I’m spending this weekend in Forest Grove, Oregon at the Music in May festival here at Pacific University.  I brought with me four choir students and one band student, all of whom are behaving wonderfully and contributing to the success of the groups.  I intended to spend most of this weekend holed up in a hotel room grading post-concert evaluations and continuing to plan for next school year.  But my weekend is not going as planned.  Every time I drop in a rehearsal “just for a few minutes,”  I am always compelled to stay for the entire three hours.  All of the guest conductors here are fantastic, and I find myself taking furious notes, just to get down the wonderful things they are saying before I forget.  Here’s my absolute favorite quote of the weekend (so far).  The choir was working on Libertango, a driving piece that required exquisite focus from every single member.  Here’s what the conductor told the Sopranos when they were singing with very little energy (you have to picture this coming from a tiny, powerful Russian woman):

“Look, everything about this body says confidence.  This is not a teenage girl trying to find herself.  The tango is a mature dance!  We are not asking “Ooh, what Disney princess would I be?”  We are saying “Disney cannot HANDLE a princess like ME!”  To which the entire choir cheered and gave her a standing ovation, myself included.

And as I write down the quotes from both the choir director and the band director (both of whom, to some degree, remind me of the band and choir conductors I had in college) I realize how different these fields are.  The guest band conductor has these students playing beautifully with a balanced, gorgeous, in-tune sound with over 150 high school students.  He’s having them play difficult music, and providing the structure for them to do it successfully.  Students are playing their warm-ups backwards, practicing good and bad balance, beautiful and ugly sound so that they can explore and find what it means to be a band, really and truly.  I can’t pull myself away from how beautiful, complicated, compelling, and moving the music is.  The energy of this group is incredible.  And my students have never been a part of anything like this, anywhere else.

Then I look at my notes from the choir conductor, and think on other conductors I’ve had.  Excellent choir conductors really focus on full body, mind and spirit – not just the voice.  Today the choir started their morning with yoga, followed by pitch retention exercises focused on tone production, and ended with some complicated solfege workouts.  These students did not come with their music learned, and she is having to work very hard to get them to learn pitches, rhythms, and pronunciation on very complicated pieces – not what she came here to do.  But at the same time, she talks about the history of music, dating back to ancient tribal times.  She talks about the music as it relates to every day life, and how we as musicians have a responsibility to provide beautiful, compelling music to our audiences that is passionate, technically sound, and has beautiful tone quality – not just us today, but all musicians everywhere and every day.  I am moved to tears by both the music, and the words that she says.  The beauty is overwhelming, and the impact she has on these students (and me) is palpable.  And my students have never been a part of anything like this, anywhere else.

The band director is highly intellectual, knows exactly what he needs from each player, but is still goofy and a nice guy to be around.  I truly respect him and enjoy his company.  The choir director is very in tune with her emotions, and has incredibly high expectations for the singers.  While in rehearsal, she is absolutely a force to be reckoned with, and will not allow anything less than exquisite.  I truly respect her, and outside of the rehearsal context, I enjoy her company also.

Here’s my dilemma:  It is my job to be both of these people.  To be the highly intellectual yet goofy band director and the highly emotionally in tune woman who will not accept anything less than exceptional from every singer.  I’m not saying these two personalities are the only ones who exist in these fields, because that is certainly not true.  But it does seem to be that certain personalities gravitate towards certain musical tendencies.  In many ways, I still feel like a student.  I am very, very early on in my career, and nothing is completely decided for me.  When people ask “What’s your dream job?” I can pretty much always answer with confidence.  But the answer I give has changed so many times over the past 6 years, and I know that it is likely to continue to change.  As much as I feel that I am a mediocre choir director at best, I see the way that excellent choir directors lead and work with students, and I think to myself “I can totally see myself being that one day.  I want to grow up to be like them.”  And then I look at excellent band directors who I admire and I say the exact same thing.  “I want to grow up to be like them.”  But these people are completely different.

The truth of the matter is, there is to my knowledge no one in the professional music world who is both a professional choir director and a professional band director.  Everybody who has done both for a time eventually chooses.  If I was forced to make a choice at this point in my career I would choose band, if only because it’s what I have done longer and am more comfortable with.  But I am so drawn to the holistic approach to choir, addressing mind, body and soul.  I am drawn to the incredible beauty you can create with a group of people using no more than the body that God gave them, no added tools in their hands.  I don’t know that I ever want to completely leave either field, and I anticipate that difficult choice that I may have to one day make.

But for now, I will be satisfied with being the One Woman Show – being the end all, be all of music education for the students at Clara Brownell and Umatilla High.  For now, I am not forced to choose one or the other, just pushed to be excellent in these two different fields and lacking the expertise to do so.

As far as I’m concerned, my teaching career started here:

A crazy, frizzy-haired, overwhelmed and excited student teacher.  I was Ms. Mowry.  I had finished school, worked my tail off in student teaching, and was ready to take on the world.

Then I became this girl:

I’d gotten the job!  I didn’t feel like I had much time to get my room together and prepare for the beginning of the school year, but I was excited.  Then I became a real first year teacher:

I taught my first semester, conducted my first concert, and it was all an overwhelming success.  I really, for the first time felt like Mrs. Butler – a real teacher.  I came back from Christmas break and felt a strange dichotomy in my life.  I still felt like Mrs. Butler – not so much of a clueless rookie anymore, but still frustrated with myself with all of the things that I simply don’t know or don’t know how to do yet.  I mentioned in my last post the following statement about myself as a teacher:

“I often talk about the disconnect between the teacher that I want to be and the teacher I am now and how frustrated I get when I see how great I can be and that I’m just not there yet, mostly from lack of experience.  This week really gave me some confidence that with experience, I can become that teacher.

I’ve done a great deal of reflecting on that statement, and what exactly it looks like to be the “ideal” Mrs. Butler, how she looks, how she acts, and who she is.  I just got back from the Oregon Music Educators’ Association conference in Eugene, OR and while I was there,  I was inspired by many teachers that I consider to be an ideal music teacher.  They have their life together, they work incredibly hard for their students, and they have so much enthusiasm for their work, it’s staggering.  After seeing so many of these educators that I want to be like, I’ve decided to make a list of everything that I want for myself as a teacher and as a person.  So here it is – the checklist of the ideal Mrs. Butler, so that I may always keep her in the forefront of my mind and strive to become her every single day.

The Ideal Sarah Butler:

  • Always eats breakfast
  • Never overindulges
  • Gets to work at 6:30am every day
  • Is at a healthy weight
  • Is organized, both at work and at home
  • Makes time for her friends, new and old, and keeps in touch with those that are far away
  • Never leaves the house with a dirty dish on the counter
  • Makes sure that each music class makes beautiful sound at least at least once per class period
  • Does sight-singing with her choirs every single day
  • Takes enough time at school to be prepared, and also spends quality time with her husband every day
  • Takes time to recover over the weekends
  • Provides her students with opportunities to play/sing outside of their school ensembles (All State, Honor Groups, etc.)
  • Knows and is known by students, other teachers, classified staff, administrators, and parents
  • Rehearses her conducting skills to make every motion in her pattern intentional and helpful for her students
  • Makes sure every single student in her program graduates with the ability to read music
  • Shows her enthusiasm every day (even if the last class was rotten)
  • Stays in touch with what’s going on with her students – the movies they watch, the music they listen to, the slang they use
  •  Is not afraid to ask her colleagues for help, even on the simplest questions
  •  Never, ever hesitates to make a stand for her program and her students’ right to have a quality education in music
  •  Says something positive every single time she cuts of a group before she allows herself to be critical
  •  Really listens to the sound her groups are producing, and doesn’t settle for “okay” tone quality

I may not have a picture to post of “The Ideal Sarah Butler” yet but as soon as I do, I’ll be sure to show you what she looks like.  I can’t wait to meet her.

This is the first morning of my first winter break as a teacher, and today I am reflecting on my first few months of teaching leading up to and including my first two concerts as a music teacher that happened last week.  First, the high school concert on Tuesday followed by the middle school concert on Wednesday.  I had spent the whole last week rehearsing, making programs, e-mailing staff, and asking mentors for tips.  I wasn’t really nervous about how the kids would perform, but I was terrified that I wouldn’t get the logistics down before the concerts and the kids would suffer because of something I did or did not do.

As we were preparing, people told me that in the past not many people have come to the concerts, so I estimated for about as many people as have attended in the past.  Instead of the usual handful of people, we packed the house at both concerts!  I was so overwhelmed with gratitude for the community, parents, staff, and administrators that came, I couldn’t believe it!  The whole school year I’ve been thinking about how nerve racking it will be when the audience was there judging whether or not I was a good teacher based on how the kids performed.  But when it came down to the night of and I saw all of those people, I was so excited for the kids to show off what they could do, I wasn’t nearly as nervous as I’d anticipated.

More than anything, I finally feel like I’ve earned the title of “music teacher” or “band and choir director” or what have you.  I may have been rehearsing every single day all school year, built relationships with students that I care deeply for, and attended staff meetings, but until this week I just felt like a rookie.  I felt like I really didn’t know all the things I needed to know to do this job, that I was just flying by the seat of my pants all the time and holding on for dear life.  But after this week, figuring out all the logistics of lighting, sound boards, seating, risers, etc., and after seeing all of those kids work so hard and be so successful in their performances, I finally feel like I do really belong here and this is where I am supposed to be.  I often talk about the disconnect between the teacher that I want to be and the teacher I am now and how frustrated I get when I see how great I can be and that I’m just not there yet, mostly from lack of experience.  This week really gave me some confidence that with experience, I can become that teacher.  The night of the concerts, I was her – bright and shining and so ecstatic about every single kid in those ensembles!  Now all I have to do is learn how to be her every single day.

Now that we are officially on break (which is a very bizarre feeling by the way), I think now might be a good time to show how we’ve gotten the Butler house in the Christmas spirit.  We have so enjoyed getting the house ready for the holidays and scheduling in all of our dinner engagements and travel plans.  Here’s what the Butler household looks like nowadays:

Here’s the outside of the house – Tyler is very big on having a single strand of white lights to keep things simple and classy.

Here’s our wreath we got from Tyler’s mom, which has brightened our doorway significantly!

Then, as soon as you walk in, you see our little table adorned with some small decorations.  Several of you will be joining us for some holiday meals around this table – we can’t wait to see you!

Our piano got some festive spirit from some garland and the herb wreath we got from Michaela for Christmas!  It’s made out of organic bay leaves and rosemary, which we can use as spices once the wreath has finished drying – such a thoughtful gift!

Then, our season table got a little cheer with a nativity and some more fun things from Tyler’s mom.

Our first stockings were hung by the pencil sketch with care,

And of course, no house would be complete without a tree!  I grew up with a tree with multicolored lights and every color of ornaments imaginable, which I loved.  But I also love this new tree for our house  – white lights with ornaments in only white, green, gold, and red.  We had so much fun making this tree ours, touches from my family and touches from his.  here are some highlights of my favorite ornaments:

My grandma saw this at Hobby Lobby when we were shopping for a tree on Black Friday, and I just couldn’t say no!  Go Cougs!

My mom got this for us the day after Christmas last year after Tyler proposed.  It was one of the first that we hung up – I love it!

My Aunt Elizabeth got this for me for my bridal shower after Tyler and I got engaged when they were at Disney Land.  Love it!

These may not be of interest to anyone but me, but this last shot shows the first ornament I bought for our tree (the silver B on top) and it shows the fun musical ornaments I found – showing here is a treble clef, with a bell on the end.  I love noisy things and I love music!

So that’s our house!  If you will be in the Tri-City area or in Eastern Oregon over the holidays, give us a jingle – this first Christmas season is a special one for us and we love filling it with time with our friends and family!

As we enter the second month of school, I think now is an appropriate time to discuss the difficulties I have had with teaching a “Gen Ed” class.  I have one class that is not a music class, a class that is part character development and part study hall.  It is a zero credit class, and the kids know it.  I thought it could be a fun class to teach, one that kids typically look forward to going to, and that they might just learn something from.  But I soon found that teaching this class was incredibly difficult for me.  I’m used to teaching music classes, with music kids.  Even teaching choir (which was another growth area for me) has been accessible – challenging, but accessible.  At least those kids (for the most part) chose to be in choir and want to be there.  A Gen Ed, by definition, is a required class that nobody is excited about and unless the teacher really knows what they’re doing *cough* is relatively dreadful.

So I do my best.  I try to keep things moving, changing topics much more frequently than any of the others that teach this class, and try to talk about things that these kids care about.  This week we started a unit on Honesty.  I asked them to discuss what they do and don’t like about their teachers, and to encourage complete honesty, I told them not to write their names on their papers (and I would give those present credit for turning one in).  I told them, if they wanted to write me down as their least favorite teacher they could – that I wouldn’t go home and cry myself to sleep about it, I just wanted them to be honest.  When I went to read the papers, I was prepared for the worst.  I know that I don’t have the control in that classroom that I have in other classes, and I thought that half the kids would say I was incompetent.  Here was the surprise – not one did.  It’s possible they were scared that I’d recognize their handwriting and hold it against them, but not one said a bad thing about me.  The even bigger surprise was that two kids even said positive things about me.  Here’s some of the questions I asked, and their responses (verbatim):

What makes your favorite teacher a good teacher?

“Because she’s nice to me and she have alot of pasion like win I talk she don’t say to me shut up she says becuqit.”

“Because she doesn’t yell at me.  She understands everything in the classroom.”

What do you think that teacher thinks of you?

“She thinks I’m a bad student”

“I think she thinks that I can do a better job of focusing on work.”

I was floored.  How could a student in that class think I understand everything in the classroom, that I have it under control?  Do I really stand out that much because I never tell students to shut up, and ask them instead to “Please be quiet”?  Because I don’t yell at students?  I’m sure some would argue that if I yelled more or told the kids what I think most minutes of the day (Okay seriously, shut up.) I would have more control over my classroom and maybe even a more productive one.  But I really try to avoid negativity with kids, and try to be positive.  And apparently some of them noticed.  Not all – but some.  And sure, it’s possible that they thought I would recognize their handwriting and think better of them, but the truth is – I honestly have no clue who it was in that class who thinks I am a decent teacher.  I may never know.  But it sure made me feel better knowing that at least two kids in my class are happy that I’m there.

As Labor Day draws to a lazy close, I find it’s an appropriate time to re-cap on this weekend as well as having finished my first week of teaching.  We’ll start with teaching.

The short version:  It was a good week.  There were ups and downs, fun moments and stressful ones, but as far as first weeks of one’s career go, it was a pretty great week.  Getting used to the rhythm of teaching three classes, switching buildings, then teaching four more, working until sundown and then going home took some time.  I find myself bringing work home nearly every day, and Tyler helps me work through some of it and talk through things as I prepare for the next day.  I am tired every day when I get home, and sleep for what feels like both far too much time and not nearly enough.  It seems like there is literally not enough hours in the day to keep up with the house, prepare for each of my seven classes, and be a good wife to my husband.  Teaching in two buildings with four content areas has certainly been stressful for me, because I didn’t want to plan any concert music until I knew what the students were capable of.  Now that I’m getting a feel for that, it’s time for me to start choosing music – which is a large task (and one that nearly every first-year teacher does poorly).  Once I have some pieces decided, I think things will ease up, I will have a direction, a goal, and specific teaching points to work towards, instead of thumbing through my song books and picking something that will open up students’ voices and that they will (hopefully) enjoy.

Also, here’s a few pictures of Tyler and I getting the middle school room ready – a fairly intense task.

Tyler moving the timpani by the struts, like a good husband

Washing old dirty chairs was not my favorite part of the day.  In fact, I had Tyler take a picture for this purpose, “One day, when I’ve been working here for years, and I never have to do this again, I will look back and be so grateful.”

Once the week was over, it was time for us to host a group of friends from all over the Pacific Northwest!  Fels from Clarkston, Charles from Seattle, Michaela from Tri-Cities, Andy from Portland and Sophie from Boise all convened at our house on Friday and stayed until Monday!  As much as Tyler and I love starting our married life in a new city full of potential, it also means that we have no friends our age in this area, so this weekend was a much needed hiatus from being boring grownups.  One of my favorite activities when I have girlfriends over – let them play dress-up with me and my current wardrobe and make-up.  Fresh eyes help pair together clothes and colors I never do on my own!  And these girls are all marvelously fashion-forward.

Parking on the lawn was the best way to accommodate all of the five extra vehicles that had come from five different cities.  It made me so happy to have all these cars and all these people at our house!

We hit up the Hermiston Farmer’s Market for the first time.  Fels was delighted.

So happy to facilitate these two lovebirds being in the same place.  They are so very perfect for each other.

We also went wine tasting in Benton City.  What a delight!

And everybody knows the best part of going wine tasting is meeting all of the winery dogs.  Tyler is good at making friends with them.  This dog lives at Terra Blanca.

It was emotional to see everybody go at the end of the weekend (especially the one that’s moving to England in two weeks, sniff).  But we were thrilled to have them for the time that we did, and we can’t wait until we get to see them again.  It’s going to be legend – wait for it –

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