11 Common Characteristics of Highly Effective Directors

highly effective directors

We can all agree that music directors who run highly effective programs may possess specific traits that contribute to their success. Whether they teach in the most ideal and supportive district or not, we cannot deny that there is simply no substitute for good teaching.

Having served for the past twelve years as a University Supervisor at James Madison University in Virginia, as well as completing thirty-six years in the public schools teaching band, I have spent a lot of time watching the habits of many highly effective educators. Through my observations, I’ve isolated specific characteristics about their attitudes and methods that contribute to their success in the music classroom. 

1. They teach more than just music

Great teachers in any subject area teach life skills to their students in addition to the academic subject matter. They are the teachers who really care about their student’s well-being and take a vested interest in the student’s lives outside their classroom. They stand at the door as students enter the classroom and greet them as they walk in. They trade pleasantries with a number of them and comment on their work in other classes or ask about their activities outside of school. They frequently attend school and non-school related events their students are involved in such as athletic events, school dances, art shows, and other life events. They celebrate the positive aspects of their student’s lives and help them deal with the unfortunate aspects as well.

2. They have a positive attitude

This could possibly be the most important trait for a person to possess to build a strong music program and pleasant work environment. A positive attitude is infectious to students, colleagues, parents, and administrators and pays excellent dividends in the level of cooperation a director receives. I have found that the old adage “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” holds true in daily dealings with everyone associated with the music program and school. Very seldom have I come across a director with a negative or pessimistic attitude who ran a successful program. This is not to say that daily challenges will not be present, but how one handles difficult situations can positively or negatively impact the way others perceive us. Their perception of us as professionals and people affects our ability to draw interested and talented individuals into our programs

3. They are organized

This aspect of a director’s “modus operandi” is equally important to having a positive attitude. It can take many months, or even years, of experience to learn how to be efficient and organized for your set of circumstances. I have found that the more organized I was in all aspects of my job, the easier it was to save time and energy. Here is a short list of several suggested organizational strategies:

  1. Keep your music library up to date and have a system for cataloging music. Try to secure a neat storage area that is easily accessible. Set up a system that numerically delineates styles such as Contest, Holiday, Concert March, Jazz, etc. Cataloging choral music according to voicing within each style of music is also helpful. Keep the music in filing envelopes or boxes, and indicate on the front of the envelope when the piece was last performed and which group performed it. Indicate the approximate grade level and the level of student, audience, and educational “appeal.” It is wise to also indicate where you can quickly find a reference recording for the piece (see below).
  2. Keep a database of reference recordings that may be of use to you and your students. They can be physical CDs or records, or links to various online recordings from publisher sites or YouTube. This list will allow you to quickly find any needed recordings without losing important instructional time during rehearsals.
  3. Have an organized system for keeping track of school-owned instruments. Number every case and keep a record of each instrument’s serial number to avoid mix-ups and for insurance purposes, should that become an issue.
  4. Have an organized uniform/outfit storage area to facilitate fitting. Also have all uniform parts numbered and keep a spreadsheet and hard copy record of what uniforms are assigned to the students and check each part off at the end of the year to prevent missing uniforms.

4. They possess up-to-date knowledge of the subject matter

No list of good teaching practices would be complete without mentioning the benefits of having comprehensive knowledge of the subject you teach. Take what you have learned in college and on the job and use it in all aspects of your teaching. Mastery in areas such as music theory, ear training, music history, conducting, and best practices in the field of teaching are invaluable to being an effective director. Also, look for opportunities to stay musically active on a personal level. You can take lessons on a new instrument, join a community band or choral group, or perform outside of school in local musicals. Take time to discuss pedagogy with private teachers who teach instruments that are not your primary instrument. Seek techniques and advice from other professionals and read as much as you can on best practices in your field.

5. They have a critical ear

Ear training is something all music educators are exposed to in college music courses. Continue to develop your listening and dictation skills. It will pay off in the classroom. It is always advisable to have another musician use their critical listening skills to listen and critique your group as you prepare for performances and assessments. I have found that, many times, those other listeners will catch elements in the music that need work that were overlooked as I worked with the students.

6. They provide mentoring services to others

This is perhaps not as obvious or intuitive as other items on the list, but it is an important aspect of teaching. If you are a more experienced teacher, offer to assist a younger director or contact a nearby university and take on a student teacher. It is rewarding to share your wealth of information and knowledge. You will also pick up a number of great rehearsal techniques and teaching ideas from student teachers. It is a win-win situation. Young teachers should seek out veteran teachers. Veteran teachers should continue to mentor by offering to listen to other groups, offer advice, and even have their own groups critiqued by fellow veteran teachers. There is always something new to learn at any level of experience.

7. They develop effective interpersonal skills

Have empathy for the people you work with as well as the students you teach and their parents. Spend time getting to know the other members of the faculty and staff at your school. Helping out other teachers in your school is highly recommended. Take particular care to have positive interactions with the school secretaries, custodians, cafeteria workers, and guidance counselors. The better a director is at maintaining positive interaction with all involved, the more those relationships will compliment each other and contribute toward the desired outcomes.

8. They are life-long learners

Never stop learning your craft. Go to your state or national music conference and be diligent about keeping up with current educational practices in music by reading music education periodicals and books related to your area of instruction. Also, spend time reading materials that address best teaching practices. Be aware of educational trends so you can make informed decisions on their use. However, remember that just because an idea is new does not make it effective. Share your ideas with other directors. I have heard it said, “Two people meet and exchange dollars bills, so now each one still has one dollar. Two people meet and exchange ideas, now each has two ideas.”

9. They are detail oriented

One of the most daunting jobs a music teacher has is working out the logistics of the myriad of concerts, field trips, and competitions in which their groups are involved. The ability to foresee and solve the many logistical issues that accompany running a music program is a skill that can be learned and requires experience and practice. Try to have a logical plan to deal with the unexpected logistical problems that will invariably occur. When scheduling performances and trips, mentally walk through the entire event minute by minute and by doing so, you will likely be able to catch any inconsistencies in the plan. Fill out necessary paperwork well in advance of the due date and keep your administration up to date on how the plans for these activities are progressing.

10. They are good instructional planners

Going hand in hand with the skill listed above is the ability to plan in advance for the many parts of a teacher’s job. Spending the time to locate the right instructional materials for your class cannot be overstated. Listen to demonstration recordings, study scores, and develop classroom activities that promote participatory learning and give students valuable learning experiences. If you are a less experienced educator, it is wise to develop a yearly plan for what you wish to accomplish, as well as short-term plans, right down to daily lesson plans.

11. They are flexible

Teachers will always run into situations that throw a wrench into best planning practices, logistical work, and organizational skills. When these problems arise, your ability to be flexible and compromise will give parents, administrators, colleagues, and students a positive slant on your work. It instills in them the desire to work with you to achieve the goal of doing what is best for students. Exhibiting patience and empathy for these folks who may come across as having different priorities than you will be noticed and will go a long way toward gaining their respect and trust.

Many other aspects of a director’s personality and skill “toolbox” can be included in a list of highly effective characteristics. This list should serve as a catalyst for encouraging directors to think about what works in many cases to help promote a vital and effective music program.

Gary Fagan is a Maryland native. He completed his undergraduate degree at Bridgewater College in Music Education in 1973. He attended James Madison University where he received a masters degree in music education in 1975. In 1973 he became a band instructor in Albemarle County, Virginia where he taught band for 36 years. He retired in 2009 and is currently serving as a University Supervisor at James Madison University and has served as an adjunct faculty member there teaching Arranging.
He has had over one hundred compositions for concert band and string orchestra published. Eight of these have been performed at the Mid-West Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago. One was performed at the White House several years ago and at the inauguration ceremony for former Governor Douglas Wilder in Richmond, VA.

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