Sticking the landing after the big leap…

Four very short weeks ago, the band program at Mercer took a big leap as we started our year with a unit on chamber music that culminated in our Fall Chamber Recital.  Over twenty different selections were presented in the recital ranging from Handel, Haydn, and Mozart to Sousa, and John Williams.  You can read a full copy of the program notes and performance order by clicking here (a pdf will open in a new window (student names for security reasons have been removed, but instrumentation is identified).  During the next week, all 150 students in the band program will be taking a survey (created by Google Docs) on their chamber music experience.  The statements which the students are asked to respond to were created by some of my colleagues at Grove City College, Thiel College, Westminster College, and Slippery Rock University.  The students will use a Likert scale to respond to 16 different statements related to their chamber music performance in addition to the usual demographic information (gender, grade, ensemble).

Some observations and thoughts about the unit from my perspective as teacher that was interesting to consider:

1) Leaders lead.  I was surprised and impressed by the leadership qualities and skills that were brought out of students in these settings.  During each rehearsal period, I tried to touch base and schedule “face-time” with as many groups as I could while giving them a good session full of feedback.  After providing critiques and visiting with the same group a few days later, many of the adjustments and suggestions were made.  Students took the lead to make adjustments and improve their group’s performance.  Some of the students would have stepped forward because of who they are – others stepped forward because they were given an opportunity.  Assessing all of this, there are plenty of students within the program who need more opportunities to lead.

2) Making musical decisions involves risk and courage.  As often as we may be right in our interpretation, we could be wrong – wrong for the style, wrong for the time, wrong for the setting, wrong for the composer’s intentions.  Artists face incredible risk in making musical decisions in this way, and without courage we end up being mezzo-nothing.  If a quintet of 7th grade alto saxophones can make musical decisions regarding the articulation and dynamics for a transcription of Schumann’s Soldier’s March, do I have the courage to tap that resource during a rehearsal with the full ensemble? We often say that the performing arts is a venue for students to be creative and interpret music – but who really does the musical interpretation? While it is our responsibility as a trained musician, educator, and leader, perhaps we need the courage to give them opportunities to risk and hear the results.  Having gone through this process, they may better understand our vision for a piece for the ensemble, why we choose to interpret things a certain way, and what might be a better possible alternative to the interpretation in front of them.

3) Building relationships takes time and trust. Sitting down with groups of 4-7 students at a time allows for more individual attention and differentiated instruction, and afforded me the opportunity to build a student to teacher relationship that is based upon mutual respect, common goals (improve as a musician), and esprit de corp among the students.  The hardest thing about being successful? That’s easy – keep being successful.  The more success a program and their director experience, the harder it sometimes becomes to maintain a good, open relationship.  The bar is continually raised.  We have more demands on our time.  We have more pressure on the students, the ensemble, and on ourselves.  I have enjoyed these past weeks for the connections I was able to make with the students musically and socially.  I believe we are in a better place now in terms of our trust, communication, and vision for improvement.

4) Chamber music opens doors for musical opportunities.  The program of music was very diverse in terms of style and time period.  It was interesting to hear the transcriptions of Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical music played by a 20th century group.  The classical tradition was kept alive through the study of this music – and at the end of the day, that is not a bad thing at all.  The beauty of this ensemble is that while it connects these kids to music of a time period from the past, it can also connect them to musical opportunities involving ANY musical time period.  The make-up of the ensembles didn’t necessarily matter – the connection to different music does. The next step in this evolution is for us to seek more music of different styles that students can make a connection with and present for public performance.  Maybe they cannot see themselves playing in a large ensemble past high school, but small ensembles are more realistic for students to envision how they might look as a future musician.

 More to come in the weeks ahead as the students complete the survey and I compile data.  My thanks to many of you who have sent Tweets, emails, and comments of support for this endeavor.

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  1. Travis,

    This is such an awesome idea, I want to steal it! I have many questions about the process…

    1. When did the students rehearse?
    2. How did you select the music?
    3. What chamber ensembles did you have?
    4. Was every student in a chamber group?

    Let me know how you set this up…maybe we can chat about it by phone!


  2. Actually Doug I will give you the quick and dirty version for the benefit of others who stop by:
    1) We rehearsed during band periods. We used our 3 practice rooms, the instrument storage room, a storage room by the gym balcony, the stage – basically any place we could find space for 4 to 6 students. My student teacher would schedule meet times with 3 to 4 groups throughout the period to listen to sections, make adjustments and corrections, and provide a critique. Sometimes we made specific goals and objectives for groups that were struggling, other groups were very much self-starters and took off on their own with little prompting. We tried to schedule as much “face-time” as we could with each group knowing the challenge that each piece held.
    2) I started accumulating possible pieces last year at Midwest. I spent around $200 at the start of the year of pieces that I researched on-line, found at conferences, or that came recommended. Some came out of a book (Flex Trios for All by Lennie Niehaus) which worked great for MS Groups, others were specifically written, and other were transcriptions (a woodwind group did Divertimento by Mozart and knocked it out of the park). Some of it I ordered sight and sound unseen and unheard, respectively, because I was searching for a certain style. It took time over the past 7 months accumulating these pieces. I have a couple that will be great to return to in a few years, and other pieces gave me ideas of where to look for newer pieces.
    3) We had several woodwind groups of various instrumentation – 4 flutes and 3 clarinets in one group, 2 flutes, 2 clarinets, an oboe, and bass clarinet in another. Two brass sextets, a quartet, and a septet. Many of the MS Groups were in like instrumentation choirs (one exception was 3 8th grade flutes and a bass clarinet). That was a challenge of plugging people into groups based upon where they were technically, where they needed to grow, would the chemistry and technical ability of the group merge well together, and the like. Beyond that, programming the order of the recital was also at times a challenge – mixing middle school with high school with wind ensemble, brass with woodwind, when should the percussion go, does this brass piece fit well between the style of these two woodwind pieces – no perfect formula available there my friend. There are no error free decisions, only decision with the least amount of errors.
    4) With the exception of a couple of sick students and one who was not paying attention and missed going to the on deck site backstage, 147 out of 150 students in the band program performed on Tuesday night. Both halves of the recital were full of parents. We had open house just last night – so many positive comments. Many parents enjoyed the “closeness”, seeing their child make a meaningful contribution. The email inbox has been full of similar comments.

    We started today with the on-line survey (made by Google Docs – I have Doug Butchy to thank for introducing me to that!) – it is AMAZING seeing how critical they are of their performance yet feel they have improved as a musician. Once I have all the data collected and analyzed, I will be posting again.

  3. Great Job Travis! I look forward to discussing this with you soon. We are doing a “chamber ensembles” class second semester and I’m sure you have a lot of useful information for me. I am always impressed with your desire to push the envelope and try new ideas with your students. -V

  4. Hey Travis,

    On my “Google Alerts” (wind chamber music) today this announcement popped up from Anne McGinty and Bill Reichenbach….her new chamber wind offerings might be worth checking out:

    Best regards,
    Patrick Casey


  1. Monday Morning Music Mix ~October 4th, 2010 | MusTech.Net: Music Education, Music Technology, & Education! - [...] Sticking the Landing After the Big Leap Forward – “Four very short weeks ago, the band program at Mercer…


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