Monday, May 2, 2016

Sweat the Small Stuff by Kirby Swinney

The best things come in small packages. We have heard that many times, but how does that relate to the job you do as a music educator? Often times in the spirit of compromise or to achieve a larger goal, some of the small things that make a huge difference are ignored or completely abandoned. Words of advice: SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF! The little things you believe in are the building blocks to establishing a successful program and should not be overlooked or devalued. Below I will discuss a few of the small things that I believe in. Perhaps some of these points will reignite your own feelings when it comes to taking care of details.

Your band setup is important. The band setup can greatly affect the quality of the band sound in your rehearsal and it is important that it is consistent from day to day. Special care should be taken to properly space chairs and stands so that the band achieves the correct blend and balance. The percussion section setup should also be consistent. Take time to make sure your percussion section is properly placed in relation to your band setup instead of just residing somewhere in the back of the room. Timpani should be placed in close proximity to the tuba section since those parts often are similar or even double one another. Mallets and small accessory percussion should also be arranged in an organized manner to facilitate proper use and functionality. Band set up should never be the sole responsibility of the students. The director should take the time before each rehearsal to arrange the setup. Student assistance is fine, but a director should supervise. The current trend at contests and festivals is for the host school to provide a setup crew to set up the stage. While the assistance is helpful, you should never turn over your setup to strangers. Utilize your percussion section and/or another staff member to do the majority of the work and make sure they have clear instruction of how to properly do the job (i.e. semi-circles, wind ensemble style, stage placement, etc.).

Maintain a clean, organized office and rehearsal hall. Your students, parents, administrators and professional colleagues will formulate opinions about you based on first impressions. If a parent were to walk into your office for a conference and it was littered with stacks of music in chairs to the point that there is nowhere to sit, broken instruments here and there and leftover trash from that Taco Bell lunch from two weeks ago then they are likely to draw the conclusion that you aren't very concerned with details or organization. If the reason for the visit revolves around those very issues, then you have certainly not provided a strong argument in your defense. In addition, a clean and organized rehearsal area sends a message to your students that you expect them to take care of things by putting them away properly in the correct place. Simply looking the other way and allowing equipment, music and personal belongings to clutter the room sends the wrong message to your students and administrators and make the argument for new or better equipment hard to make.

Dress for success. Unless the format of the concert or contest you are performing at is clearly designed to be relaxed, then you and your students should dress up for the event by either wearing your band uniforms or appropriate concert attire. There is a time for shorts and a t-shirt (marching band rehearsals) and jeans at work (casual Fridays) but at all other times you should dress as the professional that you are if you wanted to be treated as such. If you wish for your band to make an impression of being a group that is committed to doing their best then the same standard applies to them as well. Band students appearing on the stage at a competition in flip flops, shorts, t-shirts, jeans, wrinkled and/or dirty clothing sends a clear message to the audience that you really don't value the experience as being very important.

Start and end rehearsals and concerts on time. Do not expect your students to consistently show up on time for a rehearsal if you are still in your office talking on the phone, chewing the fat with staff, surfing the internet, etc. at the start of the event. Be on the podium at least 5 minutes prior to the start of the rehearsal and be ready for the baton to drop promptly on time. Save announcements for later in the rehearsal and insist that anything that might come up at the last minute must wait until later. Your rehearsals should end in time for your students to properly clean and put away their instruments and make it to their next class on time. Extra rehearsals after school hours should be treated in the same manner. Waiting parents often have other stops to make while juggling events of multiple children and need to stick to a time schedule. Performances also need to be planned so that they start on time and flow with maximum efficiency so that they end as soon as possible. Your audience will be more likely to remain focused and will appreciate the value you place on their time.

Be very selective in what type of warm-up or tuning exercise you play on stage at contest. Even though you may think your warm-up chorale sounds great, over time your judgment may become less than perfect and even though it isn't technically being adjudicated, first impressions are hard to ignore. Unless extreme circumstances exist, the warm-up room is the only place you should check individual tuning at contest. Nothing tells a judge your band can't play in tune more than tuning on stage. Chances are the intonation either isn't as bad as you think and can be addressed by telling the individual to make a minor adjustment, or else adjusting the tuning note isn't going to fix the problem. If you must adjust, be 100% sure you are going to remedy the problem. The only thing worse than tuning on stage is tuning on stage only to continue playing out of tune after tuning on stage! Finally, teach your percussionists how to tune the timpani utilizing a pitch pipe. Using a wind instrument to tune the timpani on stage at contest is amateur.

Establish a daily rapport with your students. Seems easy enough, yet many of us find ourselves so busy we often forget why we are there and that primary reason is for the kids. Try to make it a daily habit before or after rehearsal to speak to as many of your students as possible. You may be surprised to know that is some cases, you will be the only person that acknowledges them all day long. A simple "good morning," "how are you today," etc. is all it takes to not only give your students a little bit of attention but also to remind you why you are there. Hold the door open for them, speak when you pass them in the hall during the day, pick something up for them when they drop it, etc. Try to speak to and/or do one thing for as many of your students as possible as often as possible. You will find yourself feeling like a better person for it!

Have I been guilty of not doing some of these things?? Absolutely and all too frequently! It is so easy to let things go; to let the daily grind win out. What are some of the small things you value? Write them down and place the list somewhere where you will see it every day and when you learn to sweat the small stuff, some of your bigger problems might go away as well!

Kirby Swinney
Palen Music Center -- OKC
[email protected]

Kirby Swinney graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1982 with a degree in instrumental music education and retired in 2014 after teaching band for 30 years in the Oklahoma communities of Weleetka, Dewey, Choctaw and Shawnee. While at Dewey and Shawnee, both band programs earned their first ever OSSAA sweepstakes award and in 2013 the Shawnee Band Program earned its first ever double sweepstakes award when both concert bands earned superior ratings at the state level contest. Kirby's marching bands were consistently rated superior at regional competitions and were also consistent top twelve finalists at the OBA State Marching Band Championship Contest. Kirby has served as secretary of the OBA Board of Control and also served on the OBA Board of Directors as secretary and president. Kirby has served as band chairman for the Oklahoma Music Educators Association and also served on the OMEA board as band vice-president. He is a member of OMEA, OBA, NAfME and Phi Beta Mu. Kirby has two children. His son Adrian is a recent graduate of the University of Oklahoma and is teaching English in Japan. His daughter Caitlyn is currently a pre-nursing student at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

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