Interview with Teacher of the Year: Dan Scott

dan-scottDan Scott, MASTA 2015 teacher of the year, is Director of Orchestras at Jenison High School. Dan came to Jenison in 1997 from Western Michigan University. He has since earned his Master in Educational Technology from Grand Valley State University. His primary duties at Jenison include the 6th Grade Orchestra and the three High School Orchestras. Mr. Scott is also Conductor of the St. Cecelia Youth Philharmonic, former Music Director at the MASTA Junior High String Camp, Camp Director of the MASTA string camps, and has taught at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp and Knollcrest Music Camp. He also is a regular clinician at music conferences and school districts around the state.


Where’d you go to school? Were you on a path to be a orchestra director at that time?

I graduated from East Kentwood High School and Western Michigan University. I had auditioned at a couple different places, but pretty much knew I was going to Western to study with Bruce Uchimura. We had connected during the Western String Festivals they used to hold and I knew I could learn a lot from him.

When I went to Western I was debating between conducting and teaching, but quickly latched onto teaching as a focus while working at the MASTA Elementary String Camps in 1993. I had watched Mark Kotchenruther and Robin Bloomberg do amazing things with the kids over those camps and I was so excited to do what they did.

How long have you been at Jenison, what was the program like when you arrived?

I started at Jenison in September of 1997.  I had taught for six months in the Kalamzoo Public Schools, but Jenison was really my first job. I was hired as assistant to MIllie Tegner who had been leading the program since 1979. My job was to assist her with all her classes and lead the sixth grade orchestra (2nd year students). Originally the job was part time, but the district added 7th grade general music classes to make the job full time.

Jenison Orchestras at the time were one HS orchestra of 55 students, one 7th and 8th grade combined orchestra of 45 students, my 6th grade orchestra of about 28 students and we started 96 beginners that year. Due to structural and other reasons many of the beginners historically would quit before the first year was over. My first task was to work to fix that retention rate.

At a time when programs are being cut, Jenison is growing, how do you keep your program so strong?

 Something has evolved in Jenison where the students/community generally consider music as a core.  When students do their schedules its really Math, Social Studies, English, Science, Music and ?.  I even had a student mention that she was doing her college schedule and it was odd for her not be scheduling her music class (she was playing in a community orchestra for her college playing).  All three programs (Band, Orchestra, Choir) have good numbers and great quality.  In all honesty, now we are at a place where our community wouldn’t tolerate any significant cuts.

Part of this is a music team that really works together.  Our Elementary, Band, Choir, and Orchestra staff really likes working together and we present a VERY unified front to our administration in all interactions from budget to curriculum and on.

I think we got to this point through three main ideas.

  1. Excellent elementary music teachers who instill in our students from day one a joy for making music.  Our elementary teachers make music fun and see there job as planting a seed for lifetime music involvement.  They are great about saying “when you are in high school you get to…”.  They set up the expectation in our students that music will be a part of their entire education.
  2. Quality, Quality, Quality musical experiences.  Though we will always have performances we wish we could do again, in general, the performances put on by our various ensembles are solidly executed and parents leave enjoying what they heard their children do.  If parents don’t like what they hear, they aren’t going to advocate for music when it come scheduling time.
  3.  All our music teachers are kid-centered people who really enjoy students and love music.  It’s easy to feel in our department like you are the weakest musician in the room.  It’s also easy to see models of great relationships with students amongst all our staff.

What are the challenges of such a large program?

I do spend a lot of time now saying to people “be careful what you wish for”.  When I was in college I researched a lot of ideas for recruiting and retaining kids.  Orchestras were not large in my area and I knew I had to find ways for string instruments to look cool.

Now we have over 500 students grades 5-12 in Jenison taught by 3 teachers.  I have to work very hard to keep a personal connection with students.  When I started I saw every student in the program throughout the week.  Now I rarely see the 7th and 8th graders and usually don’t see about 60 of our high school students every week.  I used to assign a playing test at the HS and had to grade 50 tests.  Now if I assign a playing test to the HS Orchestras I teach, I have to grade 140 tests.  I’m much more careful of planning these things out to manage my workload.

You are a very high-energy teacher, how do you find the energy day-in, day-out?

You can’t expect to be high energy everyday with every class.  Early on I would give so much to each class and then just crash every night.  It took me time to find the balance and how to be efficient with my energy.  When is the energy and intensity that I like in rehearsal necessary and when do you need to back off so the kids can absorb what is goin on.  I learned a LOT about efficient use of energy from Bob Culver at the American String Workshops in the mid-90’s. The “Master Teacher Profile” that he shared was a huge guide in how I run a rehearsal: when is energy effective and when is it most useful.

I will say that ending class with high energy is a major factor in my program growth.  Ending rehearsals or class with a high energy musical moment is the best way for us to keep students in our programs.  They come to play, and if you end with a run through of a successful musical moment from class, they leave eager to return to recreate that moment.

Can you tell me a little about your state advocacy group?

In 2012 a varied group of Michigan educators were “complaining” in the Amway lobby during the Michigan Music Conference.  We vowed then to actually do something about how things were going in music education in Michigan.  In April we met again at the University of Michigan and formed the Partnership for Music Education Policy Development.  Since that time we’ve written two policy briefs, hosted a summit in Lansing, and lobbied with several policy makers at the capitol.  Its really been exhilarating for me to see the results of our efforts and to talk to these legislators.  They really are hungry for our thoughts and ideas – they just can’t afford to pay for them.

Its pretty cool that these days we get communications from legislators and legislators are actually pushing for a K-5 music education requirement for the state of Michigan.  We are actually one of only 8 states in the country that do not have an elementary requirement.  Once we told legislators that we were in the same category as Alabama, they were motivated to make some changes.

Where do you find your inspiration, was there an orchestra teacher growing up who inspired you?

We all have so many of these moments or people who have made the difference.  My early teachers Deanna Mitchell and Jeff Bennett each gave me those musical moments.  A summer at Interlochen Arts Camp showed me the standard and helped set me on a path towards achieving it.  Countless hours in the studio with Bruce Uchimura helped me refine my skills and understand that the work is never done.  My “Ah-Ha” moment though was in 1993.  Mark Kotchenruther was music director at the MASTA Elementary String Camp and opened a rehearsal without saying a word for about 20 minutes as he took the students through some set-up and echo exercises.  I was blown away watching him hold 50 students in the palm of his hand as they went about forming bow holds, echoing patterns and correcting behaviors without speaking a word.  I’ve aimed to recreate that moment many times since.

Nowadays my inspiration comes from my colleagues throughout the state and region.  We are blessed to be surrounded by so many GREATS right here in this state and every one of them has been willing to answer a question whenever I ask.

What thoughts advice would you give to new teachers, or teachers who are struggling with their program?

I really think that the goal is to create musical moments whenever you can – preferably everyday.  We have a musical moment on the first day with our beginners.  It is plucking open strings with a background track, but it is a musical moment.  At the end of the day, ask yourself if you had quality musical moments with your students.  That doesn’t mean it has to be Tchaikovsky, but it does mean it has to be in tune and rhythmically accurate.  If the day was drilling, you haven’t achieved the goal for the day and why would a student come back.  If you start by layering musical moments, the process is fun and the rest will take care of itself.

I also feel you can’t take yourself too seriously.  While teaching music is important, its not life or death and the job is to inspire a life long appreciation.  Laugh a LOT with your students.  Don’t be afraid to say you’re sorry to them and show them that together you’re pursing a really cool goal that is very achievable.

What do you do to recharge?

Time with family is GREAT, though my daughters are now teenagers and I envision that ending.  I play as much golf as I can in the summer.  This isn’t perfect though as golf is like music,  “Golf is like a love affair.  If you don’t take it seriously its no fun, if you do take it seriously it breaks your heart.” – Arthur Daley


By Burke Lokey

July 6, 2015