Monthly Archives: August 2012

An Interview with the Author of The Complete Idiots Guide to Conducting Music

Chase: “All right everybody, this is Chase March. I am talking to the author of The Complete Idiots Guide to Conducting Music, Michael Miller. How’s it going, Michael?”

Michael: “I’m doing fine, Chase. Good to be with you.”

Chase: “You’ve written a good book. It’s something that a lot of music teachers could use, especially novice music teachers. I’m a musician and it’s simple enough to conduct a common beat time, 4/4 time, but I wanted to get your book to see a little bit more of what conductors have to do. You’ve divided the book up into five sections; behind the scenes, basic skills, interpretation and expression, different types of conducting, and finally you have some interviews with famous conductors.”

Michael: “Yeah, the interviews were the fun part of the book for me. I got to talk to conductors who conduct different types of things, whether that’s Broadway musicals, Hollywood soundtracks, choirs, or orchestras. The conducting job really changes a lot depending on who you’re conducting.”

Chase: “For sure, but it all starts from the same, basic principles. Your first part of the job is, ‘What makes a great conductor?’ Could you answer that question for us? I know it’s in the book, but briefly for everyone listening right now. What does a great conductor have to do?”

Michael: “You’ve got a couple different levels you have to operate on and those levels actually change depending on the type of performers you are conducting. At the most basic, the conductor has to set the tempo and keep the ensemble on the beat. The most basic stuff is the beat patterns. But beyond that, the conductor helps the musicians. So, if you are conducting an ensemble of younger players, let’s say a high school ensemble, they will need a lot more help than if you are conducting a professional symphonic orchestra.

The younger players will need help knowing when to come in, knowing their cures, tough rhythms, and that sort of thing. Wo, while you are keeping the beat, you’ve got to help these players do what they need to do. If you’re dealing with more experienced players, you probably need to do less of that because they know how to do it already.

In most types of music, the conductor can really help shape the performance, the end sound of the piece. This is done primarily in rehearsal. Your prep them to do that so when you get to the performance, they’re doing it. This is why when you listen to orchestra performances of a single piece of music, take New World Symphony or Beethoven’s 9th or whatever. You can listen to three different recordings from three different orchestras and they will sound different. They’ll have different energy levels, and dynamic levels, and tempos. All of that is set by the conductor. The conductor really does shape the overall sound and performance of the piece.”

Chase: “In the book, you talk about how we need a band in front of us to practise our craft. But you also suggest that we can do that by conducting as we are listening to a piece of music. You suggest on page 31, ‘Instead of listening to a single recording five times, listen to five recordings one time each. This approach also helps you get a feel for the various interpretations possible.’

Michael: “Definitely. Different conductors approach things different ways. You can get radically different or subtly different interpretations. These days there are a lot of orchestral and choir performances on YouTube, so you can see some classic conductors doing there thing and get a sense of how they are approaching it differently from others.”

Chase: “That’s another neat thing about your book, too, because there are certain points throughout the book that you direct us to your website to find out more.”

Michael: “Conducting is something you can talk about, and of course, I do, but a lot of it you have to see. Obviously, we have diagrams of the different beat patterns, but I also created a series of videos showing how you conduct the various beat patterns.”

Chase: “I just got a music job. I’m an elementary teacher so I’ve always done choirs, but for the first time this year, I am going to be doing Grade 7/8 band. That’s the first time the kids get their instruments. It’s brand new. So reading your book has been homework for me, to help me figure out what I am going to be doing this year because this it is a new experience.”

Michael: “So much of what a conductor does is not the conducting. The conducting during the performance is maybe 20% of the job. The majority of the job is prepping for that, primarily in rehearsals, especially in youth and student ensembles. You’ll have issues well beyond playing a piece of music.

If you are dealing with 7th and 8th Grade band, you’ve got intonation issues to deal with. A big part of the job is getting the clarinet section to sound like one section as opposed to ten folks all playing different notes. I’m not putting down the musicians at all. At that age, they are learning. And one of the things they are learning is how to play together as a group. That’s job number one for the conductor.

All of the conductors I interviewed in the book said, ‘No matter what level you are at, you’re a teacher.’ Even when you are dealing with professionals, you are teaching them the way you want it performed. When you are dealing with younger performers you are even teaching them the instrument and how it should be played. And that is one of the most rewarding things about being a conductor, as you are teaching when they ‘get it.’ That moment when it all comes together for the first time is one of the most rewarding things a conductor can do.”

Chase: “The Manny Laureano interview was pretty eye-opening for me. On page pg 136 of your book, he says,

‘assign homework every week. . . I told the kids, ‘You need to practice. You need to practice. You need to practice.’
Well, the problem was, and I didn’t see it until the end, that the piece is just so gigantic. You tell them to practise but they need
to know where, what, what do I do?”

Michael: “You really have to give them explicit directions, especially with younger musicians, but even if you are conducting a community choir, you have kind of the same issues. You’ll have people who don’t go home and practise three hours a day because they just don’t have the time for that. To me, that’s one of the fun parts of the book, and one of the most useful, is being able to interview guys like Manny.

A little background on Manny. He is the principle trumpet player here in the Minneapolis Orchestra, but he also is the conductor and leader of the Minneapolis Youth Symphony, so he gets to see conducting both from being a player and being a conductor. He’s played under some of the most famous conductors in the world, but on the next day, he goes and conducts the Youth Symphony. He gets to see it from both sides, so he knows what works and what doesn’t.”

Chase: “That’s very cool. I learned a lot from this book. I played the French Horn starting in middle school. I played it all the way through high school, and then in the army’s marching band. One thing I found interesting though is how not only you, but some of the conductors you interviewed, mention how you should mark up your own piece of music so you can remember certain things. I’ve never done that.”

Michael: “It really helps. Even if it’s just a matter of saying, here is something difficult, look up, here’s a key change, here’s a tempo change. Just as you would expect musicians to mark up their music for difficult passages, the conductor should do the same. Depending on the pieces you are conducting, there is a lot of homework involved in being a conductor. Some of the conductors say, if there are prepping a major piece for a professional choir or orchestra, they will do months of preparation in advance before they ever step in front of the orchestra. They learn the history of the piece, when it was written, and what the performance standards were then, to really get inside the mind of the composer so when they do step in front of the ensemble, they’ve got it all down, right from day one.”

Chase: “They do that, as you say in the book, using coloured pencils to mark different sections. For example, red for cueing, green for dynamics, and things like that. And if you use the same colour all the time, your brain gets used to it and it’s a lot easier for you to recognize, over time, what you have to do with each piece.”

Michael: “I think that’s a great tip because a conductor is doing so much. At the most basic level you are setting the tone and keeping the beat, like a human metronome. But beyond that, think about it. You’re dealing with dynamics, rhythm, solo passages, groups passages, tempo changes. You’re dealing with all these things. And in front of an orchestra, you are dealing with a hundred different people with a hundred instruments in front of you. You’ve got the most complex job of the whole group, trying to corral all this stuff, so the easier you can make it on yourself, the colour-coded marking up section being an example. the easier the whole ordeal will be.”

Chase: “That’s amazing. I didn’t realize there was so much prep work. I thought a lot of it might have been sight reading and learning a piece though multiple run-throughs. But a lot of it is the homework you do beforehand so you can be comfortable with a piece to know how it sounds and know when people need to come in.”

Michael: “Yeah, because they are relying on you. You’re the boss. You’re the leader. Especially with student ensembles and younger players. They’re really relying on you. You’ve got to know your stuff. You can’t rely on them. I guess if you are working with a professional symphony, any fool could stand up there and wave there arms because the musicians know what they are doing so well that they could probably play blind. But any other type of ensemble, they depend on you. You’re the leader.

In terms of the prep work, that does differ on the type of work you are doing. In one of the chapters toward the end of the book, I interviewed a couple of guys who conduct movie orchestras for movie soundtracks. One of the things that fascinated me there was how little prep work they have. They are on such a tight schedule. Making a movie is such a condensed thing, especially at the end. The music always comes at the end, after the movie has been cut.

You might have the composer compose the music one day, have it sent to an orchestrator the next day, then have it sent to a copyist the next day, and the fourth day you are in front of the orchestra recording. A lot of the guys I interviewed said they were lucky if they go the music the night before to look at. So, in a lot of these cases, the Hollywood conductors are sight reading along with the musicians to try and get it down on tape for what we see in the movie theatres.”

Chase: “I couldn’t believe that when I read it. There is so much time given to writing of the screenplay and casting it, so why do they just make the music come in the last thirty seconds as quickly as they can. That seems really strange to me. Music is such an integral piece of the whole thing.”

Michael: “It does come down to the very end. They’ve filmed the movie, they’ve edited it, they’ve cut it, everyone has been there and then they add the music. It literally is the last thing that goes on, and they’ve got a firm release date of when it goes on. That’s the way it works. A lot of times, you’re recording music which has only been copied the night before. If that.”

Chase: “That’s crazy. I can also appreciate the Tim Davies interview because he mentions the French Horns, in particular, a couple times there. I think that’s an instrument that is often over-looked. When I was at the interview for the job I just got, I asked them if they had a French Horn and they said, ‘No.’ It seems like, ‘We don’t need a French Horn.’ That’s crazy to me. It’s such a lovely instrument.”

Michael: “Well, as you know, it’s a difficult instrument to play, or to play well anyway. If you have a good French Horn player, it’s a wonderful sound. With a bunch of seventh graders, it can be horrible sometimes. It’s an instrument that is difficult to master, but when it’s mastered, it’s a great instrument.”

Chase: “I definitely agree.”

That concludes the first half of the interview I did with Michael Miller, author of The Complete Idiots Guide to Conducting Music. Please come back tomorrow to read the rest of the transcript. You can also download the entire show to listen to whenever you like, or stream it with the player below. Thanks for tuning in. See you tomorrow.

Read Part 2

Music Playlist at

Kelly Clarkson / The Fray in Toronto

I was really enjoying the Kelly Clarkson show at the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto last night. I had gotten a free ticket and I managed to score a pretty good seat. I was right at centre stage but I was near the back of the seating section.

I tell ya, I sure picked a good seat. The lead singer of The Fray made his way through the crowd as he sang a song and he actually walked down my very aisle. He stood on the seats and walked right behind me. It was pretty cool.

I wished I had brought my camera. I stopped bringing it to shows because I just want to enjoy the moment. Plus, in this day and age, I can usually count on someone posting good photos or videos online for me to remember the show later on. Normally I am so far back that I don’t get good shots either.

With that photo-worthy moment gone, I wasn’t sure there’d be another. But there was.

Kelly Clarkson did the exact same thing. She didn’t make her way down the row of seats I was in, but she did stop at the section just ahead of me during her cover of “We Are Young” by Fun.

I looked for myself in this clip from a fellow concert goer. I swear I was just outside of the camera’s field of vision. But I was super-close.

After she finished the cover song, she stayed in that same spot to sing “Gone.” It’s a great song and a personal favourite of mine. It was so cool to have her sing those two songs so close to where I was standing and singing along.

Overall, it was a great concert. The Fray really impressed me. They put on an amazing show. I couldn’t find any YouTube videos to show you here so you’ll just have to take me word for it. But hopefully, someone will upload one soon. Maybe you’ll be able to see when Isaac walked right passed me.

Another highlight of the concert was when he came back during Kelly Clarkson’s set to perform the Jason Aldean part of the duet with her for the song “Don’t You Wanna Stay.” That’s my favourite track by her and they did a great job of it last night.

I’m so glad I was able to score free tickets from a friend of a friend. It was a great night and a great show.

Teaching Tip – First day Grids

Here is a great first day of school activity you can do with your class.

I mentioned this activity in the First Day Script, which is a very detailed lesson plan for the first day of school. I’ve used this plan, or variations of it, successfully for several years. It is very important to have the first day run smoothly and this is a great way to do it.

It’s always best to have too much planned than to have to try and stretch for time, especially for newer teachers. I like to have several activities photocopied and ready to go, just in case. This is a must for the first day of school, but also a good idea for every day thereafter. It never hurts to have a stack of photocopied worksheets ready to handout on the fly.

Download the PDF worksheet

Download the MS Word file

This worksheet is an easy one for the students to do. They simply have to think of an example for each category that starts with the letters along the left hand side of the page. There are several TV shows that start with F. I used “Flintstones” as an example but could just have easily used “Fairly Odd Parents” , “Friends” , or “Flash Forward.”

I like to give the students a certain amount of time to work independently on this task and then have them circulate around the room to share examples, and to help each other complete their grids. It helps any students who might get stuck filling in the entire grid. It also models cooperation, which is a big component of my classroom.

I hope this helps. If you have any ideas you’d like to share, please leave a comment below, or get at me on Twitter. I’d love to hear from you.

I wish you all a great first day of school!

Practice vs Practise

Here is a great quote from a legend in Canadian Hip-Hop. It’s from Maestro Fresh Wes and it’s about how you have to work at something to achieve success. Apart from this quote being inspirational, I’m highlighting this passage to illustrate the difference between the spelling of “practice” when used as a noun and “practise” when used as a verb.

“When I was starting out rhyming, I used to practise with my good friend and first DJ, Greg Nathaniel (DJ Greg). Like I mentioned earlier, I had a bad habit of rhyming faster than the track, and it frustrated Greg when I rapped out of sync with his 45s. Over and over, he’d tell me to stay ‘in the pocket’ with the beat. It took a lot of steady practice, but by the age of fifteen, I was getting really nice with the verbals, and because of that, I gained a lot of confidence.”

Wes “Maestro” Williams uses both forms of “practice” in this paragraph from his book Stick to Your Vision: How to Get Past the Hurdles and the Haters to Get Where You Want to Be.

The first time he uses the word, he is talking about the act of rapping itself.

I used to practise with my good friend

He is working at his craft by practising. This is a verb and as such, it should be spelled with an “s” just as it is in this passage.

The second mention of the word is in a different context.

It took a lot of steady practice

This time, the word is being used as a noun. Practice is the thing that helped him get better, to start using more intricate wordplay, to have a better flow, and to take his art to new heights. When practice is used as a noun, it is spelled with a “c.”

I find that the traditional way of spelling practice is falling by the wayside. I make sure I spell it correctly depending on whether I am using it as a verb or a noun. But many people try to correct me on it. For instance, your computer will often auto correct any mention of the word in your document to the “c” spelling of the word. The only way to get passed this is to make sure your language is set to English: Canadian.

This is something we should be teaching our students. It’s important to note that the spell check and grammar check on the computer can often be wrong. We shouldn’t just blindly follow the computer and change everything it wants us to.

Would you believe that I have had some students think they’ve spelled their name wrong simply because the computer doesn’t recognize it?

Maybe I am being a bit picky here but I think spelling is important and I want to hold on to our traditional spellings. Words like colour, centre, behaviour, and practise are words I want to see spelled correctly. Is that too much to ask?

There’s a Mouse in the House

I was woken up last night by a strange sound. It sounded as though metal was being scrunched, like someone was twisting an empty pop can. I listened very carefully for a few moments. The sound stopped. I lay still on my bed and looked at the clock. It was 2:30 a.m.

The noise started back up again. I tried to think about what it could be. I then remembered that I had left  a cookie sheet with a piece of tinfoil on top of the oven after dinner last night. I had cooked pork and pieces of the meat had stuck to the aluminum foil.

I got up, turned on the lights, and slowly made my way to the kitchen. I didn’t want to unexpectedly corner a wild animal.

When I got closer to the oven, I saw that that the tinfoil was crumpled up and parts of it were missing. I moved the oven and checked the cupboards. I didn’t see any other signs of creatures. I’m going to have to check more again today, but I am pretty sure that there are mice in the house.

I had a hard time getting back to sleep after that. I kept thinking about all the things a mouse could get into. My cereal is in plastic tubs so that should be okay. But I didn’t want to have to throw out the food in my cupboard because mice had gotten into it.

I managed to get back to sleep because at that point in the night, there was really nothing else I could do.

I went out to go buy some mouse traps today. I hate having to do that. But I also can’t be operating a mouse hotel.

I made the mistake of going to a large chain store. You know, the kind that sells everything. I walked by the toy department and saw a kid carrying this game.

I thought, sure but it real life, it’s not that fun.

My Screwdriver is Sonic!

I’ve wanted my own sonic screwdriver for some time now.

When I saw this kit in the comic book store, it really called out to me.

I could get three sonic screwdrivers for the price of one?

And I can mix and match them to get a completely customizable unit with a functioning light and sound effect?


As you can see, the kit comes with one light and sound unit (on the left side) and this fits into the handle of the screwdriver you choose. There are three emitters (screwdriver heads) , three control sections, three hand grips, and three pommels (bottom piece.) As such, there are 80 possible ways to build your very own sonic screwdriver.

I must admit that I really like this old school one.

I love how both the emitter and the control section light up. I also really like that there is a display so you can zap something and then hold it up to analyze what you have just scanned. It makes me feel like the tenth doctor. I keep walking around, pressing the button, hearing that familiar screech, and then holding up the unit and saying, “What?”

I know that this particular sonic screwdriver really looks nothing like Ten’s, but just humor me, okay? I’m having fun! It was thirty dollars well spent, in my humble opinion.


Teaching Tip – Professional Development

Welcome to Teaching Tip Tuesday!

Every week I share with you a tip that I hope you will find useful in your teaching.

You can visit the Teaching Tips Archive to see all of the tips in the order I have posted them over the years. Please check that page as I will continue to update it every week with the latest Teaching Tip.

This page is all about Professional Development and the ways we can help each other improve as teachers.

Please bookmark this page and come back often. I will update it with any new tip I publish that has to do with PD.

You might also want to check my Pinterest page for more great teaching ideas.

I hope you enjoy these Teaching Tips.

Be Enthusiastic!
Great Websites
Key Elements Great Teachers Possess
Two Month Goal: Know Your Students
What Teachers Actually Do

Shriner’s Woodlot / Mount Carmel Running Tour

I collect trails. I know that sounds weird but I don’t like running the same routes all the time. I want to find new trails to run, so whenever I find myself in a new city, if I have the time, I steal myself away for a trail run.

This weekend I was in Niagara Falls and I looked on a map and saw two trails fairly close together. Shriner’s Woodlot and Mount Carmel trail. It sounded delicious.

The trail started out promising enough.

Inside the forest there were several offshoots to the main trail.

The entire trail consisted of two large ovals. And while the trail was nice. It was only about a kilometer long. I like to run for at least five.

But as I drove to this spot, I passed Mount Carmel Park so I ran a block to see what the trail was like there.

It’s a nice neighbourhood park with a playground, baseball diamond, lots of green space, and a paved trail.

This bridge looked pretty cool but there wasn’t much more to the trail. I was hoping it would go back into the bush as well, but it didn’t.

So I made my way back to The Shriner’s Woodlot and ran the trail again. I looped around the oval trails in a figure eight section and took the side trails to neighbouring suburbs.

All in all, I still got my five kilometers in. It wasn’t the best trail for a five kilometer run but it’s a nice on for anyone who’d just like a walk.

Want to see more trails?

Classified Autograph

This concert was really good. Not only did I get to meet and hang out with one of the best rappers to ever come out of Canada, but I also got to interview him for the radio show and podcast.

Classified put on an amazing show. If you ever get a chance to see him in concert, you really must do yourself a favour and go.

I got him to autograph my concert ticket too.

I love collecting autographs. I have a lot more to share with you. In the meantime, check out these ones.

Chasing Content – August 2008

The console room from 2005–2010, first seen in...
The console room from 2005–2010, first seen in “Rose” and last seen in “The Doctor’s Wife”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s take a trip back in time. We don’t need any fancy equipment or even a TARDIS, all we need is the blog archive to explore what was happening here four years ago.

Are you ready?

Let’s go!

You can read all of the posts from August 2008

or just these Top 5!

Final Preparations – This is what I was doing to get my classroom ready for the first day of school four years ago. Funny how not too much changes. I’m already working on back to school plans for this year too.

What’s the Priority? – Here’s a pet peeve of mine.It has to do with automated telephone systems and their use of the phrase “priority sequence.” Am I wrong?

Vespers – I have fond memories of singing this little song at the end of every Scout meeting when I was a kid. For years, I’ve wanted to create something similar for the classroom. I’m not sure why I haven’t. I guess I’m not too sure that the same thing will work in the classroom. Too bad!

Dragons Can Be Defeated – This is one of my most popular posts. Not sure why everyone is searching for a way to slay dragons. I just loved this quote and had to add it to my commonplace book.

4 Things to Keep in Your Car – It always pays to be prepared. There are a few things I might add to this list now, such as plastic bags. They always come in handy, especially if any of your passengers happen to get sick along the way.

Thanks for Chasing Content with me!

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