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The Art of Leadership, An Interview with Bobby Lambert

Marshall Forrester | February 2015

    Bobby Lambert worked for 13 years as an assistant director at Marian Catholic High School, which has a renowned band program under the leadership of Greg Bimm. In Lambert’s years as an assistant director at Marian, he worked with and learned from Bimm, who was a mentor.
    This past fall Lambert took on his first head director position as director of bands at Wando High School in South Carolina. The marching and symphonic bands at Wando have a proud and successful history, having won numerous state and national awards in recent years, along with numerous other honors. In leading this band program, Lambert has tried to bring to Wando all that he learned during his tenure at Marian, while earning the respect and trust of students and parents at Wando.
    In this interview Lambert reflects on his experiences in this new position, sharing the triumphs and challenges he has experienced so far in taking on the head director position and in joining a program that already has a well-established tradition of success.

How has your first semester as head director at Wando High School been?
    It has been quite the emotional roller coaster, from the highest highs to some very challenging lows. That is usually how it works. Having been an assistant director at Marian Catholic High School for 13 years, I thought I had experienced everything as a director, but when the ultimate responsibility falls to you as a head director, it changes the scenario.

What is different now that you are head director?
    At my former position I was very fortunate to work with Greg Bimm, who is now in his 38th year; when I got there, he was in year 25. Very little was new to him, and he had a good idea from month to month exactly what was going to happen, and what we needed to do to prepare for it. We would plan ahead, and although plans would sometimes go awry, there were not many surprises. His expertise and experience made it all a relatively smooth ride, whereas here, there have been many things that have seemed to come out of left field, as can be true with any new job. For example, preparation for all-county band is different here, and there are tasks that need to be done in preparation for Bands of America that I had no idea about, including minor items like tickets and parking passes.
    With change and responsibility comes greater stress, but also a greater level of ownership in what we are doing. One aspect of the job that I have enjoyed far more in this position is to see the way in which my wonderful associates Lanie Radecke and Jeff Handel, the staff, students, and parents all work together. As a head director, you can see the benefits of this more clearly. When I forget something, someone else usually has already picked up the slack. That has been a real joy to see.

What were some of the most difficult lessons you learned in your prior job at Marian?
    At Marian my focus was on gaining experience, but I made some mistakes.  One of the first mistakes I made was a miscalculation with the Concert Band, the second band at the school. I had the idea of entering these students in solo and ensemble contests. The top band always participated in solo and ensemble contests, but we had never asked the second band to do that. I introduced the idea of having students from the second band compete, and I did this without any direction from the head director or any other consideration beyond thinking that it is a good idea. It was a disaster. There were a few good results, as some students rose to the occasion of performing at the contests and did so because they were forced into it. However, there were some other students who were not ready for this, but because I had thrown the gauntlet down, I could not go back on it. After that experience I learned that it is necessary to look at all the angles and to get as much input as possible, because once you make a decision, it is hard to back away from it.
    In my current position at Wando, if anything, I was slow to move at first. I wanted to make sure I had a good understanding before I made a decision, and sometimes people would get anxious and make decisions without consulting others or they would make decisions preemptively. Part of this job is not only trying to decide the path, but also trying to herd everyone to go in the same direction. This has been difficult at times.
The second challenge was to build trust with the administration, parents, and students, which is something I had at my prior position. Here they didn’t know me, and it is taking time to gain their trust. This can be frustrating, and while I knew it might be a challenge, I did not fully realize the degree to which I relied on the trust of others. There were times when I found myself just asking students to take a leap of faith, saying, “I know you don’t know that this is going to work, but trust me. I am quite positive it will put you in the best light.” I had to do this with the parents, too.
    I established some key guidelines early on. I made it clear that the first thing I will always do is make sure the students are safe. The second thing I will always do is make sure that I treat everyone as fairly as possible. The third thing is to try to put all students in the best position to achieve success and fulfillment. The caveat to this third point is that we as directors get to define what is success and what is fulfillment, not a panel of judges. If you can do that as a director, you set yourself up for good things.

What are some of the best lessons you have learned about how to run a program?
    If I could boil down the teaching philosophy of my mentor Greg Bimm and focus on one concept, it would be that the students come first. He taught me long ago that whenever you are struggling with a decision, which may involve hurting someone’s feelings or going against the grain, you should always look at what is best for the student. Sometimes that means letting a staff member go. Sometimes that means being frank with a student who is hurting another group of people. Sometimes it means putting your ego aside. Often there is a goal or a piece of music that I wish to pursue, but the students are not right for it. Perhaps we could have pulled off a certain piece of music I wanted to do, but if it would have left everyone bloodied by the time it was over, then that is not the right piece. Making sure the students always come first was the main lesson I learned at Marian.
    The second lesson I learned is that students can do just about anything, and sometimes giving them freedom to make mistakes is better than holding their hand and guiding them every day. I remember my first week at Marian when we were working on marching outside. The group had just won Grand Nationals the previous year, and we looked awful. But Greg just let us go for four days. I kept waiting for him to emphasize the marching, but he didn’t. Then he came out on Thursday evening and said, “Bobby, I need to see everybody right now.” I thought, finally, here it is. He pulled us together, pulled out a plastic bag, and took out two McDonalds bags that had been left on the floor. He proceded to talk to everyone for 15 minutes about the importance of picking up after yourself and great character. It hit me then that if you teach people to be great people, the musicianship tends to follow. The other point here is that students can go pretty far on their own before the director needs to come in to save the group or the staff. Even directors who are very determined to achieve success should allow the students and staff to have a sense of independence and ownership in what they are doing.
    In teaching students over the summer, I learned that some of the best students come from so-called less successful programs. The reason why this happens is simply that these students are allowed to do more of the work on their own. There may not be a staff at these schools to teach marching, so a drum major has to do it. The section leaders may need to work with other students simply because there is no staff available. Also, I think that sometimes the best lessons are in failure rather than success. These lessons really go together. The students’ ultimate well being, not just how you place at contests, is the most important thing, and in addition to that, sometimes failure is a more important and more valuable lesson than holding someone’s hand.

What goals do you have for the program at Wando, and how do you plan to achieve them?
    When I am interviewed for a job I usually am asked where I see the program in five to ten years, but I do not spend a lot of time thinking about specific goals. I try to focus on what we want to feel in five years, and I think that in five years we want to feel satisfied, fulfilled, and like we have grown from where we are now. This might translate into numbers or accomplishments. Yes, I would love for us to look at playing at Midwest in the next few years. Is that my goal? No, not necessarily, but as I look at the players and the aptitude we have here, that is a natural progression in where we could go. Would I like to see us return to Grand Nationals? Not next year, but I would like to go again and get into a cycle of going every two or three years. Again, though, I am trying to make sure we pursue these goals in a way that is healthy for the program.
    If I had an overall goal, it would be more about how people feel about the program. I would love for every eighth grader in the county to wish that they could be in the band program, for student-teachers to come here and wish that they could work with the great staff members we have, and for people to look at our program and try to model things after us. Some people have very concrete goals, but I think that you can get blinded by those. I try to maintain a good balance when thinking about goals.

How do you handle the possibility of failure?
    When there is a possibility for failure, to succeed is all the better. If you go into a poker game knowing the cards are stacked in your favor, that may feel good, but it is not nearly as fulfilling as winning when you know there is a substantial chance of failure. Knowing that there are many reasons to fail but succeeding anyway is a good thing.
    I think there were many eyes on us this past fall to see how the band would do under a different director, and rightfully so. I felt like we actually drew a lot of momentum from that pressure. It made us go forward.
The potential for success or failure in a new system under a new director also presents challenges on the student level. The former director here had put in place many great systems for everything, from how you turn in work to how the band loads the bus. What I told the students here originally was that I did not know all of these systems, so they were going to have to help pick up the slack. The juniors and seniors, as well as the most experienced sophomores, did a great job of stepping up to this challenge.
    There was also an occasion when I asked the members of the top band to write down the name of one student who they would make sure did their playing pass-offs. I remember this idea seemed like a foreign concept to students. They were so concerned about taking care of their own business that they had not considered helping anyone else. One benefit of being asked to help out with others in the band is that you tend to do your own job better when you are trying to help other people do theirs.
    These situations arise on the individual student level as well. If there is a particular freshman who is struggling, I can approach the freshman to ask what we can do to help, but it might be far better to go to a senior nearby and say, “That freshman is struggling. Why don’t you see what you can do?” If the senior and freshman can work together, the senior will tend to do his job better, and the freshman will benefit more from having a peer come over to help, instead of an adult.
    I do not have all of the answers that many of our greatest players and most experienced marchers have. This is true with symphonic band as well. Right now we are discussing the most effective way to warm up. I have my ideas, but we are trying different things. I have learned over the years that some of the methods that I was supposed to use have changed. The idea of practicing is different from what it used to be with the advent of new technologies. I do not believe that you should continue using the same methods that you learned in college or doing things that are five to ten years old. Personalities change, too. I think that the strength of any great teacher is not doing the same thing over and over but rather being able to read and assess what the students in front of you can do and what they can’t do, and then blend these two together.

What advice would you give to someone taking on a position at a school that already has a successful program?
    Everyone will always tell you not to change anything the first year, and that is valuable advice. At the same time, however, I think it is important to have a few core principles that are part of who you are. I believe that the chemistry of the group is of vital importance and must not ever be ignored, so it was very important to me to get every person involved in putting forth effort to have as much success as possible. To do this, we changed a bit about how our alternate system worked, and we gave people greater opportunities to perform with us. These changes were a bit risky at first, but I think it will pay dividends down the road. It has paid dividends already. We will have a higher retention rate. My core principle is this: “If you will try, I will make it work for you.” I will find a path, and we will do whatever we can if you are willing to try. I think we held very firm to that. This is the one principle on which I was unwilling to compromise. If a student is willing to try, I refuse to let that person go.
    This is a principle I learned in my first year at Marian. We had a set of twins in the band who were horrific marchers. The band used an alternate system, with two people in one spot, and these twins were alternating. It looked like they were trying hard, but they continued to be unsuccessful at marching. I remember going to the head director and saying, “Hey, these guys aren’t going to make it.” His response was that they were putting forth effort, so we were going to keep going and keep moving. We finally began concert season, and these two boys who I was ready to kick out both auditioned into our top ensemble. This was unheard of for freshmen. For the next three years these two students were always the first chair flute and the first chair clarinet, and every director knows how important those positions are. In their sophomore year, these students were still struggling marchers, but by junior year they were both good enough to perform well. Having gone through this experience, these two students both knew what it meant to struggle. As a result, they worked with freshmen better than anyone else, and their sections usually had high retention rates and high performance levels. These students were so great at working with struggling freshmen because they had been there themselves. There is a powerful lesson that comes to life when no one is turned away. You never know when gifts and talents are going to emerge.
    Another lesson I have learned is that sometimes a student has gifts that are not musical, but the student still can become the heart and soul of the program. A great student in our program many years ago was the best leader I ever had. It took every fiber of his musical being to audition into last chair of the top band, but he was a leader who no one questioned, and he became the heart and soul of our program. Everyone knew he was working harder than they were, so they would always follow him.
    This principle of always giving everyone a chance has led to success in myriad ways. I see students who are coming back to band years and years later, even though these students would have been cut in other programs.
    This principle is also about only taking positions that I know I can defend. To whom can I say, “You can’t do this this year, you’re not quite good enough yet”? How would I even say something like that to a child? A brutal statement like that might not be inaccurate, but to what end would it go? I also think, when are we ever ready to do anything? If someone had come up to me and told me I was not quite ready to be a head band director, there would have been some truth to that. But I also think that the only way we get ready is by trying.
    In planning for being a director, you have to decide who you are going to be, and that has very little to do with musical prowess, the style of marching, or who the arranger is going to be. My mentor would always say that you had to pick the hill you chose to die on. I could choose to die on the hill for every student who truly wanted to be there. I could defend that to anybody. I cannot necessarily defend or fight battles over matters like marching style or core sound. Luckily, with the staff at Wando, those are not fights that will ever need to be fought, but if you go into a program, there are things that are better left as is until the trust is built.
    On some issues I am willing to accept change. For a long time I was accustomed to being the only voice that the students heard in a particular part of rehearsal. At one of my first rehearsals here, however, I was standing there, and Lanie Redecke was doing the music side while Jeff Handel was working percussion. As all this was happening I stood there feeling as if I should be doing something, but instead I just shut up and watched the rehearsal unfold. The students were learning and getting better, and the teachers were pointing out aspects of the performance that I was not catching. It was good that I just stood back and let the rehearsal go.

What advice do you have for directors looking to build a struggling program into a strong one?
    Look at what is possible. When I taught marching band methods at VanderCook College, I worked with guitar majors, vocal majors, string majors, and other instrumentalists who had never marched. In a new situation it is always important to decide what is reasonable to shoot for first. For some programs, it will be a parade. For another, it will be forming a pep band. For others the goals can be larger.
    Whatever your initial expectations were, I think it helps to set those aside and look first at the talent and ability of the students sitting down and playing their instruments, because it starts there. Before I started at Wando I did my homework on the program. For many years they were building up a concert band program. They were not ignoring marching, but they made sure they were getting great players in place first. That is key. You cannot hope to be the marching band champion of the universe if you do not have great players with great ears. That said, I do not think you need to compromise on concert or marching band, but it helps to figure out where the program is in terms of its focus. If the concert band is not good, there is no way that the marching band can be very successful. At the same time, I have seen that when the marching band is sub-par by choice, this will negatively affect the concert band program as well.
    Choosing priorities with the band is similar to the process that any musician goes through. Nobody should begin a performance or teaching career with overly lofty goals, like wanting to win the Marine Band audition. A high goal is good to have, but the process should start with more simple steps, like knowing that you need to be able to play in tune and in time. Start with building the fundamentals. In teaching, I think the fundamentals are these: First, create an atmosphere where character is important. Then, build a culture where great musicianship is valued and honored. Finally, try to develop the resources you will need to support your program.

What are the keys to a productive marching rehearsal?
    A rehearsal starts with good communication at the preparation stage. Very rarely do I go into rehearsal with any singular idea in mind. Often I talk with other staff about what the color guard might need or what we need to do for percussion and electronics this week. I might also discuss any musical ideas with the associate directors, as well as the visual aspects we want to rehearse. All of this is usually done during a Monday morning hash-out session. Some staff would give me their information over the weekend, and then we sit down on Monday morning to discuss what we have coming up and what we need to get through. It is my job to balance it all out and see what makes logical sense.
    Also, as a head director I had to learn to let go of some of the details that I was always so focused on as an assistant director. There are two key points to keep in balance here. The director should not be afraid to let other people have their input, but at the same time, the bottom line is still the responsibility of the director, and it was my job to provide an overall structure to everything.

What were you most afraid of this fall in starting at Wando?
    I think that the hardest part of the fall was the first month. We could not go 24 hours without a problem of some kind. These covered a wide range. One was that there might be a staph infection outbreak in the school so we should cancel all practices for the week, while another complaint was that our water breaks were not long enough. All of the complaints that could fall in between those two extremes were brought forward. During all of this I kept thinking, “trust me, this will work.” I wanted to say that many times, but in that first month, there was doubt in all of our minds about whether we were going in the right direction. The students were trying but not convinced, and rightly so. I do not fault them for that. The staff was becoming more convinced that we were going to be okay, but not completely. I think that the parents, probably because they had the least contact with what was going on, were the least convinced that our approach was the right way to go.
    I do not think I was changing a great deal about the program, but any time you have a leadership change, there tend to be people who are jockeying for position, and some people who stay in the background, just waiting to see what will happen. Nobody wants to jump onto a sinking ship, and I think everybody in that first month wanted to see what would happen.
    There was a real turn after our first football game performance, with a big shift in viewpoint from the students in particular. At this performance we went through an experience that was new and different. We had a visual moment in the show where the students got down and were hitting the ground, and it was a very aggressive moment. The student section of the stands just went nuts. Our students were standing up and were supposed to jump right into the next drill set, but I bet we had 20 people miss it because they were looking at the student section of the stands to see what had happened. The band members were so surprised by the reaction that they were caught off guard. After that first football game started momentum with the students, we then had our home contest, the Lowcountry Invitational, and the parents got  to see us deliver a truly fine performance. That felt pretty good, too.
    Once we built some momentum with the students and the parents, people were coming out of the woodwork asking what they could do to help. When I would ask the students to do something, instead of giving me a puzzled look, they were now saying, “okay, we’ll try.”
    As a director, you cannot assume that everyone is going to follow blindly. You have to give people reasons to trust you. At least half of that depends on a high-quality performance. It really does. The other half is good character. I have seen varying ability levels in both areas, and the directors who are successful are good at both. I have seen great people who were not as interested in good performance, and that has its downside. I have also seen fabulous performers who were lacking in character, and that has its pitfalls as well. There has to be a balance between the two.

What are the keys to a productive concert band rehearsal?
    We have four concert bands, and each one requires a slightly diffferent approach. With our least experienced group, we spend 60-70 minutes of each 90-minute rehearsal working just on fundamentals. This is necessary to get these students ready to jump in when they join the three higher groups later on. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Symphonic Band, our top concert band, which is working on Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis right now. In that group the students can read exceptionally well, and we have a number of great individual musicians. With them, I spend less time on right and wrong notes and more time on how the ensemble sounds and how can we improve it. I do not want to hear just the sounds of flutes, oboes, and clarinets; rather, I want to hear a new sound that is created when those instruments are blending together perfectly. This has been a challenge for us. Wando has played at the Midwest Clinic and state conventions, so there is talent and a strong foundation to build on, but I am working with them to develop more of an ensemble sound with multiple sounds that can come from it.

What were your goals when starting the leadership program at Marian Catholic and how did you accomplish them?
    I spent a lot of time working with teachers and asking what students needed to learn. What are the subjects you have to address more than you would wish to? What would you want every teacher in the building teaching? It boiled down to four thoughts: honesty, integrity, responsibility, and enthusiasm. We put that together in an acronym: HIRE.
    Then we looked at how to teach that. If you simply lecture on honesty, students will immediately lose interest. We asked students how they had learned about these four traits and found several videos and activities students liked. We had a game called the Blue Card Game that taught responsibility though a number of scenarios. We asked students to bring a blue card to class on a specific date and then never reminded them again, leaving it up to students to bring or not bring one. We asked students one by one if they had a blue card. If the first one did, we would say, “If you have a blue card, that means you renewed your drivers license on time and have no penalty. If you hadn’t, it would cost you $300.” This was to give students an idea of what to expect in the real world. They haven’t done any of this stuff, so they don’t know. We would ask the next person, who might say no, he didn’t have a blue card. That meant he didn’t buckle his seat belt when riding in a car with a friend. There was an accident, he went through the windshield and now has permanent damage on his face. It got very real very fast.
    It is easy to say everyone should be responsible, but adults don’t even take to that lesson very well. Young people have to see, know, and assimilate those characteristics. Not every lesson was successful, but after eight years, we did find a pretty good system that helped us out and got those points across. It changed the culture of the school, lowering both detention rates and major disciplinary actions. It paid off for us.