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Rebuilding the Culture

Dr. Charles T. Menghini • August 2021MAC Corner • August 13, 2021

Hopefully we are coming out of the pandemic and school bells will not ring hollow as classes begin in the fall. Despite some upticks in Covid variants, the news is positive as more and more reports indicate students and teachers will be back in school.

For those who have been in class during this time, fall will be business as usual. But for the masses who have spent most or all the time since March of 2020 in hybrid or virtual learning situations, the start of school carries with it some challenges and some opportunities.

In addition to the absence of in person music making, losing a year of face-to-face contact removed group dynamics and the important role socialization and peer-based leadership plays in any group activity, especially bands and orchestras. Many of the students who served formally or informally in leadership positions have graduated or moved on to the next level. Younger students were not exposed to the modeling, expectations and traditions normally passed on by student leaders at all levels. As the start of school approaches, plans need to be made on how your music program’s culture will be rebuilt.

Reflect
Take some time to think about your program, what it was prior to the pandemic and what you would like it to be going forward. Make a list of the positive aspects and those you would like to change or improve.

Have Conversations
Find a time to meet with your administration to chat about the program. Ask them what things they like as well as those things they would like to see changed or improved. Now that your school is moving forward from the impact Covid-19 had, find out what changes they anticipate in the school’s climate and how day-to-day operations may be impacted. If these changes require additional equipment, instruments or materials, ask them how best to request the necessary funding. If you teach at the middle or secondary level, let them know the impact this time has had on the recruitment of beginners as well as retention at all levels and what this holds for the future. 

Ask administrators to share any ideas, thoughts, or action steps they have to help ensure a strong and bright future for the music program. A strong and vibrant music program is a source of pride for schools. When students leave band and orchestra classrooms, the regimen, self-discipline and sense of self-worth they experience by being a member of a musical ensemble carries with them to their other classes and positively impacts the school climate.

Talk to colleagues about these same issues. Let them know you value their advice and counsel. Respecting them and their work helps set the stage to strengthen relationships and the entire music program. 

Make a Plan
Once you have had these conversations, take some time and plan. This will be the hardest and loneliest thing you will have to do. We all have ideas and thoughts, things we would like to do and things we would like to change or improve on, but we often do not commit to them because we simply do not want to get it wrong. It is safer to not make a decision than to make a decision that is wrong. The problem is not making a decision is the worst decision you can possibly make.

Teaching is a continual process of trial and error. We rarely get it right the first time. We seldom pass out a piece of music our students perform at an artistic level at first try, that is why we rehearse it over and over. Same is true in running a program. We put a plan in place and then assess it every step of the way, making course corrections as necessary. It will never get to the level you desire, and if it does, it may be time for you to retire!

Putting Your Plan into Action
Once you make your plan you need to systematically communicate it to your students, their parents, your administrators, colleagues and the community. Communication is the key to its success and yours.

Today unfortunately, there is no best way to communicate. Some prefer texts, others email, and there are those who prefer social media or just want a hard copy. As you plan to share your information and subsequent updates, you will want to use a variety of platforms. Regardless of the ones you choose, they must send the message and not merely host the message.

Many mistakenly think posting something on the website gets the message out. That is a fallacy. Only when one seeks information or wants to engage in an action do they go to a website. In the case of rebuilding the culture, you must take the message to the people. Think of how you are marketed to as a consumer and think of the number of times you hear the same ad or a variation thereof. Regardless if it is fast food, automobiles, insurance or your favorite adult beverage, various forms of media inundate us with messaging and the reason is because it works. To get your message across to your entire audience, you must communicate early, often and in different forms.

Many teachers prepare a detailed handbook or policy manual that includes everything from how to step into the classroom to a calendar that includes every performance date. These handbooks are great, but they do not replace the need for regular communication. Think of the number of times a student has approached you at the last minute to inform you they cannot participate in an event that has been scheduled and published in your handbook since the beginning of the school year. The reason is the handbook is a static resource. The handbook may serve as a reference, but what is needed is a reminder.

Communication Ideas and Messaging Strategies
Welcome Them. Whether you are recruiting new students or just touching base with those who are already in the program, welcome them. Students need to know you are anxious to see them and to work with them.

Build Excitement
Let students know it is going to be a great year filled with many exciting music making and fun activities. Spotlight one or two events that you feel will catch their attention.

Share Goals
You have given your plan to rebuild the culture a lot of thought. Now it is time to highlight some of the things you hope to accomplish. Goals can range from performing at a high level, welcoming a guest artist or conductor, commissioning a new work, completing book one of your beginning method or taking a trip. The possibilities are endless. Goals do not need to be shared all at once. Share them as needed and be sure to make them attainable. Provide periodic updates on their progress and celebrate their success once a goal is met. Success in reaching a goal helps build support for the next one.

Articulate Procedures
Whether it is entering the room, opening the case, assembling the instrument, warming up, how to tune, rehearsal expectations, marking the music or a host of other procedures, students need to be reminded of what is expected of them. A weekly or regular procedures reminder can help establish proper classroom, rehearsal and performance etiquette.  Certain procedures and expectations also need to be shared with parents. It is good to remind them of concert etiquette expectations, the best time to take photographs and things they can do at home to support their child’s participation in the music program.

Highlight Traditions and Annual Events
Every program has certain activities and events that occur on a regular basis. This could be a community parade, a special school program, contest, festival or even an annual fundraising activity. Often, brothers and sisters or even parents have participated in them in the past. Using these events to highlight the role your organization has played, increases the prominence of your program in your school and community. 

Stick to a Messaging Schedule
Communicate on a regular basis and use the same formats. Keeping updates to the same day of the week will get people in the habit of expectation. It is important to stay on schedule. There is always something to share and it is important to reinforce those things you want continued. When the situation warrants, a special communication will be welcomed.

Don’t Overwhelm Your Audience
Within the communication, keep individual topics succinct and to the point. If you are old enough to remember Paul Harvey, he had a daily program that was news and comment. Use your messages to share the news and be sure to add a little bit of comment; a few words about your philosophy, reminders on upcoming dates and events, motivational information and music advocacy will help make your plan come to life.

No Need to Make It Fancy
Spending extra time with layouts and artwork may make your message easier on the eye but it will not change the quality of your content. Your intention should be to articulate your vision, share necessary information and highlight the successes within your program. 

Continual Reinforcement
Change happens when gentle pressure in continually applied. Keep your message consistent and continue to focus on what you want to accomplish. Reinforce the desired behaviors of your students and their outcomes. 

Highlight Successes
The best two words someone can read is their name, especially when it is being used to praise or compliment them. If you require practice charts, list the names of everyone who submitted a practice chart on a regular basis over the past month. List the names of all the students who are auditioning for an upcoming honor group or who are participating in a solo and ensemble festival. If a student receives recognition in another activity or sport, praise and congratulate them. If a student shows up with a new instrument, take a photograph of them with it and send it out along with a congratulations. (Remember to also articulate the benefits of playing on a fine instrument.) 

Spotlight Leadership
Introduce student and parent leaders who play a prominent role in your program. They do not need to hold formal positions. If a parent volunteers to serve as a chaperone or comes in to assist with uniform distribution or clerical duties, make it a point to praise them publicly. Students who help with equipment set up, who help tutor other students, file music, straighten music stands and chairs all need recognition. Do not overlook the obvious people who make a difference, such as your school’s custodial and secretarial staffs.

Share Information As Soon As Possible
When a new event is scheduled, be it a performance, visit by a special guest or school assembly, let everyone know. Nobody likes surprises and letting people know in advance allows them to plan accordingly.

Include Reminders
In every communication include a reminder. It may be an upcoming performance, parent group or PTA meeting or just a reminder on how students should put their instruments away at the end of every rehearsal. When we remind someone of something we show them consideration and it builds a higher level of esprit de corps.

Recruitment and Retention
Recruitment and retention is a seven day a week, 365 day a year effort. Every action, every comment, every communication serves to help recruit and retain your students. Regular, positive, informative communication keep students and parents engaged in your program. It also lets your administration know you are working hard at providing a great experience for the students and community your school serves. Communication is mortar that holds the bricks together. It makes your program’s culture one that is valued and vibrant.

For more information and ideas about recruitment, retention and tips for your program’s success visit nammfoundation.org. Click the tab “For Educators” to access a whole host of additional resources. 

Charles T. Menghini hosts his podcast, Band Talk with Charlie Menghini and Friends available on Apple Podcasts and other channels. Menghini is president emeritus and former director of bands at VanderCook College of Music in Chicago, previously teaching high school band for 18 years. He co-authored Hal Leonard’s Essential Elements 2000 Band Method, frequently serves as a national and international conductor, clinician, speaker and adjudicator and is an educational member of the Music Achievement Council of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation.

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