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What Worked For Me

Thomas J. Trimborn | April May 2022

    After a teaching career ends and upon some reflection, there is a need to share some personal advice. In my case the following approaches served me well, but may not for others. Some may be new, or simply well-known reminders expressed a bit differently.

On the Tracks
    Whenever possible, it is wise to have a plan B. Circumstances often change without warning, as recent history demonstrates. Creativity and ingenuity involve making adaptations to work around roadblocks. Rather than resenting such occasions, stay on the tracks and avoid them with a good plan B.

Backwards Planning
    It always seemed important to plan backwards from the end product or goal. I would ask myself, “Where do I want to end up?” For example, I envisioned the ultimate performance or interpretation of a concert piece. With marching shows, I imagined what the final show would look and sound like, and planned backwards to achieve the vision. Following this, planning daily objectives and specific strategies to meet those step-by-step objectives should be set. Overall, never lose sight of your ultimate goal. You can get lost in details and be less than pleased with results when not planning in reverse.

An Organized Library
    It is tempting not to take the time required to keep an organized music library. Cataloging, sorting, repairing, and filing all are essential but need not be the director’s sole responsibility. As part of the band student leadership, establish a librarian position filled by a student willing to learn how to do some of the work and dedicated enough to follow through. From the upper elementary grades through high school, there are always appropriate students for this vital role.

Rehearse In Sections
    Analyze the form of a piece and divide it into sections to be rehearsed separately and then put into context in stages. The story is told of a father asking his son why an important concert selection sounded fine until the last several minutes of the piece. The boy supposedly answered, “Oh we never got to finish it because the passing bell always rang, and there was no time.” For example, with a Broadway musical, it is not always required to rehearse the first act first. Beginning a rehearsal with the second act or randomly selected scenes can ensure that the final performance is of equal quality from beginning to curtain call.

Achieve Clear Ensemble Sound
    Hearing clear sound is like viewing a photo that is in perfect high-definition focus. An out-of-tune ensemble simply sounds muddy or blurry. A band can play in focus only by playing in tune. Consequently, students must discover what in-tune really is. Working in pairs, students should complete a tuning profile by playing their chromatic scale ascending and descending from the lowest fundamental pitch to as high as they are able. Players should hold each pitch long enough for their partner to notate flat, in-tune, or sharp. Adjustments should be made to allow not only what feels in-tune but also to hear it as well. Fortunately, in my day this process was completed using a fine twelve window strobe tuner that was available for this assignment as well as daily ensemble rehearsals. I am convinced that by emphasizing playing in tune and requiring completion of this profile each semester, students felt they contributed individually and collectively to achieving a clear, impactful ensemble sound.

Include String Bass
    From my first day of teaching I was blessed to have a string bass player in my bands. These were not only good players, but exceptionally fine players. These students played tuba parts when string bass parts did not exist, sounding an octave lower most of the time. This added depth to the band sound not otherwise possible. Some staccato articulations were played pizzicato, which automatically influenced the wind and percussion sections and lessened hearing too much attack and more actual sound. Try it – you’ll love the result.

Play Along with Students
    It is important for students to hear you play and sing along with them from the podium, in class, or privately. It can happen on multiple instruments or on your primary instrument. Rather than explaining, teachers can demonstrate tone and style or simply how to practice. It is important for teachers to model.

Show and Observe Passion
    Fine directors demonstrate excitement and sincere joy in the music they bring to students. Good rehearsals are well planned, relaxed yet urgent, and paced to allow for digging in as well as sharing a laugh. Observe fine rehearsal technicians such as All-State conductors whenever possible and incorporate ideas and techniques that are appropriate for you and your program. Invite a clinician to work with your band. It is rewarding to have fresh solutions and ideas to energize you and your students.

    Making a list of things that need to be done might seem to be a bother, but the great feeling when you cross things off is well worth the effort. There is nothing better than that sense of accomplishment.

Office Lamps
    Bright florescent lighting is fine and appropriate for the rehearsal space. However, I needed to have occasional breaks away from it during my teaching day. I invested in a desk lamp, and my colleagues with whom I shared the music office also had lamps on their desks. It is hard to describe the effect of having softer light in such a space, but it allowed me to recharge, complete paper work, and plan in a relaxed manner. The only downside to this was that students also craved the same thing – a calm, darker area. Occasionally, I needed to shoo students out, but overall, I believe relaxed office area lighting is beneficial.
    Being on time actually means arriving early. It is important to demonstrate that you are on site, eager, and ready to begin a class, lesson, or rehearsal. It also implies that delving into whatever is planned is important. The last thing to suggest is that students will face a tired, uninspiring musical experience.

    Work with others as part of a team on concerts, variety shows, musicals, marching routines, accompanying choir pieces, and with soloists. To me it was always important to have the band shine, but whenever possible, as a part of other aspects of the music program. Collaboration demonstrates strength in numbers plus comprehensive music making.

A Balanced Lifestyle
    Many in our profession focus on their musical careers to the exclusion of developing other interests or skills. Often these people burn out simply because of this 24-7 mindset. Begin by limiting screen time. Reserving time with family and friends, exercising, pursuing outdoor activities, reading, traveling, cooking, exploring artistic pursuits such as painting or graphic design, and participating in community service are just a few ways that will help maintain a balance to a demanding and wonderful vocation.

Taking Stock
    This summer take some time to think about the year ahead and consider trying some of the ideas listed here. The worst that can happen is finding that something doesn’t work. The reward would be adding an approach that increases your teaching effectiveness.