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  • Writer's pictureBen Watson

Teaching Life Values Instead of Note Values

When I was a music teacher in the Montana public school system, I taught the typical music stuff: time signatures, rhythm, harmonies, notes, etc. However, in my music classroom, I wasn’t as concerned about teaching note values . . . as I was about teaching life values.

It was not uncommon for our rehearsals to take unplanned detours to discuss tangential topics of music—such as paying the price of practice (not just in music, but for anything we want to be good at in life), if you’re going to fail, at least fail forward (again, not just in music terms, but as a general rule in life), seek to express, not to impress (this, of course is very important in the arts, but transcends to so much more. I often told students,

“I really don’t care as much about the sounds coming from your instruments as you think I do. Yes, of course I would like you to master the music. However, it pales in comparison to the concern I have about students showing kindness to each other, respecting instructors, and in general being good citizens. What impresses me isn’t necessarily when someone hits all the notes perfectly. What impresses me is when a student opens the door for someone carrying a drum, or the student who picks up a piece of trash not knowing I’m looking, or the one who is quick to say thank you . . . and so on.”

High expectations

My expectations were high when it came to personal conduct, particularly when we traveled together as a pep band or as ensembles to music festivals. The first time I took the pep band to a tournament we stopped at Pizza Hut for dinner. (By the way, I fed my students very well. Music teachers, take note: Feed your students well, and they will respond in kind. Don’t be a tight-wad). Hungry and eager, all 35 students poured out of the bus and into the restaurant to begin what I thought would be a feeding frenzy. Admittedly, I was a little nervous they would be too noisy or rambunctious. However, to my surprise—they were perfectly fine. No dramas. No horseplay. Just good kids politely eating and showing courtesy to their hosts. When the students finished and were shepherded back on the bus, the Pizza Hut manager approached me and looked as if she had just seen a ghost.

“I’m in shock!” she said.
“What do you mean?,” I responded.
“Over the years, we’ve served many school groups—teams, bands, and NEVER have I had the pleasure of serving students like yours. I’ve never heard so many thank-yous and you’re-welcomes—and what’s more, they all left tips. Please share my thanks with your students.”

I did, and when we returned back to the school, the students drafted and mailed a thank-you card for the Pizza Hut manager.

It continues.

Once, when the pep band was performing at a basketball tournament, my students noticed the opposing team’s pep band only had six instrumentalists, and were having a bit of a struggle. Without my asking, some of my students walked over to that opposing team’s band, and volunteered to perform with them. To say that the band teacher was happy would be an understatement. She was so grateful, and later approached me to ask my advice on how to increase the size of her pep band from a meager six. Her high school student body was double ours, so she was genuinely curious to hear my thoughts.

I encouraged her and shared three pieces of advice:

  1. Make your pep band a welcome environment for ALL instrumentalists (even those not enrolled in the credit-bearing band classes). Include this invitation to junior high students, as well.

  2. Hold periodic evening rehearsals for pep band. This not only gets students familiar with the repertoire, but it builds comradery.

  3. A free tee-shirt goes a long way.

I have a fourth item to add to the list, but didn’t share it with her . . . but I’ll share it with you. The fourth piece of advice is this: Be a music teacher students enjoy being around. Students don’t care how much you know until they know who much you care.

Last year, a senior approached me prior to the 2nd semester. He asked if I would allow him to join my “small ensembles class”. In that class, students can learn whatever instrument they desire—banjo, guitar, mandolin, piano, . . . heck, I even taught a student the didgeridoo. At one point we formed a mariachi band with 20+ students complete with a Mexican guitarrón, guitars, trumpets, clarinets, fiddle, accordion, and yes . . .a didgeridoo.

Without hesitation, I said “Yes! Please join us.” He did, and for a semester, he worked diligently to master the fundamentals of the banjo his grandfather gifted him. Later, after this senior graduated, he stopped me in the hallway and said, “Mr. Watson, do you want to know the real reason why I joined your class?” He continued. “It wasn’t that I really wanted to learn the banjo. You just seemed like a good person to be around, -- and so I joined your class.”

Let me tell you. That is one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received. From that moment on, I have tried diligently to be a person others like to be around.

While teaching 5th grade band one day, I noticed one of my students was close to tears as she sat with her instrument ready to play. I went over to her and quietly asked,

“What’s the matter? Is someone being unkind to you?”
She hesitated, and quietly responded, “No” And then she started crying for real, “Yes, my friends are making fun of me.”
“Friends in this class?” I responded.

I was greatly discouraged by this. And I must say, I was tempted to stop rehearsal right then-and-there and lecture the whole class about not bullying. Yet, something in my heart said ‘wait’. I listened to that thought and simply proceeded with rehearsal as if everything were normal. While the students were playing their piece, the thought came to me ‘after they finish playing, have them put their instruments down and ask the students to share three things they’re thankful for.’ I wasn’t sure where this would lead, but I obeyed the thought.

“Kids, I’m so glad we’re together today. Soon we will take a break for Thanksgiving. I want to take a moment and have each of you share three things you are thankful for.”

One-by-one each student answered the question. The top three answers by far were the following (in no particular order)—

my family, Jesus, and my friends.

I thanked them for their thoughts and said, “Many of you mentioned how grateful you are for friends. I think this wonderful. I am also grateful for my friends. Tell me, what does it mean to be a good friend?”

We discussed their answers, and somehow the conversation grew to us discussing the importance of being kind to others, and not making fun of others. It wasn’t an earth-shaking conversation. However, it seemed to change the world for this girl who by the end of it was happier, and the general feel of the entire class was much more positive. We then jumped right back into rehearsal as if nothing had gone amiss.

Music teachers need to chill out more

It is my personal opinion that music teachers stress-out way too much. They unnecessarily anguish over how their groups sound and get overly concerned about what audience members (and the community) think. I suppose a healthy dose of stress is necessary, but as a general point-of-counsel, I would advise all music teachers to chill out more.

What matters is what the audience feels, not what they hear.

Realize this: What matters isn’t what an audience hears with their ears. What matters is what an audience feels in their hearts. It’s that simple. Focus on creating an experience not a soundtrack. Sounds are important, but they are only a piece of the much larger picture. A choir that sings a complicated piece perfectly but is obviously not having a good time– is quite frankly a choir that has had the wrong literature placed in front of them. On the other hand, a choir singing a simpler piece with occasional off-pitch moments—but is clearly enjoying the experience – is a sure ticket to a happy audience AND happy performers, which in turn leads to a happy music teacher.

Let me wax little more lyrical on this topic, because I cannot overstate this principle enough: In my first year teaching, 14 kids signed-up for junior high choir. That’s it. And of course, the majority were girls—which meant I probably wouldn’t have a lot of 4-part harmony going on. (by the way, when I was in junior high, we did occasionally sing 4-part harmony). So, I decided to try 3 part harmony. Let me cut straight to the chase. It became quite clear that 3-part harmony and even basic 2-part harmony was going to be a stretch. However, I wasn’t disappointed nor was I going to allow myself to be paralyzed by this. In fact, I said to myself ,

“Self, these are great kids and they want to sing. So, don’t freak out about harmony, just work on making it an enjoyable journey to look forward to every rehearsal.”

And that’s exactly what I did. With students singing unison melody, we created rich performance experiences by adding other dimensions—inviting guest artists to join us, learning songs in foreign languages, implementing rhythm instruments, and more. For example, at Christmas Concert, the junior high students comfortably sang in French, the carol, Il est , le divin Enfant together with a French-speaking guest vocalist. The girls all wore their hair in French braids and choir members played French Canadian wooden spoons for one of the instrumental verses. It was great! The idea of inviting guest artists to sing with my choirs became a tradition at all concerts—including a fellow from town who sang Alan Jackson’s Let It Be Christmas along with the junior high choir—complete with a drum set, electric bass, and keyboard. Did those fourteen junior high kids have a great experience with that? You bet!

Other guest artists included a bagpipes player, a Swiss yodeler, and the community choir.

My second year (this year), the junior high choir swelled from 14 students to 41 students—half of whom were boys.

Let me speak a little more regarding my junior high musicians. I loved teaching these kids. They exhibited willingness, in fact an eagerness, to try new things to add more dimension to their concerts. They had faith in me as an instructor, and trusted my ideas. For this, I am very grateful.

As my last academic year as a public school music teacher began, I knew our Christmas Concert would be remarkable. It may sound odd, but I started planning the Christmas Concert in April. For example, I knew I wanted to include a Swiss Alphorn. I also knew some of the pieces I wanted to place on the students. When I chooses musical literature, I download and listen to the recordings over and over and over. . . . and over until I become acquainted with every part. I then visualize my students performing the same piece, and then plan for adaptations I know will be necessary according to the instrumentation and voicing unique to our small school.

That summer, this "visualization” exercise happened while I was fighting forest fires in Montana during summer break. I spent 30 days driving a tactical water tender in the mountains near Lincoln, assigned to the Park Creek Fire. As I drove throughout the mountain roads, I would listen to the recording of particular choral piece I knew had to be performed by my students. By the time school started in the fall, I swear I had listened to that song more than any human being on planet Earth.

The Christmas Concert was amazing. It really was. The students put on a show unlike anything the community had ever experienced (and that’s coming from just about everyone I’ve spoken with who attended). Over 100 student-musicians (grades 7-12), performed to a packed-house audience (the venue is a basketball gymnasium with a stage on one end). The state superintendent of instruction was also present in the audience. At precisely 7 p.m., I dimmed the lights and took a seat at the piano – and began playing the intro to Stars Were Gleaming (a Polish Carol) sung by the junior high choir—who were decked-out in matching sweaters courtesy of clearance sales at Old Navy (I had to call six different stores to get enough sweaters. The last one arrived in the mail the afternoon of the concert). Add some symphonic chimes, a Swiss Alphorn, and a recorded professional narration—and we had an epic start to a wonderful Christmas Concert.

With the mood set by the junior high students, the rest of the concert continued with smooth flow, gripping the attention of audience members and exhibiting obvious enjoyment by the performers. In addition to the traditional band and choir pieces, other highlights included the student mariachi band, a Russian balalaika piece, Silent Night on the Alphorn, and the JH/HS combined band playing music from the Polar Express as the finale closer (complete with an encore tag). The kids earned a true standing ovation (the kind that compels an audience to their feet).

My sojourn into the world of teaching music in my hometown of Fairfield, Montana, was unplanned and unnecessary—and is a longer story than is space available in this blog to adequately share in completeness. Suffice it to say, it fulfilled a long-held desire to be a music teacher. When the opportunity serendipitously presented itself by a friend-turned-superintendent, my wife and I discussed the notion and we both felt it was the right course to pursue, notwithstanding the obvious financial downturn we would experience by so-doing. When I walked into my boss’s office to announce my plan, he was stunned. In fact, I was too. I almost couldn’t believe what I was doing! I was leaving a wonderful career with a fantastic organization. I enjoyed working for him very much—and to make matters more difficult . . . right after I announced my resignation, he presented an envelope saying,

“Ben, before we discuss things further, let me say that I was already planning on meeting with you today . . . to let you know the terms of your raise.”
‘Oh man,’ I thought. ‘What have I done!?’

He opened the envelope and handed a paper to me. It was a handsome salary increase, that’s for sure.

Yet, . . .I politely declined the offer and turned onward to pursue a completely different path: A path which has impacted my life in remarkable, unexpected, and profound ways.

And so it began. With faith in our footsteps, we sold our lovely home in a perfect neighborhood with perfect neighbors and . . . even a cute red front door— and moved north to Montana.

A tragic car accident

Upon arrival to Montana, we were staying at my parent’s place on the family farm. On the evening of student registration at the school, a terrible car accident occurred just outside the driveway—a week before the first day of school.

Earlier that day all the high school students attended a registration event to finalize their class schedules for the year. I attended the registration event to introduce myself and answer questions about the various music courses I would teach. Apparently, the teacher I replaced had left the program in near shambles, and a very negative feeling existed amongst the student body toward the music program. In fact, it was so bad that when I looked at the roster for high school band . . . there were only nine names. Nine.

I was told by the secretary that that was the lowest band enrollment she had ever seen in her 30 years working at the school. All of a sudden, my quest to answer questions about courses became a quest to recruit students to a faltering program.

A student named Lauryn

It was during this registration event that I met a student named Lauryn. She was introduced to me by her grandmother who was also the high school secretary. Like me, Lauryn was new to the school. An excited sophomore and a friend to all, she exhibited a bubbly personality and clearly loved her grandma very much. Upon completing her registration tasks, Lauryn left the room, calling out to her grandma, “Bye Granny!”

The next time I saw Lauryn was later that evening at the scene of a tragic car accident in front of our driveway. My dad and I were the first to rush to Lauryn's aid, but tragically, Lauryn did not survive the accident.

Music for the funeral

The positive impression Lauryn left on me—even from the short time I interacted with her—will long be remembered. This was my first day as a music teacher. The first student I ever rehearsed a song for was Lauryn’s older sister (a senior) as she prepared to sing at Lauryn’s funeral. The song: Jealous of Angels.

The other day, as I began cleaning my office preparing to depart for a new job in Idaho, I noticed a black three-ring binder sitting on a messy pile of books in the corner. I picked it up, opened it, and my breath was taken away. It was the rehearsal binder for Jealous of Angels. In the stillness of the evening, I stopped my office cleaning and took a seat at the classroom piano, . . . and played Jealous of Angels. My heart went back to the events of that day, and I was reminded of the truly important things in life—family, relationships, people. Not stuff. Not things.

I pray all of my students will move forward in life with confidence and hope . . . knowing there is yet much happiness to be experienced as they begin their journeys in this challenging and exciting world.

Whether you talk with my students in Idaho or in Montana, they will be the first to admit that our rehearsals can take many different directions, including discussions on small pieces of advice Mr. Watson highly recommends. In attempting to compile a list of these small pieces of advice., I “narrowed” a list down to 88 keys—the same number of keys on a piano.

I refer to them as Mr. Watson’s 88 keys to life

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