It didn’t take long for Tom Cox to realize his time in college didn’t fully prepare him for his first job as a young band director.
All the great music he learned and performed while a student at Ball State University wasn’t going to help much at a rural Indiana high school with incomplete instrumentation and just 33 kids in band.
He knows many new band directors can relate.
“It was hard,” Cox said. “The biggest thing is to find someone in a good program nearby and hopefully they will be your mentor.”
Cox was lucky enough to find mentors to help him and now is happy to repay the favor to anyone who seeks his advice. Having survived those early years, he has gone on to preside over one of the top programs in Indiana at Goshen High School.
Since he started at Goshen 15 years ago, the band has steadily grown from 90 to 200 members and regularly wins awards at regional and national competitions. Goshen currently has three concert bands and two jazz bands in addition to a 230-piece marching band and two percussion ensembles.
“It’s gotten bigger every year,” Cox said of the program. “Success breeds success.”
It Takes A Team
New band directors need to realize they can’t do it on their own, Cox said. It’s important to develop relationships with those around you including the middle school band director.
“If the middle school program is good it makes your job at the high school that much easier,” Cox said. “If you’re not teaching the middle school you need to become friends with that person. You need to make sure you share a vision.”
Another key group to reach out to is the music boosters. If such a group doesn’t exist, the band director will need to build one. “It’s essential,” Cox said. “The school is just not going to be able to give you all the money you will need. It takes a while to build I’ll tell you that. I still don’t have the numbers with parents that I should have but they need to know you need their help. They have to know they are needed.”
The bottom line, Cox said is “if you’re going to build a program you’ve got to realize it’s not just you. It really is a team.”
What Band Directors Don’t Learn in College
While music education programs do a great job in many ways, there are certain skills they often don’t teach. Some of the things Cox wished he’d learned in college include basic instrument repair, how to advocate for your program – “there’s all this good info out there and you have to know how to share it” – and understanding the school budget process.
On the music side of things, one of Cox’s best pieces of advice is to record your band.
“It’s like coaches watching film,” Cox said. “Record your rehearsals. There’s no way you can hear everything that’s going on while it’s going on. The results can really be an eye-opener.”
Cox also suggests providing a quality reference recording for your students.
“I always try to find a recording of a professional group playing the piece we’re performing,” he said. “You need to pattern what you want to sound like after someone who is better than you.”
While these steps might seem obvious, Cox said it’s surprising how many band directors don’t do them.
Plan, Plan, Plan
Cox has also found carefully planning his rehearsals and letting his students know exactly what they’ll be playing every day has been invaluable, especially when first learning a piece.
“Kids love structure, whether they say they do or not,” he said. “I started making a rehearsal plan for the month and the kids appreciate the schedule. I will map out every rehearsal. Then, as the band is able to play the music, that schedule kind of goes away.”
Another important part of the program for Cox is travel. The entire music department takes a trip together every other year, but only the top ensembles get to go. That serves as an incentive and motivation for the students.
“That’s talked about and kids know it’s coming,” Cox said of the trips. “You start pushing it in middle school. They certainly look forward to it.”
Last month, 155 Goshen High School band, choir and orchestra members, comprising eight different ensembles, went to New York City for a Heritage of Music Festival. Seven of the groups received Gold Awards for earning 92 points or above for their performance and the Wind Ensemble earned a 97 and the Outstanding Band Group trophy.
While the awards are great, Cox said it’s his relationship with the students which is most rewarding.
“Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” he said. “It took some years to build that feeling, but now it is part of who we are. I am also blessed to work with very talented passionate music educators who are pushing in the same direction.”
Tom Cox has been teaching instrumental music for 21 years. He is a 1993 graduate of Ball State University (Muncie, Indiana) and received his Master’s degree in 2006 from the American Band College of Southern Oregon University (Ashland, Oregon). He is the first ever winner of the Coups de Vent Award from the American Band College and has been named a “Who’s Who of American Teachers” numerous times. In 2009 he was named to the Sousa Foundation’s “Legion of Honor” for outstanding contributions in music education. He has also served seven years on the Indiana State School Music Association State Board and is currently Vice-President of the Indiana Association of Jazz Educators.
Currently Mr. Cox’s teaching responsibilities at Goshen High School include Wind Ensemble, Advanced Crimson Jazz Ensemble, Crimson Marching Band, and assisting with the Symphonic Band and Concert Band. Mr. Cox also oversees the Crimson Percussion Ensemble and assists with the sixth, seventh and eighth grade concert bands at Goshen Middle School.