On Keeping Percussionists Busy


"I have (x) percussionists in my band, and I need a good grade (x) piece that will keep them busy."

Does statement above sound familiar? Now I ask you... have you ever heard a band director talking about finding a piece that will keep other instrumentalists busy? Sure, "challenge the flutes" perhaps or "go easy" on some other "weak" section, but "keep them busy" ... do you see what I'm pointing out here? Implicit in the phrase "keep them busy" is the idea that we need our percussionists out of our way, occupied, or otherwise tied-up in some activity so that we can teach... the others.

Have you ever programmed a piece that had a third clarinet part with only one whole note in the middle of the piece, and one more at the end? Or a piece that called for no more than three trumpets, and demanded that the others sit out in order to preserve "the composers intent" or some other such nonsense?

Of course not!

You would never do that to your woodwinds and brass, would you? But how often do we program a piece that has no more than two suspended cymbal rolls, or make the decision not to double (or supplement) percussion parts, leaving percussionists sitting in the back of the room "causing trouble?"

I've been teaching a long time, and believe me I realize that there are many challenges when it comes to finding music that fits your entire ensemble. Lest this post be seen as nothing more than a rant, here are some suggestions:

Don't be a purest

Did you ever notice that most directors will program a piece even if the fourth horn part will be left out, yet they refuse to add mallet parts because "that's not what the composer intended?" Do we think the composer intended for parts to be left out either? So why do we worry about adding parts? Seriously, let's remember that our main objective is to teach all students to become self-sufficient, expressive musicians. That does not happen when students are sitting out. If I have to choose between composer intent and actually teaching every student in the room, that is an easy choice.

Don't program garbage just to keep percussionists busy

True, there are newer works that have many percussion parts, and we need to encourage composers to continue to treat the percussion section as an equal. But much of this new music is trite, repetitive, and requires very little critical thinking. And sometimes the percussion writing may be interesting but the woodwind and brass parts are not good. I would much rather see teachers program excellent repertoire and supplement and/or double the percussion parts than spend 8 weeks playing trite music.

Don't ignore the long-term problem

Most of us will readily address the issue of not having any tubas or clarinets. But few of us will address the over-enrollment of percussion. At some point, we must be willing to enact long-term solutions that get instrumentation in balance. If you are the only teacher you have control over this issue, and if you are part of a group of articulated teachers you must work together to solve it. But solve it you must.

Think outside the box. Couldn't you make it standard practice that all percussionists also double on another instrument? If you did, might some decide to play that instrument permanently? If you strengthened your recruitment efforts for instruments of need, might you see more students elect to play those instruments instead of percussion? Those of us who taught during the era of the saxophone's popularity had to solve these same issues of over-enrollment. But unfortunately some teachers only deal in the near-term (crisis mode) rather than looking at the causes and address those in order to insure long-term success. Is your problem that you can't find music to fit your band, or that you have no system for recruiting, promoting, and sustaining balanced instrumentation?

If this post aggravates you a little bit, I hope that you will count to ten and do a little soul searching first before falling into a defensive frame of mind. Yes of course, your situation is unique, and no one will fully understand what you are going through except you. But at the same time...if you won't solve it, who will? And let me be clear: Keeping your percussionists "busy" is not solving anything. I also want to be clear that I too struggle with this very issue. Finding repertoire that serves all students is difficult. And yes, sometimes a percussionist is going to have just two rolls on suspended cymbal. But that same student had better have some meaningful learning on the remaining pieces on the concert.

Start by shifting your focus. We are not paid to keep students busy. We are not paid to leave students out. We are not paid to put the composer's interests above our students' education. We are not paid to teach a woodwind and brass ensemble with percussion accompaniment. Get creative, get motivated, and get about the business of programming great repertoire and teaching all of your students to be great musicians.

Why Grapes?

Why music? It seems our profession has felt obligated to explain music's value for decades, yet (not surprisingly) has failed to come up with a concise, decisive answer to this perplexing question.

I don't think it can be answered...I don't think it needs to be answered. There are many things whose value cannot be defined, and yet they are clearly valued.

Take grapes. Ever notice that no one ever says "Why Grapes?" Clearly we can describe how they are used, but is that the essence of grapes? Seriously now.....why grapes? Could we survive without them? What is the unique value of this vine-grown goodness? Is there such a thing as Grapes For Grapes Sake?

Even though there is no clear answer for "Why Grapes?" their value is demonstrated each and every day in the human desire for grapes, whether alone or included in a variety of ways in other food and drink. No one worries about Grape Advocacy, but an awful lot of growers worry night and day about the quality of their soil and vines, temperatures, and watering regimen. And rightly so. If the grapes are sour, people will not want them. There will always be a market for wonderfully sweet grapes in numerous varieties, whether or not we can answer "Why Grapes?" See the line of thought here? Think about it.

Are we asking...and worrying...about the right questions when it comes to music education? Perhaps rather than trying to answer questions that can't really be answered, we should focus more on the quality of our instruction, our repertoire, types of course offerings, and our learning outcomes. Those are areas with questions that NEED answers, and in fact lay the foundation of value we're so worried about in the first place.

Grow excellent grapes.

Teaching With Krazy Glue

In our dining room we have four windows. A number of years back we purchased custom fabric blinds (roman shade style), and each came with an extra piece of matching fabric to use as a little valence which covers the mechanism at the top. There is a strip of Velcro on the mechanism, and a strip of Velcro on the fabric. Pair the Velcro, done.

So this one particular window must have a unique temperature fluctuation, because when the morning sun heats it just right after a cold evening, the adhesive on the back of the Velcro that sticks to the mechanism gives way and the valence falls off with both pieces of Velcro attached to it. The other three window valences are just fine.

The first time this happened my wife left it on the table for me. I noticed that the adhesive was really tacky (and warm), so I stuck the valence back on the blind and it held just fine....until the next time, which would sometimes be weeks or even months later. I would check the adhesive, and sure enough still really sticky, and I would tack it back up on the window. Does this remind you of the scene in It's A Wonderful Life where every time George Bailey comes down the stairs he pulls the top off the banister? Yeah, me too.

So the other day I came downstairs and noticed that my wife had again placed the valence on the table. In a moment of clarity, I opened a drawer and took out the Krazy Glue and dabbed it on the back of the Velcro, then put the valence back up. Guess what? Yeah that valence is never coming down now. Duh, why didn't I do that the first time?

So what does this have to do with teaching?

How many times have you had to "revisit a concept" with your students that you KNOW you had already taught them? Darn these kids! Your lesson plan gets trashed as you "hang the valence back up on the window" and it sticks and all appears fine...until the next time. Have the students learned the concept, or was the lesson something that would hold temporarily?

Just like using the Krazy Glue on the valence, what are we doing to be sure that a concept will stick for the long haul? Is a concept really taught if it won't stick permanently? And how do we know the difference?

When I stuck that valence up for what I knew would be the final time, I felt pretty silly about all those times I just kept sticking it back up there, thinking that maybe this time it would hold forever. Foolish, but I did it, time and time again.

Anyway, something to ponder.

You're not the teacher you could be

Improving as a teacher is a conscious decision that one must choose...it doesn't "just happen." It involves moving beyond "why aren't my students trying harder" to "what is it about my teaching that leaves my students uninspired and unable to retain the concepts I am trying to help them learn?"

Tough to look in that mirror? You bet it is.

But one of the problems in our society today is that we have associated self-criticism with "beating ourselves up." That's too bad, because people who are successful know that the most productive way to a healthy and happy career is a regular and honest review of:

What I am doing


The outcome of what I am doing

So, I am doing x,y, and z on a daily basis. Am I seeing evidence of learning based on those approaches, habits, beliefs?

If not, am I willing to change, or will I simply:

bear down on my students

tell them to work harder

guilt them into "learning"

See where I'm going with this?

If we want our students to learn more, enjoy more, take more ownership for their musicianship, then we are the ones who must improve the most, not them. Are your students excited to learn from you each day? If not...who do you suppose in responsible for changing that?

Look, I struggle just like you do. I'm not getting my students to the depth of learning that they deserve to experience in music. But I know this, and I have been able to say it for several years now:

One week from now I will not be the teacher I am today. I will be moving forward, trying new approaches, and digging just a little deeper so my students can understand the joys of music just a little bit better than they do now. If I don't do that, nothing is going to change.

Like me, you are not the teacher you could be. Don't be depressed by that, see it as good news. Get excited about the fact that the better you become, the more your students will learn. It took me far too long to realize that very simple truth.

Understanding Transition Years

The Band Directors Group has provided interesting insights to the profession. If I had to name the most common problem faced by new teachers it would be the navigation of the transition year. A poorly handled transition often results in a student culture that takes years to correct, makes you miserable on a daily basis, and can even lead to early burnout or dismissal. I don't want to see these things happen to you. There are steps you can take to make the transition a more positive experience. The main point is understanding that teaching is not about you, it's about your students. And this is never more true than in a transition year.

Some veteran teachers who read this article may have personally suffered through a bad transition. What I've written here may or may not have saved you. Everyone's situation is unique, and everyone's skill set is different. If you have additional helpful thoughts you should add them in the comments section below.

The Key: Evaluating your predecessor

Most teachers who have gone through multiple transitions have come to recognize that the process is definitely more of an art than a science. But there are some concrete things you can be aware of during this critical time. One essential aspect is understanding the type of teacher you are following. Some might say not to worry about this, but to me it is a key component. Everything you say and (especially) do during the first year will be compared to the previous teacher by parents, admins, and especially students. So let's take a look at the possibilities (in reference to graphic above).

1. Following a good musician/teacher who was well-liked

This is generally a good situation for you musically (if you are a strong musician...and I hope you are) because you are going to be able to continue to teach good technique and repertoire. However this will be a challenge for you relationally because the students are going to be dealing with feelings of abandonment and you are going to feel the brunt of this. You must remember that students are not mature enough to do otherwise, especially those who are in their last year in the building (seniors, for example). Do not add fuel to the fire by changing much of anything. Keep things the way they are and instead, focus on building relationships with students. Learn names quickly, engage students in conversations about future plans and their interests outside of music. 

And here is another important one: building relationships with parents is just as important. Eventually the program will be yours but right now you are basically an invited guest, you need to realize that. You are going to have to work just as hard to build trusting relationships with parents as you do with the kids. Teach to the best of your abilities and be thankful that you are inheriting a strong program. Be patient.

2. Following a good musician/teacher who was disliked

After doing your research you may have found that your predecessor was a solid musican. You see evidence of good repertoire and a well-rounded curriculum. But if for whatever reason the teacher was disliked, you may find that students are resistant to things that make good musical sense because they associate those things with the former teacher. In short, they may desire change that is not good for them. 

Furthermore they may assume that you, like the last teacher, will show little care and concern for them. Building trusting relationships needs to be job one in this situation. Each and every day you need to build one-to-one relationships with students. You have to break the cycle of distrust while maintaining as much musical integrity as they will allow. Be patient.

3. Following an incompetent musician/teacher who was well-liked

This is by far the most frustrating situation, especially if you have high musical expectations. You must remind yourself daily that you are asking for trouble by moving too fast with your musical expectations. Slow down. When students like a former teacher they will associate everything that was taught to them as correct, so conversely everything you try to do differently will be considered incorrect. Don't dwell on this...accept it and get through the year with as little change as possible. The program will be yours soon enough. Do not ever disparage the former teacher. Much of quadrant number one applies here as well. Be patient.

4. Following an incompetent musician/teacher who was disliked

While not a no-brainer situation, this is by far the smoothest situation to manage. Students will be glad you are there (thought they may not show it) and they may indeed welcome some change, but you must still be strategic and don't forget to build relationships and consensus with students and parents. Make them a part of this exciting new era. Identify a few positive changes that will be widely accepted and take your time with the rest. Remember that the students' weak musicianship is not their fault. Be patient.

Being "You"

This is where the art comes into play. Given the situation, you may feel like you just can't be the teacher you expected to be this year (this is especially true for first-year teachers). You will hear a lot of people suggest to "just be you." I'm going to very carefully disagree with that. 

Your first concern in a transition year must be your students. If they are used to certain traditions, routines, practices that are not what you had envisioned for yourself, you need to consider their world first. If "being you" means doing things differently, think twice. There is a very fine line between being consistent with your predecessor and being too far out of your comfort zone, I get that. But if you stay focused on the fact that none of this is the students' fault, you will usually know the best way to proceed, and usually that is very slowly in regards to change. If your predecessor had high musical standards and the students liked him/her, well you'd better learn the extant repertoire, and have the score in your head and your head out of the score! If your predecessor chose substandard literature and was well-liked...breathe deeply and don't start programming masterworks this year. If your predecessor told a joke every Friday, and you aren't the joking type, suck it up for a year and tell some jokes. You get the idea. Put yourselves in the students' shoes...remember, even after the transition, it's not about you anyway.

Build trust, be empathetic, and be patient. You can do it.

Afterword: Several readers have mentioned the importance of never, ever, disparaging the former teacher. This is of course imperative. Don't do it... not in front of students, parents, or within the BDG. And if the students do it, don't condone it (and remember that ignoring it is the same as condoning it). 

Good luck, and never be too proud to ask for help!

For The Love Of The Music

Yesterday our district had its annual classical festival for band, orchestra and choir. The guest conductor for orchestra was Don Schleicher from the University of Illinois, and I took the opportunity to spend several hours watching him rehearse.

What really made an impression on me was how much he loved the music. It was so apparent throughout the day, and I think it was as obvious to the students as it was to me. His decisions about balance, style, and his overall expectations from the students were centered around great repertoire and how much he cared for it...how essential it was for the students to honor it.

There is a subtle but important difference between expecting students to play well and expecting them to play well because the music deserves it. When the students sense that it is a priviledge to perform the music before them, their approach changes from being self-centered to others-oriented. Why? Because the only way to honor the music is to make the ensemble the focus, rather than oneself. This applies to the teacher as well.

This of course brings up the topic of how the teacher can be passionate about the music being taught when in fact it isn't great music. You can't, not unless you are a terrific actor, and even then the students are going to sense it. Great repertoire (not to be confused with difficult repertoire) is a mandate for us.

There is great music written for all grade levels (start here), so choosing repertoire that lacks depth and meaning is not only avoidable, but is essential in empowering you the teacher to be energized and passionate in ways that will remind you of why you decided to do this job in the first place....for the love of the music.

I believe that most of the good and bad experiences we have in our rehearsal rooms are fostered by repertoire choices we make. Put yourself in the position of teaching repertoire that will allow your love for the music to show through. The students deserve to see you at your best, and that just can't happen through careless repertoire selection. Make a commitment to share your love of music from the podium every day. You can do it.

How to teach a chatty ensemble

You don't.

If students are not engaged, stop teaching. Wait for them to engage.

But if I'm always stopping and waiting, how will we get anything done?

Do you really think you are getting anything done by teaching while students are ignoring you? Actually you are accomplishing something, but it's not good: You are reinforcing the idea that students do not have to pay attention to you. When it's clearly optional to you, the decision to disengage becomes easy for them.

I don't want to be mean...I don't want students to dislike me or my class.

Look, my rehearsals are not silent. I am a fan of students asking clarifying questions of one another during rehearsal. I want students to enjoy making music, I don't want them fearing me, we even laugh once in a while ;-)

But when I need everyone to listen, I wait until everyone is listening. The more you do this, the less you'll need to wait, trust me. You don't need to be angry (and in fact you shouldn't be), you just need to be patient. The students need to know that you will not teach unless they engage. Having an expectation that students engage with you does not make you mean, it makes you more effective.

If you feel your teaching is worth it (and I hope you do), then don't try to teach a chatty ensemble. Wait for quiet, then teach your butt off.

Reducing Short Term Conflicts through Long Term Solutions


The Band Directors Group on Facebook has been a great way to "crowd-source" solutions to many challenges. Due to the fact that we all understand how conflict can wear us down, our members are quick to offer up ideas that bring relief to the immediate problem. In the larger picture though it's important to consider (a) how we got into the predicament and (b) what we can do to systemically alter our own approach so that we are actually addressing the cause of the problem moving forward.

My concern is that too many teachers are resistant to looking in the mirror and making fundamental changes to the structure of their programs and/or the way they teach. This can result in a constant mode of "putting out fires" that can almost seem normal after many years.

It's not normal, and let me just say it: You need to do better. You can do better.

The first step is to stop thinking that you:

  • Have the worst luck in the world
  • Have the worst parents
  • Have the least-capable administrators
  • Have the least motivated students

...and realize that the only person who can really fix your situation is you. If it seems you are always in the midst of one problem or another, chances are you are not spending enough time in creating and implementing long-term solutions.

Let's take a look at some problems along with some possible short-term and long-term solutions. CHALLENGE: Resist the temptation to say "yeah, but you don't understand...in my situation...." and remember that the only person who can implement successful change is you.

Problem: "I only have one (or zero) tuba/bassoon/horn/bass clarinet in my band, what are some strategies for fixing balance issues?"

Short-Term Solution:

  • Changing the physical setup
  • Re-scoring the music
  • Altering dynamics
  • Choosing non-exposed repertoire

Long-Term Solution:

  • Making a commitment to start and/or switch more _______ players.
  • Choose repertoire that engages that instrument and validates the students' critical role in the ensemble.
  • Purchase more of said instrument and/or keep current inventory in great shape so students do not feel punished for picking a high-need instrument.
  • Create a hand-out that discusses the importance of balanced instrumentation and helps students to understand what is needed in order for the ensemble to have a productive experience.
  • Publicly recognize students who have switched instruments.

Problem: "I have a student who JUST informed me that he will not be at our concert on Tuesday night due to a basketball game! How should I handle this?"

Short-Term Solution:

  • Meet with the coach
  • Speak with parents
  • Talk to your administrators

Long-Term Solution:

  • Work with coaches and administrators to create and implement a published conflict strategy that is endorsed by all parties, presented in writing to all families.
  • Issue a form that is signed and returned by each student and a parent, acknowledging that they understand the policy.
  • Update curriculum to include rationale for credit assigned to co-curricular performances and the criteria for make-up assignments. Performances are not activities.
  • Communicate upcoming performances often and well in advance.
  • Set a deadline for conflicts to be considered and/or make up assignments to be submitted.

Problem: "I have a booster president that is out of control and has been in place for five years. I feel like I can't even have a say in how money is spent or what they will support. What should I do?"

Short-Term Solution:

  • Meet with booster president, express your concerns.
  • Consider asking president to step down if compromise cannot be reached.

Long-Term Solution:

  • Create (or revise) by-laws which clearly state how monetary decisions are to be made.
  • Implement an elections process so the group experiences a healthy rotation of leadership.
  • Attend every booster meeting and find time to communicate regularly with the president in order to maintain a trusting and productive relationship.

In each of these cases, the long-term solution involves a lot of work and frankly I think that is why many teachers continuously move from one problem to the next throughout their careers.  In the long run you will effectively reduce (or even eliminate) recurring problems by implementing true, systemic change. Every time I experience a conflict of some sort, my mind immediately starts dealing with how to solve it in the near-term...that's natural and necessary. But after the conflict has passed I spend some time thinking about what is lacking in the structure of my program or my teaching that allowed the conflict to manifest itself. Over the years this has greatly reduced conflicts, improved my teaching, and ultimately made our program a much happier place.

The long term solution almost always includes putting something in writing, whether it is a change in curriculum, policy, by-laws, etc. Think about your most recent problem. If I asked you to show me what you had in writing, would you be able to hand me anything, and would it hold water? Is it endorsed by your administration? Put everything in writing, and get it endorsed.

Teaching music is busy, so much so that we rarely find the time to think about the bigger picture. There is rarely an immediate benefit to a long-term solution, which makes it easy to put it off. Reviewing your plan for smoke-detector maintenence is questionable while the house is actually burning down...I get that. Still, make sure to regularly carve out time for the formulation of long-term solutions. You're going to be in this profession for a long time, so eventually the postive changes you initiate are going to catch up to you. As David Chilton said, "The best time to plant an oak tree is twenty years ago. The next best time is right now."

Start planting.....

Thank you Steve, for everything



Steve Jobs enabled us to interact with our world in ways that are at once both powerful and elegant. If you use Apple products, you know this. But even if you don't use Apple products Steve made your stuff better too. He raised the bar for all companies. If you wanted to compete with Apple, you had to start caring about the consumer.

I know I will not see another in my lifetime who has such a relentless commitment to the consumer experience combined with incomparable taste, and the tenacity to lead people with a laser-like focus toward the goal. It sure was great to watch.

If I close my eyes I can see Steve sitting down with The Big Man for a one-to-one tutorial with the iPad 2. For some reason, it just doesn't sound that crazy, does it?

Thank you Steve, for everything.

Can Competitive Marching Band Be Healthy?

photo credit

Let me just say it: I think that competitive marching band can be a very beneficial activity for students. Many of our students are not in a sport, and marching band can be a great way (sometimes their only opportunity) to experience competition prior to the rest of their (post schooling) life. But as with all aspects of a carefully-structured music program, the framework and philosophy put in place correlates to the type of experience the students will have. It shapes their views on what it means to have a successful season and whether that amounts to something other than a trophy count.

I know there are probably some teachers reading this who (like myself) no longer compete...or perhaps never have. Please know that this article isn't really written for you. This is for the folks that compete and have a little knot in their stomach because something isn't feeling just right as they drive home from a competition.

I'm going to start with the most problematic aspect of assuring student success in competitive marching band, and then I'll touch on some other aspects that are equally critical to the health of the group.

Warning: This involves some serious gut-checking.

The most fundamental aspect of being successful in competitive marching band is the vehicle...your show. Unfortunately this foundation tends to be the weakest area for many bands. For many directors it is something that has to be merely checked off, or worse yet, something that gets put off. What some directors end up with is an odd combination of last minute ideas put together by committee because time has run out and we have to "go with something at this point."

If you are going to compete, you owe it to your students to provide them with an achieveable show that, when mastered, has the capability to receive a great score.

If you cannot grasp and actuate this important reality then it's going to be a long year (or career). Students deserve a vehicle that is both effective and achieveable given their current ability level. I think that many directors know that their show is not what it should be, but figure that if the students just work harder it will somehow be OK. This is simply wrong, and it will create a lot of frustration for your students. Over the years I have seen (and fallen prey to) things that prevent the students from doing well such as:

  • A show concept that is too esoteric for the students (or anyone) to grasp
  • Drill that is too difficult for their current ability level and/or does not serve the music properly
  • Music that is too difficult and/or does not account for instrumentation issues
  • Music/Drill that is too simplistic
  • Show design/coordination that does not properly address the "GE moments" that are necessary to hold interest (BIG problem here for many groups)
  • Program construction that has been turned over to staff rather than properly originated and guided by you, the teacher

Again, the vehicle is the most important factor in setting up your students for success. A compelling, thoughtful show with appropriate levels of difficulty will foster buy-in, capture/involve the audience/adjudicators, and create a synergy that will propel your students through the season in a postive manner.

Don't hire an arranger, give them a few titles, and wait for the results. Get the score and sketch out the edits YOU want and/or take recordings and splice together the general flow. YOU decide where the impact points should be. YOU decide where the woodwinds get their time in the sun, or where the percussion break will be. Then YOU meet with the visual designer and, arrangement in hand, talk about the required staging and coordination. Don't hope for compelling show, ensure it. And if you are the design staff...don't be proud, get some feedback early in your process from trusted colleagues. This season, while you are still thinking about it, watch the audience (not just your own band parents), and really listen to what your judges tapes are revealing to you.


Lack of commitment to this issue is the reason I refuse to adjudicate anymore. I just couldn't stand to put a number on students who are clearly working hard but have a vehicle that is lacking, incoherent, or mismatched to their abilities. I think some directors spend more time planning their awards banquet than they do envisioning every aspect of their show, and that's just not right. I think most current judges...if they could be completely honest with directors...would say that the main problem with marching bands is the vehicle, not the subsequent instruction and certainly not the students. Without a strong vehicle, your students have too much to overcome. They are at a disadvantage through no fault of their own.

It is your job to provide a vehicle that is as thoughtful and effective as those with whom you are competing. Anything less is an injustice to your students.

Now, let's assume that the vehicle you have put together can be successful. The next important areas are:

  • An efficient system of learning music and drill, and appropriate contact time to accomplish it
  • The right level of staffing (read "budget") for design and for proper instruction
  • Participation in shows that have your group in similar company
  • An enacted philosophy that defines competition as an internal quest for perfection

This last point is essential to a healthy marching program. As directors in the very top (state/national) echelons will tell you, there is only one band that can "win." So in fact groups at the top of the activity spend more time not winning than they do winning…most win nothing. And yet these upper level groups find the experience to be positive. This is because those teachers understand it is incumbent upon them to lay out a philosophy that takes this important truth into account:

The better you become, the less likely it is that you will receive any external rewards.

When a marching band consistently has a vehicle that fits them well, improvement ensues. This is most readily reflected in rankings initially. But after a time the band will reach a level where most of the groups are of a very similar ability. At this point there is very little "upward" movement. Does this mean the band is no longer having success? Have we stagnated? Why can't we beat anyone anymore?

See the problem with this method of measuring success?

You must prepare your students for this phase, otherwise you have set them up for disappointment that is no fault of their own. The real competition is the band's ability to master the vehicle, period. It is an internal quest that has very little to do with the event they are attending each weekend.

This is an extremely mature level of thought, and that is why I think marching band can be so beneficial if done right. But again, it comes down to the teacher's mindset and the framework you provide for the students.

Here are some things you must never do.

  • Never...ever, mention other schools negatively as a way of motivating your group
  • Never...ever, foster a dislike for judges within your students
  • Never...ever, allow students to do anything other than support and appreciate other schools at a contest
  • Never...ever, allow your students to think that success is manifested in the rankings...it's not


Be honest: How are you doing with the points above? Do you see the connection between these points and an unhealthy experience? If you won't or can't make it healthy, should your students be competing? If you don't have a choice, do you have some professional development to do? Like I said, there is some serious gut-checking here.

Golf is not, on the whole, a game for realists. By its exactitudes of measurement it invites the attention of perfectionists.

~Heywood Hale Broun

Marching band is alot like golf: It's the golfer against the course (for band students it's the vehicle). All pro golfers will tell you this is so...the more competitive you wish to be, the less you must think about anything except your own game. As soon as you begin to think that what you do has something to do with what someone else is doing, the wheels are going to come off. Like golf, marching band an internal effort: You do your best personal best, and the outcome is the outcome. That's how marching band works. Well, how it's supposed to work.

Now, golfers will also tell you that if they were forced to use inferior clubs, had a terrible caddy, or used a damaged golf ball all day, the experience would change drastically. This is why my first points about the vehicle, learning system, and staff are so important. Do not give your students the equivalent of crappy clubs, no caddy, dime store golf balls, and then expect them to be successful and enjoy the experience.

The bottom line: Watch your students as the scores are being read. You will know if your situation is healthy or not. If it's not, you know who can fix it.

(Join the discussion on our facebook group for band directors)