Culture: from the Latin cultus, which means “care.” ~Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code
Few things are more important than the culture of an organization. In music ensembles, cultures are particularly important. Negative energy, low standards, apathy, and drama severely limit potential and success. I like to think of culture as the air we breathe because culture pervades everything that is done and the way it is done. It influences every interaction and all of our processes. Because of that, it influences the success of our performances. It also influences our happiness and enjoyment—two things that are not often talked about in ensembles but that we all seek and desire, especially our students.
In my years as both a high school and college marching band director, I’ve learned that building a culture of excellence comes down to developing a few fundamentals and principles.
The first question we ask ourselves is, “What kind of culture am I building?” The answer to this question becomes our North Star in setting up the environment we wish to create as our culture.
One of the best ways to define your culture is to answer a couple of simple statements. The first is, “I want to have a program that values__________.” What are your answers to this statement? I have found that most directors have similar responses. We value things like hard work, excellence, discipline, commitment, positive, fun, relationships, teamwork, perseverance, fairness, achievement, organization, etc. These seem to be universal values for successful cultures. What values do you want your program to have?
The next statement to answer is, “I want to work with people who value__________.” Are any of the same answers given to this statement as you did the first? Are there different answers? It is good to name these characteristics because they help clarify our beliefs and help us build the culture we are envisioning. When I answer this statement, I think of characteristics like positive attitude, maturity, attendance and punctuality, honesty, kindness, good listening, friendship, courage, discipline, self-control, rigor, etc.
Now that you have defined your values let’s look at three essential principles of building a culture of excellence.
First and foremost, culture is a people-centric process. It is about creating an environment where people matter and feel that their contribution is appreciated. This is established through a feeling of acceptance and belonging. We do this in a variety of ways but mostly through personal connections. For example, simply connecting with each student through a warm hello or a greeting to class each day is very effective and sends a strong signal of “you belong” and “I’m glad you’re here.” Students are well aware when a teacher takes a genuine interest in them, and this has a powerful impact. Another strategy is by publicly praising students when they do something well. There is hardly any better feeling for a student than to be praised in front of their peers. Look for those opportunities intentionally. On the other hand, there is nothing worse for a student than being publicly criticized or embarrassed. When critical feedback is necessary, it should never cause a student to be ashamed. Frame those comments in ways that retain the student’s dignity at all times. If you want to build a great culture, start with making every kid feel accepted.
Once students feel accepted, the next question they have is, “who can I trust?” It takes a long time to build trust, but it can be lost quickly. Trust is built by being trustworthy—through being consistent and dependable with our expectations and actions over the long haul. Trust is also built upon a foundation of relationships and safety. Directors have to create an environment where positive relationships are fostered and developed. Members of the ensemble must feel like they can be themselves without fear of being embarrassed or rejected either by the director or other students.
One of the most deadly things to a culture is when gossip and drama are allowed to persist. I speak to lots of directors about leadership and culture building, and among the most common problems they indicate they have is that students gossip about one another and cause drama. This gutter-talk destroys trust and ruins the culture. There is no place for it in a culture of excellence. It takes time away from being better musicians, and it destroys the sense of relationships and safety. Gossip is cruel, divisive, and destroys a person’s dignity. It can ruin a person’s reputation and alter the way others view them in lasting ways. Unfortunately, gossip is not the kind of problem that goes away on its own. It has to be addressed and stopped. The culture has to be such that these things are not tolerated so that relationships and safety are the core of our interactions. If you want a culture of excellence, you simply must work to eliminate gossip and build around trusting relationships.
Next, culture is a “trickle-down” phenomenon. The expectations and standards set by the director become the predictable norms of the ensemble and everyone within it. Expectations define the standard and quality of work that everyone does. Great cultures include the highest expectations and standards. Everyone in the program is expected to bring their best effort and attitude at all times. Think back to some of the answers you gave to the statements on values at the beginning of this article. The expectations you have define how you will achieve those values and set the degree to which you will accept your students’ work toward them. I have always found that students want to be held to high standards and will almost always rise to meet them. Don’t be afraid to insist that your students reach high expectations.
Consider some of the questions that have to be defined through our expectations: What is a student’s attitude supposed to be during rehearsal? How hard do students work in rehearsal? Is apathy and laziness acceptable? Are students allowed to talk and goof off at inappropriate times? Expectations also define the level of preparation outside of rehearsal. Are students supposed to practice at home, or do we “practice” together during rehearsal? Expectations define our relationships and interactions too. What is acceptable and what is unacceptable? Expectations and standards are at the center of a program’s culture. We all want high expectations, but we have to clearly define them and then work relentlessly to uphold them.
Building a culture of excellence means making every student feel accepted, building trust among ensemble members, and having high expectations and standards in rehearsals and performances. The best programs live this way. There is no secret recipe, and students in those programs are no better or more talented than in other programs. The difference is that they have bought into a culture and are willing to work hard at achieving them. You can too.
Dr. David Montgomery is Associate Professor of Instrumental Music Education at Baylor University and is Director of the Central Texas Youth Wind Ensemble. Prior to his appointment at Baylor, Dr. Montgomery was Director of the Bronco Marching Band at Western Michigan University for 14 years. He will present a session based on culture building at the 2021 Midwest Clinic in Chicago, IL. Dr. Montgomery is the founder and director of Serviam Leadership Academy, a high school marching band leadership camp.