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A Passion for Teaching, An Interview with Dan L. Peterson

Justin Doss | September 2014


     Dan L. Peterson was the director of university bands and conductor of the Wind Symphony at Truman State University, where he taught for 36 years until his retirement this summer. In this interview, he shares his thoughts on music education and some of the lessons learned over his career.

How have school band programs in the midwest changed during your 36-year tenure at Truman State?
    I think that the biggest change in school band programs has been a greater emphasis on marching band. There is no question that marching bands have made a profound contribution to the success of many programs. There are programs that have gained regional and national recognition because of their marching bands. That can only help the public impression of bands in schools. I have also seen an improvement in the quality of the concert bands in those schools that have done well with marching.
    Marching band can also help the band take on a more prominent role in smaller schools. It is always great to see a smaller school band do well and develop a sense that the program is growing, getting better, and providing a good musical experience.
    I also like what I see in the jazz programs at many schools. In Iowa almost every school, regardless of size, seems to have a jazz band, and most often, it is a very good one.
    Finally, I see many, many terrific young music educators these days. I am impressed with the quality of teaching and the enthusiasm of the teachers. Sometimes I feel that my music education colleagues and I should take a bow for the good work we have done with these students.

What are the biggest challenges now facing public school or university band programs, and what solutions would you propose?
    For high schools, I think the biggest challenges are about making the most of the time spent in the classroom. I believe that good planning and preparation is the only sure way to achieve success with classroom work. Good planning involves four parts: a daily plan, a weekly plan, an event-driven plan, and a yearly plan. With a good plan in mind, and with goals for each of these four areas, success is much more likely to be realized. For example, if a goal for the year is to have the clarinet section perform at a higher level, then I might do some event-driven planning, such as planning to play at a state band contest. As part of this planning, I would choose music that has challenging clarinet parts that allow for growth for the individual players and the section as a whole. The weekly plan for this goal might be to devote a segment of time each week to emphasize the clarinet parts in rehearsals, and the daily planning might be to provide as much individual help as possible. All of this work would be done with the yearly goal in mind of having the clarinet section perform at a higher level.
    The second problem, especially in rural areas, is a lack of opportunity to hear truly fine performances of solos, ensembles, and bands. Students in rural schools often do not have an idea of what a really good band sounds like. In metropolitan and suburban areas, there are more opportunities to hear musical performances, including performances at other schools. Directors should encourage their students to attend as many performance opportunities as possible.
    The third big problem is the budget.  In rural schools budgets for music programs are sometimes almost non-existent. Booster groups for smaller rural schools also tend to have a more difficult time with fundraising. That said, there are some wonderful small town bands in Missouri that find a way to make it happen every year. These bands put in lots of hard work every year on their fundraising activities. With schools in most of the larger towns and cities, the programs are usually rolling, and they are supported by fantastic parent groups. Funding and budgeting in the schools, however, seems to be pretty deficient, both in rural and in more metropolitan areas.
    Finally, personnel is a challenge. It is always difficult to find adequate personnel to run all aspects of the marching band, including flag choreography, drumline tech people, and a drill designer, among others. For jazz, it is best to have a specialist who can come in and work with the rhythm section, as well as a person who can assist in teaching improvisation, but these people can be hard to find and also can be another high cost factor.

    As for universities, I can only speak to challenges affecting smaller universities, where the budget is a big concern. Universities normally do not have booster groups, but some outside help can be provided by a university foundation on occasion. Budget challenges have forced us to make changes over the years at Truman State. When our budget dropped a few years back, the music department made the decision to cut travel budgets for ensembles, so now the large ensembles rotate yearly for tours. Our guest artist budget has also been cut to almost nothing. Despite the cut in that part of the budget, some of our studio faculty have done a great job of finding other funding to bring guest artists to campus.
    Secondly, finding and keeping good faculty is a key to success at the college level. We have been very fortunate to have a faculty that has stayed together for long periods of time. In the rare instances when we have had an opening (the last one was eight years ago), finding a person who would fit in with our department and match up with how we do things was the first priority. It has been nice to find people who are fantastic musicians as well as excellent faculty members who are a good fit based on the department’s goals, concepts, and challenges.

What factors do you consider when determining ensemble and chair placement at the university level?
    In all of our auditions, I use an audition form that evaluates tone, intonation, musical expression, technique, and maturity in the first segment, scales in the second segment, and sightreading in the third segment.
    Our top two bands have a two-part audition. The first part of the audition is for incoming freshmen only, and this part of the audition is conducted during our freshman orientation week. At this initial audition we ask students to play prescribed music (which was sent out during the summer), two major scales, a chromatic scale, and two sightreading excerpts. The objective with these auditions is to identify the pool of freshman who are able to play at the level of the top two bands. Those who are not accepted into the top two bands are placed in the third band, our concert band, which does not begin until after the football season is completed.
    The second part of the audition occurs during the first week of classes.  This part is done one section at a time. All of the returning members of each section, along with the newly accepted freshmen, each perform individually, one after another.
    The most important factor to evaluate in the audition is tone. Next I am looking for musicality, nuance in phrasing, and technical accuracy. I check for intonation on the scales. The sightreading portion of the audition helps me to form an opinion on the maturity of the player.
    The section audition leads to top-down seating (i.e., with the best player on top and moving down from there).  So, the first seven clarinets go into Wind Symphony I, and one of them will be assigned to Eb clarinet. The next group of performers will be placed in Wind Symphony II, and again one of those will be assigned to Eb clarinet for the year. All sections in both wind symphonies are filled in this way. After completing the auditions, I consult with the studio professors, with the concern that I do not want to cause any kind of internal issue in the studio. The studio teacher also may be able to offer some insight regarding which students can provide better leadership in the section. Other than that, my decision is based solely on who are the best players.

    The concert band is an all-volunteer band, comprised almost entirely of non-music majors (although music majors playing a second instrument can also be in the band), and it rehearses twice a week. This band has auditions for chair placement only. For this band, because of a shorter preparation time and a membership that might not be as musically proficient, I consider the age and the sightreading ability of the players to be especially significant factors. Placing good sightreaders at the top of the section often will move the section along faster technically and musically.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in your career, and how did you overcome them?

    I graduated from the University of South Dakota in three and a half years and two summers. I was just 21 years old. I began my career in January working at the smallest school in Iowa (or so it seemed to me), with 99 students in grades 7 to 12. The band had 39 members, and the choir had about 20. Some of the students seemed to be at least as old as I was, and they all seemed to drive newer and better cars than mine. My age was probably more of a concern for me than it was for the students. I initially worried about this, but very soon the students just thought of me as the new music teacher.
    The first two schools I taught at had small numbers and maybe one or two outstanding players; there was certainly no depth of high-quality players. There was a good player at the top of a couple sections, but not all sections. At these schools I had to do all of my teaching from the podium, with very little time for individual assistance because of the schedule of the job. This was challenging, but I soon learned to use the band buddy system as a way to have the older students help the younger students.
    These were small rural schools that I worked in, and my biggest challenge was to inspire the students to want to learn more about music. On the podium I learned how to ask questions that were pertinent to what we were rehearsing, and I tried to tweak the students’ interest in what we were doing. I still do this today. I have learned a great deal over the years about moving a rehearsal along at a good pace.
    The third school that I taught at was much larger. The junior high school had a director based there. He also helped out with the three elementary school bands. It took some time to work out a good coordination of our efforts, but once the other director and I started coordinating together, we were cooking. Before then, I was trying to do way too much on my own.
I soon learned about concepts like getting students to want to play better by selecting good, appropriate, and challenging literature. I wish I had known more about literature early in my career. Around this time I started to do a lot of listening and talking with other area directors, trying to soak up every good idea they had. I also learned to really look thoroughly at scores to find the best, most appropriate music for the band. I learned to give the band good challenges. I would tell them, for example, “we are going to work on this tune for three weeks, with six rehearsals to prepare it, and during that time I need you to give your best effort on this piece.”

    The last public school I taught at was Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa. This was Iowa’s largest high school at the time. The band had built a great reputation as a parade band, and with over 300 members, it was the largest marching band on the field. I took over the job from a true icon of a director who had done a great job and who had many supporters in the community. I was told that I had dim prospects for success there because the shoes I had to fill were just too big.
    I knew that I had to win over the students and create an environment of learning in the band. I also knew I had to win over some of the faculty members and parents. I had a few things going for me that I felt would be positive. First, I did not want to change the 300-member parade band, because I was comfortable with that part of the job. On other hand, I knew that I wanted to change the field show concept to corps style, which was almost unheard of in 1974. During that first year, I was able to make dramatic improvements to the sound quality of the field show band by making changes to our drill design. We also added flags, which gave the band new additional color. The marching band took on a new life in my first year, and the students seemed to like it.
    The second change I made to the program was to add a jazz band. Many of the students in the band had wanted to play in a jazz band, so this was an easy change to make. I had put together some fine jazz bands at my previous schools, and I felt very comfortable about adding jazz to the curriculum. By the end of the year, I was directing two jazz bands at the high school.
    The students also achieved some measurable success during my first year at the school. At the all-state auditions that year we had ten students who were accepted into the all-state band and orchestra. I believe that achievements like those helped me survive that first year.

What was your first position after directing band in public schools?
    After four years teaching at Valley High School, I was hired to be the director of bands at Northeast Missouri State University in Kirksville, Missouri. At the time this was a regional university servicing an area of northern Missouri, southern Iowa, and western Illinois. The school had about 5,000 undergraduate students. The music school, and particularly the jazz program, had an excellent reputation. However, the program was small, with only 73 students signed up for marching and concert bands in the fall. Increasing our numbers was the first challenge. I chose to do this first by drawing from the students who were already on campus. We put up a lot of posters, held music rehearsals outdoors in different parts of campus, and had the drumline (which was a new concept) rehearse in the evening in the campus quad grass area. As a result of these promotional efforts, we gained about ten new members in the band and three or four in the drumline, and we also recruited an entire color guard of sixteen members.
    I thought it was important to make sure that not only the campus, but also the recruiting area, was aware of our ensembles, because I knew that our groups would attract new students. We traveled on three occasions that fall to various events outside of campus. Two years later we had approximately 140-150 students in the marching band. Five years later we had 240 sign up for marching band. We also attracted so many students to the concert band that I had to divide it up into two ensembles.

What traits do you think are the best predictors of band director success?
    Passion – passion for teaching, passion for students, passion for conducting. You must be a people person and enjoy being around people. It is also important to be a good communicator, hopefully with a vision of where you want to go with your students and your program.
    It is also valuable to have a good ability to organize on several levels and to focus on goals for the group. People who are self-centered do not turn out to be as successful as those who are all in it for the group. People who are all about themselves on the podium just don’t seem to make it.

What traits are the best predictors of a performer’s success?
    For a music performance major, it all starts with good practice routines. Students who have established good practice routines will have a greater chance for success. The music performance students also really have to love playing their instrument and take every opportunity to make music with it. There has to something inside them that says, “I want to be the best I can be.” There must be an internal competitiveness.

What advice should high school teachers offer to students who express an interest in pursuing music education after graduation?

    Do it! You will have the best time of your life, but you must be ready to become completely immersed in music. If you are excited about continuing to perform on your instrument, and then teach everything you have learned to other people, you will love being a music major.
    Beyond that, I find that a lot of students come to college believing, “I learned to play well, so I can be a music teacher.” These students should be told that there is more to it than just playing well. They need to be aware of the music theory component, the music history component, and all of the music education classes. It is not just about playing the instrument. I would recommend that high school teachers encourage the teaching of music theory in high school, if possible. Not only would this give the student a leg up in learning theory, but it might also give the student the ability to test out of the first semester of theory in college. (This might also happen if the student scores well on the AP Music Theory exam.)
    I think it is also important to work with students on developing some piano skills. In addition, I would also hope that directors could somehow give their students the opportunity to observe some junior high or elementary classes to get a small taste of what goes on in that part of the job.

Why did you initially enter the field of music education?
    I had a great band director in high school and was part of a very good band. I thought that I might want to do this, and there was a buddy of mine who was thinking the same thing. My band director sat us down one day, and we had a chat about it. During our senior year he got us going with some music theory that he put together, and he also got us started on some beginning piano activities. (He was a wonderful jazz pianist, and I was really intrigued and inspired by this guy being a band director.)
    More than anything, our director was very concerned about where we would be going to college. He was not an advocate for one particular college or another, but he recommended that we check out where the good directors in our area of the state had gone to college. He said that you need to look at the schools that have proven results in preparing music education students. I believe he was right.

Have you changed as an educator?
    I can’t believe how much I have changed. I have learned so much – way too much – by trial and error, and I have also learned through continuing education, attending so many conferences and clinics, and reading things like The Instrumentalist for 48 years. Over the years I have learned never to be afraid to try something. Always be ready to change. I recently read an article on conducting using boxing analogies. These analogies are now a part of my graduate conducting class.
    I also work harder now at being ready for every rehearsal, every performance, and every new project. I believe my conducting technique has gone past a level where I am just surviving to a level where I am trying to truly inspire the musical performance. The pace of my rehearsals is also quite a bit quicker now with, for the most part, much less verbal content from me. I smile a lot more during rehearsals than I used to. I acknowledge great musical moments by the students much more often. My knowledge of literature has also grown immensely over the years. I wish I had known so much more about the literature when I was starting. I now include a band literature segment in all of the graduate courses I teach.

What do you want your students to remember about their collegiate music experience?

    I want my students to remember that they were better performers and musicians when they finished than when they began. I remember a year when the flute section had three freshmen in it. After a rehearsal in the fall, one of them looked up at me and said, “Every piece of music you give me is the hardest thing I have ever played!”  Four years later, she looked up at me at the end of a rehearsal and said, “Why don’t we play any of those really difficult pieces that we played when I was a freshman?” We were working on the Hindemith Symphony in Bb at the time. I also hope that the members of the bands I have conducted will remember our rehearsals as being the best part of their day.