Archive for March, 2012

A Band Director’s Prayer For His Students

Dear Heavenly Father,

Thank you for the opportunity to teach today.

Please help my students learn more than just music; help them learn how to think and concentrate and do their best.

Help them learn the value of hard work, self-discipline, respect for self, respect for others, and respect for authority.

May they learn to be organized and responsible, and to take responsibility for their actions.

Help them learn to set goals and then do what is needed to achieve those goals.  Along the way I pray they will learn how to work together, and to be considerate, encouraging, patient, and kind.

And when they achieve their goals I pray they will know the joy of learning and the pride that comes from a job well done.

In all of this I pray my students will learn they are capable of doing much more than they ever thought possible.

And most of all, Lord, I pray that you will show them how immeasurably valuable each of them is to you.

In Jesus’ name,



Shirt Slogans

I love standing in the halls between classes and reading Backpack Middle School students’ shirts.  For instance, the “North Face” brand has become quite popular; it’s the one with “The North Face” on the back of the jacket.  So it was inevitable that someone would eventually make a shirt with “The South Butt” on the front, as I saw the other day.

Here are some other attention-getters:

“Why are you looking at me funny?”  (printed sideways so you have to tilt your head to read it)

“Stupidity is not a crime, so you are free to go.”

“I’ve kidnapped myself.  If you ever want to see me again, send $1,000,000.”

“Fat kids are harder to kidnap” (worn by an unusually large tuba player)

“I’m fun size” (worn by an unusually short student)

“I’m fun size” (worn by an unusually large tuba player)

“Backpack Bands:  Fighting for Truth, Justice, and the BandLand Way!” (with cool superhero, drawn by one of our talented high school band artists)

“I’m smiling ’cause you’re my dad.  I’m laughing ’cause there’s nothing you can do about it!”

One T-Rex with arms spread wide saying to another T-Rex, “I love you this much.”  Other T-Rex saying, “That’s not very much.”

“T-Rexes hate push-ups.”  (T-Rex on belly, little arms hanging down)

T-Rex singing:  “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your… dang”

Pig, to piece of bacon:  “Harry, is that you?”

Picture of a panda:  “I’m not fat, I’m puffy.”

Stormtrooper crying:  “I had friends on that Deathstar.”

“P.E.T.A. – People for the Eating of Tasty Animals.”

On front: “I”m a secret ninja.”  On back: “Shhh, it’s a secret.”

“Have you noticed that ‘Awesome’ ends with me, and ‘Ugly’ starts with U.”

“If Band were easy, they’d call it football.”

“Are you going to eat those tots?”

“I’m a little teapot, short and stout.  Here is my handle, here is my… other handle.  Oh crap, I’m a sugar cup.”

A Night of Surprises

Our trip to Band Contest is finally over, and all in all it was a good one.  I won’t keep you in suspense:  both of our bands – Cadet and Concert – earned Gold awards, which was gratifying.  Way to go, Backpack Bulldog Bands – thanks for a memorable night!

However, the night was memorable as much for its surprises as for the final scores.

Surprise #1 – Everyone was on time, which is not always a given, so we will count this as a pleasant surprise.

Surprise #2 – When we reached our contest site following a 15 minute bus ride, my eight drummers informed me that no one thought to bring a snare drum.

Figuring there was no point in wasting time, I sped right through the five stages of grief as quickly as possible.

“No way!”  (Denial)

“What were you thinking?”  (Anger)

“You’re kidding, right?  Please tell me you’re kidding?”  (Bargaining)

“How do eight drummers forget to bring a snare drum to Contest?”  (Depression)

“O.k., what are we going to do about it?”  (Acceptance)

Thankfully, our Contest hostess was kind enough to loan us a snare drum.  Problem solved.  Lesson learned.  Life goes on.

Surprise #3 – As the Concert Band students were lining up to go to the warm-up room, one student told me he had forgotten his music.  It turned out he wasn’t the only one.  In fact, a total of five students had not been listening when I told everyone to make sure they had their music.  Dispensing with the five stages, I went straight to pulling out the rest of my hair (which didn’t take long).

Surprise #4 – Both bands played exceptionally well.  This is not to say they were perfect.  I wouldn’t even say they were the best bands I have ever directed (no offense intended).  But all things considered, they put on quite a show.  It is not often that I enjoy – I mean really enjoy – conducting a band performance.  Usually, my attention is on the mechanics of keeping the group together and getting through the pieces without losing anyone.  But I thoroughly enjoyed these performances.  The bands played with a lot of energy and enthusiasm.  In short, they outdid themselves, and they made music.

Surprise #5 – The judges were not as impressed as I was.  This is the reality band directors face who choose to have their bands adjudicated, and I guess I should have expected it.  Judges don’t know all the countless challenges my students had to overcome.  Their job is to judge the quality of the performance and offer suggestions for improvement.  My job is to learn from them.

Surprise #6 – On the way home, one student stopped me to apologize for forgetting his music.  He said he knew it was irresponsible.  Wow!  That may have been the biggest and best surprise of all, which is why I said before that, all in all, this was a good trip.  My hope is always to teach these young ladies and gentlemen more than just music.  Hopefully, for at least one young man, a lesson was learned, and life goes on.

Still Learning

The Backpack Middle School Bands have spent the past couple months preparing for our trip to the annual adjudication festival.  And talk about progress – these are not the same players they were at Christmas time; they have made great strides.

During this time, especially this past week, I have been challenged to improve, as well.  I spent last weekend chaperoning for the All-State Bands at Purdue University.  The Concert Band (second band) rehearsed  under the expert direction of Dr. Lissa May of the Indiana University music education department; the Honor Band was conducted by Ray Cramer, retired I.U. Director of Bands, whose name is synonymous with wind ensembles.  While observing a few hours worth of rehearsals I was amazed at their attention to all the little details.  Coming from a middle school band program, I was really enjoying the high level of playing from these super-talented high school students.  But the conductors were hearing much more than I was.  So I was challenged to listen more closely to the details of my own bands’ playing this week.  I realized that I have been ignoring some of the rough edges.

Second, the Backpack High School band director paid a visit to BandLand to help out during our rehearsal yesterday, and he made several suggestions to help us improve our articulations, and he suggested some changes to our percussion section setup that turned out to be very helpful.

Finally, composer, teacher and long-time colleague Les Taylor accepted my invitation to come listen to an after-school rehearsal of my Concert Band students today.  And he surprised me by bringing along his wife, Dr. Susan Taylor, the director of the Anderson University Wind Ensemble.  It was great.  They both made numerous helpful comments and were very encouraging to my students as well as to me.  Susan even filled in on bass drum for one of my drummers who went home sick today.

So what have I learned this week?  I have learned that if I want my bands to sound their best, I need help, and I need to be challenged.  I can’t let my ego get in the way.  You would think that after 19 years, I wouldn’t need any help, but frankly, a great performance involves too many details.  Even the best directors need some occasional feedback.  And since I am far from the best, I will take all the help I can get.  Thanks to my friends for all the assistance!

Our performances are tomorrow night.

Wish us well!

Scratch-n-Sniff Practice Charts

In BandLand, otherwise known as the Backpack Middle School band room (the plaque over the band room door actually says BandLand, so it’s official), practice charts are never printed on ordinary paper; that would be boring.  If a student wants a boring chart, he or she can print one off the school’s website.

No, the BandLand charts are prepared on our newfangled copy machine using special toner that flavors the paper.  So blue paper is scratch-n-sniff blueberry flavor; green paper is lime, and so on.

Just the other day I set out a new pile of yellow charts that quickly drew the attention of the students.

“What flavor are they, Mr. Shaver?” asked one of the boys.

“Banana Cream Pie,” I told him.  “It’s  new.  Go ahead, try it.”

He gave it a quick scratch, took a whiff and smugly told me it smelled like paper.

“You did it wrong,” I replied, “or it’s defective.”

I called over another student and asked her to tell me what flavor she smelled on the new charts.  She scratched the paper with her finger nail, sniffed, smiled, and said,


“Close enough,” I said.

In BandLand we just don’t settle for ordinary.

The Student/Faculty BBall Game

When considering whether or not to play in the annual student/faculty basketball game, it is a good idea to decide what one hopes to gain from the experience.  Or, if the hope of hoops glory is in short supply, one should at least decide what one most hopes not to lose.

Such was the case when I received the recent notice of the coming game. which would be played as part of the final pep rally of the year at Backpack Middle School.  As usual, the band was invited to play some tunes, including the Star-Spangled Banner and the Backpack school song.  And teachers were asked to volunteer for the game.

If you don’t know anything else about Indiana, you should know this:  we take our basketball seriously.  We don’t step out on the court unless we intend to win.  In years past I would not have hesitated to sign up.  But at almost 45, it might be time to step aside.  You know – bow out, gracefully retire, let the younger teachers take it from here.

So I made a list of my strengths and weaknesses.  On the plus side:  I’m in fairly good shape; I’m still relatively quick; I can still manage to sink an occasional three-pointer.

On the down side:  my age; I’m not as quick as I used to be; I’ve been missing a lot of shots lately.  But wait, there’s more:  I tend to dribble the ball off my toe; the memory of my not-so-graceful backward somersault during the game several years ago still haunts me; and I don’t have a sporty-looking, super cool warm-up suit like the P.E. teachers have.

To top it all off, there is the knowledge that the teachers have never lost to the students at BMS.  I would sure hate to ruin the record.  What to do?

With all these negatives outweighing the positives, I did the only sensible thing I could do and said no.

Then I changed my mind.

I figured that with the right strategy I could still make this work.  I would lay low, ride the bench, and play defense.  Beyond that I would rely on the teachers’ secret weapon – Mr. Watson, 8th grade Social Studies teacher and wrestling coach.  Sure, we have better players on staff  than Mr. Watson, but none so intimidating.  He is only about 5′ 5″, but he is all attitude.  He looks forward to this game every year with an enthusiasm that is almost frightening.  He sees it as his chance to get even with the 8th graders.  You get the feeling that for Mr. Watson, it’s personal.  Funny, but personal.

With a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, he starts trash-talking a few days before the game and never relents.  The kids laugh it off, at first.  A few try to give some back, but it’s no use.  He’s a master.  He gets in their heads.  Try as they might to act brave, when they finally step on the court in front of hundreds of cheering classmates and see him coming at them, they just cough up the ball.

It’s kind of pitiful, really, to see an otherwise good student athlete turn all squishy like that.  It feels somehow wrong, sort of opposite of what we teachers are supposed to do. But secretly, we’re all rooting for Mr. Watson.

The game went according to plan.  The P.E. teachers never even let it get close.  I managed to miss a three, but I hit a nifty little lay-up to preserve my pride.  Mr. Watson pinned the star 8th grader in under five seconds using a combination headlock/full body press, and the teachers won again.

And in spite of it, the students seemed to have a great time.

Musical Boogers

I hate wrong notes.  But how can I get my students to hate wrong notes as much as I do?  Of course, I spend a lot of time teaching them how to read music and to play the right notes.  But sometimes they don’t seem to appreciate the damage wrong notes can do to a performance.  After all, if the notes are the words, wrong notes change the meaning.

So I ask them, “Do you care about how you look?”

“Duh,” they answer (this is middle school).

“Do you ever look in the mirror before leaving for school?”  They usually giggle at this, especially the girls, since they often do a lot more than look.  On the other hand, some of the boys would do well just to glance (middle school…).

“So imagine,” I continue, “that you have spent a bunch of time choosing your outfit, fixing your hair, and brushing your teeth.  Then you go to school expecting everyone to be impressed, but all they can do is avoid making eye-contact with you.  You make a stop in the bathroom, take a look in the mirror, and there, blemishing an otherwise beautiful face, is a little booger hanging from your nose.  Gross, right?  But so what?  It isn’t very big.  But it’s all you can look at.  It has your attention.  You can’t see the beauty because of that little booger.”

“Get it?” I ask.  By now they are starting to.  “Wrong notes are musical boogers, and I’m getting ready to hand out some musical tissues.”

Perfect performances may be impossible (this is middle school), and who knows exactly how many wrong notes are too many.  But the fewer, the better.  Each one blemishes the music just a little; at some point they become the only thing listeners notice – no matter how beautiful the rest of the music is.