Just like in any profession, band directors learn on the job and get wiser over time. Halftime Magazine asked a few long-time educators for any advice they might have to offer for new instructors straight out of college.
As a general consensus, experienced teachers recommend that young instructors act professionally and work cooperatively with administration. “I wish I had been more of a team player in the school,” says Cathy Asher, retired band director at Campbell High School in Smyrna, Ga.
Neil Anderson, director of instrumental music at Murrieta Valley High School in Murrieta, Calif., says that he had to figure out when to fight and when to work with the established system. “Pick your battles, and stand up for what you believe in, but make sure you’re still a team player,” he says.
Jon Grantham of Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, Calif., tries to include his administration in everything he does. “You need to cultivate trust and respect with your [administration]. Make them your advocate and don’t leave them guessing about your intentions.”
Through the years, directors have also found that they can look for support from peers. “[I realized] I didn’t have every answer,” Anderson says. “I wish I had [interacted with] colleagues more. I needed to stop and listen to the advice.”
Joe Haworth, band technician and instructor for multiple high school ensembles as well as a brass instructor for The Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps, echoes this sentiment. “I had to realize that I wouldn’t always be right,” he says.
As he grew as an instructor, Haworth says that he was better able to take advice and criticism from peers and colleagues to make his instruction better for his students. Asher says that she enjoyed being able to collaborate with other directors in the area. “Build a rapport with colleagues by organizing local, district and state events,” she says.
Other benefits of networking with colleagues include being able to invite them as guest instructors and getting the students to be involved in the community beyond her own school.
The human connection of working with students adds a lot of complexity to the job. The idea of getting and giving respect was a hot topic all around.
At first, Grantham thought that getting students’ respect meant having them like him. “I was wrong,” he says. “They needed to trust me, not like me.”
It was difficult for Asher to maintain an even demeanor at times. “You need to have thick skin,” she says. “No matter how hard you work, some kids will buck the system.”
Knowing what she knows now about the profession, she says that she would “try to have more patience [and] try not to get angry.”
Band programs tend to be made up of many moving parts. To help keep things in order, Anderson suggests creating systems and sticking to them. “I’m very detailed and process-oriented, so developing systems came naturally to me,” he says.
Anderson’s band has procedures in place for just about everything, from getting on and off buses in an orderly fashion to preparing for class in a timely and efficient manner.
Grantham suggests getting help from the outside. “Get people to help you,” he says. “Even with little to no budget, there are almost always resources available.”
Haworth agrees, adding that boosters are a valuable resource. “You need a great parent base for fundraising [and] other logistical things [that take] lots of time.”
On Show Design
Regarding performance design, the directors stress the importance of growth but also mention the need to create shows for the appropriate skill level of their students.
“Program for the band in front of you, not the band in your imagination,” Grantham says. “Pick music of quality, but make sure they can succeed. The repertoire is your curriculum.”
Asher echoes this sentiment, saying that music is too difficult if it cannot be read through once.
Asher recommends building a band program around concert band as the same fundamentals learned in the classroom are used and perfected on the field.
She adds that it is important to balance music when programming concert repertoire. Her method included a march or fast opener for the first piece, a slow ballad for the second, a challenging technical piece for the third and a fun, lighter tune for the fourth piece in every concert. Achieving this balance is important because it ensures growth for the students while still keeping their attention throughout a concert, she says.
For marching, Grantham says there needs to be an emphasis on who and what you’re programming for—be it competition, general performance or parades—and to make clear delineations between those types of shows. “Just because a drum corps did it doesn’t mean you should,” he says. “If you have a small band, keep them contained on the field and make sure they can actually play well while marching.”
Most importantly, cater to your audience. “They don’t give you a score, but they are the ones filling the stands,” Grantham says. Asher gives similar advice, saying that each show should be “fun and entertaining for the audience.”
She also suggests featuring each section—woodwinds, brass, percussion and flags. It keeps each section involved and makes sure that everyone has the chance to flex their technical wings at some point during every show.
Asher makes it clear that her primary inspiration was her students. “When the kids know you care about them, they will try harder,” she says. She worked to encourage her students to have fun each day and tried her best to have fun alongside them but acknowledged that she learned from them as well. “You never have all the answers—you learn something new each and every day.”
Anderson says that he is inspired by a maxim told to him by one of his mentors. “If you want to be the best, you need to surround yourself with the best.”
He says it is important for young directors—and even professionals in any field—to have someone to look up to. He tries to stress this motto with his students every day as well.
Some people who Anderson considers influential in the band community are Alfred Watkins, retired band director from Lassiter High School in Marietta, Ga., and Amanda Drinkwater, current band director at Marcus High School in Flower Mound, Texas.
For Anderson and many other band directors, building a program takes time. Anderson says he found himself always wanting bigger and better programs, which made him unable to focus on the musicality of the group in front of him; however, through the years he has come to learn that “the grass isn’t always greener, and it’s OK to have to build something!”
About the Author
Mitchell King is a junior majoring in communication at the University of Southern California (USC). He marched alto saxophone for two years before becoming drum major for two years at Campbell High School in Smyrna, Ga. He currently marches alto saxophone for the USC Trojan Marching Band. He aspires to one day open his own public relations firm in Atlanta.