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Reflections on Leading

Bobby Lambert | March 2017

    When we interviewed Bobby Lambert in the February 2015 issue, he had recently become Director of Bands at Wando High School in South Carolina. After 13 years assisting Greg Bimm as part of the legendary Marian Catholic program in Illinois, it was his turn to take charge of a program. The Wando bands have enjoyed great successes over the last three years, including two trips to the Bands of America Grand National Championships and appearances at the South Carolina state convention by the school’s second band and percussion ensemble. As Lambert reflects on his first years at Wando, he says, “these group achievements are important, but I have tried to help each student find their success. I want a student in the third concert band playing at their highest level to feel pride and accomplishment.” We asked Lambert how the program and his teaching had developed in the two years since our initial interview. Here is what he told us.

Learning to Lead
    As the leader of a program, I have had to improve my communication skills with staff and students. This does not come naturally to me. When I worked with Greg Bimm at Marian Catholic, he had done everything 12 times and could navigate any difficult waters. Instead of reacting to events as they occur, I have learned to anticipate problems. We follow a strict calendar and know what each month will bring.
    My skills were tested when band fees rose by $45. Parents and board members supported the increase, but, as the new guy, I was reluctant to make a radical change. I told all families that we were considering a change in our payment structure. We took a year to dissect exactly what we spent and how. At the end of the year, we sent parents a report explaining the fee increase. Our study showed that our fees fell short of expenses by $42 per student. Three parents actually thanked me for being that transparent and trying to get the best things for the students.
    One challenge when you move to a new school is developing a new culture. You want to build on the program’s strengths while making changes consistent with your approach. Sometimes this culture developed in small ways. We were having trouble putting away chairs and stands after rehearsals. Students were leaving the job for the next ensemble. I feel strongly about taking responsibility for what you do. If you mess something up, you fix it. One morning a student in the top concert band stood up and said, “everybody, remember to get your chairs and stands.” I knew we turned a corner that day. It sounds like an insignificant thing, but the devil is in the details in music, education, and life.
    Once, at Marian Catholic, I took a different approach with a group that struggled to put away chairs and stands consistently. I said, “because this is a skill we cannot master, we are going to practice it.” We had everybody put away their chairs and stands the way they thought was right and then we evaluated it. They thought I was just trying to prove a point. Then we took the chairs and stands out again and practiced putting them away one more time. You can yell at people but that does not do much. If you can get students to see that it is a pain to put away chairs, they realize that they were making other people do that every day.

The Rewards of Chamber Music
    We have made significant gains through expanded use of chamber ensembles during the year. It was always part of our spring activities with rehearsals leading up to a chamber recital. The personal and musical benefits were so powerful that we decided to have chamber groups rehearse simultaneously with concert band and marching band. We took the nebulous period from mid-November through December and devoted time to chamber music. A holiday concert dominated by the large ensembles was changed to include 20 chamber groups.
    The chamber ensembles have time set aside for rehearsals, and valuable lessons are learned when these sessions do not go as well as hoped. I asked how many groups had students who arrived late. Everybody raised their hand. I asked how many had somebody cancel a rehearsal at the last minute. You could feel the anger in the room. They saw how important these things are for a full band rehearsal.
    The chamber ensembles meet throughout the spring with the assistance of four chamber coaches. Many directors find it hard to keep students motivated towards the end of the year. Seniors suddenly forget that they attend your high school. The expanded chamber program helps us stay focused with regular public performances at nursing homes and a big concert at the end of the year.

Approaching Rehearsals

    Alfred Watkins, who taught at Lassiter High School in Georgia for 37 years, has helped my rehearsal skill improve. If he works with my students on improved articulations, he will find simple music that students know so they can focus only on one thing. When we rehearsed Grainger’s Walking Tune, we tuned quite a bit in G, which is painful. Trying to get that B in tune is not a pleasant experience.
    We try to avoid generic warmups with all of our groups. Our fourth group struggles with releases. Instead of going through a rote warmup, we used an articulation exercise and focused two different types of releases: a sticky, stopped release and a resonant release. Most of our groups have 90-minute rehearsals, which allows us to spend considerable time on warmups and specific technique. The symphonic band meets for only 47 minutes, which forces me to be strategic. We may only spend a few minutes a day over a two-week period to hone a concept like releases. When we devote time to certain techniques, students learn how important they are to our overall performance.

Balanced Ensemble Sound

    Students in our top ensemble have relied on all of their fundamental skills to prepare for the University of South Carolina’s Band Fest. This is an honor clinic where two invited ensembles perform and several hundred band students participate in the weekend. We are playing two works at the opposite ends of ensemble sound: the first movement of the Hindemith Symphony followed by Grainger’s Walking Tune. Hindemith wanted to create a string orchestra feel and did not want the audience to hear the various instrument sections. With the opening trumpet line, he has the horn play at the bottom register of the trumpet line. My principal horn plays only for two measures; her goal is to act like a bass trumpet and bolster the low trumpet sound. Then, the trombone enters in the mid-register to bolster the sound there. I do not think Hindemith wanted you to notice the horn and trombone entrances. He is featuring this incredible, thick, and rich trumpet sound in multiple registers.
    We have worked really hard to get our sounds inside one another. We will play a chorale with just the trumpets and tubas. Then, trombones and horns will enter, and there should only be a difference in volume, not in color. That took considerable practice. I might ask the woodwinds to close their eyes and tell us which sections are playing. If they can tell a trombone is playing, they weren’t inside of the sound enough. On the flip side, I see Walking Tune as a big chamber ensemble. Grainger features various duets and solo lines. When the oboes play, he wants you to hear that.


Handling Chair Placement

    Our community is very performance based. Parents think about their child and forget that there are others. They feel that their kids should move up to a higher chair every year, but sometimes people improve and move down. We send a letter with these points right before auditions.

    I wanted to send this email with a couple of thoughts. Concerning placement auditions:

    Stop! Before you discover your placement, remember:

1. We care about you.
2. Sometimes, the lessons we don’t want to hear are the ones we must learn. They prepare us for life.
3. Life is hard. I’m sorry, but it is at times.
4. Reactions should be professional. Celebrate or mourn away from this area.
5.  Do not tell anyone their placement. Do not take pictures and send them. Everyone deserves the chance to discover these just as you did.
6. The quality of each band is going up. Scores that would have reached CB2 in previous years are in Chamber Winds this year.
7. If you did your best, that is all you can do. You can only control your level of effort.
8.  If you have questions, you come to talk with us in a composed manner. No emails will be addressed unless you have spoken with us personally. We will be honest with you because…
9. We care about you.

    It is vitally important that we keep perspective. We have experienced some of the highest achievement in our band’s history. We have four times the number of people applying for leadership than we have positions. Many great things are happening, but there are also those times when events don’t work out the way we hoped. I would ask the following considerations:

1. We are all here for the betterment of your students. We care about them deeply.
2.  We are hired to give them the best musical advice and experience we can possibly give. We must assess them as best we can. We have the best staff in the country, in my humble opinion.
3. Many are working hard and taking private lessons.
4. Emotions can cloud judgment.
5.  Students’ careers in music are always in a state of flux. We must take a snapshot through auditions to capture their progress in that moment.
6. Students are always in a state of flux. Position or title does not always determine leadership potential.

    I auditioned for drum major three times in high school but never got it. I now teach around 1,000 drum major students each summer. I grew stronger by having to reevaluate myself each time. I would not trade those minor defeats for the major victory I now enjoy.
    Parents, I would ask that you allow students to advocate for themselves with face-to-face contact with us should there be any questions. If after that direct communication, parents would like further information, please feel free to contact us.


Learning from Others
    One of the best parts of any festival is the chance to learn from other directors. Directors sometimes get closed off and nervous when someone else comes in to watch, but that is the best classroom that I have ever seen. When I see people work, even if the ensemble is less advanced than mine, I always walk away with one trick for a certain instrument that I didn’t know.
    At honor band weekends, it is important to be in there from the first moment. The first ten minutes of the rehearsal set the tone. If a director fumbles with a score or is not ready to go, the ensemble will also struggle. It is also important to record rehearsals often. We record quite a bit, and the best use is to play it right back. The ensemble gets better instantly. We don’t even need to talk about it, because students can hear the places they need to improve. The improvements are still there days later.
    Be extremely specific with score study. If you ask my symphonic band about the Hindemith Symphony, they will say there is the opening exposition with two overlapping themes. Then, you have two other themes overlapping each other. Then, there is a third theme followed by a development section in measure 78. I will say “let’s go to the development section,” and they learn exactly where to go without hearing a measure number. That comes from knowing the score backwards and forwards.
    I communicate such detailed information about the music even with younger groups. It is false to think that they can’t handle it. With younger players, you may not be able to talk about Neapolitan 6th chords, but we find analogies to explain what is happening in the music. With the right example, you only have to explain a concept once. Making it personal for students, instead of telling them to play out at letter G, is so important.
    I have learned to simplify rehearsals over the years. Instead of focusing on six things that will not be retained, I touch on two things that students will remember to make right in many pieces in the future. Most directors try to fix too much in a limited time. If I want to work on releases, I might highlight six places in the music where we will work on them, but we are just thinking about releases. That has so much more success. I have rarely found it effective just to start at the beginning and play.

Working with Parents
    We have a powerful and supportive group of parents. My goals are to bring as many parents along and be as open as possible about the program. Over my first three years at Wando, trust has developed with the parents. I have three rules that I live by: I’m going to keep your children safe, I’m going to be as fair as possible, and I’m going to set your child up for as much success as they can get. Once they knew I was sticking by these, the trust level really increased.

The Social Aspect of Making Music
    Once at Marian Catholic, we surveyed students about their reasons for participating in band. The top two results were friends and travel. I was devastated that music was not at the top, but Greg Bimm told me something every high school teacher learns. He said that everybody starts in music because it is fun and cool. Rather than fight the social lure of music, we use it. We tell them, “is it more fun to hang out, or is it more fun to be great?” We talk about how rewarding it is to play great music and feel something you have never felt before. They realized that the best way to honor each other is to do your best.
    Sometimes peer pressure can be used to improve the program. If students decide not to attend a rehearsal, they feel pressure from the other members of the group. We encourage students to give encouragement to their peers. When an upperclassman and an underclassman spend time together, it doesn’t matter what they do. It could be playing duets or sharing a pizza. The younger student is simply amazed that the upperclassman wants to spend time with them.

Using Every Gift
    We choose student leaders by many factors. We have leaders who are not part of our top group; certain people are the best fit for a position regardless of playing ability. I have a student in the second band who is on the leadership team but rehearses with the third band due to a scheduling conflict. He is a major player in our program. He sits with those younger players and fixes problems before I even have to address them. He always tries to do the right thing, and students look up to him.
    I have a student in the third band who helps line the field every time. His willingness to pitch in is important to me. Some of the lowest ranking players can have great influence.

Never Give Up on Anyone
    My first mentor, Bob Buckner, who was director of athletic bands at Western Carolina used to say “the world would be a better place if everybody did band.” It is one of the few places where everybody can belong. Everybody can have a role. The best part is that everybody’s role affects everybody else’s role. I want anybody and everybody to be a part of that process.
    This philosophy takes creativity and flexibility. We require marching band of every player. We thought long and hard about this requirement, and think there is great value in having the last chair player in the same group with the first chair player. I often will try to put our weakest and strongest players side by side in the warmup. The weaker players skyrocket and develop quickly. Marching band helps develop a sense of character and community, and we wanted every student to share in that experience.
    We have a broad spectrum of students, including some who want to be professional players. I have two fantastic oboe players and having them play flute in marching band did not seem as beneficial. Our double reed players all play a secondary instrument, but every Tuesday, all of our bassoons and oboes spend the first hour of marching band playing chamber music. We call this our Double Reed Society, and it occurred even on the Tuesday of Grand Nationals. They work on anything from chamber pieces to audition music. We will sometimes have a teacher come in and work with them.
    We strongly encourage teachers to pull students out of marching band for private lessons. Our private lesson teachers love marching season because they have three nights a week that they can pull out kids and that almost triples their enrollments. We try to find ways to make marching band fit into a future professional player’s life.
    Some students have physical issues that prevent them from marching successfully. We have all kinds of options to include them. I might use a player who does not participate in the drill as a soloist. They might help with props or sound equipment, but what is important is that they have a role in the community. We had a student who wanted to play football this year, so we made it work out that he could do both. I never want the program to be so demanding or restrictive that it eliminates somebody. I am very proud of that we have never kicked someone out of the program. That has been a team effort. We think hard about how to make the program work for every child, regardless of their challenges.

Making It Work
    Transfer students sometimes have difficulty because they have not had the same training as students from our incredible feeder schools. I had one transfer who arrived to audition in October and struggled. I said to his mom, “I don’t know if this is going to be right. I don’t know if we would be doing him a service.” The mother broke down crying. She said, “Our family is breaking up, we are moving across the country. He went to a school of 200; this is a school of 4,300. The only reason I could get him out of the car was because I said we would go down and make sure that he met the band director.” I decided then to make it work.
    We have had to make all kinds of accommodations, but he is doing really well. Whenever I see a kid who might not be a good fit for the program, I am reminded that music is the most soul-reaching subject that anybody will ever take. If I deny someone that opportunity, I had better be sure. The decision can affect their entire life.