Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Student Directed Chamber Ensembles

   Last week I kicked off the chamber ensemble unit that I do with all of my bands.  Lucy Green's research on informal learning in music ensembles helped me to create this project.  I began this project last year with my 8th graders, a highly motivated group that enjoyed a challenge.  It was very successful and I tried it again with last year's 6th graders at the end of the year and it was a success.  So this year I am having the 8th graders prepare this for an upcoming performance in March.  I asked for volunteer groups in 7th grade and got six groups.  I will complete this project with the 6th graders at the end of the year.  This project can be risky-again, I am allowing the students to take complete control of their final product, but it has so many benefits: increased musicality in individual and group playing, increased leadership by students, increased individual responsibility of students to learn their music and increased confidence.

  I let the students know what the expectations will be of the project-they can pick their own groups, but choose wisely, as they will have limited time to practice.  They will be practicing during band (in a practice room) at 10 minute intervals.  They will be making the musical decisions such as who is playing what part, how to rehearse sections...etc.  I do provide them with this to help them get through the first rehearsal:

Some guidelines to help make this a positive experience!
  •        Play through all parts together, so you know how each part goes.
  •        Assign parts based on interest and how, as a group, you think the piece will sound best.
  •       You should be playing 60% of the time.  When you are discussing the musical details, use musical language (articulations, dynamics…etc).  Be helpful of each other!
  •  Have one person sit out and listen to the group to give constructive and positive feedback!

  For the 8th and 7th grade project students choose a piece out of the "Festival Ensembles" books that we work out of.  I create a schedule and each group will practice about six times by themselves.  This is key here-the groups are rehearsing without me because I am working with the rest of the band on our concert music!  I take one rehearsal to listen to all of the groups and offer some advice-they get a few more rehearsals and then they have their performance.  This is a required performance at our Fine Arts Night-so students must be responsible for their work.  
  At the concert I explain to the parents the purpose of the project and that this is really the fruit of the students' labor.  Parents can appreciate it.  Will the groups be perfect? Maybe a few of them will, but there will be a lot of effort put into this performances.  
   At the end of the experience I do have the students complete a self and group evaluation:


   This is such an incredible experience.  Students grow through this on many levels.  I am curious to see how this 8th grade group does as they have been a tricky group since 6th grade.  They are really fun kids but extremely social and competitive.  This is my third year with them and I didn't figure it out until this year that it is the boys that are the talkers.  My girls are very respectful and basically just wait it out.  This is a group that I have a tough time getting upset with because they make me laugh so much, but they drive me nuts too.  Have you ever had a group like that?  I have told them this too and they admit everything, which I can appreciate as well.

  We'll see how this turns out!  What sort of chamber groups do you have as part of your curriculum?  How have you integrated them into your classes?

Sunday, January 20, 2013


   I have to share a great "Aha" moment I had with my 7th grade band on Thursday that still is giving me shivers.  But first, I should explain the title.  It is in reference to Prof. Jerry Luckhardt who is the director of the Encore Wind Ensemble, a group that I have had the privilege of playing with the past nine years.  Jerry is also on faculty of the University of Minnesota.  My students can always tell when I have had a rehearsal the night before because I am that much more in tune with what is going on in front of me.  Not only has Jerry pushed me to be a better musician, but through performing with Encore and having Jerry as my conductor I have become a better teacher.

  Back to this rehearsal.  The focus of the day, or the "Learning Target", was for the students to really listen inwards to the ensemble and pay attention to how they were balancing within their section and the whole group.  I reference the pyramid of sound quite a bit in all of my groups and we often review which section goes where.  I scheduled the rehearsal so that we would begin with warm-ups (scales, interval studies, articulation studies and chorales in major and minor keys) and our first piece was a slow lyrical piece.  I realized through the chorale that I was working much too hard to get them to play the dynamics.  Dynamics can be tough for young players to really grasp-especially crescendos and decrescendos-they aren't always gradual. 

  As we were playing through the chorale and I was desperately trying to get my students to crescendo with my gesture, I starting thinking "what would Jerry do?"  In Encore he often says that we make the best music when he stops conducting.  It forces us to listen to each other and work together to create music.  We breath together, we move together and it is a pretty cool musical
experience.  So, I decided to do this same thing with my 7th grade band.  After we released our sound I told them that I was going to challenge them.  I told them that I would get them started and then I was going to get out of the way.  I told them that we needed to do a better job with the written dynamics and that we needed to start using our ears to work together on these dynamics.  I told them that they needed to agree without saying anything, but through their playing, the pace of the crescendos and decrescendos. 

   So, I got them going.  And it was breathtaking what they did.  I was beside myself in utter disbelief at what was coming out of my 7th grade band.  It was some of the best music that they had ever created together.  But even better than that was when we released the sound (I helped them with that) they just sat there and they KNEW what had just happened.  We all just sat there with these giddy grins.  It was so cool.

  And then we did it again with the slow piece that we are working on.  Their breathing was in time and their musicality was just out of this world. 

   I guess what I am trying to say is that sometimes I am not sure that we give our young people enough credit.  I know that I have been guilty of that all too often.  But here is a perfect example of a semi-professional group doing something and then I applied the very same idea to a group of 7th graders and it worked exactly the same way. 

 I would really encourage you to get away from the podium and let the students lead a bit.  This gives the students some ownership of what they are creating and the benefits are bountiful to you, the students and the ensemble.

Have a great week!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

We are STARS at Sightreading

  Today was a rough day.  My patience was tested and I can feel it in my shoulders and my neck. I am not sure why I struggled so much, but I did.  I did not yell at the students, but rather just smiled the "I'm frustrated and tolerating you" smile and waited.  A few caught on and told their peers to be quiet, but today I was tested.  I am not sure if I passed or failed, but I am exhausted.

   That aside, the title of this post relates to the art of sightreading.  Sightreading can be tricky for young musicians.  They have not gained all of the tools it takes to be able to look at a piece of music and play it effortlessly the first time, even if it is a relatively simple piece.  A few years ago the language arts teachers were using a system called  "Preview and Highlight".  This is a way to look through a reading passage (think standardized tests) and be able to get the main ideas and topics by means of looking for key phrases (First, Second, Third....etc) and highlighting those phrases.  I thought that I would be able to adapt this to sightreading.  I used the S.T.A.R.S model that can be found in the Yamaha band method and started utilizing it into my 6th grade bands.  After completing this for each piece in 6th grade band, the students have a handle on this method and continue to use this concept, even when they do not half the half sheet of paper (shown below) in front of them. Instead, they reference the poster that is in front of the room (see above).  An additional bonus for doing this is that students are not playing while you are trying to hand out music so it saves your ears a little bit :)  And they need a pencil to do this-no pens!

   Students receive this as a half sheet of paper and I print it back to back.  As soon as the students receive the music, they begin filling this sheet out.  Every time we talk about what to look for, how to mark their music and what STARS mean.  They use their book to look up, or double check, new fingerings BEFORE they ask me.  They write in counting of tricky passages and make note of tempo/key/time changes.

   I think it has worked pretty well for my students.  Are they playing the pieces perfectly?  Nope, but it gives them an initial look at a piece even before we start playing it.  I tell them I do the same thing every time I sightread a piece, minus the half sheet of paper.  Also, I don't really use smiley faces!

  What are some techniques that you use to successfully sightread a piece? 


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Solo Projects!

A few years ago I began a "Solo Project" that students complete at home with their family.  I stole this idea from a colleague that teaches in the last district that I was in.  I have tweaked it out over the past few years for my own use and I think that I finally have a nice handle on it.  Many students don't perform beyond the three concerts we do per year and I think that this is an important part of the learning process, as well as becoming a more rounded musician.  Additionally, it provides parents with some insight to how the students are doing.

For the 6th graders, we are using the "Festival Solos" book that is a part of the Standard of Excellence methods.  This is the same method that publishes the "Festival Ensembles" book that we also work out of.  I like this book as the solos are progressive and come with a C.D. that students can play along with.  The percussion book has two sections, melodic and snare, so the students don't have too many books in their folder.  I should mention that this is not something that my school supplies-each student needs to buy their books or apply for a scholarship.  (More and more students need scholarships these days.)  I also like this book because they are transposed so that students can practice together-except for French Horn, OF COURSE!!!  However, that being said-the horn solos are written in a way that makes melodic sense.  Too often our young horn players are dealing with crazy jumps in their band method books because of the transposition issues.

So, back to the assignment.  Students were given several weeks to complete this.  I assigned it over the winter break so that they could play for extended family members if they so choose.  There were three levels that could choose from, each level being a bit more difficult.  I am proud to say that over half the students did either level two or three!  I wanted the students to take some ownership in their assignment so there was some flexibility in what they chose to prepare.

Additionally, students had to create program and complete a reflection with their audience.  I received some really fantastic programs and some haphazard programs.  Parents had wonderful things to say about their child's performance and the students were quite reflective.  Here is a copy of the assignment that was handed out to students:

Are you wondering how I grade this?  Well.....that has also evolved.  I used to have the students and parents assign the grade based on a rubric, but after some thoughtful reflection and conversation with some of my fabulous colleagues I came to the conclusion that just the act of putting together a program, performing several solos and the reflection is enough.  For some students this will be a big deal because they aren't particularly comfortable playing by themselves in front of other, but it is still a very valuable experience.  The students receive credit for turning it in.  Each level is awarded the same amount of points.  Students WILL lose points if they don't complete the program or if they don't complete the reflection.

The 7th and 8th grade bands received their solo projects today.  In addition to solos, they will be performing their short compositions that they wrote last month.  I will post about that project later, but there were some pretty cool things that came out of their minds.  I think that it will be a neat experience for my students to perform their own compositions-even if 6 or 8 measures.

Do you have comments or questions about what I do in my classroom?  Please ask away!

EDIT: I would love to hear about what cool things you do in your classrooms-please use this blog as a means of sharing!

Here is the very simple reflection.  I could probably improve this:

From the adult:

Please list two positives about the student’s performance:
Please list two constructive comments about the student’s performance:

From the student:

What are two things that went really well in your performance:

What are two things that you could improve on for next time:

Sunday, January 6, 2013

   Well here we are, Sunday night and I am doing my weekly ritual of *facepalms* as I am remembering my list of what I was going to do over the weekend that is school related.  For starters, a reminder email sent to parents and students indicating that lessons resume tomorrow.  I should have sent that on Friday, but I was on my way to being sick so that it didn't happen.  I also was going to grade late work this weekend, but that never left my office.  I am not sure it would have gotten done anyway.

  On the brighter side of things, I ended my week last Friday with my 6th grade clarinet double trio that is preparing some pieces for an event in a few weeks.  I absolutely ADORE these girls.  They are cute, funny and motivated young ladies.  Not to mention, awesome clarinet players for their age.  They LOVE playing high notes and are always excited to learn new concepts, fingeringss and notes.  They have been working out of the "Festival Ensembles" book 1 (Bruce Pearson and Chuck Elledge) and I basically have the pleasure of sitting back and watching them rehearse themselves.  Let me backtrack and say that all of my 6th graders have these books and we are going to start working on chamber music in our lessons this week.  I think that chamber music is essential to the development of young musicians in so many aspects.  I will be writing another post about that in a few weeks, when the 8th graders begin their chamber ensemble project, that uses book 2 to of "Festival Ensembles". 

   Anyway, these girls rotate through the parts (A, B, C)-2 girls on a part.  I get them going, and sometimes I play along, but mostly I sit and listen and watch to see what happens.  This last rehearsal was quite facinating as one of the girls made the observation, "You know, we are all playing the same dynamics and there are tons written in.  Can we try to play more softly?"  And then another girl mentioned that the melody was being covered up by the accompianment.  While these are common conversations for many musicians, I am not sure that I have ever witnessed a group of 6th graders, on a Friday after school, showing such musical maturity.

  This is what makes teaching so cool and something that I did not allow myself to give in to when I first started teaching.  It has only been the last couple of years, since I began and completed grad school, that I have allowed the students to take over their learning.  Really, my purpose is to guide these students.  Yes, I present new concepts through literature and exercises, but some of the best learning that is going on in my room is not when I am talking, (probably very little is going on then!!  HAH!)  but rather when the students hash it out.  It's really cool.  I challenge you to let go and see what happens.  If you are really digging this, I suggest you read up on Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget and John Dewey and the Constructivism Learning Theory.