Michael Niedziejko

Mike Lawson • ChoralFeatures • May 15, 2013

Share This:

DSC_0043Over the past 19 years, Michael Niedziejko has steered the New Providence (New Jersey) High School marching band into remarkable territory. In addition to laudable participation numbers (more than 140 kids out of a school of only 620), the “Pride & Class of New Providence” has also seen a great deal of competitive success, garnering eight USBands (formerly USBBA) state championships in the past 11 years, while also winning the 2011 and 2012 Class 6A National Championships.

Niedziejko credits this consistent success to an overall model of consistency in the New Providence High School music program: consistency in staffing, in instruction, in programming, in preparation, and in execution. “In my teaching, from day one of a particular season to the very last day, I teach the same exact way. Whether I’m being observed by administrators or not, whether we’re in a public situation or a closed situation – it doesn’t matter, I teach the same way. I want my students to always see me the same way as I am when I teach. It’s important to be honest in that capacity. Most studentsappreciate that.”

In this recent conversation with SBO, Niedziejko provides further insight into the approach that has yielded such notable results, along with his perspective on the ongoing evolution of the competitive marching activity.

School Band & Orchestra: Would you talk about the development of your program? What really set things moving in the direction where they are today?

Michael Niedziejko: In such a small school district like ours, teachers are doing multiple jobs within the department. At one point I was teaching recorder to all of the third graders in the district. For a period of years, I knew every student who came up through the system. As soon as kids arrived at the middle school/high school, which is a single building, I had already worked with them. That really helped to provide stability and interest in the program. I don’t do that any more – thankfully, to be honest – but that period of five years when I taught recorder really helped to establish the program. We really took a large step forward in that particular time.

It’s so important for the high school staff to have face time with the feeder schools as much as possible, whether that be going to their concerts or coming in and giving lessons, if that’s an option. That helps to put a face with the name, so students know when they come into the school exactly who this person is that they’re going to be working with. That face time and connection with the students is very important in establishing something, whether that is building a program or trying to maintain it.

SBO: What sort of musical prep do students have when they get to the high school in your district?

MN: Every spring we run a sampling program, in which the entire music faculty from our district gets together at each of our elementary schools and runs a sort of clinic/test for all of the third graders in the districts to try all the families of instruments. Then we make recommendations to them and their families based on what we, as experts in the field, think will give students the best chance for immediate success. We started that about 12 years ago, and that really helped to make the program thrive, as well as address the instrumentation issues. We have a keen eye on how many cellos we want to recommend and how many low brass instruments we want to recommend, and so on. Instrumentation can be a real challenge, particularly for small schools, if you don’t help guide the process a little early on.

The sampling program is an off-shoot of our recorder program, which is mandatory for all third-grade students in the district. Then they get the instrument recommendation and start in fourth grade with beginner band and beginner strings. That continues through the rest of their elementary years up through sixth grade. Then they move through our middle school, which is in the same building as the high school. Once they get into the building, they see me every day. At times I’m helping with instrument repairs or with issues that middle school band directors might have.

The “Pride & Class of New Providence.”

The “Pride & Class of New Providence.”

SBO: How many students are there at New Providence High School? 

MN: We have 620 in the school, and had 143 students participated in the marching band this past season. It’s a relatively high percentage.

SBO: Are those students in other ensembles as well?

MN: It’s not mandatory for them to participate in one of our curricular ensembles if they’re in marching band. It’s treated as a co-curricular ensemble, not extra-curricular, but I have more people playing instruments in the marching band than I do in the concert band. With a small school situation, scheduling is somewhat difficult, especially because we share staff and facilities between the middle school and high school.

SBO: What about the preparation for the marching band – when do you typically begin planning?

MN: I take about two months off after the football season ends. Our football team is very successful: we’ve been here for 19 years and we’ve only missed the playoffs once. Our season continues into December. From about the holidays until mid-February or so, I don’t do anything with marching band. But the other 10 months, I’m either engaged in the activity, or I’m working on arranging or drill writing – both of which I do myself. So it’s basically 10 months of the year including preparation and engagement in the activity.

SBO: You’ve been involved in the competitive activity some time. What’s your take on the evolution of the marching arts?

MN: It’s important to stress that in an art form that is competitive, how objective can it be? It’s not like an athletic activity that has a clearly defined winner – more points on the scoreboard or crossing the finish line first. It’s completely subjective.

My philosophy is that we don’t compete to “beat” other bands. In fact, I tell my students that the only way we could beat another band is if we physically pick up an object and hit them with it – because it’s totally subjective. An adjudicator can come from a different background than where you’re from or they may not understand what you’re trying to do and they might score you lower than another judge, even in the same caption.

The competitive circuit that we participate in – the USBands, which has partnered with the Cadets and Youth Education and the Arts – has a very clearly defined educational objective through rubrics that they use for evaluation and workshops that they offer. Their rubrics can be used not only for evaluation, but also as a tool for driving my teaching. It makes a lot of sense that if we’re competing in that endeavor, we design the show and we teach for that end.

That end is supposed to result in excellence in entertainment value and everything that goes along with that activity. So that competitive thing is really blurred in a lot of situations. In my opinion, it’s a mistake to make competitive success the end-all objective for the program.

DSC_0683SBO: Sure – you’re still an educator first.

MN: Exactly. We don’t compete to win. We compete to push ourselves and to improve.

SBO: Considering that the adjudication is subjective, to what do you attribute the consistent success in your program? What are you doing that is so well received?

MN: Well, a couple of things. First and foremost is, though, is consistency. In my teaching, from day one of a particular season to the very last day, I teach the same exact way. Whether I’m being observed by administrators or not, or whether we’re in a public situation or a closed situation, it doesn’t matter, I teach the same way.

SBO: You say you strive to teach consistently; so how would you describe your teaching style?

MN: Very student-centered. I try to put myself in their shoes. But I also ask them to put themselves in my shoes, so that there’s a kind of mutual understanding going on. I try to be consistent, but also organized and expeditious in addressing areas that we need to work on because I don’t like to waste time, and my students don’t like to waste time, either. I’m thinking about them and they think about me so that there’s a mutual kind of respect about who we are and what we’re trying to do, and that’s going on all the time.

I’m a father of four. Once I became a father and my kids got a little bit older, I started experiencing some of what my band parents experienced in their own families and something clicked. I realized that I need to make sure that I am not wasting any time, because my students’ time is precious. It’s really important to be organized, to plan everything out that you possibly can.

There’s an expression out there that I learned from [the late] George Parks [long-time director of the UMass-Amherst marching band]. I was a student of his at his drum major academy and kept in contact with him after that. He always said that if you fail to plan, then plan to fail. And that’s pretty much how I operate. I over-plan.

SBO: We got sidetracked – we were talking about the evolution of the activity. 

MN: With the philosophy of competition, you have that rubric. But also within that rubric, there’s room for expression. We’re a corps styles marching band. It’s really become a physical activity, where it’s not just about symmetry and marching straight lines and blocks. It’s also about expression from the body that is homogeneous with the color guard and everything else you’re doing visually. In the past 20 years – since I marched in drum & bugle corps – that is the area that has really evolved, to the point where it’s really the sport of the arts, a display of athletic artistry.

I know that the really old school band directors and drum corps heads don’t really like it, but it’s evolution and you really can’t stop that. So if that’s inserted into the competitive arena and you ignore it because you don’t like it, then that’s doing a disservice to the students by not even exploring it.

For me, as an older school person, using voiceovers and narration is a big distraction, but it does wonders in establishing what a group is trying to do. For example, two years ago we did a show on the elements – fire, air, earth, and water – and we had a very talented dancer portray the “spirit” of those four elements. We also had a mural that was completed throughout the show as we performed a song representing each of the elements. We had a little idol that she would introduce as we did each song that she would then place in the mural, so by the end of the show the mural was complete.

Well, some of the adjudicators really focused on the performance levels and really didn’t get the story line or the idea behind it. They kept saying that if we had used narration, there wouldn’t have been any questions. I guess that was me being a little stubborn, but you can’t deny that at a certain point, things like amplification and narration can be appropriate, given the overall shift in the art form over the past 20 years.

Band-Camp-2012-023SBO: As a music educator, what’s your take on this emphasis on these broader thematic elements?

MN: Today’s adolescent in this tech-savvy generation has a short attention span. And that’s decreasing as we move forward. Anything that you can do to add interest to something that you continually repeat is a good thing. For instance, in my band practice we pull from the same series of warm-ups everyday, so we provide a consistent beginning to the class. However, for an adolescent to do the same warm-up everyday would get really monotonous. So what I try to do is assign specific tasks, like having the brass players try to listen to the woodwind instruments, or having the woodwind players listen to the percussion just to give them something that’s different and unique and interest piquing. This is, at the very least, an attempt to keep it new and fresh. And engaging all of these different themes – the expression aspect of things – helps to do that.

If you go to marching band rehearsal after marching band rehearsal and you continually do the same things over and over – and you have to do that to a point, because it’s all about building muscle memory – the students will just check out. So it helps to put more elements into the show. At a certain point, I can tell when the students start to lose interest, and then I’ll add a ripple, or we’ll talk about the thematic interest. With those, there’s an additional aspect that helps to keep it new. That’s probably the biggest benefit to adding these thematic ideas to more progressive types of shows.

SBO: Aside from lighting and amplification, how do you see technology impacting the marching arts?

MN: I use technology extensively in the preparation and creation of what we do. As a result, I have the ability to provide students with resources such as practice aids and videos, albeit computer-generated, of what the perfect performance would be of the drill. I use Pyware for my drill writing.

I remember writing drill back in high school and having to write out coordinates. Now it’s as simple as putting the direction on the drill itself and then having the computer to print out coordinates with a few simple clicks.

All of this technology available to us serves to expedite the learning process. We don’t have to take time out of rehearsal for them to write down their dots (as we called them when I was in high school), and that’s big for me. Now if we say that rehearsal starts at 6pm, we start playing at 6pm. We aren’t getting our instruments out, we aren’t moving equipment – we’re actually starting then.

I post to a website through our school district, as most teachers do, and I can put up all of the music posted in a copyright-protected environment. We have the capacity to restrict viewing so only students can see it, so there’s no potential copyright infringement, but the students are held accountable for having every piece of information – their music, their coordinates, whatever. They can reproduce it all at home on their own, and that emphasizes their accountability. I post practice files, drill movies, and a weekly schedule that actually outlines to the minute what we’re doing for a particular performance, what the students will need to bring for a rehearsal, and even what the weather is going to be. I use technology extensively through posting on our district website.

DSC_0031SBO: Are there challenges associated with getting the ball rolling on this technology? 

MN: It works relatively well for me because I like to have everything in my control. The problem comes if I have to rely on an arranger, a choreographer, and a drill writer and whoever else to all write the work and provide me the materials by a certain time. If they don’t meet their deadlines, it can be a huge problem. With this technology, if you’re not doing it yourself, you have to have access to it when you need it for your students’ sake.

Also, if you’re going to do it yourself, you have to be able to use the software well, and that takes some time to learn. I’ve been using drill-writing software for years. I’ve been using notation software for years. I’m very familiar with those tools, so while it saves time for me, it might not be such a time saver for others until they get more comfortable using them.

SBO: How do you see the marching band fit into the general school setting and music department? What’s the role that it plays in the bigger picture?

MN: I’m biased in this, obviously, but I think the marching band in our particular school system has the ability to – and always does – promote the largest sense of school pride and spirit. Now, we’re not over the top, either. I’m a very low-key individual, and we don’t do a lot of rah-rah cheering in the stands with our voices, but we have a sense of pride that we’re from New Providence and we’re representing our school. The marching band in particular really has the ability to express that sentiment. And that feeling then translates into a sense of pride in participating in the music department. We have a large number of students who are cross-involved in a number of ensembles – and we have to, being such a small school. We have orchestra students and choral students in the marching band, and band students in the chorus and orchestra as a result of that. It provides a defined environment for cross-participation and unity. That’s in terms of the school benefit.

Musically, I don’t teach the basics of how to perform on an instrument any differently in the marching band than I do concert band. We utilize the same vocabulary, the same basics of tone production, and physical demands in terms of the approach to performance on each of the four instrument groups. The only difference between what we do for the outdoor activity as compared to the indoor activity is that we use traditional grip for the snare line outdoors and matched grip indoors. Everything else is identical. And when I go from fall to winter season, I talk about how things are the same as what we did outdoors. Our volume production might be restricted a little bit indoors, but it’s the same methodology. And I try to maintain that throughout. We’re outdoors in the fall, indoors most of the year, and then outdoors again in the spring for parades and such, and I don’t teach any differently through the seasons. This helps my students know what to expect, and it reinforces the same skills that we teach all year long.

SBO: What do you hope your students walk away with after four years in your marching program?

Primarily, it’s about life training with me. A lot of music educators would say something about the continual appreciation for and desire to participate in music, but for me it’s all about being a good person, being a good citizen, and thinking about somebody else before yourself. When I was talking about being student-centered before, that’s the crux of my approach here as a teacher. And after that, I want my students to increase their general musicianship. Not just being able to play notes on a page, but being able to play the music that they see on the page, and really appreciate the music. Hopefully some students will even appreciate it to the point that they’ll want to continue to play in college and throughout their lives.

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!