January 15, 2021

Instructional Planning for Young Musical Ensembles

Once students have had their first year of musical classes, year two presents new instructional challenges. Objectives in planning for young ensemble instruction must be altered from year one to meet progressive goals. By this point, students are able to read basic notation, practice on their own and rehearse as a group. The next challenge is learning musical literature. In order to do this, we need to consider the instructional why, how and when of our routines and procedures. In this post, we plan to explore classroom instruction that works for young ensembles.

Instructional Planning for Young Musical Ensembles

Teaching children procedures, for all required skills, not only improves their competence as a contributing members of an ensemble but also helps with a teacher’s classroom management.

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Procedures such as how to come into the room, where and how to sit in an ensemble setting will help minimize disruptions behavior during valuable rehearsal time.

Warm-up Tasks

The warm-up is often one of the more important parts of a music rehearsal. This is the point in the rehearsal that you are more likely to have the most student attention and learning productivity. Warm-ups should be used to introduce, practice and master skills. If you can tie in learned warm-up skills to the musical literature being rehearsed then you will often save  valuable classroom time.

Three Types of Warm-Up Activities

  1. Daily Drill
  2. Cyclical Exercises
  3. Ad Hoc Exercises

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Daily Drill

A young ensemble should have a set daily drill that is part of a routine that develops the lips, fingers, and mind. The daily drill should always have a purpose so that the mind stays engaged through exercises such as buzzing, long tones, and lip slurs.

Cyclical Exercises

Cyclical exercises are activities that keep technical skills under the fingers and students mentally sharp. These skills could include improving sight reading over time or scales.

Ad Hoc Exercises

Ad hoc exercises tend to be activities that are learned more specifically due to requirements demanded in a piece of literature. These could include mastering a particularly difficult rhythm or learn to do a trill in a piece of music that requires it.

A Sound-to Sign-to-Theory Approach

When working with young ensembles you, as the music teacher, are responsible for developing fundamental musical skills that will last the lifetime of your student. In J. Si Millican’s Book, “Starting Out Right, Beginning Band Pedagogy” he discusses the concept of “Sound-to-Sign-to-Theory Approach. This instructional approach works in the following manner:

  • Students hears the concept modeled
  • Student performs the concept
  • Student sees the musical notation that illustrates the concept
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Working on musical fundamentals in this manner such as learning notes allows the student to focus their attention on the sounds they are producing. The idea is that the student's primary focus is on the music.

Rehearsing Literature

The idea of using the whole-part-whole rehearsal technique can easily be transfered from method book practice to music literature application. First,  you want to look at the big picture perspective. What is a musical piece of literature trying to do? Is it a march or chorale? Does the the music try to express a particular mood? Are there challenging motor skills associated with the literature. Instructionally, during this big picture phase of rehearsal you want to have your students get from point A to point B. The plan is that your students will gain a general understanding of the piece.

Secondly, it is time to zoom in to a particular section of the music. At this time it is appropriate to work out rhythms, dynamics, and fingerings. The idea is to address individual student performer issues and focus on one or two elements.

The next logical step is to zoom out a bit and rehearse small chucks of music. You will find yourself rehearsing and cleaning larger chunks of the music until you have the need to incorporate the small portions into the big picture piece. Please note regular zooming in and out of music should happen regularly if you truly want to clean a musical piece.

Effective Teaching Cycles

As teachers zoom in and out to clean student issues, often effective instructional teaching cycles are used. These cycles have three parts.

  1. Set
  2. Follow Through
  3. Response

Set

To set is to tell your students what to do or what you want.

Follow Through

Following through is the actual act of having yours students do what you want them to do.

Response

Using cycles will allow teachers to isolate musical concepts for progressive improvement. Areas to isolate would include rhythmic problems, aural-skills, executive-skills, and stylistic-skills.

Take a moment and reflect on your current teaching. Do you use a similar approach to your teaching or use learning cycles? Would you consider using these teaching techniques with your young ensembles? Not all students are the same and not all techniques work the same. Thank you to Millican, J. S. (2012). Starting out right: Beginning-band pedagogy. Lanham: Scarecrow Press. If you like to find out more about the topic. Please purchase J. Si Millican's book for some great insights into supplementing you music education skills.





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