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The Educator’s View Point

by Donald DeRoche, Ph.D.

Help your students learn not only music but a sense of accomplishment.

“Only a few of our students will pursue music as a career, but all of them will be well served if we can help them achieve a feeling of self-confidence.”

Last year I shared with you my belief that we often underestimate potentials in our students. In that article I stated my belief that students are more sensitive to their humanity than we realize and that they are capable of understanding and relating to music on deeper levels than we might suspect.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about another aspect of young people that we sometimes forget and that would be their need for what might variously be called good self image, self-confidence or a sense of worth. We know that only a few of our students will pursue music as a career but all of them will be well served, regardless of their career choices, if we can help them achieve a feeling of self confidence as they enter adulthood. Instrumental music classes are well suited to address self confidence by presenting students with tasks and challenges in a supportive social environment.

Some factors contributing to self confidence are:
  1. An internalized knowledge that you can achieve something satisfying;
  2. An understanding that hard work can produce results;
  3. Understanding that the reward for your work may not be immediate, but will be delayed until a task is completed; and
  4. Knowing that your work contributes to some greater success.

Make no mistake-young people want to achieve. They want to know they do something well, they want to be part of something good and they want to know they contribute to the making of that “goodness.” What we must keep in mind is that just as strong as their need to achieve is their fear of failure.

It is important, then, that we structure our teaching -the activities we undertake, the standards we set, the ways in which we reward students and the materials we use-to help ensure success for our students. I’m not talking about adopting the techniques of the guy on Saturday Night Live who would have you look into a mirror and tell yourself you have value. Students have excellent radar for phonies and manipulation from their teachers. They are professionals at dealing with it.

They have to know that they can undertake an important task; that you will show them how to succeed at that task and that they will be allowed to claim the success and the good feelings that go with it. Once they have done something well, you need to set some new goals; again help with achieving those goals, be the cheerleader for their success and let the good feelings happen again. After several experiences with successfully achieving tasks, students will develop an expectation that they can succeed and they will then begin to develop some independence and a positive self-image.

Let’s look at a few of the many specific things you might use to help your students:

Before students audition for anything-to get into your group, for seating, for All-State activities or to perform at a special event-be sure they know specifically what they have to do.

For example, you might have a set of technical studies, a set of technical studies, a set of rhythm studies, scales and sight-reading as requirements to get into your top group. Be specific in stating metronome speeds, number of allowable mistakes, range of the scales and the day the audition will take place.

Help students prepare for these requirements so they understand the level of execution you find acceptable. Have clearly outlined standards, logical ways to show them how to achieve a skill, and a logical strategy for practicing the skill.

If they don’t meet the standards on the day of the audition, even though you know they have done so before, don’t let them pass. Let them play it again later but make them play it at a specific time. If you pass them saying, “Well, it wasn’t quite right but I know you can do it”, you are undermining the whole point of building confidence.

Let the student go away unhappy or even believe you are unfair. After the student passes the audition the right way, you will have proven to him that he can do it. This is very powerful knowledge for the student.

Clear and specific criteria for seating auditions will help students prepare more thoroughly and will help give you the answers to the question, “Can you tell me what I did wrong?” When a student is accustomed to preparing auditions to specific criteria, it is easier to prepare for success at nonschool auditions such as All-State, youth orchestras or concerto competitions.

As the student learns to prepare better, he will experience more success and a higher degree of confidence. He will have a system for knowing how to prepare. Even if the student doesn’t win or place high in auditions, he can still know that he has prepared as well as possible at the moment.

Not winning because other competitors are more experienced involves a much different psychology than losing because you didn’t know how to prepare. In terms of building self-confidence, it is much better not to win than to lose.


If you approach contests, both solo and large-group, in the right way, they can provide significant, positive goals. Your attitude is important with competitions. The goal cannot be to have to win or to beat someone else. It must be directed at helping students to provide the best-prepared performance they can give.

I like the idea of every student preparing a solo each year. Yes, this does mean some work for you. You, other teachers in your department and any private teachers you work with need to be involved. Choose appropriate solo and ensemble materials and find competent accompanists. Most important in the process is that students receive sufficient coaching to be well prepared.

Students do best if “over-prepared” for a solo or chamber performance. Have students play pieces for each other before and after school; have a solo recital of your own before contest or have a pre-contest with students playing for judges from outside your music department.

Try to make students as comfortable as possible by understanding what the real contest will be like. Solo contests can be nerve-wracking for students but they help them learn to prepare well and to confront tense situations on their own. If you set them up for success, they can come out feeling good about themselves.

Large-ensemble contests can be effective in helping students feel they are a vital part of a successful organization. Feelings of pride and a sense of community are powerful contributors to individual self-esteem. This is especially true with students who are new to your program or who aren’t among the most talented musicians. They can share the success of the organization.

Any contest or off-campus performance gives students a chance to play for strangers, which is important. Students know you like them and they know their parents will love anything they do. Occasionally they need to get applause and compliments from more objective sources. Supportive comments from a judge or compliments from people from a different city can be highly reassuring.

Giving Praise:

My college students tell me that one of the difficult things about music school is that so much of their time is spent being criticized. In two or three rehearsals each day and in several performances each term, they are constantly scrutinized, analyzed and evaluated. As teachers, we sometimes believe that if they are doing something right, we don’t have to comment about it, so we look for the next thing to fix.

This free flow of criticism, though well intentioned, can be hard on even our strongest students. Find reasons to compliment and encourage students for work well done. A smile or a “thumbs up” can be truly helpful. When a rehearsal is packing up, walk over to tell a student about something she did that was particularly good; shake hands. The best encouragement can come from your eyes, smile and body language.

Stop a rehearsal for ten seconds. Tell your oboe player to stand up. Have the group give a round of applause for her good playing. Call parents to tell them how much you appreciate the improvement their child has been making.

Praise is always good but it must be genuine. Don’t praise falsely or in excess of what is appropriate. The very fact that you are honest with students will help bolster their confidence.

At the risk of driving a point home too much, let me reiterate that there are no shortcuts to developing genuine confidence in your students. Tasks must be achievable but challenging.

Students will find that they can’t accomplish everything easily and may become frustrated. They may cry and say you are asking too much; stay cool. Help them learn strategies to practice their audition or to memorize a solo or to learn difficult scales or to have more accurate technique.

Once they achieve their goals, give them high and sincere praise. Then set the next goal.