How do you deal with different levels of musicians within an ensemble?
Every ensemble is going to have a gap in the experience and abilities of the members, and as a director it is your job to be able to deal with that. Green said that “Having clear focus and discipline is essential” (Green, 2003, p. 68), and this is applicable to both the students and the director because they have to work together to make the progress that they need. Students often are not able to bridge the gaps between them on their own, so it is best to be able to address these issues in a large ensemble setting and give them the tools to be able to work on the gaps. Ways to do this are to get different types and levels of repertoire, enough to challenge the students with lower abilities but also at a good level for the students with higher abilities. Having a balance with the repertoire is important because it shows the students that you care about them building their skills, and also shows that you are helping them get the most out of their musical experience. Ayers said that “The root word of “evaluation” is “value,” and authentic assessment includes understanding what students value and building from there” (Ayers & Alexander-Tanner, 2010, p. 81), and I think that this ties in with different levels of musicians because you are helping them build a balance between their music and their skills.
How do you incorporate theory into ensemble classes and also show students the benefit of it?
In order to successfully incorporate theory into an ensemble setting, the students must be taught the very basics from the beginning. This can be done in the first few minutes of class every day, for repetition, and should be applied to repertoire as much as possible. Once the students begin to recognize and understand the basics in the context of the repertoire then you can move onto things that are slightly more complicated. In a study, “Eleven participants described progressing methodically from simple to complex in classroom instruction” (Paney & Buoniviri, 2013, p. 407) when teaching melodic dictation to their AP Music Theory classes, and this approach can be applied to any teaching of music theory. This approach would work well with the basics, especially when put into certain contexts, because it worked well when teaching students to listen to and dictate both rhythms and notes, and even at a complex level, when they had little to no experience. Approaching theory like this, or any music in general, and putting it into a context is when students will begin to comprehend, and see the importance in what they are learning. Being able to understand the mechanics behind music will make them better musicians, because they will be doing more than just playing the notes on their page, they will be actively engaged and finding exactly how they and their part fit into and function as part of the whole ensemble.
How do I know that I am teaching well? That I am comfortable with the way that I teach?
I think that at some point every teacher will begin to question whether they are doing things the right way, and they need to be able to think objectively about what they are doing in order to evaluate themselves. It is important to look at both the teacher and the students. One thing that might get in the way is a teacher’s unwillingness to change simply because they themselves are comfortable the way things are, even if the students are not. Teachers need to be able to think critically about themselves, and this can be done by first observing others teach. In a study, undergraduate students began teaching and “soon found themselves not only observing other teachers but critically analyzing the teaching methods and outcomes they observed in order to assess what strategies were effective and what teacher actions they may later integrate into their teaching” (Haston & Russell, 2011, p. 386). This is something that every teacher should do, because by observing others objectively and then turning around and doing the same thing to yourself you can begin to see what direction you want to go from there. Another way to evaluate your own teaching style is to simply look at the students and see how they react to your teaching style, see how much progress they have achieved since you started teaching them. This can be done after observing other teachers and their students, and compare the way their students react versus your own.
How do you keep students motivated when music gets more difficult and they might feel discouraged?
Barry Green (2003) said that “Music is one of the most powerful sources of truth that we have: it has the power to change lives” (p. 271) and this is something that teachers and students need to remind themselves of when things get hard. When students are struggling with something, it is important that both the student and the teacher take the time to address the problem and approach it carefully. There are people that shut down when they don’t understand something or begin to have problems, and teachers have to be able to deal with them. Sometimes it is as simple as slowing things down in ensemble rehearsal, not singling anyone out, but working things out as a group in the hopes that the student will catch on or those around them will help. Sometimes students require more focused or individual attention, like working with a particular section or pulling them to the side and focusing solely on them until they start making progress. When I have problems, I simply remind myself that “All musicians have bad days” (Green, 2003, p. 275) and that because music is so important I should work hard to keep it a part of me, and this is something to remind students of.
Ayers, W., & Alexander-Tanner, R. (2010). To teach: The journey, in comics. New York: Teachers College Press.
Green, B. (2003). The mastery of music: Ten pathways to true artistry. New York: Broadway Books.
Haston, W., & Russell, J. A. (2011). Turning Into Teachers: Influences of Authentic Context
Learning Experiences on Occupational Identity Development of Preservice Music Teachers. Journal of Research in Music Education, 59(4), 369-392. doi:10.1177/0022429411414716
Paney, A. S., & Buonviri, N. O. (2013). Teaching Melodic Dictation in Advanced Placement Music
Theory. Journal of Research in Music Education, 61(4), 396-414. doi:10.1177/0022429413508411