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Rules of the Road

Tom Lizotte | June 2019


     Hands down, the most important rehearsal your groups will have is the first one. Establish a strong classroom culture from moment one and the year almost takes care of itself. Hesitate – even a bit – in setting boundaries and you will create an ambiguity that you will regret later.
    After too many years of knowing the kind of classroom I wanted but struggling to get there, I came upon great advice in Douglas Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion. (Jossey-Bass). Lemov argues that ambiguity it where teachers get in trouble in classroom management. “In any environment, countless apparently minor details signal the expectations for conduct and behavior . . . even if those individuals don’t recognize they are responding,” Lemov writes. “To reach the highest standards, you must create the perception of order.”
    On Day One, the very first thing we do is go over Rules of the Road:

    1. No phones in band rehearsal.
    2. Rehearsal downbeat is two minutes after the official class time. That means that, if the scheduled class start time is 9:45, downbeat is 9:47. That means that between the last class and this time, you have taken care of equipment, music, and bathroom needs.
    3. Unless it is an emergency, no bathroom until the last five minutes of class.
    4. No food or drink in the band room. Water is acceptable.
    5. When you enter these doors, it is “we, not me.”

    I stress immediately that the band room is a “no cell zone.” When we started this, not every student was pleased, but they quickly understood. Students’ lives are about multitasking, but you cannot multitask in band. When music teachers say they struggle with cell phones out in rehearsal, it is because they waited to set the boundaries. It has to be on day one.
    Is there ever a time when a student gets away with secretly having a phone out in rehearsal? On rare occasions, and not for long. A number of years ago I put a trough in the middle of the band room so I have full access. As I roam the room during a musical phrase, I can also monitor what is behind the stands. An occasional phone is encountered but can be scooped up mid-phrase. You need to be vigilant with percussion. It is easy for them to lie in the weeds and think they can get away with something. No surprise.
    If I see a phone just before warm up, all I have to say is, “Electronics be gone!” and they comply. Band room as a no cell zone is important for two reasons: You can’t effectively multitask in music, and students need time during which they are unplugged. Recent studies indicate this is a good thing for their mental health.
    Students need to understand that rehearsal starts and ends on time. We are as responsible for this as the students. No collecting sausage sale money, fixing instruments, hunting for reeds, hunting for music, or any other distraction at the starting time. The downbeat must be on time. Stragglers may filter in at first, but that is a problem that solves itself quickly. If it persists with a few students (as it might), this can be addressed as a teaching moment for the entire group. Be flexible, to a point. Tell them that if a teacher has held them over, they need to check in with you before they have a seat – even if this is mid-phrase. If you have any doubt about the veracity of this story, ask them to have the teacher email you. Word will get around fast that you cannot be scammed. Instances of this sort are rare.
    For us, the downbeat is two minutes after the official class beginning. If the official class time is 8:50, the downbeat is 8:52. This give them seven minutes between the previous class and band to attend to instrument care, oiling valves, gathering music, unpacking their instrument and bathroom. If you get into the habit of starting even a few minutes late, you will never start on time. The battle is lost. You can lecture all you want, but the students realize you cannot follow your own schedule.
    The lesson you need to teach immediately is that time is important. Model this by being fully prepared and treating every second of rehearsal time as a precious commodity – because it is. I spoke with one music company sales representative with over 40 years experience seeing teachers in action. He said, “You would not believe how much time I see wasted by teachers. It’s criminal.”
    It is equally important that you end on time. One technique that works is setting aside the last two minutes of class for announcements, with questions after rehearsal. More time is saved if you create what we call a “grab and go” – a document students can pick up on their way in that details upcoming auditions and other important information. Ending on time and using rehearsal time exclusively for music making sends a powerful message.
    Establishing bathroom policy from the get-go is also critical. Appropriate times and procedures need to be crystal clear. Our policy is for bathroom needs to be taken care of before rehearsal and for there to be no non-emergency bathroom visits until the last five minutes of class. This policy came from too many years of bathroom frequent flyers. Eliminating constant traffic in and out of the room increased the efficiency and atmosphere of rehearsals exponentially. You also need to be very specific in what is the length of any non-emergency bathroom request. Five minutes is a good goal. Otherwise, it can be a 20-minute endeavor. Only one person at a time should be permitted to leave. Two or three out at the same time becomes a social event.
    We have two sets of bathrooms, two water bubblers and the school cafeteria on the floor that houses the music facilities. One the first day, I take the freshman/sophomore bands on a tour. At the far bathrooms, “This is not the bathroom.” At the cafe, “This is not the bathroom.” We make it into a humorous exercise, but they get the point. Few have abused this.
    We recently got a new carpet in the band room. It was the perfect time to implement no food or drink except water in the band room. There have been no problems.
    Some of the above may seem anal retentive or controlling to some, but these techniques work in establishing the type of atmosphere absolutely necessary to high-quality music making. Once you establish that type of atmosphere, it is mostly self-sustaining. You will have to give students an occasional reminder, but I have found that this reminder quickly takes care of the problem.
    As Lemov puts it, “In planning for these kids of actions, you will not only serve persistent low-level problems that plague classrooms, but will change students’ perception about your classroom, making it seem an orderly and organized place where it’s hard to imagine disorder rearing its head.”
    The keys are setting the boundaries from day one and being consistent in application. You will be surprised how a little preventative maintenance can make your rehearsals better and life easier.