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Work to Do

James M. Rohner | March 2016

    Nicholas O’Sullivan sounded like a man in a hurry when he wrote for us in 2009. Just 24 years old a the time, he discussed his successes in the first two years of teaching at Governor Livingston High School in New Jersey. Although he knew it would be difficult, he aspired to produce a great high school program like the one Frank Battisti built years ago at Ithaca High School. Most of all, he refused to mark time and take the path of least resistance for the next 40 years. His unquenchable enthusiasm for the profession impressed us, and we decided to check in on his progress.
    Having inherited a band program with 37 students, O’Sullivan noted that band enrollment had since doubled to 80. He hopes that enrollment will continue to rise slightly and allow the addition of a second band. “We have grown the program, but it is still not where I want it to be. With a possible second band, the school is taking a Field of Dreams approach: if you build it, they will come.”
    O’Sullivan admits that he would like to have the three-band arrangement that exists at many New Jersey schools but does not know if two small suburbs 25 miles from New York can support that many groups. He recruits by attending as many concerts at nearby schools. “People are really impressed when you care enough to attend their concerts. You hope that commitment will produce dividends.”
    He realizes that teaching a large ensemble while connecting with students as individuals is one of his greatest tasks. “Any way that you acknowledge students as people makes them feel more strongly about the program. That can be as simple as a glance or a smile.” Although he respects the strict directors of the past, he feels that this approach no longer works in the 21st century. “You are not the enforcer on the podium. Students have to do it for themselves.”
O’Sullivan says that the greatest lesson learned from his teachers at Rutgers is to fix one thing a day in rehearsal. He recalls that in his early years, he “tried to fix everything at once and it was a losing battle. Sometimes when you fix one problem, others are suddenly resolved. You try to fix things that have the biggest result in that class.”
    Having avoided burnout over the last several years, he credits variety as a key ingredient in his teaching. “I am always tempted to do things that have worked in the past. Invariably when I go down that path, it is not what I remembered. A piece or a method may have worked at one time, but that time was different. For me, burnout comes from relying on things that feel safe. It takes extra work to find the next challenge, but this approach fights boredom and mental fatigue. Your mind stays active, and students see that.”
    O’Sullivan admits that maintaining the right balance of work and personal life remains an ongoing battle. “I see directors who are amazing and also have a great family life, and others who have problems with that. I am not the best at taking care of myself. When you walk into the rehearsal room after exercising, eating right, and getting enough sleep, you can tackle the issues of the day. When you sacrifice yourself too much, that is when burnout happens.”
As part of his effort to keep his teaching fresh, O’Sullivan has spent the year working on difficult key signatures. “So many band pieces are written in Bb, Eb, Ab, and C. We are trying to go to E major and C# minor to expand our range. It sounds horrible at first, but that is fine. Students should feel comfortable with the idea that failure will happen before success. I enjoy pushing what is normal. When our students play in the pit orchestra for the school musical, those pieces are written in horrible keys like Cb major. Some days I teach in the box of what band is, and the next day you destroy the box to keep it fresh.”
    Over the years, O’Sullivan has had the opportunity to meet such distinguished directors as Eugene Corporon, Ed Lisk, and Frank Battisti. He marvelled at their generosity. “People think these incredible directors are on their own plane and do not want to come down. That is the furthest thing from the truth. They may have some tough things to tell you, but they are so supportive about it. You walk away with your head up knowing that you have work to do.”
    It was inspiring to hear just how much Nicholas O’Sullivan has accomplished over his eight-year career. He knows that he will never stop learning and sees that as a key to longevity in the field. He still has big goals for his program, but has found a more measured pace for the journey.

(You can read Nick O’Sullivan’s original essay, Great Expectations here.)