In recent years, I have really thought about what success is for the students in my band program. I have thought about the exemplary bands in Texas and the successful directors that led those programs. I have also thought about how everyone’s situation is unique and that there must be a better measurement of success. In my mind, success happens when directors exceed the perceived expectations of their program. More importantly, I think success is when students of all ability levels make progress and feel really good about themselves. How exactly do we teach every individual in our class when “teach to the top” is ingrained into our minds? How do we reconcile our inner expectations with our outer reality? The secret to that elusive success is simple but hard to swallow.
We simply cannot rush the time it takes for each of our students to grow, and we cannot rush toward progress by taking shortcuts. We need quality instruction time with each of our students and allow them the necessary time to show mastery of skills.
Addressing the “Why”
As far as I know, the vast majority of our employment contracts do not require a state championship title. And yet, we work ourselves to the ground giving our band programs everything we can give. Even then, our thirst for winning is not satiated. We get really bent on measuring apples to apples when in reality, it can be closer to comparing apples to a brick. It simply does not make sense to sacrifice ourselves and the emotional well-being of our students for the sake of our self-fulfilling egos.
My personal “why” in committing heavily to the job is the fact that I get to teach students. Every day, I get to show the high fliers a pathway to breaking their own limits while helping them learn humility. I also get to help the low-achieving students master that next objective while building their self-esteem. No matter what level the students are at, I get to make a difference that is appropriate to their life journey. However, all of that takes time.
Addressing the “How”
I am fortunate to live in a metroplex that has many revered/retired directors. Throughout the past several years, I have come to learn that those revered directors are actually some of the nicest people I know. And just like a lightbulb turning on, I made the connection to their success. They have built great legacies, not on their ability to have the best bands in the state but rather on their ability to connect to people on a deep level. I realized that is exactly what I have to do with every single one of my students.
That realization, coupled with Covid-19, gave me a great opportunity to change the way I teach. No longer was I bound to a specific curriculum. No longer was I bound to specific checkpoints of the year, and no longer was I compared to ABC school. I simply allowed myself the time I needed to teach my students everything and offered my students the same. I infused myself with their music journey.
What does teaching the individual in a classroom setting look like?
In our band hall, you would be hard-pressed to pick out the best players from the younger players. It is not immediately evident because every student is constantly practicing and constantly aiming at getting a pass-off on their next objective.
Every student, say in a beginner class, is given an objective pass-off sheet that has the simplest skills in progressive order. The idea here is to give students frequent small successes that are easily attained. For the high-fliers, there are always more objective sheets that we can give them. And for the slower-paced learners, we provide them with ample time and support.
We use the pass-off system during class as an opportunity to give meaningful mini-lessons to the individual. Instead of teaching lip slurs once to 24 students, we teach it 24 times to 24 different students. This is extremely time-consuming, but, much like the philosophy of this publication, “an inch wide and a mile deep,” I want all my students to have complete mastery of skills even if I have to find 24 different times and 24 different ways of teaching it. This often results in long-lasting knowledge. After all, isn’t this the reason why private lessons are so hyped?
Through this pass-off system, we teach students things like how to practice, how to cope with performance anxiety, and how to deal with failure. Above all, we teach the students that it takes significant amounts of time to show mastery.
In their 7-year band journey, we must take the time needed to develop every student on every fundamental skill. We must address tone quality, articulation, literacy, and facility the way the head high school director expects. Most importantly, we must make every student feel like they are completely valued, loved, and respected. We have to make each of them understand the journey is more important than the destination.
When I was an inexperienced director, I demanded excellence from students without actually showing them how. I used excellence as a scapegoat to win trophies, and I treated my students as pawns to measure up to other directors. Don’t be my former self. Be a teacher who is thrilled at the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of students through music. Be a teacher who takes time to build relationships and who helps students on their individual journeys. And be a teacher who teaches the individual student in the classroom setting because every student deserves it. When you have done that, I think you will find all of your hopes and dreams for the program become closer to reality than before.
Jung Mour is in his 16th year teaching, all at the same title 1 school. He is deeply committed to teaching every student where they truly are and guides them to frequent success at an individualized and progressive level. He is also an avid music education advocate across the state to young directors.
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