Encouraging Passion in Your Music Ensemble

Encouraging passion in your music ensemble is an important element when trying to develop the ideal musical culture. Exercising the creative juices is not just something to be practiced by band, choir or orchestras. It is to be embraced by all performers in every form. Today we will identify some key elements and suggestions you can use with your students to encourage passion in their musical craft.

Today’s post is a summary and reflection on Dr. Shelley Jagow’s book “Developing the Complete Band Program, chapter 16 – Suggestions for Encouraging the Heart.” Dr. Jagow’s biography and a plethora of instrumental resources can be found at https://www.shelleyjagow.com. I highly encourage you to check out her website and her professional resources available to music educators and students of music.

Essential Elements

In Dr. Jagow’s book she recognizes 7 essentials for encouraging students to be passionate and heartfelt about their beloved craft. These elements include:

As we identify these essentials, consider the possible applications for your classroom and students. I encourage you to draw your students in more and develop their love of music. Remember you are teaching tomorrow’s future leaders and the world needs as many passionate music educators as it can produce.

Essential #1 – Set Clear Standards

When setting clear standards it is important to be concise. Communicate your values to your students and why your music program is important to you. Oftentimes students find comfort in shared values and likes. Continue to build positive connections with students and stay passionate about maintaining positive relationships.

Communicating passionately with students on an everyday basis may be difficult in some scenarios. Remind yourself and your students what you do by posting your values where you can read them everyday. This can be on a board, or the door, electronically on your computer or anywhere that you come in contact. This provides that subtle reminder why you choose to do what you do.

Communication is key. You must communicate your values to your students if you want them to understand who you are and why you work so hard. Anything worth truly working for must have intrinsic value. Serving as a passionate role model gets noticed by impressionable minds.

Make SMART goals more than just a yearly check mark on your evaluations. Dr. Jagow defines SMART goals as S = Specific, M = Measurable, A = Attainable, R = Results-oriented, and T= Timely bounded goals. This representation of SMART goals is a great template for achieving results. In contrast to the author’s view I commonly use the SMART goal version where the R is replaced by “Realistic” rather than “Results-oriented.” Some may argue this version however, it works well in my teaching. One reason using SMART goals to encourage passion with your students is they get to personally get to experience problem solving and the success associated with it.


Be sure to provide specific and timely feedback to your students as you interact with them. Let your students know what is good or bad as they demonstrate their skills. If you wait they will often forget about the subtleties of why they performed the way they did. Consider having one primary goal to focus on as you address a complex process. One example could be moving from one set to another in marching band. There may be many issues in a single set change however, students often get overloaded and confused if faced with meeting multiple challenges at a time with little to no fine tuning.

In regards to feedback, also enable opportunities for students to provide feedback to themselves. Can you think of ways to do this in your specific musical ensemble? If so, can you direct the conversation so that it is constructive and not an off tangent social conversation?

Announce and remind students on a regular basis of what program standards are when publicly recognizing a student. Students make the behavioral connections with the desired standard you are setting. Keep these compliments positive and meaningful.

Finally, consider discussing with other professionals how they set goals and standards for their programs. In education we all borrow and adapt great ideas to use in our classrooms. This valuable feedback, from speaking with other colleagues, can give you the performance-oriented or classroom management skill to meet your next goal to make your class a happier place to be.

Essential #2: Expect the Best

Dr. Jagow continues to encourage music educators to be their best. One of the most important factors here is that if you want to be the best, you must surround yourself with the best. What does this actually mean? Consider asking yourself what or who is an ideal music director that you would be like? Obviously, we are all unique in the sense that our parents tell us that we are special as kids. However, consider what skills, demeanor and abilities you want for yourself and students. To accomplish this provide exposure for your students and yourself to get musicians, teachers and people who inspire. As a result, messages, spoken or not, get learned through prolonged exposure.

It is contagious when you smile when you interact with others. So do more of it! You never know how much some people are quietly suffering inside and how the simple act of a smile can make their day. This association of feeling good starts with you and what you do. Maximize this opportunity to be the best person you can be.

Expect The Best

There should always be a sense of growth for students. Do this by setting challenging but realistic goals. What is realistic is that one set of students may be different from another set. This is where professional relationships come into play. Get to know the skills, abilities and personalities of your students so that you can find meaningful and growth oriented goals for their overall development. Identify where students are and how much they have grown. They will most like associate this growth to you and your passion for teaching your craft.

Practice creating clear mental images for your students. Be careful to stay to the point and concise with your imagery so you don’t confuse your ensemble members. This approach of communication can be a powerful tool.

As a music educator you know that anything working for requires hard work to do well. Be sure to do quality score study and research how to make your ensemble the best. This generally begins before your group even plays a note and the literature is chosen. Consider your group’s strengths, weaknesses and their realistic ability to stretch and improve their musical skills.

Dr. Jagow recommends posting inspirational posters around your rehearsal room. This single element may not change everything for the better but when the child is mentally off-task, it can help redirect them into the right direction and frame of mind.

It would be a falsehood if we were to claim all rehearsals were perfect. There are times when you may, as a music educator, have wanted a rehearsal to go in a different direction. Get into the stress relieving practice of meditation and the practices that are associated with it. You may find you are a happier person.

Essential #3 – Pay Attention

Learn about what makes your students “tick.” Show that you care and are interested in their success. Perhaps you can go to one of their athletic events or attend a concert of theirs that is not one under your direction. Students notice these gestures and will buy into your program too.

When you pay attention to and learn about your students it is easier to tell a story that you can accurately praise them. This serves as a lesson teaching tool for your ensemble members and can bring a sense of pride to the story-focused student.

We all need ideas to build up our students. Consider keeping a journal where you store these ideas. Make these “build-up” proclamations easy to tell and “transferable” to students. Think about it, do you really need a special reason to recognize a student?

Pay Attention
If you have access to student records, another easy way to make students feel special is to wish all of the students having a birthday for any given week, a happy birthday! You can keep a birthday calendar and save time by doing this short and sweet celebration with all of the students at one time.

If you notice a series of individual students performing beyond expected standards, find extraordinary ways to recognize them. This should be done in a way that is not part of the normal classroom routine.

Find ways to self-assess the way you communicate. This can be done by watching a video recording of yourself teaching. Analyzing whether your facial expressions and/or gestures acknowledge student progress.

Essential #4 – Personalize Student Recognition

If you want to create a method of recognizing student achievement that is truly yours, consider asking what other teachers do. As educators we often borrow and steal ideas of other successful teachers. Perhaps “borrow” an idea from a colleague and modify it to make it a more personalized form of student recognition.

Reflect back when you were recognized as a student. How did the teacher recognize you? What did the teacher do to make you feel special? Can you adapt this strategy in your own classroom?

Dr. Jagow refers to all types of strategies; however, she also recommends writing a thank-you letter to deserving parents, staff members and administrators. The person of focus will appreciate the letter and the students will recognize the positive interaction he or she has with you and your program.

Think big picture and send cookies to your secretary, custodians and counselors. These professionals will recognize this gesture and thank you in turn in one form or another.

Consider creating a personalized recognition award for certain positive actions. For instance I do a “Golden Stand Award” once a month. The Golden Stand Award is a spray painted music stand that is used by a student for that month. It is like an “Employee of the Month Award” where the student is being recognized as a positive role model.

One thing you can do to brighten up your rehearsal room is to create a “recognition bulletin board.” On this board you can add sticky notes of student names and photos of students who do extraordinary things. You can also post this positive news on your monthly newsletters. One free electronic newsletter creator I recommend is Smore (found at smore.com.)

Essential #5 – Tell The Story

Some of the best movies show a coach, director or teacher having these great pep talks that include stories that motivate their teams. Try practicing your story telling abilities. If you can’t, maybe ask another staff member or parent to take on the role.

Get students to share some of their stories that are relevant to the goals associated with your musical program. This is a great opportunity to learn more about your students.

If there is a story that particularly interests you, write it down and keep it in a journal. Take special note of the lessons of the story and share them at a later time.

Essential #6 – Celebrate

A celebration with your students should be purposeful. A strong work ethic and achieving success should be rewarded in one form or another. When celebrating, identify the purpose of each celebration. Purposeful celebrations should be for demonstrated skills, behavior or reaching specific goals.

When having a celebration it should be festive with a genuine level of enthusiasm, energy and sincerity. Be a real person and don’t be afraid to use a little humor. This should be an excellent time for students to bond with you and their fellow peers.

Consider creating a celebration board for your rehearsal room. This can be similar to your recognition board that we discussed earlier. Fill it with positive comments, names and photos.

Essential #7 – Set The Example

Ultimately, when encouraging passion in a music ensemble you must set the example. There are proper and inappropriate ways to do this. It is important that you choose this in a way that maintains respect and professionalism. The best way to do this is to practice what you preach.

Be transparent. Your standards and goals should be visible to your school and your local community. You can learn how this is done from experienced music educators. Remember to regularly communicate your values and standards through the spoken word and visual reminders. Think, if you were a student could you communicate the values and standards to others?

You are human so be sure to reward yourself. There is no shame in this and your work must be sustainable. Burn out leads to unproductive music programs thus the solution is to keep things happy and productive for you.

Finally, be sure to thank all stakeholders. This includes your students, families, school staff, community and yourself. Remember you’re an artist and educator. This is a profession that requires the buy-in by your soul, mind and body. If this is the life you want then live it up!


Dr. Jagow has made some fabulous recommendations for encouraging passion for yourself, as the educator, and your music students. Consider reflecting on your own scenario. Are you happy and passionate about teaching music? Do your students know this? If you are not, is it due to working conditions or is it something else. Take the time to reflect, allow yourself to grow as a professional and spread the passion to our future leaders of tomorrow!


Jagow, S. (2020). Teaching instrumental music: Developing the complete band program. Meredith Music Publications.

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