The Storm before the Calm
Preparing for the First Day of Classes
By NAfME Member Joseph Rutkowski
September will mark my 42nd year of teaching music, my 34th year teaching high school orchestra and band, my 27th year teaching at the John L. Miller-Great Neck North High School. I can’t wait for the down beat in each of my 5 classes on Friday, September 1st!
The summers are always packed with stress about finding time to enjoy freedom—to do my own practicing and rehearsing and performing with other professional musicians . . . and yes, I do go away on a vacation with my family—while making sure I have everything in place for my students for September. My mission is to play music and not talk (of course . . . I’m always going to do way too much talking every day, but all this summer prep hopefully means I will be talking less than otherwise).
To prepare for the first day, I plan ahead to:
- Have the students know where to sit
- Have an annual “contract” to sign so they know what is expected (including not just the rules, but also all the dates for which they are responsible and voluntary opportunities as well, because keeping the music program visible to the community helps to ensure they don’t make arbitrary cuts)
- Have all the music we need for the first month of school in students’ folders, which are properly and readily identified
- Have the school instruments in working condition and knowing the location and the combinations of the locks to get them within two minutes OR knowing what equipment they need to play (reeds, mouthpieces, mallet pouches, valve and slide oil, swabs, rosin, etc.).
This means the chances are better that on the second day of classes, the orchestra (after the 15-minute review of the warm-up—or for the 9th grade orchestra, introduction of the warm-up) will read through the first movement of Beethoven Symphony No. 1, and the band (after the warm-up or intro) will read through the first movement of Vaughan Williams English Folksong Suite.
(Refer back to my blog with a suggestion of how to get students to play through Beethoven’s nine and the staples of the wind ensemble/band repertoire.)
The First Day
The first day of classes for the orchestra and band is nothing but me talking about all of the above housekeeping needs and going over the “contract.” However, the chamber music class, which meets at 7:15am that first day of class (and also see me later in the day in the regular class) will know that they must bring their instruments, and we go down to the lobby with the chamber music packet* of wind and string serenades by Mozart, Dvorak, Mendelssohn and others. (See my blog about starting a chamber music class.)
The Chamber Music Class plays “Lobby Music” in the front lobby for all entering students, faculty, and staff at 7:30am. (I also pull out the Real Books and have them sight read tunes by Miles, Coltrane, Gershwin, Hefti, Mancini—it is quite hilarious to hear jazz on the oboe, bassoon, violin and viola and cello!) The chamber music class does this every Friday. It is amazing what it does for the visibility of the music program . . . especially when there are visitors who show up that early. (Also refer to my blog “Getting Students to Play Gigs Off Campus.”)
Also after school on the first day of classes, all music students are invited to the first Tri-M® meeting. The officers meet on the day before the first day of school, as summoned by an email from me a few weeks before in mid-August.
The Most Important Thing
On that first day, I have their “contract” on the music stand at each of the two door entrances. The students pick one up and find their friends and sit with them in the seats that they know will not be the seats they will use starting the next day (the seating chart is on page 2 of the contract). Of course the 10th, 11th, and 12th graders know each other well, and it’s lovely to see the little cliques.
Violists are especially a close-knit group; the sophisticated violinists, the big boned cellists and the bigger boned bassists; the loud brass players (the trombonists are usually quieter); the cool drummers (the drummers who still can’t read music are not so cool); the shy flutists and the outgoing flutists; the neurotic reed players; the never-can-tell-personalities of the saxophonists forming from 3 or 2 or 1 year of knowing each other in high school; as well as the 9th graders who are meeting for the first time in high school but have been together for at least 3 years in the middle school with the band/orchestra teacher who they know is my good friend. Matt Trinkwald shows them “Wild Man Joe” every year, so they know what to expect. They recall that I go down to the middle school once every year to spend time “guest teaching” during regents weeks in January and June.
I wait at the front of the room trying not to say one word aloud—I simply smile and nod . . . then as the loud roar makes a slow diminuendo, I wait for complete silence. After 15 or 20 seconds (it feels like an eternity), I blurt out, “WHAT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT THING?” And they say “Downbeat,” to which I reply, “What’s the next most important thing?” “Posture!”, to which I reply, “Let me see the musicians in the room,” and they all sit up straight. Once I go through my opening day speech, it gets a little boring . . . but I never plan on having them play that day because it would be too messy. Everyone knows that the next day is—I always hope and pray—all business.
Down to Business
Okay, so what is the business of preparation for the momentous day?
First of all, let’s review what was already done before June 30th:
- filed music and papers
- inspected instruments and equipment
- prepared lists of instruments for repair
- scheduled the pick-up for repair
- wrote up the inventory
- inspected supplies that I ordered 1 1/2 years ago that arrived 6 months ago
- prepared the band room for the custodians
- checked on instruments out on loan to students for the summer
- prepared the purchase orders for sheet music, method books, new instruments, new equipment and supplies that I put on the budget request I prepared last October, submitted in November, revised in January after making the cuts administration required
- prepared my seating assignments with the class lists for next year
- prepared next year’s calendar and memos to athletic directors, transportation personnel, and administrators in the other schools
- pulled out scores and parts for September
- took one plant home for watering
As long as that is all done, and the music room is clean and neat, the heavy work begins a week before school starts for the other teachers:
- setting up the room chairs and music stands for the students
- checking in the repaired instruments and equipment
- copying memos and handbooks
- making up those reports and nominations for all-state, all-county
- checking on instruments that were out on loan for the summer
- posting new items on the bulletin board
- putting labels on the music folios
- checking in new music
- tuning the string instruments after a long summer
- peeking into the over-stuffed mailbox
(Both checklists are from: “Are You Burning Out?” by Joseph Rutkowski, SBO, September 2007, pp. 38-42—an article focusing on the what causes burnout in music educators and how to re-kindle the flame.)
These are chores that can be daunting as the summer comes to an end.
So once this is all in place, the play begins, that is the playing begins.
The Best Room in the House
Of course, there will always be diversions and distractions. Some students will show up late to class, talk during the rehearsal. Parents and teachers will register complaints. Fire drills will kill the momentum of a great rehearsal the day before the concert. The students will lose their music. They’ll make excuses that they couldn’t practice for the past six months. You’ll find out that your concertmaster must drop band because he is failing two “academic” classes that he needs to take a special lab to pass. The administration will change the date of the winter concert because a special Sport Night Awards Ceremony after the football team won the championship is now scheduled. Instruments will fall apart. Someone’s lunch will start to stink up a locker after it was hidden for six weeks and attract ants and maggots.
But it’s all good, because your students know that your room—the rehearsal hall—is the only one that they can count on having everything in place for them to blow their horns, bang on their drum heads, and draw their bows across the cat gut strings creating sounds that will stir the intellect and emotions of all who listen outside in the hallway or parking lot.
It’s the best room in the house.
*Chamber Music Packet includes:
- Mozart’s Serenade No. 12 in C minor, K. 388 for pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns (or String Quintet , K. 406 for 2 vln, 2 vla, cello).
- Dvorak’s Serenade in D minor, Op. 44. Add a third horn part in B flat, contrabassoon, cello and contrabass
- Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K 525.
- Gounod’s Petite Symphonie features a real flute part.
- Alan Hovhaness composed his Divertiment, Op. 61 No. 5, for 3 clarinets and bass clarinet,as well as a woodwind quartet: oboe, clarinet, bassoon and french horn.
- Beethoven’s Octet in E flat, Op. 103 is another traditional woodwind octet.
- Haydn’s London Trios for 2 flutes and cello is also available in a transcription by Louis Moyse for flute and oboe or clarinet and viola or bassoon (Southern Music Company).
- Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings in E flat, Op. 20 is for double string quartet.
- Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments (1923)
- Beethoven’s Septet in E flat, Op. 20 is for violin, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, bassoon, horn.
- Walter Murphy’s A Fifth of Beethoven, is arranged for a wind trio and transposed for the entire ensemble
- The Beatle’s Yesterday is arranged for a wind trio and transposed for the entire ensemble
- Gershwin’s Summertime is arranged for a wind trio and transposed for the entire ensemble
- Led Zepplin’s Stairway to Heaven is arranged for a wind trio and transposed for the entire ensemble
- Scott Joplin’s Sunflower Slow Drag is arranged for a wind trio and transposed for the entire ensemble
About the author:
NAfME member Joseph Rutkowski has taught band and orchestra classes at the John L. Miller-Great Neck North High School on Long Island since 1991 and was the orchestra director at Stuyvesant High School in NYC for the eight years prior. He continues to perform as a concert clarinetist in orchestras and chamber ensembles, as well as a jazz pianist with his sons and former students. Joseph is a two-time Presidential Scholar Teacher, a Distinguished Teacher of the Harvard Club of Long Island, the 2015 Long Island Music Hall of Fame Educator of Note, and a three-time GRAMMY Music Educator AwardTM Quarterfinalist. Check out the John L. Miller – Great Neck North High School music program website.
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