Frank Troyka

Student Leadership Training Doesn’t End at Camp

Sep 2019

A pretty strong argument can be made that our student leaders have a tougher job of working with their peers than we do in working with our students. As teachers, we have inherent authority by way of our titles, our degrees, and to a large extent, our age and years of experience. All of those give us some measure of credibility before we ever get in front of our students. Then, with a great deal of planning and maybe a little luck, we somehow manage to get everyone together in the same place at the same time to rehearse. It can be a humbling experience when you look at those kids doing (mostly) whatever you ask them to do. What authority we have! But if we think about it, the only real authority we have is that which our students give us by their willingness to comply with our directions.

For some mystical reason, kids will run to reset a form in a marching band rehearsal just because I tell them to. Sometimes we may stop and practice this skill as we become tired or frustrated, but still, they get on board and hustle back. I dread the day when they figure out that they don’t really have to do ANYTHING I tell them to do! Someday, after they experience this epiphany, I might find myself saying, “Stand tall and reach for the extra inch of height” and the response could well be, “Nope. Don’t feel like standing tall today. Check back with us tomorrow.”

But how do our student leaders earn the respect of their peers to motivate them to follow? Are we preparing them to lead effectively as student leaders or do we teach them only how we lead as adults? There are some enormous differences, not the least of which is that they’re kids leading kids, not adults leading kids.

Consider the effective student leaders we have all encountered over the years. They were mature without being aloof. They spoke in a way that compelled their peers to listen without sounding pretentious. They had passion founded on substance and skill, not platitudes. They just seemed like born leaders. But these attributes can be acquired, and we can teach them. In fact, we have to teach them because not all student leaders come by those skills on their own. Since many of us in the band world are center our leadership responsibilities around the marching band, I’ll use that environment as the basis for the suggestions that follow. (Keep in mind that leadership in the concert band is no less important in spite of the fact this it is often overlooked. But that’s a topic for another time.)


Leaders don’t necessarily have to be First Chair, but their peers must see them as skillful on some level. Otherwise, the student leader is met with resentment and resistance. This requires that we, the teachers, take responsibility for helping them develop their skills. Encourage student leaders to practice publicly, where they can be seen, so they inspire others to follow their example. Even if they struggle with the musical demands at times, the fact that they’re working on their deficiencies will show strength and responsibility. Invite them to offer help to their peers as a means of improving their skills while making that musical connection with individuals in the band. As we all know, the strength of the ensemble is found in the individual, but this may not be as obvious to our student leaders. Progress as a musician is an essential criterion for a student leader to be effective.​​​​​​​



Strength presents itself by way of example. It may be necessary to meet with student leaders separately to review rehearsal etiquette, procedures, and expectations. Rather than tell them what’s expected of them, it can be very revealing to have them list things that they see in rehearsal that they believe get in the way of the band’s progress. (Keep this low-key! This is not about griping; it’s about solving problems). Once they’ve compiled a list, have them identify those behaviors in which they themselves may occasionally engage. Their honesty and self-awareness may be surprising!

Remember, the goal here is to teach them to be better leaders by becoming better followers (role models). Being a humble follower doesn’t mean being passive. Humility often expresses itself by:

·    Consistently and relentlessly following procedures;

·    Volunteering to respond to group questions whenever they have the answer (rather than simply waiting for someone else to answer);

·    Doing things others don’t like to do (moving equipment, organizing materials, picking up after others, etc.);

·    Being prepared for rehearsal (something that can easily distinguish an effective student leader from his peers!).



Student leaders often fall into patterns of ineffectiveness because they simply don’t know how to communicate with their peers in a manner that invites respect. They whine or plead with their peers in a desperate attempt to get them to run back to their sets, remain quiet, arrive on time, or any number of other tasks. They may attempt to win them over through misplaced humor or by acting overly friendly. Consequently, the student leader is perceived as just another kid with no real authority.

Fortunately, there are some straightforward communication techniques that student leaders can use to help develop their expertise.

  • Have the student leader avoid the phrases, “Try to…”; “Make sure…”; and “See if you can…” These phrases weaken the delivery and often precede a comment that might best be stated more concisely. For example, rather than:
    • “Try to keep your bell up,” simply state, “Keep your bell up.”
    • “Make sure you lift your heels an inch,” becomes, “Lift your heels an inch.”
    • “See if you can take a slightly larger step,” becomes “Take a slightly larger step.”
    • In each case, the revised directive begins with a VERB! Verbs are action, and the leader inherently sounds more confident and more authoritative. Of course, tone of voice is critical, and student leaders may need to be coached on how they speak, so they don’t sound bossy or overbearing. Leaders might reserve, “Try to, Make sure, and See if you can” for the times when a skill they’re teaching is particularly challenging, new, or when the group is especially tired, or when they sense discouragement.
  • Favor closed questions when checking for understanding. Closed questions have four main characteristics:
  1. They’re factual.
  2. They’re fast.
  3. They’re easy.
  4. Most importantly, control stays with the person making the statement or question.

An example of a closed question would be, “How many counts to the next set?” It’s factual, fast, easy, and the questioner is still in control.


Another way for the student leader to keep the group’s focus is to use questions and statements that call for active, rather than passive, responses. “Can everyone hear me?” is an example of a passive question. It doesn’t necessarily invite a response. Notice the difference when instead the leader says, “Raise your hand if you can hear me.” This requires participation from everyone.


Conversely, open statements and questions have the following in common:

  1. They’re based on feelings and opinions.
  2. They invite thought, reflection, and contemplation.
  3. They often take longer to answer.
  4. Control shifts to the respondent.

When addressing a group, a question such as, “Do you want to try that again?” certainly shifts control away from the person asking the question. “Let’s do that again,” is much more effective. “Does that make sense?” might work in a small group or one-on-one, but in a larger group it is ineffective. A better way of checking for understanding might be to say, “Raise your hand if you understand the instructions.” The delivery is stronger and control stays with the person making the statement.

  • Check that leaders use a confident tone of voice and a confident stance. They must speak in a voice strong enough for the person farthest away to hear instructions clearly. Have them make eye contact? It’s a powerful tool for effective communication. My experience tells me that it’s not enough merely to tell my leaders to make eye contact and speak confidently. These skills have to be practiced just like any other we teach.


Again, if we think back to those effective student leaders we’ve known, they weren’t afraid to make appropriate demands and hold their peers to high standards. They were able to bridge that gap between the students and the professional staff because they possessed the credibility of an adult while maintaining proximity to their peers. Chances are they possessed three critical attributes of effective leadership in music: they were strong performers, humble followers, and good communicators.

Fortunately, all three of these can be developed “on the job,” which is where we all really learned to teach. Many of us have some sort of formal leadership training for our student leaders, but if we’re truly going to help them be effective, that training must be ongoing. Just like we continuously work on the fundamentals of musicianship and marching, constant review of the fundamentals of leadership is every bit as essential to creating success for all our students.


Frank Troyka is one of over 100 clinicians available for sponsorship through the Conn-Selmer Division of Education. For more information, visit


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Frank Troyka

Conn-Selmer Educational Consultant

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