Close this search box.

Temper, Temper

Trey Reely | June 2014

    It had already been a difficult semester. Our bandroom was being renovated, and my band was forced to take on a semi-nomadic existence with rehearsals alternating between three different venues. In the choir room, we had to set up and break down each day. In the gymnasium, rehearsals were like playing in, well, a gym, and on some days jackhammers shook the walls. In the auditorium, we were interrupted by everything from two custodians vacuuming at the same time to workers drilling on the outside walls of the auditorium. The coup de grace occurred during the penultimate rehearsal before our region concert contest. After removing props from a beauty pageant held in the auditorium the night before, we finally settled down for rehearsal on the auditorium stage. We were well into rehearsing Frank Ticheli’s Vesuvius when a bunch of noisy, giggly eighth-grade girls entered the auditorium for some unannounced assembly and plopped down in the front two rows while we were playing.
    As I grew more and more angry, somehow the increased intensity of my conducting actually helped the music — the work was about an eruption, after all. It was the best run-through we ever had of the piece. After the final cut-off, the unexpected audience clapped and cheered enthusiastically. I could not help but smile, my anger dissipating more quickly than I thought possible. (This did not keep me from asking the guidance counselor to meet with these students somewhere else for the rest of the rehearsal.)
    I also couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps I should have gotten angry earlier when the piece was not going so well. I have since learned that in sports, tirades can have positive effects. An article I read in Sports Illustrated suggests that one of the best ways for a baseball manager to spark his lagging charges is to throw a tantrum and get tossed from a game by the umpire. In 2012, managers were tossed from games 80 times. The expected winning percentage for those teams in any one game was .494. But in the games immediately following an ejection, these teams won at a .550 clip. In fact, many of the top meltdowns in history have preceded strong upturns in performance. One year the Atlanta Braves went 9-and-1 after manager Fredi Gonzalez was ejected from two games.
    The Vesuvius rehearsal was the rare instance in which true anger worked to my advantage, because anger is, ultimately, self-destructive. In the book Wishful Thinking Transformed by Thorns, Frederick Buechner writes, “Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back — in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
I don’t believe there was a time in my career when I had to control my anger more than in my first year of teaching. The students I inherited made the mistake of bragging to me about how mad they had gotten the previous director, even to the point that he would throw things and lock himself in his office. One day he even locked the kids outside in the cold. It tipped me off that my students saw this as some kind of game and would find great entertainment value in seeing me lose it. This was a competition I was determined not to lose, and I didn’t, although there were some days when I thought my insides were going to burst.
    Does this mean that we should never show anger? I believe not. As the example of baseball managerial ejections suggest, anger can have its place. Most of the managers seem to know this, and they will use it to their advantage. Indeed, I believe there are times when not getting angry would be the wrong response because it would show a lack of passion for what one is doing. However, a director should always have a good reason for showing any anger. If a director shows anger, it should be purposeful, calculated, and controlled. An ensemble director should never cross the line from acting it to feeling it, because at that point the law of diminishing returns kicks in, and students will stop taking matters seriously.
    On two occasions in my career I was so dismayed by the lack of focus and poor behavior of my band that I put down my baton halfway though the rehearsal, and in an angry yet firm and controlled manner I told my students that I had had enough. I told them that we would begin anew the next day, and that I would learn a lot about their character, their leadership, and their overall desire to succeed. It was a calculated gamble. I suspected that deep down they wanted to do better, but had just lost their way. Fortunately, on both occasions the next rehearsal was great, and so were all the ones after that.
    Unbridled anger usually results in irrational thinking, dysfunctional behavior, and spoken words that cannot be taken back. There is a Chinese proverb that says, “The fastest horse cannot catch a word spoken in anger.” As band directors, we are in a position that gives us the power to crush a student with recklessly said words. Any volatile issue is therefore best dealt with the next day after reflection. As one writer has said: “Sanity rises with the sun.”
    It is ironic that some of the most beautiful music ever performed by bands and orchestras was played under the baton of conductors who could be best described as angry, musical tyrants. I suppose that beautiful music can be made under such circumstances, but it doesn’t seem right or much fun for that matter. Unless, of course, the music is about an erupting volcano.