Tending the Landscape Over the Summer

Tom Merrill • Travel/Festivals • July 14, 2017

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We have a patio behind our house made of paver bricks surrounded by landscaping.

We didn’t put it in, we inherited it from the previous owners. It generally looks nice, was decently maintained, and has some great potential. The trouble is the weeds; they didn’t put down a good barrier when they put the patio in, so every summer weeds and moss poke through between the bricks. The good news is I’ve got an effective weed treatment that I use. The bad news is that, with a 30 foot by 15 foot patio made up entirely of 4 by 8 inch paver bricks, it is a very tedious process.

You have to be careful where you spray the treatment; applying it in the wrong place means good plants won’t grow back. Therefore, you can’t take the easy way and do a wide, general spraying. Plus, getting the treatment all over the surface of the bricks rather than in between them where it’s needed is just a waste of effort and resources. So it’s a lot of focused, detailed, down-on-your-knees precision work. And you can’t do it only when the weather is most comfortable; it works best when you’ve got a really hot day because that helps the weeds dry up and disappear faster. Finally, the reality is you’re going to miss spots and have to go back and reapply to keep things looking nice. But every year when the weeds crop up again, there tends to be fewer of them and I get a little better at the application process.

Stop me when this begins to sound like a metaphor for a school music program.

Every music program has its “weeds”—those challenges that detract from the overall beauty of the landscape. But every program also has that potential to be somewhere that is a joy to experience. It’s during the relative quiet of the summer months that you usually have the best opportunity to reflect on past success and look towards future possibilities.

Before you go outside, hydrate and put on sunscreen.

By this I mean first take a moment for self-care. You’ve been through another busy year that’s likely taken at least some toll mentally and physically. Once the rehearsal room has been cleaned and locked up, TAKE A BREAK. It will help you decompress and clear your mind so that when you do start “weeding” you’ll be more effective. To borrow from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits, this is part of the “sharpening the saw” process. Most importantly, it helps combat the burnout that has become all too common in our profession. (Seriously—take it from someone who DIDN’T do enough of this when he was teaching.)

Develop a plan for tackling the weeds.

Think about what challenges need to be addressed and potential solutions. Look at the tools and resources you have available and how they can best be used to get to your goals. What repertoire or new teaching methods can you employ next year that may create opportunities for improvement? Are there colleagues or other experts you can bring in to be “fresh ears” and offer additional perspective? What can you change without harming the “flowers” that are blooming? It might take getting out of your “comfortable” zone, and it definitely means getting your hands dirty.

Time for pruning.

Cutting dead branches and blossoms gives the healthy part of the plant more resources to grow and flourish. What aspects need to be cut so that more focus can be placed on things that are going well, allowing them to grow even bigger? This might be activities within the program that have ceased being productive. It might be a particular method that’s become an old habit and doesn’t apply any longer. It might even be trading in some equipment that’s been gathering dust to be replaced by new, more necessary items. This may also mean evaluating the health of new ideas that were planted more recently, and deciding whether they need more time to grow or are counterproductive.

Decide what you’ll plant in the fall. Having grown up in the rural Midwest with a Scandinavian background….for me it’s rhubarb plants. We put them in the ground knowing that at some point in the future, there’s going to be delicious pies and crumbles to enjoy on a hot summer day. Is it time to start that advanced ensemble you’ve been thinking about for years? Maybe go ahead and submit that audition recording for the state conference. Perhaps there are underclassmen ready to be developed into future leaders and honor ensemble musicians. What will be your “rhubarb”—something new that you can add to the landscape to continue to make it unique, knowing you may not see it mature for months or even years?

This is a great time for an exercise known as “Start/Stop/ Continue”—where you look at the past and your future goals, and decide which new projects or habits to start, which existing ones to stop, and which to continue developing. Not only is this something you could do on your own, but also in a setting that involves your department staff, your booster organization, and even your student leadership. Their ownership of the landscape means you’re not the only one out there working the hedge clippers.

Smell the roses. Finally, take some time to enjoy and appreciate what is healthy and growing. You and your students put in lots of hard work and dedication to create something wonderful. Don’t forget to look around and take in the scenery. After all, this is why we do this, right?

Tom Merrill is the Executive Director of Festivals of Music, with over 25 years of experience as a music educator, travel planner, and festival organizer.


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