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The Benefits of Being Small

Brett C. Tozer | April 2015

    Teaching in small communities offers a wealth of opportunities and benefits for directors. Unfortunately, smaller schools also have some struggles, including low enrollment for band and marching band. While some directors require marching band participation as an extension of the band class, other directors do not. The loosening of the participation requirement ensures full participation in the curricular band class.
    As a grade five through grade twelve instrumental music teacher in a small rural school district, I have been forced to adjust marching requirements throughout my tenure. Years before my time, marching band was required for the band class. Many students who were active in sports dropped band due to the conflict between marching and their sport. This hurt not only the marching band, which only has a fall commitment, but also put a hole in the band class for the entire school year. Because there were many changes in directors over a short period before I was hired, when I arrived there was no set policy concerning marching band and the curricular band class. Through the years of tweaking, I have developed a system that balances the demands of the program and students as well as possible.
    The marching band, with the duties of only football games and community parades, is entirely extracurricular. The curricular band class has graded public performances and community parades. The only overlap between marching band and band class is the community parades.
    This balance allows student-athletes to participate in concert band and also provides a full band to march in community parades. When asked my reasoning, I liken it to the military wind bands of the early 20th century. They could perform well while marching down Main Street, and in the community gazebo or band shell. The only difference is our band shell is the high school auditorium.
The policy developed gradually over time. It took four years to establish the policy and another four years to fine-tune the process. Looking back, I better understand the obstacles and benefits to small school band programs. While each school is different, I have discovered that so many directors in small schools face the same concerns.

    A small student population creates difficulties when recruiting and maintaining enrollment of band members. Another barrier can be the socio-economic status of families. The district budget shortcomings often mirror the average community budget, causing funding problems. Schedules can also be limited with certain classes offered only during times that conflict with band. The final common barrier is that a limited amount of music exists that will be an appropriate challenge for all the students in an ensemble with members ranging from grades seven through twelve.

    While barriers may seem daunting, small schools and communities have many benefits. Even though a small student population can limit recruitment, directors can provide greater feedback and show genuine interest in a smaller group of students. Students may become more committed to the band and less likely to drop later.
    Band parents in smaller schools may be fewer, but they are more dedicated. Just the other day I attended a community fundraiser for the local volunteer fire department. While I was enjoying my wonderful turkey dinner with my family, I noticed a band parent was serving at a near by table. This gave me the opportunity to ensure important information about an upcoming performance made it home. I could have called from the school, but a phone call from school usually means bad news. Instead, I used the opportunity provided by the small community to connect from one person to another.
    The booster meetings in small schools may be smaller, but they can be run with a clearer purpose. Because fewer special interests are competing and many of the families are friendly beyond the booster group, a better understanding of parent motivations will develop. While limited family finances can hinder many band trips, fundraisers can be planned with precision rivaling the best financial minds. The parents always want more bang for their buck, but unlike in larger schools, fewer families can skip fundraisers and simply pay cash for a trip. This need for higher returns energizes fundraising efforts and increases participation. My boosters have been able to offer a free spring trip to all in the band program for the last three years because of the fiscal focus of the organization.
    Last year, because of the continued success of the fundraisers, our boosters included the beginning fifth grade band members in the spring trip to see a baseball game. The bulk of the boosters’ funding comes from two well-organized and effective fundraisers. The level of efficiency reduces the amount of time needed for raising money. Our fundraisers are only held in August. Unlike groups that pass out new fundraisers monthly, we do not burden our group by making them low-paid sales representatives of some fundraising company.
    Smaller schools allow opportunities to find creative funding sources. Three years ago my boosters filed the paperwork to become an official 501(c)3 nonprofit incorporation. This allows the band boosters to accept tax-deductible donations. On our last big trip, scheduled every four years, the cost of the transportation was $7,500. Because of the tax status, major businesses with a nationwide reach and a charity initiative donated the lion’s share of the money needed for transportation. The boosters raised the remaining money from smaller sources in a similar manner. In the end, our students did not pay one penny for the transportation.
When preparing for the trip the band had another funding opportunity to solve an ongoing problem. Because of our nonprofit tax status and community work, we could solicit a donation of $4,000 to purchase new uniform pants. These new pants replaced the decade-old pants that were in disrepair. Even though our school did not have the funds for new pants, our booster group, as a 501(c)3, found a way to pay for them with help from a community donation. Not only did the students get free transportation, but they also had new uniform pants to wear, all because the boosters of a small school thought outside of the box.
    The final way small schools show an advantage over larger schools is the strong impact student leaders have on younger members. In many small schools it is common for a seventh grade student to pass a senior in the halls. At a larger school, the senior might not look twice at the seventh grader. In a band program marching grades seven through twelve, this senior already knows the valuable impact the seventh grader has on the band. They’ve sweated and toiled together over hot August band camp days. They are brothers and sisters in arms from the team building exercises of band camp. Imagine how happy the seventh grader feels when the senior says, “Hello” in the halls. Imagine the pride the younger student feels when their non-band friends can’t believe they know seniors, and the seniors say hello first.
    Well-trained student leaders can more than make up for the lack of a marching band staff. There have been days in band camp when a parent or other distraction takes more time than I have, causing me to be at the practice field behind schedule. The first few years when this would happen, students would sit in the shade in a holding pattern until I gave instructions, even though all goals and the schedule of the day were outlined in the morning. Since I have tweaked my student leadership training over the years to make students more active, I can be sure time is not lost. Some years, students have been so helpful I have reported to the practice field a few minutes early, only to find my students have moved from sectionals to a full run-through of the field show without me. This could not have been possible without careful selection and training of student leaders.
    Because each director and school population is different, it is important to create a culture that capitalizes on all the benefits of a small school. As a director, you should use the benefits of your community to overcome any obstacles. Time is universal. While my process may not work for your situation, the calendar I follow may help in shaping your program.

    This month, we focus on parade preparation. Because my curricular band class and extracurricular marching band combine for parades, I spend February rehearsals reviewing the parade music. It also gives me ample time to prepare and send reminders to families. Even though many marching band members participate in the band class, I still have students who do not play in the concert class, particularly my band front. These communications remind students not to double book their calendar.

    I make copies of the parade music and redistribute it to the band members because music is sometimes lost or destroyed during the year. The band front has been encouraged to review the parade routine. Even with a busy schedule, they are responsible for dusting off the cobwebs. The month ends with students prepared and performing the first spring parade, even if the weather does not agree that it is spring.

    This month is when the marching band work for next year begins. By the first week of April, with input from next year’s seniors, the show for the upcoming year is chosen. Since the current juniors help with music selection they are already building a buzz about the upcoming season. Time is taken to copy the music and stuff the folders so they are completed by the end of the month.
    Sixth graders are used as managers in the marching band to give them the early experience with the group and avoid overwhelming them when they become seventh graders. Once in seventh grade students are required to march and memorize music. Current managers have an opportunity at the end of each beginning band class to speak to the current fifth graders about the experiences of a marching band manager. This reminds current managers of the fun times they had in the fall and eases any fears possibly preventing a current fifth grader from being a manager next year.
    The spring concert also occurs in April, usually on the last Thursday of the month. The last week in April, after the spring concert, is when Memorial Day reminders begin. Notices for students are created and sent home. These communications, like those created in February, target students who play only in marching band, but serve as a good reminder to all students.

    May is the transition month, a time for seniors to relax and enjoy themselves as the sun sets on their time in the band. The last full month of school also gives the juniors time to realize the importance of their upcoming roles.
    The marching band sign-up sheet is posted in the band room during the first week of May. Once a student signs up, they report to me to receive the proper paperwork. All students receive a letter containing important band camp and marching season dates, along with an attached information sheet. Students and parents are required to fill out vital contact information and sign their commitment to the marching band. If old enough, students interested in a leadership role, including section leader or drum major, also receive the required paperwork.
    Aspiring student leaders must apply, just as they would for a job. Applicants for section leader or drum major are required to provide a resume, three letters of recommendation, and participate in an interview process. This process instills a culture of respect for the position and prepares students for the adult world.
    Once students return permission slips, they are given a folder with all pregame, halftime, and stand music. In addition to their music they have a detailed calendar of the season spanning July through December, a shoe order form, accessory order form, and a letter detailing the contents of the folder, in case something is missing.
    The band banquet happens in the middle of the month. The banquet not only celebrates the closing of the year but helps some students who are on the fence about participating in another year of marching band. It encourages students to sign up, if they haven’t already.
    May ends with the Memorial Day performances and uniform collection. It is a time to say goodbye to the seniors and welcome the new student leadership. The torch has been passed.

    This is a time off for my family and me. Directors give the better part of their lives to the music program. June is my family’s time for me. Usually by the end of the month, my wife, who was a band director until we had twins, starts to ask if it is July yet. For my sake, I hope she is kidding.
    While June may be a time to recharge, the new student leadership is often having summer sectionals at their homes. This serves two functions: learning the music even before band camp and developing camaraderie in each section. Many of the bonds that solidify a section are forged during these rehearsals.
    As the month ends my drum majors attend a drum major camp at a well-respected university. The boosters pay the amount of a single full tuition divided equally among the students attending. I always try to attend the exhibition for the families at the close of the camp to evaluate progress and encourage students.

    July is the crunch month. I write drill for the show during the first week. July is also when the band boosters organize the paperwork and plan of action for fundraisers, which are held during band camp. My wonderful boosters provide me with a folder containing all fundraising information for each family. The only way the band boosters can put the information folder together is from a list I provide at the end of the last school year.
    Student-led sectionals end in July and specialty camps begin.The specialty camps are for the band front and the drumline, each meeting the week before band camp. This gives the more technical sections a head start so they do not feel the pace of band camp moves too fast. This again builds teamwork and lets me guide student leaders.

    Band camp runs Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., always two weeks before the first day of sports camps. This usually means band camp begins the first Monday in August, but occasionally it is the last week in July. This is practical because sports camp conflicts cannot be used as an excuse for missing marching band. Also, the county fair usually happens during the third week in August, and many students in my community show animals and participate in the fair. My start date avoids these conflicts.
    The first day of camp ends with a parent meeting. At this meeting all parents receive the expectations of the program. At the meeting the executive board of the band boosters distributes the fundraiser information. The booster officers also explain the role of the boosters in the band program and the areas in which they need help for the upcoming season.
    The first week of camp is focused on learning the music and drill. Student leadership is put to the full test in sectionals. The second week focuses on the parade music and routine, pregame show, and stand tunes. The last day of camp is always a trip to a theme park where students get free admission in exchange for performing in an evening parade.
    The last day is also when the boosters require all fundraiser orders to be returned with money. The focused attack of selling is done so all families are fundraising while band camp is on their mind. This also makes our fundraisers first to reach the doors of the community before other groups sell during sports camps.

    School starts with the marching program in full swing. Football games on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons for the away games where the schools do not have lights. The practice schedule is made to accommodate conflicts. The marching band only practices two nights a week, from 6:30 to 8:00. With most sports practices occurring immediately after school from 3:30 to 5:00, the 6:30 to 8:00 marching practice works well. For the students involved in sports, it gives them 90 minutes to relax and eat dinner. Marching practices end soon enough so students do not stay up too late working on homework. Students who are not in sports have from 3:30 to 6:30 to do homework and eat.
    The first practice night in the week is a music rehearsal. We do not go outside. Some of the time is devoted to sectionals for the instruments run by the section leaders, and the other is for full rehearsal run by me and the drum major who conducts the field show. During sectionals my staff and I float between the sections to observe how student leaders are doing and solve problems if the student leadership needs help.
The second night of the week is our outdoor rehearsals, a time to review and fix the problems noticed on film from the previous halftime performances. This practice occurs as a large group, with the band front breaking off occasionally to finesse their moves. Most of the time the band front needs the fieldwork just as much as the instrumentalists.

    In October, practices happen only one night a week to avert burnout. With the end of daylight saving time it is too dark to rehearse on the field for a full rehearsal. Most practices are split with outside work first and then inside work on music. By this time most of the fixable problems in the pregame, halftime, and stand music have been remedied. This allows us the opportunity to choose and rehearse the special music to play at homecoming in addition to the music for the community Halloween parade.
    The month closes with the Halloween parade and the ending of the regular season for football. My school has a great tradition of football excellence, so the band has had many chances to perform in the postseason.

    With the start of the football postseason at our doorstep the practices are held right before games. We do not have practices on non-game days. At this point the students are starting to run on fumes and getting ready for the winter activities. Practices to prepare for musical auditions are scheduled by the choir director. Not having midweek practices allows students to attend audition rehearsals. At the end of the month, if we are still in playoffs, I devise various fun bus activities on our way to neutral fields for playoff games. In the past I have bought all students in the band a Happy Meal to eat on the way to a game. It always amuses me to see how much the students love the toys. We also have held blind taste test of Hostess, Little Debbie, and generic brand snacks. Only after students vote for their favorite snack do I reveal which is name brand or generic. When Thanksgiving arrives, our season usually has come to an end.

    The last month of the year closes the marching band season. Concert band is preparing for the winter concert, county band festivals, and district band auditions that will happen shortly. December is a time for everyone to take a deep breath.

    The marching band gets a break in January, and booster meetings are postponed until February. Concert band is the priority of the band program. It is the calm before the storm. February begins preparations for the new marching season.

    Ten months of the year are dedicated to some form of the marching band program. This strict calendar has given my program a compass for the year. A general overview of the yearly calendar is always available on the band’s website and in part of the band handbook.
    Despite all the planning and preparation, things do not always run smoothly. When rough times arrive, the support from the band boosters, the hard work ethic of the students, and the direction of the schedule are essential. In the end, those three elements working well together solve many problems.
    The band is an ever-changing entity. With great care, proper planning, and abundant support a music program can find success, no matter how small the school or community. Change and success come from many small steps towards greatness.