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Monday, March 17, 2008

Inspire Not Require

by: William W. Gourley

We face many challenges as teachers of student and amateur ensembles; encouraging solo and ensemble participation, chamber ensemble performance, pep band participation or getting the students or ensemble members to practice.

Societal behavior has changed over the past thirty years. Requiring students to engage in activities outside of the full ensemble and to practice is alien to the way we function as a society today. The autocratic methods of Arturo Toscanini, Herbert von Karian and Bobby Knight, have been replaced by the nurturing leadership styles of Neme Jarvi, Leonard Slatkin and Coach Krzyzewski. Few students or adults will accept edicts from the podium to satisfy the wants of a conductor. They need to want to fulfill their individual needs. Intimidation is out, motivation is in.

Let’s look at the difference between inspiring and requiring. This is the art of getting people to want to meet your expectations rather than demanding they meet them.

When someone is required to do something the reason for accomplishing the goal is to avoid a negative consequence, a reduced grade for example. Granted, getting a better grade or a higher salary may be rewarding but the reward is dependent on being denied something if they do not fulfill the requirement.

To inspire someone to accomplish something the individual must experience joy in the attainment of the goal. The teacher needs to create situations that reward appropriate behaviors to create a desire to achieve in the student.


Many people consider grades a great motivator and a majority of students respond to this method. “Just tell me what I have to do to get an A.” While this may be a fairly effective method to get students to learn scales, music and show-up for performances we must ask ourselves if it will encourage the student to want to sign-up for the class next year once the stimulation (the grade) is no longer relevant.

In an ideal world we would not need the extrinsic motivation of grades to encourage students to learn but we all know this is a dynamic tool in motivation but it is a carrot-and-stick mentality. If we create a grading system that rewards or penalizes based on just skill acquisition and showing-up we are encouraging learning by requiring students to meet a specific set of criteria to make the grade. We are waving around quite a big stick relying on intimidation (no show, no scale, no grade) to make them do what we want them to. This does not foster a very inspiring learning environment and does not encourage students to become more accomplished on the instrument or sign-up for your class for next year.

A grading system that offers a variety of ways to make the grade while still encouraging musical growth will be more inspiring since they have more carrots from which to choose and avoid the stick. An example of this might be:

  • Daily preparation, materials and music 25%
  • Tests 25%
  • Performances 40%

· Extra-credit add x% to final grade

    • Private lessons on your instrument 10%
    • Piano lessons 5%
    • Participate in solo & ensemble festival 5%
    • Pep bad or jazz band 5%
    • Prepare a solo for director (3 minutes) 5%
    • Write a report 3%
    • Community performance 2%
    • Attend a concert 2%

The basic areas of this grading system rely on required elements to achieve the goal of creating independent musicians. The extra-credit areas offer other incentives to achieve, in part, that same goal.

Another consideration in grading to inspire students is to award full credit for mastery of the tested item. For example, in my beginning classes an A was awarded if the student had zero to one mistake on an eight measure exercise. This might vary depending on difficulty, length, etc. If a student had two to three mistakes (again, depending on length and difficulty) the student received a B. However, both grades received the same amount of points toward the marking period grade. Exceptional performance (zero mistakes) often warranted a bonus a bonus point or star.

One can argue the need to achieve perfection in performance. I agree that is our ideal but I have yet to hear a flawless live performance from any professional ensemble and definitely not from the student and amateur ensembles I have conducted. By allowing a student to receive full credit for a B performance we let them know there is room for improvement but they still did a commendable job. This enhances practicing by students who may feel no matter how much they practice they just can’t get to the A level so why bother.


For the overwhelming majority of us pumping iron in the gym, shooting free-throws over and over, spending hours on the putting green or practicing chip shots is not what we long to do. We want to smack the ball down the fairway, make the basket, block or serve that becomes the big play that produces the cheers from the stands. That, ‘love to practice’ mentality is reserved for the greatest in their sport who relish the toil in anonymity that will lead to greatness.

Band and orchestra students are no different from their counterparts in athletics. Few of them enjoy the tedious repetition required to master technical facility or improved tone or articulation. They joined to play Hot Cross Buns, not practice Hot Cross Buns.

We have all agonized over the continual growing distractions for students that deter them from practicing. Video games, cable TV, hockey or soccer leagues, equestrian teams, IM-ing and text messaging at the speed of light on their iPhone; leave precious little time-let alone incentive-for practicing the chromatic scale.

Encouraging practice is a major concern especially in beginning students. We need to set realistic achievable goals for young students. Requiring students to practice thirty minutes a day will more than likely create a situation where the majority of students will miss a day at some point and then become discouraged at receiving a lesser grade.

Setting up a more realistic expectation of 80-100 minutes a week or 4 five times a week for twenty minutes offers a more easily realized expectation. To encourage more practice offer extra-credit or bonus points for additional practice in increments of 15 minutes or so. This allows students to practice three times for thirty minutes and still receive full credit. When the student realizes how quickly he can get in the time he is inspired to practice.

Another issue regarding practice is if a student is not meeting practice expectations but is able to play the material at an acceptable A or B level, why should his grade suffer because he is only putting in 30 or 40 minutes a week, if that? I recall a classmate of mine in college who could get more done in the practice room in thirty minutes than the rest of us could in two hours and he still played circles around all of us.

By adjusting your grading policy to allow students who can adequately keep up with minimum practice to get the “good grade” along with opportunities for the less gifted musician to earn the grade through increased practice cards you can inspire both students.


The need to have objective criteria for grading necessitates we incorporate regular testing. There are things we can do to mitigate the negative effects.

Beginning students:

  • Beginning students can be encouraged by a few simple strategies. Allow the students to choose individually what they want to be tested on. Tell them they will be tested on any exercise they choose on page eight. One may choose Hot Cross Buns, another Mary Has a Little Lamb and another may select the two note exercise.
  • After a month of choosing from anything, begin to narrow the choices to a specified group of two to four exercises. This could be their choice of three exercises you want to target. The students still get a choice but you get to focus the testing on more productive material.
  • A month later begin testing a specific exercise along with any of their choosing. You may want to test a technical exercise that you specify and let them choose anything else from the page. This allows students to exercise some control of their destiny and encourages practice.
  • In the fourth month you can begin testing anything of your choice from the week’s assignment. This can be from an entire page or from several selected exercises. It is still a good idea to allow students to select another exercise in addition to your choice.
  • Always assign the test material a week ahead and go over it each day in class to reinforce the concepts and guide students to help them succeed.
  • If a student does not get an A or B on the original testing allow them to retest the material even if it takes months to get it. As you review these exercises monitor the students who have not mastered them. If they are performing them well enough with the ensemble give them the grade.

Intermediate and Advanced students:

  • Assign test material two weeks in advance and review it regularly.
  • If you go “down the line” initially select material that even the least accomplished student can perform. This will build confidence and inspire the students to prepare material that is more difficult once they enjoy the feeling of succeeding in this stressful situation.
  • As with beginners allow them to retest material. We can’t expect all students to achieve at the same speed but they all need to ultimately have the skills necessary to perform the music.
  • Even at this level, (especially intermediate) allowing the student to select from a variety of material can encourage them to practice and want to succeed.

Play it again…and again…and…

It seems that we often think it is forbidden to continue to play an exercise that we originally studied months prior. Beginning classes often have a significant portion (20-30%) of the students who may not master a specific technical study and you don’t want to bog the class down by staying with it. This fosters an environment where the students who had difficulty with the exercise never master it and begin to feel band or orchestra is too difficult.

If you include the various technical exercises and concepts in your warm-up the students who originally had difficulty with a particular exercise will eventually master it. You don’t need to play these everyday. Incorporate them on a rotation hitting them every three class periods.

You can help inspire students by monitoring those who didn’t master the exercise or concept. When they can play it recognize their accomplishment. Eventually over 95% of the class will master the exercise. It may take a couple of months or more but this gradually eliminates or at last diminishes the stigma of failure by creating an inspiring environment where students always have a chance to “win”.

Recognize achievement

One of the most effective and easiest ways to inspire students is through immediate recognition of achievement. This can be especially effective with less proficient students. It can be as simple as praising some improvement and giving a bonus check in your grade book.

Students who have been the least responsive in your class can be turned on by a simple bonus star on a wall chart or as involved as a phone call to the parent praising any aspect of improvement in their child. Rather than requiring them to have all their materials or having correct posture, reward those who do. Gradually, faster than you may think, the class will want to earn the recognition through praise instead of fear of admonition. Instead of requiring them to sit properly, you inspire them.

Granted, this is a subtle distinction. To earn the recognition the student must meet your expectations but you are not demanding (requiring) it, you are encouraging those who do. The more the student is recognized for appropriate practices from bringing equipment to performance the more he will want to achieve the appropriate practices.

Good, Better, That’s It

Too often we spend the majority of the class or rehearsal time correcting. Calling attention to key signatures, rhythmic interpretation, style, volume, attacks, releases and the list goes on. By comparison we spend precious little time on what’s correct. Obviously these are important issues for a successful performance but it isn’t very inspiring when everything the student does is wrong.

Making a positive comment about first, telling the student what is good and then offering suggestions for improvement will create a more inspired student.

  • Good-“John, that was excellent tone. I can tell you are using great breath support.”
  • Better – “Now, if you can hold out the dotted half note for a full three counts instead of two that will be terrific.”
  • That’s It – “John, great sound, rhythm and style. Can you do that again?” Or, “That’s it. That’s a great ensemble sound. Let’s play that again.”

The, “That’s It,” opportunity is too often missed. How is the student or ensemble ever going to know what we are looking for if we never identify when it’s right? There is nothing more inspiring than getting it right and we need to seize on these opportunities to reinforce the teaching to encourage the student to seek more of those, “Aha,” moments.

In today’s “Wanna Be” society we need to adjust our teaching methods from “Hafta Be. We want to be the next American Idle, or star quarterback. Not many of us are happy having to pursue our parents’ careers. The autocratic method may produce satisfactory results but at what cost. It fosters drop-outs and a negative environment. If we can inspire our students to want to be better players we can enhance retention and enjoy teaching in a better environment, thereby inspiring ourselves as well as our students.

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