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What It Takes

Dean Kravig | September 2014

    Several years ago, one of my university horn students asked what it takes to be a successful high school music teacher. The question caught me off guard, but by the end of his lesson, the ideas came. The secret is the five Ps.

    Personality. Your personality is often the biggest draw for your students. They don’t have to take your class. There are usually other options, at least at the high school level. If they do not sense that you are fun and you love being with them, they will go elsewhere.
    Some of the most talented musicians simply lack a personality that attracts students, and their programs die off for lack of student interest. As I have observed myself and other teachers over the years, I have seen a tendency to let unrealistic expectations change the way teachers interact with students. For example, teachers should never depend on our students to build our professional self‐esteem. However, it is all too easy to get upset with our students when they make us look bad. I always remind myself that there is no room for ego in music – it’s impossible to make great music together when our egos block our emotional and spiritual energy.
    Our personality not only attracts students to our program but also provides a living example to students of what a passionate musician looks like and how much enjoyment music brings to life. Although great music making takes lots of hard work, our students should see that it is one of the greatest pleasures in life.

    Passion. Students can tell immediately whether you are passionate about what and who you teach. It shows in the rehearsal room and in performances. Remember, we help students to appreciate the aesthetic side of life. I believe that the aesthetic side of our natures is a huge part of what differentiates us from all lower orders of beings. Animals don’t appreciate beauty like we do. Humanity has been given the ability to appreciate beauty in nature, in art and in each other.
    More than that, we can recreate beauty in musical compositions and performances, graphic and visual arts, ballet, and other art forms. Music teachers have the privilege of helping students learn to love and appreciate the aesthetic side of our human natures. What an exciting gift!

    Programming. There must be a delicate balance between the music that the students want to play, the music we need them to play, and the music that the audience loves to hear. Each year there are pieces that are non‐negotiable: the standards of band and orchestral literature that the students need to learn. There are also the pieces that the students want to play because they are popular that year or fun for them to play. The great teacher educates and inspires their students to learn to love the meatier pieces rather than just the fun ones.
    Students may complain the first time you pull out a standard piece from last century or before. I always tell my students that they cannot complain out loud in rehearsal until after they have had two good performances of a piece. Inevitably, the pieces they complain the most about in the early stages of rehearsing eventually become their favorites, and the fun ones become boring after only a few rehearsals.
    The last component of programming is your audience. There must be a balance of music, so that they are entertained and educated by their attendance at your program.

    Performances. Our performances are the equivalent of the chapter, unit, and final tests in all the other classes students take. However, in our case, the tests should be the most exciting part of the learning process. Our students should be eager for every performance and know that they have done everything necessary for it to be successful.
    Our students need to learn how to differentiate a great performance from a poor one. Too often, for the sake of having bragging rights, we as directors choose music that is much too difficult for our groups to perform well. All music worth playing is worth playing well, and we do a disservice to the composer and to our students when we program pieces that are at a level they cannot realistically achieve. This is not to say that each year I won’t choose a piece or two that pose significant challenges to my groups. However, I always let them hear a performance done by professionals as our standard, and then I must prepare them well enough that their first performance of those pieces is good enough for them to feel that they have accomplished something great. If it becomes obvious that we cannot perform the piece with integrity, we have still benefited educationally and had fun challenging ourselves. Each successive performance of these pieces will get better, but students know when they have hit it out of the park on a first performance, and they know when they have blown it. It is our job as directors to prepare our groups in such a way as to build the trust that they must have in us.
    Try to have a person with trained musical ears in the audience to give honest, constructive criticism. The students benefit greatly from these candid, professional comments, especially if they are written out so that you can read them out loud at your next rehearsal.
    As a director I try to follow Sir Georg Solti’s philosophy. He was known for having very intense rehearsals, but being very relaxed in the performance. This approach makes the performance much more enjoyable for students as well. If rehearsals have been thorough, the performance can be more fun – as it should be.

    Preparation. When I first thought of this aspect of teaching, I reflected on my musical training. Eventually I realized that the ongoing process of learning is even more important than what we learn in school.
    In college I studied horn and instrumental music, but my first job included choir and handbells, for which I had much less training. I promptly found local professionals in these areas and learned everything I could over the next two years. I invited regional handbell clinicians to work with my groups, and took voice lessons and vocal pedagogy at the local university. These resources were essential for my growth and the growth of the students.
    Throughout our careers as teachers, we must model life-long learning to students, and take every opportunity to improve our teaching. Only then will our music programs stay viable and exciting in this age of budget cuts.

    Since that day, I have been asked many times about what it takes to run some aspect of a music program. Each time this happens I realize that it does considerable good to sit and think about what I will tell them. Just pondering on what we do as music educators and how it can be better done is valuable for all of us.