Interview with Music Educator Max Karler


I recently  had the opportunity and distinct pleasure to interview a former classmate of mine when he came out to Illinois to participate in Northwestern University’s Conducting Symposium. Max Karler is entering his second year as Director of Instrumental Music at Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma, WA. In 2009 he was awarded the Jones Endowed music scholarship and graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Music in Music Education from the University of Puget Sound. The following year he was awarded a “Music Teaching Fellowship” and completed a Master of Arts in Teaching.

Mr. Karler presently holds memberships in the following organizations: Music Educators National Conference, Washington Music Educators Association, Commencement Bay Region Music Educators Association, and Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia. Beyond his own teaching responsibilities as Director of Instrumental at Mount Tahoma High School, Mr. Karler is an active member on the board of the Puget Sound Youth Wind Ensemble. He recruited six new board members to serve and is currently the chairman of the committee on recruitment.

Over the course of the past year Mr. Karler has worked to increase the number of students involved in instrumental music courses at Mount Tahoma. He will be starting his second year with more than twice the number of student musicians he had previously. This resulted in the addition of a second concert band to accommodate all the new musicians. Currently, Mr. Karler directs the jazz ensemble, two concert bands, string orchestra, drum line, pep band, and several chamber ensembles.

In addition to his current position, Mr. Karler is an active trombonist and currently performs with Brass Unlimited, a quartet of Tacoma music teachers that, in addition to performing professionally, hosts two Sounds of Brass Concerts a year each featuring a professional guest artist. Students from Mr. Karler’s private trombone studio have gone to state solo and ensemble competitions to receive superior ratings and have been featured soloists with the Tacoma Youth Symphony organization.

String Visions: Having recently completed the Northwestern Conducting Symposium, what would you say was your favorite or most rewarding part of the week?

Max Karler: Hands down my favorite part of the workshop was chamber music day. When selecting the repertoire that I wanted to conduct I was given the option to choose a piece of chamber music instead a full piece for wind ensemble. There were a limited number of slots for this so I sent my request to conduct the final movement from the Mozart C minor serenade the day I heard that I was going to the workshop. Four of the five days we were expected to play in the ensemble. While this makes sense to fill out the ensemble and actually give us someone to conduct, it somewhat detracts from the experience of listening because you have so much else to do. On chamber day most of us weren’t required to play. We were able to sit and listen to some really fantastic musicians play some absolutely amazing pieces. I mean really, who doesn’t like a little Mozart or Beethoven chamber music?

String Visions: You’ve attended many master classes and festivals in the past. How does the Northwestern Symposium compare and differ in terms of the range and quality of what you learn?

Max Karler: I don’t know that I can give that a good answer. I can say that this is the first symposium I have been to where I actually felt like I kind of knew what I was doing. A year of podium time in front of 3 different groups really helped me feel a little more comfortable. I wouldn’t say that this workshop was any more or less valuable than any of the other ones, just different.

Compared to the other workshops I’ve been to there were three unique aspects to this symposium. First, it was a very open and social environment. I stayed in the dorms with many of the other participants, and this allowed for the same sort of bonding that occurs when you live in the dorms in college. Additionally, there was a group dinner that was planned out every night of the week. This was pretty cool because it let me get to know some of the other participants better (plus I got to eat at some great restaurants, which is what Chicago is well known for!)

The second unique aspect of the Northwestern Symposium was the small group conducting sessions. All of the participants and auditors were divided up into 3 groups. We each had a set of small ensemble excerpts that had been reduced down to 4-5 parts. Each of the excerpts allowed us to focus on a very specific technical issue (tone, weight, character, etc). Everyone, auditors included, was able to conduct through one of the excerpts every day with one of the clinicians working with them.

Finally, the Northwestern workshop is unique in that it features both chamber music and full wind ensemble music. I’ve been to a few workshops that are geared strictly in one of those two directions. It was a nice change of pace to be able to experience a little of both.

During the plane ride home I made a list of all of the things I learned or questions I had after leaving Chicago. Most of the items on the list refer to actually knowing something. I say that because I learned concepts that I thought I knew. It became apparent that I didn’t know them prior to the light bulb moment I had at the workshop. For example, I knew that the wrist and the elbow are separate joints and they do different things when conducting. It wasn’t until this workshop that I actually felt that they were different and now I actually know that they do different things.

This left me with the lingering thought that my students probably have this same thing happening to them. For example, I know that they can identify poor intonation and that they can compensate with some degree of accuracy. However, this skill isn’t automated for them yet. They haven’t really been in a situation with other musicians that just compensate automatically so the idea doesn’t occur to them.

In short, I’ve learned that you don’t know something until you experience it. I think it’s our job to provide our students with as many opportunities as possible that allow them to experience these concepts in ways that are meaningful to them.

To bring this back to the question, I would say that this workshop, and others like it, are a way for us as musicians and music educators to provide ourselves with an opportunity that we don’t get to have during the school year. We almost never get to focus on our musical skills and our non-verbal communication with our students. We are too busy taking care of the classroom management, the music, the paperwork, etc.

String Visions: This is not your first year applying for the symposium, but it is the first year that you were accepted. What advice can you share with us for other students who are looking to apply to seminar programs in general, and Northwestern in particular? What qualifications and experience do they need?

Max Karler: First, you need to have a good resume. Clean, efficient, and completely absent of errors. It should tell them who you are and who you’ve studied with (list primary instrument teachers, conducting teachers, and clinicians at other workshops you’ve attended).

Second, apply to a bunch of them, including some of the lesser known ones. These are great because they’re shorter (less money on hotel) and cheaper in tuition. Almost all of the time the person hosting the workshop will still bring in someone amazing. Two summers ago I got to work with Professor Junkin from the University of Texas at Austin. This will give you a lot of options. If you can only afford to go to one, pick the one that you really want to go to and just do it. I promise you’ll have more than enough to think about from just one workshop.

The reason I was not selected for participation at Northwestern the previous few times I applied was that I did not have any teaching experience. This was remedied after I got my current position and was selected this year. The first two times I was denied I was given two options. First I could audit the Northwestern workshop. This meant that I would pay a much smaller amount of tuition, attend the workshop, play in the ensemble, and only conduct the small groups in the mornings. I would get significantly less podium time but still get some time to work with the instructors at the workshop. The pros of this are that it’s cheaper, there’s no limit on the number of auditors admitted, and it can help get your foot in the door. The other option was to just go somewhere else and be a participant. Being eager to learn and conduct I selected the second option and went somewhere else both summers. I wasn’t about to pay a ton of money in travel and accommodations to only conduct half of the time.

String Visions: In your opinion, what are the best ways to make yourself marketable and attractive to these types of programs? Are there any specifics you can recommend for before, during, and after the application process?

Max Karler: The best way to make yourself marketable is to do your homework. Be a good musician and be well connected. Learn your instrument. Go to all of your local music ed. conferences. If they’re not any good go to your regional conference. The point of the workshop is to give you things to think about for improving your musicianship. The better musician you are, the more you’ll get out of them.

I think applying is very similar to trying to get a job. Before you apply you have to do your homework and see if that symposium is right for you. Who are the clinicians? What do you know about them? What pieces would you have the opportunity to conduct? What do you want out of the workshop?

During the application process you don’t want to be annoying. Typically it’s one of the graduate students that sorts out applications as part of their assistantship. After submitting your application it’s ok to send a very polite email to make sure that your application has been received. After that, leave them alone! You should hear back between December and March. If you’ve been accepted, return the materials promptly. If I hadn’t returned my information sheet early I would have missed out on my favorite part of the workshop, chamber day.

String Visions: What was the most valuable lesson that you learned (about music, about yourself, or both) over the course of the week?

Max Karler: When I went to the workshop I was pretty sure that after I had spent 5 years at Mt. Tahoma I was going to leave and go earn a DMA. During one of the afternoon Q&A sessions someone asked Dr. Thompson and Professor McMurray to talk about what it takes to be one of their doctoral students and what is required of them during their course of study. Over the course of their answers I began to think that maybe I didn’t want to do that just yet.

Later in the week I had had the opportunity to eat a meal and chat with almost all of the other participants and listen to what their jobs entail. After many of these conversations I realized how much I really love my job and how fortunate I am to be at Mt. Tahoma. Don’t get me wrong, they all have great jobs too. After the workshop I realized just how much my job totally rocks.

String Visions: You and I have talked about this before. When you go for the doctoral level, you have to be prepared to make some sacrifices in different aspects of your musical career. Can you share some of your thoughts on this subject, as well as how the symposium may have helped to shape those ideas?

Max Karler: One of my education professors in college liked to challenge the way we thought about everything. One day we were talking about the societal importance of early literacy and he said “You know, one success on the level of early literacy means multiple, potentially thousands, of catastrophic failures.” We all know that young children possess a brain that is just eager to learn how to do as much as possible. It is in the earliest years that they learn to do all of the necessary things for survival. However, in spending an extended amount of resources on acquiring the ability to read, they are prevented from learning how to do many other things. They are specializing. Specialization isn’t inherently good or bad. It just means that there are things you must give up in order to be better at one specific thing.

The doctoral level is one way we can specialize in our fields. It’s not bad that you want to be a really amazing conductor. But the fact of the matter is that there are only so many hours in the day. If I were to specialize I would have to give up some of the musical things that I really enjoy doing. I love teaching orchestra, band, and jazz band. I love playing trombone. I love transcribing and arranging music. I could specialize in any one of these activities but to do so would take time and energy away from the other activities. I’m not ready to give up the time and energy I put into all of those things yet. They’re still too important and I’m still learning too much from them to justify that.

String Visions: Setting aside conducting, you are first and foremost a music educator, and you have seen the education industry at both a primary and secondary school level. Can you give us some of your own opinions on what the primary challenges in music education are today? What issues are unique to each level, and what issues are common between them?

Max Karler: The greatest challenge at any level is making sure that the arts (not just music) stay as an important core part of the education. We now have all of this research from neuroscientists and educational statisticians that tell us everything we’ve already known as active artists. On average, artists outperform their peers in many areas by a significant margin. Frequently these statistics and studies have been and are being used to defend the arts against budget cuts. The problem is the message that doing so sends.

I believe that the arts are one of the few ways that we are able to make sense of life. This is a skill everyone needs to succeed in life and should therefore be one of the essential lessons that we teach in our schools. When we justify arts in the educational system as a means to increase test scores, we are condemning the arts to a secondary role. The arts are only important because they support something else. While we still get arts programs, they are now not as important as our reason for justification.

All of this research is the result of the increasing obsession with numbers and data in our world. One common way of measuring teacher effectiveness is to give a standardized test to measure the amount of learning that the teacher has facilitated. Regardless of your feelings on standardized tests, the arts, especially music, just don’t fit into a standardized test without losing the core values. Rather than using data to address this issue, we need to work much harder at finding ways to make our disciplines central to education without measuring them with units that don’t make sense.

String Visions: We just interviewed Sebastian Ruth, who runs a non-profit fighting for social justice and empowerment through music. What are your thoughts on the power music to make an impact in the community?

Max Karler: I don’t have a lot of experience personally for facilitating positive impact on the community through music. My plan for this year is to start working my students into the community in small chamber groups both for visibility and (hopefully) to supplement our budget. My hope is to turn the notion of a concert a little on its head. Everyone knows what good music sounds like, and everyone appreciates the effort of live musicians. I think it would be safe to assume based on this that I could take my students out and be met with a positive response. I’ve got a few ideas on some of the specifics but that’s an area that I will be learning a lot about this next year as I work with my students on this. My primary goal is to just bring attention to the learning that my students are doing in the classroom by bringing it directly into the everyday happenings of the community.

I talked a little bit about this in the last question but I believe that the arts make us better people. They help us make sense of our world, express feelings and thoughts that can’t be put into words, experience harmony and discord, learn the value of practicing something that doesn’t come easily…and the list really goes on and on. Change can come from the average person just trying to make their life a little better. This desire to improve the quality of life can be taught through the arts.

String Visions: What are your most rewarding experiences as a music educator?

Max Karler: Some of my most rewarding experiences this past year were with my orchestra. The first sound they played for me left me standing completely speechless. I wasn’t exactly sure what to even start talking about in order to make it better. After a whole year of working really hard I got a little better at teaching strings and they got a lot better at just about everything. By the end of the year I was astounded at how much they had grown. After our last concert I had one of my violinists’ parents come up to me to talk to me. Being a first year teacher all of the paperwork had me petrified and I wasn’t able to really reach out to the parents. Needless to say I was bracing for something that never came. Her mother told me that prior to this last year her daughter just didn’t like orchestra anymore and was thinking about quitting. She said that after this year her daughter can’t imagine not taking orchestra. This made the whole year worth it.

String Visions: If you don’t mind sharing, what are some of your most embarrassing or humorous moments as a music educator?

Max Karler: A short one but a good one. I walked into one of my classes this year and heard one of my male students say “Mr. Karler, guess what I got pierced this weekend.” I was walking around grabbing all of my stuff to get rehearsal started and I went through the list. Ear, Nose, Lip, Eyebrow, Bellybutton. He denied all of those. When I got to this point I was thinking “Crap. What else could he have gotten?” Before I could finish this thought I heard a laugh reminiscent of Beavis and Butthead come from him and I yelled “NO MORE!!!”

String Visions: Finally, if you could only teach one thing as advice to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps becoming a music educator, what would it be?

Max Karler: Practice your instrument. Nothing will help you more than being a good musician. Always make the time to practice. If you don’t have time, organize your time better. And really, isn’t practicing more fun than homework, paperwork, and meetings?

3 Responses to Interview with Music Educator Max Karler

  1. Geralyn July 19, 2016 at 4:10 am #

    Yup, that’ll do it. You have my appiociatren.

  2. July 20, 2016 at 9:04 am #

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  3. Braden W Welch October 6, 2021 at 9:35 am #

    Hi Mr. Karler

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