The Small School Band Stigma
Updated: May 6
As a young director, which I am not any longer, I had grand ideas of being the head director of a program where I had a fully stacked wind symphony, students who would take private lessons, resources to make any college band jealous, and a marching band with the brass power to part the Red Sea. Along with those reasonable expectations, I would compose and they would perform my compositions. I mean, I would have THE PERFECT career to compose band music...right?
In the beginning of all of this, I was performing at a semi-professional level on bassoon, I had a basic idea of percussion from being on the drum line for five years, and I had a remedial level ability to play flute. That was 15 years ago. That was before I started teaching in a small school band program with a one director staff.
My first Band position was at Salina, Oklahoma where I was immediately hooked into the Band Director world. I LOVED IT! However,
I knew nothing!
I quickly learned to rely on other well-established and much wiser directors with a plethora of knowledge, so I contacted Roy Jackson at Pryor High School and called him what seemed to be daily. I asked my friends and a handful of seasoned directors lots of questions. I also quickly learned that if I was going to teach these cool kids how to improve their skills, I was going to have to learn how to play each of the instruments I didn't know...and that was a lot. There were no private instructors close and many of the students couldn't afford that added cost of $15-20 per week. I was a composition major; I could (so I thought) write for all of these instruments, but I certainly couldn't play the majority of them. So, I started with trumpet, quickly failed and moved to trombone. When my dear husband (trombone player) informed me that I had a sound like that of a Folger's coffee can, but he couldn't tell me how to fix it, I wanted to give up on that too...so I did, for a while. I figured a woodwind would be a better idea. So, bring in the alto sax. Ah, much better. I quickly moved from one woodwind to the next and was at the end of my first year as a band director. I happily returned to Salina the next year and continued to be intoxicated by the fun I was having teaching kids how to play instruments, solve problems bigger than themselves, and be a part of something special.
I had no time to compose.
At the end of my second year, due to the birth of my first child, I realized that I needed to have a shorter commute and moving wasn't an option. So I found an opening closer to home and decided to make the lateral move to another small school, Wyandotte, Oklahoma. This was not as easy as a transition because I followed a loved director, who had high expectations and a good rapport with her students. To translate, they didn't like me because I wasn't her. However, they learned that I was passionate about the thing they liked and I eventually won them over. I learned the ropes here and really enjoyed the relationships I was building...but I wasn't composing. I arranged, yes, out of necessity, but I wasn't writing anything new. I wasn't practicing my craft. BUT, I was building relationships, learning new skills, sharing my passion for instrumental music, and helping to shape young lives.
The time came for me to bite the proverbial bullet and make time to compose, so I did, at the expense of my family and my duties to my job. So I resigned and found a job teaching elementary music. Let's just say it takes a VERY SPECIAL person to teach elementary music, and as much fun as it was, I was not that person. My heart was in instrumental music, so I gratefully and excitedly returned to Wyandotte where I was welcomed back with open arms, minds, and hearts. It has been the BEST!
But I digress...let's get back to those reasonable expectations I had...
You see, we all know that small school band program stigma.
Small School Band = Small Success.
I have battled the stigma for 15 years now. Directors seem to believe that you cannot do much for or with a small program. They believe that small schools are simply a stepping stone in their careers, the students aren't as talented, the parents aren't as educated, and the administration/faculty don't care about them. I am here to say THAT JUST ISN'T TRUE! Being a small school director is not for everyone. But I believe every director needs that experience.
Along the way, I found it difficult to compose and thought (like MANY other directors) that I should move on to a bigger program where there would be more directors, more time to compose, and I would have a more well-balanced ensemble at my disposal to have reading sessions whenever I wanted. But moving wasn't an option and I was so far removed from larger schools that I was forced to figure out how to make it work. Then something happened. I realized that I have the best band kids on the planet, my program is MY program, and I inadvertently became Mom to many more than my own two children.
For several years, however, I was egotistical and full of myself in thinking that I should move beyond a small school because "there is only so much you can do with a small school band program" to quote a friend. But I realized that my kids are no different that any other program, if anything, they are more important because each and every one of them are vitally important to the success of the program. We don't have 14 clarinets to hide behind if my ONLY clarinet player can't play his part yet. He simply has to step it up and learn his part. If I only have 8th and 9th graders playing trumpet, but find a piece of marching music they WANT to play and it's riddled with high A's, they have no one to play it but them, so what do they do? Did I transpose it for them? NO! They pushed and expand their range. I have students who play multiple instruments not only out of curiosity and a willingness to learn new skills, but out of a sense of duty and responsibility to their program. I have more than one of those kids. I used to discourage (I don't know why) switching from instrument to instrument, but in a small program, those chameleon musicians are what help you program music you couldn't otherwise. Like I said, I have the best kids!
Now, even as I resign from teaching to compose full time, I am at a point in my career as a band director, that I feel seasoned enough to share some of those amazing ideas I borrowed from other seasoned directors. I feel a responsibility to help new directors, more specifically directors at small schools. I want directors to know that although that stigma exists for a reason, Wyandotte is NOT that reason. It is a special place, yes, but if directors are dedicated to success and give ample time to grow, they can build that special place in any small school. You have to love what you do, love the families you serve, and want to shape generations of not only musicians, but humanity alike. You have to want to change the world one band kid at a time.
I have so many more pictures, but I had to stop...