Building a Positive Culture in Your Music Program

positive culture

Developing a positive culture starts from the top. We must motivate our students to work hard for us by working hard for them. By being the type of teacher students want to work hard for, students will buy into your program goals faster. The process of developing a positive culture takes time, energy, and dedication from everyone who is in charge.

Here are some strategies to help foster and retain a positive culture in your music program.


Motivating our students to buy into our program is the first step in the process to building a positive culture. In my opinion, much of the problems we face in our school systems today is motivation. There are many students that feel that being lazy, apathetic, and not caring is cool. It is much easier to be lazy and make excuses as to why you aren’t successful than it is to work hard to achieve a goal.

I witnessed this exact issue teaching in a Title I school in Columbus, OH where the popular phrase was always “Bro, that’s doin’ too much.” Whether it was putting a name on a paper or completing an assignment to receive a grade, nearly anything asked of students was often just “doin’ too much.”

I’m reminded of a conversation I had in class with one particular student. The conversation started with this students saying “Man, I can’t wait until I get out of school and graduate,” to which I responded, “You know if you did your work in class, you would get out of school and graduate much sooner.” How are we able to motivate these students to work hard for us so that the music program can grow and be successful for each student?

In this author’s experience, the thing that really gets students excited to work for you – or want to learn – is to build a positive and encouraging rapport with them.  Sound familiar? For many students, grades do not provide sufficient motivation. Some are there to serve a court-mandated attendance policy, some just because their parents make them attend, and others because they truly want to learn and better their own lives.

Many of these students only come to school to play their instrument and make music. We have the privilege of providing that for them on a daily basis. How can we have our students make an emotional connection to the music that we play on a daily basis? What are we doing right now in our jobs to connect students to the music we are playing? We have to be the ones that bring the energy and the passion for music education on a daily basis.   

I believe that a significant number of students will not do any work for you if they do not like you or feel that you offended or disrespected them in any way. I am not saying it is crucial for us to go about our days worrying if students will like us, but they do have to respect you and that is a two-way street.

The other cliché, “They don’t care to learn until they learn that you care,” comes to mind. In this day and age we have to be able to relate to our students on a personal level in order for us to connect and begin to build a positive culture together. Gone are the days when directors can stand on the podium and yell and scream until they get their way. Students shut down and they do not want to work for someone who they can’t relate to. We have to be seen as people and that, in my opinion, is the first step into building a positive culture in your music program.

Strategies to Build a Positive Culture

The best advice I received in my first couple years of teaching was from a former vice principal who would tell me that you “Gotta be who you are” when you are talking and teaching the students. I was acting one way outside the classroom – the way I truly am as a person – while in the classroom I was acting like so many of the teachers that I grew up knowing. Some short-tempered, some impatient, some that were caring and funny and that played a huge impact in my first couple months of teaching.

It took that quote from my vice principal to make me realize that I am the only me there is. We can’t act like someone else because they are already taken. The day I began to teach like the person I am from the podium is the day that my teaching career took a huge turn. The students began to see their teacher as a person who truly cared for their musical process. They saw someone they can relate to, laugh at, joke around with, and most of all someone who truly cared for their well being as a human.

This process started with simple things like greeting students at the door and asking them how their favorite sports team did last night. Being relatable to our students is what helps them come around to your ideas and your vision of the music program. We are all people first and teachers second. Our students are the same way, they are humans first and students second. Many of us, myself included, forget that we are teaching young adults and real people who have lives outside of school.

Many of my successes in my first few years of teaching came from a change in teaching philosophy and mindset. I talked with many students and developed a positive rapport with them, which then led them to start listening and engaging more in our ensembles. After these students began to buy into the vision of the music program, they realized the benefits of studying music and making music with the people around them.

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Program Philosophy

I used a simple, but effective philosophy found in many music programs: “Do things better than you have ever done them before.” Every repetition of our long tones, every repetition of our music, or our technique, involves the decision and question of how to make it better than the last time. Students were constantly reminded of this philosophy when the motivation or energy would die down during the rehearsal. Students were constantly asked for improvement, however small or big that may be. They developed high expectations and they were held accountable for their actions if they did not meet the standards that were realistically set for them.

In addition to a program philosophy, I had some “non-negotiables” when it came to behavior in the program and rehearsals. The “non-negotiables” were as follows:

  1. The music we played: I believe in programming a diverse musical experience of high-quality music.
  2. Behavior in class:  Students must come into class a certain way and behave a certain way in class.
  3. The use of a fundamentals time at the beginning of rehearsal: Every day started with a long tone exercise, some scale exercises, and of course an intonation exercise. This built a structure for every rehearsal and allowed the students to know what to expect once they came into the rehearsal space.

All in all, students deserve a positive experience in music. They need an outlet to express themselves creatively and to create a community with their fellow classmates. They rarely get that in other classes.


Every student should take pride in being a part of the music program. One way to foster this pride is to provide access to merchandise promoting the program. Displaying the name of your music program on your apparel (or whatever) shows that you are proud to be in the program, and that it is something to be proud of. It is cool to work hard and achieve a goal, whether you’re in the NBA or the concert band.

Final Thoughts

One way to ensure you continue to provide a positive culture is to be a  constant learner and worker of your teaching craft. Our students deserve the best teachers.  Continue to ask questions of your mentors. Go to other rehearsal halls and steal ideas and strategies for teaching. There are many directors in your area that are willing to help you make the best out of your situation.

We are all fighting the same fight. We as music educators give our students opportunities they would have never had elsewhere. We are rehearsing and pushing our students to new heights because we realize the value that music can have on their education and the value it adds to us as humans.  We are their role model for success.

We have to care for every student’s progress. They all play a very pivotal role in the success of our ensembles. No one “sits the bench” here. It takes everyone in the ensemble working together to achieve a goal.

As music educators, we have to be the teacher that each of our students deserve and want to work hard for. They deserve to have educators that work hard for their success even when it gets tough. Keep the fire and remember that we are all fighting the same fight. Now go forth and change your student’s lives like you originally intended to!

This article is an adaption of a presentation given at the 72nd Annual Midwest Clinic at McCormick Place West in Chicago, IL by the author.

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