On my way to work today I ran into the baseball coach at my school. His son plays trombone in the bands where I teach, and he was in attendance at the spring concert last night.
“How come you never have a losing season?” he asked with a smile.
That is an excellent question, I thought. One of these days I might actually get it all figured out. Eternal optimist and music lover meets bureaucracy of public education – this should be an excellent read in about 15 years. In the meantime, these are 9 tenets around which I have built much of my teaching. They are not fix-all statements that will cure everything in year’s time. Much of this has been 16 years of my own teaching leading me to this point, my interactions with friends and colleagues, and the time I have spent in furthering my professional development as a band director. As you reflect upon the end of your year of teaching, I hope that 2 or 3 of these can provide further thought for you and your own ensembles.
1) Be positive. There is plenty to be down about right now in education. One area that we cannot be down on are the students who walk in our door. If we do not create an atmosphere of positive expectation and collaboration, I believe it will be very rare for them to take the initiative to do so. These are just kids – not professionals. Teach them. Lead them. Be positive.
2) You can love your band, but you don’t have to like them. This advice comes from Shawn Reynolds – and it is pretty accurate. In the teacher’s lounge, the copy room, the office, they are referred to us as “one of your band kids” – even though we know they have a school life in other parts of the building. But band is their family, and we, as directors, are surrogate parents and role-models. We must love them, but when they are doing things that we don’t like, or are detrimental to their success as people and musicians we must let them know about it.
3) It is their band. It isn’t my name on the middle-high school sign. This school and program belongs to them – I happen to facilitate sound decisions. I hope to continue to build a program that the students and the community are proud of. I hope the band program is responsive to the needs of the school and the community, and demonstrates to everyone we encounter how important music education is in the life of a child. I can’t do that if my name is the most important one on the concert program.
4) Listen to each other. The world is a better place when we learn to listen to each other. The ensemble is better when they learn to listen to everything around them. No one in this economy is too poor to pay attention during a rehearsal – especially when the benefit is making the ensemble play with greater awareness of expression and accuracy.
5) Have a band for all seasons. Not every student that enters my program wants to be in marching band. Some really don’t like concert band. Some enjoy small ensemble work more than large ensemble. We have maintained our success in part by providing avenues for performance and expression in ensembles of different types without departing and sacrificing the heritage of the American Wind and Concert Bands for which we are a part. Yes it means never having a non-busy season – but it also means less non-interested students.
6) Great moments are magical, take lots of work, and can happen all the time. Half-time shows. Adjudication/Contest. Festival auditions. Concerts. Sometimes it is hard to keep in perspective that those big moments are small snapshots of our ensembles’ and students’ growth and progress over the course of a year. If the process is good, the product will be. But in the moment when they happen and there is a perfect alignment of choice of music and talent of the group, the moments are magical. They are electrifying, uplifting, and inspiring. Celebrate that moment for what it is, when it is, with who happens to make it possible. The feeling created for the students is unquantifiable and worth every ounce of our focus, energy, and dedication as directors.
7) Put kids in the best possible position for success. Know your kids, know what they can do, and know what they don’t know. Know ways to help them know what they don’t know. Know why they should know it. It is not an art of mezzo-nothing teaching of mezzo-nothing literature. It requires thoughtful planning, evaluation, teaching, and modeling. If we are a family, then we should want what is best for each other, and we have their best interest as musicians and people in the forefront of our preparation.
8) No pressure, no diamonds. Sometimes at the start of the year our ensembles resemble lumps of coal – a little rough, a little dirty, and at face value not worth much. Given enough time, heat, and pressure (time, inspiration, and teaching) they are transformed into something that most people will agree is better to look at (listen to) and is more valuable. Truly, band directors work with clean coal technology every day. Those performances on our schedule give us a timetable to work towards that may increase or decrease the amount of pressure we apply to our “coal”.
9) Define your own success. Every band I have every year is different. While I say and teach the same principles and concepts each year, the change in personality and talent demands that I talk, instruct, and interact with groups a little different each year. That also means the goals I set every year are slightly different as well. Everything we approach and engage in is a learning experience – we learn about ourselves, we learn what we do well, we learn what we need to improve upon. We don’t chase trophies or plaques. We have standards in place that we hold ourselves accountable to, and we define our own success.