Music ensembles are more similar to sports than most music teachers will admit—mostly because I think music teachers as a whole tend to focus on how the culminating activities of music ensembles and sports are so different rather than focusing on how the learning processes of music ensembles and sports are very much the same. Every year is a new team, or a new band, or orchestra, or choir. Last year’s seniors, experienced members and leaders have made their way out of the program—new leaders emerge and are selected, a new group of faces become the “experienced veterans” of the program, and brand new members are added to the team or ensemble. The team or ensemble has to balance making the new members feel welcomed with getting them to assimilate to what is established and proven in the organization. Across all levels of experience, some members will have stayed in shape over the summer, while some have done little if anything to prepare for a new season. Some will step up to the plate when challenged, while others will not. Some will make, keep, and exceed their commitments to the team or ensemble—some will not. Some will take initiative to self-improve—and some will not. In both cases the job of the teacher or coach is to handle all of these elements in a way that benefits both the individual student and the team.
However, there is an important area in which there are differences between any given sport and a music ensemble—and it has to do with what coaches don’t need to tell you.
Because marching band is so closely associated with football (I for one have zero problem admitting that if not for football, marching band as we know it wouldn’t exist—not every music teacher wants to admit that one either…!) sports analogies often feel appropriate in rehearsal. We do a lot of our work on a football field, everyone has a role to play and has to work together with the team to accomplish the objectives, and while it is not overly so, marching band is a decently physical activity (if you don’t think so, I know a couple of drummers and tuba players who would like a word with you). This year there are 59 members of the high school marching band—and as a team, we will start….all 59 members for every performance that we do. There is no bench in marching band, or any other non-auditioned music ensemble—every person is a starter.
We need students and parents/guardians to understand that this creates a situation that is different than what often happens in sports. A coach doesn’t need to tell a player that they have a better chance of being a starter if they stayed in shape. The coach simply starts the person who is in shape while the person who is not waits on the bench. A coach doesn’t need to tell a player that they have a better chance of succeeding if they respond when challenged—unresponsive players don’t start games. A coach doesn’t need to tell the uncommitted player that they’re not on the starting lineup because their commitment is unsatisfactory—they just don’t start them. A coach doesn’t need to encourage a starter to take initiative—that student is on the starting lineup because they are already showing it.
Now I realize that many coaches DO tell their players all of these things and more—I’m just making the point that they don’t *have to.* If you’re on an athletic team and you get to start, you know why–it’s because you’ve worked harder, have developed your skills more, have been more committed and responsible, etc. This is not a criticism in any way of sports, coaches or benching, but is simply a way to frame some realizations that members of music ensembles need to have if they wish to be successful. In sports, starters have to earn being starters—and to some degree, benchwarmers earn being benchwarmers. In a non-auditioned music ensemble, every student is a starter whether they’ve earned it or not. In such a situation, each student has no choice but to fill the shoes of a starter. That’s harder for some students than others, but it will grow them if you let it.
Coaches and music teachers share a similar primary objective—both want their groups to be at their best when it counts. Coaches want their teams to win—music teachers want their ensembles to deliver stellar performances. But a non-auditioned music ensemble doesn’t have the option of “benching” in order to achieve that objective. So that leaves music teachers two options—1. Run their music ensemble more like a sport, audition, pick “starters” and proceed forward with just those who make the cut or 2. Make everyone a starter whether they’ve earned it for themselves yet or not in the hope that every student will grow into the role. The second option is a much more difficult path for any teacher or any coach in any context. But it is a path that allows for the activity to be a place where anyone can join and is welcomed as long as they understand their responsibility to grow into their role. It’s a path that the many excellent coaches at QV take to whatever extent they can within the context of sports, where everyone clearly understands not everyone can be a starter when you’re only allowed so many players on the field or the court at a given time. And it is a path that is a cornerstone of the philosophy that has allowed our music program at QV to grow and strengthen at a steady rate for over a decade.
As we go back to school this week, my welcome back message to students and their parents/guardians is this: You are a starter on our team….Your child is a starter on our team. You/they will be out there on the field or on the stage for every second of the “game.” In music, begin this year mindful of what it means to be a starter, or the parent/guardian of a starter and act accordingly. Students will grow, the “team” will be strengthened, and we will “win” the coming year together.