The Instrumentalist

Articles June 2016

Pick Your Battles



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The when and why of everything from pencils to Pop-Tarts.

 

    One of the things I had to learn the quickest when my first child reached the terrible twos was that not every issue that arose was worth fighting over. This may seem like an easy concept, but emotionally it was difficult; there were times when I felt like an unmanly, powerless father because I could not win an argument with a toddler. I learned to accept the fact that she didn’t want me to break her Pop-Tart in half and would scream like crazy if she was not able to begin devouring it from its original rectangular shape. That battle, and others like it, I decided she could win. As for more important concerns like sitting in her car seat and going to bed at a decent hour, I insisted on winning those.
    My experience working with others at school is similar. There are so many matters at school that can become points of contention that if I am not careful, each day becomes a long series of aggravations. I have learned to fight only for the things that matter to me the most, but I have to admit that there is an occasional unsettled feeling when I let up on some of the things I used to stress about. Choices on what to battle for will vary, and some people may find a number of the battles I’ve decided not to fight rather unsettling because priorities and philosophies differ based on past experiences. 
    For example, my high school band director emphasized punctuality to the point of embarrassing students who walked in seconds late. One summer I had car trouble on the way to practice. When I entered the rehearsal hall, he cut off the band, and I had to explain why I was late in front of 120 fellow band members. It was the only time I had ever been late. It seemed like such a negative way to start rehearsals. When I became a director, I decided to rarely make such a public issue of it, preferring to address the matter individually with repeat offenders. I have found that it is usually the same kids who are repeatedly late.
    I used to give lectures on having a pencil in rehearsal. It got the point where I was turning into Commander Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) from The Caine Mutiny who annoyingly rolls a couple of steel ball bearings in his hands while obsessing over his missing strawberries. I have decided I am not going to have a stroke if someone does not have a pencil on their stand for rehearsal. I simply hand the student another one from my stash of new and pre-owned models and remind them to have a pencil in their instrument case. 
    One of our greatest battles as band directors is getting students to practice. There is no perfect solution, but I can tell you what hasn’t worked for me: nagging. Neither did practice sheets that were to be completed and signed by parents. That just gave me something extra to nag about. Plus, I had students who actually practiced but were not responsible enough to get the sheets signed by their parents, so they would get a bad grade even though they practiced. I also found it difficult to track honesty, and I am not even sure if the parents really knew exactly how much their children were practicing. There is a strong chance they just signed the sheet quickly as their child headed off to school.
    When I began to reevaluate my approach to getting students to practice, I considered the types of kids in my band and adjusted accordingly. First, there were the precious few who loved playing their instrument so much that I only had to guide them on what and how to practice so that their practice time was filled with something besides pop tunes they still had partially memorized from marching season.
    Then there were a large group in the middle that would practice depending on the circumstances. It is with these students that I decided to manipulate the circumstances to the point where they are actually practicing quite a bit. I scheduled extra sectionals and individual lessons until everyone learned whatever music I wanted them to. The sooner a student learned a part, the sooner the sectionals and lessons end. Basically I was assuming that they were not going to practice enough and provide sufficient rehearsals for them to learn it. That may seem like an unfair burden to me, but I can live with it if it means the music is being learned. Of course, I encourage students to practice, but I have found it more effective to encourage students individually or in small groups as opposed to chiding the full band all the time.
    The third group is comprised of students whose parents haven’t seen their kid’s instrument in so long that they are not even sure their child is in band anymore. Sectionals and lessons are not enough to get these students to learn their music. I always hope to move as many of these students into the second category as possible, but when I cannot, I usually approach this problem individually. At this point, it is a battle that needs to be faced, and I explore several options with the student, varying from an instrument switch if they have lost interest in their instrument all the way to discontinuing band.
    Picking the right battles is also important when working with administrators. There are some unpleasant tasks I do every year simply so that I can later fight for or against other things that are more important to me. Singeing my eyebrows at homecoming bonfires, performing rehearsal-interrupting hallway send-offs for athletic events, directing a pep band for basketball games, monitoring a testing room, driving the bus on some band trips that I’d rather not, and marching three parades rather than my preferred one are just a few examples. This gives me a clear conscience when I have to turn down other requests, defend my program in some other matter, or ask for permission to do something that benefits the band.
    Or how about picking battles with coaches and other faculty members? Many times these battles center around “shared” students. I want to have my students at every performance, but there are often not enough days in the week to avoid a conflict in the spring with basketball, track, soccer, and baseball going full force. I had a softball player once who had a game at the same time as both a solo and ensemble event and our region assessment. It would have been more than fair for me to request that I have her both times since there are twenty softball games and she was on the junior varsity team. However, to battle for both dates would leave me looking less than willing to compromise. I readily agreed for her to miss the solo and ensemble event, but was adamant about the region assessment because she was second chair. 

Here is a quick guide to help you in battles that occur daily:
    Only fight about issues that are truly important. Do not argue for the sake of arguing. Consider a few simple questions: Is this worth addressing? Will I care about this tomorrow? Will I be burning bridges that will hurt me in the future? 
    Do not react immediately. Many times battles are thrust upon us at a moment’s notice. Walk away from a tense situation for a few minutes. Calm down and consider what an argument will accomplish. If you choose to fight every battle, you will be seen as stubborn or argumentative. 
    Make a plan. If you decide to battle, do not approach the situation haphazardly. Take a moment to calm down and think through the problem. Support your argument logically with facts and examples. 
    Choose the right time. Find a quiet place to vent your frustrations in private so you can have an honest conversation without outside pressure. Everyone involved is less defensive if matters are not being aired in full view of everyone else.
    Talk, don’t yell. Both parties will likely become defensive if the fight becomes overly emotional. 
    Solve the problem together. It’s easy to dictate things to students, but often more long-standing success occurs when the student helps in finding a solution.
    Preempt the problem. A little prevention goes a long way. Address the situation as soon as you see a problem arise. Be proactive in your approach. I often contact parents about a student problem before it becomes a major concern. With experience, I have been able to predict what is coming if something isn’t done sooner rather than later.

    The old school my-way-or-the-highway approach may work for some; if that works for you, I envy you a little. For the rest of us, the world has changed, and a more give-and-take approach with carefully chosen battles seems to be the best course, whether it’s dealing with students, faculty, administrators, or Pop-Tart-eating toddlers.
 

Trey Reely

Trey Reely is director of bands at Riverview High School in Searcy, Arkansas. He previously taught at Paragould (Arkansas) High School. Reely earned degrees from Harding University and is a consulting editor to The Instrumentalist.

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