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What Are You Teaching?

by Scott Lang, SYNERGY Leadership

One in a series of articles pertaining to student leadership for my good friends and colleagues!

As you begin preparations for a new school year and marching season, it seems to be the perfect time to reflect on what we do and why we do it. Before the pains and pressures of performance take hold of our psyche, and the ego, rather than the intellect, ascends to the decision maker’s seat (believe me when I say, it happens to us all), we should reflect on why and how we go about this crazy business called band directing. Even as someone who espoused and heavily invested himself in leadership training programs for my students, often times I needed a reminder and a good old kick in the seat of the pants to get back on track. The most recent one came in the form of a phone call.

A good friend and colleague called me and said he had just come from a restaurant where he was seated next to a group of my former students. He said nothing to them, nor did they recognize him as someone they knew. Seeing this as a golden moment to be a fly on the wall, he sat unassumingly and listened attentively as they relived and regaled in stories and memories from the past. He said it was touching to hear the student speak so highly of their band experience.

Curious to hear their perspectives, I asked my colleague what it was of which they spoke. Without missing a beat he responded, “They spoke of the character you instilled and the life lessons they learned.” They said nothing of their performance experiences which included concerts with the Canadian Brass, President of the United States, and the Tournament of Roses Parade. Given the prominence of these events, I was surprised not to hear what I considered to be milestone events mentioned as a part of the conversation. Instead of reliving their performances, they celebrated and remembered how the program placed personal integrity at a premium. They also spoke of how our band credos “Discipline Before Instruction, Behavior Before Performance and We Are Better Only If We Work Harder” helped shaped their lives, both then and now. Needless to say, as I hung up the phone, I was deeply affected.

As music educators, our days, nights, and weekends are filled with a seemingly unending list of tasks. Days bleed into nights, weekdays become weekends and vacation becomes an opportunity to catch up on old work and prepare for new activities. As a director of bands you are expected to be the master of all endeavors, artistic and otherwise. In addition to the programmatic requirements, are the overwhelming pressures of performance demands. The need to have a presentable product in front of our school community on a constant basis often times can cloud the judgment of an unsuspecting teacher. The need for oversight and expertise in such a wide range of technical skills has at times drawn us away from our true mission: the education of young people. Not just music education, but the education of the ENTIRE person.

I believe character development to be among the most important things in which a music educator, or any educator can engage. While it is not the panecea to end all ills, when used regularly as an education tool, can allow you to reach your goals in a much more efficient and effective manner. In my mind, the development of the inner child exceeds any demands placed by individual curricular areas, including music. While no one person or one curricular area can be the sole source of personal development, second to the family unit, I believe music teachers have the greatest opportunity to help a child grow and develop in this area. I also believe music education easily lends itself to teaching lessons of personal growth and character development and is a natural fit for teaching these important concepts.

To that end, towards the completion of the school year, I had lunch with my superintendent; we were commiserating the recent wave of testing demands placed upon our schools by our state department of education when he said, “I believe that real learning occurs in the activities outside of the core curricula and outside of the school day. Students learn critical life lessons in activities like band, choir, drama, athletics, etc. that cannot be learned anywhere else.” What a powerful and enlightened statement that was.

While teaching in a highly diverse, and socio-economically challenged area, I was fortunate enough to take a position that provided me with an opportunity for personal and professional growth in ways that I had never imagined in college. Students who had never been on a plane before were now traveling across the country to play at clinics, conventions, and festivals. During this time, I was often asked by my colleagues how achieved these heights given the substantial obstacles. My answer was always the same, “We taught life skills in addition to technical skills.” There is no other way to accomplish what we did as the two skills together created a unique synergy which could not be achieved in a singular way.

If you believe character education needs to be a part of your educational agenda but do not know how to implement it, consider the following suggestions. These are not all-inclusive but are meant to jump start your creative juices. You can decide which suggestions to use and how they will best fit your individual program.

  • Require all student leadership applicants to complete a service project for the band prior for applying.
  • Ensure that you place importance on character when you select your student leaders. Remember, you are selecting students for a leadership that includes both musicianship and character.
  • Make character education a substantial portion of your band camp activities.
  • Make character education a regular part of your lessons and activities. Both you and your students will benefit!
  • Make the parents aware of your education goals so they can support you in your mission.
  • Plan a community service project for your organization at least once a semester (and make a big deal out of it).
  • Make sure your classroom is a “high character enforcement zone,” with no swearing, lying, gossiping, etc… ENFORCED by you and your student leaders.
  • Most importantly, make sure you model the behaviors you are requiring of your students.

You are the captain of your ship. You must chart the course and set the direction. You alone are responsible for educating the children in your charge. Make decisions based on how you believe a program should be run and then plan accordingly. Don’t let performances determine your curricula, let your curricula determine your performances.

Programmatic success is not an accident, it is methodical plan. Student leadership and character development are not an afterthought, they must be the genesis of all professional thought. When we teach technical skills, we teach to the moment, when we teach life skills, we teach to the child . Twenty years from now, few students will remember how to play a three octave chromatic scale, but with few exceptions, they will all remember the life lessons learned and the personal growth they experienced as a result of their experience. Your students look to you for guidance and direction.

What will your former students say about you in the years to come?

I will be writing articles pertaining to leadership from time to time for my good friends in hopes of providing more resources for the classroom teacher. Be sure to check back for updates and email me with your thoughts, reflections, and ideas for future articles. If you would like to know more about my leadership seminars, view my events schedule, download my brochure, or see quotes from past workshop participants and directors, I encourage you to visit my web site at Synergy Leadership or you can email me at


Scott Lang, President
SYNERGY Leadership Endeavors
963 East Divot Drive
Tempe, Arizona 85283
(480) 577-5264