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Great Expectations

Nicholas O’Sullivan | August 2009

“It’s good enough.”

    That is a phrase most directors have uttered at one time or another, when the reality is that we can always improve something. I would argue that this phrase has no place in music. The moment a composer, conductor, or performer stops striving, the magic of artistic creation is lost. Music educators should adopt the same approach.
    I am a 24-year-old high school director in New Jersey with two years of teaching experience. I was lucky to get this position right out of college and have learned a great deal teaching concert, marching, and jazz bands. In this early stage of my career, I recognize just how much I have to learn as illustrated by the long list of improvements I hope to implement during the new school year.
    These two years have brought some great early victories. I’ve had a wildly successful marching program, and the board of education and parents have sung my praises. Still, it is not enough. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful or cold hearted, but my time on the podium has been good but not good enough. I yearn to produce even better music with my students.
    Some of my aspirations for the program developed out of my extraordinary time at Rutgers University, working with William Berz, Darryl Bott, and others. Their influence has rallied me to strive for greatness in my teaching career. I am sure this is true for many others.
    Some colleagues have told me my goal to reach a college level of musicianship with high school groups is unattainable. I know that I may never produce a band program up to the standards of Frank Battisti’s legendary bands at Ithaca High School, but I am absolutely convinced that I should keep trying.
    There have been plenty of ruts in the road along the way. On the days I go home feeling defeated and down, I find solace and inspiration from the words written by veteran directors who have already overcome the obstacles I now face. My most important task is convincing students and the community that great music is an art form just as exciting as any movie or championship sports game. Directors should never settle for producing music that is merely good enough.
    I could easily mark time for the next 40 years and retire comfortably without the extra pain and suffering that comes from pushing myself and my students. I know that if I coasted through my career, I would feel tremendous shame and my life story would not be worth telling. Instead, I want to take the high road, realizing that this great journey will be full of struggles and successes.
    My college professors always proclaimed that as new directors we should never accept the current level of accomplishment for our programs. All of us teach in music programs that could be so much more. We must be creative and inspired as often as possible in the classroom. The capacity to instill students with a sense of wonder and drive is one of the greatest gifts a music educator can offer. We need to be just as thought-provoking, innovative, and passionate as the music we teach. We can never settle for good enough.