The Importance of Culture to the Music Educator

Thomas Palmatier • InServiceJuly 2021 • July 10, 2021

Editor’s Note: A version of this article will be a chapter in a new curriculum guide to be published by ASBDA, the American School Band Directors Association.

Have you ever experienced suggesting a change to your ensemble and been met with awkward silence or even unreasonable resistance? Perhaps, you unknowingly went against the culture. What do we mean by culture and why is it important to us as music educators? Frequently, culture is confused with climate. Climate is temporary and refers to the group “temperature” at that moment. A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next. One of the keys to this definition is “generally without thinking of them.” Elements of culture are so deep-seated that they are just assumed to be “the way things are.” That’s why school music directors need to be attuned to culture, but to make a lasting positive impact, know how to shape necessary changes to culture.

It’s your first day in a new school and, because you are aware of the importance of culture, you try to identify all of the different ones you encounter daily. There is a culture for each of the ensembles or classes you teach as well as sub-cultures within sections and other groups within the ensembles. There is a different culture for each of the schools where you teach as well as within the music department. Within your community, there are probably different cultural norms for the various demographic groups as well as a set of community-wide norms. 

It’s imperative you identify those, especially when starting out in a new position. Does that mean you must adhere to all of them? No, but it is important to know when you are “taking on” a cultural norm so you don’t underestimate the potential pushback. If you doubt the power and importance of the various and overlapping cultures, I encourage you to read The Culture Code by Clotaire Rapaille. One of my favorite stories in that book was about when Jeep was planning to gentrify its basic 4WD model in the late-1990s to compete with luxury SUVs. Instead, they were encouraged to think about American culture, and especially those drawn to a no-frills 4WD vehicle. They concluded American buyers weren’t really shopping for a motor vehicle; they were shopping for a horse they could ride to conquer the frontier, hence the birth of the Wrangler name and the retention of round headlights when most other cars had rectangular ones (ever seen a horse with rectangular eyes?). But the name didn’t work in Europe because their culture code is quite different from the American one. In Europe, the Jeep name was associated with the vehicle used by the American GIs in WWII, so it was branded as the Liberator instead. This wasn’t just good marketing. This was deep thinking about the power of culture.

We can and must be willing to change the culture of our ensembles if we are going to help them change for the better. It is important to recognize those cultures you can affect and those you can’t, as well as identifying those you should try to affect and those you should avoid. You may feel strongly opposed to the majority political beliefs in your community or school, but is trying to change that the best use of your time and influence? Is that why you are a music educator, and will it make you more or less effective? Luckily, a percentage of our “stakeholders” change every year due to graduation or movement to a different school. In other words, if changes to your ensemble’s culture are needed, you don’t have to wait “generations,” you can start now!

Changing climate is easy. Is your rehearsal room well organized and inviting? Do you greet students at the door with a smile and genuine enthusiasm for what’s about to happen? You have established a great climate for that class! Conversely, if you are having a bad day, or as they enter, you’re engrossed in your phone, what sort of climate will that class have? You have nearly total control of the climate in your ensemble. In contrast, the culture is “owned” at least in part by all of the various stakeholders ranging from your students to members of the community. So how do you (and should you) try to change your ensemble’s culture?

John Kotter’s fantastic book Leading Change lays out an eight-step process for implementing lasting change in any organization. These eight steps are just as relevant to your ensemble as they are to Fortune 500 companies. The steps are: (1) Establishing a Sense of Urgency, (2) Forming the Guiding Coalition, (3) Creating a Vision and Strategy, (4) Communicating the Change Vision, (5) Empowering Employees (Students) for Broad-Based Action, (6) Generating Short-Term Wins, (7) Consolidating Gains and Producing More Change, and (8) Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture.

You are probably thinking, “I can barely keep up with things now, how am I going to carry out an eight-step program?” The good news is this is not a process that will occur in one school year. Let’s look at each of these steps and very briefly think about how they may apply to your ensemble.

Establishing a Sense of Urgency

The questions you will need to answer are: Is change needed? If so, what changes are needed? Why is the change important? You need to be able to answer these questions in order to make the change relevant to your “stakeholders.” This is a vital step for all, but especially for younger directors. Think deeply about the changes you’d like to make but be honest in deciding if those changes are needed. Are you changing just for the sake of changing? Are you changing to make it more like someplace you were more comfortable, like your university band or orchestra? Or will the changes truly improve the educational and musical experience for your students? Without honestly answering these questions you run a great risk of expending effort and political capital and actually damaging the culture. We should have a Music Educator’s Oath that says “First, Do No Harm.” Don’t try to fix things that aren’t broken! 

As an example, let’s say you come into a program with healthy enrollment and decent support, but the performance standards are not very high and very few students practice outside of rehearsals. This can be a tough situation because chances are, many students, parents, and administrators are pretty satisfied. 

So, is change needed? If we are dedicated to providing a great music education for students, yes. What changes are needed? Students and parents need to conclude that high achievement requires regular, focused practice, and perhaps private lessons. Rehearsals need to be more demanding, probably requiring changes in the way they are run. 

Why is the change important? The current culture is that the ensemble is more recreational than educational. That’s not what they are in school for. But – how do you establish a sense of urgency? In this instance, it might involve bringing in outside clinicians that can give honest feedback to students, parents, and administrators. It could include attendance at festivals and contests with good quality adjudicators. It’s important you tread carefully in this situation because some might say, “We were fine before, but now with our new director we’re not good?!?!” Before embarking on this effort, identify potential allies. Perhaps there are parents, administrators, or community leaders who have a music background and recognize things are not as they should be. You’ve got to have those folks on your side so they can help influence others to establish a sense of, “We can and will do better.”

Forming the Guiding Coalition

This may include student leaders, other teachers, parents, and administrators. Who are the people who can sway others and buy into the changes? You’ve already identified some of these people but now look for others who can offer valuable insight. Include some who may not be “true believers” but who are influential and may have open minds. Look for students who are good examples of the culture you are hoping to instill. Keep in mind this is a guiding coalition, not a group to just carry out your wishes. You must be open to their ideas!

Creating a Vision and Strategy

This is the meat and potatoes where you clearly define the what and the how. In our example, perhaps the students could develop their own vision statement of what their ensemble should be. After all, they are the musicians so it should reflect their hopes for what they could achieve with helpful guidance from you. Encourage them to start by looking at their school’s vision, mission statement, and motto if they exist. Chances are a lot of thought went into those things and if the students develop a vision, mission statement, and/or motto that is “nested” in the school’s it will most likely be warmly welcomed by administrators. By letting the students be part of this process you are also teaching them the important steps in strategic planning that will serve them well in their future. 

Communicating the Change Vision

Every communication you have with stakeholders must be consistent and have the vision embedded. Always include, “Here’s where we are, here’s where we want to be, here’s what we’re doing to get there, and (importantly) here’s your part in that.”

Empowering Employees (Students and Others) for Broad-Based Action

Ultimately, your “workforce” has to be part of the process. This may include students, parents, and other teachers. If the change is seen as “your thing” instead of “our thing” it won’t succeed. Chances are, in moving your ensemble from a recreational activity to an educational experience, the rehearsal climate and procedures will need to change. Student involvement in establishing and enforcing the guidelines is key. Even with development of procedures, rules, and expectations, keep reminding yourself this is their ensemble, not yours. You are “conducting” but they are the ones “making the music.”

Generating Short-Term Wins

Look for demonstrable ways to prove you are on the right track. Luckily, your performances are the best proof of success. Perhaps go back to the outside clinicians and adjudicators that you earlier used to identify a need for improvement. Ensure everyone knows of your victories big and small. A student who makes all-state or improved participation and results in solo contests are things your school and community want to know about. The media is always looking for good news!

Consolidating Gains and Producing More Change

Codify the new way of doing things as much as possible and foster an atmosphere of “Now what can we do to be better?” Turn that vision and mission statement into a real strategic plan with goals, measurable objectives, and steps to achieve them. Perhaps set out milestones to be selected for state convention and then Midwest.

Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture

This is the true measure of success. Will the positive changes endure after you are gone? If you have truly engaged the students, parents, and administrators in the change process, they will not want to go backwards. Don’t make it just your thing, establish student leadership teams and parent advisor groups that are involved in setting and moving toward the long-range goals. 

That last step relates to the importance to maintain a healthy culture and to be on the lookout for erosion of that culture or incremental changes in the wrong direction (not all evolution is good). Here, I recommend one of my other favorite books, “Built to Last” by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. They examine organizations that have been successful for decades and have succeeded in changing practices as well as their cultures. How did they stay the course? By having a core ideology that never wavered. They are constantly measuring themselves and any proposed changes against that Core Ideology. Luckily, developing yours should be pretty simple. Why did you decide to be a music educator? Hopefully your list includes, “I want to make students’ lives better through music,” and “I want to leave my ensemble and its members better (in every way) than when I arrived.” As you examine the culture(s) effecting your ensemble, constantly ask yourself what elements of the culture(s) positively or negatively affect your ability to make students’ lives better through music and to make your ensemble’s future better than its past. That will help you identify the positive elements which require nurturing and preserving. It will also guide you to correctly select aspects of the culture that may need to change.

One aspect to consider is the importance of continuity of culture in the entire music program. If you are not the only K-12 music educator, it’s obviously preferable if students have the same positive ensemble experience from beginning to graduation. If your teaching partner(s) are all part of the effort, that will increase the chances of success. However, it may be necessary for you to move forward with positive culture changes in your ensemble and then hope your teaching partners notice the improvement and join in. Sadly, we have all observed situations where a dynamic middle school ensemble program feeds into a lesser high school situation and many students choose not to continue performing. If that is the situation you are in, you still owe it to your students to develop a successful culture in your ensemble. Success has a way of spreading. 

That leads to the question of how to nurture and preserve positive aspects of culture. It’s important to constantly communicate to your “stakeholders” the importance of those positive aspects. Does your ensemble have a culture that fosters disciplined and focused rehearsals? Do your students “self-police?” If so, you must constantly praise that behavior and never take it for granted. You must be cognizant of how that culture was developed in order to nurture it. Do your ensemble parents actively support the program? Praise them and ensure they feel appreciated and know how and why they got energized and involved. How will you ensure they are replaced when their children graduate? Do you have great folks in your administration? Make sure they are recognized and know how valued they are. Great administrators tend to get promoted. Are you working to sustain your network of friends throughout the faculty and the district?

To this point, we’ve been discussing how to successfully change culture for the better. But what if you follow the steps, try your best, and it just doesn’t work? That can result in a lot of self-doubt and maybe even cause you to leave the profession. Instead, step back and ask yourself a few questions. Did you consistently adhere to your core ideology? Did you make the effort too much of “your thing” and not enough “theirs?” Did you shortchange or skip one or more of the steps? Not every change effort is successful. I failed at this in one of my jobs by skipping steps and having the effort seen as “my thing.” Consequently, many of the changes I had hoped to make disappeared the day I walked out the door. If you also fail, it’s important to learn from that failure and not let it cause you to lose faith in yourself or in why you chose to be a music educator.

Col. (Ret.) Thomas Palmatier

We have all seen those programs where everything just seems to work. Great music is being made, students are excited about being there, and teachers love coming to work. Those situations did not happen by accident. They require great music educators with vision and supportive parents and administrators. But establishing and nurturing the culture that produces it is your responsibility. By doing so, you will not only change the lives of your students, but you will leave a legacy that can change the lives of countless students after you are gone. 

Colonel (Ret.) Thomas H. Palmatier completed a military career spanning more than 37 years as commander and conductor of both The United States Army Field Band and The United States Army Band “Pershing’s Own.” He is a Conn-Selmer Educational Clinician, a monthly SBO Magazine columnist and an active conductor and clinician.

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