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More Music Psychology

Trey Reely | January 2015

    In this third of four installments, I examine ten more factors in the mental game dictionary previously presented in the August and December issues.

    Working with young people on a daily basis can be a tug-of-war between justice and mercy. Justice requires the administration of a deserved punishment. Mercy, on the other hand, is forgiving a debt regardless of merit on the part of the offender. As judge and jury, band directors are often the ones who decide which one is more appropriate for each situation. Some directors lean toward justice guided by a firm consistency regardless of the individual situation, justifying their decisions with the worn “if I do it for you, I’ll have to do it for everyone.” While there is certainly merit in this assertion, it should be examined carefully in each case, as opposed to being applied carte blanche. Treating everyone the same is not necessarily fair, and consistency is not necessarily a virtue. I recommend erring on the side of mercy. It’s hard to influence students and potentially change lives if we cut them off too soon after they make mistakes.

    Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has written that “there are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” As convoluted as that sounds, it actually makes sense. The part of it that I stress with my students is knowing the unknowns – realizing and acknowledging what they do not know and then caring enough to learn more about it. How many children do we have (particularly beginners) who will sit in a rehearsal, obliviously playing something incorrectly despite the fact that almost everyone around them is playing it correctly? How many just memorize fingerings without knowing their note names? Students must know what they do not know to correct things that a director might not catch.
    I have an informal game that I play with beginners called “What were you thinking?” A student will play an exercise. After he is finished, I do a little play-by-play in an announcer voice that goes something like this: “You played measure one through four almost perfectly, but when you got to measure three you played a wrong note on count three. So my question to you is – what were you thinking?” It’s half in jest, but I make the point with students that they should understand their thinking process – what they know and what they don’t know. If they know why they made a mistake, they can fix it.

    Competition as pertains to music has been a long-time matter of hot debate. Some see it as having absolutely no place in music, and others see it as a catalyst for greater performance. For those of a competitive bent, some reflection may be required if you and your students experience a somber and possibly even angry trip home after a competition where the results were not as good as hoped for. A day of performing and watching others perform, combined with well-spent hours with friends, should always be a special day, regardless of the outcome.

    Trent Dilfer, despite being a former Super Bowl-winning quarterback, has long been widely regarded by football pundits as a game-managing quarterback – one with limited skills who basically plays not to lose. Sadly, this outlook has somewhat dulled what should be the bright legacy of a talented athlete. In the book The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, Dilfer says that it was the coaching he received at the professional level – playing not to lose – that stunted his career. He believes that if he had been coached differently, his full talent could have come into play.
    I tell students that if they are going to make a musical mistake, make it a good one. Make it a mistake of commission, not omission. As directors, we have to applaud these types of mistakes. If we don’t, our students will play fearfully, never experiencing music fully.

    I had an eighth grade English teacher who was so negative about our class that I kept a written record. I remember to this day that he once went 19 straight days without saying anything nice to us. We weren’t a bad a class, but by the time we got to the end of the semester we weren’t angels either; there is only so much negativism a child can take. Students already have a tendency to perceive band directors as negative because we are constantly trying to fix things, so it is important to make a conscious effort to be consistently positive.

    Organization has a great deal to do with respect. If you respect other people’s time, you organize and prepare. I’m constantly amazed at the poorly organized meetings I have attended. Maybe I’m too uptight, but I have better things to do than just sit around and chew the fat. Leaders should set a tight agenda, follow it, and get everyone out of there. I try to run rehearsals the same way. Kids have such harried lives today that they deserve a rehearsal that is efficient and gets them out on time.

    What is the student’s perspective on band? Sometimes all we have to do is ask. Other times we need to reflect on how we felt at their age. Sometimes this may not work, because in all likelihood we have always had a love for band that the average student does not.
    Sports psychologist H.A. Dorfmann runs seminars for coaches and managers. At the beginning of the each seminar, he asks attendees to write down what their needs and concerns were as young professional players. Hours later he asks them to write on the other side of the card the focus of their daily contact and communication with the players for whom the coaches are responsible. In most cases, the sides did not match.
    Areas of concern change as one transitions from a student to a director, but directors, to be effective, must remember what the needs of students are.

    Despite what you may have been taught by an elementary school teacher or an unbelievably patient and saintly individual, there is such a thing as a dumb question. I outline them for my students as follows:
    •  Something I have just answered or explained to which a student did not listen.
    •  Something a student was completely capable of figuring out but too lazy to think about.
Before attending an audition, students are given these steps in finding answers to their nervous queries:
    1.  Try to figure out the answer for five minutes.
    2.  Ask a friend if they know the answer and think again for five minutes if necessary.
    3.  Ask a veteran in band who usually knows what is going on.
    4.  If you still don’t have the answer, then come ask me.

    One of the most painful aspects of being a band director is having a student quit, particularly a talented one. Walking around the school, quitters are living, breathing reminders of our failed attempts to convince them to love band as much as we do. I have found that few parents are tough enough to make their child follow through with a commitment. I have had students over the years who hit a tough patch and quit in the early stages of it when after a day or two the kid would have been fine. If the parents only had enough backbone to say “You’re not quitting. You will be letting the group down,” matters would have ended happily. The lesson that many children miss nowadays is that simply changing their mind does not excuse them of responsibility.

    If you had to make a choice, would you rather be liked or respected? Even after 29 years of teaching I want to be liked by the students, but I cannot let it affect proper decision-making. Being respected is always the best choice. It is important that our student leaders understand this if they are to be effective leaders in our groups.