Fostering Individual Creativity Within the Large Ensemble
If somebody from outside the field of music education were to observe a ‘typical’ large ensemble rehearsal, what do you think they would see? If we were to then ask that observer to create a list of the National Standards for Music Education based on what they saw in that rehearsal, what would that list look like? For many people, that list would begin and end with “Performing/singing, alone or with others, a varied repertoire of music.” We might also see standards encouraging proper posture, sitting quietly while another section works out a technically demanding passage, or learning ones scales.
In reality, only a small portion of the National Standards are concerned with ensemble performance. However, many music programs in the United States skew toward performance, sometimes even exclusively. Unless the ensemble is a jazz group, almost no time will be devoted to improvisation. Furthermore, students rarely study the anthropological elements of music (i.e., critical listening, history and culture) unless they are enrolled in some sort of music appreciation class.
As our education system continues to embrace standardized testing as an acceptable way to encourage and measure student growth, having some sort of creative outlet in schools becomes more important. For students who spend most of their days regurgitating facts onto an endless stream of tests, creativity is vital to their growth. I believe that with just a few small tweaks, the traditional large ensemble model can be the most important, enjoyable, and creative part of a student’s day.
Much of my interest in the past few years has been in providing new creative opportunities within the confines of the current music education structures. This is an interest that stems from this article, penned by Dr. John Kratus, one of my college professors. The article caused a storm of controversy by arguing that music education was not always adapting to changing societal needs. Many arguments against the article were written with blinders on, seemingly boiled down to “Everything is fine. Don’t ask me to cut down on rehearsal time.”
Rehearsal time is precious, but not precious enough to merit ignoring the other aspects of music. We can integrate different creative activities into rehearsals, activities that will give the students a better overall understanding of music.
Give your students time for chamber music
The traditional structure in a large ensemble is for the conductor to lead, and the students to follow. There will occasionally be a chance for student input during rehearsal, but the conductor dictates proceedings for the most part. If we can find some time during the year for chamber music, our students can take control and make their own musical decisions. This will help them grow into independent musicians, which will in turn improve the ensemble as a whole.
In his book Drive, author Daniel Pink lays out evidence showing that autonomy is directly correlated to job satisfaction. Having the ability to perform even menial tasks in whatever manner one sees fit gives the worker or student some sense of control. The authors of Love and Logic, Jim Fay and David Funk, argue that giving up some control in the classroom leads to a better classroom environment. Chamber music is one way in which you can give your students a chance to explore independent musicmaking.
A teacher just 20 minutes away from my own middle school devotes most Fridays to chamber music. Students break off into chamber groups for the entire day, and they perform for each other every few weeks. This year, I scheduled my concert dates to allow for almost three full weeks of chamber music between our final concert and the last day of school. The chamber music period will culminate with recital hours during the school day for parents, teachers and other students to attend.
Better yet, ask if your students are willing to come in during lunch or after school. My 7th grade flute students last year started up their own flute choir, and they rarely used class time to rehearse. Instead, we worked out an alternate lunch period once a week.
No sheet music, no problem
Improvisation should be a part of any music experience, not just jazz. Students should have time to create their own music, be it for four beats, 12 bars or any other duration. Improvising also forces students to make quick musical decisions based on a given set of parameters. They are composing within the moment.
In my classroom, we make sure to improvise every day. In all ensembles, we start class with a short period of rhythmic improvisation, based on the Learning Sequence Activitiesfound in Music Learning Theory. I will play a four-beat pattern in any meter (we stick to one meter per day) on my trombone, and the whole class repeats it back to me while staying in time.
After 6-8 of these unison patterns, I’ll say, “Alright, now individuals, please give me back a different pattern.” I choose 6-8 individuals by cueing them right before I finish my own pattern. The students have to create their own four-beat pattern right on the spot. Over the course of the school year, the student rhythms will go from very simple patterns consisting of four macrobeats, to complex rhythms with syncopations and even mixed meters.
Compose your own
I was fortunate enough to study composition for a year in college, and I saw how dramatically it could improve one’s musicianship. There is no doubt that investing time in composition made me a more creative musician, and helped me see the “big picture” in many pieces that I performed.
This is an experience that we can easily pass on to our own students. My friend, composer and teacher Brooke Pierson, came up with an exciting collective composition project that I was able to use successfully with my jazz band.
The teacher begins the project by laying out a few basic parameters. These can include style, key signature, tempo, form, etc. We began with the 12-bar blues form, and then the students began to brainstorm after listening to some Big Sam and Trombone Shorty for inspiration. The students were given some free time to improvise and encouraged to jot down any musical ideas that they wanted to work into the piece.
After the improvising brainstorm session, we got together as a group and the students performed their riffs. We notated all of the musical ideas that the students wished to share, and played through each one several times. I asked some guiding questions, like “Which one of those would sound good as an introduction?” or “Would this be best as part of a melody or background line?” and we starting piecing together our tune.
The piece took just over two months to complete, with us devoting maybe 35 minutes per week of class time to working on it. Several students would go home for the weekend and work on fleshing out melodies, or adding backgrounds. The finished product can be found here.
I borrowed another composition activity from Justine Dolorfino [ed. note: that source seems a little shady… – JD]. She introduced me to the concept of the ‘rhythm matrix’, which in our case was an 8 by 8 table, with each cell representing one beat. When a cell was marked with an ‘X’, the group would clap on that beat. Students divided themselves into eight groups, with each group being responsible for composing one row in the matrix. During performance, students mixed and matched rows and columns (just like a 12-tone matrix!) to create an endless combination of duets, trios and quartets. I’ve been using the rhythm matrix when field trips have whittled our class down to smaller numbers, and I’m looking forward to using it as a first day of school activity next year.
The rhythm matrix easily morphed into an activity on chorales. I filled an 8-column by 4-row table with numbers 1-8 representing scale degrees. Divide the students into four groups, pick a scale, and had them perform the impromptu chorale. After the initial performance, students were invited up to the board to make changes to what I had written, and see what effect it had on the sound.
Creativity and autonomy is not something for us to fear in our classrooms and ensembles. By allowing students the freedom to express themselves, they will form deeper musical connections and become better musicians. It’s important that we give students the time to develop these vital musical skills. A creative classroom is going to be one filled with happy, growing students.
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