RTRL.41: Connections Between Teacher Beliefs About Musical Ability, Teaching Practice, and Classroom Culture (Shouldice, 2019)


Shouldice, H. N. (2019). ‘Everybody has something’: One teacher’s beliefs about musical ability and their connection to teaching practice and classroom culture. Research Studies in Music Education, 41(2), 189-205.

What did the researcher want to know?

How does one elementary music teacher’s beliefs about musical ability…

  • manifest in her actions and decision-making in the classroom?
  • manifest in her interactions with students and the classroom culture she creates?
  • relate to her beliefs about the purpose of music education?

What did the researcher do?

In contrast to the belief that musical talent is “innate” and possessed by only some, Shouldice studied one elementary music teacher (“Deena”) who believes that all students have musical potential. She observed in Deena’s classroom twice weekly (each for one entire school day) during a two-month period. Data consisted of field notes from observations, regular semi-structured interviews with Deena, teacher journal entries, and various teaching artifacts (e.g., classroom website, written correspondence to parents). These data were analyzed to identify the ways in which Deena’s actions in the classroom, interactions with students, and beliefs about the purpose of music education seemed to connect to her beliefs about musical ability.

What did the researcher find?

Shouldice identified three main themes:

I. Enabling Success for All

Deena believes “everybody has something” in terms of musical potential but that students’ current level of musical ability is affected by factors like varying prior musical experiences, effort, and musical self-esteem. For this reason, Deena attempts to communicate to her students that, just as in other subjects, “everybody is at different places,” normalizing differences among students’ abilities and sending a message that all can be successful with varying amounts of effort and time.

Because Deena believes students are all in “different places”, what qualifies as musical “success” looks different for each child, and thus they each need something different from her in order to be successful. She enables individualized opportunities for success in two main ways: (1) by providing all students with differentiated learning experiences at varying levels of difficulty according to their needs, and (2) by helping each student tap into their musical strengths through incorporating a variety of activities.

II. Power of the Learning Environment

In order to nurture each child’s musical potential, Deena creates a positive learning environment with three salient characteristics:

  1. It is safe.
    • Students feel free to explore and make mistakes without fear of failure or pressure to be perfect.
  2. It is supportive.
    • Students’ musical confidence is built by focusing on what they CAN do rather than what they can’t. In addition, the teacher communicates to students a persistent belief that they all will succeed eventually, and the students encourage and celebrate one another.
  3. It is empowering. 
    • Enabling students to feel musically empowered helps develop their musical identities, thus increasing their motivation to continue engaging with music.

III. Encouraging Lifelong Musical Engagement

“Because Deena believes that all of her students have musical potential, she sees it as her duty to ensure that each and every one of them develops musical skills and understanding and, in doing so, hopes to achieve her ultimate goal of enabling all students to continue on to a lifetime of participation and engagement with music” (p. 198). In order to achieve this goal, Deena works to help her students develop musical independence[ Ways she does this—here or in applications?] (so they can continue to make music on their own) and have positive musical experiences (so they want to continue to make music in the future).

What does this mean for my classroom?

A music teacher’s conscious or unconscious beliefs have an inevitable impact on what goes on in their classroom, whether the teacher is aware of it or not. A teacher who believes all students can be successful in music may be more likely to persist in helping all students achieve, while a teacher who believes in innate talent may be more likely to give up on students they don’t perceive as being “talented.” It is worth reflecting on one’s own beliefs about musical ability and the ways these beliefs might be manifesting in one’s classroom.

Rather than expecting all students to achieve at the same level at all times, the teacher might work to make sure each student is appropriately challenged and can feel successful. Specific strategies include the following:

  • Varying the difficulty levels of activities within a class period, including a mix of challenging and more basic activities, and varying the kids of activities so that each student can feel successful with something.
  • Providing multiple parts of varying difficulty within an activity and giving students an opportunity to choose the part that is appropriately challenging for them. (Just be sure to communicate to students that all parts are important, and it’s not bad if a student chooses an easy part.)
  • Differentiating instruction by adapting content difficulty for each student within an activity. For example, if you are having students engage in tonal/melodic pattern echo-singing, you might differentiate instruction so that each student echoes a pattern that is appropriately challenging for them. I described one such example in my dissertation (on which this article was based), in which Deena would sing a short tonal pattern with solfege for each student to echo in solo. I describe on page 95, “For Mari, a girl who struggled with using her singing voice, Deena sang a simple descending tonic pattern. For Gordon, a boy who had consistently been using his singing voice to accurately echo tonic and dominant patterns, Deena sang a subdominant pattern comprised of leaps. After hearing Priya accurately echo a tonic pattern on her first turn, Deena later returned to her for a second turn in which she gave her a more difficult subdominant pattern.”

Although many teachers like to stress the importance of perfection in music, this can have the detrimental effect of leading students to be afraid of making mistakes, causing them to be less likely to take risks or to keep trying when they are unsuccessful for fear of embarrassment. Instead, music teachers can work to establish a classroom culture in which it is safe (and expected!) to make mistakes so that they will persist through challenges. In addition, empowering students to feel like musicians can help them persist.

Finally, we might equip students to continue engaging with music beyond our classroom by helping them develop musical independence. Some ways to do this include the following:

  • Don’t always sing/play with your students or conduct for them, so they can’t use you as a crutch.
  • Use small group activities to encourage students to take greater responsibility for and ownership of their music-making and learning.
  • Find ways of eliciting individual student response in your classroom, such as prompting students to sing/play short patterns in solo. Start this as early as possible and incorporate as frequently as possible so that students come to see individual response as a “normal” part of music class.

For more examples, see the entire dissertation on which this article was based.

RTRL.29: If I Can Be an Athlete, Anyone Can Be a Musician!

An Argument for “Everyday Musicality”

“Come on, athletes!” shouts Murph, the trainer leading class at Title Boxing. My gloves pound the bag. Sweat drips down my forehead as my muscles work. “Let’s do this, athletes! Give it everything you’ve got!” I respond by punching harder, never doubting my power. I am an athlete.

Until my mid-30s, “athlete” was never a label I would’ve applied to myself. Growing up, I was always the fat kid. When tasked with running a mile around the block in high school P.E. class, I hitched a ride in a passing classmate’s car just to avoid the ordeal. (In case you’re wondering, yes, I did get caught—and detention.) Running and all other forms of exercise were not something I saw as “for me,” and any time I couldn’t avoid being subjected to these activities, I felt embarrassed and ashamed of my ineptitude. I thought it was the result of something lacking inside of me. I was fat, so sports were just not my “thing.” Once I was no longer required to participate in physical education in school, I rarely engaged in exercise, and when I did, it was usually to punish myself for being overweight. Exercise was a torture that I couldn’t wait to escape.

Fast-forward to 2013, when a bathroom renovation left me without a shower for several weeks.  I discovered a Groupon for a local gym that only offered group fitness classes. In order to use their shower, I would need to first show up for a 45-minute kickboxing or boot-camp class. After a while, I could see and feel muscles I didn’t even know I had, and I was actually enjoying it! Six years and two gyms later, I’m still working out because it makes me feel strong, healthy, and powerful. Am I going to the Olympics? No. Will anyone pay me to participate in a sport? No. Am I an athlete? Yes. Even when I can’t quite keep up with a certain combination, I still keep trying. It doesn’t matter what someone else thinks of me or how I compare to other people or the fact that I will never box at a professional level. I do it because I enjoy it! I may not be a professional athlete, but I’m an athlete nonetheless. Just ask Murph…

Murph and me after class at Title Boxing

As a music teacher, my experiences in Murph’s boxing classes got me thinking about students’ experiences in school music classes. So often music educators (whether they know it or not) send the message that music is for some people and not others. This can be implied via one’s teaching philosophy, such as when a teacher says their goal is to help students become intelligent audience-members and consumers of music (implying that only some can become music makers). The message that music is not “for them” may be communicated implicitly to students—such as when they are not accepted into particular school performing groups—while for others, the message is communicated explicitly, such as being told by a music teacher not to sing or simply not being called on for singing.1 Even the notable music education scholar Edwin E. Gordon was labeled by his elementary school music teacher as one of the “blackbirds”—students who were instructed to sit in the back of the classroom and listen to the “bluebirds” sing and were told to move their lips but not actually sing during performances.2 With the exception of Gordon, the end result is usually the same, whether the judgement is explicit or implicit: most individuals who believe they have been deemed “unmusical” tend to give up on music and cease music-making for the rest of their lives.

Sadly, I witness this firsthand in my university teaching on a regular basis. I teach a required music course for undergraduate (non-music) education majors, and every semester I encounter students who believe they are not musical, can’t sing, or are “tone-deaf.” Many of them feel the same dread toward singing that I used to feel toward exercise!

Despite what many people think, music is not an innate talent that resides in some people but not in others. Like language, music is a human activity, and every person is born with the potential to make music. Just as we are all hardwired to be responsive to language and eventually think and become fluent in our native language, every infant is born with the capacity to respond to music and eventually think in musical sound and become fluent in their native music. Ethnomusicologists have studied a number of cultures around the world in which there is no concept of musical ability as an “innate talent.”3 Instead, people in these cultures believe every individual has the potential to become a competent music-maker—and virtually everyone does!

In addition to dispelling the myth that music is an innate talent, we need to develop another concept of what it means to be “a musician.”  In a recent research study of the musical ability beliefs and musical self-concepts of fourth-grade students,4 I found that they were hesitant to call themselves “musicians” because they made mistakes or were not “the best”—in other words, because they believed they were not good enough to be professionals. These students seemed to be oblivious to the idea of being an amateur musician, that making music for yourself as a part of your daily life can be incredibly fulfilling and enjoyable and that ANYONE can do it!

Instead of perpetuating the idea that only those who perform for an audience are worthy of making music, we need to develop an additional definition of what it means to be “a musician” based on what ethnomusicologist John Blacking referred to as “average musical ability”:

If average linguistic ability is taken to refer to the fact that almost every member of every known human society is able to communicate with [others] in at least one language, average musical ability should refer to a similarly universal ability to communicate in music.5

In this conception of musical ability, you do not have to be a highly-skilled performer to be considered musically competent and to engage in making music as a valuable and meaningful part of your daily life.

We experience the idea of “average linguistic ability” every single day: Virtually everyone learns to speak competently and express themselves through their native language, regardless of whether public speaking will be a part of their career, because we just assume that everyone will. As I learned in Murph’s boxing class, everyone can be an athlete, in that we all can develop “average athletic ability.” Everyone can move their body, build muscle, and get fit. Similarly, musical potential does indeed lie in every human being, but in order to realize it, we must foster an appreciation for the musicality of which everyone is capable. 

Maybe you don’t sing or play well enough that people would pay to listen to you. Maybe you’re not going to become the next Beyoncé. But every single human being can learn to sing or play an instrument. We can all be “musicians” if we recognize that, while a career in music may not happen for everyone, we can all develop everyday musical competence. And this “everyday musicality” is enough.

Heather Shouldice is an Associate Professor of Music Education at Eastern Michigan University.


  1. Carlos R. Abril, “I Have a Voice But I Just Can’t Sing: A Narrative Investigation of Singing and Social Anxiety,” Music Education Research 9, no. 1 (2007): 1-15; Eve Ruddock, “Sort of in Your Blood: Inherent Musicality Survives Cultural Judgement,” Research Studies in Music Education 34, no. 2 (2012): 207-221; Nicola Swain and Sally Bodkin-Allen, “Can’t Sing? Won’t Sing? Aotearoa/New Zealand ‘Tone-deaf’ Early Childhood Teachers’ Musical Beliefs,” British Journal of Music Education 31, no, 3: 245-263; Colleen Whidden, “Hearing the Voice of Non-singers: Culture, Context, and Connection,” in Issues of Identity in Music Education: Narratives and Practices, ed. Linda K. Thompson and Mark Robin Campbell (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2010), 65-90.
  2. Edwin E. Gordon, Discovering Music from the Inside Out (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, 2014).
  3. John Blacking, “Towards a Theory of Musical Competence,” in Man: Anthropological Essays Presented to O. F. Raum, ed. E. J. Jager (Cape Town, South Africa: C. Struik, 1971), 19-34; Lisa Huisman Koops, “‘Denuy jangal seen bopp’ (They Teach Themselves): Children’s Music Learning in The Gambia,” Journal of Research in Music Education, 58, no. 1 (2010): 20-36; Kedmon Mapana, “The Musical Enculturation and Education of Wagogo Children,” British Journal of Music Education, 28, no. 3 (2011): 339-351; Joan Russell, “A ‘Place’ for Every Voice: The Role of Culture in the Development of Singing Expertise,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 31, no. 4 (1997): 95-109; Thomas Turino, ” The Coherence of Social Style and Musical Creation Among the Aymara in Southern Peru,” Ethnomusicology 33, no. 1 (1989): 1-30.
  4. Heather Nelson Shouldice, “An Investigation of Musical Ability Beliefs and Self-Perceptions Among Fourth-Grade Students” (research poster presentation, 7th International Conference on Music Learning Theory, Chicago, IL, July 31, 2019).
  5. John Blacking, “Towards a Theory of Musical Competence,” in Man: Anthropological Essays Presented to O. F. Raum, ed. E. J. Jager (Cape Town, South Africa: C. Struik, 1971), 22.


RTRL.15: Adults’ Anxiety Toward Singing (Abril, 2007)


Abril, C. R. (2007). I have a voice but I just can’t sing: A narrative investigation of singing and social anxiety. Music Education Research, 9(1), 1-15.

What did the researcher want to know?

What is the nature of adults’ anxiety toward music/singing, and what do they feel is the root of this anxiety?

What did the researcher do?

Abril conducted a narrative inquiry to examine singing anxiety among three adults who expressed fear of singing and claimed they lack musical ability. These young women (who were enrolled in a university music methods course for non-music majors taught by the researcher) participated in multiple interviews and kept journals to reflect on their experiences with music/singing.

What did the researcher find?

These adults believed that success in music, specifically singing, is the result of a natural “gift” or “talent.” According to one participant, “the ability to make music is something that comes to you when you are really young … you just have it or you don’t. It’s not like other subjects in school because those you can work at and get better” (p. 8). Because they felt they lacked “musical talent,” they believed they were incapable of singing.

All three participants recalled negative musical experiences from their childhood, in which they received the implicit message from their music teachers that they were not musical. One participant began to feel she lacked musical ability when she tried out for the school choir in fifth grade but didn’t make the cut, saying, “It really hurt my self-esteem regarding my musical ability” (p. 8). Another participant described a similar experience of not being accepted into the school choir in sixth grade. She shared, “I was devastated! I quit singing after that because I figured. . . my music teacher was the expert! That really shattered my musical self-image. Since then I’ve felt pretty incapable” (p. 6). The third participant recalled an instance during childhood in which her music teacher was upset because someone was singing “wrong notes.” Worried that it was her, she stopped singing and soon after quit the choir. This participant said, “It was that bad experience that has stifled me. Since then I haven’t developed or grown in music. I don’t think teachers realize the great impact they have” (p. 10).

What does this mean for my classroom?

A teacher’s words and actions have tremendous power. Music educators should be aware that many students may attribute success in music to innate talent, and the perception of a lack of talent can be damaging to one’s musical self-concept and motivation to engage in music-making. Rather than perpetuate the myth of musical ability as the result of innate talent, we can emphasize the importance of effort and practice and work to communicate the powerful message that anyone can become a competent music maker and enjoy making music in their daily lives.

RTRL.02: “Elementary Students’ Definitions and Self-Perceptions of Being a ‘Good Musician’” (Shouldice, 2014)


Shouldice, H. N. (2014). Elementary students’ definitions and self-perceptions of being a ‘good musician.’ Music Education Research, 16(3), 330-345.

What did the researcher want to know?

What do elementary students believe it means to be a “good musician” and to what extent do they perceive themselves to be “good musicians?” 

What did the researcher do?

Shouldice (2014) individually interviewed 347 students in grades one through four.  The students answered questions pertaining to the kinds of things a good musician can do, how one knows if a person is a good musician, and who can be a good musician. At the conclusion of each interview, each student was asked to choose the statement that best described him/herself (see scale in Figure 1) and explain why.

What did the researcher find?

While students across all grade levels most commonly described a “good musician” as someone who plays an instrument, practices, and/or sings well, other characteristics fluctuated across grade levels, suggesting that students’ perceptions of what it means to be a “good musician” may change over time in relation to their own experiences.  Statistical analysis showed that students in grade one perceived themselves as better musicians than did students in upper grade levels, indicating that elementary students’ perceptions of their own musical ability may diminish as they get older.

Qualitative analysis of the data revealed that some children’s ability self-perceptions were based on how they believed others perceived their abilities, such as a first-grade girl who knew she was a good musician “because my [music] teacher always picks me first” (p. 336), or were reached as a result of comparing themselves to others.  A number of students believed that innate musical talent is necessary in order for a person to be a “good musician;” their comments included the belief that “only some people are born with the talent” and “either you got it or you don’t” (p. 339).  Additionally, responses from some students implied the belief that skill in certain musical genres or modes of music making do not qualify one as a “good musician,” such as one second-grade boy’s statement that rappers and beat-boxers cannot be good musicians and that he himself was not a good musician despite describing himself as a “rapping pro.”

What does this mean for my classroom?

Elementary music teachers should be aware of the tendency for students’ musical ability self-perceptions to diminish over time and work to help students maintain positive musical identities as they get older.  Teachers also should be aware of the ways in which they might inadvertently communicate their own judgments of students’ musical abilities and/or beliefs about the value of certain musical genres or modes of musicking.  Additionally, teachers can encourage students to focus on effort and practice as determinants of musical ability rather than emphasizing innate musical talent.  

Note: Text featured in this post was originally published in the following article:

Shouldice, H. N. (2016). Research to ‘real life’: Implications of recent research for elementary general music. Michigan Music Educator, 53(2), 23-26.