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.....

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.

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"

A Conversation with Steven Schick

I very much enjoyed this ten-minute interview with percussionist and UCSD faculty member Steven Schick. His thoughts about the ways in which music and musicians are relevant certainly has implications for music educators. Consider starting your new year with some thought-provoking ideas.

The Value Of Doing Many Things (Not-So-Well)

The band community in the U.S. is buzzing about the Midwest Clinic performance by the Seika High School Band. It was, by any standard, an amazing performance. I hope that it will serve as impetus for music educators in the U.S. ...and indeed our reflect upon our educational values. Not because the Japanese band system has it right or wrong, but because it is time for us to give some thought to our current commonplace value of children Doing Many Things, but in many cases doing none of them particularly well.

I've written on the topic of our penchant for "well-roundedness" a few times on the blog, most recently last January when some of the Japanese elementary band videos were making the rounds on YouTube (if you haven't done a YouTube search for these videos, you should). The main point of that article was to point out that the Japanese system is producing musicians who are accumulating 1,000 hours per year (or more) of focused, diligent practice. Many of those students will be winning major orchestral positions, there's just no way around that. But what about the vast majority of band students...not just in Japan, but here as well...who do not go on in music? What are they carrying with them when they put the instrument away for the last time? That is what I want to talk about now.

I believe that at the core of the Japanese system is the idea that excellence is the pursuit of perfection, and it is believed to be something every student must experience. Yes, Japanese students are therefore limited in the number of things they can pursue, but whatever they pursue will expose them to discovering what it means to be excellent at something. That is what they will carry onward: The knowledge of what it takes to be great, and I think the Japanese believe that it is something that can be replicated once a student has experienced it. The badge of honor is not how many activities a student can list, but rather the knowledge of what it takes and means to be excellent at something.

In U.S. education circles striving for perfection is an idea that is considered to be oppressive, stressful, and wrong for students. Contrast that with the thunderous applause given by music educators to the Seika band while those young "perfectionists" grinned from ear to ear. This is because there is a difference between being perfect (impossible) and striving to be perfect (excellence).

Excellence is foundational in the arts. In music, striving to do justice to the composer and his or her music is...simply must be... about excellence. Great musicians know they will never be able to perform perfectly, but they also know that their responsibility is to reach for it anyway, each and every time they enter the practice room, rehearsal hall, or stage. Learning and performing with a mindset of excellence is one of the most important life lessons that music education has to offer.

Now, for those of you who are in the "music is its own reward" camp, I am not taking issue with that belief, in fact our views are more aligned than you might think. I'm not saying that music serves purely as a means to learning about excellence, I'm saying they are inextricably linked. How so? It becomes clearer when we consider this question:

At what point is a person considered a musician?

Huh? Aren't students, by definition, musicians as demonstrated by the fact that they have an instrument and are enrolled in my class?

Well, let me ask you: Is a student who is enrolled in an autos class a mechanic? Is a high school student who takes AP Physics a scientist? While we can certainly debate the degree of expertise required for experiences to be meaningful, it seems to me that a musician reaps musical reward in concert with a certain level of expertise, and expertise implies excellence. I think there is therefore at least enough solid footing here to consider the idea that meaningful music requires excellence in its approach. In the absence of excellence, what are students truly learning about music, or really, about anything? You can read more about my thoughts on excellence in "25 Things About Music Teaching and Education" (article | ebook).

Now before the emails and comments start flying, please know that I do not believe being an excellent, self-suficient musician is a simple "you are or you aren't" issue. Becoming an excellent musician is a complex endeavor, and is more of a spectrum than a light switch to be sure. What I'm trying to get people to think about is this: Is excellence an intentional component of your teaching? Do you teach music through the lens of excellence? It's an important philosophical question to reflect upon, and if you have heard the Japanese bands you can't deny that they value excellence. So back to their approach...

There is no question that the Japanese take a very narrow approach to pursuing interests. I believe this is because they feel that the "10,000 hour theory" has merit. In their view, you really haven't learned to be a self-suficient musician (or athlete, dancer, etc.) until and unless you have pursued perfection within the domain, and that takes time. Time of course is a finite resource. In the U.S. we generally value exposure over mastery. I think most of us have a sense that, to some degree, this is a good thing because it allows us to identify pursuits that we might truly enjoy, and we believe that spending your adult life in a fulfilling career is part of the American Dream. But the question remains: If we spend too much time sampling and identifying what we might be good at, we may never truly become excellent at anything. Is it not true that many people spend their lives in careers that are not fulfilling, and can this not be traced to being less than great at it? No, not always, but there is surely some truth there.

We have to be careful in valuing Doing Many Things over the value of learning to do something truly well.

I feel that the music program at my high school has a place for everyone, with ensembles to accommodate varying levels of time commitment.  I tell students who are not in a "top" group that I don't mind if music is not their "one thing" in which they will pursue perfection. But I very much do mind if nothing is. There is no career that values doing lots of things poorly. I believe that all teachers have a responsibility to help students (and parents) understand this reality.

There is much we can learn from the Japanese system, even though we will never have four hours of rehearsal per day. If nothing else teachers can be inspired to be more effective and productive with the contact time we do have. It's imperative that we don't fall into the trap of "oh sure I could do that too if I had _______." We already do enough of that within our own counties and districts! Music educators in the U.S. are uniquely positioned to help our school systems understand the importance of excellence in education. It starts by looking in the mirror and making sure we are doing everything we can to teach with excellence and offering our students opportunities to reach for a higher level of musicianship every day.

The Midwest performance meant many things to many people, but for me the ultimate lesson from the young ladies at Seika is the value of doing something very, very well. Brava!



1. Thomas West has also written some thoughts on Seika and the Japanese band system. Check out his blog at

2. Extra credit if you know why I included Jack Palance's character "Curly" from City Slickers

Music: It Takes A Department

One thing I notice as I speak with other music teachers is an overall lack of departmental collaboration and cooperation. Music teachers tend to work in isolation and hold on tightly to what they have built. But in the long haul this approach is unhealthy and limits what you can accomplish for the sake of all the students in the department. I'm the first to admit I didn't always think this way, but after adopting a departmental approach I will never go back.

Here are a few things I've learned over the years:

-Give at least one all-department performance each year.

-Instead of making tee shirts for your ensemble, consider creating music spirit wear for the whole department.

-Expand your parent-booster organization to include parents from band, orchestra, and choir. Band directors, I'm talking to you.

-If you and your colleague(s) don't have a similar philosophy of music education, you need to work harder to understand one another. That, or someone needs to go (maybe it's you).

-The level of excellence in your particular area will be limited until all areas are flourishing. You may not believe that, but it's true. A rising tide lifts all boats.

Working together as a true department isn't easy. But it's better for the students, the community, and ultimately for you personally, trust me. Reach out, take the first step, think different, and be patient. The dividends will come, you'll see.

Good Teaching: By Design

The almighty mouse I was just watching a great documentary called Objectified (free if you have Netflix streaming). This is a fascinating look at the importance of good design, and if you appreciate design I highly recommend it.

At one point they interviewed Dieter Rams, former Design Director for Braun. He made these statements.

Good design should be innovative

Good design should make a product useful

Good design is aesthetic design

Good design will make a product understandable

Good design is honest Good design is unobtrusive

Good design is long-lived

Good design is consistent in every detail

Good design is environmentally friendly

Last but not least, good design is as little design as possible

Hearing those maxims, there was something very familiar ringing true to my mind. Consider:

Good teaching should be innovative

Good teaching should make a concept useful

Good teaching is aesthetic teaching

Good teaching will make a concept understandable

Good teaching is honest

Good teaching is unobtrusive

Good teaching is long-lived

Good teaching is consistent in every detail

Good teaching is environmentally friendly (think resources)

Last but not least, good teaching is as little teaching as possible (think PBL)

I know it's pc to use the word learning almost to exclusion of the word teaching these days, but I think we need to remember that deep, meaningful learning is the result of innovative, honest, and consistent design.

Alan Watts: Music and Life

A friend posted this today, and I found it quite enlightening.

Even within our music programs we can easily create a feeling that the main purpose of one ensemble is to get into a higher ensemble. What's in it right, that is of value and significance to your students? Don't we need to find the music within the music, so to speak?

Ensemble Community: One and the same

Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra

Recently I was part of a discussion on Twitter that dealt with the idea of building a sense of community into your ensembles. As has been the case for me in some prior Twitter chats, I find the format and pace to be less than conducive for some of the more essential philosophical questions. (UPDATE: Discussion is now easy on the new Facebook groups format) Twitter chats are fine for brainstorming fundraising ideas and so forth, but I get a little concerned when we have topics of such major import flying down that page at 140 characters per second! Anyway, I thought I would say a few things here that might add some clarity to my feelings on the matter of community, because I really don't believe that community is something that is "added in" over the top of an ensemble.

As a starting point, here is an excerpt from my post 25 Things About Teaching Music and Education:

Music performance is one of the only authentically interdependent classes we offer in American education. What is interdependence? A situation where each person relies upon the other. Blue and yellow are interdependent in the endeavor to make green. Musical ensembles are inherently interdependent. Every contribution a student makes to the ensemble changes the the reality for every other student in the room, and reshapes their contributions moving forward. Music teachers need to help students, parents, and administrators to understand this important truth. It is one of the most important benefits of music education, but unfortunately we have not done a very good job of explaining it.

The fact is, performing ensembles are perhaps the most authentic community in the school system, by definition! We often hear the line "there are no bench players in a music ensemble" and this is true...but do we realize the import of that cliché? Everyone in an ensemble is charged with supporting/informing/adjusting constantly in an effort to create meaningful music. Coming together under a common purpose with a desire to do good...isn't that what communities do? As a quick aside (but it's very pertinent) have you been following the El Sistema movement in Venezuela? In places where there is almost no sense of community, hundreds of thousands of children are finding it in the ensemble.

Community isn't something that is added on top of an ensemble experience. It's not something that one "gets around to" after the music is sounding good, or when an administrator is coming for an observation. Community in ensembles is a given...their interdependent nature makes this so. Now, whether teachers keep this in the forefront of their minds, or whether the community is a healthy one, is another matter altogether. But it is a community. If you are feeling a need to "build community" in, then that may be your first sign that you have not been allowing the reality of community to pervade your own philosophy.

"Yeah I've heard the philosophical stuff" I hear some saying, "but if I could just get the students to"

  • Get to know one another
  • Respect one another
  • Help one another

...then we would sound great! We need a motivational speaker...or a trust fall!"

Yet, as teachers, if we put our daily focus upon making sure that:

  • We are getting to know each student, and showing them respect
  • Teaching them to become self-directed musicians, and expecting their best
  • Helping them to discover the music, not just their part within it

...then you will see the vibrant community within the ensemble, because all of those things require students to know, respect, and help each other on a musical level. And guess what? It's pervasive.

Then when you take those trips or do other non-musical activities that you can (and should!) do, the experiences will be all the more special because you're making an existing musical community even stronger. You then have the basis for the elusive upward spiral that teachers want and students deserve.