Thoughts from a Beginning Band Director

Mike Lawson • Perspective • August 3, 2018

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This issue, I’m using this space to present correspondence from a middle school band director, Eric Combs, chronicling the journey from his first year to his master’s degree, what he wished he known, what he wants to share, and how you can find it.

I am a beginning band director. I am starting my 14th year as a middle school teacher and will have a master’s degree in music education by the end of the summer. I know that, as a first-year teacher, I was clueless about beginning band. I learned much more than my students did the first few years. I feel like I was well-prepared to teach at the secondary level, but not at all for the beginning level. As I have talked to many other directors, I have found that it is a common theme that many of us (from various colleges) feel like middle level pedagogy was not covered. To put it bluntly, I had no clue what I was doing. In particular, I did not know the way that a middle schooler’s brain worked, the speed that they were able to process info, the pace that I needed to take with them, what curricular items to cover, what their maximum potential really could be, and the list goes on. If only I could have been a fly on the wall in another program early in my career, but I was left to fend for myself and developed my own ideas and procedures apart from the outside world. And possibly by chance, it all started coming together through the years. The best thing that happened to me was I started visiting other (successful) schools and getting a “one day peek” into their programs. This changed the course of my career forever.

Over time, the quality of my program has grown. We are a small rural school in the middle of nowhere. We have a 67 percent poverty rate. There are no private instructors outside of myself, I rely on grant writing to get any equipment. The school regularly lends out around 60 completely free instruments per year. We have developed an honor band program, and the honor band regularly gets superior ratings at contests (often perfect) on grade 3-4 literature (second and third year students). My kids sight read like crazy. We have been named a NAMM Foundation Support Music Merit Award-winning school through their Best Communities for Music Education program for three years.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently honored us in a session of congress. As I was thinking to myself that this whole journey could have been accelerated had I visited some other programs sooner in my career, a way dawned on me of how I could provide this experience to beginning teachers electronically. In an effort to give the new generation of teachers the insight that I wish I could have had, I have started a free, open access website that completely exposes the nuts and bolts of my program. There are documentary-type videos, and currently I am adding raw footage of band camp (the first five lessons). Through the course of the year, I plan to video tape (but not post — that would be too much) the entire school year. I will edit these videos into short clips about various topics, especially focusing on curriculum, sequencing, planning, content, teaching sight reading, mastering rhythm reading, and ensemble concepts for the beginning band. If it is something that I wish I had as a resource, why not produce it for the others who will soon be in the exact same boat I was in? Here is a link to the website:

I’ll return next month with my editorial. Happy end of summer!

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