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Shaping the Culture in High School Bands

Mark Hosler | May 2015

    Directors who seek to build a high-quality program must consider how to create an organizational culture of excellence – one that allows the program to display musical achievement while also promoting an environment that is welcoming, positive, inclusive, inspirational, and professional. Cultural environments are often unique to specific organizations, and most cultures can be categorized as either positive – contributing to the mission of the organization – or negative – holding the organization back from achieving its ultimate purpose.
    The past few years have shown us examples of organizations at the high school and college levels whose cultures have been brought into question. While most of these organizations and institutions previously enjoyed esteemed reputations, problems with poor ethics, academic integrity, rules violations, hazing, sexual harassment, bullying, substance abuse, or other improprieties have illustrated that, at their core, the culture of excellence that was apparent on the organization’s surface perhaps did not truly permeate the entire organizational structure. 
    These cases led to negative publicity and increased public scrutiny, which proved to be an embarrassment for all involved, and the resulting criticism of the leaders of these organizations was personally and professionally damaging. Thus, in leading music organizations, it is always important for directors to shape their program’s culture as if their careers depended on it – because they do.
    Every conductor aspires to lead ensembles that routinely demonstrate musical excellence in performance. Program goals of high ratings, first-place awards, and public acclaim are all examples of high musical achievement. In my experience, however, these levels of achievement are rarely reached, or maintained, without a culture of excellence that exists throughout the program. A band program’s culture is defined in part by the program’s stated values, and it also is defined by how effectively these values are expressed and integrated into the daily operations of the organization.

Evaluating the Culture 
    Whether the director is a veteran leader of a program or a new hire, the first step in shaping the culture is to evaluate the current environment. In my career, there have been three occasions when I was hired as a new leader of a music program – twice as a director of bands at the high school level and once as a director of marching and athletic bands at the university level. In all three instances I was asked to improve the level of music performance, as well as various aspects of each program’s day-to-day operations. Like most directors would do, in each situation I drew upon my previous training and experiences to formulate a blueprint for achieving these goals. Each time I started by creating a roadmap that I hoped would put the program on a path to success, allowing it to develop and sustain a culture of excellence.
    During the initial evaluation, review every aspect of the program’s operations, including band handbook, school code of conduct, discipline policies, past repertoire, previous performance schedules and trip itineraries, recruiting strategies, recent adjudicator comments and score sheets, transportation policies, booster club operations, fundraising activities, and communication methods such as newsletters and social media. At first this exhaustive review can appear to be a daunting task, but to achieve cultural excellence throughout the program, all aspects of the program must be evaluated. Throughout this time-consuming review it is important to remember the main reasons for doing it: shaping the culture and defining your reputation. It may be your first year at the school, but if you do not make an effort to shape the culture, then for better or worse, you will inherit the way things have always been done. As a result your professional reputation will be shaped in part by your predecessor. 
    To gain an accurate assessment of the current state of the program I have always found it helpful to talk to the returning band staff, band members, parents, alumni, school administrators, guidance counselors, fellow teachers, and even bus drivers and custodians. My goal was to gather as many opinions about the band program as possible, especially the aspects that people were proud of and the areas that people felt needed improvement. Discussions with principals often centered on school discipline policies, while conversations with guidance counselors and teachers would focus on the academic reputations of band students. The band members I interviewed always represented a cross-section of the band membership, from student leaders to rising sophomores who had just experienced their first year in the program. Student discussions often focused on music repertoire, band policies, traditions, and social activities. In speaking with parents of band members, I usually spoke to a similar cross-section, often speaking to the parents of the same students I had interviewed. I also found it was valuable to speak to recent graduates and their parents. Their comments were often more open and honest, since there was no fear of any retribution for negative statements they might offer.
    At the end of a thorough evaluation such as this, make a list of the band program’s strong areas, as well as those areas that might be considered a weakness. Then ask yourself two important questions. What aspects of the culture are positive and should be maintained? What aspects of the culture are negative, or even potentially harmful, and should be changed? The answers to these questions will help you plan your course of action.

Developing a Course of Action
    While your vision as director will ultimately shape the course of the program, several key steps may help as you begin to map out a path toward cultural excellence.
    Share your evaluation. Conduct meetings with school administrators, band staff, student leaders, and booster club officers to discuss the results of your assessment. This will offer you an opportunity to ask questions, clarify your initial impressions, seek advice, and convey your thoughts regarding changes to the program that you feel are necessary. Speak with confidence, and be positive and enthusiastic about the program’s future, because these meetings can also serve as an opportunity to build consensus and identify advocates who may be willing to collaborate with you in making tough choices and implementing necessary changes. Bear in mind that some changes may need to occur gradually, while others may need to be implemented immediately. Be aware also that many people may be resistant to change, especially if they believe that everything is fine the way it is. The reactions and comments of the people you work with will help to shape your next step.
    Develop a clear purpose. Clearly define the band program’s purpose and direction as a way to align the entire program to a common mission. Consider crafting a mission or vision statement that clearly articulates the organization’s main goal. As a starting point, ask yourself key questions about why the band program exists, what basic beliefs or values drive our efforts, and what we want students to take away from the experience when they graduate. Words and phrases such as musicianship, pride, innovation, tradition of excellence, and quality music education are all worthy of inclusion. Be sure to keep your mission statement visible at every level of your program by posting it in the middle school and high school band rooms. You may also want to include this statement as part of any promotional materials and websites. Once the program’s goal is established and communicated, then it is time to further devise a plan to achieve it.
    Craft – and follow – a policies and procedures document. Every music organization needs a detailed and comprehensive policy manual or handbook. Consider this your program’s constitution – a document that not only includes operational information such as the attendance policy, disciplinary procedures, band schedule, uniform requirements, chair challenge procedures, and fundraising guidelines, but also clearly states the fundamental principles that guide your program. Whether you are writing a new document or revising an existing one, be sure that your band policies are aligned with your school district’s goals and objectives. Use these goals and objectives as a point of departure when crafting your specific band policies. Band directors should also be proactive in reviewing and understanding all applicable policies and laws concerning harassment, discrimination, and civil rights, and all band staff and support personnel should be knowledgeable of these as well.
    It is important to avoid making any assumptions when writing your policies and procedures document. Organize the policy manual in a way that separates school and band rules or expectations from those that are dictated by law. I have seen policy manuals that include band rule violations within the same list as rules on hazing, sexual harassment, and alcohol/drug use. If presented to students in this manner, it should come as no surprise that they might view hazing or drinking alcohol on a bus trip as no more serious a violation than chewing gum in rehearsal.
    Include statements regarding band traditions. Often the biggest fear when a new director assumes leadership of a program is that this person will alter the time-honored customs, practices, and beliefs that have been passed from generation to generation in the program. Viewed as important aspects of the band program, these traditions help to instill pride in the organization and assist in maintaining important bonds with alumni and other supporters. Even though students may be drawn to an organization in large part because of its traditions, the director should conduct an examination of these practices to ensure that they are in compliance with stated school and band policies. In the three occasions when I inherited a band program, after a thorough evaluation, I chose to maintain certain traditions while eliminating others.
    As part of this process, I grouped traditions into two categories. One category contained traditions that I viewed as performance-related – traditions that contributed to performance excellence and the band’s unique identity. These were traditions that obviously needed to be maintained. For example, with a marching band, these traditions might include the band uniform, leadership structure, instrumentation, fundamental marching style, school songs, and field formations. If I made any changes to these traditions, I did so gradually over time, using an approach that promoted and valued innovation while still embracing important traditional elements. Traditions that I placed in a non-performance related category were ones that I usually felt should be eliminated immediately. These were customs or behaviors that did not contribute to the level of performance excellence that I wanted the program to attain. This category included procedural methods or rehearsal strategies that could be done in a more efficient or more educational manner.
    Also on the list of traditions to be eliminated were those that I felt could be in violation of law or school policies, particularly those that might involve inappropriate behavior, hazing, or discrimination. Over the years I have seen many directors who were hesitant to immediately eliminate such customs, using the logic that since practices such as initiation rituals had been around forever, it would take a long period of time to change them. These directors failed to recognize that social norms and expectations routinely change over time, and actions and language that may have been considered acceptable thirty years ago are no longer viewed the same way now. Traditions that violate the law or school policy – or that would cause embarrassment to individuals and the band program – must always be eliminated immediately. This perspective is one that I openly shared with students who were resistant to change. I also made it clear that my decisions in matters like these were made out of respect for the students and the future of the band program. I also reminded them that although no one in the band now would still be here in four years, I intended to be, and I intended the band to be viewed in even higher regard than it was today. Although some students did not always agree with my decisions, I found that students usually appreciated my honesty in discussing these matters.    
    Demonstrate your convictions and show that mean what you say with all aspects of your policy and procedures handbook. Avoid making rules that you cannot or do not intend to enforce, because a failure to enforce rules and policies weakens the entire document. Be clear regarding expectations of behavior, so you can let the handbook do the work when a student is faced with a disciplinary action or policy violation. When I called a student to my office, the student usually knew what the punishment was going to be, because I insisted that all band members know the policies, and they understood that I would follow all stated procedures.
    Establish clear responsibilities, roles, and accountability for staff and student leaders in the band program, and convey this information in your handbook. Be sure also to include specific procedures for these individuals to follow when identifying, handling, and reporting violations and other potentially problematic situations. It is also important to establish a fair and transparent method for selecting student leaders, taking into account such qualities as musicianship, leadership ability, and seniority. An assessment of leadership potential should take into account not only the student’s ability to be an effective leader in rehearsal and performance, but also in band conduct. Although it is usually not possible to assign a specific leadership position to every senior band member, try not to ignore any senior students when devising a leadership structure. I have found that older band members outside the circle of leadership were more likely to be behavior problems, and in some cases, these individuals would become negative leaders who would try to maintain hazing and other activities in violation of band policies. To avoid this, consider putting upperclassmen on an advisory council as a way to keep older students engaged in the mission of the program. A group such as this can help with coordinating community service projects, band trips, social events, awards programs, and fundraising.
    Establish guidelines and responsibilities for events outside of school, including travel, social events, and off-campus band camps. State clearly that expectations for behavior when off of school grounds are the same as your expectations during school hours. Use adult staff, fellow teachers, or parent volunteers as chaperones, and hold training sessions for them so you can be sure that they understand your policies. For events involving travel, always have adult chaperones on each bus, and avoid situations where male and female students have to change clothes on the same bus or in the same dressing area, unless students are wearing appropriate band staff-approved clothing under the uniforms. Also be sure to have adequate adult supervision and well-thought-out procedures for any trips or activities that require overnight stay.
    Once you have assembled your policies and procedures handbook, share it with administrators for their approval. These individuals should be able to confirm that your band policies are consistent with school policies, and it is important for you to know that administrators will support you if your policies come under scrutiny. To illustrate their support to students and parents, consider including an approval page in the handbook, displaying the signatures of the school superintendent, principal, school board president, band booster club president, and members of the band staff. After your plan to achieve cultural excellence has received the support of the school administration, it is time to convey the information to others.
    Develop a strategy for effective communication. Publish your policies and procedures document in booklet form, and distribute it to band members at a meeting prior to the start of each new school year. (Some directors prefer to post the document on a band website, but I always believed that students took the material more seriously if they could physically hold it in their hands.) When you hold your meeting on policies and procedures, conduct the meeting in a sincere, business-like manner, and bring in guest speakers such as a school principal or district office administrator to help explain certain expectations. You might also consider inviting a local law enforcement officer to assist in answering any questions concerning policies dictated by law. Guests such as these will help impress upon the students that the policies and procedures are important, and it will also establish that the meeting was conducted in a proper manner if any problems later arise.
In addition, be sure that the handbook has an agreement form to be signed by the students and their parents, which will confirm that they have read and understand the stated policies. Set a due date for these forms, and do not allow a student to participate in band activities after that date if the form has not been submitted to you. Just as with the students, it is also important to hold a meeting on policies with parents, bus drivers, and other volunteers. Although not everyone may be able to attend, the seriousness of your efforts will be noticed and appreciated. Newsletters and social media can also provide a way to reinforce the band program’s mission and the culture of excellence you desire to attain.

Shaping the Culture Each Day
    A culture that embraces excellence, trust, and respect is something that must be demonstrated on a daily basis. Meet regularly with band staff and student leaders to discuss the state of the program, and be observant of your students at all times, not only in rehearsals and performances, but in social situations as well. As accomplished musicians, band directors are well respected for their listening skills, but good directors strive to listen to more than the music. Hearing and observing how students interact with each other before and after rehearsals, in the hallways, after school, or on buses can be very helpful when checking the pulse of your organizational culture.
    The band program’s activities should focus on key words such as musicianship, performance, achievement, and collaboration. Although competitions are important to many band programs, you may want to approach competition more as an opportunity for self-improvement and as a way to help teach humility and how to deal with disappointment, rather than simply as an opportunity to win and lose.
    Also avoid referring to students with labels, such as “she’s a flute,” “trumpet player come here,” or “rookies pick up the trash.” I always made an effort to call each student by name, and I rarely categorized, labeled, or assigned tasks to students based on seniority. There were no condoned or implied rites of passage in my high school or college groups, except for auditions to earn membership, a procedure that was required of every student each year.
    Look for opportunities to teach band students about the value and importance of each member’s contributions.
    When I was hired for my first high school teaching job, the principal made a point of telling me that he had outlawed all forms of initiations by teams, clubs, and organizations the previous year as the result of an incident involving a sports team. He also said that he suspected that some of these customs might go underground and that it was important for all teachers to be very observant. Two weeks into the school year, I arrived at school one morning to find all of the senior band members waiting outside my office door. A month earlier during band camp week I had learned of and put a stop to a planned hazing activity. We were now two games into the football season, and our first contest was scheduled for that weekend. The seniors had gathered at my door because they were upset that the freshmen had been given a free pass due to my decision to eliminate their new-member initiation activities. They claimed that the freshmen were not official members of the band yet. They also told me that because these new students were given the same rights as everyone else from the start, they were not showing the seniors the proper respect that they deserved. Although I was disappointed by these statements, I thanked the seniors for sharing their thoughts and told them that we would revisit the matter at rehearsal that afternoon.
After school, rather than go to our practice field, I took the band to the football stadium and had them perform the competition show – once without the freshmen participating and once with everyone on the field. I recorded both performances and then took the band back to the band room to watch the video. We had a talented freshman class that year, and it was obvious that their contributions were making a significant impact on the quality of the group. After watching the two performances I asked the seniors if they would like to share the concerns they had expressed that morning with everyone. None of them chose to speak. The following Saturday the band earned a first-place award, the first in school history, and for the remainder of my tenure at that school I never again heard any comments about treating freshmen differently than anyone else. The lesson on that day centered on treating everyone with respect and acknowledging the value of collaboration. Soon, with my guidance, the seniors began focusing on orientation activities that would welcome and encourage new members, while also educating them regarding band procedures and performance traditions; this was a change from simply finding ways to initiate the new students.

The Importance of Good Leadership
    Strive to demonstrate ethical leadership at all times. As a leader, the culture of excellence that you shape for your organization is a reflection of your personal and professional values. Consider developing your own leadership code of conduct. Some directors set myriad rules for students but may at times appear to be operating outside of the rules themselves – using abusive language, making inappropriate comments, being inconsistent concerning discipline, or showing favoritism. Try to set higher expectations for yourself than for your staff and students, and consistently demonstrate leadership attributes that others can aspire to.
Many people are effective leaders when things are going well, but the great leaders are those individuals who rise to the challenge when faced with difficult situations. Understand that in spite of your efforts to create a culture of excellence, there may still be occasional disappointing incidents. Develop a plan for dealing with problems in a transparent manner, and always keep school administrators well-informed regarding any policy violations. Never hesitate to call on school district personnel who have professional training in dealing with situations that you may not feel qualified to handle alone. Give timely priority to negative situations and address them in a firm manner, but do not dwell on them or make the band experience unpleasant for students who are not involved. Never allow yourself to lose sight of the fact that for every student who makes a poor choice, dozens more make good ones.
    Through your leadership style, demonstrate to students the importance of responsibility and being accountable for one’s actions. When organizational cultures are brought into question, I have often heard leaders attempt to deflect criticism by stating that their organization is simply a microcosm of the behaviors and beliefs of all high school or college students, or they may say that their organization’s transgressions are simply a reflection of the ills of society at large. In the case of music organizations, I find these excuses to be shallow, and even an insult to America’s great band heritage.
Avoid reacting to criticism with a circle-the-wagons mentality. Be quick to acknowledge any deficiencies with your program when they are brought to your attention, and have a plan in place to address them. With a vision of cultural excellence and a good plan for attaining it, the band can be one of society’s best examples of how people of disparate interests, backgrounds, and experiences can find common ground and work in harmony to achieve stated goals.
    Inspire your students to embrace and uphold the standards you have set for the program, and impress upon them that their behavior should parallel the excellence in performance that you strive to achieve. Be honest, passionate, consistent, and fair in all interactions with your students, as well as with parents, school administrators, and alumni. Approach each day with a positive demeanor that reflects your love of music and your respect for the young people who have chosen to join you on the path to cultural excellence.