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The Art of Communication

Trey Reely | November 2011

   “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” This famous line from the classic Paul Newman 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke nicely sums up many of my work days – if I am not understanding what students are saying, they are not understanding what I am saying.
   I’ve always needed to be a better listener. The earliest evidence of this shortcoming appeared before during elementary school. The television show Branded (1965-66), the story of a cavalryman kicked out for erroneous reasons, starred Chuck Connors and had a catchy theme song with a chorus that included the line “Branded, scarred as the one who ran. What do you do when you’re branded, and you know you’re a man?”
   Being the perceptive child that I was, I thought the theme song said “Cramdit” instead of “branded.” I thought Cramdit was the main character’s name, and to make matters worse, I argued with my mother about this for months. Never mind that she had a college education, and I was still drooling on books more than reading them. Finally, after putting my ear up to the television console speaker, I admitted my mistake. Unfortunately, the incident became a permanent symbol of my stubbornness and early illiteracy. Future conflicts with my mom often concluded with her snappy retort, “All right, Cramdit!”
   Sometimes, I feel that I am no better at imparting information; in fact, I occasionally think I must be miraculously and accidentally speaking a foreign language. After I make a statement or request, students will often look back at me with a collective “huh?” on their faces. Sometimes they are simply in a typical teenage mass daze, but more often than not I have done something like call out two different rehearsal numbers in the same breath. I’ve even called out numbers that have no relation to what’s on the page.
   I have often been victimized by my poor use of technology. Wearing my handy headset during football games, I dismiss the band for halftime preparations by section during the second quarter as my voice wafts through the air after being emitted from a portable speaker. At one game I dismissed the brass players and not one of them, as we would say in the South, paid me any mind. I gave them a dumb look and waved my arms, perturbed that they just ignored me. I then noticed that the speaker had already been turned off, and I had essentially been talking to myself for the last few minutes.
   I find that many communication problems result from seemingly little details that I omit. Young band members in particular have a tendency to take things literally and cannot take the logical next step. Once, on a game day, I told some experienced eighth-grade runners who help with high school marching band to get the music stands and put them on the stand racks. So what did they do? They put them on the stand rack and left them in the band room. I should have added, “and take them to the field.” Another time we were loading for an away game, and I told some students to get the drum major podiums from the practice field. What I failed to say was “and put them on the trailer.” They laid the podiums down by the band building, where they stayed as we drove off.
   Some communication problems are simply a problem of interpretation. I say something one way and the students interpret it another:

What I say: “I want you to be quiet right now.”
What they think: “I’ll be quiet but start up again in just a second.”

What I say: “Stop talking to Sally.”
What they think: “It is okay to talk to Mark.”

What I say: “Drummers, don’t play so loud.”
What they think: “I’ll bring the volume down to fff.”

What I say: “Flutes, you are playing very sharp in measure 70.”
What they think: “He hates me.”

What I say: “I do not want to see you clap your hand on the top of your mouthpiece.”
What they think: “I can clap it when he is not looking.”

What I say: “Trombones, you are way too loud there.”
What they think: “Cool!”

What I say: “One of the trumpet players missed F#.”
What they think: “Not me.”

All is not lost, however; I would hate to lead you to the conclusion that good communication is impossible, even for me. Sometimes the stars align and communication is perfect:

What I say: “One more time.”
What they think: “Five more times. At least.”