MAC Corner: Action Items

Mike Lawson • Commentary • July 25, 2013

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By Marcia Neel




Strategies for the Instrumental Music Teacher from the Music Achievement Council.

It’s been a few weeks since the end of the 2012-13 school year and if you are like most, thoughts of the upcoming 2013-14 school year have already begun wafting into your consciousness. Questions like, “How might I do things better next year?” will grow louder and louder in your “self talk,” as Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser has so perfectly labeled it.


The new school year provides us with opportunities to enhance what we have done in the past and it is in this spirit of lifelong learning that the following ideas are presented as you prepare for the fall.

Attitude Above All

Genuinely caring about students and sharing your love of music-making will keep you focused on the vital contributions you are making to the lives of each of your students. Enthusiasm is contagious. Your enthusiasm will help with classroom management since your level of energy will inspire students to remain productively engaged. If students see that you are sold on your product – active music-making – it will become infectious and they will be inspired by your passion.

Being fair is always a challenge that takes constant vigilance. While we may naturally like some students more than others, we should look for good qualities in each and capitalize on them. Acknowledge and reward all students for their achievements – both in the music classroom as well as in other school and out-of-school activities. Viewing our students as individuals as well as members of the ensemble helps us to see the positive attributes of each.


Establishing a routine not only makes rehearsals easier for you, it makes them easier for the students you serve because it provides structure. To ensure consistency, consider the following sequence:






















  1. Students enter quickly and quietly (music may be playing in the background).
  2. Students retrieve their folders and take their seats.
  3. Students put their music in rehearsal order as indicated by the detailed lesson plan clearly visible on the board in the same place each day. The plan should not only indicate the order of the selections you will rehearse but which sections and what specifically will be rehearsed – dynamics, articulation, and so on.
  4. Attendance is taken as soon as the bell rings. Can you require students to be in their seats with folders in hand by the time the bell rings? If not and students are still getting to their seats from retrieving their folders, it should be done as quickly as possible. I know of a band director who starts a recording of a march (changes weekly) when the bell rings. Students are not considered to be tardy so long as they are in their seats with instruments in hand by the conclusion. It works well because the march encourages a prescriptive expectation as well as a weekly listening lesson. The students love it!
  5. Begin with scales and warm-ups and ensure there is relevance to the literature you will be rehearsing that day.
  6. Try to make strides in at least three pieces of music each day. Remember that the more you expect, the better. I am not referring to level of difficulty of literature, but to the achievement of musical aspects within each work.
  7. Review and analysis of the day’s rehearsal. First, you’ll want to review the musical accomplishments made by asking the students a question like, “What improvements did we make in the Mozart today?” At the high school level, it is recommended that teachers use rehearsal review forms to record daily achievements made in rehearsals. Have students submit them every Friday as part of their course requirements. These could be used in authentic assessment and your commitment to literacy will be appreciated by all. Be certain to expect good writing, spelling, and punctuation. Second, articulate what needs be worked on tomorrow as a result of what was achieved today.
  8. Make relevant announcements within the last couple of minutes. Never start rehearsals with announcements – always begin rehearsals promptly with music-making.
  9. Dismiss.



We should also strive to continually improve our communication skills, including our listening. Being a more effective communicator means building meaningful relationships with everyone you come in contact with each and every day. Communication is often viewed simply as the passing of information from one source to another but it is so much more extensive than that. Communication is also the special way that you walk through the hallway with that “approachable aura” surrounding you; the way in which you look at your colleagues with a smile on your face; the way you work cooperatively with others; and the genuine concern you show by being a good listener. In short, how you communicate defines you as a person as well as you as an educator.

If you are a young teacher, seek out the advice of your immediate supervisor often. If you are an experienced educator, provide counsel and assistance to your younger colleagues – even when they aren’t asking. A simple phone call from a friendly voice will be a welcome respite to any new teacher who is going through those initial growing pains. When you think about it, instrumental ensemble directors are (or at some time “will be”) accountants, architects, authors, career planners, financial planners, travel agents, politicians, psychologists, public relations executives, quality assurance executives, sales executives and, at times, magicians! To play all of these roles well (especially within the prescribed school or district guidelines that administrators know in detail) we need the help of these leaders as we move forward. When supervisors become actively involved in decision-making, they soon see that you are committed to providing what is best for the students. The best directors say that they have wonderful principals. Yet, in most cases, the reason for this is because the director has repeatedly sought out the counsel of the principal along the way and has thus developed more of a professional partnership.

Questions that young educators may want to ask more experienced directors might include:














  • What selections are best for my particular instrumentation this year?
  • What classroom management techniques work best?
  • How can I inspire my students to practice?
  • What grading policies do you have in place?
  • What does your handbook include?


The best “mentors” always make the time to answer questions because they want to help others achieve. Ask away!

First Performance Concert for Beginners

Actively engage your beginners within the first six or seven weeks of school. The best instrumental recruiters have received an enormous response from parents by hosting an “Informance” early in the school year. This is when our students and their parents are the most excited about playing an instrument and we should capitalize on this enthusiasm. Ask your principal to serve as the emcee of your program and provide him with bullet points to share with the audience while your students demonstrate what they have learned so far. You might begin by having the principal ask the students to demonstrate how they tried to put together their instrument when they first received it. Students could then open their cases, pull out their instruments, and then display a very confused look on their faces as they try, unsuccessfully, to assemble the pieces. The principal could then continue by asking the students to demonstrate how they have now learned to put their instrument together and, of course, they will do it flawlessly and get a great round of applause.

The “Informance” should last no more than 30 minutes and should demonstrate to parents how well their children perform when part of an ensemble. The students will be extremely excited to show off for their families all that they have learned and it will go a long way to creating that excitement for performing. Students will practice more because they are preparing for a concert and parents will be thrilled with the outcome. Many instrumental educators are now using the “First Performance Concert for Band/Orchestra” materials, which provide this same type of experience but with a script and demo already included in this turnkey program. This publication is available through local school music dealers.

A number of directors have also actively engaged these parents by asking the beginning students to teach their parents how to play their chosen instrument. At a subsequent performance, parents are asked to take the stage to play several selections from the method book as they stand side-by-side with their budding musicians. The parents enjoy participating in this supportive activity and the students learn a great deal from teaching their parents how to play. Everyone gets a kick out of seeing the parents as they struggle to play the perfect performance.

Students First

The final concept to keep in mind is to always-always-always ensure that the student is at the center of everything that you do – especially in your decision-making. It is very easy for “the good of the program” to supplant what was once “the good of the student.” These are not always the same thing.

A much more extensive “Teacher Checklist” is available in the “Tips for Success: A Guide for Instrumental Music Teachers” materials available through the Music Achievement Council website at The first Tip provides an extensive checklist for teachers to not only help us become the best professional music educators possible, but also to help us realize the full potential in each and every one of our students. The list delineates a core of noteworthy concepts to keep in mind – particularly for those in the earlier stages of their careers. It also serves as an effective reminder for all of us, no matter at what stage of our career. Copies of the “First Performance Concert for Band/Orchestra” materials are also available at that same website.

Marcia-Neel-018rtf-copyMarcia Neel is president of Music Education Consultants, Inc. and serves as educational advisor to the Music Achievement Council.

In this capacity, she leads sessions at state MEA conferences, district in-service days, and dealer workshops to provide practical success strategies to help educators with the many and varied elements of the successful program.

Email Neel at to inquire about a session in your area. Complimentary flash drives containing the materials referenced in the above article are available.

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