What Is the “Current” State of Your Classroom? Amping Up Student Engagement

current state of your classroom

The year was 1880. Thomas Edison and his engineers had just invented the light bulb, and planned to put them in every home with power from Edison’s direct current power plants. DC was cheap, and because it flowed in only one direction, it was safer than the alternative. It could also be stored easily and modulated (think dimmer switches). However, its range was limited (small power plants needed to be within one mile of the customer) and its voltage could not be easily amplified without a costly wiring infrastructure. 

The great electrical debate, or “Current War” sparked when Thomas Westinghouse, industrialist and inventor, began the push for alternating current after purchasing Nikolai Tesla’s patents for AC motors and transmission systems. The chief advantage of AC was its ability to be inexpensively amplified to higher voltages, transmitted long distances, and transformed back again to usable voltage, making large-scale power grids possible. And while DC travels in one direction through transmission lines, AC flows in both. 

AC and DC are part of our lives today. Our lights, air conditioners, refrigerators, washers and dryers, and myriad other small appliances use alternating current. And without direct current, our flat screen TVs wouldn’t work, our cell phones wouldn’t charge, and our electric and hybrid car motors wouldn’t spin.  

Applying the concept of electrical current to music rehearsals is powerful. I’ll often tell my students that in rehearsal and performance, they are either putting energy into the room or drawing energy from it — it seems my 6:45 AM jazz band hears this more than other groups! That goes for me, too. Sometimes I end rehearsals and plop down exhausted at my desk. Other times I bound out of the band room, smiling and laughing with students, energized and ready for the next thing. Often, the difference between these rehearsals can be traced back to how the classroom energy moved.

The dynamic of rehearsal energy is a battle between AC and DC, too. DC, in this scenario, is an abbreviation for “Director Control.” When the director is solely in charge of learning, energy flows in one direction: out. This flow might be safer than the alternative, but the control will only take the learning so far. Student ownership and investment will suffer, and the ensemble will only charge ahead as far as the “sage on the stage” can take it. I’ve known programs that run solely on DC power. The hallmarks of these programs are tired, unhappy, stressed band directors and underachieving students.

On the other hand, a high voltage, back and forth AC rehearsal flow will take the ensemble much farther with more satisfaction for everyone. The director leads an “Aggregate Collaboration,” with high frequency interaction and charged expectations. Students are challenged to think critically and creatively out loud either through their playing or by sharing their thinking, and directors engage them to guide and assess thinking about the composer’s intent, articulations, balance, blend, and all the other ‘stuff’ of music making. These rehearsals are based on consistent classroom order, structure, and expectations which makes room for undistracted and unrestricted energy flow between teacher and student. Some of the best band programs I know have a culture built on high standards and the expectation of collaboration. 

To get there, even before the students enter the room, we must work at planning carefully with collaboration in mind. Score study takes on a different dimension when approached this way. Rather than studying scores with a “what am I going to teach the band” mindset, we need to study scores asking “what do I want the students to learn, understand and discover in rehearsal today, and what are the questions I can ask to achieve those things?” I think we sometimes forget that our students have so much to offer and we simply don’t ask.

Asking the right questions is key to the back and forth that can supercharge your students’ musical experiences. Asking questions that begin with “What can…” and “How can…” will produce reflective, critically relevant responses. “Trumpets, what can you do to match the first clarinet articulation?” “Amy, how can you create a more spine-tingling crescendo on that suspended cymbal?” “Tubas, what can the oboes do to shape their line more gracefully there?” These kinds of questions open the floor to  conversation (and debate!) between students and between you and your students. If you’ve been a part of these types of interactions in your rehearsals, you know just how energizing they are for everyone.  

Trust is the insulator that wraps around highly charged AC rehearsals. Students need to trust that their teacher and peers value their opinions. If there is fear of put down or belittlement, energy will slowly leak away. We can create more trust and insulate from energy loss by tamping down intolerance to opposing viewpoints among peers, admitting when we don’t know or are wrong, being ok with students challenging our ideas, and doing whatever we can to reassure our students that we hear them. If you are trying to create a more high energy AC atmosphere but are getting little more than a dim glow, reflect on—and ask your students about—the level of trust perceived in rehearsal. As a double benefit, asking our students about rehearsal atmosphere is itself a display of trust!  

If you desire a rehearsal atmosphere that crackles with electricity, one that is focused, positive, and engaging, you must be intentional about its planning and implementation.  By intentionally laying a solid groundwork of rehearsal expectations, reframing our approach to class preparation and the questions we ask, and insulating our classrooms with trust, the energy flow, quality, and satisfaction of our rehearsals and performances will undoubtedly increase. 

If you’d like to jumpstart the electricity in your ensembles, consider attending the Upbeat! Global Recharge Retreat with your students on February 13, 2021. A two and a half hour student session will be followed by a 90 minute director’s session. 

Jayson Gerth

Jayson Gerth is currently band director and teacher leader at Southeast Polk High School in Pleasant HIll, IA. He holds a Bachelor of Music Education degree from Drake University and a Master of Music degree from the University of Wyoming.
Jayson is former principal tubist of the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra. He is the recipient the 2000 Casper (WY) Star-Tribune “Star Teacher” Award, and was recognized by the Natrona County (WY) School District as an “Outstanding Educator” in 2002 and 2004. He was a nominee for the Grammy Music Educator of the Year Award in 2013, and in 2019 was named a “Favorite Teacher” by the Iowa Governor’s Scholar Recognition Program. He serves on the Executive Board of the Iowa Alliance for Arts Education and was the 2019-20 President of the Iowa Bandmasters Association. He is an elected member of the American School Band Directors Association and a member of Phi Mu Alpha Professional Music Fraternity. He lives in Ankeny, Iowa with his wife Krista, daughter Abby, and sons Tyler and Nathan.

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