Big Leap into a Small Room

As another year is about to start, I am taking a big leap with my ensembles at Mercer into a much smaller room. Our first public performance this year will involve all instrumental students in grades 7-12 performing in a chamber recital in late September.  In past years, I have only involved the Wind Ensemble students at Mercer in the preparation of this music for the chamber recital.  The more I have involved  these students in the study and performance of chamber music, the more improvement that takes place in their executive skills, and in their ability to analyze their work, critique their own and their peer’s performance, and begin to develop some comprehensive musicianship.  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.  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).  Let’s be honest – how many instrumentalists have graduated from our programs and decided on a long weekend they were going to invite 37 good friends over just so they could play First Suite by Holst? How many of those same students could meet with 4 to 5 other students and play some chamber works for public performance or just the joy of playing much easier? If we are committed to helping students build a life-long relationship with music, then chamber music may offer a viable avenue to go down to keep students connected to the instrument they spend 8 years learning in our programs.

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.  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).  In his article on Chamber Music, Patrick Casey indicated that many directors identify that students become better listeners in full band rehearsals, increased enthusiasm for playing, develop good musical decision making skills, and that the reduction in full ensemble rehearsal time increased efficiency of both students and their directors (Casey, 2008).

There is a wealth of small ensemble literature that is accessible and can fit into many different instrumentation settings.  Directors have the option of splitting their group based on instrumentation and student ability level. By varying the combination of those two elements, they can bring about improvement in playing ability in some students or motivate other students to develop their leadership skills. In a small school setting where having a balanced and complete instrumentation is not always the standard, chamber music using the instrumentation that is available to its fullest potential may do more to help student improvement over the course of the school year.  Additionally, a number of State Lists reflect diverse selections in styles of chamber music to which students can be exposed.  By developing a diverse repertoire, directors have an opportunity to send chamber groups out into the community for a public performance with little logistical concerns.  In a time where support for music education from the public is paramount, this could be an effective and authentic advocacy campaign for a school music program.

Obviously scheduling and facilities can impact a director’s (educator’s) ability to start working on chamber music.  In my situation, we have 2 practice rooms that can accommodate 5 students, and one that can accommodate 7.  We also make use of three nearby areas – a Large Group Instruction Room (usually vacant during rehearsal periods), a storage room leading to our gymnasium balcony, and the back of our stage. 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.  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.  This year I will be in contact with local colleges to see if there are any instrumental music educators who would be interested in coming in to help “coach” a session. 

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.  Through study of chamber music within the large ensemble, directors can address individual playing problems, challenge accomplished musicians to be leaders among their peers, and in some cases provide a enriching alternative if a group lacks full instrumentation.  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– but like I have told Tim Loest before “No pressure – no diamonds”.

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.   Chamber music offers opportunities for music educators to model their personal musicianship for their students, guide them in making music in what can be a very meaningful context, and provide a way for students to improve musically on their executive and aural skills.  Students also have the opportunity to take on more musical responsibility by attending to more subtle nuances of ensemble playing, and experience the joy of playing in a very personal, musical way.

Casey, P.F. (2008). A fresh look at chamber music. The Instrumentalist 62(6), 24-30.

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. Thanks for sharing your Big Leap, Travis! I don’t believe we have met, but I really enjoyed my first look at your blog just now. (Your new post popped up on my Google daily alert on “wind chamber music” — cool!)

    I wish you all the very best with that enrichment effort for your students. –would love to hear how your first chamber activity project with your entire program goes!

  2. Thanks for stopping by Patrick. I am eager to begin this process with all the students. I am hopeful that the results are better musicians who can have a real vision of being able to make music a life-long activity in their future. Best wishes to you!

  3. Hey Travis, Nice article as always! We are starting a “Chamber Ensembles” class this year as a 2nd sem offering. We need to talk soon about music choices. Best wishes, you are always being creative with your program and that creativity consistently inspires others.

  4. Hi Mr. Weller,

    I am a senior music ed major at GCC and I did a short presentation on your site for Dr. Pisano’s music tech class today. I really enjoyed looking over your site and especially enjoyed reading this article. I love your idea of starting chamber groups with all of your students. Chamber music has been such a huge part of my life here at GCC and I wish I would have had many more opportunities that what you are doing in my high school. Chamber groups are so beneficial for both the students and you as the director. As you said in chamber groups there is no where for the students to hide. I know for me playing in small groups has made me a much more confident player and a better musician overall. I would love to hear how implementing this as part of your day is going as this is something I hope I can one day do when I begin teaching.

  5. Hi Elizabeth,

    Thanks for stopping by and for the presentation!

    As we move forward in music education, we need to be thinking about cultivating authentic experiences that will bring about a life-long connection with music in students. The large ensembles (band, choir, & orchestra) have their place – they deserve it. But we must make them aware making music doesn’t have to stop inside the walls of academic institutions once they graduate. Chamber ensembles keep musicians playing, keep our traditions alive, and provide another way in which we maintain our relevancy in society. Thanks again for stopping by and best wishes!


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