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Encouraging Accountability

Jim Shaw | November 2019

    A common thread in all high-achieving groups is that members hold themselves accountable for meeting expectations, following established procedures, and learning material. For some students, this sense of accountability is already present, but for many young people this is a character trait that has to be developed. Trying to force accountability on ensemble members can lead to conflict and stress, both for the students and director. Instead, the teacher should find ways to encourage students to find and feel a sense of responsibility to the group. Here are some suggestions for creating a culture with a high sense of student accountability.

Make Expectations Clear
    Students do not arrive in band or orchestra understanding what is acceptable and what is not. The director has to demonstrate expectations in a manner that is consistent and persistent. Outlining expectations does not necessarily have to take the form of a list of rules lectured on the first day of school, complete with PowerPoint slides and multiple references to guidelines posted on the wall and in the organization handbook. It is often more effective to tell student members exactly what they need to know to get started – how to enter the room, where they are expected to be at the tardy bell, what they should have with them, how to ask a question in class, and what happens at the end of rehearsal.
    Additional expectations can be covered as needed. For example, instructions on how to change from one piece of music to another can wait until the first time you come to that point in a rehearsal. If students do not meet expectations, they are given additional opportunities to practice, all while the director reminds them that procedures such as this one benefit of the entire group.
    Students cannot feel accountable for things they do not know. Do not assume that young players know what to do just because it is common sense to you.

Keep Words to a Minimum
    When setting expectations, keep things short and simple. Non-verbal demonstration can cut down on students’ impressions that they are being lectured or that freedom is being stifled. A band member who is sitting improperly in the chair or holding an instrument incorrectly may respond better to a non-verbal reminder such as the director standing taller or motioning to hold the instrument up. Because no words were exchanged, the student is less likely to feel singled out or picked on.

Praise Is Powerful
    To seal the deal on the previous example, the director could smile, nod, or offer a quick thumbs up to the student, eliminating any trace of negativity. By meeting a simple expectation, the student has received praise and attention from the director, making the student more likely to buy in and hold himself accountable.
    Verbal praise should be specific. A general “good job” every time something positive happens can become like background noise – always there and easily tuned out. Approval that targets specific behaviors is more likely to yield desired results for the long term: “I liked how you performed that passage with such a light articulation,” or “Band, the reason the intonation was so much better that time is because we focused on tuning and used the same skills we cover in our daily drill every day.”

Failed Attempts Are More Valuable Than Successful Ones
    This does not mean that subpar efforts are acceptable, but rather that every failed attempt is a priceless opportunity to teach not just the student, but other members of the group.
    Perhaps more than ever, young people (and adults) are afraid to lose face in front of their peers. Social media can give the illusion that everyone is living their best lives because many post only those aspects of our lives for public consumption.
    Any attempt by students should be praised, no matter how close or far away from successful that particular attempt comes. This teaches students that it is okay to fail as long as  failure is not accepted as the end result.
    Attempts that are followed with encouragement and suggestions for improvement are much more likely to lead to the desired end result than criticism. If students learn that even an attempt that falls short will lead to praise and help, they are more likely to make the attempt in the first place.
    The fastest way to discourage student effort is to tear them down when they fall short. Every failed attempt, even those resulting from a lack of preparation, is best treated as a learning experience. In such instances, teachers accomplish more being positive instead of punitive.
    When a student successfully performs a given excerpt or task, praise increases student desire to continue. For the good of the group, if time allows, have the student share with the rest of the class how he mastered the task. This is especially valuable if other players are struggling with that same passage or skill.

Offer Solutions, Not Just Criticism
    When a student plays something poorly or gives the wrong answer to a question, offer help in solving the problem or solicit help from other students. Saying “That was bad. Do it better,” only works when a student already knows what to do. A more effective approach would be to say “That time didn’t quite make it. This is the way I would practice it . . .”

Encourage a Desire to Go Above and Beyond
    Every attempt is valuable, but the ultimate goal is for students to reach their potential. Creating tiers for expectations can encourage students to reach for more than just the minimum. If the task is to learn an excerpt, then the expectations might be defined as:

    Level 1: Play the excerpt at 100-120 beats per minute with mostly correct notes and articulations for a maximum of 85 points out of 100.
    Level 2: Play the excerpt at 100-120 beats per minute with all correct notes and articulations for a maximum of 100 points out of 100.
    Level 3: Play the excerpt at 100-120 beats per minute with all correct notes and rhythms and a recognizable degree of musical nuance for up to 110 points.

    High-achieving ensemble members will invariably go for Level 3. The key is to make the difference between the minimal expectation (Level 1) and the first extension (Level 2) achievable by the majority of students. This encourages students to go for Level 2, when they are actually meeting the director’s minimum expectation that the excerpt is performed correctly.
    As students get used to the idea of going for a higher level because they perceive it as manageable, they are more likely to continue to do so. As the year goes on, the director can gradually increase the expectation for Levels 2 and 3 because most students have now made it their own expectation that they will go beyond Level 1.
    By encouraging this expectation to go beyond, the director is instilling the belief that meeting the minimum is not good enough, which is accomplished through student experience, not a teacher professing from on high.

Don’t Take On Responsibilities That Students Should Handle
    Teachers will often do anything to see students experience success. As an example, many ensembles struggle to maintain time, even when the group is sufficiently far along in the preparation of the music that members are no longer struggling with notes, rhythms, articulation, and musicality. A director’s natural reaction would be to take on more of the load by insisting that student members watch better or turning on a metronome.
    However, maintaining time or pulse is not the conductor’s responsibility. The conductor establishes the tempo, controls changes in time when called for, provides visual reminders such as indications of style and cues, and shows the ensemble when to stop. Ensemble members are responsible for keeping the time, and accountability for this responsibility only comes when students understand this.
    An effective method to wake up ensemble members’ sense of pulse or time is to play without a conductor. The director should start the ensemble and then step off the podium. The ensemble is told to keep playing until they finish or the director stops them because they have lost the tempo.
    In my experience, the ensemble does a significantly better job of maintaining the time when the responsibility for holding the tempo is put on group members. Once students become more aware of their own internal sense of pulse and how much easier it makes everything, directors can hold students accountable for the tempo.

Avoid the Word You When Talking About the Group
    If students are to feel accountable for the success of the group, then the idea of the ensemble as a group must be emphasized. Frequent use of you by the director, especially when addressing the ensemble as a whole, takes away from the sense of community, and, more significantly, sets the teacher apart from the ensemble. “Band, you are not playing that well. You can’t stick out like that, trumpets,” is better expressed as, “We need to do that again, and this time let’s pay close attention to how we sound in relation to our neighbors.” Small choices and adjustments in addressing the group have an incremental effect on student buy-in.
    When it becomes necessary to address an individual’s performance or behavior, try to find ways to tie it back to the group. “We need you to work on that to help us reach our goal” can be much more effective than “You need to practice that.”

    Ensemble members are more likely to hold themselves accountable for preparation and meeting expectations when they are taught in a supportive atmosphere that rewards risk and offers solutions along with constructive criticism. In many cases, the director will teach a student over a period of years, and can have a long-lasting influence on a student’s approach to making music.