Conducting Your Way to Better Classroom Management

Dr. Sarah Labovitz  • February 2023MAC Corner • February 19, 2023

In 1977, educational theorist Jacob Kounin published Discipline and Group Management in Classrooms. According to his observations, there was not a noticeable difference between how good and bad teachers responded to disruptive students in their classrooms. He hypothesized a proactive approach to discipline and instruction is what separated the more successful ones from their peers and a proactive approach to classroom management could reduce the number of incidents needing management. He identified five group management techniques that could help teachers practice this proactive approach: with-it-ness, overlapping, momentum, smoothness, and group focus. When one looks at these management techniques through the gaze of a conductor, they can identify behaviors and practices that can be used on the podium to help stop common ensemble problems before they start. 

An educator demonstrates with-it-ness when they know what is going on in all areas of their class, or, more realistically, when students think their teacher knows everything that is going on. While it is unlikely any director knows absolutely everything that is always happening, there are some behaviors they can practice from the podium that help perpetuate the illusion they are omnipotent. This illusion alone can help with classroom management as students are less likely to act up if they think there is a chance they will get caught.

When on the podium, a director should have a thorough knowledge of their score. If a conductor can keep their eyes out of the music and in the ensemble, they will be more likely to see problems as they are developing as opposed to waiting until those potential issues are fully formed. Knowledge of the score also helps conductors have interpretive information to relay to their students gesturally and verbally. If students know they cannot get everything they need to realize the conductor’s vision from their printed music, they are more likely to pay attention and react to what is shown and said from the podium. Likewise, if a conductor knows their score well enough, they can rehearse with big ears and provide commentary that gets deeper than surface level, students will be more likely to view that person as an expert and pay attention. 

Verbal and non-verbal communication also informs a student’s perception of their director’s with-it-ness. A conductor who stands tall, makes consistent eye contact, and speaks clearly has a better chance at portraying with-it-ness compared to a conductor who speaks unclearly, makes poor eye contact, and hunches over their stand. A conductor’s podium presence should communicate confidence, knowledge, respect, and musicality to be used as a tool of proactive classroom management.

Overlapping is when an educator deals with two matters simultaneously. Someone demonstrating this technique would be able to keep a lesson moving forward without being sidetracked by the myriad of distractions that threaten classrooms daily. 

Conductors who can keep time while communicating other musical information with their left hand are already practicing overlapping. Investing practice time on one’s hand independence can increase the variety of gestures at their disposal which would increase the amount of communication possible with only their hands and face. Articulation, dynamics, balance, entrances, and releases are just a few of the musical components conductors could gesturally rehearse, without stopping to talk. If one can make desired changes to the music without stopping, they are eliminating opportunities where students can cause trouble, which will help their classroom management.

Another large way to practice overlapping is to teach your students to play without a conductor. If one can get their ensemble to take responsibility for the time by listening to each other, the conductor is then free to move on and off the podium to deal with writing a hall pass or dealing with a visitor to the classroom without stopping the group. Any group can be responsible for the time and can play without a conductor if they have been taught how and have practiced this skill. Teach this to a group using music consistent in time and tempo. Once this skill is acquired it lets the conductor enjoy a newfound flexibility when dealing with classroom interruptions. 

Appropriately fast pacing in a classroom is a sign a teacher has good momentum. An educator who practices great momentum avoids “overdwelling,” the word Kounin used to describe spending too much time on a particular subject, and “fragmentation,” Kounin’s verbiage for breaking a single lesson or activity into too many separate parts. 

There are many conductor behaviors that can contribute to good momentum from the podium. For instance, if a conductor has a large bag of tricks for fixing common individual and ensemble problems both gesturally and verbally, they have a better chance at fast pacing. Teachers who keep repeating the same thing over and over when a problem continues will be guilty of overdwelling, where a teacher who keeps trying different strategies will eventually be able to find solutions to problems and move on. Familiarity with the score can help a director predict problems and find multiple solutions to those issues, prior to ever stepping on the podium. 

Familiarity with the score can also minimize down time which minimizes overdwelling and fragmentation. If a conductor is familiar with their score, they are better able to think about what problems they are hearing and immediately make a game plan prior to giving a cut off. Once they stop the group, they can start instructing right away and eliminate silence that could easily be filled by restless ensemble members, modeling great momentum. 

Smoothness is the ability to transition between activities seamlessly. Kounin described this as avoiding “stimulus-boundedness” (teachers getting distracted and thus distracting students from their task), “thrusts” (sudden interruption by the teacher), “dangles” (switching to another activity without finishing the first), and “flip-flops” (going back and forth between different activities). 

In a music classroom, smoothness can be demonstrated every time a conductor completes a teaching cycle. Many times, directors can get caught correctly identifying a problem and offering a solution but failing to let the student know they have successfully made the correction, instead they merely move on. Gesturally giving a thumbs up or pairing a smile with meaningful eye contact after students play a successful rep can close that teaching cycle and communicate success so the director can move on to another area without being guilty of a dangle or flip-flop.

Purposefully choosing warmups that directly connect with your musical objectives for your concert music each day can help with smoothness. If a director knows they need to work on clarity of articulation in the first piece they are rehearsing, it would be wise to end the warmup with something that deals with articulation. While students are putting away their warmups and getting out their music the director can explain what they will physically and mentally take from that warmup and how they will use it in the music. Once that explanation is complete the students should have their first tune up and the director can jump right into rehearsing. This eliminates dead time, which keeps students from acting up, which helps keep smoothness in the classroom. Having the order of activities on the board each day can also help with this. Students can enter the classroom and have their music in order at the start of the day to reduce downtime in between pieces, which will also reduce the opportunities students have to cause trouble. 

Group Focus
Keeping students on their toes, holding students accountable for tasks, and having a multitude of classroom activities that work toward objectives without boredom are all components of demonstrating great group focus. It is easier to maintain group focus if the classroom is not completely predictable. The more repetitive the classroom is, the less focus students must stay on task. 

Musically speaking, a conductor wants to keep it fresh. Using a variety of gestures and rehearsal techniques to communicate common musical concepts is a way to do that. Training one’s ensemble to react to gestures is imperative to practice group focus from the podium. Showing the group they need to get louder does not always need to look like the left hand going from low to high with the palm up. Doing something different visually is going to catch the students’ attention and help them focus. Starting the group with a breath and prep gesture, instead of always counting off, will also help accomplish this.  

Have and keep high standards from a musical perspective. After students get through a run, don’t immediately say “good” or “great” unless it was good or great. It is okay to say something was better and then identify the things keeping it from being great at that moment. Maybe they played with correct notes and rhythms, but they needed more dynamic contrast. Maybe they played with good dynamic contrast, but they all did not crescendo/decrescendo at the same rate. Listen with bigger ears and teach your students to do the same. If they know you won’t tell them it is great until it is, the act of you telling them something is great will mean more and they will work harder to hear it. 

Having the ability to manage one’s classroom is a pre-requisite for great music making. It does not matter how beautiful and expressive one’s gestures are or how effective and succinct one’s rehearsal techniques can be if students are not paying attention. Setting and maintaining the behavior expectation is an essential foundation for a thriving ensemble classroom.

Thinking about Kounin’s group management techniques of with-it-ness, overlapping, momentum, smoothness, and group focus with a conductor’s perspective can help directors think proactively about their rehearsals and consequently eliminate some management issues before they start. Proactive classroom management will not eliminate the need for reactive management strategies but using these tips should help minimize the number of issues a director is reacting to while also making them a more effective communicator of their musical ideas from the podium.

Sarah Labovitz is the associate director of bands, coordinator of music education, and chair of the department of music at Arkansas State University. She has served as a contributing author for The Music Achievement Council since 2019.

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