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Entertained or Entertaining

Entertained or Entertaining

Ed Dumas

Most people that I meet who find out that I am a musician and music teacher completely misunderstand the role of being a musician. Most of the time when they say how much fun it must be to play trumpet, and how it must be so wonderful to be involved with something so emotional like that. I just smile nicely and nod in agreement.

I thoroughly enjoy playing trumpet and would happily do it all day long if I could. Yet I know full well that most people cannot understand the commitment that is required to be a musician as well as the intellectual demands of the work. That is, of course, unless they are already a musician themselves.

I used to warn students when they were coming into a beginning-level band class, that I have spent decades working hard practicing, playing, lifting, toting, setting up, and then cleaning up only to get ready to do it all over once again. Being a musician is a full-time, all-out, “give it all you’ve got” kind of job, and I have never apologized for it nor will I ever. Right from the start I want my students to understand that what they were getting into was a lot of work.

Yes, being a musician is a lot of fun, too. I would tell them that “Seriously, it is a lot of fun. But it is just not Fun and Games!” It is more like “A lot of serious fun.”

Shortly after my first meeting with new band students, I would then meet the parents of those same students. Again, I would reinforce to the parents that for their children to be successful, they were going to need to commit to a level of work that they may be unprepared for. They would need some parent encouragement to guide them to keep that work going forward long enough to get some traction and success on their instrument before the “payoff” was to come. That was the bargain, and most parents understood and were able to support their children in their beginning attempts to be a musician.

Today it seems that things have been kind of turned around backwards a little bit. Students come into a beginning-level class with little to no understanding of their role as a musician. To begin with, today students expect to be entertained a lot more than students of previous decades. Mostly they seem unable to separate their role as a musician from the audience’s role in a performance. It is a matter of wanting to be entertained, instead of being entertaining.

Now I know as soon as I say that, someone is going to criticize that train of thought kind of like “When I was a kid, we had to walk 5 miles to school in the snow, uphill! Both ways!” I am not trying to be one of those “When I was a kid” kind of people, but there is something fundamentally different happening now. The difference, it seems to me, is a level of needing to be entertained at all times that is a great deal more than it used to be. So what changed between when I started teaching and when I ended teaching?

What Changed?

In short, two words - cell phones. The advent of the smartphone at the beginning of the 21st century has had a profound effect on students today, and mostly it has not been a good change. As proof of my contention that smartphones have been an educational disaster, I used to ask my students “How many of you have a Google Calendar set up on your phone and use it daily?” Only a few hands would go up. I would also ask “How many of you have a task list app set up on your phone and use it regularly to complete work on time?” Again, a few would, but not many.

Even the music students when asked if they had a digital tuner app or metronome app on their smartphone would provide only a few positive answers. But when I asked how many have texting apps and social media apps on their phone and use them daily, the majority would confirm that to be so. When I asked how many students have games on their phones and use those regularly, virtually every hand would go up.

Now I am not here to lay blame for all of our world’s woes at the feet of smartphones, but it seems to me that students do not see their phones as the amazing tool that they are. Instead, they see them as a toy, a distraction, or as entertainment. Few see and use them for something extremely powerful that could hugely affect their education for the better. Instead, they are all too often used as a way to distract from the here and now to go to someplace not real.

I am not sure if cell phones were the creation of the problem or just a symptom of a bigger problem. Either way, it seems evident to me that our general student population is looking to be entertained more and more, and this runs counter to what being a musician is all about. Musicians need to be the ones doing the entertaining, not the ones who are entertained. That distinction is very important for our students to understand if they are to develop any kind of skill on their instrument.

Other Stakeholders

While I saw the continued rise of the “Entertain Me” phenomenon, I also saw another side of the problem that concerned me even more. Even in retirement this facet now concerns me the most. Most band teachers understand the issue of wanting to be entertained instead of being entertaining. Now what concerns me is that most parents and even other teachers and school leaders have a hard time distinguishing between those two roles. Music programs are used more and more as a place to put generally unsuccessful students because “Making music is lots of fun and this student should enjoy it here.”

Few seem ready to ask the question, “Does this student have the capacity to master some of the more intellectually demanding parts of music education, which are some of the most challenging areas of study in the entire school system?” Not asking that question seems to be just setting up the student who is looking for any kind of success in school for another potential disaster. Prepping them, though, for the hard work to come could be enough to give that same student some success and finally something positive in their life. But, selling it as “Entertaining” is not the answer.

Here is an illustration of how deeply I see this problem running in our school system. Each spring it is usually the vice-principal’s job in the secondary schools to lay out the entire school schedule of classes for the next year. One year a vice principal came to me and asked "Which courses should not run as a singleton behind the senior band block?” For those that have not heard the term, a singleton is an elective course that has only one option for students to sign into if they want to take that course. Senior band is usually a singleton, and backing it up next to another singleton means that students that want both must choose.

I was quite pleased that the administrator had the forethought to ask me which courses to avoid to keep as many students as possible in our music program. My immediate answer, without even thinking about it, was “Oh, dear God! Please do not back us up against senior Physics! We will die if that happens!” That had happened before and created quite a problem.

The response I got back from the Vice-Principal was, “Really? I thought backing band up to Communications 11 would be a problem?” Again, I blurted out, without thinking too much (I was still young!) “Have you seen who is taking senior band? They are all heading off to university and have straight A’s in everything they do! None of them will be taking Communications 11!” That would actually be a good plan to use Communications 11 as a singleton backup.

Well, I never thought much about that discussion for a few months, until near the end of the year when student timetables for the next year were then being generated. We ended up with about 25 – 30 students in the senior band that had to choose between their music studies and, you guessed it, a senior physics course! That was one of the few times that I laughed at the problem instead of my usual quietly seething inside. Instead, I just sent all those students on up to see the administrator who then had to recreate the schedule for the entire school! He later told me that he thought I was wrong and that his perception of the problem was more accurate. At that point, he laughed at himself at how he was “schooled!”

I have thought many times about that scheduling problem. It still seems to me that the issue was the administrator did not have a good perception of the role of being a musician. I do not find it a surprise that the history of musicians overlaps greatly with the history of truly great and successful people from all walks of life. It is not really about which one came first or led to the other, but more the fact that being a musician requires great commitment, just like being successful in ANY endeavour in life.

It seems to me that the students who misunderstand the idea of being entertained in music class as opposed to being entertaining to an audience are the same students that are most likely to run into difficulties in music and stop their musical studies before any meaningful success arises. This is the reason that I have tried to inform them of the difference as early, and as often, as possible.

A comparison that I have often used is like learning to drive a car. In the beginning, when students are just learning to drive, new drivers get this rush of adrenaline when they think about the new freedom that comes with having that car. But it is that very same heady adrenalin rush that could easily get you killed. Instead, what we need from our drivers is not excitement from being entertained while driving. We need our drivers to be boring and bored, but at the same time extremely mentally alert and ready for any dangerous possibility that could quickly arise. When emotions rise while driving, alertness to changing road conditions drops, and lives are put in peril.

It is kind of like that for musicians. Manipulating that piece of metal or plastic in your hands is extremely challenging, and we need all of the young musician's mental focus to be on making that sound output to be as perfect as possible, with practically no thought on being entertained while playing. In short, if done right, the musician is intensely bored, and yet still exciting for the audience who are thrilled at the performance.

So What Sells the Students on Making Music?

Once students get into their first concert, the penny usually begins to drop for them. If the students get a huge round of applause for their performance, they will be hooked on making music for years to come. One of the most successful pieces of music that I have ever conducted is In A Gentle Rain by Robert W. Smith. This work is very simple and elegant at a medium difficulty level. There are a few fairly easy solos which are passed around between some of the players. The work also begins with the audience getting involved in making some rain sounds with finger snaps and claps.

The response from the audience was the longest duration of strong applause that I have witnessed in my career, even though we have played many far more challenging pieces of music. The reason for the wonderful reception it got was because of the connection made between the musicians on stage and the audience in the seats. Since the audience was part of the performance, they felt a level of enjoyment often reserved for musicians, and this led to wonderful applause.

Once students can feel that kind of connection to an audience, they will be hooked for life. But to do so, students need to understand that they need to put all of their distractions away and focus their entire being on the task at hand, that of entertaining their audience. I have often repeated a saying from my own secondary band teacher “What you practice in this room you will repeat in performance.” Therefore, students need to make sure they are practicing with focused attention, and that means all distractions need to get put away. Once they have had some positive results from their audience they will crave more, but first, they will need to make that commitment to prepping to be entertaining, and not entertained.

Pop Music

I have to tell you upfront that I am not a fan of using pop music in a concert band setting. That is because so much of what is arranged from pop tunes into concert bands are just not very good. The whole medium of a pop/rock band just does not translate well into a concert band which contains dramatically more instruments, no electricity and completely different percussion. There are some good pop transcriptions, but usually something that is composed specifically for a concert band comes off better in the end.

Many teachers, though, like to use pop and rock tunes as a way to entice students into their music program. While I can certainly understand the desire to reach more students, I am worried that this might be sending the wrong message to our young musicians. Too much use of pop and rock tunes can lead to sending the message that the music students should be entertained rather than them prepping to be entertaining for their audience.

As an interesting aside, I remember a time when I tried for several years to use an arrangement of the opening theme from The Simpsons in our junior concert band. It always seemed that the student’s enthusiasm for the theme music waned after working on it for a while. I thought the arrangement was actually quite good because it contained so many fun sound effects that I was sure the audience would enjoy. But I got the impression from the students that we were treading on something almost sacrilegious, and in the end, we never did perform it even once after trying several times.

Encourage Being Entertaining

To help students develop a sense of being entertaining instead of being entertained, teachers need to be persistent in their messaging. Talk often about what their audience will hear and compare that to what the students are attempting to do. For example, I have often found that when students say they “like” a certain piece of music, they often mean that they are entertained by it. More often than not, that usually means that the students will blast out that musical work too loud because doing this “is fun” like they are being entertained.

Remind students that their audience, who are the ones supposed to be entertained, will not view it the same way. For most folks, a concert band constantly blowing too loud is just tedious and tiring, especially when other aspects of their performance suffer because of it. This could include bad tone, bad tuning, bad intonation, changing tempos, and messing up the rhythms.

If your group does not believe you when you point this out to them, there is nothing like a recording to bring the message home. One of the most valuable tools I have used over the years is a simple digital recording device which can play back for the students a good recording of what they just performed. Whatever you spend on recording gear will pay you back immensely in a better understanding of the role of the musicians and how to achieve it. Students are often very surprised that the changes they thought they were making in dynamics barely registered at all with a digital recorder.

When students begin to understand that they are the entertainment, they will begin to view other parts of their musical work a little differently as well. This includes fewer distractions in class, such as cell phones. A sure sign that a student does not understand their role in the performance is finding a cell phone on their stand during rehearsal!

When students understand their role as musicians better, things like uniforms become a non-issue. All the comments of “Do we really have to wear this?” just seem to end, because the uniform is not about the students anymore. They now understand it is for the audience. I have used the story of one pair of white socks destroying an entire performance for the whole group more times than I can count because that is how the audience sees it!

I have also noticed that students who understand their role as musicians better then have few if any difficulties with deportment. Reminding students ahead of the concert that they are “On Performance” from the moment they walk into the room to the moment that they leave the room certainly helps them understand that this is exactly how their audience views it. The show does not end just because the music has stopped! It ends when the musicians have departed.

Having students attend concerts of other groups, even groups from within their school usually helps students to visualize how their audience sees them. I have often heard complaints from students similar to “I don’t like listening to concert bands because they are boring.” This is a great opportunity for these students to list how they would perform their music and their presence differently now knowing what is boring for the audience.

Get A Reaction

Finally, I have usually told students to “Get A Reaction.” If they do not know what kind of reaction a particular piece of music should evoke, then they certainly will have less success in achieving any reaction at all from their audience. I remember once performing In Memorium Dresden by Daniel Bukvich which is about the firebombing of the city in World War II.

When working up this piece, you cannot get through it without having some discussions regarding what happened to that city in the war. These were most certainly uncomfortable discussions, but I have always vowed to answer a question if a student asks, as best I can anyway. When it came time to perform this work in front of the student body during a Remembrance Ceremony, I was concerned that the whole school might misunderstand the message of the piece. I was never so wrong as on this day.

When the work was finished, I could hear some gasps, a few snicks, and just general quiet discomfort in the audience. But when I turned around to view the audience, I could see that many of our staff and even some of our student body were openly in tears. The musicians understood to get a reaction, and they most certainly achieved it. Later I was floored at how much the student body outside of the assembly expressed their appreciation of the work to me and to the musicians who performed it, despite it being profoundly sad.

If your musicians know ahead of time what reaction you are aiming for, they will be more able to reach that reaction from their audience. Don’t be afraid to tell them what the reaction is you hope to achieve. It helps musicians focus their minds on the task at hand and helps them break away from being entertained.



Ed Dumas is a retired band director who taught his entire career in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District. Ed is now living with his lifelong partner Laurie, and their little dog Sprocket in Parksville, BC.  Ed & Laurie also work as Mid-Island reps for Tapestry Music while enjoying making music in retirement.


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