We hope you found the viewpoints presented last week by our panel educators to be helpful. If you are taking your first look this week, welcome!
In an effort to provide some additional tools to aid in your success, we have posed questions to educators from across the country; each with different experiences, focuses, and student demographics. We will post new questions and responses each week, so continue to check back.
We also hope that you will contribute ideas born of your own experience by commenting and continuing the conversation. If you have a question you would like to submit, please message us with “Music Ed. Question” as the first line in the question.
The high school band I played in was great—played grade 5-6 music, traveled to many places to compete, and sounded amazing. I went to a university whose bands were stellar, as well. I am a product of those programs and those great teachers. That experience was what drew me to the field of music education. Now, my first job includes a band of 20, they can’t play over a grade 2-3, and commitment to improving is well, nonexistent. The director before me just allowed mediocrity. I am beyond frustrated. How do I go about changing the environment, and begin creating decent program? And how do I go about doing this without being the iron fist? I want to be liked, but they could do so much better.
Dr. Jeff Phillips: I stopped teaching in a large successful high school program to teach in a brand new private school; from a band program of 120 to one with 12. It can be a blow to your ego, but it can also be a great experience. In a small program you get to give each student more attention and you can help them all become better musicians. Selecting proper literature can be the biggest challenge, but finding ways these small groups can have success builds interest and enthusiasm. Both the size of the program and the quality are all the responsibility of the person in front of the group. Treating the students as musicians and holding them to high standards is the key. I’ve seen lots of small programs with kids that perform quality literature and I’ve seen large programs that are pure slop. Don’t worry about “being liked”; concentrate on creating excellence.
Anonymous Middle School Educator: Ah, your story sounds oh-so-familiar to many! Those who have been called to lead a program up from the mire pits and teach students who never had musical or band classroom expectations. Students who, without fault to them, know hardly anything about proper posture, how to count using subdivision, are unaware of what the words embouchure or breathing meant for an instrumentalist, and no drive to do great things with their music. Students who were called names and were in an unhealthy classroom environment daily. None of this is their fault and is 100% fixable! The fact that you have a strong musical background and have shared in many experiences in and outside of the band room are treasures in your chest from the start! Share those stories with your students! Inspire them and give them hope that if they practice enough, and work toward their goals, they, too, can do the same things some day! But, you have to have goals to begin with. Have a class period where you sit your student down and make a list on the board. Ask them these three (3) questions: (You will be surprised at the type of conversation that is drummed up!)
- Why are you here?
- What do you hope to gain from band this year?
- What does it take to be an instrumentalist?
After you’ve finished, turn their responses you write on the board into a poster. Have each student sign it as a “contract” that they will work toward that this year to take their band where they want to be. Hang it on the wall and hold your students accountable to it! Reference it as much as possible! At the end of the year, check off that list and see where you’ve come! It puts the responsibility on the students to obtain their goals and really gives them a feeling of pride and self-worth when they can say, “HEY! We can do that now!” I ask my students every day at the end of class, “Did we get better today?” Almost every day the response is, “YES!” in some form or another. Keep the instruments up to their mouths and keep them playing as much as possible! Push them toward excellence each day. Have rules and hold to them, but always try to make them laugh. Allow yourself to inspire them as you were once inspired. Teach them to appreciate the greats and practice as hard as they can to be the best they can.
John Bingaman: Being a part of a successful high school program and university program are both great attributes to you as a music educator. Unfortunately, you in most cases did not get to see or could fully perceive your high school program in its stages of transition and growth that your high school director had to go through. No program starts successfully from a standpoint of competition. The first things to start with are infrastructure which include staff (if you have any), feeder programs and being vertically aligned, private lesson staff, scheduling and philosophy. If any of these things are not given attention, the results could be catastrophic. Expectations are driven from the top and the way you respond to the mediocrity dictates the students’ perception of its acceptability. If you are clear in your expectations and if it is done from day one, a change can be made. There will always be students who are comfortable in that mediocrity and don’t want to change at all, but there will be a large percentage of students who appreciate having clear expectations and a path to be better. Patience at this stage is important and focusing on the younger students that are more malleable by nature will keep you positive and focused on the task at hand. Teaching the students about broad concepts such as respect, positive practicing habits, doing things in a like manner, aspiring to excellence, and having a sense of pride in everything they do will invoke the most change up front. These concepts will fix many of the smaller problems. And how do I go about doing this without being the iron fist? I want to be liked, but they could do so much better. You must pick your battles. This applies not only with the students but also with your administration. One of the big principles that I have learned is to never come across as if a correction or disciplinary action is personal. The actions you take to solve a problem do not have to be accompanied with condescension. Once a student feels that your goal is to insult them or embarrass them, they will shut you out and not listen. In other words, they are quiet but not engaged. They are no longer listening to you, but rather waiting on you to stop talking. Give validity to the things that you require. Educate the students on procedures and what following those procedures helps the program achieve and more importantly avoid. Sometimes, if a student understands the “why”, they will invest in the concept. At that point, it becomes their decision. Attitude controls not rules. In other words, if you want the band hall to stay clean, a student with an attitude to keep the band hall clean will do so because they want to and not because it’s the rule. Attitudes have a tendency to persevere and rules have a tendency to fade or eventually be rebelled against. Lastly, try not to let a student derail your rehearsal. Deal with potential confrontations with students with as little fanfare as possible. Again, this only supports the business atmosphere that you ultimately want to operate your program. In this atmosphere, students know that this is just the way things are done here rather than thinking you’re out to get them. You will earn respect in this atmosphere which will open the door for more personable interactions outside of the rehearsal as you build positive relationships with students while they comfortably understand your authority.
Dr. Russ Gavin: You begin creating an environment of excellence by having high standards and patience. If you have a band with 20 kids, you have the opportunity for individualized instruction and growth that many directors of larger bands envy! As you do this, remember that you are teaching kids first. Try to celebrate the daily victories that will exist in your program and don’t get hung up on what you don’t have. You were probably drawn to the field in part because you got to be involved in high-level musical experiences. It is likely that your musical self is feeling somewhat unsatisfied in this job. If that is the case, I encourage you to join a community band, jazz group, quintet, or something outside of your job to keep that musical muscle strong!
Ryan Moseley: When I started the music program at our high school, we only had 18 kids in the band program. This led for some creative thinking in order to fill missing instrumental parts and get students in the program to help it grow. What I tried to instill to the students was that I cared about each of them and was not going anywhere. I needed to create a culture where the students could see that I wanted the band to be great and begin to buy-in to my beliefs. I found that once students buy-in, they will follow you anywhere and trust in what you are asking them to do. To help create the culture I wanted for my band, I first worked on increasing their skill level and level of musical performance in small and manageable increments. As the students began to achieve at the higher skill levels, they were eager to reach even higher. I must caution you to not increase to too high a level before the students are ready. This will only discourage them. The second way I created the buy-in culture was I had some local musicians and music teachers perform in our concerts which filled in the missing parts, but also provided a performance model for the students to emulate. Lastly, I took my band to local festivals/parades to perform as an exhibition band so that the students could have the positive feeling that comes from having the audiences cheer them on.
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