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Mixing Music and Politics

Mike Lawson • Commentary • April 1, 2002

Politics. Now there’s a word I’ve seen many of my colleagues try to ignore. Politics is nothing more than perception. Politics is how we are perceived by others. Many music teachers do everything in their power to not let politics control their programs. And yet, it is a part of what we do, whether we like it or not. When I hear music teachers complain about politics, it usually means they have lost control of their programs.

Over the past several years, I have been called into schools on numerous occasions to help resolve issues from requiring participation in marching band in order to be in jazz band to whether it is okay to charge for concerts to cutting music programs. In most situations, I found the music directors were just not speaking at the same level as their administrators. I’ll have to admit that most administrators, unless they have been trained in music education, have little or no understanding of just what we are doing as music educators. Most administrators truly want to understand music education but have little or no time to observe and study the subject.

When it comes time for your administration to evaluate your performance as a teacher, most of us get a positive report. In reality, most administrators admire what we are doing, but have very little knowledge of the subject to know whether things are going well or badly. Usually, administrators only get involved when something goes terribly wrong. Even then they often have no understanding of how dealing with music education should be handled.

DEVELOPING RELATIONSHIPS WITHIN THE SYSTEM

I learned early in my career as a high school band director just how important it is to play your politics right. Within the school site, it’s important to develop a special relationship with certain individuals. I always point out to new music teachers that they should get to know the custodians, cooks and secretaries as quickly as possible. If you ever need something at the last minute, they’re the ones you will be turning to first. I like to spend as much time as I can with them. It really doesn’t hurt to spend your coffee break in the kitchen, custodians’ room or front office.

As for the school principal, that is another matter. As I stated above, most administrators have very little time to study anything but management strategies on how to run the school. It is therefore your responsibility to make sure you develop a positive relationship with your principal in order to explain just what music education is. To assume that the principal knows it all will mean a strong possibility of failure to your music program. You’re the only one who can explain just what you are doing. In developing a working relationship with your immediate administrators, it is important that you show respect for them and the position they hold. You also must recognize that they must make decisions that affect the whole school. You will not always get your way. However, keeping quiet about your needs and troubles will never accomplish anything either. Once you have placed a request for consideration, give them time to think it through. Respecting their time to think about your needs allows them to consider your situation in such a way that it will benefit your program as well as the schools.

I am always amazed at how many times my principal has supported my needs as a high school band director when he was able to resolve my requests from a different angle that I never considered. Principals are human beings, too. They like it when they perceive that they have come up with the solution. In the end, I usually get what I need, within reason. Respecting one another’s positions has allowed me to develop a solid friendship with both my principal and vice principal. Once they are your friends, you know they are listening.

Another area to consider when dealing with your principal is learning to work through and with the school system. It is political suicide to “set your principal up for a fall.” Most of us do it without realizing it. How is that done? By going over their head, say, directly to the superintendent or school board when dealing with issues. Always go to your immediate supervisor first, then work your way up through the system. Political failure is almost a sure thing if you skip all the way to the top. School principals are in the positions they hold because they are supported by the superintendent and the school board. Also, when dealing with important issues, go directly to the person in charge concerning those issues. For example, a junior high band director was concerned about drop-off in the number of students in the high school band. After discussing it with the new high school band director, it became apparent that the high school band director was the problem. The next step should have been to discuss it with the high school principal directly. Instead, the junior high band director discussed it with outside individuals. This got back to the principal, from the school board down, and led to a verbal confrontation. The junior high music director really didn’t mean any harm and only wanted to show concern. However, principals like to be in control and on top of things in their school. As it turned out, the principal was already aware of the problem and was dealing with it. 

POLITICS AND THE COMMUNITY

The community is another angle with which you need to be politically correct. I have seen more great band programs fail because of the perception they give to their community. I have watched over and over as band directors have made wrong calls. I can’t leave myself out of that one. I, too, have made wrong calls in the operation of my program. The reason I have been able to get out of a few of those wrong calls is that I have admitted my mistakes and have corrected them immediately. It’s okay to admit you are wrong. Don’t try to wiggle out of an error by coming up with prefabrications about why you did something the way you did it. Just admit you’re wrong, and move on. The community needs to perceive you as a director for what you are, not what you are not. When they don’t see the real you, they form mistrust.

I would not want to tell you just what to do and how to run your program. However, I have seen too many new band directors fail because they did not take the time to study the communities they were working in. What works in one community oftentimes does not work in another community. There are no rules that say we should all be the same. How boring if we did. Your band program should match your community. For example, corps-style bands don’t always work in all communities. Military-style bands don’t work in all communities. Some schools are more academic in structure and don’t want their students marching two and three nights a week. Some schools want kids to focus on music only, while others want them to try to do as many different things (band and sports, drama, dance, etc.) as they can. As the director, you need to make sure what you are bringing to the school is in line with the goals of the community. This is just good political sense.

I saw a classic example of this on this past New Year’s Eve. I attended the Silicon Valley Bowl Game between Michigan State and Fresno State. Both school bands were present, playing to a packed, sold-out stadium. The styles of both bands were remarkably different. Michigan State was traditional “Midwest” style, while Fresno State was “corps style” in concept. Both bands reflected the style of the communities they came from. Both bands had their fans involved. Michigan State played the more traditional fight song-style songs, while Fresno State was wooing the crowd with “Hey Baby.” The battle of the bands that day was quite a stimulus to both the players and the crowd. Both bands served their communities while displaying completely different moods and styles. I congratulate both schools and their directors. Again, how boring if both bands were the same.

Competitions can also have a negative effect on how your band is perceived. The same negative perception can result whether you are winning or losing in those competitions. When the band does the same show every Friday night, they lose support from their football crowd. The crowd may feel they are only watching a rehearsal for something more important the following day. When bands focus on competition, they may leave a feeling of separation from the school and community. The impression that the band does not want to be at the game can also be picked up by the community and school. That is poor politics. This is not an attack on field show competitions. Just be careful and try not to forget your home crowd. In general, more community people will see you at a football game than will ever see you at most competitions. If you really think about it, most audiences at a competition are 90 percent participants and their parents. There are, I know, exceptions. I always tell my band and their parents, “I do not take my band to the football games to help the football team… I take them to the football game to help the band.” If the team picks up the enthusiasm of the band and crowd, then we have done our part.

You can improve your community’s perception of your band by getting out to community events. Volunteer your group to any organizational activity that functions in your area. I also volunteer my group to most of the requests I get from politicians. Politicians are always in the public eye. Why not showcase your group? There’s nothing wrong with getting a popular politician on your side when you need something.

Tours, if successful, can also create a positive political climate. Your students, however, need to know that if they screw up (example: students sent home for drug abuse or behavioral problems, etc.) can do extreme damage to your reputation. In my 28 years of teaching, I have toured about 18 times (from Canada to Colorado, from President Clinton’s Inaugural Parade to nine performances in the People’s Republic of China). We have had only a couple of incidents that needed to be addressed. That is why I always invite the principals along. The principals like it, and kids are less likely to misbehave. Successful tours speak well of your program. Some words of advice, however: If you can’t trust your students on a tour, don’t do one. The negative fallout is hard to overcome for future tours. Once you can place trust in your students, do a tour. We are one of the only disciplines in public and private schools where traveling and performing are appropriate.

POLITICS AND YOUR STUDENTS

I have enjoyed much success in my community because I have shied away from things my band cannot possibly do, and focused on the things they can do. It’s extremely important that kids feel good about what they’re doing. Is playing in band rewarding as well as fun? Do the kids find value in both the class and at performances? Have you opened up their curiosity to what is available and possible in the world of music? Are the goals you have set up for that class “doomed to failure” or “dressed for success?”

Large goals are usually best done in small steps. You can’t expect your students to do great things unless they develop and grow along the way. Are your goals within the emotional as well as physical constraints of your students and school? Does your school site support what you are trying to achieve? For example, I have no access to the football field after school or in the evenings. We have no lights on the football field. Trying to do field show competitions is totally out of the picture. So, for field shows, I focus on what can be completed in the one hour I meet with the kids (I have 160 band and colorguard members) during regular band practice. We do easier field motions, but have plenty of time to do lots of field music as well. I am also a one-man show, which limits what I can teach with such a large band. I learned a long time ago that it doesn’t really matter whether you do your pinwheels perfectly – if your music stinks, your crowd will think your whole show stinks. We are still able to do three or four different shows per season. It sure makes a good pep band when you go into playoffs. By the way, always follow your football team into playoffs. It’s good politics. A great pep band is all you need. My program does try to compete well in street competitions (we do that a lot in California), but even that has its problems. We have time constraints on the practice street we use, and it is on a curve. Try teaching correct diagonals on a curve. What my program can achieve even in competition has its limits. Knowing and establishing the limits of your program is good politics. Especially when you need something down the road. Pushing your students and community beyond those limits may create negative outcomes.

Learn to play your politics right, and a great music program will be yours. (You also get good performance requests.) Whatever you desire to achieve as a music teacher, how you and your programs are perceived has much to do with your success. Play your politics wrong and you’re sure to be looking for a new job.

D.L. Johnson is the director of bands at North Monterey County High school in California. A music educator for 28 years, Johnson is the immediate past president of the California Association for Music Education.

Commentary appeared on pages 18 – 21 in the April issue of School Band and Orchestra.

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