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Corwin Slack

School Music

April 25, 2007 at 2:33 AM

When did school music start taking precedence over individual development in violin playing?

I played in school music programs every year from fifth grade on. In high school my music teacher was (somewhat coincidentally) my private teacher. School music and private lessons never conflicted. My teachers never allowed me to bring orchestra parts to lessons. I studied the lessons that they dictated.

It hasn’t been that way for my kids and certainly isn’t that way for any youth here in Texas. Orchestra is expected to come first and private lessons are second. The culprit is the University Interscholastic League and the TMEA under whose aegis solo and ensemble competitions as well as region and all state orchestras are conducted.

Orchestra directors in Texas (being typical human beings) promote themselves on their accomplishments and school districts that are largely middle class place great stock in the success of their music programs as measured by youth placed in region and all state orchestras as well as ratings in solo and ensemble competitions.

Many orchestra directors require all the strings to prepare the required etudes for region orchestra auditions whether they plan on auditioning or not. This last year one of the etudes was Paganini Caprice No 16. Can you imagine it? Local teachers were horrified. Some of the better teachers are demanding that their students drop high school orchestra. This year’s Paganini was extreme but the etudes are typically from the harder Kreutzer and Rode etudes. These are typically appropriate for the kind of player who really can play in an all state orchestra in a big state like Texas. But, in spite of our Texas size egos we cannot populate region orchestras with players who can play advanced etudes well. One audition judge described the process of filling out a region orchestra as arbitrary at best. The best players were easy to pick and the totally incompetent were easily weeded out but that still left 15 stands to fill with 50 mediocre violinists.

Meanwhile back at school everyone is required to play the etude for chair test whether they plan on auditioning or not. This is simply ludicrous. Etudes need to be presented to a student when the student has the foundations for the technique of the etude. I would not permit my children to study etudes without their private teacher’s permission. I complained one year and the school teacher basically told me butt out. It was an opportunity to teach my daughter the trade-offs between real learning versus ambition and recognition. Interesting she played the etude (as required) without study or preparation and did relatively well on the chair test.

I wonder if I really ought to be blaming the teachers. Is it their fault or is it our achievement oriented culture that demands success early and often? My parents financed music lessons for us but there was no soccer, ballet, baseball, basket ball etc. I know families that have their kids doing something extracurricular every day after school. Moms are frazzled and the kids are stressed.

Is this anyway to develop life skills?

From Laurie Niles
Posted on April 25, 2007 at 4:46 AM
It's the whole "teaching to the test" syndrome. Instead of teaching the child, we teach the test. Or the audition, or the "certificate of merit" requirements, etc.

In doing my Suzuki training, I sort of saught out the mavericks among the teacher trainers; those who identified with Suzuki's philosophy but blazed a bit of their own way with a certain amount of the pedagogy and application. Of course, you have to have enough knowledge of your subject to be able to do that.

When observing other teachers teach, a colleague said (of a teacher I'd never observed), "I think this teacher is great, even if the kids are a little bored. She teaches all the teaching points so well!"

My question, "But does she teach the CHILDREN well?"

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 25, 2007 at 10:50 AM
I think it's especially a shame that it's causing the better teachers to want to pull their kids out of high school orchestra. High school orchestra can be such a great experience.
From Ihnsouk Guim
Posted on April 25, 2007 at 12:41 PM
If moms are frazzled and kids are stressed, why don't moms cut down? Isn't that moms' job to cut down when needed? The usual apprehension is that their kids may be left behind. But I don't see how they can get ahead when frazzled and stressed already. This is a game that will last a child's lifetime. Wouldn't learning to prioritize be a more valuable lesson for kids than keeping up with everyone in everything? In my limited experience, it is often the ones who complain about competition who are most competitive. I couldn't help wondering, "If you are bothered so much, why don't you stop?"


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 25, 2007 at 1:26 PM
I agree it does seem that families making thoughtful individual choices is the only way out of this kind of thing--but parents are human, and at least I have all my own insecurities and unresolved issues and whatever else to deal with. Absolutely, prioritizing is a great life skill to have, but a lot of us are still struggling with it even as adults, making it up as we go along.

I think it's an institutional and societal cop-out to put all the responsibility back on the individual moms. As far as I'm concerned, the "mommy wars" jumped the shark a long time ago and it's time for society as a whole to take more responsibility for creating a better environment for raising children, because we're really all in this together. It seems to me a a school orchestra is as good a metaphor as any for this--at its best it's a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts, and a wonderful learning experience. It can't be totally an individualistic experience.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on April 25, 2007 at 2:51 PM
Many parents don't understand the principles of technical development. They have no yardstick and they benchmark based on what the schools are doing. Here in my part of Texas we have another problem. Many private lessons are taught by private teachers in school facilities after school. The school district even handles the billing of students and pays the private teachers. Since the private teachers depend on the school teachers for referrals, they are reluctant to buck the system.

Whatever else my capabilities, I consider myself well suited to oversee my children's musical education and I admit that it isn't easy to buck this system. I let my daughter do the UIL region orchestra thing for three years and she made it in twice and she was always playing etudes that were beyond her preparation. Her teacher was showing her facilitations not techniques. Much was overlooked.

Finally her senior year I put my foot down. I said that I would not pay for lessons that included etudes that were too advanced. She had made region orchestra for her first two years but inexplicably (she had improved so much) she didn't make it her junior year. She didn't balk too much. She was tired of the ambiguity of the process -- an ambiguity that was created by using inappropriately advanced etudes.

From Ihnsouk Guim
Posted on April 25, 2007 at 3:11 PM
Corwin, Good for you! If more parents make sensible choices, maybe the school district will change its ways to attract quality particiaption. Don't despair; parents may know more than you expect.

Karen - The reason I put it all on moms is because it hurts them and their kids most if they don't act. Does it really matter who to blame when your kid is being hurt? I think time is not on our side to wait for a political solution. Our kids would have all grown up without the benefit.


From Hope Paolotto
Posted on April 25, 2007 at 5:17 PM
Florida is the same. I have students who bring me Kreutzer etudes for their all-state and all-county audtions. They are Kreutzers 8,12,31,29 etc. It varies by grade level and the year. There are school teachers in my area that require all students to prepare these etudes for their chair auditions and if they are decent, the teacher sends in the tape. Private teachers here are not regulated by the schools like they are in Texas, but yet we,the private teachers, don't fight it. I did tell a school orchestra teacher a couple years ago that I did not think it fair to make one particular student of mine play the etude (I think it was Kreutzer 12) in front of the class. I told him that she could barely play it and it would embarrass her in front of the class. He said he valued my opinion but made her play it anyways. She ended up quitting orchestra that year.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 25, 2007 at 5:30 PM
"Does it really matter who is to blame when your kid is being hurt?"

Well, I'm not particularly interested in placing blame, but yes, I think it does really matter who, or what, is reponsible.

My kids aren't old enough yet for me to comment on how it compares in Massachusetts at the high school level to what Corwin has reported here, but in my interactions with the few music teachers and students I do know, I've never heard of such weird things as requiring Etudes that are too difficult, nor have I really seen state and regional orchestras being such a 900-lb gorilla in that way.

I agree with Ihnsouk that a "political solution" is likely to arrive, if at all, at a glacial pace, but that still doesn't mean everything has to be put on individual moms. Our school district has something like a "Friends of Belmont Music" (maybe not the exact name) parents' group that seems to function somewhat like the PTA, only just for music. They do fundraising, they usher at concerts, they have a newsletter, they post regularly to the town newsgroup. I think as a group they have a lot more clout with the district than any individual mom would have on her own. Would there be any chance of a concerned and musically and politically astute parent like Corwin starting an organization like that in his district?

The other nice thing that I've noticed around here is a proliferation of small, private music schools and private studios. And private community orchestras, music school orchestras, and youth orchestras, some affiliated with churches. So for me and my family, the school program isn't the only game in town and there seem to be real, viable alternatives if we don't get what we need from the school program.

But I can imagine that's not the case in many communities, and there it's kind of bogus to say the solution is still individual choice when the "choice" is between the unsatisfactory orchestra and none at all. Maybe the moms don't "just stop" because they and/or their kids love music.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on April 25, 2007 at 6:23 PM
I agree with Laurie. The problem is test-oriented teaching. You can't blame the teachers entirely because their pay is probably linked to their students' performance. I'm a private violin teacher, and I think the school orchestra approach you have described is horrible. While very advanced etudes, etc., may be perfectly suited to some students, they are not well suited to many other students. One size does not fit all. I recommend going with a private teacher. The greatest advantage of one-on-one instruction is that it can be individualized to fit the needs and goals of the individual. At least, that's how I teach. Playing with an orchestra is a valuable experience, but at what cost?
From kimberlee dray
Posted on April 25, 2007 at 6:41 PM
Move to Idaho. Private teachers RULE here. All State and All Northwest requirements are Mazas 5 and 23, 3 octave scale and a Concerto mvmt. Sorry about the way things are other places. I'm worried now because we're moving to Minnesota.

As a private teacher, I can't stand being dictated to by school conductors. A junior high Orchestra teacher I knew insisted on vibrato in order to make his top group. I questioned him about it one day: "So, you'd choose a student who was profoundly out of tune but could do vibrato over one who was mostly in tune and could not?" The answer? "Yes." UGH.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on April 25, 2007 at 6:56 PM
Corwin, reading about your dreadful situation makes me grateful for what we have here in Birmingham. The schools do not have string programs, but there is a three-tier Youth Orchestra. I have students in all three levels.

The entrance auditions are this: Piece of your choice, plus scales of your choice. The scales are tailored to the level of the orchestra. These are live auditions. There is sight reading to weed out the kids who don't read music.

The periodic chair auditions are this: Excerpts from current orchestra repertoire. The auditions are taped, anonymously by a volunteer parent, and then the conductor decides the chair order from the anonymous tape. Totally fair, totally honest.

I personally know all three conductors (and all three are violinists), and if I need to, I can have a nice chat to resolve any issues that might pop up, not that they really do.

With your situation, all I can say is, that if an orchestra conductor demanded one of my students learn an etude above their level...well, I won't go there. I am sorry about your situation. I had heard glowing things about the Texas system from my ASTA journal.

From Thomas Gardner
Posted on April 25, 2007 at 9:25 PM
This is something I have hated for a long time here in Northern Virginia where I live. I have my private students come every year during the summer with their etudes that they have to learn for Regional Orchestra auditions that Fall. They are told by their school teachers to bring them to their private teachers to get help learning them. Many of the students who bring them to me shouldn't be playing the etudes because their technical skill is at a less advanced level. That in itself is the biggest problem. Another problem I have is that in order to teach these etudes I have to take time out of the lesson that I already have reserved to work on the the things that student needs to work on. I get tired of teaching my students their school orchestra music and their school sponsored Regional Orchestra/All County music. Do any of these school teachers give me a percentage of their salary to teach these students their school music? I teach in the public schools too, both at the middel school and high school level and I make it a point to never rely on their private teachers to teach them the music I have given to them. If I can't teach them how to play it then I have no business expecting them to learn it for my class.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on April 25, 2007 at 10:38 PM
Anne, All that glitters is not gold. Texas has experienced a lot of economic growth and there a tons of new suburban schools filled with middle class children with upper class aspirations. A school orchestra program is a valuable status symbol. There are some very fine players but the Bell curve applies here like everywhere else.

My high schoool (in another state) was in a mostly blue collar neighborhood. Only a few of us took private lessons but we played movements from Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Bizet works (for example) using original editions. In fact we had a full orchestra, played for an annual musical (Oklahoma, Here's Love, My Fair Lady, Unsinkable Molly Brown) using the Broadway scores.

Here, a full orchestra (winds, brass and percussion) is rare, arrangements are the rule and the musicals (when they have them) are accompanied by pianos.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on April 26, 2007 at 3:21 AM
What I meant to say is that to the extent that Texas high schools have good orchestras it is attributable first to the demographics of the schools and perhaps not even second to the music programs.

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