Leadership in the Music Classroom

How Ensembles Based in Competency-Based Education Teach Students to Be Leaders with Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Skills

By NAfME Member Brin Cowette

As music educators, we know that we are teaching our students valuable leadership skills. But can we articulate what those skills are and how they get there? 


Photo by Bob O’Lary

A student’s involvement in a music ensemble provides them with a unique opportunity to develop and experience their leadership within their classroom, school, and greater community. School music ensembles are collaborative, multi-year environments that help students to push their own musical skills while collectively contributing to the group; they are full of opportunities for students to develop leadership skills. Music educators now have the tools to utilize Competency-Based Education (CBE) to further their classroom’s success to become a personalized, learner-centered environment where every student has the agency to develop their individual growth while continuing to learn how to contribute to their community. In my music ensembles, I looked at how both intrapersonal skills to develop personal growth and interpersonal skills to connect and contribute to the community create leaders in the music classroom and beyond.

Intrapersonal Leadership Skills

Intrapersonal skills are internal skills and abilities that include self-direction, reflection, adaptability, and metacognition. Any music teacher can argue that these skills are essential to becoming a strong musician, but how are they developed in students? At the middle and secondary level, music ensembles are often multi-year, multi-grade-level classes, which means that students are all continuously working towards musical growth at their own level and pace as they progress in self-regulation, goal setting, and reflection. Music is an example of both experiential learning and performance-based learning, which gives students the opportunity to apply learned knowledge and skills and then reflect to continue to improve. This cyclical process of reflection leading to goal setting leading to growth, similar to a cycle of inquiry, pushes students to be active in a continuous learning process and develop their metacognition, or their understanding of how they think and learn. This cycle is modeled in the feedback procedures that music teachers use every day as they partner with their students as they discuss what went well, what the next musical steps are, and how students will get there.

playing piano

Photo: Bob O’Lary

Goal-setting and self-assessment, two essential activities that can drive differentiation in the music classroom, allow students to set goals based on their strengths and weaknesses and assess and monitor their progress. When students set learning goals, they are reflecting on their past practices and pushing themselves to progress and improve. Self-assessment is also an important pillar in creating equity, as it allows all students to reflect on their knowledge gained and validate their own experience. As teachers progress in their own ability to reflect on their classroom practices to create personalized learning, they are advancing emerging student leaders with strong intrapersonal skills.

Interpersonal Leadership Skills

While developing these two intrapersonal skills of metacognition and reflective thinking, music students are simultaneously developing interpersonal leadership skills. Interpersonal skills are the external skills associated with working with others that include communication, collaboration, and empathy; music ensembles are exceptional environments for building these skills. Unlike in other academic classes, music students are not just engaging in this process of reflection and growth regarding their own learning; they are progressing with the goal of making the full ensemble stronger. From the time students begin in an ensemble (often elementary or middle school) through graduation, they are building their advancing skills in the context of new repertoire. But this is never an isolated or solely individual activity; students understand that when they advance, they are contributing to the rest of the ensemble’s advancement.

jazz ensemble

Photo: Bob O’Lary

As an ensemble grows together, its students are able to witness how they contribute to their music community. When a music class is led by a teacher that prioritizes growth by using feedback paired with reflective practices, student leaders emerge over time as they advance in musical skills, communication skills, and confidence. The unique, heterogeneous, multi-year classroom culture of ensembles also means that students have ample time and experiences to develop into emerging leaders as they progress and age. In a music class, students’ skill levels do not always correspond to their leadership ability; this means that all students, regardless of musical talent or experiences, have the potential to develop the essential skills of collaboration, reflection, and ability to serve to become emerging leaders in roles including drum major, section leader, or the unofficial role of leader in any capacity in the ensemble. Every student deserves the opportunity to progress in their growth while learning to become a leader.

The Leadership Balance

The balance of intrapersonal skill-building and interpersonal collaboration in the music classroom creates an environment that is ideal for students to experience the full range of leadership skills. Music is a medium that almost every human can relate to, and when it is used as a teaching tool, it can reach all students’ diverse musical experience, skills, and learning needs (Hall, 2010). When CBE practices are instilled, there is a level of equity in a music classroom where every student has the ability to reach their full musical potential while also developing as a leader using both intrapersonal and interpersonal skills. Michael Fullan explains the power of this balance in The Deeper Learning Dozen:What gives humans meaning in life is a strong sense of identity around a purpose or a passion; creativity or mastery in relation to a valued pursuit, and connectedness with the world and others” (Watkins, Pederson, & Mehta, 2018, p. 7). There is no better place for students to flourish into leaders than in the music classroom.


Hall, J. (2010). Teaching With Music: An Alternative Pedagogy for Leadership Educators. Journal of Leadership Studies. 3(4), 108-110.

Watkins, J., Peterson, A., & Mehta, J. (2018). The Deeper Learning Dozen: Transforming School Districts to Support Deeper Learning for All: A Hypothesis.

About the author:

Brin CowetteNAfME member Brin Cowette is a choral and band director at Concord High School in Concord, New Hampshire. She is passionate about using music as a tool to create an equitable learning environment that empowers students to grow into leaders. She is completing her Master’s degree in Competency-Based Learning and Leadership from Southern New Hampshire University.

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July 7, 2022. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

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