It’s Time to Refill the Ranks

Mike Lawson • MAC Corner • October 6, 2016

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It is early in the school year and enthusiasm is high among students and teachers. Having some time apart in the summer allows everyone to recharge his or her batteries and get ready to make this year the best one ever. For those of us who have been teaching awhile we start to look ahead to the next phase of our lives. The energy and enthusiasm may still be there, but let’s face it, we are beginning to age and with that we have (hopefully) allowed our unbridled energy to transcend into wisdom and making more effective decisions.

As I look back in years when I was a high school student, I remember my high school band director Mr. Wally Swanson and how he always encouraged me to stay involved with my music. I remember the day I hinted at the thought that I wanted to become a band director. From that day forward, though he never pushed me or talked to me about going to college to pursue my music, gave me countless opportunities to discover all the joys of what a life of music (and music teaching) would have.

In addition to just playing in the band, he would allow me to be a student conductor. He had me playing the Star Spangled Banner as a solo at home high school basketball games and arranged to have me play a few solos and musical standards with piano accompaniments at civic dinners, banquets and service clubs. He asked me to help him with our band library. There I saw classic works that made me wonder what it would be like to play or conduct something with so many notes. He knew I was hooked on music and did everything he could to support my addiction. I think he knew I was destined to go to college and major in music.

Whether we realize it or not, we have students sitting in our bands and orchestras who are wondering where their life will take them when they graduate high school. Many of these students can choose a variety of paths and often do. But there is a group of students who if given the choice would love to make music their life. After all, their band or orchestra experience has been the best part of their life so far. This is the place where they get to be with their friends. This is the place where they are actively involved in class each and every day. This is the place where they don’t have to sit and listen to someone tell them what they should know or do. Here they get to play their instruments and make music. The rehearsal hall is home, it is a place where they feel safe, welcomed and valued.

As a civilization, the human race has one and only one primal goal, to keep our species alive. It is a daunting thought and I encourage you not to ponder it very long. But I do believe it is true. When we distill all we do on this earth the most fundamental thing we must be concerned with is to keep our species alive. In doing so we strive to make our world a better place. Through our families and educational systems we pass on our culture to the next generation.

As a small subset of the human race, we music teachers have the same responsibility. We have the responsibility to keep our species alive. We need to ensure there are music teachers to fill our ranks.

As the president of VanderCook College of Music, a private, not-for-profit college solely devoted to the practical preparation of the school music teacher, I am in a position to learn about many, many job openings that exist through our network of the thousands of music teachers who have earned their music education degrees or attended continuing music education courses with us. It amazes me how many jobs are available each and every year, and especially at the beginning of the school year. Simply said, we don’t have enough graduates to fill the number of teaching positions available.

The baby boomer generation is nearing retirement and with that will come more and more music teaching jobs. The next generation of music teachers has to come from our classrooms and as music teachers we have a responsibility to keep our species alive.

One of the hardest things that any of us want to do is to give up a minute of our rehearsal time. I remember beginning my college teaching career 23 years ago and calling a high school director and asking him if I could come out to introduce myself and visit. His response was, “I don’t have time for you. We are in the middle of marching band season and I’m too busy.” Welcome to the joys of college teaching!

Fortunately, I did find some directors who opened their doors to me and through those visits and relationships we have become good friends. I also think every time I have the chance to visit a school and chat with director, I am able to convey to them the important role they have in encouraging their students to continue on in music and music education. Often times we are, as the old saying goes, “too close to the forest to see the trees.” We are so busy getting ready for the next performance that we don’t have time to teach music, let alone take a few minutes and talk about the myriad of career opportunities that are available to students with a talent in and passion for music and music making.

If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to your students about music as a career, contact your local college or university music department, invite a music dealer, a professional musician, private lesson teacher, etc. and create a panel to present to your students about a career in the music world. Make it a special, annual event. Certainly this would also be championed by your school guidance counselors and may also give them a better insight into the fact that the study and participation of being in the band is more than putting on a uniform and marching halftime for a football game.

It is important for all music teachers to want their students to aspire to do great things and if that involves a life centered on being a musician or better yet (in my opinion) a music teacher, well, that is the ultimate compliment.

Whether we realize it or not, our students look to us with admiration. Many of them hold us on the highest of pedestals. As they graduate high school and move on to college they carry with them the dreams of what could be. I remember a state music educators’ convention where a young man who graduated from the Marian Catholic Band program in Chicago Heights, Illinois and was majoring in music and I had a chance to chat. If you don’t know of the Marian Catholic program, then let me just say that is one of the finest high school band programs in the nation. Greg Bimm is a master teacher and musician and has developed great bands and band students for over 30 years. So I ask this student how things are going and what his plans are when he graduates from college. I will never forget his answer.

“When I graduate from college, I am going to have a band like Mr. Bimm has!” I smiled and said, “That’s great. But remember, Mr. Bimm didn’t have a band like Mr. Bimm has when he graduated from college. Mr. Bimm has worked hard to have the kind of band he has, and you will need to work that hard too.”

So with the dreams and aspirations of our students, it is important to infuse a little reality. It is important our students know there is more to being a music teacher than teaching music. The hours of preparation and organization it takes to be an effective music teacher is the price we pay for the privilege of standing on the podium with our students.

To give your students a little insight as to the complete role of the music teacher ask them to help you with instrument inventory, uniform maintenance, music library, concert set-ups, writing newsletters or being in charge of the band or orchestra website or social media posts. Bring them on as helpers, student leaders.

My dear friend and mentor Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser has spent his life working with students and teachers presenting (teaching) leadership workshops. I often wonder how many of those seeds he plants every time he has stands in front of a group of young people get watered? I wonder how many teachers use those precious moments to start a larger discussion on ways their student “wannabe” leaders can really help to make a difference and to gain some practical experience on what it takes to become the REAL leader, the music teacher?

It’s early in the school year and there is no better time to approach the subject as now. Finally, please do our profession one favor. Please don’t, under any circumstances put your profession (or yourself) down by speaking negatively about the teaching profession, your job or your administration. If you made the wrong choice for yourself, then there is still time for you to make a different choice. Remember, it is a profession that for many is a vocation. It is not a life sentence.

Let’s rally the troops. It’s time to get that baton ready to pass on to the next generation. It’s time to refill the ranks!

If you need help or ideas on how to be a more effective music teacher in and out of the classroom the Music Achievement Council (MAC) stands ready to help.

The Music Achievement Council is an action-oriented nonprofit organization sponsored by the National Association of School Music Dealers (NASMD) and the International Music Products Association (NAMM). MAC is committed to helping teachers succeed and to create and retain more music makers. Teachers will find a variety of support materials online including Tips for Success as well as guides to assist in recruitment and retention.

Visit to learn what the Music Achievement Council has available to help you. If you start beginners, you are encouraged to discover the First Performance for both band and orchestra. The First Performance incorporates just a few notes, comes complete with a script and sample program. It is a great way to showcase your students early in their musical development. Schools that have used First Performance receive rave reviews from students, parents, and administrators.

Charles T. Menghini is president, professor of Music and director of bands at VanderCook College of Music in Chicago, Illinois. He began his teaching at VanderCook College in 1994 and brought with him 18 years of successful high school teaching experience. Dr. Menghini writes for numerous professional journals and magazines and is co-author of the Essential Elements 2000 Band Method, published by the Hal Leonard Corporation, where he serves as an educational advisor. Charlie also frequently serves as a national and international conductor, clinician, speaker and adjudicator. An active performer, Charlie played lead trumpet in the Kansas City Chiefs Professional Football Band for fifteen seasons and is the official trumpeter of the City Club of Chicago. Menghini is an educational member of the Music Achievement Council of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation.

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