How Band Directors Can Turn Less into More

band directors

Over the years I have taught in many different places and in many different types of situations, both at the high school and university levels. In all that time, in all those places, and in all of those very different situations, I have been guided by the wise words of one of my musical heroes, Larry Rachleff.

At a conducting workshop I once attended, Larry said to us:

“If you want the opportunity to work with better students, make the students you have better.”

The only realistic, practical way of making your students better is through what you do during rehearsal. So, in an effort to focus on what is undoubtedly the most important part of your professional day, I offer the following suggestions and techniques to improve your rehearsals, your leadership, and yourself.

Techniques for More Productive Rehearsals

Your rehearsals are the links in the chain that connect the band you currently have to the band you want to have. No chain is stronger than its weakest link. To increase the odds in your favor, here are a few links that you can make really strong right from the start.

Have Your Room Prepared

I do understand that this may not always be possible. But, whenever possible, your students should enter your rehearsal space with the anticipation that something beautiful and amazing is about to happen.

Start and End on Time

Your rehearsals should begin precisely when they are scheduled to begin. If you want your students to learn more about personal responsibility, professionalism, and punctuality, you must model these things.

There are very few things more demoralizing for a student than to have given all they have during a rehearsal, only to be kept longer than the allotted time. This sends the message that “My time is more important than yours” and can sow the seeds of resentment among your group.

Start with Sound!

I believe each rehearsal should begin with music. No talking, no announcements, no taking roll…just music. In my presentation at the 2018 Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic, I began promptly on the hour by directing all attendees to stand up and sing. After singing, the change in the room was obvious. Even experienced music educators slouch when faced with yet another hour of being lectured at. But people who have just made music are energized.

Do we occasionally need to take time to do band “business”? Of course you do. But whenever possible do it when it is not taking valuable rehearsal time. If it must happen in rehearsal, don’t ever start with it!

The Rehearsal Plan

In my book, Adventures in Band Building, I offer a template for a successful rehearsal plan. Here is a Cliffs Notes-style abbreviated version:

  • Warm-Up – The first ten minutes of your rehearsals are vital! The goal should be for each student to listen to others. I offer specific techniques, in my book, but listening to each other is the key.
  • Slow PieceIf the warm-up is done correctly, the group will be ready to dive into the slow piece on your program.
  • Band Announcements #1This is when you should do your talking if needed. They will need a few minutes of rest.
  • Center Piece of ProgramNow’s the time to tackle the most technically demanding piece on the program. Get to it.
  • Band Announcements #2 (if needed)
  • Opener / Closer (fast!)At every rehearsal, save the most up-tempo, exciting piece for last. If you have accomplished all of the above, your students’ attention spans will be limited at this point. Use the quick tempo and excitement of this piece to keep them focused, and have them leave your class energized and humming music that makes them move.

Dynamics / Context

The older I get, the more I am convinced that there is no printed dynamic marking in any piece of music that means anything…unless it is placed into a musical context. There is a HUGE volume difference between a melody/theme/solo that is marked “mp,” and an accompaniment part with the same dynamic marking.

The printed dynamic mark is not the answer, it is the question! The question it asks is, “How loudly or softly do I actually need to play in this context to accomplish the composer’s intentions?”

They’ll Be Watching You

We live in a remarkably visual society, and many of the outcomes of it are negative. However, you have an opportunity to take advantage of this fact by how you move/what you do on the podium each day.

For instance:

  • If you want your students to take good, healthy breaths, you must model them
  • Want a softer sound? Look softer
  • If you want legato, look legato

Take advantage of your students’ natural inclination to mimic what they see, and use this as a superpower to your advantage.


Leaders come in all shapes and sizes, from all backgrounds, etc. The one thing they must have in common is commitment: A commitment to the projects and to the people with whom they work.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes on the subject of leadership:

  • A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit.  – Arnold H. Glasow
  • The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers. – Ralph Nader
  • Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage with others. – Robert Louis Stevenson
  • You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do. – Eleanor Roosevelt
  • Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them become what they are capable of being. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

What Does Good Leadership Look Like to our Administrators?

Most administrators want two things from their band director. They want them to do good work and to not cause problems. Most other issues can be negotiated.

To put this another way, I will repeat the words of a wise music supervisor for whom I once worked. He said:

  1. “Don’t mess with the students.”
  2. “Don’t mess with the money.”

In truth, he didn’t use as polite a word as “mess,” but you get the point!

Is “Leadership” Synonymous with “Control Freak?”

No matter how messy our offices may appear, a control freak lies within each band director. You must try to curb this tendency, and allow people to help you do things that they are capable of doing. This can mean delegating to students and boosters, too. This will leave more time for you to do the things that only you can do, AND it will make those people who step up feel even more invested in your program.  

It All Comes Back to You

When all is said and done, it is you, and you alone, who are responsible for the success or failure of your band program. The good news is you can control you. You can make conscious decisions to improve.

Common Traits

Top performing educators share much in common. Here are some specific traits they share.

Great educators:

  • Put students’ best interests first,  and are willing to go “above and beyond the call of duty’” to accomplish what they believe is best for students. Are fully and completely committed to what they do and in the repertoire they choose. 
  • Are fair and consistent in their treatment of all. Provide a model of self-improvement and high self-expectations.  Never ask anyone to do something that they themselves are not willing to do. 
  • Look inward for causes whenever classroom problems occur.

Three Necessary Attributes

All that said, there are three attributes that no band director can be without: musicianship, reparation, and sincerity.

  • MusicianshipYou can’t teach mastery if you have not experienced it first-hand. Continue to strengthen your musical weaknesses. We all have them. The best teachers are lifelong students.
  • Preparation – Study and analysis are performance. Preparation is the “great equalizer.”
  • Sincerity – Students don’t need to love you, but you must find something about them to love. Find the courage to be you. Let students see why you are doing this in the first place: because you love it!

Part of being sincere is being vulnerable. What are you willing to do in order to help your students succeed? Are you willing to:

  • Look silly?
  • Show what you feel?
  • Admit failure?
  • Look at your weaknesses honestly and your strengths humbly?

Sometimes we need to be willing to not be liked in order for our students to recognize our sincerity. Students are a great judge of authenticity and it’s vital that they know you respect them enough to let them know who you really are.

We Are in the Music Education Business

Your students don’t need another trophy on the band room wall. Who is it that is really competing in band “competitions,” anyway? It is the process, not the product, that matters most in an academic setting.

In a professional musical organization, rehearsals are scheduled because there is an upcoming concert. In an academic musical organization, there are concerts scheduled only because of the rehearsals. We are not in the concert business. We are in the music education business!

When our band programs are music- and student-centered, we have a far better chance of success.

The Dreaded “C” Word!

The “C” word is…CHANGE! Here are a few of my favorite quotes about change:

  • If there is no struggle, there is no progress. –Frederick Douglass
  • Growth is painful. Change is painful. But, nothing is as painful as staying stuck where you do not belong.  –N. R. Narayana Murthy
  • You cannot change your destination overnight, but you can change your direction overnight. – Jim Rohn
  • Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself. – Leo Tolstoy

If, after assessing your band program, you find yourself unhappy with certain aspects of it, change them! True change requires acute self-reflection and assessment. Not everyone is brave enough to do this. But, if you can find the courage to look at yourself and your band program as honestly and objectively as possible, you and your students will benefit.

Priorities and Goals

Your group reflects your priorities. What are your professional priorities? What are your goals for your band program? Where do you want it to be in 3 years, 5 years? Have you made a plan to accomplish those goals with small, achievable benchmarks along the way?

If you haven’t, you should.

What are your professional goals? What are your personal goals? My professional goals have been the same since I was about 20 years old:

To become the best musician I can be, and to make music, on the highest level possible, with as many people as I can during my short stay on this planet.

I invite you to explore your professional and personal goals as well as those of your program, and I applaud you for the ongoing work you do on behalf of your students

This post is based on the author’s session at the 2018 Midwest Clinic, and highlights topics from his book, “Adventures in Band Building – How to Turn Less Than It Could Be into More Than It Should Be.”

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