Incorporating Chamber Groups into the Music Curriculum

Mike Lawson • Archives • March 9, 2012

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While performing in large ensembles provides countless opportunity for achievement, learning, and fun, engaging students in smaller ensembles – quartets, trios, brass choirs, percussion ensembles, and more – is a fantastic way to enhance subtle musicianship skills, leadership skills, expose students to more repertoire, and augment the traditional offerings of a school music program. However, building chamber groups into a curriculum does take some time, effort, and some small degree of financial commitment.

Preston Hazzard, director of bands at Carrolton, Texas’s Creakview High School, estimates that as many as 70 percent of the more than 200 students in his instrumental program participate in chamber-style ensembles at some point throughout the year. “We have four performing groups and we try to space it out so that every student in the top two groups, and at least the woodwind soloists personnel in the third group, has some kind of chamber experience throughout the year. And all of the percussion students are also required to participate in chamber groups,” says Hazzard.

Creakview High School offers numerous small ensemble opportunties for students. “We have the UIL solo and ensemble contest that happens each February,” he continues. “Many of our students participate in that. They get together on their own in small ensembles and start working. Then we as a staff come in and coach those students leading up to the performances. Also, in each of the performances that we have throughout the year, we will set specific chamber ensembles up as part of the performance within the concert. For example, we had a concert with three chamber ensembles that were filled with wind symphony students. We do another concert in May that features chamber groups, and we also do a percussion only ensemble chamber concert in May so that all of those students are getting that experience.”

When it comes to concert ensembles in the Creakview band program, the students take the lead. “The competition portion in February is all student-based and student-led,” confirms Hazzard. “We’ll do coaching sessions with them, working through classes and so on, but they put the groups together, they select the music. Sometimes they come to us and ask for help, but their private teachers also assist with that. Once it comes time for the concert portion, we put those groups together within our bands and select music so that programmatically it works. In addition, we also bring in private teachers as master class clinicians. They do a lot of work with the students and those sessions are all studio specific. So, for example, our flute teacher comes in and works with the flute players, talking about how to be a better section and how to communicate better with one another, and all the kids in the program get that experience.”

Chamber groups in the Creakview model are largely self-sustaining, having been well integrated into the curriculum. In the band program at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia, chamber ensembles play a smaller, but still significant, role. “Chamber groups normally take place after school at our program,” says Mike Luley, Lake Braddock’s director of bands. Approximately one third of the students in his program participate in small ensembles. “The students normally put themselves into groups, and get some help from their private teachers. We have a solo & ensemble competition that happens in April, so students will form groups for that, rehearsing around the band room. The students are self-motivated to put their own groups together. We do have a trombone choir that meets regularly, and that group is run by our trombone instructor, who oversees it in the evenings. The brass and woodwind quintets, duets, and so on come together on their own. We encourage the students to participate, but we know how busy they are so we let them put together their own groups and decide when they can meet with their friends to make it happen.”

Logistical Challenges

“The biggest challenge to organizing chamber groups is just scheduling time,” says Luley. “The kids are already pressed during the school day with so many AP classes and requirements, and they can take fewer and fewer electives. After school, we run a pretty heavy schedule with sectionals: we do percussion on Mondays; Tuesdays and Wednesdays are sectionals with our main ensembles; and then Thursday we work with the middle school students, since we have a middle school (we’re a secondary school). This means that the only day the staff is free is Friday. There just isn’t enough time for the staff to really commit much time to the chamber program. This is why our private teachers are so instrumental in helping those groups happen.”

“The times and schedule, figuring out when to rehearse all of those students is a challenge,” agrees Hazzard. “We have full orchestra, jazz band, concert band, winter guard, and so on. When you add that all together, it makes finding time very difficult. And then there are other extra-curricular activities that students are involved with, like sports and clubs. On top of that, we played at Midwest Band & Orchestra Clinic this fall. We have found that as we have been getting chamber music more ingrained in the culture of the program, the kids look forward to it. So they’re more proactive about wanting to put groups together. The timing of it is tough to find when you’re getting started, but once it becomes an integrated part of the program, it kind of takes care of itself.”

Although the autonomy of chamber groups is a positive in many ways, it’s still critical that band directors are involved in the small ensemble process. “When you start giving students input into what music is going to be performed, you have to be careful that you don’t give them too much leeway,” cautions Hazzard. “Students sometimes don’t have a great understanding of their own abilities and how tough it is to put a chamber group together. They might think they could just go down to the local music store and pull something out of a bin or buy something online, but it might not suit their technical abilities, or it might not be very well orchestrated. We have to be careful that we have quality chamber music available to our students, just like we would with concert band or any other group. And that, of course, carries with it an upfront cost. It does take a degree of financial commitment to getting a library of chamber music repertoire built.”

In many schools, even finding a place for students to rehearse can be a logistical nightmare.  “We are a secondary school, so we have two of all of our ensembles, because middle school and high school are happening at the same time,” says Luley. “With all of the different ensembles happening here, it can be a challenge finding open rooms for students to use. We have some music resources for students to look through, but a lot of them will have suggestions from their private teachers, and they’ll go pick up that stuff on their own.”

When integrating chamber groups into school performances along with other ensembles, programming must be taken into consideration. “One of the things we’ll be starting next year is a concert in May that will strictly feature chamber groups,” notes Hazzard. “The reason for that is that we’ve has so many people coming forward wanting to put groups together that our concerts turn into marathons if we just try to add everyone in. It’s becoming such a big deal that we’re going to pull that out and make it its own separate event.”

The Many Benefits

Even with all of these challenges, the many benefits of integrating chamber groups into a music program tip the scales heavily in favor. Obviously, when students practice more, all ensembles in the program will improve, so increasing the time during which instruments will be in the students’ hands is undoubtedly at the top of any list of positives. However, having students participate in small ensembles is also beneficial in some less obvious ways.

“I got really big into chamber ensembles early in my career because it was a way for me to learn more instrument-specific performance elements as a young teacher,” admits Preston Hazzard. “In my second year, I started a flute choir because I didn’t know flute very well. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, I’ve found that it translates to the music that we do in the concert hall much more than I suspected. The chamber experience really helps students get beyond just the melody to start hearing different timbres and tones. It’s important to have my first chair players be able to communicate and be expressive with music in a way that really comes naturally in a small ensemble setting because our philosophy is that concert band is really chamber music, only with more people. The same kind of communication has to happen.”

Hazzards’ Creakview High School music staff uses chamber ensembles as a means of targeting specific skills with specific students, even writing and transcribing music for precise educational goals. “That becomes very beneficial when we are looking at providing instrument-specific opportunities for our younger students,” he says.

The personal responsibility that students in small ensembles have is difficult to replicate in other settings. “We recently hosted the National Band Association’s Wind Band Workshop,” says Mike Luley. “The Marine Band sent out a woodwind quintet for that event, and they played for a about a half-hour, and then talked to the kids and answered questions for a half-hour. One of the topics discussed was the personal accountability in the smaller group. Because it’s only one person per part, students have more musical responsibility with regards to phrasing, articulation, listening, blending, and making adjustments. And when they bring that leadership back to the ensemble, it’s really helpful. Bringing in outside groups – professional musicians – to share some of the possibilities that exist within smaller ensembles can provide a huge boost. Seeing that can help the kids become self motivated.”

It might take a little bit of help to get the ball rolling, but educators shouldn’t be scared away. “Having private teachers around to help makes a big difference,” agrees Luley, “but a lot of it is also just talking to the right students and motivating the section leaders and principal players to share the benefits and rally other students.”

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