Mike Lawson • Commentary • October 3, 2019

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I have been blessed with a long career as a band director, working with the best and brightest young people in each of the four teaching positions I have been fortunate to hold over the years.

I would think that nearly all of my professional colleagues feel the same way about their experiences.

Even with these outstanding students in front of us every day, there are always those young people who struggle to focus on the right things at the right time. In our program, a conversation (one I have repeated more times than I would like to admit) usually occurs with 6th grade beginners on the day following their first concert performance.

This concert is scheduled at my feeder middle school just before the Christmas holidays. As a result, the students’ excitement over their first public performance along with the impending visit from St. Nick combine to create an environment just prior to the concert (during the “warmup”) that feels more like herding rabid squirrels than preparing for a public performance. The next day we reflect on the chaotic atmosphere and learn from it.

The topic is discipline—something most middle schoolers associate with something that is imposed rather than something a human being should adopt as part of their character. What follows could be important for bands striving for excellence at any level—or for cultivating good people in hopes of a successful future in any walk of life.

People define discipline in many different ways, largely depending upon their personal experiences. The use of the word discipline in the form of a noun centers on something a person aspires to acquire, or works to make a part of their own personal character; in other words, a defining trait that can be seen in the actions, words and behavior of a person as he or she lives each day. It could also be described as the ability to make the right choice when facing “right vs. wrong” situations—or, self-discipline.

In contrast, the verb-based definitions lean toward something (action, correction, control) one might receive from another person, possibly in reaction to an apparent lack of “noun” disciplined behavior— or, punishment for undisciplined actions or behavior.

So, how might discipline impact one’s success as an individual musician, success of music programs, and ultimately, preparation for things you face after you join the “real world”? Is your personal brand of discipline in the form of a noun or a verb? I think it is that distinction that makes all the difference.

Noun-disciplined (self-disciplined) behaviors benefit people in every human endeavor, as they contribute to personal traits of honesty, trustworthiness, commitment to excellence, and persistence in the face of adversity or challenge. The core concept of “ensemble” is the ability of a group of individuals to come together in pursuit of common goals. Music programs made up of self-disciplined members provide an opportunity for this to actually happen; the more self-discipline is present among the members, the higher the level of performance.

Groups populated with noun-disciplined members are more efficient in rehearsal, and are generally more engaged in the daily process of perfecting music for a subsequent performance. They are able to put personal needs on the back burner, and focus on their contribution to the group effort. They also tend to grow such that at each opportunity to work together they are better prepared to do so. As a result, they become much more willing and capable collaborators in the success of the ensemble.

If you ever wonder why some groups take longer than necessary to do something correctly, you probably won’t have to look anywhere but toward those who provoke the imposition of a verb-disciplined dynamic into that program.

In situations requiring a unified group effort for success, verb-disciplined people require an inordinate amount of individual attention, and bring this upon themselves due to a lack of self-control. These individuals often are very talented, and capable of excellence, but bring a sort of personal agenda to everything they are involved with. If they agree with the direction of an activity, they will often want to be a part of it, but usually are not able to give their full attention to the common effort. The time spent in recognizing and attempting to correct the unfocused or inappropriate behavior is stolen from those who are engaged in the rehearsal or activity, with a resulting negative impact on the quality of the process, and thus the finished product. The sense of friction created between those who expect better results for the group and those whose personal agendas and resulting behaviors diminish their efforts toward success further exacerbates what can become a toxic ensemble environment.

To further complicate things, verb-disciplined students seem to get a bit of a pass in the current public-school environment, while self-disciplined students go unnoticed. In many schools, multiple “second-chance opportunities” are provided as corrective measures in an attempt to right the ship, develop a sense of self-discipline, and turn these folks toward positive, successful adulthood. In some cases, these efforts are productive.

However, when verb-based discipline used to retrain these students toward success fails to achieve its goal, they will likely face consequences they will be unprepared to comprehend if self-discipline is not present in their personal character as adults (right vs. wrong…).

Ultimately, no one can count on others to force them to “turn out okay.” For that to happen, a person must agree to go along with whatever directions and corrections might be employed in the effort. So, truly fixing things will always be on the individual…not on those providing an opportunity to do so.

Success—now and in the future—may well depend upon which definition of discipline one chooses. And that is ultimately why this discussion is important—the earlier, the better, such as after the 6th graders’ first concert.

Brad Rogers is the director of bands at Oldham County High School in Buckner, Kentucky. He can be reached at bradford.rogers@oldham.kyschools.us

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