Great Dynamics, Developing Team Chemistry with Your Band Staff

Trey Reely | February March 2021

    One of the most important ingredients of a successful band program is a cohesive staff. School districts and their band programs are organized in myriad ways, but the general principles of successful team chemistry remain the same.

    It is not uncommon to have friction between the director of bands and assistant directors, often caused by a lack of understanding on both sides. For this article, I have put their perspectives in two letters – one from a head director’s viewpoint and the other from an assistant’s. Many issues are a two-way street, so while reading, try to consider matters from the other side.
Dear Assistant:
    Let me begin by saying that I am sorry if this letter sounds rather blunt at times, but I would rather be pointed about these matters now if it can prevent problems before they arise. I will certainly be glad to discuss any of these thoughts with you.
    I like it when you regularly ask for advice and show a real desire to learn. This makes it easier to share unsolicited ideas because you have set the stage for a work environment where I can offer help that is appreciated and wanted.  When I provide constructive criticism, I don’t want to hear lots of excuses. That leads me to believe that you rationalize away problems and won’t take action toward fixing them.
    Please show respect for my experience. As an assistant, you seem close to the position of head director, but the difference is vast. It is easy to be critical when you don’t hold the job where all of the responsibility rests. When I ask you to do something a certain way, follow it to the letter. There is usually a reason why it is being done that way. Be willing to put aside your preferences and support the way the program is currently being run. Someday you can make changes to your own program. I am not saying that sarcastically – it is just often the reality.
    If you have sound ideas for alternative ways of doing things, I will be glad to listen. Be patient with me. I have been successful doing things a certain way and may be slow to change something that works. Never tell students or parents you disagree with how I did something and never confront me in front of students. We must present a united front. I need your support, even behind my back. If you hate working here for some reason, go somewhere else that is a better fit. Don’t stay and be a cancer.
    Take initiative – look around for things that need to be done and do them. However, touch base with me to make sure what you want to do is okay – too much initiative can sometimes cause problems. It may seem that I am contradicting myself when I tell you to take initiative and then tell you to check with me on everything, but it is important that we are on the same page when it comes to grading procedures, performances, meetings, fundraisers, and discipline. I can help you troubleshoot and avoid pitfalls certain actions can cause.
    Stay active during marching and concert band rehearsals. Don’t sit back and just observe. Put away your smartphone during rehearsal unless it is band business. As time goes on, we will find a groove, and what to do and what not to do will become second nature.
    Do not get too friendly with the students. I am old enough to be more like a parent to them, while you are closer to the age of an older friend or sibling. If you are not careful, a desire to be liked can lead to poor choices. Keep conversations with them professional and severely limit texting to just a few words that are simply reminders about band matters.
    Make sure that students are on time for my rehearsals. Do not sit in your office hanging out with students because they will use you as an excuse for being tardy. If you have to choose between being liked or respected, choose respect. It often leads to being liked.
    Don’t count on me to be a disciplinarian when problems arise in your classroom. I want students eager to play in my band someday. If their only encounters with me occur when I chew them out, that becomes less likely. Develop a discipline plan and run it by me. This also avoids my having to straighten out bad habits when students progress to my ensembles.
    When I give you some of the testing and music play-off responsibilities, maintain high standards and don’t take it easy on them. Also, take a strong interest and responsibility in getting students I assign to you prepared for individual events that they enter. When I ask how they are doing, be able to give specifics about their progress and what concepts remain to be taught.
    At times our work week will be lengthy with many hours at school and on the bus. Be prepared to put in this extra time and do whatever it takes to help the band succeed.
    Be punctual. I don’t like having to handle matters that are your responsibility, like being bombarded by questions from kids right before a trip. Just so you know, administrators who call and ask for recommendations often inquire if a potential employee is punctual. For school events, you should be punctual and get to work. I should not have to prod you and the kids to get down to business. I am usually rather tense before performances, so observing you taking care of things calms my nerves a little.
    Finally, if the last thing I hear you ask me each day is, “Is there anything else that needs to be done before I go?” I’ll be the happiest director in the world.

Your Grateful Colleague

Dear Colleague:
    I am writing this letter with the best of intentions. You certainly have your ways of doing things, but I wanted to share some thoughts about what could enable me to be a stellar assistant.
    Have a vision for the program and share it with me. I will do everything in my power to help if I know where we are going. Please include me in the decision-making process, ask for my input, and thoughtfully consider my feedback. Even though I may lack experience, I have strengths that complement yours and can offer innovative ideas, particularly about technology. I don’t expect you to do everything I suggest, but I would like it if you would consider my ideas thoughtfully and not discount them with a curt, “I tried that before and it didn’t work.” I am less likely to offer suggestions in the future if you don’t appear to care about my ideas.
    Be organized. It is difficult for the whole staff when everything is haphazard, and it is hard to take initiative when there is no overall plan that I can discern.  Give me something to do and state what you want clearly and concisely. I can’t read your mind. Sharing what you want done on a Google doc would help us stay on the same page.
    Communicate. Some decisions are yours alone to make, but I would like to be in the loop so I know what is going on. It is embarrassing when I barely know more than the students do.
    When I make a mistake, don’t throw me under the bus, particularly when you are talking to parents. When you make a mistake, admit it and don’t cover it up; I don’t expect you to be perfect. Don’t hesitate to tell me about mistakes you have made during your career. It will make me feel better about mine and prevent me from repeating some of yours.
    Play to my strengths but also push me out of my comfort zone. Let me take risks and make some mistakes. Sometimes that is the best way for me to learn. I might surprise you when something I try works that did not work for you years ago because I tweaked the idea just enough to make it successful.
    Please give me opportunities to lead an activity and assume sole leadership in your absence. I would love to conduct the top group on concerts. I have professional goals and would appreciate your help in reaching them. The more I do, the more I am ready for the next step of my career. I would like more on my resume than moving equipment and assembling props for marching band.
    Stand up for me when you are confronted by parents about me. Ask them if they have talked to me. If they haven’t, send them to me and let me try to solve the problem first. If I can’t resolve the problem, we can all meet together, but please do not embarrass me in front of them. Also, don’t talk about me negatively to other co-workers. They do repeat things, particularly if they like me better than you. We both make comments to each other that should be considered confidential. Please do not quote me on things that would damage my reputation in some way, particularly if it is out of context. Whatever you do, don’t confront me in front of the band; we can always find another time to discuss disagreements.
    Remember that I have a life outside of band. I want a long career, and I will burn out if I spend every waking moment at the band room. I also would appreciate it if you showed an interest in other things in my life, particularly with my family.
    I’m not a glory hog, but I like having my efforts acknowledged and recognized, particularly in front of students and parents. You have a lot of credibility, and your stamp of approval on my work would give me much needed credibility. Use words like we, us, and our when referring to the band program because we are a team. Again, at the risk of sounding insecure and overly sensitive, please include my name along with yours on any event where I have assisted. It is a small, but important way of showing that you think I am making vital contributions.
    Set a high bar for the students. When the bar is low, it’s hard for me to push as hard as I want to because it is not being reinforced above me. The kids look to you more than they do me for standards of high achievement.
    Don’t make a major disciplinary decision on a student in my band without my input. I know I have to consider the program as a whole, but I care about my kids and should have a voice in matters pertaining to them.
    I appreciate it when you are concerned about whether I enjoy work or not. Just checking in every now and then and asking if there is anything you can do to make my job more fulfilling means a lot.

Your Earnest Assistant

If you think a colleague needs to read this, resist the temptation to slip it under papers on his or her desk with appropriate parts highlighted. Seriously though, I would suggest you refrain from writing a letter like this to a colleague; meeting in person, though potentially uncomfortable, is preferred because it can minimize misunderstandings and allow for the immediate back-and-forth serious discussions require. You might start by saying, “Hey, I was reading this article the other day and it brought to my attention some things I could do better…” Maybe your colleague will read it and be introspective as well.

    Special thanks to Lori Schwartz Reichl (author and music educator,, (Sarah Labovitz (Arkansas State University), Joe Trusty (Cabot High School, retired), Lois Lane (Krypton Tech HS), and Terry Hogard (Brookland High School) for their contributions to this article.