On the Value of Being Good at Something

I have a friend who says “being in a marching band is fun…as long as you’re in a good one.” This quote always makes me chuckle a little bit because of the cold truth that resonates within it. Anyone who has ever been in, or around, a *bad* marching band knows that it is not fun.

My son plays baseball. Recently he played in a league that was much more competitive than he was used to. In the other league he was one of the better players, but truthfully, the teams were not very good. He seemed to enjoy baseball enough, but I didn’t really see much enthusiasm or passion for the game. He played the games, went home, and didn’t seem to think much about baseball until the next game.

In his new league it was a bit shocking at first as he realized how far behind his skills were compared to the other boys, and how much work he needed to do to be competitive with them. But as the season wore on an interesting thing happened…he fell in love with baseball. Being around more accomplished players, having to push himself to improve through extra time in the batting cage, learning the finer points and strategies of the game, having more rigorous expectations placed upon him, and playing at a higher level inspired him. And this led to more enjoyment of playing. Toward the end of the season I asked him what he thought about playing in the new league to which he said “it’s just more fun.”

I think this true for being in band too. Students learn a lot through the process of being in high level environments. Implicit in these situations is being held to high standards and being around others who are working hard at them too. Students learn that the things that matter most, take the most time to develop. This requires perseverance, hard work, trust in a process, and patience.

Processes like this are becoming increasingly rare in contemporary society. An example of this is the way we communicate. Communication in our modern lives often consists of short, quick interactions through texting and tweeting. The average length of a tweet on Twitter is 34 characters. As a result, people are trained to communicate in short bursts which leads to a decline in attention spans and the ability to follow long lines of argument and information. We are being trained to have all we need to know in just a few seconds.

The impact this has on skill-based activities, such as band, is that students are more impatient with processes that develop over an extended timeframe. Yet this is how success happens. Anyone who has achieved success understands that it is a long, arduous process that includes peaks and valleys…and lots of time to develop.

In addition to perseverance, students respond to rigorous expectations. Being held to high expectations on a consistent basis over the long haul gives kids a gift that can benefit them for years to come. Students want to be pushed. They want high expectations and high standards placed upon them. They desire fast-paced and rigorous rehearsals, and they want to be held accountable for their part. These things inspire them to work harder and improve. And that’s when the magic happens. Students who begin to work harder will grow faster—and enjoy it more as a result.

Directors need to spend time every day building skills through warm ups and other technical drills. Details matter a lot. Avoid giving in to ‘good enough.’ Don’t feel bad or apologize for pushing students to work hard and develop their skills. Instead, hold your students to a high standard and insist that they improve and are working toward mastery. This will lead to an increased performance ability and level of difficulty—and that’s where the fun is.

Next, don’t let negative energy, apathy, and drama creep in to your program. These things destroy the motivation of hard-working students. The antidote is being around a positive group who is working hard and achieving high performance standards. You can cultivate this through your approach to excellence and rigor. In order to have a program of excellence, directors have to teach and emphasize excellence every day. This is done in a variety of ways, but most importantly through your actions and through the standards you accept. During rehearsal, directors must resist the temptation of accepting mediocre effort and results. Whatever you accept, you will get more of. ‘Good enough’ is the enemy of excellence. It is never acceptable for students to loaf during rehearsal. Effort is contagious. Students should always be working hard in rehearsal—hustling back between sets, being quiet while instructions and feedback are being given, exerting full effort during repetitions and rehearsal segments. These daily disciplines create habits that compound over time and lead to excellence. Ultimately, they lead to a better, more enjoyable experience for everyone involved.

I don’t know if my son will continue to be at the skill level needed to make the baseball team as he advances in age groups, but I know that he has learned something very important—if you want to have fun at something, work hard to be good at it.

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!

David Montgomery

David Montgomery

Dr. David Montgomery is founder and director of Serviam Leadership Academy. In addition, he is Associate Professor of Instrumental Music Education at Baylor University. Prior to his appointment at Baylor, Dr. Montgomery was Associate Director of Bands and Director of the Bronco Marching Band at Western Michigan University. In addition to his teaching duties, Dr. Montgomery frequently serves as an adjudicator and clinician in both concert and marching band settings. He is published in multiple trade and research journals as well as given presentations at state and professional music conferences across the United States including Texas Music Educators Association, College Band Directors National Association, and the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic. Dr. Montgomery also serves as the Chair of the Texas chapter of the National Band Association.