Ensemble Group Work Done Right

Group Work Done Right

By Michael Pearson

Original article on Hightop Maestro


When studying the pros and cons of grading students on group work rather than individual achievement, perhaps we have been looking at it all wrong. Maybe it’s time to look away from the traditional classroom and into the rehearsal room to find out how group work can be done right.

Imagine a scenario with three main characters and a small cast of extras. Character one is a teacher, much like the beloved teacher from The Peanuts cartoon, this teacher often sounds like a trombone being played with a plunger muting the bell; the teacher is standing in front of the class saying something to the effect of, “Wah Wahhh Wah Wahh Wahh Wah …Group Project …Wah Wahhh…Count off by five.”




The class starts counting, and when we reach #4, we meet our next character: a promising young learner whom we will refer to as Susie. Susie is your stereotypical good student; she works to find out the meaning behind the correct answer and strives to achieve the highest marks on every assignment, quiz, exam, science project, vocabulary review, and book report that is thrown at her.

The class keeps counting, “Five. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. One…” At this point Susie notices a student sitting at the very back of the room, yet to be counted. This is where we meet our antagonist, Tommy. We believe Tommy to be the exact opposite of Susie. Tommy is often rushing to slap the final ripped-out pictures of a magazine onto a pile of paste before the teacher calls on him to present his biography on the life of Andrew Jackson, without realizing that the picture he is placing on his paper is that of Tito Jackson (which is wrong on several accounts).

As the numbering extras start to dwindle towards Tommy, we see Susie whispering over and over to herself, “Please not Tommy, please not Tommy,” all the while Tommy’s forehead starts beading up with sweat while saying, “Please be a four, please be a four.”

“…Two …Three…” and it’s Tommy’s turn.

We have all played one of the roles in this story, and if we haven’t, we have been one of the extras that are also now seated in Group Four (which Tommy has now renamed, “Team Dynomight“). Susie is upset because she will have to do all of the work that Tommy will put off to the last minute, and Tommy is relieved that Susie will earn him an A. Which brings us to the question that has been lingering in my mind as of late, 

Should we grade students based on the outcome of a group, or should we grade students based on their individual achievements?

This is not a new idea or question, and the answer seems obvious. However, I have been bothered by this because the answer seems too obvious. I was recently discussing this topic with several of my peers and administrators, and I could not come up with a clear description as to why this bothered me at my core as an educator; this question haunted me until the answer hit me like a ton of bricks. The problem is not whether we should grade students on their group work; the problem is that we are not teaching through effective group work.


Examining Effective Collaboration

Let me continue by recalling a time when I was that teacher from the above scenario; we have all been there and we will be there again…I was teaching my general music course and needed to teach several different concepts during one lesson. I had the students split into groups and research with the intent of having them share this newly gained knowledge with their peers; great idea, right?


It failed (miserably) for all of the same reasons and frustrations as you can imagine from the introduction to this piece. The “Susies” did all of the work, the “Tommys” spent more time trying to play online games or sneak a SnapChat when they thought my back was turned. I left this lesson completely frustrated and it stuck with me throughout my day…until I found myself in rehearsal with my advanced concert ensemble.

During rehearsal, we broke our piece into sections, rehearsed, discussed, explained, and then glued everything back together for a (first) run-through. When the students reached the end of the piece there was cheering, high fiving, and applause over their accomplishments (none of this was instigated by me and I am not exaggerating). This was when I realized that I already knew what effective group work looked like; I was just looking at it through the wrong lens.


Group Work through the Eyes of the Performing Arts

 The performing arts (band, choir, orchestra, jazz ensemble, dance, and theatre) offer a unique perspective when it comes to student learning and collaboration. The purpose of our daily work is clearly defined for each participant: we are working to create a final product of the highest level of quality possible. Each student is expected to come to class with a certain learned skill set which is then combined with their peers to create a product much greater than the sum of all of its parts (shout out to my boy, Aristotle)

Image via images.rapgenius.com


When trying to figure out why group work works for the performing arts, we have to look at the times that it doesn’t work for our ensembles. How many times have you found yourself rehearsing a piece of music only to stop and work with the clarinets on how to play a specific measure or phrase? Stopping in the midst of a successful rehearsal to help a section learn their parts can end positive momentum and effectively cease the effectiveness of collaboration.

This realization is what brings us to why group work does not work in the classroom: in most classrooms, group work is not the enemy, but the purpose of the assignment is. To effectively work as a group, students have a responsibility to bring something that is already learned to the group rather than using their time together as a tool to learn for themselves. Effective group work should focus on the application of knowledge rather than the gathering of it.

Imagine a classroom with several Susies, all of whom possess a similar skill set, even one that may be perceived at a higher level than some others (my wife would call these students, flute players.) Add to our several Susies a number of Tommys; these students hold another set of skills, skills which might be perceived as less advanced (insert Percussionist joke here) or different than that of Susie. (All joking aside, we must keep in mind that every student has something unique to offer when it comes to classroom work, regardless of subject, ability, gender, race, or socio-economic status.)

Image via www.quickmeme.com

What is the best course of action for dealing with a room full of Susies and Tommys as well as Ashleys, Jimmys, Lindsays, and Joeys? That’s simple: get out of the way.


Principles into Practice

I firmly believe that successful rehearsals stem from high expectations and the freedom to learn together. When students enter rehearsal with their parts prepared or learned, the rehearsal turns from teaching into collaborating. Students are able to utilize their own skills and abilities to work together to create a product which they can take great pride in; from there, they find themselves intrinsically motivated to recreate this process on another level.

By utilizing this approach to learning, we (the educators) are fostering the skills needed to succeed in the 21st Century.


Commercial Break

I was watching a football game two years ago when a commercial took my attention away from my own arm-chair-quarterbacking and spun it towards the world of Clean Fuel Technology.



Sure, he cites “creativity” and “innovation” to the success of his music-minded colleagues, but the idea of effective group work can be added to this list.

There have been countless studies and articles (and articles, and articles, and lists, and more lists, and even clickbait) over the past few years about the need for a work force of young adults who are able to collaborate and create as a team. This should be a focus when it comes to music advocacy, for every time someone talks about needing to better prepare students for post-secondary success, one needs only to point towards the stage for an example of how we are already ahead of this curve.


Trust Them, Let Them Go

When we step back from teaching and start to focus on letting our students apply their knowledge (notice how I put that responsibility on the student, not the teacher) we are fostering creative growth that outweighs results on a simple bubble test.

This idea (which I continue to explore) is further proof of what we in the performing arts already have to offer the rest of the education world. I will never forget being asked, “how do the arts fit into the educational spectrum?”

This is a prime example of where we do not need to worry about fitting into a spectrum, rather, this is an example where other subjects can learn and adapt what we are already doing on a daily basis. I will admit that I do not know how this looks in other classrooms but I know there are plenty of talented teachers out there using similar methods in dissimilar subjects.

I would strongly encourage all educators (especially those within the performing arts) to take the time to search out other classrooms that are foreign to their own subject and observe the effective methods that are happening in these rooms. From this, we educators will be able to work together and begin collaborating as a set of peers with different skill sets; just as we would like to see from our students within our own classrooms.


About the author:

band director

Michael Pearson is a third generation music educator from the Minneapolis / St. Paul Metro Area. He currently teaches two 9 – 12 concert ensembles, jazz ensembles, advanced music theory and history, and general music for high school students. Outside of the school day, Michael leads the After Hours Big Band, performs with the Shoreview Northern Lights Variety Band, and directs rehearsals for the Metro Brass. In addition, he has an amazing wife and also feels uncomfortable typing in the third person…

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Brendan McAloon, Marketing and Events Coordinator, July 17, 2015. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org).