Nonverbal Communication in the Large Ensemble Classroom

Speaking Between the Lines:

Nonverbal Communication in the Large Ensemble Classroom

By NAfME Member Nicholas E. Roseth


Nonverbal communication—in the form of conducting, body language, and other physical or social cues—plays a powerful role in large ensemble classrooms. Even before conducting the first downbeat of a rehearsal or concert, nonverbal communication is at work. This article will describe several examples of how nonverbal communication can support (or hinder!) musicality, engagement, classroom management, proximity and motivation.





One of our objectives as conductors is to communicate musicality. But, conducting your ensemble when the students do not need conducting may train students to ignore your conducting and any musicality you aim to express.

For example, imagine you have a routine warm-up or frequent exercise that is played the same way on a regular basis. Your students are (probably) able to play it without you. If you conduct this routine exercise, students will begin to ignore your conducting because you are not communicating any new information that requires attention. In short, you may become a glorified human metronome with students trained to not watch you.

One solution: Stop conducting. Allow students to perform the routine exercise without you. Perhaps challenge them to listen in some meaningful and purposeful way.

Or, stop conducting and do something else while the students play. For example, while students are performing a routine exercise, you might move around the room and check posture, bow holds, or embouchure.

Or, add some variety (dynamics, articulations, tempo changes, etc.) to the routine exercise but only conduct the new meaningful musical information (for example, do not conduct the pulse and only conduct newly added dynamics).

You might consider applying these ideas to your literature, too: rely less on conducting the pulse, and focus on conducting the most important musical information.

Avoid encouraging your students to ignore one of your most important forms of musical nonverbal communication, your conducting!



As we all know, when a conductor brings her hands up to conduct, it is nonverbal cue that communicates, “we are going to play (or sing) now.” Some teachers find that when they bring their hands up, students are slow to respond. They may find themselves saying, “Instruments up” or “We are going to play now.” Further, some teachers bring their hands up to conduct then provide last second reminders: Remember your articulations!

However, asking students to bring their instruments up or giving other instructions with hands in the air weakens the nonverbal cue that says “we are going to play (or sing) now.”

Here’s why: In addition to the “hands-in-the-air we-are-going-to-play-now” nonverbal cue, additional verbal cues (in the form of reminders and last minute instructions) were used. Students must reconcile several conflicting cues: Do I bring my instrument up when my teacher’s hands go up? Or when she says “Instruments up”? Or when she is done giving her last bit of advice? I guess I’ll wait until she is done talking.

The use of many and conflicting cues impact engagement. Students are expecting to play or sing when they see hands go up, but may be confused and frustrated by the delay caused by multiple, and sometimes contradictory, cues.

Instead, do not give “please bring up your instrument” or “remember your articulation” reminders. Bring your hands up and wait for the instruments to come to playing position, then continue.

Note of encouragement: If this has not been the expectation in your classroom, it will take time (and patience) to retrain your use of the cue, and your students’ response to the cue. With time and practice, you will get a quick and immediate response from your students.


Ashlee Wilcox Photography | Documentary Associates, LLC


Classroom Management

Conflicting cues also impact classroom management. For example, in many classrooms there is an expectation that when the teacher steps on the podium or moves behind the conductor’s stand, the ensemble should become quiet and listen.

However, teachers often undermine this cue, too. After stepping onto the podium (which serves as the nonverbal visual cue communicating “please give me your attention”), some teachers also ask for silence (introducing a verbal cue) and/or make a physical gesture (like a cutoff, introducing a second visual cue). In some classrooms, teachers may be stepping on the podium, asking for silence, and waving their arms at once: three cues. Again, confusion among students will occur: Do I get quiet when the teacher steps on the podium? Or when he waves his arms? Or when he asks for silence? Some combination of these three cues?

Furthering this confusion, sometimes teachers step on to the podium when they do not actually want their students’ attention (for example, stepping onto the podium to shift scores or to retrieve something from their stand). In these instances, students see their teacher giving the cue that often says, “please give me your attention,” but the teacher does not actually expect attention. Students may wonder: Our teacher wants our attention when he steps on the podium… except sometimes he doesn’t actually expect our attention. When exactly are we supposed to give our attention?

For this nonverbal stepping-onto-the-podium cue to be effective, teachers should only step on the podium when they want their students’ complete attention. Do not step on the podium when shifting scores or retrieving something; do this while standing to the side of the podium. Further, for the cue to be effective it also means not displaying several other conflicting or inconsistent cues (like asking for silence and/or arm waving).

More broadly: If you want to rely on nonverbal (or even verbal) cues in some aspect of your classroom management strategy, only use one cue (be sure not to unintentionally use multiple simultaneous cues). And, use the single cue consistently expecting the same behavior always.

Again, if using cues in this manner has not been the case in your classroom, it may be a challenge to retrain yourself and your students. But when used well and used consistently, behavior will improve.


Proximity & Motivation

Nonverbal immediacy and proximity research (which explore emotional and physical space between teachers and students) in general education suggests that teachers who move physically closer to their students will (a) improve student motivation (Andersen, Norton, & Nussbaum, 1981; Christophel, 1990; Frymier, 1993), (b) improve their own motivation to teach (Baringer & McCroskey, 2000), (c) be perceived more favorably by their students (Andersen et al., 1981).

Consider this: In many classrooms, where are the students who seem most engaged, on-task, and generally most motivated to learn located in the classroom? Often, the front row. Some teachers may also find that the most distracted students are in the back of the ensemble. In this instance, teacher nonverbal immediacy and proximity are encouraging attention and participation from the students closest to the teacher, while doing little for those in the back.

Add an aisle (or two) down the center of your ensemble setup. Teach away from the podium, teach standing among students.

Your nonverbal immediacy and proximity may have an important impact and those students who often sit in the back. Plus, you may find yourself even more motivated to help your students.



Andersen, J. F., Norton, R. W., & Nussbaum, J. F. (1981). Three investigations exploring relationships between perceived teacher communication behaviors and student learning. Communication Education, 30(4), 377-392.

Baringer, D. K., & McCroskey, J. C. (2000). Immediacy in the classroom: Student immediacy. Communication Education, 49(2), 178-186.

Christophel, D. M. (1990). The relationships among teacher immediacy behaviors, student motivation, and learning. Communication Education, 39(4), 323-340.

Frymier, A. B. (1993). The impact of teacher immediacy on students’ motivation: Is it the same for all students? Communication Quarterly, 41(4), 454-464.


Connect with Nicholas on twitter @nroseth or visit his website!



About the author:

July 4 - Nicholas Roseth Headshot - Smaller

NAfME Member Nicholas Roseth specializes in beginning band, exploring creative approaches to teaching and learning. He is a Ph.D. student and Associate Instructor in music education at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Nicholas holds a Bachelor of Music in Music Education from Susquehanna University and a Master of Music Education from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Before studying at Indiana University, he taught band, orchestra, and general music in Colorado.


Nicholas Roseth will be presenting on his topic “Speaking Between the Lines: Nonverbal Communication in the Instrumental Ensemble Classroom for Pre-Service Teachers” at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference this November in Grapevine, TX! Register today! 

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Join us for more than 100 innovative professional development sessions, nightly entertainment, extraordinary performances from across the country, and tons of networking opportunities with over 3,000+ other music educators! Learn more and register today: And follow the hashtag #NAfME2016!

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