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Characteristics of Success

Trey Reely | December 2014

    As I mentioned in my August column, it is no secret that musical success is in many ways the result of a mastery of psychological factors and that an understanding of psychological factors is often the difference between success and failure. Here are some more important concepts of the mental game we play each day.

    Legendary Dallas Cowboys football coach Tom Landry once said that the job of a football coach is to make men do what they don’t want to do to achieve what they’ve always wanted to be. It has always amazed me how often students want to accomplish great things but at the same time take so much prodding to succeed. I think directors sometimes get overly frustrated by this; it would be much easier just to accept it as part of our job description.
    I had a freshman student once who was giving me so much trouble that I wanted to kick him out, but he never missed a practice or performance. The only thing that really held me back from removing him was the belief that he was there for some reason; he certainly could have quit at anytime, and I wouldn’t have begged him to stay in. For all of the headbutting that went on, I wasn’t sure why in the world he wanted to stay, but by his junior year, he was one of my best band members. The successful director is one who fights through student apathy, real or imagined.

    How do you convince students to be dedicated? First, they have to see that the director is dedicated. Second, the director must convince them of what it takes to succeed. Third, students must understand that any dedication to success involves sacrificing instant gratification for long-term achievement. Finally, directors and students must learn to appreciate whatever steps and processes – both physically and mentally – lead to better performance.

    Before concert contest each year I tell my band students that the one comment I want to see on the judges’ score sheets is that our performance had great energy. The judges may find fault in other aspects of our performance, but they should never find us performing listlessly. Accordingly, conducting must have energy conveyed in the face and in body language. However, the director should avoid over-conducting, flailing like a hyperactive, inebriated goose.

    Students can rise above the expectations of band directors, but this is an exception, not the rule. The longer I teach, the greater the danger of believing I can peg a student’s ultimate level of success right off the bat, particularly if he is struggling. I have to fight to keep my snap judgments in check with every new beginning class that I teach. This is because expectations can affect performance, either positively or negatively, depending on whether the teacher’s expectations are low or high for a particular student. The director’s different manner of communicating with musicians of differing ability will indicate to them his view of their competence. This will affect their musical self-concept and motivation, both of which will impact performance.
    Legendary basketball coach John Wooden defined success as “peace of mind that is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” Not every band student possesses limitless talent, and maybe not even much talent at all, but directors should help them achieve Wooden’s definition of success by helping them determine what their best really is. As Wooden’s numerous national championships attest, the rest will take care of itself.

    Excuse-makers never improve. They see themselves as victims of their environment with seemingly no control over their circumstances. What is our most common excuse for lack of success? I suppose it may be blaming the students, their parents, or perhaps our administration. In many cases, those concerns may be warranted to some degree. However, I’ve always believed that if someone in a very similar or worse situation than mine (and there are many) could achieve great success, then I should put no limits on my situation.
    Some years I have wished that there was some way I could observe someone considered to be a great teacher deal with the same exact problematic students I have for an extended period of time (say four years) and see what happens. What would John Philip Sousa do with these kids? William Revelli?  Toscanini? Would the director survive? Would the students?

    On the other end of the spectrum from excuse-making is taking too much blame and letting failure rule. History is replete with great successes who faced major obstacles to success and faced failure before eventually experiencing ultimate success, including Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Simon Cowell, Steven Spielberg, Jay-Z, Bill Gates, and Albert Einstein. Take the time to read their stories sometime. The true failures are those who give up.

    Setting goals is important; the most successful people in the world are goal setters. However, it is important not to set goals over which one has no control. For example, a student should not set the goal of being first chair all-state because it is impossible to control how other students play or exactly how the judges will judge. It would be much better to focus goals on specific and achievable ways to improve. Having goals of this type will help to sustain their efforts and allow them to evaluate their progress on a regular basis.
    The same is true in a larger context. Instead of having the goal of placing in the top five of a marching contest, set and prioritize smaller goals over which the group has complete control and teach to that end.

    Credibility is one of the director’s most important assets. When dealing with students it is tempting to act like we know everything. Who are we kidding? How can we be perceived as a life-long learner if we already know it all? One of the most fascinating aspects of music is its undiscoverability. We should unmask its secrets with our students, not just impart what we know. We lose credibility if we act all-knowing because the students know better.
    I am convinced that we lie to ourselves more than anyone else. This usually comes in the form of rationalization. In examining the progress of a band program, self-honesty is the only way to successfully evaluate a program and make appropriate changes.

    One of the better things that has happened in the last forty years or so is the slow extinction of the old-school brand of coach and band director who throws tantrums, screams, and berates. Students and parents will rarely put up with that kind of treatment anymore. The bad news is that kids and parents have swung way too far the other way, wearing hearts prominently on their sleeves. Because of this, I do coach students on the importance of having a thick skin, particularly during marching season when there are so many times when students can be corrected individually. I tell them that unless we say something like, “Hey, you’re a step off you big moron!” (and we wouldn’t), they shouldn’t take a correction personally.
    Young teachers can be intimidated by students, afraid to enforce rules that may cause the students not to like them. Remember, you are their director, not their buddy.