By Si Millican
Assistant Professor of Music Education
The University of Texas at San Antonio

Do you have a painful research problem itching to be scratched?

I recently heard a story on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition that highlighted the work of a team of chemists led by Dr. Rebecca Braslau and first published in the Journal of Organic Chemistry. Dr. Braslau’s team has developed a method to detect the active compound in the oils of the poison ivy plant that cause many hikers and outdoors types to develop a pesky and often painful rash. According to the NPR interview, Dr. Braslau became interested in developing an effective detector for the oils in poison ivy because she herself is highly allergic. She was, if you will excuse the pun, just itching to discover a cure to her problem.

I encourage all researchers in music education to approach their projects in this same way. What is it about your current teaching situation that irritates you? What “itchy” problems do you ache to scratch? What painful rash affects your classroom? If you have a burning desire to solve pedagogical problems in your classroom, you will be better motivated to carry out research into a particular topic.

My own research was motivated by a concern I had about ineffective teaching. My  undergraduate experience was wonderful in many regards, but I came out of my particular program lacking a clear understanding of how to teach beginning band students in a systematic way. When I became a teacher, I often experienced frustration with some of the student teachers who were assigned to my campus, many of whom were from prestigious universities, who lacked some of the basic knowledge and skills to lead a band (If you were ever one of my student teachers, I’m not talking about you!). Several of my neighboring public-school teachers also seemed to lack an understanding of the basics of learning and teaching music. This ambiguity surrounding what effective teaching was and what band directors needed to know and be able to do in order to be successful led me to pursue my dissertation project and has launched my further research into beginning-band instruction.

Take the issues that weigh heavily on your mind as you teach and turn them into research questions. Your efforts do not need to turn into a dissertation; you can discover a lot by having your students complete a simple survey. Consult with some colleagues or a music education professor to help frame your problems into workable research projects. When you have finished investigating your problem, write up the results in your state music educators’ journal or share the fruits of your research with a national publication such as The Instrumentalist, School Band & Orchestra, or Music Educators Journal.

The profession needs answers to the itchy problems you are experiencing.

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Blind spots

8 Oct

By Si Millican
Assistant Professor of Music Education
The University of Texas at San Antonio

Whenever I am working with a young music education student or a novice conductor, I am often quick to pick up on the very faults that I find in my own teaching or conducting. For instance, I tend to have a blind spot on the left side of the ensemble whenever I conduct, so I often will harp on students to be sure that they circulate in the classroom and make eye contact with the entire group. I tend to talk too much, so often I chastise my students for being unnecessarily verbose.

I see variations of my own faults in my own students’ work, yet I am often unable to more clearly see deficits in teaching or presentation skills that I struggle with myself. Public-school music teachers often become isolated and develop performance and pedagogical blind spots in their classroom teaching. As a university professor, I often fall back into my own pedagogical comfort zone based on my experiences and strengths. What are some ways we can be sure that we are not overlooking important teaching or conducting problems?

  • Open your doors. Invite other teachers and professors that you respect to come in and visit your classrooms. Ask expert visitors to be active participants in your classrooms rather than passive observers. Invite their comments and have them interact with your students. Their insights can be quite revealing and remind us of other important aspects of teaching that we may have overlooked. (Be sure that you warn them in advance that you will make them active participants!)
  • Get out. Get out of your usual surroundings and visit other classrooms. Visit other campuses and see great teachers. If you are a university teacher, get into public school classrooms as often as possible. I never leave a visit to observe a student teacher or a friend who teaches band classes without remembering something important that I must share with my students.
  • Stay current. Read research journals, trade magazines, and great websites to stay on top of the latest news and discoveries related to the field. Go to as many concerts and clinics as you can.
  • Orient yourself. Go to as many great concerts as you can. Taking in a great wind ensemble concert, a symphony performance, or even a great marching band contest can be a great way to recalibrate your ears and mind as to what is really important in music. You may even be reminded why you chose this profession in the first place.




8 Oct

My favorite professional websites

An ongoing list….


8 Oct

My favorite trade magazines

An ongoing list….

  • School Band and Orchestra.
  • The Instrumentalist

Research Journals

8 Oct

My favorite research journals

An ongoing list……

  • Journal of Music Teacher Education.
  • Journal of Research in Music Education.
  • International Journal of Music Education.

By Si Millican

In most of the courses I teach in the instrumental music education area at the University of Texas at San Antonio, my students are required to teach their peers in a series of microteaching episodes. Some of these teaching episodes require my students to engage in teaching tasks such as teaching a rote song, a line from a beginning-band method book, or to rehearse a portion of a full-ensemble work. Often my students are surprised when they find that even their experienced colleagues struggle with seemingly “simple” elements in the music.

What trips up these experienced musicians as they perform “easy” rote tunes or read beginner-level lines? In my experience as a teacher, I’ve found that young band students (and even experienced performers playing “secondary” instruments) often encounter the following issues:

  1. Skips are more difficult than steps. Since many young players often initially learn to play adjacent notes that are intervals of a second apart (C to D  to E for instance), changing the fingering pattern to include skips (C to E) poses a “finger familiarity” problem. Even if all of the notes in a given tune are sufficiently “learned” in isolation or in a familiar, step-wise sequence,  putting these notes in a different order often causes significant difficulty for students.
  2. Leaps are more difficult than skips or steps. Just as the difficulty level increases when we move from steps to skips, leaps (intervals of a fourth or greater) are challenging partially because that they present familiar notes in a different order than we’re used to. Leaps can also present problems in that notes further than a third apart  often represent a significant change in the length of tubing (and thus the resistance of the instrument to the embouchure/air combination). Brass players may also skip partials in the overtone series when the leaps move across leaps involving nonadjacent harmonics.
  3. Reversing the order of notes is often challenging. Playing the notes Bb, C, and D should be just as easy as playing D, C, and then Bb, right? Many young teachers think this is the case, but any pattern change is likely to present at least a little bit of an executive-skill challenge. Often coming down is more challenging than ascending scale-type passages.
  4. Changes of direction are often challenging. Once students are used to playing scale-type patterns, any change in direction often disrupts the mechanical flow of muscle memory. Often the transition from upward movement back down (particularly when accompanied by a skip or a leap) is a portion of the music that requires additional attention.
  5. The three most troublesome rhythmic challenges are long notes, rests, and tied notes. I borrowed this piece of wisdom from my great friend and public-school pedagogue Mark Nalley. He determined that most of the trouble his less-experienced ensembles encountered when sightreading involved long notes, rests, and tied notes. While most young teachers think that the “fast notes” will give their students the most trouble, quite often it is these seemingly “easy” rhythmic issues that confound their students’ playing. These three elements all involve students failing to count carefully or to give the notes or rests their full time values as they perform.

By simply being aware of these potential problem issues, teachers can help their students navigate even the “simplest” of tunes with greater ease.

What are some other common “simple” elements that trip up your students? What ways do you address these problems? Feel free to share your ideas and tips.


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One of my tasks as an instructor in the instrumental music education program at the University of Texas at San Antonio is to teach the ubiquitous “band methods” class. This class, one of three our senior-level students are required to take as a part of their degree program, is designed to help students assimilate what they have learned from our introduction to music education class, their individual methods classes (brass, woodwinds, strings, percussion, and voice classes), and the various courses offered in our College of Education and Human Development.

Last year, after teaching this course somewhat successfully for five years, I decided that it was time for a change. I continue to attempt to move further away from the typical lecture-style presentation of materials into more a project-based and microteaching-based application of the ideas of the course; instead of the typical cycle of assigning a chapter to read outside of class followed up by brilliant lecture and witty Socratic questioning culminating in a final project for each “unit” or “topic,” I wanted to set up activities that allowed my students to engage in actually using the materials and ideas of the course in real-life situations. (While this has always been a passion of mine, I found infinite inspiration and confirmation of my inclination towards this method in the work of Dr. Dee Fink and Dr. Michael Raiber at the University of Oklahoma.)

One of the first components of this particular class included a quick review and overview of the fundamental concepts of each woodwind, brass, and percussion instrument. I wanted my students to be able to identify and correct problems with the basic fundamentals of playing each of these instruments. How could I set up authentic teaching activities that would allow my students to engage in the real-life task of seeing out information about teaching, separating the wheat from the chaff, organizing that information in such a way as to make it accessible to their students, and share that information with the other students in the class?

For this initial unit of study, I assigned a pair of students to each instrument and asked them to come up with checklists they might use with their students to help teach instrument assembly, forming an embouchure and playing a note on the small instruments, holding the instrument, and playing the first note. I asked the students to initially write their own ideas for a checklist and then to consult outside resources to confirm what they came up with. The students would then post their step-by-step procedures on the WikiBandDirector site to share with their classmates and anyone else who might be interested. In the last step of the project, students would then use their checklists as an outline to teach each of these elements to a classmate. Each teaching episode was recorded and posted on our university’s learning management system so that the students could complete a reflection activity.

The entire process looks like this:

  1. Create a rough draft of the checklist that students and their families could use to check their work on each fundamental (embouchure, assembly, and so forth)
  2. Consult various sources to confirm and fortify the initial checklist
  3. Create a formal checklist that could be used in the classroom (visually appealing, neat and organized)
  4. Teach this concept to a classmate in a five-minute microteaching episode
  5. Review the recorded microteaching episode and complete a reflection activity

Over the long Labor Day weekend, while my students were feverishly preparing their work on this assignment, I realized that I had assigned two students to each instrument — how would they each contribute their work to the WikiBandDirector site? My fears were calmed when I realized that this was indeed a real-life situation in the twenty-first century: we were actually collaborating as a class on our collective version of what a flute embouchure looks like or how to assemble a trombone. I think these are important skills that our students will need to know as they move out into a world where the “answer” to their questions is as close as their smart phone.

By applying the knowledge our students have accumulated in their previous coursework, fortified with some outside research and review, to authentic teaching activities, the students should develop some real-life skills that will help them become reflective teachers and active researchers who seek out new ideas and share them with others.

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In addition to the many great print resources available for helping you select great works for bands, there are several great websites which feature comprehensive guides to literature.

Professor Fred Allen’s post from the Texas School Music Project is a great place to start and features a comprehensive list of great band literature for both young and advanced bands. Cheryl Floyd’s listing at the end of her 2007 handout for her clinic at the Texas Bandmasters Association is a great reference to consult as well.

The Wind Repertory Project is a Wiki-style site featuring information on a wide variety of wind band selections. While some entries are more comprehensive than others, users are invited to add information on compositional details including publication information, errata, program notes, lists of recordings, and state contest list information.

Chip DeStefano, director of the McCracken Middle School Bands in Skokie, IL, has published a comprehensive listing of some of the best music for middle-school bands including some that are not included in many of the “canon” of band literature in many of the more formal lists.

Several states publish helpful lists of recommended band tunes, and those produced by the Kentucky Music Educators Association and the list compiled by composer and educator Douglas Akey for the  Arizona Band and Orchestra Directors are unique and quite informative.

While many of the music publishers and distributors’ websites offer limited information on various tunes, I’ve found J. W. Pepper’s site to be particularly user friendly and helpful.

What are some other online resources you’ve found useful? Where do you go when you want to know more about a piece?

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