It is no secret that musical success is in many ways the result of a mastery of psychological factors. Simply having talent is not enough to sustain consistent success. As band directors, a strong musical education is essential, but an understanding of psychological factors is often the difference between success and failure.
Sometimes I wonder if I am simply rationalizing when I try to convince myself that adversity is actually a good thing. When I ponder whether I could become just as good an individual without adversity, the answer is probably not, but when I ponder whether I need a teacher as stern as adversity, the answer is probably so. Regardless of what one believes, adversity is going to happen, and your attitude toward it will determine whether you use the experience or it uses you.
For band directors, facing adversity has an added dimension: students are watching our every move. We can teach our most enduring lessons during the most difficult times in how we react to such circumstances. Do we play the victim, blame others, act resigned to our fate without putting up a fight, or do they see us react with a mental toughness that acknowledges the difficulty of a situation, yet face it with determination, resourcefulness, and creativity?
Much of the adversity we face in the form of unexpected problems with personnel gives other band students the opportunity to step up. To recognize and promote this, I have a small inner tube decorated to look like a life raft that I present as The Lifesaver Award to a student who has made a special effort to help the band overcome an unexpected difficulty.
G.K. Chesterton refers to a bad attitude as a bad smell in the mind. I’ve certainly had students during my career that have had stinky minds. The most frustrating aspect of students with bad attitudes is that I’ve always thought my good attitude would rub off more on others, but sometimes it just doesn’t seem to transfer at all. However, I have found that with time and consistency, many attitudes can be changed and hearts won over.
The greatest obstacles to maintaining a good attitude, whether it is on the part of directors or students, are dealing with incompetence, adjusting to change, and selfishness. It is difficult to maintain a good attitude when dealing with a new associate who appears to be incompetent. I say “appears to be incompetent” because in new situations we are often biased and blinded by resistance to change. In these situations, it is best to have the humility and open-mindedness to accept the possibility that maybe someone new does know what he is doing and is simply taking a different approach. Those who have been a leader during any time of transition know that there are many who wrongly accuse them of incompetence. Even if there are legitimate concerns during a major change, at some point there has to be a good measure of acceptance so that progress can be made.
As for students inherited when taking over a new program, great patience must be shown on the director’s part. If there are no attitude problems with new students, consider yourself lucky; it is normal for there to be some attitude problems. You may just have to wait until the bad apples quit or graduate. There will be a temptation to be quick on the trigger and kick problem students out of a program right off the bat. However, I believe in erring on the side of patience. Students who are adapting to a new director need more leeway than a student you have had since day one. I have had students in transition situations that took me a year or two to win over, but once they bought in, they were some of the best students I had.
Many bad attitudes and their unpleasant consequences are a direct result of selfishness – wanting one’s way above all others. It is helpful to directly address this problem introspectively when faced with a new situation. It is also important to address selfishness directly with a group that is not buying in and is pulled apart because of conflicting agendas.
Breathing and Blowing
Not remembering to breathe is like constantly forgetting to put gas in the car. Try blowing into an instrument using only the air that resides in your lungs. It is difficult even for a professional, but that is what many young players try to do.
One of the best things about performing group breathing exercises is the focus and calming effect it can have on the band before a rehearsal begins. Also, to promote relaxation in playing, think of the air as originating at the lips.
The director who believes that consistent behavior leads to consistent performance attempts to avoid making distinctions between one event and another. Directors know there are differences, but the idea is to keep it out of students’ minds. Ideally, everyone should be able to prepare and focus the same way no matter what the event, not just try harder on the day of a performance.
Students should not be forced to take a ride on an emotional rollercoaster; their mental routine should be the same. Directors should not project their anxieties onto their students. When a musician senses tension in the director, it becomes more difficult to focus on the task at hand; muscles tighten and performances deteriorate.
I have heard it said that character is how you act when no one is watching and no one would ever find out. Character can also be defined as the relationship between what a person does and what he doesn’t do and the reason behind those choices.
Some say that sports does not develop character, it only reveals it – or the lack thereof. The same can be said of band. If band reveals a lack of character, then it also opens the possibility for analysis and improvement. Fortunately, character can be taught, and directors should make a conscious effort to model it and teach it. It is through this effort that team chemistry is developed. Good team chemistry is where the collective character of the group is to sacrifice the needs of the individual for the whole. Good team chemistry can develop with a core of good members with great character who the others are willing to follow.
One of the best qualities we can impart to students is the ability to concentrate. These days, this is more difficult than ever. Studies show that excessive television watching on the part of young children is consistently increasing the cases of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder we see in schools and bands. Although band may not be a cure for this, it can certainly help develop the discipline and focus it takes to see a task to completion. Also, directors can communicate with parents about a band member’s attention problems and work with them and other professionals to resolve or mitigate the problem.
How do you get children to focus when the rest of their life is so crazy? Sometimes I feel conflicted when I keep pushing and pushing, all the while knowing that many students have much bigger concerns than band. However, what students need is something constant that they can count on – something that will help them develop the ability to soldier on no matter what the circumstance.
Courage is a loosely applied term these days. Some writers in the sport’s world called Tiger Woods’s victory in the 2008 U.S. Open courageous because he played with a bad knee. Gritty, yes. Courageous, no. I think that almost anyone would limp through several rounds of golf for the prize money that was at stake. Now if he had limped several rounds on the Serengeti while being stalked by lions, tigers, cheetahs, and Phil Mickelson with a hunting rifle, that would be courageous.
However, I admit that courage can be relative, particularly for students. Children are a study in contrasts. They will do some of the most outrageously silly and stupid things, but try to get them to do something beyond their comfort zone, and it can be like pulling teeth. Several years ago I had an inexperienced group of marchers that I wanted to dance with various gyrations during one jam-like section of our show where we were standing still; you would have thought I was asking them to run around naked while playing “The Streak.” What they needed was a bigger dose of courage and less self-consciousness.
For many students, just stepping onto a field for a halftime performance, auditioning for an honor band, or playing a solo take a strong measure of courage and risk. Risk of embarrassment and failure are enough to stifle any child’s initiative, but risk-takers are the best learners, and directors should provide an environment where risk-taking is encouraged and even demanded. This is particularly important in jazz bands where the study of improvisation is essential.
Some of the most miserable people I know have thin skin. Most of the successful people I know have a thick skin, and that quality is certainly essential for continued success at anything. Handling criticism isn’t a matter of just ignoring it. Self-confidence will allow you to evaluate it and use it or dismiss it based on its merits. As much as people might hate to admit it, criticism can be justified and warranted if we are willing to be open-minded. In fact, the most important kind of criticism is self-criticism. This should not be confused with self-flagellation and constant second-guessing, but a willingness to acknowledge shortcomings and implement plans to improve them. After all, we probably dole out more criticism than any of our students, so we should be willing to accept it as well.
Author Note: The idea for this article came from the book Coaching the Mental Game (Taylor Trade Publishing) by baseball coach and sports psychologist H.A. Dorfman.