Picture a successful band, orchestra, or choir rehearsal. Students have their instruments and music at the ready and are focused on the conductor. They respond quickly to instructions and are prepared for each cue. When it’s time to go to their next class, they put materials away in designated areas, keeping the space neat and organized.
Now, picture a less successful rehearsal. Musician after musician approaches the podium with the same issues: “I forgot my instrument.” “I don’t have my music.” “My reed is broken.” “I’m out of valve oil.” Students have difficulty understanding and following cues, leading to confusion. At the end of the class period, instruments and music are strewn around the room.
Every music teacher wants their classroom to resemble our first example, but well-run rehearsals don’t just happen on their own—no matter how much time you spend studying scores or honing your conducting skills. The key to smooth rehearsals, happy students, and a successful program is to have consistent music classroom routines and policies: expected behaviors in response to given or situational cues as well as ensuing consequences when students do not meet expectations.
Introduce and Enforce Classroom Routines from Day One
One of the largest and most obvious benefits of following routines is that doing so saves an enormous amount of time. Every minute that you spend teaching music as opposed to answering simple questions or handling administrative tasks is a win, and more efficient rehearsals help reduce frustration and burnout for both teachers and students.
In addition, having set music classroom routines will help to ensure that students, parents, and administrators see you as a leader. As a new teacher, you haven’t yet established a reputation, and it can be challenging to find your place within the school community. Make expectations and consequences clear, and you will be well on your way to earning everyone’s trust.
Finally, we cannot overstate the importance of setting up your routines at the start of the school year. A teacher who runs class one way in September only to make major changes months later invites confusion at best and anger at worst. There should be no surprises!
Good musicians always come prepared.
Set the expectation that students arrive at rehearsal with their instrument, their sheet music, accessories (such as an extra reed for woodwinds, valve oil for the brass section, or rosin for string players), and a pencil. Since forgetfulness is inevitable, we suggest dedicating an area of your classroom to extra music and accessories. Show students where these supplies are stored and how to put them back properly.
If missing music becomes an ongoing problem, our ePrint service may be a good fit for your program. Parts are viewable on any device, making forgotten folders a nonissue.
Students who are missing their instruments can be more difficult to handle. One effective strategy, particularly for band or wind ensemble, is to have them practice fingerings with a pen or pencil. You could also have students sing their parts or complete independent work, such as an educational worksheet or short reflection essay. J.W. Pepper carries a wide variety of classroom resources for every age group and skill level.
Once everyone is seated with the materials that they need to rehearse, you’ll need to take attendance for the day. Reading through a full list of names can take longer than you may expect! Having section leaders take responsibility for marking who is present and absent in their section can be an effective time-saver.
You have attendance taken care of and everyone is ready to start making music. Now what?
It’s essential to have a set vocabulary of verbal and nonverbal cues that students understand. For example, when you raise your arms to begin conducting, instruments are up in playing position. Before the first downbeat, wind and brass players breathe. Some additional examples:
“Concert position” cues students to sit up straight with instruments across their laps.
“You’re sitting on my kitty” cues students to sit on the edge of their chairs (to leave room for a hypothetical cat).
“Feet flat on the floor” cues students to respond “One, two” as they place each foot in the appropriate position.
Be sure to discuss rehearsal routines with other music department staff. Where it’s practical, consider implementing some of their techniques to create as much consistency as possible across ensembles.
While there will always be events that you can’t anticipate, such as last-minute assemblies and snow days, a rehearsal schedule will be a great help in ensuring that class runs smoothly with minimal time wasted. Work ahead to create a plan for each day, subject to adjustments.
When members begin putting instruments and music away before you’ve officially ended class, the effect can be disruptive. Consider implementing a certain word or phrase that indicates it’s time to pack up. Take your school’s scheduling structure into account: how many minutes do students have between bells before the next class period begins?
When it comes to cleanup, students need to know exactly what is expected of them. Should they stack their chairs or return stands to a rack? Where do instrument cases go? Clear communication and signage go a long way towards ensuring you aren’t stuck tidying messes on your own after they’ve left.
Take it from us: kids need structure. No one likes to be the bad guy, but you shouldn’t hesitate to set up a clear, consistent framework for discipline. Doing so will help you to earn respect, have a much easier time running class, and—most importantly—enjoy teaching.
Make a list of unacceptable behaviors and a firm yet fair way to address each. For example, students who are disruptive, fail to pay attention, or forget their instruments may receive a warning or two followed by a reduced participation grade, a take-home assignment, or a phone call home.
While it is important to be consistent, remember to be understanding and empathetic as well. It is quite possible that at least one student in your class could be dealing with an undiagnosed learning disability, a challenging home life, or any number of challenges that make it difficult to follow rules and remain engaged. If your intuition tells you that something isn’t right with a student, it’s worth taking steps to investigate.
How to Get Started
To paraphrase the composer W. Francis McBeth, “A good music teacher does what other music teachers don’t want to do.” The more you can prepare before the school year begins, the better off you will be. This summer, take some time to map out your classroom routines so that you are ready to put them into practice on day one.
We recommend reaching out to your future colleagues both in and outside of the music department as you go through this process. They’ll be able to offer tips and advice specific to your school, and you will have taken a first step towards building solid professional relationships.
In addition, it’s a good idea to review your approach to student grades, proposed routines, and disciplinary consequences with school administrators. Doing so ensures that you’re on the same page and that, in the event of a dispute with a parent, they are prepared to back you up.
Following all the steps we’ve suggested may seem difficult at first, but there’s no need to feel intimidated or overwhelmed. Take the process one step at a time, and everything will fall into place. By the time the first day of school rolls around, you’ll be several steps ahead of the game—and all the preparation you’ve done will serve you well throughout your first year of teaching and beyond.