We often think of creative activities in music as those that produce a tangible musical product, such as a piece of music through composition or an improvisation. However, we can also expand the concept of creativity to include the musical gestures we use to communicate ideas. This article deals with a simple suggestion: put your students on the podium as conductors.
Consider the creativity involved in conducting a piece of music. The conductor is not only an interpreter, but also a messenger communicating this interpretation to the ensemble. Gestures may range from compact to grandiose, simple to complex, planned to spontaneous. In the classroom, our students may share the experience of being the conductor of their ensemble—charged with the tasks of communicating musical ideas to their peers.
Step off the podium and put the students in charge of the ensemble, and they’ll develop a greater understanding of conducting gestures and how to communicate as an ensemble. Encouraging creativity in conducting and giving students an opportunity to create their own methods for communicating musical ideas is a fun exercise that students seem to love. The goal is not necessarily to develop traditional technique, such as how to start or stop a group, but to encourage variety in gesture to communicate.
What Might This Look Like?
A few times during each year, I call up volunteers from my orchestra to lead the warm ups. The charge to the student is this: Come up with a different idea about how this exercise can sound, and communicate it to the ensemble. At first, students are puzzled as to what this means. “What can be done differently?” one might ask. Or, “I don’t know the conducting patterns,” another might say.
It helps to guide and to discuss these issues as a class. We might make a list on the board of certain things to change: articulations, dynamic levels, tempo, balance, etc.. It has been important and useful to come to consensus as a group that no matter what, we will all do our best to follow the conductor. There are certainly ways to play together without beat patterns, and figuring out how to do this is part of the learning experience. Demonstrating the power of a simple breath is often quite effective.
As we begin this exercise, I generally start the orchestra as the conductor, though students eagerly insist that they do it next. Then, students begin to demonstrate interesting signals that are understandable to most of their peers in the ensemble. To indicate volume, hands can slowly raise or lower, open or close. Arms may move smoothly to show a more fluid articulation. A student may flash a smile, or quickly remove one. Eyes may open with surprise, or close gently to communicate a more nuanced or intimate idea.
Strategies for Extension Activities and Differentiation
Offering students the opportunity to conduct their peers opens a wide door to differentiation and extension activities. Of course, keep in mind that students learn at a variety of paces. While some students can use more direction to develop initial ideas for the warm up, others may find it relatively easy. Consider also more advanced or varied exercises. A few strategies that might work well are listed below, each with increasing complexity:
- Encourage the student to make up his/her mind about the (a) idea to communicate and (b) the gesture before they begin conducting. With some students, it might be best to ask the student to share this idea with you first.
- The teacher may decide on the communicative idea (i.e., crescendo) and pass it along to the student. This challenges the student with a specific task, much like they might see in a written score. The teacher can also suggest a gesture.
- The teacher can give students the opportunity to communicate multiple ideas (i.e., crescendo the first time, and the second time through the exercise add a ritardando).
- The student can decide on multiple changes in a given exercise, or the teacher can guide this process (i.e., begin mezzo forte, add a crescendo, and change from legato to staccato. End with something surprising!).
- Suggest that a student go through this process with a familiar excerpt of music being studied.
- Suggest that a student go through this process with a particular style, period, or composer in mind.
Reaping The Benefits
The benefits of this enjoyable exercise are numerous. Firstly, students earn the complete trust and attention of their peers in ensemble. Secondly, students are given the opportunity to create a variation to the normal warm up exercise of their choice, and need to communicate gesturally this decision to an ensemble. Also, there is ample opportunity to reflect on what gestures worked well, and why. Some great questions to ask the ensemble include: “What was the idea to be communicated?” “Was this student effective?” “Was this gesture effective? “Why or why not?” “What might we suggest to help for clearer communication?”
This exercise may be a springboard for any lesson or unit dealing with ensemble skills. It promotes intense focus of students and is something they greatly look forward to. I also have a feeling it makes them better ensemble players!
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