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Avoiding Everyday Disasters

Trey Reely | March 2019

    It was the earliest marching band disaster of my career. We had an early start at a marching contest on a frosty morning in late October. We were the second band to perform, and as we entered the stadium it became apparent that the artificial surface was covered with a thin, slippery layer of ice. It was a nightmare. My students were afraid to even take a step for a fear of falling, and the performance showed it. (The band after us did have a marcher slip and fall.) If only I had thought to bring snowshoes. Seriously, though, I didn’t beat myself up about it. There really wasn’t anything I could do; I couldn’t have anticipated that, and I haven’t seen anything like it since. However, there are other everyday disasters I have avoided over the years using a little more smarts, planning, and experience. Maybe these tips will help you better avoid the everyday disasters looming in your future.
    Get your act together. For more efficient mornings, get everything together the night before. Other family members should do this as well. Always put your car keys, smartphone, and wallet in the same place. Because I often carry my smartphone around the house, I have designated five places I am allowed to put it. Without fail, if I put it anywhere else, I waste precious time trying to find it.
    If you do lose something, take a deep breath, relax, and retrace your steps from the last time you saw the item. Do not rule out any place as a possible option; I was once without my keys for three days because I thought there was no way they could be in the garage refrigerator, but when I finally looked, there they were. I had put them down when trying to extract a soda bottle from its plastic six-pack ring.
    Search out the cool, uncluttered mind. When you encounter a difficult situation, ask for advice, but not always from someone with a great deal of band experience. Experienced minds carry a lot of clutter and can overlook obvious solutions because they quickly rule out possibilities prematurely perceived as impossible. I will pose a particularly difficult band problem to my wife, and she sometimes hits the jackpot with a solution I never would have thought of because frustration and a sense of hopelessness were clouding my thinking.
    Just a little dab’ll do ya. Beginning brass players get their mouthpieces stuck all the time. Take time every week or two to have them apply cork grease to the shank of the mouthpiece. It might fall out a time or two, but that’s better than you wasting time trying to get it out.
    Steady as she goes. When performing, do everything exactly the way you have rehearsed it. This applies particularly to concert band set-ups. I have had percussion sections set up on stage before contests differently than they had rehearsed all year because that’s the way the equipment was positioned when they arrived. I once saw a small band that followed a large band whose timpani player left the timpani back in the far corner, at least fifteen feet away from the band. Even slight shifts can have the tubas blocking the view of the bass drummer. I have even started taking my podium to contests because of the variation in heights of the ones provided or the complete absence of one in the sight-reading room.
    It is never too late. The last thing I do before leaving on a band trip is take a final look at my checklist to make sure everything is marked off. One time I looked at the list ten minutes before departure and threw it away when there was one task left to do. On my way to finish, I quickly was distracted by another matter, leaving the final task undone.
    Big Brother is watching you. I have my drum major stand by the door to double check every member as they exit the band room to make sure they have everything they need. Then I do a sweep of the whole band room to make sure nothing is left behind.
    Take everything but the kitchen sink. I take extras of everything on major trips, space permitting: mouthpieces, reeds, instruments (one of each if possible), music, mallets, music stands, band hats, and other uniform parts.
    Understudies aren’t just for drama class. When it comes to soloists, it is easy to put all your eggs in one basket, particularly as a marching or concert season progresses. Always have a back-up plan, and let the understudy practice with the group multiple times. In marching band, you can always transpose the solo for different instruments.
    Say it again, Sam. There’s a part of me that feels like I am enabling students when I go to such great lengths to remind them of things, but I think the end result (having everyone there) is most important, so I am going to do whatever possible to make that happen. I post all-important information on the whiteboard in front of the class and by my office door, send group texts, post in Google classroom, and even pass out a hard copy to those who want them.
    Know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. One of the biggest everyday disasters waiting to happen is the unpredictable behavior of a problematic student. Just how patient should you be with a problem child? As a general rule, I am more patient with students in beginning band or in their first year of marching band because it takes some people longer than others to acclimate to high expectations. Another factor to consider is the “rotten apple” principle. Are they pulling others down with them? If so, quicker action may be needed.
Label everything. I love silver Sharpies. I label all school instrument cases with them and even student instruments when given permission. I use white mailing labels to label every percussion item that a silver Sharpie will not write on.
    Save the best for last. I keep all the best auxiliary percussion items in my office and only pull them out a couple of weeks before a concert. Until then, the stuff we use is adequate, just not in tip-top shape. 
    Make it a clean sweep. Make sure your kids clean up the bus after band trips. It’s just the right thing to do, and besides, it makes the bus driver’s job easer; you’re also less likely to have difficulty finding a driver for the next trip.
    The road less taken. Avoiding everyday disasters requires clear thinking and creativity. It may seem unlikely, but there is evidence that doing something differently than you normally would can increase your creativity. Something as simple as regularly taking a different way home from work can do the trick.
    The heat is on. Without going into any detail here, make sure you have a plan for dealing with heat illness during marching season. (Find appropriate information at
    It was just a little hiccup. Students who get hiccups in rehearsal can be quite a distraction. There is no sure-fire way to stop them, but there are some methods that experts say have a chance of working: Stick a finger in each ear. This stimulates the vagus nerve which runs from the brain to the abdomen and controls hiccups. Draw a line gently down the roof of the mouth with a cotton swab. The tickling stops the spasm that causes hiccups.
    Pig out. If you are on a tight schedule and have a bunch of kids in a restaurant, tell them to order their desserts with their main meal instead of waiting until after.
    Look out and up. Many trips are ruined when students get motion sickness on the bus. The key to avoiding motion sickness is to look out the window at a nonmoving target. The brain gets confused when the fluid in the ears shifts with the motion of the bus, yet the eyes perceive that one is sitting still; it then sends out stress hormones and the stomach contracts. Looking out the window at about a 45-degree angle may prevent this.
    Keep it simple. To get your email more organized, create three folders: follow-up, pending, and archive. Put more pressing items in the follow-up folder, messages that don’t need immediate attention go in the pending folder, and items you might want to retrieve in the future go in the archive folder. 
    Play it smart. Don’t say anything in emails or texts that you don’t want in writing. Don’t write anything in anger. Don’t make unfavorable comments about someone else. Any texts to students should be infrequent, short, to the point, professional, and band-related.
    First things first. Research from Princeton University shows that when we meet someone for the first time, we make judgments about a person’s attractiveness, likability, trustworthiness, competence, and aggressiveness within 1⁄10 of a second. When you meet for the first time, make a note of the person’s eye color; this eye contact will make you seem trustworthy. (Don’t look too long or you will come across as a creepy.) Use open body language with your arms uncrossed and your hands unclenched. Stand up when you meet someone new. Provide a firm, but not too firm handshake.
    Sorry seems to be the hardest word. Don’t ruin an apology by making excuses, or shifting the blame. Say “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” and offer some solution to correct the wrong.
    This article won’t prepare you for every disaster, so be ready for anything. If you experience an unexpected disaster, learn from it and take steps not to let it happen again. That is an easy way to cut your disasters by at least one half.