The two words we hear in education more than anything else: Classroom Management. One of my former colleagues and close friends has a plaque in her office that says, “I teach music, what’s your superpower?” No group of words has ever been more true.
But seriously, that phrase says so much because it’s true! I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing both the general music classroom setting and large ensemble/small lesson group settings, and this year especially, I’m experiencing both realms and seeing how they relate to one another.
If you read my article called Build it. Sustain it. and tried some new recruitment strategies, well then chances are your program is either starting to build up or perhaps bursting at the seams with a huge number of students! Awesome, right?
Of course it’s awesome, but now it gets tricky: how does one person manage something like this? Those half-hours go by so quickly, but in our minds, they are long and exhausting. We need to keep the momentum going and have every minute planned.
In part 2 of this blog series, we’ll tackle classroom management in the large ensemble setting.
For classroom management tips in the general music classroom, read part 1.
Classroom Management in Large Ensemble Settings
Having taught and utilized such strategies at the elementary and middle school levels, I can assure you that such approaches do work. In fact, I’ll bypass many of the obvious ones because if you refer back to Classroom Management in General Music Settings, nearly ALL of them can be utilized in large ensembles. Again, remember that such strategies can be applied to the middle and high school levels. You just need to fine-tune (pun intended) how you use it.
- Set the guidelines from day one (refer back to Classroom Management in General Music Settings). Setting guidelines in lessons/large ensembles might look different than in a general music setting, but you have to adapt it for your environment.
- Set your students up for instant success. I use a teaching piece for my beginners on learning the string names called the “Ant Song” (another technique I borrowed from a former colleague and friend). It teaches them how to learn the names of all their strings. This is done while emphasizing excellent posture and basic beginning string techniques.
- Tie in what you do with what they’ve done in the General Music setting (either this is you or you have a direct relationship with your school’s general music teacher). I have my string students sing using solfège, which we then use when learning how to play a D major scale.
- Hold each student accountable, and do it consistently. Part of classroom management is not just managing students’ behavior but connecting how their behavior impacts their success on their instrument. I never begin a string lesson or string rehearsal unless I say the following: “Show me rest position. Feet flat on the floor, backs away from the chair. Don’t cross your legs.” Still … make it fun. For crossed legs, I call this pretzel legs. For students who sit with the tips of their toes touching the ground, I call this ballerina. I have other names (Dad reading the newspaper [legs crossed], twizzler [legs wrapped around each other], pyramid [knees touching but legs apart], etc.). The students will start to catch on and help each other (even reminding me!). They’ll even invent names of their own!
- Teach what you preach. Look at my previous statement: if you’re asking students to hold their bows properly, sit up tall, demonstrate appropriate rest/playing position, and produce a beautiful tone, do the same. If you make a mistake, own it! If they call you on a mistake, own it! Laugh and show them you’re human.
- How do you begin your rehearsal? Do you shush them? I was trained in the Responsive Classroom approach and have since stopped using such techniques. Instead, I get my students’ attention by putting my bow in the air with students doing the same. But my go-to is clapping my hands twice and putting my hand up. They’ve learned to do this after me. This takes time and patience, but always acknowledge when they do it and point it out.
- Try to use phrases like, “I notice Johnny is sitting up in a proper playing position ready to begin,” or “Did you all notice how Shannon answered that question?” This shows students that they shouldn’t rely on pleasing you (i.e., “I love that Johnny is sitting up with great playing position” or “Great job answering that question, Shannon!”), but rather should do this on their own to please themselves.
- Many teachers hate to wait this long, but I found that in terms of classroom management, I had my students’ absolute trust after their first concert. This takes patience and commitment (on our part) to make their first concert experiences successful, and often many teachers try to do more than what’s possible. I used to think this way, but have since learned that less is more. Quality versus quantity.
- Be patient and calm. I’ve been asked many times by colleagues and administrators how I am able to manage a group of nearly 100 little kiddos with musical noise-makers and still have successful and productive rehearsals. Look … I’ll say it right now: not all my rehearsals/lessons are always successful, but I do learn from each one. Still, I know all my students, I develop fun and trusting relationships with each one, and I’m still demanding but happy. I’m always calm and firm, and I explain to them what they’re doing and what I’m seeing. Don’t be afraid to do so, but never forget to follow up and tell/show them that you still care about them and notice what they are doing and that you notice it.
- In large group ensembles, I do something called a Mystery Musician. I pick two students’ names each week randomly and secretly watch them (they don’t know that their name was chosen). I explain to them that they need to display model musician behavior, posture, and participate to their best abilities. Since no one knows who was picked, all students are always on the edge of their chairs. The best part is that the reward is totally aligned with what we call intrinsic motivation. They don’t get physical prizes. Instead, I present them with a certificate award, a positive email home, boast about what they accomplished, and … I let them take charge at the start of rehearsals (i.e., take attendance, run warm-ups, pass out music, and help me select the next week’s mystery musicians).
- Provide many opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning and love of music to others. This ties in with Mystery Musician. My students are always so eager to perform for their peers or go around the school and play for the little ones. It provides positive reinforcement for them but also shows future students what they can look forward to. If they can feel successful, they will trust you more.
- Push push push! Never settle for less than your students are capable of, and always hold them to high standards. Just always remember to be encouraging.
- Consistency. Treat them all the same. They are all equal in your eyes.
I love what I do, but it’s a challenge every day. Be positive, and always remember why it is we do what we do. I have found that consistency and positivity is the key to successful classroom management. It’s not necessarily about rules but following through and developing real relationships with kids. Students, young or old, know if we care about them. Ask them about how their soccer match went or how they did in their gymnastics competition. Relate to them (“I watched the Superbowl last night!”), but don’t be afraid to push them to be better musicians and better people.
As always, I hope you have nothing but success with your little musicians! That’s what they are, right? Musicians! Call them that, and let them know that’s what they are.
Best of luck!