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Band and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Dan Blaufuss | May 2014

    Stan Mauldin had been retired for five years, living in Houston, enjoying his motorcycle, and running his motorcycle apparel store, when he got a call from Clarke Boyd, who had been the superintendent at Holliday (Texas) High School when Mauldin had taught there. Boyd was now superintendent at Pecos-Barstow-Toyah Independent School District, and the band and staff there were struggling. “I came in to help for a week, with the job of teaching the teachers how to make it better. Those directors left, and then I helped look at hiring a new director, but it was July by the time Mr. Boyd knew he needed a new director, and there wasn’t anybody left, so he asked me to take the job for a year.”
    In 2011, Mauldin rode his Harley on a 10,000-mile trip from Houston to the Arctic Circle in Alaska to raise money for Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center. It may be that this trek prepared him for the commute from Houston to Pecos, which is 583 miles. “I fly more this year than last, but sometimes I drive out there and stay all week, driving back Friday night. It is an eight-hour drive. My wife is a year away from retirement, and I’m not going to ask her to move out there. Besides, I have a business to run, and I’m not going to close it, but I enjoy teaching in Pecos. I got to liking the students a lot, so after the first year I stayed a second year, and I’ll stay at least one more.”

What was the situation at Pecos when you arrived?
    The students at Pecos had had 15 band directors in 16 years. When a band director leaves, he usually knows by March or April that he won’t be returning, so he leaves a pile of music in the library. No one who leaves ever puts anything back; they leave it for the next person to take care of, because he will arrange the library the way he wants to anyway. When I got to Pecos there were 15 such piles. The students at Pecos also didn’t understand what it was like to win. For the last 20 years they had gotten second and third division ratings at band contests, and the last few years they started making fours. In addition, directors would promise a trip every year, but it never happened. The band hadn’t taken a trip since some of these students’ parents were in band. On top of that, band had a reputation for being uncool, and the band students, who are all extremely intelligent, had been made to feel otherwise. They were beaten up pretty well.
    The district had also had six superintendents in five years. Part of that is because the parents were used to going straight to the school board, and the superintendents would get upset about it. Instead of trying to work things out, past superintendents would just quit. One person took the job and then never showed up again. He went home to get his furniture and never came back.
None of this is the students’ fault. It is the system’s fault for having these guys who leave after a year. It took a while for students to start to believe that. We had to rebuild students’ trust in the school system and in us as individuals. It helped that the superintendent was a friend of mine; we told the students that we were going to be there for a while. That was where I started.
    Then we had to get them to trust themselves, which meant we had to allow them to make a lot of mistakes. We would play and work through things as they happened. At first, I would tell students how to improve something, and they would either not believe me or dismiss it as something they had heard before from someone who had come and left. A lot of what I had to do the first day I came in was remind them that it wasn’t their fault that the band wasn’t very good. “It’s not your fault” became an often repeated phrase.
    That first year, we started from the very beginning. There are stories of Vince Lombardi when he first took over a struggling Green Bay Packers team working with Max McGee, who was an all-pro tight end. Lombardi said, “Max, this is a football.” Getting all the way back to basics worked out well for the Packers, and the same holds true for band students. If no one taught you how to hold your instrument correctly, that isn’t your fault, but it means that is where we start. This was the case at Pecos. Trumpet players were all playing with their horns on their chests. I called it the clarirumpet: part clarinet, part trumpet.
    I showed everyone how to hold their instruments. Flutes started with just the headjoint, and we worked on embouchure. Brass players started with the mouthpieces. Clarinetists were in the habit of dropping the left hand to the lap when playing open G, so I put the tuner on and had them play G with the left hand in the lap and then again with the left hand where it was supposed to be. Using the tuner I was able to convince them where their hands should go.
    Early on, I asked students where the tongue went when they tongued a note, and they said they didn’t know. So I had them try a couple notes to figure it out. They realized how much better they sounded when they had the tongue in the right spot. Students started to believe pretty quickly after that.

Why is attitude so important?
Your attitude determines how well you do something. Before being a champion, the first step is thinking you can be a champion. Part of that is the attitude students come into class with every day. If students know that I am going to scream at them and call them names, their attitude will be poor, because much of their attitude depends on how I treat them. I like them all as people, and I’m excited to be there. I told them in January that I was 60 years old and had more energy than all of them. That raised the attitude of the room a bit. From there, I try hard to find good things to say. I’ve heard it called a negative sandwich: say something positive, find something that needs correction, and then tell them something positive again. That way, students get two compliments for every correction you make.
I laugh a lot in class and try to get students to do the same. I have fun with students, and it seems like they have fun too. Finding opportunities to have fun in class is simple. I have a horn player with a mouth full of braces. She smiled the other day and I told her she looked like Stevie Wonder with braces on. She laughed. Students will laugh at comments like that if they know you like them. If I always yelled and screamed, that same comment would come across as an insult. Having fun is important because if I can get students to loosen up and relax a bit they’ll play their horns better. I will find anything I can do to get students to have a good time.
I have a horn player and a clarinet player who are dating. They came in late together one day, so I just pulled my glasses down over my nose and looked at them when they walked in. All the other students giggled because they knew what was happening. Instead of yelling at them for being late, I just pulled my glasses down and gave them the look. Instead of a moment of tension, it became a moment of levity, but at the same time those two students got the idea about their lateness.

What are the keys to improving students’ playing quickly?
    For inexperienced players, the answer to everything is air. The Pecos band has grown to the point that the answer to everything isn’t always air anymore, but it used to be. A note is out of tune? Use more air. A note doesn’t want to sound? Use more air. What is Michael Jordan’s nickname? Air. Air is the answer. While I was emphasizing this, I had a student show up late to rehearsal. When I asked him why he was late, he answered, “Air,” and we all laughed.
    Tongue placement is important, too. If I want to play a high A on trumpet with an oh syllable, it will never come out. The reason some notes crack is that the player was breathing with an incorrect syllable. If you want an ee sound, don’t breathe with an oh syllable. This gets the tongue in the right spot.
    I see a lot of wind players who rip the horn off the face as soon as they finish a note. They had just gotten to the point at which they were making a good sound, and now they have to start over. This is my 50th year of playing, and I still have to think about where my embouchure goes, meaning that I cannot expect a student who has only been playing a couple years to have it down. Students want to wiggle, but when they do, the tone wiggles with them. I have a standing offer that if anyone can play a note on a wind instrument, take it off the face, put it back on, and play the exact same pitch, I will pay them a dollar. I have had this offer standing since 1979 and never had to pay on it.
    Freeze is something I learned from Tom Bennett, who was band director at the University of Houston for a while. Students can get going with a good sound, but when they come to a multi-measure rest, they take the horn off the face, wait until the last second to put it back on, and expect the same sound to come out. This will never work, so I tell students to freeze after they finish every note, and when they come back in, they will be at the same pitch.
    We leave the mouthpieces on the mouth for the entire period. To set the mouthpiece, most wind players first have to moisten it, whether this is sticking the reed in the mouth or licking the mouthpiece. As a saxophonist, I put the mouthpiece in my mouth, swallow twice, take a breath, and then I’m ready to play. This doesn’t happen instantly. So if you put the horn down, you have to reset everything, and it just isn’t worth pulling the instrument away for three measures of rest.

How do you motivate students to practice areas of weakness in their playing?
    My trumpet players struggled with range this year. The way to get trumpet players to work on improving their range is to find something fun they want to play. Then they will work on that range.
    We run a fireworks store and raise $20,000 a year from that. All we do there is sell, so I use it as an opportunity to show students how to sell things. Across the street from the fireworks store is a rodeo grounds, and one night there was a dance there. The students could hear the music inside the store and were all dancing to it. I asked them what it was, found a recording, and transcribed it for the band. I wrote the trumpet part up to an Ab5, but at the time none of them could hit it. They eventually learned how to play that high because they wanted to play the song they liked. By late January one of the trumpet players who couldn’t hit an Ab at the beginning of the year is up to a high C now, because she wanted to do it.
    The flutes and clarinets dislike playing scales, especially the chromatic scale, so I started a scale-playing competition. Our competition was that whoever played it the quickest got a free ice cream cone from Dairy Queen (which gives us coupons). The key is to identify a weakness and then find a fun way to make it appealing for the students.

How do you define the job of being a teacher?
    I believe that to be a teacher means you just go to work every day. We start on time, work really hard, and then stop on time every single day. One of the students recently asked when our next day off was, and my response was to ask him when school ended. That will be the next day off. On the flip side of that, I don’t add rehearsal time. I’ve seen some music teachers say, “We’re not good enough yet. Let’s add more rehearsal time.” The way I see it, we have however much time we have, and when that time is done, it is what it is. If we can work on a daily basis, respect each other, and put in the time and the effort it takes to be really good, then the trophies will take care of themselves. A year ago our group was a fourth-division band, and now we are first division.
    I want students and parents to understand that it is their program. I tell them that I am the front of the boat. My job is to clear all the clutter out of the way and set a path for us to accomplish our goals. If you want to travel, we will travel, and if you don’t, that is fine. A program can be tailored either way. Every year, I ask students, “If you were the band director, what would you change?” It is their program, and I want them to be able to offer opinions. Students are usually explicit about what they want.
    To go to the Midwest Clinic, we raised $112,000, which is about $100,000 more than we raised last year. Students had a clear objective, and I was out in front helping everybody do their work. It turned out well. Students want the band to be a state qualifier next year. It is going to be a difficult task to accomplish, but I have no doubts that we will be pretty close to it. I think they want to go to Tokyo down the road. We’re going to try to figure that out.

What does it mean to be a leader?
    I have heard band directors comment that their students don’t push them. They shouldn’t push you. You’ve gone to college and have teaching experience, and they are high school students. Teachers should push their students. If I show up unprepared, I am giving the students permission to be unprepared. Sports psychologist Peter Ferrido said, “As we go, they go.” In other words, if the leaders come late, they give the regular members permission to come late. If the drum majors don’t know their music, that gives the section leaders permission not to know their music, which gives the rest of the band permission not to know their music. If the first chair trumpet isn’t going to learn her part, the second chair trumpet won’t learn her part either.
    We talk about punctuality and discipline a lot with upperclassmen. Leaders have to show up on time. Drum majors have an earlier date by which they have to know their music. The leaders have to know it a week later, and the rest of the band a week after that. If those who are supposed to set the example come late and goof around, all they are doing is teaching the freshmen that this is okay. So we choose not to let the leaders do that, and the leaders choose not to do that.

What is your approach to geting students to do things like showing up on time and learning their music?
    I am pretty strong willed and used to get on students for not doing what they were supposed to. I finally started to see things differently seven or eight years ago. We switched to voluntary marching band, and I told the students who came to marching band that I was assuming that they wanted to be there, so if they wanted to be there they needed to come on time and learn their music. The only thing that people actually have to do is eventually pass away. Everything else is optional, although there can be consequences. I don’t have to pay my taxes, but if I don’t, then I’m going to go to jail.
    In the beginning, students would not arrive on time. In the past they had been told to arrive at 7:30 so they could start at 8:00, but this only taught them to come half an hour late. I did not get angry, because it wasn’t the students’ fault they had learned they could come half an hour late. Instead, I told them that everything was optional. “You don’t have to come on time, but you can’t stay here.” “You don’t have to show up for concerts, but if you don’t, then you can’t stay with us.” “You don’t have to be quiet during class, but if you are going to talk, you have to leave.” When things are optional, all discipline becomes self-discipline instead of external discipline.
    On the first day, no one was on time to rehearsal, but I started doing breathing exercises by myself anyway. I even had the metronome on. We started at 7:30, and around 7:40 the first student showed up, so I started doing warmups with him. It took students a couple days to figure it out, but now we start on time all the time. In January, I was talking to a visiting band director when it came time for rehearsal to start. Because I wasn’t out there to start things, the drum major started the rehearsal. The key is to turn it into the students’ program. If it is their program, then they get to choose. If they don’t want to be very good, it’s their program. It means I can’t stay there, but it’s their program. Now they work hard, practice, and show up on time.

You referred to band programs as a partnership between directors, students, parents, and administrators. How do you get those other three sides to buy in?
    All of us teachers are passionate about music; the trick is to get that passion to rub off on everybody else. During my work with drum corps, I remember a conversation about whether there should be stripes on next year’s uniform pants. At that point in time, the director was close to retiring and was happy to let others decide. Eventually, I got to a similar point, so when it came time to order uniforms, I asked the parents and students for their opinion. Having input about the uniform design made them more enthusiastic about the process. Someone has to care about whether there are stripes on the pants, so I gave students the option to make this choice.
I do not choose the concert music. I pass out ten to twelve pieces that I like, and then let students tell me what they want to play. There isn’t anything in the folder that I wouldn’t want to play anyway, but giving them a vote makes them feel like they have a voice in what we are doing.
    The same is true with the parents. It doesn’t make any difference to me whether we leave at 3:00 or 3:30 for a football game, so I will ask the parents who help haul equipment. One time a response was that the parent didn’t get off of work until 5:00, and he suggested 5:15. This worked well, too. They have a say in how we move from place to place, and it makes them more invested in the work there is to be done.
    To make the administration happy, I do everything we are asked to do. Many of our students are Catholic, and the priest at the local church wanted to have a parade, so we marched in the parade. There is a 4th of July parade, a Christmas parade, and a concert in the town park, and we attend all of those events. This keeps the administration happy, seeing that we are doing good things.
    The administrators at Pecos and I are all about the same age, and we often see things the same way. We understand that we’re using the band as a tool to teach the students rather than simply trying to be Bands of America grand champions. They also like that I get my work done promptly and communicate things with them in plenty of time. That is how you get an administration on the side of the program. Make sure they know what you are doing and when you are doing it. It’s a trick, but it’s easy.

What should teachers know about their students?
    I led a region band in January and asked those students what their greatest fear in band was. Every one of them said failure, or specifically failure in front of their friends. Students hate failing in front of their peers, and they do not want their peers to know they don’t have the answer. When I was in school, the band director would ask who needed help, and we would raise our hands. These days, nobody does that. Instead, I ask who has the part learned. The ones who do are eager to show off, and you have a second or two to see who is slow to raise a hand. These are the students who need help.
    As students start to memorize music, I have them stand up if they can play a section from memory. They know that if they stand up I might call on them to play it, so they can’t fake it. We play the whole thing full band, with half the band standing. After a couple repetitions, I ask who has it now, and more students stand up. We keep working on it until everybody is standing. It puts peer pressure on the students who haven’t learned the music yet.

What advice would you give to other teachers?
    Choose battles you can win. I had a student who didn’t show up to football games. In mid-term I talked to his parents, who said he would be there for the next performance. He didn’t come, so I finally told him he had missed ten performances and just couldn’t stay with us. I did not kick him out; he gradually went to another place. If I wanted to fight, I could have been going at it with his parents tooth and nail from the first football game on, but I wasn’t going to win that battle. Parents can be extremely defensive about their children. I chose to let him make the decision. At my age I rarely choose to fight battles like this anymore, because it isn’t worth it.
    In the old days I might have been stricter. Years ago, a student told me he wasn’t coming to a football game. I gave him an extremely hard time about it. Then, his father came by and told me he wasn’t coming to the game. I argued this with the father until he told me that he was an astronaut, and the reason his son wouldn’t be at the game was that the family had been invited to the White House. After he said that, it made sense. Given the choice between meeting the President or going to a regular high school football game, I’d choose the White House too. I wasn’t going to win that battle either.
    After that I started asking more questions than before to find out whether a battle was winnable. This semester, a girl didn’t show up for a contest. I gave her a 50 for her grade, and her mother was livid because it put the girl off the honor roll for the first time in her twelve years of school. I asked what she wanted me to do. I had given the girl a 50, but I offered to change it to a zero, which was her real grade, considering she never came to the contest. The mother understood that I was giving half credit for nothing and let it go. This was a battle I could win.
    The decision to choose winnable battles is the reason I do not have students fill out practice cards. A parent’s signature might show that a student practiced ten hours in a week, but I can tell by listening that the student has not practiced at all. This means that someone has skewed the process. I’m not going to tell those parents they are liars. It isn’t a winnable battle.
    I always ask my assistants why they became band directors. Invariably it is because of how much they loved band in high school. I tell them they should try to recreate the atmosphere they enjoyed so much in high school that made them want to become music teachers. If they do this, their students will experience the same enjoyment that they once did.