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Staying on Task

Lisa Martin | May 2016


    Student engagement can be complicated, and ensemble directors may find it particularly challenging to keep students on task and interested as the school year draws to a close. To increase students’ attention, interest, and enjoyment in the large ensemble, directors can benefit from thinking outside the box across several areas of instructional practice. 

Change the Routine
    One option may be to run a silent rehearsal. By using a small portable whiteboard to communicate instructions (such as rehearsal markings), directors can run an effective rehearsal that encourages a high level of visual and aural focus among ensemble members. In the absence of verbal directives, students usually make better eye contact with the director, increasing responsiveness to conducting gestures. Furthermore, students tend to listen more intently to both themselves and others. Running silent rehearsals also helps teach students that once the group releases together, the next sound should always be silence.
    Directors might also consider adding movement to a rehearsal. In large ensembles, students usually stand or sit in place for the entire rehearsal. By adding elements of movement to instruction, directors can more effectively engage both mind and body. An example might include students in one section keeping a steady beat with their choice of body percussion while another section rehearses a difficult excerpt. Alternatively, directors could ask certain sections to stand while playing, which may also contribute to improved posture – and in the case of wind players, air support. As space allows, directors might also have individuals or sections carefully walk through and around the ensemble as the group rehearses a specific musical segment and then report what they heard. 
    Finally, directors might consider changing ensemble seating. For example, the whole ensemble might rehearse in a circle, entire sections might move to new rows, or students might intersperse themselves in different seats throughout the ensemble setup. Changing seating arrangements can help students hear musical lines they might have never noticed before. Different seats can also help students better understand how to effectively blend the color of their instrument with others in the group. Alternatively, a group of students could stand alongside the director’s podium during a run-through of a piece to get a new perspective on the ensemble’s sound. 

Balance Challenges
    According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, engagement is improved when one’s skills balance the challenges that are presented. In other words, student are more engaged when the selected repertoire finds the sweet spot where students feel appropriately challenged. Repertoire that is too easy will bore students, which can lead to disengagement. Conversely, repertoire that is too challenging may frustrate students, also causing them to disengage. 
    Of course, this sweet spot is a fluid, dynamic state; as ensembles work on repertoire, students become more skilled at the required performance tasks, making the sweet spot a moving target. Therefore, it is important for directors to find meaningful ways to engage students with the repertoire. This might include creating lead sheets of thematic material so the ensemble can work in unison toward refining style and exploring expression, developing both individual and group musicianship. Similarly, directors might create lead sheets of complex musical lines found in only a few parts, so every ensemble member can benefit from mastering a particular excerpt. 
    As students master the performance skills required by their current repertoire, directors can provide the ensemble with opportunities to transfer those proficiencies to different contexts, matching skills with new challenges. For example, an ensemble working on mastering a balanced forte piano followed by steady crescendo should be given sightreading exercises that showcase similar musical elements. Students then have the opportunity to transfer that skillset, rather than isolating it solely within the context of one composition. 
    One of the more difficult aspects of large ensemble instruction is handling the range of student abilities while working toward common musical goals. By rewriting parts that account for students’ varied abilities, directors can meet the needs of both advanced and developing students. Such rewrites can be temporary, serving as a scaffolding strategy, or a permanent accommodation that ensures repertoire is suitable for all students. 

Make Connections
    Students tend to disengage if they do not find an activity relevant or meaningful. Directors can avoid this problem by sharing reasons for rehearsal decisions. For example, rather than simply asking the ensemble to perform an excerpt a second time, explain why: “That crescendo was what we are looking for. Let’s try those three bars again to see if we can replicate that sound.” 
    Directors might also explain how certain rehearsal strategies correct specific musical errors, which can give students another tool to use when practicing at home. Although teachers might intuitively understand these connections, students can benefit from explicit explanations. Adding quick, simple directives can ultimately highlight the purpose behind various classroom activities, which will help students better connect with the objectives. 
    Students are also more likely to be engaged when they have a personal connection to something. Directors should seek out repertoire to which students can make such a connection. This might be a composition that reflects a topic relevant to the school or local community. Taking time to revisit the story behind a composition throughout a concert cycle can help students feel attachment to the music and become more engaged.

Streamline Communication
    When teaching, directors can say too much. Streamlining instructions can help students focus more intently on the most important musical elements. To develop more streamlined instructions and feedback, record a rehearsal to see how efficient these are. This exercise can also help directors determine what percentage of a rehearsal is spent with students playing versus the director talking; a ratio that can be eye opening. By taking a critical look at the quantity and nature of instructional speech, directors can reclaim valuable rehearsal time. A three-sentence explanation, for example, might be just as meaningfully stated in a single sentence. With practice and over time, directors can increase the efficiency of their comments throughout rehearsal, which can translate to increased instructional pacing and heightened student engagement. 

Share Decision-Making
    Directors can also consider the degree to which students share in some of the classroom decision-making. Middle- and high-school musicians often enjoy participating in the process, and directors might find that their students are more engaged if they share in certain classroom decisions. Directors could use interested students to design or lead daily warmups, for example. As another option, directors might seek student input when selecting repertoire or determining which festivals or contests might be most beneficial for the group in the upcoming school year. Furthermore, directors could involve students in assessment of the ensemble’s strengths and weaknesses, asking for their opinions on which section to rehearse next. 
    Shared decision-making can extend to non-musical elements of classroom culture, as well. For instance, directors might call on students to contribute to a list of expectations or goals for the rest of the year. Oftentimes, when students and the director collaborate on classroom expectations or goals, students are more likely to accept the established standards. Directors could also solicit ensemble input when making decisions about student leadership. Students can offer unique insights on whom among their peers might be the most effective leader and musician. 

Focus on Individuals
    Finally, directors can address some student-related factors to improve engagement. Praising individuals or sections, rather than the full ensemble alone, may improve teacher-student relationships, which can, in turn, motivate students to be engaged throughout rehearsal. Directors should also seek to appreciate students beyond their contribution to the ensemble – seeing a student as a person for whom music is one of many activities and interests, not just as the principal trumpet player. This can help create a focused classroom culture built on mutual respect and common goals. Although ensemble engagement can be challenging, it is both a worthwhile and attainable goal for directors. By employing different strategies in the classroom, ensemble directors can more successfully ensure their students are fully invested in rehearsals.