Creating a Thriving Middle School Orchestra Program
By Wendy K. Moy, DMA
Director of Choral Activities and Music Education
New London, CT
Fresh out of my undergraduate program, I began teaching middle school orchestra and choir. I loved teaching at that level so much that I stayed in that position for ten years before going on to graduate school to train pre-service teachers. In that decade, both the choir and orchestra programs flourished. The orchestra numbers doubled, necessitating the addition of a third orchestra at the high school level. We performed at the Northwest Music Educators Conference, and students of diverse backgrounds were given a culture in which they could thrive.
All this success happened even though only ten percent of the students took private lessons.
Below I’ll share with you some key principles that drove that program so many years ago. These principles helped me to enjoy teaching and to strengthen my program, and I hope the same for you.
- Have clear and high expectations that are aligned with the elementary program and high school programs into which they will feed. Communicate with your elementary string teacher regarding the level of your incoming students. Align your curriculum so that your first month of teaching a new class is a review of prior learning with attention toward what is to come. Keeping the depth and breadth of the elementary program and high school program in mind, decide what your students should be able to do when they graduate from your program (e.g., scales, bowings, positions, keys). Teach toward these goals and assess your students accordingly. For those students who come in with more experience, give them stretch goals (e.g., play an extra octave in a scale) to keep them motivated.
- Create support structures so that all students have the opportunity to succeed. Find ways for students with varying experience to succeed. Provide a practice space after school or coaching during study hall. Provide multiple ways for students to be assessed. Options could include recording their test and sending you a recording, playing in groups, and playing individually while everyone else is practicing independently. I always allowed repeated testing to encourage practicing and mastery (up until a deadline).
- Program repertoire that is varied and engaging. Middle school students will go the extra mile if they find some way to connect to the music you program. Select a wide variety of pieces that fit the occasion (tours, assemblies, all-district concerts, and festivals), build technique, and engage the imagination of the students. The most engaging pieces have melodic material in all parts. In addition, each concert should have an “easy” piece with which students can focus on artistry, a couple of “medium difficulty” level pieces that meet your technique goals, and a “challenging” piece that stretches their technique but is highly motivating. Not all students will love every piece. However, you should instill in them a love for bringing a piece to life no matter the style or level of challenge.
- Build personal connections with your feeder elementary school program and your high school program. While some elementary students are highly motivated to sign up for orchestra when they receive the middle school registration form, many want to know what the new teacher will be like. Do not keep this a mystery! Take your students to play at the elementary school or sit in and play in the elementary rehearsal. Participate in every open house and have your current students share their experience of participating in the orchestra program. On the other side, take your students to the high school and have them sit in on a rehearsal. Help them imagine themselves being a part of the ensemble. Many times this room will become their “home base” during high school—a place to have lunch, meet friends, and practice. If possible, plan a district or area concert where all students who feed into a high school play together in a concert. This is a great way for parents to imagine their 5th grade string player playing in the high school chamber orchestra. In addition, this same 5th grade student gets the experience of playing within a community of string players that will impact their sense of musicianship and goals for the future.
- Create opportunities for leadership at all levels. An orchestra, while traditionally very “top-down,” can provide ways for students to develop leadership skills and, as a result, ownership of their own musicianship. Give everyone an opportunity to tune the orchestra—even the cellos and basses! This ensures that everyone knows how to tune their instrument and can demonstrate a solid, vibrant tone in front of their peers. Have all students play in a chamber ensemble. In the 7th grade chamber ensemble, I would select the members and music; in the 8th grade, I guided them in their selections. The magic moment always came when they would ask me to conduct and I would tell them that they had the necessary skills to lead themselves. Watching them wrestle with how to rehearse always led to empowering results!
- Create opportunities for building community. Instilling a sense of community can greatly help you retain students from year to year. When students get to know their classmates, they look forward to making music together in the future. Some of the best community-building opportunities can come from traveling together to a festival or tour. Over the course of the two-years, my students played in all-school assemblies (commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. and Veterans Day), honor festivals, regional festivals, district concerts, and a mini-tour to elementary schools. The experience of working together (riding a bus, unloading equipment, setting up stands) and playing a set of music multiple times builds teamwork and a common bond. We celebrated the end of year by meeting up with the high school orchestra to play at a local tourist attraction (Leavenworth, WA). All of these experiences helped to increase musicianship, instill a sense of ownership in the ensemble, and create a support network among students.
This list is by no means exhaustive and much credit is given to my principal, district music manager, colleagues, and parents who supported the students’ practicing at home and chaperoned many trips! I hope these suggestions help you design an orchestra program that is sustainable and thriving, one in which your students come to your classroom excited to make music and in which you find joy in waking up to each day.
Wendy Moy presented a session on “Empowering Your Choral Program by Creating a Community Culture” at the 2015 National In-Service Conference. Submit a session proposal for the 2020 NAfME National Conference by February 3, 2020.
About the Author
Wendy K. Moy originally hails from Washington State where she taught middle choir and orchestra in the Edmonds School District for over ten years. Her ensembles frequently performed at the regional and state NAfME Conferences. Wendy also served as the violin coach and chamber music coordinator for the Cascade Youth Symphony. She is currently the Director of Choral Activities and Head of Music Education at Connecticut College and is an active clinician and guest conductor. Wendy’s research focuses on the culture of singing communities and the factors that contribute to successful choral organizations. She has given presentations on this research and integration across the arts at College Music Society Regional Conferences, American Choral Directors Association State Conferences, and NAfME conferences. Wendy is also the co-founder and president of Chorosynthesis, a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to transform the culture of American choral music through collaboration, sustainability, innovation, and excellenceTo contact Wendy about being a guest conductor or clinician, please visit www.wendymoy.com.
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