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The Past is in the Present: At Home with Gunther Schuller

November 11, 2015

I had the good fortune to study with Gunther Schuller in 1998. As most anyone who met or worked with Gunther will tell you, he had a personality that was, for lack of a better word, unique.

This short documentary was shot about two years before his death (he passed June 21, 2015).

A “C” is not an “F”

November 9, 2015

When I was a bit younger (ok, a lot younger) I spent four years teaching public school orchestras alongside conducting three other orchestras. (Believe it or not, I led seven different orchestras per week at that time. Some days would begin with “Hot Cross Buns” and end with “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” It was a crazy time… but I digress.) Unbeknownst to me, my public school teaching experience was in the middle of the now-almost-universally-recognized-as-failed “Self Esteem Movement.”

The belief in the need for elevated self esteem goes like this: If a child thinks highly of themselves, everything goes better for the child. The child will want to learn more, will perform better in school (particularly on assessment tests), and will be an all-around well-adjusted person. Coupled with the belief in enhancing a child’s self esteem is the practice of not ever letting the child feel criticized. You can imagine my confusion and disbelief when parents called administrators or the board of the youth orchestra I was running at the time to complain of my “humiliating” their child in front of their peers. When asked what my behavior was that caused the embarrassment, the parent would say, “you told them they were playing a wrong note in front of the class/orchestra.”

The residue of the Self Esteem Movement is still with us. What this means for those of us who are in higher education is that often the first time a student is told “no” or “not good enough” is when they reach college.

To that end, read below the message a university administrator recently sent their college faculty:

Subject: A ‘C’ is not an ‘F’  — A message from the Student Success Team

Though a grade of “C” on an assignment or in a class is not the same as earning an “F,” for many of our students it imparts the same level of distress. Many of our new students were easily able to achieve ’A’s in high school, and are experiencing distress at their inability to do so at {redacted by BSJ}. Though we know many high school grades are inflated, the students (and their parents) most likely do not, and they may not understand the level of effort that is required to achieve high grades at the collegiate level.  This also means that, for many of these students, one of the first “B” or “C” (or lower) grades they earn will be here at {redacted by BSJ}.  To highlight this point, consider the following  facts about the last two freshmen cohorts:


Fall 2015 freshmen:

  • 122 of them had a high school GPA of 4.0 or higher
  • Of those who took the Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement Survey during {orientation} this summer, 90% of them reported earning “mostly ‘A’s and ‘B’s” in high school

Fall 2014 freshman:

  • 96 had a high school GPA of 4.0+; of those, 10 had a 4.0 {college} GPA at the end of their first year
  • The average {college} GPA dropped .71 from high school GPA

With this in mind, we are reaching out to faculty to help students in making that initial expectations adjustment.  Here are some ways that you could help:

-Begin a campaign of reality messaging, sharing this information and acknowledging the stress students may be feeling.

-Empathize, but remind students of both the value of and means to becoming more resilient.

-Encourage struggling students to take advantage of free academic support services offered at {this college}, such as Supplemental Instruction and tutoring.

-Connect older students with freshmen, to give both practical and emotional support, inspiring them with “this is how I did it” stories.

-Consider who among your upper-class students might be best suited to offering words of encouragement. These could be positive students who have overcome a challenging semester (e.g.: changed their major, struggled in a required class, had to learn to balance work or family expectations with coursework, initially suffered from poor time management skills but learned how to better organize their time, etc.), or students who you see as “models” of balancing the inherent stress that comes with intellectual growth.  Ask them to serve as “peer mentors” to their freshman/sophomore classmates or fellow majors.  Highlight to the freshmen and sophomores that they will be mentors when they are juniors and seniors, too.

-If you’re a faculty advisor for a student group,  recruit the student leaders of these groups to initiate this type of interaction with younger students. Perhaps encourage them to host a “If I Knew Then What I Know Now” panel that focuses on the strategies they employed to be successful in college, and activities that worked to their advantage.

The last day for students to withdraw from a course with a grade of “W” is Friday, November 13. For some students, doing so is an advisable, guided step that is part of an overall plan for future academic success at {this college}.  However, for others, it is an action they experience as failure and they may begin making plans to leave {this college}. Please use this week as an opportunity to encourage our students to overcome challenges they may encounter at {this college} and beyond. Thank you so much for supporting our enhanced retention efforts!

Certainly the above message provides food for thought.

Orchestra Rehearsal Etiquette

October 7, 2015

The folks over at put up a nice, concise article on rehearsal etiquette. Many of you out there already fully understand the actions on their list, but it’s still nice to re-read and share!

Rehearsal Etiquette Article

Ever been disappointed?

September 24, 2015

Earlier in my career I had a job where I was assistant conductor for an orchestra.  Every time the horns cracked a note (I mean every time) the Music Director would glare as though it was a personal insult.

Kinda like this:

A Strange Coincidence

September 3, 2015

I happened to be in the audience the night the Chicago Symphony violinist from the story below walked off the stage. I had never seen anything like that before in the hundreds (or more) of concerts I’ve attended, played, or conducted. I thought perhaps a string broke, or that she was overcome by an illness.

A few years later my curiosity finds itself satisfied by this harrowing tale:


Haydn’s Farewell

January 6, 2014

Classical music “videos” (films, television broadcasts, etc.) have long been a playground for directors wishing to test their latest “arty” shots and technique.

Check out this nice performance of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony shot almost the entire time in EXTREME CLOSE-UP.

The Tuning Wars

December 5, 2013

As conductors, we are (usually) preoccupied with tuning.  One of my edicts is to have the orchestra tune “mindfully.” I regularly coach my groups to tune thoughtfully, and with a beautiful sound.

But… do we really know when we’re in tune? I mean, of course we do, right? Certainly we can hear when we are out of tune. But, how “in tune” is being “in tune?”

I am having a bit of fun here, but it is a fascinating question.

In a former life, I played mandola in a mandolin quartet (two mandolins, a mandola, and a mandocello). Let me tell you, we could spend an hour just “microtuning” our instruments to get them in tune with one another. (I mean, think of all those doubled strings!!)


(Members of the mandolin family – note the mandobass in the back!)

Check out this great article about tuning systems. (Allow yourself some time, the article is pretty darn thorough.)

Also, take a night and read this funny, interesting book:

How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why you Should Care)


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