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Battles Worth Fighting

Matthew D. Talbert | January 2015

    Directors across the country often are wrestling with the same kinds of questions. Is this battle worth fighting? Is it really so important that students sit up straight, with their feet flat on the floor, and with the correct hand position? Does it really matter if the band skips work on long tones today? Who is going to notice if the woodwinds and mallets skip our technical exercises today? How necessary is it for me to talk again about the importance of bringing a pencil to class? Is it a big deal if class starts two minutes late?
    At some point in your career you have probably heard someone ask these questions aloud, or perhaps you have said them yourself. I think these are important questions that are worth considering, and I would encourage directors to reflect on their teaching practices to determine which battles in the classroom are truly worth fighting.
    For me, the process of determining which battles to fight was fairly simple. I was fortunate enough to learn from middle and high school directors who built band programs centered on the basic fundamentals of playing and high expectations. These directors and my college professors placed a high value on the fundamentals, and they taught me not to take short-cuts. My colleagues and mentors also modeled the importance of being consistent from day to day. In learning from all of these people, I was so immersed in the thought process of deciding what is important that it was second nature for me to do this once I became a teacher.
    It is not always easy to make the right decisions. Brass players do not always like playing long tones and lip slurs, and woodwinds and mallets do not always like playing technical patterns. However, as the professional in the room, I have to make decisions for my students that I think are in their best interest. I know these decisions are not always popular, as they are sometimes received with moans and groans, but they are the decisions that will give the students the best chance to succeed. Remember, no student wants to be a part of something that is not successful.
    For some teachers, the pathway to teaching might not have been as clearly defined as it was for me. Some teachers perhaps had such inconsistent experiences as students that they continue to search for the best way to set up their own students for success. Others may have had experiences so tumultuous that they still find themselves questioning whether or not they are in the right profession. For that reason, I offer my views on the battles that I think are most worth fighting. Although each teaching situation is different and must be evaluated distinctly, the basic principles noted below should apply to every music classroom.

Posture and Hand Position
    I always find it interesting when I hear directors say, “I know you will sit correctly and hold your horn the right way when it’s time for the dress rehearsal and the concert!” This sort of statement is usually uttered just a few weeks before the next scheduled performance. Why should it be acceptable for students to wait to have correct posture until concert day? Why would it be okay to accept less than full effort most days, and then switch before the concert? This approach has the effect of teaching students that it is appropriate to sit with poor posture because it is not important unless people are watching. That approach is clearly wrong, because proper posture is one of the critical variables that determines whether a student is able to produce a characteristic tone on the instrument.
    I emphasize to students that they should practice in the same manner that they wish to perform. Students need repetition to solidify the learning process, especially in the beginning stages. Often students need to be reminded about posture and hand position, perhaps multiple times each day. This can be exhausting for a teacher, and we can begin to sound like a broken record. We may even begin to question if we will ever get through to the students. However, after enough repetition, the idea of playing with correct posture while remaining relaxed should become second nature. We should instill in our bands a sense of pride for doing things the proper way. Insisting on proper posture at all times should be non-negotiable, and it is definitely a battle worth fighting.

Discipline, Expectations, and Time Management
    Ensembles that exhibit discipline are easy to spot. Ensembles that lack discipline are much easier to spot. Generally speaking, students will meet the expectations set forth in your classroom. If you expect superior rehearsals and superior performances, and nothing less, then the students will usually rise to the occasion. Likewise, if you expect mediocre rehearsals and mediocre performances, your students will exhibit the qualities associated with a classroom culture of mediocrity.
The teacher creates the classroom climate. Make it a priority to set the classroom expectations high, and enjoy the process of watching your students meet and exceed their goals. In the end, everyone is more productive. Each band will have different goals. Try to make sure your goals are reasonable, but attainable through hard work. It is illogical to think that all bands are created equal. All bands do have the ability to give their best effort each day.
    How many times have you caught yourself answering an email while the students were coming into the classroom and suddenly realized that class started a few minutes ago? Make it a priority to start class at the correct time. If you allow students three minutes to unpack their instruments and get settled, then be ready to start rehearsal as soon as those three minutes have passed. It is important to start class on time because it demonstrates that you value class time and the learning environment. Students, whether they admit it or not, thrive under consistency and routine. I do not know of a director does not want more rehearsal time, especially before a performance. Three minutes may not seem like a lot of time, but added up over a few months, this adds up to hours wasted. One simple way to encourage your students to get their horns out and set up quickly is to meet them at the door once they arrive. Greet them with a smile, a simple hello, and then remind them to quickly get ready for class to start. With this beginning procedure you have both encouraged the students to hustle, and you have also made it a point to talk to each of your students. The email can wait, and the value you place in starting on time demonstrates to students that they are the most important factor at the moment. These seemingly small points about how to start rehearsal can make a big difference in setting expectations in the classroom.
    You may find that some students feel the need to flood your office and ask you multiple questions as soon as they step into class. A question or two at the beginning of class may not seem to be a big deal until you realize it is eating up your class time. Create a system that gives both the students and you the flexibility to take care of basic housekeeping items. It is unreasonable to think you can be a director, while ignoring all of the more mundane details involved with a program. Take care of these items as you need to, but make sure you are efficient in doing so. For example, a colleague of mine has an LED board that scrolls through announcements during class. This takes care of any necessary announcements, and the students are able to read these each day. Starting class on time is a battle worth fighting, and it shows students that you value the time you spend together.

    A pencil is invaluable. Think about the amount of time spent during rehearsals fixing problems that we hear. Now think about how many times a week we fix the same problems. In most cases we are just repeating ourselves, not using our rehearsal time efficiently, because students did not mark their music according to the instructions given when the problem first arose. Although it may seem trivial to some, I feel strongly that each student should be required to have a pencil in rehearsal at all times; this should not be optional. Students are simply unable to remember all the information we give them on a daily basis, but the pencil can alleviate this. For example, a quick mark in the music when a student misses the F# eliminates the need to stop and correct the same mistake multiple times. I have become notorious for telling my students, “make a different mistake this time.” While we usually laugh about this, there is a lot of truth to it too. One of a director’s job requirements is to listen to what is being played, diagnose what is being done incorrectly, and then work to correct the problem so that we do not repeat it. We should not waste precious minutes repeating the same instructions multiple times because a student lacks a pencil. Requiring a pencil in rehearsal should be as common as requiring a clarinet player to have a satisfactory reed.

Why Do Lapses Happen?
    It is no secret that music teachers often have to take on many duties that do not include teaching music. We may have bus, hall monitor, or cafeteria duty, and we are constantly buried under mounds of paperwork, trying to get caught up. After all of this, we are still supposed to teach our classes and make sure we are energetic, entertaining, and informative. Some teachers experience immense pressure because they are under constant scrutiny from administra-tors who seem to believe quantity is more important than quality. The additional duties that directors increasingly are assigned may create such a burden on us as music teachers that we can lose focus on the important classroom battles. At first we may loosen the reins on just one or two rules, and then a couple more, and then, before we know it, we have become more and more apathetic toward our daily routine. Stay the course! It is imperative that you trust in your teaching and trust that your students will see the value in what you are trying to achieve together.

Keep in Mind
    In conclusion, I want to offer some advice that I hope will put my comments in perspective. None of these preceding points on how to lead rehearsals – asking students to sit with correct posture at all times, insisting that they are producing characteristic tones, making sure class starts on time, requiring them to bring a pencil to class – amounts to ruling with an iron fist. Rather, these are seemingly small things. However, when done consistently, these steps will help your students to understand the importance of following directions, teach them to understand the value of trusting and following a leader, and allow them to develop discipline that will carry over into every other facet of their lives. Most importantly, these steps may help students learn how to be successful inside and outside of the classroom.
    Also, never forget that making music should be fun. It is entirely possible to achieve success while having a good time. Laughter is important, and we often desperately need it in order to keep ourselves sane in this crazy profession. Remember also that teaching our students is more of a marathon than it is a sprint. Mistakes are going to happen. Students are going to mess up. It happens. The learning process is often messy, and that is okay. Exercise patience, which at times can be extremely difficult, and reflect often on the reasons why you became a teacher. Through it all, remind yourself that your job as a teacher is to have a positive effect on the lives of the students you teach. Students will appreciate the lessons learned in music class that can carry over into the other facets of their lives. The battles that are worth fighting will help your students immensely, and they will also help to make your job much more manageable and enjoyable in the end.