Sharing the Podium: Enhancing Your Students’ Ensemble Experience

Mike Lawson • Commentary • July 14, 2017

Think back to your K-12 years, and consider all of the math teachers you had – from who taught you the multiplication tables, to the teacher that led you through your first geometry proof.

Chances are, you had numerous teachers guide you through your school math experience. In what ways did each teacher shape your impression of learning and applying mathematics?

Now consider your K-12 band or orchestra experience. How many directors did you have? Likely, you had just a handful in comparison. In fact, in many ensemble programs, student musicians work with just one or two directors by the time they graduate high school. Although more advanced students might enjoy the affordance of working with additional directors through honors ensembles, the majority of student musicians’ experiences are more limited.

There are clear benefits to continuity and a consistent instructional approach, but there are also distinct concerns when the ensemble experience is shaped by just a handful of teachers. Students may miss out on fresh perspectives and alternative teaching styles that could enhance their experience. Fortunately, directors have many opportunities to share the podium, be it through inviting guest clinicians, partnering with composers, or even cooperating with student teachers. Inviting others to lead one’s ensemble is beneficial for both the teacher and students. Through experiencing varied teaching styles and musical interpretations, students can enhance their responsiveness and additivity as musicians, all while ensemble directors learn from the guest teacher’s unique perspectives and approach. Guest teachers can also help break up instructional routines, giving renewed energy to the classroom. In considering the varying benefits different types of guest teachers offer, directors can plan ahead in order to make the most out of sharing the podium.

University Professors

There are various points throughout the year where directors may invite directors from a local college or university to come in and work with their student musicians. Despite the common misconception that collegiate professors may be too busy or uninterested, they are always more than willing to come out and work with K-12 musicians – after all, part of collegiate directors’ mission as faculty members is to serve the surrounding community through outreach in service and teaching.

University professors, particularly those that rehearse collegiate ensembles on a regular basis, often prepare repertoire on a short cycle. This experience forces them to develop rehearsal techniques that help the ensemble improve quickly, both musically and technically. Consequently, the rehearsal toolbox they bring is beneficial for both students and directors. Because university teachers are accustomed to working efficiently with their own students and honor bands at all levels, younger student musicians typically respond favorably to their demeanor and pacing, and directors almost always walk away with a new tool to utilize in future rehearsals.

Other Practicing Directors

It is also possible to bring in practicing directors from other schools. Perhaps the most common instance involves same-district high school and middle school directors visiting each other’s classrooms to work with one another’s ensembles. This approach helps promote a larger sense of community within an instrumental music program, which can be integral to increasing retention and shaping a positive program culture.

You might also invite a colleague from a school outside your district. Perhaps that colleague is working on some of the same repertoire as you, or has done one of the same pieces in the past, which can provide both you and your students a valuable perspective on your preparation. Sometimes, it may even be possible to arrange a director “exchange.” Through an exchange, you can invite a colleague to work with your students for a day, while in turn you work with your colleague’s students. This practice can start the conversation between you and your colleague about your programs’ respective strengths and weaknesses. After rehearsing each other’s groups, you can leave notes for one another about what you worked on and what you recommend for future rehearsals to enhance the group’s performance.

To make the most out of sharing the podium with a guest teacher from another school, speak together ahead of time about what your performance goals are for your ensemble. Zero in on a few key places in the repertoire that would most benefit from that director’s focus. This will help your colleague plan more effectively and efficiently for their short time with your group. Also inform your students that the guest director may make different choices  in conducting gestures or in how they ask the group to perform a particular section. Educating your students about what to notice ahead of time can help them become more responsive, mindful ensemble members.

Student Teachers or Practicum Students

Directors may find it challenging to share the classroom with pre-service music teachers. Podium time is precious, and less experienced teachers may not always use that time in the most efficient, effective manner. Still, for those directors hosting student teachers or other practicum students in their classroom, it is important to provide those developing teachers meaningful opportunities to work with the group.

To ensure the developing teacher’s podium time is as successful as possible, be sure to establish a few clear goals in advance.

Reviewing these objectives ahead of the student teacher’s conducting experience will allow for greater internalization of appropriate teaching procedures, translating to better success on the podium. When collaborating with the pre-service teacher, take note of the questions he or she asks about the teaching and learning process, as those wonderments might spark a fresh take on how you might approach your own instruction. It is important to acknowledge that, even though pre-service teachers have less experience than you, you can still learn from them.

To help your ensemble benefit from less experienced teachers, discuss how they might examine the pre-service teacher’s approach through a different lens. You might give your students some questions to consider while the pre-service teacher is on the podium, such as, “In what ways was this teacher’s approach to [musical concept] similar or different to how you might have done it?” Encouraging your students to thoughtfully consider the teaching and learning process can help them gain more from pre-service teachers on the podium.

Student Conductors from the Ensemble

Sharing the podium with dedicated student conductors can be valuable toward developing young musicians’ concept of ensemble sound. Oftentimes, it can be difficult for students inside the ensemble to open their ears to what is happening around them, as they can be stuck on their own individual sound. In order for large ensembles to play as musically as possible with good balance and blend, it is essential for students to be able to conceptualize how their part fits in with everything that is going on around them. Giving students the opportunity to conduct portions of the large ensemble rehearsal can help them understand the bigger musical picture.

Similar to the suggestion for pre-service teachers, directors may enhance the student conductor’s experience by guiding them where to direct their instructional focus. As the student conductor gains confidence, the director may ask them to get out of their comfort zone by thinking outside the box or trying a new conducting gesture. These efforts may result in the players themselves taking more musical risks.

Student conductors also give the director opportunities for growth. The director may choose to circulate the rehearsal hall or sit within their ensemble, helping to listen and process in a different way than when on the podium. Oftentimes, the simultaneous acts of conducting and classroom management may cause the directors hearing to be limited. By stepping away from the podium, a conductor’s ears can open up.

Putting a student on the podium can also help directors gain a better understanding of what concepts their students may be struggling with or what strategies may increase their players’ responsiveness.


One of the most enlightening experiences for both directors and students is inviting a composer into the classroom, either to conduct the group or give feedback on the ensemble’s progress on one of his or her pieces. When students have the opportunity to meet and interact with the composer, they inherently take more ownership in the musical product. Oftentimes composer’s individual personality traits are well represented in their works. When students have the opportunity to meet them, they are easily able to make these connections. No matter the depth of interpretation that directors strive to achieve, having the creator in the room to speak first-hand about their work of art is priceless. Even if the composer is unable to make it in person, most are willing to answer questions via email, talk on the phone, or attend/ participate in a rehearsal virtually. When possible, composers usually will jump at the opportunity to do a residency for rehearsals, discussion forums, and concerts. If the resources are not available to bring them in yourself, perhaps there are other programs in the school district or area that would be willing to split the costs. There may also be grant funding available from a local education foundation or your local government.

Retired Directors

Inviting veteran directors to take the podium can be a terrific learning experience, particularly for early-career conductors. Consider some of the challenges you have with your group, and prepare specific questions for the veteran teacher who will be joining your classroom. For example, you might point out that, despite your best efforts, the group always seems to slow down during a particular transition. The veteran teacher may have a few tried-and-true strategies in his or her back pocket that might help. If you assumed your current position from a director who retired, their perspective might be particularly useful, given their deep understanding of the student body and program’s history.

In preparing your students to work with a veteran teacher, emphasize the years of expertise the guest director brings to the podium. Students can garner tremendous respect for those teachers that are clearly respected by their own. You might demonstrate your regard by strategically asking the teacher questions about their perspective or approach while they are on the podium. If your students are working to prepare for a contest performance, the veteran teacher may be able to offer advice or share meaningful stories about the contest experience. You might also invite a veteran teacher to conduct a piece on one of your concert performances, which would enable your students to benefit from their expertise across multiple rehearsals.


Sharing the podium can sometimes be a scary idea, particularly as rehearsal time is a limited resource. However, there are countless benefits for both you and your students when you invite a guest teacher into your classroom. Consider the various types of guest conductors that might be able to come and work with your ensemble, and reach out to make it happen!

Dr. Lisa Martin is Assistant Professor of Music Education at Bowling Green State University, where she teaches both graduate and undergraduate coursework in music education. She also leads the Middle School Academy Band community outreach group. Before joining the BGSU faculty, she taught middle school band and orchestra in Illinois and Colorado.

Dr. Michael King currently serves as Assistant Director of Bands and Director of Athletic Bands at Bowling Green State University. He is Director of the Falcon Marching Band, conducts Concert Band, University Band, New Music Ensemble, and teaches conducting and music education methods courses in both the undergrad and graduate curriculums. Prior to his appointment at BGSU, he taught middle and high school band in Texas.


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