Chamber Music For Middle School Students

Back in college I took a course titled Secondary Instrumental Methods. One of the projects for the course involved arranging Amazing Grace for a small chamber ensemble. I credit this class, and that project in particular, with getting me to start thinking beyond the traditional school large ensemble structure. Activities like composition, orchestration, and chamber music now seemed like realistic possibilities for my own band classes as a teacher.

Fast forward to three years ago. It was my fourth year at my current job, and I felt comfortable enough to start taking some musical risks. When scheduling the concerts for that year, I decided to take the plunge and set up two chamber music nights in March instead of our traditional spring band concert. Each grade would have its own chamber music recital in a more intimate performance venue.

The first year was a lot of trial and error, and here in year three of the annual chamber concerts, I’m still tweaking a few things. I’ve also learned quite a bit during these three years, and I encourage any teacher considering doing something like this to just go ahead and take the plunge.

Why chamber music? It’s simple. My basic goal as a teacher is to provide my students with the skills and thought processes necessary for them to function without me. Rather than me dictating things from the podium, I want them making their own decisions about dynamics, phrasing, tempo, balance, and blend. I want them to have total ownership over the final musical product. Chamber music does all of these things.

Dip your toes in the water. Several months before our first chamber night, I wanted to make sure my students would have just a taste of what they were in for. There’s safety in numbers, and to be successful, they needed to be comfortable playing in an environment where they would be more exposed. The week before Christmas break, they divided themselves into groups of 4-8 students, and we got to work learning some selections from Quick And Easy Carols, by Scott Watson. Each group then went around the school right before break and caroled to several classrooms. They gained performing experience without the pressure that comes with a formal performance.

Flex arrangements are your friend. I let my students choose their own chamber ensembles, because they know who they work well with. This results in some strange instrumentation, which is fine. There are several books out there that will work with any combination of instruments, most notable the Duets/Trios/Quartets For All.

Find a rehearsal schedule that works. I eventually settled on spending 1-2 days per week focusing on just chamber music. On those days, each group goes into a different practice room or spreads out around the band room. I spend 5-10 minutes working with each group on those days. For the other 3-4 days per week, we work on some full ensemble music, and I have the flexibility to send groups that might need some extra practice out to work. It seems to be a good balance for us, and I’ve noticed increased engagement among my students during this concert cycle each year.

Take time to teach decision-making skills. With younger students especially, they might not have much experience reaching a consensus democratically. A strong personality can threaten to take over the whole chamber group. I stress that each individual in the ensemble has a valuable contribution to make, and no decision should be reached until all members have a chance to give their input. We do a few exercises with our warmup chorales as a full ensemble to give students a peek into this process. We’ll play through a chorale, and then I ask for student input on things like dynamics, tempo, and phrasing. If we get three different suggestions for dynamics, we perform the chorale three different ways, and then as a group choose the one that we feel makes the most musical sense.

Find a way to hold students accountable. Since you are not with every chamber group all the time while they are rehearsing, you might need a way to keep them on track. I created a simple rubric, and ask groups to rate themselves in categories like teamwork, preparedness, use of time, rhythm accuracy, pitch accuracy, etc.

Show them how the process works. I’ve got a basic map for the students to guide them through learning a piece. The first step is learning your own individual part, just notes and rhythms. From there, we move to learning how the parts fit together, to making decisions about dynamics and phrasing, to polishing things like blend and balance for the final performance. This gives the students a more tangible goal for each step in the process.

Be encouraging! For many students, this might be their first time in a “1-2 players on a part” situation. There will be some growing pains, so make sure you celebrate the successes. This will keep your students motivated to continue with more chamber music in the future, and they will keep developing these valuable musical skills.

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