The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student

Then ask yourself, what am I controlling that my students could do for themselves?

I am so excited to share this post, which I co-wrote with Kathryn Finch! 

Empowered Music Student

For a long time, our focus was on engaging the learners and making sure students were “actively engaged” in music making in my classroom. But more recently we have discovered that engagement is not enough. To make an impact and to optimize life-long learning, students must be empowered. The best explanation of the differences between engaged students and empowered students came from Bill Ferriter.

engage vs empower

Which brings us to the question, what does an empowered music student look like? This student

  • has a choice and a voice
  • asks questions (and then finds the answers)
  • is connected (to students and musicians inside and outside the classroom)
  • creates as well as consumes
  • owns the learning process

Has a choice  

Maybe that starts with lesson plans. When planning ask yourself, where can I offer more choice in this lesson? For example, in the elementary music room, students may learn to play classroom instruments with the proper technique by performing instruments during a sound story. Often, the specific words and instruments are pre-determined. But do they need to be? Read the sound story to your students and let them decide how and when instrument sounds would be appropriate. The impact is big. Students love the chance to choose and often perform better when it’s their idea and creation. Once you feel comfortable finding ways to offer more choice in a lesson, the next step is to lesson plan with students instead of planning for students. Take the plunge. Start a project in class and share that you aren’t positive what the next steps are or how long this project will take. Ask for student feedback to plan future music classes.

Has a voice

This could start with rehearsals. When an ensemble (classroom, choral, or instrumental) learns a piece of music, ask: How did we do? What did you notice? What areas should we work on next? This is a great way to make thinking visible. Ask students for the next steps.  Ask them for suggestions. When appropriate, ask someone to begin the piece when the group is ready. Allow students to lead and offer feedback so the activity transforms from being done to them into something they can mold and shape with their own ideas. It doesn’t have to stop there. Sometimes questions come up in discussion or rehearsal. How do we handle that? Do we lead the class back to the main objective because we have a pacing guide and future plans already made? Or do we run down a rabbit hole with them because a genuine, authentic question was asked? When students have a voice in the classroom, they believe their thoughts and opinions truly matter. Teachers who give students voice believe this too.  

Asks questions

Typically in education, the teacher asks the questions, and the students answer. What did you hear in that piece of music? Or, what symbol tells the musicians to get louder? Empowered learners have the opportunity to ask questions and then take it a step further, to find the answers. In a music industry class, students could learn various job opportunities by creating and managing their own bands. The students learn as they go what it takes to start a band and determine their next steps throughout this authentic process. No longer is the teacher the keeper of all information. Instead, the teacher must encourage students to ask questions and empower them to find the answers.  

Creates as well as consumes

We all consume books, movies, YouTube videos, etc. but do we all find a balance of creating as well? This creation could be as simple as improvising rhythmic or melodic ideas, or more complex by writing song melodies or lyrics. It also invites students to use their voice, make choices, and ask questions as they work through the process of creating something musical. As music teachers, we know the value of having our students consume high-quality music, but we must also encourage them to create their own high-quality music. When we create, we invest and share a little of ourselves with the world. We learn to take ownership of our music making. We make decisions and learn to handle bumps in the road. Creating is not only an important skill in music, but it is also a valuable skill in life.

Is connected

Music teachers know well the power of networking. It can be a lonely job at times, with no one else in a school who teaches music. So, we network and learn from others near and far, in person and online. Why wouldn’t we want those opportunities for our students? We strive to be the best for our kids, but we can’t be experts on everything. Nor should we have to be. With a little work behind the scenes on social media, we can invite an expert into our room, in person or through facetime. With the help of technology, we can connect classrooms so students can learn from their own peers around the world. It’s a powerful tool we shouldn’t overlook. Connecting students to musicians outside of the classroom makes the experience more authentic, and therefore more meaningful.

Owns the learning process

When students own their learning, it doesn’t mean they are given free-reign to do whatever they want. It means they are involved in the process and are charged to actively control their own learning. Students can tell you what they are learning and why it is important to them. Students have more questions they want to find answers to, and have determined their own next steps in the process. They are engaged and excited about their own learning. Students are not waiting for the teacher to lead the process, they own the process and look to the teacher for guidance and support.  

So, how do we as music teachers make a shift towards empowerment in the music classroom? Well, first things first. Remember that it’s a shift. It’s not something that happens overnight. Start by giving yourself permission to think about it. Then ask yourself, what am I controlling that my students could do for themselves? When we start to question why we do things, we begin to see opportunities for change.  


Links for Further Reading:

How I Increased Voice and Choice in My Music Classes, and Why I’ll Never Look Back


Next Steps for the Kindergarten Music Program

Learner Centered Innovation

Personalized Learning: Part 3, How it Works

How to Build a Recording Studio




Be Vulnerable: #IMMOOC 4.5

What about the process? It’s messy! Own it!

Be Vulnerable: #IMMOOC 4.5

This post is the sixth in a series for #IMMOOC, as it relates to Katie Martin’s book, Learner Centered Innovation

As I finished the last section of Katie Martin’s Learner Centered Innovation, there were many concepts that resonated with me. But one word, in particular, stood out: vulnerable. It makes me shudder to say it! Who wants to be vulnerable? Yikes! But the reality of the situation, this is yet another thing that must be in place in order for us to grow.

“Vulnerability is the prerequisite for all innovation, creativity, and change.” Aaron Hogan, Shattering the Perfect Teacher Myth

If we want to be innovative, try something new, and make an impact, we must be willing to take the risk. AND we must be willing to share that risk. We cannot only share the successes and the shiny final products. What about the process? It’s messy! Own it! We teach our students that the process is more important than the product, it’s the same for us as teachers. This all goes back to the beauty of having a network, a tribe. These are the people who will support you throughout the mess. They will celebrate, commiserate, and offer suggestions every step of the way. But only once you’ve let them in.

In an effort to take my own advice, here’s a (small) project I’m working on right now. Instead of doing the typical composition project with my 4th-grade band and orchestra students (write 4-measures, start and end on do, etc.) I am incorporating the design thinking process. This is terrifying! We are somewhat following the LAUNCH Cycle, as described by John Spencer and AJ Juliani. The process starts with empathy. The students were asked to think about why composers write music, what various purposes music is written for, and then what purpose they might want to write music for. While many focused on things like music for entertainment or to make money, some had very creative ideas like music for ringtones, commercials, and even funerals! The students have been working on their compositions in class but were instructed to come back after spring break with the rough draft complete (the prototype, if you are familiar with LAUNCH) so we can begin the peer review process. When they Launch their compositions, students will have the opportunity to perform for the class and will be encouraged to find another audience, fitting with their purpose, to share the music with.

This has been a process not only for my 4th graders but also for me! I teach 12 small classes over the course of 4 days each week and was still making adjustments to the project on the 4th day. Iterations are part of the process. I’m taking a risk and trying something new. The next step is to invite others in and share the risk.

Katie Martin discusses the importance of teachers observing teachers, not for evaluative purposes, but for learning purposes. She encourages teachers to start by, “putting down the checklist and celebrating success.” It all comes back to being vulnerable, welcoming people into our classrooms so that we can learn and grow together. I am going to be vulnerable next week and invite someone into my room to experience this design thinking composition project. I look forward to hearing another perspective and receiving some feedback – not as an evaluation, but as a tool for growth. This is an important step in the journey, and I am excited to see the results!

“I truly believe that breaking down silos and sharing real challenges are the only ways that we will continue to improve.” Katie Martin, Learner Centered Innovation

Learning is a process

Why Network? #IMMOOC 4.4b

But find your people. Connect, share, and grow.

Why Network? #IMMOOC 4.4b


This post is the fifth in a series for #IMMOOC, as it relates to Katie Martin’s book, Learner Centered Innovation

When I first started at APS last school year I was appalled when administration encouraged teachers to have Twitter accounts – and even more shocked by the idea of tweeting what went on in our classrooms! They wanted us on social media?!? Didn’t this go against everything I had heard about getting (and keeping) a job? Regardless, being the good little worker-bee, I set up a Twitter account and sporadically through the year would tweet about things going on in my classroom. I would participate in the random Twitter chat, re-tweet on occasion, and felt I was doing as told.

It took about 7-months for me to realize what I was missing. While it was great that I was sharing with my 89 followers, I had yet to learn anything! The power was in the network, and once I developed a network, everything changed.

“Your network is your net worth. We improve when we open ourselves up to learning from others, share our ideas, and work together to create something better. And when we improve, our students benefit.” Katie Martin, Learner Centered Innovation 

Fast-forward 9-months. I now have 2 Twitter accounts, one for school (@ATS_MrsDMusic) and one that is personal/professional (@TDucassoux). I tweet regularly, and I learn just as often. I love a good Twitter Chat. And on top of all that, I’ve built a network. People who believe what I believe. People who support me. People who push me to think and do outside my comfort zone. And it’s awesome! It has helped me to grow as a teacher, and in turn, has provided even more powerful learning experiences for my students.

I would recommend all teachers find their own tribe, through Twitter, Facebook, or whatever platform makes the most sense. But find your people. Connect, share, and grow. It may be safe in the comfort zone, and safe sticking with what you know, but the true magic happens for you and your students when you can look beyond that and try something new.

"The power in engaging with critical friends is not just spending time together or finding people who will support you. While that is important, true learning and growth requires being pushed out of your comfort zone." Katie Martin, Learner Centered Innovation

The Power of Feedback: #IMMOOC 4.4a

This post is the fourth in a series for #IMMOOC, as it relates to Katie Martin’s book, Learner Centered Innovation


I have noticed that some students have a very difficult time receiving feedback. They want to turn in assignments (recordings of music demonstrating specific skills) and have that be the end of it. But it’s not the end. Sometimes based on the recording I would not consider the skill mastered. Attempted? Definitely. Mastered? Not quite. Other times there were problems with rhythms or note accuracy. In either case, feedback was given to help the student remedy the issue and re-submit. It took several months of repeating this process for students to understand what to do with the feedback. It doesn’t end because the assignment was turned in. It’s a continuous cycle to help learners grow.

There is also another key ingredient in meaningful feedback, and that is the relationship. In Learner Centered Innovation Katie Martin says,

“Providing feedback that improves performance must be preceded by belief in and care for the individual. Without a trusting relationship, feedback feels like criticism, and people tend to feel misunderstood or as if they don’t belong or are being judged.”

Along with students understanding what to do with feedback, we also need to make sure they understand the why. We give students feedback because we believe in them. Because we care about them. Because we want them to grow as learners, and in my classes, as musicians. This is another great reminder of why relationships are vital in all areas of education, and why we need to establish these relationships first. If we wait,  it will be too late. The window will have passed, along with many missed opportunities. Relationships first, then true learning can occur.

Learning to Learn: #IMMOOC 4.3

This post is the third in a series for #IMMOOC, as it relates to Katie Martin’s most recent book, Learner Centered Innovation

In our ever-changing world, there are many new skills that students need to learn in addition to the standard, “reading, writing, and arithmetic.” It is now also vital that students (and adults) learn how to learn. No longer should students wait to get knowledge only from their teachers. The ability to learn is at our fingertips. As Katie Martin says, “Shouldn’t we emphasize with our students that learning is for life, not just for schools?” The key is finding the motivation to learn. Daniel Pink, in his book “Drive” defines the foundation of motivation as Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. It is easy to believe that if adults can be motivated by these things, students will be as well.

This year I have been working to help my students learn how to learn. I have written several posts about my adventures in personalized learning with my 5th-grade band and orchestra students. The students are working at their own pace on a given set of learning targets. They set their own goals each quarter and can show mastery of each target however they would like. While students are “on their own,” I have provided several resources to help them through the process.

  • Method Book – all students are provided with a method book (Essential Elements) and instructed how to find and read the included fingering chart.
  • Interactive App – all students also have access to an interactive app that corresponds to the method book, Essential Elements Interactive. Within the app, students have access to additional fingering charts, can hear recordings of all songs, adjust the tempo of the songs, and change the accompaniment music.
  • Videos – percussion students are provided with a symbaloo link, containing numerous videos to help with specific percussion techniques.
  • Hyperdoc – a Hyperdoc about dynamics is provided to help students understand the concepts and skills surrounding dynamics and dynamic changes in music.

What I have noticed is that students only use a fraction of the provided resources! And the reason is purpose. Students use the resources when they are personally invested in the purpose. But when their purpose is learning a skill that I have mandated, such as mastering eighth notes, they are much less motivated to use the given tools to actually master the skill. On the other hand, when students are working on something they are interested in, they quickly will turn to a fingering chart or recording for help. For some reason “The Banana Boat Song” has been popular recently, and many students have been practicing that along with the various recording accompaniments.

Another time this year I have seen increased student motivation to learn on their own was during two video projects using Flipgrid. In both cases, students were given supplemental music, one set for Halloween and another for Christmas. Each time the students were encouraged to add a song of their choosing to the Flipgrid. Most students played the first (and easiest) song, “Jingle Bells.” Until we began sharing the grid with other schools around the country. As soon as my students heard other songs being played, they immediately wanted to play them too! There was a sudden sense of urgency to learn the other songs – not because I told them to, but because they wanted to. The students had found their sense of purpose.

So what does this mean? Students need to be personally invested in their learning, and part of my job is to help them find that purpose. I can (and will) continue to provide tools to help them learn, but the students must see the purpose, or at least how the purpose relates to them. This definitely adds a new layer to things, but I think it puts us all closer to the right path.



Learner Centered Innovation: #IMMOOC 4.2

IMG_2963This post is the second in a series for #IMMOOC, as it relates to Katie Martin’s most recent book, Learner Centered Innovation

In Chapter 2 of Learner Centered Innovation, author Katie Martin discusses the environment (ecosystem) that must be present for learner centered innovation to exist. Obviously at the center of this is the learner! But equally as important is what surrounds the learner, things such as policy, culture, vision, values, and systems. If all those aren’t set in place to support the learner, an innovative environment will not be possible.

One thing John Spencer mentioned in the YouTube live video had to do with the idea, “what am I doing for students that they could be doing for themselves?” The answer to that question is also key to creating an environment that is both learner centered and open to innovation. In my classroom this year I am beginning to make some of these shifts that John is referring to.

  • Students have the opportunity to work on music that interests them and practice at their own pace. I am not responsible for making those decisions (though I do make sure students are accomplishing something in class!)
  • In small group lessons, students are able to sit where they would like and work with who they would like.
  • During ensemble rehearsals student volunteers lead warm-up exercises, deciding what skills to work on each class period.
  • There is a “Student Center” set up in the classroom, where students have access to various materials and supplies they may need.
  • Several students worked independently on music to perform at a recent recital, some playing solos, and others duets. I provided the location for them to practice, but the students did the work themselves. One group even got creative with dynamics, orchestration, and an added coda!

As with anything, there is always room for improvement. I would love to find a way to not have to listen to and assess so many video assignments each week! Even when given a rubric, students still have trouble determining when they have mastered a skill. I don’t know how to make that work yet, and it may be a necessary part of what we do. In addition, tonight I observed a rehearsal where after playing a piece the conductor asked the students, “What did you hear? What do we need to work on?” Yes! I need to start doing this tomorrow! Students know, they can hear it. They don’t need me to tell them.

I also need to be careful not to let the policies and systems I put in place stifle student creativity. There is a fine line – it’s still ok to have requirements, but there needs to be room for student choice and creativity. Again I come back to George Couros who said, “you can’t submit your taxes on Google Slides.” There is a time to follow the rules, and a time to let the students choose. I need to be clear on expectations for both situations and make sure I leave room for both situations. At the end of the day, I must think about what the learners need (not only what I need) so they remain at the center of all plans. If I can do this, we will all move in the right direction.

#IMMOOC Season 4: Why is Innovation in Education Necessary?

IMG_8353I am so excited to be participating in #IMMOOC again! IMMOOC = Innovator’s Mindset Massive Open Online Course. I participated in the fall, reading and discussing The Innovator’s Mindset, by George Couros, with a wonderful PLN. This time around participants were given a choice (love the personalized learning here!) to read either The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros, Empower by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani or Learner Centered Innovation by Katie Martin. I’ve already read The Innovator’s Mindset and Empower, so I am hoping to keep up with the readings for Learner Centered Innovation and focus my reflection on that. We’ll see how it goes!

IMG_2941 2Why is innovation in education necessary? It’s simple: the world is rapidly changing! If we keep attempting to “do education” the way it’s always been done, we fail our students. Things must change or else the education system becomes irrelevant.

“Past successes do not always ensure future growth when the context in which we live changes — and it always changes.” ~Katie Martin


Chapter 1 in Learner Centered Innovation included the graphic below to describe how the role of the educator has changed. No longer is the teacher the keeper of content. The students now have all the necessary content at their fingertips! I have managed to incorporate at least some of each quality into my teaching this year, but know that I still have room to grow in each area. The other role I have needed to embrace this year is that of a cheerleader! Many of my students aren’t used to having choices and want to be told what to do. I really have to encourage them to take a risk, try something they are interested in, and see what happens.


evolving role of the teacher

I think some of this cheerleading has to do with something else I read in chapter 1. Are we confusing learners with different “styles” of classrooms?

“…we can and must do better to create coherent learning experiences for students to explore their passions, understand their strengths, and find their place in the world. Until then, as we vacillitate between different philosophies of education, today’s students are caught in the middle. We cannot continue to add on twenty-first century expectations to a twentieth-centurey model of education.”   ~Katie Martin

This idea resonated with me for several reasons. First, because it’s true! Students are trying to bounce between multiple types of expectations – compliance versus empowerment, high-stakes tests versus creativity. While I still believe some levels of compliance are necessary (and George Couros validated this belief in the webinar, you can’t submit your tax return via Google Slides!) we also can’t confuse students by trying to move seamlessly between the two without explanation. It also relates to some issues I’ve been having in class recently, with one class in particular. As a band and orchestra teacher, there really are times when compliance must be there. For a band to sound successful, everyone must be playing the same thing at the same time! Some students are struggling in these situations. But is the problem me? Am I confusing them, going from periods of self-directed learning to teacher-directed band rehearsals? This is definitely something I will ponder over the next few weeks (and beyond) to work towards a solution that helps everyone involved.

So here’s to a great 5 weeks of learning, reflecting, and sharing!