Posted on Leave a comment

The Things They Didn’t Teach Us in College

In a pandemic year, with so many teachers facing situations and decisions that we’ve not been truly prepared for, it is interesting to look back at a few other things we’ve faced with inadequate preparation. Most are far less significant in impact, some are downright humorous, but they do show that a band director is by nature an adaptable creature that can survive in captivity with a judicious use of common sense.

In my personal experience, the single most devastating lack of training came in the area of grief counseling. Naturally, no one could have conceived that this might have been an important area to have some skill in when they set up course requirements for a degree. However, all teachers face the prospect of having to face grieving students at some point or another. It could be loss of a parent or grandparent, a classmate, or a friend, and the reasons are many. I found that the normal school channels were often inadequate to the task, not because of incompetence but rather due to a similar lack of training and preparation. Students are going to look to the teachers important to them for help in dealing with the loss and I would recommend it as an area in which we all should prepare ourselves.

Many of you know band directors and other teachers whose efforts are hampered by poor organizational skills. Perhaps it is the “arty” side of our brain exercising its dominance, but it is a real problem for many. Meeting deadlines, retaining focus in rehearsal, quickly getting students aligned and on-task, and being on time are just a few of the organizational skills we try to nurture in our students. It is a hopeless task, however, if we don’t adhere to the same principles. A lack of organization is compounded when working with adult support groups and directing fund-raising activities. There, failure to be organized can result poor community relations and even loss of membership in the program.

One peril of adult support groups is that you will find many of these operating concession stands at indoor or outdoor events as fund-raising activities. This can be hazardous to the usually unprepared band director who suddenly finds himself faced with popcorn machine, commercial coffee maker, or hot dog warmer. None of these were included in my college degree program and they were, trust me, absolutely essential, as would have been a quick tutorial in flipping pancakes and repairing any of the above equipment in an emergency.

It is quite possible that I had to learn how to teach playing in tune because I’m a percussionist and largely inexperienced with what it takes to do this on a wind instrument. Maybe someone could have mentioned that this would have been far easier if I started with what my students knew (or didn’t know!) and proceeded from there. I found that rather than spending an interminable amount of time tuning octaves and unisons, it was far better to start with playing chord progressions or chorales. Students, especially today, have grown up hearing harmony everywhere. I was astounded watching my granddaughters as they listened to nursery rhymes accompanied by full orchestras when they were infants. They know harmony and can hear it. Show them what out of tune is and they will learn to adjust to be in tune quickly. Once they can tune a chord, tuning unisons and octaves becomes simpler, faster, and far less boring for them.

On that subject, I sure wish I had known earlier in my career that the most certain path to success with students was to take advantage of their enthusiasm when they first get started. Keep them playing as much as possible. That’s why they started an instrument in the first place! Move them at as fast a pace as their age and physical development will allow. They’ll learn whatever you teach and they’ll be happier if you teach it by having them playing the horn. Don’t be seduced by all the state standards and educational hoopla or by the sound of your own voice. Instructions should be minimal, brief, and succinct. Keep them playing!!! There’s a time and place for those other things but time playing their instrument is the single most critical factor in a youngster’s musical development.

As for teachers, we also need to remember why we ourselves got into this business in the first place…it was FUN! We can’t let the pressure of ever-changing state guidelines, educational jargon, insane and interminable paperwork, worthless in-service sessions, or other distractions take away from us our sheer joy in music making, nor can we take it away from our students. It’s meant to be FUN. You know, and I know, that for it to be fun, it also has to be good. That’s why we’re there, to teach them how to make it good…and have fun doing it.

One last little thing it would have been nice to know before being handed the keys to my first band room would have been how to line a practice field. The first rehearsal was the next day, the custodians were gone, the football coach was not in the building, and the practice field was a beautiful sea of grass. No one could find the lining machine, which, it turned out, was broken at the moment any way. I ended up at the local library, frantically sketching and noting dimensions before I drove to the high school with 50 pounds of lime and a wheelbarrow in the trunk of my car. The field was lined in time for my first practice with only a few mishaps. It took some time, I’ll admit. I forgot to take something with which to spread the lime and ended up using a Dixie cup I found inside the school.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *