Leadership in Beginning Band

This article is from guest author, Nicole Brocke.

Building leadership in young band students has morphed drastically during my 21 years of teaching but has become a central focus of my curriculum.  I have learned that building leadership skills is just as important (if not MORE important) than teaching instrument pedagogy and the love of music. My leadership building program began for purely selfish and personal reasons. But after a while, I realized the positive results it has for young students; leadership skills build maturity, confidence, passion, and pride.  I LOVE beginning band.  I LOVE teaching beginners.  I LOVE helping them build the leadership skills that will stay with them their entire life.  Before I give examples and details about what my student leadership program entails, I think it is important for you to understand how it came to be.

Background and Development

Let me describe a frequent picture of my band class during my first few years of teaching beginning band. I was in a class with forty-plus 11-12 year olds with mixed instrumentation.  I spent the first five minutes taking attendance, then the next several minutes checking their equipment.  Finally, I am ready to begin class.  Not long into class I say, “get your “Bandroom Boogie music out” and Billy in the trombone section gets out of his seat, comes up to me, and says he has lost his music. With an exasperated sigh, I stop class to get him music.  Meanwhile I hear Suzie in the flute section yell “Alex, quit it!” to find out Alex has been poking her with his drum stick while my attention was on getting Billy his music.  After I deal with the discipline issues, we can finally get back to rehearsal. A few more minutes later, Jack’s trumpet valve gets stuck and can’t play.  Once again, I stop rehearsal to work on Jack’s trumpet valve.  I try to multitask and continue teaching while I unstick the valve, but the band falls apart while we try to play because they can’t find the steady beat since I am not conducting/clapping/counting etc. to keep them together due to the sticky trumpet valve.  Finally, I get it unstuck and we are ready to go again, when the final bell for band class rings.  Now the next period of teachers are going to be upset with me because I didn’t give the students time to put their instrument away and they were late to their next class. 

Now certainly, this wasn’t my every day, but it was more often than I would like to admit.  After these kind of days, I found myself leaving school angry at the kids, unhappy with teaching, and stressed out beyond belief.  I blamed the kids for not behaving correctly.  It wasn’t me – I had good information to teach them!  They just didn’t want to pay attention and learn! What is wrong with these kids?

It didn’t take long before I realized, something had to change. I began brainstorming ways to relieve some of the “administrative” duties so that I could focus more on the “teaching” aspect of the class.  It started slow. First, I added a student to take attendance for me.  It only took a few seconds for me to double check the student’s attendance accuracy but relieved several minutes of my time to focus on getting the class ready to begin rehearsal. That worked so well, so I began to think again.  Why not assign a student in each section to do equipment checks at the beginning of each class so I didn’t have to take time to make sure everyone had a book and a pencil on their stand?  It worked like a charm!  All of a sudden, what used to take me a good 10 minutes, now got accomplished in less than 5 by other people!  I could focus on getting my class started off with a relaxed and positive feeling.  The more I asked students to do to take the burden off me, the better my classroom discipline became, and the more we were able to accomplish in a class period.  The students enjoyed band class more and I enjoyed teaching more.  It was a hard realization to come to, but I understood that it wasn’t the kids that made me dislike teaching it was ME and my classroom management that was the problem.  Kids want to learn, but they are 11 years old and even good 11-year olds will make bad choices and be discipline issues when the class atmosphere is chaotic and stressful.

While my use of student “assistants” began for entirely selfish reasons, I began to see very positive changes in these student leaders and the other students around them.  I saw shy students came out of their shell a little; I saw class clowns take their job seriously; I saw pride in the student leaders and desire to be leaders in the other students.  My “band captains” (this is what I call my student leaders now) truly became leaders and helped develop important life skills in these students.  While it is NOT a “magic button”, I do believe that all kids can grow from obtaining some leadership role – even if just a small one.

Application in Beginners

In my beginning band class, I have several “administrative” jobs, which I call “Band Captains”, that both help my classroom run efficiently AND build lifelong skills in young students.  Student’s “apply” though a very basic “application” which tells me what job/s they are interested in holding and why they feel they would be good at that job. At the beginning of the year, I select the band captains I feel are mature, will do the job well, and be good role models/leaders for the class.  At the semester, we change Band Captains.  Often times at the semester, I choose students that may not be the most mature but I sense could really grow from the leadership experience.  Sometimes I regret my choice, but sometimes a kid really surprises me.  I always tell the kids that I reserve the right to remove them from their captain job if they are not displaying good leadership skills (I have only had to do that a handful of times).  Here are the Band Captain jobs I have in my classroom:

  • Attendance Captain – One student in the class.  This student takes class attendance everyday
  • Section Captains – One student in each section.  This student checks in with each member of their section looking for all necessary materials (instrument, book, music, pencil).  I often try to make this student someone that might also be able to help with instrument specific issues (i.e. stuck valves/oiling valves, setting up percussion kits).  In the middle of class, if a student has an instrument specific issue, I’ll have the Section Captain look at it first. If they can’t figure it out, then I will get involved.  A lot of basic instrument issues are resolved without my assistance.
  • Music Captain – One student in the class.  This student knows the music filing system and gets music for any student that either loses their music or was absent when we passed out new music.  This student will also help me pass out/collect music.  I usually teach this student “score order” so they can help me sort music as well.
  • Tech Captain – One student in each class.  Our school is a 1-1 program and all students have iPads.  If we are doing something in class on the iPad and a student has a technology issues, I send them to the Tech Captain first before I stop class to get involved.  Again, most technology issues get resolved without my assistance (quite frankly, many 11-year olds have more knowledge in tech than I do anyway!)

While these job are “managerial” in nature, some kids are ready for the next step and can assist with decision making or peer-relational activities.  Giving students “voice and choice” can lend itself to some fantastic leadership skills. Sometimes kids can surprise you with just how much they can stretch their leadership abilities at age 11 (and sometimes it can backfire, so be prepared that not all kids are ready for this step!).

For example, sometimes I allow my music captain to create their own music filing system or let the tech captain “teach” the class about a good/better way to accomplish an action on their iPad.  If I have a good Section Captain that is ready, I might have him/her work with a student that was absent on material he/she missed or a struggling student. I usually get my Band Captains together as a “committee” to help me come up with ideas for recruiting the next class of band students. They LOVE to be involved in recruiting (deciding demo songs, performing demo songs, creating “why join band” videos, passing out materials at parent meetings, etc).

Observing Good Leaders

Leadership skills are also developed by observing other good student leaders.  Since this piece is supposed to be primarily about how to develop leaders in your Beginning Band class, I won’t go into great detail about how we build student leaders in older grades.  But I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the importance of observing older students in leadership roles and how that impacts and shapes the beginning band students’ desires to become the best leaders they can be.  Right from the start, our beginning band students see high school leaders at their “Meet Your Instrument Night” event.  When the beginners come for the first time to learn to put their instrument together and the basics of making a sound, they see high school students walking around helping the young students with hand shape and instrument hold while the director gives the instruction.  Beginning band students see our Middle School kids assisting at their concerts. High school band students create recordings of the beginning band songs for our young students to listen and practice along (both the high school students and beginning band students LOVE this!). In our Summer Band Camp (for band students after their 1st and 2nd years of instruction), high school students gain leadership skills by leading sectionals and assisting with managerial tasks.  The young musicians see this and aspire to be in those leadership roles when they get older.  In this same Summer Band Camp, we also bring back a Hilliard alumnus that is in college getting their music education degree studying to be a band director to come teach and conduct a song.

The ways to build student leaders are endless and the skills they learn are life-long.  Use your WHOLE program; even your beginners – they can surprise you!  If you are just starting this process, begin by pondering “what do I need to make my classroom run more smoothly?” then decide “how can students help me do it?”.  It will grow from there.  The more you use student leaders, the more you can focus on the reason you became a music director and the reward will be felt by you, your program, and most importantly, your students.

About the Author

Nicole Brocke

Nicole Brocke is the band director at Hilliard Tharp Sixth Grade Building. She is in her 22nd year of teaching and 21st year teaching beginning band in Hilliard, Ohio. She graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in Music Education. She has a passion for teaching beginning band and has been fortunate enough to focus most of her career on the initial stages of instrumental learning. She has presented at several clinics over the years and performed with her Beginning Band at the OMEA Professional Development Conference in 2018.


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