Smooth Transition Make Your First Five Years as Music Director a Snap with These Tips

Adrian Gordon • June 2023 • June 12, 2023

With a director transition in any music program, there is bound to be change, whether that change is big or small. Everyone has different ideas, methods, and philosophies, and music directors are no exception. The key for new music directors is to manage the change to the best of their ability.

Maintain Your Physical, Musical, Mental, and Emotional Health in Your Position

Self-care is the most important guiding principle to have as a music educator. Whether starting from scratch, rebuilding, or maintaining an already great music program, set boundaries for yourself so the work doesn’t become overwhelming. You can’t help others if you don’t help yourself first. 

Take breaks and keep your body moving

Take breaks when working for long stretches at a time. (Many smartwatches have a “time to stand up and move” function already built in.) Stand up, stretch, breathe, walk around, and get some fresh air. Your body needs this! 

Eat well

Make time to make smart, healthy choices about how you fuel your body. Plan and pack some healthy snacks.

Get some sleep

Not only is a good night of sleep essential to your physical health, but it is essential for you to be able to do your job effectively. Don’t give up your sleep to a wandering mind. Write things down. If ideas or issues are swirling around in your head, write them down and leave them on the list. Your sleep is sacred!

Play your instrument

Don’t be the out-of-shape health-and-fitness coach on your instrument! As a musician, no matter what instrument you play, it is important to stay connected to it and continue to play on a regular basis. What you may not realize is not being connected to your instrument, along with the process of disconnecting from the familiarity of your old position or circumstances, has a profound effect. The rate and depth of change in your transition can sometimes be overwhelming. It helps to have a mental and emotional anchor reminding you who you are: a musician. 

Attend professional development conferences 

Recharge your musical batteries at least once a year. Our jobs require an exorbitant amount of time, energy, and creativity daily. Attending a professional development conference with other like-minded individuals in person or online can help breathe life back into our musical psyche.

Listen to music for pleasure (something old and something new)

Remember the power and enjoyment of music in your own life. Use music as a tool for stress relief. Try to regularly listen to something old and something new so you don’t solely develop a work relationship to the art form you love.

Mental and Emotional Health

Failing to take care of your mental and emotional health can prevent you from feeling like a whole person, let alone an effective music educator. Take a step back to find balance and perspective. Guard your heart, mind, and personal time vigorously from the stresses of your job. Remember to never let your workflow take over your mental and emotional stability. If your circumstances become too much, don’t hesitate to talk to a mental health professional who can help you along your journey. Here are some practical ideas to consider helping you protect your mental and emotional health throughout the school year: leave early some days, take a mental health day off, and spend quality time with family and friends.

Clarify your vision 

Communicating your clear vision to your new community is one of the key actions you’ll need to smooth the transition to your new school. Make your vison points broad enough you can meet at least a few expectations of every person currently in the music program. Include your students and ask them what they envision the music program looking like in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

Communicate your vision with your students, parents, and administration. Be sure that whatever your vision is, it is well thought out and clear. Share it often. Explain when circumstances fall in line with the vision of the program and when they don’t. Celebrate the moments where your vision is encapsulated in the students’ stellar work. Sharing your vision creates a clearer path for you to lead and for students to follow.

Make incremental changes

Your presence as music director will affect the culture of your new program. You’re your own person with different ideas, approaches, and philosophies, so some changes will be inevitable. The main point to understand about changing or correcting the course and culture of a program is these adjustments take time. There tends to be a loose timeline regarding a culture change taking root and the program becoming a reflection of you as a director.

Years One to Two: Changing course and building relationships with students

Years Two to Four: Reaction to changes/buy-in, recruiting and retention

Years Four to Five: Outcomes and continuity

The change in culture, whether it is a slight shift or a major overhaul, must be meaningful and incremental. Change for the sake of change can be self-defeating and change that is too fast and broad can be overwhelming.

Here is a sample outline of an action plan to help with change management in your new position:

Identify what your circumstances are now.

Identify what you would like to see change.

Clearly write out what changes you will be making for students.

Settle on what tools you will be using to bring about change.

Choose a method to help keep everyone accountable for the changes.

Have a method of measuring, reflecting on, and drawing conclusions about the effectiveness and outcomes of the changes you have implemented.

Whatever change you are committed to bringing to your new program, make sure it suits your vision and you map out the realities of where you currently are with your program versus where you would eventually like to see it end up.

Adrian Gordon is an internationally performed composer and currently serves as the director of orchestras at Providence Day School in Charlotte, NC.

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