Setting the Standard

Chip De Stefano

Throughout our teacher education, the importance of setting high standards for our students is constantly stressed. Eighteen years in the classroom has taught me that it is quite true that our students will only rise to the expectations we set for them. More important, however, is the standard and level of expectation that we set for ourselves. In fact, my philosophy for everything I believe about being a band director, and maybe even teaching in general, is that students are a reflection of their teacher. Perhaps more than any other statement, this may be the greatest truism of being a band director.

For the purposes of this article it's important that we keep this core philosophy as an absolute. It's impossible to have knowledge of every teaching situation, and more importantly, it's very easy to make excuses. It's also very convenient to make assumptions about successful programs...that they have some intrinsic, built-in advantage, over everyone else. After all, there are several things that go into making a great program. Administrative support, parental support, student attitude, student practice habits, and economic considerations are all issues that affect our programs every day. There is, however, only one person who can directly touch and influence each one of those outside forces…the director. Let's be clear, there are certain teaching situations that are tougher than others. There are certainly situations much more difficult than mine, but hopefully we all can agree our students will not care more than we care, work harder than we work, or practice more than we prepare for rehearsal.

Setting the standard in our program begins with us, with our vision, and with our personal pride in our students and bands. More than any other academic class, the quality of instructor in the performance classroom has the largest effect on the quality of the ensembles and music education the students receive. If our students are a reflection of us, then we need to be what we want our students to be, and it is vitally important that we model the professionalism that we want our students to reflect. The great quote, often falsely attributed to Mahatma Ghandi, but great none-the-less, states, "Be the change that you want to see in the world." As band directors, we must be the change we wish to see in our classroom. I believe this to be true at both the micro-level of our individual rehearsals and the overall culture of our program.

If we want our students to care about learning, we must give priority to our own learning and professional development as well. You're taking time out of your day to read this Journal in hopes of finding one or two things that might influence your teaching, so this is preaching to the choir. We must always continue this drive for self-betterment by attending concerts, listening to recordings, going to conferences, reading music magazines, joining professional organizations, and regularly observing quality teachers. More than this, however, we must share these experiences with our students: "I was reading an article in the NBA Journal last night that had an interesting idea on getting kids to play in tune. Let's try it and see if it works..." or "I just bought a new CD last night, you have to listen to this great new piece." The possibilities are endless, but they all demonstrate the same enthusiasm for learning that we want our students to enthusiasm that will ignite the same passion and love for music and their instrument that we have.

Students will only rise to the expectation that we set for them and will never exceed it. I really feel the ideal expectation, regardless of the level taught, is something along the lines of "My students will behave, prepare, rehearse, and perform as professionals." This simple statement sets the standard exceptionally high, and covers virtually every aspect of our program. It is not enough to simply set the standard. After all, it's certainly possible to have high standards and an unsuccessful program. We must also provide our students with every tool at our disposal to help them meet this ideal. The most important of these is your time, but we must also provide the modeling and training necessary for their success.

Let's pretend for a moment that we received an assignment to write a list of everything we have to do during the school year. We'd fire off about a dozen pages before even stopping to think, and it's easy to visualize how incredibly long that list would be! While it would be an interesting exercise, the larger point is that every item on that list, however big or small, is an opportunity to demonstrate professional behavior to your students and chance to influence the professional culture of your program. Nothing is too small. Anything that has your name on it, or your program's name, makes an impression. It's a reflection of you and your program. It takes an extra half second to make sure a stamp goes on an envelope straight, but that half second is the difference between looking like you care or looking like you don't care. It all matters. High standards and attention to detail is not a switch that can be flipped on and off as needed. Will Durant said it best while summarizing the thoughts of Aristotle when he wrote "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." The way we approach our actions define us, and has a lasting influence on our entire program.

While it's clearly important that we provide the model of what we want our students to aspire to be, it's equally important that we model ourselves and our programs after others that we respect. Having a vision for your program requires an answer to the question "Who are you modeling your program after?" It might be virtually impossible to replicate everything, but that's okay. You'll want to observe their rehearsals, invite their directors to work with your students, and have your students listen to that band as often as possible. Over time things will evolve into your own style, but you'll be evolving from a point of proven success. Ideally, you'll never stop doing this, even for an established program. When hearing something you like in another ensemble, your first thoughts should be "how do they do that?" and "how can I replicate that in my program?"

Having the best possible musicians in to work with your students is one of the primary ways to maintain high standards within your program. To me, this is not an extra. Not only is it important from a student improvement standpoint, but it's vital for our professional development. It's also extremely motivating for both students and directors! We always seem to get the most out of the clinics when the clinician treats my students as if they were their own. As teachers, we sometimes create excuses for our students. Our guests, however, don't have any preconceptions of what some our students are capable of doing. This is important if we want those same students to break through the glass ceiling of achievement we've subconsciously placed over them. If asked if there's anything special I want them to work on, my default answer is always "Please just make them better!" While our guests are speaking to the students, they're really talking to us. Grab a legal pad and take notes. Refer to those notes often when planning the next several rehearsals.

Finally, there are a handful of questions we should be asking ourselves at least a couple times each week. I call them "persistent questions." They are always in the back of our minds, but come to the forefront when having to make a big decision affecting our students and program. The first of these is, of course, "What's in the best interest of my students?" Even some of the most difficult decisions become much clearer after asking this question first. The second and third questions are similar: "What would John Paynter do?" and "What would the Chicago Symphony Orchestra do?" Feel free to choose your own mentor and favorite professional ensemble, but the result is the same. By choosing the best in the world to help guide our decisions, we give ourselves an improved chance of making the right call.

Setting the standard in our program is the first step towards establishing a culture of excellence for our students. This relentless pursuit of excellence in our students begins with a relentless pursuit of excellence within ourselves. Students are reflection of their teacher. By embracing this philosophy, we can begin to create an environment in our program where excellence is expected and self-perpetuating, where there is a great sense of urgency in our rehearsals, and where students are motivated and take ownership of their own learning.