Middle School Chamber Music: An Experiment

Each year, during the long stretch between Christmas and spring break, students everywhere seem to hit the doldrums. Motivation drops, engagement suffers, and rehearsals can lose their enjoyment for both students and teacher. I wanted to avoid the February/March lull with my students this year, so I decided to change things up a bit. Rather than schedule our traditional spring combined 7th/8th grade large ensemble concert, each grade level would have their own chamber music recital.

There were several reasons behind this. Chamber music experiences have always been some of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences of my own musical career, I wanted to give my students a chance to experience real musical independence and autonomy, and I wanted chamber rehearsals to break up the monotony of the large ensemble routine.

The foundation for this project began during the week before Christmas break. I told students what the March concerts would look like, and they were understandably skeptical. So they broke up into small groups of their choosing (4-8 musicians), and prepared some simple carols to perform around school. Unfortunately, we had a snow day on the scheduled carolling date, but the seed had been planted.

Once the students came back from their Christmas break, I had them pick out new groups, anything from a duet to a sextet. From there, they chose music from our library, and we got to work. Before I set the groups loose on their own, each class observed a typical chamber music rehearsal and took some notes on what was happening. We discussed everything from how to start learning the piece, to how to solve disagreements within the group. I wanted the students well-equipped for the times when I would be away from them coaching other groups.

Rehearsals began in earnest in mid-January. Our typical week would be 2-3 days of full ensemble work, 2-3 days in chamber groups. During those chamber days, I’d spend 10-15 minutes (out of a 55-minute class) with a group, and then move on to another one. I offered feedback on things like dynamics, phrasing and tempo, but the final decision on such things was left up to the group.Long story short, the recital nights were (mostly) a raging success. Despite some dress rehearsal nerves, the students performed quite well on concert night. When we reflected on the performances as a class the following day, student feedback was overwhelmingly positive. They loved the independence, they loved working with their friends, they loved the challenge. I’ve never seen my students more engaged during a concert cycle. Plans are already being made for a repeat of this experience during the next school year, with a few tweaks.If you’ve ever been interested in putting together a chamber music experience for your own students, here are some of my observations that you might find useful.

  • Not all groups will display the same work ethic. To keep groups on-task while you are working with another group, consider having them fill out a goal sheet or rehearsal reflection at the end of each day to keep them accountable.
  • Don’t let yourself be bound by traditional instrumentation. Yes, brass quintets are cool. But if you’ve got two saxophonists, an oboist, a clarinetist and a percussionist who would like to work together, let them! There’s plenty of flexible music out there (Duets/Trios/Quartets For All) that allow for strange instrumentation.
  • Speaking of percussionists…no percussion parts? No problem. If a group wants to use a snare drum on a piece with no snare part, it’s a great opportunity for the students to experience composition. Noteflight is free, and easy enough for even young students to use.
  • If you’ve got the resources, bring in clinicians. College students, older high school students, retired band directors, whatever. The kids really value that focused feedback, and bringing in clinicians will allow each group to experience more of it.
  • Avoid the urge to be overprotective. Yes, it can be nerve-wracking to see your students on their own for the first time, but their experience will be more rewarding if they learn to sink or swim on their own. They’ll make plenty of mistakes during the process, but if you step back and let them figure out how to fix the mistakes, the students will have total ownership of the musical product. Cut the cord!

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The Trombonist’s Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

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One thought on “Middle School Chamber Music: An Experiment

  1. Pingback: Middle School Chamber Music: Student Feedback | The Trombonist's Mouthpiece

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