What We Learn Along the Way

John Thomson | April 2010

Experience is the best teacher. Veteran teachers were asked what they wish they had known earlier in their careers and how has it made them better teachers and conductors. Here are their responses.

Roy Holder
Roy C. Holder (left) has taught in the public schools for the past 40 years. For the past 22 years he has been the Director of Bands at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Fairfax County, Virginia. Holder is a member of the Virginia Music Educators Association, the National Band Association, and the American Bandmasters Association. He is currently the high school representative on the N.B.A. Board of Directors, on the School Bands Committee of the A.B.A., and on two selection committees for the John Philip Sousa Society.

     I wish I had known how far a box of oranges on the custodial office desk at fruit truck time, or a simple please or thank you on a request to a secretary, or taking a minute to talk to the finance lady or the athletic office administrative assistant, or sweeping the floor after we track in football field grass would go in terms of not only good will in the building, but in terms of actually being able to get my job done because all these important people appreciate having their work acknowledged as valuable.
     I wish I had known the importance of finding people with the time and interest in doing a thousand little things that leave me time to select music, study scores and spend the majority of my time dealing directly with students. I don’t let go of everything and I keep an eye on every aspect of the program, and yes, it gets more difficult every year to not spend too much time on the administrative aspects of the job, but the more time I spend on music and students and the less time I spend on things that others can do, the better for everyone. The more people are involved the more committed they are to the program and the more time I spend on the kids and music the better we perform.
     This also applies to students and rehearsing. I wish I had known that it was best if I did not try to do everything for them. Early on I tried to rehearse everything into a finished form, check each passage for who was creating the problem, and check every student for marching band music memorization. As I learned to turn over the marching band music pass-off charts to the section leaders, the students begin to take more responsibility for the success of their sections and the group as a whole.
     As I learned to make sure everyone understood what was needed to prepare a certain passage-rhythms, style, phrasing, odd fingerings-then created the atmosphere that assumed that it was unacceptable to not prepare the material, students became more responsible for their own music preparation, and we not only played better but were able to cover a lot more material.
     Granted, I can never walk away completely. There is definitely the “Walk softly, but carry a big stick” element to all of this. Students have to know you are serious and that there is a consequence for not meeting the standard. However, the better I get at creating the atmosphere of expecting excellence and trusting them to get the job done the less often the big stick comes out and the more time we spend creating music, not rehearsing notes and rhythms. This leads to more enjoyment for the students the audience, and the conductor. For those who do not think their students will respond to such an approach, I understand that students today are busier than in the past and surrounded by the “what do I have to know to pass the test” mentality.
     I also know that as long as we do everything for them they will be perfectly happy to let us do just that. Teach them that real success is not in just getting the “right answer”, but in struggling to accomplish something you were not sure you could do when you started out. Teach them to enjoy the process and not just the final product. Teach them that real accomplishment will require frustration and failure along the way. And make sure through your words and actions that they know you believe that they can and will do what is necessary to accomplish the tasks before them.
     Of course, the most difficult part is balancing the elements of when to push them to get the job done and when to leave it to their sense of pride and self respect. If you think you are getting this right all the time you are probably missing something. If you are frustrated that you often don’t get this right you just may be doing the other thing I wish I had understood early on. I wish I had known that the best thing about this process is that it is never done. No matter how well I did today and how great our performance, tomorrow I get to start over and try to do more. No matter how frustrating today was, no matter what did not work, no matter if the students were unprepared or did not respond well to what I did today, if I go home and think about what I might have done differently, if I ask some questions or ask someone to come in and watch or work with my students, the next time I go in the door I can be better. That is what we should expect from our students, so surely it is the way we should approach our responsibilities with this job.
     There is no “magic bullet”, just the opportunity to do something special that we can constantly improve at doing. I wish I had known that the more I focused on that aspect of the job and the less I time I spent worried about the administrative frustrations, the happier would be going to work each day.

Charles Menghini

     Charles Menghini is director of bands and president of VanderCook College of Music. He is an internationally recognized author, clinician, adjudicator, and guest speaker. Menghini received a doctorate in wind conducting from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music. He is a member of the Mid-West International Band and Orchestra Clinic Convention Commit-tee. Menghini taught at the high school level in the public schools of Kansas and Missouri for 18 years before coming to VanderCook. He also played lead trumpet in the Kansas City Chiefs Profes-sional Football Band.

    Teachers face many decisions, including what music to select, what sections to rehearse, how to approach each rehearsal, how to discipline a student or handle a situation, or how to communicate with an administrator in order to get additional support for your program. Here are a few things I have learned about decision-making:
     1. Don’t Rush To Judgment. When things happen, wait until you get as many of the facts as possible. There may be a good reason why the student was late for your class or missed a performance. That a student has not performed up to your level of expectation in the past does not guarantee that a new situation is not unique and beyond their control. Get the information first, it will save you lots of time and headaches in the long run.
     2. Select Appropriate Music. There is a list of music that we want to play and then there is a list of music we should play, but these are not always the same. Make sure that the music you choose fills an educational or programming need and is something your students will be able to perform at a high technical and musical level.
     3. Know What You Can and Cannot Fix In A Rehearsal. A missed key signature or an accidental, incorrect rhythm, a wrong fingering, or poor mallet or stick choice are all examples of things you can fix immediately. In these cases, stop and fix them. Have students write in specific information in their music to help solve the problem. Don’t circle the wrong note, because this only calls attention to it. Instead have them mark a sharp or flat in front of the note. When a wrong rhythm is played, have them write in the counts using the counting system you have taught them. If a note is played using a wrong fingering, have them write in the correct fingering. If they consistently play a note flat or sharp, have them write in an arrow going up to raise the pitch and down to lower the pitch.
Things that cannot be fixed immediately require a different approach. Such problems may include an awkward fingering, a string of sixteenth notes, or a difficult interval. In such situations the best approach is to give students a strategy practice this area, then revisit this spot daily to monitor progress. Don’t ever simply tell students to learn it.
     4. Put Yourself In Their Shoes First. When you are going to meet with a principal, parent, or colleague, don’t just approach the situation from your point of view. Instead, try to put yourself in their position and decide how you would want to be approached. In doing this you come across as cooperative instead of confrontational. This same idea of putting yourself in another person’s shoes first also goes for things as simple as writing an email. Remember that email is read from the mindset of the reader and not the writer. Don’t assume that people have the same information you do. When communicating with people either face to face or in writing the rule is to assume little and explain lots.

Anthony Gibson
    Anthony Gibson is the director of fine arts for Allen Independent School District in Allen, Texas. For 26 years he was director of successful Texas high school bands ranging in size from 70 to over 600+ members of the Allen Escadrille before moving into fine arts administration.

    Twenty-six years in music education and administration has taught me that success with students, parents, colleagues, administrators, community, and family is about dealing with relationships. I feel strongly that the ultimate goal in music education is to have a good effect on our students. There were years that I had hundreds of students as a captive audience on a daily basis, and sometimes their parents had me captive at booster meetings or conferences. Over time, my line of thinking shifted from "how do I deal with every moment” to “how do I live every moment”.
     High-profile positions demand living every minute of every day as if under a microscope. Peering through the lens are students, parents, the community, and my own family. This accountability is the ultimate test of our personal lives anyway. Effective communication of emotion, empathy, and motivation can be so taxing while on stage at all times. Often I found myself in a prideful state, narrowly focused on what I was doing, but pride consistently, cometh before a fall. I also got caught up in the competitive winning rather than staying focused taking care of people.
     In hindsight, the plastic trophies and dusty plaques mean very little. Yet the relationships that were built will last forever. With the accessibility of networking in technology today, forever becomes increasingly more literal. How I wish I could make a convincing apology to so many former students to whom I did not give that second chance, or take back a comment. It really would have been okay to just agree that it was their reed. The opportunity to have a mulligan on some of the situations in the past would be a gift. I would have kept my passion, and focused on the relationship when correcting a student, a parent, or a staff member. I could have found a nicer way to say that I was not going to sit in the band booster dunking booth at carnival.
     I consider myself blessed to have had strong relationships with mentors, colleagues, and my wife. They were willing to chime in and beat some wisdom into a young whippersnapper band director out to change the world. I am so grateful for their love as well as their confidence in speaking the truth.
     With the change to administrative position, my responsibilities grew from hundreds of band studentss to a fine arts staff of 90 and a program encompassing all students in the school district. However, the common goal is still building relationships with students. The pain of missed relational opportunities of the past is diminished when I receive a note of thanks from former students or colleagues.
     A meaningful saying and reminder in my family is that “friends are friends but family is forever.” The true testament to relationships, love, and values is no further than my own home. Family comes before ensembles, regardless of the endless hours preparing for rehearsal, sectionals, or charting marching band all night. You never get that time back. First steps, taking off training wheels, or escorting a daughter at homecoming ceremonies are once-in-a-lifetime mo-ments. Let your example be your family. Grandchildren produce an even bigger change in your priorities; they are your legacy staring you in the face.
     In closing, I recently attended the funeral of a colleague and long time educator, and in the service the priest said, “When you stand before God. . .” and my thoughts lingered on this question. If you approached every rehearsal, parent conference, or conversation with your spouse after a three-hour bus ride from a football game as if you were standing before God, what would change? There is no telling how many times I have preached that music is just a way for us to make a difference in students’ lives, and that all begins with relationships.

Joseph Manfredo
    Joseph Manfredo is on the music education faculty at the University of Illinois where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in conducting and instrumental methods. Manfredo is also on the state board of the Illinois Music Educators Association and is head of the Music Teacher Education Division for IMEA.

    Establish a network that includes experienced music educators as well as novice teachers. Any person new to a profession will face difficulties and struggle with the many facets of the job. You need a support group that understands what you are experiencing and can also act as your sounding board. It is very easy for the novice music educator to feel isolated, unsupported and frustrated. Reaching out to the right people can help you navigate through these early years in the profession.
     You will, however, need to develop this network; it will not be provided for you. This is actually quite easy to do. First, contact members from local organizations such as the National Band Association or from your state music educators association. You can also contact a veteran teacher from an nearby school. One of the best strategies is to volunteer to assist with the organization of a music festival or contest. Your help will be appreciated and will provide you access to many new colleagues. Ultimately, you will find that the music education profession is made up of people who are more than willing to assist you. Just take the initiative and make yourself known. You can’t do this job alone.

Scott Casagrande
    Scott Casagrande has been director of bands at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, Illinois since 1999. He was previously director of bands at Plainfield (Illinois) High School from 1991 to 1999 and at Stephen Decatur High School in Decatur, Illinois from 1988 to 1991. A native of Fairfax County, Virginia, Casagrande earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He has completed additional coursework at the University of Miami, North Central College and VanderCook College of Music.

    I think that the most significant lesson that I have learned in my 22 years of teaching is that if isn’t tested, it isn’t learned. A college professor said that to me and the thought that has always stuck with me. Even the most organized, motivated, and committed students must make choices in their busy and hectic days, and the chances that they will learn material is greatly increased when they know that they will be assessed.
     The number of mistakes and misinterpretations when I listen to one student perform is enormous, and it is amazing what mistakes I miss in a full rehearsal, even when I record it and listen to it later. Individual assessment is vital to making sure that a student is performing well and understands musical concepts taught in class. Testing students on parts in class, having students submit recordings of parts, and outside of class sectionals are three ways that I assess students individually.

Anthony Pursell

     Anthony Pursell is the newly appointed director of bands at Tarleton State University (Stephenville, Texas) and will begin that position in July 2010. He is currently the assistant director of bands at Kansas State University. He earned bachelor and master of music education degrees from Loyola University (New Orleans) and a doctor of arts degree from Ball State University (Indiana).

    In my fourteen years as a music educator, there are two things that I have learned with age: empowering students from the podium, and the power of forming relationships. I can only imagine what I could have accomplished earlier in my career would provide had I known these things then.
     The ability for an ensemble at any level to improve depends on the ability to know both their parts and the parts of the other ensemble members. The best way I have found to make this happen is for students to be forced to listen to one another, so I will often stop conducting an ensemble and let them go through a piece by themselves, including changes in tempo and meters. Although the first few times students are left on their own may not go well, when they begin to trust one another and learn to listen, the maturity of the ensemble will become very apparent.
     In addition to preparing an ensemble well, one of the most important values in teaching is to form strong relationships. Not only will these relationships be beneficial in a time of need, they can assist young teachers in so many ways that will allow them to focus more on the bigger picture of teaching. Here are some of the most helpful people:
     •  Parents can assist you with many tasks that get in the way of great teaching. They can help with anything from sewing buttons on uniforms to photocopying music and folding letters. Many parents are ready to assist if they are asked.
     •  Coaches can be a powerful advocate for the music program. Directors with athletic band responsibilities should build a strong relationship with the coaches and athletics director. This is also good for school unity.
     •  Feeder program directors would be excited to have an opportunity to assist as it gives them an opportunity to revisit students they used to teach. In many ways, this gives young high school directors some much needed professional assistance.
•  Counselors: can be great at resolving scheduling conflicts, and those who are your friends will be happy to resolve things in your favor when possible.
     •  Custodians are the most essential people to have a good relationship with, especially for those nights when an emergency occurs a few minutes before the down beat of a performance. One way to show appreciation for custodians is to ask the studentss to stack up all the chairs, take out the trash and clean the rehearsal hall with a broom, vacuum and mop. Leave the custodians a note and let them know that you appreciate them and to have a great weekend.