Are you a sherpa or a coxswain?

by Michael Porter, Coordinator, R&R for Collegiate Choirs

In the spring of 2010—after eight fantastic years at my first tenure-track, college position—I ventured back to the interview circuit and explored options for career advancement. During that semester I was invited to a few campus interviews: some were promising, some were not that appealing. From those interview experiences, I will always remember one question from a search committee member regarding teaching philosophy. In fact, this question still resonates with me today and I often return to it when I’m reexamining rehearsals from the week. At the end of an exhausting two-day interview, he concluded the Q and A by asking, “With regards to teaching, are you more of a Sherpa or a Coxswain?”

After sensing my confusion, this particular committee member explained that he recently spent the past year reading up on different management styles and discovered the Sherpa model of leadership. In a nut shell, this is, like the job of a Tibetan Sherpa, someone who prepares the way for success; it is a person who guides and empowers the student (climber) to reach the summit of academic success rather than dictating assignments, etc.

A Coxswain, on the other hand, is the person on a rowing team who sits at the stern of a boat; the person who steers the boat, provides encouragement to the rowers (“stroke!”), alerts the crew of race position, and makes tactical decisions. She/he is not physically rowing the boat but, nonetheless, is the team leader. To put it in an academic scenario, the coxswain “steers” the student to academic success through encouragement, yet provides the direction to success.

(Before I go on, I need to make a disclaimer. I am not a professional mountain climber or crew member. I apologize if my analogies are a little off, but I think you get the picture!)

As music educators/conductors, we often find ourselves embodying various aspects of these positions. When leading an ensemble, we often take the role of the coxswain; we prepare the lessons/rehearsals, we prepare our scores to make the most efficient use of time, we review pedagogical literature to stay current in our instruction, we encourage our singers to accept nothing less than excellence, we make “tactical” decisions in rehearsals in order to perform at our best.

But in the classroom (conducting courses, choral literature, choral methods, etc.) studies suggest that the Sherpa model results in a great understanding and command of content. By guiding students on their educational journey—providing tools to assist them in their own rehearsals—we allow them to “reach the summit” with us as a guide. One phrase I’ve heard several times over the past 15 years of higher education teaching pedagogy is “Sage on the Stage versus Guide on the Side” when describing this mode of instruction. Like you, my undergraduate experiences were more of the “sage on the stage” model; where the instructor came down from on high to depart her/his wisdom. It is exciting to see this paradigm shift in instruction!

One of the most crucial and influential roles we have as educators is as the role of a mentor. I know that you can recall the many pearls of wisdom you received from your mentor when you were first in the classroom. I still remember the advice and guidance from my mentors over the years. In fact, I still contact them regularly for direction and answers to questions I never thought I’d have!

Given the importance of this role, it is critical that we ask ourselves, “Am I a Sherpa Mentor or a Coxswain Mentor?” A Coxswain Mentor may pass on the valued pedagogy gems from their notable teaching legacy, but if a student is kempt on the sidelines—seldom getting structured podium time—how useful is this information? How can they experiment with these tools to see what works for them? A Sherpa mentor provides not only the student with honed rehearsal skills, but allows her/him the opportunity to use these tools first hand.

As Director of Choral Activities at Boise State University, I get so much pleasure seeing my music education students—many of whom I’ve watched grow for four or five years—get their mentor teaching assignments. I know they will develop as teachers under the guidance of their cooperating teachers. It’s time for me to let go of their instruction for the moment and let someone else guide them.

While all of our assignments have been fruitful to our students, the most successful assignments have been where the cooperating teaching knows when to shift roles from the Coxswain to the Sherpa. After three weeks of rehearsal observations, Conductor X begins to guide Student X in group warm ups; allowing the student to make mistakes and discusses possible solutions in the future. After four or five weeks, student X is applying these principles to selected literature (literature selected under the guidance of Sherpa Conductor X).

Granted, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. These are just principles that I return to often when examining my role in my students’ education.

I know I will return to this question. Was I a Sherpa or a Coxswain? How will this alter my teaching next year? Did I see growth in my student mentees?

Michael Porter can be reached at

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