The Singer’s Spark: Motivating the Whole Student


As the school year begins we all have plans of grandeur. Who among us hasn’t thought, “This is the year my ensemble will get superior ratings,” or perhaps, “This year, everything will come together just in time for the musical!” Imagine taking all these goals – and your students – on a metaphorical school bus ride. 

Minutes after getting behind the wheel, you begin to hit bumps in the road. These include, but are not limited to, deadlines, weather cancellations, vocal fatigue, student ineligibility, testing days, and so on. Nevertheless, you keep trucking along. Finally, you make it to the finish line, take a deep breath, turn around in your school bus driver’s seat, and see that there are no students behind you. On every bump that you encountered throughout the year, you lost a student or two. Clearly, you should have checked in with your students earlier in the journey!

At the beginning of my teaching experience, I tried every trick in the book to make students share my goals and expectations. When students didn’t fall in line, I blamed behavior; “They just don’t want to work for me!” 

Every day as educators, we walk into the classroom with our goals, expectations, and dreams of what our programs can grow into. What we forget is that our students don’t walk in as completely blank canvases. They have their own desires and worries that exist in and outside of our classroom, and they have questions about the outcome. While our students walk in with many gifts, they may also be lacking in what we refer to as social norms. No matter what the behavior or history of a child, we must remember that parents do send us their best. And as educators, we facilitate the journey. But it’s up to the student to determine the destination. 

Motivation and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

So how do we motivate the child? How do we work toward having teacher goals and ensemble goals be intrinsic and authentic to each student? Let’s begin by reviewing Maslow‘s hierarchy of human needs:The Singer’s Spark: Motivating the Whole Student - Maslow's Hierachy of Needs

Often, the students who struggle the most in our classes are deficient in the lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy. For example, students who have moved frequently or are new to your program may struggle with group assignments, partnering, and/or making friends. A student who is sleepy in class or lacks energy may not be eating breakfast or getting sufficient rest at home. 

So how can we take these observations and our desire to motivate and best help our students? We need to shift our perspective and view them as people first. 

The Culture, the Artist, and the Citizen

To cater to the whole human, we need to provide what our students need as artists, citizens, and as members of their culture.

Cater to the Culture

Whether it’s music, clothing, or sports, it seems that the world our students live in is moving at 100 mph. The gossip blogs, last night’s game results, or the latest boy band might not seem important to you, but it’s very important to your students. Take time to engage, learn, and ask questions about your students’ interests outside of the classroom. It’s easy to see how students are more likely to share your interests if you first show respect for theirs.

To take this further, find additional ways to connect with your students as people. These might include choir trips, socials, and non-music-related activities. Use these and other opportunities for social interaction to get to know your students for WHO they are and to allow them to see you on our journey as well!

Cater to the Artist 

We know that every student who walks through our doors will not become a professional musician. But we can still create the atmosphere of the working artist to teach proper work ethic and dedication. Your classroom route and structure should motivate your students to take charge of their own education and musicianship.

Put students in charge of their own learning. Opportunities to lead can include warm-ups, projects, musical interpretation, improvisation, etc.

Making real-world references to their learning can help resolve musical problems. When teaching a new student the relationship between lines, spaces, solfege, and how they work with the staff, I like to take away the concept of clef and key signatures and have the student work with their own hand. 

I encourage the student to look at the palm of their hand with their thumb pointing up. The pinkie can represent the bottom line, or Do, or both. Using this as a “map,” the lines and spaces are now streets and alleys. If Do is on a street (a line) then Mi and Sol are on a street as well. I promise you. As an extension, if Do is on a street, then the above Re, Fa, and La are in alleys. 

From there, the rules can slowly expand, and I share the analogy: “If you got lost on the way home, would you sit on the street corner and pout? No! You would retrace your steps! So there is no need to pout if you can’t find tonic!” This simple tactic allows students to tangibly understand interval relationships while making connections to their daily lives!

Whether it is through creating tradition through song, exchanging jokes and mannerisms, or simply learning about each other’s backgrounds, everyone can take part in building a positive classroom culture. 

I ask students to send me what’s on their playlists right now. I compile a playlist of the clean versions of their songs in Google classroom. Using the playlist, students are able to start the class with stretches and other physical activities. Leaders can take attendance, make sure students have the necessary materials, and so forth – while the music plays. This both empowers students to provide the soundtrack and demonstrates that the director is not the only leader in the room. 

Cater to the Citizen

When I was in elementary school, I made a habit of touching every single thing in the store. My grandmother would be furious with me for touching the items, but never explained why. The concept of “because I said so” was not enough for me to stop my behavior. However, the day came when my grandmother told me that if I continued to touch things that didn’t belong to me, there was a chance I could break them. And if I broke something, we would have to pay for it and our budget couldn’t take the financial hit. Despite how mature the conversation may seem, it made complete sense to me and I learned when to explore and when to keep my hands to myself. 

Have you ever heard one of your “leaders” react to excessive talking in a rehearsal by yelling “shut up”? Or perhaps the rest of the room remains silent as the poor behavior continues? It’s important that young people realize that not only are they leaders in your classroom, but that in your classroom, they will be given the truth about their actions, consequences, and their part in their learning. Students are just as in charge of their education as the person behind the podium. Their attitude (as well as yours) sets the pace for rehearsal and the musical journey. This is part of building individual character, and it is essential to building the ensemble. 

Here are a few tips to help:

  • Teach through stories, metaphors, images, and even inspirational YouTube videos (GoalCast is a favorite of mine)
  • Set classroom expectations as a team
  • Establish social expectations
  • Teach empathy as well as individual strength
  • Allow time for group and individual reflection as well as praise 

Some chestnut phrases that get used frequently in my classroom include: 

  • “Leave it at the door,” and “The world won’t care about your excuses.”
  • “Self, Section, Squad”
  • “Delayed obedience is disobedience.”
  • “Airplane rules apply! Put on your oxygen mask first!”
  • “Remember that I love you enough to tell you the truth.”
  • “Figure out who you are … and do it on purpose.”
  • “Action comes second to perception.”
  • “In life, every day is the audition.”

Closing Thoughts

As you prepare to take the wheel on a journey with your students, remember that not only are bumps expected, they are needed! The challenges that arise in a year are only previews of what our young people will encounter in the real world. 

Some of the best advice I’ve ever received is: “If you don’t like how your school year is going, just start over.” So start over. You don’t have to go through the school year losing kids at every bump. The key to keeping as many of your passengers as possible is to address the issue at hand. Go back to how we enter the classroom. Go back to musical fundamentals. Go back to teaching appropriate ways to greet each other and how to respect each other and their belongings. 

Let’s look at classroom challenges as opportunities for our students to show leadership, kindness to each other, self-worth, and determination. We can not ask for a flawless journey through the school year. Instead, we can invite our students and ourselves to grow together through the bumps in the road toward your collaborative destination of success. 

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