Motivating the Individual in the Ensemble Classroom

Motivating the Individual

Finding ways to motivate the students in our large ensembles is among our most important challenges. To provide you with strategies to do so, this post draws from material originally presented at the 2017 Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic. Included are real-life experiences from three music educators and references to relevant scholarship.

The Affective Filter

Shelley is a middle school choir and music theater teacher with a rich background in instrumental band education:

My current set of teaching practices was formed by two seminal events: the first was taking twelve college hours of English as a Second Language. As I was learning about ESL strategies, I was introduced to something called the “affective filter.” This refers to a phenomenon where student learning tends to be inhibited if the student feels badly about something. In general terms, it might mean students are less open to learning if they are sad that they have left their home countries or because they are fatigued from trying to figure out what everyone is saying all the time.

Within the music classroom, examples could be students who are less engaged because they are feeling badly about chair placement, about not being chosen for the solo, about not being ready to demonstrate a playing test, or about not getting along with someone in their section.

Regarding the second seminal event – learning about effective target language and making sure assessment directly maps to those targets – I realized how much, without meaning to, we as directors tend to keep our goals and motivations hidden from our students.

My analogy for the machinations of the “mysterious mind of the ensemble director” comes from Dr. Seuss’“The Sneeches.” In this book, the Fix-it-up Chappy comes to town with a product to sell;“fashionable” stars for the Sneeches to wear on their bellies. The Sneeches pay to go through Chappy’s enigmatic machine, which whirs and zings as the Sneeches get spit out the other end with newly improved, star-emblazoned bellies.

Similarly, we as directors have noble products to sell – the lifelong appreciation of music, a good sounding band, awards at contest, the promise of turning a child into a good instrumentalist, the lure of an extravagant and purposeful social experience, and more. Many of us having amazing teaching techniques, and, indeed, we put the students through our effective processes – our machinery, if you will. But often, when the students come out the other end, they cannot explain or replicate the efficacy of the process because the actions happened TO them and not in mindful collaboration WITH them.

Reframing Practicing as Thinking

Putting these reflections into action begins with reframing the notion of practicing as an act that requires active and engaged thinking. Professional musicians find a balance between engaging in self-talk and methodical self-reflection during performance and practice. For younger musicians this can be a challenging idea to conceptualize. To help we can begin by reframing the concept of practicing (or rehearsing) as “thinking.” Students desire to be intellectually alive, feeling like the smart people in the room, and being totally engaged. Reframing practicing as thinking affords students a chance to identify.

People Process Product

Jon is a director of bands at a large California high school:

As Shelley, Jessica, and I collaborated, I began in integrate opportunities for self-assessment into our rehearsal experience. After giving my students the tools of self-assessment and awareness, the affective environment improved. Motivation was palpable in the room. Kids were focused and engaged but in a more vibrant and connected way. They were attentive to one another and to the process of the work we were doing. They were less passive in their music making. And I had more tools to use towards their individual and group development. I found myself motivating WITH the kids instead of AT them. Motivation began to look different as a result of integrating these ideas into my rehearsals.

And finally, all of this leads to the product: the music, the festival, the concert…whatever the end goal is. It’s still there but it’s guided by the people through the process to the product, not the other way around.

I have often thought of this order of priority in my classroom as a way of moving the dangling carrot to right in front of the student’s nose instead of dangling rewards at some further point down the road. I hope for my students to feel purpose in the daily work of getting better because that is where I find the most connection and joy with them. I find myself continually excited about the prospect of what we will uncover or discover in a given rehearsal and knowing that my students are also along for the trip, planning and executing the goals right along with me!

Micro to Macro and Back Again

A student-centered environment can exist in the large ensemble classroom when the conductor considers how they build connections with students as a means to facilitate instruction, guide group conversations, and clarify information. With this reframing, there can be a palpable shift of inquiry.

However, it is also important to address a few caveats. One, students being heard is not the same as simply asking them their opinions, though that is certainly a part of it. Additionally, giving students voice and agency over their own musicianship is not mutually exclusive to asking everyone to vote on what pieces are played at the next concert or designing the cover for the next program. And likewise, student-centered rehearsal strategies are not about limiting the teacher voice or role. It is instead a redefining of ownership. And when slowly implemented, this can be incredibly enlightening to uncover what our students are capable of sharing when we ask.

The Conundrum

Jessica is a music educator who, prior to working in higher education, taught middle school band and orchestra:

As a new teacher, I recall my desire was to implement best practices that I was introduced to through my undergraduate teacher preparation. However, as many novice and veteran educators know or experienced, this is easier said than done. I knew I was striving to set a positive and supportive environment for my students to create and learn music within.

My predicament with student motivation arose when I wanted to stretch their learning. Here is what I observed:

  • Student behavior was not always indicating mental engagement or their cognitive processes focused on music making, and
  • Though my classes were engaging in self-reflection, these reflective opportunities were in the form of “Activities” that were “silo-ed” instead of synthesized into my teaching

There was clearly a division between the environment I was establishing and student cognition (or thinking) and their behavior.

These observations lead me to reassess how I was approaching the learning environment in my classroom and to reorganize the ensemble to involve and identify ways to make student cognition more visible in the learning process.

What We Know Works

Deliberate practice is one approach to systematically refining a skill like music making (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tech-Romer, 1993). This idea can be combined with other motivational theories such as mastery goals setting (Ames, 1992) that focuses on guiding students towards internalizing or rationalizing the relevance and choices within learning is actually possible at all levels of instrumental music education.

It is a matter of how we structure our rehearsals and how we are embedding opportunities for deliberate practice, mastery goal development, and most important time to internalize motivation that is external to a student that fosters these practices for our students and student engagement (Hewitt, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2011; McPherson & Renwick, 2011).

Motivation to Learn

One of the most powerful empirical frameworks to resonate with my journey regarding student motivation is the “motivation to learn” (Brophy, 2010). Motivation to learn refers to “a student’s tendency to find learning activities meaningful and worthwhile and to try to get the intended benefits from them” (p. 208). This is achieved by socializing student motivation through scaffolding curricular content AND motivational interventions that focus on: (a) mastery goal orientation, (b) helping students interpret feedback, and (c) emphasizing the values and expectations for their success (Ames, 1992; Brophy, 2010; Locke & Latham, 2002; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Weiner, 1986).

Again, this is not necessarily about the grade, sticker, or pizza party (although those can be helpful for very focused motivational needs); instead we should emphasize opportunities for our students to speak and think like a music teacher through scaffolded, manageable, opportunities for these experiences that are intertwined into every rehearsal.


The strategies in this section are not focused on extrinsic motivators. Rather, these strategies emphasize reframing, or introducing, habits for learning and of mind that also align with pedagogy and rehearsing systems. When enacted intentionally, everyone in the rehearsal will acquire common reference points, and from here, students can take more control of their learning as component and independent musicians.

An example of this is the use of a self-reflection scale catered to social-emotional inquiry (See below).

Table 1. Student Self-Assessment Scale
This task feels difficult/ Impossible and makes me feel uncomfortable I can do this some of the time I can do this quickly and accurately. I can help a friend I can demonstrate this in front of the class.

When students are asked to present their level of readiness in the form of silent self-reflection or discussion with their stand partner, they are situated to more clearly articulate their conscious thoughts about their practice and performance.

Try the tools included in MakeMusic Cloud for free!

Everyone Should Have an Opinion

Everyone in the room should be responsible for contributing to the thinking revolving around the music. Students are as responsible for listening and evaluating as the teacher. As students become fully aware of shared ensemble targets and standards, then they begin to take over for the teacher in many ways. It is this sense of responsibility and engagement that leads to more motivated students.

What Is Our Conscious Thought?

To diminish negative affective responses to challenges and guide/redirect students towards thinking about their effort and socializing their motivation, ensemble educators may consider having students reflect on how they are consciously involved in their own learning process during practice and rehearsals. Teachers can initiate the notion of cognitive modeling (and inner speech) by asking students to consider their various conscious thoughts during their daily life (e.g. wondering about their next class or who they plan to see at lunch that day).

Students can also reflect on musicianship skills including: listening for the home or resting tone of the piece, thinking through the musical passage before performing it, or silently singing a section of music while others perform. Conscious thoughts can also be represented as technical skills during a performance experience. In this case, student may be asked to focus specifically on their (a) hand shape, (b) embouchure setup, (c) air support, or (d) energy in the sound over other tasks in that performance moment.

To provide guidance in this process, and to attend to the affective filter mentioned earlier, we recommend beginning these experiences with objective questions, suggested learning targets to reflection on, and even provide some suggested answers. In fact, one example offering students use the phrase “use more air” (or the string orchestra equivalent being “use more bow or tap your bow pinky”) as the acceptable response when students just do not know what else to offer.

These types of phrases also can be used to acknowledge in “code” that they weren’t entirely focused but also how easily it kept momentum of discussion for our rehearsals. These suggested student responses are all to help lower the affective filter and reframe motivation beyond a dichotomy between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Once “the filter” is lowered, and students internalizing the process for discussing learning in rehearsal, they will generate their own answers and use the technical language of music teachers.

Open Source Knowledge

“Open source” is a term used in the field of computer programming to describe publicly available source-code (Open source, 2016). For this article, open-sourced knowledge is a metaphor for an educator to present their knowledge to their students as a complete learning “road map.” Open sourcing knowledge can also be represented as recommendations for how students might teach each other. This is a fusion of the information within a teacher’s pedagogical thoughts. From here students may begin to “own” the knowledge and develop their personal understanding of the pedagogical process.

Information is not secret to the teacher but instead malleable and transferable to new interpretation and use on an individual basis has potential to influence students in the music classroom as well, but it is a matter of how teacher “open source” their knowledge that actually impacts learning.

The chart below lists the technical skills beginning instrumentalists require for successful first notes on their instruments. Instead of keeping this information tacit to the teacher, the sequence can be presented for all the student to see, reflect on, and compare to understand how their learning sequence might look different from their peers in a different instrument section.

This idea can be expanded into cognitive modeling (i.e. explaining the teacher thought in the moment) or it can be the sequence of instruction so they know that you want them to know all the inner workings of the sequence too. There is probably an aspect of your introductory sequence of instruction that could benefit from this type of explicit presentation of our teacher knowledge to our students.

Looking Ahead

In the beginning it was difficult to introduce students to these forms of deep reflection. As an educator, it may feel like there are “mental tumbleweed” blowing through your classroom. In this way, welcoming opportunities for students to present their opinion may require more structured learning activities to work towards naturally integrated opportunities for large group reflection and discussion in the large ensemble rehearsal.

Below are some strategies for practicing inquiry in the ensemble classroom:

  • Use “Think-pair-share” to prompt students to share with their neighbors before you ask for thoughts from the whole class
  • Toss softballs – ask obvious questions with easy, fill-in-the-blank type responses, to help hesitant students build confidence
  • Frame questions in new ways – for example, “Raise your hand WHEN you have AN answer,” instead of Raise your hand IF you have THE answer.” These slight word changes did have an effect on participation.
  • Model and refine the language used to elevate discussions to sound like professionals:
    • Use correct terminology
    • Describe how to frame feedback in a healthy constructive manner
    • Speak up to accommodate the size of the room
    • Redirect students when they don’t meet these targets
  • Explore modified setups and configurations, including quartets, various flipped set ups, circles, conductor-less rehearsals, student conductors


Initially, this may seem like more work, but in our experience, it was much more rewarding. What’s more, it brought understanding that a more clinical or “thinky” approach will not hinder the development of artistic perceptions and creativity. Instead, this consciousness creates motivation and engagement in support of those perceptions. These ideas are proposed to help address developing appropriate relationships with students, sequencing instruction, and using pedagogical questioning all require the synthesis of motivational ideas we have addressed. Asking students to own and understand the process of their own musicianship gives us all more motivation to keep going, to keep improving, and to keep creating.


  • Ames, C. (1992). Classrooms: Goals, structures, and student motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84(3), 261-271. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.84.3.261
  • Brophy, J. (2010). Motivating students to learn (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.
  • Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tech-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychology Review, 100(3), 363-406. doi: 10.1037/0033-295x.100.3.363
  • Hewitt, M. P. (2001). The effects of modeling, self-evaluation, and self-listening on junior high instrumentalists’ music performance and practice attitude. Journal of Research in Music Education, 49, 307-322. doi:10.2307/3345614
  • Hewitt, M. P. (2002). Self-evaluation tendencies of junior high instrumentalists. Journal of Research in Music Education, 50(3), 215-226.
  • Hewitt, M. P. (2005). Self-evaluation among high school and middle school instrumentalists. Journal of Research in Music Education, 53(2), 148-161.
  • Hewitt, M. P. (2011). The impact of self-evaluation on student evaluation, student performance, and self-evaluation accuracy. Journal of Research in Music Education, 59(1), 6-20.
  • Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705717. doi:10.1037//0003-066x.57.9.705
  • McPherson, G. E. & Renwick, J. M. (2011). Self-regulation and mastery of musical skills. In B. J. Zimmerman, & D. Schunk (Eds.). Handbook of self-regulation of learning and performance (pp.234-248). New York: Routledge.
  • Open source. (2016). In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved August 27, 2016, from
  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.55.1.68
  • Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of motivation and emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Get the best from MakeMusic

Discover practical music tips, delivered directly to you!

Sign up