Sometimes students don’t like band. Sometimes parents don’t like band. And, as odd as it can seem, I know there are times when I struggle to find joy in the day-to-day business of being a band director.
As educators, we go through many highs and lows, and it can feel very lonely trying to navigate teaching a subject where the expectation is “it’s fun.” I have often had teachers in other core subjects remark, “Well, you must never struggle with students because the kids actually like being in your class every day.”
Rationally, this thought process seems somewhat logical as students “elect” to take band because they enjoy it. Of course, we know this is not the case and face many of the same challenges that core subjects encounter and our own set of issues that are unique to music teaching.
Sometimes, we face an expectation from parents or administrators as well that a student will always enjoy band because it is supposed to be a break from the hard work and pressure of the other “academic” subjects they take. Many see band as a hobby, an extracurricular, a class that students sign up for because it doesn’t offer additional challenges or hard work.
The rewards of band can also prove somewhat elusive for students because they often don’t see the full benefit of membership until several weeks or months into participating in the season. In a time when students have so many means of instant gratification at their fingertips — from TikTok to PlayStation to binging an entire season of a Netflix show in one sitting — the thought of investing days or weeks into a craft to receive gratification can be daunting for young musicians.
And even more, we are competing with an ever-evolving number of electives and choices designed to prepare students for their future. All these factors have contributed to some of my struggles as a teacher and how to balance keeping students engaged at the highest level while respecting their need to enjoy and excel in other aspects of life.
Delayed gratification means students won’t always see instant results. At this time of year, we struggle with students coming back from summer with varying enthusiasm about band camp. Sometimes students will quit before the first day of camp, and others shortly into our rehearsals.
Many younger band members are overwhelmed by the pace and intensity of rehearsals in the hot sun, and they have yet to experience the joy of the first football game or competition to keep them motivated. So much of incoming 9th graders’ commitment to band relies on faith in their peers and directors and a love for their day-to-day experiences. Sometimes those reasons aren’t enough. Our senior members may not feel the same enthusiasm with older peers and friends graduating. They often say that things “aren’t the same” as they were in the “good old days.”
In any scenario, we continue to talk to students and parents that the challenges they face and the highs and lows they experience in the music program are no different than those they’ll encounter in the real world beyond high school. I have joked for years that during band camp, parents see their kids at their worst moments of the day — when they have to wake up for rehearsal and when they come home from camp. At these times, students are usually tired, irritated, hungry and not particularly motivated to do anything. Meanwhile, the directors and staff have seen these same students running around with their friends all day, enjoying making music and living their best lives. Parents’ and directors’ experiences with students sometimes may be at odds, which can make it even harder to keep families committed.
When asked what we want our students at Claudia Taylor Johnson High School to take from their experience in band and why delayed gratification is worth it, here is what we share.
Each of these philosophies requires that students participate in band long enough to see the benefits of membership, and it can be hard to keep them (and their parents) excited about the commitment. Band is a long-term investment. If students remain patient, they’re sure to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Throughout the year, I experience high moments, or peaks, with students, usually during great rehearsals and times when I feel that we are connecting and making terrific music together. However, most days are “ordinary time,” or valleys, when it seems like you are going through the motions. The kids aren’t necessarily high or low, and you’re in the weeds working through music or drills.
When I reflect on the year, these ordinary days are the ones I wish I could go back and re-do because even though they may not seem remarkable at the moment, they are critical on that pathway to excellence. Make every day count, even the ones that don’t feel particularly special.
The low points usually come around the same time — after major holiday breaks, during the six-week grade check in the fall, the middle of October in marching season, and in February between December and spring break when time seems to pass so slowly. Students aren’t always excited to see me, to work on fundamentals or even to play their instruments. Sometimes it gets mundane — and that’s ok! We all can learn to work through boredom without feeling the pressure to make our rehearsals “Disneyland” every day.
When my students were shutting down or tired or grumpy during rehearsal, I used to take it very personally and sometimes would grow resentful about it. Now, I realize that it is just a normal part of ordinary time. Learn to embrace it and keep going. Your students will follow you as long as you keep the environment healthy.
I know many of us went into teaching to inspire our students to love music and help them be better humans. My band directors profoundly influenced my life, and I love being able to lift up my students and make a difference for them.
This makes it challenging when I am not their favorite teacher all the time. On the one hand, I want them to love the art form and enjoy my class. But on the other hand, I understand the role that delayed gratification plays. And as the years have passed, I have learned to trust my students more. Even if they aren’t enjoying every moment, in the bigger picture of what we are doing, they are smart enough to come out the other side knowing that “it wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.”