Guest Article: How to Fail at Band in 3 Easy Steps!

By Dr. Russell Gavin, Associate Professor of Instrumental Music Education at Baylor University.

1) Program the Wrong Music

If you want to ensure your students will come up short, all you have to do is program poorly. Remember that great music is only great when performed at an appropriate level of achievement for the ensemble. Great music performed poorly is often transformed into terrible music for both the musician and the listener. We often aspire to share the pieces that impacted our lives with those students sitting in front of us; however, we forget the fact that we played that piece on an All-State Concert or sitting in an ensemble with an elite membership and performance success. If playing a composer’s music badly actually made them roll over in their grave, we would hear a steady hum coming from the final resting places of Holst and Grainger!

Deciding what music is wrong or right for your ensemble requires an intense awareness of where the ensemble is on the day you hand the music out. Try new pieces, but have the courage to recognize your ensemble may not be ready for a particular work. Pick works that will enable you to continue solidifying the fundamental skills your musicians require, while simultaneously exposing them to rich melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic experiences. The number one way I have found to discover these kinds of pieces? Ask people you respect what they would play. Or, potentially more important, run your ideas by them and ask them what the potential pitfalls in your ideas are.

2) Assume Students Will Automatically Practice

“Students should practice!” That sentence belongs in the same category as “I should exercise” and, “I should really manage my finances in a way that provides a three to six-month financial cushion.” If knowing what we should do actually resulted in us doing things, the world would be a very different place. So what are you doing to motivate your students to practice regularly? I don’t have enough space to type the ways I have seen people work to provide this motivation, but I can say that the best programs instill practice habits early on. The habit strength that leads your consistently thinner friend to pick a salad when you are getting the buffalo wings was often cultivated many years ago. Similarly, the programs that have dozens of kids making all-state every year typically inspire the practice habit in their beginners more effectively than in other programs. Practice logs, playing tests, recorded evaluations, evil glares of disappointment – there are so many options I see people using in an attempt to motivate their students’ practice. Ultimately, you must experiment and figure out what actually works for your students. Do something. If that fails, do something else. But remember that your students’ failure to practice is ultimately your failure to motivate them to practice.

3) Be a Bad Colleague

The quickest path to a career laden with underachievement and frustration can be found in treating your colleagues badly. Go ahead and assume that every adult you interact with is a colleague. We work in a profession in which we rely on other human beings regularly. Whether we are talking about your bookkeepers, custodians, other music teachers, or administrators, it doesn’t really matter. Work to treat the people around you well at all times. The most common mistake I see band directors making with the people around them is being self-centered. You care about your band more than every other person on the planet, but it is a mistake to expect other people to care similarly. Work to figure out what your colleagues care about, then put effort into demonstrating that you care about their needs. Make sure they know that you are aware of the world around you, and avoid any actions that insinuate you feel your program is more important than the other things going on at the school. The best programs I see employ highly collaborative people, and we should all aspire to be considered “easy to work with.”

In closing, I share these thoughts from a place of reflection. In Dan Gilbert’s book Stumbling On Happiness, he states that we can achieve satisfaction, and avoid misery, by paying attention to people who have traveled the path on which we are just starting. I have personally made all of the above mistakes multiple times. It is my hope that some of you might avoid similar errors in your own career by reading about my failures. Happy banding!