By Emily Moss
It was the last class meeting of Wind Ensemble for the semester, and I asked my students to reflect on what we had learned throughout the year. Our final performance had been a success, but their answers to a handful of questions—asking about what pieces they found most enjoyable and challenging, what musical skills they felt that they had developed individually and as a group—would shed some light on how the year had really gone.
They wrote their answers down on a piece of paper and then shared out with the group. Some of their responses were predictable—others were surprising. Many felt their growth as musicians came steadily throughout the year, while some expressed excitement at how our more challenging repertoire forced them to “rise to the occasion” and perform at an unexpectedly high level. All of them referenced skills they developed, which will be built upon when we return in the fall.
As the academic year concludes, we hear a lot about year-end student performance and results. There are final exams, final grades, course completions, etc. But my students’ reflections provided an important reminder: while our final performance may have been stellar, something really to be proud of, what they achieved in terms of musical growth throughout the year is truly the most important outcome.
Like any educator, directing large ensembles at an academic institution comes with tough decisions about where and how to focus your teaching. There is rarely enough time in rehearsal to achieve all of the musical goals present in a particular set of repertoire, let alone to deepen and build upon our students’ musicianship and musical growth. With public performances looming, we often feel the pressure to focus on simply getting the music ready; we want the music to represent the best our students can bring to a performance.
But is a spectacular performance really our main goal? Obviously teaching our students and preparing for final performances are not mutually exclusive; they are not, however, inextricably linked.
How do we know that our students are learning anything in our large ensembles beyond the ability to perform specific repertoire? We are all familiar with this scenario: after an exemplary performance, rehearsal begins on a new piece that has similarities to a recently performed piece. Yet somehow, the musicians do not seem to recognize any of these similarities. It feels as if we are back at square one. Why don’t they remember what we did weeks ago?
Transfer: Applicable and Adaptable Knowledge and Skill
One reason is that learning specific repertoire does not necessarily involve learning how to think about how and why they are performing the repertoire in a specific way. In an exemplary performance, students demonstrate the ability to perform the music, but did they learn why they were asked to perform it that way?
Robert Duke, in his book Intelligent Music Teaching: Essays on the Core Principles of Effective Instruction, describes a phenomenon in education called transfer. Essentially, transfer is when a learner is able to apply knowledge or skills in new and different circumstances.
This is arguably the most important outcome of teaching. Can your students take what they have learned and use it in the future in some meaningful way? When we pass out that new piece of music, we hope our students recognize the similarities and apply their knowledge and skills appropriately. The reality is this does not just happen automatically. “[T]ransfer is not reliably automatic; that is, learners who encounter novel situations do not always apply their knowledge and skills in ways that effectively solve problems and accomplish goals” (Duke, p. 141-142).
Facilitating the transfer of knowledge and skills during ensemble rehearsals goes beyond the traditional model of rehearsing. However, it can be done with a few simple changes to the way rehearsals are constructed.
How to Facilitate Transfer in a Rehearsal…or a Class
A quick and fairly simple practice involves structuring the rehearsal around one or two main skills. When students experience utilizing the same musical skill across several pieces or exercises, their focus is on skill acquisition more than the specific repertoire.
For example, if you want to focus an entire rehearsal around internal pulse (the consistent “feeling” of the beat throughout any music), you can use your warm-up exercises to introduce the concept and reinforce it during each new excerpt, providing opportunities to frame their thinking around internal pulse and draw connections between how it was used in the previous context and how it will be used in the new context.
Another way to help facilitate transfer in your rehearsal is by asking questions requiring students to think about why certain musical decisions are being made or how they can solve problems on their own. Instead of telling them to “fix the pitch there—you’re sharp,” you can ask a question: “What do you hear there? Is there something going on with the pitch?” Instead of: “Trumpets, you’re playing those eighth notes too long. Shorten them up,” you can ask: “Trumpets: what can you tell me about the style of a march? Why does the length of your eighth notes matter here?”
Many directors may think that telling students how to play or sing gets the ensemble performing better more quickly; taking the time to ask questions will make the rehearsal less efficient. This is true in the short term. But is saving time the main goal?
As with learning outcomes, once students begin transferring their performance knowledge and skills to future repertoire, the rehearsal time is gained back, and their music can be learned quickly and efficiently. Not to mention that if the main goal of the ensemble is to prepare students to be better musicians, the initial time is well spent.
Duke, R. A. (2005). Intelligent music teaching: Essays on the core principles of effective instruction. Austin, TX: Learning and Behavior Resources.
Emily Moss is an Associate Professor, the Director of Bands, and the Chair of the Department of Music at California State University, Los Angeles, where she directs the Wind Ensemble and Symphonic Band, teaches undergraduate and graduate conducting, and instructs in instrumental music education methods.
Dr. Moss is featured in ACUE’s modules: Planning an Effective Class Session, Helping Students Persist in Their Studies, Providing Clear Directions and Explanations, and Checking for Student Understanding.
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