestra E
Flight Day, Susan H. Highland/Etling Publishing String Orchestra M
Adagio and Presto (From Symphony No. 101 in D Major “The Clock”) Haydn, F.J.; Sieving, Robert Highland/Etling Publishing String Orchestra MA
Westridge Overture Meyer, Richard Highland/Etling Publishing String Orchestra MA
Peer Gynt Suite (Selections) Grieg, Edvard Highland/Etling Publishing Full Orchestra ME
Day Dreamer’s Waltz Gordon, Adrian Leap Year Music String Orchestra E
Cat and Mouse Gordon, Adrian Leap Year Music String Orchestra E
Chindia – SATB Pascanu, Alexandru Santa Barbara Music Publishing Choir M
Exsultate justi in Domino – TTBB Adams, Brant Santa Barbara Music Publishing Choir M
O Mistress Mine – TTB Ginsberg, Neil Santa Barbara Music Publishing Choir ME
Boy Who Picked Up His Feet to Fly, The – SATB Shank, Joshua Santa Barbara Music Publishing Choir M
Barter – SSA Clausen, Rene; Teasdale, Sara Santa Barbara Music Publishing Choir ME


Solo Collection Titles

Holiday Piano Solos (Pre-reading)
Holiday Piano Solos (Beginner)
Holiday Piano Solos (Advanced)
Piano Solos: Roots of American Jazz
15 Two Part Inventions
Baroque Piano Solos
Classical Piano Solos
Romantic Piano Solos
Lorie Lines’ Practice, Practice, Practice!: Book Three, Holiday Book
Lorie Lines’ Practice, Practice, Practice!: Book Four,
Lorie Lines’ Practice, Practice, Practice!: Book Five, Christmas Classics
Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band Play-Along Series, Volume 1 – Alto Saxophone
Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band Play-Along Series, Volume 1 – Tenor Saxophone
Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band Play-Along Series, Volume 1 – Trumpet
Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band Play-Along Series, Volume 1 – Trombone
Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band Play-Along Series, Volume 1 – Drums

You can request a piece for a future SmartMusic release here.

Obviously with the addition of keyboard music, exciting developments are underway. More details will appear in tomorrow’s blog post.

5 Tips to Win a BOA Super Regional

Claudia Taylor - Lady Bird - Johnson

Located in San Antonio, Texas, the Claudia Taylor “Lady Bird” Johnson High School was founded in 2008. Today they’re the reigning 2014 Bands of America San Antonio Super Regional Champion. This week their director, Jarrett Lipman, shares some of the secrets behind their rapid success.

5 Tips to Win a BOA Super Regional

Our formula at Johnson has been to pick music we like and that we believe will entertain our audiences. Our shows are built around “get-able” concepts, and we try to build in exciting and memorable moments throughout the program. As we have gotten stronger as performers, we have been able to work our way up the rankings and finally captured our first championship in 2014. Here are some things we consider when putting together our shows.

1. Be Memorable

When developing your program, try to design to your strengths and create a product that is unique and memorable. There will be over 60 bands who perform in prelims, and you have a 10 minute window (or less) to paint a picture for the judges that sticks in their mind. Programming to your strengths will help your show come across well, be it strong soloists, a powerful brass section, a technically perfect drumline, a color guard that moves well, or even something outside the box like acrobatics. Sometimes being remembered as “the band with that great color guard” or “the band who had that awesome alto saxophone soloist,” will help you stand out through what can be a very long day.

2. Be Clear

Make sure your concept is understandable in “one read.” If the audience needs a libretto to understand your show, it’s probably too complicated for the judges to understand in one performance. You spend an entire season working on your show, but the judges and audience will see it once, maybe twice.

3. Be Clean

No matter how flashy the show is, it needs to be performed at an extremely high level. Lines need to be straight, curves need to be evenly spaced, flags need to spin around together, articulations need to be detailed, and percussion/electronics balances must be worked out. Don’t give away the easy stuff – make sure your students stand tall and have great posture throughout the show! If there is choreography, the kids need to move together. Bottom line: make sure your students perform their show at the highest level possible.

4. Be Musical

Focus on shaping, expression, dynamics, and contrast. Does your program have built-in moments that showcase the full range of emotions? This is on the judging sheet, and more importantly, performing musically will cause the audience to have an emotional reaction to your show. If it’s “in the box” you may earn a golf clap, or “check it off the list,” but remember why we do this: to share an emotional and musical experience with the audience. Exaggerate the moments you can play soft, allow your woodwinds time to showcase more than just “fast technique,” and allow your brass to do more than just play loud. Sensitivity and style go a long way!

5. Be Entertaining

“GE is KEY!” General Effect is the highest scoring caption on the sheets for Bands of America, and while this doesn’t negate the importance of performing great literature at a high level, figuring out a way to capture the full range of emotions in your show makes your product that much stronger. Does the audience clap? Do they laugh? Or cry? While sophistication is wonderful, making sure the show is still entertaining and appropriate for the football half time crowd is important. Every judge and every crowd are different. If you can find a way to build in moments and effects in your show that appeal to a wide variety of audiences, this will help your case for doing well in Bands of America competition.

Jarett LipmanJarrett Lipman is the director of bands at Claudia Taylor “Lady Bird” Johnson High School in San Antonio, Texas. He is also currently on staff of both the Cadets and Crossmen drum corps. Lipman received degrees in music education and euphonium performance from Rutgers University. In 2014, he was selected the “Outstanding Young Bandmaster by Phi Beta Mu International Bandmasters Fraternity.

In addition to being Champion of the 2014 BoA San Antonio Super Regional and Houston Regional, the Johnson band earned the Bronze Medal at the 2014 UIL State Marching Contest and was a BoA Grand Nationals Finalist in 2011.

Mark Wood and Electrify Your Strings

Mark Wood

Dubbed “The Les Paul of The Violin World” by PBS, Mark Wood is a Juilliard-trained violist who first gained world-wide attention performing with the internationally acclaimed Trans-Siberian Orchestra. In addition to touring as a sideman with world-class artists including Billy Joel, Kanye West, Lenny Kravitz and Celine Dion, Wood is also a recording artist, producer, inventor, Emmy-winning composer and music education advocate.

We’re very excited to have recently added several of Mark’s pieces to the SmartMusic repertoire library.

Anyone who meets Mark quickly discovers the high level of intensity he brings to everything he does, and there’s nothing he’s more passionate about than music education. For 16 years he has led Electrify Your Strings (EYS), an intensive music education program that ignites students, teachers, and communities by injecting energy and funding into music education programs.

To date, close to 1,000 schools and universities and hundreds of thousands of young musicians have been transformed by the EYS phenomenon. This week Mark is in Oklahoma working alongside orchestra director Peter Markes (named as the 2014 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year). Last week I spoke to Peter about his experience with EYS:

What initially drew you to Electrify Your Strings?

Two factors: the first was a long-standing desire from several of our instructors to have a high-energy, positive image-building program like Mark’s. The other catalyst was a local vendor, Inter-City Violin Studios, who are strong supporters of our string programs and who are Oklahoma’s sole Wood distributors.

Can you describe how the EYS program worked at your school last year?

We hosted Mark Wood and Bridgid Bibbens in 2014, and they did a day of workshops with all of our students combined (Mark with about 400 HS students and Bridgid with about 450 MS students). The following day culminated with a dress rehearsal and concert to a standing room only audience. The show closer, Hoedown, with Mark, Bridgid, and over 800 string players was quite memorable.

What benefits did you realize after the workshop?

The students were really excited, and for quite a while. Their long-lasting buzz was the catalyst for having EYS back to Edmond in 2015.

Which schools will be involved this year?

Edmond North, Santa Fe, and Memorial High Schools, and Cheyenne, Cimarron, Sequoyah, Central, and Summit Middle Schools….it’s big!

What are your goals for this year’s event?

Our goals this year are to expand the venue so that our students and a wider audience can see the whole show. We also continue to maintain Mark’s goal of really increasing the student’s positive self-image. The music component aside, that is really the biggest benefit and goal to EYS.

MakeMusic clearly shares Mark’s passion for increasing positive self-image and keeping music programs alive in the schools. In fact, we’re so excited about the energy surrounding EYS that we’ll be sponsoring EYS events at several schools this year. If you’re interested in such a sponsorship, contact Barbara Ring at or 516-767-6677 for more information.

Please note that the deadline for this program is October 31, 2015.

Five Tips for Starting Your Music Studio

Wendy Devaney Blog Post

After fifteen years of teaching violin and viola lessons, I recently closed my private studio in Austin, Texas, in order to focus on my new business, Orchestra Tutor. After many moments of, “well, that didn’t work, but hey – this did,” I wanted to share some of my experiences in the hope that they will save you time and energy while you start your own journey to a successful music studio.

1. Establish Your Studio Policies (and Stick to Them)

I fluctuated between different policies for several years before finding exactly what worked for me, so before soliciting work for your own studio, answer the questions below and then put everything in writing for parents and students to review and acknowledge.

Payment Policies

  • Will you charge tuition fees by the lesson? Month? Semester? Year?
  • Is payment due in advance or after the work is completed?
  • Will you charge late fees? Will you offer a discount for paying early or in a lump sum up front?
  • What forms of payment will you accept?
  • Will you offer payment plans?
  • Will you charge fees for returned checks?

Student Expectations

  • How often and for how long do you expect your students to practice? Will this vary depending on age and/or capability?
  • What preparation is expected for each lesson? What supplies will they need to bring each time?
  • What supplies will they need at home?
  • How will you enforce these expectations? Will there be penalties or rewards?

Cancelation Policy

  • How much notice is required?
  • Will you differentiate between excused and unexcused absences?
  • Will you offer make-up lessons? If so, how many are permissible over a certain time period? Will they be only on certain days/times?

Keep in mind that, if you want flexibility, your students and parents will expect it on their end as well. However, if you want stability and consistency the best way to get it is by establishing expectations as early as possible.

2. Decide Where You Will Teach

I spent my first couple of years driving everywhere. I taught at music schools, public schools, and everyone’s houses in between and beyond. At the time I thought it was no big deal – I would just claim the mileage on my tax return, and it would all even out in the end. It turns out that’s not true; the tax deduction doesn’t come anywhere near the costs of gas or wear and tear on your vehicle. But more importantly, the time spent driving to lessons is time away from teaching which translates to money you are not getting paid.

Teaching out of your home has definite advantages, but before deciding that this is the best choice for you, make sure you have ample parking that doesn’t inconvenience your neighbors, a designated waiting area for parents and siblings, a restroom they may use without invading your personal space, a safe and secure place for your pets to stay during lessons (remember that not everyone thinks they’re as cute as you do), and sufficient property insurance coverage in case of an accident. You should also think about ways to keep your house presentable at all times and ensure that your family, neighbors, and solicitors do not interrupt your work.

Studio 700

An alternative to using your home as a professional space is to find a nearby school with a strong orchestra program. The benefits of establishing a studio while working directly with an orchestra director are endless and warrant a stand-alone blog entry, but suffice it to say that a nearby school can offer convenience to both you and your students.

3. Choose Your Price Wisely

I started out charging $15 for 30 minutes in the year 2000. My intent was to get as many students as possible and then gradually raise my rates. Within less than two years, I was up to 57 students. Sounds great, right? It was, except that I was spending a significant portion of my earnings on gas and car maintenance, I had underestimated how much time I would spend on administrative work, and I was purchasing a lot more supplies than I had anticipated. In short: don’t undercut yourself. Know what your time is worth and that your experience does matter.

In addition to earning a living, make sure that your rates will cover the costs of doing business, including space rental fees, additional home insurance, and charges associated with recitals, such as printed programs, piano accompaniment, video recordings, and refreshments. Find out what other teachers charge in your area and seek advice from local orchestra directors.

Once you set your price, be consistent with everyone, and don’t forget to leave yourself room for a few raises along the way. Consider charging by the year, semester, or at the very least, by the month, rather than individual lesson. Remember that you are a teacher, and let parents know that your fees should be treated as tuition rather than a pay as-you-go system. Lastly, get payment in advance as often as possible to avoid working for free.

4. Don’t Accept Every Student Who Contacts You

I love teaching sixth grade beginners, but when I first started my studio, I accepted anyone and everyone, from ages four to 76. It was hard for me to shift gears that often, and in retrospect, I don’t think I was a very good teacher to any of my students except those sixth graders. It took longer than it should have for me to realize that they were my target audience – I liked getting them started and watching them progress through the early years of playing, but then I thought they were better off with someone else who could help them flourish at the next level. My advice: become a specialist, rather than a generalist. Narrowing your niche will make you a better teacher, and that positive word will spread quickly!

5. Consistency is KeyRun a Tight Ship

This seems like a no brainer, but it’s surprising how many private teachers cancel, reschedule, or don’t show up to lessons. They wind up with students and parents who treat lessons with the same lack of dedication, which results in fewer (and less productive) lessons, and even fewer long-term students.

Scheduling lessons back-to-back and always starting/ending on time does everyone a favor. Parents appreciate you letting their child out on time so that the rest of their schedule is not impacted. They return that respect by understanding that when they are ten minutes late, you are not expected to go ten minutes over because they know you have another lesson that needs to start on time.

Good luck!

I wish you the best of luck in your new studio endeavor. I look forward to sharing more tips on marketing and maintaining a successful studio on the SmartMusic Blog. For more information on Orchestra Tutor, a website featuring online video tutorials for string students, please visit:

Wendy Blog 250Wendy Devaney took up the violin at the age of 12 (the viola came later). She was soon performing with an El Paso mariachi band with whom she eventually toured the southwest – and France – and recorded several albums. She earned her B.A. in music performance from Texas State University, where she was principal violist in the Texas State Symphony.

Wendy has performed and recorded with several mariachi groups, local bands, and classical ensembles and is a guest clinician at the Texas State String Camp. After running a successful private studio in Austin, Wendy founded Orchestra Tutor, a tutorial website designed to help string students.

College Methods: a New Approach

Ted Scalzo Blog Post

After 36 years in the classroom teaching band, marching band, wind ensemble, jazz ensemble, composition, and multimedia I have come to the conclusion that college preparation for our field is in need of change. I currently teach a class at Hofstra University on the utilization of technology in the classroom for future music educators. This has inspired me to give considerable thought to this topic.

I believe that SmartMusic should be adopted by all schools of higher learning that are preparing our future music educators. I realize that this will seem like another shameless promotion for a product, but the difference here is that I use SmartMusic in this context and I have seen how it can work.

Among the many expectations we place on future educators, we require them to:

  • Sight-sing and sight-read
  • Take lessons on secondary instruments
  • Perform at a very high level on their primary instrument
  • Perform in ensembles including chorus, orchestra, band and jazz band

SmartMusic includes tools created to assist development in each of these areas plus a means for instructors to document related progress.

Imagine requiring future music educators to submit a performance piece on their secondary instruments in their college methods classes, to be evaluated by the professor and added to the student’s portfolio to be shared at the next job interview.

Imagine students practicing their secondary band instruments with the actual literature they will be expected to know and teach. Smart Music will help prepare them to step into the classroom with the skills and repertoire knowledge that has taken many of us years to develop. They will benefit from accelerated learning utilizing our most powerful teaching concept: deliberate practice.

Imagine an assignment for conducting class where students playback a professional accompaniment and record a video of themselves conducting the piece, then sending it to the professor as homework and evaluation.

My plan for nation-wide adoption would be something like this:

  • Every student gets a copy of SmartMusic to be used all four years
  • Each professor has a teacher subscription
  • All classes are listed
  • Students enroll as they sign up for each class
  • Assignments can be seen in SmartMusic allowing students to go at their own pace
  • Additional assignments can be added as the class develops through the semester
  • A four year portfolio of work is stored in the cloud and made available as a report for future employers to review. A SmartMusic certification program at each school could be an added benefit that further supports that this graduate is well prepared for today’s music student.

I realize there are some professors and institutions already doing much of this. I encourage them to add their voices to this conversation and start the change that is necessary to bring music education to the next level.

I would love the opportunity to continue this initial dialogue. If you’re interested in participating in the discussion, please contact me at

Ted ScalzoTed Scalzo is a veteran teacher of 36 years, including 29 years as the band director at Bay Shore High School in Long Island, New York. His wind and jazz ensembles have received numerous awards. Ted has used Finale to arrange for marching band since version 1.0, and taught music composition/theory and a multimedia class that he designed for Bay Shore students. A fervent advocate of technology in the classroom, Ted was honored as an Apple Distinguished Educator in 2005, was twice appointed to the NYSSMA Music Technology Committee, and teaches a course on music education technology at Hofstra University.

Establishing Expectations for Success

Mark Corey Blog Post

Summer is winding down and hopefully, the weather is beginning to cool. School has started and every teacher eagerly looks forward to the most productive year they have ever had. The first bell rings and before you know it, the reality of school has you pinned against the wall and your focus changes from grandiose images of what a successful program looks like, to wondering how you’re going to make it to Friday. It’s easy to get bogged down in the day to day, but with some thought and preparation your vision of success is within reach.

Define Success

The first step in establishing expectations for success is to place success in the context of your specific situation. As music teachers, it is easy to say, “I want my students to sound like that ensemble.” You may have to accept that you don’t teach at that school and that you teach the kids that walk in your doors. I teach in the suburbs of Chicago surrounded by some of the finest music programs in the country. However, my school has one of the highest rates of low-income students in the county as well as one of the most diverse populations. This is not to say we shouldn’t have high expectations of our students, but if the program you envision requires students to invest in private lessons to reach that goal while the reality is that many families are lucky to own a used instrument, then you need to adjust your vision.

A second part to establishing successful expectations is really defining what success means for you. Does success include defining your program through competitive music events or is it providing other high quality musical experiences? It is matter of personal opinion how to measure what a successful music program looks like, but the standard to which success is measured must be first and foremost clear in the teacher’s mind before those expectations can be expressed to others.

We have to be careful about defining our success with simple measures (the ensemble will attain a specific rating at festival, X number of students will receive high ratings at solo contest etc.) Those are adequate goals but the variables that produce those numbers don’t always reflect success because of their inherent subjectivity. Your definition of success should be uniquely your own, attainable, and flexible.

Vison and Mission

Define your vision and promote it through your mission. A vision, whether published in a simple statement or understood through presentation, is an image of what success would look like as a completed goal, while your mission would be what you do daily to move towards that vision.

My vision might be something like this:

I believe every child in our community should experience music on a deep personal level and become skilled in expressing themselves in music.

To move towards that goal, participants (students, parents and educators) must make a concerted effort to improve students’ musical skills so as to deepen and enrich the musical experience. That’s not very concrete, but music and the arts should not be defined in such concrete terms.

Establish Expectations

In Daniel Coyle’s book “The Talent Code,” his analysis of successful teachers gives us some very helpful ways to establish and maintain success. I use a mixture of his advice as well as some of my own experiences to establish our expectations:

  • Explain your expectations in simple terms.
  • Consistently reinforce your vision. Everything you do and say should be in support of reaching that vision.
  • Maximize class time by emphasizing doing over explaining. Make music, give short concise instruction and reinforce. Don’t lose the war trying to win a battle.
  • Keep instructions short and focused. Select one goal to improve and develop the clearest and simplest verbiage to get there.
  • Prepare. Make the most out of the time you have with your students by making sure you are prepared. We can’t expect students to be prepared if we don’t demonstrate the same skill.
  • Develop a long term calendar and identify short term goals as steps. Make sure those steps are included in your daily interactions with students.
  • Above all, make great music! Your students may not be the most skilled but every student can make music if properly trained.

For the new teacher and the veteran, take some time daily to reflect on what occurred during the day and to prepare for tomorrow. View each aspect of that reflection through the lens of your vision and adjust your educational priorities accordingly.

Much of this seems common sense but the reality is that it is easy to become sidetracked by tasks that are not related to our vision. Remind yourself and your students regularly your vision of success and the vision will become a reality.

Mark CoreyMark Corey is the director of bands at Addison Trail High School. During his tenure, enrollment in band has nearly tripled, they’ve added two curricular jazz ensembles, and students have performed at numerous festivals and venues across the United States.  

Today Mark also serves the Illinois Music Education Association as the state president and works as a clinician, guest conductor and freelance musician, having played with Nelson Riddle, Curtis Mayfield, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole and Aretha Franklin.

Top Three Rudiments Young Percussionists Must Know

Nick Fernandez and Students

Which rudiments do young percussionists “really” need to know?

This question really made me stop and think. I quickly came up with a list of about a dozen rudiments that everyone MUST know! But let’s get real: What are the rudiments that middle-school students absolutely NEED to know to be successful? I can narrow it down to three: the paradiddle, double-stroke roll, and buzz roll. Do you have differing opinions on this? Please hear me out.

1.     The Paradiddle

The Paradiddle

The paradiddle is like the gateway rudiment. It looks so simple on paper, but when you start breaking it down and perfecting all of its intricacies, its depth becomes very apparent. It is so much more than just RLRR LRLL. When dissecting the paradiddle, you will find that it provides the opportunity to work on down-strokes, up-strokes, single-strokes, double-strokes, accents, and taps. To play a good sounding paradiddle at high speeds, all of these skills must be developed.

Now, when a band student is playing concert literature, do they frequently encounter paradiddles? Of course not: that’s not the point. The point is to develop the hand dexterity required to play whatever is called for in a piece of music, without having to sacrifice quality of sound.

I would also like to throw in the paradiddle-diddle as a variation on the paradiddle.

1b. The Paradiddle-Diddle

The Paradiddle-Diddle

It wouldn’t be right for me to give the paradiddle all the love and not talk about its younger brother! The paradiddle-diddle is a very popular rudiment in the marching percussion scene. It is so easy to play at high speeds (as it is mostly a double-stroke roll) and it provides a great syncopated effect regardless of the note value. A lot of “bang” for your buck!

2.     The Double-Stroke Roll

The Double-Stroke Roll

The double-stroke roll largely benefits our marching percussion friends. Let’s face it, without the double-stroke roll, you wouldn’t have a drum line. What would be the point if you didn’t hear that crisp triplet roll cutting through the ensemble? This is a rudiment that causes a big stir among percussion educators: not on whether it is important or not, but how to achieve it. There is certainly more than one school of thought on this.

My personal opinion is that the double-stroke roll is developed through two solid wrist strokes that simply get minimized and more relaxed as the speed increases. The development of the double-stroke is an absolute must to be a proficient percussionist. We have all heard someone play a weak-sounding double-stroke, and it is not pretty. It basically screams, “I don’t know what I am doing!”

3.     The Buzz Roll (Multiple Bounce Stroke)

The Buzz Roll

Finally, the buzz roll! There is nothing quite like that silky smooth static sound propelling the ensemble of winds into the great release of built-up dissonance. Now, I realize that it is not on the list of rudiments and is more of a stroke type, but its importance is too great to overlook. The buzz roll is to concert band what the double-stroke roll is to marching band: you just can’t have good concert literature without the use of buzz rolls. The multiple bounce stroke that produces the buzz roll is in its own family and doesn’t really correspond to any other rudiment. For this reason, I feel that this is the third essential rudiment.

These basic rudiments are absolutely necessary for any young percussionist to be successful. That said, there’s always more to work on beyond these essentials: I would like to give a special shout out to the single-stroke roll – as it is a staple – but it just barely missed my top three rudiments list!

Nick FernandezNick Fernandez is the director of percussion at Bentonville Public Schools in Bentonville, Arkansas, where he teaches percussion students from 6th grade through 12th. Previously, Nick served as the director of percussion at Owasso Public Schools in Owasso, OK.

He has performed with the Colts Drum & Bugle Corps, the North Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Tulsa Signature Symphony, and various local bands in the Tulsa and Northwest Arkansas areas.


Tarpon Springs: Developing a BOA Grand Nationals Show

Kevin Ford and Tarpon Springs at Grand Nationals

The Tarpon Springs High School music program is extremely successful, with seven different ensembles performing on a national level. A few weeks ago I began a conversation with band director Kevin Ford in which we learned a bit about the program, staff, and their use of SmartMusic. This week, we delve deeper in our attempts to discover the secret of their marching band’s phenomenal achievements as we talk about their success at Grand Nationals (seen above) and their appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Could you describe the process of developing a show that will be performed at BOA Grand Nationals?

Our process starts in late May after our final concerts have concluded. For us the creative process is the same whether we are attending Grand Nationals or not. It is a total team effort. I am blessed to write with some of the most talented and creative people I have ever met; Frank Sullivan, our music arranger/composer, and Michael Shapiro our choreographer. We each share in the development of the theme or concept for a Tarpon production. Once we collectively decide on a theme or a musical inspiration for our production, the three of us collaborate and map out the show’s storyline and effect moments. We work together coordinating every measure of the show, ensuring that we have a coordinated effort both musically and visually and a structured purpose for every developed idea.

We explore all design options and try our best to not limit our ideas to the things that we have already done or are comfortable doing. I think the three of us get most excited when we take risks. We produce ideas from the inside out. We try our best to allow the theme to drive and inspire the “effect” moments and our design choices. The design process for a Tarpon show literally never ends from the time it starts. If we feel something will make the show better we will literally continue to add things all the way up to the day of our last show.

Our students embrace the creative process and are very receptive to change. Most importantly, it is our performers who bring our productions to life. We feel it is important that the performers understand their role musically and visually for every aspect of the performance. This way we feel they can actually elevate the intent of the program. Our ultimate goal for all of the shows we design is for there to be something for everyone and for our students to love and be inspired by what they are doing.

Could you describe the techniques used to develop such a consistently performing group?

We do our best to be process- and concept-driven educators. We focus on conceptual teaching. We feel it results in our students becoming independent learners, thinkers, and creators. Everything we do in our teaching is to move our students from being merely participants playing music to becoming artists expressing music. Ultimately, we want them to make musical and creative decisions and have a purpose behind their decisions as performers.

We feel consistency in all things we do and attention to a detailed process is what helps our ensembles achieve a high level of success. Regardless of which ensemble we are engaged in, our approach to our instruments, tone quality, pitch center and musicality is consistent from one ensemble to the next. Some technical things that we feel help assist our students in the development are:

- All of our students are required to play all 12 major scales. No exceptions. This allows them to play in every key and learn pitch tendencies and how to adjust to those challenges.

- We sight-read just about every day. When sight-reading we just don’t focus on right notes and rhythms, but we focus on making musical decisions. We always assess our performances and discuss.

- We assign weekly SmartMusic assignments that are relative to what we are working on at that time. This allows us the opportunity to individually listen to each of our students and develop strategies that we can include in our warm-up exercises to address common challenges that we find throughout our student musicians’ submissions.

- Every student musician is required to participate in our solo and ensemble events. In addition to our district solo and ensemble evaluation we do a brass and woodwind area recital as well as our own full recital where everyone performs for each other. I believe this process helps develop our students’ individual musicianship as much as any process they go through in a year.

- We value tone quality. Helping students make beautiful sounds is a huge priority at Tarpon Springs. We do lots of long tones, ear training, lip slurs, and chordal exercises.

Teaching young musicians in an ensemble setting is productive in many ways. However, how do you “explain” to each student how you would like them to sound? Typically, we as directors use common adjectives such as “warm” and “dark” when it comes to tone quality. What does “warm” and “dark” mean?

Each student is left to individually interpret these instructions and produce a sound that matches the instructions of the director. We use a system from Inspire Music and Entertainment Productions. They have developed aural models for each instrument through actual recordings of professional musicians. When a student “hears” the exact example you would like them to imitate, they quickly adjust their sound and match the aural model.

For example, if you would like to teach a student to play and sound like Miles Davis, you could spend a full day trying to describe Miles’ sound and style…every student would have a different interpretation. However, if you give a student a recording of “So What” and let them play along, they begin to sound like Miles without being instructed. Their ears are far more developed than we think.

By implementing aural modeling of professional symphonic musicians, we give exact examples for the students and they have a concrete understanding of tone, pitch, balance and blend…etc. They all match the single aural model. By removing the guesswork, we found that the band sounds homogenous almost immediately, and our student musicians are producing much more mature sounds. If anyone is interested in this aural modeling program, I highly recommend it, and suggest they contact Frank Sullivan at

Could you tell that 2014 was going to be a special year, or was it business as usual?

Honestly, every year seems special and they are in their own unique way. For us, it’s always the students that make it a special year. Not necessarily an event or a placement at an event. I think all the teachers felt a sincere passion among these students to be great.

The students loved performing this show. I can’t remember a day all season long where they were not focused and ready to be better. Regardless of the weather or conditions or whatever obstacle that seemed to potentially get in their way, they pushed through them. It was actually very exciting as teachers to share in that enthusiasm and to learn and watch them push themselves.

Approved Photo 2 EditMr. Ford, Conducting – photo used by permission of

Can you share a most memorable moment from that year?

There are two that come to mind. For many of us, it was the day our students hosted our home show in the middle of October. All of our students and their parents work on the show and do an amazing job. It is a very long day and it’s incredible to watch everyone work so hard to ensure that all the participating bands and our spectators have a great experience. Our band does an exhibition at the end of the night after they’ve worked all day. They are not evaluated and it is purely for the enjoyment of performing.

Our students encountered every obstacle for this performance to not be their best. However, they were absolutely incredible. It was so enjoyable to watch the joy and determination of each of these special students to go out and create a life-long memory. The crowd was exceptional and was thunderous in their appreciation. Even though most of them had been working in the hot sun since 7:00 am, they were so appreciative to their fellow members for the efforts.

It was one of those break through performances you experience in a season where you realize the potential is limitless for these students.

The second occurred when we arrived in Indy for BOA Grand Nationals. I had told the band that the first time we took the Tarpon Springs Band to Grand Nationals it snowed most of the time we were there. I know this doesn’t mean much to those who experience snow on a yearly basis, but the majority of our Florida-born and -raised students had never seen or experienced snow.

After finals retreat that night, and after our band had been awarded Grand National Champions, we exited the stadium to discover it was snowing. I think they were more excited about seeing snow then by what had taken place earlier in the dome. It was truly a “magical” evening.

When Kevin spoke about the realization that his students’ potential is limitless, I got the sense that his belief in this is a huge factor behind Tarpon Springs’ continued success. I’d like to thank Kevin for his time, and to congratulate all the teachers and students at Tarpon Springs for their exemplary work.