My Advice For High School Graduates

By John Gardner

Pomp & Circumstance is over, diplomas are distributed and graduates are celebrating with Open Houses, a tradition new to me when I moved to this area. Parents spend days (weeks) preparing for food, getting the house ready or space reserved, sending invitations. The gathering consists mostly of the graduate’s family, friends and relatives — with an occasional teacher thrown in. I would love to contribute to the significant cash cache of these deserving teens — but instead I write a personal note and usually share pictures from their years in band, hoping that the words and pictures will remain after the cash is spent.

Here’s some additional advice:


Read more….

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Do it right the first time, or do this…


“If you don’t have time to do it right,
when will you have time to do it over?”
-John Wooden, basketball coach

An appropriate variation of that quote for high school students….

“Do it right the first time, or do this…..

This year…

Wednesday – Last Student Day
Friday – Graduation
Monday – Memorial Day

So school is out and many students experience two weekdays and a holiday before going back to school for several more weeks — starting at 8:00 am every weekday morning.

NOTE: Yes, there are other reasons (besides taking classes over) for summer school, such as:

  • freeing up a spot during the year (maybe for band)
  • re-taking a class to raise a GPA
  • just because you want to learn more about a subject

Those are all legit…..keep doing those.

But for most….summer is to retake a class students failed during the semester.

This happens…

every year

every year

every year

…and for years, I have debated when the best time is to discuss it.

DURING THE SUMMER, as the band is rehearsing and some of our students are starting each day at 8 am, there is absolute agreement on how terrible summer school is, but it seems too late to warn them about it. And next year is so far away.

BEGINNING OF EACH SEMESTER seems appropriate to encourage students to “do it right the first time”, but, of course, they are going to do that. Nobody is thinking summer school in August or January, except that they hated it the last time.

We try to talk to students struggling in classes and to make them aware that, when classes have to be re-taken, that counselors tend to pull students out of the arts or unrequired classes to retake those failed the first time.

When we have that conversation, almost without exception, the response is…..

“I’m re-taking that class in summer school.”

Read more ›

Posted in High Schools, Public Schools, Teaching, Teaching Music Tagged with: , , , ,

3 Types of Thriving Teens Graduating

By John Gardner

This year’s high school graduation will be the twelfth at my current school. There will be roughly 350 graduates total, but of those I know, there are generally three types of thriving teens graduating and who will be walking across that stage.

Teens who have thrived and are graduating…


1. …BECAUSE of their parents

For one group, I give much credit to good parenting. These are the parents who are active and involved in their teen’s life. They’re on the PTO, in the band/choir/athletic booster groups, they come to watch practices, performances or games, they volunteer to help and they put up the money that most worthwhile ventures require. Some, are more behind the scenes supporting, enabling and encouraging. Outside of school activities, the family is together a lot. Maybe there isn’t a lot of money for fancy vacations, but they find ways to do things together anyway. Single parents and those who have remarried can also do fantastic jobs. My heart goes out to those super parents who are experiencing what author James Dobson calls “the strong-willed child”.

I see a lot of parental frustration at times from parents who are TRYING to do the right things; checking on their student’s grades, communicating with teachers, removing privileges for falling behind and/or rewarding good grades and progress. I have had numerous parents thank me for “staying on” their child. I usually respond that we’re a team….and that if they keep doing what they’re doing and I keep holding their child accountable from my end…..that we will get him/her graduated.

Keep the faith and keep doing what you’re doing. The teen will figure it out eventually.

2. …IN SPITE of their parents

A second group, and one that I especially admire, are those teens who turn out great “in spite of”  their parents. These are the teens who have every reason (mostly by example) to crash and burn, and yet, they determine NOT to follow the paths of their parents and instead, commit themselves to a better life.

I’m not faulting single, lower-income, laid off or otherwise challenged parents doing the best they can. My parents divorced when I (oldest of 5) was in 7th grade. My mother was a polio survivor without a car. We didn’t have it easy but we had love and support — and we all survived.

I DO fault those who could but don’t share or support the child’s enthusiasm for a worthy activity.

Your child knows, is hurt, embarrassed and deflated by your lack of support.

A high school clarinet student once tell me,

“My dad has never heard me play.”

You will only have that child in your care for a short time.

I was outside our band entrance door greeting students arriving for rehearsal. The car stopped and both student and parent got out. The girl ran to me, in tears, frantically exclaiming, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” before running into the building. Behind her came the papa with the band schedule in hand. There was no warm, fuzzy response to my “Hi, how ya doin’?” Instead, he almost slapped me in the face with the schedule as he grunted, “How much of this schedule is mandatory?” After my response, “All of it.”, he mumbled something I wouldn’t print even if I heard it clearly. The daughter was waiting for me in the office, still crying, and apologizing for what she was sure I had endured. My respect and admiration for her attitude and work ethic skyrocketed after that.

A sophomore asked me for some personal clarinet coaching. Things were going great until she came in one day tearfully explaining she had to quit. She had gotten a job to pay for her lessons, because her parents would not, and when they learned how she was spending her earnings, they started charging her rent.

I continued her lessons anyway.

Another student came in from the parking lot to ask for some help with a flat tire. He called his mother while the other director and I taught him how to change a tire. To get to the spare, he had to unhook the huge woofer in the trunk. The mother and boyfriend arrived and, instead of thanking us for staying or trying to help, boyfriend starts screaming at the teen, “How dare you let somebody else touch my car. This isn’t over, kid.”

These are the students we find walking home after the concert, football game, or competition — because they know their parents will not come pick them up. Some get their own jobs to raise their own money to pay the participation fees, even earning money to go on the Disney trip.

These students don’t complain, but you can see and sense their pain when they see their friends with families after a concert, for example.

These students are determined NOT to be like their parents, and they see education as the way out of that trap…. and so work extra hard, without support from home, to earn a chance at college or a better life.

…and they deserve it.

3. …because of who they are

Some teens naturally have what it takes for greatness. Natural greatness combined with good parenting is definitely a winning combination.

Thanks for reading.


Posted in College Prep, High Schools, Personal experience, Teaching Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Pre-Digital-Devices Fidget Spinner

My pre-band, pre-digital-devices fidget spinner may have accomplished something. Held on sides w/thumbs and spun w/other fingers. My parents and grandparents said I would spend hours at it. Isn’t that the purpose of the current electronic version of fidget spinners; to entertain and calm?

Nimble fingers help high-speed clarinet-ing?

#WhenYouDoNotHaveALotOfToys #ChildhoodImaginations

Perhaps I should have marketed the concept (anybody remember pet rocks?).


Posted in Parenting, Personal experience Tagged with:

Teens are worth it!

As a high school teen (in a previous century), I benefited greatly from a band director and clarinet teacher who helped me, made connections and enabled opportunities that changed my life. One of the best parts about teaching, and one of my core-motivations, is to similarly advocate for today’s teens. I invest in as much individual interaction as I sense students are comfortable with. And when I have been able to improve or enable, often after expressions of gratitude, I explain that I had people help me, which is one of the reasons I am trying to help them — and that some day they’ll be in a position to do the same for others — and that when they do, I want them to remember me — and smile.

This time of year, after writing scholarship, job and admissions reference letters, sending notes, returning calls to potential employers checking references, etc., I tend to get a few notes like the one below. I’ll share some over the next few days. Please don’t try to figure out who is who…that is not the point.

Those of you in the adulting business, know that you can have a positive impact. Try, even when you don’t see the results, or the result isn’t what you hoped for. And then, when you get one of these occasional notes, recharge your advocating batteries and keep at it.

Teens are great — and worth it!

Posted in College Prep, High Schools, Personal experience, Respect, Teaching, Teaching Music Tagged with: , , , , ,

And the band plays on – at Graduation

By John Gardner

graduationThe graduation ceremony can be one of the least favorite times for band students. First there is providing prelude music for the incoming noisy, uninterested and unappreciative crowd. Next comes Pomp and Circumstance over, and over, and over again…. how big is YOUR school?

Then…. they get to sit through an hour (or more) of speeches and the reading of names. Then there is the postlude music that no one is listening to.

Yeah, just another day in the life of a band student. It is the last official function of the current year band, with which many of the students also performed in:

  • parades. For some bands, that can be a half-dozen or so. Parades are typically short, but requires half a Saturday to get to school, travel or get ready to perform and then, afterward, putting things away and getting home again.
  • football games. 4-5 home games x two performances per game. Also, sitting through an entire game to periodically play the school song in support of the team, or to play some drum cadences to which the cheerleaders react (but no one else).
  • basketball games. 5-10-15-20. Including pre-game rehearsal and the game itself, that is about a 3-hr commitment per game. For how many band concerts will the athletes reciprocate?
  • marching competitions. For many, this is why they are in band. Sadly, most in the community have no clue what happens there.
  • concert band concerts / festivals.
  • jazz band performances.
  • school pep rallies.

Seniors are gone and school is out. Marching band, for many, is already up and running and the next year is under way. The local band has a parade performance two weeks after school is out.

…and the band plays on.

Posted in Teaching, Teaching Music Tagged with: , , , ,

Marching Band Myth Busters: Why I Can’t Be In Marching Band

By John Gardner

For a writing prompt exercise, I asked a class of non-marching freshmen …

Why are you NOT in Marching Band?

Myth BustersI blended the variations of their responses into these common threads — and used them to create a recruiting tool I called “Myth Busters”.

Read more ›

Posted in High Schools, Marching Band, Teaching, Teaching Music Tagged with: , , , ,

All Music Award

What it took:
* Marching Band GOLD at ISSMA Scholastic Prelims
* Instrumental Solo/Ensemble Group I GOLD at ISSMA District/State
* Jazz Band Group I GOLD at ISSMA JazzFest
* Concert Band Group II GOLD at ISSMA Organizational
* Wind Ensemble Group I GOLD at ISSMA Organizational
* Show Choir GOLD at ISSMA Qualifying Event
* Vocal Solo/Ensemble Group I GOLD at ISSMA District/State
* Choir Group I GOLD at ISSMA Jazz Choir Festival
* Choir Group I GOLD at ISSMA State Qualify

Year ’round SEARCH FOR EXCELLENCE by dedicated teens!

Posted in High Schools, Personal experience, Teaching, Teaching Music

“Don’t do education!”

By John Gardner

This is a story about how a discouraging professor positively impacted my Philosophy of Education.

My college clarinet teacher didn’t want me in Music Education, arguing that with a ‘performance’ degree, I could teach anywhere “except in a public school”.

He unintentionally challenged me to use relationships and respect as pillars of how I teach. Here’s a paraphrase of what he said:

“You’re a decent clarinetist (in 4yrs, I don’t ever recall him saying I was ‘good’), but there are so many things you do without thinking about them — that you’ll be a terrible teacher. How will you explain playing in tune? You do it, but you can’t tell me how. What are you going to do when your band gets some technically difficult passage, just tell ’em to ‘play it’? How will you explain hearing what you see? A performer never has to explain those things. And besides, you don’t want to waste your time on teenagers. They are high maintenance, make stupid decisions and ruin their lives. And your failures will significantly out number your successes. Don’t do education. Be a performer and get paid for what you can do.”

I was crushed, defeated, depressed and discouraged, choosing to ignore his selfish speech while adapting some of his discouragements as positive aspects of my teaching.

He was a good teacher but a terrible human. He hated students, especially those who “wasted his time”. We learned out of fear, not respect. We never heard him perform, so we could never strive to reach his level. I remember waiting outside his studio, watching the girl exit in tears and crush her reed against the wall …. and then hear…. “Next”. (GULP!) One of his final comments to me, “I’ve wasted four years of my life on you.” But, that was because I ended up with a Music Education degree vs Clarinet Performance. He taught me the instrument and gave me motivation to never be like him.

He influenced me in the areas of Relationships and Respect. Here is an except from my Philosophy of Education.

I invest heavily in Relationship Building. I want to know my students. By knowing their situations outside of the classroom (family, financial, etc) I can better know how to effectively relate in the classroom. If I see online that the family cat died the night before, I can understand and empathize with a mood that could otherwise be misidentified as a bad attitude. A phrase I use periodically is that I “love, admire and respect” my students, and they know it. My office desk tends to be a hang out area before and after school and rehearsals. And when students are congregating in the band room, I often join them.

I want my students to Respect me because, 1) they know I care and have their best interests in mind, and 2) they know I know what I’m doing. Here’s a memorable example:

In a clarinet sectional, we were working on scales and I was trying to get students to play faster. One stopped me with, “That’s as fast as a clarinet can go.” That gave me an opportunity to demonstrate that a clarinet, could indeed, go faster.

So THEN…. they are willing to listen as I go into detail about WHY they need to practice scales and HOW to practice them to increase proficiency.

I DO education without ever telling a student that he/she wastes my time.

Thanks for reading.

VMO Business Card

Posted in College Prep, High Schools, Teaching, Teaching Music Tagged with: , , , ,

Dear Drum Major Candidates

We have five amazing candidates auditioning for Drum Major. I sent them the following note to let them know that WE (directors) know how hard they’ve been working. I wish we could pick them all…..

To Drum Major Candidates

Thursday, 5/4 is the day for Drum Major Selection.

We will start as quickly after school as the judging panel is able to get here. We will start with all of you in the band room and then have you individually after that — with the others waiting in the hallway until called. If the panel has a clear decision, we will announce it right away. If additional consideration is needed, it could be later tomorrow evening or Friday. We’re allowing about 10 minutes with each of you, 10 minutes with all of you together and so, should be finished by about 4:45.

I want to say a few things to all of you — and please share this with your parentals.

You have ALL put in more time getting ready for this audition than any previous DM audition I’ve been involved with.

You filled out an extensive online application answering a variety of detailed questions about you and how you would deal with specific, difficult situations.

You rated yourself in that application in areas that included honesty, integrity, confidence, personality, truthfulness, trustworthiness (with both students and staff) — and also your proficiency as a marcher, conductor, and musician.

You indicated your grade point averages (which I checked) and listed teacher references (which I’ve contacted).

You watched videos of drum major salutes and a variety of conducting styles — with the hope of encouraging you to develop your own style.

You analyzed score examples (and submitted online responses) and marked up the score of the show opener.

You submitted a self-critique of video conducting the show opener.

You practiced a variety of meter, tempo, and style – including dynamics, accents, cues, pickups, holds, cut-offs and more.

You conducted ME singing the national anthem according to your conducting…and we both survived.

You asked questions, asked for extra help, and responded to feedback I’ve shared with you along the way.

You practiced conducting in front of each other, in front of the band — and several of you individually with me.

You practiced vocal commands, using each other as a marching squad.

In at least one case, you sent me video you took at home for feedback on your conducting and salute.

As I list all those things, I think it would be fair to say that,

“Gardner really made us jump through a lot of hoops.”

…and I did so without apology or regret.

I have been critical of each of you. Perhaps I’ve been hard on you because of something you did or said, or didn’t do. Hopefully, you took all that as constructive criticism. I told you at the beginning that this was going to be like a real job interview — because it is.

It is an important job that Mr. Petek and I take very seriously.

I don’t know of any time in my 13yrs here that we have had a better field of candidates. I said at the beginning that I believed each of you could lead this band and that the band would follow you — and I stand by that.

Now, here’s the tough part.

The band is not big enough to have 5 drum majors. We MUST select one and cannot justify selecting more than two. That means some of you will NOT get the job….and with all the work and effort you put into this, that is going to be hard. It will be a huge disappointment for YOU. It will be hard to take. I am sorry that you must experience THAT — but applaud all of you for putting yourself through this. You are all going to be better because of this, even if you don’t believe so right away.


I want to remind you that on your application, I asked how you would react if you are NOT selected. If you had answered that question inappropriately, I would have removed you from the group. You all said the right things and now….I will hold you to those.

For some of you, this would be your last chance at the spot — for others, there is at least another year. From the DM stories I told you, I emphasized that from MY perspective, it would not matter what grade you are in, how long you have been here or what instrument you play. MY scoring will be based on all the criteria you had in the original info packet…and the judging panel will be instructed to do the same. You might want to review that information, the audition flow and score sheet I gave you last week.

Be ready for some tough questions and instructions. Think through what you think those might be and prepare your response as best you can. Bring and show “The Look”. Be confident. PERFORM!

To make this as open and fair as we can, we are anticipating the judging panel to include:

  • Mr. Baker
  • Mr. Court
  • Ms. Cook (Rachel)
  • Mr. Gardner
  • Mr. McElhaney
  • Mr. Petek
  • Mr. Walter

Again, you’ve worked hard and should be able to walk away from the result knowing that you prepared well and gave it your best shot.



Posted in High Schools, Marching Band, Respect Tagged with: , , ,