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.36: Music Teacher Mentoring: Then and Now (Conway, 2015)

Conway, C. (2015). Beginning music teacher mentor practices: Reflections on the past and suggestions for the future. Journal of Music Teacher Education, 24(2), 88-102.

What did the researcher want to know?

How has new music teacher mentoring changed (or not) in the preceding 10+ years?

What did the researcher do?

Conway conducted a follow-up with 13 teachers who had participated in her previous study when they were in their first year of full-time music teaching (during 1999-2000). Each participant read Conway’s original research report as well as interview transcripts and their email logs, journals, and questionnaire responses from the original study. They then reported their reactions to these documents via email and participated in an individual interview with Conway, in which they discussed their current views regarding mentoring of beginning music teachers.

What did the researcher find?

In examining the new data from this study, Conway identified several themes. Now that the participants have experience teaching and mentoring, they expressed that mentoring is a valuable professional development experience for the mentor as well as the mentee. Another theme was that participants had mixed feelings about who should serve as mentors, particularly retired teachers; while some felt that retired teachers have much to offer as mentors, others expressed a feeling that new teachers may perceive retired teachers as out-of-touch. A third theme was that new teachers must be proactive in seeking out answers and take responsibility for their own learning and growth.

There were several areas of consistency between the original study (published in 2003) and new data collected in 2010. These included a lack of consistency in new teacher mentoring programs, a delay in mentees pursuing curricular questions until after an initial “survival” phase, and the need for music-specific support. Time for the mentor to observe in the mentee’s classroom also continues to be vital.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Districts/administrators still may need to be convinced of the value of mentoring for new teachers, and if a mentor teacher is not provided, new teachers must seek out their own mentors. New music teachers might also consider forming relationships with different types of mentors, including music-specific and building-/district-specific (but not music) mentors. In order to maximize their ability to provide context-specific assistance, mentors should find a way to observe in the mentee’s classroom. If in-person visits are not possible due to time or distance restrictions, video-conferencing software (e.g., Skype) or sharing of digital video footage provides new opportunities for mentors to directly observe their mentees and offer targeted support.

RTRL.33: Human Resource Professionals’ Perceptions of Music Teacher Candidate Performance on Applicant Prescreening Measures (Shaw, 2019)

Shaw, R. D. (2019). Human resource professionals’ perceptions of music teacher candidate performance on prescreening interview instruments. Journal of Music Teacher Education, 29(1), 100-114.

What did the researcher want to know?

How do HR professionals perceive music teacher job candidates’ performance on interview prescreening instruments? 

What did the researcher do?

Shaw’s study participants were human resource professionals from five different school districts in one metropolitan area in the Midwestern U.S. Of these five districts, three were using the Applitrack TeacherFit instrument, one was using the Ventures StyleProfile, and one was using Gallup’s TeacherInsight. Except for the district that used the Gallup’s TeacherInsight, the other four districts also screened top candidates before selecting interviewees by administering the HUMANeX Ventures instrument over the phone or in person; this tool is aimed to gauge candidates’ teaching-related characteristics in the themes of drive and values, work style, relationships, influences, and thought processes. Shaw conducted multiple interviews with each HR professional, all of whom were former principals and/or teachers (though none had taught music).

What did the researcher find?

In general, most participants observed that candidates applying for elementary teaching jobs typically performed better than secondary candidates on the prescreening measures, particularly in terms of empathy and relationship building. However, they perceived music teachers to be lacking in these areas regardless of whether applying for elementary or secondary music teaching jobs. Most of the participants expressed “the feeling that music candidates viewed themselves as directors of large programs” rather than focusing on individual student growth. One participant explained, “They’re after excellence, molding a group of kids in a unified way to perform” (p. 107). This HR professional “felt that music teachers he had interviewed thought only about ‘getting a superior rating at contest,’ and were modeling their approach on an ‘old-school’ drill sergeant style teaching more common in the past” (p. 107). 

What does this mean for my classroom?

Music educators should reflect on the extent to which they prioritize large-group performance and program goals over focus on individual students. Being a music teacher is hard! It is easy to get so caught up in doing things the way they’ve always been done that we lose sight of other possible ways of looking at things. Hearing HR professionals’ perspectives that many music teachers “are in it for the wrong reasons,” namely because “they like the performance” (p. 107), might prompt us to step back and ask ourselves some important questions, such as the following:

  • To what extent do I relate to my students as individuals?
  • When a student is struggling, do I try to respond with empathy? Or am I angry because that student’s behavior is detrimental to the group? Why do I feel this way?
  • What is more important to me as a music educator: group performance or individual student experiences? Why?
  • As a music teacher, what am I even there for? What is my larger purpose?

We may not have immediate answers, but reflecting on questions like these can help us remain thoughtful about who we are as educators.

RTRL.31: Role Stress in the Professional Life of the School Music Teacher (Scheib, 2003)

Scheib, J. W. (2003). Role stress in the professional life of the school music teacher: A collective case study. Journal of Research in Music Education, 51(2), 124-136.

What did the researcher want to know?

How and to what extent do music teachers experience role stress?

What did the researcher do?

Scheib conducted a collective case study of all four of the music teachers at one midwestern US high school. He observed them over the course of six months, interviewed each teacher twice, and collected a variety of documents, such as their job descriptions and concert programs. Scheib analyzed the data in relation to six previously-identified stressors from existing research on occupational stress:

  • Role ambiguity: when it’s not entirely clear what your job is.
  • Role conflict: when different people’s expectations of you contradict each other.
  • Role overload: when you have so much to do that you can’t do any of it well.
  • Underutilization of skills: when you have skills that you don’t get to use.
  • Resource inadequacy: when you don’t have what you need to do your job.
  • Nonparticipation: when you don’t have a say over what your job is.

What did the researcher find?

The four teachers didn’t experience a lot of role ambiguity or non-participation. Since these teachers each had several years of experience, they knew what their roles in the program were and had plenty of say over what they did.

The teachers experienced role conflict in several ways. One of the most important was that the roles of parent and spouse sometimes conflicted with their music teaching roles. There were conflicts within the music teacher role, too, as there are many different and competing roles that music teachers fill. Building a strong performance program and helping students become well-rounded musicians can feel like contradictory goals, but both seem important. There are also many administrative responsibilities that might conflict with other roles.

Underutilization of skills is sometimes called “role underload,” and it might seem like a person couldn’t have role overload and role underload at the same time. However, these teachers experienced both. The sheer number of different and often conflicting responsibilities led to role overload; these teachers just had too much to do. The underload came from having to do things that weren’t music-related and seemed like they should be done by someone else. Fund-raising, preparing spaces for rehearsal and performance, and managing schedules were some of the causes of role underload. One of the teachers felt like his role overload caused underutilization of skills; he didn’t have time to plan well, so couldn’t use his musical skills as effectively as he would like.

Surprisingly, the teachers in this study felt like they had adequate resources in the traditional sense. Scheib wrote that “they realize and accept the limitations of funding that comes with working in a publicly financed system” (p. 133). Instead, these teachers’ resource inadequacy came in the form of staff and students. They had big ideas about how their programs could grow but not always enough teachers in the department or students in the classes to make it work. Class scheduling was one of the main problems for getting students in classes.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Music teacher stress comes from many different places. Using the theory of role dynamics, music teachers can understand their stress in terms of some of the stressors studied here. Once you start to understand where your stress is coming from, you might be able to do something about it!

Scheib had some good advice in his article; here are a few helpful thoughts:

  1. “The subjects report that they themselves are to blame for any tension or stress they endure, since they are the sole determiners of the expectations and roles of their position” (p. 135). If you are stressed about something, then think about why you’re doing it. Is it the best thing for your students? Does someone important expect it of you? Maybe it’s stressful ultimately because it doesn’t need to be done, or at least not the way you’re trying to do it.
  2. “Often, stress comes from the incongruence of the teacher’s expectations and beliefs versus what the system allows… Teachers need to understand that each music program is, to some extent, confined by the system that surrounds it” (p. 135). Every school has different students, teachers, schedules, budgets and other resources. Trying to push beyond what’s possible is not a sign of dedication and strength; it’s a stressor that could hurt your program in the long run. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t push at all, it just means to be smart about what, how, and who you push.
  3. “Communication is the best weapon in the battle of incompatible role expectations” (p. 135). If different people expect different things from you, get them in the same room and talk it out. You’re only one person and there are only so many hours in the day, so you have to figure out how to prioritize some things and let others go.

* This guest post was authored by Seth A. Taft, PhD Candidate in music education at the University of Colorado Boulder.

RTRL.21: Teachers’ Interpretations of Music Aptitude (Reynolds & Hyun, 2004)

Reynolds, A. M., & Hyun, K. (2004). Understanding music aptitude: Teachers’ interpretations. Research Studies in Music Education, 23, 18-31.

What did the researchers want to know?

How do teachers understand the concept of music aptitude and estimate their students’ musical potential? How do these estimations compare to results of a standardized music aptitude test?

What did the researchers do?

Reynolds and Hyun’s study involved five general music teachers in the U.S. and five classroom teachers with music concentrations in South Korea who had never previously administered a standardized music aptitude test to their students. Both groups of teachers were asked to estimate their students’ music aptitudes (tonal and rhythm) and to describe their process and experience in doing so. Then the teachers administered Intermediate Measures of Music Audiation (IMMA), a standardized test of elementary-age children’s music aptitude that includes tonal and rhythm subtests. Finally, each teacher completed an interview with one of the researchers.

Teachers based their judgements of students’ music aptitudes on observable factors, such as ability to sing in tune or move to a steady beat. Their estimations also featured identification of the students they perceived as having the highest and lowest tonal/rhythm aptitudes in the class.

Without being asked to, all ten of the teachers compared their initial estimations of students’ music aptitudes to the IMMA results and were “surprised, shocked, and confused” by discrepancies between the two (p. 23). For example, one teacher in South Korea said, “I am shocked that a student who cannot even sing one note scores high on the test” (p. 23). Similarly, one American teacher puzzled, “If you have high tonal aptitude, how could you not know how to use a singing voice?” and was stumped that another student who “sings beautifully” and “likes to improvise” did not score high in comparison with the other students (p. 24). Teachers also admitted to allowing non-musical behaviors, such as participation or general academic achievement, influence their estimations of students’ music aptitude. “A student with a bad attitude I estimated low; I was surprised when the student scored high,” one South Korean teacher reflected (p. 24).

Ultimately, the teachers came to realize that their assumptions about music aptitude were based on students’ prior achievement in class, which does not necessarily reveal their true potential. As one American teacher reflected, “Estimates show who is achieving well, even if they didn’t do well on the test. [Pause.] Don’t give up on them just because they scored low, because they can still achieve” (p. 26).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Students’ demonstrated musical achievement may not reflect their true potential. Rather than relying on our observations and subjective assumptions, a published test of music aptitude can more accurately and objectively measure each student’s musical potential, which can be helpful in identifying students who may be under-achieving.

The differentiation between music achievement and music aptitude was described extensively by Edwin E. Gordon. In his theorizing about music aptitude, Gordon posited that every individual has some level of music aptitude and thus can learn to make music with some level of success. By determining each student’s approximate level of music aptitude in various musical dimensions, the teacher can adapt instruction so that each student is appropriately challenged and thus can experience musical success and continued growth.

For an overview of Gordon’s theory of music aptitude and the published music aptitude tests he developed, click to read his monographs entitled Music Aptitude and Related Tests: An Introduction and Continuing Studies in Music Aptitudes.

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.14: Intersections of Music Making and Teaching (Pellegrino, 2014)

Pellegrino, K. (2014). Examining the intersections of music making and teaching for four string teachers. Journal of Research in Music Education, 62(2), 128-147.

What did the researcher want to know?

How do teachers’ past and present music-making relate to their current teaching?

What did the researcher do?

Pellegrino used a phenomenological case study design to examine the lived experiences of four full-time public school strings teachers. Data included background surveys, multiple interviews with each teacher, videos of the teachers making music in their classrooms, and a focus group interview that included music making. 

What did the researcher find?

NOTE: For the sake of brevity, I will focus on two of Pellegrino’s findings in this post. Members of the National Association for Music Education can find and read the full article by logging in with their email address and password at https://nafme.org/nafme-research/journal-research-music-education/.

Teachers’ past experiences with music-making influenced their current beliefs about students. Specifically, they believed that what they found interesting or rewarding about music-making would apply to their students as well. For example, one teacher assumed that “the classical musician’s ‘mentality’” would attract his students because it had attracted him. A different teacher enjoyed practicing and worked to instill that value in her students. Another teacher found the recognition received from playing well to be rewarding and assumed his students would want the same.

Teachers’ current music-making nurtured their artistic selves and kept them feeling revitalized as music teachers, and they felt it enabled them to inspire their students as well. Continuing to make music also helped teachers maintain their playing skills so they could model for students, allowed them to reflect on and solve pedagogical issues, and provided an opportunity to remember what it is like to be a music learner, which facilitated compassion toward their students.

What does this mean for my classroom?

There are many benefits for teachers to engage in their own music-making, both inside and outside the classroom. By continuing to make music, you can maintain an ability to model and teach skills, and remembering what it feels like to learn (and struggle!) can enable you to better relate to your students. Just as important, making music can help you stay inspired, fulfilled, and excited about music.

However, teachers should be aware of the tendency to assume that what they find interesting or valuable about music-making will also be the same for their students. Teachers should remain conscious that their students may have different experiences and thus may be motivated in different ways. 

RTRL.09: “Career Intentions and Experiences of Pre- and In-Service Female Band Teachers” (Fischer-Croneis, 2016)

Fischer-Croneis, S. H. (2016). Career intentions and experiences of pre- and in-service female band teachers. Journal of Research in Music Education, 64(2), 179-201.

What did the researcher want to know?

What are women’s experiences in realizing their professional goals as band teachers?

What did the researcher do?

Fischer-Croneis conducted a multiple case study of nine women in the midwestern U.S. who were teaching band or finishing their undergraduate preparation to become band teachers. The inservice teachers’ years of experience ranged from 4 to 34, and they were teaching either middle school or a combination of middle and high school. Fischer-Croneis individually interviewed each participant, using open-ended questions to elicit discussion regarding their experiences as female band teachers in two main areas of focus: 1) Gaining entry into the profession, and 2) Navigating the profession.

What did the researcher find?

In terms of gaining entry into the band-teaching profession, several participants described experiences in which they had been given interview-related advice based on their gender, were asked interview questions they felt a man would not have been asked, or believed they had not been offered high school band teaching jobs due to their gender. Others sensed “the potential for unspoken bias,” including one young woman who felt that a hiring committee might question whether she would “do this job to the full extent” due to the assumption that “she’s in a prime baby-making age” (p. 187).

In navigating the profession, some of the participants felt pressure to adopt a more “masculine professional persona” in order to be accepted in the “band world” (p. 188). While they did feel that it was becoming easier to identify female band teachers at the national level, such as Mallory Thompson at Northwestern University, many participants were unable to name a female band teacher they knew at the local level. Only one of the three preservice teachers was able to name a female high school band teacher.

Though they felt things were improving, all of the in-service teachers confirmed the perception of a “Good Ol’ Boys’ Club” in the band world, which they most notably felt at places like state conferences or the Midwest Clinic. Other experiences shared by participants included being mistaken for the assistant band director (because the male assistant was assumed to be the head director), challenges in networking “with those in power—perceived by many of the participants to be typically men,” and a feeling of a “double standard” in that “the assertive behavior [a woman] must embody to be a successful band teacher [does] not match social conventions for women” (p. 192).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Women continue to be a minority in the band teaching profession, and many female teachers experience persistent feelings of exclusion in the band world. Female band teachers in a similar study by Coen-Mishlan (2015) even felt they were treated differently at adjudicated events and questioned whether their bands were judged more critically. Music teachers and music teacher educators should remain aware of the underrepresentation of women in the band teaching profession and the resultant lack of role models for female band teachers. We can look for instances in which gender stereotypes may be reinforced. For example, an examination of the photographs featured in issues of Music Educators Journal from the years 1962-2011 revealed that 79% of the photographs depicting conductors showed men in this role, and there were no photographs of female conductors in any issue of MEJ during 2001 (Kruse, Giebelhausen, Shouldice, & Ramsey, 2015). Media that music teachers use in their classrooms may also reinforce similar stereotypes, which we can look for and avoid. 

In addition to avoiding the perpetuation of gender stereotypes, we can actively work to combat them by exposing students to examples and images of female band directors. Individuals serving on hiring committees should be conscious of the possibility of bias against female band teachers, particularly when filling high school band teaching positions, and male band teachers can consciously work to help women feel included and valued in the profession.


  • Coen-Mishlan, K. (2015). Gender discrimination in the band world: A case study of three female band directors. Excellence in Performing Arts Research, 2, Article 1. https://doi.org/10.21038/epar.2014.0104
  • Kruse, A. J., Giebelhausen, R., Shouldice, H. N., & Ramsey, A. L. (2015). Male and female photographic representation in 50 years of Music Educators Journal. Journal of Research in Music Education, 62(4), 485-500. https://doi.org/10.1177/ 0022429414555910

RTRL.05: “Voice Change and Singing Experiences of Adolescent Females” (Sweet, 2018)

Sweet, B. (2018). Voice change and singing experiences of adolescent females. Journal of Research in Music Education, 66(2), 133-149.

What did the researcher want to know?

How does the adolescent female voice change influence young women’s use of their voice and their participation in singing in middle school, high school, and/or college?

What did the researcher do?

Sweet (2018) studied 17 female collegiate choral singers through one-on-one and focus group interviews.  She prompted the young women to reflect on their singing experiences since age 11, vocal challenges they have faced, and perceptions of how others interacted with them during their voice change experiences.

What did the researcher find?

Participants recalled experiencing numerous vocal challenges during adolescence, including vocal cracks, breaks, weakness, and unpredictability.  Additional challenges, such as laryngeal tension and lack of vocal flexibility, continued throughout adolescence.  Some participants noted that these changes extended into their 20s.

Participants’ recollections of their singing experiences since age 11 were more negative than positive. Emotions like frustration, fear, sadness, self-doubt, insecurity, and self-deprecation were prominent in their memories of singing during voice changes.  Sweet keenly noted that, as conveyed via participants’ tone of voice, facial expressions, and word emphasis, vocal challenges during adolescence were highly emotional experiences.

Teachers’ classification of adolescent female voices was a notable theme among the singers’ experiences.  “Participants who experienced a loss of strength or color in their higher range and had a stronger lower range mostly sang alto lines; participants who experienced a lack of phonation or lost power in lower notes were mostly assigned to higher vocal lines” (p. 142).  Rather than working with these singers through their difficulties, they felt their teachers had assigned them voice parts based on what was needed for the choir as a whole, at times even assigning them to sing vocal parts that were physically uncomfortable.  Additionally, “many participants felt that being assigned a particular voice part in middle school or early high school and rarely (or never) singing notes outside of that assigned voice part, sometimes for the entirety of their involvement in school choir, limited their vocal development and/or singing potential” (p. 142). 

What does this mean for my classroom?

Compared to the male voice change, the female adolescent voice change has received far less attention.  Choral teachers need to be aware of the unique challenges that voice change can pose for female students.  Teachers should be sensitive to the negative emotions adolescent female singers may experience as their voices change and help support students through these transitions.  Additionally, teachers might consider the ways in which the assigning of voice parts can benefit or hinder female singers and communicate and collaborate with them to determine flexible voice part assignment and enable a healthy and positive singing experience. 


  • Thinking Outside the Voice Box: Adolescent Voice Change in Music Education, by Bridget Sweet
    • This upcoming book, scheduled for publication in October 2019 by Oxford University Press, encourages a holistic approach to working with adolescent changing voices and addresses female and male voices equally. According to Sweet, “the book is about understanding that voice change is tied up in so many aspects of adolescence and, to best teach/assist/support our students, we have to understand the bigger picture of this time of life, including psychological factors, emotional factors, many different facets of physiological growth, as well as the influence and impact of society’s perceptions of adolescence and voice change” (personal correspondence).
    • Update: Pre-order is available! Find on Amazon here.
  • Sweet’s 2016 Choral Journal article, “Choral Journal and the Adolescent Female Changing Voice:”
  • Sweet’s 2016 Choral Journal article, “Keeping the Glass Half Full: Teaching Adolescents with a Holistic Perspective”
  • The Female Voice, by Jean Abitbol
    • This brand new book features a variety of topics related to the female voice, including voice change during puberty, throughout the menstrual cycle, and as a result of hormonal birth control.

RTRL.04: “Exploring Informal Music Learning in a Professional Development Community of Music Teachers” (Kastner, 2014)

Kastner, J. D. (2014). Exploring informal music learning in a professional development community of music teachers. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 202, 71-89.

What did the researcher want to know?

How do music teachers in a professional development community implement informal music learning in their classrooms, and how do their beliefs and practices evolve as a result?

What did the researcher do?

Kastner (2014) studied four elementary music teachers as they participated in a professional development community (PDC)—a group of teachers who work together to develop their teaching practice and grow their professional expertise.  This PDC focused on the topic of informal music learning, which “is the term commonly used to describe processes individuals use when learning music without teacher-directed, formal instruction” (p. 72) and typically involves vernacular music genres such as popular music.  The teachers met biweekly for six months to discuss readings about informal music learning, develop ways they could implement informal music learning in their classrooms, and share their experiences in trying those ideas.  In addition to studying the teachers’ interactions during these PDC meetings, Kastner also observed informal music learning activities in each teacher’s classroom.  These informal music learning activities included “music share days” that involved students performing music from outside of school during their music classes, playing popular melodies on recorder, and aurally creating and performing vocal or instrumental covers of popular songs in small groups.

What did the researcher find?

Among several themes, Kastner (2014) found that the teachers utilized a variety of pedagogical practices in implementing informal music learning in their classrooms.  The four teachers varied in the amount of control they gave their students during informal music learning activities, including in the selection of songs and the organization of students into small groups.  For example, when having students create “covers” of popular songs, some teachers chose specific selections for their students while others gave students complete freedom to choose their own songs.  The teachers also varied in the amount of scaffolding they provided during informal music learning activities.  While some teachers were completely “hands-off” in letting students work on informal music learning activities like arranging cover songs, other teachers found that students needed more guidance in order to be successful and provided this guidance by modeling examples, providing song lyrics, or “giving permission” for students to make their own choices (p. 82).

Kastner (2014) also discovered that the teachers in the PDC felt their implementation of informal music learning in their classrooms was extremely valuable.  First, these teachers found that informal music learning experiences enhanced student motivation; they observed that student engagement was quite high during informal music learning activities, even among students who “were typically reluctant to participate” in music class (p. 83).  Second, the teachers also valued the ways in which informal music learning helped develop their students’ musical independence; one participant noted that, as a result of their experiences with informal music learning, her students “can hear it [music], they can jam” (p. 83).

What does this mean for my classroom?

In addition to formal instruction, music teachers might consider incorporating informal music learning activities in their classrooms.  Potential benefits of providing students with opportunities to experience informal music learning include an increase in student motivation and development of students’ independent musicianship.  Music teachers can vary the amount of freedom and control they give their students in the selection of repertoire and the organization of students into small groups and can provide their students with different types and amounts of scaffolding in order to help them experience success with informal music learning activities.

Ideas for Trying Informal Music Learning:

From Kastner’s 2014 Orff Echo article “Learning to Let Go: Informal Music Learning in the Music Classroom”

Other Helpful Resources:

For more details on activities and reflections from the teachers who participated in this study, read Kastner’s full dissertation here.

For more information on getting started with informal music learning, visit Musical Futures here (requires free account setup).

For free resources for bringing popular music into the classroom, visit Little Kids Rock here.

To read more about informal music learning:

Note: Some 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.