Why Are Some Ensembles Good and Others Great?

2011Symposium_1_2Yesterday afternoon, I watched the annual Mum Festival Parade in my home city. I enjoy going to local parades, because there are always four really good marching bands that perform. They were all at the parade yesterday, and none of them let me down, but one impressed me for a reason I hadn’t thought about before. You see, one of the bands sounded better than all the others, while another band looked better than all the others. A third band looked and sounded almost as good as the band that looked and sounded best, respectively. But there was something more to this third band. I looked into the faces of the students and they were tired, sweaty, discontent, and uncomfortable. Yes, they were all of these, but in spite of their condition, their backs were straight, their instruments were held crisply in position, their roll step was precise, their lines were straight and they were in step. Even when it was difficulty to continue in the heat and discontentment of the hour, they carried on with good technique and discipline.

As I watched this band go by, I thought about greatness. The difference between being good and being great is not really about talent or ability as much as it is about being prepared, being disciplined, and being proud. These student musicians could march so well because they had technique born of thorough preparation and hours of practice. They could demand of themselves that this performance would not be compromised by unpleasant circumstances, because they had pride in themselves and in their band and because they had a reservoir of technique to draw on when they needed it most. They decided they would rise to this level when they dedicated themselves to practicing, and they determined to find a way to be at that level as challenges of the moment unfolded in real time.

One of the other bands impressed me in a different way. Anyone who has marched in a parade knows that there are Marching Bandstops and starts along the way, especially just before a turn in the route. Leaders of performing groups also are always aware of where the reviewing stand is, and try to manipulate the performance to their group is at their best for the judges. We all know this, but the director of this band used this knowledge to his advantage like I’d never seen before. Out of sight of the reviewing stand, but just before it, he stopped his band, but them at ease, and reviewed what they were to do. He reviewed the strange curl in the route just before the judge’s stand, and he reviewed important points they should remember for their performance. He gave them a few minutes to catch their breath on a hot parade day, and then, at the moment when they were prepared and the parade had begun to move again, he brought them to attention, and moved them right into view of the judges. When an organization is not just good, but great, there is a leader who prepares the organization better than other leaders of other organizations. He or she takes full advantage of every opportunity, and makes opportunities others miss. As well prepared as these marchers already were, this director gave them one last burst of preparation that gave them an extra advantage.

The other bands in the parade were good, but not great. I know at least two of them practiced at least as many hours as those great bands I just discussed, but those essential ingredients for greatness were missing. The pride did not show, the technique was not there. These bands did what they had to do to march in a parade, but they were not prepared for or committed to excellence. I don’t judge these good bands. Their ranks are filled with kids who love music, and work hard at what they do. One of them looked like it had a large number of freshman, many of whom hadn’t yet caught whatever tradition of excellence the older students embraced. That is, however the third ingredient for excellence. An organization will take on the character of its leader, and a leader of excellence will motivate and allow members of the organization to advance the excellence through the ranks. Upperclassmen as student leaders, pushing, motivating, encouraging and demanding younger players to step up and achieve greatness with them and for them are another contributing factor to good bands becoming great. Excellence and success are contagious, and once attained are not easily relinquished. It takes hard work to sustain excellence, and these are a few ways of how to do so.

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