Growing up, I was the youngest of six siblings and I was mainly raised by a single mother. My mom spent 25 years of her career serving students as an educator in the school district where I now work, and she taught me about priorities. I learned that new clothes were not a priority. However, taking private lessons to learn how to play instruments and sing was a priority. Expensive haircuts and fancy nails were not a priority. That said, ensuring I had access to quality instruments, sheet music, and method books was a priority.

The prioritization of music in my life influences the way I lead each day. This article contains the top five lessons I learned growing up as a musician, which impacts who I am as a leader. In my role as a school district administrator, I leverage these lessons daily. As you read these lessons, I invite you to reflect on your practice as a leader – to see which pieces you’re already enacting and which ones present themselves as opportunities for growth.

  1. See the possibilities of the future, while laying a foundation in the present

Being a musician involves developing a strong foundation in technique. Without proper technique, most musicians will not be able to perform rigorous music at a high level of excellence. I learned the importance of technique at a young age. When I first began learning the harp at age 7, my initial teacher did not provide me instruction around technique. Two years later, I transitioned to an internationally respected teacher, Mrs. Patricia Wooster, who trained me in the Salzedo Method of harp. I basically had to start learning from scratch when I got to Mrs. Wooster, and the previous two years of lessons flew out the door because of the poor technique I’d been taught. The Salzedo Method was specific: every time I played the harp, my thumbs and fingers needed to consistently be curved a certain way, my wrists held at a particular angle, my elbows extended up, and my shoulders relaxed. Each time I sat down to play the harp – whether I was just playing scales to warm up or whether I was tackling a rigorous piece of music – it was important to exhibit proper technique.

As a leader, solid technique involves consistent application of two pieces: (1) engaging, equipping, and empowering stakeholders throughout the change process and (2) leveraging continuous improvement practices and systems thinking in order to achieve success (Gbenro 2017, 2016, 2013). This idea of laying a solid foundation that will provide stability as our work becomes more challenging is important. Sometimes we must “go to go fast”, intentionally laying the groundwork for multi-phase projects that will set our programs, teachers, students, and families up for success in the long run. For example, I just spent time partnering with team members to map out logic models for the 2018-19 school year. For each content and program I oversee, we answered 5 questions within the logic model:

  1. What are the goals with this content/program for the 2018-19 school year?
  2. What are the fiscal and human resources needed to accomplish these different goals?
  3. What are the risks (potential speed bumps) to accomplishing the goals? How might we reduce (mitigate) these risks?
  4. What are the high-level milestones we’ll aim for throughout the 2018-19 school year?
  5. Overall within this content/program, we’ll identify success as:
    • Short-Term (2018-19): _______ as measured by ______.
    • Mid-Term (2020-21): _______ as measured by ______.
    • Long-Term (2021-22 and Beyond): _______ as measured by ______.

Taking the time to answer and document these questions might seem cumbersome to some people because it does take time to slow down and come up with a plan. That said, once the structure is in place and documented, my team members can run with the projects. Having this plan in place also allows us to communicate commitments to educators and administrators alike.

  1. Practice makes permanent…not perfect

You may have heard the phrase, “Practice makes perfect.” Well, I’m here to tell you practice only makes perfect if you practice each note, rhythm, and ingering perfectly. If I played the notes incorrectly when I practiced, I performed the notes incorrectly during my recital. The same concept applied as a vocalist – if I did not exhibit energy and display appropriate expressions in my face when I practiced, this dull approach flowed into my performance. As a musician, the reality is that if we practice something imperfectly, then we’re going to perform it imperfectly. However, if we practice something perfectly – even if it’s very slow and broken down into notes, rhythm, and technique separately – we’ll be able to speed it up and perform it perfectly.

This idea of practice making things permanent has influenced my leadership in terms of aligning my beliefs with my words, silence, actions, and inactions (Gbenro, 2013). For example, I believe a Whole Child education is best for students. Coupled with this belief is the need for my actions and decisions to for each student to be healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged (ASCD, 2018). This support for a Whole Child education is realized in the professional growth opportunities my staff members facilitate, the instructional materials I invest funds in, and the work sessions I sponsor where educators collaborate. Consciously taking the time to align my beliefs and actions as a leader has become second nature, because I’ve intentionally practiced it over time. The same is true for any leader who wants to be more data-informed, culturally responsive, or communicative. Start by consistently aligning your words and actions with your espoused beliefs and, eventually, you will form a permanent (Covey, 2004).

  1. Take a data-informed and results-driven approach

Before jumping in with a solution, it is important to diagnose the issue if you want to achieve results. The concept of continuous improvement is a matter of course for musicians. I did this by video recording myself practicing a song, watching myself practice in a mirror, tapping the rhythm with each hand, practicing the notes with hands separately, and, on the harp, practicing pedal movements and timing separately from my hands. Slowing down the tempo of a piece that was difficult also helped because I could be very intentional about volume, tone, and technique.

For example, in 2015 educational leaders in my school district wanted to understand how to more effectively support schools in a standards-based education system. Before jumping to solutions, we conducted a large-scale evaluation of our system, leveraging data from educators, students, and families to paint a picture of the current learning landscape. We published data-informed findings and results-driven recommendations in a formal document, which laid the foundation for a 3-year plan to align standards, professional growth supports, and updates to instructional materials.  Specifically, over 500 different educators have served on committees to help us make progress on the “recommendations” resulting from our initial program evaluation. This fall, we’ll conduct another large-scale program evaluation to identify and report the progress that’s been made, alongside recommendations for continued multi-year efforts in support of students and educators.

  1. The impossible is possible

As a musician, sometimes I looked at a new piece of music I was expected to learn and said, “I don’t think I can play that. It looks way too hard.” That’s when my teacher would respond, “You can! Here, let me play it for you so you can get an idea of what this will sound like when you have it under your fingers.” Amazed, I’d listen to my teacher perform the piece and I still did not believe I’d be able to learn it. I overcame my self-doubt because my dedication to become a better musician motivated me to consistently practice, and eventually master, the piece. My teachers trained me so well that, eventually, when a new piece of challenging music was placed in front of me, I could read and instantly memorize one line of music ahead of where I was playing. This strategy allowed me to pick up any piece of music and immediately engage with it.

As a leader, I regularly face self-doubt when challenging, seemingly impossible projects come my way. The other day, a thought-partner and I sat in my office as we prepared to embark on a new project we’d been assigned. I said, “I think people look at projects and say, ‘This is such a mess and it’s practically unsolvable. Let’s give it to Hannah.’” As we began to envision the possibilities and identify ways to gather data for diagnosing the existing state of the situation, I began to have hope we could overcome the challenging project in order to help our teachers, students, and families. Time and again, it feels like a task or project is too daunting – the list of barriers to achieving success is too long and complex. However, by applying the different strategies outlined in this article, alongside research and evaluation strategies, I consistently partner with stakeholders to overcome each challenge, making the seemingly impossible, possible.

  1. Every day counts

In a rehearsal for an ensemble, like a band or choir, every musician makes a difference and must choose to be excellent each day to create extraordinary music. Imagine if in every classroom and every meeting each person in the room had the attitude, “I’m going to be extraordinary – not ordinary – today.” Expecting excellence as a musician and ensemble member has taught me to relentlessly expect excellence of myself as a leader, and inspire excellence in others. Every day, every hour, every moment we have the choice: settle for ordinary or live an extraordinary life that invents the future….

My challenge to you: How will you be extraordinary this week? How will you help others be extraordinary? Who will you make a difference for? (Gbenro, 2013)

Overall, the most important part of leading as a musician is learning through the process. When a musician performs on stage people listen and think, “Wow! This is amazing!” For the musician, the performance is nice, but the part of the puzzle that has a long-term impact is learning to love the process . Over time, I’ve become a better mroach leadership continually makes me a better  .

About the Author:

Hannah Gbenro

Hannah Gbenro

Hannah Gbenro, Ed.D. holds multiple degrees and certifications from the fields of education and business; she serves as a director of alignment and innovation for curriculum and instruction in a large urban district in Washington State. Prior to her current role, Dr. Gbenro served at each level – elementary, middle, high, district – as a teacher and/or administrator. The leadership of Dr. Gbenro has been recognized through numerous awards over the last decade, most recently by the Washington Educational Research Association (WERA). Twitter Handle: @DrGbenro.


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