Independent Chamber Music Projects: Tips for Orchestra Directors
By Eugenia Goldman
As a string orchestra director, I have often pondered how to engage students in creative activities in a class where traditionally making both artistic and instructional decisions is the prerogative of the director. I found that involving students in independent chamber music projects, when approached thoughtfully, can greatly enhance the orchestra program and provide students with a creative outlet. The key to unlocking student creativity is to step back into the role of a facilitator and let students take charge. I let them form the groups, select repertoire, run the rehearsals, and choose when and where to perform. Below are some tips for ensuring success.
Goals and Expectations
Setting goals and expectations from the start will keep everyone on the same page and provide students with some guidance. Possible goals to consider:
- Preparing chamber music pieces for a performance
- Getting acquainted with chamber music repertoire
- Trying music of various musical genres
- Improving ensemble skills by learning to work in a small group
- Performing music arranged/composed by members of the group
In order to be productive, students are expected to:
- Attend every rehearsal (even outside of regular school hours)
- Bring their music and instruments to every rehearsal
- Practice at home – rehearsals imply that there is homework to be done beforehand
- Treat other members with respect at all times
- Demonstrate a positive and constructive attitude (especially important for times when something is not working out as expected)
- Be flexible. Examples: choosing and changing repertoire if needed, not insisting on always playing the leading part or the easiest part
- Take turns in making suggestions; remember that in a chamber ensemble everyone has an equal voice, everyone should try to have some input and a chance to demonstrate leadership
Time and Space
Finding adequate time and space for rehearsals is crucial to the success of the project. Rehearsals can be scheduled either during or outside of the orchestra class. Following are some workable ideas:
- Designate one day per week to chamber music in a large space such as an auditorium, large classroom or even gym for splitting the orchestra into small groups. This arrangement allows one teacher to keep an eye on all the groups, walk between them, and address any issues.
- If you have the option of pulling students out of other classes for lessons, group students together by level and dedicate some time to chamber music. This works particularly well with beginners and those who need extra help.
- In a team-teaching situation, one of the teachers can take some students into a practice room or hallway and coach one or two groups at a time.
- Occasionally allow more experienced students to coach less experienced ones.
- Run the rehearsals before or after school.
- Find time during the day when students may be available (e.g., at lunchtime).
- Encourage students to treat chamber ensembles as independent projects and meet outside of school in their free time.
Overseeing Students’ Progress
While students are expected to do the majority of the work themselves, a teacher has to assess their progress regularly and give constructive feedback. Every ensemble will need different amounts and types of help, but generally junior- and senior-high students should be able to address issues like:
- Rhythm and pulse
- Basic bow strokes
Students are more likely to need help with:
- Fingerings/bowings for individual parts
- Uniformity of bow strokes among the players
- Complex bow strokes
- Style (depending on the piece – classical repertoire tends to be more challenging for students to master than music of modern genres)
Formal and informal performances provide students with an opportunity to demonstrate the results of their efforts. Examples of formal performances:
- Orchestra concerts
- Chamber music concerts
- School events (graduations, board office meetings, award ceremonies)
- Festivals and competitions
Informal performances can include:
- Class performances (a good time to schedule a chamber music performance for the class is after the spring concert, in the last few weeks of school)
- Background music for school or community events
- Coffee houses
- Fundraisers (in school and in the community)
Finally, a word about repertoire. While teachers should always have sheet music for various levels and combinations of instruments on hand, nothing motivates students more than the opportunity to choose the pieces themselves. When students decide to use music they found elsewhere (e.g., on the Internet), they should bring it to the teacher to discuss copyright issues, instrumentation, making an arrangement, etc. With some structure and guidance from the teacher, students quickly begin to experiment within the chamber music medium and enjoy the freedom of making music with their peers.
About the author:
Eugenia Goldman (D.M.A. in Music Education, Boston University, M.A. and B.A. in Violin Performance, Moldavian State Conservatory) has been an orchestra director at Montgomery Township Schools for the past 13 years. A native of Moldova (former USSR), she began her performing career with Moldavian State Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra and traveled extensively on concert tours throughout Europe and Latin America. After moving to the US, she continued to perform as an orchestra and chamber musician on Long Island, NY, and later in NJ, while pursuing her deep interest in teaching music. She has appeared as a presenter, adjudicator and conductor at conferences, symposiums, competitions and festivals. Her research interests include music preference, curriculum development and string pedagogy. She enjoys creating innovative materials for orchestra classroom, as well as composing and arranging music for strings.
Eugenia will be presenting on this very topic at the 2015 NAfME National In-Service Conference this coming October in Nashville, TN!
Join us for more than 300 innovative professional development sessions, nightly entertainment, extraordinary performances from across the country, a wild time at the Give a No te Extravaganza, and tons of networking opportunities with over 3,000+ other music educators! Learn more and register today: http://bit.ly/Nafville2015
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