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My Gerbil Died

Trey Reely | October 2016

    It is one of the ironies of band life that I have to remind students repeatedly that a concert is coming up. I cannot really relate. I wasn’t a perfect child, but I was so excited about my performances that there was no chance I would forget one; that was why we practiced every day. Unfortunately and mysteriously, that connection is not there for all of our students.
    My all-time favorite excuse for missing a concert really made me feel like band could not possibly be a lower priority in a student’s life. I had a high school trombone player fail to show up for a concert. The next day I called him into my office and asked him where he was. He said his grandfather asked him to clean out the horses’ stalls in their barn. I asked if his grandfather knew he had a concert and the student said no, which I figured because his grandfather was supportive of band and would have made sure he was there. This student preferred shoveling manure to playing at our concert.
    Sometimes a child’s excuse can actually work in your favor. I had a saxophone player a few years ago who was the worst marcher I had ever had. He came up to me and said he was going to have to miss after-school marching practice once a week to practice with the cheerleaders since he was the new pirate mascot. Apparently walking around and waving a sword and growling r-r-r-r is more difficult than it looks. I told him if he did that he would have to be an alternate. That was fine with him – and me.
    Dealing with a myriad of excuses is as much art as science, with personal philosophy, psychology, mercy, and tough love all jumbled up together. Here are some excuses and my suggestions for dealing with them. Most of the excuses I have heard myself, but I have gleaned others from talking to colleagues and reading Facebook laments.

I forgot.
While some students are repentant as that they admit their forgetfulness, I love it when others shrug and say “I forgot” while acting like it is not a big deal, but just a simple fact of life. I dissuade them of that notion rather quickly. Either way, I will work with them on some strategies to prevent this from happening again and make a call to their parents. I tell beginners that as long as they are in my band program, forgetting will never be an acceptable excuse. Future forgetfulness will result in them being dropped from the group. If a student and the parents really care, it will not happen again.

I didn’t know about it.
I hand out printed concert announcements to our seventh- and eighth-grade students that they are required to return with a parent’s signature. Any students who fail to return the concert announcement sheets and do not show up for the concert get a zero regardless of the reason, because the real reason the student did not show up was that the parent didn’t know about it. If a student turns the sheet in, but fails to show up for the concert, then we will call the parent to confirm the reason for the absence. We reason that any student who turned in the sheet probably did not just skip out and was originally planning on being there.

I can’t be at the concert because it’s my (or a relative’s) birthday.
    My spiel usually goes something like this: “I understand how important birthdays can be, but I think you can understand that since every person in this band has a birthday, and every person in this band has family members that all have birthdays, that there is no way we can let everyone off for that, as much as we would like to. However, I can let you come a little late or leave right after we play if you have to keep the party on that day.”

I have to work.
    I never excuse performances for this but will excuse one missed rehearsal if it is a new job, although this student has to make up the time. Sometimes managers will schedule a student to work that first time without remembering to consider a school schedule.

I can’t be there because it is the first day of hunting season.

    This is a tricky one. Some kids have been hunting with their family since they were young. Hand out schedules early. If you have not given plenty of notice on a particular event, you may have to relent, but tell this student that they will not be able to miss a band event for a hunting trip again. As a compromise for deer season, I have allowed students to leave after halftime during football season.

My music was stolen.
    I usually remark something to the effect of “there is definitely some type of black market in the school underworld where shady flunkies smoke cigarettes and pass around stolen tenor sax parts to Pirates of the Caribbean. I’m really sure it had to be stolen.” I usually have the student share with another player for a day or two, because often the music often reappears. If not, I make sure to have plenty of extra copies available. If charging a small amount per copy makes you feel better, do that.

My grandfather died.
    There is little you can do about this one. I know of some directors who require a program from the funeral home, but that seems a little insensitive to me, even though some students will shamelessly lie about something like this. A colleague’s student once had several grandfathers die in one year.

I was sick.
    We require a parent note and a make-up assignment, usually a two-page typed report (four hand-written) on one of several topics we provide for them. It is due within two weeks of the missed event. I emphasize that the report is not given as a punishment, but is simply a make-up grade for the missed event. Ironically, many of them do not turn in the report and therefore receive a grade of zero, which is sometimes what I wanted to give them in the first place but didn’t have enough evidence to do it.

I have to miss practice to work on the homecoming float.
    I am always amazed that students will believe they are indispensable to the construction of a float, door decoration, or backdrop but not for band. I do not let students miss for homecoming stuff. If you normally practice every day after school, you may want give students one day for other homecoming activities. They will love you for it.

I have a game.
    If a game or performance conflicts with a rehearsal or practice, advantage goes to the game or performance. If a game is against a performance, things get a little tricky. Is the student more vital to the athletic team or the band? If they ride the bench for the sports team they should be at band. If they play a part I can get covered with someone else, they can go to the athletic event. Communication with parents and coaches is essential to get this worked out.

It was raining, so I thought it was canceled.
     I love it when students use this one. This is somewhat understandable when it’s a marching event, but I have never understood the problem when it is an indoor concert. As for marching events, I make it very clear to students that they should show up at the band room, because we are going to make every effort to play at the game. Their parents should be near a phone or wait in the car until we decide. The only exception to this is if we send a mass text canceling the event beforehand.

My gerbil died.

     It is important on this one to hold a straight face and show some sensitivity while asking questions. “Oh, no. What happened? Did you have a visitation or a funeral?” (The answer will almost certainly be no.) “Did your parents know about the concert?” (The answer to this one is typically no.) My comment to this student is “As much as I love pets of all types, I can only excuse students for their death or that of human family members. Because there was no visitation or funeral conflict I think you could have worked the concert you missed into your schedule, and if your parents had known about the concert, I think they would have had you here.”

I had to clean my pig and trim my steer’s hooves.
    FFA (Future Farmers of America) is big at some schools, so while these excuses may sound funny, county and state fairs are a big deal to these students, and they can win a lot of money if their animal ends up winning and they sell it. You may have to give more than you take on this one. They are almost always some of my better students, so I know that they are not trying to get out of band practice or a performance just for the fun or it. Planning ahead and working closely with the agri sponsor, student, and parents is important on this one.

My probation officer would not let me come.
    As weird as it sounds, you may need to talk to the probation officer if you really want the student there.

I was with my boyfriend/girlfriend.
    Call me unromantic, but this has to be one of the more annoying reasons I deal with. I have had great band kids whose productivity plummeted dramatically as soon as they fell in love with their flavor of the month. I talk to these students about responsibility and make the point that if they are with someone who doesn’t care about their responsibility to band and other things, maybe they are with the wrong person. Other than brief statements like that, I stay out of relationships.

My parents say I can’t go and there’s nothing I can do about it.
    Some parents have the mistaken impression that if it is their decision, then you can’t penalize their child. Parents have to understand that band is a group effort, and that their child can and will be penalized even if it is the parent’s fault. It is difficult to know if the kid is using this as a smokescreen or if it is really the truth; a talk with the parents will help you get to the bottom of the matter.

    Although I have given some solutions and rationales for specific excuses, there will be many others just different enough that nothing I have suggested applies. However, there are some overall considerations that can help you make a decision on individual cases as they arise.

School Policies
    Make sure the penalties you decide to exact align with the school handbook and have the support of your principal and guidance counselor. It is embarrassing to have a principal overrule you on discipline. You need to know the school policy on drops during the semester. Some schools do not allow drops during the semester, meaning students cannot quit and you cannot kick them out, but other schools allow it. I prefer a policy that will not allow students to drop during a semester because those situations often can be worked out. When a student can quit at anytime, you are really subject to their daily whims.

Think Long Term
  Leniency might be called for in some cases because of various circumstances in a child’s life. Beginners are the hardest to judge because gauge their dependability level is unknown. Leniency in beginning band or maybe the first year of marching band may give the student time to catch on and blossom into a great band member. I am less lenient with students who have been in the program long enough to know what is expected. I will drop a senior for undependability much quicker than I will a freshman.
    As for sports, you might ponder whether making a student miss his baseball game for a junior high band concert will embitter him so much that he will quit band entirely, and you lose him for good as opposed to just one concert.

I judge every absence on an individual basis. That being said, you need to determine which policies of your program are non-negotiable and be extremely consistent on those. I would  recommend against too many of those, or you will find yourself in corners you won’t like.

    It is often tricky to decipher what a child’s attitude is. I had a student a few years ago who was having a hard time adjusting to me as a new director. I could have kicked him out any number of times his freshman year for poor behavior and disrespect, but I figured because he hadn’t quit yet (and he could have) there must be something about band that he liked or needed. In other words, his attitude about band was actually better than I thought, but his behavior was clouding my perspective. By his sophomore year he was one of my favorite students.

   Your ultimate aim, and this may take a while if you are a first-year director or a director in a new position, is to get students and parents to care so much about practices and performances that they take care of all of these matters themselves without bothering you. As unbelievable as it may seem, this type of culture can be established in any band program. Nevertheless, situations will still arise where sound judgment will he required. You never know when the next gerbil will drop.