Use Student Leaders to Empower Your Musicians

Many music teachers look back at their own school music experience and have fond memories of being a student leader. They may have been a section leader, a drum major, or a concertmaster. Typically, leadership roles are given to the most experienced musicians, and it’s an honor to hold the title. While these positions are important for many reasons, musical and otherwise, it’s important to remember that student leadership can exist outside the high school or collegiate ensemble. And they’re not only for your best musicians! Any student, any age level, and any ability can benefit from being a leader in music class.

What does being a leader do for students? 

There are many reasons music teachers choose to give students leadership opportunities, but for now I’m going to focus on one: student empowerment. Empowered music students have ownership of their music making. They are excited to learn and more likely to engage in class. Leaders naturally want to be successful and want the same success for those they lead. When we allow students to be leaders in their music classes, we strengthen their path to becoming lifelong musicians. 

What do student leaders look like in the music classroom? 

Leadership opportunities can take place several ways in the music classroom. Start with something small, such as a familiar song or routine. In an ensemble, you could have a student lead a well-known warm-up exercise. Invite the student to the front of the room, remind them to prepare the ensemble, and let them take it away! I’ve found some students feel most comfortable playing (or singing) along with the group, while others grab the baton and try conducting – leave a practice baton on the podium, just in case they get too excited!

After you have done this for a few class periods with several volunteer leaders, start giving the students more freedom. Perhaps they can choose between several warm-up options, or choose something to work on a specific skill. I have had students teach the group new warm-ups, exercises they learned in private lessons or at previous schools, which is great! These students will take pride in knowing that you value their ideas and willingness to share it with the ensemble. 

This can work in general music classes as well. Students can lead movement activities, singing games, or familiar songs. Even the youngest learners can – and should – get the opportunity to lead their peers. And by giving students these opportunities at a young age, you are preparing them for more in the future. 

While any student, regardless of musical ability, can lead familiar activities in the music room, there may be situations where you have students with advanced skills who would benefit from an additional challenge. Is there something new you are about to introduce that a student already knows? Or do you have a student who enjoys learning new things on their own? Consider asking students in these situations to teach the new skill! This could be anything from introducing dynamic markings, to articulations, or new playing techniques. Give the student notice before asking them to teach and go over any expectations – should they just talk about the concept or also demonstrate it? Should they plan to have the class perform it as well? Their creativity will inspire everyone. 

Non-musical roles

Not every student will want to stand in front of the class to teach, but there are still things they can lead and jobs they can do. In fact, some students may have interests outside of music that could be very beneficial in your class! Here are some additional roles to consider: 

  • Librarians – responsible for distributing and collecting music, providing classmates with replacement parts, or keeping the library organized. 
  • Tech Support – assist you or their classmates if tech related problems occur. 
  • Publicist – helps with publicizing music class events. Students could create both digital and print media to share with families, friends, and the school community. 
  • Photographer/Historian – photograph events and activities for 
  • Webmaster or Social Media Guru – assist with the class website or social media accounts. For younger grades, students could create content for you to post, while older students (with clear expectations set) may be able to do this on their own. 

By giving students non-musical leadership roles you are showing them you value their contribution to the group, and you’re allowing them some ownership. Students feel their contribution adds purpose, and as a result feel more connected.  

What about virtual classes? 

While the previous ideas work great in the typical music classroom, we have learned that the 2020-2021 school year is far from typical! That doesn’t mean we give up hope for empowering our music students. Even in a virtual environment, this is still achievable. 

Students can still lead or demonstrate songs. In most virtual music classes, the students remain muted and sing or play their instruments along with the teacher. The students can hear the teacher as their model. The teacher doesn’t always have to be the model. Ask students to volunteer to be the leader, and the rest of the class will play along with them while muted. Students often feel less self-conscious when they know their classmates are playing along with them, instead of just listening.

Students can have non-musical leadership roles in virtual classes as well. A student could be in charge of the lobby, and responsible for admitting classmates into the meeting. You could assign a student to be the timekeeper who ensures the class stays on track, or find someone to monitor the chat, answering simple questions and letting you know about more immediate concerns. If you use breakout rooms, students could serve as project managers, working to keep the group on task during their time together. Giving students these roles shows you trust them and allows them to add value to the class. 

It’s easy to always give leadership opportunities to your best students. They are likely often the strongest musicians and most reliable. However, I urge you to include all students in this experience throughout the school year. Every student can be a leader, and every student deserves the opportunity. When you empower the students in your music classes, everyone wins. 

Interested in learning more?

Check out this blog post about Student Jobs in Music Classes and here is template to create Job Badges for your students!

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