Saturday, January 19, 2008

The elementary orchestra: nuts & bolts

One problem that's been nagging me lately is one I'm sure other instrumental teachers will recognize: the challenge of maintaining motivation, interest (and enrollment!) in the school program, retaining as many members as possible, while simultaneously trying to challenge the more gifted and faster-moving students, encouraging them to participate in select ensembles outside of the school.

My orchestra program is based very heavily on the concept of "teamwork". A large part of what motivates students to continue with the school program is their involvement with their peers, working toward a common goal, playing different parts, contributing to the same music. This means that students who are part of my orchestras (elementary, first through third year players, most of whom have no additional experience or instruction on their instrument) spend most of their time working on "ensemble music". I do the best I can to help them develop good technique and musicianship through their studies, but due to limited available time, most of this is done through the ensemble music they need to play for concerts or upcoming auditions, and not necessarily closely tied to a sequential method of instrumental study. Unfortunately, much of the "skills-based" material covered in the student's method books tends to fall by the wayside as they struggle to prepare themselves for school concerts, all-district orchestra auditions, and all-county auditions. I've yet to have any all-state players come through my program.

At this time of year, this seems to cause a chronic problem. All of the students have done their best to prepare and perform for a "seasonal concert" which is done before winter break. Most of the second and third year players are encouraged to go on to the all-district orchestra, which requires an audition to enter. By and large, the students (especially the second year, but also a large contingent of third year sixth graders) Are not able to competently learn their audition pieces without a lot of help. They depend on me to make sure they know how the notes and rhythms in their excerpts go. It's an exceptional case who can take the music home and read through it on their own without a huge number of basic mistakes. Most of them are usually just not ready to accomplish this: it's analogous to a kindergarten student being asked to read and comprehend short stories that are beyond their reading level without assistance. The few who can handle the material on their own are generally preparing for additional auditions, like the all-county orchestra (which is far more competitive.

Here's the problem: all of these students are in lesson groups with others, some of whom are not preparing for these select ensembles due to lack of interest, scheduling problems, or simple lack of ability to handle the material. All of these students are, however, still part of the school group. Meanwhile, they don't receive as much attention or help during this period, as we're busy working on audition material.

I make it my goal to keep those kids. I'm not sure why: many of the teachers in my district are more than happy to lose the students who aren't making adequate progress and focus on the select few who are handling the material more competently due to a variety of factors. But the way I see it, I need to retain as many of the "fair to middling" students as I can. I even make every effort to retain poor and problematic students. I need them on stage, my program needs the enrollment, and, though there is very little idealism left in me at this point in my life, I like to think that their involvement in the music program will help them in the long run, even if they don't do everything the way I want them to.

This is a train of thought I'll have to come back to later. I appreciate any input via email or comment (below).

1 comment:

Stengel99 said...

You're descriving my teaching situation precisely. (It's scary how similar, actually!)

I agree with your thoughts completely. I've had to assume a sort of approach where you do what you can for whom you can. In the rare case of an exceptionally gifted student in my program, I prepare them for the district honor group, and maybe some additional, more challenging music. But for the most part, yeah, a good percentage of them are barely holding their own.

Some peace has come from being reminded that although most of these students will not go into music as a profession, it will be part of their life experience. Hopefully they will be able to look back and say, "I played in the orchestra when I was in school, and I loved it. Mr. X was a great teacher who made us all excited about music." And thinking more of the immediate moment, maybe just having the opportunity to play their instrument at school will be the bright spot of their day.