One of the most gratifying aspects of a career as a music educator is hearing from former students. These communications include frequent comments on how the non-musical aspects of band, such as leadership skills, teamwork, attention to detail, the value of a competitive spirit, and passion about the things you enjoy, have been beneficial. There are also numerous references to professionalism, and quotes that stand out include “Through your example I learned to be passionate and professional about my work,” and “You were so professional. You taught us so much more than music.” As any music educator would agree, kind words such as these are extremely humbling, and they are also powerful statements about the influence we have on students.
I have found comments on professionalism to be intriguing. That former students cite professionalism as an inspiration makes me wonder whether they find professionalism lacking today. Although the majority of educators I have encountered seemed professional, over the past several years as an adjudicator, band parent, and audience member, I have noticed music educators whose professional image could definitely use some improvement. Musicianship and teaching ability are important, but I have known some wonderful musicians whose teaching careers were short-lived because they failed to take other areas of work as a professional educator seriously.
Appearance is an important factor in the public’s perception of someone as a professional, and most would agree that the old adage “dress for success” applies to any profession. Band directors routinely put careful thought into how students dress in preparation for public performances but should also be sure to give their appearance the same consideration. I recently attended a high school football game where a visiting band was in attendance. Though the band was in full uniform, the director was wearing faded denim jeans, a wrinkled polo shirt with the shirttail hanging out, and a backwards-facing baseball cap. The young man was the worst-dressed person on the sideline during the game and halftime show.
Your appearance can exude confidence as well as help give you credibility in everything you do. Music teachers should dress to enhance their authority as well as display respect for the band program and school.
I fondly recall my concert debut many years ago as a first-year high school band director. My parents were in attendance, and after the students and audience had departed, I asked my parents what they thought of the performance. Both agreed that the band sounded great, but my mother was quick to express disappointment in my appearance, commenting that the back of my suit coat was wrinkled and the cuff of one of my pants legs occasionally caught on the back of my shoe. I never again took my coat off the hanger until I was ready to walk on stage, and I always made sure that the length of my pants was appropriate. Whenever you appear in public as a band director, realize that some people will spend as much time evaluating your appearance as they will listening to your ensemble’s music.
At some schools it can be difficult to tell the teachers from the students or maintenance staff. The attire worn by some teachers at a school I recently visited was more appropriate for yard work than for teaching. Although informality has become accepted in many school settings, I always believed that whenever I was on duty as a band director, I had the responsibility to dress in a way that projected a serious, professional image to my students and the public. I always wore a coat and tie when meeting with administrators or parents or speaking at school board or booster club meetings. For outdoor marching band rehearsals I usually wore what was appropriate for the weather, and if I wore jeans or shorts, they were paired with shirts, jackets and caps with the school or band logo. At marching band performances I often wore dress pants, a dress shirt and tie, and a school jacket or sport coat. For summer performances, I also considered khaki pants or shorts and a polo shirt with a band logo to be acceptable. Some may view my approach as old-fashioned, but there was never a doubt in any observer’s mind about who the band director was, or whether I took my job seriously.
Effective communication skills, including the ability to be clear, concise, and accurate with all types of communication, are essential for any professional. Carefully proof all written material, including personal letters, handouts, concert programs, ensemble schedules, newsletters, and handbooks, before distributing them. When my children were in high school, I often found it disheartening that some teachers seemed to have little concern regarding the quality of their writing. Weak writing skills make a poor impression on students and a negative statement to parents about the quality of the school. School instrumental music directors are viewed as educators first, and their writing skills should reflect that. Distributing written materials with improper grammar, typographical errors, and incorrect information is simply unacceptable.
Creating good writing begins by determining the primary audience (students, administrators, the community) and the tone that will best convey the message effectively. Determine what information should be expressed. Gather all the pertinent facts, including times, dates, and locations, and double check them for accuracy. Consider setting aside a specific time each day or week to write your communications. Initially allow thoughts to flow as quickly as possible, saying what needs to be said without concern for format or correctness. Then revise for content, with the aim of clear, concise, and accurate communication. Be sure information is presented in an appropriate sequence and appropriate style with sentences that flow. Maintain a professional tone and avoid slang, contractions, repeated words, and unnecessary information. Finally, proofread for content errors, awkward sentences, and typographical errors. Be organized and observe all rules of grammar. It may help to read aloud as a final review before distributing. Although this approach may seem time consuming, with a little practice, anyone can create high-quality written materials in a quick, efficient manner.
Speaking and Listening
Oral communication skills are equally important in rehearsals and when interacting with the public. For conductors, non-verbal communication is especially vital, but they should be skilled speakers as well. When attending concerts, I enjoy when a conductor turns to the audience and offers comments about the music or the students, but there have been times when I have left a performance thinking that the band director’s poor speaking skills were actually a detriment to the evening. On one occasion at a high school band concert, the director began the performance by informing the audience that the reason a printed program had not been distributed was because he had failed to give it to the school secretary in time to have it copied. He then proceeded to read the program material to us prior to each selection, in a barely audible, somewhat halting, monotone voice – without a microphone. Rather than use this as an opportunity to connect with the audience in a personal manner while conveying a sincere appreciation for the music, the director bored the audience and embarrassed himself through his weak public speaking skills.
Music educators frequently record their ensembles to evaluate performances, so consider doing the same to evaluate speaking abilities. Record rehearsals, booster club meetings, and concerts, and evaluate your speaking skills as thoroughly as the music. The secret to good public speaking is to sound natural, confident, sincere, and enthusiastic; speaking in a conversational manner with the same pace, pauses, inflection, and emphasis as when you have an animated conversation with friends. Make eye contact with your audience and only occasionally refer to any notes. Appropriate hand gestures will help emphasize points or direct attention. Project your voice to the back of the room or use a microphone if necessary. Also work to eliminate such filler words as “like,” “uh,” and “um.” Be personable and authentic, and allow both passion for the music and knowledge of the art form to be on display.
Listening is another important aspect of effective communication. If your listening skills in conversations are less keen than your music listening skills, it will be necessary to work on becoming a better listener. Look people in the eyes when they speak, and avoid interrupting others or finishing their sentences. People will communicate more sincerely if they believe that you value what they have to say.
Although instrumental music educators study conducting and work hard to hone the skills required to lead their ensembles, it is important to consider the visual images projected when you are off the podium. As an adjudicator, I can usually guess the mood or confidence level of a director based on body language. Occasionally, I have even been able to predict what I am about to see and hear. Directors that appear to be tense or upset often have ensembles that look nervous and play tentatively, while directors who appear relaxed and confident often lead students who reflect those images through their performance. If an adjudicator who has never met you can sense this, rest assured that students and audiences sense it as well.
Facial expressions are important. If you want your audience to enjoy the performance, and your students to feel confident, convey a pleasant demeanor with a natural smile when appropriate. Exude confidence while entering the stage or outdoor performance area by standing tall with your head up. If you are on the sideline at a football game or marching band competition, avoid nervously swaying back and forth or pacing the sideline. Ask someone to make a video recording of your rehearsals and performances, and when reviewing it, mute the sound and observe your body language. Always strive to convey confidence, energy, enthusiasm, professionalism, and control.
A professional image is also conveyed to students and others through behavior, including appropriate manners. Strive to be thought of as someone with high standards, and consider developing a personal code of ethics. This can encompass many things, but as a music educator, developing the ability to demonstrate on a regular basis that you are an honest person with integrity and character, who values others for who they are, appreciates people for what they do, and respects individuals for what they believe, can make a powerful statement about professionalism.
Music teachers should always remember that students and parents form impressions whenever they are around you, not just when you step in front of an ensemble. Every comment, gesture, or expression projected may be seen and evaluated by someone. For example, I have known people who routinely made negative comments about fellow teachers, administrators, or school policies in front of students and parents. Rather than addressing problems in private, they appeared to enjoy complaining to others. Everyone is entitled to opinions, but as an educator and school employee, it is important to understand that those opinions should rarely be aired publicly, because as soon as they are stated, they become public knowledge. Negative statements about people have a way of getting back to them, and often in a much worse way then intended. A professional should always view himself as a reflection of both the school district and the entire music education profession. Demonstrate loyalty and respect for students, employers, policies, and colleagues. We should never allow our actions to mislead students that anything less is acceptable in any profession.
Instrumental music educators routinely spend more time with their students than teachers of other subjects, thus the teacher-student relationship can often become less formal. However, it is still a priority to maintain professional relationships with students and their parents at all times in school, social, and public settings. Know the boundaries and never cross them. It is unfortunate when promising careers are derailed by inappropriate actions or comments. Also limit social media interaction with students, and avoid getting involved with the day-to-day gossip of your school or community.
I often see high school and college students who lack basic etiquette in social settings. Manners should be learned at home, but students can also learn these by observing us. Simple things such as saying “please” and “thank you,” opening a door for someone, making appropriate introductions, offering sincere greetings, expressing sympathy, displaying
proper table manners, or looking someone in the eyes when shaking their hand all say a great deal about a person.
Make it a priority to learn students’ names quickly, and call them by name whenever you interact with them. I have observed marching band rehearsals where directors have identified students as “the trumpet player on the 45 yard line” or “the flute player in the blue shorts.” Students appreciate being called by name; it creates the sense that you value them as a person, not just as a band member. Learn parents’ names as well.
Nineteenth century American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” In music education, that sentiment certainly holds true, as enthusiasm for music by an educator often generates more enthusiasm from students. The best music educators I have known consistently demonstrated an enthusiastic, passionate approach to music. It is not surprising that they were the leaders of some of the finest music programs as well.
Professionals handle both success and disappointment well. For a musician, there is nothing more gratifying than a great performance. It is exhilarating to know that hours of preparation have culminated in something special. Conversely, it can be frustrating when the long hours of hard work result in a lesser-quality performance or lower rankings than expected in competitions. How educators react to these situations is a true display of their professionalism. I have witnessed both ends of the spectrum in recent years. As a band parent in the audience observing an awards ceremony at a marching competition, I saw a director react to a first place rating in such a dramatic manner that some in the audience joked that he must have also won the lottery. At another competition, I saw a band director who appeared considerably less elated during the awards ceremony. Apparently his band had not scored as high as he expected. It was obvious that he was upset, and his students appeared to be extremely disappointed, some even wiping away tears. I had seen this band on other occasions and, from my observations, the group had improved throughout the season. In fact, I felt that this performance was the best I had seen from them. As we left the stadium that evening, my wife and I both wondered how this director might address his students’ disappointment. We soon found out when we witnessed him screaming at his students about their lack of dedication as they stood at attention in the parking lot. Needless to say, this sad public display did nothing to address the band members’ disappointment. In fact, I could only imagine that it left many students wondering if band participation was really worth the effort.
When dealing with success and disappointment, I have often reflected on the story of New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig. Though he was one of the greatest to ever play the game, receiving numerous awards and recognition, those who knew him claimed that one of his greatest attributes was his character, specifically his humility. In situations where others might bask in the glow of victory and fan adulation with overt displays of celebration and arrogance, as we often see in sports today, he viewed personal success as nothing more than the result of hard work, his passion for the game, and the support of his teammates. Team victories were celebrated with smiles, hugs, and handshakes, but also with the understanding that today’s success, coupled with tomorrow’s continued dedication and passion for the game, would be ingredients for future success. After being diagnosed with the disease that would soon end his life, Gehrig appeared in uniform for the last time in Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939 for Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day. After testimonials from various dignitaries and tearful Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, Gehrig addressed the disappointed Yankee faithful with the now-famous speech that included the comments, “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.” Gehrig was able to find good in a tragic situation, while demonstrating to his heartbroken fans and teammates how to deal with a major disappointment.
I always asked students to react to success in a way that reflected a belief that through continued effort they would have an opportunity to experience further success, and when facing disappointment I encouraged them to consider how fortunate they were to be a part of a special organization that allowed them to share with others their gift of making music. I also reminded them that although we might put great emphasis on the scoring or ranking at a band competition, those results never defined us. They were simply based on adjudicators’ opinions of our performance at that particular moment in time, compared with other ensembles in attendance. If we had not given our best effort during the journey or at the performance, then disappointment would be appropriate, as would a thorough evaluation of the program. However, if we knew we had prepared and performed to the best of our abilities, then we should have pride in the efforts, and replace the disappointment with renewed determination to continue improving.
Such sentiments have been echoed in communications from former students. Although trophies and top rankings were exciting at the time they were earned, I find students rarely mention these now. It appears that it truly was the journey where the life-long lessons were learned and the lasting memories made. So, on those special days when you unexpectedly hear from former students, do not be disappointed if they fail to mention the ratings or awards. Perhaps, through the professional manner in which you shared your love of music, you taught them things that are much more important.