When I was ten years old and living in a rural part of East Texas, I played clarinet in the 5th grade. I do not remember the details of how I learned to play, but I loved making music from the first day. Looking back on those wonderful days in 1960, I am amazed that I got hooked on it in spite of those frequent squawks that came out of my clarinet. I had no idea then about Friday Night Lights in Texas, but my band career flourished in high school, and I branched out to playing oboe and then saxophone in order to be in the stage band. I loved playing a lone part as well as blending in harmony with my friends in the band.
To this day I cannot hear March Grandioso without humming the clarinet part and conducting along with the band. Every time I watch a marching band, I am transported back to my past. I completely understand the work, discipline, skill, and passion necessary it takes to perform well. When I became a drum majorette, this was my first experience with leadership in school education.
Forty years later I was the school superintendent in Allen Texas, a rapidly growing suburb north of Dallas. The high school had an enrollment of 4,500 students in grades 9-12. When I arrived, the band program was large, but I was under pressure to make it more successful. The community wanted a resurgence of energy and participation in the band program. With my love of music, I was more than willing and began by hiring the director of a successful 5A band. The deciding factor in choosing Anthony Gibson was the fact that his goals for the band program aligned exactly with what the community and our fine arts program goals were. At the same time we also hired a new football coach and these two gentlemen work together to reorganize these programs while they advocated working hard having fun and improving academic standards and enhancing the extracurricular activities students were involved in. Their work was focused and deliberate, and school spirit soared.
As a result of their united front, friendships and relationships between the band and athletes flourished. At the first meeting of band students Mr. Gibson asked, ‘When you walk down the hall, do you feel respect from the rest of the students in the school?” The sobering answer was the silent shaking of the heads by the band students. He responded “That’s going to change” and meant it.
At the first football game spectators began to leave when our team was behind, but the band kept playing at strategic times. This proved to be the turning point in the game and the more important relationships between students. The band had a blast, and their enthusiasm was contagious. That night the coach awarded the game ball to the Allen Band. In my career, that was a first. As I look back, this moment was the catalyst that catapulted band students to a special place at the school. Everyone watched and followed the lead of the band, and five years later, over 600 students were proud to say they are members of the Allen High School Band!
I attended that pep rally and knew then that something unique was happening. As the Superintendent, I realized that there was something special between the band students and football players. Mr. Gibson and Coach Martin also received affirmation that night that the change they wanted was a reality-no “W” in the win column nor trophy on the shelf could replace that experience. The alliance between the band leader and head football coach created a tone for what became the core of school spirit. We had just seen that how if you take care of students, winning takes care of itself.
In my experience there are six factors that must exist to have a successful music program:
1. Support for the music program must include scheduling music and academic classes so both can flourish. We were committed to resolving individual scheduling conflicts with the welfare of the student as the foremost consideration. Sometimes the band director compromises in order for a student to participate in another activity – no one has the first claim. The faculty, including music directors and coaches, must adopt the mindset that you reach your goals by helping others to do the same.
2. Financial support for capital outlays, including uniforms, good instruments, and equipment, requires the involvement of the music department director in all phases of the budget process. It also takes planning beyond the next year. For example, it requires long-range financial planning to purchase band uniforms for 500 students.
At the top the school superintendent must trust the music director with financial decisions, but the director must be accountable for spending wisely. The director cannot play the budget inflation game as protection against possible budget cuts in the future but must be a team player and trust the administration. My advice to all directors is to remember to say thank you to everyone who helps them, even when all they receive is a sympathetic ear. We live in an educational world of give and take, and this includes setbacks and delayed progress. Work to bring administrators and colleagues into your world of music. Remember that only the relationships you forge and maintain will carry you through the tough times.
3. School administrators must communicate their commitment that the music department is on an equal footing with all the other departments. Administrators must never accept the status quo but seek new ways to make the music program better for the students.
4. Parental and community support is essential, and the music department must strike a balance between entertaining and educating musical audiences. If directors align their goals with those of the community, the community in turn will bestow its support for them. Everyone in the town knew of and was proud when our band played in the 2006 Tournament of Roses Parade and when the orchestra performed at the Midwest Clinic the next year. The involvement of parents and the community was priceless to both efforts.
5. Create an environment in which students want to belong to music organizations. Be open to all ideas and find a shared vision with students and administrators. Goals cannot just be set by the directors of the music program. When I heard radio announcers and fellow superintendents mention the Allen Band before anything else, I knew that our vision had been successful. Over a five-year period approximately 60% of the top 10 graduates each year were members of the music programs. All superintendents understand that students who are involved in successful programs are unlikely to get into trouble.
6. Respect and involvement. From the little things to large budget allocations, directors must realize that students can tell if you respect school leaders by the way you talk about them and how frequently these persons are involved in the music program. As superintendent, I was often invited to step in front of the band and talk to students. I did so joyfully, and these moments enhanced relationships between students, directors, and the administration. Although I had never played a sport, I also addressed athletes. The point is that a superintendent who has never played in a band or orchestra can still demonstrate support for these organizations and appreciation for the work they do.
Because the music directors included me in their banquets, concerts, and final rehearsals before concerts, I felt more involved in the music program. I urge directors to make it a point to invite coaches, superintendents, board members, and city officials to speak to their organization. Never sit back and wait for this to happen but take the lead and create a welcome aura around the music program. The respect of these leaders will surely follow, but it is the directors who set the tone.
The successful blueprint for a band program was applied equally well to the orchestra. While our marching band impressively doubled in size, the orchestra program grew from a discouraging 23 to 250 in the same five years. They were the sleeping giant we never knew of. Administrators can create opportunities, but numbers drive a program. In my view it is impossible for the superintendent of a school with 1,000+ students participating in music programs to fail to give it the funds to succeed. Band gives the best bang for the buck.
Nowhere else can you successfully staff a 60-to-1 program in which students learn a lifelong skill, engage their brains, and become leaders. Not only did we want to educate the potential music majors; we wanted every student to recognize the music program as an opportunity to learn music and its value to their lives. We did not recruit just the top musicians but encouraged all students to share the experience of a music education. In 2006, when the band marched into my retirement luncheon, I realized this was the ultimate thank you.