Pt. 1 – There are No Easy Ways to Becoming Great
As I travel and visit band rooms all over our state, I find certain things to be common with all of the very successful band directors. I have interviewed dozens of them and find that there are no “tricks” to get their students to sound great! They all say – “it is just a LOT OF WORK.” Jeff Adams at Niceville High School says “This is a craft. There is no easy way to get better. There are no short cuts. It is just hard work.” From the interviews I’ve conducted it simply appears that hard work is the common theme. In this several part article, I will share the things that they do to bring their students up to the level they want by performance time.
I always compare music training and coaching with athletic training and coaching. It is basically no different. In music, as in athletics, we need to take the students where they are and bring them to the next level. Most students don’t believe they can get there, or reach a really high level, but with good coaching, and consistent daily goals we can help them. How many times have we heard from students at the end of the year say, “You believed in us even when we didn’t even believe in ourselves?”
As teachers, we made it through college, interviewed and got the job. Most people are placed in the classroom and expected to be THE professional at their school concerning band for the remainder of their career. The problem is that no matter where and how well we were educated, there is no way our college experience can prepare us for a career as a professional band director. To become capable and successful band directors, we really need to receive constant feedback, to be challenged by things we are not good at, learn new techniques, and observe and model the very best directors in our profession. The average administrator observing us cannot really give us the proper musical feedback we need and often crave. If we can get a mentor involved, then we really have a chance. Otherwise, we are in for a lot of failures. Failure is only good IF we can think about what we did that caused the failure and make corrections so we don’t repeat the same thing again.
Athletes will tell you that they gave up a lot to train their bodies. A good athlete gives up certain foods, drinks, and time with family and friends. They go to bed early, get up early and stay very focused on their training. They set specific goals and study their sport. They talk with others and help each other train. To be a good band director you will have to make sacrifices and focus on your goals, as well. John Maxwell – great leadership and motivational speaker and author says, “The higher you want to go up, the more you have to give up!” That is true.
This is a great profession. It is, however, a very demanding but highly rewarding job. We do make vast differences in students’ lives and help them learn and enjoy at a deeper level, one of the greatest gifts we have in life – Music! I once wrote a letter to Dr. Jim Croft thanking him for being such a great teacher, role model, and mentor. He wrote back and stated something that stuck in my mind and heart for the remainder of my career. He said that it was his pleasure to be my teacher and that “I was one of his trophies in his career.” Isn’t that the truth? The trophies we strive for in our career really shouldn’t be the ones that are going to sit on a shelf, or eventually be thrown away, but rather the lives we invested in and made an impact in!
There really aren’t any quick fixes in this profession. It is a craft and it does take a lot of hard work. Find what works for you, listen to the ideas of others and ask for help. I have a lot to share with you about what these great teachers said they are doing. I trust you will keep referring to this article as it grows. This is the perfect time to review what you are doing that works. Also, consider thinking about creating a “Not To Do” list of things that aren’t working for you. Use a portion of your summer to re-group and use some of the ideas I will be sharing for next year.
I am trusting that if you are reading this article, you want to do better for yourself as a professional and your students as musicians. I don’t believe we need to give up God, and family and hobbies to have a good band program. I believe that if we work hard and smart we can have everything we want. My prayer for you is that you find ideas that help you work smarter and more efficient so you can enjoy a great career inside the band room and a great life outside of the band room!
Pt. 2 – Mentors
The best band directors talk about having someone who came into their band room and motivated them by being honest (sometimes brutally) and are still life-long friends. A mentor shouldn’t be someone who sugar-coats things for you. A mentor is someone who not only has more experience than you but who has experienced a lot more success than you. They have been where you are and know what you are going through. They realize the balance between band life and “real life.” A mentor is honest with you and when they see you doing something that is harming or stunting the growth of your students, they will tell you and correct you.
A mentor should be someone who you feel comfortable in giving you suggestions Having a mentor who can come in and observe you; video record and watch the recording with you, and make comments and suggestions, and do it all on a regular basis, will increase your skill set exponentially. Without someone like that in place, your growth will not be as deep or fast.. A mentor does have to be someone you can trust, but with today’s technology, your mentor doesn’t even have to be in the same town as you! With the availability of video recording your mentor can see and hear your rehearsals easily and Skype allows for real-time long distance assistance. Technology affords any director almost immediate feedback and suggestions on how to improve. With all of the teaching video out there on every topic and all of the resources we have available now, there really is no need for someone to fail in any area.
If your mentor is close, it is important that you encourage them to come into your band room as often as possible, and unannounced. A good mentor will observe you and your students and ask you probing questions about why you do things a certain way, how you think through the process of what you do and how you think you can improve it. They shouldn’t always tell you what to do, what they do, or what they did.
Mentors are great and in my experience necessary for success. It is important to keep in mind, however, that many of our incredible band directors have more than one mentor. No one person is an expert at everything. I personally have at least four mentors. I can call Joe Kreines and ask him anything about music or life. But when it comes to pedagogy and also musical interpretation, I call Ian Schwindt. When I need to ask philosophical educational direction, I call Da-Laine Chapman and when I need to be pointed North about my job and my direction with coaching teachers I call Cindy Johnson, our county’s music resource teacher. I need all of them regularly. We cannot do justice to our jobs by ourselves.
If you don’t have a mentor – begin thinking about who you would like to learn from. They are just a question away – “I want to know if you would consider being a mentor to me?” “I want you to be honest with me and tell me the truth!” “I respect you and would be very grateful if you would take me under your wing.” “Can you please come watch me teach and give me some pointers for improvement?” Most people I know in this profession can’t wait to help others. People love helping people!
Pt. 3 – An Effective and Efficient Warm-Up Routine
Mentoring is important, but mentors are motivational and informational for band directors. Bands get better by what happens daily in the band room. I am going to turn my focus to some best band room practices. The very successful band directors I interviewed about a typical daily lesson plan all spoke about how important the warm-up is. Each one said that it is during the warm-up that they focused most of their attention. During the warm-up, they were able to correct sound, listen to individuals, work on blending with others, work on rhythmic figures and patterns, work on articulation clarity, challenged ranges, worked on scales and exercises and also worked on chorales and musical effects. The most important thing these teachers said was that it is during the warm-up time that they focused students on LISTENING.
What I would like to focus on in this portion of this article is the Warm-up Routine. Some think a warm-up is not a good description anymore and would rather use alternative words. I really like Fundamental Time. Some think routine is a bad word. I would like to differ. When thinking about a successful warm-up, I am going to ask you how you would warm-up on your own instrument as a professional? If we treat our class like it is a big private lesson, it might help keep us in line with proper thinking and what is important to do regularly and even daily, as part of Fundamental Time.
If we design a warm-up/fundamental time to focus on the necessary concepts we would like to attend to daily, we can get the basic topics established from which we can build musicians and musicianship. If Fundamental Time is spent wisely and with specific goals for each session, the rehearsal time on literature will just be an extension of the fundamental time – just like in our own practice. They are not separate from each other.
Routines are necessary for us to function properly and be organized, and can be a great asset to students and conductor, alike. When we say routine – we might think mundane. I am going to say that the most successful band directors are very routine in their approach to the concepts they touch on daily with their students, BUT THEY DON’T DO THE SAME THING EVERY DAY. That would be mundane – monotonous! A route is a map of how we get somewhere, a course of action, a template. Whatever you call it, without a regular route or plan there is no course of action, no goal, and no direction. Important things can get left out if there is no routine or route to becoming successful. Think of the athlete. They are very routine in their workouts. They do not work on the same exact set of skills or muscles every day. They vary what they are going to do each day, but they are going to be routine in their work-outs.
All of the successful directors I have observed and interviewed do the same types of things every day! Some say even on the day of the concert they do not change their habits. They are non-compromising in their approach to musicianship development.
At this point, please think of YOUR current approach during Fundamentals Time. Could you alter your route, or change your template? Are there solid concepts for what YOU do each time you warm-up and develop your fundamentals? As the article progresses, I will keep adding what highly successful directors do. You might want to jot down the topics or sections within your Fundamental Time and I will present ways to vary each topic so it never gets mundane but rather sets your students on a path to becoming incredible and successful musicians.
When you really start thinking about a certain topic, you will begin to research and find answers that fit you! Once you think of your daily concepts, that is the easy part. The next part is to begin finding lots of ways to teach that topic or skill. There are so many resources, method books, warm-up sheets and videos on every topic. First things first. Before I tell you what highly effective teachers are doing, begin to think of YOUR warm-up segments. Most model teachers do between five and seven segments daily.
If you took out your instrument right now and began to warm-up and work on fundamentals, what would you do? In what order and what concepts would you work on?
Pt. 4 – Breathing Exercises
When The Breathing Gym by Sam Pilafian and Patrick Sheridan came out, it hit the band world like crazy! I think there are many aspects of The Breathing Gym that are incredible. Since the Breathing Gym’s rise in popularity, I have noticed its influence on bands, sometimes for better sometimes for worse. There must be a balance between bands learning the importance of the intercostal muscles, truly filling up the lungs and diaphragm and playing with a huge sound as well as relaxation techniques to help them play musically like Pilafian and Sheridan do. As I watch these two (a couple of my favorite tuba performers), I don’t see them breathing abnormally, or in the same manner as they do in their videos. Those are exercises and should be treated as such, but breathing should always be relaxed in performance to produce the very best tone quality.
I, as well as many of the finest band directors, like to focus on one short breathing exercise at the very beginning of the class and then immediately apply it to the instruments. Too many novice directors I observe will go from a breathing exercise into a lecture, announcements, question and answer period etc. and lose the entire transfer. Like you would on your own instrument, a Breathing Exercise must move straight into something like Long Tones.
Beginning with a brief Breathing Exercise falls in line with what almost every private teacher touches on when a student studies with them – Breathing! There are dozens and dozens of variations of breathing exercises. Begin to share with other directors and ask them what they do. Get the Breathing Gym videos! I have several alternative and effective methods to get students to learn how to breathe properly in my e-book on Amazon: Principles of Musical Performance – Jim Matthews. I like to see them breathe. I use paper, balloons, breathing tubes and pinwheels in order for me to see that they are all participating and challenging themselves on a daily basis. I find the model breathers in each class and point them out. Models can change daily. I applaud great effort and great results so everyone knows exactly what I am looking for!
Mike Vax – Professional Trumpet player and clinician extraordinaire says in his article The Importance of Air and Breathing Exercises “The most important aspect of playing any wind instrument is getting air through that instrument. I believe that one of the best ways to practice proper use of the air is to do it away from the instrument. When you are practicing with your instrument, there are too many other things to do, therefore you don’t concentrate enough on your air.”
If you are already using Breathing Exercises in your daily Fundamental Time – you are already using one of the main starters of successful band directors. The key is to gain as many ideas as you can. John Wooden, my favorite coach and author as well as one of my most highly regarded life role models used to write down plays, drills, and ideas on index cards. All he had to do was go through his cards and keep those ideas flowing. Maybe you want to try that. I have a couple of boxes with tons of techniques written down on cards – we can’t remember everything we did from year to year to build those great bands we’ve had. Maybe you want to begin gathering as many breathing exercises as possible, keep students breathing and apply directly to their instruments. Also apply to dynamics, phrase lengths and shaping as well as range builders.
Pt. 5 – Law of Genesis and The Little Things
A band director is in every sense of the word, a farmer! We work with the Law of Genesis every day whether we realize it, or not. If I plant good flute seeds, I reap good flute players. If I plant good rhythm seeds, I reap good rhythmic readers. If I plant beautiful dynamic seeds, I reap beautiful dynamics in my concert! What blows my mind is when I observe rehearsals and see directors only working on notes and rhythms and never SOUND and/or SOUND EFFECTS, and then they expect to have a musical concert. That goes directly against the Law of Genesis – you reap what you sow! It is the same with relationships. How can I have a great marriage, if I don’t communicate well with my spouse? If I plant seeds of love and water them daily, cultivate, and do everything a farmer would do to ensure a great crop, then I will reap a great love relationship. It is as simple, yet complex as that! Life is all about Sowing and Reaping.
Can I plant good things, yet have my crops delayed? YES – if I see weeds (poor postures, hand positions, poor tone, inappropriate behaviors etc.) and do not take care of them immediately, I am certainly delaying my crop. The very best band directors are relentless about fundamentals! Each director I interviewed basically said, “I get all over them when they don’t play with good sound.” One said “I don’t let the small things go. If you let the small things go, then they accumulate until it is really bad.” It is funny John Wooden – one of my favorite role models not only for teaching and coaching but also for life, stressed the same things. He stated “It’s the little things that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” He would start each year by showing his players how to put their socks on!
My suggestion is to design the perfect player on each instrument in your head and don’t let them stray from that vision. You can see my Model Instrument Sounds article for more information on that. Alex Kaminsky at Stoneman Douglas High School and Ian Schwindt at Titusville High School attend to Breathing, Tone, Intonation and Blending DAILY with incredible results! They also tend to the little things. I heard Alex once say to a summer camp band after they weren’t sounding as well as he wanted “Do we need to warm-up all over again?” I thought that was outstanding! Everything we do during the warm-up (Fundamental Time) should relate to everything we are doing in our rehearsals. If the students don’t play with the model sound you and they should have in your heads, then challenge them to do it! Keep them focused on listening and striving to sound like a professional.
Farmers also use their very best seed for the next years’ crop. We must do the same. If we take our very best time in preparation and presentation, and our very best resources, and our very best equipment, we will also reap our very best crop! Think about that statement and your own setting for a moment. Is it true? YES!!! You cannot work against the laws of nature and reap a great harvest. You get one chance at starting someone on an instrument, teaching them to read music and rhythms, and influencing them on who they should listen to as models. We have 185 school days to influence our students, we must use our time and resources very wisely. All the band directors I have interviewed (and judges as well), know that there are no microwave crops. The daily rehearsal is the time for development. They plan their rehearsals wisely and efficiently. They are dogmatic about sound!
I have never finished a school year and said to myself “I taught them everything I wanted them to know this year!” We just never have enough time. What if we played a model recording for them daily (while they are entering the room), or a focused recording? That is 185 recordings – soloists, chamber ensembles, orchestra’s, choirs, military and college bands, professional groups from all over the world. Share ideas with your friends and come up with a great list!
Remember, what you plant, WILL GROW! What you allow during your rehearsal WILL BE ON YOUR STAGE! If you see or hear any weeds –pull them right away, don’t let them grow! Everything we do in life is muscle and mental memory! Please, on behalf of all listeners in the world, get them started properly! The best directors are also the best sowers and reapers. Happy farming!
Pt. 6 – Focus on TONE! Use of Long Tones
Every one of these highly successful band directors says they do Long Tones with their students every single day. This is the time where they can watch each students’ embouchures, postures, hand positions, challenge them in their listening, breathing, oral cavity, entrances, releases etc. I call it my “inspection of the troops.” Long Tones help the student’s embouchure get ready for a rehearsal. Long tones give the performers time to get the air moving and listen down the line to the rest of their section and band. It is a time that allows them to think about how they are blending in with the others and not sticking out. Long tones provide time to focus on tuning. Long Tones do NOTHING for a student without director guidance. Long tones without guidance could simply turn into mindless playing. Have a good list of directives to have students focus on. Have a list of questions you use to get them to set aural and musical goals to keep engaged, thinking, and listening. Jim Daniel, who works with LaVilla and Douglas Anderson Schools of the Arts, stresses how important Long Tones are; he has his students play for instance the Bb concert scale for 8 beats on and 8 beats of rest. During that time of rest, he is prompting them to think about their sound, their entrances, their intonation, blending, and about setting their own goal for every sound. He never just lets them play without having them think! Sometimes he clicks his fingers in between the rests to help them with time, sometimes he doesn’t give any indication so they must internalize and follow each other on the next entrance.
There are tons of video teachings on Tone Quality all over YouTube. The 215th Army Band series for beginning instruments is Outstanding! Please find resources for YOU to watch and then teach to your students. I don’t recommend you playing all of these for your students; they could get bored. However; they are outstanding resources and you should tell the students about them for home study and reference. Because I am so conscientious about getting kids started properly. I usually refer to these each year just prior to starting a new school year. It helps me get focused on proper fundamentals again before school starts. Also, reading the front of the method books for the teacher is a great idea. Furthermore, there is an incredible amount of information in the Teaching Through Performance Books. The key is to get focused on fundamentals so you are ready for each new day.
The very best teachers walk around the room and check everything while prompting their students to play with their very best sounds every single time! Most of these highly successful band directors say they are “constantly adjusting tone, pitch and balance within the group.” If students know you are watching and listening and paying attention to them, they will try harder. They will stay focused. They will begin to focus on their own sound so they don’t need you doing that as often. The more mature they get, the more you can focus on the finest details of the full ensemble.
Maybe start with half scales if necessary. You can do that with beginners starting after about two to three weeks of playing. You can start on Concert F and go down to Concert Bb. Then Concert F up to Bb. Concert F down an octave and Concert F up an octave. Use full scales, extended scales (don’t limit them to just one or two octaves) – you can just have them keep going because you are only adding one note at a time. Have them think about and maybe even call out the next note to help everyone in their section and reinforce the note names. Don’t forget to use chromatic scales, and chorales etc. The point is to be creative each day BUT MAKE LONG TONES A PRIORITY!!! Young musicians need to develop embouchures, endurance, range, dynamics and so much more with the use of Long Tones. All Professionals will confirm this practice.
Begin asking other good band directors how they employ the use of Long Tones, but consider making Long Tones a vital part of every warm-up you ever do again. May the Long Tones Be with You!
Pt. 7 – They Work on Scales a Lot!
After attending a clinic by Jim Daniel – Teacher in Jacksonville at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, LaVilla School of the Arts and First Baptist Church Youth Orchestra Director – I was convinced that his approach was extremely solid and kids could really learn everything about scales using his methods. Jim is an extremely successful teacher and has been sought out by Marcus Roberts and Wynton Marsalis because of his teachings. Wynton even came to observe him teach for a few days and had his band playing in Jim’s living room! I mentioned Jim on the Long Tones part of the article and will do so here as well because of one fundamental idea: Jim, and I believe the mastery of scales comes more from the student understanding and being able to grasp them mentally before playing them.
Jim tells his students “You have to earn the right to play the scale for me before I will listen to you!” That just really struck me. I remember being tortured so many times by listening to scales tests! Jim’s method is that if students are ready to play a scale test for him, they have to first look him in the eye and call out with authority while doing the fingerings, every note name including the arpeggio. If they can’t “say it first” they don’t get to play it for him.
In the clinic I attended, he had us calling out the note names loudly. He continued to speed up the calling out of the letter names until we were going pretty fast. One teacher I observed had his students calling them out so fast I could hardly keep up! Jim also makes sure that they can call them out going down as well. He never rushed this process. It must be in our minds first if we are going to become very proficient at them!
Years ago, Marguerite Wilder came to our county a few times and did presentations on middle school teaching. One of the best things I took from those presentations was the pass off system as well as a scale theory worksheet. I made the same sheet up and over the years made several little changes. I can send it to you electronically if you ask me too. I have given this worksheet to many band programs and it is being used with great success. Ian Schwindt at Titusville High School has every student in his program fill these out and use their own sheets to learn and play from. He copies the sheet front and back and gives every student six sheets (which covers all twelve major scales if you don’t do the enharmonics).
Some teachers also have the students sit in areas according to the transposition of their instruments. All C instruments in one area of the room, Bb in another, Eb another and F in another. One teacher calls out numbers according to these groupings – “Group one (C instruments – flutes, double reeds all low brass and all mallets), all the students know after the first presentation which group they are in and they respond accordingly. That way when they are calling out the names and filling out the scale sheets, they are all together. Veronica Curren, band director at DeLaura Middle School in Brevard County gives the scale worksheet out to every student as well and projects it up on the overhead screen. She fills the sheet out for each grouping while the students follow along on their own paper. In total, she does it four times (once per transposition). Once the sheet is filled out, they keep them in a notebook and she constantly refers back to it while they learn them. Don’t hesitate to fill them out with in beginning bands and play them even if they are half scales as first.
I like to have students play them by starting on the tonic and then adding one note each time they ascend and descend. For example – Bb, C, Bb – Bb, C, D, C, Bb – Bb, C, D, Eb, D, C, Bb – etc. I do this with long tones at first and then keep going until they are playing them in sixteenth notes like that. Also, why stop at one octave? Why not challenge them with just the next note of the next octave and continue until they can’t play any higher? This is a great way for the students to really learn the scale while also developing their embouchure and tone quality.
Jim Daniel uses Long Tones every day to help them develop sound concepts, embouchures, air, articulations, dynamics etc. As I stated previously in the article, he has students play 8 beats on and 8 beats off. He is constantly challenging students to think about various things in between the eight beats of rest. He uses Bb Concert every day and also chooses a scale or two to focus on that day. Pretty soon, every student is playing all of their major scales in audition patterns flawlessly. One of his questions is “If you want to make all-state, how many times a day should you play through all of your scales?” Usually a student will say once a day. Jim then corrects them and makes sure they understand that they should play all of their scales several times a day if they want to play them perfectly when it counts. So many great teachers simply state that becoming a good musician is simply a lot of hard work.
The very best teachers use scales every day. They challenge their students with goals, ranges, patterns, harmonization, and chorales in each key of the scale they studied. Treat them as the calisthenics of an athlete’s workout. You would never start a workout by sprinting. Long Tones should always be the first part of your playing. Scales are the best way to do Long Tones. Consider making scale study a major platform of your basic rehearsal even if you don’t believe you have the time.
- Best Practices of Highly Effective Band Directors
- Listening Guide for Class Discussions
- Sound Models
- Godly Discipline in the Classroom/Home
- The Ultimate Guide to Champion Teacher Techniques