Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Alumni Master Classes - written for March 2012 issue of Voice Magazine

I remember being a new teacher and being so excited to share all of the amazing knowledge I gained in college. I felt I had most of the solutions that were going to help my students go on to have great successes in music and life. It didn’t take too long to figure out that exposure to a variety of instructors is almost always a benefit and probably better than the one-man show. I heartily accept new ideas on how to motivate and instruct my students. When seeking outside instructors and clinicians, you might consider the recent graduates of your own ranks.
As I’m writing this, we’ve just returned from the winter break and it’s typical that many alumni drop into band classes to say hello and see how things are at the old stomping ground. As their college classes aren’t back in session yet, they’re a little bored and lonely and it’s fun to see them. As I enjoy school and the learning process, I ask them to share with the underclassman bands, and I am always pleased at the outcome. Although not a particularly jazzy concept, I think this has become a healthy tradition at Edmonds-Woodway,  and I am guessing many of you do something similar, but if not, maybe you should give it a try.
Whereas most of the school community seems to view these visitors as distractions and push them off campus as soon as they’re discovered, I like to encourage it. This is often a valuable lesson for me as well as helping my current students see themselves as college-bound, lifelong learners. The current students gain new insights by getting a chance to parlay with their recently departed colleagues. I usually have a chance to grab lunch with the graduates afterward, and I am always pleased to hear them say how much they enjoy teaching and how it helps them imagine themselves as future instructors.
The alumni master-class process evolved organically, and I don’t claim to have worked to establish this tradition. Rather, it seems to have grown on its own into something both alumni and underclassmen look forward to each year.
At E-W, alumni tend to come back from both far-away universities and also the community colleges down the street. Alumni will often send me an email or text to see if it’s okay if they can come by during zero-period or the Wind Symphony (advanced band) class. Sometimes they just drop in with my favorite drink from Starbucks. This year two alumni came in on the same morning with the same “double tall breve latte”; I felt pretty fortunate. I ask several of them to plan to come on a particular morning when we don’t have a crucial deadline during the period; this is usually after a performance.
During the class, I guide the panel-style discussion with the alumni seated in front of the ensemble. This all takes between five and 10 minutes. I usually ask questions about what we missed in our preparation for college in addition to something about the students’ area of passion at college. Alumni answer from their perspective, and it’s a neat compare/contrast for all to consider. After each alumnus is able to tell his or her story, we sometimes make time for questions and answers. Sometimes the students are no longer avid musicians, but their stories are still important for kids to hear and learn from.
Occasionally some more advanced alumni are open to playing for the group. These are usually inspiring for all, and the alumni appreciate the chance to play for a critical peer audience. This past week I had Andrew Fox come back from a conservatory in the Netherlands and play Elgar’s bassoon concerto. Andrew was also a soloist on tenor sax and clarinet in the Jazz Ensemble I. After he played, he took three bassoonists to the practice room for a mini-workshop. Afterwards he thanked me for the chance and said he was surprised how much fun it was to teach. His time in front of the whole ensemble was only about 10 minutes but it was a pleasure for everyone, I think, and I’m not sure I could have accomplished as much focusing on rehearsal issues in that time. The bassoonists who went to the practice room also thought it was pretty cool to get this cosmopolitan drop-in tutor.
Junior flute player Amy Fair said, “I think it’s really cool. I’m inspired by all these amazing musicians and it makes me want to practice more.” That’s enough reason for me to keep encouraging these visits. Maybe you’ll try it and let me know what your experience is like. As always, keep in touch and enjoy the coming of spring and more graduates to choose from.