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Breadcrumbs for the Band Director: Highlighting the path back to post-COVID normalcy

Posted on: April 30, 2021

Written by Robin Linaberry, retired Director of Bands at Maine-Endwell Senior High School in Endwell, NY and author of Strategies, Tips, and Activities for the Effective Band Director

The well-trained Director of the Anytown School Band had much to celebrate. Years of carefully crafted work – assisted by, yes, some early trial-and-error failures – had yielded a consistently outstanding program, adored by its students, and revered by the entire school community. Anytown’s music was simply terrific, vibrantly delivered by prideful performers who were accomplished, dedicated and, especially, happy to have the social artistic outlet. And after such strategic planning and execution, the Band Director knew exactly which ingredients comprised the recipe, and in what amounts. There was little mystery about what to do with recruitment, retention, expectations, music selection, student motivation, and a host of other important components of Anytown’s steadfast music education. The well-planned architecture was a roadmap lined with large-print signs, all highlighting the shortest route to excellence.

And not unlike in so many previous years, the second week of March 2020 brought a stream of stressful problems and issues requiring decisive action.

  • “It’s our first scrimmage, and Coach says if I’m not there for it, I’ll have to sit the bench at the next game. Sorry, but I’ll miss the Concert,” says the Principal Trumpet player who, of course, is assigned a solo that no one else is prepared to play.
  • “Our budget failed. We’re losing a teacher, so we’ll have to delay the introduction of Beginning Band for two years,” says the Administrator.
  • “The master schedule changed; now our only section of AP Calculus will be offered during your class. A dozen of your best seniors need to choose between Calc and Band,” says the overworked Guidance Counselor.
  • And, “My family is moving, so I’m going to Otherplace High School starting next month,” says the best French Horn player the school has ever seen, “but my two cousins are moving here to Anytown. They play Flute and Drums.”

These alarms, though serious, are not new. With comprehensive training from a great college program, and supported by the wisdom of experience, the Anytown Band Director will sculpt a strategic response to each problem.

But just days later, an unprecedented tsunami known as “COVID-19” rolled over the land, swiftly bringing its school closings, social distancing, technology problems, and so many other exceptional vexations. The road to excellence was inundated, as were the favorite shortcuts, known detours, and almost all recognizable landmarks. The traditionally-trained Band Director could no longer navigate this new landscape, and the destination – “excellence for our Anytown Band” – seemed entirely unreachable.

Experienced band directors will recognize this storyline as an allegory for their professional losses. It reveals an uncomfortable helplessness these directors might be feeling while recalculating their journey back toward “normalcy.”  There has been no single standardized plan for COVID-impeded Band instruction; most schools’ and universities’ responses are steered by their unique needs, students, facilities, and by a local interpretation of health guidelines. Some schools have had remarkably positive results. In others, however, music education as we know it has all but ceased to exist, at least for a period. 

It’s an undeniable fact that the COVID-19 pandemic severely disrupted almost all school music programs, large-ensemble rehearsals and performances, and our students’ individual development itself. But we can also predict some additional, less-obvious repercussions. New teachers, and younger pre-service college music education majors, may not yet be fully aware of what has already been taken from them. Formative experiences and professional development opportunities – the vital lifeblood for a music teacher’s successful evolution – have been simply unavailable.

The experiences available to Pre-professionals have been vastly altered:

  • Student Teaching has typically afforded the initial opportunities for development of practical teaching strategies. During the pandemic, most pre-service teachers aren’t “conducting” a live band, and their pedagogical practice is limited to faces on a screen or, at best, small groups, and very limited time.
  • Observation/participation opportunities and Lab School experiences throughout college have evaporated: schools have been forced to restrict visitors, and many model programs have been paused.
  • There has been much less opportunity for college students to “collect” rehearsal strategies, communication skills, and tricks-of-the-trade through daily observations of great conductors.
  • Many college Methods Courses are encountering reduced time for conversation, and minimized in-person demonstration of pedagogical strategies.

And even for the experienced teachers, there have been weighty losses:

  • There is dreadfully little opportunity to practice our teaching and rehearsal strategies, let alone revise and improve them.
  • Observations of great guest-conductors at honor band festivals – so important to professional growth – disappeared when those festivals were pre-empted.
  • In-house mentoring might even become limited, as some of the most experienced educators may elect an unplanned retirement.

These observations introduce a shared set of vital questions:

  1. What is a good plan for restoring our Band programs when we return to in-person instruction as music education emerges from the pandemic?
  2. Which of our traditional “go-to” strategies will still be effective? And whereas a new course of action may be required, which replacements will yield the best results?
  3. What are the most efficient ways to restore the profound loss of performance skills resulting from students’ inactivity? Or, in the big-picture view, how will we restore excellence as quickly as possible?
  4. And what can we do to bring lost students back to our programs, while also reinvigorating those who stuck with us?

Surely those aren’t the only questions, but I’ve selected this short list to highlight our collective needs. We must find a new pathway to lead programs out of an incomprehensible epoch, and back toward the Anytown model that worked so well under traditional circumstances. But the original “recipe,” made of its reliable, time-tested ingredients, may not be enough.
So what am I suggesting? Here is just a brief list of recommendations, but only to spark creativity in your thinking:

  • Identify any landmarks that are so important that they’ve remained visible throughout the pandemic. You’ll recognize them (certain concerts, parades, competitions, skill-level tiers/ranks, incentives, annual events, et al) because you’ve been asked about them frequently, and you’ve overheard excitement in students’ conversations. Those landmarks are the biggest breadcrumbs that highlight the general direction for your community, even if other parts of your pathway have been destroyed.
  • Create an environment that attracts the students with optimism and positivity. Positivity works. Find your unique bandroom culture that welcomes students, that entices them to return, and that motivates them in every aspect.
  • Investigate any deep-seeded program components that can provide residual results to support your immediate work. We’re looking for activities offering influential aftereffects, and those that will promote improvements while shielding our programs from further backsliding.  For example, we might discover more success through reliance on (well-chosen) internal Leadership activities: excellence to influence further excellence. A wisely designed Mentoring plan will serve that purpose, as will increasing your students’ exposure to role models, like visits from itinerant teachers, or performances by guest artists.
  • Invest in the types of strategies and activities that, while providing the desired results, are also exciting. I’m suggesting that our pedagogical choices will be more effective by engaging students. Note that this undertaking suggests a research and discovery mission unlike you’ve pursued ever before:
    • Ask colleagues about their favorite, most effective pedagogies.
    • Seek outstanding books based on functional, practical, results-oriented strategies, targeted at the wide variety of musical concepts you teach.
    • Make substantial investments right now in webinars, online blogs and bulletin boards, professional development sessions of all kinds, and great conversations with trusted colleagues and mentors.
    • And take risks with your pedagogy: the students returning after COVID have been changed; even if you felt you knew them well, they’ll return to your rehearsals with different needs. More than ever before, therefore, trial and error will serve a great role in your own discovery about what works, and what doesn’t (at least for now).

The most effective band directors I’ve ever observed seem to demonstrate a masterful fluency with communication, feedback, modeling, and motivation. Everything they do and say has meaning. And, they are equally effective with the “top” highly-accomplished virtuosos and with younger, skill-challenged student musicians. Oh, and they have a magical way of making students (collectively and individually) feel good about the experience. 

While these are lofty goals, band directors can improve by considering their own professional development as a continuous endeavor. When working to assemble an ever-growing collection of practical teaching strategies, tips, and activities, the effective Band Director can indeed resuscitate the Anytown School Band, and move it toward post-pandemic success.

Read more from Robin Linaberry: The 10 Most Vexing Problems for Music Directors... with One Proven Solution