Small Ensembles and the Chamber of Doom?

Though living in the Northeast, the one thing I enjoy about January and February – besides Pitt basketball playing conference games in the Big East – is getting the chance to just teach.  Nothing pressing, no standardized tests on the immediate horizon, the students have returned refreshed from break, and there is plenty of fertile ground to plant some good musical seeds.  This week my Wind Ensemble began receiving music for our chamber recital in mid-March.  Now in addition to the music for our concert “A Night at the Opera” on March 4th, they will be breaking out into some small group work at least twice each week.  The more I do chamber music with my students, the more good things I see happen in their performance skills, and in their ability to analyze their work, critique their own and their peer’s performance, and begin to develop some comprehensive musicianship.

I definitely think the educational climate has changed, and the impact upon our scheduling and ability to retain students in our programs is a challenge – it is constant work with our administration and guidance councilors, a lot of advocacy to parents, and good, sensible PR with the students.  That being said, I think educators are starting to look at their large ensembles differently, with an eye and ear (appropriately) towards how they can continue to make their elective ensemble a viable and interesting offering among the school curriculum.

Over the past few years, SBO Magazine and MENC have featured a number of stories about educators who have developed successful and attractive non-traditional ensembles within the school day that are engaging to students (If you visit Owen Bradley and read through his blog archive, you get a great snapshot on how to do this!). My good friend and colleague, Joe Pisano at has reviewed and written about so many great, user-friendly ways to incorporate technology into existing classes, or how to structure a new offering.  I think these kinds of offerings have their place and if the schedule, facilities, and teacher load can handle it, should be offered to students alongside the traditional big three of (band, chorus, orchestra).  Having said all that, I do think we should be examining the structure of the big three so that we can make it more relevant in the lives of our students who enroll (VanZandt, 2001).

I think chamber music of varying styles and difficulty levels can provide one avenue for directors (educators) to break up the predictability of the everyday schedule, and to place more ownership for music making where it needs to be – on the minds and in the hands of the students.  We often talk about music as stimulating creativity – is it really?  How often do we as directors (educators) challenge our students to give us interpretation on shaping a melody, or discussing where the climax of a music phrase is?  I am as guilty as anyone in not engaging them enough to make musical decisions independent of me, and then asking them to analyze what they have done and why it did or did not work.  Putting students into chamber groups so they make musical decision and interpret the music makes for some good, revealing discussions.  Kevin Tutt wrote a great article that appeared in the MEJ a couple of years ago that points towards asking better questions of our ensembles, and certainly they are applicable to the small group setting as well (Tutt, 2007).

Obviously scheduling and facilities can impact a director’s (educator’s) ability to start working on chamber music.  In my wind ensemble, I have 30 winds and 5 percussionists.  We have 2 practice rooms that can accommodate 5 students, and one that can accommodate 7.  During a typical chamber music session during our regular scheduled rehearsal time, I will pre-assign times to meet with students in the rehearsal room and then assign time for the smaller groups to be in the practice rooms.  We are fortunate to have a large-group instruction room across the hall that is often not in use during our wind ensemble period, and at times have even used the stage (also across the hall from the band room).  As the percussionists need time to use the equipment in the rehearsal hall, I often will float between the practice rooms, rehearsal hall, and stage listening to the winds to let the percussion maximize their time working with the equipment.  During a 43 minute class period I can usually see 4 groups for eight minutes at a time.  A director (educator) must have established a level of trust and respect with their students for this to work effectively, and as my students do not know when exactly I may be standing outside a door listening they generally stay on task and work diligently.

During my time listening to a small section of their music, I often try to ask questions that encourage them to make decisions regarding musical expression or ask them to analyze why a section of the music was not rhythmically together.  In the large ensemble, there is always room to “hide” if a student is not completely secure on their part.  In the chamber ensemble, they must be able to hold their part and contribute for their group to succeed.  In essence, to revisit some great thoughts by Reimer, we create an atmosphere of trust (“depending on others who are depending on us”), competence (“to attain it there is work to be done”), cooperation (“working towards a mutual goal, person to person and even person to the medium to bring about its full musical potential”), respect (“a sense of one’s worth/esteem within their creative musical role”), and courage (“our ability to make a decision without guarantee of success and ability to grow into what we have not yet become”) (Reimer, 2003).  It is more pressure to develop executive skills, to help their musicianship to mature, and develop their ethics as a person and a person – but like I have told Tim Loest before “No pressure – no diamonds”.

The literature varies from year to year with the chamber ensemble work.  We have used arrangements and settings of folk music, jazz music, orchestral transcriptions, and percussion ensemble music.  We have played Sousa, Mancini, Bach, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky.  Nothing is out of bounds necessarily with this chamber music in terms of style and composer – I am looking at each piece to gauge whether or not it will provide a good musical experience for each student, whether it will stretch their musical skills to the edge of their ability, and whether it will engage their group in good musical discussions and development.   I would enjoy hearing from any of you who work on chamber ensemble pieces or put your ensemble into chamber groups throughout the year and how it has been of benefit to your program and changed your teaching.

Reimer, B. (2003). A philosophy of music education: Advancing the vision (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Tutt, K. (2007). Using questions to teach the national standards in rehearsal. Music Educators Journal 93(5), 38-43.

VanZandt, K. (2001). Is it curtains for traditional ensembles? Teaching Music 8 (5), 24-29.

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  1. As a current music education student in college I can definitely relate to this. I am actively involved in two brass quintets, and through practice and discussion with the other members of these groups, I have certainly become a better musician. I think the biggest reason for this is the notion that you can’t “hide” in a chamber group. With only five people in a group, whatever somebody plays will be heard – good or bad. It doesn’t stop at just notes, though. If four of the five observe dynamics, and one does not, the balance of the group will be thrown off. These groups also allow students to give their two cents on whatever they are playing. It gives them a chance to interpret the music, and share their interpretation with each other. When the teacher checks in for a short time in a high school situation, the students can see how their interpretations align with the teacher. In my opinion, this is a great example of how cooperative learning can be used in music education. It sounds as though the students have enough freedom to learn though discovery and collaboration, but are still guided by the teacher. If my high school music programs had offered this, I think I would have experienced an even better education in music, and as a result, would have become a better player earlier.

  2. Andrew, thank you for stopping by! You are definitely right – there is no place to hide. There are a lot of bonuses for doing this with groups. The worst thing that can happen is students may need to realize they need to practice more OUTSIDE of class! Good luck to you and the chamber groups in which you are playing!


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