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After Signing the Contract, Steps to Take Before the First Day of Classes

Anthony Pursell | October 2012

    Most college music education programs do a fine job at providing their students with the content knowledge and experiences necessary for success, there are some administrative tasks and interpersonal skills that may give new hires and their students an advantage from the beginning.

Building Relationships
    Several years ago, a colleague mentioned that most music teachers do not fail because they lack knowledge but because they relate poorly to people. This statement is true concerning both teaching students and relating to people with whom you are in contact with on a daily basis. Being an ensemble director requires the wearing of many hats, sometimes more than one at a time. Having the ability to develop good relationships may be one of the ultimate keys to building a successful program. Here are the most important people to talk to before school starts.

Seniors and Section Leaders
    In instrumental music, students often gravitate towards teachers, often because of the large amount of time in rehearsals together and the nature of working in a collaborative environment. It is therefore wise to get the students in your corner as soon as possible.
    Some of the most influential groups of students who you can get behind you are the seniors and section leaders. These students typically have the greatest investment in a program, and in many cases, these two groups of students will often consist of the same people. As soon as it is possible, I organize a brief meeting with this group of students. High school seniors fear that everything is going to fall apart their senior year, and they become somewhat defensive about a new director as it may signal change for them and the program as well. To gain their trust, the new director may want to address concerns students are most likely to have. Telling students that some things might change a bit but you want to give them the senior year they were hoping for. During this meeting I have them tell me about a typical game day, which is probably when some of the students’ most important traditions happen. Listening to them and keeping as many traditions that are supportive of the program as possible may make these students feel better about the program.
    In one school the administration had some traditions they wanted to see eliminated, but I cautioned them that to do this, they had to give me the time I needed to get it done. Eliminating many things at one time was likely to produce a knee-jerk reaction and create substantial turmoil. Most students become hesitant about trusting you, as they want to be assured that they will recognize the music program with you as their director.

    Many high school programs may already have an existing parent booster organization. As with the students, I would meet with a small representative group at first. Meeting with the parents may confirm information collected from the students. It is also a way for the new director to organize the parent group to support their vision of the music program.
    Usually I ask the adults most of the same questions I ask students, which gives me similar information, but from an adult’s point of view. I ask what the parents do during a football game and where they are stationed. In one school, band parents ran concessions, in another, they were not allowed to touch concessions, so parent responsibilities vary. If not in concession stands, parents should secure stand space for the band before the game or stay in the stands with any students who are injured and cannot march. I also ask about logistics and committees, basically what I need to know to begin organizing the program. If parents run handing out uniforms, I need to know when that is usually done. The goal is to keep everything as consistent as possible.

    Some of the most influential people in schools are coaches, and it is beneficial to have a good relationship with these folks, especially in a small school where many music students are also likely to be in sports. Instrumental directors who run high school marching band can ask the head football coach how they might enhance football players’ game day experience. One coach requested that the band form a pregame tunnel for the cheerleaders and the football team to run through. While this is a fairly simple task to accomplish, I assured him that I would work hard on the request and make it in to a reality. Because music programs are typically at the forefront of budget cut talks, having a good relationship with the head coach can give the band a powerful ally.

Feeder Program Personnel
    Recruiting for the music program is a full time job at every level. For many directors new to a given school, the difficulty of recruiting is compounded further as most new hires take place at the end of the school year or, worse yet, during the summer months. The new director should contact any feeder school instrumental directors and ask for a copy of the final concert program. If a personnel list is available, this gives the new director an opportunity to see how many of these students are moving to your campus. A final concert program from your feeder schools also shows what literature students have played.

    If the band director at the feeder school isn’t available to meet with, you can ask the counselor who has been in band and also check standardized test scores. From there you can look at who’s done really well in math, and get those students. Use test scores in math to target good students into the program. Counselors don’t always make a good source of help, but try to make friends, and if something is unavailable, then move on. Between feeder school directors and counselors you should be able to get a good idea of who might have slipped through the cracks.

Former Director
    The former director can paint the clearest picture of students’ ability. It is best to ask the administration prior to talking to the former director. No one can prohibit you from making contact, but it is always best to ask whether this is advisable. In a case where the former director was asked to leave, some may see contacting this person as a sign that any past problems may continue. Assure administrators this is not the case by approaching it in the manner that you would like to simply secure information about what the students are accustomed to.

Preparing for the First Day of Classes
    After accepting my first teaching job, I met with the building principal to take a tour of the facilities. The band hall was left in shambles. The music library was left in stacks on the floor, music stands contained more graffiti than original paint, and instruments were all over the room with some outside of their cases. The state of the room showed a lack of care. My first goal was to make this room unrecognizable by organizing and cleaning it. Usually I would include students in this process because it develops a sense of pride in the program and makes the job take less time. I tackled it alone to demonstrate my commitment to working hard at changing the attitude and perception that no one cared. Having a program organized sends students a good message about the experiences they will receive with you as their director.

    Search for video and audio recordings of your ensemble. Much information can be learned from old concert programs, but they can be deceptive. Anyone can program Lincolnshire Posy, but not everyone can play it. Finding video can help confirm that. Many bands post video of concerts on YouTube, and sometimes parents film concerts as well. Listening to recordings is the best way to evaluate the ensemble’s performance ability. Video can also show how the ensemble is set up, where it performs, and community reaction to the band.
    One key element you can identify from both video and still photos is how disciplined the students are. In marching band, a photo of students in the stands lets you see if they sit in a uniform block, whether uniforms are buttoned up and worn consistently. The same can be true in concert band and orchestra. It is also easy to see how well the room is cared for and how clean it is. You might see instruments in the middle of the floor with no one near them. This can send signals about discipline as well as how students treat the facility and their instruments. This can give you an idea of things you may need to watch for. From these forms of media, many questions can be answered without having to talk to anyone.

Equipment Inventory
    One of the quickest ways to change student perceptions is to make certain that the equipment is in working order and in good appearance. The very first request from my principal was to “do something with the music stands.” In addition to the stands needing overhauling, the entire band hall carpet was gum-ridden, stained, and an unrecognizable shade of yellow and needed replacing. The band booster president told me about some donated carpet that for the past three years had been stored in one of the practice rooms. Although the boosters requested it yearly, the carpet was never installed. The new carpet was beautiful, especially when compared to the carpet that was in place for many years. I had a plan that I hoped would not backfire.
    Because the weather in Louisiana is so unpredictable and the freshly painted stands would need time to dry, I painted indoors. I figured that because I was the fourth director in four years I could afford to take a chance. I took the stands apart, set the trays on the ground, and spray painted inside the room with no newspaper underneath.
    I went to the principal the next day. He was never a happy man, but his nickname was Chipper. I had a look on my face to make him think something bad had happened. He followed me to the band room and saw the carpet. I said, “I’ve never painted stuff before. You asked my to take care of the stands, and I did. The weather wasn’t too good outside the last few days, so I did it inside. What can I do?” He said, “Well, we have this carpet in one of the storge rooms over there. We’ll just get that all taken care of.” Playing dumb, I said I hadn’t been in those rooms yet and wondered whether we had enough. He looked and said we had plenty.
    The next morning the old carpet was already removed. I called the booster president and asked him to come to the school. He walked in, saw that they were replacing the carpet, and asked how I got it to happen. I just smiled and said it was a big misunderstanding that involved several cans of spray paint and gravity. While I do not recommend this method, it did solve a serious problem.
    In addition to the carpet and music stands, I organized the band room by putting the instruments in one place, moving the music library to a secure area within my office, and getting rid of some offensive wall decorations. While this took many days to accomplish by myself, it sent a powerful message to students, their parents, and my administration about my expectations and work ethic.

Instrument Inventory
    Making certain instruments are in working order is extremely important. A student who is assigned an instrument that works poorly will consider band a miserable experience. Contacting former colleagues who are proficient in instruments that you may not be to come out and diagnose the school’s inventory is a great way to approach administrators about getting repairs made.
    Try to secure an instrument inventory list. From this list you can check which instruments are at the school and which are unaccounted for. Tracking down missing instruments may be time consuming, especially if records were not kept at the end of the last academic year. In many cases, students who took instruments home for the summer are likely to account for the majority of instruments that are not in your possession.

Music Inventory
    Selecting literature for an unfamiliar ensemble is very difficult. A good strategy is to pick two sets of literature for your first performance. It does not matter if this is concert literature or music for the season’s first marching show, two arrangements of the same music, or two different works that have the same purpose, such as an opening fanfare.
    At the first rehearsal pass out the simpler of the two choices. If the ensemble plays it very well and seems more accomplished, let them know that you are impressed with their ability and that you need to get something different. By handing out the simpler of the two versions, you encourage the ensemble about their ability as a whole. Starting with the more difficult of the two will discourage students if they cannot play it and may give the impression that you are unsure and lack trust in their ability. If the music is particularly aged, check the key of the piccolo and horn parts to make certain that they are not for Db piccolo or Eb horns.

Recruiting Calls
    I try to make contact with every student on the class roster. After investigating, I can identify which students are no longer continuing. Making a few phone calls may assist in boosting student numbers. Some students may not know that they have a new director for the coming school year. Without this knowledge, the student may have chosen not to participate assuming there was not a change. A phone call from the new director may help influence productive students to be involved.
    When calling incoming freshmen who have signed up for band, I introduce myself and use band camp as a conversation starter. I let students know what the band camp dates are, then ask if the student had any questions for me.
    For someone who chose not to be in band I would say that I saw he was in band last year, ask if there are any questions I can answer or any concerns I can address, and say I would love to see the student come back. It is best to have a few basic questions, and if one produces a long response, you can go off that to get them to try. Sometimes seeing a clean band hall is enough for a discouraged student to give band another chance.
    If I know what instrument a student played and it is something I have a lot of, I might ask whether he plays anything else. Sometimes a student just gets bored with an instrument, and by switching to something new it might spark interest and fill a hole in the instrumentation.

    Many students can appreciate structure and a handbook is an excellent way to announce expectations. In drafting a new handbook or editing an existing handbook, I follow a too long-too short rule: if the handbook is too long, no one will want to read it; if it is too short, no one will take it seriously. I recommend including letters from the new director and the building principal. The director’s letter is a personal way to express excitement and expectations. The principal can reinforce this and send a message to students and parents alike that there is a strong support system between the two of you. The remainder of the handbook should detail performance procedures, uniform or performance attire, attendance policy, and a schedule of events. At the back should be a signature page requesting that both the student and parent or guardian have read and understand the contents of the handbook.

    Acquiring a new position, whether right out of college or as a seasoned director, is always exciting. The tasks facing the new hire can be daunting and may seem insurmountable at first, but by taking the right steps the experience will not only be good for the new hire, but also the students, parents, and community.