We Need A Minor League System for Musicians

The book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell highlights a little-discussed gorilla in the corner of most high school and college music rooms: the overwhelming amount of practice it takes to become an elite performer in the world of professional music. Gladwell outlines a study by K. Anders Ericsson that tracked the practice habits of conservatory music students in Berlin’s Academy of Music. Their findings were illuminating: despite the music world’s love affair with the concept of the “genius”, “virtuoso”, and “talented” performer, Ericsson found that the greatest determining factor in the rate of improvement and eventual professional success of promising students was not their innate abilities. It was, in fact, their practice routine. The number of hours of practice per week inclined steadily from childhood through age 20, resulting in over 10,000 hours of practice logged by the time the students had graduated from college.

What’s more, Ericsson was able to extrapolate further on this “10,000 Hour Rule” to create a four-tiered strata of eventual professions for music students, based on their total number of practice hours. Student with 8,000 hours were considered “merely good”, and students with around 4,000 hours became teachers! Coincidentally, Ericsson also studied amateur pianists and found that they averaged only 2,000 hours of practice over the same period that “elite” professionals were logging five times that many. That no “naturally gifted” students were able to slacken their practice pace and still rise to the top of the brew should serve as a strong warning to aspiring professional performers, but it also has strong implications for aspiring professional music educators. The saying in baseball is that “the numbers don’t lie”, and Ericsson’s research indicates that the numbers here are, at least at first, overwhelming. For students, however, it might and should come as something of an inspiration. It isn’t some unknown commodity of “talent” that determines whether you make it to the top: it’s a matter of consistent practice.

It is understood by many parents and students that ensemble music courses, from the elementary level to post-secondary, are more than a laboratory environment for learning music skills. Music ensembles are frequently thought of as an expressive and creative outlet (though, frequently, creativity has little to do with it), a social bubble and community of caring classmates, an environment for students to display leadership skills, and, in some avenues, an opportunity to engage in a type of competitive environment most frequently found in youth athletics. Parents and the greater public, and, increasingly, students themselves, wish ensemble music experiences to contain a degree of entertainment value that they find in popular and consumer music. With tight budgets and cultural disregard and disrespect for the arts so common that it has become an assumed matter of course, schools, where {by the far the greatest degree of traditional and contemporary music education and training is taking place}, favor quantity over quality when gauging the worthiness of arts courses to even exist.

How, then, can any music educator be counted upon to ensure students get anywhere close to the number of practice hours they need to be competitive for a future in the profession? Even an ensemble that meets one hour a day for an entire school year only provides 180 hours of rehearsal time, 1,260 total if you track 6th thru 12th grade. Most teachers are lucky to meet 30 minutes three times per week, and that time is not necessarily focused on individual achievement and growth. Too often, music educators at the secondary level are trapped by the “y’all come” nature of their ensemble, forced to spend the majority of their efforts on bringing less knowledgeable or less motivated students up to snuff and praying that the ambitious students figure it out on their own. Even then, a motivated self-starter who practices on his/her own one hour a day all school year for seven years would log 2,030 hours of practice. Combined with the generous hour of daily rehearsal over that same time period, the number of hours logged isn’t quite a third of the necessary hours needed to make the 10,000 hour barrier. Going into college, such a student would need to practice four hours and thirty-six minutes per day, seven days a week, for four straight years to make it to exactly 10,000 hours.

What the professional and academic music scene needs is a farm system, a minor leagues of music, so to speak. I’m not talking about placing professional symphonies and opera companies in every small town in America, more the system of improvement and growth that a minor league system represents.

Take professional baseball in the United States. Players who show promise during their high school careers are drafted or signed to “professional” contracts with a team affiliated with a major parent, usually an MLB team. These minor league teams are located in cities large and small across the country and are split into strata from “rookie” teams composed entirely of newly signed players to the “A teams” classified as A, AA, and AAA, each of which represents a progression in skill and development of the player. Finally, players on the AAA teams serve as a sort of reserve squad for their parent MLB franchise, and players on the bubble of professional readiness for the major league roster frequently bounce between these two levels until they either earn a regular spot on the big team or settle into a less prestigious role. It is not uncommon for a newly signed prospect to spend five to seven years in the minor league farm system before he is ready to play in the “big leagues”. While players are on this developmental journey, they receive individualized instruction to improve their own skills. Position coaches specialize in the detailed skills of fielding, pitching, hitting, and catching. Managers bring all of these skills and talents together to create a stronger team and teach the players how to contribute their unique gifts to the greater good of the players around them. Experienced players teach rookies important shortcuts and advice from their personal experience, and strength and conditioning coaches work on the fundamentals of general athleticism to ensure that players can continue moving forward free from injury. Together, this system provides young players with the necessary 10,000 hours in a constructive, strategic, and purpose-driven environment.

There are already several parallels between the music academy and the baseball farm system. Position coaches are like studio teachers, focusing on the specific skills of the chosen instrument. Managers are akin to ensemble directors, bringing everyone’s talents together to make an ensembe, cast, or company. Graduate students assume the position of veterans, providing insights from experience, and music theory, pedagogy, ear training, and musicology provide fundamental, core knowledge of music that informs and improves student practice and performance in every genre. One could think of music majors on scholarship as a sort of “drafted” prospect, one who shows promise in high school and whose potential warrants a financial investment on the part of the university. In this way, there is sort of a farm system in place for developing musicians. However, where the musical academy falls short of professional baseball is in the connections, networks, and agreements between the different parts. High schools and universities rarely coordinate curriculum and expectations for promising musicians beyond state or regional music standards that are inconsistently adhered to or assessed. As a result, a student may spend 10 or more years in college trying to get to 10,000 hours, frequently paying thousands of dollars with few, if any, professional engagements during that time. Beginning minor donleague don’t make much, but it’s at least an incentive for developing players to stick with it until they’ve gotten to the highest level.

High schools need to start taking seriously what it means to prepare students for the next level. There is a reason why there are always one or two high schools in every state that send a disproportionate amount of promising young athletes on scholarship to collegiate athletics: their coaches, parents, and institutions decided that preparing students for every possible future in athletics, including professional sports, was going to be a goal and priority of their program. Therefore, these stakeholders invested the resources necessary to give their student-athletes the skills they need to make the jump to the next level.

Likewise, universities need to become more proactive in creating partnerships with professional, semi-professional, and amateur ensembles, artist programs, and institutions in their community and greater region, working to provide these organizations with future contributors and leaders. Performers should be moving out into these organizations as a natural extension of their university experience. There will always be a “major league” level of music performance. The Met isn’t going anywhere, and neither is the Los Angeles Philharmonic. These major organizations should reach out to others in a formal capacity. This doesn’t mean that the organization would have to have an inclusive partnership with a “feeder” program, but having a strong, mutual understanding of the skills and experiences desired by the bigger fish can only help the smaller fish to swim faster and stronger.

A farm system of interconnected curricula, expectations, and mutual respect and understanding is a long-term solution to a long-term problem. Ensemble music in secondary school isn’t going to change overnight. Nor is the societal value of academy music and music education. However, if the United States wishes to bring more students to the 10,000 hour threshold, it needs a better process than the wild west system it is currently saddled with. Middle and high schools (which should already, but often aren’t, be aligned with each other on curriculum) should work to align their curriculum with the needs of their local and regional post-secondary institutions. Those institutions should, in turn, partner with area professional and semi-professional organizations to provide graduates with a stepping stone into the professional music world. From there, less formal relationships and understandings can be made on a broader range of needs between these local/regional organizations and their “major league” counterparts.

The result of this system should bear fruit at all levels: increased competition at the highest echelons of the profession will move it forward. Increased awareness of, and participation in, regional music organizations will increase civic awareness and community engagement and support for local institutions. Universities can demonstrate their commitment to lifelong learning and increased practice time after students walk out the door while also receiving more students who possess the prioritized requirements of their music schools. Finally, and most importantly, secondary music programs can build bridges into the professional world, adding legitimacy to arts education through increased student participation after graduation and heightened academic and artistic integrity for students throughout their seven years of middle and high school music.

Let’s play ball!

 

The Future of Music, The Future of Us

UNLV is one of the most diverse college campuses on the planet. It has more students of color, more ethnic backgrounds, more first languages, more first-generation college students, and more students from low-income backgrounds than all but one other university in the United States. That in and of itself is incredibly exciting. What’s even more impressive: UNLV’s choral department is as diverse as its general student body, an almost unparalleled demographic representation among secondary and post-secondary choral programs nationwide. The School of Music at UNLV has over 500 students, both undergraduate and graduate, traditional and non-traditional, homegrown and international. It is located in the heart of a rapidly growing, increasingly cosmopolitan city.

just some of the 2016-17 UNLV Choir Members

UNLV’s music students, right now, already look like what most of our country’s ensembles, classrooms, and communities are going to look like 20 years from now (and many do already). It is a student body that values community alongside rigorous scholarship, one that embraces difference and doesn’t shy from it. For that it should be celebrated!

I’ve been visiting a lot of high schools recently, getting to know students and teachers, learning the values of Las Vegas’s young people and musicians. Inevitably, I am asked why I think young people should choose UNLV from amidst a host of excellent options. This is what I tell them:

If you want to go somewhere where everyone looks like you, thinks like you, talks like you, acts like you, and comes from the same background as you, there are plenty of colleges and universities like that to choose from. Many of them have phenomenal music, passionate professors, and dedicated students.

However, if you want to be somewhere where the people you sing with and feel with and learn from and become friends with and share with represent the entire world, the future classrooms you’ll teach, and the ensembles you’ll conduct, regardless of where you find yourself on this ever-shrinking planet, then, may I humbly suggest that I know of a place like that.

 

Untangling the Yarnball

This week I had a student come into my office to complete her individual beginning-of-the-year voicing. She sings in the UNLV Singers and is a music education student. Since I am new, I had asked every student in the choir to come in and see me so I could hear him/her 1 on 1 and to be able to greet them and give them a chance to chat with the new guy. When we got done with her placement, she asked me about the voicing process I had done in the choir last week. Like most of us, I took a few minutes to voice each singer and place them next to other singers who would compliment each other. It’s a quick process for me anymore: each singer sings for a few seconds, one right after the other, and then I start mixing them together until I find what sounds like the best match.

The student was curious what I was listening for, how I was able to hear and remember all the voices after a couple of seconds, and why it was important to do it at all. She’s not the first student who has asked this question. From the first time I did this exercise with my very first high school choirs, students have always been curious about the voicing process. What made this time different was that this student wanted to know how it worked so she could replicate it.

When I first started teaching, one of the challenges of working with freshman high school students was unwrapping four years of the intense music learning that led to my bachelor’s degree into a manageable pathway for students who were just beginning their journey toward understanding the individual and ensemble concepts and skills necessary to become articulate, thoughtful vocal musicians. When you take for granted note names or solfege syllables, when you find the physiology of singing to be second nature, how do you unwrap the tangled yarnball of music knowledge that has been woven together over the years back into single conceptual threads?

Voicing a choir has so many components that teachers who have been working for awhile take for granted. We hear the color and characteristics of a voice quickly, and we can tell from just a few moments what kind of qualities would be best suited to assist and magnify the positive qualities of each voice. We have heard so many singers over the years that we can even predict with reasonable accuracy the trajectory of a singer’s vocal qualities over the course of a year. Next, we have spent countless hours in front of an ensemble, crafting a technical and aesthetic awareness of the sound qualities needed for a variety of diverse repertoire, for ensembles with sixteen or one hundred voices. All of this understanding plays a part in the voicing process, which, to a young music education student, appears to be done in a blur as if by magic.

Luckily for choral music education students at UNLV, they will all take an entire course dedicated to choral methods, where we will get to discuss these concepts in more depth. in the meantime, I need to give some careful thought on how to structure my instruction on voicing a section or an ensemble. Untangling the yarnball yet again!