Can An “Extreme” Rural High School Band Program Be Successful?

Mike Lawson • ChoralCommentary • July 14, 2017

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The first thing everyone wants to know is what exactly makes a rural high school “extreme.”

An extreme rural high school is where 95-100% of the student body must be provided some kind of transportation to school and live more than two or three miles from school. Few students walk or ride a bicycle to school. Many band directors can relate to this situation. There are so many variations of this that relate to many school situations both public schools and most times, in private high schools.

In the 42 years that I have taught high school band, at least 90% of my career has been at “extreme” rural small high schools, most all with enrollments less than 1100 students and as small as only 500 students. To go anywhere or even call a rehearsal outside the regular school day has to include great planning and coordination of student rides from home to school and back. So basically, you do what you can during the one period you have been allotted. That one period is just about all you get to prepare for concerts, parades, football games, halftime shows, pep rallies, pep bands, community events, and so on. On top of all this, small schools generally share students with other school activities at a greater percentage than large schools.

Many of my colleagues who teach at large enrollment urban high schools that have large administrative management service assistance often wonder how these small schools in rural areas can even do half of what they do. And yet, many do very well. We do it with pride and a lot of creativity. And until recently, with the introduction of corporate or micro-management into small school districts, are often not tied down to restriction seen in large city and urban school districts. My school district up until about a year ago, had a district-wide saying, “How do my decisions today affect my students’ success?” Now the new saying is, “How can we minimize liability while demonstrating adherence and compliance with the accountability metrics?” Does anyone even understand what that means?

The first thing to remember in the small rural area school is that you just cannot do what the larger urban high schools do. So why try doing what you cannot do? Large schools have better scheduling, usually more periods or blocks in the day, can call all the before and after school rehearsals they need, and in general, have a greater higher musical quality of overall participating students (just the stereotyped perception from our point of view).

Small rural schools have fewer class offerings, causing scheduling issues to fit band in, and sharing students with other school activities. O-Period band is becoming the norm all over the country. I really can’t blame athletics, ASB, drama, dance, and AP classes, for recruiting our music students. Music students are highly motivated, disciplined, creative (for the most part), stay out of trouble, and “want” to take a challenging course-of-study in academics and enrichment programs. Also, budgets are much lower. It’s hard to buy that big field show routine and music. In large school districts, this is often included in their budget. In most cases, the small school band director writes the show(s).

With that in mind, how do extreme rural high schools compete and/or keep up with the other larger urban schools? The best recommendation is, “don’t try to.” There are no rules that say we have to do what other schools do. Here are some ideas you might want to consider.

Do what you can do well in the time you have.

There are no state standards that tell us what kinds of bands we have to create throughout the year. In fact, if you have recently tried to meet one of the state college standards for an advanced course, they usually do not want to know you do marching band. But what can you do? Marching band is part of the fall season. Larger school band programs meet this standard by using one period in the day for music and after school practice for marching skills. They also use a variation of adding a PE teacher to the class to include marching as part of the PE requirement. This would be almost impossible for small schools.

If you want to have a higher quality, do fewer things.

For marching season just do street marching competition and pep band only for football games, or no street marching and focus on field show only. Remember, you only have your one-hour a day to get things done. Those big field shows take hundreds of extra hours outside the school day per year to accomplish. It’s immensely harder if you’re a one-man-show.

If you live in a community that demands greater focus on the artistic values of concert band programs, do only that.

One of the top public high school music programs in my area has no marching band. They do concert, jazz, orchestra, and choral music only. In California, there are actually a few huge high quality marching band programs that never compete. That is their policy. They perform only, no one complains, and everyone knows they are good.

Sit down with your administration and have an open discussion on what your program can do well, and not do well, within the perimeters of your school day.

If they want to expand, let them resolve the required extra rehearsal time, and the need for more instructors in the class. Trying to be a one-man show only works for a little while. Burnout comes fast. Band is NOT like coaching football (although don’t say that to some coaches). Yes, there are similarities, but the approach is completely different. 

Take the time to openly analyze and share with your administrators what your community can tolerate.

For example, based on the demographic, geographic, ethnic, and academic demands of our parents, students and community, my school/community would never tolerate the amount time it takes to prepare a competition field show. But that does not mean we don’t do field shows. Football games are good PR. We are building a new football stadium and halftime shows will be expected. I have informed the powers it will never happen until they address the length of our rehearsal time for 0 Period. We also have a large number of big parades and convention-type events in the fall in our area, which are equally good PR for our school. I have to make sure my administration sees the entire picture. We actually do more parades and band reviews than football games. Administrators and community leaders need to see the “big picture” you see. Then step back and let them think about it. If they still want something new, let them find a way. As most small schools are a one-man-show the expectations for your program are far more spread out over various music activities. I remember when I had a daily assignment to direct and teach band, choir, jazz band, marching band, guitar, and color guard every day all by myself. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, for many of you? Yeah, you do a lot of things, but none very well. Or, you angrily do them all well but see only exhaustion, anger, and burn-out in your future.

Look at what you personally are physically, mentally, and creatively capable of doing.

This is hard to judge because most of us are driven, enthusiastic, devoted, and passionate toward music education. We believe totally that what we are doing is good for kids. In most rural schools the band director really IS a one-man-show. Some administrators actually think band directors are some kind of “can-do-it-all” type creatures. Those big school field shows they see are usually done with several staff instructors and coaches. That big show everyone sees is most often designed, written, and purchased from an outside professional half-time show writer. If they want you to do more, then districts need to hire more help, and not just a stipend position. Every active band program needs real staff teachers who have band as part of their assignment, which insures the respect of the students. If not, then teacher burnout is a regular part of that program. Burn out caused by excessive long-term stress is much greater at schools that have overwhelmed their band directors.

Also, the more successful your program becomes, politics becomes very relevant. But being unrealistic to the political needs is not always the success or failure of the director, but rather the school district willingness (or lack of) to meet the needs of that growing program. Band directors are not magical. If school districts want to hold on to their music teachers, give them the reasonable goals they can truly achieve.

Small schools have an advantage over large districts.

They often have more flexibility in doing outside-the-box activities. I chose to travel with my group. At my present school, in the last 32 years, we have been to China five times, Italy, did Clinton’s Inauguration and the dedication of the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C., Canada four times, Colorado Springs twice, Hawaii, Portland Rose Festival, Reno Jazz Festival (a lot), Disneyland about five or six times, and a whole bunch of conventions and community events. I did this because when I came to my present school I knew we would have trouble keeping up with the Joneses. I do not tell you all this to brag. I tell you this so you will use the talent that you have to benefit your students. We are not all the same. Make your program special for what it can do well.

For me it was organizing special experiences and trips. So, do what you can really well by finding another avenue of discovery for your students. As long as you are meeting the state standards you are ahead of the game. Make your program match the demographics and needs of your community. That also means taking advantage of the demographics and needs of your community.

Take your band “To the People.“

Don’t expect them to come to you. Find those activities in your area where people are at and have your group there. Nothing better than a big audience to hype your kids up. Remember, it always takes longer to catch up with the big school band programs. But if you persist, you will. Just don’t expect it early in the season.

Oh, and by the way, my groups compete. I love the discipline required to win that gives student direction. However, it is not how they place that is the most important (although it helps to understand where we are). It is being given the chance to try that is the most important.

Large urban schools have one set of advantages. Small extreme rural schools have another set. We are all in a business that allows variety and creativity.


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