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Desire, Confidence, and Recruiting, An Interview with Brandon Crawford

Dan Blaufuss | March 2016

    Brandon Crawford is music director at Princeton (Illinois) High School. Originally hired as the choir director, he was also assigned to teach band four years ago and has worked hard to build both ensembles. “I live by the philosophy that it all begins and ends with music, so if I get a student in one ensemble, I can recruit them into the other. It is easier for a high school student with no prior experience to take choir than band, so I recruit heavily for the choral program, and then I recruit students into band from choir. I have nine choir members who are first-year band students. I also have two seniors and four juniors from band who are first-year choir members.”
Crawford believes that as long as desire and confidence to step into the music room are present, students can succeed. “It is a matter of suggesting to a choir student, ‘You enjoy music. You could be in band. Let’s find an instrument for you.’ Give students the confidence to want to step into the music room. A common protest from choir members is that they have never been in band, while their classmates have been playing since fifth grade. I do not believe this matters. We can teach someone the fingerings if we can get them to want to be there, and much of that comes from making the music room a place where students feel comfortable and confident enough to take risks. Students will be willing to try something different if they know they can do so without being made fun of.
    “I might say, ‘You’re good friends with Alex, and he plays trombone. Why don’t you try that? Come down during homeroom and work with Alex every day for a week. If you can’t play a scale at the end of the week, we’ll switch you to something else.’ That sounds easy enough for students to try, and if trombone doesn’t work, there are plenty of other instruments. What matters is that students want to be there, because if they don’t want to be there for themselves, they won’t want to be there for me.”

What are ways you have recruited students into the music program?
    People are more likely to leave small towns for the cities than the other way around. The community and school might be getting smaller, but I cannot afford for my program to get smaller. I have to find creative ways to recruit students. Two years ago I started a tradition of throwing out t-shirts at sporting events. I call a local store and have them get me three or four different designs for a theme, and the head coach and team pick which design is used. The theme for the volleyball shirt is Aces Are Wild. Every time our varsity volleyball girls serve and score an ace, I throw one of these shirts to the student section. The front has the design the team picked, and on the back it says “T-shirt sponsored by the Princeton High School Music Department.” The shirts are bound up in rubber bands, and inside is a piece of paper that has our band and choir concert schedule and a note that says “Are you in my class? If not, here’s your free pass to come talk to me during homeroom.” When the student comes, we might discover that he has no interest in music. If that is the case, I ask what he is interested in and what his college plans are. The aim is just a conversation with a student, not to bribe or pressure them into joining my class.
    I throw a football shirt when our defense forces the other team to go three and out, and basketball shirts are for three-pointers made. Wrestling is handled differently. The theme is Win by Pin. If a wrestler gets a pin, I give a shirt to the coach, who passes it to the player to throw out.
    I have gained 20 students in two years through these t-shirts. Some of the money for them comes from my small yearly budget, and some comes from my pocket. I keep the scorebooks for home volleyball games and get paid to do that. This goes right back into the shirts. I give up some of my time but gain students by it. If a free t-shirt gets me 20 students in two years, I will keep buying t-shirts. It has proven to be be a wonderful idea, and the coaches love it.
    I sometimes walk through the gym at the start of basketball practice and ask a student, “Why aren’t you in my class?” The response is usually “Well, I don’t sing.” I say, “Great. Why aren’t you in my class? We can work on singing or playing an instrument. You didn’t know how to play basketball at one time, but somebody taught you. Let’s have a free throw contest, and if you beat me, I will never ask you again to be in my class, but if I beat you, you have to take one of my classes.” I have been doing this for five years and gotten eleven students from it. I have lost twice, but these students still ended up taking my class because they felt comfortable. They enjoyed the conversation while we were playing the game, and I stayed true to my word and never asked them again.
    One of the two students I lost to was a sophomore when we played. I never brought up my classes again, but I would talk basketball with him every day. I had a Michael Jordan DVD collection that I lent him to watch over Christmas break. He plays college basketball right now, but his senior year in high school he wanted to be in choir. He wasn’t in band, but he came to every basketball game early to help move band equipment to the gym. I got him supporting the band, and by getting the athletes to support the band, it creates a better environment.

What are the keys to building strong relationships with students, coaches, and the community?
    Before school I have rehearsal from 7:00 to 7:45, but there is a 15-minute window afterward that I have free, and during those 15 minutes I roam the hallways and walk through the cafeteria and gymnasium – anywhere to make sure students see me.
    I eat lunch in the cafeteria almost every day. On the days I am too busy for lunch, I still make sure to walk through the cafeteria, passing every table and saying hi to the students, calling them by name. I introduce myself to a new student every day.
    I go to as many home athletic events as possible, even if I can only be there for 10 minutes. I go to make sure I’m seen, and while I am there, I will take note of something a student accomplished. Then I make a point to find and compliment that student the next day. This is how a teacher invests in a student – by showing you care about him outside of your class. I will talk about any sport a student plays, because if I can develop a relationship with him, I can get him in my room. If I can get him in my room, I can get his friends in my room, which means that my programs are getting bigger because I am getting a wider range of students.
    When picking out pep band charts, I put together a list of 15-20 possibilities and give it to the head coach of each sport so they can pick one or two for the band to play at games. The athletes love picking their music. It is an excellent way to build the bridge between athletics and music.
    For four years, our drumline has played a cadence as it leads the varsity football team, followed by the marching band, into the football stadium. It has reached the point where the varsity football team does not want to take the field unless the drumline is there, even at away games; the captains of the football team have gone to the administration and asked for the band to go to away games so the drumline could lead them in. The students of the athletic side want the students of the fine arts side there; that does not happen everywhere. It took four years for the football coach and me to get that to happen, but we’re there.
    While the community is watching athletics, the band is at the football and basketball games, and choir sings the national anthem. The music program is being presented at athletic events, but you also have to find a way to show athletes and their parents that the music department is supporting them. For the past two years every member of the volleyball, football, and basketball teams has been at our concerts. They support the music program because we throw t-shirts out at their game, and students are cheering during their games. The aim is to build camaraderie in the school.

How do you win over the troublemakers?
    The troublemakers are troublemakers because they feel that’s their purpose. They rarely participate in extracurricular activities. They usually have a discipline problem. I want those students because they don’t have anything to feel a part of. I will find an instrument for them to play, invest in them, and make them realize they have been missing respect. I respect you as people, you respect me as an adult and as your teacher – and together we will have a good time. I find that the students who don’t do homework for other classes are the ones who will go to the ends of the earth for me. They will not respect a teacher who does not invest in them.
    I walk through detention and in-school suspension areas and ask the students there how they are doing and why they are not in my class yet. I offer a pass to the guidance office to change their schedule. They often say, “Not today,” and I respond, “Well, I’ll catch you tomorrow then.” I have been working on some kids for four years. I still don’t have them all, but some of the ones I have gotten have told me the only reason they come to school is because of my class every day.
    My first job was in a small school in Missouri. There were five boys who were best friends and too much for any teacher to handle at once. I went to the counselor and said I would take all five of them right now. This was ten years ago, and I still talk to those five today.
    Everywhere I go, I seek out students nobody wants. Even if you never get them in class, showing these students that somebody cares about them is a big deal. Some students might not have anyone who cares that he had something to eat today. The only time some students eat is at school. Before I had music boosters, I would take $70-80 in five dollar bills and hand it out to every student who didn’t get dinner that night, saying, “If you don’t have money for concessions, come see me.” Somebody has to step up for these children. Why not you? That is how you build those relationships.

How do you fit a beginner into a high school band?
    In rehearsal, I walk by the beginners every day and find something to compliment. “I heard you play that eighth-note run. For someone who has only been in band a week, that’s really great that you can do that. I’m proud of you. Keep working.” That student will want to get better, and that is the goal.
    Every section has a student-led sectional one morning a week. The students vote on a section leader. It might not be the best player in the section, but it is the section’s choice. That leader runs the sectional. I am not in the room for most of it. During these sectionals, the experienced students teach the first-year players how to play the instrument. I have students teach each other, because if I work with a beginner he will feel intimidated, that he is not good enough. If their friends show them, students pick things up more quickly. I stay in contact with the section leaders and ask how new players did. If they report that a student is struggling with something, I ask how they would fix it and have them focus on that at the next sectional. I still work with new players, but through a section leader, so a beginner never feels intimidated by me. I visit sectionals and work a few passages after a student has a few reps under him, just to see his progress, but to get them started, I let students do the work.
    Teachers can be scared to give students more control; there is a fear that if you don’t do something yourself it will be wrong. If you do not trust your students, why should they trust you? I turn them loose. I email section leaders or meet them in the hall and tell them what to work on, usually right notes and right rhythms. If the students are conscious as musicians, making the best tone they can and playing the right rhythms, articulations, and fingerings, then they are playing good music. Students can do that without me being there. They will be adults soon enough. Treat them that way and see what results you get.


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On Singing in Band
    I am a choir guy and never expected to teach band. I was hired at Princeton to teach vocal music, but when the band director left, the administration wanted me to teach both. I’ve taught band there for four years, and when something is wrong, I believe the best solution is to play the first note, put the instruments down, and sing the part. Any time there is a problem, sing. If students cannot hear, sing. It keeps every student involved. I require percussionists to sing, too. If the triangle player has a note on beat three, I better hear him say ding loudly enough that the trombones across the room know the part is there. It gets students listening. You have to be able to hear the sound that you want to create. Good tone is good tone, no matter how it is produced, but you have to be able to hear what it is.
    We sing something through once, then I might ask students to add more shape, and we sing it again. On the third time through, students finger their instruments while singing. After that, I ask students if they liked what they just sang, and why or why not. If they like it, we play it, and the tone becomes much warmer and richer. If students can hear a sound they like, they can recreate it.
    Singing extends to warmups, too. I do not believe that warmups are designed to warm up the instrument. Warmups prepare the musician, mind, soul, and body to make music. Sometimes we don’t play a note on the horns. We sing our band warmups. We have a list of 50 different warmups, and I might have students play the odd numbers and sing the even numbers – or sing 1-5 and play 6-10. We mix it up.
    We do this because students have all played already. Every saxophonist, as soon as the instrument is assembled, plays In the Mood. Every trumpet player wants to play as high as possible. Every trombone player has to glissando as wide as the instrument will permit. Every flute player has to play a high C. Every student has their instrument warmed up before you ever step in front of them, and if they do not, say, “I’m going to give you a minute or two. Blow some air through the horns.” While they do that, by the time you take attendance and have a sip of coffee, they are warmed up. Then we can sing.