||:Leaders Creating:||
6 min readFeb 18, 2021



written by Gary Rupert, Leadership Coach & Cultural Strategist ||:Leaders Creating:||

We are all familiar with the adage “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” In my mind, this dilemma involves a flawed assumption; the assumption that the horse is, in fact, thirsty.

I wonder how often we make similar assumptions with our students.

We lead them to individual practice techniques, but we can’t make them practice. We lead them to ensemble performance skills, but we can’t make them play together. Like leading the horse to water, we assume they are thirsty to learn. But what if they are not?

Horses will only drink when thirsty, so salt their oats!

I have always believed the answers to life are pretty simple. If you are tired, you sleep. If you are hungry, you eat. And if you are thirsty, you drink. The choice is based on an overriding need. Using that logic, the answer to the question of how one gets a horse to drink is in making it thirsty. This is often done by putting salt in its oats. In a similar way, this is the answer to how we get our students engaged; we make them thirsty for learning. Oh, we don’t put salt in their food. We learn to influence their thinking using what some would call motivation.

When I was a young teacher, searching to find ways to get “buy in” from my students, I read everything I could find on motivation. Then one day I read a statement from psychologist Denis Waitley that forced me to re-evaluate my thinking. Waitley wrote, “I never motivated anyone to do anything. I told my kids to clean their room and they looked at my garage.” (Seeds of Greatness). If I can’t motivate people, then what might be the alternative? I decided that my goal would be to create an environment in which my students would make the appropriate choices. In truth, I do believe in the value of motivational tools in influencing those choices, but ultimately it is about the choice. In this essay I will look at some of those tools and how they work.

We typically think of forms of motivation as either extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is reward-driven behavior, depending on rewards or other incentives….praise, fame, money….as motivators for specific activities. Intrinsic motivation comes from within. When you are intrinsically motivated, you engage in an activity solely because you enjoy it and it gives you personal satisfaction in doing it. While extrinsic motivation works faster, it is not sustainable over time. Intrinsic motivation often takes time to establish but is both more effective and sustainable. Therefore, for the purposes of this essay, I will be focusing on intrinsic motivation.

If intrinsic motivation comes from within, how do we as band directors affect change?

Going back to my philosophical goal of creating an environment in which my students will choose to become motivated, I began to consider how to create a culture that would encourage and support student engagement and personal satisfaction. These are the areas in which I chose to focus:

Create a group purpose — Done in conjunction with student leaders and staff, the group purpose was based on three or four core ideals for which we wanted the program to represent. These were not performance-based goals, but functional values that would improve performance as a natural consequence. As legendary Duke University basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski so aptly put it in Leading With the Heart: Coach K’s Successful Strategies for Basketball, Business, and Life, “My hunger is not for success, it is for excellence. Because when you attain excellence, success just naturally follows.”

Provide a positive learning environment — We created an environment in which students were encouraged to take an active part in the direction of the program. Students were encouraged to make mistakes of commission rather than omission. In fact, one of our guiding principles was “If you are going to make a mistake, make a really good one!”

Promote positive behaviors — A firm believer in values-driven leading, ideals like being on time, responsible, accountable, honest, hard-working, respectful, and a person of character were the cornerstones of expected behavior. The expectations regarding such behaviors were to extend beyond band and into the classroom, the school, the community, and their homes.

Provide effective feedback — It is important to note that both praise and critical analysis are only effective if they lead to growth and improvement. When a student recognizes that the feedback they are being given is foundational in moving them forward, they are more likely to continue the behavior.

Remove intimidation — I will admit that this one is perhaps the most challenging to manage because it requires that first, we recognize that someone feels intimidated, and second, we can determine why they feel that way. This is NOT a one-size-fits-all proposition. When an insightful director finds a way to help a student feel more comfortable, they are more likely to increase their contribution.

How to create a culture that encourages and supports student engagement and personal satisfaction

In developing this approach to creating an environment in which I hoped intrinsic motivation would naturally occur, I found that my students began to transition through a process of continued empowerment and growth. When new band members arrived, they recognized that there was a clear band culture that was unlike any that they had experience before. As they began to understand the strategy behind why the culture existed, their sense of belonging grew. I will admit there were some who felt they were “on the wrong bus” and that is okay. Just let them off at the next stop and they can catch another bus; one that is going in the direction they want to go. Those that remain in the program ultimately develop a feeling of personal satisfaction for the contribution they have made to the band and for what the band has given them. Finally, there is a level of trust that develops so that the next time I “lead them to a water hole,” they are ready to drink on their own. And after all, wasn’t that the target all along?

So, you have led your students to band, now what? Here is a review of what I know:

Leading our students to where WE know they need to go is only effective if they WANT to be there!

The key is understanding their WHY!

Intrinsic motivation can be influenced, but it needs to be intentional.

Natural consequences are more effective than both rewards and punishment.

When we effectively empower our students, we allow them to grow from self to community to culture. And at that point we no longer need to “encourage” them to drink. They will do so on their own!

EDITOR’S NOTE: We at ||:Leaders Creating:|| value the opportunity to engage with our readers, clients, colleagues, and friends. Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments section!

Gary L. Rupert was a music educator for 40 years and was most recently the Band Director at Smithsburg High School in Smithsburg, Maryland where his bands consistently achieved Superior ratings at local, state and national levels. He is a sought-after conductor and adjudicator in the areas of symphonic bands and jazz ensembles. An avid blogger whose daily entries are followed by people in over 57 countries, Mr. Rupert is the author of a daily inspirational book for students and teachers, “Today, No Every Day.” He is also a sought after speaker on leadership, motivation and creating a positive learning environment.

Gary Rupert has been named an Outstanding Maryland Music Educator, a Teacher of Excellence in both the Frederick and Washington County public schools, and has been twice nominated as a Disney Teacher of Excellence.

Gary can be reached at

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