Are you new to music leadership roles in your school’s orchestra, band, or ensemble? Are you a girl who dreams of becoming a section leader or drum major?
by Amy Mertz
Girls are often perceived as conscientious, sensitive, and less outspoken than boys. Accurate or not, and with some of those tendencies in mind, here are 7 tips to maximize your natural strengths as a leader and overcome any perceived weaknesses. While specific to music, these concepts transfer out into leadership of any kind and into any career.
1. Learn to assert yourself. Asserting yourself means letting yourself be heard. You were chosen as a leader for a reason: your teachers or your peers believe in you. If you feel strongly about something, speak up. Your input may or may not sway the group opinion, but your voice is as important as everyone else’s and should be heard.
2. Lead by example. As a leader, you are setting the standard. If you goof off in rehearsal, so will the people you lead. If you are unprepared for a meeting, the people you lead will not feel compelled to be prepared, either. Holding yourself to a high standard can be stressful and take a lot of work, but if you lead by example, others are more likely to mirror your actions.
3. Get to know your team. Many girls feel a natural pull to bring people together and have them get along. As a music leader, getting to know your team plays to your strengths. Though you have been chosen as a leader, you may not have chosen the people who you will lead. This means you will have to contend with many personality types and technique levels that may be different from your own. Getting to know who you are working with will help you lead your team. If you are the section leader in a marching band and you have a member who memorizes music very well, and another who marches very well, ask them to look out for each other in rehearsals. This will free you up to deal with the “big picture” kinds of issues and decisions. If you have someone in your section who is having difficulty connecting with the group, try throwing in a few references to that person’s favorite TV show to draw them into conversations.
4. Develop Trust. Trust is one of the most important aspects of leadership. Consistency and dependability will help you develop trust within your section, ensemble, or organization. It is much easier to accomplish tasks with a group that feels comfortable making jokes or mistakes or offering suggestions to one another. When groups of people trust each other, being together and getting things done energizes them. The group becomes self-motivated. Without trust, there’s little hope of productive rehearsals and meetings until the issue of trust is resolved.
5. Give feedback that will make a difference. In music we can be quick to evaluate and fix, and not really spend much time on identifying the “good” that occurs during rehearsals and performances. It is especially important to try to change this habit when you are leading your peers. Remember that some of them may have also tried out to be in the leadership position you now hold. Couple this with the fact that many girls have a heightened awareness of the feelings of others and find it difficult to offer anything other than positive feedback, and you could be in for a tough year. If this is an area of leadership that makes you a bit uncomfortable, remember to balance compliments with feedback about what needs to change. Instead of, “Wow! Measures 15-20 were terrible!” try this: “Measure 8 was much better, thank you. This time, let’s all try to line up better with those sixteenth notes in measures 15-20. Can we try that section again a little slower?” Even in the worst rehearsal, there’s usually some positive aspect —improved posture, excellent intonation, better vowel shapes, etc. Remember to comment on those triumphs as often as the challenges you are trying to address, and be specific. Don’t just say, “Great job!” Ask yourself what was great — and describe that.
6. Receive feedback to help you grow. As a leader, you must also be able to receive feedback. If you find yourself reacting poorly to constructive criticism, consider the reason. Do you honestly feel it is unwarranted? Is it a personality conflict with the person giving the feedback that leads you to believe it cannot be true? Do you sense that there is some truth to what is being said, and you’re embarrassed or disappointed in yourself? Was it presented to you in a way that you felt was disrespectful? It’s important to take in feedback calmly, thanking others for their input. Then, you get to decide whether to act on it immediately or table it so that you can process and respond to it later. If you are running a rehearsal, and a member of your ensemble simply cannot see your hands while you’re conducting, then you need to address that immediately. If a member of your section tells you your rehearsal planning could use some improvement, you’ll probably want to take some time to think this over before responding.
7. Refuse to show favoritism. Chances are good that some of your friends are the people you’re leading. Without thinking, it’s easy to show favoritism toward them by letting them off the hook if they’re unprepared, automatically giving them solos, gossiping with them about some of the other students in the band, allowing them to come to rehearsal late, or excusing them early. But this will only get in the way of your leadership. Be proactive and talk with any friends who are taking your lead, ideally before the semester gets going, so you can prevent unnecessary awkwardness or expectations later on.
Amy Mertz is a freelance writer who worked in admissions and community programs at the Syracuse University Setnor School of Music. She guided both undergraduate and graduate applicants through the admissions process, and also directed the Setnor Community Music Division.