‘Nurturing an environment for learning and creative fulfilment in school ensembles’ (click here to read further)

‘Nurturing an environment for learning and creative fulfilment in school ensembles’

By Greg Lee

Greg currently works in the Music School at Camberwell Grammar School and runs The Melbourne Flute Studio from his home in Abbotsford.

An assignment completed as part of the Band Direction Intensive Unit, from the Masters of Music Performance Teaching course at Melbourne University, led by Monte Mumford. August 2014.

Reflections on the resource: “THE MUSICAL MIND OF THE CREATIVE DIRECTOR”, by Edward Lisk.

I am greatly interested in the extra-musical factors of the school band rehearsal environment (and indeed that of school music ensembles in general) and how these effect the learning process and final musical outcomes. Because the activities that take place in school music departments are so specialised and removed from most of the student’s other class subjects in so many ways, it could be proposed that quite a different approach is needed in the teaching process. The relationships that exist and develop between music teaching staff and their students enter another plain of complexity and intensity, as the students embark on large and small ensemble activities, performances of varying grandeur and for many, experiencing weekly the intimate setting of the instrumental music lesson.

As the teacher or director in any of these situations, a high level of emotional awareness and sensitivity must be maintained. Partly, to help infuse the concepts of and encourage musical expression and artistry in the students own playing, but also because of the emotional vulnerability that learning and playing a musical instrument exposes in many students, of all ages. During these music activities, a student’s ability is being very overtly and publicly displayed and inevitably judgments are made, by both teachers and fellow students. The standard classroom teaching manner employed across the rest of the school, will likely not be ideal in the Band rehearsal situation, and quite a different learning environment may be beneficial for effective learning, rehearsing and optimum results.

I have taken from “The Musical Mind of The Creative Director” three points which will help encourage this unique artistic learning environment in a school setting. They do not necessarily concern the specifics of interpreting or playing the music itself, but rather form an ideal foundation from which optimum learning can occur and from which I, as teacher or band director, will be most influential to my ensemble members and to their success. ‘Metacognition’, ‘The Conductor’s Responsibility’ and ‘Teaching Musical Artistry and Expression’ will be discussed.

Considering Lisk’s explanation of ‘Metacognition’, I will explore the idea of encouraging each student to be actively involved in the improvement or development of a piece of music being rehearsed. By taking responsibility for their own sound and playing within the ensemble, the onus is no longer solely that of the directors’ to listen for mistakes, point them out and instruct how to fix. Conversely, the players of the ensemble no longer sit ‘on edge’, waiting for the next mistake to be pounced on. This approach directs the rehearsal away from what the faults of certain players may be, to a collaborative process of music making as an ensemble, where everyone’s ability and thinking is important and vital.

In an effort to maintain a mutual immersion throughout the learning and rehearsing process, and indeed during performances, I believe the concept of ‘Relaxed Alertness’ is essential. I have observed ensemble players (both young and old) being directly and not always positively affected by the mood and ‘energy’ of the person leading the rehearsal. Emotional climaxes and events should be saved for the expression and performance of the music being studied.

To truly achieve a state of relaxed alertness while in the position of band conductor, a sense of self-contentment is important. An inner peace, personal enlightenment or at least self-awareness, all lead to assuredness on the podium, and perhaps an acceptance that not all can be controlled, at the end of the day. Before a leader can comfortably and effectively influence others in a positive, meaningful and long lasting way, I believe this level of personal development needs to be sought. ‘The Conductor’s Responsibility’ – Lisk states;

“Ultimately, the ensemble will naturally sense the feeling that a conductor has within. It is this energy of thoughtful expression that is given to the players… If it becomes imitated, contrived… the conductor is a detriment to the ensemble’s music-making potential.”

Considering ones sense of integrity, morality or even spirituality of some kind, is surely important for us as teachers and transmitters of an art form such as music. For emotions to be sincerely conveyed and encouraged in those under our direction, and indeed in our audience, it seems important that we are conscious of our own humanity. Letting our vulnerabilities be known, maintaining an underlying recognition of humility and opening ourselves to new experiences, both musical and other, help create a well rounded human being, one which students and our ensemble members are more likely to look up to for stability and guidance.

‘Teaching Musical Artistry and Expression’ may be one of the more challenging tasks we face as band directors. Lisk creates a wonderful analogy; “Music is sound moving in and out of silence”. He then goes on to describe ways of encouraging sensitive note endings, however even before the first sound can be made, an appropriate environment or aural ‘canvas’ should be set.

The delicate and perhaps rather abstract concept of musical expression will be for many school band members, far removed from discussions and instructions they receive throughout the rest of their school day. The rehearsal space should reflect the beauty of sound and phrasing that we as an ensemble will work to achieve, by first finding stillness and an intent of quiet focus. If the ‘neutral’ sound level of the space is set by the conductor directing instructions with anxious assertiveness through the ensemble, this will often encourage and fuel extraneous noise to ripple throughout the players, and the canvas ready for the band’s phrasing and musicality is already soiled.

A rehearsal atmosphere of silence and stillness will encourage care from each player with every sound they produce, and ears open wider for tonal blend and intonation. A fine starting point for true creative expression to occur.