Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Student Achievement Best Practices in the Music Classroom

by Richard Pearson, Principal

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Being creative, giving extra time and attention and focused feedback must be considered to raise the potential of our performance classes.
image courtesy of goodreads.com
As I looked at this question, I thought back to those days teaching in the music/band classroom.  Although I have been out of the classroom for a few years, ideas that support students reaching their potential in the music classroom are always on my mind.  The music classroom and the arts are critical components of our schools and important to the foundation educational needs for our students.  I offer here three quick “blog” thoughts.  Maybe others can offer more.

How best to have students reach their potential in the music performance class?  One of the first needs that should be addressed is the opportunity to perform.  When I first took over small band program as a young director, I recall planning for two concerts each year.  One in December and the other in May.  Two performance assessments in a year!!! Does that make any sense?  To help students reach their potential in the music ensemble class, they must perform.  Music teachers should seek out opportunities to have their students perform:  small ensembles at nursing homes; recitals every few months for those students taking private lesson; art shows needing a little background music; performances at a local library.  I am sure others can come up with creative alternatives but the preparation for performance is critical to student growth.  In the music performance classroom, students need to experience the nervousness that comes with performing in front of people.  They need to experience the consistent practice regime that makes their final performance outstanding.  They need to practice the professional presentation that goes along with playing in public.  Practicing for four months to play three or four pieces, twice a year, does not effectively increase the potential of students.

Feedback from all members of an ensemble is paramount in developing music performance potential.  In an ensemble class, the director gives feedback consistently throughout the rehearsal.  When stopping and starting an ensemble, the director critiques passages, offers suggestions, breaks down the larger whole into smaller groups and individuals and simply offers instant, evaluative feedback minute-by-minute, second-by-second.  But, sometimes, feedback from the players or students is a missed opportunity.  Allowing for student feedback must be an important part of ensemble development.  I might suggest having section leaders throughout the ensemble.  The section leaders can the more experienced musicians with the strongest skills.  When the expectations are set for “all students to help all performers for the benefit of the entire ensemble”, internal feedback and support can thrive.  Placing strong leaders next to other less experienced performers helps the individual and the entire ensemble.  Giving section leaders specific assignments to “develop a practice plan” with weaker musicians builds responsibility in the leader and the skills in the follower.  Feedback must be throughout the ensemble, from the musicians, through the leaders and with the guidance of the teacher/conductor.

What other extra rehearsal is necessary?  Performance ensembles being scheduled during the school day are important.  The music performance class should be a consistent and vibrant program with high level expectations like all other courses.  But, the daily classroom routine is not enough to support music performance at its highest level.  Some form of “sectional” structure must also be a key component.  During the daily routine of class, teachers will breakdown ensembles into smaller sections.  This is frequent and standard practice.  But, I have not found a thriving and successful program that has failed to offer more rehearsal outside of the “normal” school day. Nothing can replace an hour of work with 12 trumpets once per week.  Nothing can replace practicing with the tenor section of a chorus learning pitches, practicing blend and developing clear and specific vocal technique.  This extra time needs to be created as a methodical and organized plan helping student’s increase individual skill but also group/section cohesiveness.  Time talking directly to the trumpet section about trumpet technique is far more efficient outside of the full rehearsal setting.

Education in the arts is a critical part of educating our children.  Thoughtful ideas about how to increase those performance opportunities for students is a necessary component of music instruction.  Being creative, giving extra time and attention and focused feedback must be considered to raise the potential of our performance classes.

Richard Pearson is principal of Medway High School in Medway, MA.  Before becoming an administrator, he was a high school band director and director of music.

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