ON-THE-JOB TRAINING FOR STUDENT LEADERS

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System Blue Band Director Tips and Strategies

By Frank Troyka, Band Director of 30 years & System Blue Director of Education

Whether you’re just about to start summer band rehearsals or you’re already in the midst of them, you can bet your student leaders are feeling the excitement and the pressure that come with their new responsibilities. Maybe they’ve been to a leadership camp; maybe you’ve held your own camp for them. No doubt you’ve spent time working with them personally in preparation for the season to come, but now that full band is upon us, the masses demand your attention. On the surface, it might seem like the leaders are ready to jump in and get the job done. But that may not be the case.

The training wheels are still on

If your leaders help teach music and marching skills to their sections, perhaps their summer training has involved opportunities for them to practice teaching each other. That’s a great way for them to get some practical experience, but it’s not the same as being in front of their peers. In a real sense, your leaders may still have the training wheels on, and until they come off, they won’t really know what it’s like to do without them.

As a parent, would you take the training wheels off your child’s bike and then send him on his way to figure things out for himself? Of course not! You’d be there to help him through that transition. You know they’re going to feel afraid. You know they’ll get frustrated. You know they’re going to fall. You know that the first thing your child is likely to experience when the training wheels come off is failure, and you’ll want to be there for him.

The same is true for your student leaders, even the experienced ones. Those training wheels come off the first day of summer band. And no matter how much they’ve trained and planned and prepared, they’re going to experience setbacks. They’re going to fail and they need you to be there to help them through the transition.

Finding their balance

You can help them find their balance in a number of ways. Permit me to offer a few suggestions.

Rather than send them off to work with their peers for an extended time, consider giving them small tasks for short periods early in the season. For instance, you might give them five minutes to teach their sections how to go to “attention” and “parade rest.” As they teach, you and other members of your staff float and observe them. Make notes on what they do well and how they might improve, and then “debrief” with them after rehearsal. As you give them more such opportunities, they’ll become more confident, which allows you to give them more complex skills to teach for longer periods of time. In any case, I recommend you and the other staff members observe and give feedback, as on-the-job training is the best way for them to become strong leaders. And your mentorship will build loyalty between you and them.

I would also recommend that you not do these “breakouts” for more than 15 minutes. Even 10 minutes can seem like an eternity to a student leader who has never had to consider pacing, sequencing, reteaching, and keeping kids focused.

Mix sections

When having your leaders teach skills that are not instrument-specific (basic marching skills, for instance) you might also consider mixing sections rather than keeping them together. I think we all know that certain personality traits seem to follow sections of the band (you know the stereotypes!). If you only do breakouts by sections, then those personality traits—good or bad—get reinforced and the differences among them is magnified and perpetuated. Consider mixing the band and allowing student leaders to work with those outside their own sections. This helps the band see the leaders as a team and provides the entire band contact with leaders with whom they might not ordinarily work.

Be there for them

Above all, your student leaders desperately want your approval and support. Make time for them and equip them with the tools for success. Be careful not to praise them falsely! Your approval will mean more when they’ve earned it.

The fact is, our student leaders have not completed their training when summer band starts. That’s when the real training begins and that’s when they need us the most.

These and other topics will be the subject of future weekly System Blue tips. As always, if you have questions or would like more information, contact Frank Troika at frank@systemblue.org.