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Education Opinion

Garage Band Lessons in Collaboration and Leadership

By Guest Blogger — February 05, 2014 10 min read
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Note: This week and next RHSU is featuring guest bloggers from the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. For more on NNSTOY, check them out here. Today’s post is from Curtis Chandler. Curtis is a consultant at ESSDACK, and was Kansas teacher of the year in 2011.

As a teenager, I was in a band. Well...technically, I was in the band. Anyone who has survived high school can tell you that there is a huge difference. Guys in a band get gigs, friends, and dates. Guys in the band--they get punched.

A couple of years ago, I was visiting my parents back west. As I was thumbing through one of my dad’s old yearbooks I stumbled upon an old photo of him--or at least some younger, long-haired version of him--up on a stage. Hundreds of people seemed to be thronging around him and screaming. My dad appeared to be singing into a microphone, playing a keyboard, and had on an outfit that I have since tried very hard to forget. It turned out that my dad...was in a band.

I felt deceived. I had no idea that my ‘old man’ had ever been that cool. When I asked him about it, he just laughed it off; he insisted that neither he nor his buddies really knew how to play very well. But for some reason, people kept hiring them to play at parties and at dances.

At one point, they even saved up enough money to buy a used Ford Econo-Van. Using some cardboard cutouts and three cans of spray paint, they stenciled in the name of the band--The Exchequers--on the side. On weekends, they would ‘tour’ the surrounding states and play at dance halls and bars. I couldn’t believe it. My conservative father--retired military chaplain and state delegate for the Republican Party--had been both a musician and a con man. It was almost too cool to be true.

For months afterwards, every time I spoke with my father, a single question nagged at me: just how did my father and his buddies pass themselves off as a band, despite--as they said--their “obvious lack of musical talent.” One day, he finally shared with me the recipe for turning a garage band into something more...something that people were willing to pay and cheer for. Since that day, as I have presented around the country on educational leadership, organizational learning, and collaboration, I have repeatedly shared a number of these suggestive principles with educators. Below are three that seem particularly relevant in light of growing interest in teacher leadership and collaboration.

1) Diverse Skill Sets, Aligned to a Common Vision, Make Powerful Teams.
The way my dad tells it, The Exchequers were a hit largely because they shared a vision for creating music they were passionate about and each person in the band had something unique to offer to that shared vision. Danny could play a handful of chords on the rhythm guitar. Dean could do the same on the bass. Mike wasn’t an experienced drummer, but he could keep a steady beat and wasn’t afraid to improvise a solo every now and then. My dad couldn’t read music, but he could sing a bit...and with patience, could figure out most songs on a keyboard by listening to them over and over on his turntable. What mattered is that they could commit to and share a “groove,” the steady beat that opens the doors for creativity, innovation, and the human expression audiences want to experience.

Individually, none of them were worth listening to. But as an aggregate, they had something to offer that their audiences clearly loved. The same principle holds true in education. No individual teacher, no mater how talented, can help students reach their full potential. To do so requires strategic collaboration in teams--teams whose collective capacity and performance are dependent on what each individual brings to the table (Senge et al., 2012).

An effective team of educators is likely to have one exceptional teacher in the use of instructional technology, another in problem-based learning, a third in assessment, and so on. Such diversity in knowledge and skills results in teams that are more creative, innovative, and effective (Guzzo & Dickson, 1996; Levi, 2013). Imagine what a team of diverse talents could do when each member of the team works to develop personal mastery. The greater the level of mastery, the more every musician or teacher brings to the team, and ultimately, to their audience and students.

2) Trust and Rely Upon Others.
Successful musical groups are comprised of individuals who have learned, over time, to confidently rely upon each other. Conductor Charles Hazlewood, known around the world for invigorating classical pieces (and audiences) with modern flare, emphasizes the need for common goals and an unshakeable bond of trust. Such trust is the result of repeated opportunities to work with others in refining coordination, and consequently, anticipation of and reliance upon each other (De La Torre-Ruiz & Aragón-Correa, 2012).

In schools, teachers are often assigned to teams based on grade level, content area or some other perceived commonality. True teams, however, are developed--not designated (Bachmann & Zaheer, 2008). They happen much like music is made--more like an egg hatching or water boiling. You don’t know exactly when the great moments will come, but you create an environment where they can happen.

Educators must therefore be provided with time and tools for regular, purposeful collaboration. As they collectively identify and confront challenges, holding nothing back and supporting each other as they take careful risks, each individual talent is unleashed and expertise becomes more apparent to the other team members--resulting in a more effective team and individual performance (Baumann & Bonner, 2004).

3) Maintain a Distinction Between Mistakes and Failure.
The only thing cooler than being in a band...is being the drummer in a band. Over the phone one day, Dad spoke of the awe that he and the other band members shared towards their drummer, Mike. They wondered what many of us have wondered--just what is it that allows an individual to be so uninhibited? How does a person get up on stage, pound away on so many different surfaces, and drive an entire performance without making mistakes?

A few years ago, I have had the opportunity to work with an educator who is also a professional jazz drummer. One night after my family and I watched him perform in concert, my seven-year-old son ran up to him and asked what I had always wanted to ask--"How do ya’ do all that without messin’ up?” The drummer just laughed, but went on to explain that drummers make mistakes all the time. He confided in us that, just half an hour earlier, he had performed several bars of music with just one hand because he had inadvertently dropped a drumstick. Then he said, “Mistakes are part of music, but it’s how we react to those that make the difference.” Think of that: mistakes are part of the music. In other words, without mistakes, there is no music. Just try listening to this robot play John Coltrane’s solo on Giant Steps and you’ll see what I mean. Accuracy is not necessarily music. Music, and education, is performed by humans, and therefore is prone to mistakes. Careful mistakes that are made when someone is “going for it” because they care are a lot different than careless mistakes made by a renegade who hasn’t taken the time to develop any personal mastery.

Educators would be wise to adapt a similar mentality and to work to maintain a clear distinction between mistakes and failure. Error is an integral part of learning (Roediger & Finn, 2009). It is also a fundamental component of success in schools. Education is being asked to try out a number of new techniques, tools, and approaches. As a result, we are also making some new mistakes. The key is to make sure that we are learning from--and through--mistakes as we work to transform education.

Recently I put my father’s “garage band advice” to the test in a presentation to an auditorium full of educators. I wanted to see if four seemingly average people including myself really could make some music worth listening to. So...I pulled three people from the crowd up on stage who had no musical experience and assigned each of them an “instrument” to play. A middle-aged science teacher blew a kazoo, a building principal with a comb-over played a cowbell, and a first year elementary teacher banged away on a coffee pot. In tribute to my father, I tried to play a bit of piano and did my best to sing along.

Up on stage, our makeshift ‘band’ fumbled our way through some of The Exchequers old dance songs like Wild Thing, Louie Louie, and Satisfaction. We didn’t sound great, but after a couple of minutes, we weren’t bad. We tried out new roles, we learned from our mistakes, and for a few moments, we felt like a band. The crowd even joined in on the chorus.

A vast majority of recent policy and press has focused on the need to raise expectations and performance in education (Obama, 2014). Whether our “performance” is up on stage with makeshift band or inside a school with developing teachers, the same principles hold true. Improving education requires regular opportunities for collaboration and trust building. It also requires schools to capitalize on the diverse skill sets.

Too often, educators look outside of their collective talent for someone or something to solve problems for them: If I implement this new software, this new program, this other district’s way of doing things, it will make everything work better for us. Like musicians who never perform a song the same way each time, educators in different schools, districts, or regions, can’t expect that what worked for someone else or some other school can be copied and pasted onto their situation to achieve the same results.

And like musicians who are influenced by the way they feel at the moment, the mood of the audience, the sound of the room, what they had for breakfast that morning, etc., educators have an infinite number of variables that are unique to their situation: student and parent dynamics, culture considerations, the collective mix of teachers’ personalities, etc. The band on the stage and the educators at a site are the most intimately connected to the challenges at hand, and therefore the most able to find solutions to their own problems.

Musicians study the masters and the best recordings, but the band plays the music. The music can’t happen if the band waits for something or someone else to create the music for them. They have to act, albeit with uncertainty. They never really know exactly what’s going to happen when they start, but when they apply the principles we’ve been discussing, it works out. That doesn’t sound exactly measureable--but like great music, not all great things can be measured or quantified. Otherwise, it’s all practice and no art. We need the practice and the art-- but remember that audiences volunteer to experience art. In short, musicians and educators are more successful when they utilize their gifts and talents to learn to solve problems internally. Thus, above all, teachers must be granted the flexibility and freedom to experience and learn from mistakes. Only then will our schools ever really attain and experience success.

--Curtis Chandler


Bachmann, R., & Zaheer, A. (2008). Trust in inter-organizational relations. The Oxford Handbook of Inter-Organizational Relations, 533-54.

Baumann, M. R., & Bonner, B. L. (2004). The effects of variability and expectations on utilization of member expertise and group performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 93(2), 89-101.

Bradbury-Huang, H., Lichtenstein, B., Carroll, J. S., & Senge, P. M. (2010). Relational Space: Creating a Context for Innovation in Collaborative Consortia.

De La Torre-Ruiz, J. M., & Aragón-Correa, J. A. (2012). Performance of newcomers in highly interdependent teams: the case of basketball teams. European Sport Management Quarterly, 12(3), 205-226.

Guzzo, R. A., & Dickson, M. W. (1996). Teams in organizations: Recent research on performance and effectiveness. Annual review of psychology, 47(1), 307-338.

Levi, D. (2013). Group dynamics for teams. SAGE Publications, Incorporated.

Obama, B. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. (2014). Remarks by the president in state of union address, Washington, DC.

Roediger, H. L., & Finn, B. (2009). Getting it wrong: Surprising tips on how to learn. Scientific American.

Senge, P. M., Cambron-McCabe, N., Lucas, T., Smith, B., & Dutton, J. (2012). Schools That Learn (Updated and Revised): A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education. Random House Digital, Inc.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.