Pursuit of Excellence, An Interview with Parker Bixby

Dan Blaufuss | October 2015

    Mercer Island sits in Lake Washington, which separates Seattle and Bellevue. It is the largest populated island on a lake in the United States and home to a city and high school of the same name. Parker Bixby, who has been with the 300-member Mercer Island band program since 1995, directs three of the high school’s four concert bands, its award-winning percussion ensemble, and the Islander Marching Band. He shares the responsibility of the district’s entire 5-12 band program with four other teachers, and all five teach at multiple levels.

What made you choose not to have a competitive marching band?
    I have been asked that question my whole career. I marched a finals corps in DCI and came through a powerhouse Southern California marching band program and was a drum major in my university marching band. Marching band is near and dear to my heart, and competitive marching band is near and dear to my heart. However, it is the wrong choice for this school and community. Mercer Island is an incredibly high-achieving school, and my students don’t need one more thing where they have to be perfect. Rather than motivate with rankings and trophies, we motivate through pursuit of excellence. That’s our goal.
    Marching band is still a huge part of the program, and we hold ourselves to a very high standard. We had 50 hours of camp in August, we have a two-day leadership retreat, we spend a lot of money on it, and it is a big part of who we are, but our focus is on creating the highest-quality, most entertaining, most rewarding, flexible, inclusive experience we can for the largest number of students and our community. For us, being competitive limits those options as opposed to expanding them.
We have gone to the Rose Parade three times performed at Seattle Seahawks games, traveled to London, and marched as an international guest in Australia. Marching is central to what we do, we just don’t do anything for trophies. We go to have a great time, and we want to be as entertaining as possible and put on the very best show we can. Our marching band follows a Big Ten-style, entertainment-first model. When we are in the stands, we have 15-20 memorized shorts that are play-dependent, and we call those using hand signals. Our halftime shows are topical and relevant, which keeps people excited and wondering what our next show will be about. Two of our shows this year were Taylor Swift and Seattle Rock Anthems. Our last show will be Star Wars because of the movie coming out in December. We usually do some sort of parody associated with these things. The aim is topical, in-the-moment shows, for which I try to get music that is less than six months old.
    After every football game we march up to our ampitheater, a big cement circle, and play a post-game concert. If you asked my students to choose between the game and the ampitheater, they would pick the ampitheater, because they feel like rock stars. Five to six hundred people show up while we dance and play popular tunes. It’s small-town fun.

How do you use iPads in marching band?
    It is important to remember tablets are just tools. There are some things they will never replace, but they are the quickest and best way to deliver information, such as drill, to the largest number of students possible. Students use an app called DBN Reader, made by a company called Drillbook Next. After writing drill, we upload the charts and student coordinates to the Drillbook Next website, which requires a subscription. Students can search the app for the school name, find their shows, and then enter a password to download the current show. If we make an edit, when students enter a place with Wi-Fi and open DBN Reader, it will notify them there is an update to the show available for download.
    Students have waterproof cases for their iPads and lanyards to hang them around their necks, making the devices easy to have even on the field. The days of being frustrated by students forgetting coordinate sheets or showing up with the wrong ones are greatly reduced. Now the only worry is students forgetting their tablets, but with this system, every student on the field has every step of every student’s show available.
    In rehearsal I might have students learn their first three sets. They take out their iPads and can see all the counts, steps, and mark times. Then I can say, “For the first set, zoom in and look at your step size.” Students can see the grid and zoom all the way in on their icon and advance the drill step by step to see what their step size is and on what count they cross a yard line. Students learn twice as many sets in the same amount of time as we were learning on paper.

How do you teach students to practice?
    We do a disservice to students by echoing lines we have heard as musicians our whole lives – that the band room is not a place for practice but for rehearsal. We learn our part at home the rehearsal space is for learning other people’s parts. I reject these notions. Not only do I think the band room is a place for practice, I think it’s the best place for young musicians to practice. They simply don’t yet know how. There are no professional musicians who will tell you that they knew how to practice effectively when they were 14.
    Even if directors acknowledge that there is a place for practice in the band room, we often insinuate that it is our students’ job to take home a piece of music, about which they know almost nothing – not the genre, not their part’s role in the large ensemble, not even really how their instrument should sound – learn it, come back to school and play it for the director. This is an irresponsible request as an educator. I don’t think we do it deliberately. It is a combination of a few things:

• We assume that students are not working as hard as they should on their music.
• We want to know which students are excelling. If we ask the entire band to go learn something, and nine kids come back with it learned, we have learned something about those nine kids, how we can teach them, and how we can teach everybody else.
• We assume it doesn’t do any harm to ask them to come in prepared.

    We have not opened our minds to the idea that a primary responsibility of ours is to teach students the right way to practice. For me, this is about actively practicing in the band room every day and labeling it as practice. Everyone thinks teaching students how to practice is a worthy endeavor, but the problem is keeping students engaged. The solution is to be engaged yourself. When it comes to teaching students how to make a beautiful sound, I do not do anything special, but I am unflinching about coming up with as many ways as possible to make it scintillating and of paramount importance in the band room. I am overjoyed when kids make great sounds, and I am unapologetic about demanding it at all times.
    Teaching students to make great sounds is about walking the talk. When I present on this topic to other band directors, I ask, “If your children were in your band, what would you want them to spend their time practicing? Do you want them to practice their band music every night?” The answer is always no. The best practice time consists of playing long tones and etudes and practicing band music just a bit. During rehearsal, you have to commit to making great sounds all the time. You have to be willing to play easier music to get to that point. You have to be willing to dedicate 25 minutes of a 50-minute class period every single day to playing Remingtons and long tones and give genuine, honest feedback about how it should sound. Then you have to call it practice. “What are we doing right now, kids?” “Practicing.” “You got it!” As Allen Vizzutti once said, “Keep playing long tones until someone tells you your sound is too beautiful.”
    Practicing means solving problems. Teach students to find problems by asking them what they hear. What instrument came in first? Was everyone in tune? Did you like that sound? If not, what would you change to make you like it? If you don’t like it because it’s out of tune, how do we get it in tune? Let’s talk about that. The great practicers are great problem solvers; they diagnose and then invent something that will help them solve the problem.
    It takes engagement to make this work in rehearsal. I’m passionate about this and try to demonstrate that passion to my students, which makes them excited about it. Students want to learn, succeed, and please their teachers. If we are more excited about great sounds, students will be too. In June, at the very end of the year, when we play our Daily Technique, I am more engaged than at the beginning of the year. After a year of working with this batch of students, I know how every single one of them plays, what they are capable of, when they sound good, and when they don’t. I am trying to find the 182nd lesson on the same thing for them to get a new angle on understanding a better sound on one more level.I am absolutely absorbed. There is always something else to think about when listening for beauty in our sound. By the way, if a student gets it on concert F – and in my life I’ve seen two high school students who had a better sound on that note than I could conceptualize – then go up a partial, and it all starts over.
    After practice time, the translation to the music is like practice on steroids, because now you have an aural vocabulary to bring into their music. Students know that they sound good, and they will understand how long it took them to get that way. They then become a lot more attentive to your comments about making great sounds on Amazing Grace when they realize they’ve been doing it for seven years on a concert F long tone and they are still working on it.

How do you work with the other teachers in the district to strengthen the program?
    We team-teach everything in the 5-12 program, and my colleagues Dave Bentley, Ryan Lane, Carol Krell, and Bryan Wanzer, and I all teach at multiple levels, very much by design. This is central to our program. We are lucky that Ryan plays saxophone, Bryan and Carol play clarinet, Dave plays low brass, and I am a trumpet player with a percussion background. We try to make sure that every student has a bottomless pit of things to learn.
    My teaching schedule is all high school except for fifth grade trumpets and percussionists and team teaching the fifth grade program with Dave and Carol. Fifth grade is 0.2 of my position. Carol is 0.2 at the high school and mostly middle school. Dave is 0.6 middle school and 0.4 high school. Ryan is 0.6 high school and 0.4 middle school. We are all deliberately mixed and we team up in the classroom.

What is the aim of Mercer Island’s level assessment program?
    The level assessment program grew out of a desire to find a better way to do a few things. I feel strongly that in the vast majority of middle and high school band programs, auditions do not best meet the needs of students, teachers, ensembles, or the community. The director’s perception is that offering auditions is most fair to all students, but the students’ perception is that decisions regarding group placement were made a long time prior based on some mysterious formula that they do not understand, and they prepare or not under that assumption. The result of this mentality is that the band director does not hear a valid representation
of students’ best abilities during their auditions, much less their weaknesses, which are even more important to know as their teacher.
    In an ideal world, the teacher has an opportunity to hear every student one on one in a controlled environment. Much like a private lesson, we listen to every student play and have an opportunity to discuss and ask with each student, “What are your goals? Where do you want to be? What ensemble do you see yourself in? What are you struggling with? How old is that reed?” None of this is novel, but the level assessment system gives some structure to that and puts kids on a path that they can clearly see. Auditions rarely, if ever, accomplish such things. The one thing that auditions do well compared to our level assessment system is save time. Level assessment takes a fair bit of time, but we know how every one of our students play and have empowered them to be in charge of their future on their instrument. In addition, we have all of the information needed to truly be the expert when it comes time to place students into groups.
    Our band program has four concert bands, ranging from inexperienced and inclusive (we take first-year players in our high school program) up to our top ensemble, from which a number of students will go on to major in music. We have designed four levels that parallel our district grade-level learning expectations. Each level includes excerpts, scales, and sightreading, and each corresponds to a minimum level of accomplishment for a student to be considered for placement at each one of the levels in our four ensembles. Passing level three is not a guarantee that a student will be in the Wind Symphony, our second band, but it is a requirement for consideration. I might have 200 students who pass level three, but I only take 60-70 students in the second ensemble.
    Every student in the band program must attempt to pass one level every year. We offer three listening assessments a year, in late October, February, and early April; each consists of a full week of listening. Every student has to play during at least one of these weeks, with the option to play at all three if they desire. A hot shot freshman who wants to earn a place in the top group quickly has to pass four levels in a year and a half, which is difficult to do in that short a time.
    Playing a level assessment is our largest grade of the year, worth more than a performance, but it is also pass/fail. We have a rubric, and if students pass the minimum on that rubric for what is essentially preparation, they get the passing grade, even if they don’t pass the level itself. Passing the level is different. It is another rubric but has to do with a conversation and discussing strengths and weaknesses. At the end of each listening, I make notes in a Google document shared between all the teachers in which we take notes on each student.
    Here how this looks: Say a student comes in wanting to pass level two on clarinet, and he plays the excerpts well but makes numerous mistakes on scales. Before and after playing, we have an opportunity to talk about things that matter and are unique to that student. How is his family? What else is he interested in? Is he enjoying band? Then I’ll say, “Your excerpts are great. You’ve obviously worked really hard, but if you’re going to try to get all the way through level three you have to be comfortable with all the scales from three flats to three sharps.” Then I’d have him play the scale again, point out where I hear him struggling, and ask how he would practice it. I might tell him to sign up for level assessment two again next time but prepare level three and put in substantial practice time on the scales. At the next listening, we’ll have him play scales, and if they’re great, we’ll listen to level three.
    What’s embedded in that conversation with that student is that it’s not an audition, it’s a lesson. He got to tell me where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do. I didn’t have to participate in some charade where every student is the same and I cannot make comments about how they did, not even to say “good job,” because it would tip my hand about who is going to be in what ensemble. Instead I can talk to the student about what he needs to do to get where he wants to go. I can explain clearly what he needs to do to pass the level, and now the ball is in his court. He will either do exactly what I said or he won’t.
    There are some caveats to the system. Any student who earns a superior rating at solo contest automatically receives a pass through level three. A student selected to perform at the state solo contest automatically passes level four, as does a student selected to participate in an All-State or All-Northwest honor ensemble. These caveats exist because I want to know how students play. If a student has done work that parallels or exceeds our grade level expectations, then I want to reward that. Clearly a student who wins the room at solo contests is doing well – and I’ve probably already heard them play numerous times anyway.

Have there been any other benefits to level assessment?
    Since abandoning auditions, I can count on one hand the number of conversations I have had about what group a student was in, down from dozens a year I had when I was auditioning students into groups. With the level assessment system, if somebody asks why you made a decision, you now have far more information with which to have that conversation than you had with a five-minute blind audition. It is better to be the most informed person in the room – better for the students and better in any conversation I have about the students’ goals. The band director has to be comfortable with the idea that he or she is the expert.

What advice would you give a director who wants to implement a system like this?
   Set requirements based on your students, what you’re teaching, and what you want students to learn. Avoid simply set the bar high and asking students to go home and learn it on their own. Figure out where a particular student in your band program should be. Your assessments should directly reflect what you are teaching in the classroom. It is our job to help our students be successful. Set the bar and help get them there.