Three Questions to Ask to Build a Strong Music Program at Your School

Adrian Gordon • CommentaryMarch 2023 • March 13, 2023

Building a strong music program at a school is a desire of every music educator. We understand the power and influence of music in our own lives and ultimately want to see it continue for the next generation. But during the daily grind, we can easily lose sight of the bigger picture: our professional purpose. These are the times we need to be introspective and ask ourselves three important questions to keep us on the path of building the rockstar program your students deserve.

Why am I teaching music?

The first question to ask ourselves as we strive to build a strong program “why”? A key element of building a, cohesive music program is showing your students your “why” (your passion to invest in their development as people) is informing your “what” (teaching them about music). As music educators, we should be introspective and keenly aware of our reasons for what we are doing. 

Many educators would agree that, while teaching is a noble profession, it isn’t a profession one enters because of the high salary and lavish lifestyle. For teachers, the reward is less about monetary value and more about the long-term success of the people we have invested in. We love our craft—music—but, more importantly, we share a deep sense of care for people. Music just happens to be the vehicle with which we show our students how much we care. 

As simple and cliché as it sounds, students will be much more receptive to your educational goals for the class if they know they are seen and valued as people first. 

Whether you’re transitioning into your new position, or you’ve been in the same role for a while, your students should know you can look past the content of the class and see them as valuable individuals. While the goal of developing a high-performance level music program is admirable, it should be the by-product of a family-like atmosphere that promotes the care of the individual students as people instead of only as players in your ensembles. Don’t let what you are teaching overshadow why you are teaching it. 

Who am I as an educator?

The old music adage “Even when you’re not on stage, you’re still performing” is so relevant to us as music educators in the classroom. Whether you are a new teacher or a veteran teacher, there is always room to be reflective and think about who you are as an educator and as a person. Whoever you conclude you are, be sure it is the best version of yourself and you project that persona in every interaction you have whether you are on the podium, in a concert setting, or just walking down the hallway. 

The words I chose for myself as I started to build my program were strong, gracious, and caring. This is who I am. These were the character traits I committed to sharing with my community. These were also the traits I committed to sharing not just during my first encounters when things were going well, but particularly when things were difficult.

As you build your program, consider writing down three to five positive words that describe who you are as a person. Think carefully about those words. Once you have put them down on paper, save them. Return to them often, especially when you need to reflect on who you are as an educator in the most difficult times. 

Because we typically expect to have longevity in our positions, it is important we reflect on who we are and what we will be projecting during our encounters with our community. This is especially true as music educators, because in many cases, the enlistment by students into our programs, unlike other academic classes, is optional. It is in your best interest to set an authentic, positive tone for the year, which will help you create an environment where longevity is possible. The process of self-reflecting on your character and living out those positive qualities you have listed will help create that environment. 

Filter your day-to-day interactions through the lens of those descriptors. It will be important to use these words as a character guide as you have day-to-day interactions with your community. Your character may be questioned by students, parents, and colleagues who do not know you. Put your best foot forward as much as possible. Make sure every interaction with your community reflects the words you wrote down, especially in your first-time interactions. 

The most important points to remember are, regardless of how you decide to internalize the descriptors you picked, they should be true to who you are and you should act accordingly. No more, no less. 

What is your vision?

Communicating your vision to your new community is one of the key actions you’ll need to take to build a strong music program. This doesn’t mean everyone will agree to, or even care for, your new vision, but it creates an environment of honesty and transparency where all cards are laid on the table, and parents and students can decide whether your vision is something they want to participate in. 

When I came to my school, I shared my vision for the music program with the students, and to this day, it has not changed, because it’s worked for me. 

My vision is three-pronged, and it is as follows: 

1. Excellence: Take pride in your music studies and strive for the highest levels, whether it be behaviorally, musically, academically, or in terms of performance. 

2. Dedication: Set long-term goals musically, commit to playing for several years, and have the discipline to practice regularly. 

3. Community: Create friendships and serve others through music. 

You can think of this as somewhat of a mission statement that holds your guiding principles and can always be referred to throughout the year. Communicate your vision with your students, parents, and administration. Be sure, whatever your vision is, it is well thought-out and clear. Share it often. Explain when circumstances fall in line with the vision of the program and when they don’t. Celebrate the moments when your vision is encapsulated in the students’ stellar work. Sharing your vision creates a clearer path for you to lead and for students to follow. 

Whatever your vision is, be sure to set clear, reasonable goals, expectations, and procedures to help you and your students feel a true sense of achievement. The change in vision whether it is a slight shift or a major overhaul, must be meaningful but most importantly incremental. 

Adrian Gordon is an internationally performed composer and currently serves as the director of orchestras at Providence Day School in Charlotte, NC. He is the founder of Leap Year Music Publishing, which publishes string music for elementary, middle, and high school ensembles. Adrian is the author of Note to Self: A Music Director’s Guide for Transitioning to a New School and Building a Thriving Music Program. Learn more at

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