Building a HS Instrumental Program from Scratch II

“Meet the new boss—Same as the old boss.” from “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (words & music by Peter Townshend)

Make no mistake about it. When an instrumental music program has to make the transition to a new director, the students with the most invested in the program, the upperclassmen, will not look upon the change with the kind of cynicism Pete Townshend brought to the Who’s classic anthem. Understandably, they’ll very often mourn the departure of the old director. So how can a new director ease them through this transition?

Winning over Upperclassmen

“The biggest challenge I faced when changing schools,” says Ron Kearns, MENC Jazz Mentor* for March 2009, “was competing with the ‘ghost of the former director.’ Regardless of how good or bad your predecessor was, he or she will have reached godlike status by the time you arrive. There will be a loyal group of upperclassmen who’ll want to hold onto the school’s tradition. This is very tricky. If you can’t make them understand that you respect them and their traditions, that you only wish to build on the good traditions and start some new ones, they will fight your every move. Further, I explained to them that since I didn’t know how my predecessor did things, I felt more comfortable trying things my way, and needed their help.”

“Establish your standards and stick to them,” continues Kearns. “Your first goal should be to strive for performance excellence, and everything you do should work toward that goal. It’s very important that your upperclassmen know you value their input. Remember, they will be talking about you in places that you don’t have access. One of the reasons that your recruiting might fall short is if it is being countered by negative comments from the ‘cool’ kids. There’s a reason your upperclassmen stayed in the program—they enjoy band or orchestra. Capitalize on that interest, and you’ll be successful!”

Excerpted from “Building a High School Instrumental Program from Scratch” by Ron Kearns, originally published in Fall 2006 Maryland Music Educator

*Got a question about jazz or teaching jazz? Then march on over to the Jazz forum to post it, and take advantage of this exciting benefit made available exclusively to MENC members.

Ron Kearns is a composer, leader of his own group, the Ron Kearns Quintet, an adjudicator and clinician for Vandoren of Paris and Heritage Festivals. He also taught instrumental music and jazz in the Baltimore City and Montgomery County school systems for 30 years.

—Nick Webb, March 31, 2009, © National Association for Music Education