In music, students are capable of achieving unimaginable levels of success. Frequently, we underestimate what our students are capable of achieving, given the right environment.

The true definition of a student is not one who studies in subject, or one who is lacking knowledge, but rather one who takes an interest in a subject. To that end, we are all lifelong students of music.

In order to extrapolate the full capacity of your “students,” we must defeat the stigma of this term. Instead of telling students “you’re not ready for that piece”, or “this is too hard for you,” we would be better served to allow students the freedom to find projects that interest them, and facilitate their development, rather than hoping to protect them from failure. A student is ready to learn a concept, piece, or technique when they believe they are, and intrinsic motivation is sometimes the greatest asset in the developmental process.

One area where this concept can be facilitated is in repertoire selection at the individual level. One of the inherent benefits of private instruction is that instruction can be individualized to the highest extent possible. It is normal in many areas of the country for students in all grades to perform solo literature for some type of school, region, or state sponsored festival. This is where flipping the script and putting the responsibility on the student to select his or her repertoire can energize the entrepreneurial spirit of your students. Typically, it is very easy for the private teacher to fall back onto the same cycle of 10 to 15 tried and true pieces of various difficulty levels. This limitation can be as taxing on the students as the teacher. By forcing the student to choose their piece, you create two strong positive outcomes. Firstly, the student must research literature for their specific instrument. This likely means exposure to numerous professional recordings available online, a survey of literature, and focused listening to determine the selection of a piece. Secondly, when a student selects a piece, they become much more invested in its success.

This is a very effective way for a student to think of solo performance as their personal project, rather than the teacher assigning them a piece to which they have no familiarity. In my own experience I have seen students bring pieces to their lessons which I would have never considered assigning due to the difficulty level, only to see them flourish through hard work and diligent practice that ultimately results in a very successful performance.

Another way this kind of student led environment can be facilitated is through chamber music. Saxophone teacher and chamber music coach Mark Smith explains the struggles and the lessons learned from his student led chamber music program below.

“Musically speaking, chamber music has helped my students grow in their musicianship tremendously. Through saxophone quartet and trio, the members learn how to properly rehearse together, develop critical listening skills, and function as an independent ensemble. However, musical growth isn’t the only benefit. Students also grow in their leadership qualities. They learn to hold themselves, and their quartet mates, to a high standard. Students who have gone through my quartet program develop important nonmusical skills.

They learn how to communicate, not only with music, but also with one another and me regarding many things such as schedule conflicts, upcoming events, and more. It’s almost more of a character and leadership building exercise. I find that the students who participate in the ensembles I coach are far more prepared for other activities, musical and otherwise.

The saxophone section of the band program I work with has greatly benefitted from chamber music. When I first started coaching these ensembles a few years ago, the skill within the saxophone section was fairly average. However, after a few years of coaching these quartets and trios, the saxophonists are some of the strongest players in the band. Also, many of the younger musicians who participate in chamber music usually place higher in their band audition as well as honor ensemble auditions. Another benefit is that my studio grows in number. Not one student who has gone through my quartet program has quit band. Many of the ensembles that I coach choose to become competitive. One of the hardest lessons they are currently learning is how to lose. Not everyone can be the winner in these contests. I try to teach them that it’s about the journey, not the outcome of competition. Through the efforts of quartet, the students slowly learn how to function with excellence and dedication to their craft. The students also have to learn how to sacrifice. Sometimes they have to give up some things that they enjoy in order to participate. Other times they have to sacrifice quartet opportunities for the sake of the band or other conflict that comes up.”

Dr. Jonathan Helmick, director of bands at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, advocates for involving students on the podium. He explains his thoughts below on the elements of incorporating students into leadership roles in this manner: “How do we intentionally cultivate the entrepreneurial spirit within our students? The common thread of designing opportunities for curiosity, self-discovery, innovation, and service go hand in hand with developing a culture of optimism, the willingness to take calculated risks, and granting permission to embrace vulnerability – the core of the entrepreneurial spirit. Two examples, both recent and notable, illustrate an effort to intentionally design experiences for my students based on the above ideals.”

Two composition students, under the mentorship of Dr. Stephen Barr, had recently completed works for wind ensemble, and asked if they could have rehearsal time to have portions of their works read by our wind ensemble. I was excited to grant this opportunity for my students. Here was a chance to create a positive experience for student composers and the members of the wind ensemble. In addition to having the compositions performed in their entirety, it was suggested that the composers also serve as conductors, premiering their own works with a live ensemble of their peers. The results were inspiring. The undergraduate students on the podium had the opportunity to clarify their intent, conduct their own works, and record their compositions. The students within the ensemble were fully engaged and committed to performing at their peak for the benefit of their colleagues.

Furthermore, each member of the ensemble provided written feedback within the parts so that the young composers on the podium could analyze their work and improve.

Another instance where this concept has been successfully initiated was with a young conductor in my studio. Near the completion of his undergraduate career, this student was encouraged to take his weekly studies to the next level and successfully pursued grant funding to complete a self-designed and self-directed project, the commissioning of an eleven-minute composition from renowned composer Luigi Zaninelli entitled 3 Divertimenti. For the project, the student authored the grant, contacted the composer, provided input from original piano reduction of the score to the completion of the full orchestration, and rehearsed and premiered the piece as conductor with the Slippery Rock University Symphonic Wind Ensemble. For an undergraduate student to design and pursue a project of this scope and depth required the courage of an entrepreneurial spirit.

In both of the above examples, these experiences transformed the students on the podium. Of course, they honed their musical skills; composition, conducting, score study, etc. More importantly, they learned a valuable lesson in self-efficacy, the belief in one’s ability to succeed, and necessity of embracing vulnerability.

It is common for all of us, not just students, to forgo pursuing something until we are “ready” or “perfect.” Possibly the greatest byproduct of both of the above projects has been overcoming the culture or belief that, in order to achieve, I must first be perfect or ‘bulletproof’ before venturing forward with a new idea. For the program as a whole, an exciting energy of possibility has emerged. Witnessing their peers on the podium actively creating opportunities for growth, has led to students in our program imagining what they too can do with their resources of talent, ingenuity, and time.”

Taking risks with our students can be both challenging and anxiety inducing. Will they succeed or fail? How will this be reflected on my perceived skills as a teacher? These are all reasonable concerns all educators possess. The most important thing to consider when implementing this strategy is assigning it to further the development of students who will clearly benefit from this approach, and not using these strategies as a policy for all students. With time, and belief in our students you can drastically transform the expectations and achievements of your “students.”

Sean Murphy currently serves as assistant professor of arts management and entrepreneurship at Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music in Cleveland, Ohio. For more information please visit: bw.edu/ academics/undergraduate/arts-management-entrepreneurship/


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