The culture of any group deeply affects its members and impacts its success. The culture is the air that everyone breathes, and determines how people interact with one another, how problems are solved, and how everyone works toward goals.
In bands, cultures are particularly important. Negative energy, low standards, apathy, and drama severely limit potential and success, as well as enjoyment. Directors have to be very intentional and persistent to cultivate a positive atmosphere and culture. In my years as both a high school and college marching band director, I’ve learned that building a great culture begins with a few fundamental principles.
1) Acceptance. At a basic level, each of us has a need to be accepted by the people and organizations that we interact with. In other words, we want to belong. Because of this need, there is almost always a feeling of anxiety and uncertainty that a new person has as they join the band. Sometimes veteran members feel this too when situations come up that make them feel like they’re unimportant or on the outside of the group.
Once people feel accepted it frees them to do their best work and it makes them feel good. People who feel good do good work. Great cultures place a strong value on making sure everyone feels like they are accepted and belong—that they are important. This is crucial to culture building.
When I was the Director of the Bronco Marching Band at Western Michigan University, I understood that the sooner everyone felt like they belonged, the faster we would learn the show and the more success we would have in performance. We worked to accomplish this in a couple of important ways. First, staff members were given contact information for their section members over the summer and instructed to reach out to everyone and establish a connection. They also welcomed them to the BMB and offered to answer any questions they had along the way. Then when camp arrived, we made sure that all staff members were at the dorms to welcome students, help them move in, answer questions, and get them excited about being in the band.
During band camp we spent a great deal of time in sectionals. In addition to learning the show music, we did this to create bonds of acceptance and belonging among everyone in the section. We created a mini-family that could grow into deep friendships over time. We also planned social activities and friendly competitions between sections in a fun atmosphere that culminated in Section Olympics in our football stadium on the last day of band camp. These interactions created strong signals of acceptance to everyone. Once this fundamental was established, everyone was free to focus on the work we needed to do, and not worry about whether or how they fit in. Throughout the season we encouraged regular section activities in order to have reminders of acceptance and belonging.
Learning names is another important way acceptance is communicated. Everyone loves to be called by their name. When someone takes the time to learn our name, it communicates that they think we matter. In big band programs it is easy to feel anonymous and lost in the shuffle during the fast pace of rehearsals. When I called a student by name from the tower and offered a praise or correction, it sent a strong message of “he knows who I am” and “I’m not just a dot on the field.” In other words, it communicated that you are important and you belong because I know your name. All staff members need to work hard to learn names as quickly as possible.
2) Trust. After people feel accepted, the next concern they have is if they can trust fellow students in the band, the leaders, and directors. Trust is about relationships and safety. Strong cultures send repeated messages of trust. How do you build trust in your culture? It’s easy—by being trustworthy. People who are trustworthy are those who treat others with dignity, and show honesty and integrity.
One of the important ways that trust is demonstrated is when mistakes happen. When a student makes a mistake, they wait to see if they will be yelled at and embarrassed, or if the correction will come with coaching and mentorship. The latter creates trust, the former creates mistrust.
Sometimes yelling is confused as good teaching. Criticizing and embarrassing students in the process of getting it right creates an atmosphere of anxiety and tension—not the kind of atmosphere where people can take risks and do their best work, or where they want to spend their time.
Honesty is a key ingredient of trust. Feedback has to be honest too. A rigorous culture doesn’t need to be a ruthless one. People do not get better by making them feel worse. Nor do they get better by ignoring mistakes. Great cultures consist of highly specific, accurate, and honest feedback. But they do not use truth as a weapon to hurt people. They use truth in their feedback to improve skills and processes. Frequent, specific, and honest feedback are crucial to building trust. These are the hallmarks of great cultures. And this leads to strong performance.
Integrity comes from the Latin word integer which means ‘whole’ or ‘complete.’ Someone who has integrity is someone who practices what they preach, and follows through on what they say. Put differently, their words and actions are “integrated.” Cultures are destroyed by leaders who say one thing and then do another, or who hold some students to one standard, but let others slide by on a different standard. When I was director of the BMB, I always insisted that senior staff members set up equipment at the beginning and end of practice. I also required that they worked in the uniform room to help with sizing, distributing, and collecting uniforms. These two tasks, among other things, ensured that the rest of the band saw the senior staff sweating and hustling. It meant that no position was too big to do dirty work.
3) Catchphrases. Just like we need constant reminders of acceptance, we also need constant reminders of what the culture of the band is about and what our goals are. I’ve found great success using catchphrases. These are short, simple phrases that express a deeper ideal and create unity across the members. They encapsulate the values and ideals of the program in just a few words. Catchphrases guide us as we go through the daily efforts of rehearsal and interactions. They serve as reminders that bring us back to who we are, why we do what we do, and how we do it. In other words, they define our culture.
In the Bronco Marching Band we used the phrase “Keep Your Head Up.” People who are proud of their work hold their head up. People who are discouraged, ashamed, or embarrassed put their head down. ‘Keep Your Head Up’ is about working to the very best of your ability and holding nothing back during our time together. It is a reminder that every member is responsible for their own work ethic…not the director. You are expected to work as hard as you can during practice for every single repetition and rehearsal segment. When you do this, you can be proud of your work. It is building pride and intrinsic motivation for the work you have to do.
I taught ‘Keep Your Head Up’ frequently. It was in my opening speech to the band each year as I defined our culture. We put it on band t-shirts. I had coins made that I awarded to students who exemplified this especially well. In rehearsal, I would often tell the band at the beginning of practice that I needed everyone to ‘Keep Your Head Up’ today because we had a lot to accomplish. I would follow it up in the middle of practice to remind them to continue pushing and giving their best. Rehearsals would often end with asking them if they can ‘Keep Their Head Up.’ This allowed us to have productive rehearsals on a consistent basis, and developed a habit in the students that they could transfer to other parts of their life.
Catchphrases work for subsets of the band too. Our drumline adopted the saying “look good-sound good.” The use of this phrase was a simple reminder that everything done is to a certain standard and expectation—from the organization and care of equipment to the approach to rehearsals and to performance quality.
When a group of people can rally behind a singular ideal, it creates a bond and great achievement can be accomplished. This is what strong cultures build and nurture. As mentioned above, everyone wants to belong. But they also want to belong to something great. They want to know they are part of something that matters and does quality work. They want to be around others who are working as hard as they are and share these goals.
As you begin to reflect on the culture of your own band, focus on these three principles and let them shape your band into the kind of culture you’ve been dreaming about.
If you are interested in having Dr. Montgomery give a presentation or work with your group, please complete the form on our Contact page. Thanks for reading and sharing!