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The Brain-Dead Band Director

Let me explain...

By brain-dead I don't mean stupid, or incapable; I mean over-worked. The Brain-Dead Band Director is the one who is running, constantly, trying to catch their own tail whilst keeping everyone else afloat. The Brain-Dead Band Director is a consummate politician, a counsellor, an inspirational performer and motivator and a third parent to many, many children.

Those in the business know that Band Directors are hard-working, dedicated professionals who give 100% of themselves to every member of their ensemble(s), often meaning they put their own well-being last. They make many personal sacrifices and yet from my perspective, it seems that the increasing demands of the job are having a continued impact in the rehearsal room.

To add insult to injury, in recent years concerns have been raised regarding the value of the wind band as an educational tool (Reimer 2007, Teachout 2007, Allsup and Benedict 2008, Campbell, Myers et al. 2014). These concerns are ringing rather loud alarm bells in particular academic circles, so much so that the continued existence of band and other large ensemble programs maybe under serious threat.

To find solutions and "stop the finger pointing" (Fonder 2014), I believe it is time to openly and honestly explore the case building against the wind band as a viable educational vessel. Over the next few months I will investigate four of the greatest criticisms of the genre:

  1. The repertoire

  2. Competitions

  3. Creativity - lack of

  4. Isolation

I'll review possible causes for the current state of affairs and humbly suggest some strategic and constructive solutions to historically-embedded issues.

PART 1: The Repertoire

Have you wondered why so much of the "made-for-school" wind band repertoire sounds the same? Why do people keep buying it whilst at the same time, complain that there is ‘nothing new to play’? Historically, this matter has been well researched and documented by Timothy Foley and Michael Budianksy (Budiansky and Foley 2005) and if you wish to read that article, you can do so here. However; I don't wish to enter the time honoured arguments regarding "educational restriction" and nor do I choose to enter an "artistic merit" debate. In fact, I'm not here to judge the quality of made-for-school repertoire at all, as UK Conducting legend Tim Reynish once said "One man's poison is another man's cheese". My angle is to explore this penchant for same-sounding music in relation to a neurological function known as repetition suppression.

What is repetition suppression?

Almost everyone loves a puppy. They’re cute, lovable creatures who delight us with their funny little antics. However; over time we get to know them and as they grow, their behaviour becomes more predictable. The first time we see them chase their tail it’s hilarious, by the 20th time, it may attract a smile. By the 30th or 40th episode a good tail chasing extravaganza may go virtually unnoticed.

To put it simply, we become accustomed to this behaviour with each successive repeat of the event and as a result, it requires less neural energy to process. Neural energy being a fancy neurological term of measurement for “attention paid”.

So... what has repetition suppression got to do with repertoire selection?

The key here is novelty. The more fascinating something is, the longer it holds our attention. I am sure that most Directors out there would agree that the swag of new repertoire that is released each year can be described as many things, the least of which would be ‘novel’. So why do people keep buying it? You would think that given this “my brain works this way” fact, that Band Directors would have become bored with the “formulaic, emotionally superficial, monotonously alike” (Budiansky and Foley 2005) repertoire long ago. But we haven’t.

The question is why?

In his book “The Runaway Species”, well-known neuro-scientist and author David Eagleman states:

“The better we predict, the less energy it costs us. Repetition makes us more confident in our forecasts and more efficient in our actions.”

(Eagleman and Brandt 2017)

Based on this notion it’s fair to surmise that a human being feels more confident about a task that is successfully carried out with little effort. The opposite can be said of tasks that require more neural energy. New information that requires more thought processing can either deplete our confidence OR make us excited about a new idea (depending on who we are and how we are wired - hooray for individuality!). This spark, this fascination will encourage us to spend more neural energy so that in time, we become confident once again.

Hold that thought whilst we consider the job of the school Band Director and the tasks that require neural energy throughout any given academic year:

When we look at this image, what we see is that there is a great deal of energy divided between multiple tasks. Most of the duties require repetition but the novelty lies in the newness of the annual academic cycle. New events to plan, new tour possibilities, new students, new capabilities. There are so many new experiences afforded the Band Director that what they need most is predictability. Aspects of the job simply must remain predictable in order to save energy, maintain confidence and let’s be honest – maintain sanity!

Students can be unpredictable (I left my mouthpiece at home…), parents of students can be quite unpredictable (I’m sure I told you that we were going overseas for three months) and who knows what curriculum requirement they’re going to throw at us next. Hence, I believe that one of the most predictable elements of a school Band Director’s life has become the repertoire.

Think about it for a moment.

There is enough going on in the life of a busy Band Director without having the repertoire change as well. The predictability of the “Ternary-Form, Flute solo in the middle movement followed by that well-known 3+2+2 snare drum break that flows into a melody/half-time countermelody groove finished with a rum-pa-pa-pum” makes the Band Director feel confident. “I know this chart” they think and buy it. The novelty in this “music” lies NOT in the music itself, but in the glossy new score accompanied by a new concert program and performance event. Confidence is maintained because the Band Director knows how to teach it, how to conduct it and how to achieve a good sound from their ensemble and this leaves neural energy for the thousands of other tasks that need to be addressed (each one of them being a novel problem to solve).

Repertoire IS the curriculum (when you have enough neural energy…)

Whilst over the years many Band Directors of note have decreed that “repertoire IS the curriculum” (Thomson 1998, Reynolds 2000, Kirchhoff 2004 to name but a few) it appears that in most cases, selecting repertoire has been relegated to the bottom of our neural energy ladder.

If we consider that repetition suppression does have something to do with our penchant for same-sounding music, what is this doing to the industry?

Pair up the saying “Repertoire IS the curriculum” with the subconscious thought “I need to pick repertoire that I don’t have to think about because my brain is too occupied with other tasks” and we get an industry that isn’t going anywhere. It’s stagnant, stuck. Stuck in an enormous repetition-suppressive brain-dead hole. We are literally drowning in "new" music that isn't new at all. It's music that is keeping us safe.

Sad, but true.

A question that maybe arising right about now might be:

"But if this music works for me, then what harm can it do? Other teachers teach from the same text book each year, why is this a problem?"

Fair question. My response?

Ask yourself:

"If repetition suppression is having this effect on me, what is it doing to my students? Is the content of your 'textbook' changing enough?"

Discussion Topics

What elements of your job can become the "confidence-boosting predictable chores" so that you have more neural energy for repertoire selection and rehearsal preparation?

How can Band Directors work together to save time for the music ?

Do you think that if you had more neural energy you would be inclined to look for different repertoire that offers alternative learning experiences for your students?

In Part II of the “The Brain-Dead Band Director” series I’ll explore the effects of repetition suppression on students (if can be your friend too!) and the competition/concert-driven cycle.

See you soon!

#1: The Brain-dead Band Director Part I – The repertoire

What do Repertoire Selection and Puppies have in common?

#2: The Brain-dead Band Director Part II – Educational relevancy

What is your competition/concert-driven program doing to your students?

#3: The Brain-dead Band Director Part III – Creativity

Why your time-honoured rehearsal strategies may not be hitting the mark

#4: The Brain-dead Band Director Part IV – Segregation

Creating thinking and feeling musicians (not just performers)


Allsup, R. E. (2012). "The Moral Ends of Band." Theory into Practice 51(3): 179-187.

Allsup, R. E. and C. Benedict (2008). "The problems of band: An inquiry into the future of instrumental music education." Philosophy of Music Education Review 16(2): 156-173.

Battisti, F. L. (2002). The winds of change: The evolution of the contemporary American wind band/ensemble and its conductor, Hal Leonard Corporation.

Budiansky, S. and T. W. Foley (2005). "The quality of repertoire in school music programs: Literature reviews, analysis, and discussion." Journal of the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles 12: 17-39.

Campbell, P. S., D. Myers, E. Sarath, J. Chattah, L. Higgins, D. Rudge and T. Rice (2014). Transforming music study from its foundations: A manifesto for progressive change in the undergraduate preparation of music majors. Missoula, MT: College Music Society. http://symposium/. music. org/index. php.

Eagleman, D. and A. Brandt (2017). The Runaway Species: How human creativity remakes the world, Catapult.

Fonder, M. (2014). "No Default or Reset Necessary-Large Ensembles Enrich Many." Music Educators Journal 101(2): 89.

Goldman, R. F. (1946). The Concert Band, Rinehart, Incorporated.

Kirchhoff, C. (2004). "Idea File: Selecting Repertoire: A Matter of Conscience - A Personal Viewpoint." Canadian Winds: The Journal of the Canadian Band Association 3(1): 45-47.

Reimer, B. (2007). "Comprehensive education, comprehensive music education: A new vision." Music Education Research International 1(1): 1-12.

Reynolds, H. R. (2000). "Repertoire IS the Curriculum: Repertoire selection has a major impact on what students will and will not learn, and it should help their musical understanding and appreciation." Music Educators Journal 87(1): 31-33.

Teachout, D. J. (2007). "Understanding the Ties that Bind and the Possibilities for Change." Arts Education Policy Review 108(6): 19-32.

Thomson, J. (1998). "The repertoire is the curriculum." INSTRUMENTALIST 53: 10-13.

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