Maximizing Student Engagement and Musicianship in Today’s Music Ensembles: Five Strategies for Success!

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Russell L. Robinson, Ph.D., Composer/Arranger/Author/Musician Educator

In my work with music programs and music teachers in on-site professional development, I have tried to assist educators (choral and instrumental) in “maximizing student engagement and musicianship” in their ensembles and music classrooms. These two areas (Engagement and Musicianship) go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other.  Fifty minute classes, for example, can have a meltdown ten minutes into the class/rehearsal. Why? There is a lack of student engagement and music making. Fifty minutes can feel like ten minutes, when the students are engaged in making music, and feel like two hours when they are not. It has been said that the best way to increase your enrollment and retention in music ensembles (or not), is the buzz in the hall after class, especially when music becomes an elective in middle and high school.  Music students should always be more excited about music learning after class than they were when they walked in. I believe the following five strategies are what all great teachers incorporate, even if stated in different ways.



In the past several years, I have changed my professional title from music educator to “musician educator.” Musicians with superb teaching skills can teach all students to be musicians. From beginning bands, choirs, orchestras, to advanced ensembles, students should be taught to play and sing musically. Much of this is achieved through establishing good posture, breathing, attack, vowels (choral), and making each note and phrase count. Also important, is choosing music that is appropriate for your ensemble to make music. Some middle school instrumental and choral ensembles try to do very complex music that is beyond the students’ level of technique. Remember: Simple music is not necessarily bad, and complex music is not necessarily good. Good music IS good music. Music must be selected for each ensemble that allows them to make great music in a reasonable number of rehearsals. The music is our curriculum. Wise choices about the repertoire that are not only good, but also appropriate for your ensembles, are critical to your success as a “musician educator.”


The old saying, “catch them being good,” still applies. Whenever someone or something in rehearsal approximates or achieves what you are trying to teach them as musicians, give them specific praise. The more we identify what they are doing right, the more powerful it is when we give students specific correction on how to make it better. One strategy (and there are many): When someone is doing something incorrect (musically or behaviorally), instead of correcting that person in front of the class, find someone in close proximity and give them specific praise for what they are doing.

Example: A student is failing to exhibit good posture. Find a student with excellent posture, close to the student exhibiting poor posture, and give them specific praise. “Susan, I love the way you are sitting up straight with your feet flat on the floor, back away from the back of the chair and (instrumental) holding your instrument properly.” What happens? You have demonstrated “accurate reinforcement” and the person (or persons) with poor posture will generally self-correct. Why? They want the positive (accurate) reinforcement that the person who was recognized received.

Another strategy for “accurate reinforcement” is utilizing student models. In an ensemble, when learning a piece, there are always some students who are singing/playing it correctly and those who aren’t. Why not ask, for example: “How many of you know that you are singing/playing measures 9-16 correctly? Please raise your hand.” (Some will raise their hand that aren’t playing/singing correctly, or didn’t even hear the question. 😊  So, ask again, with the addition of “. . . really know that you are playing . . .”) Immediately, have those people who raised their hand play or sing measures 9-16. Now, students who didn’t play or sing, hear it “more correct” and want to play more correctly and be recognized. We all want recognition when we’re doing something right. This will avoid having to do it over and over, which gets boring, especially for the students that have been doing it correctly (perhaps from the first time with little recognition) and will greatly increase student engagement.

There’s a lot more I could say about this, but that is the idea. People want to be reinforced for doing the right thing (not just in rehearsals, but in life as well). Accurate reinforcement and correction are the two main ingredients in changing behavior for the better.


Doing one thing too long can be a “killer” in student engagement. In a 50 minute rehearsal, the warm-up should be no longer than seven minutes. Why? Because it’s not 20 (or 30)! Get to the music as soon as possible after the warm-up. (I’ve written warm-up books and teaching DVD’s that emphasize this and more!) And, please make sure that the last warm-up is in the same key as the first piece! I’ve seen some bizarre things in this area; for example, the last warm up is in A major and the first piece is in E-flat major = Disaster. When you have to stop the ensemble, quickly give specific praise for correct behavior or playing and one or two corrections and then back to the music. And, when you stop, make sure you say something important, IMMEDIATELY. This teaches them that when you stop you have something important to say to make the ensemble better, and they will listen to instructions more intently. The opposite is true when you wait too long or say irrelevant words too much before the important instructions. Time is critical in every rehearsal. Plus, the great news: This is what builds great morale and attitudes in your students. When they walk out of class and are aware of what they have learned (changed) and how much better they are playing or singing specific parts, they feel good = high morale and again, great “buzz in the hall.”


If you want students to be on-time, in their chairs, ready to start rehearsal, YOU must be the role model for this. Be ready before they come into class, again, identifying and reinforcing appropriate/correct behaviors as they do. And . . . start class on time, regardless of how many students are ready. This will result in more students being ready quickly in the beginning of the school year. Don’t lose it, or get emotional with your students. It will result in losing your credibility. I say, “Command respect as a teacher. If you have to demand it, you don’t have it.” You may be the only adult role model that some of them have. Leave your personal problems at the door . . . smile . . . act (if you have to) like you’re excited to start the rehearsal and during the rehearsal. Always try to be “friendly and fair” (these were known as Robinson’s 2 F’s by my former students at the university). They will respect you and be a reflection of your attitude. Great teachers quickly realize that they/we control the behaviors, and resulting attitudes and morale of the music ensemble from the time they walk in until the time they walk out! Students are the happiest when they know they are doing the right things. (All of us are!) And, quit on time! When class is over “by the clock,” they are not yours anymore. They need to move to the next class, and you never want to make them late to the next class. The other teachers in the school will like you a lot more for that!


I admit that this may be a re-statement of number three; however, it is SO important! Great teachers have a greater ratio of “doing music” than talking about the music or other things.” Try this: Video all of your ensembles on a given day. Review the videos and do a behavioral percentage between making music and talking about music or anything besides making music. Many find that in a 50 minute rehearsal, there are 20 minutes (40%) or less of actual music making. I’ve seen this and worse in many ensembles. It results in poor music making, low morale and not good “buzz in the hall.” And, please don’t give them the last 5 or 10 minutes of free time for being good. Great teachers never have enough time to teach everything that needs to be done in the 50 minute rehearsal, even if their music making ratio is 90% of class time. Good goal! There is always so much to do!


We have the greatest reinforcer in our subject matter: MUSIC!!! I’ve seen “rock star” musician educators in elementary school, middle school, and high school music programs in the US and internationally . . . and I’ve seen “others.” What is the difference? I believe it is somewhere in these five strategies. Once you have the musician educator skills that produce great music for your students, regardless of difficulty or level, you will have the most rewarding career and your students will remember you as a life mentor. There is no greater profession than what we do. It is not work; it is a joy to teach music!

I hope these strategies help you regardless of where you think you are on your journey of being a great musician educator. I wish you all the best, and if you have any questions or advice I can offer, feel free to contact me through my website.

Russell L Robinson

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Dr. Russell L. Robinson, Emeritus Professor Music Education at the University of Florida, has made over 300 appearances as a conductor, speaker, consultant and presenter at festivals, workshops, honor choirs, all-state choirs and state, regional, national and international conferences in the US, Europe, Asia, Africa, Central America, South America, Mexico, Canada, the Middle East, and Australia as well as conducting venues, which include: Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, Boston's Symphony Hall, the White House, and Washington's National Cathedral. Dr. Robinson was the 2016 inductee into the Florida Music Educators Association (FMEA) Hall of Fame, and is a past President of FMEA, Associate Dean of the UF College of the Arts, National Collegiate Chair and Choral Adviser for the National Association for Music Education (NAfME). Dr. Robinson is a published author, composer and arranger with over 500 publications in print, including choral compositions, arrangements, articles, books, and instructional DVD's.