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Taking Command at William Penn High School

Instrumentalist Editors | June 2011

   William Penn is a large high school near Wilmington, Delaware. Six years ago a young director, just out of college, took over a waning band program that had accomplished little in recent years. As a colleague describes it, “Brian Endlein established a standard for the students – not just musically, but with leadership. He instituted a strong student leader training program, and once the students knew what was expected, they understood it was not acceptable to slack off. It is not by order and decree that Brian instilled this philosophy; he embodied it. If he asked his students to do something, he would do it as well. As a result, students now regularly get in trouble because they are at school too early and stay too late to be with their bandmates and get in extra practice.” Here is Brian Endlein’s story in his own words.

    I began like any other music student with lessons in elementary school. I grew up in Landsdale, Pennsylvania and in middle school had an influential teacher, Peter Neu, who sparked my interest in music education. I graduated from high school and attended West Chester University for a bachelor’s degree in music education and a music history minor. My primary instrument is saxophone although I played viola for a year in third grade.
     My current position developed out of student teaching. My elementary placement was in this district at Castle Hills Elementary School. Karen Rotz was the teacher I worked with at the elementary school. She mentioned me to the school principal who spoke with the district administrators. Some of them came to observe my teaching and then offered me a job. It was originally supposed to be at an elementary school, but things were shuffled around and it turned into a position at William Penn High School. It was both an unexpected surprise and a terrifying prospect to teach students who were just a few years younger than me.
    It was quite a challenge taking what was taught in school and applying it in the real world. In the classroom we practiced teaching with our peers acting as elementary students. Actual students are quite different. The administrative side is also quite demanding. College professors talk about it, but you do not really understand until you are in the trenches, handling the daily paperwork, arranging buses, and making sure your marching band schedule works. Ultimately, you still have to teach music too. New directors have to find that balance to be successful at both.

Developing a Program
    The program at William Penn was not huge, and they had been through several band directors in a short period of time. There were 38 students in the marching bands, and about 45 students in the two bands that met during the school day. I met with the school administration to introduce myself and then with the music boosters to present a five-year plan to improve the program and increase enrollment.
    Band does not always have a good image with teenagers. There were students with good musical potential, but they lacked focus and guidance. I wanted to develop an exciting program; something they felt was special. When I arrived, they were ashamed to wear their band jackets. Soon these same students were putting flyers up in the hallway and wearing their jackets proudly. From the beginning, I shared plans to increase our size and music skills.
    As any new teacher knows, the older students in the class often try to see how far they can push. I would like to say that all of the students believed in the new plans from the beginning, but that would be a lie. In the end they realized that while I did things differently from previous directors, ultimately it was going to be in the best interest of the program.

A Rough Start
    I graduated in December and started in January. Upon arrival I was informed that the bands were going to a Virginia Beach festival in three months. There was no literature picked, so they had not started rehearsing. That trip was a scramble to put together. I was fresh out of college and had to organize, pick and rehearse the music in such a short time. It was certainly a nerve-racking experience, but I found the music for Holst’s First Suite and other classics as well some contemporary works. We took two bands and both received excellent ratings. The students saw what we were able to accomplish in a short amount of time and realized that in the long term, the sky was the limit. I think that might have been a turning point that sparked interest in the program. Word of mouth traveled from older students to younger siblings who became excited about joining the band.
    While many programs are getting smaller, we have had slow but steady growth over the past five years. The original two bands now have 50 and 65 members, with one for freshman and the other for upperclassmen. The marching band went from 38 to 75 students. The program now includes a competitive jazz ensemble and an indoor drumline during the off-months of the marching band season. We also have two indoor colorguard programs. Between all of this and a 10-month-old son at home, it is quite the balancing act.

New Traditions
    The next step was to give the bands some new experiences playing in the community. The concert ensembles played for everything from welcome home ceremonies for troops returning from the war to music for a ship christening at the harbor in Wilmington.
    The school is heavily rooted in tradition, and many parents were former students of the program. They had strong feelings about how directors had taught in the past. I told them I wanted to keep the best traditions but create new ones for the future. Not all of the changes were large. For example, holding band camp away from school made participation in marching band too expensive, so now we hold it here. Others are such small events as taking the band boosters out for a pancake breakfast before a trip or inviting the seniors’ parents to come in the day before championships for marching bands to decorate the band hallway with posters. Little things make students feel part of the program.

    I think some of the parents were hesitant about me at first. In recent years there had been a high rate of turnover, and I was only 21 years old. One of my most influential band parents is a retired drill sergeant from Fort Benning. He helps even when none of his children are in the program. He told me later that when I walked into the first meeting wearing a purple shirt and paisley tie, he immediately thought I would never last. His initial opinion changed though, and he said, “I was so impressed that you came in with a plan and set measurable goals. When things did not work you adjusted until they did.” I was a young hard charger coming in, but I had a plan and knew Rome was not built in a day.

Marching Band
    An important part of the plan was improving the marching band. We set a goal to win a championship in five years and succeeded in three, which was very exciting for the students. After starting the indoor drumline and colorguard, the next step was gaining approval for overnight trips. This year four groups (jazz band, drumline, and two colorguards) traveled to Wildwood, New Jersey for the four-day Atlantic Coast championships for indoor groups. The band took its first trip to Disney World in December and participated in the Magic Music Day Parade. As students saw the program’s success in competitions and good ratings at festivals, the numbers grew. Students are now proud to be a part of the program and proudly wear marching band jackets and t-shirts.

    In Delaware eighth grade students can choose what high school to attend, and there are many options, including charter schools. There is even a performing arts charter school just up the road in Wilmington. It is not only the students I have to convince however. Some parents have already decided that their children should attend a different school.
    The district band day brings all the middle school students to perform at a football game in the fall with the high school marching band, and at the district band festival the concert bands perform for each other. I also take the high school students to the middle school concerts and set up information tables. We visit the middle schools in the spring to talk about the different opportunities at William Penn.
    The high school band members are the best recruiters for the program. Students do not want to hear an adult tell them how great the music program is; they want to hear from their peers that it is a good experience and will lead to success after high school. They sell the program better than any adult could. It is a real pleasure to watch them become leaders in the development of the program.

    The school has a regular seven-period schedule, and the bands meet every day for 45 minutes. There are no extra sectionals, just rehearsals during the school day. Other activities like color guard, drumline, brass quintet, and marching band are extracurricular and meet in the afternoon or evening. Freshman band starts the day at 7:30 in the morning, which is an interesting experience.
    During the 45-minute period, the group starts with warmups followed by technical exercises from a method book or such exercises as lip slurs for the brass players, or technique for woodwinds. Without sectionals this is the only time students will work on technique. All students are required to learn scales, particularly the percussionists, and there is a different scale each week. The assignments work around the circle of 5ths but will also include scales from the pieces the band is playing. After the scales there are additional technical exercises while the percussionists set up for the pieces. This allows the band to start out together, and then break apart so I can work with the winds while the percussion gets ready. I also select one or two students from the percussion section to work on rudiments each week. This usually takes the first half of class with the remainder a rehearsal of concert literature.
    The general rule for directors is to stop conducting only when you have something to say. I found initially that I was talking too frequently in rehearsals. Students want to play and improve, and this will not happen if the director spends most of the class talking about how to play this note or that dynamic. Figuring out how to be effective and efficient with words, so the band can return to playing was a big challenge.

Finding Balance
    I have an incredibly supportive wife, but in addition to my family and teaching responsibilities, I am also a member of the Army Reserve. It is taxing to keep a balance, but I hope that by being good in one area, it helps the others. Being a good parent helps me be a good teacher; being a good teacher helps me be a good soldier. I just hope that with a good work ethic, I will succeed. A Google calendar makes sure I don’t miss anything.
    The discipline and commitment of the military exemplifies everything that makes a band great. As a soldier in the 78th Army Band, I also continue to perform at a high level. Some of the nation’s best and most talented wind musicians play in those bands. The variety of musical experiences helps my teaching as well. In one day, I might rehearse or conduct the army concert band play in a Dixieland band, perform at a VA hospital with the jazz group, and then counsel soldiers on what to do for their next promotion. It really mirrors much of what I do as a teacher.

Future Plans
    In upcoming years the goal is to build upon the program’s successes and improve areas that have not yet reached the levels we want. Maintaining numbers will require continued effort and strong recruitment. Perhaps the most important goal, however, is for students to understand that anything important is worth working towards, and it is not going to come easily or immediately. Today, if people want to know something, the internet offers thousands of answers in less than a tenth of a second, but there is no shortcut to playing the saxophone. There is no substitute for the discipline, commitment to the craft, and relationships students develop as part of a team. These are the things that will continue to make them successful after high school.