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?


  1. I just came across your blog through Pinterest and I teach in SW MN! I've done a Chamber Ensemble unit with varying levels of success - it worked well for my band kids, but not for choir kids (middle school age). I am looking forward to trying it again as I start a new job at a different school. I'm also going to add a solo project like yours. Fantastic idea!

  2. Erika-
    Thanks for stopping on over to the blog! Chamber Ensembles are so beneficial to the individual student and the rest of the ensemble. Same goes for the solos. It really is fun to see the students take responsibility and make musical decisions.

    I think that this would be pretty tough with middle school choir students as they are still figuring out their ranges as well as singing alone. While this is a national standard, even I struggle to sing alone! Good luck with the start of your new job! Please feel free to drop me a line with any further questions!