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Teaching the Whole Child

Josh Harris • Archives • November 5, 2010

Alexander Robinson is the longtime director of the Washington-Lee High School band from Arlington, Virginia. Twenty-six years ago, Mr. Robinson, as he’s known throughout the school and the community, took over a music department that featured a ragtag collection of 22 students. Since that time, Robinson has transformed the Washington-Lee bands into a first-rate program with over 125 students participating in Marching, Concert and Jazz bands, along with percussion and guitar ensembles.

While the top groups consistently earn superior ratings with level five and six literature, there is more to this music program than music. At some point in his teaching career, Mr. Robinson realized that in order to make the bands as successful as he wanted them to be, it was in his best interest to engage students through any means necessary, whether connecting with them at the middle schools, working on multi-discipline projects, involving them in the decision-making process for most aspects of the various performing ensembles, or by simply recognizing and embracing the life lessons that occur in day-to-day teaching situations.

In a recent interview with SBO, Alex Robinson highlights some of the keys he’s learned in his career educator that have enabled him to work “smarter” instead of “harder,” while also achieving more.

School Band & Orchestra: Let’s talk about your first years at Washington-Lee. How would you describe the music department at that point?

Alexander Robinson: The program had gone through a series of band directors, where every two years the directors would change. As a result, the program was relatively small. There were only 22 students in the program. I had my work cut out for me as far as building it up. The first year was kind of rough, but after that, I could see the changes begin to happen.

SBO: What did you do to get the program moving in the right direction?

AR: I really connected with the middle school directors. That had been a big problem, because if the feeder programs aren’t on track, then the end result is going to be felt at the high school level. Once we got the right teachers in place at the middle school level, things started to improve for us at the high school. We shot up to about 50 or 55 kids, and maintained that number for a longtime, which was a good quantity for the level. In the early years, we were playing grade 2 material, which is really a low middle school level. Now we’re up to playing grade 5 and 6 literature.

SBO: What was the catalyst for making the leap from 50 students to over 150?

Teaching the Whole ChildAR: I started doing a different recruiting method. I arranged my high school schedule so that I could actually be in the middle schools in the morning, which meant that the younger kids started to get to know me. I would bring a horn or a mouthpiece and sit in and play with the groups, and assist the directors. That paid off in the long run because kids got to know what to expect coming to the high school.

SBO: And what was it that they came to expect? How would you describe your teaching style?

AR: My expectations are extremely high. I have zero tolerance for discipline problems; I hold students responsible for their actions and I’ve always felt that way. We’re all here for the same short-term and long-term goals: to be successful. I’ve never been one to be all about ratings yes, it’s good if we can get a superior rating the goal is to discover what we can learn from those ratings. A lot of times, we would tell the kids the grade of the level of music that they’re playing, and the kids would get stuck on that. Music is not supposed to be as competitive as we have made it. The art form itself isn’t intended to be that way.

SBO: Your marching band goes to several competitions a year. How do you frame those so that the competition doesn’t become the focus?

AR: The first thing is that they have to please me. Regardless of what the judges are saying, I have to be satisfied with the end product because I know where we were when we started. We use each event as a stepping-stone towards the state competition at the end of the year. The state competition is something that’s measured similar to the Standards of Learning (SOLs) that we have here in Virginia. The curriculum is designed around the SOLs, as are my teaching and lesson plans. So when we go to the state festival and it’s more that than a competition our goal is to try to reach as high as we possibly can, while abiding by the requirements that are listed in the state’s manual.

SBO: Do you mean reach high relative to other groups? Does that factor into it?

AR: Not really. I would say we’re really in competition with ourselves. We strive to get a superior rating. And at the beginning of the year, our goal is to be better than the previous band, which means the previous Washington-Lee band. So it’s totally different from competing against the other bands that appear at that festival. Three or four other events we attend are literally competitions first, second, third place and that sort of thing.

SBO: How do you keep the students’ focus on getting better as musicians?

Teaching the Whole ChildAR: For a long time, I was more of a dictator in my program. It was extremely hard, because I was trying to sell what I wanted to do, and the students didn’t have any input at all. About ten years ago, I decided to have my kids make more of an investment in the band. Now we have a collective team of student leaders, along with myself and my staff members. Now we sit down and look at our goals and decide how we want to get there, and the music that’s best suited to help us do that. It’s to the point now that I have kids that are arranging music for the band, I have kids doing input with the drill, and now they’ve made an investment. They sell that back to their sections and the end result is that the band has gotten much better. I’ve particularly seen a big difference in the marching band.

SBO: How are you guys holding up in terms of funding?

AR: This is the first year that Arlington has seen the financial crunch. We’re fortunate because we have two major fundraisers that supply a lot of our funding. We have tag day, which is a door-to-door kind of thing, and then we have a fruit and nut sale that usually starts in October. We’re able to raise somewhere around 45 or 50 thousand dollars each year, and that has helped us a lot, especially with the Southern tour that we do each spring. We also use that money for uniform repair, new uniforms, new instruments that can’t be purchased for the county, marching shoes just about anything that we need for the program.

SBO: Would you elaborate on the tour?

AR: Every year we take a four-day tour south from Virginia. We usually go as far south as Florida and then stop in Georgia, South Carolina, and other states in the area. We stop in major colleges in different cities, where we perform, have clinics, work with professors and meet with admissions officers, the kids do a tour of the campus, and then we move on to the next city.

We do this for several reasons. For one, it’s important for the kids to see what different schools offer when it comes to music education, and two, we get to work with the directors of bands at those schools they give us master classes. The end result is that when we get to the event or wherever we are going at the end of the trip, the kids are extremely polished, and we normally do very well.

SBO: Plus, that must get your students thinking about taking music and their education in general to the next level.

Teaching the Whole ChildAR: Exactly. I’m not a fan of amusement parks. My first few years, we would leave school, head to a competition and then go to an amusement park. I remember thinking to myself, “There’s got to be more to it than this.” That’s when I came up with the idea of visiting universities and finding out what was going on at that level. We’ve had a good line of communication with these universities, and some of our students have actually ended up going to some of those schools to major in music.

SBO: Looking back over the years, how do you think you’ve changed as an educator?

AR: I don’t work as hard as I did before. I’m teaching the whole child now, and I don’t think I was doing that before. My job is not to teach kids how to become musicians, but to teach them to appreciate music and understand how it fits into society. In the jazz program, we’re looking at music from around the world, and how jazz has had an impact in so many different cultures. My kids are really getting into it, and I don’t think I would have done anything like that 15 years ago. I’m attracting more students to the program because of the way that we’re doing different things. We just won a grant from Wolf Trap [Foundation for the Performing Arts] to study music from the Harlem Renaissance, and we’re going to incorporate the art department, the history department, and the English department as a part of this, and we’re going to collaboratively come up with a final project in February. Honestly, I think I would have just focused on the music years ago. I’m also trying to have the kids look at how music fits into all parts of society, and even different disciplines.One thing that I strongly advise is that every band director or music teacher should work to develop a good rapport with the counseling department and administrative team, including the principal. Those other people need to have a basic understanding of what’s going on in your program, and not just through the final product. One of the biggest mistakes that band directors make is not inviting administrators into the classroom to see what is actually going on within the program. For example, I involved our principal in our concert. We gave him a part to play so he could see what’s going on in the classes and rehearsals from the students’ perspective. He came up afterward and told me, “You know, this is a little bit harder than I thought. You’re not just teaching music, but also incorporating all of these different subject matters into the class.” And I don’t think he had ever looked at it from that point of view before. That’s certainly something I wouldn’t have done 20 years ago!

SBO: Well, I imagine it takes some confidence to invite your boss into your classroom like that.

AR: Right, and it’s not just about money. The more they can give us the better. However, I’d rather see administrators help out my kids with scheduling so they can continue to take band, rather than promise me $2,000 so we can take a bus trip. In the long run, the scheduling is going to be more beneficial to the program than that money for the bus. Having kids in the classroom is going to make or break any program.

SBO: What’s the number one thing you want your students to take away from your program?

Teaching the Whole ChildAR: I jokingly say this to my students all the time: “If you take nothing out of this class, I want you to be punctual and be respectful. When you become the CEO of some company, I want you to remember where you got your start from.” That has nothing to do with music, believe it or not. I have former students who are doctors, all kinds of professionals, and I get letters back that say, “If it wasn’t for you riding me to be on time and be prepared, I don’t think I would be where I am today.

SBO: That level of discipline is pretty useful for anyone who wants to become a good musician, too.

AR: Exactly. The way I see it with the discipline is that that approach that we strive for in the band class should carry over to the rest of the students’ classes. If people practice and prepare the way I encourage them to, that same focus should help in English, math, science and any other courses they take, as well.

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