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Does being a band director prevent you from being "the best?"

Bret Pimentel, the "woodwind ninja" as many know him, recently wrote a blog titled, "Does woodwind doubling prevent you from being the 'best?'" where he lays out his personal experience with a question many of us have to ask at some point in our careers (go read his posts NOW if you don't already). Whether you are a saxophonist, clarinetist, conductor, scientist, bodybuilder, or any number of hyper-focused careers, many times we think have to decide how "great" we want to be at one thing or another.

My perspective on this is unique: I went straight through all of my degrees, Bachelor in Education, Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts, hoping to get my dream job teaching saxophone and jazz at a major college or university. When that didn't pan out, I took a job teaching 5-12 band in rural Nebraska and have thoroughly enjoyed everything about it. I knew, going into it that my saxophone playing would take a major hit, that gigs would dry up, and that progress on the instrument I had devoted over half of my life to would stagnate. That's just what happens when you're a band director in rural Nebraska... Right?

Wrong. I would say that being a band director has made me a better musician. Here's why:

  • My practicing is more focused than it was before. While I'm sure not going to be pulling "Klonos" or "Fuzzy Bird Sonata" out any time soon, I am more focused on the quality of my practice than I have ever been before. Why? I don't have unlimited practice time now. I often give up 30-40 minutes of my lunch time to practice and I have to make it count. It has forced me to figure out what I REALLY need to work on and what can wait for the summer, when I have more time to budget for practice.

  • I have more performing opportunities than when I lived in a bigger city. Crazy, right? It's true, though: my performing opportunities are more plentiful and more diverse than they were before. I play with dance bands (doubling comes in handy), solo (with a MIDI track background), with the TCB Saxophone Quartet, with regularly rehearsing jazz groups, and with symphonies. Most of those opportunities have come about thanks to the connections I've made as a band director.

  • I have a more diverse skill set as a performer. I won't lie: I faked a lot of flute before I became a band director. The same can be said for clarinet (though I did take lessons, I wasn't confident in my abilities). My doubling skills have improved dramatically.because I play along with my since I started teaching beginners. I've looked into technique books on all of the other woodwind instruments because I need the resources to make my students better. That has, in turn, made me better. I've also grown accustomed to my setups simply because I'm playing those instruments more as I frequently play along with my beginners.

My definition of "the best" has certainly changed through all of my experiences. I used to think it was black and white: you either ARE the best saxophonist or you AREN'T. Now I think it's highly individualized. Am I the best band directing woodwind specialist? Probably not, but I sure feel like I'm well on my way to that goal, I'm improving in the ways I want to, and I'm incredibly excited about that.

How has your definition changed?

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