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An Interview with Christopher Selby

Dan Blaufuss | May 2018

    Christopher Selby directs the high school orchestras at the Charleston County (South Carolina) School of the Arts. “I teach five orchestra classes, one of which has 71 students. We have three levels of string students or string classes in our program, and two different levels of performing ensemble. Students take a string technique class on their A days, and then they are part of a performing ensemble on their B days. It is a wonderful amount of instructional time.” It took years to build the program to match Selby’s vision. “Expectations determine how far the students get, because students will rise to your level of expectation but rarely go further. We often find that whatever we expect of the kids, they’ll meet. That said, setting expectations requires a great deal of listening and watching. It is one thing to have expectations but another for those expectations to be realistic for the students you have this year. When I came to the School of the Arts, I had ideas about what I thought orchestra students should be doing, but it took years for them to start meeting those expectations. We had to scale back what I expected at first and work toward smaller accomplishments, which would build up to our long term expectations of creating a world-class orchestra program in the southeastern United States. 

How can teachers grow in their craft?
    In 2014, my second year at the School of the Arts, I wanted to give students a clearer idea of my expectations. I took them to the National Orchestra Festival held at the National Conference of the American String Teachers Association (ASTA). We worked hard on the music but only earned a II rating. It stung, but it was also good for everybody, because it was time for us to aim much higher than we were. Just two years later, we competed again in the same National Orchestra Festival and won the top award of Grand Champion, which is one of the highest honors an orchestra director in the United States can receive.
    For someone to learn anything, it first takes an acceptance that there is room to grow. We see this with teens quite a bit. If a kid knows everything already, there is no room to grow. The first step of self-reflection is to open up to the rather scary notion that we do not know everything that we should and we need to make room for new ideas. I have met teachers who are afraid to go to concert festivals. That is an example of being closed off to self-reflection. It takes self-reflection and honesty to say, “I will attend this concert festival and listen to what the judges have to say,” or, “I will listen to these groups, and I may learn that by comparison my group doesn’t sound very good.” 
    The next step is figuring out what can be done better and making changes to my teaching and learning so student outcomes are better, which makes me feel better. There are many good feelings that accompany seeing students improve. It is important to celebrate successes, but without this notion of self-reflection and opening ourselves up to the idea that we can and should improve, we stagnate.
    There is a perception that teachers are not allowed to fail because we are expected to be the experts. When you make mistakes, experience adversity, or get a poor review, it is painful. Instead of running away, use it as a learning opportunity. Dig deep, analyze what you are doing, and figure out the next steps to improve your program. We should appreciate pain and the experience that comes with it, because channeled properly, it will lead to later successes. 

What would you like to see change about how music is taught?
    The old-school approach to teaching is to hand out a piece of music and deal with skills as they come up in the music. I think many teachers teach this way because it is how we were taught. This approach works with that top 10% of students who take private lessons, but it is much less effective for the other 90%, and at the end of the day, “go get a private teacher” is not a teaching strategy. I am in favor of private lessons, but it is not an excuse for incomplete teaching. If we do not teach these students the skills they need to play upper-level music, they will not learn them.
    The biggest benefit of teaching such skills as shifting, finger patterns, coordinating the left and right hands at high velocities, playing off the string, and thumb position is that students learn these skills much faster if we give them a proper sequence for learning and reviewing them, instead of waiting until they come up in the music. Many of these skills take a year or two to develop. Spiccato, the skill of bouncing the bow on the string, is great example. If we pass out a piece that requires spiccato, and students haven’t learned it yet, they will not master it in six to ten weeks.
    In our current school culture, students in every academic class are taught each new skill as fast as the teacher can teach them. Then, on the day before the test, they review the skills and knowledge they learned. They take the test and then move on to a whole new set of skills. This is the culture that even administrators expect to see, which is why administrators scratch their heads sometimes when they do not see band and orchestra teachers start class by telling students what new skill they are going to learn that day.
    In the arts, we introduce a skill once and then review it for the rest of our lives. In music, review may be more essential than how we introduce a skill, and I think it is important for teachers to remember that reviewing skills and how we review those skills will have, in the long term, a greater effect than how we introduce them.
    We need to do a better job of educating administrators that the arts are different. In arts classes, students learn to practice and review things that are taught. This art of practice is something that is only taught in arts classes and on the athletic field. It is becoming a lost skill in public education as our culture becomes more about teaching new facts, doing well on a test, and then teaching more new facts. Music teachers should remember that review and practice remain important.
    There is a second benefit to the orderly teaching of skills in class. If we are not spending rehearsals teaching the skills necessary to play a specific piece, we can focus on the finer details of the music. Students get an opportunity to make music out of a piece rather than merely trying to survive the performance.

What are some of your favorite skill-building exercises?
    One is a slow canon of eight half notes that I use as a warmup almost every day. I call it our tuning canon. The whole class plays in unison first, and we work that until it is perfectly in tune.

    After a unison runthrough, the cellos and basses begin again, followed by the violas, then second violins, then first violins. Each section comes in one measure after the previous one. The expectation here is that students play perfectly in tune first with their section and then with the chord as the canon evolves.
    We practice it in all twelve major and minor keys, and once we have learned how it sounds to be in tune in a key, then we can start playing pieces in these keys more in tune. An E in E major will be in a different place than an E in C major. How the notes feel changes depending on the key, and that is one of the most useful aspects of the tuning canon. Students do not know they are out of tune unless they learn how it sounds to be in tune. If you can get these eight notes in tune, it opens students’ ears to how being in tune really sounds. Once they experience that, they can transfer that knowledge to everything else they play. They can hold themselves to a higher level of intonation by having a higher expectation of what in tune is. They need to experience it first, and they experience it in my classroom through the tuning canon. 
    I suspect some teachers think I am kidding when I tell them about this exercise, but students can and will play more in tune than a well-centered piano. They just have to be expected to listen and adjust the notes. Once they learn what to listen for, they will learn to be in tune. Students will play only out of tune as long as you let them, and they will not listen to their chords until you make them.

What other tuning tips do you have for string players?
    Dominant arpeggios are incredibly important on a string instrument. The dominant arpeggio contains a tritone, which defines the key, and that tritone is what messes up students because it is where finger patterns change. Ninety percent of pitch mistakes happen on the fourth and seventh degrees of major scales. No matter what piece students are playing, that is where they usually play out-of-tune notes. If we spend more time on the fourth and seventh scale degrees, students will play those notes better in tune when they get to their concert music.
    An often overlooked expectation is that students should be able to play fast. Method books may introduce a skill and then have students play music that uses that skill, but how often do directors have their students increase the tempo? I like to have students play a velocity exercise that uses a number of different finger patterns. Students’ fingers learn how to keep their finger pattern no matter how fast they’re going. This is important because fast notes tend to disintegrate finger patterns, which leads to out-of-tune playing. Working finger patterns helps us play in tune even when playing fast.

How do you assign and keep track of bowings?
    Few students really get bowings, because bowings are learned through experience. At the professional level, people spend a great deal of time in the sections of an orchestra before they rise to the principal position, and this is where the necessary experience is gained. I sometimes ask the local symphony for its bowings, which saves me a lot of time. My students take lessons with members of the local symphony. So, if I need help with bowings, I can just ask my students who are taking lessons how they would bow something.
    I recently started keeping a set of what we call principal parts. These are originals of each string part on which all bowings will be preserved, and they stay in the principal player’s folders in the orchestra room. As we rehearse a new piece, we enter all of the bowings these copies, and then they are set aside. The principal players read these parts from day to day and use them in the concerts, but after we are done with a piece, the parts are stored in a special folder until the next time. Principal players also have practice copies that we allow to go home. This way the bowings are not lost every time we put a piece away.
    This is especially useful to me because my symphony orchestra has string players that meet at two different times. Before designating a set of principal parts, the struggle to get those two different classes on the same bowings was endless. Now, the section leaders in both class sections are reading off of the same principal part. When one section changes a bowing it gets transferred immediately onto that part, and the next time the other class meets, those principal players come across that bowing.

How else do you use student leaders?
    I think the world expects a lot from teachers, and every time something new needs to be done, it falls on the shoulders of teachers. In addition, we expect a lot from ourselves, and when we see students fail, great teachers experience that failure themselves. In his book The First Days of School, Harry Wong discusses making students responsible for learning and day-to-day activities, which can include getting the chairs out, getting the stands set up, getting all the music going, and tuning the orchestra. Students should be much more active in the learning and also the processes of the class. When they get involved like that, the ownership of their success and failure becomes more on their shoulders and they become more invested in their program and their learning. So often, we see teachers bend over backwards to do everything for their students. This is especially prevalent in string programs – more so than in band. Band culture has a strong history of leadership that comes out of marching band, and string directors are just now beginning to adopt these ideas and getting their students to be more active leaders.
    At the beginning of class, once students are seated, I have my student leader stand up and tune the orchestra. That gives me the opportunity to take roll and then help students struggling with tuning. Having a student in charge of getting things going is incredibly helpful, especially if there is a substitute teacher. You want students to be able to start themselves.
    I also have a student who is my librarian and manager. We go through an extraordinary amount of music because we have performances roughly every six weeks. Having a manager to keep track of the music in the middle of the rehearsal is essential. If the second oboist says she misplaced her music, my librarian can take care of that while I keep rehearsing. She keeps the library organized and handles everything to do with it.
    Students also work on scales with each other. As part of a certification process, I was asked to look at something that I taught routinely and figure out whether I was doing it in the best way I could. I chose scales – something every string teacher works on – and came up with several beneficial ideas besides playing scales in unison as a full ensemble. 
    String players usually share stands, so I started having one stand partner play while the other listened and then switching roles. After both students played scales, each talked about how the other performed. This was uncomfortable at first, even for the listening students. In fact, there can be more discomfort listening to a person than there is playing for your stand partner, but students start to build trust with each other. Part of this trust is that the person listening to you is going to be kind rather than brutal, but students also start trusting themselves. They realize that they do know something about playing these scales and are able to offer such suggestions as, “Watch out in your third octave; your notes aren’t quite in tune,” or, “You need to get closer to the bridge when you’re playing higher notes.”
    Another scale exercise that has worked well is a worksheet for students to mark where their fingers go for each scale. This requires a different part of the brain than playing a scale, and it reaches students who have good ears but lack a strong visual understanding of where all their notes are on the fingerboard. It helps them learn scales in a completely different way.

What are some of things you learn from being a guest conductor?
    Guest conducting is similar to listening to great ensembles. It opens your ears, and you expand your knowledge of what students are capable of doing; and then you take that back to your own classroom. After I conduct a regional or all-state ensemble, I return to my classroom and do my best to continue being the all-state conductor. I tell administrators, parents, and students that while I might be away conducting all-state for a few days every year, every other day of the year, I am here, and students get an all-state conductor full time. It raises my expectations of how I approach re­hearsals. I step on the podium and ex­pect my students to behave like an alls-tate orchestra. They feel that expectation and respect it. Because I treat them like an all-state orchestra, they give me all-state–level effort.    

    Christopher Selby earned a music education degree from The Hartt School of Music in Connecticut and master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of South Carolina.Selby taught orchestra at the elementary, middle, and high school levels for 18 years before coming to Charleston and has also supervised orchestra curriculum and instruction and led teacher training.