Empowering And Equipping Student Leaders

SBO Staff • ChoralCommentaryNovember 2013 • November 25, 2013

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By Diane D. Orlofsky, Ph.D.

Empowering student leaders in the music classroom is hard work. Teaching them how to be positive, proactive, and invested in the goals, objectives, and overall direction of the program can be even harder. I believe that the most efficient and effective way to lead is to provide opportunities for students to chart their own course. By doing so, the students discover their own leadership potential. Of course, this requires trust, mutual respect, and a tacit acknowledgement on the part of the director that the students are capable of mature input and that they can make significant and meaningful contributions. I write about this in my book, Redefining Teacher Education: The Theories of Jerome Bruner and the Practice of Training Teachers:

According to [Dr. Jerome] Bruner, a radical realignment of the classroom dynamic has emerged from a cultural-psychological approach to education. It purports a “subcommunity of mutual learners” where students help each other learn, capitalizing and utilizing the abilities, strengths, and predispositions each individual brings to the task. I love the term “scaffolding” that often accompanies this idea because it is loaded with visual significance. There is a division of labor implicit in any community and… learners share the load.  Some act as record keepers, some as surveyors, others as encouragers, even as negotiators (Orlofsky, 2002, p. 98).

It becomes imperative for me to understand students’ cultural identities, histories, and experiences in order to identify just the right fit for them within the organization’s structure. I will mention more on the students’ responsibilities in leadership paradigms later.

The Impact of Effective Student Leadership

While I currently teach college students, I also utilized this concept with my high school choir. I felt comfortable receiving their input on many things, such as wardrobe choice, repertoire suggestions, and performance opportunities. I would provide the students with a menu of choices, with the idea that I could live with anything on the selection lists. Each time the students were presented with hard choices, I was amazed at the maturity of their responses. I always hoped that they would model the value system that I lived in front of them, but I guess I sometimes underestimated their ability to reason with maturity and proper priorities.

One situation comes to mind: I had been the vocal music director for a high school in Ohio for about four years and was, unbeknownst to them, about to leave to start full time doctoral studies. We were completing our yearly trip to district ensemble competition, with the elusive “I” in our sights. That year, we finally achieved enough musicality, preparation, and sheer spunk to bring home the first ever “I” rating for this high school program. I had previously taught the students to respond with quiet dignity, regardless of the competition results. They were to reserve either the outward celebration or expressions of disappointment for the privacy of the bus, rather than parade emotional responses in front of other singers.

My students took the knowledge of that hard-earned superior rating, walked quietly back to the bus, and then let their emotions explode. I feared for the suspension system of that old school bus! Once they became calm, I told them that they now faced a hard decision. They could either continue on to the State level of competition – a first for all of them – or they could take their superior rating, feel gratified at the hard work that it took to get there, and focus on the next task, which was presenting the spring musical. I left the bus, asking the student leadership to guide the choir through the debate and give me their decision when I returned with judges’ scores. I left not really knowing what their response would be. I knew what I hoped it would be, but was comfortable with their deliberation process and ultimately, their final decision.  When I returned, the president of the choir said that they would bypass state and focus on the musical so that they could give 100 percent to their next commitment. I could not have been prouder of the group, of the student leaders, and of the overall learning lesson this provided for us all.

Developing Student Leaders

Ensemble conductors are first and foremost music educators. As such, we are charged with teaching both musical and non-musical skill sets to our students. Since students cannot do what they do not know, I believe in laying the foundation for appropriate behavior. Teaching excellent playing/singing is, of course, an important part of our job. But so is preparing the students to be productive, positive, and caring members of the larger society.

First, the ensemble director must have a good grasp of leadership concepts herself. I strongly recommend the following resources, as I have found them to be instrumental in establishing a consistent and exemplary leadership style and providing strategies for translating my own leadership philosophy into something that I could teach and instill in students:

  • Lautzenheiser, T. (2006). Leadership: Vision,     commitment, action. Chicago: GIA Publications.
  • Lautzenheiser, T. (2010). Leadership 2: Leadership is     not something you do; it is something you are.     Chicago: GIA Publications.
  • Wis, R. (2007). The Conductor as Leader.     Chicago: GIA Publications.
  • Zander, B. & Zander, R.  (2002).  The Art of possibility.      New York: Penguin Books.

Try having a leadership mini-retreat with your students or, if this is not possible, find ten minutes before your leadership team or council meeting to apply one leadership concept (the Lautzenheiser workbooks are terrific for providing short exercises/applications). Create a rotation in which a new officer leads the discussion each time, with carefully controlled parameters. Post statements on your office door that support a culture of caring. My office is known as the “O-zone” – I often post a “word of the week” or affirmation statements that express what I want students under my leadership to reflect and act upon. Then model, model, model!

Once you are comfortable that your leaders understand and can model proactive, positive leadership, delegate and trust that they will follow through. You can slowly move from “dictator” to “manager” to “facilitator.” And there’s no reason to wait until high school to begin this training. I used some of these tools with my middle school kids and again, I was pleasantly surprised at what they could accomplish.

Culture of Caring

One is the toughest parts of preparing student leaders is establishing a culture of caring. Our contemporary society, quite frankly, often makes me sad. It is one that is primarily self-focused – just look at the beginning letter of our personal media devices: “I”phone, “I”pad, “I”pod. It seems “normal” to be self-obsessed and hyper-narcissistic. We glorify the vulgar, the banal, and the self-destructive in song lyrics, reality programming, and pop-icon lifestyles.

So, is it any wonder that our students can’t comprehend why we would insist that they construct a culture of caring in their ensembles by being servant-leaders? This is a foreign concept, indeed. Add that to the increasing sense of futility, pessimism, and negativity of the culture and we wonder why we often feel as if we are banging the proverbial head against a wall?

Remember, students only know what they know. So, get in there and start teaching/modeling something different for them. You can choose to capitulate to modern society by being a glass-half-empty kind of leader or you can choose to be a glass-half-full leader who sees possibilities around every corner, promise in every student, and the importance of balance between process and product.

My students know that I will not lower the bar for them.  But they also know that I will do whatever it takes to help them over the bar. The quest to establish caring servant-leaders really never ends; it becomes a series of successive approximations. We get a step closer every time someone chooses to offer help instead of criticism; we move a foot closer when the group adopts a we-can-make-this-happen rallying cry rather than a “that’s impossible” response.


I am not going to sugarcoat this process. It is hard, it is full of setbacks, and sometimes you just want to grab the reins back and shout, “Out of my way, boys and girls, there is a new sheriff in town, and it’s my way or the highway!”

I often struggle between being a manager and being a leader. Ramona Wis, in her terrific book The Conductor as Leader, points out that “the main distinction between leading and managing is the amount of growth or change that occurs in the people and organizations we lead. Managers keep current operations running smoothly; leaders are always looking for ways to provide growth and development” (Wis, pg. 5).

To that end, I try for absolute specificity in crafting job descriptions. I find that unless we are extremely clear upfront regarding who is responsible for what, we can create confusion and make it far too easy for things to fall through the cracks and remain undone. Having built-in accountability checks and a chain of command simplifies who reports to whom. This goes for task management and for drama diffusion. My students know that peer management and resolution of diva drama and ego meltdowns are paramount; these petty disagreements really don’t need to make it up the chain to me, unless all peer-to-peer measures to deal with them have been exhausted. My job is to facilitate music-making and learning; theirs is to keep the environment as distraction-free as possible.

Know your students and assign jobs to their strengths. Do you have a student that is a fairly decent photographer? Make him the department historian. Pair him with a good writer and you have the opportunity to teach the two about the art of crafting effective press releases. Have someone whose gift is organization? Think about enlisting her to create travel checklists for your group when attending district events. Catch someone doodling pretty cool designs on her music? Channel her efforts to something more productive like designing T-shirts for your group. Have boys who can’t keep still? There is your logistics team.


Here is one last story to illustrate my point. My high school choral room was a fairly depressing place to be. With dirty and dingy walls, it was a boring box of a room. I had requested that the room be painted on numerous occasions throughout the school year until I finally got tired of waiting. I asked the shop teacher for surplus paint, picked a Friday and told the kids to bring in drop cloths, newspapers, brushes, rollers, ladders – whatever they could spare. Friday morning, first period (Girls Ensemble) arrived.  We shut the doors, cranked the tunes, and began to paint. They handed off their equipment when second period (Madrigal group) arrived, and so on. By the end of the day, the whole room had been painted, including my office, which was really a closet.  They took such pride in their work and became extraordinarily protective of “their section of wall.” I never had a problem with graffiti or misuse of facilities again.

There is a funny backstory associated with this anecdote. My principal had earlier informed me that it was teacher evaluation week and I told him that any day and any period would be fine – except for Friday. HA! You guessed it! I looked up from my perch on the ladder and saw his face in the door window. My heart sank. A few minutes later, he returned with a camera. “Now he is going to document my demise,” I figured.  “Well, goodbye tenure.” About a half-hour later, he returned with the chairwoman of the School Board. She entered with a flourish and walked around the room, clucking. “Okay, I’m a dead woman,” I moaned to myself.

But, no. She complimented the work ethic and cooperation of this unique “one-room schoolhouse.” A lovely newspaper photo and caption appeared as a result and I was somehow spared. I’m sure there were better ways to lead in this instance, but I offer it as an example anyway. There is not one way to lead; there is not one desired outcome. Only you know your students, their capabilities, and your program’s needs and goals. I can only encourage you to begin.

To quote Benjamin and Rosamund Zander, “The life force for humankind is, perhaps, nothing more or less than the passionate energy to connect, express, and communicate. Enrollment is that life force at work, lighting sparks from person to person, scattering light in all directions. Sometimes the sparks ignite a blaze; sometimes they pass quietly, magically, almost imperceptibly, from one to another to another” (The Art of Possibility, 2000, p. 139).

Diane Orlofsky is an experienced choral conductor and music educator.  Orlofsky has written many articles on teacher education and her book, Redefining Teacher Education: The Theories of Jerome Bruner and the Practice of Training Teachers, was published by Peter Lang Publishing in 2002.  She is currently working on her next book, The Joyous Exchange: Meditations on the Choral Arts. Orlofsky is an active clinician, conductor, and researcher and was named an American Fellow in 1997 by the American Association of University Women. She is also the recipient of numerous teaching awards, including the Ingalls Award for Excellence in Classroom Teaching, the Phi Kappa Phi Distinguished Scholar award, The Wright State University Music Alumni of the Year award, and the A.A.T.E. Outstanding Teacher Educator Award.

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