The Band Director’s Survival Guide

Mike Lawson • • July 13, 2016

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To many the idea of a band director having adversity or challenges may seem absurd.

Or perhaps they seem limited to budget, time constraints and meeting the community, school board, students and parent’s expectations. But then there are the unexpected and potentially most challenging events or situations. The unthinkable situations need to be thought about!

The national news covers it all…fatal accidents, hazing, rape, or as seen recently across the country, fire, flood, and tornadoes. Even the good news…dealing with minorities, Down’s Syndrome and autism where music and inclusion have made lives of all involved just a little bit better require some special and additional attention and planning. Challenges to a band director’s survival fall into a few broad categories.


“Never here!” In 2005, the Chippewa Falls (Wisconsin) High School Marching Cardinals band were in a celebratory mood as the four charter buses headed home after the state competition. They had taken home third place, their best ever in competition. In an instant, all their joy would change as a semi-trailer truck careened off and back on the highway and then jack-knifed directly in front of the lead band bus. The unavoidable impact took five lives, including the band director, Doug Greenhalgh, and sent 29 others to hospitals!

This last fall, the Marching Cardinals started a campaign to replace their twenty-year-old uniforms “with a design expected to keep the memory of the marching band creator Doug Greenhalgh alive,” stated Band Director Mike Renneke. Changes that were brought about after this horrific event included a completely new Band Handbook, new Band Forms and an adaptation of the athletic department’s “Blue Code” travel acknowledgment and permission form. The Band Handbook and Survival Guide acknowledges being “developed with input from many students, parents and families who have gone on this journey before us” which is key to its acceptance and usability. If your band travels, as most do, your procedures need to address the possibility of this type of “never here” event.

Travel documentation, both onboard each and every vehicle and also at a fixed home base, should include: Trip roster, list of occupants by vehicle, the individual responsible for that vehicle, and medical records for all travelers with at least basic information about significant known health issues, allergies, and any treatment restrictions. Each individual should carry identification and any necessary or legal documents such as passports or visas. A file of copies should be available in case of loss or theft. Instrument and equipment lists being transported identifying the individual responsible for that item, any serial numbers and images would be helpful, as well. Boarding, departure, checkpoint and arrival check-ins would also be helpful. Many of these actions are facilitated with software currently available and in use by many school bands.

Be prepared for public statements, press conferences and especially parent and community communication. A single cell phone call or text from a panicked and ill-informed student can “trend” to community panic or outrage in just seconds or minutes.

Every band has its public heritage and many have a private heritage. Even though outlawed everywhere, forms of hazing or initiation still survive. Drum Major Robert Champion was undergoing an unofficial and informal hazing routine which resulted in his death from injuries he received in fall of 2011. The famous “Marching 100” of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) suddenly was the subject of public scrutiny and scorn.

The FAMU Marching 100 have a history spanning over a century. They have created and implemented a number of field show and drill techniques that have become standard across the country. Today, with 420 members including the largest tuba section in the country at 50 members, it was declared “Best Band in the Land” by ESPN in 2003 and “the Best Band in the Entire Universe” by CNN in 2008. It has performed at the American Bandmasters Association (ABA), the American Music Awards (AMA), the Grammys, and multiple Florida Governor’s and U.S. Presidential inaugurations, but all of this went by the wayside with this single incident.

In 2013, Dr. Sylvester Young, an alumnus of the Marching 100, came out of retirement after more than 25 years as a band director at Ohio University to direct the rebuilding effort in Tallahassee. In addition to the criminal convictions that resulted, and the suspension of the band from all performances, the band operated under the guidance of a special hazing compliance officer. Young brought his own hazing experience from his time in the FAMU band as well as that of a director dealing with the issue. Mission accomplished, he has recently retired to Director Emeritus at FAMU.

An Ohio State University part-time Drum Major Coach and former drum major at the university was charged with kidnapping and rape of one of the university’s band members. In June of 2016, he was convicted of sexual battery and sentenced to three years in prison and life-long registration as a sex offender. He had previously been reprimanded for an “inappropriate”, implied sexual in nature, text message sent to band members. This reprimand was part of an effort started in 2014 by the university to change a “sexualized culture” within the band.

Rape and sexual harassment have become widespread on college campuses. The United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has launched investigations into Columbia University and more than fifty other universities into compliance with OCR’s Title IX which addresses “violations in the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints”.

The Columbia University band members decided to address this problem head-on, separate from the University’s response. Their student band governing group (named “Bored”) developed a “Bored Policy for Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault” which provides procedures and methods for the band community to deal with these problems. It provides reporting methods, review procedures with provision for anonymity, enforcement methods and victim support.

All of these efforts provide models for addressing these situations. These are extreme situations, but very real. “If it can look bad, someone will see it that way!” was offered by one university band director. “Documentation of policies and procedures, education about these, and a method for reporting violations, accompanied with an enforcement mechanism should be developed and implemented.”


Property and equipment are also vulnerable to a variety of problems, some not avoidable. Network news reports highlight wildfires, floods and tornados all across the country and hurricane season has just begun. The band room at John North High School in Riverside, California had experienced minor flooding for a number of years, but in 2014 the “Great Flood” occurred over a weekend with no one even aware of the problem until the following week. It rendered the band room and practice rooms unusable, left soaked cased instruments and uniforms in their storage areas. The district’s 12 week estimate to complete necessary building renovation encompassed the entire fall football and much of the rehearsal and concert season. Unseen, but experienced later after insurance settlements, were the delayed effects of moisture with further damage to uniforms, instruments and even computers!

In Morehead City, North Carolina the West Carteret Patriots had just completed a community-wide fundraising effort and purchased 175 new uniforms. The band proudly wore the new outfits in the Christmas Day parade at Disneyland in 2012. The following July, an electrical short started a fire that destroyed the uniform storage room and their entire wardrobe of new uniforms as well as sound equipment and many older uniforms. This occurred while faculty and staff were on-site which helped limit the extent of the damage to the one room and its contents. Insurance and strong community support replaced the lost uniforms while creative use of existing outfits allowed continued performances and activity.

Advice from the band directors involved in these facility situations included the need to develop and implement both risk reduction and disaster recovery plans.

Facilities: Appropriate security system/equipment with smoke, fire, water, motion sensors, visual observation and remote reporting to appropriate agencies and band contact. Suppression systems if possible. Identify appropriate alternate sites should the home facility become unusable.

Instruments and Equipment: Identification, images, location and identifying the individual responsible can assist with locating, repairing and/or replacing the item. Sources for emergency loan or other use of these items should be identified.

Your best resource, as seen at Columbia University, may be right in front of you….your band members. Input, guidance, and assistance may be at your fingertips. Other band directors drawing on their experience and that of their mentors have produced other resources. Dr. Jonathon and Michelle Kraemer, husband and wife directors of the high school and junior high school bands in Pampa, Texas, have written the Band Director’s Guide to Success: A Survivor’s Guide for New Music Educators which will be released this October by Oxford University Press. Done in a conversational style, it includes the cumulative experience not only of the Kraemers, but a wide community of experienced band directors.

An earlier publication (1985), Janzen’s Band Director’s Survival Guide, Planning and Conducting the Successful School Band Program, also addresses many typical challenges to the school band director.

And what about those more “every day” challenges mentioned at the beginning of this article? Budgets, time management, student grading, inventory of all assets, communicating with the school, the school district, school board, students, parent organizations, alumni and the community itself, event scheduling and fundraising are all important. Emergency repairs to instruments, uniforms and equipment offer additional time sensitive challenges.

Input from a number of active band directors contacted raised a number of interesting situations and effective solutions. Some of these will be explored in future SBO articles.


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