A Driven, Meaningful Change to the Band

Mike Lawson • Commentary • October 3, 2019

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Change doesn’t come easy to a band director. If we are any good, we have an established routine, a formidable structure, and a reliable way of doing things. You depend on it, the students depend on it, the school kind of rolls with it; you’re the band director.

But middle school is all about change.

After the district rolled the 6th grade back to elementary school, then opened not one, but two specialty schools, a STEAM and a (Lord help me) Arts Academy. Then faced with a district-wide drop in enrollment (a brand-spanking new charter school is opening one block from my best feeder school) my band program went from four bands and nearly 300 students to two bands and fewer then 100 students in just three years. That the marching band remained viable was a miracle; our reputation in the community helped me survive the staff reductions and kept recruitment going.

Band directors are driven to teach, driven to make a difference, driven to share the spirit of a performance. We’re driven by fun! I don’t know the statistics, but I do know many of us are no longer teaching full time or who, like myself, are becoming disillusioned and having less fun.

At first it was one music appreciation class to fill my schedule, then two when the choir director and art teacher left. I railed against it; I’m a band director, not a GenEd teacher, and I didn’t want to teach unwilling students who were placed simply because they had to have an elective. Not fun! But the personal reality was I needed numbers to keep my full-time job. Footnote- I recruited two of my best kids ever from music appreciation, so it was still a meaningful class.

About that same time, a young man with autism in the moderate/severe class loved music and needed a general ed class to meet his IEP requirements. His special ed teacher, Dr. Carolyn Lindstrom, doubled as my color guard coach and asked if he could come to band. He was a natural band geek, and absolutely loved being in band; he couldn’t read music and needed prompting, but when shown what to do and when, that cat could play!

Most importantly, he had fun, he made friends and he grew as an individual. Isn’t that what band is about? As an added bonus, his band mates grew to know him, and they developed a new appreciation for kids with special needs; he was a model student for “why band?”

I had recently watched “Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory” by Michael Rossato-Bennett and George Strayton (every musician needs to see this). Although the movie focuses on the aged, it is sound practice. Music literally brings people back from a non-interactive or catatonic state. I also had read about the amazing work done by United Sound (later on Julie Duty would visit us with some materials). You know Music for All, you know Music Matters.

I wanted to start a performance class for general ed students, who for the most part didn’t want to be in a music class. The special ed department needed a general ed class to meet their student’s IEP requirements. It bothered me that the SpEd students were not benefiting from the VAPA standards, at least not as fully as they were capable of benefiting. They would be brought in to observe band on a regular basis, but I knew from experience that these kids were very capable. Our department chair, Dr. Carolyn Lindstrom, agreed, in fact she agreed really fast when I suggested turning one of my music appreciation classes into an inclusive general music class.

I called the class Sonic Expressions because I had some leftover t-shirts from a previous Glee Club attempt. The name stuck. Our school already had a peer buddy elective where students signed up to be a buddy for a peer with special needs, so we decided to double down on that; we needed a majority of GenEd students in order to be a general education class, not a Special Education class. This is critical.

To raise money for the endeavor, Carolyn suggested we apply for a district grant to conduct a study on how the perception of GenEd students changed towards SpEd students in a music class (spoiler alert, their perception does change in a very positive way).

She took charge of that, whereas I taught the music. Setting up the program wasn’t that difficult in itself and only required a few, well, changes. Recruiting a teaching partner in Special Education was a must, then adapting the master schedule so we could work together, accommodate for lunches and medical procedures took some juggling. It was easy to source adaptive materials (a trip to the hardware store for the buckets and trash cans), buy some color coded boomwhackers and handbells, and I found lots of resources online. Think pre-school general music because nobody has any prior experience and many students will not be able to read. Then do what you do best: teach band. The rest comes with experience and a learning curve; every group will be different.

We reached out to the counseling office with a “fill ‘er up please” request. The class was promptly filled with non-musical students who had “neglected” to sign up for any classes, let alone an elective.

We were also periodically blessed with students removed from other electives at their teacher’s request; a potentially tough crowd. The initial grant paid for buckets, trash cans, and drum sticks and some boomwhackers. We did drum circles, write your own rhythms, numerous team building and “getting to know you” exercises. We learned to count and play rhythms based on some brilliant cards given to us by Julie Duty of United Sound (su-oop, cake, cake, donut!). We learned about each other and the variety of challenges faced by people with learning disabilities, autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and medically fragile conditions.

We learned empathy and patience (and not just the students). Each Friday we wrote journals and played some games, danced, played musical chairs, etcetera. And we practiced for the Winter Concert in which we demonstrated a drum circle and did all the crashing and banging in a beginning band piece called The Shadow Warriors, by David Gorham.

The Dean and Principal were thrilled; here were some of the not-the-best-kids smiling and participating on stage. The parents were thrilled, here were their being-called-by-the-school-again kids smiling and participating on stage. The parents of our special kids were smiling, some in tears, watching their kids smiling and participating on stage. But looking at the stage, if you didn’t know who was who, you wouldn’t know who was who. It was just a bunch of band kids doing their thing. It was beautiful then, as it is now.

In two years we have progressed to handbells, boomwhackers, Orff instruments, keyboards, and even recorders. GenEd students who had been suspended for classroom behavior in the 7th grade earned leadership medals for Sonic Expressions in the 8th grade. Students who were pushed into the class are signing up on their own for next term. High school students are returning and asking if they can still help out.

Non-verbal students are expressing themselves. Students with limited mobility come to the band room, reach out and play an instrument. Students who can’t read are reading music! Some compose with special cards and have their creations played back by their buddies, while others simply groove to the energy around them. Students who were different are no longer “others.”

I am off the podium and wandering about the room playing; the students do the teaching, I only set up the goals, model and outline the lessons. Even the paraprofessionals are reading music and playing instruments. In fact, I gave these amazing adults music award pins of their own this year.

My big “a-ha” experience was understanding that SpEd kids are just your average middle school kids, just as moody, just as in need of boundaries, just as capable of pushing boundaries, respond perfectly well to band discipline and that music matters to them as much as any other band geek. They thrive on band routine, that formidable structure, so much so that when things go “pear shaped”- and they will- the students adapt and move on like pros to plan B. Or C.

We also found that the shared goals, common practice and concert experience does change mutual perception. Students grow to see each other as equals, just differently abled (e.g. watch a flute player explain breath control to a percussionist), and the class developed that special bond so unique to band kids. Carolyn and I presented our findings at two local symposiums as part of the grant requirements and she went on to present at the International Association of Special Education conference in Zambia this past summer. It has been an amazing journey, one I encourage every band director to embark on, especially if you are in need of a meaningful change.

In January of 2019 we won an award from Music Matters for Administrative Engagement (this would not have happened without admin green lighting the scheme), but the biggest reward came in March of 2019. We loaded up three buses and took our show, a variety show, to a local retirement community (Mt. Miguel Covenant Village, Spring Valley, California, has wonderful facilities and gracious open arms). Now that was fun!

I’m a band director at an ever-changing middle school. I’m fortunate to have a marching band (parading is a blast!) and the fun of taking a band to a festival or theme park is why I became a band director. But when the joy of those activities started to come out, I was driven had to find something challenging, fun and meaningful! Developing an inclusive music program changed our school and it most definitely changed the lives of the parents and students. Hans Christian Andersen said, “When words fail, music speaks.” You will be speechless when the music plays and all anyone can see are band kids.

Brad Rogers is in his thirty-second year as band director at Oldham County High School in Buckner, Kentucky. Professional affiliations include KMEA/NAfME, National Band Association, American School Band Directors Association, Phi Beta Mu, Phi Delta Kappa, and Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia. He is a staff member with the Kentucky Ambassadors of Music, serving since its inception in 2000, is active as a clinician, adjudicator, and private instructor (clarinet), and has performed for the past fifteen years with the Louisville Concert Band/Chamber Winds Louisville (Dr. Frederick Speck, conductor). Mr. Rogers has also been the conductor of the Oldham County Community Band since 1989. He has two grown daughters, Brianna and Lauren (both MTSU alumni), and resides in La Grange, Kentucky with his wife, Patricia.

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