It's about to be football season and I'm grumpy

Why do we allow the association between football and college? Why do we carve a hallowed place for football in academia, a sport that has now been proven beyond a doubt to cause traumatic brain injury? Brain injury. In our high schools and colleges. On top of all of that, why is it insisted that the most visible, important part of many schools’ music programs be the marching band, which celebrates and supports this gladiatorial, brutal sport?

This has been the most difficult issue for me to negotiate in my job as a music teacher in the American South. Football is king here. Marching band is part of the culture.

Do not tell me that football is nonviolent. It is by its very nature a violent sport. Decades from now, allowing children to play football will be the equivalent of riding in cars without seatbelts in the 1960s. Football connotes violence (hits, tackles), the objectification of women (cheerleaders), and alcohol abuse (tailgating). Does all this belong in your high school or college? Why do we allow this? Why do we have something so fervently anti-intellectual placed at the pinnacle of collegiate culture?

So it is difficult for me to support marching band here. Yes, of course it can be a valuable experience: it can teach leadership, discipline, teamwork, and ensemble skills. But can’t we learn that in regular concert band? Our students could learn just as much (perhaps more) in band and orchestra, in jazz combos, in chamber music. And without the risk of heatstroke and dehydration. Instead of allowing their music-making and art to be in the service of a questionable, violent sport, their music-making could be simply in the service of music-making.

Think of the money we would save on uniforms and mellophones.

New flute

About a month ago, I purchased a beautiful 14K gold Powell handmade flute. What a huge moment, a huge change. I have a lot of feelings about the process and the result, and each day is like a process of reckoning. In many ways, practicing this new flute feels like starting over from scratch. I’m playing in front of a mirror a lot, checking in with posture and embouchure. The Powell flute has an offset G key, and I’ve been playing an in-line G with a plug for more than ten years, so that has resulted in a major hand position adjustment. But I’m also finding this whole thing to be a pretty emotional process, and maybe some of you reading this can relate.

I last bought a flute in October of 2006. It’s a silver Brannen-Cooper that used to belong to Tim Day, my old teacher at San Francisco Conservatory (he is also principal flute of the San Francisco Symphony). This Brannen is #529 -- a low serial number sometimes has cachet, and in this scenario, it was handmade for Tim when he was principal of Baltimore Symphony. This flute is really special, and doesn’t sound like any other Brannen flute that I’ve ever played. Tim has actually admitted that he regrets selling it.

I’ve made so many memories with this flute. Leander helped me decide to buy it when we were just starting to date. This flute went on so many auditions - some triumphant, some terrible. It travelled with me all over South America and China. We had amazing days and terrible days together. It was there when my quintet won Fischoff. It has moved across the country three times with me!

But the Brannen has some issues. Since it was made in 1980, it has an old mechanism and the keys are becoming unstable. I’ve been told that it will need a mechanical overhaul at some point - actually replacing posts and springs! I looked into having the silver mechanism on this Brannen melted down and re-made into a Brogger system, but that would have cost more than a whole new flute, even though it would have been really cool! Phoenix rising, sort of. I knew that eventually I would need a change. The Brannen is not a super loud flute - I can always feel how difficult it can be to keep up sonically with a professional orchestral flute section. It also has intonation issues - what flute doesn’t - but these issues were pretty difficult to untangle. I started researching and trying flutes about a year ago, feeling that it might be time.

This new Powell is gorgeous, and I look forward to playing it every day - except when I don’t look forward to it, except when I’m absolutely intimidated by the instrument and its demands. What if I spent all this money and don’t sound that much better? Would this flute sound better with someone else - like, am I bringing it down? I should probably not wear pajamas and practice this flute, right? I know the first scratch is going to be devastating.

When we begin playing newer/better instruments, there is so much expectation of a new plateau of skill and sound, and for me this expectation is exciting, overwhelming, and perhaps foolish - I want to give my new flute all of my attention and best practice, not just let the instrument lift me up. What a great challenge, what a privilege.

My first seven jobs

Talking to some of my recent graduates, I surprised them by speaking of my early work experience. Very few professional musicians have only had music-related jobs! This meme has been going around – I highly recommend that you search for other articles about someone’s first seven jobs. The author Po Bronson also wrote a wonderful book called What Should I Do With My Life? and it’s essentially just short essays about different people doing their jobs. I love this book.

1. File clerk for Allstate Insurance. I got my first job when I was fifteen, working for the Allstate Insurance agent in my small California town – first just filing paperwork for two hours after school. I worked for that office until I was in college and eventually learned the computer system and started handling phone calls and entering payments. The office ended up hiring my brother, too. The two of us would cover the office full-time in the summers when the agent went on vacation.

What I learned: nobody calls their insurance agent when they’re happy about something.

2. Student assistant in the Oberlin alumni office. My basic office skills followed me to the Oberlin College Alumni Association, which was an office just across the square from the music conservatory. I worked a couple of hours a day doing data entry for them.

3. RA. I became a resident assistant for the Women’s and Transgender Collective for my last two years at Oberlin College. It was a great job – I really cared about the people around me. We planned feminist educational events and it was the first time I started learning about transgender issues and advocacy. This job helped me to stay connected with human beings while I was practicing the flute five hours a day.

4. Camp flute teacher. In 2003, I was hired to teach flute at Cazadero Performing Arts Camp, which is this beautiful camp near my hometown in the northern California redwood forest. I was still a student at Oberlin. Suddenly I was in charge of twenty flute players at a time, a new group arriving every two weeks, for the whole summer. I kept this job, on and off, until 2009, and I loved it. So much of my formative music teaching experience came from this place: how to deal with wide arrays of abilities, teaching individuals and groups, solving problems quickly, and somehow keeping it fun.

5. Community service coordinator. The San Francisco Conservatory of Music had an amazing program that sent students into San Francisco to provide free performances in unlikely places. Think violin duets in a soup kitchen during lunch hour. I was the student coordinator for the program. About eighty students participated each year. It was actually really fun to call up nonprofits and offer them free music visitations.

6. Assistant to the principal of a private school. Post-graduation, I still needed a stable job. I had so much office experience by this point (I’m very thankful for the campus jobs I held) that I was able to find a very good full-time job for my first year out of college. This assistant position even had health insurance and a 401K match. I answered the phone, planned meetings, managed the principal’s schedule, made travel arrangements for her, and kept track of her expense account. It probably could have been a satisfying permanent position if I had wanted it. I only stayed for about nine months, though, before leaving town for better playing opportunities.

7. Full-time flutist. Yes, here we are! Playing and teaching the flute have supported me since that last job. I’ve been very lucky to get to do what I do, but it was also a conscious risk to take. I worried about money a lot. Gigs came and went. I took a lot of auditions and most resulted in rejection. There were great performances and horrible ones. Overall, I’m happy where I am, while being thankful for my past job experiences.

All-West: A Judge's Perspective

Since many of you participated in taking a big audition this past Saturday, I think we should consider the occasion of All-West Tennessee Honor Band auditions on a few deeper levels.

I’m not sure of the exact number, but I definitely listened to more than 120 high school flute players on Saturday. I was the scales/sight-reading judge. How on earth did so many come through the door? Everything went very quickly. I probably heard each of you for two minutes. All judges were instructed to judge the students like a solo and ensemble competition - not necessarily comparing you to each other, but instead judging against an inherent standard for how the excerpts should be best performed. I scored each of you out of 50 points on a Scantron form. A SCANTRON FORM. If you’ve never considered how messed up that is, you’re not thinking like an artist. It’s dystopian.

How can you judge a person’s rhythm on a scale from 1-50 points? It is such a bizarre thing. It felt like turning music into a sporting competition. It felt like judging gymnastics or figure skating, except with fewer standards. Does taking a faster tempo earn a higher start value? If you play a three-octave scale, but play it poorly, will you get more points than a person who played a two-octave scale evenly and with beautiful sound? It’s like gaming the system: choose the triple axel, because even if you fall, you will get more points than if you landed a double. I can’t judge music like that. I gave more points to the person who played the two-octave scale really well.

Turning music into something quantifiable, something that we can count, is the equivalent to turning it into a sport. Or worse. It’s turning art into a commodity. And even though it’s great that so many schools and young musicians participated on Saturday, I believe that this practice of mass auditions is ultimately detrimental to real music-making and to the survival of the art.

Without writing actual comments (which, if I were to have written comments for all 120 of you, it would have taken more like 3 days instead of one), the exercise is worse than meaningless. For example, a flutist in the 11-12 grade group sight-read the excerpt very well with one exception: she played it in Bb major instead of Bb minor. The rhythms were correct, the articulations were all there, the tone and expression were very nice. But what that flutist is going to see on their score sheet is this: almost perfect scales, almost perfect rhythm, almost perfect musicality -- and then a relatively low score for accuracy. She or he probably thought they played it perfectly. What the heck was wrong with that judge, to score someone like that? Their teacher is going to wonder if a mistake was made. There could be an indignant protest about the unfairness of the score. And if I had been able to write a comment, not only would this score be taken more seriously, but we wouldn’t lose a valuable teaching moment. That student would never miss another key signature again. Instead, they’re left wondering.

I have so many other examples that are similar to this, but none so clear. The process on Saturday made us all (students, teachers, judges) cogs in a horrible wheel. Many flutists who participated in the audition actually couldn’t read music that well, or were never taught the correct fingerings, but they were trying to play these difficult excerpts anyway. Some would say there is value in trying, but I disagree. I wish we could take these students and use the same time spent on learning a difficult piece in E major and instead work on the proper fingering for middle D. I wish that there was a mechanism for music educators in schools to just take things slow for those that need to go slow, but there isn’t. The sight-reading excerpts that I judged were appropriate for probably 10% of the students who auditioned. For a huge number of students, the sight-reading was too hard. For another, smaller number, it was way too easy. Why do we try this one-size-fits-all way of teaching music? Saturday’s All-West audition was an exact mirror of our capitalist system: reward those who would probably succeed anyway, and leave others so far behind that there is no hope of catching up. And the simple reasons we do it this way is regional historical tradition and lack of money.

Learning to play an instrument is really personal. It’s a different experience for every person. I wish more than anything that every school music program had a teacher specialist for each instrument. It’s unreasonable to expect band directors to know everything and to do everything. I wish there was a flute specialist in every middle and high school, if only to point out over and over that you play middle D with your first finger raised. But we don’t have this luxury: it would cost too much money. It’s on every student and their family whether they can afford private flute lessons or a working instrument. It’s on every student and their family to ensure that there is a quiet place to practice every day, that won’t bother the neighbors, or the family member who works nights and sleeps in the day. Do you see my point? This is why music education has become the provenance of the privileged. And at no time is it more obvious than at music competitions.

So, how did I judge? I couldn’t see the students, and they could see me, so I didn’t see a lot of things: terrible hand position, weird embouchures, detrimental posture. I also didn’t see all the tears, but I definitely heard crying. How did I judge?

Before you all came in, I decided on a few things, and I was consistent throughout the day:

  1. Scales were mostly judged on right notes vs. wrong ones. If you played your scale correctly in one octave, you got an automatic “good” rating. Two octaves were automatically “excellent.” If the chromatic scale was three octaves, and all the other scales were at least two octaves, and they were played with beautiful sound, that was “superior.” Some impish folks thought they could get away with playing a G major scale when they were supposed to play Gb. They were marked down heavily. You can’t pull one over on someone with perfect relative pitch.

  2. For sight-reading, extra points were awarded those who could stay in the same tempo the entire time. This was very rare. I suggest practicing this for better scores next year.

  3. I did not consider tone quality unless the flutist was scoring very high into the upper “excellent” or lower “superior” categories. If the tone was beautiful and pleasing to me, I awarded extra points, but only in the cases where the sight-reading rhythm and accuracy were already quite good.

 

Going forward, how do I wish this could be changed?

I wish All-West used real repertoire (Bach, Mozart, etc.) and chose it with consultation from a consortium of college and high school private teachers for each instrument. All-West tried this briefly one year by requiring the third movement of the Bach Partita. This was a totally inappropriate choice that I believe a consortium of knowledgeable flute teachers would have shot down immediately. But I don’t think we should give up on this; I think it should be tried again.

I wish All-West actually did take two days to judge, so that comments could be relayed back to the students. I believe this would actually make the entire process more educational.

Band directors should be discouraged from forcing students to audition. Students who are very far behind in development should not be forced to learn and perform music that is beyond them.

Before the auditions, every instrument should be inspected and fixed. (I can hear every band director reading this just laughing, but seriously! How can these students do well if their instruments don’t work?!)

Finally, I wish that there was a way to fund private lessons for students. This is starting to happen in certain ways with the Memphis Music Initiative, but I wish we could give scholarships to students for private lessons. I was a recipient of a private lesson scholarship for one year in high school and it made a huge difference for me and my family. 

I haven’t even commented yet about the extent to which this audition system suppresses creativity in young people. But I plead to you, reader who has made it to the end of this post: question this. Cultivate creativity in your practice and in your teaching. Don’t allow yourself to practice the same page of music every day for three months. Improvise, make up songs, and encourage your friends to do the same. Don’t let All-West be the definition of music education in our region.

 

Why failure is as important as success

Why failure is as important as success

Resilience and inherent intelligence are, to me, the greatest indicators of future success for a classical musician. Success is relative, though - it could mean a “real job” like in an orchestra or higher education, it could mean teaching music privately or in schools, it could mean a combination of many things to pay the bills. Success is always going to mean different things to different people, at different times of their lives.