Motivating Your Ensemble

Ignite a Spark!

By NAfME Member Wendy K. Matthews

When making music with others, the ensemble is able to become much more than the sum of its individual parts. What can we do as conductors to guide and shape this process? One approach is to nurture two motivational constructs from psychology: self-efficacy and collective efficacy.

motivating spark | Bullyphoto

As defined by noted psychologist Albert Bandura, self-efficacy is one’s personal beliefs regarding their capabilities to perform certain behaviors successfully, and collective efficacy is an indicator of a group’s judgment of their combined capabilities to accomplish a task. Research shows that actively cultivating both self- and collective efficacy influences musicians’ performance, their use of effective strategies, their willingness to persist, and their long-term participation in music.

Self-Efficacy: Light a Flame!

Let’s take a closer look at self-efficacy—how our individual ensemble members think about their own capabilities. It is essential to make sure each musician in our ensemble believes they can be successful, and here are some ways to support self-efficacy:

  • Welcome ensemble members into each rehearsal by completing your administrative tasks or setting them aside for another time. Be in the moment as they arrive and set the tone for a productive rehearsal.
  • Create a positive, warm, and encouraging atmosphere by being enthusiastic, animated, and passionate on the podium. Think of this as “energy in equals energy out.” For example, if you are very monotone and unenthusiastic, even though you are saying all the right things, you will cultivate an equally flat rehearsal.
light a flame | JamesBrey


  • Be clear with your expectations, both large and small. This includes setting expectations on how to warm up properly, balance and blend within the ensemble, correctly perform a specific passage, or demonstrate a positive rehearsal behavior. Set out to accomplish at least one goal per composition during each rehearsal.
  • Use constructive feedback that includes concrete strategies to help your musicians improve. This positive, specific, and strategy-filled feedback emphasizes the musical expectations for each passage. Use encouraging statements like “Yes, that’s it! Good balance in this phrase; we can hear the melody over the accompaniment.”
  • Focus your rehearsals on individual improvement and progress. In psychology, these are referred to as mastery goals. Recognize effort, provide opportunities for improvement, and encourage your musicians to view mistakes as part of learning.


Collective Efficacy: Build a Fire! 

Now that you’ve encouraged self-efficacy, how do you get the individuals to work together? Many rehearsal issues reflect group problems that require sustained collective effort to solve. Studies show that collective efficacy ebbs and flows, with the low point typically being the middle of the concert cycle. Observing the group’s collective efficacy provides ways to examine your ensemble’s inner workings, revealing opportunities to cultivate and support collaboration.

Bonfire on Black Background | MarieTDebs


Here are some approaches to fostering collective efficacy:

  • Focus on setting a respectful tone on how people interact in the rehearsal room. We lead by example, create a sense of belonging and commitment to making music together. Acceptance and tolerance are critical to cooperation.
  • Identify areas where your ensemble members can participate in leadership roles and decision-making. Members can develop ownership of the music making by contributing ideas regarding repertoire, interpretation, rehearsal strategies, etc.
  • Inspire and reinvigorate the group by finishing rehearsals with a favorite piece of the ensemble, one they play confidently or one that they relate to, such as a pop tune or current movie theme. You can also consider inviting motivational guest speakers and professional musicians to work with the group.
  • Monitor both positive and negative interactions. Respond to the culture of your ensemble and the multiple communities in which your group resides. Consider planning social activities to help members connect with each other outside of rehearsal.
Close up of French Horn | Bill Oxford


In conclusion, you wear several hats—conductor, coach, mentor, and leader! And in terms of motivation, you are the cheerleader, inspiring and guiding the ensemble. Actively seek what you can do to encourage self-efficacy and collective efficacy in your ensemble. If you do, you’ll find your musicians working together with enthusiasm and dedication to making music.


Ames, C., & Archer, J. (1988). Achievement goals in the classroom: Students’ learning strategies and motivational processes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 260-267.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Matthews, W. K. (2017). “Stand by me”: A mixed methods study of a collegiate marching band members’ intragroup beliefs throughout a performance season. Journal of Research in Music Education, 65(2), 179–202. https://doi-org.10.1177/0022429417694875

Matthews, W. K., & Kitsantas, A. (2007). Group cohesion, collective efficacy, and motivational climate as predictors of conductor support in music ensembles. Journal of Research in Music Education, 55(1), 6–17. https://doi-org.10.1177/002242940705500102

About the author:

Wendy MatthewsWendy K. Matthews is Associate Professor of Music Education and Director of Bands at Kent State University. She holds degrees from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, University of Maryland-College Park, and George Mason UniversityHer research interests include music teacher pedagogies, oral histories of pioneering women brass players, and motivation and group dynamics in large ensembles. Her research has been published in several journals including the Journal of Research in Music Education, Psychology of Music, and the Journal of Band Research. Dr. Matthews has presented research, professional development, and historical sessions at national and international conferences, including Symposium on Music Teacher Education, International Society for Music Education, and the National Association for Music Education, as well as numerous state and collegiate conferences including OMEA, TMEA, MMC, KMEA, CASMEC, NCMEA, and VMEA. Dr. Matthews is the co-author of the Basic Conducting Techniques (Seventh Edition). Additionally, Dr. Matthews is in demand as a guest conductor, clinician, and adjudicator.


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