Instilling a “Can Do” Attitude in the High School Guitar Classroom

Instilling a “Can Do” Attitude in the High School Guitar Classroom

Understanding Late Arrivers

By NAfME Member Andrew Pfaff


Teaching guitar to high school juniors and seniors, especially those who have never played an instrument or been involved in music previously, brings unique challenges. Many of my beginning guitar students find themselves in my class because they need to fill a five-credit fine arts requirement. They are likely to exhibit the least amount of intrinsic motivation, as learning for learning’s sake is supplanted by the pursuit of high test scores, high GPAs, and college acceptances.

By this late in their K-12 journey, most students have stronger beliefs about their abilities, strengths, and weaknesses than ever before. I wondered if these more firmly held opinions impacted their level of motivation in my class.


high school guitar AlekZotoff


A high school guitar class is a great opportunity to give “late arrivers” access to music in a school setting which they would otherwise miss. The oldest members of the K-12 school population deserve specific attention regarding their self-efficacy in music, and could even be considered an at-risk population. How can we better understand these late arrivers to music study?


Attribution Theory

Attribution theory of motivation says that if we attribute our ability to our effort, we are more likely to try hard. If on the other hand, we view our ability as a fixed circumstance, we are much more prone to give up and say, “I can’t.” How could I learn about my students’ opinions of their musical ability and use that knowledge to focus instruction? Further, how might I influence them to be more likely to attribute ability to effort and say, “I can?”



In beginning to address these questions, I used a self-efficacy scale. Self-efficacy is the theory advanced by psychologist Albert Bandura to describe our opinion of our own abilities and strengths, determining whether or not we will likely persevere at a given task or pursuit. Bandura developed the self-efficacy scale as a way to allow respondents to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with a variety of statements about their ability. The scale has been adapted for many educational contexts. I adapted one specifically for my guitar classes and administered it once at the beginning and again at the end of my research period.


motivation Gam1983


A brief background on Albert Bandura’s work can be found here.


Eleven Students, Eleven Stories

During my research period, I recorded audio of individual meetings with students and paid close attention to students I identified as likely to have less motivation and a lower opinion of their ability to learn guitar. Of my 47 beginning guitar students in the 2016-17 school year, I identified eleven who needed help developing a personal narrative of success attributed to effort. My efforts became portraits of eleven students on their individual journeys as beginning musicians. These students’ stories and challenges were a fascinating reflective exercise. One example was published on the STORRI blog of Teachers College, Columbia University.



I re-administered the self-efficacy scale at the end of my 10-week research period and recorded the shift in self-efficacy, which revealed insights into individual students, my 11-student subgroup, and my entire beginning guitar roster.

Gathering and acting on the additional data for the subgroup led to better results overall and a more positive, fulfilling experience – not just for them, but for me as well. I plan to continue surveying my students at the beginning of each school year and will make self-efficacy scales a permanent part of the beginning and end of my year-long guitar course.


success junce


Building a Personal Narrative of Success

Giving older students the opportunity to practice and develop skill on guitar can help them build a personal narrative of success to follow them into the post-secondary world. Entrance surveys and pre-test/post-test self-efficacy scales can help us know who needs our attention the most, and if our efforts are making a difference.



Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215. doi:10.1037//0033-295x.84.2.191

Bandura, A. (2006). Chapter 14, Guide for constructing self-efficacy scales. In F. Pajares & T. C. Urdan (Authors), Self-efficacy beliefs of adolescents (pp. 307-337). Greenwich, CT: IAP – Information Age Pub.

Zelenak, M. S. (2010). Development and Validation of the Music Performance Self-Efficacy Scale. Music Education Research International, 4, 31-43.


About the Author:

Andrew Pfaff

NAfME member Andrew Pfaff has directed the music program at Bergen County Technical High School in Teterboro, NJ since 2002, and was named his district’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. He is an M.Ed. candidate in Educational Leadership at The College of New Jersey. Andrew recently presented his research at the Association for Popular Music Education conference.

A magna cum laude graduate of Temple University in jazz bass performance, Andrew also maintains a busy playing career in the greater NYC metropolitan area. His bass work is featured on recordings by Karen Lloyd, Robin Haffley, MJ12 and others. In 2012 Andrew produced, engineered and played on the album P’ticha by vocalist/cantor Meredith Greenberg. Andrew’s own album, under the performing name Draff and titled The Knocks, was released in fall 2015.

Connect with Andrew online:

Andrew Pfaff presented on his topic “Instilling a ‘Can Do’ Attitude in the High School Guitar Classroom” at the 2017 NAfME National Conference last November in Dallas, TX. Register today for the 2018 NAfME National Conference!

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