Establishing Democracy in the Large Ensemble
Imagine a large ensemble classroom where students are actively engaged in every step of the music-making process. From having a voice in selecting repertoire to creating rehearsal strategies, a democratic approach to teaching could affect nearly all elements of a student’s music education. These types of ideas have been incubating in my mind ever since reading and reflecting on writings from teachers and scholars such as Michael Apple, James Beane, Paolo Freire and, of course, John Dewey. Recently, I have begun to imagine how applying a democratic approach to teaching would affect a large ensemble music classroom by increasing student involvement in the rehearsal process, improving students’ self-worth, and increasing students’ musical knowledge.
Envision a music classroom where students are given playing tests. However, instead of the teacher critiquing the performances, the students themselves assess their peers. Imagine the potential growth for musical knowledge, analysis, and listening skills! Instead of simply submitting their performance, students are now listening critically to the performance of another musician and offering critique.
Students can often seem disengaged with the music that is being performed and appear to be simply going through the motions without listening critically. This type of assessment would now offer students an opportunity to detach from that type of listening and develop their musical ear and ability to critique, and ultimately, positively affect performance.
Certainly, it would be wise for the teacher to also offer guidelines for this type of assessment. A rubric (perhaps created with student input) or supplementary teacher critiques would surely be useful. However, the assessment need not be formal. You could simply call on a few students to critique a group performance in a live rehearsal, or email students a recording of the ensemble and ask them to highlight areas for improvement.
Repertoire choices could easily be affected by this type of approach as well. Music teachers select repertoire much like an English teacher would select a novel for his or her class. The novel (or piece of music) is the vehicle for the knowledge that the teacher has deemed valuable for their classroom. Whether it is the ability to play in 5/8 or to develop students’ legato phrasing, the music contains something that the teacher would like to present to his or her classroom. However, once these decisions have been made and “classroom-worthy” materials are before your students, why not open the floor to their opinions and vote on what pieces the class would like to perform at their concert? Should the student not have any say in what pieces are to be performed in their concert? Through this, students will be playing what the majority of the classroom views as the most appealing pieces of music and thus, you have an increased interest in your class content and open the doors for a potential increase in individual practice and ultimately, a better performance.
Performance and Rehearsal
Imagine now that the students have helped to select the pieces to be performed in some sort of democratic system. Now, as we go through the rehearsal process, students can apply the skills that they have learned in their assessments of their peers’ playing tests and critique the entire band. Building off of the students’ critiques, we can ask students to come up with ideas for rehearsal strategies to solve the problems that they have identified. Perhaps the students themselves get in front of the class and execute the rehearsal strategies they have created even! Consequently, what we have allowed for is an opportunity for increased individual engagement (no small task for what is likely the largest class in the school) and as a result, have quite possibly created a better performance by allowing more minds to contribute critiques that we, as the teacher, have possibly overlooked.
This list of ideas is not exhaustive and in fact, hardly scratches the surface. My hope here is to highlight some of the ways that democratic education could positively affect your classroom and to inspire your own personal reflections and ideas. Perhaps in your classroom, democratic education includes a list of classroom expectations that was mutually agreed upon by students and teacher. Or perhaps it creates an opportunity for student-led rehearsals for half of the class period every Wednesday. The ideas presented previously are merely suggestions for starting points in a world of fantastic opportunities. By building off of the stepping stones laid out above, we can work towards fulfillment of what I interpret as the true meaning of Dewey’s vision: creating students that are prepared for life in a democratic society. By extending these techniques and creating opportunities for discussion, criticism and involvement we can place the emphasis on this type of individual development.
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