Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Leader of the Band

Dan Fogelberg's touching anthem to his father, "Leader of the Band," always brings a mist to my eyes when I hear it played. The song is a tribute to a man whose life was shaped by music, and who shaped the lives of others through music education. 

I see my father, perched on a high stool, atop a band director's podium, when I listen to the lyrics--especially the passage about a man with a "thundering, velvet hand, [with a] gentle means of sculpting souls..." Unlike the person in the Fogelberg song, I understood the power of music early in life.

My father was the son of a carpenter, not too far-removed from a cabinet maker's trade. Unlike the Fogelberg character, Dad was--and is--good with tools, good with wood, and good with his hands. He's also a phenomenal musician, still giving private lessons at 81!

I wanted to follow in my father's footsteps and become a Band Director. There are early childhood memories of sitting at the front of the band's section in the grandstand at high school football games that I cherish today. 

Never mind 76-trombones: There's just nothing like the sound of a 100+ players playing in the stands. The deep thump-thumb of the drum section passes through your body like a sonic tsunami, and the electricity of crashing cymbals thrills me to this day. I wanted to do THAT: lead the band, make the music, entertain the public.

Dad talked me out of it.
He could see the handwriting on the wall in the education business--not just music education, but teaching in-general. The gutting of classroom decorum, the political infighting of administrators, and the resulting effects on students was almost more than he could stomach. Even today...don't get him started...!
He told me I'd starve, and to do something else.
So I went into Radio.
And starved through the early years.

Radio has, however, enabled me to help music education in my own way. I've hosted Jazz shows, broken new artists, and I've been able to share with others the importance of music thru participation and appreciation. There's one such event of importance fast approaching: Thus Summer, the Texas Music Festival will convene for its 21st year at the University of Houston's Moores School of Music. 

This is a heady place to practice one's musical craft, working with artists and conductors spanning all of Houston's professional music performance venues: The Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera, the Houston Ballet...a melding of ideas and musical idioms into a four week program of clinics and performances. 

There's a little lagniappe on the program this year, too--which may enable me to realize one of my life-long dreams to be the leader of the band. On Saturday, June 26, the Texas Music Festival Orchestra will perform a program including Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn," and Ravel's "Bolero." (Why do I always envision Bo Derek in "10" when I hear that music? It's just wretched...)

The TMF Orchestra is also going to perform The Star Spangled Banner...under the baton of a Guest Conductor. I would like to be that Guest Conductor.
The Texas Music Festival is conducting an on-line poll through its Facebook page--okay, face it, it's a popularity contest. But they asked whether I'd be interested in participating/competing for the honor.
What do you think I said? 

Please visit the site (contest participation only open to Facebook users, sorry!) and cast your vote. 
For me.

Maybe I can get some pointers from my Dad on how to keep from embarrassing myself on the podium. (As someone recently pointed out, as they rooted for me in the poll, my best side will be facing the audience as we perform!) 

Regardless, I remain a living legacy to the Leader of the Band.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Why Johnny Can't Do Math: Neither Can the Schools

If you missed our interview on April 23rd with Bob Bowden, whose film, "The Cartel," just closed this weekend at the Angelika Theater, then you may not be as incensed as we are over a story recently in the Houston Chronicle (buried below the fold, on the front page of the combined Business/City & State section), about 11 Texas school districts seeking to continue giving a break to students who badly fail courses, despite a new law mandating truthful grading.

Education Commissioner Robert Scott (correctly) has interpreted the law to mean exactly what it says: What you see is what you got on your grade. You flunked the course, you get an F. You want to pass, take it again...and study harder.

The districts — most are in the Houston area — are suing to keep their policies that set minimum failing grades — typically a 50 — even if students deserved lower.

According to the story in The Chronicle this morning, the districts argue that the statute "applies only to class assignments, not to semester or six- or nine-week grades on report cards." However, the author of the bill, Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, says it was intended it to cover all types of grades.

Who's asking for a break to give a break to flunking students? The Fort Bend, Aldine, Klein, Alief, Anahuac and Clear Creek filed the lawsuit in November, with Humble, Deer Park, Eanes, Dickinson and Livingston joining later. 

The hearing today is to seek a temporary injunction to keep from having their minimum grading policies--translated: raising the lowest common denominator--voided by the courts.

Why do school districts care about a minimum-grading policy? Why wouldn't a school district want a real grade reflected on a report card?? The M-G-P's are the schools' strategy to prevent dropouts because they give students a mathematical shot at passing a course — if they earn high enough marks in other grading periods. That's assuming they can pass the math course necessary to understanding this twist of logic.

Here's your word problem for the day: If a student who received a 30 in a course in the first six weeks managed to pass the next five grading periods with 75's, would he pass or fail? If you use real world math, the kid would fail the course with a 68. But if the school gave the student a 50, instead of a 30, the cumulative grade would be passing.

Does that make you feel better about the product high schools would churn out, knowing the failure rates are softer than they appear? 

Here's how Alief School Board member Sarah Winkler explains the logic in The Chronicle'sstory: “We're not giving passing grades. A 50 is way below failing.” 
True enough. 
“All we're doing is giving them a grade that if they put forth significant effort they would be able to pass. What would be the point of a student making any effort if they cannot pass?,” she opines.

How about this, Sarah--under that logic, a kid can just fail to produce any work and receive a 50 for the course. Still failing--and failing to work at all.

I think we're going about this from the wrong end of the pipeline: How about rewarding kids with what they earn, not what you're comfortable in reflecting as the school district's ultimate failure to teach.