Keeping Up With The Times

By Guest Writer Brooke Pierson

Keeping up with the times – a no win scenario?

Over the years I am constantly hearing about how we need to “reach more kids”…

Teach rock band!
Teach computer music!
Teach hip-hop!
Teach what the kids are interested in.

To be fair, this post isn’t about those things entirely – those are great things to teach and can be a great addition in an elective nature of our schools – I wish we could offer all  those things. I also recognize that each situation is different and just as there are only 3 or 4 major types of sciences that students study in school, we are also limited in what we can offer effectively. 

What I do find interesting, however, is that in an effort to “be with the times” we never really do hit that mark – because the times and what kids are interested in changes so drastically and fast. Ten years ago there was a huge push to incorporate rock bands in schools – and it made sense – rock bands were everywhere and had been for a while. But then all of a sudden there was a shift and now it’s all about loops, electronic music, and sound engineering/production. Rock band is “old”, guitar sales are down, etc. And you bet there will be something else soon.

Meanwhile, millions of students have been learning music embedded into our country as one of our unique traditions: concert band. We often look to other countries and think about their cultures with such awe and positivism and then we sometimes overly critique what we do for the purpose of what? Meeting the whims of generations? The taste they have that changes each generation? There is nothing wrong with tradition and culture so long as we’re meeting the needs of our students but we also have to be the curators and stewards of that need.

We have a *unique* and wonderful musical culture in the US – it has a ton of variety from jazz to classical to popular, rock, country – endless! But one thing we also have is a tradition that include band/choir/orchestra at the core in our educational system. And I don’t see anything wrong with that. In fact, it is a beautiful thing. This cultural element (and I’m going to keep saying that because it IS our unique cultural element) is integral in the way we shape students and it is a pathway to more specialized musical forms. Rather than trying to put efforts on educating students in whatever fad there is (and changing curriculum to do it) we rather should be continuing our efforts to enrich, strengthen, and grow this unique tradition – whether it be advancing literature, empowering students of all backgrounds, gender, ethnicity, etc, growing our scope.

This doesn’t mean getting rid of those other things. Do them, teach them, enrich our students lives. But don’t overlook the power that our musical culture can have on students and rest assured that cultures thrive on tradition – and concert band is one tradition that is deeply embedded in our society.

Brooke is a teacher and composer. Find out more about him and order his music at

With one proclamation, President Trump would have my unending support

If President Trump would simply issue the following proclamation, I would support him forever…

“Let it be known that from this day forward, all marching band competitions shall be held on Fridays. All students involved in the competition shall be exempt from homework given or due that day. In addition, students not involved shall remain at school and complete any standardized testing required. Marching band students shall be exempt.”

“Let it also be known that each school district shall provide the competing band with a charter bus – complete with DVR and satellite – and shall provide catered meals for the marching band members and staff for the duration of the contest.”

“Let is also be known that the day following such competitions, practice by any of the bands participating shall be forbidden. If a band ignores this provision, it shall be required to take the standardized tests it missed. Band directors and staff shall be provided with a $200 honorarium to enable them to enjoy this day with their family and friends.”

Hereby signed by President Trump in the Oval (isn’t a whole note an oval) Office this day of October 15 in the year of our Lord 2017.

Differentiation in Band Camp

Guest Post by Seth Jones, Pennsylvania Band Director

Visit Seth’s site at:


Monday, August 20
Happy Eclipse Day, y’all!

Well . . . I made it through my 16th band camp. Wow. So tired. 🙂

A few interesting facts about me . . . band directing was not on my radar after high school. I went to a Conservatory and as default had no college marching band experience. Since I am a clarinet player by trade, drum corps never developed in my life either. Therefore, all of the marching band experience in my life has either been student or director. I think that I tend to think outside of the box when it comes to Marching Band because I’m not shackled by the pretenses of the Pageantry Arts. (I love Drum Corps, Winterguard, Percussion, and it all . . . .just never did it myself).

Therefore, when I set out upon Marching Band rehearsals, I treat them very much like I would tackle any rehearsal problem. I think that my marching band staff doesn’t always “get it” because they are used to the way they know. (Another future topic: how to teach a staff of drum corps people to be educators in one short summer).

This particular band camp presented a few significant challenges. And, despite such grievances, I think it turned out to be the best I’ve ever had. I thought I’d share some of our successes with you.

DISCLAIMER: Despite my unusual upbringing, my marching band is quite competitive (and good at it). We have won quite a few championships and been fortunate enough to have been a BOA Regional Finalist twice. We are on a definite upswing. One of my past challenges was cultivating the staff, parents, and students into this continued pattern of growth. (As you may have already seen, getting out of our long term rut was a priority). Therefore, I enjoy some advantages that I recognize the typical band director may not have. I have oodles of kids, and oodles of staff to go with it. Money is generally NOT a problem but by no means is it plentiful either. We get the job done with great decision making, wise spending, and a wonderful network of support.

So . . .therefore, going into the band camp experience I was naively unaware of the challenges we faced this year. Our band is 30% first year members. AWESOME. The kids have zero question in dedication (as previously evidenced). AWESOME. Our camp experience this year was different than in the past because we spent an ENTIRE week on fundamentals (that’s right . . . no show learning). Therefore, many of the days in camp were spent coming up with self-directed initiatives. And . . . wow . . . this was by far the best thing that’s ever happened.

I have to immediately thank my staff. They were awesome and worked with me on some great stuff. The first week of our camp was entirely dedicated to fundamentals (both visual and marching). Through our planning, we heavily relied on differentiation to instruct the students. This was completely new to me and I can’t speak enough on how it worked. Here is what we did:

Differentiation by Personnel
The first thing we did this year was split our group by WW and Brass. They never did anything together until very late in the process. While visual had one group, music team would have another. We worked on objectives together (the prep for music and visual was always the same) and strove toward common outcomes (visual exercise 1 matched musical exercise 1 so that the two could be done together). It was more consistent work for the staff (no breaks) but the kids benefitted greatly. It allowed for more staff to student ratios and created smaller working groups.

Differentiating by Ability
During one of our days of camp, we did a morning where the students self-identified themselves into a lower, middle, and upper group. (We kept tabs on this too). The three groups were split into different objectives. The lower group just worked on basics while the uppers added more layers of complexity. The groups worked toward the same objective (box drill, for example) and were able to perform together. One such challenge of band camp is the older experienced students grouped in with the younger students. This allowed the groups to move at their own paces. I even teamed up section leaders in the lowest group to build bonds between the members. Overall, the success of this was vast as the students were able to complete the drill objective together.

Differentiating by Self-Practice
On the music side, we did a lot of work on breathing and tempo fundamentals. Isn’t it funny how you teach something only to find that in practice the students still mess it up? I was noticing that students would KNOW how to do a horns up for example, but in our musical exercise, would mess it up. WHY? I discovered that I think it was more the “this is the count you have to do it, this is when, here is the metronome, am I on the right exercise?” blah blah blah affected the student more than we could imagine. Therefore, before reps, I would put on a met and tell students to just practice horns up and down on their own. They had to do 5. Then, we would add in marking time. 5 horns up while marking time. Then, we would practice blade breaths from the Breathing Gym (goal to get them to breath in time fully). The isolation with a met allowed the students to grow comfortable with each task. Putting them together became easy. I think providing time for the students to work it through was meaningful.

Differentiation by Objective
We have always struggled with foot tempo while marching. Like, the students are so concerned with getting to Point B from A that they forget about tempo. We had the time to explore this by memorizing specific chunks of the music. We would then take them outside, march these chunks with no specific visual path. The ONLY goal was to play and keep feet in time. I discovered that relieving the students of the actual pathway part of marching allowed them to get more comfortable with foot tempo AND playing. I wish I had used the drone. It was the biggest and most amorphous blob you have ever seen.

We even had the sections stay in blobs at one point by instrument just to give encouragement. It worked well.

Differentiation by “Just Try It”
Ok . . . so this one isn’t differentiation. How many times have you done a new rep with the group and chaos ensues? Someone forgets . . . someone done the wrong thing . . . .someone misunderstands the direction. Have you lectured the group after? I’ve done it, and sadly, I’ve watched my staff do it. I keep forgetting that in AUGUST the students are babies again. Often times, I’ll do an objective 2 or 3 times before I say ANYTHING to them. Why? You just gotta give them the chance to understand. I feel that I waste my energy speaking to things that are just part of the learning process (for example, here is our new exercise, you’ve never done it before, why can’t you do it right the first time?). Just seem so hilarious. I got in a very good pattern of allowing the students a few reps just to “get it.”

Now for you marching band lovers out there . . . . I can totally understand the argument that it allows them to be lazy. By no means is this the case . . . with ANYTHING I have mentioned above . . . we DO NOT move on until every member does it correctly. Even in music warm up, UNTIL THE HORNS ALL GO UP TOGETHER (after the differentiation I explained above) we do it again and again. I’m just saying here that I don’t expect them to do it perfectly the first time in August and then lecture for five minutes about it. Trust me, follow the the process, and by November all will be well.

Well . . . camp is over. Now, I have to get ready for the first week of school. More posts to come!

4 Tips to Help you be a Better Band Director using the Acronym BAND.

4 Tips to Help you be a Better Band Director using the Acronym BAND.

There are four key areas that – if you focus on these and make them a priority – they can help you be a better band director. None of them have anything to do with music, but the word “BAND” does fall nicely into place to help you remember them.


Watch what you eat! When life gets busy, it can be very easy to grab something to go. I once was 30 pounds heavier than I am right now, all due to poor eating choices and failure to plan. Plan ahead what you are going to eat. Buy some healthy snacks. Keep them in a fridge at work, in your glove compartment, wherever. Pack a healthy lunch. Watch the pizza. I once ate 8 slices at a football game and regretted it for the next day and a half. I could do that when I was 18, but I’m in my 40s now.


Move your body. Exercise is important, not only to your physical self, but your emotional and mental health too. Pick something you like. Jogging, hiking, swimming, biking, walking. Put more ing in your life. You should strive for a minimum of 20-30 minutes 4-5x a week. It will lengthen your career and leave you feeling like you have more energy. Warning: When I was 30 pounds heavier and first embarked on exercising and eating better, I initially felt worse. This is normal.


Get plenty of sleep. The amount is different for each person. I need 7 hours a night, so I try to make sure I get that at least 6 nights a week. Try napping. The floor of my office becomes a 10 minute nap area during marching season. Students have posted hundreds of pictures of me sleeping on the bus on a trip.


Have a life outside of band. I heard of a band director who does not allow himself to read anything unless it is something that will help his band. I think this is unhealthy. Take up a hobby. It might even be music related, but not be something you need to do for a living. I had to quit giving lessons for the most part because I felt like my day was never ending, but I perform, record and compose simply because I like to and it’s an outlet for me. I also hike, bike and meet with friends (and spend time with my family of course).

When life gets off track and you’re not sure what to do, think B.A.N.D.

I Wasn’t Always This Way

James Divine
James Divine

I wasn’t always this way!

People look at me – 49, getting better looking each year, married to my high school sweetheart, parent of four, grandparent of 3, successful band teacher, author, speaker, musician – and they think “Wow, James is so confident and sure of himself. Life has been good to him. I wish my life was like that.”

I wasn’t always this way!

I struggled, really struggled with self-esteem for many years. I know it was related to having an abusive father, being molested and all the damage that did to my psyche. I ALWAYS felt like I had to be dating someone, and my self-esteem plummeted when a girl would break up with me. I would beg her to come back, to give me another chance, to tell me where I failed. By the way, this is the worst thing to do. I should have said, “OK…I was thinking the same thing.”

My friend Amy – after hearing about the umpteenth time of a girl breaking up with me and how sad and lonely I was – she was one of those people who got to the point quickly – confronted me about why I felt like I needed to be dating someone all the time. I don’t think she even realized the impact of her words. It caused me to think. It caused me to change my behavior. I decided to stop being worried about finding the right person. Maybe I needed to focus on me, on becoming a better person! Becoming more Christ-like.

The interesting thing is that when I did that, that’s when I found my soul mate, my life-long lover, my best friend. I started dating Susan soon after that talk with Amy. I knew in about a week that Susan was probably the one. (By the way guys, after a week is not the time to mention this, even if you know deep in your soul).

Even after I started my adult life, got married, joined the Army band and was a successful husband, dad and musician, my self-esteem was still rock bottom.

I wasn’t always this way!

You see, I am the typical people pleaser. At first glance, a people pleaser seems to be a really nice person. Everyone can count on them. Need cookies baked, call a people pleaser. Need someone on a committee, call a people pleaser. People pleasers can’t say no. Ultimately for me, this desire to please grew out of a fear of rejection, which had its roots in not being close to my father due to his abuse of my mom. I felt that those close to me might reject me if I didn’t do everything they wanted.

Although I started killing off the roots of what caused me to be a people pleaser, I didn’t totally sever the roots until I went to LifePlan this past summer. LifePlan is basically two intense days of physical, emotional and spiritual counseling. In the course of the two days, you uncover your roots – patterns and behaviors that have contributed to how you act or react to things – and sever a lot of those roots (the bad roots). I learned to leave those people pleasing tendencies behind.

I wasn’t always this way!

So when you see me – successful, self-assured, confident, willing to disagree, making sure I have my priorities straight – I want you to realize it wasn’t always like this. It is a journey, a process, sometimes hard work that takes you from one point to another. I had the same doubts you have. I had the same struggles you have. I had the same lack of self-esteem as you have.

I overcame and

Now I am this way (but I wasn’t always this way)

And I like that I’m this way…the only one I truly have to please is God

And He’s pleased with me because He is making me into His image

By taking care of me first, it has given me more time

By focusing on my mission and calling, it has made me a better person

And believe it or not, I love others more than I ever have


So don’t look at me and say, “I wish”

But look at me and say, “If he could do it, with God’s help I can too.”


I love you.

I’m proud of you.

You make my life rich.


* James is first and foremost a son of the King. He loves that he gets to teach band and orchestra at Falcon High School. He is also a musician, speaker and author of “Forgive: One man’s story of being molested.” Find out more about LifePlan at

You could never disappoint me!

After I discussed our first playing test of all 12 scales in one of my high school classes, a student of mine came to speak to me a few days later…

“Mr. Divine…I’ve been working hard on the 12 scales and wanted to let you know that it’s possible I might not pass them on this first try.” (I allow multiple retakes). “I didn’t want you to be disappointed in me.”

I felt like my heart was about to break. Here’s an outstanding student doing her best and her worry was that she would disappoint me.

I said, “Honey, you not passing your scales would NEVER disappoint me. I only have grades and give playing tests because I want everyone to improve and I know you are going to improve.”

She left class with a smile, came back the next week and aced her 12 scales.

I share this story because – as teachers – our words have tremendous impact! I know we can get caught up in the 5-10% of students who give us a hard time, but most are hard working and want to please.

What message are your words sending to your students?

For an example of how words from my teachers affected me, click HERE.

Teachers: Powerful Forces for Good or Bad

Some of my teachers played a big role in my life. A great ancient Hebrew named James had this to say about teaching…

“Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards.”

Here are some good and not so good teachers in my life.

  • My Kindergarten teachers were outstanding, kind, compassionate and made me feel welcome. I remember crying on my first day of school, but after that I couldn’t wait to get there. I wish I could remember their names.
  • My second grade teacher was Mrs. Everitt. She took me on as a project and cared for me and my family. She taught me and loved me.
  • I did not like my first fifth grade teacher. She seemed to hate children. I know now that was probably not the case, but it sure felt like it to me. Fortunately I moved away after two months of fifth grade and ended up with the most wonderful fifth grade teacher.
  • In seventh grade, I had another of those teachers who seemed to hate kids. Her name was Ms. Crudup, but we would often pronounce it very close together so it came out as Miss Screwed Up.
  • My first band teacher was awesome, Mr. Derrio. He and my elementary music teacher helped to develop the love of music that has given me a successful three decade career.
  • My wife and sister had a teacher in high school named Legan. He seemed to enjoy giving students failing grades. I never could understand that. When I have a student fail, I feel like I have failed somehow and I adapt my teaching.
  • My wife had a fourth grade teacher who told her she would amount to nothing.
  • Mr. Trammel taught me about integrity. Even though he had a large number of sick days, he took a day off without pay rather than fake sickness.
  • My best teacher was Steve Ambrose. Students will typically have a greater connection with the teacher who teaches the subject they are passionate about. Steve was passionate about music, still is, and passed that passion and excitement on to me. He really made you think!

Teachers, you have a tremendous amount of responsibility. You can make or break your students’ day.