Shaping a Culture of Success in Your Ensemble Classroom

culture of success

Every director has an idea of what their dream rehearsal would look like. One can imagine it includes a group of focused, organized, and enthusiastic students all of whom came to class on time,  prepared, and ready to learn.

In each music program, a culture emerges – a distinctive personality that begins with the director and shapes how the students develop as team members and musicians. The culture you create in your program has the ability to positively influence your students’ musical efforts and social interactions. This is how your dream rehearsal becomes a reality.

Achieving this type of culture doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process one that begins with you. You set the tone for your rehearsal. Approach your time together with enthusiasm, preparation, energy, and focused attention to your students and they will respond in turn. It may take some time to cultivate these desirable attributes in your students, but by creating a culture in your program defined by consistently high expectations, discipline, and encouragement you will find your students genuinely and willingly giving their best effort.

Your students are more likely to offer their best effort and focused attention when they feel safe and valued. Create an environment in your program that insists on respect and model it for your students daily. Build relationships with your students so they know that they are valued as people and not just as voices or instruments. Ask them questions about their interests, listen when they talk to you about their lives outside of the ensemble, show them that you value their opinions, and praise their efforts more than their successes.

Establish Procedures

Young people thrive on structure. A highly-structured environment with clear expectations encourages students to participate more fully, stay focused and on task, follow directions, and, ultimately, enjoy being in your classroom. Implement procedures for everything from the moment they enter the classroom to the moment they leave.

Areas in which procedures are particularly helpful include:

  • How to enter and leave the classroom
  • What to do when they get to their seat
  • Passing out/turning in forms and music
  • Requesting water/tissue/restroom break, etc.

Establishing procedures allows students to develop the ability to help themselves and relieves you of interruptions and distractions during rehearsal.

Define Their Boundaries

Knowing the limits increases confidence and allows students to feel safe in your classroom. When your students feel safe, they more readily stay focused and work hard during rehearsal. Discuss the expectations with your students from the beginning of the school year and be prepared to revisit the conversation periodically. They will need reminders and encouragement, but as you stay consistent with your expectations and follow through with consequences you will find that they need fewer and fewer reminders.

With regard to discipline, choose your words carefully, always speaking in a way that will build them up, increase confidence, and create feelings of respect. Using non-verbal cues is an excellent way to address behavior issues without shaming the student or creating a bigger interruption to the rehearsal. Standing next to their chair, direct eye contact, or a hand signal are all useful methods of silent redirection.

It’s also helpful to praise those who are doing as you ask, with maybe a side-eye or well-aimed wink at a student who is not on task to drive the point home. When more direct discipline is necessary, it is important to address behavior issues with respect and compassion, but also with swiftness and consistency.

Have High Expectations

Don’t be afraid to expect a lot from these young people, either! They will rise to the challenge whether it be musical or other. Treat them like (young) adults with your words, actions, and expectations and watch how their behavior and efforts change to reflect how you make them feel.

Have high expectations, not just musically, but with regard to responsibility and behavior. Make them perform the task correctly, as many times as it takes, always encouraging and giving specific constructive feedback along the way. When they fail – and they will – lovingly remind them that to be treated as adults they must act like adults.

Build Confidence

Encourage strong effort by boosting their confidence. Focus improves as students feel more competent and capable of handling what is thrown at them. Praise them where they are right now; there is always something on which to give a compliment (even if it is thanking them for being on time to class for the first time this week).

Build on each success, going one step beyond where they are comfortable so they are able to see that achievement is in sight but still have to put forth a little extra effort to get there. This encourages your students to stay focused on each task as they see that their hard work is rewarded over and over again.

Plan for Success

As you approach your rehearsal, have specific goals in mind and write a clearly-defined rehearsal plan. Know your music! Less time trying to figure out what and how to teach means more time focusing on what your ensemble is actually doing.

The flow or order of your rehearsal can also be a useful tool in building up enthusiasm and good effort in your students. Begin and end with something they can be confident on, a song they really enjoy or one that is accessible. Ending with a sense of positivity and success will set up the next rehearsal for focused participation and anticipation of making good music again.

There are many tips and tricks, rewards and incentives that may get your students to focus better or work harder for a time. But lasting change is the result of time and intentionality, building relationships and creating an environment of safety and respect, expecting much and lifting up along the way. Be willing to do first what you expect from your students. The dream rehearsal may still not be an everyday occurrence, but the culture of success you create in your program will give your students experiences that are even more fruitful than a perfect rehearsal.

Michelle Hank, a graduate of Baylor University and Michigan State University, is an active choral clinician and adjudicator across the state of Texas. During her time as a choir director at Henry Middle School in Leander ISD, her Varsity Treble Choir was selected to perform at the Texas Music Educators Association convention in 2012. Ms. Hank has also presented several sessions at TMEA and TCDA on topics including rehearsal techniques, inclusion in choral music classrooms, and middle school boys. She is passionate about helping music educators improve their teaching to the benefit of their students.

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