Musicology in the Ensemble Setting

Mike Lawson • Commentary • December 14, 2012

By Kenneth Dale Disney

The eighth and ninth national standards of music education call for the development of relationships between music and other disciplines, and the fostering of understanding music “in relation to history and culture.” Music professionals often assume that our methods of achieving these goals are understood, but such an assumption is dangerous in the modern educational environment. Pressure for lean budgets, focus on test scores and data, and new evaluation methods that lean heavily toward traditional classroom methods have made music programs a tertiary concern for administrators, who feel pressured to meet federal and state benchmarks. The latest example, the common core curriculum, reemphasizes a universal focus on math and English skills. While this is a desirable goal, the initiative ultimately places even more accountability for growth in tested areas upon the shoulders of all teachers, including music specialists.

Directors can turn to musicology, the study of music in a sociological, historical, or anthropological light, for help. Besides fulfilling obligations to national standards eight and nine, musicology can streamline the rehearsal. Proper and realistic planning can result in adding relevant information to the music curriculum and create evidence of a music teacher’s commitment to common core standards and other school goals. This article proposes to integrate musicology into the performance setting, adding tools that bolster students’ understanding of music’s relationship to other subjects, especially history and language arts, in order to justify music to an increasingly wide audience of stakeholders. Importantly, this article also proposes these solutions in a way that allows ensemble directors to continue focusing on performance.

The public, sadly, often does not see the correlation between playing an instrument and exemplary test scores, not to mention measurable success in post-secondary life. This lack of understanding can find dire resonance in the voices of school board members and other elected officials. In many cases, principals will ask music teachers directly: “How are you supporting school goals (read: boosting achievement data)? Are you collaborating with the faculty to include core standards?” Even supportive administrators will often defend music to audiences that do not understand how band improves a system’s data, and will likewise depend on the music specialist’s ability to show proof of such efforts. While it is ideal to imagine that citing a study connecting musical performance with academic excellence will suffice, more and more school boards look specifically for teachers’ effort to maximize growth in core proficiencies.

How does the modern ensemble director produce proof of such efforts? Further, how does one make changes to “the routine” without taking focus away from concerts, festivals, competitions, and clinics that are so important to the survival of a program? Ironically, a band program that shuns performances in order to focus on, say, reading comprehension will find itself eliminated for reasons wholly unrelated to data. A true solution must allow music professionals to continue upholding performance standards, uphold the eighth and ninth national standards in a way that relates to overall school goals, and do so in measurable, empirical ways. Musicology, uniquely, fulfills these goals while remaining salient to the rigorous standards of ensemble settings.

What Musicology Adds to the Ensemble Classroom

The first questions for any addition to the classroom usually are: “What will my students gain, and what does it require?” The precious commodity of rehearsal time must never go to waste. Understandably, the very prospect of inefficiency makes directors cringe. Musicology, rather than acting as an additional burden, builds on many aspects typical to most rehearsals. Implementing musicological methods, in fact, is something that many directors do naturally, daily, to create effective performances. Rather than fearfully changing one’s basic teaching methods, directors concerned with creating interdisciplinary connections should instead focus growing awareness of these quotidian occurrences.

In a practical sense, musicology can become involved any time a director address the Ws (who, what, when, where, why). Knowledge of a musical period, the characteristics of a style or form, and information about the creation of a piece represent just a few tools directors employ that stem, whether one is aware of it or not, from research done in the fields of music history, theory, and criticism.

Why do directors do this? The answer: students will feel more invested in performing music after understanding its context. This includes information about historical figures, events, or literary works surrounding the creation of the music. How much more approachable does Beethoven’s “9th Symphony” become to teenagers after learning about the composer’s deafness or his struggles with society? Considering such extra-musical contexts gives the student tools necessary for understanding a conductor’s stylistic interpretation, and provides the groundwork for future personal creative endeavors.


Directors who consider musicology valuable, and who recognize its importance to adhering to trends in education, may still feel afraid of sacrificing performance standards. This legitimate concern has hopefully been assuaged with the idea that musicology occurs naturally. To help further dispel fears, and to help teachers adapt to the overarching academic focus (read: math and reading) of Common Core, what follows are several ways a teacher may add to the rehearsal without interrupting the playing schedule. In fact, directors may find that applying these methods, which all stem from common classroom practices, will streamline the schedule and promote efficiency.

The setup of instruments and equipment remains a common aspect of most ensembles. It also provides an excellent time for directors to introduce musical vocabulary, concepts, symbols, or historical figures. Every day, give a short lecture on a concept or person important to music. This might be called the “word/person of the day.” More complex concepts, such as sonata form, could become the “word of the week,” with different sections receiving a focus each day. Rather than chatting, wandering around, or otherwise wasting time, expect students to absorb the daily mini-lesson while quietly assembling instruments. Expect the class to answer one or two questions at the end, which will directly lead into warm-ups.

Alternatively, listening examples may be used to introduce composers, and especially forms. However, this should only occur after establishing the daily mini-lessons, and making sure students understand the director’s expectations regarding behavior. Otherwise, students will attempt to talk over the music, and generally ignore it in favor of chatting with friends.

In addition to the word/person of the day, create five-minute blocks for critical thinking once or twice a week, focused on relevant discussion about musical topics. This enforces music vocabulary and provides practice for the high-level questions encountered on college applications, writing tests, and music school entrance exams. Schedule critical thinking segments on days with after-school activities, such as rehearsals or performances. It is assumed by the author that a small break from playing becomes likely on these days, due to the increased burden on players’ chops. Instead of totally losing focus during the break, students will instead answer a high-order question, participate in discussion, or complete a simple writing prompt.

It is useful if the question derives from the “word of the day” terms, or especially from the repertoire used for performance, but this does not represent a strict rule. Other possible topics include comparing and contrasting two pieces of music or two different forms, speculating on the composer’s inspiration for a piece of music, or arguing for the most appropriate interpretation of a passage. Again, deriving these questions from the class’s repertoire will create the most benefit for students and directors.

In perhaps its most useful and non-obstructive manifestation, musicology provides an answer to increasingly prevalent “dead days” in the music classroom. These are periods in the school year where students cannot perform on instruments. They happen for a variety of reasons – a test given next door, students removed from class for a presentation on four-wheeler safety, an important meeting scheduled in the band room, and so on. Regardless of the reason, dead days are the antithesis of efficiency, often leading to students watching a loosely connected musical film, or just listlessly searching for something to ease their boredom.

Directors can, however, turn any dead day into “musicology day.” Students, at first, may rebel against the idea of doing “real work” instead of vegging out to a movie. Regain student interest by making the activities worth their time; relevance and rigor are not merely buzzwords. A “musicology day” should be no different than the other activities proposed, utilizing activities and concepts coming from music currently being played.

Music composition can easily become the archetypal dead day activity. Of course, this best fits a “music theory” heading, and supports national standard four more than the ones focused on in this article. For our purposes, though, we will assume that other factors make their way into a composition lesson, such as historical context, composer biography, or knowledge of form. Assign an approximate number of measures to be written fitting a form derived from repertoire, and have students explain how what they compose matches the assigned form. Advanced students may strive for a longer composition or use more instruments. Perform the most characteristic examples composed in class, even (if you are daring) at the next concert.

Not all students, of course, will love this idea, or any other. As a music professional, however, you have to ask whether you feel more comfortable writing a lesson plan like the one above, or one that reads “watch a movie.” What if it the dead day coincides with an unscheduled evaluation? Even a class-related movie will not go over well if used for the whole period without some sort of effort on the part of students.

Finally, keep record of all the daily terms, five-minute discussion topics, and relevant activities used in class, and put any handouts or performances viewed (use of technology!) in a file. This file will serve as documentation of your support of reading comprehension skills, critical thinking, differentiated learning, school goals, and more. It also protects you if anyone questions your use of a movie, or if a student contests that his grade derives from something non-musical in music class. Do not skip the step of making this file – all the effort to conform to common core, and to include national standards eight and nine, can easily to go waste if no proof exists that a director did his or her job!


Critical thinking, collaboration, and universal standards are quickly becoming benchmarks by which all teachers are measured. Musicological methods, and a willingness to try new things, allow the music professional to stand with principals and school boards in the face of increased scrutiny regarding the common core, and any other evaluation model that relies on “traditional” classrooms. This does not mean decreasing performance standards, but instead recognizing musicology’s current presence in the ensemble rehearsal, and planning to use it to the greatest advantage possible.

Dale Disney is music and art coordinator for Claiborne County Schools, Tenn,, where he leads a performing arts program consisting of marching band, concert band, pep band, percussion ensemble, and winterguard. He also acts as percussion instructor for Lincoln Memorial University’s music program, where he teaches applied percussion, percussion methods, and assists with the university pep band.

 Mr. Disney is an active percussionist in the East Tennessee region, where he performs with community bands, church ensembles, and as a soloist. He has appeared playing percussion on two recordings with the TTU Symphony Band – Slide Ride: Works for Solo Trombone and Band, and Tennessee Tech Pride. He can also be heard on local television and radio stations performing with the Big Orange Banditos brass band.

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