Melissa Gustafson-Hinds sat for this interview on a Sunday, in between answering emails and putting the finishing touches on the latest band newsletter with Band Assistant and Color Guard Staffer John Langham. She and her colleagues are also preparing for the concert of a lifetime as the O’Fallon Township High School Wind Ensemble takes the stage at The Midwest Clinic this December. Located near Scott Air Force Base in the Southwest corner of Illinois, this city of 30,000 sits far from the high-powered suburban programs that often receive elite invitations. Gustafson-Hinds has been building to this moment since she first arrived at the school 15 years ago. She says people sometimes ask if she is tired from the breakneck pace. She reminds them that this is what she signed up for.
What was it like when you first came to O’Fallon fifteen years ago?
I remember it like it was yesterday. I took a few days to get the lay of the land and then gathered student leaders together first and told them I was going to do whatever it took to make their experience great. For the seniors, I was their third director. Despite all of the turnover, it was still a good program. As I look back, that senior class was just gold. They were very motivated and wanted to be great but needed someone who cared about them, someone to go the extra mile.
I worked well with the parents because they quickly realized that I was on top of things and staying the course. Because of the lack of leadership for the program, parents had taken over a lot of the decision making. They were used to running things when I arrived. Because I am a strong leader, we had to compromise. I showed them respect and understanding for choices they had made, even as I tried to instill a new mindset that centered on the kids.
Because a large number of students participated in marching band, I got to know many of them in a more personal way. They quickly learned about my energy and enthusiasm. When it came to concert band, I knew it was not considered as important to the program and they hadn’t experienced concert band in the way they should have. They had missed out on opportunities to participate in district festivals and solo/ensemble contests. Students also needed to start playing the correct music, the types of great composers and works that all bands should play.
We had open discussions in rehearsal about the new direction for the program. I was straight up with students and explained why I made certain decisions to move the program forward. That honesty was essential during an interesting transition year.
It is important for students to know when they are great, and when they are not, they need to know what to do differently. It was a year when they bought into me, and I bought into them. It began the journey to where we are now.
How many students were taking private lessons when you first came to the school?
It was just a smattering of people, and there were no lessons taught here. I knew how important one-on-one instruction would be for students, so I homed in on certain kids and encouraged them to take private lessons. As they succeeded, more players also started taking lessons. Then, I made taking lessons a requirement for the top band. If a student could not afford lessons, I would teach them myself or make some kind of financial arrangement. Today, even our second concert band has about 80% of the players in private lessons. We are fortunate to have dedicated local teachers, who teach lessons at the school, their studio, or by Zoom.
We don’t give lessons during the school day, but I have a lesson coordinator who arranges lessons in the practice rooms. I pass along to her, or the teachers, my suggestions about what individual students should be working on in lessons. This set-up is an integral part of our success. The younger students can see the older kids, who are magnificent in their lessons, and want to emulate them. We make sure that our student leaders, who are usually excellent players in the two groups, serve not only as character leaders but also as musical leaders. In the marching band, we have players of different abilities mixed together, so our student leaders serve as music teachers for the less experienced players.
photos by Booster President Vickie Aiello
Marching band was a big part of the school’s program since before you came to O’Fallon. Some directors around the country do not consider marching to be a valid musical activity. How do you view the benefits of a strong marching program?
Sometimes, I also have questions about marching. I am an oboe player and didn’t really participate in marching until I became a director. Marching band is the one opportunity for our amazing older students to work with brand new members one-on-one for hours. Whether hanging out socially or giving a quick individual lesson on playing or marching, older students act as role models and set a standard for younger players. For me, that is exciting.
I remind the older students that the kids standing next to them are the future of our program. These band leaders look after the new members both as people and musicians. We talk often about how band members should be treated, and our leaders know exactly what I expect from them. They have known me a long time so I can be completely blunt and honest with them.
What is the retention rate for students who march compared with those that do not?
Students who participate in marching have a greater chance of staying in the program than those who do not. However, because we are a big school with a lot of opportunities, many students are involved with other teams and clubs. About 30% of concert band only students trickle away to other activities by the time they are seniors. I have to be cognizant that some have other interests that are more of a priority than band. I try to appreciate that they were in band this long, although I do try to keep every kid. I will call the parents and talk to the students and just do everything I can.
I understand that your husband is also a member of the staff your staff?
He is, and it is fun to work with him. He writes drill and is a marching band adjudicator now, after 10 years as a very good band director. He reached the point where he was writing his show and also writing shows for other people and decided to do that full-time. He has allowed me to be who I am today. He is flexible and supportive of my involvement in the program. He is really passionate about helping programs and spends many weekends traveling across the country. This year he wrote 16 shows, and when he is working, I try to give him his space because the work can be stressful. He is a percussionist and helps with our percussion during the summer. We are very much a band family. That’s our world.
During the pandemic, many school music programs came up with inventive ways to teach, and some of these ideas continue now. Is this true for your program?
One idea that has continued is focusing on whether everyone has a good mindset. Even with a large program, we work hard to make sure everybody is healthy and happy within the program and has what they need. When a kid asks me for something, I try to take care of it within 24 hours, which is not always easy because there are many students and they have lots of needs. During COVID, we were particularly attentive to student well-being because we were either in full remote or hybrid school for most of the year.
We have also tried to communicate with parents and students using a variety of short video push outs. I’ve done a couple of these at the start of the school year because I thought no one would read a newsletter, which is not that exciting. I made two videos, one discussing the syllabus and another talking about how students move through the program. Normally I record these videos in interesting places like the football field or a press box. Instead of just sending out a regular newsletter, I often make a little podcast that describes what is going on with the program and upcoming events.
Another idea that I would love to continue is porch performances. They were just gold. Every student would submit 30 seconds of whatever music we were working on. At Halloween, students made videos wearing costumes, and when students were preparing for state contest, their porch performances provided a preview of their audition. Even the color guard members were included. We used iMovie to combine all of these snippets and sent out a performance of the finished videos every Friday night, so everyone would have something to watch over the weekend.
One project that might not get revived is a documentary that included performances by bands from all of the local schools. We weren’t able to have live audiences at that time, so the movie, put together by a Bluecoats staff member, was shown on two nights at the local drive-in. We featured 12 local bands and even had sponsors for the movie. The event was well-received by the community, but took a great deal of work to complete.
What advice would you give to young directors about the importance of good communication?
I believe communication is the second most important task for a director behind careful planning. When one family doesn’t know what is going on it trickles down to create other problems. I have developed a number of creative ways to communicate with everyone. One cool program called Band Together is coordinated with the boosters and has really helped to provide answers to basic questions that come up. Each instrument section has a parent leader. When the member of the flute section has a question about what to wear for a performance on Friday, the parent leader can answer it directly. Those parent leaders also have a leader, who handles my newsletter. I also communicate multiple times every day with my booster president, who is one of the most fabulous humans I have ever met. Without a carefully structured organization, the other directors and I could spend every minute on communication and never teach a note.
Even with all of the help, you are never really off duty as a director. My former color guard director inspired me with his view of our duty to students in the program. He said, “we owe it to the kids to make it great.” It’s all about the musical experience that will make students better in life. I want to make sure that anything I do to better myself also benefits students. Any ensemble in front of me, whether it is a weekend honor band or my students in O’Fallon, I owe them the best I possibly can give. The world is what it is today because someone has taught everyone how to be. Through the arts, we have the honor of teaching students through multiple years and getting to know them more personally than their other teachers.
Before the pandemic, Philip Carter, the assistant director, and I made a 5-10 year plan of where we wanted the program to be in regards to applying for various events, repertoire, and curriculum. We had it all planned out, and then the world ended for a while. The program continued during the pandemic, and we returned with a vengeance, trying to do as many things as possible. Students continued playing on their own and came back stronger than before. We were really eager because our students were really eager. I received a lot of encouragement behind the scenes from James Keene, who recently passed away. It’s bittersweet because he was supposed to conduct a piece on our Midwest concert and will still be honored during the performance in December.
Our students knew we were applying to The Midwest Clinic, but I didn’t want that as a be-all, end-all goal. They know I am a risk taker. I just go for it. In life you have to put yourself out there. It is easy to look at other programs from across the country that have more advantages than us in regard to resources, facilities, and financial backing. We have been able to take what we have here and become resourceful, inventive, and productive. Every day I am honored to be the Director of Bands at O’Fallon Township High School where music flourishes for our students with the support of the school, community, and parents. To look back on the journey and the recent challenges that we have all faced in music education, it is remarkable what our students have been able to accomplish. We continue to work for excellent experiences for each student every day. That is part of what makes this upcoming performance so special.
A native of Monmouth, Illinois, she taught in several Illinois schools before coming to O’Fallon. She earned a Bachelor’s in Music Education from Illinois State University, a Master’s Degree in Music Education from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and a Doctorate in Teaching and Learning from the University of Missouri St. Louis. She is married to Evan Hinds, a music arranger, drill writer, and music adjudicator. They have a 7-year-old daughter, Evelyn.
The band program in O’Fallon has an 80-year history, and when many people think of band programs, they think of marching first. The mayor and his wife marched drum corps, and the previous mayor was supportive of all things band. Although sometimes I wish concert band had more of a public presence, the band program is really embedded in the community, Anywhere I go in town, people know who I am. I am always aware that I am a representative of the school, the kids, the program, and the legacy. I remind students that anywhere I go, I am still their band director, which I find to be a gift and an honor but also a responsibility. I am not sure we talk about this responsibility to our communities enough with students and young directors.
I do have a hard time saying no. Anytime we can do something for the community, we try to do it even if it is small. After finishing camp in August, we participated in several local events before the start of school including opening the local Macy’s and playing at a St. Louis Cardinals game. During the fall, as we prepare for The Midwest Clinic, I want to bring in some different audiences to hear our concert bands besides the parents. For older residents, attending an inside concert, which hasn’t been feasible during the pandemic, is actually easier than coming to a football game in the elements. I am always trying to connect with the community to show all the great things we are doing within our music program at O’Fallon Township High School.