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  • Writer's pictureAnne Fitzgibbon



When we train our Harmony Program teachers each year, there is one subject that is just as important to their preparation as lesson planning and classroom management. Along with the fundamentals, I always emphasize the importance of setting high expectations.

Our expectations alone do not determine whether students excel or not, of course, but they can open doors to student success by encouraging them to strive.

Research has shown that the expectations teachers communicate to their students – both consciously and unconsciously – can have a powerful and measurable impact. Back in the 1960’s, Harvard professor Robert Rosenthal randomly selected students and told their teachers that they had exceptional academic promise. What happened? According to his research, when teachers expected greater gains in IQ, that’s just what they got. Since then, other studies have suggested that student performance often hews to teacher expectations – for better or for worse.

The results of these studies have been questioned by some, but in my 15 years in the field of music education, I have seen, firsthand, the influence of our expectations on students' self-esteem, commitment to their studies, and performance levels.

Expectations and self-esteem

Believing in our students can be especially important when their personal and academic circumstances are challenging. The Harmony Program serves many communities with high rates of poverty and schools with large concentrations of English Language Learners and pass rates on State exams as low as 16 percent. In these environments, we cannot let statistics define our expectations of our students.

Take Mohamed, for example, a Harmony Program trombone student, whose story was featured in a 2015 documentary called Crescendo: the Power of Music. Mohamed attended an under-performing school in Harlem and had been held back twice in elementary school. Imagine his frustration all day in a classroom where he was two grades behind.

Interestingly, although Mohamed struggled with basic addition, when I heard his trombone teacher ask him about “cut time" one day in class, he proudly explained that a whole note, that normally gets four beats, gets only two. Within this musical context and supportive environment, math became more accessible.

As music teachers, we can set new expectations for our students.

In music class, students like Mohamed can be stars.

Trombone student, Mohamed, shaking the hand of El Sistema founder, Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu

Expectations and commitment

My year in Venezuela opened my eyes to the importance of high expectations. There, students were expected to study six days a week, four to six hours each day, and with rare exceptions, students I observed were smiling and engaged.

When I returned home and proposed a program of daily music lessons, I heard, almost unanimously, “New York City students will never commit to a schedule like that.” Baffled by these low expectations, I wondered: Were our children different? If they played video games every day, why not music?

In the end, our very first class of students was oversubscribed, and our attendance rate for the year averaged over 95 percent.

When we tune out the skeptics and set our expectations high,

our students rise to meet them.

Expectations and performance

Music teachers know that no matter how poor the dress rehearsal, somehow our students always perform their best on the concert stage.

I’ll never forget my “brilliant” (read: risky) idea to put an orchestra of beginner students under the baton of Plácido Domingo for the very first time on the night of our 2011 gala. Just before the final “Alleluia,” in Handel’s Alleluia Chorus, he cut them off before a grand pause, and I could only panic backstage as I realized they hadn’t practiced any of this. Talk about pressure! Sure enough, they awaited his cue - and did they ever get one! He led them with his voice, singing the line in his commanding tenor as they followed along and ended together as if well-rehearsed.

When the stakes are highest ... our students deliver.

Performing with Placido Domingo...without a rehearsal!

Setting expectations

So how do we use expectations to raise students' self-esteem? To improve their attendance? To elevate their performance?

What is most important is setting expectations appropriately. That means setting goals that are both demanding for students AND within their reach. This is a concept that builds what researchers refer to as a “growth mindset” and is considered a kind of Holy Grail in the field of education, as it teaches students a critically important lesson: with effort comes success. In other words, we can help students develop a belief in their abilities by expecting them to take on, and overcome, challenges.

There’s plenty of literature on the subject of high expectations, but you can get started by working some of the following into your approach:

  • Clarity – Be clear in establishing and communicating expectations.

  • Scaffolding – Set expectations that challenge students, but build their skills gradually so that goals are attainable with effort.

  • Engagement – Attempt to engage all of your students and involve them in identifying the expectations that will govern their classroom activities.

  • Family support – Strengthen your relationships with students’ families so that expectations can be reinforced at home.

  • Consistency – Be fair and consistent in meting out discipline and well as praise.

Remember, your belief in your students matters more than you might realize. Set a high bar for them. They might fall shy of the mark, but they’ll soar higher than they ever imagined they could.



  • Set an ambitious new goal for your students or organization this year - slightly out of reach but attainable - and detail the steps required to reach it.


  • What approaches have you taken to set and/or communicate high expectations to your students?

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