Keep Every Student in your Ensemble Motivated and Involved at All Times

Keep Every Student in your Ensemble Motivated and Involved at All Times

It is a common problem in orchestra and band classes: some kids will learn more than others based on the instrument they chose to play. Because of where the melodies get placed in most arrangements, violinists learn more than bassists. Flutists learn more than tubists. Students whose instrument parts don’t frequently carry the melody spend their time sitting with their instruments in their laps while their classmates with the melody get more playing time and ultimately, better technique development.

Our goal as music educators needs to be to develop all of our students – not just those who play the melody parts in many arrangements. What can we do, then, to design our classes so that all of our students are given the opportunity to reach their highest potential?

Repertoire Choice

Concert repertoire is the primary vehicle we use to advance our curriculum in performance-based music classrooms. As such, picking repertoire might be the most important decision you make for ensuring that all of your students learn.

When I look at much of the literature for student-level string orchestra, there is one feature that repeatedly confronts me: The melody is in the 1st violin part, and everyone else plays a much simpler accompaniment. I have developed a simple rule of thumb: When I see a piece of music that features one instrument section and relegates all of the others to the background for the entire piece, I don’t program it!

Here are my steps for picking repertoire:

  1. Is it good music?
    • Do you like it? Do you think your students will like it?
  2. What do the bass and viola parts look like?
    • If the commonly neglected instruments are neglected, forget about it!
    • Sometimes if a part can be easily rewritten to include important thematic material, I will still pick the music and hand it out with modified parts.
  3. Does it cover the technical skills that my students need at this time?
    • You will be spending a lot of time on this music for the next 2-3 months. Can you use it to teach your students what they need to learn during that time frame? If not, keep looking!

If a piece of music doesn’t pass all three of these tests, I won’t consider it. When shopping for new music for my library, I will often purchase a piece based on the first two questions. I then use the third question to narrow my choices for a particular ensemble on a particular concert.

Pick a small problem. Focus on it. Fix it. Declare victory! Rinse and repeat.

Setting goals is critically important, and you should start out each year with some kind of curriculum map. What are the skills that your students should be able to demonstrate by the end of the year? Which ones should be mastered by the fall concert, performance evaluation, the spring concert? The way you structure your approach to reaching those goals is critical to keeping your students engaged.

I think about setting goals on three levels:

  1. Macro Goals
    • These are the big targets that I will work toward through an entire year or for a concert cycle.
  2. Lesson Goals
    • How will I divide those large goals across my lessons on a weekly or daily basis?
  3. Micro Goals
    • What do I want my students to accomplish for every 5-10 minute part of each individual lesson?

For keeping students motivated, the micro goals are the ones that really count! It’s in the minute-to-minute interactions where you either keep your students engaged or where you lose them. In every lesson, I want at least three times where I take my students from not being able to do something to being able to do that thing. Doing this keeps your students feeling encouraged, empowered, and excited to keep going.

The edu-speak name for this concept is the Zone of Proximal Development. This means your tasks should be just beyond what your students can currently do, but not so far beyond their skills that they can’t see a way to accomplish the task.

Keeping a lesson moving in the ZoPD, will really test your skill as a teacher. The trick is to break down a big problem into small enough components that your students can master the step in a short amount of time. Your micro goal might be a single part of a complicated technique, a single phrase, one measure, or perhaps just a sequence of three notes that’s causing a problem.

Pick a small problem. Focus on it. Fix it. Declare victory. Rinse and repeat.

Keep Everyone Playing With Theme Sheets

If everyone is going to learn, then everyone needs to be playing their instruments. My general rule of thumb is that no one should sit with their instrument in their lap for more than a minute or two while I work with a single section. I generally try to avoid having them sit that long.

For every piece of music I hand out, I also hand out a “theme sheet” that I’ve created to go along with it. To make the theme sheet, I go through the piece and identify every passage in every part that I think will need focused practice. I then transcribe those passages into Finale. From there, I can create a unison score with those passages transposed into the playable range for every instrument in my ensemble with a few clicks of the mouse.

When we get to that hard 1st violin part or that odd-sounding harmony that’s difficult to tune, the whole class switches to the theme sheet and we learn the hard parts as unison etudes. Everyone learns every main theme, every important harmony, and every tricky rhythm. Everyone advances together, and no one sits and gets left behind because some arranger has neglected to write a challenging part for their instrument. My basses really can play the 1st violin parts, and your trombones really can handle that flute lick!

An added benefit of this approach is that when we put the piece back together as written, everyone knows everyone else’s part. As a result, students listen across the ensemble better and play together more musically and responsively!

Valid Evaluations (SmartMusic to the Rescue)

I see this all the time: A teacher assigns a playing test. The 1st violin test is long, has several passages, and is difficult. The basses have one passage that is mostly half and quarter notes and does not challenge the players. By what measure is this a valid assessment of our students across an entire class?

By using the theme sheets, I can give everyone assessments that are appropriately challenging, and I can use technology to do much of the heavy lifting.

I take my theme sheet and upload it into SmartMusic. I then give playing test grades based on a pass-off system. Let’s say that a theme sheet has ten passages. I assign all ten passages to every student. To get 100%, they must pass every passage in SmartMusic. Personally, I count 85% or better as “passing.” Students do this on their own, so they know they can try to pass a section as many times as it takes, and that they should only submit the grade once they have achieved 85% or better. In this way, I encourage a mastery mindset and show students that if they keep practicing, they will keep improving.

Based on my school’s grading policy, a ten-passage theme sheet pass-off score would look like this:


Number Passed Grade
10 100
9 96
8 92
7 88
6 84
5 80
4 76
3 72
2 68
1 64
0 60

As much as I appreciate that SmartMusic can give real-time, specific feedback to students on notes and rhythms, and that it can automate some of the most time-consuming parts of grading playing tests, I don’t really trust it to give actual grades that stick. This is why I settled on using it as part of a pass-off system with a reasonable threshold. If students think that they should have earned 85% or better on a recording, they are allowed to submit the assignment and request a review. On review, sometimes I will change their grade to passing, and sometimes I will reassign with a note explaining what they can do to improve.


Using the above pedagogical concepts and techniques helps me keep all of my students moving forward together. I don’t leave anyone behind because of what instrument they chose. The result after several years of implementing the theme sheet approach has been that my ensembles have developed a full and even sound, all students are engaged through the entirety of every lesson, discipline has improved since students never sit around, and students have internalized a growth mindset where they know that persistence and effort pays off.

Seth Gamba

Seth Gamba is the orchestra director at Elkins Pointe Middle School in Fulton County, GA. A well-known composer, clinician, and adjudicator, Mr. Gamba has presented many sessions at state and national conferences including GMEA, ASTA, NAfME, and the Midwest Clinic. Mr. Gamba’s orchestra has had featured performances at state conferences and his compositions have frequently been played by groups performing at the annual GMEA conference. He currently has two compositions on the GMEA approved list for level 3 Orchestra. His book Rhythmic Projections: Rhythm Exercises for Building Mastery and his composition Rock On! for level 1 string orchestra are available from Ludwig Masters Publishing. Other compositions are available from

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