Extending a hand to your neighbor next door (or across the hall)

Seth McMullen, R&S Chair for High School Choirs and Directors of Choirs, Eagle High School

Forming a positive working relationship with choral colleagues is one of the great benefits of ACDA membership. But what about the colleagues in other music disciplines? Specifically, what about colleagues next door or across the hall?

Since 2008, I have been privileged to have TJ Eriksen as a colleague at Eagle High School. We have formed a team that has each other’s best interests in mind. I find this preferable to competition for students, working against one another, and poor communication. While I certainly don’t have any inclination (or time) to start a career as a relational therapist, here are the key elements of our professional relationship.


Communication is the most important aspect of our team at Eagle. We plan a year out; in February of 2014, we will be scheduling the 2014-15 school year. We first schedule outside events over which we have no control, such as Large Group Festival, Solo/Ensemble, and State Music Educator’s Conference are scheduled first. We then negotiate our individual program events: I avoid scheduling choral events during the week of District III Marching Band Competition, TJ avoids the week of choir tour. In short, we try our best to eliminate scheduling conflicts.

A nice by-product of this scheduling process is that we are highly aware of one another’s goals for each year. I know what TJ is planning, he understands what I want to accomplish.

More important than our scheduling is our daily communication and collaboration. We make it a point to talk every morning, sharing our plans for the day, and how they fit into our plans for the year. We ask each other for advice and bounce ideas off one another when working with parents, administration, or on fundraising.

Common ground and mutual support

We support each other at staff meetings and planning sessions. On in-service days, we go to lunch. We advertise each other’s concerts and events to our students. We attend the other’s concerts and events (OK, I need to get better at this!) We focus on what we have in common.

TJ sang in college, and prior to pursuing my Master’s degree I also taught band – we have a great understanding of what the other is doing. Even if you have never played in a wind ensemble, marching band, or orchestra, and even of if your instrumental colleagues have never sung in a choir, you have a great deal of common ground through music. You know what good music sounds like; chances are your colleague also does! TJ will often pop into rehearsal to give a comment on what he heard. I will occasionally listen in on band rehearsal and make a comment. We ask one another for assistance and value the other person’s opinion and input.

Combining resources

Another positive result of our collaborative environment and the trust we have built is that we have figured out how to combine our resources.

We encourage our college-bound music students to expand their horizons. Instrumental students that are planning on studying music in college are encouraged to spend a year or two in choir to improve their sight-reading skills. Choral students are likewise encouraged to participate in the Marching Band Drum Line or Front Ensemble to improve their rhythmic knowledge. This is of great benefit to the individual students, but also benefits each program and fosters goodwill among the students of both programs.

In addition to sharing students, we share purchases. African percussion, auxiliary percussion instruments, piano tuning and maintenance, amplifiers, shelves for the music library, a music department trophy case, and new Wenger chairs are all recent purchases made jointly. We collaborate on a community Veteran’s Day event, where we combine choral and instrumental ensembles and perform “God Bless America.” The jazz band and jazz choir collaborate in a Fall Jazz night, and we are planning bigger and better combined events for the future!

Compromise and understanding

Of course this relationship was not built in a day. When we have conflict, we solve them with compromise and understanding. When scheduling conflict cannot be avoided, our motto is: “Performance takes precedence over practice, and District events trump all others.”

Here are two examples of this practice in action: The Gene Harris Jazz festival was rescheduled and the new dates were in direct conflict with our District Choral Festival. TJ attempted to get the students in both jazz band and choir to participate in both events. When it became clear that the solution would not work, he withdrew the jazz band from the festival.

The day of the Fall Choir Concert the Marching Band was touring our feeder Elementary and Middle schools. I had forgotten this event was on the calendar and was expecting to see full choirs at rehearsals. The band’s return was delayed, and as our varsity mixed choir was warming up for their final run-through, I noticed over a dozen gaps in the formation. At the midpoint of the rehearsal, the missing marching band students began trickling in. I was furious. As soon as rehearsal ended, I was in TJ’s office. Once I realized what had happened – that I had missed the event on the calendar, and that the delay was outside of his control, I quickly backpedalled.

Collaboration and friendship

Over five years TJ and I have created a collaborative department, and a friendship. We trust each other. I certainly admire the program he is building, and I know the feeling is mutual. Regardless of your intent, you are building a team with the instrumental department from your first day on the job. Take the extra time to get to know your colleagues.

We all do this for the sake of the students, shouldn’t they also see us model professional, courteous behavior? Will your working relationship be one of positive collaboration, casual indifference, or hostility? I certainly know which I prefer!