All of us sat in that sophomore level Music History class in college and dreamt about the extraordinary band we were going to have someday. But, with a bit of teaching experience under my belt, and lots of trial and error, it occurred to me that empowering my students to make their band better is really the key.
After being hired as the Director of Bands for Seguin ISD, I immediately met with the student leaders to find out their thoughts on making their band better. I had to get to know them first so I asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The answers allow me to make some assumptions:
- If “I don’t know” is the answer, then we will spend some time and energy on setting goals, creating a culture of achievement and setting a reward system.
- If “I want to be a doctor, attorney, etc.” is the answer, then you know you have students who are driven, students who need and want to be pushed.
In Seguin we had both answers, so we created a program for both of them.
But, there was one question that changed everything in the program and district wide. I asked the students the first time I met them, “If you were the band director, what would you change in your band program?”
Their answers became the driving force in everything we did! They responded with:
- More Discipline
- Motivate the Students
- Be More Punctual
- Make the Members More Responsible
- Change the Attitude
- Have More Patience
- Be More Competitive
Now everything we do is compared to the expectations set up by the members.
You have to show up on time, and once you are in rehearsal, you need to be quiet. It’s better, but honestly, it’s a work in progress.
Motivate the Students
We decided to perform more difficult literature and perform more often. If you give the band 90 days until the next concert, it will take the band 89 days to get prepared. Our average is a performance every 30 days. Because of a more intense schedule, the members are far more motivated.
Make the Members More Responsible
We increased expectations. I trusted the students to work out their music. That is a change from the past where the students worked out every note in sectionals. It is now the student’s responsibility to get the notes worked out at home and I work on the music.
Set your expectations early and stick to your guns. I don’t fight the kids, so no arguing allowed! The students have input on sectionals and rehearsals. The kids set the schedule, therefore, the expectation is they will attend and be on time. Keeping track of their bow ties is a separate issue!
Change the Attitude
The band had done things the same way for about 10 years. Changing the attitude was and is still something we work on every day. Our motto has become, “make the impossible, possible." Most of the strategies we use are pretty basic.
- Establish a rapport with the individual members. Ask what they are interested in. Ask about their families, their work, their hobbies. Then, remember their answers and talk to the kids about the things they are interested in.
- Build a consensus and take action.
- Play every event you can. We performed over 40 times from December to March. We had small groups play at Christmas: they played the Rotary Club Christmas party, the Chamber of Commerce banquet, small jazz groups played at the coffee shop and at every art event in town. By playing a lot, we created a ton of positive energy, created a lot of awareness in the program… plus the kids learned and performed a bunch of chamber music. It was AWESOME!
- Create ownership! I asked the leaders how we can “motivate the unmotivated” and then took action on their suggestions.
Have More Patience
It’s not their fault. What is that old saying? “You don’t know what you don’t know.” We started from the very beginning and worked slowly until we could play the selection. I looked at every child and made adjustments in their hand position, embouchure, articulation, tone production…anything and everything that would make the individual play better. During the first week of one hour sectionals the French horns played 4 measures..the tubas made it through one note. But, that one note was pretty okay!
Be More Competitive
I wanted to be really competitive with a certain team. For marching band, we scheduled some contests where the competition was more difficult. Some of the staff had their doubts, but by the end of the season, the band had won most of the competitions and had beaten most of the teams we targeted. It’s simple: GOAL MAKING WORKS!
How do you make band more fun?
- Enjoy the process. If you treat the kids with respect, work with a purpose, and expect greatness, as a result the process becomes enjoyable.
- Make time to play! Schedule time to get to know each other outside of class.
- Laugh A LOT!
- Don’t take yourself so seriously! It’s music, so it’s supposed to be fun!
Director’s Choice called me in October 2016. "An ensemble has cancelled their trip to New York to perform in Carnegie Hall. Do you want the slot?" We would need to learn 40 minutes of music and fundraise a considerable amount of money.
As I type this story, we are in New York preparing for the Seguin High School Band's debut in Carnegie Hall. The band learned six selections including “Rhapsody in Blue” and raised over $260,000 in just 90 days!
The members rehearsed over the winter break, attended two additional after school band rehearsals per week plus their sectionals. They learned to be outstanding baby sitters, mowed lawns, raked leaves, painted, cleaned houses, sold cupcakes, tamales, tacos plus anything else to make some money.
Their families gave up their Christmas presents, worked extra shifts and twisted the arm of every relative they knew to get the money to send their kids on the trip. The band members made a commitment and fulfilled their responsibility to themselves, their families and the community.
The kids learned that NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE and during the process, the kids became better people, better musicians and the Seguin Band became that band that I dreamed about leading in college. What’s next? I think a marching band on the moon would be cool!