A few things happened this week in and around my orchestra class at NCSSM that started me thinking about why orchestra is important to students and what they get out of participation in my class and other orchestra classes around the country. For me, it is important to constantly identify why we are doing what we do. Because, if we don't know way we are doing it, how could the students possibly know why they are doing it. As I pondered this thought over the past 48 hours or so, I came up with 4 primary reasons for participation in orchestra (or any musical ensemble for that matter) and thought that I would share them with you. I might add that for some students, all of these come in to play. For other students, there may be one of these reasons that really stands out as their primary motivator. That is fine. What is important is that we all understand that they are the motivation for participation.
The most obvious motivator for taking any class in school is to acquire the content. That is, to get the information that is covered in class. In orchestra, this includes playing technique, standard accepted practice and styles based on the style of music, date of the composition, and composer, ensemble and rehearsal techniques, and a bit of music history and background on the works being performed. This is really the most obvious stuff. And, many that haven't participated in an orchestra in a high school or college may think that this is the whole experience. After all, it is what we do in orchestra. We learn music with the expectation of performing it for the public at some point.
Anyone who has participated in a high school music ensemble knows that the experience itself is one of the great motivators. For many,(in fact the vast majority), the high school ensemble experience is the last time they will participated in this kind of activity and probably the highest level of performing they will experience. Yes, some go on to play or sing in college and beyond, but many more do not. I can't tell you how many of my students have come back to me after many years out of high school and reflected on the amazing experiences that had as musicians and members of a team in their performing ensembles. These memories last a lifetime and the experience is priceless. In many cases, the experience far outweighs the actual notes, rhythms, and techniques that are learned. There are many times that I, as a teacher, need to be reminded of this. The relationships and friendships that are developed in a musical ensemble often times last a lifetime. Many of my closest friends, to this day, were people that I played with in my high school band. We went on trips together, went to football games on the busses, stayed after school for rehearsals, and became very close in the process. My wife's closest high school relationships today are also with former fellow band members. I am sure that many of you have had the same experience.
I know that in my school, some would say that their participation is an opportunity to think about something other than their regular academics. Others would say that it is "relaxing." To me, this is also part of the experience. It is an opportunity to exercise a different academic muscle. When we make music, our brains work in different ways than they do when we write a paper or do a math problem. For many this is an important variation in their academic life that allows them to change pace for that period of rehearsal or practice. I know that I am very much motivated by this part of the experience.
There is another important to the experience component of participation. It is the "aesthetic experience." I was recently reminded of this by a former student when he told me the following: "For me, the music itself was more the motivation. Not just the notes on the page, or the sound coming out of my own instrument, but the full sound of the orchestra, of everyone playing together. Being immersed in the music is one of those sensations that is hard to describe. There is a sense of communication between the players, between the conductor and the orchestra, and even the audience." This was an important reminder for me that the aesthetic experience is a strong motivator for many students. It is certainly a motivator for me. There has been much debate in music education circles in recent years regarding music advocacy on the relationship between aesthetics-centered and extrinsically-centered music programs. I have always believed that there is room for both. My student's words have, yet again, reminded me of the huge importance that the aesthetic experience of the ensemble plays for our students.
With participation comes opportunity. In most states, one must be a member of their school orchestra in order to audition for All County, All Region, All State and other honors ensembles. These opportunities for experiences are invaluable to the advances music student and for many of them; this is the prime motivator to hang in there with their colleagues that don't play at their same level of expertise. There are other opportunities as well. At NCSSM, we have an annual concerto concert that features our top soloists. I have often thought how much I would have enjoyed that opportunity as a high school student. This is a huge event and the students that participate as soloists and ensemble members really benefit from the experience. There is also the opportunity for leadership woven into the orchestral experience. Students that show a propensity for leadership are given principle chairs and the opportunity to influence the performance of works and to lead their peers. Many of the leadership opportunities that I had as a high-school music student certainly shaped my life in profound ways and motivated me to remain part of that group.
The final motivator that I will highlight here is the opportunity for contribution. It is my firm belief that student must understand that they are making a contribution to a community when they are participating in orchestra. Participation isn't all about what you get from the experience. It is also about what you contribute. And, every member of a musical ensemble contributes something. The most advanced players contribute musical leadership and example. The intermediate players contribute musically as critical mass, but also find many other modes of contributions, from humor, to dedication, optimism, challenge, and other examples of success. Finally, the weaker players in any group contribute musically as much as anyone, for a musical ensemble is only as strong as its weakest players. So these musicians must be willing to go the extra mile and prepare the literature in the best way that they can, with a strong motivation to make the ensemble better. These folks are often the true examples of contribution to an ensemble. I do not believe in entitlement for the strongest players in an ensemble. We all must give our best contribution in order to make an ensemble truly excellent.
It bears mentioning that musical ensembles also contribute to the greater school community. They provide music for special occasions and this is a vital role of musical organizations. My orchestra performs for our annual convocation and commencement, dinners, events, awards ceremonies, and other community gatherings. We send quartets out to other community events such as celebrations and receptions as well. Bands play for football games. Pep bands provide music for basketball games. Music students often play or sing the national anthem for other sporting events. We provide a pit orchestra for the annual musical. These are all examples of contribution. Students must be encourages to use their skills and talents for the betterment and enhancement of the community experience. We, as musicians, get this opportunity all time. We as music teachers must weave this perspective into all that we teach.
So, these are my thoughts on what students are gaining from participation in my class. I am sure that I have missed a few. I hope that this provides you with some food for thought as you ponder your motivators for the things that you do or teach. I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.