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 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?

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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'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)

In The Midst Of The Struggle

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Today I was talking with a student about a piece that she is working on in a colleague's class. It's a, technical, and really exciting for both the performer and the listener. You could tell that she really wants to get it right, and she was frustrated that she doesn't have it mastered yet.

"It's such a struggle" she said.

"Yeah" I said, "but the things that are really worth knowing are uncovered in the midst of the struggle."

"I had a feeling you were going to say something like that" she said with a smile.

But it's true. It's not only about a great performance, it's what you learn about yourself and the music along the way, especially when it's a struggle. Those are the discoveries that mean the most.

Help your students to embrace the struggle. That's where the good stuff resides.

Sharing Your Way To Great Teaching: BDs Are (Virtually) Connected


Once upon a time there were a few ways you could improve your teaching in a meaningful way:

  • Go to graduate school
  • Attend a convention
  • Read an article or book

Within the last year, a fourth option came into being:

  • Engage in meaningful dialogue with the entire profession, any time of day, 24/7/365

Um, come again?

Truth be told, the Band Directors Group on Facebook does not encapsulate the entire profession. But given the rate of enrollment and the fact that the group now numbers more than 7,000... the thought isn't as crazy as it might have sounded twelve months ago. It's pretty exciting to think we could all be in one "place." But even if not, we already have the critical mass needed to benefit our profession in some exciting ways.

More importantly, members are starting to realize the best way to become a great teacher: By sharing what you know with others. You give away what you have learned, and you get far more in return. Some examples:

  • Members are uploading their custom lessons, hand outs, policy documents, rubrics, assessments and more to a centralized File Repository, free for everyone to use and adapt.
  • Retired teachers are offering hundreds of years of proven approaches and repertoire suggestions.
  • Current teachers are putting their heads together to come up with solid solutions to unique problems shared by other members, including recruitment/retention and administrator conflicts.
  • Targeted Professional Learning Communities (PLC) have formed in order to formulate common assessments and share data...even performing some repertoire in common.
  • Discussions are being tagged and catalogued for searching...over 1,100 so far...all by volunteers.

Pretty powerful stuff, and we're only just getting started. And all this without any outside influence from the industry. By teachers, for teachers.

Which students deserve a great music teacher? You know the answer...every student deserves a great music teacher. If you haven't joined us yet, stuff your ego in a drawer somewhere and get yourself over to Facebook. We'll be there, ready to brainstorm with you. By sharing what you know, all of our students get a better teacher, which is exactly what they deserve.

P.S. Orchestra and Choir teachers are have figured out the power of online professional development via Facebook as well. And for those looking for all-inclusive venture, check out

Yong Zhao » Blog Archive » The Grass Is Greener: Learning from Other Countries

The Grass Is Greener: Learning from Other Countries

18 September 2011 24 No Comment

(A version of this post is published in Teachers College Record under Handan Xuebu: What We Can and Should Learn from Other Countries)

In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.

–Mark Twain

American policy makers and pundits are in love with some foreign education systems and are working hard to bring their policies and practices home. Others have national standards and a uniform curriculum, so should America (Chester E. Finn, Julian, & Petrilli, 2006). Students in China and India spend more time in schools, so should American children (Obama, 2009). Other countries use national exams to sort students, so should America (Tucker, 2011). Teachers in other countries receive more training in content, so should teachers in America (Tucker, 2011). “Teachers in Singapore are appraised annually” and “our current evaluation system is fundamentally broken,” so America must fix teacher evaluation and hold them accountable for raising student test scores (Duncan, 2010).

The infatuation with foreign education systems is fueled by a simple and compelling message loudly broadcast by political leaders, business tycoons, and think-tank-backed researchers: every element of American education is broken, obsolete, and in crisis (Gates, 2005) (Beck, 2009) (, 2011), and other countries have got it all right. America’s decentralized local control system has said to be chaotic, incoherent, discriminating, and wasteful whereas others with a centralized system that ensures consistency, efficiency, and equity. American teachers are complacent, unmotivated, and ill-prepared, while teachers in other countries are of “higher cognitive ability” (Auguste, Kihn, & Miller, 2010), better prepared (Tucker, 2011), and held to more rigorous accountability standards. Curriculum and textbooks in other countries are structured and written. Students in other countries work harder. And parents in other countries care more about their children’s education.

In short, the argument goes, to save America, to retain America’s preeminence in the world, to ensure America’s global competitiveness, we must dismantle America’s education system and import policies and practices from other countries.

Some degree of hyperbole is understandable when a strong message needs to be sent, but the actual policy and practice proposals put forward do indeed show that America is aggressively replacing its education traditions with foreign imports. Before we complete the journey to greener pastures, it is prudent to ask a few questions that hopefully can stimulate some second thoughts about this migration.

Is the Grass Greener on the Side of the Ocean?

Don't miss this new blog post from Yong Zhoa (click the "via" link)

Standardized Students, Silenced Teachers: The Un-American Education Agenda |

We should not be pursuing standardization since we have a century of evidence that it doesn’t work—and logic shows that standard doesn’t match our ideals as a free people—but we should be pursuing challenging opportunities for every child, which in no way stops us from creating a universal public education system that honors and embraces diverse paths to adulthood and autonomy for all children who enter the doorways of our schools.

Privileged adults of this world live diverse and autonomous lives outside of school. The current education reform movement appears more concerned with securing the diverse lives of those privileged than acknowledging the right to an autonomous and diverse life for all children in a society claiming to be free.

Standardization is dehumanizing–and ultimately un-American.

All music teachers should read this article by Paul Thomas and wake up to what is happening today in the continued march towards a federally-controlled education system. High stakes testing and "common-core" is (not so) slowly but surely stripping our schools of essential opportunities for students to flourish as individuals. Administrators will continue to be pressured to produce better test scores, and if you think those tests are ever going to include the arts...guess again.

Your teaching is perfect...for the results you are getting

"My teaching is perfectly designed for the learning results I'm currently getting."

Sort of makes you think about what needs to happen if you want to increase student learning, doesn't it?

Oftentimes we don't think *we* need to change anything about our teaching....students just need to pay attention and work harder.

The quote is adapted from a leadership/organizational quote by Tom Northup: "All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they’re now getting"

Knowing What Students Know: A Free Executive Summary on Classroom (read "Ensemble") Assessment

This is a very intersting summary from:

Committee on the Foundations of Assessment, James W. Pellegrino, Naomi Chudowsky, and Robert Glaser, editors, Board on Testing and Assessment, Center for Education, National Research Council (2001)

A few very interesting excerpts:

With the movement over the past two decades toward setting challenging academic standards and measuring students’ progress in meeting those standards, educational assessment is playing a greater role in decision making than ever before. In turn, education stakeholders are questioning whether current large-scale assessment practices are yielding the most useful kinds of information for informing and improving education. Meanwhile, classroom assessments, which have the potential to enhance instruction and learning, are not being used to their fullest potential. 

Students will learn more if instruction and assessment are integrally related. In the classroom, providing students with information about particular qualities of their work and about what they can do to improve is crucial for maximizing learning. It is in the context of classroom assessment that theories of cognition and learning can be particularly helpful by providing a picture of intermediary states of student understanding on the pathway from novice to competent performer in a subject domain

For classroom or large-scale assessment to be effective, students must understand and share the goals for learning. Students learn more when they understand (and even participate in developing) the criteria by which their work will be evaluated, and when they engage in peer and self-assessment during which they apply those criteria. These practices develop students’ metacognitive abilities, which, as emphasized above, are necessary for effective learning. 

Note this particular recommendation:

Recommendation 11: The balance of mandates and resources should be shifted from an emphasis on external forms of assessment to an increased emphasis on classroom formative assessment designed to assist learning

See the associated book here. PDF version (380+ pages) can be downloaded free if you create an account there.