Off the Podium Tips Archives - SmartMusic Tue, 26 Apr 2022 16:02:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Off the Podium Tips Archives - SmartMusic 32 32 Tips for Recording Various Instruments in SmartMusic Tue, 26 Apr 2022 16:02:33 +0000 Part of pointing your students toward success in SmartMusic is ensuring that they’re set up to take the best recording […]

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Part of pointing your students toward success in SmartMusic is ensuring that they’re set up to take the best recording of their performances, thus receiving the most accurate assessments. Taking into consideration a wide range in the quality of built-in and external microphones, combined with a wide range of instrument frequencies, recording isn’t a one-size-fits-all-instruments effort. Here are some tips for helping your students improve their recordings in SmartMusic.

General Recording Tips

  • All users should begin by standing one arm’s length away from their device.
  • It’s important to remember that the quality of the microphone that the manufacturer built into the device will impact how well a recording is assessed. Try these steps to set up your environment for a great recording: Setting up to record

Woodwinds (Excluding Saxophone)

  • Students playing these instruments should experiment with standing a bit closer to their device so they are picked up accurately by the microphone.

Brass & Saxophone

  • Students playing these instruments should experiment with standing a bit farther from their device and/or turning 30° to 45° away from the device, thus enabling the student to still read the music while not overwhelming the microphone.

Non-Pitched Percussion Instruments (Excluding Drum Pads)

  • Students playing these instruments should experiment with standing a bit farther from their device and/or turning 30° to 45° away from the device, thus enabling the student to still read the music while not overwhelming the microphone.
  • Users playing a snare drum should turn off the snares. Leaving them on will confuse SmartMusic’s assessment.

Drum Pads & Pitched Percussion

  • Students should experiment with standing a bit closer to their device with these instruments so that they are picked up accurately by the microphone.


  • Vocalists should experiment with standing a bit closer to their device so they are picked up accurately by the mic.


  • Students should experiment with standing a bit closer to their device with these instruments so that they are picked up accurately by the microphone.

Low-Register Instruments (Upright Bass, Low Brass, etc.)

  • Students playing a low register instrument may need to experiment with distance from their device in both directions depending on the room and the volume at which the student is playing.

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Breathe New Life Into Your Music Ensemble Thu, 17 Mar 2022 11:00:25 +0000 Has your music program been feeling a bit stagnant lately? Do your students need an infusion of energy and motivation? […]

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Has your music program been feeling a bit stagnant lately? Do your students need an infusion of energy and motivation? Then breathe new life into your ensembles with the practice of mindfulness. It will do wonders for you and your students. Your students will come to love the centering and calming effects of the various relaxing breaths, and you will find that every aspect of your rehearsal elevates—focus, engagement, classroom management, motivation, and a sense of togetherness. “When we breathe together, we come in together” is a common saying among directors when we want to align musical entrances. I have also found that groups that breathe together listen more deeply, connect, and create community together. 

When your ensemble mindfully breathes together, it aligns all the musicians psychologically and physiologically. Breathing together in sync helps to create the sense of community, connectedness, and unity that is essential for a successful music ensemble. Just as mindful breathing serves our well-being, mindful breathing builds trust in ensembles and will help students decompress and feel better. Don’t be surprised when they start asking you to include more mindful breathing in your rehearsals and music classes! 

Gratitude Breath

By including a gratitude breath at the beginning and/or end of each rehearsal, we can cultivate a habit of gratitude. Ask your students to think of someone or something that they appreciate. It might be a pet, a friend, a family member, their instrument, music, or a memory. Breathe in your nose for four counts while focusing on what you are grateful for and exhale any stress, anxiety, or toxic negativity out your mouth for eight counts. Just release and let it go. It works well to repeat this three times. You may find that it will boost the mood of the players to ask for volunteers to share out what brings them gratitude. 

Focus Breath

Instead of asking students to stop talking during rehearsal, lead them through the focus breath, breathing in the nose for 4 counts and out the nose for 4 counts for three or four times in a row. This breath will center, calm, and focus your students, and the bonus is that it is impossible to talk when you are breathing through your nose! This is a great way to refocus students in a positive way, to direct them to where you want them to be, fully present and ready to make music, as opposed to focusing elsewhere. When we ask students to “stop talking,” it can create a confrontational rather than collaborative climate. Of course, there are times when it just needs to be said, but I believe that, in the end, you and your students will instead prefer engaging with the focus breath for a few moments. I use the focus breath at the beginning of rehearsal as needed to heighten awareness in the rehearsal and after transitions prior to working on another piece or retuning the group. 

Beginning a rehearsal with mindful breathing and a focus on gratitude primes the mind for its optimal state for learning, collaborating, creating, and music making. Incorporating mindful practices elevates self-awareness and allows us to fully tap into our feelings and emotions to then fully express meaning through our instruments. Directing our bodies to breathe deeply and our minds to focus on gratitude also calms nerves and anxiety, setting us up to be fully in the moment musically. When we are stressed and our heart rate is elevated, our breathing gets tight, shallow, and pinched off. But when we are calm, our breathing is relaxed and flows, which is optimal for producing a beautiful tone and phrasing. 

Confronting Performance Anxiety

Through daily mindful conditioning, we are also teaching our students life-long skills for managing, coping with, and avoiding performance anxiety. They will be able to transform nervousness to a calm, focused intensity. Taking a mindful, focused breath as an ensemble before playing a challenging piece at a concert is a great way to prepare students for a high-level performance. We spend so much time on the technique of “getting the music right,” yet we should also spend time on developing habits that will heighten our performance from the inside out. 

You can empower your students to lead the ensemble through mindful breathing practices to increase ownership and buy-in. Older students can also mentor younger students on these breathing habits and techniques. Developing breathing habits specific to developing great tone and air support serves an equally important purpose as mindful breathing techniques that help center the mind, heighten awareness, and relax the nerves.

This article originated from an edited excerpt in Upbeat! Mindset, Mindfulness, and Leadership in Music Education and Beyond  by Dr. Matthew Arau, published by GIA Publications.

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Interview with Award-Winning Music Director, Arranger, and Composer Alex Lacamoire Fri, 17 Sep 2021 16:02:20 +0000 Alex Lacamoire is an award-winning music director, arranger, and composer. He is best known for his work on Broadway’s critically-acclaimed […]

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Alex Lacamoire is an award-winning music director, arranger, and composer. He is best known for his work on Broadway’s critically-acclaimed shows Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and In The Heights. Altogether, he has won three Tonys for Best Orchestrations, three Grammys for Best Musical Theater Album, an additional Grammy for producing The Greatest Showman soundtrack, and most recently, an Emmy for Outstanding Music Direction for his work in FX’s mini-series Fosse/Verdon. He was also the recipient of a first-of-its-kind Kennedy Center Honors for his contribution to Hamilton. Lacamoire and the Hamilton creative team were honored as the “trailblazing creators of a transformative work that defies category” — a distinction never before awarded by the arts institution. 

Lacamoire recently served as the Executive Music Producer for Warner Brothers’ film In The Heights. He is also the Music Supervisor on Sting and Kate Prince’s world premiering show Message In A Bottle and is the Music Supervisor and Orchestrator on Ross Golan’s new musical The Wrong Man. He is currently working as the Executive Music Producer on the upcoming Netflix film tick, tick…Boom! 

We sat down with Alex for the first time since 2016 to discuss his recent work, creative process, and upcoming productions.

It is often said that “Luck favors the prepared.” What were you doing at the time that led to being recommended to Lin-Manuel? What helped you be successful when first meeting him?

The friends that recommended me to Lin were friends that I had in Miami growing up. They were my Cuban friends who were into theater, friends who were talented, but they weren’t even at my high school. They were at another high school that I would moonlight at to play gigs. It was a production of Godspell. They knew me as a pianist, as someone who dabbled in guitar and drums and bass, and as someone who enjoyed to arrange and to create music for theater. 

In terms of what I was doing at the time that I met Lin, I was in New York working off- Broadway, and I think I had done Bat Boy off-Broadway. I was just starting to work on the show Wicked. So I was starting to really kind of get fluent in the scene in terms of my projects to work on and things to do. But I think what prepared me for meeting Lin was just basically everything up until the moment I met him. 

I often say every experience you have is what makes you the person that you are when you meet that moment when something changes. So every piano lesson I’ve ever had, every friend I’ve ever met, every musician I’ve jammed with, every class I’ve ever taken, whether it was a music class, or, a science class, whatever, it all shaped me in some way or form. I think the fact that I loved music, the fact that I had Cuban DNA (which counts for something, being able to intrinsically understand Latin music, even if I’m not an expert in it), and just being able to commune with Lin and being able to break into Spanish phrases, talking to my buddy, there was just a piece of myself, that was more than just being a musician. 

Also being a Cuban American, I think it would have been one thing if I had all the chops and all the training in the world, but if I didn’t get along with Lin, and with Tommy [Kail], and with Bill Sherman, all that stuff, it might have been a different story. So I think everything just kind of like builds you to be the person that you are until that opportunity comes knocking.

How did you get drawn into orchestration and arranging?

For me, it started just by this obsession with music and recreating music that I loved. At Berklee, I had a Korg 01/WFD that you could sequence on and build tracks. You could lay down a piano track on your keyboard, then pull up a drum patch and play drums along to the piano, then call up a guitar patch and play guitars along to the drums along to the piano that you just played, and so on and so forth. So I was obsessed with building tracks. I would try to recreate a Weather Report song on my keyboard, or for fun I would try to orchestrate “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George, in my free time, just out of sheer interest. Whether that was me transcribing a work that I liked, or whether that was me just kind of improvising and riffing on an instrument until finding something that I thought “worked.” 

I’m always listening to the drums in a song, even if I’m not really paying attention to them, they’re subconsciously sending signals to my brain, and they’re picking it up. I wanted to know because I felt like I needed to know how it all happened. It’s probably the same hobbyism as people who take apart watches and put them back together, or take apart cars and put them back together. They just love to know how they run, what makes them them. So that if you change the engine, it gives this kind of thing. It’s like me saying, “Well, if you use a Fender instead of a Gibson, what does that sound like?” Those kinds of sounds and intricacies all come from time and practice. But I think it truly just comes from the need to know how something is created.

We last spoke to you five years ago. Since then you’ve been prolific, including Vivo and In The Heights just this summer. In The Heights was the first project you worked on with Lin-Manuel before going on to work on Hamilton. Coming back to In The Heights years later, is there anything you wanted to radically change, cut, or update?

It’s very rare that you get to revisit a work that you have been a part of. Revivals happen often and it’s not always the same orchestrator that works the second time around on that project. But I felt really fortunate that with [In The] Heights the movie, that we got a chance to revisit these charts and revisit these songs. And I know that going into it, Bill Sherman, who was my co-executive music producer on the film, and I went in with some grand schemes about getting a different person to arrange all these horn charts, and doing this, doing that, thinking that it needed to be something different. 

But what we learned along the way is that our horn charts actually worked for this story, and that other professional horn arrangers thought our horn charts were great. We went in with a lot of self doubt, thinking “Hey, we were young, we weren’t really quite versed enough in Latin music, we were kind of figuring out as we go.” I think there was something about the feeling of us looking back then that we weren’t quite up to the level back then, or we weren’t legitimate enough.

But by the encouragement of a lot of people who knew the music and loved the music and thought that what we did back then still worked, we wound up kind of keeping a lot of our original horn lines, but instead just magnified them. If it was six horns on Broadway, it’s nine in the movie. If a passage was played on pads in the pit, we’re going to orchestrate that for a symphonic section for a Hollywood string section. It was a great chance for us to expand upon the basic ideas that we set forth in 2008. 

We could get more specific about certain things. If we needed to bring in a guitarist who specializes in bachata to play these eight bars, we got that guitarist. Instead of finding one person who could play all these styles, we found a person who’s an expert in a style and had them be beyond excellent. So it was just our way of really fine tuning and going that extra mile. 

My cohort Bill Sherman’s big phrase was “How do we make this sound like Heights 2.0?” And that’s really what it was. So we got a great producer, Mike Elizondo, to help us with the beats, and we got an amazing mixer, Greg Wells, to help us form these ideas. We wanted to go there and get the best players and get the best sounds.

In The Heights is an incredibly diverse mix of Hip-Hop, Salsa, Merengue, Soul and more. In the past, you’ve credited Rush and Billy Joel as influences for you, and you’ve mentioned some Stevie Wonder. How did these play into In The Heights? What other artists, particularly on the Salsa and Merengue-side influenced the arrangements and orchestrations?

All of your influences make you who you are. So when I think about Rush, I think about the way they make three pieces sound like a huge orchestra. The way three musicians focus that way, with a bass doing something different from the guitar doing something different from the drums. The way they communicate with each other is something I’m always thinking about when I’m orchestrating for a rhythm section. 

With Billy Joel it’s about the storytelling in a song. It’s about the feeling of a song. It’s about piano passages and the way to treat the piano, like an orchestral instrument. I learned that very much from him. 

From Stevie Wonder, it’s about all the soul and R&B flavors that go into songs. If I want to bring in a Wurlitzer, if I want to bring in some Rhodes, if I want to bring in these kinds of voicings and these kinds of fills, bass fills, drum fills, whatever, that all just goes into the hopper and what comes out is kind of what ever I’ve listened to without me even thinking about it. 

I’m not going to sit down and say, “Okay, I want this to sound like a Stevie Wonder thing, so therefore, what can it be?” It’s more like, “Oh, this reminds me of something. This feels right, this feels organic.” And then I’ll realize after the fact, “Oh, that’s probably because of this Stevie Wonder song out there, this Rush song.” So that all just comes out the way it comes out. 

When I’m orchestrating in a particular style, I’ll go and listen to as much of that music as possible to try to really understand how those records are made and produced. So when I’m working on Bring It On and I need to listen to pop music, I’ll do a steady diet of Katy Perry and Britney Spears and get that happening. And if it’s for In The Heights, I’m going to listen to Juan Rivera, I’m going to listen to Grupo Niche. I’ll listen to the styles just to kind of get in the mood, to remind myself “This is how this all can sound and function.”

You’ve mentioned to never be shy of iteration;”Draft and draft and draft.” How do you know when an idea is ready? 

I think it’s just a feeling. There’s no other way to describe it, other than something just clicks and something feels right, and you think to yourself, “I can’t do any better.” And you might say that in 2008, and then in 2012, you revisit it again, and you feel like you can do better. And another idea comes, and that’s fine. But I think there’s a certain feeling that you have where, if I’m doing an arrangement and I get to a certain passage, I’ll think, “That just doesn’t feel right.” It doesn’t either feel natural or it doesn’t feel organic, or I just don’t love it. And then I try to keep working until I absolutely love it. If nothing pulls my ear, if nothing bumps me, then I know it’s about as right as I can make it at that moment. 

There’s a saying “Done is better than perfect.” I try not to ascribe to that. I try to make it perfect if I can, because for me, done is not enough. I want to love it. I want to feel like I’ve done everything possible. I want to feel like I’ve moved mountains to uncover something at the surface. Something that feels like this is the truest expression or the firmest expression. Sometimes that’s an obsession, sometimes it’s in this futile search for perfectionism, but all I can say is that I know when I feel like I’m done with an idea, and that is different for every other person.

It’s great when you find partners in that. It’s nice when you have a collaborator who will say “Yeah, you’re right, that’s not quite done.” And you agree. Because it’s much harder when you say, “Hey, this is perfect.” And they say “I’m not feeling it.” That’s harder. I contend that that’s the challenge. Then it becomes, “Okay, then what can I come up with that I love, and that they will also dig or love as well”, and you keep searching and keep finding something, and then you’ll find the truth in there somewhere.

Moving over to Vivo, I know this is a project that is pretty personal, and the story and music are fantastic. What was it like to step into a composition role?

It was scary, challenging, and ultimately, really gratifying. I admit, I’m intimidated by the blank canvas a little bit. Because when you can go anywhere, where do you start? And it’s sometimes hard to just come up with an idea out of nothing. Arranging feels different, because that is taking someone else’s composition and working from that. But as a composer, it gets to be a little scary. 

When they make drafts of the movie, they will often use temporary music called temp music that can be from other movies or from libraries. Sometimes the temp music is so darn good, that you’re like, “Oh, my God, how am I gonna top this?” Sometimes the most beautiful piece of music is used and it’s akin to saying, “We used Beethoven’s Ninth through this thing. So you just write Beethoven’s Ninth.” Like are you kidding me? It’s not that easy. So sometimes I get a little daunted by it. But I find that as long as you try to serve the story, try to serve the movie, and try to stay out of the way as much as you can, musically-speaking, to let the visuals really take center stage, the more you try to just tap into the emotion of the story, then you’ll find the music out of that. 

It just helps when you have people around you that are on the same page as you. For Vivo, I was very lucky that the director and I just saw eye-to-eye musically-speaking. I would turn in my demos, and they would get approved on the first round, which is rare because I’ve been on projects where you turn in round after round after round, and it doesn’t quite hit the bull’s eye for what the director has in mind. So it just helped that what I was putting out, they were feeling. And that made it much easier for me for sure.

You mentioned a little bit about the blank canvas. How do you get past that? Do you have any techniques to sort of break that block or get past a blank canvas?

I think it’s good to take breaks if you can. To just step away from the computer, take a walk. I find a lot of ideas for me just kind of happen if I’m just walking down the street, or if I’m singing to myself in the shower. When you kind of get out of your way and just let things come to the surface that helps. For other people, it’s the opposite. You just continue to work and you log your ideas. And maybe you try twenty-five ideas that you don’t like, but maybe you go back and revisit idea number thirteen, and you say, “Oh, that wasn’t as bad as I thought.” Or “Maybe it could go further this way.” I think you’ve got to just go. You just have to write and produce and just kind of make something. Then with that comes the practice, you strengthen the muscle, and then it becomes easier to generate and to create. But for me, I just throw my hands up and hope that the universe will provide an idea, hope that something will come. You kind of gotta just go for it.

And the last thing that helped is the feedback. Even composing four measures of something and having someone tell you right away, “I’m feeling this” or “I’m not,” then you can keep going and write the other thirty-two measures or abandon ship right away. Sometimes you get in your own head. You’ll spend four hours working on something where in the first five minutes, if you had someone tell you “This is the right direction,” or no, or “Hey, I like that, keep going,” then that’s all the fuel you need. Getting real-time feedback, particularly if you’re trying to compose for situations, that’s always helpful. 

Like a movie, let’s say for example, you have a big action sequence, and it’s two and a half minutes long. If you’re not sure that you’re going on the right path, compose thirty seconds and show it to the director. And if he says, “This is great,” then you’ve got all the insurance and assurance you need to keep going and not feel like you’re wasting your time or banging your head against the wall.

If you can nail it down, do you have an experience that you can think of what you’ve learned the most from?

I tell this story often, so if anyone has heard me say this before, forgive me. When I was working on the show Wicked, we had a dance arranger working on the show named Jim Abbott. There was a piece of music that he brought in that he had been working on the night prior, printed it out, worked on it. It was a complex, complicated piece of music, and the composer of Wicked, Stephen Schwartz, heard the arrangement, and he didn’t think it was the right direction to go in. And I remember thinking to myself, “Oh man, Jim has spent hours properly crafting this thing, he made a whole chart for it, he did this thing.” And I know that I was projecting how I would have felt if I had heard this news. I would have felt like it was some kind of insult, or feel like, “Oh my God, am I a bad composer, am I a bad arranger?” But instead of getting any kind of drama whatsoever, Jim basically shrugged his shoulders and said, “Okay, what else can we try?” There was no ego. He wasn’t precious about what he created. He didn’t say, “Oh man,” there was none of that whatsoever. He just said, “Alright, cool, what else can we try, let’s just try something else.” And he was so game to try something else, and did not care about this thing that he worked on. It was an idea that he was proud of, but it wasn’t right for the moment. That doesn’t mean it was a bad piece of music. It didn’t mean that he was a bad arranger or a bad creator, it just meant what he was feeling at that time was not what Schwartz wanted it to be. 

So what I learned from that was that you have to be cool to step aside when you’re an arranger, because you’re really serving a bigger thing, a bigger story, and you’re trying to fulfill the vision for someone else. At times, it can be about you, but a lot of the time, it’s not about you. So being able to make that space and to try not to be clever for clever’s sake. Sometimes the simplest idea is the right one, even if you don’t see it at the time. You have to leave yourself open for that kind of criticism and that kind of feedback. 

There are many times when a director or a composer will say, “That doesn’t quite do it for me.” And a composer and arranger will say, “Well, you have to hear orchestrated, this demo is me singing. You have to picture what I’m picturing.” Sometimes that is true, for sure. But a lot of times, they know what they’re listening to, they know what they’re responding to, and they can hear through the demo, or they can hear that what’s there is not quite it. You have to know when to really push your idea because you feel it’s right, versus you’re pushing it to be in idea because your ego is telling you that you have to be right about something.

You’ve mentioned that music direction is about trust. What’s the biggest risk you’ve had to take with a creative decision?

In music direction, I don’t know that deciding to cut off on “three” versus the “and of three” is like a big risk. That doesn’t feel like a lot is at stake. But I find that in music direction and in leadership, the big risks are personnel. Who you hire, who you have around you, and what to do if you brought someone along and it’s not quite working out. Because you take a risk by sometimes taking a chance on someone that you haven’t worked with before or maybe there’s somebody you have worked with before, and something goes awry, and it’s not quite a match. 

Sometimes you have to make that hard decision to move on. That’s a hard place to be in because a lot of that can go south. It could derail the production, it could damage your relationship, it could make you look like not a good person. You can get riddled with self-doubt thinking, “Oh, why did I do this? Is there a way it can be better?” I feel like those are the times when I know my job feels the hardest. When it’s about relationships, when it’s about people, when it’s about human beings and their feelings and their emotions and your relationships with them. That’s where it gets kind of scary. 

I would say musically speaking I don’t know that it feels risky to all of a sudden put a banjo in a hip hop song. That just happens, and people either dig it or they don’t.

There’s a lot of  young composers and writers and arrangers reading this. What would you say to these young folks that are interested in writing should work on every day?

The practice of writing, the practice of playing, and the practice of becoming familiar with your instrument and the harmony. The practice of listening so that you can get influenced takes work. It doesn’t really come out of the sky. You may be a completely gifted individual with photographic memory, who could sit at the piano and play everything in all 12 keys. That is amazing. But I still think it takes a little bit of work. I still think it takes some kind of drive to excel, and to push yourself to work really hard to achieve something. 

You know the saying “Luck is where opportunity and preparation meet.” I think it just takes a lot of work and a lot of love and a lot of drive and perseverance. This business of music is for the people who really truly love it. You make a pact with this intangible invisible force, that this is what I’m going to follow, this is what I’m going to search. You can’t grab it out of the air, it’s not tangible. When you put an idea down on paper it may be, but what comes back off the paper is again, intangible, and you can’t touch it. It’s an ephemeral, magical, mystical thing that we work in, so you have to really love it, to dedicate yourself to it. Love it, love it hard.

If you only have 10 minutes to practice, what do you do? 

I rarely sit at the piano to unwind. If I’m wanting to unwind, I’ll pick up a guitar or pick up a bass and play something. If I have a short amount of time, I try to play music that I love, music that I enjoy, music that makes me happy, something that I like to hear. I’m not at this place in my life where in those 10 minutes, I’ll spend trying to toil through something because I need to work something out. That was at a different time in my life when I played much more. Now that I’m writing much more, supervising much more, and producing much more, I’m a lot more behind the scenes. So it’s not as imperative that I keep my chops up, which is why they’re kind of dwindling as time goes on. I’m at the point now where whatever I need to improve is not gonna happen in 10 minutes. So I kind of take the path of least resistance, and just try to do something that makes me happy.

What do you wish you knew, if there was something, when you were first starting out?

People always say “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” And yet, it’s the small stuff that is what we do as arrangers, writers, and orchestrators. We’re all about the details. “Just keep going” is probably what I would tell my younger self. Like, “Hey, this is what you’re meant to do. Just keep going at it.” I don’t know if I ever felt like, “Oh, man, I’m not sure if this music thing is what’s right for me.” I knew I wanted to be a musician since I was four, maybe even two when I was listening to music as a young child. It was always what was for me. 

I don’t know that I knew that theater and film or any of this stuff was what I was going to be doing. I think I probably started off thinking I was going to be a performer and play keyboards for Billy Joel or Peter Gabriel or whomever. I learned along the way that there was something else that was out there in the universe. I would just have said, “Keep going.” It’s not a very deep answer only because I feel like I’ve had the greatest mentors. I’ve had the greatest parents to bring me up, I’ve had the greatest friends, the greatest teachers, and everything happened exactly right to kind of put me where I am today. And I don’t know that I would’ve changed any of it.

Is there anything you’d like to tell us about any future projects you have coming up anything you’d like people to be aware of?

This year I’ve been fortunate enough to have four movies come out.  In The Heights, Dear Evan Hansen movie (coming out soon), tick, tick… Boom (coming out soon), and Vivo. This has been a fun avenue to explore and to work in, and I’m grateful for these new opportunities that come along my way and new things to learn from and new experiences to have. I’m grateful for it all. 

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Deconstructing Hidden Beliefs and Implicit Bias Thu, 09 Sep 2021 11:00:04 +0000 When I was in elementary school my mother always made me lunch to take to school in a brown paper […]

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When I was in elementary school my mother always made me lunch to take to school in a brown paper bag. While all the other kids were on the lunch line getting chicken patties and pizza, I had homemade tuna or turkey sandwiches with a side of carrots and sometimes a small baked sweet potato—yes… you read that right… a baked potato… I was a weird kid. My mom even packed in a little note sometimes too, reminding me to have a great day. In looking around the cafeteria at other people’s lunches I noticed many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (which was something I never understood as a kid), lots of cookies, and I didn’t see any “have a good day” notes. I remember thinking, “Where was the protein? Why so much sugar? Didn’t their mom love them?”

At the ages 0-8 we see the world as if it’s through a video camera recording everything in our brains and making meaning of it. Meaning is particularly important here because developmentally, everything at that age is experienced in relation to self. In other words, your brain is always subconsciously asking, “What does this mean about me?” As we grow up, the lens in which we see the world is heavily tinted with what we’ve experienced during our earliest years which in turn influences our thoughts and actions. So yes, I have to admit, until I was an adult, I thought that kids who brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school for lunch had parents that didn’t love them. I laughed out loud at this realization when the thought occurred to me when I was, in fact, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for my own two children for school without notes because it was easy, and PBJ’s are delicious (and yes, I love my children very much).

But this is all good news! Your brain is AMAZING! Our “meaning-maker” helps us develop a sense of self! And, among many other incredible things, our brains are so efficient that it constantly takes large amounts of information and simplifies it, creating mental shortcuts. Imagine if we had to process all of the stimuli we experience all of the time—it’s exhausting just thinking about it. Your brain is FANTASTIC at its job, but it really doesn’t care if these shortcuts aren’t actually serving you. In simplifying information, there are sometimes flaws: dots are connected and stories are weaved that don’t necessarily reflect reality… yikes! In the words of neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor speaking about her own awakening to the inner workings of her own brain in her book, My Stroke of Insight, A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, “​​…there was both freedom and challenge for me in recognizing that our perception of the external world, and our relationship to it, is a product of our neurological circuitry. For all those years of my life, I really had been a figment of my own imagination!” 

So why does this matter for teachers and how can we work with the amazing biology of our brain? Well, at the risk of sounding cliche, you don’t see the world as it is; you see it as YOU are… which is your implicit bias. The trick is to determine the difference between what’s true for you and what is actually universal Truth. Most of the time what’s “true” for you is really just a reflection of you and your past lived experiences. Imagine implicit bias as a pair of invisible glasses; it’s your perspective. The Truth is that there are always more than two sides to every story—I’d argue there are as many sides to the story as there are people who have experienced the story! As a teacher this is super important to understand because of the great responsibility you have when you stand in the front of the room of young, impressionable students. Your bias will get in the way simply because you are you and you are not them. You must be aware and accept that you have implicit bias in the first place, and then understand how to respond when something challenges that bias (which will also definitely happen). Here are some ways to do that:

Mindfulness & Self-Awareness

Mindfulness is how we pay attention to some things and not to others. It’s about tuning into yourself and checking in with what you are experiencing in the moment as it is happening. When an implicit bias is challenged, there might be a physiological stress response that affects your nervous system. For example, you might sweat, your heart rate might increase, or you may even feel lightheaded. Breathing is one of the best ways to practice mindfulness and return your nervous system back into a state of calm. A box breath is a great tool to lock into a place of ease: breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 4, exhale for 4 and then hold for 4. It’s helpful to repeat that pattern three times so your nervous system can relax. When you are mindful, you become present and can be self-aware of what you are thinking, feeling, and what your body is responding to. Then, you can move on to getting curious about what you are noticing.

Noticing & Curiosity

If a student or colleague confronts you about a potential bias, you can either react or respond. Reaction usually involves your ego and a connection to what this interaction means about YOU (remember that sneaky meaning-maker?). You might be thinking, “If I’m wrong about this, then what does this mean about me?” But what would happen if you set your ego aside and actually listened? What if you took off your invisible implicit bias glasses for just a minute to hear another perspective. Then, being mindful and self-aware, become an objective observer of yourself. Instead of judgement, just notice. Ask yourself: How do I feel? What thoughts are causing me to feel this way? Is this thought that I am thinking true for me, or is it a universal Truth? Judgement and curiosity cannot exist in the same space so start to replace those judgy feelings with a sense of exploration and start to ask those questions. Only then can you be open to changing the prescription on those implicit bias lenses.

Grace & Kindness 

Here’s the thing… you’re not perfect. But don’t worry, because nobody is. When you meet the world with an open mind and open heart, your ego takes a back seat and you get to learn. We are all always learning, and that’s pretty cool! When you take a misstep, put your foot in your mouth, or blunder in front of your class, meet yourself (and others) with kindness. When we know better, we do better, so let’s extend grace to yourself and others with an intention of learning… and perhaps a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

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3 Things I Learned From My Most Gifted Students Tue, 24 Aug 2021 18:03:15 +0000 Every teacher knows how much we learn from our students. The act of teaching itself makes you view the music […]

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Every teacher knows how much we learn from our students. The act of teaching itself makes you view the music differently as you learn to communicate it more directly. Different students’ experiences teach us problem-solving on both a technical and interpersonal level.

Teaching very gifted students is a different kind of problem-solving. There are lessons you can teach almost by rote, and others that keep you on your toes!

I think we can learn a lot from how to reach anyone from our most gifted students, but not because of their gifts. The things that come easily to the natural, intuitive musician are still things we can quantify and learn intentionally. But there’s another element, let’s call it a set of predispositions, that lead to the kind of ease, effortless skill, and passion we call talent.

1. Playing feels good

Some people are immediately comfortable holding a guitar, while for others it never stops feeling like a foreign object. Of course, the size of the instrument itself matters – an eight-year-old is better matched to a ¾-size guitar than to a full-sized dreadnought acoustic. But that won’t stop some kids from playing that big guitar. And there’s more to that than the sound.

I find the action of striking a guitar string or a piano key very satisfying on a tactile, visceral level. I believe that one reason I stayed with guitar is that my body likes the kinesthetic experience of playing it. It seems reasonable to suggest that most young people who stick with an instrument like guitar are more physically comfortable with the action of playing it.
(I make the distinction because the guitar doesn’t have the degree of “orthodox” technique that orchestral instruments do, but of course one might play a fiddle differently than a violin).

Conversely, the student who struggled probably isn’t comfortable. For this student, then, this is the problem to solve first. So ask the question, what’s awkward, exactly? Why? Is it how the student holds the instrument, or where it falls on their body, or the proportion of their hands? There are a lot of variables at play, but that also means there are multiple ways to make adjustments. Too many teachers expect the student will muscle through over time, and some do. But asking specifically why something is awkward helps identify the solution. Finding those solutions can free a student’s technique and completely change their experience of playing.

2. Listen first, play second.

The intuitive student learns by ear, of course. “Learning by ear” ultimately means pattern recognition: making a connection between a sonic relationship and a measurable, tactile one.

With most students, we do need to focus more on mechanics before they can begin to really hear the notes, in the sense that the movements will need to be consciously memorized before the ear is free enough to concentrate on the sound. The most gifted, though, make connections, hearing the sound first and then looking for the way to imitate it. So the student that hasn’t learned to hear the sounds first can be encouraged to listen. 

Consider how an untrained ear responds to music. Let’s say for our purposes that “trained” means having a vocabulary to classify and articulate differences between sounds. Essentially, this IS what you learn in a basic theory class: the materials of music and the terms we use to classify the various elements. Having all this information doesn’t mean you can “hear” the relationships, though. So there’s often a gap between ability and knowledge in both directions.

Perhaps the intuitive musician, lacking the vocabulary or even the inclination to delineate and classify, responds more to texture and dynamics in music than notes and chords. Perhaps changes in rhythmic density and dynamic variation, having an element of changing air pressure, might be perceived more physically by the body than differences in pitch.

Perhaps, then, as we lead students through the fundamentals, we should begin with a more broad and experiential approach to ear training than identifying intervals and chord qualities. Can the student identify an overall pulse or primary driving rhythm? What about differentiating between treble and bass, fast and slow, melody and accompaniment, spacious and dense textures, or soft and loud dynamics? These are all essential in the long term, and of course different students will have an easier time with some than others. But these broad concepts also prime the ear for learning to listen with even more discernment and understanding.

3. Be willing to explore

The naturally gifted student often doesn’t wait to be told what to do, they explore. What happens if I do this? How about if I do that? Too many people feel inhibited or restricted by what they don’t know, and of course the musicality of those explorations depend on the student’s natural ear. But that willingness to make a move without knowing the outcome is hugely freeing to any student, and I believe is a big part of what allows intuitive players to learn faster. Combined with the listening aspect in item 2 above, it’s a powerful tool.

Of course, you might be teaching from a method book or following a prescribed syllabus the student is obliged to follow. I’m not suggesting that any student is exempt from learning the fundamentals, or the need for a disciplined work. But I find that many of my more musically gifted students will use an exercise as a jumping off point, a starting point to explore from, and that’s something I strongly encourage as long as we’re still getting the necessary work done.

I will say that generally speaking, the most “talented” students can also be highly frustrating, because when things come easily in the beginning there is willingness to knuckle down and do the hard work. If you’re trying to stick to a program, you may find some students play constantly but refuse to practice their assignments. In this case, one might appeal to the desire to excel, and show them virtuosic etudes to get them excited. 

Whether you’re trying to stick to a program or not, you may find that some of these students will really challenge you to keep them engaged. Keeping your own ears and mind open will give you clues on how to reach the ones that are already learning to find their own way.

Ultimately, there’s no magic to talent, just predisposition plus a spark. Our role is to identify the predispositions, match our approach to the student’s learning style, and be the spark that cultivates the kind of love that keeps them playing for a lifetime.

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Why Didn’t I Think of That? Hacks for Teaching with SmartMusic Wed, 16 Jun 2021 19:40:32 +0000 Your colleagues have found innovative and creative ways to use SmartMusic with their students and get the most out of […]

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Your colleagues have found innovative and creative ways to use SmartMusic with their students and get the most out of their subscriptions. Outlined below are tips that range from how to get the most out of single-line method book assignments to how to turn warm-ups into a three-month-long quest! Discover assignment tips, tricks, and hacks to get more from your students.

Active Learning with SmartMusic

First, it’s important to remember that SmartMusic can be broken up into these three basic categories:

Practice Tools

SmartMusic gives you and your students access to vital practice tools—a tuner, metronome, and essential content including exercises, sight-reading tools, and select state scales. Additionally, custom content can be added and assigned to fit your needs via the Compose tool.


SmartMusic immediately shows students the pitches and rhythms that they hit or miss via the red, yellow, and green note assessment. With this, students know what to work on to get the correct notes and rhythms. The comments box also provides an opportunity for teachers to provide personalized feedback, keeping the communication between teachers and students active at all times. It is here that you truly begin to work on the artistry of performance.

Guided Practice

Templates for assignments and rubrics make managing SmartMusic easy so teachers have more time to listen to their students’ best takes and offer personalized feedback.

General Setup Tips

  • Require students to enter your email in their profile’s backup email field. This way, if a student forgets their password, you can help them regain access.
  • Decide how to split your classes: you can create one class per ensemble, one class per instrument/voice type, by day of the week, or mastery level.
  • Ensure your microphone settings are appropriate. Type ‘microphone settings’ in the help search box in the SmartMusic app to get all the information you need.
  • Use the Chrome browser on all devices (except iPads, where you’ll use Safari). For more, see our specifications page.

Practical Tips

Model, model, model: This may seem very basic, but if you want your students to succeed using SmartMusic, you should demonstrate how it behaves, where the tools are, and how to get the best recordings. Having SmartMusic open during class at all times also provides you with everything you need, at a moment’s notice. When that teachable moment occurs, your resource is there! If you’re teaching virtually, be sure to share your screen so that students can follow along. When they see you using it, you are giving it value.

Automatic practice loop tempo increase: Show students how to loop specific measures of a song or exercise, and how to utilize the increase ____ beats per minute (BPM) feature. Depending on the piece, you may need to turn off the accompaniment when slowing down the music. Have students report back to you in the comments box with a description of what this practice tool and experience was like.

Rename your assignments: You are not obligated to use the default name that is pre-filled when you create a new assignment. Change the name—especially if you send many assignments from the same method book or piece. Decide on a naming format that makes sense to you, and rename the assignment to make it easier for you to manage your Gradebook. Make sure to rename before scheduling as you won’t be able to edit the name of the assignment after.

Assignment Creation Tips

Method book assignments: We all have the desire to assign all of the lines from a method book, asking students to progress through each exercise. While each line of music is important, pick the most important culminating line for your assignment that encompasses all of the preceding information and work from the page or chapter. Do not assign every line in the book as this will flood your Gradebook and the students’ assignments. 

For example, if you’d like to assign line 18 from a method book, note in the assignment instructions: Before working on this piece to be submitted, practice lines 1-17 over the next several days. When you feel you are doing well with those lines, begin looking at the piece I have assigned for you to submit. I will be checking the practice analytics to ensure you are doing the assignments.

Also, let the students know that the grade is dependent on doing the preparatory work in addition to submitting the final performance. 

Units: Build units of assignments to help you keep organized. Units won’t save you time when creating an assignment, rather they allow you to group assignments to save you time in the future. Units are great for tasks like sight-reading proficiencies, scale tests, required band pieces, etc.

One of the powerful ways of using Units is to create a performance assignment. Create a separate assignment for each piece of a performance, then lump them all into a Unit and assign the Unit to your students. Units can be reassigned and used year over year.

Scheduling multiple sight-reading assignments: Create a sight-reading assignment in Sight Reading Builder choosing parameters that fit your teaching needs, then select auto-generate. Sight Reading Builder will generate a new sight-reading exercise for each of your students based on your criteria. Every time you assign this assignment, a new sight-reading example is generated. Label the assignment so you know what criteria were used. 

Comments box: Require your students to use it from day one! Make sure you model by giving comments back for each of your students based on your criteria. You can be encouraging your students anytime, anywhere, without other students in the room. 

Create a summer practice class: You can assign material like warm-ups, exercises, method books, ensemble music you can play, etc. Nothing should be turned in so the students can’t “finish” the assignments. Try experimenting with material they don’t normally play in class or rehearsals, such as popular music.

Add practice incentive with basic, advanced, and mastery tempos: In your assignment instructions, indicate the tempos that will equate to basic, advanced, and mastery tempos. Schedule the assignment with the tempo options set to “At Least” or “Any.”

Utilize Rubrics: To encourage proper practice, rubrics are a powerful method for focusing students on details and informing them up front what exactly will be assessed. Rubrics can help organize and address individual skills and techniques such as articulations, dynamics, or intonation.

Create practice-only assignments: Date practice-only assignments for the end of the grading period so they appear at the bottom of your assignments, and explain to the student that they won’t be included in your overall grading process. Be sure to label them “DO NOT SUBMIT.” This is an opportunity for you to send out pieces that you’re considering, or to reward students for pieces that you notice them playing based on practice analytics.

Stay Consistent: Create assignments on the same day each week. Create due dates at the same time each week to keep both you and your students organized. Routines benefit everyone!

Creating assignments for percussionists: When teaching percussionists to roll, consider writing out the assignment you are planning on giving in Compose, substituting sixteenth notes in place of the roll.

Creative Assignment Suggestions

Warm-ups as long term assignments: Giving students exercise assignments to practice daily can yield remarkable results. One example is Long Tones:

  • Assign the exercise Lo-Fi Long Tones Bb
  • Instructions to include:

    • Play this exercise daily.
    • Listen to the accompaniment a couple of times before recording yourself.
    • Save the very first recording to your desktop and label it “First-day LoFi [your name].”
    • The day before the assignment is due, record yourself one more time, and before submitting, writing in the comment box what the experience was like for you and whether you hear anything differently, referencing the first-day recording.

Suzuki for all: Utilize the entire Suzuki library with your students. Violin 1-3 International Editions feature Hilary Hahn performing these classic melodies that all students should be exposed to. Instrumental and vocal students can play and sing along with a professional artist. While you are looking at the violin method, explore the other Suzuki methods and see what may be adaptable for your students.

Small ensemble titles: Utilize the small ensemble library with your students. One on a part fosters independent skill growth and makes it easier for students to hear their parts, which will contribute to the overall improvement of your larger ensembles. 

Watch the SmartMusic Connect Session!

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Advocating for SmartMusic in Your Classroom Mon, 14 Jun 2021 17:55:47 +0000 By Krystal Williams and Peggy Rakas Why advocate for using SmartMusic in the classroom? As music educators, we are often […]

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By Krystal Williams and Peggy Rakas

Why advocate for using SmartMusic in the classroom?

As music educators, we are often held to the same standards as our academic core subjects, such as math and English. A lot of initiatives that come from districts ask us how we’re meeting those same standards, requiring us to provide quantifiable data that shows student growth over time.

Below are some of the benefits of implementing SmartMusic in your classroom, as well as strategies for advocating for using SmartMusic as a tool that supports and measures student progress.

The Benefits of SmartMusic

SmartMusic addresses educators’ and students’ needs in full force, arming teachers with quantifiable data and students with access to a repertoire library much larger than most standard physical sheet music budgets provide—in addition to a full suite of practice tools that support effective practice and growth. Some benefits include:

  • Accessibility
  • Increased student engagement
  • Premade units/assignments
  • Differentiated and individualized instruction
  • Student self-efficacy
  • Digital access to literature and method book choices
  • Performance examples and models
  • Lowers your paper budget
  • Social-distance friendly
  • Maintains connection between teacher and student outside of the classroom
  • Built-in practice analytics—quantifiable data!
  • Ability to download student recordings

The Ultimate Deliberate Practice Tool

If the big picture goal is to teach students about how to succeed—and not just play 10,000 hours of “Hot Cross Buns.” The path to success in all fields depends on the ability to expertly and deliberately practice and SmartMusic is the ultimate deliberate practice tool. We need to examine the underlying process of deliberate practice, analyze how it applies to our instruction and to the work done by students outside of class, and understand how SmartMusic is a valuable tool for nurturing this process.

For instance, a student might practice a piece of music (do), and upon reflection, realize that one section needs a lot of work. The plan becomes to work on that section. SmartMusic’s immediate feedback and real-time assessment assists students in the reflection stage, showing missed rhythms and pitches. Practice tools such as the looping feature, metronome, tuner, and tempo adjustment all help with planning to improve. The cycle begins again with another round of practice and playing.

plan do reflect

Proof of Student Outcomes

Academic studies also confirm that SmartMusic has a proven, positive effect on student outcomes. For example, studies have shown that for sight-singing assessment, SmartMusic had a positive effect with students scoring an average of 49.4 points higher from Pre-Assessment to Post-Assessment, compared to 29.25 points for students not using SmartMusic. Students also find success using SmartMusic in sight-reading and performance techniques, as shown in the graph below.

avg growth with SM

How to Advocate for SmartMusic with your District

Take a Data-Driven Approach

“I showed them the gradebook tool in SmartMusic and said, ‘here’s why my group sounds the way they do. They sound good because they have the same tools that math and English [students] have, now through something like SmartMusic.’”—Krystal Williams

If your goal is to keep administrators happy and to defend your grades and the assessment tools that you’re using, SmartMusic is the solution. Many Fine Arts Coordinators and district representatives are looking for quantifiable data that supports the need for providing certain tools—numbers that show why music is important and effective, not just a class that kids take so they can play the songs they like. 

While administrators may have an appreciation for music education, they don’t always understand that there is an intellectual process at play. SmartMusic’s Gradebook and practice analytics deliver student growth metrics in a language that the non-musician (administrators) can easily understand. Without a tool to provide the data that districts are looking for, any measurement for student growth would be subjective, making grades and assessment all the more difficult to defend. 

Show, Don’t Tell—Schedule a SmartMusic Demo

Scheduling a demonstration for your school board can be an incredibly effective way to show the power of SmartMusic to decision-makers. Ask for a few student volunteers (with parent permission) to attend the meeting and play along with a simple exercise or song, demonstrating the immediate feedback and other tools available in the Practice app. Project the SmartMusic interface on a Smartboard so that meeting attendees can collectively follow along with the cursor on the screen while students play, witnessing the yellow, green, and red notes in real-time assessment. 

Learn how to use SmartMusic to help teach National Standards >

Final Advice

Students love technology—we know this because they won’t put away their phones! It’s so important that teachers spend time with the program to familiarize themselves with it and get comfortable operating it. Often, teachers give up on technology because they’re uncomfortable, and that gets projected on our students. There are a lot of wonderful tutorials available through SmartMusic Academy—spend time learning how to navigate the program. The more comfortable you are, the more comfortable the students will be.

Start a 30 Day Trial

In the end, great teaching is about love and connection. With the tools in SmartMusic, teachers have many more avenues to connect with their students. With the practice analysis, we can find out what motivates our students, and we can praise them for how much they have practiced. With the comment sections, we can send messages of encouragement to our students, and they can send messages in return. With the opportunities to individualize instruction we can show our students that we care for their needs. We can inspire them to love music by having them listen to the beautiful recordings on SmartMusic. Love and connection—the ultimate tools for success.

Watch the SmartMusic Connect Session

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Show Me (How to Get) the Money: A Look at New Federal Funds for Music Education Fri, 28 May 2021 15:43:40 +0000 By Marcia Neel, Heather Mansell, and Dr. Dave Gerhart Most educators are not aware that billions of dollars in federal […]

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By Marcia Neel, Heather Mansell, and Dr. Dave Gerhart

Most educators are not aware that billions of dollars in federal funding are available for schools and districts to use to support arts education. Thus, it’s important to plan with school administrators about how this funding can support music education. Plus, with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), music became part of what is now defined by law as one of the subjects that provide students with a well-rounded education.

Presented below are tips for unlocking these federal funding resources, in addition to the steps you can take to start communicating your program’s needs and requesting support.

COVID-19 Relief Funds

The Big Questions

What is ESSER?
ESSER is the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund established as part of the federal COVID relief bills passed in the last year: the CARES Act, CRRSA Act, and ARP Act. These funds address the impact of COVID-19 on education. The key is that these are one-time, user-it-or-lose-it grants. Another important point to clarify is that this money is not associated with Title I Funding. Time is of the essence. If the money is not spent, it will go back to the federal government. Here is a breakdown of the amount of money allotted for K-12 education as part of ESSER:

  • ESSER I – $13.2 Billion
  • ESSER II – $54.3 Billion
  • ESSER III – $122.0 Billion
  • Grand Total = $189.5 Billion

Why should I care?
ESSER funds assist in the planning for a safer return to in-person learning and addressing the needs of the students including their social, emotional, and mental health needs—particularly those who have been disproportionately impacted. These funds can be used to support music programs! This is the most federal funding that has ever been available for K-12 education, and many teachers and administrators don’t know that they are available or how to access them. 

Who is eligible?
Public, charter, and nonprofit K-12 schools. Nonprofit schools are eligible for funds under the Emergency Assistance for Nonpublic Schools (EANS) program.

Who requests these funds?
Teachers need to get involved in the process to communicate their program needs. Principals, VAPA coordinators, or district administrators will make the request for funds. 

How do I know what’s allocated to my district?
Google “[Name of your state] Department of Education ESSER.” Each state’s Department of Education will have this information publicly available on its website. 

ESSER Funding Examples:

  • Additional instruments and equipment to eliminate sharing
  • Technology and EdTech
  • PPE, cleaning, sanitation
  • Facilities improvements
  • Instructional support
  • Programs to address learning loss (students)
  • Planning for next year (teachers), including hiring new staff and avoiding layoffs

Title IV-A Funds: Part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

Unlike the COVID-relief funds, which are one-time, use-it-or-lose-it funds, ESSA funds are available on an annual basis. Title IV-A  supports 3 broad categories for students:

  1. Well-Rounded Education: This specifically includes music and art, in addition to health education, physical education, Career and Technical Education, and more.
  2. Safe and Healthy Schools: Includes mental health services, violence protection, safety initiatives, and more.
  3. Technology: Includes instructional support, professional development, personalized learning, virtual learning, digital devices, and more.

How does Title IV-A funding work?
Title IV-A funding rules are divided into two tiers:

  1. Request for funds below $30,000: No formal needs assessment is required. The funds may be spent on any of the 3 categories above, with a 15% cap on Technology (waived for this year).
  2. Requests for funds above $30,000: A formal needs assessment is required.

    1. 20% of funds must go toward Well Rounded Program needs.
    2. 20% of funds must go toward Healthy Schools programs.
    3. 60% of funds can go to all three areas with a portion going toward Technology.  (waived for this year).

Examples of Title IV-A Funding
Very similar to the relief funds, but think more long-term and what these funds can mean year over year:

  • Teacher professional development such as clinics, in-services, workshops
  • Musical instruments such as strings, band, percussion, keyboards
  • Adding or expanding music courses such as guitar program, piano lab, modern band ensembles, mariachi, etc.
  • Supplies and textbooks like sheet music, stands, and accessories
  • Technology programs like music notation, audio editing, audio listening equipment
  • Facilities upgrades like acoustic panels, storage, etc.

Key steps in the process:
Federal $$$ State allocation District allocation Schools Programs

Steps for teachers to take:

  1. Meet with your fellow music teachers, principals, and district coordinators (VAP, C&I).
  2. Perform a needs assessment to come up with a priority list.
  3. Share the priorities with your supervisor/district’s grant personnel.
  4. Keep going! This is an annual process that you will want to plan for each year.

Real-World Applications

Self-Reported Outcomes: 2019 NAMM Foundation Title IV Survey Summary

See below to learn how much money various schools and districts received in 2019 and how they used the funds.

Butte County Office of Education received $2.83 million that helped provide professional development to align with state art standards and instructional supplies including instruments, potters’ wheels, and theater lighting.

10 rural school districts received $250,000 that helped fund teachers, instruments, professional development, a DOE state arts specialist, online courses for all teachers in the state, and virtual arts courses for high school students.

Montgomery County Public Schools was granted $70,783 that went toward developing curriculum, increasing staff, purchasing instructional materials.

New York
Rochester City Schools received $1.7 million that went toward providing professional development, hands-on learning materials, and expanding course offerings.

North Carolina
Davidson County Schools (36 schools) was granted $159,235 which helped to fund additional collaborative time for teachers, new instruments and sheet music, art supplies, and AV/theater equipment and materials. 

Dayton Public Schools received $200,000 that helped improve instruction and increase access and equity to the arts (materials, instruments, professional development, and staffing).

Additional Resources:

Watch the Session from SmartMusic Connect!

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Recovering Post-Pandemic: Coming Back Stronger Than Ever Sat, 22 May 2021 11:00:44 +0000 Hope The big question on music teacher’s minds is when and how will we recover from the pandemic. In fact, […]

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The big question on music teacher’s minds is when and how will we recover from the pandemic. In fact, some are even asking, can we recover? The answer is a resounding YES! If they are intentional about it music programs will bounce back and be better than ever. It may take a year or two but it can be done. The first step is for teachers to admit that what they and their students have been through has been very traumatic. Covid has affected everyone. Like any recovery from trauma, it takes time.  Everyone is very tired and we desperately need to get to summer vacation and recharge our batteries. If there was ever a time to schedule some down time and do what energizes your soul this is it. Our teaching situations next year are still being determined but there are things we can and should be doing right now. I will share some ideas with you that were developed while part of several panels on recovery for national ASTA and the Ohio State Workshop. As someone engaged in a long-term substitute position in middle school orchestras this year, I have been experiencing all of this first hand. 

Program Loss

Document your program loss and prioritize things you want to bring back. Write down what the kids did not get to do this year. Examples might be concerts, festivals, conferences, solo and ensemble, clinics, trips, specific techniques or musical experiences. Write down losses that affect you and the program such as budget, staffing, contact time, abnormal attrition, morale, community support, and musical development. You can use this kind of documentation when meeting with your administration to advocate for support in whatever form that takes.

Things We Learned During Covid

March 16, 2020 marked the greatest infusion ever of technology in the classroom. We literally re-imagined how we deliver education over a week-end. As we get back in person, we don’t want to lose the advantages we gained from technology. In particular, I think of things like SmartMusic, video conferencing, and Digital Audio Workstations. Teachers also learned to clarify why, and for whom our programs exist. It became clear to us that music needs to be performed with a purpose and music making should be meaningful. Most importantly we learned to adjust our curriculum and how to address social-emotional learning in a more impactful way. It was also made clear to us that our existing structures don’t have to stay the same and this is a good time to make changes.

Principles of a Successful Rebuilding Plan

Adjust your perspective on what you can do, not what you can’t.  Continue to dream and look forward. It is not about what you are capable of doing it is what you are willing to do.

Prioritize your efforts for next year. Focus on things that have the biggest program impact such as recruiting and retention. Be prepared to let go of some things in the interest of time and your energy. Plan, plan, plan. Create an action plan that is student-centered. Make sure your vision is clear and your mission precise, then be prepared to monitor and adjust.

Creating the Plan

The first step is to assess where the program is in terms of numbers, staffing, budget, contact time, morale, and community support. Scott Lang has some great assessment tools at Be Part of the In particular check out to find more resources.

Learn more about the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER)

Assemble your data and prioritize the most important issues. Now create a step-by-step action plan for recovery. If your beginning numbers were down, you can you go back and recruit more students and start two new classes at the same time next year. You may have to look at creative staffing and scheduling to accomplish this. One way is to see if a staff member at an upper grade level be made available to work with last year’s beginners for a semester while you start new ones. If the additional beginners have to be mixed with students that started last year you can choose a different method book so the experienced students can review and help new students but also have new material to master. Many beginning classes this year met in less than ideal circumstances so a slower paced review might really help.

Create a document for tracking retention if you don’t already have one. Use that data to follow up with students and to invite back to music. You could even create a student recruitment team from your ensembles. Form a team of existing music students to identify key things you could do to encourage students that dropped out to return. It is especially important to contact students that are still virtual or in a separate cyber-school. Convince the administration to let you start a beginner group at older grade levels. This is a great time to re-imagine how your schedule and offerings could work.

Talk to Your Administration

Once you have put together a prioritized recovery plan with clear data and metrics meet with your administrator to discuss it. Make it clear that you need a little time to move the program forward. Let them know that music programs across the country have experienced loss of students and now is the time to rebuild. In order to rebuild you may need a little grace on class sizes. There will be a temptation on their part to start combining grade levels or just reduce the number of music offerings in general. That would be a short-sighted decision. One of the things that makes music programs cost effective is our class sizes are usually bigger. If you are unclear about that idea read John Benham’s book Music Advocacy: Moving from Survival to Vision. Remember to be positive and make it clear you are going to make the program even better than before the pandemic. There are many resources on music social media sites and websites to help you. Reach out to other music teachers to share your successes and hear about theirs. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The bottom-line is don’t let the fear of trying to do everything prevent you from doing what you can.

All the best,

Bob Phillips

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Building a Music Program in a Title I School Thu, 15 Apr 2021 17:55:29 +0000 My years spent teaching in a Title I school district were the most rewarding of my K-12 career. While I […]

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My years spent teaching in a Title I school district were the most rewarding of my K-12 career. While I cherish and have wonderful memories of former students at my other schools, my mission as an orchestra teacher in a Title I School went beyond teaching music. I focused less on traditional concerts and spent more time concentrating on students’ social, emotional, and musical needs. As a result, I was able to create a nurturing environment where students felt safe and welcomed. It also allowed them to participate in meaningful musical and social activities that they would not have typically experienced. Working in a Title I School allowed me to have an impact that went well beyond music.

While some people believe it is difficult to succeed as a music teacher in a Title I School, I disagree with that belief. I believe teaching in a Title I School provides more opportunity to build an impactful music program that positively influences students’ lives. To accomplish that goal, music teachers in Title I Schools have to overcome some common challenges. I am not saying music programs in other socioeconomic areas do not have issues, but I know there are common hurdles that hinder program growth in many Title I Schools. Below are a few strategies that helped me build a successful music program at multiple Title I Schools in my district. Some of the strategies below may cause uneasiness as you read them, but I feel they must be addressed to create more music education opportunities for students in Title I Schools. I am hopeful you will find the strategies below helpful as you work to develop your music program.

Recruit Every Student

Every student deserves a quality music education. Let me say that again, every student deserves a quality music education. All too often, I hear stories about music educators who only recruit students who fit their preconceived notions of what a “successful” music student looks or acts like. They cultivate this misguided perception by purposefully or subconsciously only recruiting students who they think will succeed in their music program. Some teachers spend a disproportionate amount of time with students at recruiting events based on whether or not they believe the student will succeed. Others may only recruit students who look like they can afford an instrument and lessons. Some teachers may only recruit students from the “good schools.” I know these may appear as extreme examples, but I have witnessed these appalling behaviors during the recruiting process.

To me, this type of recruiting is a travesty and educational malpractice at the highest level. Colleagues who recruit in this way should be called out. By purposefully dismissing or ignoring any student during the recruiting process because we do not think they will succeed, teachers are potentially extinguishing the musical excitement of a child. As educators, we must connect with each student when recruiting. My goal was for my students and I to personally engage each potential member at recruiting events. This helped potential members feel comfortable about joining our program.

During the recruiting process, I also believe it is extremely important for potential students to see themselves in your program. They need to look at the students in your ensemble and see someone they can relate to. This can be a student with the same ethnicity, or someone who dresses like them, or who has the same color hair, or who has a similar disability. I accomplished this goal by allowing my students to show off their individual style and personality when we visited other schools. My students rarely wore their concert attire at recruiting concerts. Instead, they wore school appropriate clothes of their choice. I did not ask them to hide their wildly-colored hair, or to conform to what some view as the “ideal” orchestra student. I wanted potential students to see the different types of people, identities, and personalities in our ensemble. To get this point across even more, I built in opportunities for my students to interact with potential future students before, during, and after recruiting events. I found this was vital because it allowed potential students to personally connect with an older student who intrigued them. 

Remove Financial Barriers

The cost of participation deters many students in Title I Schools from joining their music program. Many families with children in Title I Schools have limited discretionary income and some children are unfortunately aware of their family’s financial situation. As a result, they carry this burden with them when choosing what activities to participate in. In many cases, students hear music teachers talk about renting an instrument, purchasing supplies (e.g., a method book, reeds, a shoulder rest), and participating in festivals/trips during the recruiting process and decide not to join the ensemble purely based on how their participation would impact their family’s financial situation. As teachers, we should strive to remove participation costs as an influence in the decision-making process. Students should choose to participate or not based on their personal ambitions, not their family’s financial situation.

Teachers, school administrators, and district administrators can help with this by limiting the financial impact on families. While some families can supply their child with the proper instrument and accessories, others need assistance from the school. Some Title I Schools are lucky enough to have an adequate inventory of school instruments to outfit every student in need. However, most do not. One way I overcame this barrier was by convincing my school and district administrators to increase our instrument inventory so we could provide each beginning student in need. My administrators found Title I grant funds to support my mission and purchased additional instruments for my beginning students as I needed them. I also built a collection of method books and other accessories by asking older students to donate the materials they were no longer using or had outgrown. I still purchased some materials with school or personal funds, but it was always on a limited basis.

Removing this financial barrier allowed me to highlight during the recruiting process that I could provide any student with the instrument and materials they would need. I did my best to remove this concern from students’ minds at recruiting events. I also made sure I communicated the school’s ability to provide instruments to students in need in all messaging to parents. The limited financial responsibility on beginning students’ families allowed more students to join my program. After students’ first year in the program, I learned many families were willing to invest in their child’s music education once they knew their child was committed to learning an instrument. In many cases, these families rented an instrument from a local music store at the start of their child’s second year of instruction.

Show Flexibility and Compassion

         No matter where you teach or what level you teach, students enter our classrooms with life experiences that can negatively impact their learning. For some students in Title I Schools, these issues can include financial hardships, unstable housing, food insecurities, a difficult home life, or even abuse/neglect. As teachers, we must understand and acknowledge what our students may be going through outside of our classroom. It is imperative for students to know we care about them beyond learning an instrument. We can accomplish this by taking time to listen to our students and support them through difficult days and situations. In many instances, we can achieve this by just being available in our classrooms before or after school so students can stop by and talk with us.

I have also learned that something outside of our students’ control can negatively impact them in our class. For example, it is also common for some students in Title I Schools to miss after school rehearsals or concerts because they watch their siblings while their parents work. In most of these cases, the student is not missing the rehearsal or concert by choice. They are watching their siblings because they are not given a choice. As teachers, we must decide how to handle this situation and what is more important: (1) forcing the student to attend the required concert/rehearsal, or (2) showing compassion for why the student will miss the required concert/rehearsal. As a young teacher, I would choose the first option way too often. I quickly realized that getting frustrated with the student over a situation that was out of their control only drove students out of my program. I learned it was more important to listen to the student, understand what was really going on, and show compassion for the difficult situation they were in. This built trust with my students and opened the door for them to talk to me in other difficult situations. It also led to more students staying in the program through difficult times and improved enrollment because I had the reputation for being an understanding teacher.


Teaching music is a privilege, and I think those teaching in Title I Schools have a profound responsibility to their students. Teachers in Title I Schools have to remember: the student is more important than the music. We can do this by making sure we recruit all students, by removing entry barriers, and by showing flexibility and compassion to our students. If we follow those philosophies, we can create a welcoming program in any school that will thrive over time. 

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