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Mistakes Teachers Make

Trey Reely | December 2009

    After years of directing bands, I’ve taken a hard look at my actions and those of my colleagues. Here are the top mistakes band directors make.

    The word procrastination makes me think of dental floss. Several years ago after my dentist scolded me for not flossing my teeth, I made a promise to floss every night. I went home and put my free sample of floss on the bathroom sink. 
In spite of my good intentions, procrastination set in. Without the slightest bit of exaggeration, I can honestly say I looked at that floss every night for over a year without using it. I certainly planned on using it and told myself to do so many times. One day in the middle of this prolonged period of procrastination, my wife put the floss under the bathroom sink. I noticed it immediately and asked, “How am I going to remember to floss if it’s under the sink?”
    The thing about procrastination is that time really gets away from people while important matters go unfulfilled. Tomorrow turns into next week, next week turns into next month, and a year soon passes. If there is something important that you want to do to improve your band, do it now.

Don’t talk with parents enough.
    Over the years educators have doled out a lot of criticism toward parents. While I agree that unstable homes and poor parenting cause many of the problems in schools, that generalization makes it too easy for teachers to take the next step and assume most parents don’t care and that getting in touch with them is a waste of time. 
    The students I have taught come from all sorts of economic backgrounds, and the majority of parents I’ve met have been highly supportive of the band program. They want their children to do well, even if they don’t know exactly how to promote that at home. 
    It’s best to telephone parents early before a minor discipline problem  escalates and fully develops. I talk to parents about behavior that could become a problem if their child’s actions do not change. I’ve even met with parents before the start of marching season to make sure any problems from the previous year do not repeat and that everyone in the family understands the consequences if students do not meet my expectations. 
    Simi­larly, I telephone parents when a student shows a great improvement in behavior. Those are the best calls to make. An additional benefit to im­proved communication is that school principals are more likely to support a band director’s decisions regarding a student if he knows you have reached out to the parents first, before bringing a problem to the administration.

Forget to compliment students.
    While a compliment to an individual is more powerful than a compliment to an entire ensemble, many teenagers become easily embarrassed when praised in front of a group. This is especially the case if the compliment comes from an adult who is uncool. Anson Dorrance, the coach of the fa­mous North Carolina women’s soccer team, says that it’s actually worse to single out and compliment a young woman in front of a group because the person worries too much about what the other women may be thinking.
    Better than any compliment is the power of interest. By this I mean showing interest in students’ lives – their hobbies, jobs, and other activities – that can build the special bonds students need with adults.
Select music that is too difficult.
    If you want to perform something that is over the students’ heads, do it for a concert and not a contest. Directors sometimes lament that they received low marks in spite of performing a difficult program. Should a band that plays overly difficult music at a contest get some slack in the judging? I say no. The only consistent way to judge is by having the same standard no matter the difficulty of the music. If there is any adjustment to make, it should come from the director who selects music at a realistic level for the ensemble. 
    If you are unsure as to how your group will respond to a piece for a competition, consider having a back-up piece in the folder. Rehearse it periodically in case the first piece doesn’t work out.

Don’t sing enough during rehearsals.
    Band methods with unison lines are great for singing demonstrations, but warmups are more difficult with  advanced groups because there are no method books for their level. I rarely give endorsements, but the solution to this problem is David Newell’s collection of chor­ales in Bach and Before for Band (Kjos). Every instrument is scored with all four parts of each chorale. Thus, members of the band can gradually be divided into four parts. Begin by singing the soprano line with first-chair students playing the line on their instruments. The initial embarrassment and timidity of singing lessens because every band member is either playing or singing the same line. Over the upcoming weeks add the alto, tenor, and bass lines.

Fail to use available resources.
    I’ve had university musicians moan about the few requests they get from local directors asking for help with their bands, and I’ve had high school directors say that local university musicians never call or volunteer to work with their bands. Helping one another is certainly a two-way street, but if you want help you should make the call and be persistent, if necessary. 
    I once had a university faculty member who was next to impossible to schedule for clinics because of his other activities. Nothing he did benefitted his university, like working with some of my good players who might someday go to his school. Somewhat perturbed, I pointed this out to him and it made a difference.
    I’m not sure why so few high school directors ask for assistance. Perhaps some think they’ve got it all covered; others may be afraid to let a colleague hear their students play. 
It’s not always easy to let others hear our groups, imperfect as they are. A clinician who corrects problems I should have caught or says things that I have said over and over but without the results I desired embarrasses me. Most important, having a stranger work with band students gives the ensemble a chance to see their director as a learner. 
    I take notes while a clinician works with my band. I’ve had university directors tell me that while they rehearsed with some high school ensembles, the directors disappeared to their offices.

Don’t delegate enough.
    I’ve seen directors scampering around to finish the most mundane tasks that could easily be done by students or band parents. Some people actually love doing the jobs you might hate, such as putting music stands, stand carts, and chair carts together.
    Some problems with delegating responsibilities are the result of a lack of organization. In truth, a little planning will save a lot of time in the future and actually allow you to do the work you went to college for.
    I’ve taught at schools where staff members complained that the parents never did a thing. There is actually a relatively easy solution to this problem: call and ask them personally.
    Sending notes home with children and asking parents to sign up at meetings is only partially effective because few notes ever make it out of the bottom of the backpack. For new directors, delegating re­spon­sibilities can be a way to introduce themselves to parents and answer any questions they may have.

Fail to communicate.
    People usually think of communication as getting their point across. The real beginning of influence is when others sense we are being influenced or understood by them. We should listen deeply and sincerely.
    Use positive language by telling students what they should do rather than what they shouldn’t do. Let them know what is right, not what is wrong. Speak about behavior in terms of what can be controlled rather than what cannot.
    During John Wooden’s last year of coaching at UCLA, his use of language was monitored for a research project. They found that 75% of his time on the basketball court was spent giving specific instructions with an additional 12% devoted to hustling, 7% to praise, and 6% to chewing the team out.

Forget that sometimes less is more; keep it simple.
    The often-stated remark, “If you don’t know it now, you never will,” is simply untrue, but it does have some validity. When preparing for a performance there comes a point when it’s time to build confidence. Ranting, raving, and stressing everyone out at the last rehearsal does little good. 
    Use the little remaining time before an important event to build confidence. In the warm-up room, a few reminders of only the key musical points is best. Trust what you’ve been doing in rehearsals for the previous few weeks.

Turn in registration materials and entry fees late.
    I hate paperwork. There are at least a million other things I’d rather do than fill out registration-this, registration-that, entry fee-this, and entry fee-that. Paperwork and check writing is a necessary part of running any organization.
Anyone who has ever hosted an event or had to collect money knows how inconvenient it is to hold the books because someone is late paying their fees. Interestingly, the same people are repeatedly late, and it’s always the bookkeeper’s or district’s fault. If you are applying to an event, send in your own check, if necessary, and be reimbursed later so a host can move on to other jobs to complete the project.

Stop growing professionally.
    At times I have been a little resistant to learning because it usually involves change, and change isn’t easy. Learning new things also seems like an indictment of how I did things in the past. In other words, I’m a little embarrassed for doing something in a way that could have been improved earlier, if only I had been bright enough to figure it out. Professional growth means I have to accept change as well as have the humility to learn better ways of doing things.
    In a study of 90 top leaders from a variety of fields, leadership experts Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus made a discovery about the relationship between growth and leadership: “It is the capacity to develop and improve their skills that distinguishes leaders from their followers.” Band directors who continue to pursue special areas of their profession are better today than when they graduated from college.

Try to be a buddy to the students.
    Directors who are close to students have established a relationship that shows caring and values. The key is being close but not too close. Each director should define what is close and what is too close and live by it. 
    Directors who get too close are no longer leaders; they are actually serving themselves and their own needs. They are being led by students. 

Don’t stress fundamentals enough.
    There is no such thing as a perfect beginning band method. To cover musical concepts thoroughly, a director should use hand-outs specifically designed for his students. Resist the temptation to fly through a beginning method book, conquering one exercise after another. It does little good if the band’s tone is poor.

Talk too much during rehearsals and too much at concerts.
    Always remember that playing students are happy students. I’ve found that as I have gotten older so much of my conversation is centered on the past; I can tell stories about anything. As a result it takes real effort to stay on the task at hand in a rehearsal. Even appropriate comments about the music can be ineffective, if given in too large a dose.
    As for concerts, we would do well to follow the example of John Philip Sousa who after the curtain went up took a short bow, quickly stepped up on the podium, and began. He would permit no pause of over 20 or 30 seconds. I’m not suggesting that directors not talk because rapport with audiences can be a good thing; and besides, the percussion section often needs extra time to get ready for the next piece. 
    Too much talking can bore parents who came to hear their children play, not the director talk. If a piece requires an extended explanation, put the information in the program.