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Small and Mighty

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed performers can accomplish great things. 

Take a look at ensembles all around the United States and what do you see? Chances are you will see a much smaller ensemble than you would have 10 or 15 years ago. Many music programs are continuing to diminish in numbers, but that doesn’t mean that they do or have to diminish in quality. I believe that a small band, choir, or orchestra can still be a quality ensemble and produce a mighty sound. Over the past year I have gotten the opportunity to work with a lot of small bands, which is different for me as I came from a fairly large band program. Through working with these small bands I have found that there are many myths about small bands and that with hard work and perseverance it is possible to get a small band to sound big.

Common Myths About Small Bands

In regards to ensemble size, bigger does not always equal better. I have heard many small bands that produce a better quality sound than bands that are double or triple their size. Just because a bigger band produces a louder sound it does not mean the sound is of better quality. Another myth is that smaller bands cannot play challenging repertoire. I believe that this is not true. I know of a few bands that have fewer than 30 members and are playing level 4 or higher music. It may take hard work and some creativity, but produce a strong quality sound with a small band is very possible when approached in the correct way.

Techniques to Achieve a Small, but Mighty Band

  1. Ensemble Balance- While ensemble balance is a challenge with a band of any size, it is often even more difficult to get a smaller band to produce a balanced sound. I believe it is very important to make sure what a balance ensemble sounds like for them. A small band balance will sound much different that a larger bands balance.
  2. Director Attitude- When a director is faced with low numbers it is very easy to get discouraged and believe that your band will not be successful. It is extremely important as the director to believe that your band, no matter of its size can be successful with hard work and perseverance. Unfortunately, I have seen the results of a director not believing in their ensemble due to its size. If we as directors do not believe in our groups, no matter how much work we put into them they will not succeed.
  3. Quality Over Quantity-As directors we need to realize and find ways to show the community that quality over quantity is more important. I would rather have an ensemble of 25 dedicated players that work hard and sound good instead of 100 players that don’t really care about what they are doing and produce a not as high of quality sound.
  4. Be Yourself- We must find an identity for our band and not try to be like another larger group. Each band needs to define their own sound and look and work on perfecting that sound. Not every band, whether the same size or not, is going to look and sound the same so it is important to define your style and stick with what will help to make your group the best quality as possible.
  5. Repertoire Selection- One downside to smaller bands is that the instrumentation is often not ideal. When working with a small group with poor instrumentation it is best to stick with publishers that provide flexible instrumentation and part choices. No piece of music will be perfect for every situation so you still may have to arrange parts and customize the piece to work for your particular group. In order for a small band to produce a good quality sound choosing the correct repertoire is imperative.
  6. Play to Your Strengths Not Your Weaknesses- With a small band it is not as easy for students to hide or cover up mistakes. This is why it is even more important to play to your bands strengths. For example if you have a 25 piece band with only 8 brass players, you probably do not want to pick music that features the brass a lot. Find repertoire that is going to show off your strengths and help to hide your weaknesses. I believe that it is possible for a 25 member band to sound like a 50 member band, but only if the music correctly fits the ensemble.
  7. Add Weight Not Volume- As I said before it is important to remember that a bigger sound doesn’t always mean a louder sound. The want to have a small group fill up a venue through volume is understandable, but asking the students to play louder can often be a double-edged sword. This can play havoc on intonation and tone quality. Instead make sure that the students are playing with proper posture and horn positions appropriate for their instrument. Good posture will automatically increase a students breathing capacity and will help the player play louder with a better tone. Also the way a small ensemble is positioned on the stage or on the field can also help to improve the sound.
  8. Student Pride- I believe one of the biggest factors of improving a small bands sound has nothing to do with music at all. It is all about attitude and pride. The students need to respect themselves, the adults and charge and most importantly what they are doing to have a good outcome. With a small band you as the director have to be very supportive and help to develop the ensemble as a team. Without pride an ensemble will not be able to reach their full potential.

I believe that a small band can be just as powerful as a band twice as big. As band directors we can’t always choose the size of our band, but no matter how many players we have there are many techniques we can use to bring out their best. While none of us want to see our numbers dwindle we can still produce a quality sound and give our students a quality musical experience with a small group. There is no magic of how to produce a quality small band, but remember that every band small or large has untapped potential and it is our job to bring that potential to life. As ensemble directors we need to be careful not to fall into the trap of “bigger is always better!!” Your band may be little, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be mighty!!


If you think you can or you think you can’t, either way, you will be right.”- Henry Ford

Another session I attended at PMEA 2011 was entitled “IEP’S and What Do They Mean to Music Teachers” presented by Carol Burgman of Pace School. As most educators would agree IEP’s can be a daunting document to have to sift through and follow. This is especially true for music educators as we often think there is not much valuable information for us in a student’s IEP. Through this session I learned what exactly an IEP contains, what parts of an IEP are most useful for music educators, and how can music teachers best include special education students in their classrooms. Hopefully this blog post will help music educators (especially newer teachers) know which parts of a students IEP is the most important and give ideas for how to help these students succeed in the music classroom.

What is an IEP? 

  • IEP= Individualized Educational Plan
  • An IEP starts by the student being identified by a teacher, administrator, or principal
  • It is a document that specifies a year-long comprehensive educational program designed for an individual student to help them succeed
  • The IEP drives the educational process and the IEP mandates must be done in the time frame allotted and described in the document
  • An IEP is a legally binding document between the educational system, teachers, school therapists, and the parent or guardian
  • The document can be challenged through a legal procedure known as due process
  • It is usually written by the special education teacher, but the regular classroom teacher bears primary responsibility
  • Must be re-written yearly by a specific team
  • Rarely mentions music class except indirectly as an opportunity for inclusion
  • Includes academic or behavioral goals. Some of which may apply to the student’s entire program (including music class)
  • An IEP contains specifically designed modifications that are useful for all the students teachers. Modifications listed as “throughout the school day”, or “at all times during student attendance” apply to the music classroom.

What Matters to the Music Educator

  • Communication Plan– describes the students communication needs. This sections specifies the challenges and interventions for the student. It will state if the student has an alternative reading plan
  • Positive Behavioral Support Plan– an accompanying document that supports the IEP if the student has specific behavioral issues. It specifies triggers, the student’s process when in crisis, methods to intervene, and recovery information
  • Present Levels of Achievement and Function– gives specifics of the student’s academic abilities, strength, weaknesses, and overall function of the student.
  • Goals and Objectives– Review this section to determine your role in assisting with objectives implementation
  • SDI (Specially Designed Instruction)- Special methods or modifications to help the child. Modifications indicated as constant or cross-curricular are your responsibility
  • It is important to read the IEP because there is a lot that we can learn about the student that may help us better serve them even though it doesn’t specifically mention music
  • The special education classroom teacher or resource room should be your contact for specific information on adapting activities

Tips for Successful Inclusion

  • Treat all students with utmost respect no matter of their disability or ability level
  • Keep your focus on the objective- functional inclusion
  • Modifications should be simple and transferable
  • Present your lessons in a structured, well-organized, appropriately paced manner. Allow enough time for students to respond
  • Remember to consider your sub-skills and prerequisite skills when students struggle. Back up and then move forward
  • Make sure your classroom expectations, rules and consequences are clear and concise
  • Keep expectations high and allow students to rise to the occasion. NEVER settle and use the excuse that they have an IEP so they can’t do it
  • Think outside the box, be creative, and think quickly on your feet
  •  Remain positive!!

Where is Music Education Highlights Heading?

Unfortunately due to job searching, starting to substitute teach and a recent death in my family I have been unable to post as much as I would like. Hopefully over the next few weeks I will be able to post more regularly again. After I finish a few more PMEA recap posts I will begin a new series on Music Education Highlights. I am planning on starting a series of posts covering the job search process, application process, interview process, common interview questions, applying for substitute teaching, and tips to succeed as a substitute.

If you have any suggestions for posts that you would like to see at Music Education Highlights please let me know. Also if you would like to write a guest post please contact me. I am always looking for post suggestions and new voices!


Unfortunately due to job searching, interviews, and some family circumstances over the past few weeks I have been unable to write any posts lately. I am hoping to get back to posting again on a more regular basis. I will continue with writing recaps of sessions from PMEA 2011 and then am hoping to start a series of posts on job searching, applications, and interviews. One of the sessions I attended was a choral reading session. While this session does not offer many tips or suggestions for teaching, we sight-read many choral pieces that work great in many choral ensembles. Below are the pieces and basic information about each piece.

Choral Repertoire

2 Part

  1. Prepare Thyself Zion by Michael Burkhardt– For unison voices and optional C instrument part. Can be performed in either English or German.
  2. Clap Your Hands, Rejoice by Andy Beck-includes hand claps and choreography great for young voices.
  3. Ezekiel and David by Sally Albrecht– A traditional spiritual for young voices. Independent parts make it easy for young students to learn and perform. Also available in 3 part mixed.
  4. Shooting Star by Andy Beck– A lyrical piece for elementary students. Also has easy triangle and mark tree parts included.
  5. Ton The by Susan Brumfield– A very catchy and humorous piece that is easy to teach. For two-part treble and is also available in SATB. Includes optional xylophone and percussion parts.
  6. Ask the Moon by Thomas Ahlburn– A more intricate piece for 2-part treble voices. Includes optional percussion and string bass parts.
  7. Think On Me by James Mulholland– A more complex, beautiful lyrical piece for treble voices.
  8. Hot Chocolate by Andy Beck– A kid favorite piece that is great for the winter and holiday season.

3 Part

  1. The Snow Begins To Fall by Andy Beck– A lyrical winter piece for 3- part mixed voices. Also available in 2-Part, SSA, and SATB. A good piece for upper middle school choirs.
  2. Nutcracker Jingles by Chuck Bridwell– A holiday favorite that even high school students will enjoy. Also available for SATB.
  3. Furaha (Joy!) by Sally Albrecht– An energetic piece in Swahili, also available in 2 part and SATB.
  4. For the Trumpet Shall Sound by Sally Albrecht– A biblical inspired piece also available in SATB and SSA. A great piece to feature one of your outstanding trumpet players.
  5. Festival Sanctus by John Leavitt– A very complex piece with frequent changing meters. Also available in SSA, TTB, and SATB.
  6. Ring the Bells by Libby Larsen– An upbeat holiday piece for women’s voices. Very accessible for younger voices.
  7. The Pink Panther by Jay Althouse– a fun piece also available in SATB and is a great piece for teaching rhythms and scat singing.
  8. The Cuckoo by Robert Hugh– A fun and rhythmic piece that includes optional percussion parts and choreography. A great piece for advanced middle school choirs.


  1. Esto Les Digo by Kinley Lange– Based off of Matthew 18:19-20. A lyrical a cappella piece in Spanish.
  2. Make A Joyful Noise by Raymond Wise– An easy to learn piece that makes a great concert opener or closer.
  3. Steal Away by Howard Helvey– A religious piece with complex harmonies. Includes a Soprano Sax/Clarinet part and Violin or other C instrument part.
  4. I Carry Your Heart With Me by Randall Stroope– A musical setting of a poem by E.E. Cummings. Includes a violin solo part and is for a more advanced high school ensemble.
  5. Al Shlosha D’varim by Allan Naplan– A lyrical setting of the popular Jewish morality laws. Written in the form of a partner song with counter melodies.
  6. The Epitaph by Joseph Martin– Another lyrical piece that is good for working on teaching expression and dynamics. Includes and optional violin part.
  7. Ritmo by Dan Davison– A very challenging and rhythmic piece for SATB choir and 4 hand piano. This piece works best for an advanced/mature large choir.
  8. Vieni Nel Mio Cuore by Jonny Priano– An A Capella piece for very advanced choirs.A very challenging piece harmonically.

As I said, while this session didn’t really cover tips for teaching choral music it was extremely beneficial especially for me as an instrumentalist who is not extremely familiar with the choral literature. While there are hundreds of choral pieces out there to choose from these are just a few that experienced choral directors have found to be successful with their students. I hope you find the above list helpful whether you are a choral specialist, choral director, or undergraduate who isn’t as familiar with good choral repertoire. Happy singing!!

“The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, the children are now working as if I did not exist.”- Maria Montessori

During student teaching especially at the high school level, one of the most frustrating things I encountered was students not transferring knowledge. For example I would teach the students about a sforzando or forte piano at a certain spot in the music and the students would perform it with no problem. The next time we would come to this in a different spot in the music or most of the students ignored it and did nothing. Sound familiar? I believe that dealing with this transfer of knowledge is an issue most music teachers deal with at some point. How can we get our students to transfer their learning from one situation to the next? While at the PMEA State Conference one of the sessions I attended was entitled “Getting Your Students to Perform the Sforzando Every Time.” This session was presented by Dr. Scott Meier, Associate Professor of Music Education at Mercyhurst College Pennsylvania. During his session Dr. Meier presented some great tips and resources for getting our students to transfer their knowledge and learning.

Things that Inhibit Transfer:

  1. The creation of subject based “compartments”. As music educators we need to try and combined all subjects together instead of putting each subject into a compartment.
  2. The tendency of learning to be situated.
  3. Transfer is inhibited when the creation of systems based on social behaviors are disguised as learning.
  4. We inhibit transfer when we teach groups of facts without striving for learning that is founded on principles.
  5. Telling students exactly what they have to do to receive and A. Instead we need to emphasize learning for learning sake and learning because you love what you are doing.

Things to Avoid:

  1. Mentioning rather than teaching. Transfer is more likely to occur when learning has become conceptual knowledge. Teach more about less!
  2. Avoid presenting learning that is considered to be essential basic knowledge in just one experience or situation. It is best to create multiple visits to a key concept in a variety of situations.
  3. Try not to only teach to the next concert, but instead, teach to the future success of independent musicians and critical thinkers.
  4. Negative transfer of learning is also possible and something that all educators want to avoid.

Tips for Transferring Knowledge:

  1. We must teach our students about transfer of knowledge/learning and why it is important. Without this step transfer of learning is almost impossible to achieve. Students must know what it is and its importance before it will ever take place. In order to do this we must give the behavior an identity and purpose.
  2. There must be a role model present who values and practices transfer. This role model should be us, the educator. Just as like anything in music that we want our students to accomplish we need to model the behavior.
  3. The students must be immersed in an environment(the classroom) that fosters and supports the idea of transferring knowledge.
  4. It helps if students are exposed to the outstanding transfer thinkers who have already mastered transfer and its resulting creative output.
  5. Students need to practice transfer. The simple act of recognizing transfer when it occurs in class should be rewarded and in some cases celebrated. We need to celebrate and reward each transfer experience we see taking place in our classrooms. It is important to find an age appropriate way to reward a students transfer of knowledge. This shows that transfer is an important skill and that you as the teacher value that skill.
  6. One reason certain concepts transfer more easily than others is because it is almost identical to something else the student already knows.
  7. Allow students to explore and learn on their own. We shouldn’t always just tell the students exactly what to do.
  8. Getting transfer of knowledge is very possible, but as with most things there is not one sure fire fix or solution.
  9. Most importantly we need to get the students out of the “what do I need to do to get an A” way of thinking. When students are thinking in this manner transfer of knowledge is never going to take place.

Resources for More Information:

  1. Transfer of Learning: Cognition, Instruction, and Reasoning by Robert Haskell
  2. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

As I found during student teaching getting students to transfer knowledge can be a challenging process, but can save a lot of time and shows that students are truly grasping and understanding the concept. While the above tips deal with transfer of knowledge in general and not necessarily dealing with music, there are a lot of concepts that can still be used in the music classroom and ensemble. I hope you found the tips from Dr. Meier on how to successfully get your students to transfer knowledge helpful and also please share other ideas and resources of how you accomplish this in your classroom.

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”- W.B. Yeats

As someone who has just graduated from college one of the hardest transitions that I already faced to some extent and am continuing to face now is making a smooth transition from being a student to becoming a teacher. This is a transition that happens gradually throughout your undergraduate career and then before you know it you are no longer a student and are finally a teacher. I found and am continuing to find that if you are not prepared this transition can hit you in the face and be a challenge. We spend at least 17 years of our lives being a student and then suddenly we find ourselves back in the classroom, but only this time we are on the other side. I believe there is a lot that we can be doing during our undergraduate studies  to help make a the transition from student to teacher a little smoother and more gradual.

Transitioning from Student to Teacher

One day you are sitting at a desk learning about how to become a successful teacher and then before you know it you are standing in front of a classroom and are responsible for teaching the students that sit in front of you. During my student teaching experience I found out that the transition from student to student teacher and then eventually to teacher is a challenge. Below are some suggestions that I found help to make this transition happen more smoothly.

  1. Get Inside the Classroom Early: I found that getting into the classroom as early as possible can help to make the transition from student to teacher easier. The more you get into the classroom the more you learn and the more you begin thinking like a teacher. While in the classroom you can learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t work as an educator. Also one of my biggest pieces of advice is when in the classroom don’t just sit there!! Be active, even if you don’t have the opportunity to actually teach walk around the room, help students if possible and ask questions. All of these things will begin transitioning you into the position of teacher.
  2. Start Building your Library: Begin building your library early on in your career so that you have some resources ready to go when you begin your first year teaching. Start collecting books, magazines journals, choral octavos, scores, recorders, anything that one day may be helpful in the classroom. If if you aren’t able to buy some of these things write down titles of pieces you hear or play that you like, keep a list of books that you have seen that you eventually wish to have etc. This way when you begin teaching you will have resources to start with and will know where to look to find more.
  3. Define Yourself as an Educator: Start defining yourself as an educator. Think about who you want to be as a future music teacher and make a plan of how you are going to get there. Also begin thinking about your future classroom, what would your ideal classroom look like, what will your discipline plan be etc. Not only will this help make the transition to becoming a teacher easier,  but it will also help to prepare you for job interviews. One of the most beneficial assignments for  me as an undergraduate was my final for elementary music methods. We were given a scenario where we were hired as the new music teacher. We were given a budget, materials we had, what was expected of us etc. The we had to plan out specific units, give a rough plan for the first few weeks of school, write how are classroom would be laid out, what we would use our budget for etc. This really helped to get us thinking about decisions that we will have to make as educators that we never had to think about as students.
  4. Think as a Teacher Instead of a Student: One of the biggest things you can begin doing is start thinking like a teacher instead of a student. Approach every situation with the eyes of a teacher. When observing in a classroom think about what you would do and how you would handle specific situations as the teacher. In ensemble rehearsals, stop just thinking like the student or performer. Put yourself in the directors shoes and think how you would run the rehearsal. Also begin listening with the ears of a teacher. Don’t just listen for your part, but begin listening for pitch errors, wrong notes, stylistic errors etc.
  5. Save Everything: Okay well maybe don’t save everything, but definitely save a lot of your handouts, books etc. Make sure to save all of your lesson plans and materials you mae as well. These are great resources to help you when you are first beginning as a teacher. You never know when this stuff may be helpful down the road. There were many times during student teaching the I referenced stuff from classes earlier in my undergraduate career or used lesson plans that I had created for some of my college courses. These resources can save you time and help you out when you are in a pinch.
  6. Dress More Professionally: I am sure you get sick of hearing this during your undergraduate career, but it is extremely important when stepping into the role of teacher. Begin dressing like a professional early on. Firs of all this helps people and students realize that you are a professional. This is especially important when in the classroom with high school students because you are only a few years older than them. Also starting to dress professionally early on helps to build your wardrobe. While this may seem silly, it is good to begin acquiring more professional clothing during your time as an undergraduate so you don’t have to get a completely new wardrobe right before you start student teaching.
  7. Make Outside Connections: Begin making connections with other people outside of your college, both of your age and older. Developing professional relationships can really help make the transition to becoming a teacher much easier because you have other people to ask questions to and bounce ideas from each other. Make connections with other undergraduates, music educators, other educators, professors etc. Of course with all the technology we have today this is extremely easy. Below are some resources that are great for undergraduates to connect with our music educators and undergraduates and some that have helped me over the past few years as I make this transition from student to teacher.
    1. Twitter and #Musedchat: Take advantage of the wonderful community of music educators and undergraduates to collaborate and communicate with.
    2. Music PLN: A wonderful site created by Dr. Joseph Pisano for music educators and undergraduates to collaborate. A great place to ask questions that you have while transitioning from student to teacher.
    3. Music Ed MajorA very helpful site created by Andy Zweibel for music education undergraduates. This is a great resource for music ed undergraduates to gain more knowledge about the field of music education and to communicate with each other about being a music education undergraduate.
    4. Future Music Educators: A wonderful sites created by Andrew Ritenour, a senior music education undergraduate as Grove City College. This site is geared specifically for music ed majors and covers a lot of topics that often aren’t covered in your courses as an undergraduate.
  8. Take Advantage of Professional Development Opportunities: There are tons of opportunities available for undergraduates so take advantage of them now. Use your undergraduate experience as a time to learn as much about the profession as possible. Attend  workshops, conferences, seminars, subscribe to journals etc. The more you know and learn during your undergraduate career the easier your transition to being a teacher will be.
  9. Begin Working on Your Areas of Weakness: As students we are usually just worried about making it through our classes and doing the bare minimum. As future music teachers we need to realize that we have a huge calling ahead of us so we need to go above and beyond. Instead of just doing what is necessary to survive do more and work on your areas of weakness. For example if you can only play one or two instruments begin working on other secondary instruments to become proficient on them. Not only does improving our areas of weakness help us gain more knowledge and become better educators, but it also helps us become more marketable.
  10. Start the Job Process Early: I can’t stress enough how important this is. The job search process is extremely time-consuming and exhausting. Get a head start to help you transition easier and so that you don’t miss any job opportunities because you weren’t ready. While jobs aren’t often posted until the summer start getting all of your materials and standard applications ready to go so when the jobs do begin to open you can quickly gather your materials and send them.

While this is still a very tough transition I hope that the above tips and suggestions will help you to make this phase in your career a little smoother. While I am still very much in this transition phase as well, any comments or suggestions for transitioning from student to student teacher to teacher is very much appreciated. Stay tuned as I continue through this journey for more posts on transitioning to first year teaching.