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A Doorway to Learning

Two sixteenth notes followed by two eighth notes.  The interval was a perfect fourth, though I didn’t know that at the time.  What I did know, at twelve years old, was that I was hooked on that sound.  I leaned over to my mother and said, “I want to play those.”  I was pointing at the timpani, sometimes called kettledrums. That concert changed the course of my life.



 There would be other musical high points along the way, like stepping close to a passing high school band during a parade so I could feel the vibrations of the drums against my chest.  Later, as a member of that same high school band, I played timpani with a tingling up my spine as our low brass opened up on the First Suite in E-Flat by Holst.  What a sound!

As a senior in high school with a well-developed defense mechanism against showing any emotion, I stood in an All State Choir rehearsal unable to sing for a few seconds as tears welled up in my eyes. The conductor gave me an understanding glance.  I’m sure he’d seen other young musicians with similar reactions when immersed in such beautiful sounds for the first time.

Music was where I found everything relevant. It was like a doorway to learning in many areas.  In music and the fine arts, I was able to apply learning from other classes in real-world situations.  Music teachers provided some individualized learning which allowed me to stay engaged in subjects that I might have otherwise rejected. Music was where I built positive relationships with caring and competent adults.  Music was where I formed lasting friendships around collective dedication to shared tasks and goals.


I’m thankful that music grabbed my imagination when it did.  My fear is that children who need this opportunity today may miss out because of a narrowing curriculum in response to high-stakes accountability.  Rather than narrowing, we need to broaden options while deepening the learning and avoiding the temptation of thinking greater standardization will result in higher standards.

If the fine arts are crowded out in the name of raising standards, we’re losing ground and possibly missing many students who could help us compete where innovation and creativity are needed.  P. L. Thomas, Associate Professor of Education at Furman University said, “China seems poised to recognize the failure of standardization, while the US continues to call for more and more standardization. That should be shocking.”

I’m thankful that my parents took me to that concert when I was twelve and that there was an orchestra to hear.  I’m thankful that I found an area I wanted to explore deeply; one which would ignite so many other areas of learning.   I’m thankful that I work in a school district that recognizes the value of instrumental music, vocal music, theater, technical theater, dance, and the visual arts.  I’ve seen the impact of the fine arts on our children and on the fiber of our community.

My hope is that, as we work to equip our children to compete on a national and international stage, we will not narrow the learning in an effort to show better test scores but insist on allowing students to explore the arts and creativity through as many disciplines of learning as possible.  We cannot afford to do less!

Mr. Wendell Evanson, retired band director at Henderson State University.  One of those lasting relationships built around music.

Mr. Wendell Evanson, retired band director at Henderson State University. One of those lasting relationships built around music.

Thank you to my school music teachers.  I could sit down and visit with any of these individuals like old friends.  

Rogers Junior High (El Dorado): John Keane and Bob Endel (band)  These guys worked with me patiently when I was at my most challenging age.  I’m sorry about the firecracker incident…. and the gas heater incident…. and the drum stick/window incident…. and…. 

El Dorado High School: Hal Cooper (band & music theory) Mr. Cooper made us play a lot better than we deserved to play and he trusted me with some challenging percussion parts.  Jim Foxx (choir) Mr. Foxx prepared us well for region choir auditions and made it possible for us to have some great musical experiences. Morris Graham (band) I didn’t have Mr. Graham as director but he gave encouragement to us all.   Bob Adams and Dr. Gary Cook (private percussion lessons) Bob Adams taught me drum rudiments and introduced me to George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control, a book I’d work with for years.  I drove to Louisiana Tech each week my senior year for lessons with Dr. Gary Cook.  He never worked with me less than an hour even though I was only paying for 30-minute lessons.  He also gave me a lot of mallets as we worked together. He was a true musician and master of all things percussion. 

Henderson State University:

Wendell Evanson (band and conducting), Mr. Evanson gave us some amazing music.  He was relentless in pursuing excellence in all that he did. He was a master with the baton and a great encourager.  He seemed to know when you needed a boost.

Doug DeMorrow (percussion), Doug worked on my musicianship and was patient with me.  As a student, I was his first senior recital at HSU.  Doug would later become quite well known for his beautifully crafted DeMorrow marimbas and other keyboard instruments.  He’s a master musician and craftsman.

John Webb was my supervising teacher when it came time to do student teaching (now called internship).  John was a great musician and teacher.  He was patient with me as a beginning teacher and encouraged me to build relationships with and learn from great music teachers.  He was a person of character, someone I could look up to and try to emulate.

Wes Branstine (jazz band and low brass).  Dr. Branstine gave me private lessons during the summer after I realized I needed help in teaching brass players.  He wouldn’t let me pay him.  Curiously, I began to have good low brass sections after those lessons.

Written for the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators March newsletter.

Performance Assessment

Practice pad that gave my parents some relief from the loud drumming.

Practice pad that gave my parents some relief from the loud drumming.

“Let’s try it again with a little lower left hand position prior to the double bounce of the paradiddle.” This is typical of the comments that could be heard during my drum lessons in the 10th grade. Little did I know that I was actually experiencing authentic performance assessment.  My teacher, Bob Adams, wanted me to qualify for membership in the National Association of Rudimental Drummers. The requirements included performing the 13 essential drum rudiments to a high level of proficiency, far beyond what I thought I could achieve.

Over a period of several months I played these rudiments during lessons. Mr. Adams demonstrated how to improve my performance and then invited me to try again after more practice. His demonstrations were just short of miraculous to this young drummer, but I did my best to imitate his technique.

For many evenings I practiced these rhythmic patterns with funny names like paradiddle, flamacue, long roll, and ruff. My non-drummer friends didn’t understand what I was doing or why. My parents endured strange rhythmic patterns incessantly tapping from slow to fast and back to slow again. Only my teacher truly understood and his expectations were clear. Finally, after months of work, Mr. Adams congratulated me on performing the requirements up to standard.  I still feel pride in this accomplishment.

NARD certificate

Mr. Adams never said, “I’ll hear you play and give you a percentage grade.” He never said, “If you want to settle for a C, we’ll stop working on this and go to something else.” Statements like this would have sounded absurd to me even though this was the approach in many of my other classes at the time. Cover the material, test over the material, and move on regardless of mastery.

Music was different! It was a process of building knowledge, increasing skills, and real life performance. Tremendous learning and improvement occurred. No grades were assigned other than occasional ratings based on a performance rubric. Even these were not viewed as final. A Third Division rating meant there was much work to be done. The goal was a First Division. Fourth or Fifth Division ratings were completely unacceptable. Expectations for performance were clear.

Thank goodness other academic areas are coming around to “performance assessment” learning.  We’re seeing more use of standards-based assessment and formative assessment even though percentage grades seem permanently entrenched in the United States. If we want our children to experience deep learning that is retained and used, we’ll need to limit our dependence on grades as final events and view assessment as an on-going process toward higher levels of achievement using tasks that are authentic and meaningful.

Drum Rudiments

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