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Midwest Clinic Preview: Thoughts from the Directors

Editor | December 2014

    We contacted a few of the directors taking a performing ensemble to the 2014 Midwest Clinic to ask them about their teaching experiences as well as what they had learned in their preparations for the trip to Chicago. Here are their responses.

David Wyss
Lindbergh H.S. Jazz Ensemble
St. Louis, Missouri

Life Lessons from a Baseball Coach
    Baseball was a very important part of my life in high school, particularly pitching. During my freshman year tryouts, I blew out my arm and thought I would never be able to play again. My dad contacted a man by the name of Sterling Redfern, who was a businessman in his upper 60s, to help me recover and give me pitching lessons. I was hesitant, but I decided to give it a shot. He ended up being the greatest teacher I have ever had. I showed up once a week for five years, taking Mr. Redfern’s lessons home and doing every single thing he asked – religiously. He taught me the importance of a strong work ethic, dedication to a craft, persistence, and, above all, humbleness. The only compensation he ever asked for was that I did the work each week. There is no way I could ever repay him for all that he taught me about life. He earned my ultimate respect.   

Getting Ready for Midwest
    My goal going into the preparation period was to try to keep the semester as normal as possible leading up to Midwest. My message to students has been to remind them of all the hard work it took to get here and to trust our process of preparation.
    As we are preparing, I have found myself being much more efficient at time management. My teaching goals are now more focused and zeroed in than ever before, and the ensemble is more focused on reaching a new and better level as well.

Two Cornerstones of a Good Program
    I would definitely emphasize the importance of having some form of daily music experience during the student’s initial year, and ideally this will continue each year after that. Daily learning is where habits are formed, good or bad.
   The other thing that I recommend, which we have here at Lindbergh, is a strong vertical teaching approach. All of our band directors teach and get to know our students for the entire band experience – a total of seven years. This is invaluable at times of key student transition points, such as recruiting of beginners, as well as the transitions from beginning to second year and from eighth grade to high school. This structure is also important to our teaching curriculum. Our teachers know where the curriculum leaves off each year, and they can then pick it up from there. If I could set up an entire music program at a brand new school, these two items – daily music, vertical team teaching – would be my cornerstones.

Michael Link
McKinney Boyd High School
Honors Chamber Orchestra
McKinney, Texas

Wisdom from One Who Went Before
    The person who is responsible for why I am an orchestra director is my life-long friend and colleague, Bart Ghent, who was the director of bands at VanderCook College. Later Mr. Ghent was the Director of Bands at Louisiana Tech University, where I was assistant band director and percussion instructor. Bart made the transition from band to orchestra about 15 years ago here in Texas, and soon after that he gave me the chance to be the assistant orchestra director at his feeder middle school. I then went on to teach high school myself. From that point on Bart has always been my mentor and go-to person. We both had experience as band directors, so the challenge we faced was in learning how to transition those skills from band to orchestra.

Advice for Other Directors
    Do not limit yourself. If you are a band person, do not think you cannot also be a good orchestra director. If you are a good orchestra director, do not think you could never do anything with a wind band.

On Competition
    I would encourage directors to remember that music is not a competitive sport. Competition can be a motivator, but if it drives your entire program, then that isn’t a good balance. 

Alex Kaminsky
Buchholz H.S. Wind Symphony
Gainesville, Florida

Experience​ Teaches What Matters
    Having done this twice before, I knew that efficient rehearsing​ was key. Because we also present an annual Veterans Day Concert that involves all of our bands, it is especially important for me to have specific rehearsal plans and not waste a second of valuable rehearsal time.

A Firm Foundation
    Be sure the fundamentals are in place, both individually and as an ensemble, before attempting to re-hearse the concert music. In the end, the music comes together much more quick-ly after fundamentals are solid​. A firm grounding in fundamentals enables students to achieve a level of excellence in ensemble playing that will truly affect them in a profound way.

Covering All Grades
    I would emphasize the importance of a unified and progressive K-12 ​teaching model and approach. I believe there should be benchmarks for every grade level, which would make transitions from elementary to middle school, and especially from middle to high school, more sequential and seamless.

Fariga Drayton
Nipher Middle School Orchestra
Kirkwood, Missouri

Qualities Most Needed in a Director
    Pacing, patience, and persistence. You can’t have one of these without the other two.

Make the Most of Opportunities
    One tip I would give to teachers is to make your program your own. It does not matter what the program was like before you were hired. What matters now is what you will do with the opportunity.

David Puckett
Indian Springs M.S. Band
Keller, Texas

Traits of Inspiring Teachers
    My dad was in the United States Air Force, which allowed me to travel all over the world and have a wide variety of amazing teachers and directors growing up. I cannot possibly pick just one most inspiring teacher, but they all had common traits. They all were passionate about what they were doing; they were not afraid to show their human side; they had high expectations; and they loved to have fun. Not one of them let me settle for anything less than my best.
    After graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I moved to Texas where I found further inspiration on my first visit to the Texas Music Educators Association Convention. It was a paradigm-shifting event for me when I heard students with less than two years of playing experience who were able to produce characteristic sounds and create wonderful musical moments. I was both inspired and overwhelmed by this, so I found mentors and colleagues to help me try to unlock the hidden potential in today’s classroom student. In working with my own students, I have always tried to live up to the standards my mentors have set for me.

More to Do than Rehearse
    I never stop being amazed at what young musicians can accomplish when they are given encouragement, support, high-quality instruction, clear expectations, and personal accountability. There are so many details to work out when preparing for a monumental trip like The Midwest Clinic, and many of these have absolutely nothing to do with making music! I keep saying, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, sleep is optional.”

Long-Term Planning
    Have a mentor so you never stop evolving and improving as an educator. My mentor told me, “Dream big, then chase your dream!” When I opened this school in 2001, I got to the end of the first year and set a goal to one day have a band worthy to perform at The Midwest Clinic, and thirteen years later, this goal has been met. Set high expectations and build healthy relationships with students to help them get there. Know how you want your students to sound and the skills they should have, then pour in some fun along their musical journey.

Amy Allison
Canyon Ridge M.S. Honor Band
Austin, Texas

Biggest Influence
    Fred J. Allen, director of bands at Stephen F. Austin State University, will always be one of my biggest influences. I was so lucky to learn from him. He has this amazing ability to teach not only a passion for music and band directing, but also how to be a wonderful human being and how to demonstrate that to your students. Mr. Allen cares so much about the young people he works with, even after they graduate. He also does a great job of preparing his students on how to be a good first-year teacher.

Seek Advice from Experienced Teachers
    I have learned that it is impossible to over-plan and that you should not be afraid to ask for help. Once school starts you basically have two jobs, so the more logistics you can take care of during the summer, the better. I also learned to seek out people who have taken ensembles to Midwest and ask them everything. I am lucky to have many band directors in my area who have done this before.
    I believe that if you stop trying to perfect your craft, then you have lost your drive and forgotten why you chose this profession in the first place. Therefore I always try to surround myself with people who I think teach better than I do and who will challenge me. I am always asking other teachers questions and trying to find out why they do what they do. I try to visit other bands to watch how other directors teach, and I bring in clinicians throughout the school year. I am not afraid of having other people critique my teaching, even in front of my students. I want my students to see that I am still learning, and I let them know that I will always still be learning.
    I also think staying humble is very important. No matter how good you are at what you do, or how good your band sounds, there will always be someone with wisdom who can teach you something.

The Role of Competition
    I sometimes wonder if we focus too much on competition and not enough on whether or not we are creating future supporters of music and fine arts. I believe competition is very important and can be a great measure to assess where you are in your teaching, but it should not be the only thing we focus on. There are more important questions. Are we creating future adults who will attend a symphony or local community band performance? Will they want their children to be in band or orchestra? Will I see my students performing in a community band one day?

Teren Shaffer
Orange County School of the Arts
Wind Ensemble
Santa Ana, California

The Benefits of Structure
    I have long been aware of this, but it has become more pronounced to me this year: students thrive in a structured rehearsal environment. I prepare daily rehearsal schedules and distribute them every two weeks or so. This helps to keeps everyone organized with their practicing, and it also clearly illustrates exactly how much time students have to prepare their music before a concert.
    For Midwest, we are preparing a long program with nine pieces of music. If we did not maintain an organized rehearsal schedule, we would undoubtedly run out of time. Students perform best when they are aware of expectations and the rehearsal sequence trajectory.

The Value of Singing
    Make your students sing often. I use singing in my wind ensemble rehearsals to work on phrasing, articulation, rhythm, and more. Students may be nervous and shy about singing at first, but the importance of singing cannot be overstated.

Smaller Groups and Individualized Instruction
    Private lessons and chamber music are very important. Smaller class sizes and individualized instruction make a tremendous difference. In a smaller environment (1:1 in lessons, and perhaps 5:1 in chamber music), there is nowhere for students to hide, and teachers have the ability to focus on the needs of individual students to a much greater degree. Chamber music also provides an opportunity for students to develop leadership skills. Working without a conductor also helps to develop communication skills, which is critical for young students.

Luis Piccinelli
Coral Springs M.S. Jazz Band
Coral Springs, Florida

Midwest Preparation Lessons
    I have learned several things in preparing for Midwest. The first is that raising money can be quite difficult and stressful. The process of raising money to go to Midwest has been more difficult than getting my band prepared to perform.
    I have also learned that an experience of this magnitude has turned my young middle school musicians into monster players. We had to rehearse through the summer, and the progress the students have made from late last year to now is incredible.
    Finally, I have learned the importance of having a strong group of band parents, as well as supportive administrators, in preparing for this trip. I am blessed to have great parents and administrators, so that helps during the difficult and stressful times.