A few weeks ago I found out that my high school orchestra teacher, Dan Holt, passed away over the summer.

I was so sorry not to have been able to go to any of the gatherings held in his honor, so this blog entry is my tribute to him.

(And what better time to practice gratitude than Thanksgiving?)

photo of Mr Holt posted on FB by Jake BrookmanIt feels nearly impossible to write, though. What can you possibly say about someone who had such a profound impact on you?

I guess all you can do is tell stories.

In the mid-90s, I was one of Mr. Holt’s students in the community youth orchestras he directed – first the Young People’s Concert Orchestra (YPCO) and then the Young People’s Symphonic Orchestra (YPSO), both at what was then alternately known as CASA or the Symphony Music School.  These ensembles fed into the Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, but once we made it there, we often played in both SLSYO and YPSO just so we could spend more time with him.

These Young People’s Orchestras brought together students from all across the Saint Louis region, and were often a safe haven for kids who “wanted their Mozart as much as their MTV” (to quote an advertising poster that featured a picture from one of our rehearsals).

posterIt’s not an exaggeration to say those two-hour sessions were the highlight of my week.

Mr. Holt made these orchestras both challenging and musically fulfilling. It never felt like we were kids in some extracurricular activity; he took us seriously as developing artists, even when we were as young as 7th or 8th grade.

What we did, how we played – it mattered to him, and we could trust his compliments because he’d also tell us when something wasn’t sounding up to our potential.

A friend recently remarked that she always thought he got a better sound out of those orchestras than anyone else who took the podium, and I definitely agree.

rehearsalHe also took great care to communicate that the way we related to each other was part of our musicianship.  Mr. Holt created an ethos in which we strove for excellence, together, as a group. He talked about having a ‘friendly competition’ with your stand partner, that the two of you should be egging each other on in the best way possible: who can play with the most care for the dynamic markings? Who never misses an accent or an entrance? When you hear the other person do something you like, can you copy it the next time it comes around?

To this day I still channel a memory of him telling us to “fake it ‘til you make it,” demonstrating on a student’s violin how it looked when you played the hard parts with lots of tension and effort, and then what a huge difference it made to lighten up and play with a sense of ease, even if you weren’t totally sure of yourself yet. (How many times have I done this with my own students? How many times have I remembered this advice during a performance, and felt my shoulders relax just as the tricky parts came up?)

11265201_1046614702024795_8057646364844570515_oHe was the first teacher I ever saw apologize to a student. He did it from the podium, took his time, and was so sincere. (We hardly knew how to react.)

There was a time that he asked me to play in a woodwind quintet for a children’s opera. I remember my excitement when he called; I remember getting off the phone and berating my teenage self for not playing it cooler. (Now I think how that enthusiasm was something he lived for, and sparked over and over again.)

My memories of those concerts are hazy, but there’s a crystal-clear moment from a rehearsal when he looked at me and said I was really playing well that day. (More than any performance high, I think I’ve chased the feeling of that practice ever since.) What he meant was: you are playing like every note matters. Which, of course, it does.

YPCO flute section 1996But more than this: my mother reminds me of a time I broke a viola string in the first piece on a concert.  He held the whole orchestra while I ran backstage to replace it, just so I could play on the second piece too.

Those are the little things that are really the big things – this message of: we are all part of this, everyone on stage matters, we are doing this together.

Honestly, there isn’t really anything special about my story – but then that’s a mark of how special Mr. Holt was.

Through decades of service in his school district and community positions, he touched the lives of literally thousands of students.

Now that his alumni are spread out across the country, I think we’re kind of like a dandelion puff that’s been scattered to the wind: everyone might have landed in different places and taken root in different careers, but we’re all giving voice to the kind of genuine impact a music educator can make over the course of a lifetime.

bio in programIf, like me, you’re hearing this sad news a little late: there’s a beautiful Facebook group dedicated to sharing memories (a tip of the hat to Jake Brookman for setting this up).

I was beyond delighted to find this video of him talking with students in a 1993 YPCO rehearsal:

His distinguished-yet-unassuming body language, his willingness to pause and reflect, his uncanny ability to connect with one student across a room of a hundred, the warmth he projected from the podium… it’s been two decades, but watch a few seconds of this video (say, 2:20-2:45) and it all comes flooding back.

It was also lovely to relive a memory of playing Dvorak in YPSO via this circa 1998 concert video:

Finally, I also appreciated reading how Mr. Holt described his philosophy of education on his website.  My favorite passage:

I consistently provide my students with the skills, advice and direction, and the love of music making so that they experience life-long enjoyment from music. I endeavor to create situations where students learn and perform at their highest potential, recognize and appreciate quality, and develop a respect for the role music has in their lives…It is my most strongly held belief that students not only need but that they also want to know about symphonic music.  The key to achieve that concept among young people is in both the content and the context of symphonic activities and performances.

All I know is, this was a worthy mission that he accomplished over and over again.

Thank you so much, Mr. Holt. Thank you for everything.


I recently relished the opportunity to play for a production of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aïda.

Along the way, I figured out something that’s worthy of a brief public service announcement.


The Reed 1 book calls for Flute, Alto Flute, Big Bamboo Flute in F, Big Bamboo Flute in G, and Small Bamboo Flute in Bb.

Two of these flutes (in F and Bb) only get used for 3 measures total – in the song How I Know You (song 5).  The third flute (in G) has a featured solo in After Dance (song 11A).

These moments are so brief that some people (understandably) just substitute piccolo for these parts.

But I think it’s worth tracking down a six-hole bamboo flute so you can enjoy the chance to paint with a breathy sound, use finger vibrato, and bend pitches…such fun!

So here’s the thing: there are various ways to describe what key a flute is in.

Classically trained people will define it by what pitch sounds when you use the C fingering.

Indian bansuri players define it as the pitch that sounds when 3 fingers are down (a G fingering).

For Irish fliúit players, it’s the pitch that sounds when 6 fingers are down (a D fingering) – in other words, a “D” flute plays at concert pitch.

To give an example, I have a lovely low Irish flute in Bb that classical people tell me is in A; I suppose bansuri players would say it’s in Eb.

Plus, it’s not clear what system the Aïda book uses (actually, I’m pretty sure different songs use different systems – but this feature is what makes my solution possible, so I’m not complaining).

In other words, it’s altogether possible to go to a lot of trouble to obtain what you think are the right flutes, and get to rehearsal and find out you’re in the wrong key.

But take heart! You only need one bamboo flute for all three moments.

The flute you need will play an F with your C fingering, a C with your G fingering, and a G with your D fingering.

In other words, classically, it’s in F. If buying a bansuri on eBay, you probably want one in C (but check their description because they might be accommodating classical buyers). And if you ask a friend who plays Irish music, they’ll tell you it’s in G. (To be honest, a G whistle would probably be a nice alternate option, too…get one with a good, ‘chuffy’ sound and you’ll be grand.)

Bonus: you’ll only need to change two measures. Here’s how to do it:

In How I Know You, play measure 4 just as written.

Then, play measures 114 and 115 starting on a B natural (“BCBCBAGA”).

In After Dance, play it just as written.

And that’s it!

(Huge thanks to Shelley Phillips, who makes bamboo flutes and plays them quite nicely too, for lending me several flutes and providing key insights as I figured all this out.)

One of the things that struck me about the Community Music School of Santa Cruz structures its Kids’ Trad Music Day Camp was just how much free time the students had during the day.

Our basic schedule went something like this:

IMG_932510:00-10:10 Welcome and Announcements

10:10-11:00 Instrumental Class, Part I

11:00-11:15 Recess

11:15-12:00 Instrumental Class, Part II

12:00-1:00 Lunch and Recess

1:00-2:00 Orchestra

2:00-3:00 Recess, including swimming if you feel like it

3:00-4:00 Recess/parents pick up at some point in this timeframe

Added up, students had about half the day free.

As you can probably tell from the kids’ comments in their interviews with me, a great deal of that time was spent in an exuberant exploration of the campus itself. For as long as most campers can remember, Kid Camp has been at Boomeria, a kind of place that is awesome enough for adults that it must be just about unbearably so for children.

The owner and creator of Boomeria, a certain Mr. Preston Q. Boomer (who prefers to be called Boom), only recently retired after a nearly 60-year career teaching high school physics and chemistry. He’d have his students come to his house and work on building projects that had science connections.

IMG_8971So there’s a castle, complete with a throne room, secret passageways, and a dungeon. Underneath the castle is an extensive network of catacombs, all of which were hand-dug by high school students holding shovels and buckets.

There’s a chapel with two pipe organs in it, rescued from churches that ‘upgraded’ to electronics. Boom hosts an annual Christmas carol party where, while they sing, his guests can read about the physics of sound waves thanks to helpful posters on the walls.

His playground equipment is vintage – unlike today’s carousels, which have floors and speed limits, Boom’s carousel is bottomless and can go just as fast as you can push it. (The children’s response? Challenge accepted. We kept a TA there to enforce safety rules. Let me tell you, camp manager Brianna Ady was formidable.)

And, of course, there’s a swimming pool. Boom, whose feisty spirit was summed up for me in a newspaper article which quoted him as referring to faculty meetings as “poolings of ignorance,” seemed to take a special delight in starting the fountain that rained down on kids in the middle of the pool. (It helped that there was a horn that heralded the jet of water with an especially loud aahuugah sound.)

IMG_9302At lunch, I found myself welcomed by a group of 11-year-olds who apparently hadn’t gotten the memo sent from my classmates when I was that age that I was definitely not one of the cool kids. (The 11-year-old inside of me held her breath, sure they’d figure it out eventually and uninvite me, but it never happened.) So I got to be a part of their impassioned debates about their favorite YA novels and whether the movies captured the spirit of the books they loved (consensus: no). We also spent quite a bit of time playing Guess a Number, a game which seemed arbitrary to me but which commanded surprisingly continued interest as the days went on.

We loved the cats who wandered through the camp, Orange and Gray, as well as the dog, whose name we couldn’t remember but who quickly acquired a moniker of Burrito. I found myself reflecting on how there’s something endearing about a place where you can have a cat curled on your lap during orchestra practice.

IMG_9157In short, these hours passed in a happy blur for students and teachers alike.

Still, even with all this joy around me, I was uneasy. We loved what we were doing, but would parents think this was worth their children’s time?

I found myself remembering how, in a previous life, when I used to direct the school programs at a museum, I once fielded a complaint call from a teacher who was upset that her students had spent 5 minutes in a hallway while two groups switched places between the gallery tour and classroom activity components of their program. “My feedback for you is that the children need to be learning all the time,” she said to me. (My response, that the children were learning how not to need adults to engage them at all times, may not have won any customer service points, but I do maintain it was the most educationally accurate position…)

Which is what I’m thinking about right now. It seems to me that in many educational spaces today there’s a worry about unstructured time – “making every moment count” seems to mean “making every moment structured.” We’re anxious about a competitive adult world and want kids to use their time to fill their adolescent CV with accolades that will endear them to colleges.  On a deeper level, I’d suggest that we’re distrustful of children’s ability to make their own decisions.

This is a big topic lately.  There’s been lots of reporting on how children have “lost the right to roam” and are subjected to nearly constant supervision, which means a loss in the kind of learning that comes with risk-taking and developing independenceWe’re starting to recognize that giving our children “everything” (all that constant, structured engagement by friendly educators like me!) might also mean depriving them of experiences that build essential skills.  I’m reminded of a recent article summarizing research about how college students are experiencing high rates of depression in part because they’re so unaccustomed to making their own decisions and so accustomed to being protected from failure.

But there are experts and then there are experts. So again, I turned to the kids.  I got a lot of indignant, “Well, I don’t agree with that at all!” responses to my question, “What would you say to somebody who would say, oh, there shouldn’t be so much break time, because you have to be learning?”

One 12-year-old explained, “Well, that’s wrong! Because if you didn’t have enough breaks, the children will probably get really bored and not pay attention enough. Because most of the kids know that if we do the work really well, after the work, we get play and fun time.” (Not surprisingly, plenty of research backs her up…)

My favorite conversation was this one, with 8- and 9-year-old girls who had discovered a cicada:

IMG_9309– Tell me about the cicada.

“We found this cicada, and it’s like a big bug. It looks like a gigantic fly.”

“And when it chirps, it sounds electric, kind of. It’s weird.”

“And you can usually hear it at night. And it usually stays at the same place. It doesn’t go around a lot.”

– So the cicada was something you found while you were exploring. What’s recess like at Kid Camp?

“It’s fun and the merry-go-round is pretty fun.”

– Is it like recess at school?

“No. It’s more free, and you can do more of what you want.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

– What does recess feel like at school?

“Recess at school feels more strict, like, you can’t do this and you can’t do that.”

“Yeah, and there’s not that much oldish fun things. Like it’s all pretty new.”

“And like this [demonstrating] is how fast you could go, you couldn’t go any faster.”

– Some people would say that they’d be scared that kids would get hurt. What would you tell those people?

“That I don’t think you should be scared, because it’s not that dangerous.”

“It can only be dangerous if you’re doing crazy stuff.”

– So you have to learn to be responsible, right?


“Also, the other thing you can do at recess is that you can go in the castle. And that’s really fun.”

Golden.  A good Reggio Emilia educator could build on the girls’ observations of the cicada to strengthen their knowledge of science, and I’m sure a Montessori person would want to point out the sense of self-agency, responsibility, and discovery that’s threaded throughout their comments.

My moment of realization came when I talked with a 10-year-old who told me about how he’d been using his recesses to try to memorize the castle.

IMG_8982It struck me: as an adult, when I “explored” the castle, I went in, got a sense for what it was like, crawled through one of the narrow passageways, and then figured I knew what it was all about.

Not so.

For my 10-year-old guide, the castle was something to cherish in its own right. Exploring the castle was an ever-unfolding, always-unfinished project: there would always be a deeper knowledge to reach for, and the reaching was done not for some external reward but out of an appreciation of its own intrinsic value.

While I might have (mis)perceived him to be just running around, he was engaged in a purposeful pursuit that whole time. (And honestly, I couldn’t imagine a better transferable lesson for music, since you’re never done learning an instrument and it’s the sort of practice you have to return to with new curiosity each day.)

So now I think about how a 7-year-old asked me “What’s Kid Camp?” when I asked him what he thought about his experience this week – it was as though our shared days there were so obviously present that he wondered why you’d need a name for it, like a fish asking why you’d need a word for water.

He was the one to tell me how kids always did more fun stuff than adults.

IMG_9312So – while I don’t know all what the campers learned that week, though I am confident it was many-faceted – here’s what I learned.  Maybe what we need as adults is to learn to be more like kids:

Less preoccupied with what we are “officially” doing, and more engaged with the totality of what we’re actually experiencing.

Less worried about measuring results, and more interested in mapping the inside of castles.

More excited to push a merry-go-round as fast as humanly possible.

More curious about the electric chirp of a cicada.

More open to the potential magic of every moment we share with each other…

I was wondering what it was like to be a participant at this year’s Kids’ Trad Music Day Camp at the Community Music School of Santa Cruz.

So I grabbed a mic and did some mini-interviews – after all, who better to ask than the experts?

fiddles on carousel

Describing Kid Camp…

“It’s a really fun camp where you get to improve your skills on whatever instrument you play, have fun with your friends, learn how to be together playing, and by yourself and independent, and mainly just have so much fun with playing your instrument. Also I’d say that all the teachers are amazingly awesome and really smart.” (A, age 11)

“It’s a perfect place for making friends, because I barely knew anyone here, and now I know almost everyone.” (A, age 9)

“When you walk into the gate, you’re right by the pool, and there’s this brick walkway you go up and there’s a chapel. And you go up, and there’s a slide and there’s swing and there’s a castle to your right. And if you keep walking there’s a merry-go-round, and right past that is where we play for orchestra. And there’s lots of redwood trees.” (L, age 10)

“The teachers find really fun ways to explain the music. They do note-by-note, and my first year I was really bad at music and so I had a TA help me everyday, and I got a lot better.” (J, age 12)

“It’s very fun and you get to learn music. The pool makes it fun. There’s a waterfall thing.” (R, age 7)

My Favorite Part of Kid Camp Is…

“My favorite thing about kid camp is probably that, not only do we get to work on improving our instrument and playing with a group, which in keyboards you don’t get to do as much, I also like being in a beautiful nature place and with a lot of fun things all around. It’s full of redwood trees that if you look up, you can see the sky in between the branches. And there’s a castle and catacombs. And in the catacombs there’s these crazy things where, if you shine the flashlight up on the ceiling, you can sometimes find these really cool light skeletons of spiders.” (A, age 9)

“My favorite part of kid camp is getting to meet new people and learning new songs.” (K, age 11)

“The castle is fun because there are a lot of secret doors and secret passageways that are really fun to go through and explore. You can play a lot of fun games in the castle.” (K, age 11)

orchestra w harp laying down

“I’ve come to Kid Camp about 5 years now. I like going in the castle and exploring the trap doors and memorizing it. And I like to go on the merry-go-round every year to see how much faster I am. It’s really fun. The first time you come, you’d better be prepared for how fast the merry-go-round goes.” (C, age 10)

“I really like being able to play guitar with everybody and getting to hear the different instruments when we play in orchestra.” (L, age 10)

“I’ve been coming to Kid Camp for 3 years. I come back because I mostly like playing with an orchestra, because I never get to do that, really. It feels like you have a team that you feel committed to only some parts of it, but it all falls into order. I feel committed mostly to my instrument because I know that everybody else feels the same way, and so if they just play their instrument, it’ll all come together.” (D, age 10) (me: “Like, if you play your instrument well, and everyone makes that same commitment to each other?” -“Yeah.”)

“It feels like you’re hanging out with the same kind of people, so it kind of feels like it’s your group. It’s not a mix of people, it’s more like just your kind of group of people. Like, music people, but more Celtic than rock. I like the flow of Celtic music. I like how it can be sad and happy at the same time, because not a lot of music can do that.” (D, age 10)


“Try not to be nervous about making new friends and meeting new people. And be prepared for the cold water in the pool.” (K, age 11)

“Don’t be scared of playing with other people. And also, make sure to bring a binder and music stand.” (L, age 12)

“I would tell them that the harp teacher is really nice.” (J, age 7)

visit from Orange“Be prepared for Boom to make loud announcements on his intercom.” (D, age 10)

“Probably the less shy you are, the more opportunities you get, and the more fun you can have. That’s what I’ve learned here.” (A, age 9)

“Don’t be afraid to say hi to people. Almost everyone I know here is really, really nice. It’s a fun place. During break time they allow you to go in the castle or the merry-go-round, and there’s a slide as well. And the merry-go-round is really fun, because you can push it really fast, especially if the TAs push it.” (J, age 12)

Favorite Memories

“The first time I came here, I remember that I would play a lot of harp but I started out not very good at it. But then I improved so much over just two weeks because we played so much. I just felt really grateful about that.” (A, age 11)

“I really liked when my friend showed me around inside the castle. That was really fun. I remember one time we were scaring people in the dungeon, and I was rattling chains, and BOO! That was really fun.” (L, age 10)

“I don’t know what my favorite memories of Kid Camp will be this year. Maybe the lunch circle. So at lunch, usually, the flute teacher and everybody, it was just a few of us at first but now there’s a lot of us. We usually talk about something that’s the matter at the moment. So yesterday we were talking about the specific noises that whales make. And the day before that, we were talking about Percy Jackson and other books. And the Friday before that, we were talking about different instruments.” (L, age 12)

“My favorite memories are meeting a lot of the kids and becoming friends with them. I know almost everybody here.” (J, age 12)


What you won’t see here: everything that goes along with the learning process, including our game of “meowing” tunes to get them in our heads and hearts. (Well, actually, you might hear a few meows in here…)

IMG_9291But even as much as I love being process-oriented, sometimes a little bit of celebration of product can be a nice thing too.

So here’s a roundup of our videos from the 2015 Kids Trad Camp at the Community Music School of Santa Cruz!

Music Videos

Concert – Full Orchestra

Concert – Instrumental Class Features

I’m so impressed with these kids – they had just two weeks to learn new tunes they’d never heard before.  Plus, while some teachers wrote out their arrangements, others modeled the process of trying out ideas in front of the group, and the kids had to remember those parts off the top of their heads. Some students had only been playing their instruments for a few months (or, in one case, only a few weeks).  Most of them come from schools that have cut their arts programs, so playing in a large ensemble was a special treat.  They went after their goals with a sense of excitement and joy, and it was beautiful to watch and be a part of.

A tip of the hat to guitar teacher Christopher Youmans for capturing and organizing so many videos of the concert!

More blog entries about Kid Camp to come…

When I think back on my K-12 years, I’d say that some of the most valuable educational experiences happened outside of school – and, more specifically, in community youth orchestras. Those weekly rehearsals added up to more learning and bonding than their scant 2 hours would suggest.

Almost twenty years later, I don’t know where most of my high school graduating class is, but my youth orchestra friends? We’re still in touch.

That’s part of why I was so enthusiastic when Shelley Phillips invited me to teach winds at the Community Music School of Santa Cruz’s Kids Trad Music Day Camp this year. This program is part of a tradition that stretches back over 20 years.


I’ve taught at (and written a series of eight blog entries about) their Teen Camp before. While that one’s a sleep-away camp for a full week, this one is a daytime experience that stretches out over two weeks. It’s especially designed for kids ages 7-13 who have at least 2 years of experience on their instrument, but in truth the Community Music School philosophy has a hard time saying no to someone who sincerely wants to learn, so we had a wide range of ability levels.

That’s okay, because the idea is that music is a fundamental way that human beings relate to each other, and so everybody has a part to play. The teachers are expected to be flexible enough to modify parts to meet the students’ needs. I worked with recorder students who were solidifying their grasp on basic fingerings, all the way up to flute students who were getting ready for their own youth orchestra auditions in the fall.

This meant our morning winds class conversations were delightfully all over the place. In one breath we’d celebrate the first time someone was able to hear chord changes and keep holding a long note under the melody. In the next breath, we’d talk about tone color and how a classical flutist might describe a traditional flute player’s tone as deep blue or dark purple.

In the afternoons, we had folk orchestra rehearsals: flutes, fiddles, harps, guitars, keyboards, cellos, and more. Our tunes included a march from Scotland, a waltz from Sweden, a reel from Cape Breton, and of course an epic medley from How to Train Your Dragon.

There was also plenty of time for play: swimming, playing on the swingset, and exploring the woods with friends. For crafts, fiddle teacher IMG_9085Deby Benton Grosjean had kids creating ingenious dragonfly clothespins to hold their music down in the light breeze that wafted through each day (I had more than one dangling off my backpack by the end of the camp, all gifts I was touched to receive from students).

The whole thing happened in a redwood grove up in the mountains, on a closed campus that literally has a castle in the middle of it (but more on that later). The space for imagination and creativity surrounded us and expanded in our hearts.

I don’t know what these students will remember twenty years from now, but if we’ve done our jobs right, they’ll be like the Kid Camp alumni who showed up everyday at lunch, nostalgic about visiting an important part of their own childhoods, and just so happy to connect with those who are carrying on that tradition, one dragonfly at a time.

A flute student recently brought in a cakewalk tune their school band is playing, and I sighed and thought, this is what happens when music gets divorced from its culture.

Look, as a flute teacher, I love the way that students’ eyes light up when they play music that’s meaningful to them. In my studio, I often invite them to bring in anything they like – because frankly, if Smells Like Teen Spirit inspires a Nirvana fan to stick with some of the daily work of building fundamental technique, I say, here I am now. Let’s entertain ourselves…

I guess something similar is what motivated band method book authors to start putting all kinds of supposedly culturally relevant melodies in their texts. Sometimes the plan works. But often, I’m not really sure how much meaning most of these tunes have left for students today. Most of the books I see might have worked back in the 1950s; but without updates (and I recognize public domain limitations pose a challenge) it pretty much makes the standard band=dorky association a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now, I know lots of band (and orchestra) directors who run dynamic programs where they pick out music that taps into that teenage thriving on challenge and expression. I also see students’ reactions when they bring me yet another arrangement of songs from bands or musicals that haven’t been popular for decades – the kind of programming that makes a semblance of Appealing To The Young People without taking the risks that real relevance would require.

But that’s music that still has a connection to its context – melodies that can be meaningful either by being recognized or as an opportunity to open up a slightly bigger world. What I’m thinking about now are the little tunes that we couldn’t really place, but everyone seems to know.

You know, things like Camptown Races, Oh! Susanna, Polly Wolly Doodle, Jimmy Crack Corn, My Old Kentucky Home, Dixie, Arkansas Traveller… It turns out that a surprisingly high number of these – every single one I just listed, actually – are blackface songs from minstrel shows. IMG_7357Now, minstrel shows were something I didn’t learn about in high school history; if I heard the phrase, I probably would have associated it with some sort of charming Renaissance Faire scene. But the truth is that they’re part of an ugly racial history that we’ve tried to forget without necessarily working to expunge. If, like me, you need more information, educate yourself here (where Missourians like me will find Mark Twain’s quote particularly eye-catching) or perhaps here (brace yourself before clicking either of these). You might want to check out the related history of the cakewalk too.

So now we’re in a situation where our band books are littered with these tiny reminders of our un-reckoned-with past. And to what end? When you know their history, it’s hard to argue that these melodies are culturally relevant, or that teaching them offers an opportunity to broaden students’ knowledge.

And I get – and am thankful to get – students who initially start private lessons to raise their band grade. I try to transition them to a broader set of goals eventually, but at first, we’ve got to solidify those lines that turn into playing quizzes.

So I find myself coaching them through Swanee River (the title itself a slight update of its original, Swanee Ribber, and all of it a mocking corruption of Suwannee River) while reassuring myself that what we’re really doing is learning proper breath support and the intricacies of fingering patterns, and surely it can’t hurt them when they don’t know the history of what they’re playing. It’s not like we’re playing Jump Jim Crow itself, after all. Right? (…right?)

But in the back of my mind, I’m teasing out a vague memory of the time my high school English teacher had me play the Horst-Wessel-Lied, otherwise known as basically Hitler’s national anthem, in class. I think it was during a unit on Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum; he put the sheet music in front of me and I obliged. It’s a shameful memory, really, because I knew full well what I was playing. But I did it because A Teacher Told Me To and maybe I could win his approval by showing how accurately I could sightread. (Like I said, shameful.)

As far as difficult-but-valuable lessons about collusion and oneself go, I suppose I did eventually take away some insight. But I don’t think that was his intended lesson plan, and I’m sure other powerful implicit messages were sent to the other students in the room that day.

Here’s what I see as the similar-yet-different aspects of these stories: as far as I can tell, the minstrel songs in school music programs are unconsciously present. That’s a far cry from my English teacher’s conscious decision to bring a Nazi anthem into his classroom.

But it’s possible the received messages might be similar.

Because, look, I’m not saying that the band directors or method book authors are doing any of this on purpose. What’s going on here isn’t intentional but inherited.

But I really wish we’d value the history of and meaning of the music we play a little bit more, because surely then we could agree it’s worth questioning the wisdom of teaching minstrel songs to middle schoolers.

One of the things I like about arts integration is that engaging with an art form often lets us jump to much more advanced questions than we might be able to by staying within a discipline.  As Math in Your Feet creator Malke Rosenfeld puts it, using dance lets your body think through problems more in the way that mathematicians do: using ideas to answer questions that we don’t have answers for yet.

So you can believe that I jumped at the chance to guest lecture in an arts integration class at a neighboring university.  (My friend who teaches in the education program there was singing at Carnegie Hall with the symphony chorus, which I suppose counts as an excused absence.)

I also happen to be taking a class focused on research and issues in teacher education this semester (which I explain to non-education friends as “You know how they say those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach? Well, those of us who are completely clueless try to teach teachers” – my friends laugh, though I don’t know what my professor would say about this – it’s never been my favorite expression either, obviously…).

Anyway. One of the things we’ve learned is that teacher certification programs often require so many methods classes and observation hours that there isn’t time left for one’s own intellectual exploration.  In other words, my elementary social studies methods students get a chance to reflect on how kids understand history, but they probably won’t get to take a university-level history class where they get to debate ideas with classmates and delve into research on their own.

It’s not fair. And it’s ironic – you spend so much time trying to learn how to light a fire in your future students that you don’t often get to nurture that flame in yourself. One of the sacrifices of being a teacher, right?

So I tried to right that wrong, just a little bit, by first giving these future teachers an experience of art and music for themselves as adults, without making them jump to “but how will I use this in my future classroom?” (Don’t worry – we’d circle back to that question at the end of class.)

For art, I drew on my museum background (and a friend’s research) to lead a discussion about Richard Serra’s Rosa Parks – something which took on new significance given our position in post-Ferguson Saint Louis.


For music, I turned to the recently released album The Elizabethan Session. If you haven’t heard of this, go check it out – essentially, a rather eminent group of English folksingers listened to a talk about the Elizabethan era from historian Ian Mortimer and then spent the week writing songs that would form that Saturday night’s concert program.

I loved the daring nature of the project. And then I heard the first track, The Shores of Hispaniola, and was hooked. A contemporary folksong written from the perspective of an African woman whose husband was enslaved in Haiti, calling out the hypocrisy of Empire and Church alike while taking on Queen herself? You’ve gotten my attention.

So in this methods class I gave the students copies of the lyrics and a set of discussion questions to mark up while they watched the YouTube video. Here’s what my sheet looked like:


Our discussion sprung off the questions I had prepared (see the sheet above). Turning our attention to a musical analysis, we talked about the way the music built the emotion of the song and how the rolling beat evoked a nautical effect.

At one point, we took a break to google unfamiliar terms: Gloriana, Albion, Hispaniola, privateer… Realizing that our sense of this period was probably more informed by Pirates of the Caribbean than actual history, we also looked up information on colonialism and Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.  (Then, even though it’s not in the song, I couldn’t help but draw their attention to what would happen in Hispaniola about 200 years down the road.)

We analyzed the lyrics to connect these concepts, noting the use of sarcasm in “pious and holy” in the verse that refers to the Church of England.  With our attention on language, we started asking if the “light:dark” “good:bad” (and, returning to Serra’s artwork, “white:black”) binaries were really the best metaphor given the topic at hand. As we started to consider the role of emotion, we discovered our own connections with race and identity woven throughout the whole thing.

In other words, we started asking the questions that you can’t google, the ones we don’t have answers for yet.

Here’s the one I’m still working with: given the choice to write the song in the first person from an African woman’s perspective, there’s a point to be raised about voice – what philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff has called “the problem of speaking for others.”

Now, as a folk musician, I love the way our tradition has often spoken truth to power.  In truth, some of the best social justice critiques I know are embedded in songs.

But as a history educator, I know that there are major questions about whose voice gets recorded and heard through the ages. We value some voices and sometimes want to speak for others. That’s a fair question here.

For the moment, though, I’m noting that the scatted “revisionist history!” critiques I’ve seen online suggest that this song might be speaking to just the audience that needs to hear it. (Which, hey, includes me!) And there’s a lot to say about the history of British abolitionism too…

Music. History. They both ask us to shake our desire for right answers and start becoming comfortable with ambiguity – and ourselves.

It’s the perfect jumping-off point for talking about questions of who we were, who we are, and who we might want to become.  And I got to do it with members of the next generation of teachers, who will serve generations of students yet unborn.

Like I said, I may be “completely clueless” – but even I know that this?

This is the kind of practice you only miss to perform at Carnegie Hall.

Calling all adults who have tried to learn to play Irish traditional music and feel like they haven’t (yet) been successful!

I’m interested in your experiences and insights.


So one of the things I love about playing Irish traditional music is the way it opens up a whole community of people at various stages of learning.

I also know a lot of adults who have gotten really, really frustrated while trying to learn to play an instrument associated with Irish traditional music.  I hear about how teachers don’t know how to communicate what they know, how maybe you can only learn when you’re a child or if you grow up in the tradition.

As an educator, this pains me – I want this wonderful world to open up to everyone who loves the music.

I’m also a full-time student and taking a research class where I needed to create a survey.  So I thought about all this and thought, we need to listen to adults who have been frustrated and find out what YOU have to say.

So, if this describes you, please click here to take the survey and share your thoughts.

A note: this isn’t for philosophical “the tradition is so huge that you can never be perfectly successful” kinds of frustration (even though I agree with that).  This is for “I wanted to learn this, but I couldn’t get the skills and the world remained closed to me” kind of frustration – you know, when you might give up entirely.  (And yes, if you’ve “given up,” I want to hear from you too!)

A disclaimer: this hasn’t been approved by an institutional review board and isn’t for an official, academic publication.  This is me as a blogger and someone who’s interested in learning from others.  In that spirit, though, I will share results on this blog (just give me some time to do the analysis and write it up).  Who knows?  This survey might generate a few insights that will help with a learning breakthrough and a way out of the frustration.

Questions about the project?  Write a comment below!  I’ll respond as quickly as I’m able.

And here’s the official introduction to the survey:

This survey is for adults who have attempted to learn to play an instrument associated with Irish traditional music and feel they were not successful.

By conducting this research, we hope to learn about the factors that influenced your learning experience. The hope is that this greater understanding might help in bringing about a better experience, and better results, in the future.

We anticipate that the survey will take 10-15 minutes to complete. Your responses will remain anonymous.

Thank you for your participation!

If you found this entry after reading my February 2014 article in Flute Talk magazine (“Breathing New Life into an Old Flute”), welcome!  If you Googled your way to my blog, you’re probably the kind of person who appreciates lots of web links.  In that spirit, here’s an entry just for you. –Lisa Gilbert


If you’d like to see examples of the kind of playing I’m talking about…

My article mentions that the ‘simple system’ wooden flute is being used these days to play traditional music of many kinds.  There are so many great CDs out there that it’s hard to know where to start – but here are some YouTube links to break the ice:

Anything by French player Sylvain Barou is guaranteed to be boundary-crossing and mind-blowing.

Chris Norman (flute) and David Greenberg (fiddle) bring artistry to everything from Scots Baroque to showing terrific Telemann isn’t limited to traverso (and check out how they go through the first repeat sign in the video I’ve linked to here!).

Speaking of Scottish, flutist Calum Stewart has been releasing some inspiring albums over the past few years.

Check out the incomparable Adrianne Greenbaum for her demonstration that the flute is a Klezmer instrument, too.

There’s a reason Jean-Michel Veillon is a legend of Breton music.

I’m enthralled by the recent “Traditional Flute Music from Sweden” album released by Andreas Ralsgard and Markus Tullberg.

There are countless Irish players I could point you toward, but let’s just say that if you start with Emer Mayock, you won’t be disappointed.

Quebecois fluteux Alexandre de Grosbois-Garand spreads some deceptively simple, sweet playing across multiple songs and sets in his work with the band Genticorum.

This is just a start, of course; the exciting thing is that a whole world is ready to open up to you when you start this exploration!

If you’d like to meet some great flute makers…

I own flutes made by George Ormiston and Peter Noy; they both do painstaking work that satisfies finicky players (like me, and probably like you too).  Forbes and Yola Christie of Windward Flutes are exceptionally kind people and make lovely instruments – in fact, the picture at the top of the Flute Talk article comes from them.  Chris Norman has been making a wide range of flutes; it’d be great to talk to him about this when you register to attend the Boxwood Festival this summer or next.  And if you don’t mind a long waiting list as long as it’s got great treasure at the end of it, get in touch with Patrick Olwell.  This is not anything like a comprehensive list (and there are lots more makers out there doing great work), but these are people I know and whose instruments I respect.

If you’re getting ready for attending your first traditional Irish session…

As I mentioned in my article, connecting with the community is just essential.  As you take these first steps, knowing how to make a good first impression is crucial.  Here’s a typical guide to session etiquette, and if you appreciate super-frank advice, you might also want to check out a post I wrote awhile back that put everything out there.  (Just please, don’t let that intimidate you or stop you from heading out to the pub!)  Once you’ve found your sea legs, check out this book for the kind of good laugh that comes from a moment of recognition.

If you’d like to spend part of your summer exploring traditional music…

I count the Boxwood Festival and Workshop as being among the best in potentially life-changing music programs out there.  Go once and you’re likely to find yourself adding it to every calendar you own for a decade to come.

I’m told (by people I trust) that New Harmony Music Festival and School is an affirming and inspiring space.

There’s any number of weekends throughout the year, too; check out the midwestern Tionol in my hometown of Saint Louis, Missouri for a bevy of workshops and a flurry of sessions.

Again, there are so many options we could fill an entire blog with them, but these are ones I can personally vouch for.  Readers who know about additional opportunities, please leave comments below!

If you’d like to read more about the history of the flute…

Robert Bigio’s flute pages are extensive and fascinating.  If you’re feeling academic – which, being a grad student these days, I understand – I highly recommend Ardal Powell’s 2002 book The Flute, which avoids the “progress” narrative that’s so common when tracing the evolution of the instrument (I’m always amazed at the strong, negative opinions some writers have regarding flutes they’ve never tried, or even heard played).  Instead, Powell explains how the flute changes in response to changing musical needs – for example, for example, the silver flute comes about following the Industrial Revolution, when our lives got a lot louder with background noise and electricity and traffic…


And there you have it – plenty of traditional flute links for your clicking-around-the-net pleasure.  Happy explorations, and I hope I’ll meet you someday at a festival or session!