Music Educators’ Perspectives on Student Empowerment: Complexities and Conundrums

Theresa Hoover,

PhD Student

Music Learning and Teaching

Arizona State University

Meet the Participants

Anne Fennell,

Creating the Collective Power

Anne Fennell

The original focus of Anne Fennell’s interview was on, as she described, the collective power. Anne shared her belief, “the moment that we come together, it’s the exponential growth of all of us and the exponential connections of all of us” that builds a collective power. However, throughout the conversation with Anne, several additional themes emerged. Anne spoke frequently about relevance, and the importance of students finding their experiences in school music relevant. She believed this relevance meant students would see how they could use what they learned again, become lifelong learners, and be part of the “creative economy.” Anne also spoke of the learner-centeredness of her music classes, where students would create the class agenda and make decisions about the music. They could choose how to perform assessments and could reassess as many times as needed, “because the goal is not the grade. The goal is the learning.” Anne shared, “my whole goal was to hear and see every student.” Students in her classes felt seen as people, and as musicians. In her classroom, the motto was, “Everything you say and do matters to all of us.”

Ryan Diefenderfer,

Orpheus in Action: A Student-led Experience

Ryan Diefenderfer

Ryan Diefenderfer shared his experience using the Orpheus approach, a conductor-less ensemble, with his high school band and orchestra students. Ensemble rehearsals were all student-led, with Ryan providing scaffolds towards the beginning, and removing them as the students were ready. Students decided what to rehearse and how to interpret the music. Throughout the process, students made suggestions on how things should work during rehearsals based on what they had observed at an Orpheus dress rehearsal, such as having a student timekeeper, having some students sit in the audience to listen, and rotating parts. Ryan shared how this experience helped his students become more independent, flexible musicians. They were reflective throughout the process, and could dialogue with each other about their experiences and the music-making process. Ryan shared several examples of students having a voice in the ensembles, and many students commented their appreciation of that voice in their reflection, hoping for more opportunities to work with this approach to music making. 

Katie LaBrie & Tracy Magwire,

Empower Students to Practice with Purpose

Katie LaBrie and Tracy Magwire have created a system to teach band and orchestra students how to practice more effectively and efficiently. Using a method they call the “Big IDEA,” students learn how to determine what to practice, strategies to use when practicing, and to analyze the process. Through this, students participate more in rehearsals, going beyond the passive participation frequently found in ensembles. Students are more engaged in the music-making process and learn to think critically about the music. While Katie and Tracy’s interview focused on teaching practice skills, they also spoke about building community in the music room and creating a space where students feel safe to share their opinions and take risks. Tracy said, “it takes time for that kid to be ready to raise their hand and say, we need to add a crescendo here. Right? Because, you know, kids don’t walk into a classroom thinking, ‘I’m going to tell my teacher what to do,’ because that’s just not the way they’ve been taught.” 

David Getz,

Exploring Music Composition to Spark Student Creativity

David Getz is passionate about giving students opportunities to compose music, and does so in his after-school club, The Composer’s Guild, and in his orchestra classes. Throughout the interview, David shares his process for incorporating music composition, but also talks about how important it is for students to become independent musicians. David doesn’t want students to become “rehearsal parrots,” recognizing that they need to figure out music on their own if they are likely to continue playing after graduation. He also sees students make connections between their work as composers and what they do performing, recognizing musical concepts that go deeper than what is often covered during rehearsal. David shared that “kids feel empowered to make that declaration and say, I understand what the composer is doing.”  

Amy Rever-Oberle & Lauren Staniszewski,

Fostering Independent Musicians

Amy Rever-Oberle and Lauren Staniszewski, middle and high-school band directors, work to ensure their students are independent musicians. Both want their students to problem solve and think critically about music making. Students learn to use their voice as learners and musicians. Lauren said, “You’re learning not only to use your voice, but that you can shape your voice and you can have an artistic thought.” Throughout the interview, Lauren and Amy talk about students taking ownership of their actions and musicality, while also helping to define the culture of the music program. They encourage students to make choices and take risks, and learn that mistakes and failure are an important part of the learning process. Amy shared, “we’re very big on them being able to problem solve and figure things out for themselves because that not only helps them develop as musicians, but we’re also developing human beings.”

Jared Brockmeyer,

Student Agency Through Game-Based Practices

Jared Brockmeyer

Jared Brockmeyer shared his experiences incorporating game based practices in his middle school band classes, and through that, how students are the focus of everything he does. One thing that came up frequently was the language he uses in the classroom. “I’ve tried to eliminate the word ‘I’ or mentioning what I would like or what I want… if I can put all of my language in terms of objectives that they may have, or interests that they might be interested in meeting, that they’re going to be more motivated.” Jared also spoke about the individual students’ needs, creating a model where every student can be successful, make choices about their engagement, and be rewarded for their efforts. 

Tom FitzStephens,

Amateurism in Music Education

Tom FitzStephens, a secondary choral educator, approaches his classes through a lens of amateurism. He said, “One of the core elements of amateurism is doing music for the love of it. And if they [students] can develop that relationship with music, then they will make music after they graduate.” Tom wanted his students to continue making music throughout their lives, and felt that expanding the choral classroom beyond what was usually taught to include rote singing, ukulele, and different styles of singing, would help that. Other topics Tom shared included encouraging student choice and musical decision making, creating a safe space in the choral classroom, and making sure students feel seen. 

Heather Fortune,

How Student Agency Can Transform an Ensemble

Heather Fortune works to ensure the students in her secondary ensembles have agency, which helps them grow as individual musicians. Heather recognized how having agency as a teacher led to her extending that same agency to the students. In her interview, Heather also emphasized the importance of teaching the students who are in front of you and being aware of the community they are situated in. She says, “it’s really about authentically locating the ensemble within the life of the community that it’s serving.” Through this, students feel they are seen and valued within the ensemble. Heather’s motto is that she wants students to be “fearless, not flawless.” 

Matthew Arau,

Creating a Culture for Student Empowerment

The focus of Matthew Arau’s interview was on creating a culture where students feel empowered. Matthew believes this begins by working with the students to create a vision for the program; encouraging dialogue and asking students about their values and priorities. While the teacher needs to agree with the vision, having student involvement makes it more meaningful. He says, “when you have student involvement, there’s so much more buy-in. And even the process of working together starts transforming the culture.” Matthew wants students to feel like they belong and experience connection within the music program. Some ways he achieves this are through mindful breathing, gratitude practice, and building a culture of celebration. Matthew feels it’s important for teachers to “spend more time listening than speaking” when doing this work with students. 

Michelle Rose,

Scaffolding Peer Feedback for Student Ownership

Michelle Rose is passionate about teaching students to give and receive peer feedback to help them take ownership of the learning and music making. Throughout the interview, Michelle shared her scaffolded process for helping students learn to give peer feedback while also emphasizing that these skills are necessary for lifelong musicianship and beyond. Michelle models vulnerability by frequently asking students for feedback on the class and her teaching, which also shows her commitment to honoring student voices. Students find the music classroom (though virtual, in Michelle’s case) is a safe space where mistakes are part of the process and everyone, including the teacher, is always learning. Michelle wants her students to know “that there’s an adult out there that takes my voice seriously.”   

Allison Russo,

A Collaborative Journey Toward Shared Values in Music Education

Allison Russo works with music students and other music educators to create values-based programs that are built upon the unique needs of the community and those within it. She encourages educators to collaborate with their students to construct a value statement that defines the purpose of the music program. Allison believes successful programs take into consideration the needs of the individual students and the collective “we,” focusing on more than the ideals and values of the director. Once the value statement has been created, it should be put into action and made visible so the teacher and students can make decisions that align with the purpose and goals of the program. Allison also shares that trust is a vital component to building community within a music program, which for the students means trust in each other, trust in the teacher, and trust in the program.