Students are not Starfish

Starfish on the beachby John Gardner (via LinkedIn)

The starfish story (not my original) is about someone trying to make a difference and I think of it periodically when I find myself trying to balance that healthy, professional detachment from the lives of individual students with the reality and significance of those lives and my desire to make a difference by being more than “just” a classroom teacher.

Working with students is not a life or death proposition, of course, but some seem to get washed up on the beach. Here’s the story and 10 ways to make a difference.

The man was out for a walk on the beach when he noticed a boy frantically picking things up and throwing them into the ocean. Curious, he approached the boy to discover that he was picking up starfish that had washed up on to the beach — and was throwing them back into the water.
“Son, what are you doing?” the man asked.
“The tide is going out and these starfish got left behind. I’m throwing them back into the water to save them.”
“But son, there are hundreds of miles of beach. You can’t possibly make a difference.”
As the boy picked up another starfish, he threw it into the water and then turned and said to the man,

“I made a difference to THAT one.”


Teen years can be trying times.  Parents may be fighting, separating, dating and remarrying, which means the teen now has to not only deal with a break up of a foundation in his/her life, but often now has to live in multiple households. Some have to adjust to step-siblings, job losses, financial struggles and more. Then, there are the complexities of school with seemingly unending pressures to perform, trying to get through the dating games, often without an anchor or example to follow. Influenced by increasingly negative social standards, or lack of standards….. teens can get caught in the rise and falling tides. Most learn how to negotiate life’s trying currents, but can turn the wrong way, make a miscalculation or poor decision — and find themselves high and dry on the beach…..and they need help. Not every student needs, wants or will accept a teacher’s help. Sometimes the teacher’s effort is both unappreciated and unsuccessful.

But try we must…because we CAN make a difference “to THAT one”.

Ten ways to make a difference:

  1. Be real. You can’t fake it with teens, they will see right through you. If you can’t be real, you should not be there. Please leave education.
  2. Be available. How easy is it for a teen to say to YOU, “Can I talk to you?”? What if it is not during class or immediately after school? In how many different ways are you available and do students know and understand that? Do they know if it is ok to email, call, text or instant message you? When a teen says they need to talk, somebody needs be available. Be that person. Consider your use of texting and social media.
  3. Be there. Yes, you’re “on duty” at school. What about when a student is in the hospital, at the funeral home, pitching in the softball/baseball game, getting baptized, being awarded Eagle Scout status, or when their garage-type band is playing at the coffee shop? Take your spouse or your kids and just be where you can when you can. They will notice.
  4. Trust them. If you want trust, you need to give some. I have a periodic discussion about trust, abusing it, losing it and the difficulty in earning it a second time. Read: “I WANT To Trust You“. Teens make mistakes and the trust area is one of those places where they can mess up. But help them learn. Take a reasonable chance. Yes, you’ll get burned some….but you will also empower leaders to rise up.
  5. Respect them. There is a good chance they will recognize and return it.
  6. Advocate for them. Of course you have students who are financially challenged and could benefit from music lessons, a better instrument, participation in a select ensemble or some other training. You won’t always succeed, but try to find funding to help. Call the employer to help him get that job. Write a letter to help her get that scholarship. Help them with college applications their parents can’t (or won’t).
  7. Listen, really listen. Teens typically think that people don’t listen. They think adults are quick to lecture, criticize and correct, but are slow to listen. You don’t always have to have the answer. Sometimes there isn’t an obvious answer. Sometimes listening is the answer, because in allowing them to share, you enable them to find their own answer. Unless they are sharing something illegal, dangerous, hear them out. Don’t argue. Don’t interrupt. Don’t pre-judge. And when you can, share your wisdom, experience, expertise and advice.
  8. Expect and Encourage Excellence. Students will complain when the load is heavy and the challenge is significant, but they know, even when they won’t admit, that achieving excellence requires work. They want to achieve and succeed. Being there for them doesn’t mean lowering your standards. Make them stretch. They’ll appreciate you eventually, even if not today.
  9. Don’t assume. A question I ask often is, “You okay?” Simple question….and sometimes they shrug it off, but there have been many times for me that this gives them the opening to ask for help.
  10. Don’t give up. It can be difficult, disappointing and even deflating when teens mess up. Don’t give up on them. That’s what the rest of society wants to do sometimes…. They will be disappointed that they disappointed you, but your unconditional support (not approving what they do) is vitally important to them.

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Posted in Classroom Teacher, High Schools, Public Schools, Teaching, Uncategorized Tagged with: , , , ,

Consider your problems in perspective

Screen Shot 2013-08-31 at 7.20.26 PMBy John Gardner (via LinkedIn)

Like many marching bands, the one I spend time with has people with various issues, the most common including problematic joints (knees and ankles) and asthma. We have some who are especially sun or heat sensitive. Our standing rule in field rehearsals to “sit out when you must” works when people respect and trust. Sometimes there are questionable excuses for minor discomforts that we would prefer they “work through”.  The problem is, that without absolute certainty that the issue is fake or minor, a challenge comes with some risk.

For those who have trouble with insignificant issues, I share the picture below, which I found on a band directors’ forum. I asked the director for the specifics — and for permission to share. Here is what he said about this girl….

She was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in May… a week after winning the Drum Major auditions and finishing a season of varsity lacrosse. She’s been determined to be at band camp and fulfill her role as DM despite ongoing chemo treatments. She left Band Camp 1 day early to be admitted for therapy.


When we hear stories like this, our individual problems may pale in comparison.

Teacher Student Love



Posted in Classroom Teacher, Music Department, Teaching, Teaching Music Tagged with: ,

Band Director Responsibilities

By John Gardner

A few years ago, I was tasked with putting together a list of responsibilities of the head director at my school. This is a generic approximation of the band director position in a moderately large high school.

Band Director Hours


Note: 150+ extra trips to the school for over 700 hours, equivalent to 18 – 40hr weeks.

Although there is some overlap, the above chart does NOT include the 180 school days of time/teaching.

Stack of hatsMajor decisions

Show Theme / Colors / Logo

Show Shirts; including color, design, vendor.

Basketball Shirts; including color, design, vendor.

Summer Parade Shirts; including color, engraving, design, vendor.

Color Guard Outfit(s), Flag design + performance props

Marching band uniforms; color, style, material, accessories, company, when + financing.


How many

Which ones

What class / Contest Classifications, i.e. Scholastic, Festival, Open, BOA, MidStates


Overseeing all contest logistics

Marching Band, Winter Guard, Indoor Percussion

Photographer for Band Pictures

Major Trip. 3 Hotel nights. Last trip cost @$83,000. Includes decisions about who could go/not go based on payment levels. Refunds? After trip collections? Also 22hr bus travel and night-time hotel supervision during stay.

Show Props. Organizing, overseeing design, construction, implementation.

Assembly of carts for front ensemble.

Music and design adjustments and rehearse and clean a Class A competitive marching show.

Recruiting, hiring, funding drill designer, music arranger, Color Guard choreographer, specialty coaches and field instructor.

Communicate/coordinate with the middle school directors.

Overseeing Instrument Purchase Plan and Repair Contract for the Corporation

Seating Charts / Part Assignments

Parade Block

Marching Band inside

Pre-Game Marching Assignments / Select Music / Write Drill

Marching Drill Assignments

Multiple Fall and Spring Concert Bands

Basketball Bands (2 bands x @6 games ea)

Music Selection

Multiple Fall and Spring Concert Bands

Fall Marching Band for Holiday Concert

Jazz Band for 4-6 performances

Spring Concert Band Tour


Band office work

Retrieve/file music.

Take care of reeds, oils, sticks, and other supplies students purchase.

Make minor instrument repairs. Coordinate more significant repairs with the music store rep, including pickup, return — and keeping students/parents informed of status.

Reserve buses for all band trips; parades, contests (see above).

Complete Facility Use paperwork for each time during the year that you need the gym or auditorium for rehearsals and performances.

Collaborate instrumental purchase plan with other directors and the corporation’s financial person

Register and arrange payment for all competitions, plus acquire field trip approval and buses.

Maintain grade book.

Write weekly schedules / TWIBs. (This Week In Band), plus daily Band Camp or rehearsal schedule.

Write and publish band handbook.Register for all contests, parades and festivals.

Keep attendance records for school plus rehearsals, performances.

Make Accompaniment and practice mp3’s for individuals and for playing test practice

Write, transcribe, transpose music to fill in special parts for marching, concert, jazz music

Grant writing School Policies Compliance

Oversee school budget, complete paperwork for both deposits and withdrawals and pay vendors

Design and print programs for concerts and banquets.

Determine and create awards, plaques and other recognitions for end of year awards banquet.

Maintain “needs” list for when someone asks, for grant-writing, or when opportunities arise

Publicity: Newspapers, school announcements, website, email blasts, etc.

Maintain online calendar for rehearsals, performances

Scan, post all pep band music for download to student iPads

Maintain social media sites: web/blog, Facebook, twitter, YouTube, instagram, google+, etc.

Maintain band data base with home and cell phones and email addresses for multiple parent/guardian families plus students with separate contact info.

Design reports/seating charts (marching band, 5 concert bands, combined bands, graduation band) / parade block assignments/drill chart assignments/pre-game assignments/squads/basketball band assignments…or labels for music folders, shirts, mailings.

Organize a pre-solo/ensemble contest practice recital

Organize free piano accompanists for students unable to pay

Classroom Activities

Schedule, conduct and analyze playing tests or challenges. Assign seating for ensemble balance.

Update daily classroom announcements: Include standards, birthdays, calendar updates and enough jokes to keep students watching. Music accompaniment a plus.

Keep classroom presentable and clutter free for use by a variety of classes, ensembles and outside groups

Find ways to meet state and/or national standards without sacrificing the performance expectation overload

Create, distribute, collect health forms and ensure 100% compliance and that forms travel with the band.

Specialty Ensembles

Supervise some of the auxiliary ensembles; drumline, sideline ensemble, winter percussion, color guard, winter guard

Approve creative recommendations for specialty uniforms, flags, props, etc and oversee construction.

Collaboration with other Staff

Coordinate with choir director for rehearsals involving students in both groups

Sharing instrumentalists with show choir backup ensemble, school musicals

Share room and equipment (i.e. keyboards, megaphones, uniforms, instruments) with other teachers, classes and groups

Guidance Counselors for student scheduling and to encourage promotion of the band program

Attend meetings

School required faculty meetings, including mandatory training, department collaboration

IEP and other school meetings on behalf of individual students

Band Parent Organization, including Executive Board, Officers Only and General meetings.

Fundraising projects

“Director Reports

Collaborating with individual fee collection

Dealing with personality clashes and chaperone issues

Overseeing special committees; i.e contest, uniform, major fundraising

Design teams (drill/choreographer, music, uniform/equipment design) for marching band, winter guard and indoor percussion shows

School mandated parent/teacher conferences

Meetings requested by students or parents

School Board meetings involving related budgets and programs

Make emergency judgment call decisions / calls when a student is injured or having medical issues in rehearsal or away at competitions.

Select Drum Major(s): Includes training, practicing, recruiting judges and providing selection criteria

Organize conducting, college prep or leadership classes/seminars

Organize overnight trips (i.e. Disney). Select travel consultant, solicit board approval, promote/oversee payments.

Solo and Ensemble

Promote/Recruit Participants

Attend Solo/Ensemble festivals at District or State.

Encourage and organize solo and ensemble participants, recruit pianists, ensure adequate practice and provide most participants free individual coaching sessions

Assist in individual (participation fees, pay-to-play, fair share) collections.

Write letters of recommendation for scholarships, college/job applications

Assist with auditions for area honor bands and specialty groups

I’m confident this list is NOT exhaustive, and would love to add to this list with other activities/responsibilities you experience or know about in your school.

Thanks for reading.

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Posted in Teaching Music Tagged with: , , ,

Notes like these are what I teach for…

By John Gardner

Commissioned sculpture on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania

Commissioned sculpture on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania

Graduation Open Houses are over and I am receiving Thank You cards from several of the students whose events I visited. All are appreciative of my visit and my gift, but a few have little extras to add…. For those of you who think teachers do it for the money – no, THIS is why:

“It is great to know that I have people like you to help support me as I embark on my new journey at [university]. I really enjoyed music theory this year. Thank you for helping me get started on my next chapter of life.”

“Thank you for your support as I make this huge transition in life. You have been a great role model and an amazing musician I have always looked up to!”

“I greatly appreciate that you’ve helped me grow as both a person and musician over the years.”


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

5 Considerations to Making a leap of Faith

Leap of faithby John Gardner

This graphic  illustrates a scenario we all face, individually, in business, in school as well as in music ensembles. Most of us, at least once, have been to the edge, looked down, looked across and pondered the possibilities. It is easy to say you want to get better, but how do you make that leap to the other side?

Realize that not everyone WANTS to get to the other side.

Many are satisfied with the way things are, represented by this marching band member attitude:

I am okay where I am. I am not last chair, I can play my part reasonably well, I can pass the playing test. I see those people on the other side… much pressure, so much work, and for what? Band is a good social group. It is a good place to find a date, to make friends, to feel connected. I enjoy the bus rides, the longer the better. The band parent provided food at competitions is good and I like the freedom during the down time to hang with my friends and watch some other bands.

You are, after all, standing on solid ground. It is safe where you are. You KNOW where you are and are in your comfort zone. You look over the edge and see danger. You could fall, you could fail. You could get hurt.

WANT it….with everything that is within you.

You hear the musician who plays the more difficult solo or watch the marching band put on a crowd cheering performance. You see the elation at the award ceremony and YOU WANT THAT.

In “The Return of the Jedi”, as Luke Skywalker finally stands before his ultimate enemy, the Emperor says to the young Jedi who is viewing and considering his weapon,

You want this, don’t you?

Know that small, safe, baby steps won’t make it.

If you stand on the edge, look down and take a step, you will fall. The gap is wider than that and will require a running start LEAP.

Practice and Prepare to Perform!

Olympians don’t just show up at the games. Basketball players spend hours behind the scenes practicing boring free throws and doing exhausting repetitive fundamentals up and down the floor. The ice skater doesn’t decide at the start of the performance that a quad would be a good idea.

There is no short cut to success. You must be willing to pay the price.

The ice skater going for the quad is literally a “leap of faith”. There is never a guarantee of success, but repetitive practice, falling down, getting hurt, figuring out what went wrong and working harder to get better…..are necessary ingredients to establish confidence and competence to make the jump. A phrase I have used in rehearsals,

Like the ice skater who misses the quad, missing notes (steps, sets) in performance can hurt.

A good cartoon by Tone Deaf Comics illustrates part of this idea.

One more time

Commit to go….and then GO!

No more standing at the edge. No more looking down. No more considering the consequences of failure. Back up, focus on the other side, set your mind and then RUN hard at the edge. When the Israelites were crossing the river Jordan, the waters did not part until the priests feet touched the water, the point at which they demonstrated both faith and commitment (Joshua 3:14).

Once you commit to go, you have to “go all out”. Know where you’re going, practice and prepare, commit and go.




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

Huntington’s Erie Band Prepares for its 100th year

Erie Railroad EngineBy John Gardner

The last of the Railroad Bands, the Erie Band, originating in 1915  in Huntington, Indiana, is concluding its 99th consecutive year and looking forward to next year’s centennial. Of course, no one from the original band is still alive, but we do have one member who will celebrate her 50th year in the band next year.

In a 2008 presentation to the local historical society, band member Bill Richey put together this slide show. My favorite story is WHY all the other railroad bands were shut down EXCEPT the Erie Band in Huntington.

Erie Band History

Huntington Erie Community Band

Posted in Personal experience, Storytelling, Teaching Music

My 7th Grade Piano Teacher May STILL Be Right

By John Gardner

A lot of life-changing events happened my 7th grade year. I became a Christian, my parents divorced, and I determined to become a band director. At one point during that year I was studying clarinet, saxophone, drums and piano. When I arrived at a piano lesson inadequately prepared, my teacher, Jimmy Lee, gave me this advice:

“You’ve got too many irons in the fire.
You need to take some of them out before you get burned.”

I quit piano lessons.

I recently tweeted:

Stack of hatsI spent time in my home office on behalf of before driving to Wabash (20 miles away) to pickup fundraising order forms for my fundraising business at QDP Corporation. From there I went to Huntington North High School for music classes, taught a clarinet student after school before going to Huntington University  for ensemble rehearsal and to make lesson arrangements with a college student. From there I went home to complete an online transaction before making it to the high school football field for an evening marching band rehearsal.

Feeling some heat!

Craftsman blacksmith warming a horseshoe of iron in the fire

“You’ve got too many irons in the fire. You need to take some out before you get burned.” -Jimmy Lee, piano teacher

Posted in Teaching Music, Work from Home

S-Steps To Success

By John Gardner

Super Size Poster
Super Size PosterAt the end of my first semester at my current school, I gave a “talk” at the Band Banquet Awards….. I’ve made some edits for outdated details and for a more general audience, but otherwise, it is what I said 8 years ago? Here’s the original post.

Context: Large, only high school in a county that includes students from 20-miles and long-distance phone calls away, some spending over an hour each way on school busses. Marching band is moderately small for the school size and behind some area powerhouse programs in terms of size, staff, equipment, all things financial and cutting edge.

S-Steps To Success 

#1 – Super Size

Get LoudThe FIRST thing we need to do is to SUPER SIZE this band. Size doesn’t equal quality, but it can impact the sound. To some extent, numbers translate to sound, crowd appeal and score. That is part of the reason the Indiana State School Music Association (ISSMA) has different qualifying levels for the different class sizes.

We need to Search for Super Sizers. You can help. Be enthusiastic about your band. Enthusiasm is contagious. What YOU say to a middle school band student, or to any prospect, is often much more effective than what a teacher/director says.

Sideline ensemble people don’t have to be band members. Your friends who play piano can play mallet instruments. People who quit band in the past can come back. And then, without taking anything away from what it takes to be a percussionist, we can teach just about anybody how to hit something. And now that we’ve incorporated guitars, we offer an opportunity to some of your friends who are band members of a different type. Know someone with a dramatic voice? Perhaps they can perform the voice-over script.

Some sad news is that we have seniors  graduating. I wrote a note to you: ====> Now it is your turn. Locally, the good news is that this is the smallest senior class in a long time. Our 2012 graduation seniors were the largest group ever, which hurt this past year. We are poised for ripe for super-sizing.

You need to Stay to be Seniors.

I’d love to see the school or community have to deal with

  • a band that can’t fit in the band room
  • scrambling to get instruments and equipment for the participants
  • providing 5-6, instead of 2-3 busses

#2 – Sensational Sound

SECOND, you should Strive for Individual Success. If you become the best that YOU can be, then we can work to blend your individual abilities to improve the overall band. A super-sized band can produce more sound, but we need your individual improvement to enable us to play some of the more challenging music you’ve heard.

Study Seriously for Improvement. Consider Individual Study on your instrument. If you can pay, we have access to professional experts on almost every instrument. They absolutely make a difference. For less pay, we can connect you with some college students who are looking for some experience.  And if you can’t pay, let us know, because some teachers will make allowances for hard working students. For sufficient interest, we can explore periodic after school Master Classes for instrument-specific instruction in a group setting. And several of you are already taking advantage of some of the musical ensembles at the local university. Instruments need to go home. There are no shortcuts. Proficiency requires practice. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it certainly helps, and you can’t achieve perfection without it.

Your Individual Level of Musical Success depends on a combination of

  • your God-given musicianship
  • the training you receive
  • the equipment you use and
  • the commitment you have

#3 – Sizzling Show

FINALLY, we need a SIZZLING SHOW, and it won’t come cheaply. Sizzling requires specialists in music technology, creativity, art, design and construction, as well as dance, theater and maybe even drum corps.

We need Spectacular Music. That can including paying for licensing and excellent composing and arranging.

We need Stunning Drill Design. Some competitors pay three times what we are able for expert, on-site designers. We have had good drill design by someone in the area, even if he can’t be on site.

We need Superb Special Effects.

When I watched the state finals, I noticed some patterns from the top groups. Effect generators included specialized tarps, ramps, platforms, multi-functional backdrops (scene and costume changes), and some really interesting custom-designed and built theme-enhancing props. 

Most color guards had 2-4 costumes and 4-6 different flags plus rifles, sabers, wheels, sticks, and other theme-specific props.

With the props and the horn and body flashes, we need some theatrical expertise for our show. Marching band is not just about marching and playing any more.

We need Splendid Style, requiring splendid basics. We have to march better, to get it sooner and to push it harder.

We need State-of-the-Art Equipment. Most of the drumlines had 4-6 snares, 4 quads and 5-6 basses. If we want to do that, not only will we have to super-size the drumline, but we’ll need more drums. The front ensembles tended to have 6-8 mallet instruments and 8-15 people. Many of the sideline instruments were individually microphoned with sound controlled by a remote controller managed by a staff person in the audience. Most had new silver Sousaphones or shoulder Tubas. One had ten such tubas and five bari saxes. One of the largest, if not the largest band there, had 100% silver brass instruments (trumpets, mellos, trombones, baritones, tubas). Another had all silver brass except trombones, which marched in a separate block.

This example built from two modified and stacked storage containers.

This example built from two modified and stacked storage containers.

If we’re going to get more and bigger stuff, are we ready for our own personalized semi trailer, like just about every other Class A band has?

We need a taller, safer rehearsal observation platform. It could be permanent or portable. Portable would enable us to move between the parking lot and the grass rehearsal areas. A design I especially admire is basically a garage (for storage of front ensemble equipment, podiums, etc) with inside access (prevents non-authorized us) to a platform on the roof. One school has such a building in between a grass practice field and a parking lot….so they can watch rehearsals on either surface from the same place.

Let me sum it up this way:

Let’s SUPER SIZE this band by searching for super sizers and staying in band.

Let’s develop a SENSATIONAL SOUND by striving for individual success and studying seriously.

Let’s field a SIZZLING SHOW with spectacular music, stunning design, superb style and closer to state-of-the-art equipment.

You give us what we need in people, equipment, work ethic and attitude – and we’ll take some major steps toward super-sized, sensational, sizzling success.

Thank you.

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Posted in High Schools Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

Now THAT’S Participation

By John Gardner

Wife Joan went to Fairmont (East) High School in Kettering, Ohio. East and West have now merged to be Middle and High school. Her first teaching assignment after college graduation was in that same system.  The picture below was posted recently on facebook.

According to Great Schools, school enrollment is 2276. According to the pic post, there are 745 in the music department (band, choir, orchestra)…. that’s almost a third of the school.

Music Participation

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

Golf Carts for Band Directors: Asset or Accommodation?

By John Gardner

Band Directors do a lot of walking.

I teach in a large school (population has been over 2100 in the past) with over 40 outside doors. It takes me a couple minutes to walk from the band room (back of the building) to the office in the front. It also takes multiple minutes to trek to the outside practice field (across the building and diagonally to the back side of one of the parking lots). The football field is about a quarter mile away – out a long lane and across a state highway.

And then….there are the marching band competitions. The setup at most is that a band travels around the school complex for a physical warm-up station and a music warm-up station (usually the back side of the complex from the competition field to avoid sound interference). Some schools cluster the middle and high school buildings together — so that walk around is also a good distance….followed by the walk from the field back to the buses.

Not an issue for the teens — or for young(er) directors.

I know of at least two schools where the director uses a golf cart for rehearsals and competitions. In one of those instances it is age-related. The other meets a physical need.

The cart shown below is used by some friends of mine. The band involved is a State Champion. The color guard coach worked with me when I first started teaching in 1977. They load up the cart with their band equipment and transport it via band trailer wherever they go.

Having some fun with a semi-serious request, I recently posted about wanting one of these golf carts. In addition to transporting an “aging” director, I mentioned using it for: Read more ›

Posted in Assistant Directing, High Schools, Marching Band, Personal experience, Storytelling, Teaching, Teaching Music Tagged with: , , , , ,

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