Creating (…in isolation?)

In 2018, we have more opportunities to be creative together, to explore the possibilities within ourselves and our communities, and to find like minded individuals/groups. At the same time, our creative practices can feel more isolated than ever before.  As I reflect on my own creative endeavors, I find that I am still bound by some measure of worth that was placed on me as a young student…and that is troubling.

The impact educators have on students (at any age) is proven to be far more profound that often considered in the classroom. While it is not the educator’s responsibility to “raise” the students to be well-rounded, confident individuals, it is our opportunity. When providing academic feedback, the choice of words can empower or demoralize a student. The body language can fill a students sails, or take the wind right away. The casual conversations can lead to unique explorations in creativity, or set in a lifetime of doubt. Teaching is hard…teaching well is even harder.

I often get inspiration from social media, colleagues, my own children, and a variety of other places, but my engagement is measured against the “why”…

  • Why do I want to do that?
  • Why do I think I can do that? I’ve never done that before.
  • Why would anyone care if that was done?
  • and finally… Why bother? Its not worth anyone’s time.

Amidst that self doubt, I can directly reflect on 2-3 specific interactions in my school years that lead to this type of internal dialogue. At the same time, I have enough experiences and education to be able to pinpoint the origin, reason through its weak points, and move forward without the doubts and “why” questions. But in the end, the cycle is very strong and difficult to get out of. As I continue to evolve as a mentor/leader, I find the “impostor syndrome” getting stronger, feeling as though I don’t belong in this role or don’t have authentic value to add to the conversation, which brings me back to an earlier point… teaching well is hard.

Educators must engage in reflective practice! It must be regular, but it must also be realistic. Feeling as though we must be the expert in everything we engage in is an expectation we put upon ourselves. Everything I can do today, was once new to me. Remembering the process a beginner goes through, in every stage of life, is more valuable to us than the comparison of “end products”. Embrace the process, look for growth, and love the power of “yet” in life. So today, I commit to create…for me. I need to go back to find the love of creating because that is who I am. The medium may change from what some expect, but the internal outlet will be as fulfilled. Here we go…

Doing Teaching

a gem from 2014 that wasn’t posted…

It has been a whirlwind of a year!

I could leave this cathartic post there and feel a level complete… but… there’s more. Suddenly changing direction last year, leaving my Teaching Assistant position to return as a HS director, accepting 2 student teachers immediately, and now moving into my role on the state band /orchestra board. The dissertation looms (along with the great opportunities to continue to grow as a person that coincide with it). My desires to evolve the current practices in school music are still strong, but seemingly isolated. My passion for mentoring is as intense as ever, knowing that the interactions we have with colleagues can significantly shape our perspectives. Different opportunities to change myself, suggest change for others, and most interestingly, change WITH others.

There is a bump in the road, though. Too often, we (the metaphorical “educators”) sit around the table a talk about ways to improve education. We recite the obstacles (funds, resources, technology, time, etc) and squash dialogue with the excuse of “we tried that once, but then the state said…” (or whomever your opposition was). After that recitation is complete, the conversation ends. WHY! We need to continue to dream and wish and wonder about the “what if” and “I wonder what”  or “can you imagine how” that exist in our fields.

Stocking the Vending Machine

In the effort to maximize my own summer growth, I have targeted a few books that have been on the radar for a few months. These include:

Launch” – Spencer (@spencerideas) & Juliani (@ajjuliani)
Originals” – Grant (@AdamMGrant)
Innovators Mindset” – Couros (@gcouros)

I have followed each of these authors and their Twitter accounts for some time (yes, I use Twitter as my own PD vending machine). What intrigued me was the potential application of their perspectives to my own philosophical position and the connection to the students I interact with daily at my school. Their (my students’) relevant education was at stake and I needed to potentially shift my own paradigm to better engage with and for them.

I spent a little time exploring the beginnings of these books trying to determine the best order to read and reflect on them. I decided “Innovators Mindset” was my starting line (followed by “Originals”, then “Launch”…this order best suited me. I encourage you to reflect on your own perspective.) Right away, I was struck with a few powerful Read more of this post

‘Music in STEM’ vs ‘STEM based Music’

So, a conceptual problem I have wrestled with for a while… What is the difference between a music class in a STEM environment and a STEM based music classroom?

First, you may need a refresher on what STEM is (a general review).

…that being said, here is THE question I continually ask myself…

What is the difference between a music class in a STEM environment and a STEM based music classroom?

A STEM based environment has a hyper focus on the Science-Technology-Engineering-Math aspects of our educational process. The learning in these areas provides a trendy approach to curriculum. But, without defaulting to the ‘STEM should be STEAM to include the Arts’ position, we need to deconstruct the components of this perspective. Why should we include the Arts? What value is there in including such a ‘feel good’ and ‘vague’ aspect of the school community? After all, the Arts are “FUN” (…my favorite position!!).

Before we do anything, we MUST acknowledge that music exists beyond the formal school ensemble that dominates our current system. In addition, we also MUST acknowledge that musicking (the verb of doing music) is a process that individuals around the world participate in on an everyday basis.

If students regularly engage in musicking, shouldn’t our classroom quickly move past STEM? The inclusion of the ‘A’ becomes a formality and STEAM becomes the accepted norm. Incorporating music in a school community that embraces and narrow confines of STEM as the structure eliminates the inherent activities of students as human beings. The Arts, as an an act of ‘doing art,’ embraces that students may not realize or identify that they are engaged in ‘Art’ but by nature of being members of the community, are musicking (doing ‘art’).

So, creating music within a STEM school is simply tying musical concepts into the tenets of STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Math). Creating music in a STEAM environment encourages students to evaluate their ‘musicking’ within the focus of STEM. Regardless of the label attached, music in STEM is far beyond thinking about music as a mathematical activity. It is beyond including the iPad in the ensemble classroom (“technology”). STEM based music is about changing the viewpoint of  musicking. How we think about the process of musicking (idea, experimentation, feedback, refinement, sharing, risk taking, etc…) is inherently different in this newer perspective.

So, can we music within STEM beyond YouTube and loops? How does STEM embrace musicking?



A shorty…

Just a short thought to share…

Believe it or not, we just finished our second week of school. The students are super motivated, bring a positive energy to the classroom, and are already expressing their interests in music inside/outside of school. It is also clear that these interests are influencing their desire for quality in the classroom.
As we consider our assessment design and our space for student reflection, the vernacular musicianship the students bring to the classroom will play a prominent role.  We have spent as much time in our ensemble classes sharing our current interests and projects as we have rehearsing the assigned literature. Yet, the student performance has increased immensely. 

What is the balance in the classroom? Even in my second year, I am still learning and adjusting our balance. I wonder if others do the same in their classroom. If, as the facilitator of the classroom, I can blur the line between in school and out of school music, I believe the students will grow as musicians. Stay tuned…

Allowing Their Voice

When we challenge students to find the voice within their musical expression, we often create boundaries (intentionally or otherwise) that can alter/enhance the expressive perspective of the students. If we do not allow for relevance and limit them to our expected expression, the investment and creation generated from the students Read more of this post

Reflections on the box

There are many discussions in our profession today about traditional vs nontraditional approach to the music (ensemble) classroom. I have reflected on my own identity, as well as my experiences and mentors that helped shape it. As I move forward, there is a consistent struggle Read more of this post

Not my job.

The answer is “I don’t know why they can’t ________, we covered that in class.” Now, more importantly, what was the question? Too often, music educators utilize this answer to a myriad of questions about why their students could not, would not, don’t, or can’t demonstrate a vital component of “musicianship” on demand. Unfortunately, the real question should be about whether that lesson really “covered it in class.”

When lessons are taught, understanding should be our goal (of course, that does not mean memorization). Allowing students the opportunity to engage with the material in relevant (to their own lives) and multi-perspectival ways is vital for students to continue developing understanding of that material (with both breadth and depth). Read more of this post


So, I’ve decided that it is time to confess. I have participated in, vehemently supported, and even led the perpetuation of a tradition, without every questioning it. Now, by the very nature of a tradition, newbies are not usually in a position to question. The focus is on conformity. As I grew up within this tradition, I learned the inner workings, the subtle variations, and became skilled at keeping the tradition intact. The past couple of years, the tradition has felt incomplete (for me) and I started looking for alternate opportunities. Now, I feel comfortable enough to offer my formal confession… My name is Nathan Johnston, and I am a band director.

On the surface, being identified as a “band director” seems harmless. And in many ways, I still feel that it is harmless. But, when working with students from a variety of communities, cultures, interests, and abilities, being ONLY a band director can be limiting. Read more of this post

What makes a tuba a tuba?

What makes a band a band? What makes a choir a choir? What makes an orchestra an orchestra? What makes music music? What makes…  As I continue to travel this glorious rabbit hole called a PhD, I am constantly challenged on my beliefs and understandings of what music is, what being a musician is, what being a music educator is, and the complex relationship between each of these. The identity I have as a band director only encapsulates a small portion of my musical being. Read more of this post

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