Whether you are a first-year teacher stepping into your new job or a veteran director who just wanted a change, there are several critical moments in those first few months that can make for a smooth transition or can make each day a Tums-ingesting stress-fest. Having experienced the trials and tribulations as a middle school, high school, and college director, I would be happy to help colleagues learn from my early career “learning experiences.” While this list is by no means comprehensive, it does hit upon some of the more common issues that arise in a new gig.
1. Avoid the temptation to change/fix everything RIGHT NOW!
Ray Cramer, Director of Bands Emeritus at Indiana University, always used to tell us not to change the course of the Ohio River our first year in a new place, and he was spot on with this advice. Many of us have seen the results of drastic, quick changes to band programs, and rarely do these circumstances end well. Students, colleagues, administrators, and parents need time. Even if one were to change absolutely nothing about a program, folks would still need time to adjust. Sometimes we forget this need, understandably so. We deal with unexpected issues on a daily basis–change is part of our lives, so we (band directors) expect it. However, sometimes we can forget that other people do not experience life in this way, and even the smallest change can seem like a gigantic reform. So, as you consider jumping in and making what might seem like a minor tweak in the program, take a moment to remember that there could actually be a good reason for the status quo, and in time, you may find out what that reason is. Only after having all of the information at hand can one make a truly justifiable change in a program.
Think of your communication line as a road that must be built with every new group you encounter. Yes, you can drive from A to B without a road, but you will probably get a few dents, flat tires, and you might even end up in a lake. Give enough time for a path to take shape before driving on it, so that when you do finally open up the throttle and tweak your program, the ride is much smoother!
2. DO NOT keep your plans and goals a secret!
After the road is built, use it!
I have seen situations where directors have specific ideas about what a band should be doing and how they should do it (weather or not to add marching band props, how long practices last in the evening,how many contests are best for the band, what style of concert music will be used, where the band should travel, etc.). However, when directors do not clearly articulate these goals to kids, parents, and MOST importantly, administrators, every day brings them a sense of insecurity and potential unwelcome surprises for these folks.
Some directors prefer to not keep the updates flowing because of the fear that the students/parents/principals will constantly be questioning the director’s decisions; as though a door might be opened that cannot be closed. The opposite is usually true-when people understand the waypoints you have in mind en route to the final performance, they are more likely to move with you as you make the day-to-day decisions that get them there.
Stop by and say a quick “hello” to that overly worked principal every couple of weeks…then, when you do have a special circumstance that really needs their support, they already have familiarity with you and your general direction with the group. The road is paved, and the ride is smoooooth!
Maestro Fennell used to say that conductors have a tough job. They must have armor that is strong enough to deflect the arrows, but permeable enough to let emotion and expression pass through to our students. We must both be thick- and thin-skinned, and this can be a challenge early on. Even seasoned teachers face the challenges of starting a new job, finding that when they use some of the same teaching techniques that made their previous band successful, it is suddenly less successful in the new place. This does not mean you are wrong in what you do, it just means you need MORE information. So, while some will not agree with the your decisions and may voice this disagreement in ways that can sting, remember that you can evaluate and adapt until you find the right key for the lock. It’s there, but it often takes a solid TWO years (even three) before the keys fit properly.
I have seen many, many directors take new jobs–some students embrace them immediately, some take a couple of years, and some simply never accept them. Remember this! If you try to please every person, you please nobody in the end. Besides, pleasing folks is a nice side benefit in our jobs, but we are here to educate first, and as long as you can clearly justify yourself in regards to proven educational methodology, you are moving in a good direction.
If you feel hurt by comments, know that responding with anger almost never achieves a desirable result, and frequently results in unfortunate consequences. Yes, you can feel anger, but respond to a situation after carefully evaluating what the real problem is and what you can do you to resolve it.
In other words, sit on your hands for a full minute before replying to that nasty email. Once you click send, there is no taking it back! This comes from my own hard lessons as a first- and second-year teacher. If someone is being rude or hurtful to you and your anger comes through as part of your regular educational strategy for resolving conflict, you may find yourself in a very challenging work environment.
4. Praise like it is going out of style.
The flip side of dealing with criticism is forgetting to praise when something goes well. I remember as an early teacher having to really think to remember to praise students–it takes a while to develop the skill. At first, you may have 1,000 different points of information coming at you simultaneously, so when something actually goes well, the tendency might be to move on without passing along your approval to the students. In time, young students will start to feel that anytime you stop, it is to “gripe” at them–even though we know that correcting a B-natural is not a personal attack, kids may get that impression if you are not balancing your comments.
Some folks endorse the “sandwich” approach–start with a compliment, give the criticism/problem identification, then finish with another compliment. If this works, go with it. However, I have found that it can: 1) seem artificial, 2) train students to expect something negative to follow every compliment, and 3) result in a net loss of rehearsal flow and productivity. Keep it genuine, polite, and centered on musical goals, and students will gain trust in your teaching skills.
You are new to them (but old to yourself!). While you know how you react in certain situations, every rehearsal is a new experience for the students. So, consider ways to establish trust early on. This goes back to the “learn every name as soon as possible” comment above.
I would advise against saying “trust me,” by the way. It sounds too much like a movie villain (or Han Solo, which is close.)
SHOW, don’t TELL. When you say you will be at X place at X time, be there. If you require students to perform with specific criteria, hold them to those exact criteria (no surprises, right?). If you tell them they need to have the music memorized from letters C-D to set the drill on Wednesday, you need to be sure you set that drill. Everything you say and do early on carries more weight because students do not have many experience with you yet. Make those experiences positive–engage in conversation outside of class, even if you are busy. Offer to help a student with musical or non-musical problems. Use those names! If you do not know, ASK! It is far less awkward to ask in the first week of school or band camp then to get to the spring concert and still be calling the 4th trombone player, “Hey, you…guy!”
Starting a job is exciting and challenging. I know it is tough because you will have those 1,000 different things happening all at once. But, if you can take the small steps to build the road of trust and communication, problems become more easily solved and students are eager to join you on the musical journey!
Wind Bands of Every Flavor is here to help you select the right music for your bands in the upcoming year!
Click HERE to join host Chad Nicholson and his guest panelists as they make suggestions for a variety of concert openers, chorale/lyrical pieces, “big” pieces, and closers to help directors plan their concerts! Matt Brunner from Temple University and Matthew Arau from Loveland, Colorado, discuss their favorite pieces–from Bernstein to de Meij, from new works to old Hindsley transcriptions, there will be something for everyone!
If you would like more podcasts that focus on wind band repertoire, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below!
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Having the chance to hear bands from all over the country is a wonderful perk for a college band director! Truly, every region has it’s own approach to band, it’s own flavor (!), and I always take new ideas with me after judging at a festival.
So, in the interest of passing on a few repertoire-related observations, here are the things that I have seen first-hand (or hear from judges/colleagues sitting nearby in the balcony) that relate to the music selections–it is by no means definitive, but it might help pull the curtain back just a bit!
3. Myth: Avoid standard repertoire (in other words,”Pick tunes the judges won’t know!”) Adjudicators will expect all directors to adhere to their own interpretations of standard rep., so do not even bother trying to perform it, as there is no way to predict what they want!
Fact: I mean this with all seriousness–what adjudicators want is an understanding of style (dance vs. lyrical, and so on), a good sense of intonation, melodic and accompanimental phrasing, notes that reach the end of the bar lines, and clear technique. I have never seen a clinician dock points because a director chose to broaden time in, say, a Grainger piece, as long as it is evident that the ensemble had a superb sense of time throughout. Or, if a director has their own take on a Sousa march, fine! That’s what they were made for! Obscure music does not mean the adjudicator will ignore the need for the musical elements listed above!
2. Myth: Harder=Better! Last year’s state champion played a hard piece by Mackey, so if we want to compete, we must play a similarly hard piece.
Fact: See the “Fact” above–if last year’s state champion accomplished those musical goals previously listed, then it is largely irrelevant that they played Mackey or Steve Bryant or Maslanka! Judges often look for an appropriate level of challenge, but once that level surpasses the student’s collective ability, it is almost impossible to perform musically! In this sense, harder music can cause more problems than it solves. This does not mean challenge is to be avoided, but challenges tend to call for a moderately high degree of mastery if one is attending an adjudicated event. Experiment with tunes that may, at first, seem a tad bit less of a technical challenge, and see how the students respond with phrasing, style, and musicianship!
1. Myth: Every band must play “Wind Ensemble” music. “Symphonic Band” may seem like an old-fashioned word to some, and it may feel less progressive. However, I can assure you, when a band has been artificially cut down to the bare minimum of numbers reflecting nearly one-to-a-part, it does not mean that “wind ensemble” music is appropriate!
Fact: If we recall that Maestro Fennell developed the wind ensemble concept with the finest wind, brass, and percussion musicians at Eastman, then we might expect that the music for such an ensemble would highlight the virtuosity of those very individuals. Virtuosic wind music that is sparse in texture was not conceived by starting with a set number of players; rather, it was simply the number required to hear each and every tone color in the ensemble with clarity, allowing for virtuosity to speak.
So, if your players are not yet to the point where they EACH have a virtuosic control over tone, technique, intonation, and expression, it may be a greater benefit to combine your bands and perform some of the outstanding repertoire for larger symphonic ensembles. Consider the sounds each player creates to inform your band’s repertoire style (symphonic band vs. chamber-like wind ensemble music) so that you may provide the best possible performing environment!
As the new schoolyear looms closer, dig around the back of those cabinets in the music library! There might be a good, old, yellow, aged, symphonic band standard waiting to knock your students right out of their seats.
Hey, it is new to them! Like a prime time re-run in the summer!
For more repertoire ideas, check out the latest episode of Wind Bands of Every Flavor, featuring a panel discussion of great openers, chorale-style pieces, “big” pieces, and closers!
The students here at Indiana-Purdue University in Fort Wayne have had a busy spring semester. They helped host IMEA state ensemble rehearsals, they served as a demo group for a lecture I gave on “Finding the Sweet Spot” of band sound, and they were selected as a featured university ensemble and did a fantastic job with a challenging concert program. This week, those same students helped in hosting our annual Three Rivers Honor Band Festival for middle school and high school students. With faculty masterclasses, performances for the attendees, and endless logistical concerns, that same core group of students rose to the occasion and resolved problems indepedently and professionally. (As more seasoned directors know, there can be some eyebrow-raising surprises when you pool together several hundred 7-12 graders…!)
Both of these experiences went beautifully, depite the long hours and high expectations on these students. I could not be more proud!
Nor am I surprised. This “make it happen” mentality is not unique to my university. It is not unique to university students.
My years spent teaching high school in Beaverton, Oregon, revealed a similar “go big or go home” attitude amongst an invaluable core group of students. They were completely dedicated to having great musical and social experiences, regardless of the hours of required effort. I was amazed by their endless energy and genuine desire to see the entire group succeed.
I was not surprised. This “make it happen” mentality was not unique to my high school. It is not unique to high school students.
I have friends and relatives who are teachers (not music) and those who are professionals in other fields. Many of them do not get to see this side of our culture.
When reflecting upon how we, the wind band folk of the world, accomplish meaningful things like commissions, massive festivals, contests, parades 1,000 miles from home, halftime shows that entertain and elevate, performing groups from combos to chamber groups to 300-piece athletic bands, combined performances with hundreds of students, and so on, and so on, and so on, a singular truth remains.
We are one of the few “make it happen” core groups in our society. This may sound like an over-estimation of what we do, but after 15 years of teaching, I simply do not see this desire, commitment, and ability to function at a high level of organization outside of the band world.
The ability to plan into the long term, to develop programs, concerts, and student skills patiently and methodically, and the willingness to believe that the end result is greater than the sum of its parts is a hallmark of our industry.
And that is why we do it!
Perhaps, someday, we can impart this attitude across a larger swath of our society. There is no question that the greater good would benefit from this attitude that is common to our teachers and students.
As teachers, we’ll keep doing what we can, one student at a time!
Now, all of this talk about organization makes me feel the need to clean my desk….
…nahhhhh! I’ve got a rehearsal to plan!
A huge shout-out to Dr. John Franklin and the East Carolina University Marching Band–they did a terrific job with my Proud Mary arrangement this weekend!
Click here to see it on the field (Facebook video):