But before diving into the what and the how, I want to “start with why.” (If you’re not familiar with the idea of “Starting with Why,” definitely go check out Simon Sinek’s brilliant TED Talk on the topic.) Taking my cue from CEO and Founder of High Tech High Larry Rosenstock, I find that reflecting on my most significant learning experience helps to articulate my vision for teaching and learning.
Skipping Senior Skip Day
Music was a big deal at my school, but its rise to prominence speaks to the power of creative compliance. When Mr. Mucci first arrived at Longmeadow High School in the 90s, the school expected his primary responsibility to be leading a marching band that supported our football team. (Every once and a while he would take out the ridiculous uniforms at the beginning of the year to remind us of what we might otherwise have been doing.) However, Mr. Mucci planned to create the best instrumental music program in the country. The status quo would have meant sacrificing the level of music students could play in order to please the football fans and practice how to walk and play an instrument at the same time. So he stood up for what he believed in without burning bridges. He considered the school’s interest (supporting the sports program and building school pride) while avoiding compliance with the school’s specific position (that the music program should support the football team with an elaborate marching band). Instead, he created a pep band, a completely student run ensemble that played crowd favorites in the stands during games. He would have the seniors teach the underclassmen the pieces in the first week of school, practice them once together, and then get on to the real work of a high school music program.
“Choice within Structure”: Empowering Students to Meet High Expectations
Modeling What Excellence Looks Like
Mr. Mucci made rehearsal a sacred time and the band room a sacred space. Pictures and posters around the room celebrated our performances at Boston Symphony Hall, Carnegie Hall and Jazz at Lincoln Center. CD collections of great, orchestral, jazz and wind band works, including past performances of our ensembles, lined the walls of a smaller practice room. Professional quality instruments encouraged us to practice and play at a professional level. In fact, many of us would spend hours during study halls as well as before and after school practicing as well as just hanging out in the band room. I arrived at high school knowing nothing about jazz and classical music. By the time I left, I had developed a passion and drive to perform music that has guided me through my life. Mr. Mucci took me under his wing and pushed me to go to music camp, then try out for a youth wind ensemble he ran out of New England Conservatory in Boston, and finally to music tours in Europe and Latin America. While my peers bumped Jay-Z with the windows down, I blasted Tchiakovsky’s 5th Symphony singing the melody as I sped down the Mass Pike to Friday night practice with Mr. Mucci’s ensemble in Boston (and let’s be honest: I blasted Jay-Z as well).
“Heart on Fire, Brain on Ice”: Combining Play, Passion, and Purpose
Every student respected and honored our time together and viewed every rehearsal as a performance, which pushed us to constantly improve our work. Mr. Mucci would start many rehearsals by saying, “Heart on Fire, Brain on Ice,” to remind us of the importance of playing with passion and laser-like focus simultaneously. We lived those values, engaging in deliberate practice of a particular 3-bar phrase 10 or 15 times, until it was perfect not just once but multiple times in a row. This kind of preparation built a discipline in each of us that allowed us to step on stage for a performance in Carnegie Hall with the excitement of a group of high school band geeks and the poise and confidence of a professional ensemble. But there were also those memorable moments when as an ensemble, we did not rise to meet the high expectations we held for ourselves. During one late-night symphony orchestra rehearsal, the trumpet section missed an entrance, which served as a cue for most of the rest of the ensemble (including my percussion section). Since symphony orchestra combined our orchestra with our wind ensemble, we only had the opportunity to practice together at night 3 times before we performed in concert. Through the chaos that ensued, Mr Mucci just continued conducting and saying scoldingly, “Remember what this feels like!” Those two minutes were two of the longest minutes in my life. We all looked sheepishly at each other and at Mr. Mucci, knowing we had let him and ourselves down. It wasn’t that we had made a mistake, mistakes could be learning experiences. It was that we had been lazy and undisciplined, depending on a trumpet cue rather than counting rests to ensure we came in at the right time.
So we all showed up on Senior Skip Day for Mr. Mucci and for ourselves.