How to teach band and orchestra: The conductor as a leader, coach, director and artist

So…..you have just landed your dream job! After years of music study, methods classes, recitals, degree(s) earned, searching for a job, and countless hours hoping and dreaming, you are now about to start your career as a music teacher in a school district. You are a going to conduct ensembles every day and lead young men and women to great things!!! I wish I could tell you it were that easy. You have now signed up to be the most important musical influence of many young lives. Talk about pressure! It will be fine…don’t worry. The most important thing that I can share with you to help you with your success is to realize that the baton work is only one part of the package. You must now learn to be a dynamic artist, an inspiring leader, a organized director and a multi-dimensional coach. Although music is our craft, we are in the business of people.


The Leader

“The most powerful leadership tool you have is your own personal example.” -John Wooden

I usually have a talk with my older students at the beginning of the year about the fact that they are our leaders, no matter what.   They will lead even if they do not want to-either in a good direction or not so good direction.  This is the same for the teacher.  It is often said the team takes on the personality of its coach.  I have been told this as well regarding my bands on several occasions, especially at festivals.  I really try to “keep my head when all about you are losing theirs…:” (-from Rudyard Kipling).  This was especially challenging on concert night when I first started teaching.  There is often so much nervous energy in the room, especially with younger students, that it is super important that the teacher is the calming and guiding element.  Conversely, you will see a stark contrast in energy at 7:35am on a Monday morning when you stand on a podium in front of 52 teenagers!  It is at both these times, and the many countless hours in between, that you will “set the tone” with your students.  You must make your music room environment one that students really love coming to. 

Here are some quick tips:

  • Have music playing when they come into the room.
  • Greet them with a smile.
  • Feel free to share a joke.
  • Call them by name and look them in the eye.
  • Engage them with a short conversation and show interest in them.
  • Handle problems or issues in a graceful manner.
  • Listen, no I mean really listen, when a student is talking to you.  Give them your full attention.
  • Handle any unexpected adversity with a positive reaction.  “It will be okay, we’ll be fine”  Don’t freak out.
  • End rehearsal on a good note or exciting section.  They should leave the room pumped!
  • Smile and engage them as they are packing up and leaving….end on a positive note!

I truly believe that if you lead by example, others will follow in this manner.  Model excellent musicianship and behavior, and your students will likely do this as well.  Students will treat you with respect if you treat them with respect.  It is also good to thoroughly recognize when students are showing good leadership traits.  These also become good examples for everyone in the room.  As a conductor, you should challenge students to step out of their musical box and take chances.  Insist on top quality effort and attention to detail.  Get them to see the beauty in great expressive music making.  Do this in a supportive but challenging way.  Be careful here.  When I first started teaching, I had it all wrong.  I was more old school than I now care to admit.  I was more of a commander than a leader.  Fortunately, no one expects perfection when you first start anything.  I have been guided through the years by many of my own failures and successes. You will make mistakes, don’t worry….nobody is perfect.  Just remember to do your best to treat them with dignity and respect, and then challenge them daily!  Raise their expectations and you will raise their level of performance!


The Coach

“Coaching is about helping young people have a chance to succeed.  There is no more awesome responsibility than that.  One of the greatest honors a person can have is being called ‘Coach.'” -Lou Holtz

I have enjoyed directing bands for over 21 years, and coaching golf and hockey for at least half that time. If I could, I would make it a requirement for every music teacher to coach a sport. There are many related challenges that both the coach and conductor deal with on a day to day basis. Focus, attention to detail, motivation, drive, organization, and passion are all traits that are essential to instill in the young mind. Some students will become their own driving forces, and you then can thouroughly enjoy guiding their efforts. It is in these situations that both the teacher and student are on a journey and are facing the same way. This can be very rewarding for the educator, as you see the spark within your student. For many students, music is a part of their overall existence, not their life guiding passion. Not everyone is a star athlete, but the best teams are made up of individuals who have bought into a shared purpose. No matter what the level, everyone has something to contribute. My most successful golf team was made up of many average to above average golfers, but one that did not have any rock stars. That team had leaders, but not the type that just strutted around thinking they were better than everyone else. Some of my best bands through the years have had great players that were interested in a shared focus with the other members, not just whats good for them individually. Getting them to think like a team where everyone is accountable to everyone else is the beginnings of a great ensemble. Must of this coaching happens off the podium, and it continues on the podium as well. It is the “We” vs “I” mentality……like any good team exhibits.  I am a big fan of small ensembles.  It can be especially affective if they are mostly student run.  There is nothing like playing in a chamber ensemble to develop the sense of individual responsibility.  Students from these chamber groups bring their energy back to the large ensemble.  They lead by example, and are now developing new leadership roles within the larger group.  This would be where I would begin my focus as a young teacher in a new program.  Give it a try!


The Director

“Lead from the back, and let others believe they are in front.” -Nelson Mandela

You know you are headed in the right direction with you band or orchestra when you truly realize how much each of your students are amazing!  They have so many unique contributions to make, some small and some very large.  It is in realizing that when they work together and appreciate each other that the real team building begins.  They just need guidance to be pointed in the same direction.  The Director part of being a music teacher is in charge being organized in the multiple facets of the music program.  This includes things like: choosing great music,  running affective fund raisers, organizing sign ups and music for solo festivals, concert programs, public relations, information sharing via websites and parent meetings, being a travel agent, repairing instruments, school paper work, organizing budgets, dealing with purchase orders, did I mentions running band/orchestra trips?  etc.    Learning to delegate and using the talents of the people around you is essential!  Trying to micromanage everything will drive you crazy.  Students have more ownership in a situation if they are co-creators.

Some quick examples:

  • Ask them to help set up the band each day
  • Let them design the t-shirts for the band/orchestra trip
  • Give them projects like working on the sound and recording the concerts.
  • Teach them how to do some basic instrument repair troubleshooting
  • Ask them to look for a feature piece online that might show off their section
  • Get them to help with folding letters and stuffing envelopes, sorting music, or any similar paper work tasks
  • Put them in charge of organizing their peers, ie. lining up the marching band during practices.
  • Have them help when cleaning out, flushing, and lubricating the instruments at the end of the year.

I have found that when I involve the students in projects, it can either save time or take more time depending on the situation.  Either way, the main point is they are being actively involved in the program.  Everyone loves to know that they are a valued contributor in an organization.  They are extremely talented young people!  Get em going!


The Artist

“To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.” -Beethoven



The devil is in the details…however, without artistry music is just sound.  The one thing that every young musician is able to relate to is how music can connect to how they feel.  It is a vehicle for the soul to express itself.  The best way to grab a student’s interest is to show them how to perform music passionately.  Whether it is shaping an extended simple phrase, or performing in a highly rhythmic fashion, they will connect with your  instruction if you connect them with artistic music making.  Young people are naturally expressive.  When they learn how to artistically perform a passage of music, they will be hooked.  Here are a few quick suggestions on how to incorporate this from the podium:

  • Share with your students the background of the music they will be working on.  How was it inspired?  What was the composer thinking about?
  • Share with them the background of the composer.
  • In a particular passage of music, have them write in pencil on the sheet music what would be going on in the movie that the music would be the soundtrack to.
  • Have them close their eyes and imagine a beautiful scene from their memories before they are to play a beautiful passage of music.
  • Listen to professional examples of the music they are playing so they may have a model(s) of how it may be performed expressively.
  • Work on specific musical gestures or performance practices with them to teach them how they may play a passage of music with more musical impact.  In other words, develop a vocabulary of expression with them.  For some students, this may not be as intuitive, so they need specifics on how to make it expressive.
  • Insist on detailed performance with expression.  Do not let mediocre playing slide on by.  Insist on impactful dynamics and accenting.  Make good expressive playing a habit.

I have seen that the more creative/expressive demands I place on the students, the more they respond.  Challenge them and they will eat it up.  Everyone loves to play expressively.  Lukewarm average playing becomes boring for the player.  It takes more attention and focus on detail to play truly expressively, but this becomes infinitely more rewarding for the young player.  They will follow you, and will want even more.  Inspire them to love the art of music making.  Enjoy the process!

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