Making Band the Thing to Do

Mike Lawson • Archives • July 15, 2008

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Read 10 Years EditorialFor the past 20 years, Susan Waters has made a career of building up band programs. Every middle school or high school ensemble she’s taken over has seen a marked increase in participation and musical achievement.

Now only a stone’s throw from where she first picked up the clarinet so many years ago, Susan is creating a legacy at the newly-constructed W. H. Oliver Middle School in Nashville, Tennessee.

What exactly is involved in the process of more than doubling the number of students in band, as was the case at Hunters Lane High School? Or starting a brand new program with only seven students on day one, finishing the year with 75, and three years later having over 250, or 40 percent of the approximately 600 students in the school enrolled in band classes, as has happened at Oliver Middle School?

In this recent SBO interview, Susan Waters talks about the progression of circumstances that has lead to her making band the “thing to do” at every stop in her educational career.

School Band & Orchestra: Tell me about how you started in music?
Susan Waters: I started playing the clarinet when I joined beginning band in fifth grade. It was something I had never really thought about doing prior there wasn’t anybody musical in my family. It just seemed like the thing to do, so I signed up and joined, and that’s where I stayed.

SBO: From there, would you mind briefly detailing the ensembles you played in?
SW: I played all the way through high school, concert band and marching band. I played with lots of chamber ensembles and a youth symphony in high school.

SBO: When did you decide you wanted to be a band director?
SW: Right in middle school, seventh or eighth grade, is when I decided that being a band director was something I wanted to do. I had a female band director at the time, so she made it seem very possible for me. Of course, back then there weren’t very many lady band directors around, I just happened to have one of them. In all likelihood, if I’d had a male band director, I wouldn’t have pursued this field.

I continued on and did my undergrad at Middle Tennessee State University and went right on into graduate school in Western Kentucky University. I spent two years there. Then I started teaching.

SBO: How’d your first teaching opportunity come about?
SW: I was about a week away from the lease running out on my apartment and I hadn’t been able to find a job. I had applied to so many different schools, including Christian County Middle School, where they had an opening, and I was offered a position there at the last minute.

I had tried to come back to Nashville, the system I teach in now, but I couldn’t get into the Nashville Public Schools.

SBO: What was it about teaching music that initially drew you into the field?
SW: I had a pretty troubled childhood and being in band was a very good escape, a very good therapy for me. It made me feel safe when my home life wasn’t very safe. When I decided I wanted to teach, I suppose it was because band had had such a big impact on my life personally, so I wanted to create that opportunity for other children.

SBO: Tell me a little bit about your experiences at the Christian County Middle School?
SW: I taught there for nine years. When I came in, I replaced a band director who had been there for a long time. There were maybe 70 kids in the band when I arrived. When I left, there were over 200.

We were able to travel around and compete across the southern United States. I guess you could say I cut my teeth on that program.

SBO: What specifically did you do in order to grow the bands there?
SW: I made band the thing to do. It hadn’t been the thing to do there, but I made it the thing to do. I was young and energetic, coming right out of college, and I related to the kids very well. They enjoyed being in my class. It spread through the school that there was a young energetic person running the band program. I’d replaced a rather… “older” person, so it just attracted the kids to the band and we had fun. We built up a level of success, and then success bred success, and it just snowballed.

Susan Waters SBO: And from there you moved on to Hunters Lane High School?
SW: Hunters Lane is in Nashville. Because this is where I grew up, I always knew that I wanted to come back here. I had been the assistant band director at Christian County High School while I was teaching at the middle school, so I had been writing for the marching band and dealing with the high school groups in some capacity for nine years. It was a natural progression to go from there to having my own high school group.

Hunters Lane is in a very economically challenged part of Nashville and it was kind of an under-populated band. I came in and built it up in four years to about 130 people when I left. There were only about 50 when I got there.

While I was there, I did a lot of recruiting, a lot of re-teaching because the feeder schools weren’t that strong. I made band the thing to do.

SBO: When you say you “made band the thing to do,” sure there are abstract concepts like enthusiasm and energy

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