Engaging English Language Learners in Your Ensemble

Diversifying Your Ensemble by Breaking Down Language Barriers

By NAfME Member Angela Ammerman


I believe that it is a critical time for music educators to turn our eyes and our ears toward a community that has been long-neglected in secondary school ensembles: English Language Learners.




Much research has come out boasting the phenomenal power of music to support learning of a secondary language, but it seems that the field of music education is somewhat lacking in English Language Learners (ELLs).

We still haven’t quite figured out, however, whether it is that we lack the gumption to jump in and work with ELLs within our secondary ensembles or if they don’t want to work with us… Dun Dun Duuuuuuunnnnn…


Why don’t they want to join band?!?!?! – Photo: Jaykayl/iStock/Thinkstock


Either way… We need to make a greater effort to reach out to the ELL community and let them know that they are WANTED in our ensembles! Let’s dive right in to find out how to recruit ELLs, how to break down those language barriers, and how to keep on making great music together!

Recruiting ELL Beginners 101 (AKA – Smile lots and bring an instrument EVERYWHERE!)


orchestra student
asantosg / iStock / Thinkstock


  1. The Recruiting Concert shall be the GATEWAY to the GLORY of GREAT MUSIC MAKERS!!!!
    • Make your Concert USER-FRIENDLY
      • Drop some LANGUAGE BOMBS BABY!
        Bonjour! Ciao! Hola! 
        This may seem like an insanely easy thing to do, and it is… But it lets this population know that they are welcome in your ensemble.
  • DIVERSIFY your Musical Selection
    If you have a high population of Korean speakers, you better be playing some serious K-Pop! 



But Seriously… DiversiFY with PSY


    • Be sure to address the financial aspects of music participation
    • Ask your translator to prepare documents in the primary languages to clearly lay out the following:
      1. instrument procurement
      2. rehearsal schedules
      3. transportation
  1. Advertising – Many of these students speak very little English. Ask your own students to help you translate your favorite ENSEMBLE FLIERS
    • Get them printed in multiple languages
    • Post them ALL OVER THE SCHOOL!
    • Discuss with the English Language teachers within your schools the many benefits to participating in a music ensemble (linguistic, academic, and social)!
  1. You’re Invited! – Invite the ENTIRE school to attend your dress rehearsals during school days
    • Invite students from the audience to enroll in your class the following year
    • Encourage any ELLs you might already have to send special invitations to their friends!
    • Ask your students to bring at least one friend to every concert and recognize these students for their recruiting efforts!

THEY’VE JOINED!!!!  Now what????  Let’s start by breaking down the Language Barriers. 

First of all….


SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP!!! Photo: Zurijeta/iStock/Thinkstock


Sorry… I don’t mean to be rude… But seriously, STOP TALKING SO MUCH!  Your students don’t need more verbal instruction. Try these steps instead:

  • Model More – Remember way back when in college when they told you how important modeling is? Well, do more of it! Your ELLs will thank you for it later, I promise! 
  • Peer Tutoring (I know, I know, this is super common sense… BUT IT WORKS!) This is one of the best things I have done this year!  I have teacher assistants in each of my classes, and they provide hands-on assistance in each class. 
  • Student Featured Posters – Create posters featuring your own students for a variety of things including posture, shifting, and even expressive qualities!


Annandale High School's Orchestra Electrified
Annandale High School’s Orchestra Electrified performing at the Winter Concert. Photo: Ruby Banzuelo.


  • Video Tutorials – These are immensely helpful for ELLs as they can focus visually on the technique. They can also watch these as many times as they would like. My students LOVE these!
  • TAKE THEM TO ASSESSMENT!!! – Yes, you heard me… A positive experience such as this outside of school can make an enormous difference in a student’s self-perception within your ensemble and can solidify their decision to continue playing!

My program is so much brighter with the inclusion of students from all backgrounds and all levels of English proficiency, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Four years ago, I accepted the position of Orchestra Director at Annandale High School (AHS), one of the most diverse schools in the entire country. In my time at AHS, I have experienced immense joy from working with my English Language Learners in a beginning orchestra. Most of these students would never have had the chance to play an instrument had they not come to our country. My program is so much brighter with the inclusion of students from all backgrounds and all levels of English proficiency, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I hope you might experience the same within your own programs!

Visit Angela’s website, www.angelaammerman.com, reach her on Twitter, @AngelaAmmerman, or Facebook, check out her blog criticalpedagogyelectrified, her George Mason University Academia page, or e-mail her at angela.ammerman@hotmail.com


About the Author:

Angela Ammerman

Known for the “Ammermanian Method” of Teaching Music, NAfME Member Angela Ammerman’s revolutionary teaching style has earned her the distinction of “Orchestra Director of the Year” for the state of Virginia in 2016 and “Outstanding Teacher of the Year” finalist for Fairfax County Public Schools. Ammerman teaches at Annandale High School and earned her Bachelor of Music Education degree from the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music (CCM); and her Masters of Music Education from Boston University. 

Angela Ammerman is also the founder of the Future Music Educators Camp and method in which high school students gain access to expert instruction on music education as well as teaching experience. Ammerman is currently working on her PhD in Music Education at George Mason University where she is an adjunct instructor. Her experiences in K-12 general music and orchestra have molded her “radical” recruiting and retention styles and have contributed to her reputation as a program builder. Ammerman and her students have been featured in NAfME conferences for their active use of electric instruments to promote orchestra, to think critically across musical genres, and to share the natural joy of music. 

Having taught in Ohio, North Carolina, and Northern Virginia, Angela has a wide range of experiences and insight particularly regarding diverse populations from low socioeconomic communities. Ammerman has been awarded the Beginning Teacher of the Year, the Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction award and has been featured as a guest conductor, adjudicator, and clinician in multiple state, national and international conferences.  Angela Ammerman lives with her husband and three dogs in Alexandria, Virginia. Check out Ammerman’s session on English Language Learners at NAfME’s National Conference in November!

Angela Ammerman presented on her topic “Engaging English-Language Learners in Your Ensemble” at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference in Dallas, TX! Register today for the 2018 National Conference. 


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Brendan McAloon, Marketing and Events Coordinator, May 23, 2016. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org).