My fondest teenage memories are of playing tuba at Benjamin Elijah Mays High School, located in the inner city of Atlanta, Georgia. Band director Summer Smith led that band program faithfully for over thirty years. Mr. Smith was more than the average band director; he was a counselor, mentor, and father figure. One of Mr. Smith’s strongest attributes was enforcing the necessary discipline and guidance to succeed in life and the classroom. His guidance was essential to persevere through all the distractors outside our classrooms such as crime, drugs, and poverty in the local community. In the face of so many distractors and excuses not to succeed, Mr. Smith always said, “it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.” He challenged his students to believe in themselves and not accept mediocrity.

After high school I used many of the lessons taught by Mr. Smith when I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. In the Marines I learned more valuable lessons about discipline, teamwork, and “a do whatever it takes attitude,” to accomplishe the mission. As a veteran teacher I have used my high school experience, training from the Marines, and college education at Florida State University to learn effective band director techniques in any school setting. The following describes ideas, techniques, and behaviors that have made my teaching in Title I band programs successful.

Beginning: As a high school band director I have taught in minority communities with students of low socioeconomic status. Poverty, high crime rates, drugs, gangs, single parent households, and high pregnancy rates were all prevalent in and around the school community. Using Mr. Smith’s philosophy of high expectations, I chose to strive for goals others thought were impossible, such as maintaining a high standard of musicianship, character, and academic achievement. Initially the problem was that the students did not believe in themselves. These students were hampered by low expectations. Moreover, the students had an apathetic attitude toward school and life. To counteract this behavior, I started focusing on the whole child instead of just the music student. This meant learning more than their names and instrument. I tried to learn about a student’s family, personal interests, goals, and challenges. Next, I encouraged students to think of the band program as a family, where they were free to talk about any issue. Furthermore, the band room served as safe haven from all negative outside influences. For most students, music served as a positive release from stress that may originate from home, school, and other peers. Most importantly, influencing a culture of pride in the organization quickly turned the negative culture of low expectations into an encouraging and positive environment.

Setting the tone: “If you are not committed to reaching the highest standards of character, integrity, and musicianship, you can leave the band room and go home.” I knew I was taking a risk when these were the first words I ever spoke to my high school band. Afterward, I waited for about three minutes and then said, “Good, now you have about an hour to clean the band room from top to bottom.” I slowly picked up my briefcase and waited patiently inside my office. That first statement set a standard of the expectation. Florida State University Professor Clifford Madsen says that “We control the environment, which in turns control us.” Creating an environment of success starts with a clean and structured teaching area. In the book the Tipping Point (2002) Malcolm Gladwell explains that cleaning up a “little problem” of litter and graffiti in New York helped to dissolve a “bigger problem” of criminal activity.” Likewise, having a clean area makes a big difference in student’s behavior in class, care for their instruments, and treatment other students. Additionally, a clean environment demonstrates professionalism in the organization.

Setting Goals/ Building Organizational Identity: Along with setting the right tone, setting realistic goals and building an organizational identity is essential. During my first year as a band director I wrote a five-year plan for our goals. This list included items such as recruitment, retention, field trips, and establishing good band fundamentals. After creating goals I made it a priority to bring in staff members and volunteers with good character and integrity. These role models demonstrated the behavior and attitude that was expected in my band program. Funding for staff members was very limited; therefore, I called local colleges in the area for volunteers. Fortunately most colleges with active music departments have music service organizations such as Kappa Kappa Psi and Tau Beta Sigma. The principal mission of these organizations is to provide service to their band program and or music programs. Unfortunately most young band directors make the mistake of trying to do everything themselves. Utilizing a local college music program was easy and the best part is most students will work for food!

As stated earlier, in most Title I band programs money is a huge issue. Being cognizant of resources in your community can aid your school. Many symphony orchestras have outreach programs designed to help young musicians. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has a “talent development program” where students in urban schools can audition to receive free private lessons. Utilizing the Symphony’s talent development program is one example of many resources a creative director might use to enhance his or her band program.

Building Identity: One of the best ways to build an effective band program is to thoughtfully develop the band’s identity. This starts with a mission statement. A mission statement is important because it lists the program’s guiding principles and ideals. My band mission statement included phrases such as, “striving for the highest in character and musicianship” and “pride in our school and community.” The next step was to do activities that promoted building pride in the band. These activities include performing for local elementary school, middle school, and community organizations. In fact participating in short performances before a teacher or parent/teacher organization meeting is an excellent way to show pride in one’s school. To that end, a director must be creative in giving students a positive avenue to perform and have success. Each success builds upon the last performance and a series of small successes accumulate over time and enhance perception of an effective band program.

Administrator involvement: Another useful technique is getting school administrators involved. This can start with acknowledging the principal or fine art administrator at all performances. Additionally, asking a band parent to prepare a surprise lunch for counselors, or ordering extra band t-shirts for administrators, demonstrates your enthusiasm for getting them involved in your program. Another great idea is allowing your principal to conduct a piece of music at a concert or main event. If you make sure the experience is a good one your principal will smile for days, guaranteed!

Dealing with challenges in school and home: Family issues such as parents working two or three jobs, students contributing to or responsible for raising their siblings, and parents with severe financial problems are most common in urban schools. When dealing with these issues remember all students should have the opportunity to participate in the music program. The “everyone should participate” philosophy is easier said than done. However, if there is a will, there is always a way. Donations of instruments from local families whose students have graduated and partnerships with music stores to provide repairs are one way to get instruments into the hands of students without the means to do so. These students need to have the opportunity to participate. More often than not, their future depends on it. Your community can also develop pride in the program as their support is recognized and produces performances.

Student development: In many Title I schools, students may lack the same opportunities as students in other communities such as private lessons, attending professional concerts, visiting college campuses, summer music camps, and state/national conferences. These activities provide long lasting memories and greatly enhances a child’s musical experience. In order to provide these opportunities to students who lack funding, find ways to take school-sponsored fields trips to professional concerts and conferences. In fact, many local military band programs will perform at public schools for free. Supporting local education is part of their mission. Local college music programs also look for opportunities to perform in their area. Researching local college and professional band programs is essential to building an effective high school band program. It is also important to remember that if students are not exposed to better, they cannot do better.

Another effective activity for exposure is nominating students for festivals such as state solo and ensemble festivals or festivals sponsored by colleges. These activities are relatively inexpensive and very effective for student development. For many years I made auditioning for all-county/state mandatory for my advanced level students. Not only does this provide a measuring stick for students but also lets students observe others around the city or county. This technique is helpful in three ways. First, the evaluation process uses many of the national standards music curricula, such as “performing on instruments”, “alone and with others”, “a varied repertoire of music”, and “reading and notating music.” Second, practicing scales and preparing a challenging etude will make a student a better musician by giving them goals outside the daily expectations of the program. Third, the process can help students prepare for college auditions and the chance to earn scholarships. Not many parents in an urban environment, or any other environment, will argue with opportunities that can lead to receiving money to pay for a college education.

Discipline: Discipline in the band program is probably the most important topic. Students must have a structured environment. Again, directors control the environment which in turns controls the probability for positive actions by teachers and students. Besides keeping a clean environment, maintaining a quiet learning environment is paramount. At the beginning of each class, students need to know when silence begins. One method is simply saying, “good morning class,” the student’s response is, “good morning Mr. Arnold.” This greeting signified that all talking and movement should cease and learning was about to begin. Similar to any form of discipline, this activity took consistency and persistence. The teacher must not begin until absolute silence is established. Initially it may be necessary to work toward this goal using successive approximations, but if the teacher is consistent and contingent success can be realized. Another method is conditioning students to respect the rehearsal space. If a student leaves the rehearsal space, they must be acknowledged in order to return to their seat. By doing this, students will gain more appreciation of the rehearsal space and the function as a classroom. Another effective method is to condition students to minimize personal movements during rehearsal. Staying still will remove unwanted noises in the rehearsal environment. This may be the most difficult goal to achieve, understanding the energy that students bring to the rehearsal environment and the natural tendency of adolescents to need an outlet for pent up energy. But teaching student musicians to direct their energy and focus their attention on the musical activity while minimizing extraneous actions leads to both a better rehearsal environment overall and the personal discipline necessary to meet musical goals. Remember, discipline takes consistency and persistence.

Mentors: Among the many reasons to find an experienced educator as a mentor for yourself as a teacher, one of the best is to help you keep perspective. Keeping the bigger picture in mind helps in dealing with frustrations of daily teaching or the more challenging times that can crop up during any academic year. Another way to have positive mental health is having a fellow director or colleague that is close to your same experience level. Together you can relate to the same issues and experiences and share solutions. 

This presentation was conceived to cover topics to help teachers in a Title I school find success, but these ideas are also universally important for anyone hoping to find success as a teacher in any musical environment. The only difference going in is being ready for the hurdles and open to the challenges. At the start of my career, I was told by a veteran director not to apply to a Title I school. Fortunately, I did not listen and discovered that teaching at this school gave me the necessary skills to teach in any setting. The band program flourished and grew from thirty students to over two hundred in four years. Additionally, the band program became the pride of the community and well respected in the county. Finding success and personal fulfillment teaching in the challenging environment is possible, and I hope that anyone considering a position in an Title I school setting will see both the need and the potential as both a challenge and a possibility.

Edited and reprinted with permission from the article “Effective Band Director Techinques for Teaching in Urban Schools” (from: The Florida Music Director Magazine, Feburary 2015)