Helping Your Leaders Become More Effective Communicators


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 objectives. 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 very simple 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.” 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, unfamiliar, when the group is especially tired, or when they sense discouragement.

·      Favor closed statements and questions over open ones. Closed statements 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 asking 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). “Raise your hand if you heard the instructions,” is an example of a closed statement. 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, an open 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 everyone understand?” or “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 simply to tell my leaders to make eye contact and speak confidently. These skills have to be practiced just like any other we teach.

If we think back to those effective student leaders we’ve known, they weren’t afraid to make demands and hold their peers to high standards. They were able to bridge the 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 constantly work on the fundamentals of playing and marching, the constant review of the fundamentals of leadership are every bit as essential to creating success for all our students.