Kenley Kristofferson

Composer.

Tag: manitoba

Morgun – *WORLD PREMIERE!*

I am so excited to announce, in conjunction with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba the WORLD PREMIERE of my work for Symphony Orchestra, Morgun.

It premieres on October 31st, 2014 at 8:00pm at the Winnipeg Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

photo (15)

(that’s not me, we just look weirdly alike)

“Morgun” is Icelandic for “morning” and, when I was approached to write a piece as part of the 125th anniversary of the Icelandic Festival, I knew that its heart would be morning.  Perhaps the first morning after the settlers arrived, perhaps “morning” as a metaphor for the start of something new.  At its heart, it was the start of something new.

Growing up in Gimli, MB (the home of the festival) and being Icelandic, the story of the settlers coming over from Iceland in the mid-1800s has always been a part of my being.  Both sets of grandparents spoke Icelandic fluently and I grew up hearing it.; at Christmas, there was never a shortage of pönnukökur or vinatarta, and we were always in town for the festival (but usually working for most of it, being a local and all).

When I was approached by Janice Arnason to compose a piece for the 125th, I was elated.  Janice was last year’s president of the festival as well as my elementary music teacher, piano teacher, and Grade 6 LA/SS teacher – this is how small towns work 🙂 Anyway, I feel immense gratitude that she would ask me to commit something so important and meaningful to the culture of our town.  Even though I’ve worked games for some pretty big franchises, I only have three things published for actual ensembles of live human beings, so I’m still a bit green to professional writing, if you look at it objectively.

But that’s part of growth: If you work really hard, do good work, and are an easy person to work with, people you respect will take risks on you.  This is how it works – someone needs to take a risk on you, and the beauty of a small town is that it’s easy to take a calculated risk because the people you respect have known you your entire life.

In short, I am grateful.  To some degree, I am also lucky, but working hard can help you load the dice.  Like measured risk, it’s measured luck, but I am always grateful when it actually works out 🙂

I’ll post more about the process later on!

Kenley

Music Ed Monday – Good News Calls

 But the most important lesson to be learned about calling parents at home to praise the achievements of their children is that those calls are actually more effective.  The student comes into class the next day with a lighter step, a brighter smile, and usually more of the same wonderfulness that prompted me to call home the night before.

– Taylor Mali
“What Teachers Make”

Taylor Mali is my favourite poet, not because he writes about teaching and I’m a teacher, but because his way with words really works the fine balance between economy, eloquence, and kicking your butt with very precise text.  I’ve been reading many of his books at the same time (The Last Time As We Are, What Learners Leave, and What Teachers Make), which may not be the best idea in terms of continuity, but I really do love his writing.

The interesting thing about What Teachers Make is that it’s mostly prose and not poetry.   The book discusses teaching in general and his relation to it (personal experience, anecdotal stories, etc.), but also deconstructs his poem of the same name.  You can hear him read it below…

There’s this line about “calling home around dinnertime” and he’s talking about the “good news” calls.  It’s when you call home for a good reason, usually to celebrate something that the student (the parents’ child) did in class that day.

But we’ve really stigmatized calling home, haven’t we?

When I think of calling home, it’s usually to discuss the negative things… and that’s what the parents think too.  It’s always nice to hear the shock in a parent’s reaction to hear how well their child is doing (especially if their kid gets called often for the negative reason).

After reading that passage in the book, I decided to make some good news calls of my own – sometimes I do, but not nearly enough.

It was so refreshing for both myself and the parent that I decided to do it again… and again… and again.

All of a sudden, you think yourself: “Wow, I’ve got some really great kids.”

And you do 🙂 Sometimes we spend so much time greasing the squeeky wheel that we don’t see that silent majority that are absolutely fabulous, especially those in the academic “middle.”  We really do spend a lot of time on the extremes of the spectrum, don’t we?

So, here’s your  homework: Make one good news phone call this week and share it in the comments.  You won’t regret it!

Have a great week,
Kenley

Music Ed Mondays – Life Includes Mistakes (Part 2)

Welcome back!

In the last post, we talked about how stigmatizing mistakes probably isn’t the best reinforcement of learning.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last week and it’s become more complex and paradoxical and moreso the more that I think about it.

I think that the caveat lies in the degree of the mistake: Not putting in an apostrophe isn’t going to crash the stock markets, but getting in a car accident while texting will probably ensure that you won’t have your phone behind the wheel anytime soon.

Some mistakes need to be made because that’s how we learn (but not the texting behind the wheel, avoid that one).  The crux lies where we have a stockpiling of minor mistakes that become overwhelming, like a key signature error while difficult rhythms are going on.  On its own, it’s not a big deal, but we don’t want it to happen on stage.

So, what are some options?

1) Establish an environment where mistakes are okay.  We rehearse in the Band Room and mistakes are bound to happen.  We reiterate that to our students all the time – “give it your all and if you make a mistake, then be aware of it and try to correct it next time around.” That’s a nice one-liner.

2) “Strong and Wrong.”  If a G-natural slips out instead of a G#, “make it with the most beautiful tone and in the most perfect rhythm imagineable.  Be aware of it and take care of it next time around.”

3) “Take 30 seconds and figure out that bar – Go.”  There’s safety in numbers and the practice need only be for a few seconds, but just let them figure out [whatever it is] and go on.  It will save you so much rehearsal time, seriously.

4) “It takes as long as it takes.”  If there are mistakes, teach them where they went off the path and then let them submit the assessment again.  Use the mistakes as teaching tools.  It may be using apostrophes incorrectly, playing one section out of time or messing up the coefficient in algebra.  Let them learn from the mistakes, but not under the banner of numerical, grade-based punishment.

5) Don’t test them until they’re ready.  “Finish your assessments up to x%, then do the test.”  This is a lot more work for the teacher (a lot, trust me), but it’s really worth it.  The understanding and the numerical score will both improve.  Let’s be honest, that should happen every time, but some kids don’t test well and some are fantastic BSers.  Let the grades reflect achievement.

In the back of your mind, you may or may not be thinking this: “that doesn’t sound like real life!” or another of my favourites, “then what are we teaching them?!”

Don’t worry, they’ll get those mistakes and learn from them.  They will be late for their job one time too many, or say something they didn’t mean and have to deal with the conversation’s fallout, they’ll break someone’s heart and have theirs broken as well.

Sometimes, the most important things that we teach don’t happen in our classes, it happens between them.

Let the classroom be a place for learning.  The self-esteem and risk-taking strategies (within reason) they’ll learn from not being afraid to make mistakes will enrich their lives, really and truly.

Because hey, let’s be honest, it’s not only about students – everyone worries about making mistakes, you and me included.

Imagine a world where mistakes are something to be managed, rather than avoided; accepted, rather than dwelled upon and encouraged via risk-taking and exploration, rather than punished.

Now go do it 🙂

Thanks for reading,
Kenley

Music Ed Mondays – Life Includes Mistakes (Part 1)

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never do anything original.”

– Sir Ken Robinson
author, “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything”

 (this one is quite long, but split into parts, so I hope that you’ll stick around for the read)

If there is one thing that high school students really seem to be scared of, it’s making mistakes.  Maybe there’s more at stake for them, maybe it’s a contagion of low self-esteem or maybe it’s just psychological and emotional development during that time of their lives.

(It isn’t just high school students, though, right? It’s all of us, myself included)

In any case, the fear of making mistakes sabotages any attempt at authenticity in oneself because you’ll be assessing every decision you make and whether or not it’s “the right one.”  Hopefully, we’re teaching our kids that there aren’t “right” decisions and “wrong” decisions; but rather, different decisions for different situations and with a different mix of positive and negative consequences.  When viewed in that lens, I want my kids to make decisions that maximize their long-term positive benefits while minimizing their long-term negative ones.

An instance where fear has sabotaged our band room was when we were holding auditions for our symphonic ensembles (our audition bands that run outside of the timetable).  This was the first year in many where we said that we wanted them to play for us before we would admit them into the group.  What we expected were many of our strong players to be eager about a new challenge and some fun (and hard) new repertoire to enjoy, but that’s not what happened.

Instead, we had only a few students prepare the audition and play for us and many of our strongest instrumentalists didn’t even try.  It was shocking – it was the exact opposite result that we predicted.  When we first asked, there were excuses about being too busy or having too much math this semester and the like, but when we kept asking and talking to our students about it, the truth kept coming out and it was the same truth for the vast majority of them:

“I don’t want to try out if there’s a chance I won’t get in.”

To be said another way:

“I’m too scared to try because I might fail.”

And we thought to ourselves “is this what our program has become?” But then we looked at the evidence – how we taught our classes, the values we tried to reinforce (honesty, risk-taking-within-reason, authenticity, etc.) and the way that we spoke to our students and it was didn’t fit what was happening.

But, as educators, have we been reinforcing this idea of “it’s bad to make mistakes” all along? It’s how we assess tests and how we assign numerical grades on assignments that hinge on the number of “correct answers or mechanics” (depending on your area) and we do this starting at a very young age.  What we’ve been doing, essentially, is stigmatizing mistakes and lately, I’ve really been feeling that this not an appropriate way to reinforce learning.

In the Music Room, we (Michael Brandon and I) have really been trying to unteach the stigmatization of errors and we do so for a few reasons.

Firstly, it’s not realistic to be perfect all the time – in both school and life.

Secondly, if students are only doing what they can do perfectly (and doing it perfectly everytime), then we aren’t teaching them anything, we’re just reinforcing what they already know.  If they aren’t making mistakes, they aren’t being led into uncharted territory.  There is a time where we can send our kids into a pedagogical forest without a map, but when they find a dead end, we shouldn’t punish them for it, but instead reinforce their thinking of “I guess the way out isn’t this way, so maybe I’ll try another approach or direction.”  Isn’t that how we learn by experience in our own lives? When we get into a relationship that is stressful or incongruent with what we want, don’t we usually get out and say think “well, maybe some of those qualities aren’t what I want in a partner after all,” or “there are too many impediments to my happiness here, so maybe I’ll try another approach or direction?”  Again, school can reflect life.

Thirdly, what kind of self-esteem are we establishing for them? I acknowledge that if they play a rhythm or spell a word wrong it isn’t a slam on their personality, but if we assess their mistakes and evaluate them on their mistakes, that does affect how they view themselves, usually negatively.  Strangely, though, it so often happens in the reverse circumstances that we expect, where the struggling kids scream with joy at a 60% and the top kids scoff at a 95% (as though the 5% off were some sort of punishment).  Not always, but more often than one would expect.

As this is going to be a two-part post, I want to use this post to diagnose (what I think is) the problem.  The second post will be more about acting upon it – what can we do in our classroom to reinforce that mistakes are an essential part of learning, in both school and life?

We’ll see 🙂

Thanks for reading,
Kenley

Music Ed Mondays – The Gorilla Story

Isn’t that just a wonderful picture? He’s smiling away, having a great time 🙂

As humans, we are so good at routine, I would even go so far as to say that we excel at routine.  We wake with the sun, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, eat some more, read our book or follow our shows, then sleep with the moon in the sky, all ready to do it again the next day.

Some of us are even more routine-based, only eating certain things for every meal, having particular combinations of outfits for work or going out, showering or getting ready for the day in a particular order or sequence… the list goes on.

As teachers, we do this too because the day is structured in a particular way for everyone in the building.  Furthermore, we have routines and structures in our respective subject areas.  When a new person comes into the area (or a particularly astute student), they may ask something like: “Why do we do ‘x‘ this way?” to which another replies “that’s just the way that it’s done.”

And we’ve all been in situations like this, right? Where you come to a new place and find something terribly inefficient that’s out of your control to fix?

Now, can you think about a time when you were the person saying “that’s just the way it’s done?”

…?

If so, I’d like to share this story with you.  I’ve definitely been on both sides and when I heard this story last year, it’s message really resonated with me and I’ve always tried be cognitive of both positive and negative routines since then:

This story starts with a cage containing five gorillas and a large bunch of bananas hanging above some stairs in the center of the cage. Before long, a gorilla goes to the stairs and starts to climb toward the bananas. As soon as he touches the stairs, all the gorillas are sprayed with cold water. After a while, another gorilla makes an attempt and gets the same result—all the gorillas are sprayed with cold water.  Every time a gorilla attempts to retrieve the bananas, the others are sprayed.

Eventually, they quit trying and leave the bananas alone.  One of the original gorillas is removed from the cage and replaced with a new one.  The new gorilla sees the bananas and starts to climb the stairs. To his horror, all the other gorillas attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted. Next, the second of the original five gorillas is replaced with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.

Next, the third original gorilla is replaced with a new one. The new one goes for the stairs and is attacked as well. Two of the four gorillas that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest gorilla.

After the fourth and fifth original gorillas have been replaced, all the gorillas that were sprayed with cold water are gone. Nevertheless, no gorilla will ever again approach the stairs. Why not?

“Because that’s the way it has always been done.”

(If you would like it in handout form, it can be downloaded here)

Can you think of a scenario where you have been one of the gorillas never sprayed with water? If so, it may be time to rethink some personal or professional routines.

One routine that I challenged was scale testing in Grade 12.  It’s just what you do, right? But in mid-June at the end of a student’s grade 12 year, why the hell do I care if they can play 12 or 15 or 24 or 30 scales? Is that what I want them to leave with? The last thing I did in that Band Room was play Gb harmonic minor?

What does that say about my program? Or about what I value? Or about what they’re leaving with?

What we do instead are projects focussing on reflection, music as a part of their lives and their future as music makers.  Some examples as such include:

“The Soundtrack of My Life:”
http://www.readwritethink.org/parent-afterschool-resources/activities-projects/soundtrack-life-30313.html

or…

“Musical Autobiography”
http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/life-multimodal-autobiography-project-1051.html

No pressure to use those two (I don’t think I do anymore, I’ve tweaked them enough so that it better reflects the value of my program), but if you want to, the resources are there.

While I’m certainly not the poster child for this, it’s something that I’m working on and I just want to share my experience with you.  For example, we’ve revamped our rules on the lending of instruments – we have a contract, but now also a sign-out sheet, making it more accessible for kids to learn new instruments by playing them at home.

Anyway, it’s always good to challenge and tweak our ways of doing things.  If you keep the wheel of a car straight, the curvature of the Earth will send you into the ditch, but if you course correct as you drive, you’ll stay cruising on the road 🙂

Have a great week!
Kenley

Greg MacThursdays – November 10, 2011

“there’s something dead out in the field behind our house

the wind’s changing direction
I seen the local man dressing up in the latest style
he says, “It’s only natural selection…”

good times coming back again.”

– “Good Times”
from ‘Good Times Coming Back Again’

I read this as the old turning into the new, but the song is SO dark and gritty that it’s really throwing it back in the face of progress.

Here’s the tune from his show in Trois-Rivieres, QC:

(point of fact: I student-taught his drummer and bass player, amazing musicians)

Thanks,
Kenley

Music Ed Mondays – “Whatever Gets Repeated…”

“Whatever gets repeated, gets remembered.”

– Michael Brandon

This simple sentence blew my mind during my second year of teaching, which was the year that Michael Brandon came to our school. He and I teach the Instrumental and Academic areas of our Music Program – yes, it can be more than just Band, Choir and Drama, but more on that in another post.

While we don’t team teach very often, we try and connect about our classes as often as possible. The notable exception is during Period 4, where he has Senior Concert Band and I have my prep, so we can both be in the Band Room at the same time. The process of watching another teacher teach is one of the best professional development opportunities one can have and I get it every other day during Period 4.

During one of his first months at the school, he was working a concept and a student blurted out: “We already did that!” And while that was true, he replied with a gem that never left me: “Yes, whatever gets repeated, gets remembered.”

I get that it’s the foundation of review and that review reinforces the learning of prior skills and concepts, but it’s really so much more than that: It’s why children share similar views of their parents, it’s why so many kids give in to peer pressure around them (one of many reasons, actually) and it’s why we get caught up in our own echo chambers of thinking.

“Whatever gets repeated, gets remembered.”

In Music, but especially in Band, we’ll work a part, then say “yep, good, moving on,” but those kids have only done it correctly once as opposed to doing it many times incorrectly. A few classes later, we’ll go back to rehearse that section and that same mistake will creep up again, then we’ll get frustrated and say “didn’t we fix that a few classes ago?”

Well yeah, we did, but we only fixed it once.

My old euphonium teacher in my first year of university often said “you can’t break a habit, you just have to replace it with a stronger one.” I think that there’s a lot of truth in that and if we only fix something once, we aren’t replacing that habit of doing it incorrectly.

Lately, I’ve been identifying problem spots in the repertoire and getting kids to do it right four or five times, but it has to be correct every single time because we’re not “fixing” it, we’re replacing the habit. Then, we’ll come back to it the next class and check it again and if we have to keep drilling-the-skill, then that’s fine – whatever gets repeated, gets remembered.

Now, let’s move that into our behaviour on the podium (or in the classroom, it’s the same concept): Are we modelling leadership qualities to kids? Are we being the best moral human beings we can be? How are we dealing with our tough kids? Or our sports kids? Or our academically strong kids? Or our weaker ones? Our loud ones? Or quiet ones?

As teachers, we’re always on display and we carry an institutional gravitas that puts us in a position to inspire and them in one to subscribe to what we have to say. To be said another way, it’s not just how we interact with them verbally, it’s also the way that we communicate with them as other human beings.

Whether it’s what we say or how we say it, it really can’t be said enough – whatever gets repeated, gets remembered. Maya Angelou had a nice one-liner that said a similar thing…

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Isn’t that so true? Let’s communicate honestly, openly and authentically with kids so that they have both a person and an institution to look up to and let’s do it consistently.

Whatever gets repeated, gets remembered 🙂

Until next time,
Kenley

Greg MacThursdays – November 3, 2011

“Our anger built and tightly wound
We walked the coal road through the town
“The store,” I yelled, “We’ll burn it down, Burn it to a cynder!”
As I spoke these words before my eyes
Their doors and windows opened wide
And 10 more miners joined my side
Beaten, starved and angered
We were beaten, starved and angered”

– “Company Store”
from ‘Maintenance’

One of my favourite examples of the narrative song, a story of a disenfranchised people who finally fight back against the “company store,” totally bad news.  Here’s the tune performed live:

Music Ed Mondays – Being Together

Being together, not just doing together.”

– Bill Kristjanson
Music Educator 

There really is something magical about the music room, isn’t there? It’s not just a classroom (though, it definitely is that as well), kind of the same way that the gym isn’t just a classroom, there’s something special that happens there too, albeit in a different way.

We don’t play music to hash out notes, crunch rhythms or work repertoire – those things happen and are sometimes necessary, depending on the piece or the skills/concepts being learned – but again, it’s really more than that.

The music room is a place of expression and in order to really make it authentic, an enormous degree of vulnerability, trust and risk-taking needs to be present in each and every student.   If there is one thing that seems impossible to ask from a juniour high or high school student, it’s vulnerability.  But the strangest thing happens inside that room: It happens and it happens repeatedly only if we foster it.

Yet, it happens in music rooms all over the world demonstrated through both testimony and performance – think about all of the vulnerability going into every piece of music that we hear in a concert.  For these emotional responses to be felt in performance, they must be nurtured in rehearsal in the ensemble and not just in one or two students, but in the vast majority of them.

My mentor in fourth-year Music Education and pillar of Manitoba’s music education community, Bill Kristjanson, said it best when describing the culture of music: “[it’s about] being together, not just doing together.”

Now, as teachers of these mixed bags of students, how do we foster students to become willing to wear their heart on their sleeve? There’s no silver bullet here, folks, but here are some thoughts and questions that I’ve had on how to start.

  • What is your relationship like with your students? Are you genuinely and authentically interested in their well-being? (this is a  whole post in itself)
  • How are you demonstrating what you’re asking of them while you’re on the podium? (As a teacher? As a conductor? As an adult role-model?)
  • How often do you ask them to journal/reflect about their own emotional experiences? (either in relationship to music or on their own)

And perhaps a final thought…

  • How often do you imagine other classes ask them to do the same thing?

I hope that other classes ask them to do it all the time, but that may not be the case (power be to the Pre-Calculus teacher who asks their students to reflect on their relationship to math 🙂 * )

Our subject matter is innately emotional and while I make no promises in giving magic formulas or silver bullets in solving all of music education’s issues, I really want Music Ed Mondays to trigger thoughts about why it is we do what we do (as teachers and mentors) and how we can make our music rooms better places for both kids and music.  Let’s end with another Kristjanson-ism:

“Find something good and make it grow.”
– Bill Kristjanson
Music Educator

Until next time,
Kenley

PS: Happy Halloween!
PPS: The garden illustration is from “The Doodle Girl,” found here.

* = There probably are math teachers who get their kids to emotionally reflect, I’m just picking on them because I love them 🙂