Dr. Don Ester teaches at the Ball State University School of Music faculty, where we met and worked together with the help of Campus Hungary Scholars in April this year. Our aim was to learn more about the cognitive and affective processes during music reading with the latest eye tracking methodology. Dr. Ester’s research and publication cover many areas in the field of music literacy pedagogy, from the adolescent voice to instructional strategies. He is co-author of The Evaluation of Student Teachers Guidebook and a contributing author to Strategies for Teaching: Guide for Music Methods Classes and Spotlight On Transition To Teaching Music. Dr. Ester is also the author of Sound Connections: A Comprehensive Approach To Teaching Music Literacy published by Educational Exclusives in 2012.
As an exceptionally talented music teacher, he received the 1998 Ball State University Excellence in Teaching Award and the 2006 Indiana Outstanding University Music Educator of the Year Award. He is now a member of the American Choral Directors Association and a research member of the Music Educators National Conference. Dr. Ester has served on the board of the Indiana Choral Directors Association and the Indiana Music Educators Association and he is a past National Chair of the Society for Music Teacher Education.
Dr. Ester is a frequent guest conductor and clinician for choirs of all ages and served as guest conductor for over 75 festival choirs throughrought the United States. He has conducted All-State Children’s Choirs in Indiana, South Dakota, and Colorado and founded and directed the White River Youth Choir from 1994 to 2008, and leading them on performing tours in the US, Brazil, and Japan. During my visiting at Ball State University I asked him about his carrier and life-experiences in music education.
- At first, I would like to ask that were you born in a musician family?
I am not from a professional musician family, but my mother plays the piano (a little), my father plays the trompet (a little). I grew up on a farm and my mother is a nurse, but my parents definietly supported me to be a musician.
- What motivated you to be a musician?
It started at a very young age. I have three older brothers; one of them is six years older than me. He was taking piano lessons and I really wanted to have music lessons, too. When I was allowed to take lessons at the age of eight, I was just practicing all the time. I was really self-motivated, and I loved practicing the piano and also singing.
- Did you sing in a choir, too?
Yes, I grew up in a very small town, where there was a choir and there was a band, too. We were 13 in our choir, which was not so good, and for about 13 in our band that was even less good. Luckily I had an excellent piano teacher whom I took private piano lessons and she was one of the main motivations for me just to keep going.
- How long have you been teaching?
I guess, it depends on how we can define teaching. I graduated from a college 1980, so I have been teaching 35 years now here at the Ball State University. But from the 7th grade in primary school, when I was 13 years old, I was playing the organ and directing an adult choir in a church. So I started to do that sort of teaching in a very young age.
- What are those concerts, competitions or festivals that are the most memorable and important for you and why?
As a performer myself, probably the most important was through the church when I was 17 years-old. There was a call for young high-school students in the United States to win a trip to Europe and to sing in a choir if they were in a Methodist Church. So I applied and I was accepted. There were fifty other students with whom we toured in Europe for two weeks. I went from a very small school where we did not have a good choir and this was a really powerful experience for me. There was a college choral director and there were 50 other singers who were like me, who really loved to singing. I remember a couple of specific concerts from Hamburg and other parts of Germany, when I just realized I want to do this in my whole life, I would like to deal with music.
As a conductor I have several experiences like that; I took my choir to Japan and to Brazil and so on, we travelled internationally. I had opportunities to sing with my choir all around the world; it means that I have some really powerful concerts. In case of competitions I am not really competition-oriented very much; it is about more, just the beauty and the joy of performing.
- Do you have a favorite musical style or composer?
Well, piano wise probably my favorite is Chopin, choral music wise, or well, all music wise I am eclectic, as we use this term in the United States, I like all sorts of music, maybe, it is a little bit exaggeration. I am not crazy about rap, but I like Broadway music and Gospel Music, some popular music and obviously Classical Music and so on. I like really all sorts of music that it is good. But I enjoy if I just sit and play alone and playing some of the Romantic piano literature.
- What are the most significant methodological bases for you on that you can build on your pedagogical work?
I would say one of the most influences on me would be the Kodály conception, truly. I can go back further than that, the tradition of Pestalozzi, the Sound before Symbol and through Kodály and here in the United States, Edwin Gordon, the major researcher of ours, who wrote a really important book in the 60ies. I was not trained in that way when I was undergraduated, but as a teacher in the school I started to learn from other people, so Sound before Symbol pedagogy is really foundational for me. Since then I have been profoundly influenced by the researches of the past decades, like brain researches and today’s eye tracking researches. At a very young age I was noticing how the eyes read the score, how my eyes are looking ahead when I was playing the piano, I have been always fascinated by that.
But I would say pedagogically another basis was a movement in the United States that has been developed in the last couple of years, called Comprehensive Musicianship to performers. Here we focus on our ensembles, making sure that they do not just perform well, but they learn about music theory, and obviously how to read music. So those are probably the most important bases: Sound Before the Symbol and Comprehensive Musicianship to performers for me.
- What do you think, what is most important achievement in your own pedagogical and artistic work?
Well, I wrote a book that I would not necessary say that it is the biggest achievement, but it is satisfying, because it took me a really long time to think it through and get my thoughts down. But in broader view, the most important achievement, what I am doing now in the United States, trying to make an impact, that builds on what I have in my book about the practical application of the Sound Before Symbol Pedagogy; what syllable system is used for tonal and what rhythm syllable system is used for rhythm teaching. I have a lot of students graduated from the Ball State University who have gone out and learnt this method and have real success in their own teaching. I have been fortunate to present this system for national conventions and educators found it significant and starting to employ it in their classrooms. So I hope that is more than just writing a book, but hopefully it could make a positive difference in pedagogically, too.
- What is your opinion, are the latest generations different than earlier?
That is a really interesting question because we often hear that every generation thinks that next generation is somehow a problem, they are wrong. I do see partly at least they differ because of latest technology. The young generation, my college students right now for example, they are so use to social media, computer, Twitter, Facebook, video games and I do see some attention span issues, as well, sometimes they have only little attention - 3 or 4 minutes – on what they do, so I think that it is a realistic issue.
But more widely, I have to say I do not really think that there is a big difference; people learn the way we always have, we just learning about how we learn, in fact. For about 50 years ago we did not know about what are the eyes were doing when reading, we were just guessing about it and now we know more.
I am training 18 to 22 year-old students every day and maybe it is my optimistic nature but they are great young people and I think there is not so much difference except some issues about technology, that change their looking at the world. I do not see difference how they respond music powerfully and passionately as my generation, and the generation before us. The arts are universal, they have been through time and they have been crossed through cultures. My opinion is that maybe somehow the youngest generation is not being exposed to some of the great art of the past the way perhaps my generation was, because there are so many other things to distract them. In the United States they watch useless Television shows that maybe grab them then going to concerts. In general with the youngest generation we just have to be aware and adjust them and expose them to the art that is powerfully removed and motivating. But we do have to look them to approach them differently because we live in a different world technologically, just look at these equipments we use now for this interview.
- What is your opinion, what could be a challenge in the United States or in general in music education on university level teacher training, what could be a challenge for music educators these days?
One for sure that I think, what we are starting to see that there are less students even who are wanting to be music teachers. And that’s a beneficial concern: in the United States probably the teachers are paid nearly not so well as other professions, and I have a suspicion it is maybe true around the world. So the students, these young people decide what they want to do for life, they perhaps looking for money rather than satisfaction or fulfillment in their work. Some other concern that sort of related is, it is a cycle. The students who are coming to us, and I think, I pretty objective about this, that over the twenty plus years that I have been teaching at the college level, they are less musically skilled when they are 18 years old, then students were ten years ago and they are less musically skilled then ten years before that. And that it is partly because of our public school system, where the arts are not valued as much as it used to be. And of course then there is a cycle, the students come here, who are not so good musicians as students used to be earlier, and we have four years to try to help them be better musicians, then they grow up as teachers, they cannot help the students they have be as good musicians With our research we try to help them to be better teacher, like their teachers were. So these are the two main things I think would be the primary challenges.
- How music literacy could be improved in general, choirs could be a good tool for that?
Definitely, in the United States we spend nearly halftime in choral ensembles in public schools and my opinion is and a lot of people agree with me who work on music literacy skill, it has to start long before primary level to be affective, we obviously know the younger and sooner we get students started, the more powerful it will be. At least in our school tradition in the United States students typically are in children choirs at least until they are 12 or 13 years old. Well, a lot of music literacy training should or could have happened before that, so it is in our elementary general music programs in our schools that are so important even before in a choir. I do think choirs are a good tool to teach music literacy and I am so passionate about trying to help future choral directors have a better way a really efficient way to teaching, and conducting.
- Could you tell me how many choirs could be now in on primary level in Indiana?
We do have quite a few community choirs in the state of Indiana, one of the best known is the Indianapolis Children Choir, which is probably is internationally famous.
We have a number of satellite choirs in a lot of different communities and around Indianapolis and thorough Indiana. I would not surprise if there are 40 or 50 community choirs, these are not choirs in the school, and they are community based choirs. So that is a really important supplement what is going on in our schools because music and time for instruction in music at a primary school in Indiana and in United States lowered so that choral ensembles, community children choirs are really important.
- When you not write, teach or conduct, what do you do in your freetime?
Actually I do a lot of climbing, from the end of May till July I have a pack on my back and climb. We have high mountains here in the United States, we call them the Fourteeners, as they are 14 000 feet tall. In general in summertime I do a lot of singing, hicking and climbing.
- Thank you, very much for the interview and I wish you a nice summer holiday!
assistant lecturer of music education
College of Kecskemét