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Developing Executive Function in the Instrumental Music Classroom

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    Patrick Collins

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The development of our students' executive function may be our most important task as modern educators. When we talk about executive functions, we are referring to the high-level cognitive skills that people use to manage their own behaviors (Weill Institute for Neurosciences, 2020); this includes ensuring that students have the ability to self-regulate their learning - especially over long periods, such as for a project. In the music classroom, our students are part of a perpetual project; learning to become a professional on their instrument. To ensure that the students have the tools necessary to facilitate this consistent, long-term growth, it is important that educators work to develop the students' executive function skills concurrently.


While there are countless strategies that you can implement (see the references below for more strategies), I have found the following strategies to very helpful in my experience teaching instrumental music.

1. Guide Their Thinking

Teach them how to read a compass, rather than telling them which direction to go.
Teach them how to read a compass, rather than telling them which direction to go.

In 2020 America, we want everything fast. Hungry? Just go to the drive-thru (or have our passenger mobile order while we drive to the nearest Chick-Fil-A). Want to know where the name “Crisco” comes from? Pull out our smart phone and Google it (it’s crystalized cottonseed oil, if you were curious). It is important that educators avoid the trap of simply solving our students' problems for them; this deprives them of the chance to think critical for themselves. We must find ways to guide them to a solution; scaffold their thinking through questioning and prompts, but still let them discover the answer themselves.

Student: I sound bad!

Teacher: It’s great that you recognize that your sound could be better, that means you doing a great job of developing your ear as a musician! So let’s see if we can fix the problem. What do you notice about your sound that is bad? Based on what you know about your instrument and the issue you described, what might be causing that particular issue and why?

It would be naive to see this as a quick and simple exchange; this process will take significantly longer than simply telling the student how to fix the issue (“drop your jaw”). However, if the teacher simply gives the student the solution, they are robbing them of the chance to use and develop their critical and flexible thinking skills. While this exchange will take more time in the short-term, it will pay dividends over the long term, whether that’s two months or two years. As the student learns to think critically about problems they are having and then think through their own self-assessment, they will gain independence and ownership over their own learning and improvement (DiTullio, 2018). This independence means that the quality of their individual self-assessment will improve through their own analysis, which can occur at a higher quality more frequently, as opposed to solely relying on the teacher to analyze for them.

2. Model Their Pacing

Help them learn how to set goals and timelines that will get them to their desired result.
Help them learn how to set goals and timelines that will get them to their desired result.

It is important to remember that we know a lot more about “the process” than our students do. However, it is not uncommon for educators, including myself, to let this slip into the back of my mind while explaining a project or assignment. We’re only human, you know? We walk the students through the process and assume that they will understand our full intent, or that, if we miss anything, they will be able to fill in the gaps themselves. Spoiler Alert: They won’t, and this generally leads to one of three outcomes:

  1. The students learn/do something incorrectly and have to be retaught.
  2. The educator becomes frustrated when the students don’t understand the instructions.
  3. The students learn/do something incorrectly and have to be retaught, and the educator gets frustrated when the students don’t understand the instructions.

Sound familiar to anyone? When we are given a goal to achieve our executive function is what allows our brain to chart a course of sequential steps towards the desired result (ECRA Group, Inc., 2018). This goal could be a two-page paper on a Beethoven symphony, a slideshow on the history of the trumpet, or playing a two-octave F major scale. The students with under-developed executive function skills aren’t able to chart a course to the desired result, so they become paralyzed by not knowing how to begin. This is especially true when the goal or task is something entirely new to them, like playing an instrument. This leaves them with two options: skipping all of the intermediate steps that lead to improvement resulting in no progress, or shutting down entirely and doing nothing. We must find ways to help develop these skills by dividing large tasks into smaller goals for the students to follow. This can be achieved by framing classwork in the way you would want them to approach their homework so that they can emulate the process in both locations.

Teacher: Play this long tone exercise and listen for your tone quality.

How did you sound - what was good and what could improve? Alright, let’s try that again, but focus on the things you made note of.

Was it better this time? Why or why not? What did you change? Alright, let’s try it one more time just to make sure that sticks.

Was it even better? Why or why not? Let’s keep those thoughts in mind as we move on to the next exercise.

This exchange clearly defines a set of goals, or checkpoints, through the exercise to achieve the desired result, which helps them know exactly how to practice at home. The more that this process is reinforced during class, the more likely that students will emulate it in their own practice. As time goes on, the teacher can be less prescriptive and ask students to apply this new process of thinking onto different exercises.

3. Identify Their Frustration

Help them recognize when their frustration is causing them to underperform, which causes more frustration.
Help them recognize when their frustration is causing them to underperform, which causes more frustration.

Think back to the last new skill you learned. I’m going to guess that you were loving the process of learning; there was nowhere to go but up with the only goal set as learn as much as possible! As you continued to progress you began to refine your goal to be a specific target, or you finally developed a mental image of what being “good” at that skill really meant; your goal just became a moving target. As you keep working, progress slows and you eventually hit the dreaded plateau. You’ve peaked and no matter how hard you try, you just can’t seem to progress any further. You start to become frustrated quick and defeats occur more than success. While this may have been a problem in a single moment for you, there are over 17% of students in the United States that constantly deal with this feeling of frustration and anxiety due to academic and social challenges (ECRA Group, Inc., 2011). We must find ways to help students recognize when they are feeling frustrated and that their emotions are preventing them from making progress, and then guide them to healthy interventions to ensure continued success.

Teacher: Hey guys, I feel as though we are not making improvements on this portion of the music right now. Does anyone else feel that way?

How does it make you feel to repeat this of the music, but feel like it isn’t getting better?

It is important that we understand how body reacts in times like this. You start to feel stagnant, which can leave you bored or frustrated, and these emotions can lead you to actually perform worse. I feel like, as a group, that is the point we are at right now - spinning our wheels. So to make sure we can still be productive, we are going to move onto something else for now, but will come back and conquer this later.

The exchange above is a great example of helping the students become more aware of their own emotions, by letting them see you are aware of your own. By bringing their awareness to that emotion during a certain situation, plateauing, it helps associate the two feelings together, and then know a better way to cope with it rather than trying to force something that isn’t working. It also then takes the time to explain to the students why they should move on to something else, and then notes that they are not giving up and will come back to the challenge at a later time.


These techniques can be implemented with any portion of the standard music class period, but will work better (especially initially) during fundamentals time. This is due to all students having the same or very similar tasks, compared to during music rehearsals, which may have extremely varied tasks. Fundamental exercises also tend to focus on a single skill at a time, which means that there is less overall cognitive load for the students, which provides space to develop executive function. Over time, verbal guidance during fundamentals can phase out and shift to more tasks with more cognitive load, such as music rehearsal.

  1. Provide each student with a packet full of notated fundamental exercises that will be used during class.
  2. At the top of each exercise, provide prompts that guide the students through how to perform the exercise and then how to self-evaluate at the conclusion of the exercise.
  3. During class, introduce each exercise and follow the prompts for each exercise as consistently as possible.
  4. As the students become more comfortable with the procedure, provide them with time to pair up and guide each other through the fundamentals and prompts. Circulate and facilitate the discussions among the group.
  5. Over time, slowly phase out the frequency and detail of verbal guidance during fundamentals and shift ownership to the individual student.
  6. Begin shifting from low cognitive load tasks (fundamentals) and begin modeling for high cognitive load tasks (music).

The exercises below are examples that might be seen in a brass student’s fundamentals packet.

Long Tone Exercise
Long Tone Exercise

Lip Slur Exercise
Lip Slur Exercise

Articulation Exercise
Articulation Exercise

Measuring Growth

Unless we are actively measuring growth of executive function, we cannot be certain that our strategies are actually improving the executive function of our students. The following methods can be utilized by music educators to assess the improvement of individual students' executive function. Keep in mind that, to measure growth, you will need some form of baseline assessment before implementing any strategies.

1. Writing Prompt

Provide the student with a writing prompt asking how often and how long they typically practice. Additionally, ask them to reflect on their practice sessions and describe what they typically do with as much detail as possible. As you evaluate the student response, look for the level of detail they have provided, in addition to the overall thoughtfulness, effectiveness and overall confidence of their reflection.

2. Classroom Observation

Create a checklist of desired traits that the performer should have to have an effective rehearsal (having materials, set-up on time, starts and stops, engaged, improving and adjusting each repetition, etc.). During class, evaluate the student utilizing this checklist. Over time, take note of when students begin exhibiting the desired traits, as well as the consistency of those improvements.

3. Performance Assessment

Provide the student with a short musical etude and let them have a set amount of time to work on it. For younger students, this could be a sight-reading exercise where they have 30 seconds to study before performing. For older students, this could be a longer etude where they have a month to study before performing. Create a rubric to grade the performance; most states have a standardized rubric that could be utilized or as a starting point for your own rubric. While the student studies and performs, pay close attention to the process they take (especially if it is a sight-reading example) and the change in score. If it is a long amount of study time, consider asking the student how they went about preparing the piece.


Center on Brain Injury Research and Training. (2010, June 17). School-Based Assessment of Executive Functions. BrainLine.

Center on the Developing Child. (n.d.). Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence. Harvard University.

DiTullio, G. (2018, November 9). Helping Students Develop Executive Function Skills. Edutopia.

ECRA Group, Inc. (2011, August). Addressing Executive Function at the Secondary Level: In the Classroom and as an RTI Intervention [White paper]. ECRA Group, Inc.

Graham, Dakeyan Cha' Dre'. (2015, March 13). Secondary Band Participation and Executive Function [Doctoral dissertation, University of South Florida, Tampa, United States of America].

Weill Institute for Neurosciences. (2020). Executive Functions. University of California San Francisco.