How Should We Measure Success In Music Education? By Duane Whitcomb

Today’s reflection comes from Duane Whitcomb, co-founder of FiddleQuest, an on-line violin curriculum for students and teachers that enhances ear-training for social and performance playing. Let’s check out his great perspective on measuring success in music education.

Music education is a long haul. It usually takes many years for a student to learn to play an instrument—and even longer to learn to play an instrument well. Thankfully, there are lots of small successes along the way that keep students motivated—learning to hold the bow, playing open notes, playing their first melody, earning stickers, etc. With the plethora of these small steps, however, it’s easy to overlook long-term goals.

When it comes to educating young students, there are three important participants who each may have their own ideas about what success looks like: The Parents, The Student, and The Teacher.


The Parents
Parents get their children into music lessons for numerous reasons, and they have countless aspirations for what a successful outcome might look like. Common reasons I’ve come across over the years include:

  • “I want my kids to learn discipline and how to focus.”
  • “I want my child to get into a great school when they graduate and learning violin will help.”
  • “I missed out on learning an instrument, and I don’t want my child to miss out on playing music.”
  • “I want my kids to do well in school and music is good for their brain.”
  • “Music is one of the seven liberal arts and I want my child to have a well-rounded education.”

Far and away, the most common answer I get when asking parents why they want their children to study music is:

“I want to give my child a skill they can use throughout their life to have fun. I want music to be something they enjoy their whole lives.”

These are not mutually exclusive. Often parents mention one or more of the reasons simultaneously.

The Student

I’ve found that student goals change and evolve over time, with a surprising commonality grouped into three rough age groups:

Ages 5-10. When students are young, their thoughts are largely on the present—their goal is to earn a sticker this week by practicing, or to finish Level 1, or to play in Saturday’s concert without making a mistake.

Ages 11-15. As they get older, the focus and motivations begin to shift. Adolescents begin to get more affected by social pressure and what their friends are doing. Participating in groups becomes more important. Kids become more determined to find their tribe.

Ages 16-18. When students get into high school, the importance of their peer group continues, but they also become increasingly more interested in the relevance of their activities and how they spend their time. They start focusing on those the activities that help them become more of who they are—social, analytical, relaxed, performing, outgoing, contemplative, competitive, creative, enterprising, etc. They embrace the activities that fit their self-image well and throw off those that feel confining.

The Teacher

Teachers, like parents and students, bring their own interests and motivations to music education and, frankly, we want it all. We want our students to be life-long players that won all the competitions, played first chair in the Youth Symphony, started a band with high school friends, and then went on to get a scholarship to Julliard or Berkelee School of Music.

But, deep down, most of us have one goal that trumps the others.. When that one goal is achieved, we find a fulfilling sense of accomplishment and success. That top-priority goal is different for every teacher, and it’s important that we identify our own. Why? First, because we need to able to communicate this goal clearly to our parents. Second, our primary goal tends to cause a gravitational-like force that affects how we conduct lessons—sometimes over-riding the goal of our parent or student.

Here are some of the ways teachers have described their measure of success to me:

  • “I want all my students to reach Book 6”
  • “I’d like to see all of my students to play in the Youth Symphony”
  • “When my students finish lessons with me, I want them to LOVE music.”
  • “I’d like my top students to place in the ___ competition.”
  • “Exposing my students to a variety of musical styles is my goal.”
  • “Reading music well is the most important achievement a student can learn.”

In general, teachers tend to fall somewhere along a continuum that ranges from a total focus on the journey (e.g. enjoying the experience of learning and playing music) to a total focus on the destination (e.g. achieving a specific level of proficiency or accomplishment). Most teachers I have known over the years fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, seeking to give their students an enjoyable experience while giving them as much material to learn as possible and trying to get them to strive for higher levels of playing.

The Importance of Communication
Clearly, there is no single definition of success in music education. Although there are common overlaps and agreements, specific goals and objectives vary widely. And therein lies the challenge. Without great communication between teachers, parents, and students, it is not uncommon for one party to be experiencing success and another failure. As a teacher, I must be certain that I’m initiating open and ongoing communication with parents and students to get everyone on the same page about where we are and where we want to go. It’s the key to helping everyone experience a successful outcome.

My Picture of Success

I have simple definition of success for my students that I never tire of sharing with my parents:

When your child heads to college, they know they can’t bring everything, but one thing they wouldn’t dream of leaving behind is their violin. They love playing music with friends! Because they have achieved a fluency and comfort with the instrument in a variety of genres, they have the confidence to play with others—even those they’ve never met—regardless of the other instruments involved or the style of music being played. They may choose to perform (solo or in small groups), or they may just choose to relax and play in the dorm by themselves or with new kids they meet. Even though there isn’t a sticker to earn, a parent to please, or a college application to strengthen, they are still playing music.

That to me is success — students keep playing.


Duane Whitcomb is co-founder of FiddleQuest, an on-line violin curriculum for students and teachers that enhances ear-training for social and performance playing. Duane is also founder and principal instructor of Creekside Strings, a local music education school in Southern Oregon.


  1. What a wonderful, succinct piece on the different angles one can take with music education. I also ultimately want my students to leave their time with me with a profound love of music and a continued practice, in whatever form, throughout their lives.

  2. Oh Duane! Am I ever in agreement. I always said my goal was to create music lovers, and seeing them continue to play was always the best reward. Well said, sir!


  3. Duane I am a piano and guitar teacher, and I absolutely agree with you that primary success is instilling a love of music and a friendship with the student’s instrument. So much of that has to do with helping the parent have realistic expectations and not foist their expectations onto the kid: to really let the student have their own experience and journey rather than it being the parent’s vicarious journey. There is nothing as cool as watching another person fall in love with music!

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