What Was the Best Thing You Ever Learned from a Student?

Three Music Educators Respond

This article first appeared in the August 2021 issue of Teaching Music.

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Beth Fortune

Photo by Eric Frommer

Elizabeth Fortune
Director of Orchestras, Ballard High School, Seattle, Washington

One Friday night, after a concert featuring the Ballard High School Chamber Orchestra side by side with the Seattle Symphony, my partner Scott and I went to a popular restaurant for a celebratory dessert. When we pulled up, we noticed a band playing live music. Scott asked whether I was up for the loud environment, and I decided I was.

I quickly realized the band was made up of a group of students I had taught in middle school. I couldn’t believe my luck — who gets to feature their current students with a Grammy Award winning symphony and then be treated to a performance of innovative, rock-infused jazz played by former students at a dessert joint?

Jazz Musicians Painting

This is an original painting by Cynthia Lou Freytag. iStockphoto.com | lfreytag


Scott and I ordered the chocolate cake and settled in. At the set break, I noticed someone pushing through the crowd. It was my former student Daniel, a bassist. A senior now, he said, “You changed my life!” He said if it weren’t for the deliberate, unconventional music learning activities my colleague Kelly Clingan and I forced him to do as a middle schooler in our collaborative jazz/jazz strings program at Washington Middle School, he would not be doing what he was doing (for pay) on stage that night. He thanked me for pushing beyond the boundaries of educational string orchestra and guiding him to safely exit his musical circle of comfort, where the magic begins.

“ . . . it was as though he was a from the cosmos to teach me that I do in fact have a great effect on student lives.”

This learning experience came at a pivotal moment for me. I was in my first year as the director of orchestras at Ballard High School, and my transition was rough. I was suffering from a very debilitating case of imposter syndrome. I was doubting my skills, and my students were not yet “mine.” It was hard for me to tell if they were even proud of the amazing feat they had just pulled off — performing Grieg with the Seattle Symphony. I thought I had lost my edge, or worse, never had it to begin with. I wanted to escape.

When Daniel pushed through the crowd, it was as though he was a from the cosmos to teach me that I do in fact have a great effect on student lives, that I do know what I am doing, and most important, that I should keep growing and building in my new position.


Elizabeth Guglielmo

Photo by Ron Jordan Natoli

Elizabeth M. Guglielmo
Director of Music, Office of Arts & Special Projects, Division of Teaching & Learning, New York, New York

Time and time again, my students have affirmed music’s power to transcend, to break down barriers, and to help us find our best selves and let that shine.

I have always been in awe of music’s power to move us. To me, it’s the Eighth Wonder of the World. Music is energy in the form of sound waves, and as musicians, we sculpt energy in ways that profoundly touch minds and hearts.

“Music is energy in the form of sound waves, and as musicians, we sculpt energy in ways that profoundly touch minds and hearts.”

This is amazing to ponder . . . and it is amazing to think that, as music educators, we have been entrusted with helping students realize just how much music empowers us to cut through the static and make a direct connection with others and what is true, important, great, and beautiful in this world.

I know what a powerful force music has been in my life, but every time I see music transform a student’s life, I find myself again in wonderment. Like the feeling of singing or playing in a large ensemble, I am reminded that music teachers are part of something larger than ourselves.

Detail of the trumpet closeup

iStockphoto.com | Furtseff


I recently received an email from a former student requesting a recommendation toward the character and fitness component of her application to the bar after law school. As a trumpeter in my band program, this young lady faced extraordinary challenges at home, and I always admired how she navigated her family life and her school endeavors with so much grace and determination. Before preparing her recommendation, we had a long conversation, and she said, “Through all that was happening, music — coming to your band room every morning — was my constant.” And this attorney-to-be went on to share the role the trumpet has continued to play in her life after high school.

When I remember these moments, I feel warm inside. When I reflect on students transforming into their best selves on stage and in life, I know these successes were prompted by both the people in the school’s community of musicians and the awesome power of music itself.


Johnathan Hamiel

by Dwoine Phillips

Johnathan Hamiel
Director of Bands, Eastern Guilford High School, Gibsonville, North Carolina

One day, during one of my virtual band classes, we were going through the regular mundane rhetoric of asking students to turn their camera on, participate in the chat, and be an active member in class. I felt defeated.

A student sent me a private chat message: “Hey Mr. Hamiel, you seem frustrated. Have you ever thought of asking us what we want to do?” While preparing students to be perfect little musical robots and to check the proverbial boxes of what a successful musical program looks like, I had failed to hear the community we serve.

That was when the creative process started to flow, and student engagement began to escalate. Students who were normally a blank screen on a monitor were now students with their camera on, actively engaging in class. I observed students do amazing things: performing TikTok duets, creating musical videos, playing in one-person virtual ensembles, analyzing the theoretical structure of video game music and how it affects players’ behaviors, and creating music on their phones with beat-making software, as well as learning the traditional etudes.

young girl singing into phone

iStockphoto.com | Prostock Studio

I’ve thought about this before: How can students love music but hate music class? Music is the tie that binds us. Students register for my classes because we all love to create, analyze, and discuss music. Music educators must create and assess content in contrasting methods while making it relatable to the community we serve.

“The most important thing I’ve learned from students during the pandemic is that an interested mind is an invested mind.”

The components of a successful music education program have been reformed (accolades, awards, festivals, etc.). COVID-19 forced the music education community to question: “What is our true purpose?” While we will feel the effects of COVID-19 forever, we will come out of this as better music educators.

The most important thing I’ve learned from students during the pandemic is that an interested mind is an invested mind. Never underestimate the resilience of a young mind. 

What was the best thing you ever learned from a student? Share them with fellow music educators on Amplify today.


Did this blog spur new ideas for your music program? Share them on Amplify! Interested in reprinting this article? Please review the reprint guidelines.

The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

September 30, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

April 2024 Teaching Music

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September 30, 2021


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September 30, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

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