When you wake up in the morning, do you look forward to your day of teaching music with excitement and anticipation? Can you hardly wait to enter your music room, looking forward to expanding young minds and co-creating artistic beauty? Are you filled with gratitude for the opportunity to lift others up through the power of music? 

How we approach the waking seconds and minutes of our day impacts the trajectory of our day and ultimately the kind of classroom environment and culture that is created.

Everything rises in a positive culture. While we’ve likely known this intuitively before, today it has been supported through science. In a positive environment, everything is lifted. Creating an upbeat, positive culture in your ensemble can help your students flourish. What’s more, it can produce a musical community filled with joy, respect, growth, purpose, meaning, and excellence. 

To help, here are some ideas and strategies you can put to use today and some resources you can explore for tomorrow.

Adopt a Positive Attitude

What impact can our attitude have on our students?

Michelle Gielan, positive psychology researcher and former CBS News Anchor, writes in Broadcasting Happiness, that we broadcast feelings and emotions energetically. What we broadcast impacts the feelings and emotions of those around us. She writes, “Maintaining an optimistic, empowered mindset is advantageous. It fuels positive health, educational, and business outcomes – not to mention our happiness.”

When we broadcast happiness, we will see improvement in our mental, emotional, and physical performance. We will build stronger relationships, our brain functions at a higher level, and we will be more successful in our work. Our attitude is contagious and it will either lift up or bring down the spirit of the musicians that we conduct. 

In You Win in the Locker Room First, Jon Gordon writes, “Research from the HeartMath Institute shows that when you have a feeling in your heart, it goes to every cell in the body, then outward – and other people up to 10 feet away can sense feelings transmitted by your heart.”

We are not only conducting music but we are conducting and transferring our attitude and feelings energetically to our students. 

The culture of our band will rise when we can create a focus on positivity. While this may feel contrary to the traditional focus on what is wrong and what needs to be fixed in rehearsals, we can choose to create an upbeat culture that discovers a positive way of looking at learning and creativity. While mistakes need to be corrected and music needs to be played accurately, we can shift our verbal phrasing and physical gestures to paint a picture of what the music can and should be rather than continually pointing out what it is not. 

Our brain takes in 11 million bits of information per second but we are only conscious of 40 bits of information. What if we could control what we choose to focus on? It turns out that we can change our habits of thought and how we respond to situations.

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, said on his TEDTalk, “It is not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which our brain views the world shapes [our] reality. And if we can change the lens, we can change [our] happiness and [our] outcomes.” James Jordan describes the choice that we have in rehearsal to react to sound in frustration or respond with love and care as mimetics in his book, The Musicians’s Soul.

“Being positive won’t guarantee you’ll succeed but being negative will guarantee you won’t.” – Jon Gordon, author of You Win in the Locker Room First

A positive culture is one where the teacher has high expectations for each individual student. Positive teachers don’t just see students where they are; they see the student that they can become.

Connect and Create Trust

To create a positive culture, we must intentionally create a classroom that embraces connection and belonging. Students with a sense of belonging in school feel socially connected, supported, and respected. This sense of belonging can also help them to feel safe. Daniel Coyle writes, “Group performance depends on behavior that communicates one powerful overarching idea: we are safe and connected.” Coyle continues to say that “Safety is not mere emotional weather but rather the foundation on which strong culture is built.” 

We need to pause and reflect on the emotional culture of our classroom and determine how safe and how connected it really is.

Brené Brown teaches in Daring Greatly that “We are hardwired for love, connection, and belonging.” “When I belong, I get to be me.” She shares that when we can be open and authentic and vulnerable, then we can create a path for developing trust and sparking cooperation. This is easier said than done, though. Vulnerability feels scary, exposed, and uncomfortable, like weakness. But it also feels authentic, open, honest, pure, and human. 

How can we create a culture that makes vulnerability possible? We need to take the first step. When music expresses loss or joy, share a personal story or feeling and show the feeling in our face and conducting gestures. If we expect our students to express feelings through their instruments or voice, we need to take the first step and lead by example. This will create a trusting space where being vulnerable is embraced and safe. In a trusting environment, students can feel safe to feel and express. When there is trust, they can access their feelings and express through their instruments on a deeper level.

Here are some strategies to build connections with your students:

  • Learn your students’ names and something about them as quickly as possible; they want to be truly seen and heard.
  • Support your students in their activities outside of your music classes.
  • Create a spirit of togetherness and cooperation by honoring student input and creativity.
  • Bring students up to the front of the ensemble to listen and give feedback to their peers.
  • Let students know individually and collectively how much you value their effort and presence.

This reminds me of the following words by leadership guru, John C. Maxwell: “It’s one thing to communicate to people because you believe you have something of value to say. It’s another to communicate with people because you believe they have value. People’s opinion of us has less to do with what they see in us than it does with what we can help them see in themselves.”

Communicate with Students

In a society where the predominant form of communication is often accomplished while looking down and typing on a phone, how we communicate with our students is more important than ever before. We can be a role model for how to communicate with each other, human to human.

Judith Glaser, in Conversational Intelligence, shows how the language we use affects us at a cellular level. The things we say and hear can literally change our physiology. When we use words that inspire connection, such as “we,” “let’s,” “us,” and “together,” our cells literally get excited – our immune system elevates and our brain fires at a higher level. 

In a recent study done at Stanford University researchers found that including the word “together” had motivated people to work substantially longer and produce better-quality work. Phrases such as, “join us,” “let’s do this together,” and “sit with me,” motivate us because of our desire to be part of a group.

Our words can help create the feeling that we are part of something bigger than ourselves and when we do that our students will become intrinsically motivated to achieve for their fellow musicians. Positive and inspiring messages can also be communicated through posters on the walls, whiteboards or SmartBoards, the ensemble’s social media outlets, and concert programs. How we communicate affects the culture of our room, and in addition to verbal language, our tone of voice and body language make a significant difference. One of the most important ways we can communicate with our students is by smiling. This is the focus of a wonderful 2011 TEDTalk by Ron Gutman.

Gutman asks; “Ever wonder why it’s hard to resist smiling in the presence of happy children? Kids smile as often as four hundred times a day, but only 30 percent of adults smile more than twenty times a day, and 14 percent don’t crack a smile five times a day.” He also talks about the health benefits of smiling. “The act itself of smiling lifts your mood, boosts your immune system, decreases stress, lowers blood pressure, and reduces your risk of heart attack. One smile alone can provide the same level of brain stimulation as up to two thousand chocolate bars! Smiling is also associated with living longer.” Gutman also suggests that when we smile we not only appear more likable and courteous, we are also perceived to be more competent. 

“We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.” – Mother Teresa

Our communication style, content, and delivery will be mirrored by our students and affect the culture of the ensemble. When teachers are sarcastic or derogatory to their students, the ensemble members will tend to be sarcastic and negative to each other. As teachers, we set the standard of how students treat and respect each other. 

How we give feedback matters. Be respectful and encouraging. Focus on what needs to be done rather than what is not done. In other words, focus on going forward rather than going backward and be as specific as possible. Rather than saying that a student is playing out of tune if they are flat, simply ask them to raise the pitch. If a student is rushing, ask them to relax the rhythm into the beat. If a student is playing the wrong rhythm, demonstrate or sing the correct rhythm. 

Remember the poignant words of poet Maya Angelou; “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Listen to Your Students – When They’re Not Playing

Listening is such an important part of how we communicate. One of the most important things we can do to create a positive culture is through listening. Students want to feel valued and heard. 

In a world where it appears that there is more talking at or shouting at each other rather than listening, it is important to remember that, we have two ears and one mouth – use them proportionately. We teach the importance of caring and compassion through listening.

According to Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, there are five levels of listening:

  • Ignoring
  • Pretending to Listen
  • Selective Listening
  • Attentive Listening
  • Empathic Listening

If we really intend to get to know our students, we have to listen to them at the most empathic level. When we take time to hear our students, we learn about their experiences, fears, and desires, and our ensemble music-making experience becomes about making human connections rather than just facilitating the production of sound through machines. Take the time to pull away from the computer or administrative task when a student comes to your office to talk. Those moments can be precious to the student who likely simply needs an adult who cares.

Make listening to each other when playing or singing central to the culture of your ensemble and make listening to each other when not playing just as important.

Develop Student Leadership

Leadership is the great lifter just as a rising tide lifts all boats. When a student leadership team is developed, the music teacher can then focus on what they do best – teach music. Finding leadership roles for your students not only empowers them and gives them a voice, it communicates the trust, belief, and high expectations you have for them. Providing leadership opportunities is part of creating an environment where students feel safe, free, and encouraged to share their thoughts – musical and otherwise. 

I believe that leadership is inspiring and encouraging others to achieve their full potential. Leadership is not about having a title; it is about how we treat ourselves and others. Notice that the focus of leadership is on lifting others up and leading by example. Each student recognizes that their actions and words impact others and they have control of their thoughts and actions. 

We can teach leadership principles during the rehearsal of music. Here are some ideas:

  • The melody is the leader.
  • The harmony is the supportive voice or follower.
  • Both the leader and follower are important and we change roles from follower to leader in music just as we do in life.

Involve your students in creating learning, rehearsal, and performance goals and for creating a vision and mission for your ensemble. When students are involved in this process, they are much more inclined to buy into the ensemble. Just like teachers, students are motivated when they feel there is a purpose behind what they are doing in school. Set short term, achievable goals and celebrate the stepping stones along the pathway towards achieving larger, overarching goals.

In Closing

When two or more people come together to create an ensemble, a culture will be created. We can either let a culture form haphazardly or we can choose to create a positive and upbeat culture by design. 

The attitude, beliefs, and actions of the director are largely responsible for the culture that is created. Our thoughts precede everything and our thoughts are the upbeat to our actions. A positive upbeat creates a positive impact. Set your intention to wake up with a spirit of gratitude and anticipation and choose to create a culture with students flourishing in a musical community filled with joy, respect, growth, purpose, meaning, and excellence.

Additional Video Resources

This article first appeared on the SmartMusic blog.

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