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5 Survival Tips for the First Year Music Director

first year music director survival tips

A first-year music director’s job can be especially difficult.

As a first year music director, you have an especially tough job. Few years are more difficult than the first. With so much to do, so much to learn, and so little time, it can be quite overwhelming.

That’s why we’ve put together these five important survival tips. You’ll want to remind yourself of these throughout that first year – and every year thereafter – to help you make it through in the best shape possible.

1. Few Things are More Important Than Recruitment

Have a plan for recruitment and retention. I can’t begin to tell you how many band or orchestra directors treat recruitment like an afterthought. They would deal with far fewer stresses if they actually put the time into recruiting rather than some other, less important things.
In fact, I’d argue it’s the most important thing you do every year. If you don’t recruit and retain, you don’t have a band or orchestra. If you don’t have a program, you’re out of a job.
The more students you have in your band or orchestra, the more people in your community will have a vested interest in keeping it going – and thriving.
In addition, more students means a larger pool of possible “natural talents.”  In other words, the more kids in the program, the more gifted musicians you’ll have.
Rather than having one on a part, holes in your instrumentation and only one or two naturally gifted students, you could have a couple per part (or more) with great instrumentation and a number of truly gifted, talented players.
Learn best-practices for getting kids in the door and staying engaged and watch many of your other stresses disappear.

2. Learn the Art of Delegation

Befriend everyone (custodial staff included). Be on no one’s bad side. Don’t die on many hills. Earn respect from your superiors, your colleagues, your parents/boosters, and the kids.


Speaking about your relationship with administrators, retired Carmel (IN) High School Director of Bands Richard Saucedo recently mentioned in an article also geared toward young music educators,

Go in [to your administrators]with more than just the issue and have possible solutions.
He’s absolutely right. Don’t just take your problems to them. Be someone with solutions. When you do, your administrators will be far more likely to help you get things done.
Why? Because the hard work of coming up with solutions has already been done. All that needs to happen is to choose one and implement it.

Music Council

Another idea includes starting or keeping a student music council that includes equipment managers (so you can delegate moving equipment from the room to the stage, buses, trailer, etc. or setting the stage for concerts) and music librarians (who can help organize the sheet music, especially if it hasn’t been taken good care of).
I’d also recommend including class representatives to help you understand the cultural pulse of the organization from the student’s perspective.
Meet with them about once a month.  It doesn’t have to be for long – just 10 or 15 minutes will suffice.  Get updates on what’s happening, concerns that people have, and delegate work to be done before your next meeting.

Music Boosters

Count on your boosters for help with tasks, as well. When they learn that you trust them to take care of things – even if you would have done some things differently – they’ll do all sorts of stuff for you. And be sure to thank them often.
You will have long days/nights…if you don’t learn to delegate, they will be even longer.

3. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

You could spend a lot of time creating things that have been done hundreds or thousands of times before. Just ask other music directors for their resources. This will give you a launch-point rather than starting from scratch. These resources could include –
  • handbooks
  • syllabi
  • letterhead
  • form letters (regular communication with parents)
  • permission forms
  • testing matrices
…along with plenty of other things.
You shouldn’t have to recreate resources that have already been made. Simply change names, dates, and specifics. Modify and move on. We have resources to help you get started.

4. Rely on Your Road Rep

Develop a mutually beneficial relationship with your music company’s sales rep. He/she will help with recruitment (and likely does it at least as many times a year as you will do it in a career), bail you out of tight spots, etc.
If they aren’t trustworthy or knowledgeable, don’t be afraid to get another. There are usually a number of stores that would be willing to help you in any given geographic area. Their job should be to care for you and your program, not lining their own pockets.
However, remember not to nickel and dime them to death. They come to see you every week. It’s worth paying a little extra for a box of reeds so they can afford to stop by and help keep you sane.
band director and students

Students learn to play their instruments in their beginning band class.

5. Have Patience

Don’t try to change everything all at once. Change takes time. Be patient. If you try to do too much, you’ll be met with a lot of resistance and push-back, directly hurting your ability to delegate.
I know you want the show band you inherited to be a competitive band this year (or vice versa), but it’s not going to happen. Let it go. You’ll get there in time, just not now.
In fact, your first year should be largely about keeping things the same with a focus on improving the program musically, getting to know the community’s culture, and building strong relationships.
Changes can start in year two once you have a good understanding of what people want, what the program is capable of, and if you have the support with which to do it.
Since I love to under-promise and over-deliver, here’s a sixth tip for the road…

6. First Year Music Directors (As Well As The Veterans) Must Maintain Their Priorities

Keep your priorities straight. Know when to stop. Faith first (if that’s you), family, friends, then your work. You’re no good to anyone when you don’t have balance in your life.
Understanding what causes your priorities to get out whack is crucial.  Most often, I’ve discovered it’s because a music director is deriving their identity from their work.
In other words, they desire to be seen by others as a great music educator. In order to do that, they feel they must have a great band or orchestra (by whatever the standard of greatness is in their circles).
This drives them to long hours and immense stress in order to achieve their coveted identity.
To avoid this, you will need to actively create boundaries that work for you in your situation and have people hold you accountable to them. I’ve seen far too many directors (especially band directors) lose family and friends due to a lack of control over their priorities. Don’t let that be you.
What else would you seasoned veterans share with a first year music director to help them grow as an educator?  Let us know in the comments below…
photo credit: “depressed” by Sander van der Wel is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

About Author

Ryan Ruff is a Music Education Consultant for Kincaid's Is Music, using his expertise to help band and orchestra directors build better music programs. He graduated with a degree in Music Education from Cedarville University in Cedarville, OH.

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