Leading with C.A.R.E.

Leading with Care

By Dr. David W. Vandewalker

The ever-increasing demands on students and teachers seems to be at an all-time high. While we are thankful that the most extreme difficulties of the pandemic are behind us, it is becoming evident that the impact of the recent challenges are large and will continue to have a significant effect on our students and music programs for many years to come. Now, more than ever before we, as music educators, must lead with CARE.

As a teacher, it is easy to become myopic in our daily routines and tasks, especially in stressful circumstances. Stress often allows the “grass is always greener” mindset to creep into our heads. The reality is that all things are not equal and we as educators must tend to the garden that we have been given as we work and nurture the soil to empower all and offer opportunities to flourish. And, in the words of Benjamin Zander, lead others to discover their “full realm of possibility.”

When one examines student achievement and musical performance success, there are a plethora of factors influencing the learning environment but there is one thing that remains constant: in every condition whether urban, suburban, wealthy, or resource-insecure, block schedule or traditional day, etc. you find programs making wonderful music while others struggle significantly. That observation suggests that kids are kids; importantly, the teacher on the podium has perhaps the largest influence in their success of discovering their musical and artistic realm of possibility. Therefore, I encourage you as a music educator to prioritize your mindset as one who leads with CARE: Craft, Artistry, Relationships, and Equity.


A music educator focused on their craft spends as much time, or more, on ‘how’ they teach as they do “what” to teach thereby impacting the culture of the program. Are we teaching in a way that motivates and inspires students to be brave in their space as they learn the performance skills required?


We, as teachers, should be providing models of artistic expression daily. Do we empower our students to explore a variety of ways to communicate a phrase or composition giving them a voice and choice in how to lead an audience into an aesthetically expressive experience?


Music education provides an incredible opportunity to build relationships with our students over an extended time. Are we using our time together in such a way that every student feels belonging in our ensemble and with the musicians around them? And lastly, are we as educators using our roles to ensure that ALL of our students have an equitable opportunity to discover their full realm of possibility? What can we as directors do to diminish potential barriers that may exist for our students?


Regarding equity, two major inequities related to musical and artistic achievement are access to instructional enrichment and quality instruments. How might we, as directors, utilize our resources to help students needing additional instruction or private lessons gain access who do not have the financial means to seek it themselves? Booster enrichment funds or Title 2 federal funding can be used to support additional section coach instruction for students enrolled in the arts.

Tone, intonation, and technical facility are crucial components in every criterion-referenced evaluation in music education. Simply stated, there is a strong correlation between the quality of an instrument and a student’s success within the parameters of tone, intonation, and technical proficiency. I’ve seen many moderately motivated students excel because they have a great horn while other students who are diligent in their practice face limitations due to the inferior nature of their instrument. Student retention is also folded into this subject as students who perceive their growth is hindered by an inequitable environment are more susceptible to dropping out of the arts. Therefore, whether it is through school district dollars or booster club fundraising enrichment, providing students with the opportunity to participate and upgrade their sound is imperative if we are going to provide equity for all students.

The board of education’s obligation to the stakeholders is to provide all students with the academically appropriate equipment necessary for learning. Computers for a graphic arts lab are replaced with new technology and software on a regular basis to aid in student achievement. Advanced calculators or personal devices are provided to facilitate learning in mathematics, etc. In a similar practice, as a district performing arts administrator, I allocated funding for directors to purchase intermediate and professional level instruments for all district-owned assets.

Moreover, one’s ability to purchase an instrument can be a barrier for students to access the arts in band or orchestra, especially in our Title I school communities. Thus, I would advocate that it is important to consider using ESSER or Title 2 funds for purchasing school-issued flutes, clarinets, saxophones, and trumpets in addition to the more standardized school-owned instruments to ensure student voice and choice are equitable in instrument preference selection. The quality of the instrument provided is also a factor in equity. If the students in an ensemble are performing on upgraded instruments, then, a student playing the school-issued instrument should be afforded the same opportunities as their peers. Furthermore, a comprehensive, quality, instrument inventory within a school cluster (middle/high) merits full consideration to provide equity in access for students for their complete 6-12th grade educational experience.

Leading with CARE is so much more than teaching band or orchestra. It is about elevating our music program through caring for both the people and the music. I hope these thoughts regarding craft, artistry, relationships, and equity have provided you an opportunity to reflect upon some strategies to upgrade your sound and your influence as a leader!

David W. Vandewalker serves as the executive director for the Servant Leadership Association for Music and the principal conductor of the Georgia Wind Symphony. Additionally, he served as the Coordinator of Performing Arts for the Fulton County Schools (2016-2020), assistant director of bands at Georgia State University (2012-2016) and Director of Bands at Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Georgia (2000-2012). Dr. Vandewalker earned degrees at Baylor University, Central Michigan University, and Boston University. He is a recipient of the Sudler Flag of Honor, ten-NBA Citation of Excellence Awards, three National Wind Band Honors Awards, and is an elected member of the American Bandmasters Association. David and Pamela reside in Marietta, GA where she serves over 800 children in music each week.

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