Creating a Music Classroom Where Everyone Can Succeed

Dr. David Pope • August 2023MAC Corner • August 20, 2023

Welcome to the new school year! If you are like other teachers around the country, you are disappointed summer break is ending. However, you are filled with excitement to start a new school year and meet your new students. In instrumental music classrooms, new students can be novice players who are learning viola, saxophone, or guitar for the first time, but they can also be developing musicians who are new to you because they are transitioning to a new school. Both student groups are important to building a flourishing music program, and I believe we must approach them similarly at the beginning of the school year to establish a positive and effective classroom culture that ensures all students can succeed.

While I embrace the teaching philosophy of creating a positive and effective classroom environment where all students can succeed, I know countless other music teachers also believe in it. I know this due to visiting many instrumental classrooms and talking with music teachers from across the country. From those observations and conversations, I gained a better understanding of how instrumental music teachers, at all levels and from various communities, magnificently foster a positive classroom culture where student success comes first. However, we must remember music students cannot succeed without a focused music teacher. Being an effective music teacher requires removing distractions that inhibit a music teacher’s ability to plan, instruct, and lead at the highest level.

As a result of those objectives, I strive to start each year with certain principles in mind that allow me to organize rehearsals so my students can focus on learning, and I can focus on teaching. Below are pieces of advice I gained through my experience, conversations with colleagues, and observations of others’ teaching. I am hopeful this advice will help your students grow musically and increase your focus on music making and your students.

Establish a Rehearsal Routine

Structure is vital in any PK-12 music classroom. Not only is a plan imperative for student learning, but an established rehearsal routine can increase students’ focus, establish classroom expectations that are understood by all stakeholders, and create a culture of work from the moment students enter the classroom. To develop structured rehearsals, most master teachers find it beneficial to establish a rehearsal routine at the beginning of the school year that students can expect each day. While music teachers should adapt this routine over time to meet their students’ musical and social needs, I believe music teachers should create a baseline routine that builds daily expectations and normalcy in the classroom.

Below are examples of common activities I include in my rehearsal routine based on my experience and visits to successful music classrooms: unpack instruments, guided warm-up assignment written/projected on the board, clear and focused tuning procedure, call-and-response technique exercise, written technique exercise, small group rehearsal, guided individual practice, guided sectional work, rehearsing concert repertoire, end of rehearsal review, student analysis and discussion of performance, and a positive daily moment. I personally like ending rehearsal with a positive moment because it allows students to end class in an encouraging manner. Examples of these positive moments include students bragging about musical achievements of other members of their section, highlighting something performed at a high level by another section, telling how others in the ensemble helped them during the rehearsal, or emphasizing a musical goal the ensemble accomplished.

To create a routine for your ensemble, I suggest choosing from the activities listed above and adding your own ideas to create a rehearsal routine to meet your students’ needs. You may need to create a different rehearsal routine for the various ensembles in your program based on their musical development. However, remember not all teaching situations are the same and you do not have to replicate the rehearsal routine used by other music programs in your area. Remember to do what is best for your students.

Focus on Fundamentals

Learning new fundamentals and reinforcing old techniques daily is essential for developing thriving music students. In most situations, the school music teacher serves as their students’ ensemble director and private teacher since most PK-12 music students do not take applied lessons. It does not matter if students participate in a beginning, intermediate, or advanced ensembles, isolating and spending time on the required technique outside of concert repertoire is crucial to students’ long-term success. However, I recognize dedicating time to isolate and teaching technique outside of concert repertoire is difficult at times. I know it is common for music teachers to decrease the amount of time they work on technique during daily rehearsals as the school year progresses due to becoming more concert repertoire focused. I do not believe music teachers purposefully disregard technique, but I think many, including myself, become apprehensive about impending concerts and feel they need additional preparation time on their concert repertoire. Below are two suggestions to ensure you have adequate time to include fundamentals in your daily lesson plans.

My first suggestion is to make fundamental time during daily rehearsals sacred. Fundamental time should be a hallowed segment(s) during rehearsals, and music teachers should rarely relinquish it. For me, this philosophical choice ensured I was never sacrificing my students’ long-term musical development for short-term musical gain. It also meant I was constantly developing my students’ musical skills each day by teaching new techniques and reinforcing old ones.

My second suggestion involves repertoire selection and was shared with me by a mentor. When choosing repertoire for your ensemble, ask yourself if the ensemble “Can play through the piece without stopping three times?”  If the answer is no, then the piece is too difficult for the group. Directors who select a piece that is too difficult for their students spend most of their rehearsal time teaching students “how to get through the piece” instead of “how to play the piece musically.” Directors in this situation typically teach fundamentals such as rhythm, tone quality, and intonation inside concert repertoire at a slow pace because the ensemble rehearses the same passages day after day. As a result, students rarely experience the inherent musical moments they crave, and this type of rehearsal diminishes students’ motivation to learn in many classrooms.

Remove the Distractions

I know music teachers are easily distracted and pulled in various directions during daily rehearsals. Because of those distractions, it is difficult for them to fix musical issues within the ensemble if they must to complete non-musical tasks during rehearsals. To keep my focus on the music and my students, I attempt to remove potential interruptions from the rehearsal process before the school year begins through intentional planning. My first step, and I understand it is not for everyone, is spending time in my classroom over the summer preparing for the upcoming school year. While I value summer break and will not sacrifice family or vacation time, I tend to work in my classroom a few hours each week completing non-music tasks I was unable to accomplish during the prior school year. Those tasks could include organizing the music library, completing uniform inventory, updating the instrument inventory, making minor instrument repairs, ordering classroom supplies/accessories, redoing classroom decorations, reorganizing the classroom setup, or revising the program handbook/forms. To complete these tasks more quickly, I learned early in my career to ask for student volunteers. I always had students eager to help.

The other distractions I want to remove from the rehearsal process are those where students require my assistance with non-music tasks. While not an exhaustive list, examples of non-music distractions include replacing lost sheet music, fixing a broken string, retrieving accessories from the supply cabinet, taking attendance, and setting up the rehearsal space. To remove those distractions from the rehearsal process, I assigned two students in each ensemble to help with each task. For example, each ensemble had two music librarians who replaced lost music. Each ensemble also had two materials assistants who retrieved the needed supply (e.g., a reed, swap, valve oil, rosin) from the supply closet. In string class, I found having two students who could replace strings and set a bridge during class saved many hours of rehearsal time. To make sure the students knew how to complete their job, I took one afternoon toward the beginning of school each year and trained the students. The hour I spent after school with these students removed innumerable disruptions from my daily rehearsals. An unexpected outcome was students in these positions typically became leaders in the program and some were even motivated to pursue music education in college and many demonstrated better organizational skills than me!

Know Your Limits

My last suggestion for having a successful year involves learning and acknowledging your limits. The recent pandemic was an extremely stressful time for most music teachers, and I learned a valuable lesson during 2020 I want to share. I realized I do not have to say “yes” to every opportunity presented to me. While it is nice to be involved in various programs/events in your school, community, and state music organizations, know how much you can honestly undertake without sacrificing your personal life, well-being, and teaching philosophy. My advice is to determine what is important to you, your students, and your program. Make those events your focus and spend your energy on those instead of spending energy and time on tasks and events that are not valued by you, your students, your school, or your community. By removing those extra commitments, you will have more time to spend on events that are truly important to your students and school. You can focus on what will make a difference in your students’ lives.

The Music Achievement Council is a non-profit organization that helps directors build, maintain, and grow their programs.

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