Celebrity and the human experience

This morning I read Colin McEnroe’s column from yesterday’s Courant, where he confessed his grief over the recent deaths of Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman. “We are not wrong to grieve them elaborately,” McEnroe said in opposition to people who feel like our sadness over the deaths of celebrities is distracting us from real tragedies in other parts of the world.

On the surface, the idea of us grieving celebrities seems strange. We don’t know them, they don’t know us. Their exaltation seems superfluous in a world plagued by tremendous amounts of suffering. But for many people, myself included, the connection to a celebrity transcends fandom.

I remember hearing about Philip Seymour Hoffman. My sister sent me a text right before the curtain went up at a local production of Evita. I mentally missed the whole show thinking about it. A week later, I heard about Shirley Temple Black via Facebook. I cried. She was my childhood hero, and her death seemed morbid somehow, as if she had died an 8-year-old girl instead of an 85-year-old woman. In my mind, probably in many people’s minds, Shirley Temple could never die. Neither could Mickey Rooney, but he did two months later. If I had been around in 1969 when Judy Garland was found dead in London, I’m not sure what I’d have done.

It’s hard for me to describe the effect Old Hollywood had on me. To me, it’s enough to say that it profoundly shaped the direction of my life, but to others, that might seem dramatic. How could I have connected so strongly to Shirley, Mickey, and Judy when I was around their ages myself, watching them from a point of view two or three generations behind them? Nonetheless, I did. I took tap and permed my hair to be more like Shirley. In 7th grade, I wrote a script for and attempted to direct an all-girls version of Boys Town, starring my own family members and, of course, me as Whitey (or Jocelyn) Marsh. I did a few projects on Judy Garland and received so many books on her as gifts, which stoked my fascination with her tragic life. If they’re gone, is part of me gone too?

Admittedly, Shirley and Mickey’s deaths weren’t tragedies. But Judy’s was. Philip’s was. Robin’s was. No one is making our current global horrors any less horrible by acknowledging this and mourning them for it. McEnroe exalts the latter two as heroes for taking the horrible truths of the world and bringing light to them through their art.

Making art in a world full of suffering is not selfish or irrelevant or ignorant. Leonard Bernstein said this before and it remains true today: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” The power of artists to pull people, individually and together, out of despair and anger is tremendous. We mourn them because they lived in us and shaped our souls. That’s about as human an experience anyone can have.

Paying your dues: proving yourself before you get a job

My friend just got his first job (yay!). Like me, he’s a teacher, and like me, he’s been unable to find work since he graduated.

He’ll be working in the school district we went through and where he’s worked part-time as a TA for the past two years. I’ve heard him announce his recent accomplishment to various people, but I’ve noticed that he often attributes it to having “paid his dues” by previously working in the district in a job he was overqualified for.

I have no doubt that’s part of why he got the job. Being an alum has its advantages (he knows the district and the teachers), and having worked there for an extended period of time showed he was committed and dedicated- qualities anyone would want in a new teacher.

But I know he was selected for the job mainly because he was qualified, smart, competent, and enthusiastic. I’m sure he does too. Still, he’s not suffering from impostor syndrome when he says he got the job because he had proven himself. He might actually be on to something.

Today, many new graduates must first have a wealth of “pre-experience” before securing a job for which they are otherwise qualified. Why is this? I know it’s unrealistic for hiring procedures to stay the same from year to year. Markets change, and some jobs just plain don’t exist in the same numbers anymore. But I’m not talking about how hard it is to get into a particular field. I’m talking about how hard it is to get a job at all without this “pre-experience.”

get experience

I graduated with my master’s confident that my experiences, skills, and enthusiasm would be something employers were looking for. By the end of that year, I had come to believe that everything I had done up that point had only brought me to the edge of being considered for qualification. Two years later, with additional experiences and education behind me, I feel more qualified, but it’s still been difficult to secure any leads. In a world that claims it needs creative people and good teachers, I feel like the reality is just the opposite.

I’m especially baffled for my friend who graduated college fully qualified to teach. His degree, student teaching experience, and license were proof of that. Yet he never was considered for employment until this year, despite sending out many applications.

The unspoken requirement of having to prove oneself worthy of employment before getting a job ignores the fact that not everyone can afford to do this. Are entry level jobs now becoming privileges instead of goals attainable with hard work? If so, this system will discourage good workers from finding work on a par with their education and skills. How long can people afford part-time, stressful work when they have loans, bills, and families to take care of?

Earlier this year, I was told by a colleague to “get on the ball” with my life, as if all I had to do was reach into a jar and pull out a job. I was reminded that, despite my great experiences for which I’m very fortunate and grateful, I’m still not doing it right. Oops! My life choices have all been mistakes! Of course, I don’t really believe this. But how long can I, or anyone in my situation, keep putting life on hold, waiting for something to give? I’m a good teacher, a fast learner, and I know that teaching is something I want to do with my life.

I used to be really upset about my situation. But now I’m just confused.

Dress codes and educator responsibility – Part 1/2: What’s the problem?

We’ve recently heard about the conflict over dress codes in sources like The New York Times, Jezebel, and The Huffington Post. There have been countless posts addressing the issue from various viewpoints.

Besides this being a primarily feminist issue, the conflict over dress codes is also an educational issue.

Without a doubt, educators have the responsibility of creating safe and focused learning environments for all students.

So when dress codes become less a matter of creating such an environment and more about policing gender expression, shaming girls, and catering to the male gaze, educators have a responsibility to reform them.

Many dress codes in public schools today unfortunately perpetuate discriminatory gender stereotypes, victim-blaming, and sexual objectification. Sound extreme? This article by Tabitha Tumback dissects a school dress code and exposes what in fact schools are teaching their students when dress codes are written without knowledge of towards today’s attitudes about consent and objectification.

Those who construct them must take responsibility for the codes’ implications in light of today’s attitudes about those issues named above. Don’t get me wrong- schools need dress codes. But the dress codes must be constructed around a spirit of respect for all students.

Today, that’s not always the case. What am I talking about? I’m talking about arbitrary “length” policies that police the width of shirt straps, skirts, and shorts. I’m talking about singling out curvier girls for purportedly demonstrating immodesty for wearing the same clothing as their peers. I’m talking about the idea of a shoulder being labeled exhibitionist. These rules are not constructed around a spirit of respect for anyone.

What are some of the signs of a poorly constructed dress code?

No dress code should be written with language that singles out a particular gender or body type. An ideal dress code should be gender- and body type-neutral. For example, it shouldn’t say “girls’ bra straps may be visible”; this implies that a) only girls wear bras, and b) there is something inherently immodest about bras. Instead, it should say “no undergarments may be visible” and perhaps list an example for boys and girls. This equalizes the transgression. Similarly, language that refers to “properly fitting” clothing must be re-evaluated so it does not privilege students of particular body types. Unless a student violates the undergarment rule, is at risk of their clothing falling or sliding off their body, is creating a dangerous situation, is creating an unhygienic situation, or is close to revealing private parts, he/she should generally be allowed to wear the same type of clothing his/her peers are wearing. Body parts are not inherently shameful.

No dress code should perpetuate gender stereotypes. Even in schools with uniforms. Any person of any gender should be allowed to wear clothing that is traditionally opposite their gender. Men should be allowed to wear skirts if they want, just as girls are allowed to wear pants. Similarly, boys should not be restricted to only pants or shorts, and girls should not be restricted to only dresses or skirts. This way, all students are treated equally.


Dress codes should not treat girls as distractions, although society conditions us to believe that they are. Society tells us that girls are responsible for arousing “impure” male thoughts, that girls are “asking for attention” when they wear clothing that doesn’t cover enough skin. Showing skin is not consenting. When schools make rules around the issue of exposure, they must be conscious of whom exactly they are trying to accommodate or protect. If the problem is that people think boys will objectify girls, maybe efforts should be made to teach boys what that is not okay.


These attitudes cannot continue, though I fear our culture still has a long way to go before they are abolished. Schools do not have to follow suit (pardon the sartorial pun). They can pave the way for empowering a generation of students with a strong sense of self.

Stay tuned for “Part 2: What’s the solution?”!

Ge Wang’s DIY orchestra and the new computer music

Ge Wang, a computer scientist and musician, is on the faculty of the Music Department at Stanford University. His TED talk about computer music raises some very interesting questions on how technology affects expressivity and how it can influence global music-making. It is worth watching in its entirety.

I’m especially interested in everything from 12:30 on. He expands on the mission statement of Smule  (a company he co-founded), which is to connect the world through music. At 15:21, he plays a version of Lean on Me to which 1000 contributed their voices for a humanitarian cause. Could you have done this without computers? Probably not, he says. At the same time, he admits that this music is human.

Perhaps most interesting, he redefines “computer music.” It’s not a series of “coded bleeps and blips” anymore. Computer is now about bringing people together to make music. We’re making less music than ever before, Wang suggests, because of the ease of access to recorded music. It’s so easy to hit the play button. But with apps like those Smule has created, it’s easier to create music and participate firsthand in global musical experiences. “It’s not about computers anymore- it’s about people,” he champions. As someone who has eschewed computer/electronic music in the past, this is an idea I can get onboard with!

An open letter to schools using Applitrack

Dear Fellow Educators and Administrators,

I am a graduate of the Alternate Route to Certification, a nontraditional post-baccalaureate teacher certification program in Hartford. This means I am fully eligible for employment as a music teacher in any Connecticut public school.

Though I have completed all the necessary coursework and student teaching sufficient to prepare me for a teaching career, I don’t possess a license. As a matter of policy, ARC doesn’t grant licenses to their graduates until they have secured jobs. Once an ARC graduate has secured a position, she applies for a temporary 90-day license through her new employing district. After the 90-day period, and upon recommendation by the superintendent, she can apply for her Initial Educator Certificate.

Since March of this year, I have been applying for positions with Connecticut public schools. I am familiar with Applitrack, the online application program most schools use to accept employment applications.

I have found that there is an inconsistency between schools’ Applitrack programs, specifically on the page called “Endorsements” or “Certifications.” This is the page where the candidate has the opportunity to specify her area of endorsement and the status of her license or certificate. This page is arguably the most important part of the application. Applicants need to be able to adequately and accurately express their qualifications to be considered for employment. (By law, public school teachers must hold licenses.)

I’ve found that not every school’s Applitrack application gives candidates enough options to do so. There are either too few options, or the several options that do exist do not cover the circumstances I- and all ARC graduates- find themselves in.

The following page is from one particular district’s Applitrack application.

Applitrack - Farmington

Under “List the Type(s):”, there is no appropriate selection for me. Still, I have to bubble in something, or my application will be marked incomplete.

Under Status, there are five options (the first one listed is a duplicate of the last one, indicating this is the one I have selected), which theoretically should cover all possible statuses. But that is not the case for me, because…

a) My license is not current. As I explained above, I don’t possess a license yet. I’m eligible for my 90-day temporary license.

b) I haven’t applied for my license yet. I’m not legally allowed to do until I’ve secured a job.

c) I would apply, as I am eligible, but, again, I legally cannot do so as an ARC graduate.

d) It’s not expired.

e) And my ARC graduate certificate is not pending. I did graduate in May having completed the program in its entirety, and I have official State forms documenting this.

There is no option for me to indicate my particular circumstances. Even though ARC is a program endorsed by the Department of Higher Education, public schools applications are not current enough to let candidates express their qualifications.

This puts us at a disadvantage when applying for positions. Although there are other pages on the application that allow us to state our qualifications, we should be given sufficient options to state them just as traditional college or graduate students are given. By limiting the nontraditional students’ options, schools delegitimize their credentials and ignore the existence of nontraditional programs as valid means of obtaining certification. I’m concerned that many qualified nontraditional graduates may have been overlooked due to the configuration of this particular version of Applitrack.


Here is another district’s equivalent page.

Applitrack - Torrington

There is no place to indicate what type of license you hold. Instead, they first ask if you hold or anticipate endorsement. Depending on your answer, the next set of steps changes to suit your particular situation. If I had selected yes, then and only then would I have been directed to a place to indicate what type of endorsement I held and its status. The application didn’t automatically assume anything about it. It changed to fit my particular situation.

Since I selected “anticipated”, which is accurate in my case, the next bullet (hidden due to the pop-up window of options) asks me “How do you plan to obtain endorsement in Connecticut?” These options are sufficiently in line with the educational trajectories of the nontraditional student.

In fact, the first option states my credential perfectly: “I am a graduate of a Connecticut ARC Program, am fully eligible for certification, and am considered a highly qualified teacher.”

Every application needs to be formatted like this. This school recognizes both the existence and legitimacy of ARC programs, and accommodates ARC graduates in their search for employment. When I use these applications, I feel like I am on equal footing with other candidates. I know I will not be overlooked due to a technicality, or overcome with anxiety over whether I may have had to upcharge my credentials to avoid being shortchanged.

Especially since most schools additionally state that they will not accept paper applications, it is doubly important that Applitrack be as concise and inclusive as possible. This benefits schools as well- applicant pools increase, and hiring committees are able to truly choose the best candidate.

If you are part of a school system that uses the former version of Applitrack mentioned above, I implore you to change your system. Everyone should have the right to adequately and accurately express her qualifications on schools’ Applitrack applications. ARC students deserve recognition and validation equal to traditional students, and schools should make all possible efforts to help them put forth their credentials. 


A music educator who really wants to work for you

From piano to podium: why choral directors should get out from behind the keyboard

I love the piano. It’s my favorite instrument, and I love to play it. Over the years, I’ve gotten very good at improvising and playing by ear, but my sight-reading has always been a bit slow. As a future chorus teacher, I’m a bit nervous about this, although thanks to my summer job, I now have accompanying experience.

Now, over the course of my teacher prep program, we students were told that piano skills just weren’t very important anymore- at least, they didn’t make or break a choral director. Students today often sang along to CD recordings, performed with nontraditional accompaniment like percussion, or sang a cappella. More advanced reading and accompanying skills were not necessary in a director.

But as I’m applying for jobs, I see that most schools specifically request piano skills or accompanying skills. This makes me wonder about the crossover between directing and accompanying and its pedagogical implications.

Choral directors must have a certain set of piano skills, no matter what kind of accompaniment they end up using. “Choral piano skills” include playing vocal lines (individually and simultaneously), singing a part while playing another, accompanying warm-ups in every major and minor key, and basic sight-reading skills acquired over the course of any college music program. Requiring choral directors to have these skills is is both reasonable and pedagogically sound.

But often I find that job descriptions list “accompanying skills” as desirable for chorus teachers. This is problematic for two reasons. One, it treats accompanying as a skill naturally acquired as a music or music education. In many undergrad programs, majors do take piano skills and accompanying classes. However, the level of proficiency achieved is generally functional at best. From what I’ve learned talking to other chorus teachers, rarely do they have the proficiency enough to even call themselves pianists. Second, there is a difference between “piano skills” and “accompanying.” The course of study for a piano performance major will be very different from that of a piano accompaniment major. The skills necessary for each are similar in some regard, but ultimately they are different arts. Too often, it seems that schools confuse these skill sets. On top of that, they expect chorus teachers to… direct choruses! Not to mention be a proficient vocal model. These four skill sets are often not present in equal amounts in a chorus teacher, just as not every band teacher is an expert at every instrument but is still expected to teach them.

It is my personal opinion that a choral conductor should not be held to additional responsibilities at the keyboard if it takes away from her role as a director. I was lucky enough to be able to move my choral rehearsals away from the piano when I was student teaching. This was beneficial for several reasons: my students developed better ears and critical listening skills, and I was able to utilize my absolute pitch, focus on score analysis, and improve my conducting gestures. If I had had to sit at a piano, none of that would have happened, and my students would have sounded mediocre at best.

If a director can also accompany, that is definitely helpful. But even if this is the case, both the students and the teacher miss out on certain opportunities that should be part of a choral program.

Choral directors, by the nature of their job, need to get out from behind the piano. Why? Because it detracts from rehearsal time spent singing. If a choral director has to worry about playing, even is she is proficient, she sacrifices, at least in part, her choral leadership skills. As a conductor, I want to get up in front of groups and teach them about the important of musical leadership. I want to communicate with them in a way that cannot be reproduced sitting behind a piano. Learning to read a conductor’s gestures is an important skill for all musicians, and being able to communicate effectively is the mark of a great teacher. It is physically impossible to do so if a conductor is relegated to accompanist. This doesn’t mean that accompanists are somehow below directors. It just means that choral directors are done a disservice when they are taken away from the podium.

You might think this is too academic for grade school. But I say that it is time we recognize the intense study and skills required to be a successful choral conductor. It is more than teaching by rote. It is more than beating a four-pattern. It is more than learning a piano part.

If a school wants the choral director to also be the accompanist, that is of course their prerogative. But it is important for everyone to realize that the piano can easily become, in the words of a teaching mentor of mine, a crutch.

The next big question is how to make this happen. Schools are hardly able to hire accompanists for each choral rehearsal. CDs are less than favorable, in my opinion, though they do solve the problems I’ve talked about above.

The solution is one that works for many an educational conundrum: get students involved. Ask if there is an advanced piano student who could accompany for rehearsals or concerts; this would give her some experience and the opportunity to demonstrate arts leadership to her peers, plus take pressure off the director. Program pieces with instrumental accompaniment and team up with band or orchestra students. Have members of the chorus play drums and sing. Use pieces with body percussion or cacophony. (Check out the video below.) Incorporate pieces with improvisation or audience participation.


When I think of what my role as a music teacher is, part of it is being a good musical leader. Because I want my students to become better listeners and singers. I want them to know there is more to choral music than singing with a piano. I want them to participate in a more multi-faceted way when they perform.

Fellow educators, what do you think?

Imagine what would happen if we taught THIS in school!

Saw this on Facebook today.

Yeah. Two kids salsa dancing like bosses.

Can you imagine what would happen if we started teaching this in school?

Watch the video again. What have these kids learned by learning and performing this routine?

Coordination and dexterity. Kind of essential in growing children, no?

Teamwork and problem solving. Was every move executed gracefully and perfectly? No. Did they recover and keep going? Yes. Amazingly well.

Self-expression and body confidence. Think of how much less gender-based discrimination and bullying we might have if a) girls weren’t taught to ignore/hide the fact that they have hips and legs lest they “provoke” a boy, and b) boys learned that our culture’s narrow definition of masculinity is unreasonable and limiting.

Trust. They’ve both got to trust each other for this routine to work or they fall apart. Literally.

Healthy lifestyle attitudes. Learning to keep active from a young age might just stick with them as they get older. And maybe they’ll pass that on to their own kids one day.

Physical strength is achievable and admirable for both boys and girls. Forget gender stereotypes here.

There aren’t “boy dancers” and “girls dancers”- dance whatever you want whenever you want! Look at their gender neutral outfits. Check out how flexible and coordinated they both are. The boy does take the lead some of the time, but ultimately they are working together and supporting each other.

Social skills. Look how eager they are to work together! No fear of cooties here.

World music is awesome. And there’s a rich culture behind every type.

Having energy is normal and a good thing. Why are we always trying to keep kids sitting for so long, reducing gym and recess time, and getting upset with they just can’t sit still.

Math. How many counts do I do this for? How many counts do I wait until it’s my solo? Which beat does my hand go up on?

Perseverance. Who knows how long it took them to learn this, but look at what happened because they practiced and stuck with it.

Pride. It’s okay to be proud of something you’ve accomplished and to want to share it with others. That’s not bragging.


What a crazy long list of objectives this lesson plan would have! Schools, can we get on board with this? Because these are real life skills and traits we as educators need to be encouraging and modeling.