My first and second grade viola students are really getting into note-reading. I don't mean to say it has become the next "Pokemon," but they are definitely into it. I did not plan this. As a Suzuki-trained teacher, I began the year with plans to teach all of their repertoire by rote, developing their ears first and not rushing into reading until they had a solid technique. At some point, I began introducing different forms of notation (letter names, colored paper, and standard notation) as a way of visualizing the melodies and assisting with memorization, and now they are "hooked on phonics" to a degree that astounds me. They love to color-code their music by string, label solfège in their part, and pluck line after line of two-note sight-reading patterns. Some times it seems they like practicing note-reading even more than they like playing songs.
While I can take very little credit for this, I am in no way displeased. Learning to read music is a pretty important part of being in an orchestra, and being musically literate is an important value to me. What surprises me is that before I decided it was time to make sure each student could read, so many of them made that decision on their own, and have simply begun learning. There is something about decoding the printed page that appeals to them.
One factor has been peer pressure. The Big Kids in grades 3-5 all read from music stands, and some of them can pick up a piece of music they have never heard and learn a song in just minutes. In peer mentoring, they have a chance to learn the secrets of this printed magic, and if they can figure it out, they may even get to teach it to another student. I think that they also appreciate that there are certain rules in reading music. The top line of the viola cleff is always a G, and for them that always means third finger on the D string. There is comfort in learning a system that is consistent. Most of all, I think they feel empowered by the written note. Reading music means a chance to discover a new song--maybe one their teacher has never even heard of. They no longer have to rely on hearing a piece over and over in class before they can commit it to memory in order to have something to practice at home.
In answer to their call for more written music, I have begun writing out their warmups, tunes, and scales. I am starting to give them notation worksheets used by the older students, which they devour. I have given them fiddle tunes and folk songs to work through, beyond what we are rehearsing in class, and I try to make time a few days a week for students to share solos if they have learned a new tune from these packets. The ear training and memorization will continue, as will singing on letter names and solfège, but now there is a visual component to help them organize what they hear.
I am excited to see their enthusiasm. I want them to be as literate in music as I want them to be in English. I have no designs for any of them to become professional musicians, but I would love for them to some day sight-read chamber music with friends, arrange a song for viola quartet at their best friend's wedding, and keep teaching themselves new music when there is no teacher around.
I am also trying to figure out what to do for the ones who are not yet ready to read at the rate of their classmates. I hope that I can keep them engaged by providing enough repetitions of the warmups and tunes that they begin to pick up by ear what they cannot yet read. If nothing else, they can still be successful in Drumming Orchestra!
Every Friday afternoon the hallways, teachers' lounge, copy room, and stairwells of the school where I teach fill up with a hundred string students playing bits of French Folk Song, Kookaburra, and Ode to Joy all at the same time. If you walked into the school during this time, you might wonder how this Ivesian buzz can become the harmonious blend that wafts out of the orchestra rehearsals every morning. If you then stopped and watched one pair of students for a few minutes, you would see something remarkable: a peer-mentoring private lesson in which a third grader teaches a first grader to play with greater confidence and accuracy. These weekly sessions have brought out the best in our students and are helping me become a better teacher.
When my program director first implemented this program, I wondered how the students would handle it. Would they know what to teach? What if they taught each other incorrectly? The classical world can sometimes idealize the role of teacher as a maestro of infallible expertise. Was it fair to expect near-beginners to assume this role?
In Venezuelan El Sistema programs, they say, "If a student knows four notes, he teaches one who knows three." The assumption is that each of us knows beauty the instant we hear it; we will naturally retain the good and release the bad. This model holds up the community as the ideal teacher and empowers the individual to learn from every situation. It reinforces the idea that an orchestra is a team, and our responsibility is to work with one another for the most beautiful product we can make.
The role of the grown-up teachers during this time is to provide feedback on the quality of these student interactions. We watch the mentor teach the mentee and reflect on the process. We ask, "What did you notice? Why did it happen? What could you say or do that could be helpful?" Sometimes we demonstrate an exercise the two could do together, and then we move on to the next pair and let them try it. The most remarkable things happen when the students don't even think anyone is watching.
The effects on school culture and on individual students have been unprecedented. I have seen students play with more focus, more care, and more emotion when playing for their peers than they do in lessons or technique class. Fourth graders who present tough exteriors when interacting with adults become patient and nurturing when entrusted with a younger student's musical development. I have seen two students put aside their constant bickering when given an assignment to blend their sound in a D major scale.
Watching the students work together makes me a better teacher. As I coach these young mentors to become better teachers, I am learning to take my own advice and to listen more carefully to my students. Most importantly, I am learning that I don't need to be the great maestro to be an effective music teacher. I don't need to have every answer for every student, as long as I can help them learn to find answers for themselves.
Some days, a rehearsal with my first and second grade orchestra feels like running a workout video. In my most energetic voice, I chant out rhythmic instructions, while students sing, pluck, air bow, clap, pinky tap, and play through each exercise and song. If I clap loudly enough, they will even do these things at the same time, and every day they sound a little more like an orchestra. I have moved toward this fast-paced, high-energy style since I started teaching elementary school, initially because this kind of rehearsal keep the kids from having enough down-time to have light-saber duals with their bows. But now that I am six months into the year, I am looking for ways to go deeper, to engage my students in more mindful practice.
One of the things that impressed me most in my Suzuki book 1 training last summer was the level of detail that went into even the earliest pre-twinkle steps. I watched a four-year-old work for fifteen minutes on the correct placement of her left thumb; six-year-olds were listening for the core of their sound and analyzing whether they need more or less weight in the string to get the best ring. All of this was taking place through an attitude of wonder and care, fueled more by the student's curiosity than by any obvious teacher or parental pressures.
The difference I notice between my sometimes Simmonsian rehearsal style and these Suzuki Lessons is a matter of mindfulness. Taken individually, every one of my students is capable of making a perfect bow-hold, playing with beautiful tone, placing their fingers in-tune, etc., but so often they do not do their best work in a group setting because their minds are in other places. While there is no substitute for the individual feedback available in a private lesson setting, I believe there are ways to engender the level of care and precision I saw in those Suzuki lessons--to help students to become more mindful during rehearsal. I am in the process of adapting my rehearsal style to create an atmosphere where students really think about how they are playing. So far I have come up with a few ideas which have been effective:
Calm activities: I now start class out with a quiet bow activity linking breath to bowing. Any time I feel the energy getting too high, I return to this as a centering exercise. This is still a kind of drill, but it is one that can be done non-verbally, and which requires responding in the moment to visual cues.
Engaging imaginations: I have recently been inspired by the Phyllis Young books, Playing the String Game and The String Play, for their imaginative approach to teaching technique and musicality. Vivid imagery pulls us into an experience, like the feel of the peanut butter being spread on our strings with each bow hair, or the swift release of an archer's arrow as the finger shoots into its bulls-eye target.
Encouraging Self-reflection: As a private teacher, I use as much Socratic questioning as I can get away with in order to encourage students to identify and solve their own problems. In an orchestra setting, this can be more difficult because there are so many separate factors. I am using class polls and discussion time to encourage students to identify where they are in relation to technique goals.
Incorporating Experimentation: By testing extremes, trying things the "wrong way," and by watching a teacher or classmate model something different ways, students come to understand why certain ways of playing sound and feel better. This understanding can lead to more buy-in in reaching learning targets.
Like so many aspects of teaching, much of the success in creating this atmosphere comes down to the implementation of any of the ideas. Have you had success with creating an atmosphere of mindfulness and focus in your classroom? I would love to hear your stories and suggestions.
Classical musicians are notorious for their indefatigable devotion to "what's on the page." While we love for a performance to sound fresh and original, the highest ideal is to discover and communicate the composer's intent. In addition, we take great pride in our sensitivity toward accuracy; we believe pitch can be perfect, and we strive for absolute synchronicity in our ensembles. In the midst of these very noble ideals, musicians who travel in other spheres often ask, "Where is creativity?"
Traditionally, creativity is mostly the job of the composer, with the conductor filling in the gaps. An orchestra is not fundamentally an improvisatory ensemble. It is too large for everyone to take turns soloing, and when twenty, thirty, or even sixty people start ornamenting and harmonizing at will, things quickly turn into mush. The problem is that in most of our large ensemble music classes, students are nearly always the performers and very seldom the composers or conductors. If the next generation of musicians sees themselves only as servants to the classical canon, and not as creators of music in their own right, I feel we are doing them and music a disservice.
Many teachers do take time for composition assignments, or introduce improvisation as a special event post-concert. For students who immediately latch on to this, there are often other opportunities, like independent studies, jazz ensemble, or the chance to write/conduct a piece for the ensemble. For the rest of the ensemble, however the message can be that creativity is only for the elite. How many talented and accomplished classical musicians do you know who believe that they can't improvise or compose?
My current hypothesis is that creativity is nurtured through choices. Certainly to be a great composer, one must practice and in some way study composing, and to be a great improvisor, one must improvise frequently and thoughtfully. But making choices, I believe, gets the creative juices flowing. One "what if?" leads to another, and soon you can't stop experimenting and creating. I have been trying out some different exercises in my large ensemble and technique classes that involve students making choices. I would love to hear about what you do in your classroom.
Attendance: If you take daily attendance, two minutes of class can be taken up by students saying, "here," or they could play a measure or two that tells you how they are feeling that day. Hearing each student play a few notes on their own can help you get to know them musically and personally, and it gives each student a sense of personally contributing to the group.
Warmups: Students can create warmups in the key you are practicing, either on the spot or written down before hand. If you do call and response warmups, could a student try leading it? Taking a student-composed pattern and moving it up the scale in sequence can be an excellent brain challenge for the rest of the class. Letting students conduct warmups can also be a great way to empower the ensemble and explore the relationship between conductor and ensemble.
Rehearsal: We can learn a lot about a piece by asking, "Why did the composer write it like this? How else could it have been written?" Asking a student to change one thing about a passage (tempo, dynamic, articulation, even accidentals or swapping one rhythmic motive with another) can shed light on the composer's intent while allowing the students to impose their own will. Playing things two contrasting ways also sometimes helps to put the "right" way into context.
Performance: Could a class compose a piece together for their performance? I have seen a composer work with a group of 8th graders to create a class piece based on themes written by each of them. I have seen elementary school Orff ensembles jigsaw a theme and variations together based on a folk song. This is a project I am excited to take on when I have a little more experience.
What have you done or seen in large ensemble classes to encourage and develop musical creativity? What would you do?
Yesterday the world drumming teacher and I had our first of what I hope will be many collaboration classes. The idea was to get first and second graders doing a hundred thousand repetitions of Sevcik-style finger and bowing exercises, playing joyfully and rhythmically, contributing to a group pulse, and helping to create quality concert repertoire. The outcome from the first day was promising.
We set up the room like a drumming circle, with twelve students on djembes and twelve playing their fiddles (4 violin, 4 viola, 4 cello- our bassist was absent). The drumming teacher began by reviewing a three-part pattern they had learned for the last concert. As each new rhythm entered, I played it on my viola with two or three notes. As the students started to get it in their ears, they picked up their fiddles and started to try them. We stuck with each new rhythm until the students were really locked in, then we introduced a new one, and one by one they began to switch. The process was very organic, with little talking. One of the patterns was confusing at first, so we stopped to sing it on letter names, solfège, and finger numbers, then picked it up again.
We played almost every minute of the 45 minute class, and at the end students left the room singing the patterns and asking if we could do it again in orchestra this week. The next step is to write the rhythms down and name them, and to add singing and playing of a familiar tune over the top. We are thinking of creating an arrangement of the folk song Kookaburra modeled after the Orff concept of layered ostinati.
Have you done anything similar with an orchestra, either as conductor or as performer? If not, what would you do with 24 first and second graders, 24 drums, and 24 fiddles?
Here is the final product, filmed in June: