Reference Letters: What To Do?

Reprinted from “A View from the Podium” (Upper St. Clair High School, 2015) for current South Hills Junior Orchestra members and other students seeking recommendation letters from their music teachers.

foxsfiresides

If you are requesting a letter of recommendation from any teaching staff member, administrator, minister, coach, or activity sponsor for college entrance, scholarships, awards, or job placement, please follow the instructions of your school counselor AND review/complete the steps below.

Do you have an updated “me-file” on your computer’s desktop? Maintain a bulleted list of accomplishments with dates. Scan archives of awards, programs, commendations, special honors, and significant assessments. This will become the basis for the creation of résumés or portfolios, and background for your college or employment essays.

In person, ask the teacher from whom you want the letter if he/she is willing to do this. This should be an adult in whom you have a great deal of trust and with whom you have had frequent contact. If you have any doubt or misgivings like “Does this professional like me?” or “Will he/she give me a fair rating?” – then you should ask someone else. If you are a current member of SHJO, anyone asking Mr. Fox should have no fear. He will tell you immediately if there is any problem in writing a positive letter.

In my opinion, if you choose the right person to do your letter, you can sign-off your rights to see it before submission to the institution. A student checking “yes” to waiving his/her access to/examination of the reference may look better to the evaluator. Although not required, some may send you a copy of it for your files. That is my standard practice.

Know your deadlines. BY WHEN do you need the reference letters or common app teacher recommendations?

seriestoshare-logo-01As a courtesy to the writer (and modeling good preparation on your part), give at least two to three weeks’ notice (more is better). Remember: “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on the teacher’s part.” It would also be polite to “gently remind” the staff member about the final deadline of the recommendation (at least one weekend’s notice). For SHJO, one Saturday ahead of the final deadline would be ideal.

Unless it is an online application or digital reference, the individual requesting the recommendation should provide in advance a pre-stamped self-addressed envelope to be signed, sealed, and mailed directly to any school or organization.

To facilitate “anecdotal references” and confirm accurate data/details, email a mini-résumé of your achievements, particularly those things that can be mentioned in the letter. Try to complete as many of these as possible:

  1. When did you first begin your musical (or other academic specialty) study? When did you join SHJO or other music group?
  2. What classes, ensembles, and/or productions have you participated at school?
  3. What music or academic leadership positions have you served (give specific dates)?
  4. What are your outside activities?
  5. What have you done as community service?
  6. How are you unique? Describe yourself in three to five words.
  7. What qualities or strengths have you exhibited that the staff member, from working with you, could corroborate in the letter?
  8. Can you remember any funny or significant class or rehearsal anecdote that demonstrated growth in your musical technique, expressiveness, student leadership, “team” or ensemble building, or the 21st Century learning skills of creativity, communications, critical thinking, collaboration, and global understanding?
  9. What is your planned major or minor in college, and how did your association with the staff member (his/her classes or activities) help you gain the experience, insight, or confidence to go into this field?

Good luck! PKF  Revised 3/18/19

hi-res logo 2018

The mission of South Hills Junior Orchestra, which rehearses and performs at the Upper St. Clair High School in Pittsburgh, PA, is to support and nurture local school band and orchestra programs, to develop knowledge, understanding, performance skills, and an appreciation of music, to increase an individual member’s self-esteem and self-motivation, and to continue to advance a life-long study of music. Members of the Orchestra learn, grow, and achieve positions of leadership to serve their fellow members.

(For more information about SHJO, please visit www.shjo.org.)

This and all Fox’s Fireside blog-posts are free and available to share with other music students, parents, directors, and supporters of the arts.

Click here for a printable copy of Reference Letters: What to Do?

Other “Fox Firesides” are available at https://paulfox.blog/foxs-firesides/.

 

© 2019 Paul K. Fox

 

Photo credit from Pixabay.com: “Fireside” by pixeldust

 

Life Hacks for Musicians

The Laws of Practicing & More Tips on Preparing Music

foxsfiresides

Many of the early South Hills Junior Orchestra “Fox’s Firesides” are about developing new techniques to solve musical problems, dispelling the myth that all you need to do is put in the time. Is there any truth in “practice makes perfect?” Not really. It is more critical that all instrumentalists set-up a regular schedule for focused practice, limiting all distractions, defining and working on goals, and then the truer adage can be modeled: “perfect practice develops perfect playing.”

Perhaps since January is the first month of The New Year, this would be a good time to review the different practice techniques we have already published at https://paulkfoxusc.wordpress.com/foxs-firesides/, especially #1, #4, and #8.

Here are a few more ideas, “borrowed” from my former place of employment – the Upper St. Clair School District Performing Arts Department.

 

THE LAWS OF PRACTICING

The 24-Hour Law – It takes 24 hours for yesterday’s lesson to be learned.

The Perfect Attendance Law – Practicing a little every day always beats cramming.

The Three Musketeers Law – Never practice without a metronome, tuner, or recording device to hear how you sound.

The “Elephant in the Room” Law – One must “face the music,” specifically, the musical passage with which they are struggling the most.

The Sloth Law – When in doubt, play it slower.

 

LIFE HACKS (Practice Edition)

Sloth Hack – Playing slower, to the point that it is impossible to mess up.

Jaws Hack – Slur a passage with which you are struggling.

seriestoshare-logo-01Karaoke Hack – Play the passage in conjunction with your favorite recording of the piece.

Time Trial Hack – Put a timer on for a few minutes and see how much you can accomplish in a short amount of time.

Drop the Bass Hack – If a passage is too high, play it down an octave.

Cheat Code Hack – Simplify a rhythm if you are struggling to learn it.

Here are several additional websites with excellent “hack” recommendations for developing better practice skills, but don’t forget to ask your school music director and private teacher for more advice!

 

Keep up your commitment to and PRACTICE towards real self-improvement, creative self-expression, making beautiful music, and participating in your school and community bands and orchestras!

PKF

hi-res logo 2018

 

The mission of South Hills Junior Orchestra, which rehearses and performs at the Upper St. Clair High School in Pittsburgh, PA, is to support and nurture local school band and orchestra programs, to develop knowledge, understanding, performance skills, and an appreciation of music, to increase an individual member’s self-esteem and self-motivation, and to continue to advance a life-long study of music. Members of the Orchestra learn, grow, and achieve positions of leadership to serve their fellow members.

(For more information about SHJO, please visit www.shjo.org.)

This and all Fox’s Fireside blog-posts are free and available to share with other music students, parents, directors, and supporters of the arts.

Click here for a printable copy of LIFE HACKS for Musicians

Other “Fox Firesides” are available at https://paulkfoxusc.wordpress.com/foxs-firesides/.

 

© 2019 Paul K. Fox

Photo credit from Pixabay.com: “Fireplace” by judenicholson

How Retirement Has Changed Me… Revisited

Part II: The reinvention continues… new perspectives, recent renovations, fun pathways, and more technology

Happy Thanksgiving to all! Enjoy your time with your family and friends next week!

I feel very blessed and thankful for my health, happiness, economic stability, and relative comfort. My wife and I have “weathered” the so-called “passage to retirement” with success and grace, and continue to explore finding life’s meaning to fulfill the three most important things a job usually provides (according to best-selling author Ernie Zelinski): purpose, community, and structure.

Back in July 2015, I wrote the introduction to this “personal trek” of post-employment transitioning, coping with life-style changes/altered expectations, and personal metamorphosis to “living the dream!” (You can review all of these articles by clicking on the “For Retirees” above.) Specifically on “how retirement has changed me,” nine months ago, I wrote “Part I – One retiree’s quest for learning technology, science, and history” (https://paulkfoxusc.wordpress.com/2017/02/13/how-retirement-has-changed-me/), and can report “all is good” in progress on all of these fronts.

We all know personal growth is about curiosity, exploration and acceptance of change… so, now’s the time to report back. What have you been up to, Paul, since then?

 

WordPress

Writing, Collaborating, and Becoming a Better Techie

Here are a few quick check-marks to add to my post-employment technology portfolio:

  • I learned how to create a blog site and write blog articles
  • I learned how to use Zoom online and hold committee meetings on the web
  • I learned how to make a webinar video

To all current and future retirees, I strongly recommend venturing into the creative process of writing… and building a website to archive all of your “treasures.” Posting a blog is a perfect vehicle for getting something off your chest, promoting discussion on almost any topic, researching areas you always wanted to unearth, sharing your thoughts and experiences, and stating your opinion for the record using the Internet.

“The sky’s the limit” for the subjects you could present. What do you like to write about? It is probably easier to dive into the things that are closest to you, your “pet peeves” and passionate viewpoints, or perhaps drawing from the vast store of knowledge and competencies you developed in your music education career. My own “categories” on my website are “Becoming a Music Educator” (for pre-service and new music teachers), “Creativity,” “Ethics,” “Firesides” (epistles I have given to my students), and “For Retirees.”

Look into one of the free, “do-it-yourself” online sites like WordPress, Wix, Web, or Weebly.com. Unless you really want to, it is not necessary to pay for a domain name. However, if you want an easy-to-remember tagline (something everyone can remember), be creative with the title of a new Google email account (from which these web-creation services usually generate your website’s domain name). My professional email is paulkfox.usc@gmail.com, so WordPress removed the dot and created my website moniker as “paulkfoxusc.wordpress.com.”

My quest for further education in stimulating personal technological advances have included using services like “Doodle,” “Wufoo,” “Zoom” or “Go to Meeting” for collaborating with members of the Council for Teacher Training, Recruitment, and Retention, and submission of several videos which have been archived in the NAfME Academy Professional Development library (of which I am most proud):

nafme

  • Marketing Your Professionalism for Collegiate Music Education Majors: Tips and Strategies to Prepare and Present Yourself for Interviewing and Landing That First Music Teacher Job (two-part video)
  • Preparing for a Smooth Transition to Retirement
  • Supercharge the School Musical

 

Non-Technological Developments

No, I’m not dead yet. Retirement has provided me many rich new set of pursuits and brain-stimulating activities. Some of these activities are intellectual, some physical, and some just wear out my wallet!

How to spend large amounts of our monthly pension? In other dimensions of personal development, my wife and I are slowly renovating our house, finally getting around to making decisions on colors, styles and its overall presentation. When I was a full-time music teacher, I didn’t spend a lot of time at my home. Now in retirement, I have discovered how much it costs to frame a picture, especially if the only criteria when choosing a frame is the beauty of the wood grain and how well you match the double matting to the lithograph. (Without asking the price, I bought a $800 frame for my $125 Charles Wysocki print!)  Taking the high road, we hired a professional to securely hang things on the wall, another very expensive process when your interior decorator ($75/hour) accompanies your installer ($50/hour) to do the job, but all is “perfect” and no marital disputes erupted! After refinishing the floors, installing new windows, painting all the walls, “staging” several rooms (new transformations), and finally finishing the wall-hangings, it looks like the Foxes have a “showcase” residence.

gracie - 1

Raising two cute dogs have become a centerpiece of my life. We need to walk them several times a day, something on which you can’t procrastinate. One would think this regular physical exercise is part of an aerobic routine that is keeping me super-fit!

I have learned so much from my day-to-day dealings with my pups Gracie and Brewster (see previous blog-post https://paulkfoxusc.wordpress.com/2015/09/22/what-i-have-learned-from-my-dogs-in-retirement/), although inspiring a few questions:

  1. How do they always know my mood and needs better than I?
  2. No matter when you glance at them, what moves them to show you unconditional “love at first sight,” instantly lowering your blood pressure, nurturing your peace-of-mind, and improving your disposition?
  3. Since dogs have no lips, how are they so aptly able to express a loving kiss with a simple lick of our hands?
  4. How is it that they are always available (24/7) to cuddle, play, sleep in your lap, explore the mysterious ends of their leashes, and follow you everywhere?
  5. Regardless of the mistakes you make, why are they the first to forgive you?

And all they ask in return is to “hang around with you!”

brewster - 1

Just for fun, check out illustrator Kelly Angel’s representation of “how your dog views you” at https://www.boredpanda.com/how-you-see-yourself-vs-how-your-dog-sees-you/.

Although I volunteer as the founding director of the South Hills Junior Orchestra and teach “kids of all ages” on Saturdays every week, one of my other volunteer pursuits centers around pushing wheelchairs at the local hospital. The good news? I see so many of my students and their families at St. Clair Hospital. My favorite trip is going to the family birth center and discharging a new mother and her baby… and with surprising frequency, reuniting a former student or colleague with their “old” school music teacher or community orchestra director. Any bad news? Well, I am still puzzled why I have lost a little of my stamina and endurance since retiring. After only a little more than 3 1/2 hours of pushing wheelchairs (some of whom contain very large patients), I notice I am ready for a power nap! This does not mesh well with my employment days when I was teaching full-time, arriving to school by 6:45 in the morning, and often did not make it home until 9 PM (after-school rehearsals, meetings and performances of the marching band, fall play, and spring musical. What’s up about that?

 

pmea

Philosophy of Post-Employment Professional Engagement

“Ask not PMEA can do for you, but what you can do for PMEA.”

Where have you heard that before? Sounds like something from the soapbox of the PMEA Retired Member Coordinator? (Check out “PMEA in Retirement”).

The most important part of my long-term goals is to try to make a difference in other people’s lives… colleagues, collegiate or pre-service educators, and others.  As for PMEA, I’m throwing my hat in the ring as your Coordinator of Retired Members. In addition, I accidentally walked into a summer meeting a little more than a year ago and was voted in as chair of the Council for Teacher Training, Recruitment, and Retention. This is an exciting time in during PMEA’s new governance and recently ratified five-year strategic plan. We have the opportunity of doing some real meaningful work for music education in the state of Pennsylvania.

I hope that you continue to participate in PMEA and NAfME yourself. Obviously, once we “Cross the Rubicon” into retirement, we need not to worry about the hectic day-to-day schedule, politics, and stress of a full-time teaching position. However, we can make a difference, acting less engaged but still on-board helping our professional associations and advocating for the success of music education. PA music teachers (the focus of many of these blogs), please consider keeping your membership up-to-date, joining the PMEA Retiree Resource Registry, volunteering for guest conducting, presenting sessions, doing other jobs for PMEA, an/or attending official events.

r3_logo

In a recent Retired Member Network eNEWS, I mentioned that as unofficial mentors and sage advisers, there are many ways retired members can “return the favor” of a career full of wonderfully enriching professional development and music festival resources, simply by helping PMEA out a little:

  1. Review the five-year PMEA Strategic Plan – posted online at https://www.pmea.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/PMEA-Strategic-Plan-2017-21-Final-1.pdf. Focus on possible things in which you may have the skills or interests to contribute to our profession, and propose something new “for the good of the order.” Here are sample objectives – any of these “strike a chord” with you?
    • 1E. Continue to improve and find new and innovative ways to engage PMEA members in advocacy efforts including Advocacy Day in Harrisburg and Music in Our Schools Month activities (“team-up” with retiree Chuck Neidhardt, PMEA State MIOSM Coordinator).
    • 2A. Explore topics of lifelong learning (music therapy, community music, service learning…)
    • 2E. Focus on topics of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access by providing space for dialogue, reaching more students beyond traditional ensembles, and identifying and promoting success stories and appropriate practices.
    • 3B. Investigate possibilities of various partnerships with other music associations.
    • 3E. Develop leadership (e.g. retreat and training sessions).
    • 4B. Promote and expand the Music Performance Assessment program (e.g. solo and chamber ensemble opportunities, virtual MPA’s, and traveling adjudicators).
  2. Still have your “conductor chops?” One way to encourage your colleagues to think of you in becoming a guest director or accompanist of a PMEA festival is to join the PMEA Retiree Resource Registry (see the retired member section of the website at https://www.pmea.net/retired-members/) and send an email sharing your interest and availability to the District President and the local Festival/Fest Coordinator.
  3. Did you know that anyone can suggest a session for a local workshop or PMEA spring and summer conference? (See the PMEA website.) What’s on your mind? What do you think is important to explore, collaborate, or exhibit? I know of few PMEA retired members who do not have a “special expertise” and passion about an area in music and education. Go ahead, “let the cat out of the bag” while it is still “fresh” in your mind!
  4. Submit articles or reviews to our PMEA News editorial committee chair Doug Bolasky (also a retiree) for publication consideration in our state journal. Like #3 above, this is an excellent outlet to “get something off your chest,” promote discussion on almost any topic, research areas you always wanted to unearth, share your thoughts and experiences, and state your opinion “for the record.”
  5. Offer to serve on a PMEA committee. For example, volunteer to serve on the listening or session evaluation committee. Prefer to stay “close to home?” Ask your District President if you can be appointed to (or be placed on the ballot for) one of the many leadership positions in need of caring, committed, and competent representatives. Also, PMEA always needs guest lecturers, panel discussion members, presiding chairs, and info booth volunteers for the spring conference.

 

senior-2642030_1280

In short… we need you, your collective wisdom, experience, and the ability to dodge problems before they become big. Sure, relax a little, personally reflect, refocus, and revitalize your goals during your retirement, but don’t retreat from “doing your bit” for “making a difference” in music education.

PKF

© 2017 Paul K. Fox

 

Photo credits from Pixabay.com: “grandparents” by Marvin Roaw and “senior” by RitaE.

Goals for the Musical Road to Success

Photo credit: FreeImages.com, photographer Matt Hains

Making mature and meaningful decisions to plan personal practice

As the school concert season draws to a close and summer is almost upon us, now is the perfect time to reflect on a little musical goal-setting, complete a personal inventory and needs assessment (in what areas do I need help?), foxsfiresidesprioritize what’s the most important, and define several new “practice plans.”

Do you recall a cartoon with Lucy van Pelt bossing Charlie Brown around and handing him his own very long list of New Year’s resolutions? Except for your parents and the music teachers who know YOU, it isn’t usually effective for someone else to pick your goals. (Of course, if you don’t listen to the suggestions from your music directors and private teachers, there’s a good chance you will never improve!) Sitting around doing nothing, accepting things as they are now, and randomly floating from one task to another accidentally “making music” without foresight or planning are not likely to work. Inattention and osmosis are slow ways to achieve anything in life. Obviously, you must be motivated, ambitious, focused, and committed to “whatever it takes” on the pathways towards self-improvement and musical mastery!

According to “goals experts” (such as the One Minute Manager book by Kenneth Blanchard and the Utah State University recommendations below), to create meaningful personal goals, they should:

  • Be written down (Take the time and post them in your room!);
  • Be specific (Keep it focused, simple, and to the point!);
  • Be concrete (Exactly what/how do you need to do?);
  • Be measurable (How do you know when you’ve succeeded?);
  • Be viewed and reviewed often (Look at them daily/weekly/monthly, and every time you practice!);
  • Be shared (Show them to your music teacher and/or parents/spouse!);
  • Be flexible and change as needed (Modify and adjust – set new goals!);
  • Have a time frame (When will these have to be completed?).

ALL students, parents, and teachers – CLICK ON THIS LINK! Download, print, and read Getting What You Want – How to Make Goals: https://www.usu.edu/asc/assistance/pdf/goal_setting.pdf

seriestoshare-logo-01Your practice should have well-defined goals. What do you want to learn as a musician? Are there particular pieces of music, styles, or technical skills you would like to be able to play? Knowing what you want to accomplish will help you decide what work is needed and assist defining specific learning targets. If you have a private teacher, he/she will automatically prescribe objectives for you, based on your present strengths and weaknesses. But if you desire to join the local youth symphony, participate in a music festival, play in a pit orchestra, perform solos or chamber music, become a conductor, help coach your peers, or want to improve a specific technical skill or general musicianship, make sure your teachers know it! They may be able to share warm-ups, strategies, or practice materials that will help you improve and expand your knowledge, technique, expressiveness, sight-reading and ear training.

Here are some goal-related questions to ask yourself (consider several of these):

  1. Have you signed up for the local band or string camp?
  2. Have you made arrangements to take a few lessons on your instrument or even on piano or music theory over the summer?
  3. What was the last method book you used? Did you finish it? How many pieces can you memorize from it?
  4. When was the last time you performed a solo or two and recorded yourself? Wouldn’t it be fun to video yourself playing a mini-recital and sending the DVD to your grandmother or grandfather?
  5. One of the greatest challenges in performance is sight reading. Can you pull-out a random piece of music (even something written for a different instrument) and play it straight through without stopping?
  6. Pick your greatest weakness or problem on the instrument. What needs your attention? New keys, rhythms, articulations?
  7. Ask your teacher what would be an appropriate exercise book. Can you define several new challenging goals in playing scales, arpeggios, other warm-ups, or études specifically geared for your instrument?
  8. For Western Pennsylvania residents, did you know the South Hills Junior Orchestra is always open to new instrumentalists? SHJO begins its Saturday practices a week after Labor Day (USCHS Band Room 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.). Everyone is welcome to play in 2-4 free-trial practices!

Take a trip to the South Hills Junior Orchestra website. Under “Resources,” check out the three sets of free “Series to Share…” additional “Fox’s Fireside” issues by Paul K. Fox, and “Music Enrichment Workshop” presentations by Donna Stark Fox.

PKF

© 2017 Paul K. Fox

This “Series to Share” is brought to you by… the Founding Directors of the South Hills Junior Orchestra (SHJO), “A Community Orchestra for All Ages” based in Western Pennsylvania. Feel free to download a printable copy and distribute to music students, parents, teachers, and fellow amateur musicians.

SHJO rehearses most Saturdays in the band room of the Upper St. Clair High School, 1825 McLaughlin Run Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15241. New members are always welcome! For more information, please go to www.shjo.org.

Does Practice Make Perfect?

Photo credit: FreeImages.com, photographer Alexander Kalina

 

foxsfiresides

Tips on Developing Better Practicing Habits

Every good musician knows that regular practice is a must, but did you know that careless or inattentive practice can actually make you worse?

It is not necessary true that “practice makes perfect” – more likely that “perfect practice develops perfect playing.” Quality not quantity, you say? Your school music teachers will urge you to increase both the quality (focus, attention, goals/planning, etc.) as well as the number of minutes per week. Here are a few hints on improving practicing techniques. Read on… there are many additional resources for parents to guide their musicians to musical mastery!

  1. Designate a quiet place for practice at home
  2. Limit all distractions (TV, video games, computers, phones)
  3. Plan habits of consistent daily practice time(s) and weekly frequency
  4. Make practice goals (what do you hope to accomplish this week?)
  5. Take a few minutes to warm-up (scales, finger patterns, long tones, or lip slurs)
  6. Sandwich method (start at the bottom and work your way up)
    1. Review a song you already know (bottom slice of bread)
    2. Focus on a few “hard parts” (the meat in the middle of the sandwich)
    3. Sight-read something new (condiments, pickles or cheese)
    4. Review another well-prepared song (top slice of bread)
  7. Pizza slices
    1. Identify and prioritize the problems or hard sections
    2. Partition the entire song
    3. Focus on a “slice” of the music – a measure, phrase or line of music – at a time
    4. Drill (daily) on one or a few slices
    5. Next practice session, repeat then progress to next section
  8. Re-order the sections of a piece (scrambling)
  9. Target a difficult passage, play slow at first, then increase tempo gradually each time you play it
  10. Try patterns of instant slow/fast and then fast/slow
  11. Fire up different sections of the brain on a problem spot
    1. Say the letter names out loud (or sing them) – speech center
    2. Bow or tap the rhythms “in the air” – left-side psychomotor
    3. Finger the notes without the bow or mouthpiece – right-side psychomotor
    4. Combine a, b, and/or c on specific passages – all parts of the brain
  12. Create new rhythmic or articulation/bowing variations to challenge your playing of the passage
  13. To improve your musical batting average, implement the Ten-Times Rule (accurately in a-row)
  14. Always add expressive markings including dynamics, tempo and articulation changes, etc.

seriestoshare-logo-01Yes, practicing should be heard at home. It is NOT enough simply to play at school. The long-tested “success equation” is TIME + MAKING PROGRESS = FUN (encouraging more time, progress and fun). Practicing on a regular basis improves technique, musicianship, self-confidence, endurance, reading skills, and besides… playing better is a lot more FUN!

PARENTS: Here are several excellent websites on recommendations for developing better practice skills, but ask your school music director for more advice!

PKF

© 2017 Paul K. Fox

This “Series to Share” is brought to you by… the Founding Directors of the South Hills Junior Orchestra (SHJO), “A Community Orchestra for All Ages” based in Western Pennsylvania. Please feel free to download a printable copy (CLICK HERE) and distribute to music students, parents, teachers, and fellow amateur musicians.

SHJO rehearses most Saturdays in the band room of the Upper St. Clair High School, 1825 McLaughlin Run Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15241. New members are always welcome! For more information, please go to www.shjo.org.