Who’s Your Oboe?

My wife and I were at the symphony last weekend. As is customary, the concertmaster (the violinist who sits closest to the conductor) stood up and pointed to the oboist. The oboist then played an A note at 440 hertz, the worldwide tuning standard.

Which staffer sets the tone for your summer camp?

The woodwinds matched the note, then the brass. Then the oboist cranked out another A and the strings tuned up. You’ve probably all heard an orchestra settle in just before the conductor walks out.

Last weekend was no different. Everyone was on the same note. Which got me wondering.

I turned to my wife and asked, “What if the oboe is off?” She’s an accomplished pianist and clarinet player, so she quipped: “Is that your deep thought for the day?”

We both smiled and then I got serious.

“Well, yeah, kinda,” I said.

“Look,” she said, “the oboe player uses a tuning fork before he comes out on stage. Or maybe these days he uses an electronic tuner. Either way, it’s an A at 440 and so he’s never off. It’s his job.”

I pondered that one for a while. Somewhere, some audiologist or engineer looking at an oscilloscope made sure that the electronic tuner his company manufactured was producing a genuine A at 440. And then it was the oboist’s responsibility simply to match his instrument to that pitch.

Seems like a done deal. For a professional orchestra.

But what about your camp, school, or youth program? How do you communicate the gold standards–for behavior, leadership, and policy?

Mind you, the oboist doesn’t perform the whole concert alone, but someone in the orchestra needs to be sure that all of the players are on the same page. It’s a team effort that needs a common starting point.

Sound familiar?

Perhaps multiple people in your organization set the standard. Perhaps it’s just one. And if that person (or those people) are off, the whole staff is thrown askew.

The drinking culture at most camps, to take one example, only changes when influential and respected staff members change their own behavior. Their leadership equivalent of an A at 440 is legal, moderate, and sharply focused on the responsibility each staff member has for the camp and the children they serve.

If that starting note is one of excess, transgression, and disregard for professional responsibilities, the entire summer’s performance is off. Way off.

In all kinds of ways, you may think you’re conducting an orchestra, but it’s a discordant mirage unless your players are tuned into an accepted standard. That counts as a deep thought, right?

This weekend, turn your attention to one or two important ways your staff adhere to a policy or leadership technique that sets the tone for the summer. Ask yourself: Who is your oboe?

I look forward to reading your posted replies.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is the school psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy and the co-founder of ExpertOnlineTraining.com. Learn more by visiting CampSpirit.com.

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One comment on “Who’s Your Oboe?

  1. Bob Braun on said:

    As my daughter is currently a high school oboist (and I a former band director), I was intrigued. I absolutely agree that the true standards (not the ones simply stated in the staff manual) are set by the role-modeling behavior (positive & negative) of key staff. But in looking for cues to those unwritten standards, new staff members will gravitate to those personalities in which they are most comfortable. So, I would suggest it may be a bit risky and less effective to place this responsibility on a single standard bearer.
    I would suggest a bit of a shift in the oboist metaphor! First of all, I believe first & foremost the camp oboist should be the director. Continuing the metaphor, the oboist should take a small group (perhaps the woodwinds!) and pre-tune together in a practice room prior to stepping on stage ~ in camp terms, the camp director meets and works with the key staff (admin team) to ensure they are all on board and buying into the written & implied standards before staff training commences. This is one area the ‘trickle-down’ theory actually works!
    Thanks for the great article Chris! Being a trombonist (the clown jester of the orchestra), I’d love to see what metaphor you’d have for our section!!

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