This page offers supplemental information about the "Descriptive Survey of Democratic Practices in Ensemble Settings" research project conducted by Lindsay Fulcher, Jason Gossett, Yo-jung Han, Dan Shevock, and Darrin Thornton. Keeping with the democratic spirit of this project we chose to list our names alphabetically. If you have questions or are interested in additional information/discussion please see "Authors" at the bottom of the page to contact us.

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Rationale & Purpose

Ensemble instructional practices are an important component of music education.  These practices are modeled on normative ideas of director centered instruction (Allsup, 2003).  Recently, there has been increased discussion on the topic of democracy in music education (Allsup, 2012a, 2012b; Allsup & Benedict, 2008; Kratus, 2012; Mantie, 2012; Silverman, 2013).  Despite the attention given to this subject, little empirical research exists regarding democratic practices in ensemble settings.

The purpose of this investigation was to ascertain the extent to which K-12 music teachers implement democratic practices in ensemble settings and their perceptions of democratic practices.

We aim “to examine the assumptions on which the music teacher education curriculum is founded by analyzing current curricular practices and proposing new avenues for consideration” (from Critical Examination of the Curriculum ASPA).

Teaching for democracy can be difficult and rewarding for ensemble directors.  To teach democratically, teachers must surrender their claim to the truth (West, 2000).  The democratic classroom is about growth, cooperation (Allsup, 2007), and inclusion. Inclusive teaching involves, “all children achieving and participating despite challenges stemming from poverty, class, race, religion, linguistic and cultural heritage or gender” (Burnard, Dillton, Rusinek, & Saether, 2009, p. 109).  Problematically, some teachers equate democracy with government, rather than democratic ideals (DeLorenzo, 2003; Kratus, 2012).  Even when teachers are willing to teach democratically, school administrations can be a barrier to instruction (Meier, 1987), and “being among others democratically tends to involve complications, power struggles and tensions as individuals and social collectives endeavor to create or resist hierarchical entanglements” (Silverman, 2012, p. 7).

Democratic teaching aims to teach students skills necessary to flourish  in democratic societies (Allsup, 2012).  These skills include self-assessment, critical questioning, democratic practice, social action, and adjudication criteria (Grant, 2012).  Allsup (2007) suggests that schools, traditions, curricula, students, and teachers are domains of democracy.  Democratic classrooms can help develop collective and individual identities (Karlsen & Westerlund, 2010), by helping students engage in “conversations that matter” (Allsup, 2007, p. 55).

We hypothesized that music ensembles have potential to be loci for democratic educational practice.  Given the limited number of empirical research studies examining the state of democratic music teaching, not much is known about the democratic practices current teachers are using.  Therefore, the following research questions arose: [divider backtotop="1" color="#c0833e" opacity="5"]

Research Questions

1. How often are democratic practices used in K-12 ensemble settings?

2. What are the perceptions of K-12 ensemble teachers regarding democratic practices?

3. How do K-12 ensemble teachers define democratic practices?  [divider backtotop="1" color="#c0833e" opacity="5"]


Participants were K-12 public school music ensemble directors in Pennsylvania who taught a performance ensemble as a credit bearing curricular offering. Ensemble teachers were identified through the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association database.  All invitations to participate in this survey were sent electronically. The online questionnaire consisted of both forced-choice and open-ended questions. Forced-choice questions were employed to investigate current practices and perceptions of the teachers in relation to the first research question, using a Likert-type scale.  Open-ended questions were employed for the second and third research questions, to garner teachers’ opinions about the concept of democratic practice and definitions of democratic practices. [divider backtotop="1" color="#c0833e" opacity="5"]

"To what extent do you..."

Part of our survey was a list of strategies and participants were asked to rate  "to what extent do you" do each of the following, on a scale of 1 (never) to 5 (very often). We grouped these strategies, within our framework of democracy, in the following categories:

Reflection (instructional practices that encourage reflective thinking)

To what extent do you:

  • ask students to reflect on the musical process of the ensemble
  • ask students to reflect on his or her own musical process
  • use a student’s (or group of students) bad decision as an opportunity for class discussion and learning without belittling

Student Collaboration (instructional practices that encourage collaboration among students)

To what extent do you:

  • allow students to vote on (large ensemble) repertoire for study (not performed)
  • allow students to vote on (large ensemble) repertoire for performance
  • allow students to elect student leadership
  • have students collaboratively determine part assignments
  • encourage students to watch other sections/members for uniformity
  • allow students to break into sectionals/small groups and work without direct instruction during rehearsals
  • allow students to determine rehearsal priorities (e.g. students make decisions about what needs to be worked on during rehearsal)

Student Independence (instructional practices that encourage individual decision making)

To what extent do you:

  • allow students to grade themselves
  • allow students to tune with little to no input from you
  • allow students to select solo/ensemble music for study (not performed)
  • allow students to select solo/ensemble music for performance
  • allow students to share music they create or learn outside of class
  • have student’s write music they or others perform

Teacher Directed (instructional practices directly implemented by the teacher)

To what extent do you:

  • model openness to diversity
  • incorporate music that is popular among students
  • rotate “chair seating” or part assignments within a section

Student & Teacher Collaboration (instructional practices that encourage collaboration between students & teacher)

To what extent do you:

  • coach students in leadership roles
  • select solo/chamber music collaboratively with students
  • use students’ enthusiasm to influence repertoire choices
  • coach students to cooperate in collaboration respecting diversity (e.g. disability, racial, sexual, and cultural diversity)

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All ParticipantsN=172 BandN=66 ChoirN=51 OrchestraN=18 Multiple GenresN=47
Average age 40.6 40.2 40.9 44.2 39.7
Average years of experience 15.7 16.5 15.9 15.3 14.3
Male 49.2% 73.6% 38.9% 22.2% 35.4%
Female 48.7% 23.6% 61.1% 77.8% 60.4%
Teach in urban settings 9.7% 8.3% 9.3% 11.1% 12.5%
Teach in suburban settings 48.7% 52.8% 40.7% 66.7% 45.8%
Teach in rural settings 41% 38.9% 50% 22.2% 39.6%


Elementary School (K-5)N=37 Middle School (6-8)N=21 High School (9-12)N=30 Multiple GradesN=96
Average age 44.2 43 40.8 36.6
Average years of experience 18.2 18.3 16.5 11
Male 34.2% 36.4% 58.8% 60.8%
Female 63.2% 63.6% 41.2% 39.2%
Teach in urban settings 10.5% 4.5% 11.8% 8.1%
Teach in suburban settings 52.6% 68.2% 58.8% 40.5%
Teach in rural settings 36.8% 27.3% 29.4% 51.4%

How often democratic practices are used: 1 (Never) - 5 (Very Often)

Means by Grade Level Taught:





N Mean  (SD) N Mean  (SD) N Mean  (SD) N Mean  (SD)
Reflection 31 3.39  (.80) 19 3.77  (.47) 29 3.89  (.75) 91 3.81  (.80)
Student Collaboration 30 2.03  (.67) 19 2.75  (.73) 28 2.94  (.78) 93 2.77  (.68)
Student Independence 30 2.49  (.70) 18 2.77  (.57) 28 3.07  (.86) 91 2.92  (.65)
Teacher Directed 30 3.34  (.86) 19 3.74  (.63) 29 3.39  (.69) 92 3.51  (.69)
Student/Teacher Collaboration 30 2.84  (.87) 19 3.13  (.71) 29 3.53  (.83) 93 3.32  (.77)

Significant differences between:

  • Reflection
    • Elementary & High
    • Elementary & Multiple
  • Student Collaboration
    • Elementary & Middle
    • Elementary & High
    • Elementary & Multiple
  • Student Independence
    • Elementary & High
    • Elementary & Multiple
  • Teacher Directed
    • Elementary & Middle
  • Student/Teacher Collaboration
    • Elementary & High
    • Elementary & Multiple

Means by Genre Taught:





N Mean  (SD) N Mean  (SD) N Mean  (SD) N Mean  (SD)
Reflection 65 3.85  (.76) 17 3.37  (.74) 46 3.70  (.81) 42 3.81  (.75)
Student Collaboration 65 2.77  (.79) 16 2.38  (.69) 46 2.59  (.73) 43 2.68  (.76)
Student Independence 64 2.92  (.70) 17 2.94  (.68) 45 2.61  (.69) 41 2.96  (.72)
Teacher Directed 64 3.45  (.74) 17 3.59  (1.0) 47 3.49  (.68) 42 3.50  (.63)
Student/Teacher Collaboration 64 3.36  (.73) 17 3.15  (.89) 47 3.34  (.71) 43 3.32  (.85)

No significant differences found between genres. [divider backtotop="1" color="#c0833e" opacity="5"]

"Please share briefly how you would define democratic music education."


“Music education is sharing the joy of making music with others” “Students and their instructor sharing a common goal. This goal would be to make beautiful music” “Students and teacher work together towards common goals. By respecting and honorong [sic] their world they are more apt to be open towards music you are enthusiastic about” “Keeping an open view of the big picture. Trying to keep all students engaged in conversation/music making promoting music throughout the community” “We are all part of the process of creation of a musical process. Successes and failures are shared by all”


“Music is for every child, not just the talented few!” “50% white 50% african american or Latin decent [sic]” “95% caucation [sic]”

Decision-making (Input & Choice)

“Students MAY have influence on music chosen for study/performance HOWEVER since the music chosen for study/performance is a reflection of the curriculum it is the director's responsibility to choose repertoire wisely. Students should always have a great degree of input for student leadership roles (elected officers, etc) as well as a voice in performance opportunities (especially marching band festivals, parades, etc)” “their voice”… “learning”… “decisions.” “Ownership is key to a successful music program. Allowing student input builds trust and allows for the democratic process to become beneficial to both the student and educator.” “I use questioning to guide them to higher level thinking skills” “In brief, teacher and students come together and discuss concert selections, voicings, accompaniments, etc… I pick some and explain why, they may choose several according to group interest.” “Students make many of the decisions regarding repertoire and the running of rehearsal,” “Democratic music education is where the students are able to participate in some of the decisions, choices, or processes of the ensemble. It allows the students have a sense of ownership in the learning process.” “By allowing the students some choice in the music they perform, it helps them to become more accountable for their performances.”

Possible Resistance to Democratic Ensemble Teaching

“We have a benevolent dictatorship in our band. I tell them that and they understand it” “We have no time for non-performance music. Our goal is to commit and perform high quality music of all genres” “I have not given my students much control or decision making choices in the ensemble in an effort to establish myself as the teacher” “I have no idea. I don’t think in those terms” [divider backtotop="1" color="#c0833e" opacity="5"]

"Considering the strategies you just rated, please share your opinions regarding democratic music education in the ensembles you teach."


The participants who are in favor of democratic music education stated the rationale for their actions, practices and beliefs.

  • Ownership
    • “It allows the students have a sense of ownership in the learning process."
    • “[D]emocratic music education is essential … in that it helps each student guide their music education journey and makes them a stake holder in their own education”
  • Engagement
    • “If they have a say in what happens they become vested in the experience. If they are enjoying the experience they will come back into my classroom.”
    • “[Democratic music education] places more emphasis on student-focused education that helps engage the students' interests.  They also become more self-reliant in the rehearsal.”
  • Leadership
    • “I believe it is important for developing musical independence and initiative in students”
    • “to grow musical leadership in the future generations”
    • “I had students elect section leaders and used them to lead the ensemble during sectionals or when I was absent from school.”


Many participants showed a favorable attitude about the idea of democratic practice but referred prior conditions and some boundaries for democratic practices.

  •     Guided Choice
    • “[4th or 5th grade students] can choose between some solo/ small ensemble songs, but I pre-select them and then they choose from those selections”
  •     Final Say
    • “Kid requests are accepted but evaluated on my criteria”
  •     Depends
    • Age/Maturity: “I teach only elementary students. It is their first experience with an ensemble and there is not enough time or their own knowledge to allow them to decide how to run things.”, “This also assumes that they are mature enough to handle criticism and not getting their way even if they've voted on it and lost.”
    • Level/ Prior experience and knowledge: “Care should be taken to make sure that students haveadequate knowledge and evaluative skills”.
    • Time: “If I had more time, I would use the process more often”.
    • Size: “These strategies would probably work best in a small ensemble setting as opposed to a large ensemble.”
    • Topic: “There are some areas that work well as a democracy, but others that are dictated by the instructor, such as proper technique and style interpretations.” “Students carry the ownership in tuning, playing in tune, preparing music and individual responsibilities. I make musical decisions based on the strengths and weaknesses of the group”


Even though the opponents said they take into consideration their students tastes and likes/ dislikes, they want to limit student input into the process. They put emphasis on teacher’s qualification and responsibility, especially with regard to repertoire selection to develop students’ musicianship.

  •     Qualification
    • Teacher is the most QUALIFIED to make appropriate decisions with regard to repertoire selection … Consideration must be given to: Curriculum, Range issues, Technical Demands, Rhythmic complexity, and Voicing to name just a few. Most students are not capable of that kind of analysis.”
    • “Students left to decide things totally for themselves will rarely push themselves out of their comfort zone.”
  •     Responsibility
    • MY job to expand their musical horizons and many things that they do not initially like, they grow to like.  So, ultimately I make decisions to improve them as musicians and to widen their horizons into high quality music.”
    • “to help reveal musical beauties to them to which they would have otherwise not been exposed and learned to love”
  •     Effectiveness
    • “To be the most productive … it is more important for me to be extremely prepared and maintain full control rather than allow for true democratic music education”
    • Concerns:  “The new teacher evaluation system demands concrete measurable outcomes”, “the outcomes become much riskier in terms of achieving success in outwardly noticeable areas”.
    • Time constraints: “Time is … an issue when trying to involve the students more in decision making - it is hard to give up a lot of rehearsal time to do this.”

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Allsup, R. E. (2003). Mutual learning and democratic action in instrumental music education. Journal of Research in Music Education, 51(1), 24-37.

Allsup, R. E. (2012a). The moral ends of band. Theory Into Practice, 51(3), 9. doi: 10.1080/00405841.2012.690288

Allsup, R. E. (2012b). Music education and human flourishing: A meditation on democratic origins. British Journal of Music Education, 29(2), 171-179.

Allsup, R. E., & Benedict, C. (2008). The problems of band. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 16(2), 156 - 173.

Allsup, R. E. (2007). Democracy and one hundred years of music education: Democracy is not a new idea in music education, but continues to be a very important one. Music Educators Journal, 93(5), 52-56.

Burnard, P., Dillton, S., Rusinek, G., & Saether, E. (2009). Inclusive pedagogies in music education: A comparative study of music teachers’ perspectives from four countries. International Journal of Music Education. 26(2), 109-126. DOI: 10.1177/0255761407088489.

DeLorenzo, L. C. (2003). Teaching music as democratic practice. Music Educators Journal, 90(2), 35-40.

Grant, C. A. (2012). Cultivating flourishing lives: A robust social justice vision of education. American Educational Research Journal, 49(5), 910-934.

Karlsen, S. & Westerlund, H. (2010). Immigrant students’ development of musical agency: Exploring democracy in music education. British Journal of Music Education, 27(3), 225-239.

Kratus, J. (2012). Democracy: An ideal in music learning. In A. J. Palmer & A. de Quadros (Eds.), Tanglewood II (pp.95-112). Chicago, IL: GIA Publications.

Mantie, R. (2012). Bands and/as music education: Antinomies and the struggle for legitimacy. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 20(1), 63-81.

Meier, D. (1987). Central Park East: An alternative story. The Phi Delta Kappan, 68(10), 753-757.

Silverman, M. (2013). A critical ethnography of democratic music listening. British Journal of Music Education, 31(1), 7-25. DOI: 10.1017/S0265051712000423.

West, C. (2000). A grand tradition of struggle. The English Journal, 89(6), 39-44. [divider backtotop="1" color="#c0833e" opacity="5"]


All from The Pennsylvania State University. In alphabetical order:

Lindsay Fulcher, Ph.D. Candidate,

Jason Gossett, Ph.D. Candidate,

Yo-jung Han, Ph.D. Candidate,

Dan Shevock, Ph.D. Candidate,

Dr. Darrin Thornton, Assistant Professor of Music Education,

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