Semester of Graduation

August 2021


Master of Music (MM)


Music Education

Document Type



This multiple-case study sought to describe how student agency is cultivated within two high school choir programs. Research questions were: (a) In what ways did participating teachers incorporate student agency? (b) How did their students describe their experience? (c) What opportunities/difficulties emerged when students assumed leadership and decision-making roles? (d) Why do participating teachers offer these to students? (e) How do opportunities for student agency serve student learning and program goals? Data collection included semi-structured teacher interviews in two stages, as well as a student questionnaire. Other data included choir handbooks, student leadership information, social media presence, and classroom signs.

Emergent themes were examined through Emirbayer and Mische’s (1998) temporal-relational view of agency, in which actors make choices within a “temporally embedded process of social engagement, informed by the past, but oriented towards the future and… present”(p. 963) . Iterative agency was exercised as students took actions based on their previous choir and leadership experiences. Opportunities for practical-evaluative agency included student-led sectionals, planning and executing choir events, and making interpretive musical decisions. Teachers considered students’ projective agency through intentional music literacy instruction (“literate, thinking musicians”) and promoting virtues (“better people”). A culture of strong relationships and a safe environment promoted agency.

Implications for teaching practice include incorporating student-centered instructional activities into rehearsal: student-led sectionals, discussions about musical interpretation, and questioning techniques. Teachers could choose student conductors or allowing students to rehearse the entire ensemble when directors are absent. Student leadership structures that allow students to participate throughout high school were beneficial, including regular opportunities for director guidance and communication. While directors still retain primary authority, students can be given more agency and autonomy in certain areas, such as culturally relevant performances and social aspects of choir life.

All data was collected during the COVID-19 pandemic; therefore, observations were not possible. Gatekeepers in one district did not allow student interviews. As a result, implications for future research include multiple periodic observations over the course of a school year, and incorporation of student interviews. Future studies could investigate the presence of student agency in urban schools, and those lacking strong feeder programs.

Committee Chair

West, Justin