3 Ways to Expand Your Music Students’ Potential

3 Ways to Expand Your Music Students’ Potential

Several years ago I played with an orchestra that accompanied an 8-year-old cellist’s performance of  Popper’s “Hungarian Rhapsody.” I watched in amazement as her little fingers flew up and down the fingerboard with perfect precision. As she poured herself into the performance I could feel her love and passion for the music. This experience inspired me to raise the standards for my students. If she could perform that piece with such accuracy and passion, surely my students could do the same. My love for teaching has intensified as I’ve watched my students begin to discover what they are capable of accomplishing and soar to new heights. To help your students discover their potential and find their “wings,” I encourage you to see greatness in your students, test their limits, and help them to create ownership.

1. See Greatness in Every Student

All students have one thing in common: they want to succeed. Success feels good and inspires continued work and effort. When students feel failure, they become discouraged, unhappy, and do less work.

This year a student came to my program who had really struggled in his orchestra class at another school. The teacher at that school warned that this student was obnoxious, disrespectful, and was unwilling to practice. I watched him carefully as the school year began. As soon as he did something well, I praised him and he thrived on the positive attention. Praise and approbation continued as he began to progress. Within weeks he became one of my strongest players.


I gave an assignment to my students after term one asking them to explain whether or not they had improved over the last few weeks. This student wrote on his assignment, “Yes I improved! I went from the kid who couldn’t play anything to learning all of the advanced parts!”

We must believe that all students in our classrooms are capable of greatness. When we begin to see their capabilities we can help students discover their wings.

I have another student who frequently sends me emails about how much he loves orchestra. A few weeks ago he sent me a note that said: “How do I drop orchestra?” I was stunned. I thought he was enjoying my class. He told me that he was struggling to read the notes and was feeling behind in class. I told him that I could help him and spent a few minutes the next day with flashcards and the “Note-Reading Matching Game,” available at orchestraclassroom.com. That night I received another email from this student. He wrote, “You are the best orchestra teacher in the world. I love reading notes now. Thank you so much!!!!”

Every student really can be great.

2. Don’t Set Limits. Test Limits.

When I was in 7th grade my orchestra class was too easy for me. The music was not challenging, so I never once practiced my orchestra music. I lacked motivation because I was not given the opportunity to improve and strengthen my playing. Students cannot discover their true potential unless they are pushed to accomplish more than they think possible.

When choosing music it is important to meet the needs of your students by finding music that is challenging yet attainable. Since there are normally many different ability levels in one class, I recommend using music with multiple parts which vary in difficulty. Here’s an example.

With this type of repertoire, slower learners are able to feel success while learning the simple parts. More advanced players can be challenged to learn the more difficult parts. This teaching model is used in my book, “The True Beginning: Before the Method Book.” Students learn simple parts to the tunes while progressively working to play more advanced parts.

Using this approach, every student is able to thrive. Slower learners provide backup parts while developing the desire to learn the melody. With a little persuasion, more and more students discover they can also work to learn the advanced parts. This helps a class progress more quickly.

3. Create Student Ownership

As much as I want my students to be successful, they must decide themselves to do the work and make themselves great. To encourage students to make the decision to be great, we must first demonstrate that greatness is attainable. I suggest having them frequently reflect on their performances so they can notice progress and identify goals for improvement.

One way I help students become accountable for their own learning is to have them fill out a simple goal sheet after each playing test as well as at the start of each term. Check out this example.

Such a form encourages students to reflect upon their grade, their preparation, and decide how they will improve. They are able to reflect and assess their playing and develop a plan to achieve their desires for success. Once a student is self-motivated they can progress quickly and have a much more fulfilling orchestra experience.

My job has become much more rewarding as I have worked to focus on inspiring students to discover their own potential. It is marvelous to see students soar with confidence as they continuously progress to new levels of greatness.

Angela Harman teaches orchestra at Spanish Fork Junior High in Spanish Fork, UT where she has helped the orchestra program grow by over 440%. Angela is passionate about music education and is the founder of www.orchestraclassroom.com and the orchestra teacher blog where she posts ideas and methods that she uses in her classroom. Her recent books, “Be An Amazing Note-Reader” and “The True Beginning: Before the Method Book” are sold worldwide through her website. Angela helped her school's orchestra win the Give A Note Foundation/Radio Disney "Music In Our Schools" tour in 2016, presented sessions at the NAfME National Conference in 2015 and 2016, and will present at the Utah Music Educator’s Association in 2017.

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