The Grand Finale, and a LOT More than I Signed Up For

The big finish, and a lot more than I bargained for.

Last week was the performance of the Classroom Cantatas groups at the Boston Children’s Museum. How it work: the students are bussed to the museum, given a chance to warm up on the Kids Stage and then sing their cantata for an audience of parents, teachers, and museum goers unrelated to the program. There is a conductor and an accompanist, both of whom are TAs from the past sessions, and an audio engineer recording the event. When I signed on to this internship I was told participation in the final performance would not be mandatory.

Well, a few weeks ago the conductor at my school, Mather Elementary, asked if I would conduct the performance because he was unable to get out of class. He has more experience with young children and with conducting, so I was a big change for them. He had also been rehearsing the students weeks prior, and all the rehearsal time I ended up with was 10 minutes at the last school session and a few minutes before the show. This included a warm-up, which they had not done much and certainly not with me. I may have stolen a few ideas from watching the Mendell groups rehearse. Sorry about that, guys…

I was also asked to ride the bus to and from the school with the students. Another TA was supposed to assist but she ended up in traffic, and I suddenly realized that for the first time the operation was ALL up to me (directions to driver, collecting permission forms, collecting kids, counting kids, walking to the bus while counting kids, getting them on the bus, counting them, classroom control on the bus while counting, getting off the bus, counting, walking to the museum while cou-MALACHI GET AWAY FROM THE GEESE!-nting kids, ushering to the stage). I had to work quickly with school administration, who were busy enough and had even less of an idea than I of what was happening, and had to pretend I knew exactly what I was doing when traveling and getting to the museum.

The experience was nothing but rewarding. I can remember the students watching me for guidance and cues, looking professional, and being fairly well-behaved. Unfortunately we had a group of 12 while our sister school had 30+ and a bit more rehearsal time than us in the weeks prior.

Knowing that, in part because of me, the students had a seamless trip to the museum and a successful run is a huge joy. This internship has been most rewarding, and I found myself looking forward to going to the school each week. I cannot recommend it highly enough to future MIE students, and Cantata Singers has asked me to join their paid staff next year!

Speaking of next year, does anybody have experience getting hired at charter schools? I say this because in my experience they can be more lenient with certification requirements. I am pursuing a possible teaching job at a charter school in Dallas, and there may be opportunities here in Boston. Unfortunately MIE does not offer quick links to teaching certifications, unless I am mistaken about that.

I will edit this post with a link to my portfolio in a few weeks. TTFN!

 

~Stephen

 

Edit: Link to cumulative portfolio:
http://portfolios.mieatnec.org/digital/preview_units.php?id=433&page=home&preview=019d385eb67632a7e958e23f24bd07d7

Link to Internship portfolio:

http://portfolios.mieatnec.org/digital/preview_units.php?id=432&page=home&preview=248e844336797ec98478f85e7626de4a

 

Second post of Classroom cantatas

The first and second phases of the Classroom Cantatas project are completed. Students have written their melody and accompaniment, and the final stage is the rehearsal of all songs from their school’s groups. For the melodic composition, I found the term “Musical Lipstick” very helpful, especially since the majority of students in my small group are girls. For the boys, “musical muscle” worked. Corny, yes, but it works. The students did not do this on their own, and it took constant reminder to make the melody as interesting as they can, or to “try something really weird,” otherwise it would be all descending scales, minor thirds, and small intervals based around one note. The product I think is a melody of nice variety, and while it took some gluing together behind the scenes on my part, it is theirs.

Creating accompaniment was a bit trickier because of the limitations of the iPad (small keyboard and weak speakers), and short time to work – I think we only had one 45-minute session to get ideas out there. Based on the advice of another TA, it is perfectly ok to get ideas from the students (rhythms, “happy” or “sad” harmonies, etc), and again glue those behind the scenes. To me the most important aspect of this project is making the students feel like they wrote the piece, so the solution seems to be keeping their ideas obviously up front (like pats on their knees for “snowballs” or dissonant chords for “wind,” etc), and being subtle with harmonic design to make their ideas fit. Creating the glue was tricky. They unintentionally threw in a non-related modulation and different rhythm in the final two stanzas, but the composition process was a fun one for me and I think they will enjoy knowing it is their song. We have 3 rehearsal days, during which I will only be shadowing, and then the final performance at the Children’s Museum.

Having the iPad easily became a distraction for the group and I can’t say that I managed it well all the time. Everybody wanted to play with the piano, to the point where they would just grab it out of my hands and sit with their back to me. The solution, which I wish I had more time to develop, was to assign a “conductor” – this was to appease one student who wanted to be the leader – a pianist, who would help us find the pitches on the iPad, and a librettist, who would hold up the poster for the words. Like jobs in a game of Monopoly, they rotated, and everyone had a job to do to make the group work. There was, however, a lot of neglect for their task that week. The conductor always wanted to conduct, and the natural pianist always wanted to play with the iPad, and nobody ever wanted to hold up the poster with the text.

In future projects I would incorporate this rotation more, so that the keyboard is not just a toy the mean grownups won’t let them play with, and everyone could have a sense of leadership for some part of the project. I would invest in small portable speakers, and enforce rules of a good audience more  – show respect and quiet for a performer or speaker, and appreciation when they’re done.

 

I’ll take copious notes during the rehearsals, especially with regards to classroom management, as this is the time when the entire class of 20 is working together.

 

Classroom Cantatas at Mather and Mendell Elementary (Post #1)

Shadowing two small groups at Mendell Elementary and leading my own small group at Mather Elementary has begun! The idea of this project is that, in collaboration with teaching artists from Cantata Singers, I go in and lead a group of 4-5 second graders at these schools (though I am only observing at Mendell). The first few weeks are spent creating a melody for the given poem, while the next few weeks are spent creating an accompaniment, and the final few weeks are spent rehearsing their self-composed song, and a final performance is given at the Children’s Museum on April 11.

I noticed that each of the two group leaders I have observed at Mendell have unique teaching styles. One is very melodically oriented and is always trying to spark the student’s creative minds by singing what they have written and asking them to finish the line – thus creating the next part of the melody – or asking them “Now what should come after that?” When two students have two different ideas, they vote. This method gets him very far in the composition process. The second leader that I observe takes a different approach. She finds the important words in her text and asks how to bring them out in the melody, though no context has been given (melody surrounding these words has not yet been written as she does this). Because the students seem to have trouble staying in one key – they start on a random note when creating a new line – the resulting melody is so far in different “keys.” If two students have an idea she will often incorporate both ideas. Energy levels at these schools seem to have lacked the past two weeks, likely because it is the end of the day and lunch was a long time ago.

At the Mather I have led my own small group for one session (approx 25 minutes). This. Was. So. Much. Fun. I first established the one and only rule that we listen when someone else is speaking or singing. I encouraged them to raise their hand (though there are only 3 students in the group) when they want to share a great idea, and emphasized that they ALL have great ideas and we want to hear them. As a result, one girl always has her hand raised…. How do I tone that down while not ignoring her or making her feel like not everything she says is important?

Keyboards are used by the TAs for harmonic support or so the students can hear their melody (especially useful as I am not a singer), but since I have no keyboard to use at Mather I have downloaded a piano app for my iPad and yes, I did bring the iPad to a public elem school in Dorchester. The kids loved it! At first I used the device to play their small melody and told them that it was a “grown up tool.” One boy wanted to hold the poster of words but I thought this would keep him from composing with the rest so I insisted that I hold it where he could also see it. But the boy thought the activity was stupid if he couldn’t hold the poster, turned away from the group, buried his face in a chair and would not participate with us. I then asked if he would help with the piano by teaching the other two girls the melody (I quickly taught him how to play it – just two notes). He like playing on the iPad and taught the melody to the girl next to him, who then taught her friend next to her.

My question is: How safe is it to bring an expensive tool into the classroom in this context. The iPad is a great solution to not having a portable keyboard. Obviously they will want to play on the piano all the time, so am I at risk for losing their respect if I, a temporary teacher to them, don’t let them play with the keyboard when they want?

~Stephen G

Internship: Bassoon Reed Making (Post #4)

With the formal internship drawn to a close, this final blog post is dedicated to my assessment of the success of the internship and what I as an educator would like to see in my next internship.

I am impressed that 80% of the new freshman responded to my offer, but at the same time disappointed that one did not, and I pessimistically view his disinterest as a glass half-empty instead of half-full. At the same time I am absolutely thrilled that two older students, including one with full knowledge of processing cane, asked for help, which ultimately led to the expansion of my curriculum. On that topic, to have more than doubled the number of lesson plans that I began with and the fact that it was student-prompted is perhaps the greatest indication that this was a solid project with dense content.

Looking at the student feedback, as few trends have shown up:

  • Many have ordered tube cane but have not begun to use it
  • Of those who have used the cane I provided, they have had a higher success rate
  • Advanced topics in the very early stages (such as non-concentric gouging, thickness, and alternative splitting methods, tube selection) were mentioned.

As for the low activity, I think the availability of time is the primary obstacle, especially at the end of the semester. It would be interesting to follow up with these students to see how they handle this over the Winter break and early into the Spring semester before schedules explode. I could also dedicate a few hours every week, similar to this semester, to be in the reed room and casually mention this to others. That said, there is a noticeable increase in reed room traffic. While one student in the past would practically live there, I now drop by and can expect at least one new student to be in there working. It would be interesting to ask building operations how many new reed room keys have been rented this year compared to years past.

Simply put, the goal of processing one’s own cane is to produce higher-quality reeds. Of those that have used their processed cane, all have had noticeably better success. Knowing that I taught them they steps necessary to do this is tremendously comforting to me.

Where this internship lacked was the knowledge behind some of the theories I taught. For example, I have been told numerous times that a uniform tube will “ping” when struck lightly on a hard surface, while a non-uniform piece will dampen vibrations and result in a “thud.” The logic makes sense and this test has worked well enough for me, but I have no research to prove it. Or in the case of splitting cane, two theories exist. While I taught one theory during this course (because that is what I myself was taught and it has worked for me), Alex suggested another. When I asked the person who taught me to process cane about this his response was simply “I don’t have any data to support the argument or dismiss it.” And there was the example from Claire’s second profiling lesson where I pointed out the imbalance between the two blades but did not provide a solid argument for why they should be balanced. As these questions came up in lessons I was unable to answer them and failed to encourage the student to try both methods and compare results.

Unanswered questions like these show a disconnect between myself as a teacher and as a scholar. Unfortunately, some of these topics and inquiries raised by the students of this internship are exactly what I thought made my reed knowledge unique and valuable. This experience has taught me to expect everything I teach to be questioned, and it goes without saying that some support for my answer is better than advocating something on a hunch. At the same time I look at these inquiries and realize that I, with several years of this knowledge behind me, still wonder some of these same questions. These new students are in that sense as advanced as I am in this topic.

In the next internship I would like to see a situation closer to a public school setting, with a regular schedule that both the students and I can agree on, and more administrative work. There is only one semester between now and the opportunity to practice my freshly-acquired skills as a teacher, and I look forward to working with larger groups and an otherwise public-school setting.

Finally, it would be remiss of me to not thank Professor Richard Svoboda for his guidance throughout this project. As the semester went along he happily discussed the materials being taught and problems that came up, such as profiler thickness and equipment maintenance. From a distance he kept me on the right track to teaching with success, and his teaching style – logical, brief and efficient – is very much one that I hope to adopt.

Blog Posts from Portfolio

Hi! I somehow misunderstood the initial suggestion to post blog entries HERE throughout the internship and instead stockpiled them like a squirrel stocks acorns. While they are embedded in my final portfolio I wanted to give everyone a chance to see what I have been working on and let everyone know my quasi-candid thoughts as the project continued. The link to my portfolio is:

http://stevegarmanmie.wordpress.com

Internship: Bassoon Reed Making (Post #3)

I am thrilled to report that a total of 6 graduates and undergraduates were served through this internship. This means that every student in NEC bassoon studio now knows how to process cane! These include all of the full-time students returning in the fall of 2014, meaning that the studio will have a common background in cane processing.

Formal follow-ups were done with two of the six students, during which extended processing techniques were discussed. The first follow up resulted from the student’s preference for a thicker profile than what the communal profiler was producing. Because adjusting is difficult and time-consuming the result was to develop a lesson plan for hand profiling and is part of the “Extended Lesson” series. Two lessons in hand profiling were given, and the improvement between the two lessons is astounding (view the photos of Claire’s hand profiling).

The follow-up with the second student resulted from my observation of a tendency that created an unwanted cut in the side of the cane during his shaping. This is a common problem and the mission of the second meeting was to test a solution for the problem. The solution was successful (see the video of Hugo’s shaping). Following his second shaping tutorial we explored how to alter the shape of the cane with the shaper, necessitating a lesson plan for that. A total of 9 lessons have been developed from this internship – more than twice what was intended!

Most importantly, I feel that I have established valuable connections with each of the students who took part in this course. The most telling evidence of this observation is the occasions when students sought my help with topics outside reed making. Once after a lesson a student asked me to listen to her concerto in anticipation for performance class. Another asked for help with theory and ear training, while a third just wanted to “catch up” and tell me about their new relationship. I hope to see this collaboration continue as they remain at NEC and strengthen the bassoon studio.

Internship: Bassoon Reed Making (Post #2)

Of the five undergraduates with no knowledge of processing prior to NEC, four have responded to my offer to get them started and have completed nearly 3 hours each of instruction. I quickly found that treating cane selection as a brief lesson separate from splitting helped to emphasize the importance of giving oneself the best opportunity to succeed by selecting high quality materials to work with. In a similar vein, the pre-gouging and cane trimming has been isolated from gouging for the same reasons, though another option would be to combine splitting and trimming together, and pre-gouge with the gouge lesson. These changes have resulted in the creation of an additional lesson plan, totaling five elementary-stage lessons instead of the original four. One small injury has resulted in more safety reminders in my lesson plans and the permanent addition of a basic first aid kit to the reed room ($31).

Another addition to the reed room is a 1-ft nylon dowel ($9) which can be used to push cane through the pre-gouger without significant wear over time, as the blade had rendered the wooden dowel practically unusable.

Finally, a can of WD-40 ($3), which is favorable for keeping the profiler and gouger lubricated because of its low viscosity.

Questions that come up during lessons are more practical, such as “how do I hold the knife?” “Wait, can I use this tool?” etc. I was expecting more questioning of my theories behind my methods, and am not sure whether to accept this as a sign that I am selling my methods or whether the students are not yet grasping the concepts behind the physical work. Hopefully this will be answered in the post-course survey and during follow-ups with a few of the students.
Older students have asked for help as well. While one had some knowledge of shaping and profiling, she was interested in learning to gouge and asked me to make sure she was using the studio’s profiler correctly. This thrills me to know that students care about the reed room equipment and know that they determine the machines’ conditions. The second older student, also a graduate, has full knowledge of cane processing and in fact has her own profiler identical to the one used in the studio. Her issue was that the settings on the communal profiler did not suit her personal reed needs and she wanted to adjust and begin using her machine more frequently. This prompted me to define how I or anyone else would go about adjusting the profiler, and a new lesson plan was created for this task. Through guided practice she is now knowledgeable of the multiple features of the profiler.