Teaching through Leadership: Lifelong Lessons from the Podium

Mike Lawson • ChoralCommentary • November 11, 2016

You’ve been through five years of college. You’ve learned music theory, aural skills, music history, marching band techniques, brass, woodwind, and percussion techniques, and basic (and I do mean “basic”) conducting techniques. You’ve learned educational psychology, curriculum development, lesson planning, and you’ve student taught. You’ve graduated and landed your first job. You are ready! …but are you?

Unfortunately, you find that college didn’t prepare you for the elements of your job you spend the bulk of your time on. You have $20,000 worth of instruments for which you must plan life cycles, a music library that must be maintained, and if you’re not a woodwind player, you have to figure out which reeds to have on hand for students who forget to buy their own. You have to register and prepare for concert and marching festivals, and work with administrators to get funding so you can do your job.

The responsibilities of music teachers far outweigh those of most other teachers. Math teachers don’t typically take 100 students to marching band competitions every other week in the fall. English teachers don’t usually require their students to attend every home football, basketball, and volleyball game. Biology teachers aren’t required to prepare students for solo and ensemble contests. But music teachers do all this and more!

Oh, and don’t forget, you’re supposed to teach music. It can be overwhelming for one person to accomplish it all. However, using your position as a leader, you can develop a cadre of followers in the ensemble who can not only provide you with some relief, but you can teach them valuable lessons on leadership and followership they will use in the future.

Abandoning Traditional Thoughts on Leadership

As we begin to learn, there is a clear distinction between authority and subordinate. Our parents and teachers told us what to do, and we did it or there were consequences. Now that we’re grown up and are put into an authority or leadership position, we follow the model that we know. Leaders tell people what to do and followers obey. Seems pretty simple. But this “do what I say” approach does not teach the creativity and ensemble accomplishment that music teachers profess to perpetuate.

Music provides students with a rare educational opportunity to truly grasp concepts in organizational leadership. There is a clear leader: the conductor. A clear team of followers: the ensemble. A clear mission: an outstanding performance of a particular piece of music. There are divisions within the ensemble: strings (maybe), brass, woodwinds, percussion. Those divisions can be further broken down into sections. Each section may have a designated leader who is responsible for sectional rehearsals or logistics of events.

Music teachers typically assign leadership roles to the first chair players, and the first chair parts are usually assigned to the best performers on their respective instruments. The message this sends is that the first parts and first chair players are the most important. Some music teachers will even allow a challenge system whereby a student sitting in a lower chair may challenge the first chair player for his or her seat. This is dangerous! This creates a caste system where the students in the higher seats are thought to be better than those in the lower seats and the students in the lower seats have to fight for the recognition and status of those in the higher seats. When a student in a higher seat gets knocked down, it can create animosity and destroy the morale of the ensemble.

Quite frankly, this is a problem throughout most organizations. Just because someone displays technical competence, it is assumed that person will be a good leader. This is not always the case. We’ve all worked with people who were fantastic players and were promoted to leadership positions in the ensembles. Unfortunately, sometimes these great players make terrible organizational and leadership decisions causing other band members to not trust them. As a teacher, you must cultivate leadership skills within those you choose for leadership positions.

First, eliminate the caste system. It is only logical to put your best players on the exposed and solo parts, but don’t devalue the other parts or the students assigned to them. The composer thought that those parts were important enough to write. Make sure that the student assigned to play those parts understands that if the composer didn’t think it was important, it wouldn’t have been written. To emphasize this point, have the ensemble play a simple Bach chorale with only the first parts playing. Point out to the ensemble how plain the melody sounds without any harmonic support. Then have just the second parts play and point out how the missing melody does not give the music purpose. Then have the entire ensemble play all parts and emphasize the importance of each part and each person playing the part.

Second, don’t be afraid to have students switch parts on different selections. You don’t have to have one person play first chair for the entire concert. If a piece of music is within the grasp of one of your lesser talented students, give that student an opportunity to step up. You may be pleasantly surprised. Good leaders recognize the strengths of their followers and know where to challenge them. Be encouraging and give the student the tools needed for success. This may mean some extra lessons outside of class, but the result will be a better, more confident performer.

Finally, remember that the most talented player may not be the best leader. Leadership is about influence. The student who can play the best may not necessarily be the best influence. Maybe you have a freshman who is an outstanding player, but your junior or senior understands your expectations and has corporate knowledge of recurring events. Having the freshman on the exposed musical parts will give you the best performance while having the upper classman as section leader will create efficiency in the operations of your ensemble.

Create a Culture of Followers

In 2014, Jane Currie, a Reference Librarian at Loyola University in Chicago, published an article in Reference and User Services Quarterly outlining several characteristics of the best followers. This article was geared mainly to corporate leaders but has profound applications to music education. Music teachers who develop these characteristics in their band or orchestra students will develop people who are assets to any organization. And that, after all, is the ultimate goal of education, right?

The best followers align their goals with those of the organization and commit themselves to achieving them

What are your organizational goals? You should think beyond contest or standardized test scores. Those might be good starting points, but if you want to grow your program, then you have to think about a long-term program reputation. I was in a competitive high school marching band, and we were pretty good. In fact, NOT getting 1st place in our division in any given competition was a foreign concept to us. One year, we went to a competition we had never gone to before, and of course, we won. But something strange happened. The school we beat, the one that had always won until they met us, lined the street as we were getting on our buses and gave us high-fives and congratulated us and cheered as we pulled out of the parking lot. Why were they so happy that they lost?

The next school day, our band director read us a letter that he had written to the opposing director. In this letter, he praised their students for their class and sportsmanship. He told them that they exemplified the motto of our school, “Pride and Performance.” Then he closed the letter by stating that he sincerely hoped that when the roles are reversed, that our school would behave with the same

class, dignity, and respect as their school. I can’t speak for the other students, but I certainly felt a sting of humility. I also knew how I was going to behave going forward.

The best followers recognize connections between their work and the broader organizational mission

This point speaks to the previous idea that all parts are important, and all people playing the parts are important. What comes to mind when you think about a military combat unit? Soldiers with rifles on the front lines shooting bad guys, right? Does anyone ever think about the soldiers who are cooking their meals? Or the ones who handle the administration to make sure they get paid? Or the supply sergeants who hand out the weapons and ammunition? Or the crews of the transport ships and planes who got them to the war zone? Those soldiers on the front lines couldn’t do their jobs unless all the others and many more were doing theirs. The difference here is every single musician is on the stage and contributing to the music. Every part is seen and heard.

The best followers exhibit advanced levels of competence and seek opportunities to continue their own skill development, even when in doing so they incur personal costs in terms of time and money

Every music teacher reading this thought the same thing: “I would KILL to get even half of my students taking private lessons!” You don’t have to kill. Remember, leadership is about influence. So, how do you influence your students to take lessons and the parents to pay for them? That is the million dollar question! But there are a few things you can do to get the ball rolling. Bring in a clinician. A friend of mine used to always say, “The expert is the guy from out of town.” He was right! When I was in college, my teacher used to tell me what I needed to do to get better, and I would largely ignore him. Then I would go to a masterclass where the clinician would say the same things, and I would act like he just gave me the Holy Grail of musical development! Expose your students to masterclasses, professional performances, and guest soloists along with a partnership with a local college or professional ensemble will help you build a core of students taking private lessons. You probably won’t get to 100% participation, but those who are taking lessons can pass what they know on to the person sitting next to them.

The best followers value, collegial, informal relationships with trusted colleagues

If you see cliques forming, do your best to squelch them. Cliques create divisions in the ensemble that can cause tension and morale problems. All of us know the relationships we formed in our school ensembles are lifelong. Not only are these relationships social, but can also be a great source of professional networking as your students get older. I graduated from high school in 1993 and I’m still close with several of my fellow band mates. Some are lawyers who I have asked for legal advice from time to time. Others are military officers who I have called on for leadership advice. Others are still living in the area where I grew up and I’ve asked for help on behalf of my parents.

The best followers interact effectively with their leader

This one requires effective listening on the part of the leader. How many of us have had a student come to us with a suggestion for a performance selection or show idea? How many of us have had a student come to us and suggest that a piece of music we have chosen might be out of our reach? How many of us have had a student come to us with a concern for another student? It takes a considerable amount of courage for people to approach leadership with ideas or concerns. Encourage and respect students for their courage and commitment to the organization and their fellow students.

Finally, the best followers inspire their colleagues by example

Positive attitudes, helpful hands, and pursuits of excellence are all contagious characteristics that just a few members can cultivate in an organization. Find those students who exhibit these qualities and place them in positions where they can influence others: Drum Major, Loadmaster/Stage Manager, Librarian, Section Leader, Social Media Manager, Concertmaster/mistress.

Above all, you the teacher, conductor, program manager, and organizational leader must set the example by being a courageous, yet humble leader. Model the behaviors you expect from your students and mentor them. You’ll find that the students take much more ownership of the organization and will develop the tools to be successful far beyond their years in band or orchestra. A happy by-product of your leadership will be an organization that runs so efficiently that you can focus on what you actually went to school for: teaching music.

Lieutenant Patrick Hill has been a Navy Musician for 19 years. He has served as a French Hornist, Unit Leader, and Ceremonial Conductor and Drum Major in Navy Band Southeast in Jacksonville, FL, Navy Band Northeast in Newport, RI, and the U.S. Fleet Forces Band in Norfolk, VA. He has also served as an Advanced Academics Instructor at the Naval School of Music in Virginia Beach, VA. In 2012, he was commissioned as a Limited Duty Officer Bandmaster and assigned as the Assistant Leader of the United States Naval Academy Band in Annapolis, MD. He currently serves as the Training Officer at the Naval School of Music in Virginia Beach, VA. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Illinois State University and a Master’s Degree from Liberty University, and he is currently pursuing a Doctorate of Strategic Leadership at Regent University.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Lieutenant Hill only and do not represent official positions of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.

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