In more recent months, I have noticed an abundance of posts in music educator Facebook groups that pertain to student dedication (or lack thereof) and behavioural issues. Mostly, teachers are frustrated with students’ lack of dedication to their ensemble, not turning up to rehearsal/performances, lack of practise as well as that soul-destroying aspect of teaching, ongoing poor behaviour that can bring an entire lesson crashing to its knees. There are many words of advice provided from colleagues (which is wonderful), but something that is hardly ever spoken of, is the issue of boredom. Have you, the ensemble director, ever considered that your tried and tested formula, the one you’ve been using for years, inspired by your own ensemble director (that was inspired by their ensemble director), is simply irrelevant to the 21st century child? Have you ever considered that maybe the issue here… (brace for it..).. is you?
The 21st century child is a different creature to the one who existed 50 years ago, yet the same pedagogical model that was developed in the early 20th century i.e. select repertoire, rehearse it, perform it, repeat, is still prevalent in schools. What I wish to bring to your awareness in this post, is that maybe, just maybe, that model isn’t working anymore. And maybe, it’s time to try something else. But what?
1. Program in “seasons"
Consider configuring your annual program along the lines of seasons, like this: a performing season, a festival season, a community season and a creative season.
Performing season: your tradition model of preparing repertoire for a concert
Festival season: again, a familiar model, preparing repertoire to perform at an event external to the school
Community season: invite students to select a sector of the community to whom they would like to perform. This may include elderly people in a nearby facility, a local elementary school or perhaps a shelter for disadvantaged citizens. Invite students to design the whole program, including repertoire selections. Teach them how to target a specific audience and help prepare them for a special performance. You may even be able to make it a fundraising event for additional emotional attachment.
An “in”-formance is an event, just like a performance, but instead of showing your parental community the end result of your efforts, an informance displays the process of learning. This kind of event is perfectly paired with a “Creative Season” (see point 1) as it allows you to demonstrate the progress made throughout the creative process. Students are an inherent part of an informance and share what they have learned, how they learned it and how it applies to other aspects of their education. Do not underestimate the power of an informance – as a parent myself, what is most important to me is what my child is doing at school on a day-to-day basis. Only being provided the end result is simply not enough.
Tom Miller, Band Director of 15 years at Johns Hill Magnet School, Decatur, IL, transformed his teaching approach in one year using my resource Belah Sun Woman. See what happened:
3. Avoid repetition suppression
Repetition suppression is the gradual decrease of neural activity caused by the repeated exposure to the same stimuli. According to research into neuroplasticity, being presented with similar stimuli time and time again is not activating brains, it is actually switching them off. Now consider your warm-up routine – do you play the same scales in the same order each rehearsal? Perhaps you read through the same warm-up from the same book – or a different warm-up but it is scored the same way, goes for the same number of measures and is at the same tempo? Maybe you are performing pieces that are all in the same key with a similar approach to orchestration, meaning that the boy on tenor saxophone who keeps talking in rehearsal is bored out of his brain because his parts never change? Perhaps you (unwittingly) say the same things each rehearsal (how many times have you hosted a guest conductor and find that they say the same things you do, yet the students hear it from the guest and not from you!)?
To avoid repetition suppression I highly recommend dividing your year into seasons (point one), whilst also mixing-up your rehearsal schedule. Working towards an informance (for example) provides incredible freedom and takes the pressure of that next performance. Use the time to embrace off-the-podium rehearsals (see my resource entitled Belah Sun Woman for a host of ideas), play games (I highly recommend Name Games by Doug Goodkin) or bang chairs with drums sticks whilst learning some more intricate rhythmic patterns from a piece you are about to learn. They say a change is as good is a holiday, so bring a little Barbados into your rehearsal!!
A word of caution: if you plan on mixing up your rehearsals (hooray!), please prepare your students in order to help them succeed. Outline what you are going to do and invite them to consider their own self-discipline. Too often we don’t ask students to take charge of their own behaviour – they can do it (and do it quickly when given the chance) but I have found it is best to word them up first. Most of all, TRUST them and allow them to fail a couple of times. It’s the only way to achieve deep learning (more on this in point 5).
4. Make (at least!) 25% of the music you select by composers who represent your student body
Another way to avoid repetition suppression is to select different repertoire. And by different I mean really different. Think about your student body, what is your female/male ratio? Is your ensemble populated with a mixture of nationalities/ethnic origins/gender? Can you find composers that represent your student body and/or repertoire that is more closely aligned to their life outside ensemble? If you’re nodding your head, then go for it. You can find repertoire by composers of diverse backgrounds at the Institute of Composer Diversity, the ColourFULL Music website as well as my own smaller database of female band composers (focused on Grades 1-4).
Do not under-estimate the power of belonging. Why not make it a goal this year to play 25% of music by composers unknown to you and make this year the year your students learn that someone just like them can write music too (how empowering is that!?).
5. Allow them to fail
One of my favourite children’s books is an Australian series called “Fix-it duck”. The Fix-it duck believes he is helping everyone by making small repairs for his friends, only to find that he has made things worse for everyone. I sometimes think that we have fallen into the trap of approaching rehearsals as a Fix-it duck. I’m not suggesting that any conductor is “fixing” things and making them worse. What I am suggesting however; is that making suggestions from the podium disables the learner and removes a golden learning opportunity. It is well documented that the brain creates deeper, more connected neural pathways when the subject has been allowed to fail. Being unsuccessful encourages a human being to try again, and again, until they find what works. This is how the deep neural pathways are formed. THIS is learning...
So ask yourself, when are your students given the opportunity to learn how to make the music better? Have you ever divided them into smaller groups and asked them to rehearse a section of music by themselves? Providing open-ended questions and guiding their listening will not only engage your students, it builds confidence, independence and ownership. It will also reduce behavioural issues.
These five alternative strategies allow you to mix up your rehearsal space, provide variety and encourage student engagement. Each of these things will reduce behavioural issues that are almost always caused by boredom. How much or how little you do will depend on how many hours of rehearsal you have each week, your ensemble’s utilitarian role and other expectations placed on you and your ensemble by your institution. That said, all I ask is that you utilise even half of one of these ideas this year and see what happens. I also encourage you to tell your students you are trialling something new, ask for their feedback and involve them in your learning, as well as their own. They love knowing that you are a student too, in fact, it makes them feel proud that you are prepared to further your own learning to make their learning better.
Jodie Blackshaw – www.jodieblackshaw.com
A few final words on why you should consider programming ColourFULL Music: