Quick tips for new directors of music

Liz Dunbar
Friday, September 1, 2023

In the second installment of our quick tips column, Liz Dunbar provides advice for new directors of music.

Stock Masters/ Canva

Fact finding mission. Meet classroom teaching colleagues before September. Learn how the curriculum, co-curriculum and performing occasions are currently organised. Sketch out an overview of the year and plan the first half-term in a bit more detail. Use the MTA, Music Mark and ISM guides to NPME2 to shape your thinking.

Logistics. Get into your new department's teaching spaces and assess what's possible with existing layouts and resources. If needs be, have a clear-out so that you can start the year in clean, tidy, functioning rooms. Make friends with the site team.

Champion those around you. Find out what kind of musicians work in your department and let the best person lead on things that aren't your field of expertise. You're not expected to be the best at everything; you're there to build an effective team, so facilitate that.

Engage with your VMTs. Meet VMTs in the first fortnight and find out what it's like to work in your department. Make their teaching spaces habitable and welcoming. As you settle into routines with the classes you teach, invite them into your lessons to see how you work. Ask them what they see and hear. This will make it easier for you to go into their lessons and offer feedback in return.

Finance. Find out about your departmental budget and any other sources of funding you can tap into. Be smart about seeking out sponsorship, bursaries and generating additional income. Talk to your music hub's body of trustees. Double your concert ticket sales by adding a GoFundMe QR code at the back of the programme.

Be organised. Shape your year around data drops, parents’ evenings, coursework deadlines, external examination dates, co-curricular performance events and visits. Diarise and communicate all of this with colleagues, students and parents. If you can't meet with colleagues in person on a weekly basis, make an effort to keep channels of communication open. Ask for two hours a week of admin support if that's not already in place. Use the NPME2 guide for headteachers to support your case.

Your team is bigger than you think. Meet with your music hub lead and any other external providers who might enrich and strengthen your work. Establish links with your nearest university music department. Find out where the musicians are in your school's teaching and support staff, governors and parents. There will be some absolute gems out there ready and willing to help. Befriend music departments you admire. Connect with your local primary schools.

Educate school leaders. It's your job to enlighten your headteacher, senior leaders and governors about the value of music education. It's unlikely that your line manager will be a musician or have had a top-notch music education. Constructively challenge the ‘practical’ subject label. All subjects have both academic and practical applications. You are not the soft option in-flight entertainment department that provides background noise.

Stay up to date. We never stop learning and getting better at what we do. Connect with the best that's out there, both locally and nationally. Attend live and online training, discussions, expos, conferences by the MTA, Music Mark and ISM.

Lead by example but be mindful of others. You will have loads of ideas of how you want to shape things, but this is going to be a five-year, not five-week, process. Building trust takes time. Introduce new things gradually following discussions and agreement. No doubt you will have expressed your vision for the department in the interview process, but providing thoughtful and challenging learning experiences day-in, day-out will demonstrate how well you ‘walk the walk’.

Further Reading

Toyne, S.: ‘Music’, What Should Schools Teach? (UCL Press, 2021)

Have you ‘quick tips’ on an area of teaching you’d like to share? Please email the editor at music.teacher@markallengroup.com