performing ensembles

R – My friend and colleague Jen Etter drove 600 miles with me the last couple of days, to and from Presque Isle to work with some of the region’s arts teachers up there. A delightful time. And as our travels came to an end last night, our brains both hurt after talking for hours and hours about practical and philosophical topics around music education (she won’t mind my telling you that we’re both geeks like that). One of the topics we hit on yesterday was the role of performing ensembles as academic in nature, and when they become so.

One of the fascinating things about music education is how the emphasis K-12 gradually transforms from “creation” to “re-creation”; general music generating personal musical experiences, leading eventually to performing ensembles performing other composer’s works. The skills – academic skills – that are developed early on are developed and amplified through song, creation of original material and explored through music and musical instruments. This next statement is an over-generalization, and I know that, but it isn’t until 4th or 5th grade that formal, more “traditional” instruments are usually introduced, and hopefully by then there is an academic foundation that is in place for those kids (if there isn’t, the elementary music teacher needs to take a close look in a mirror and ask some difficult questions). 5th and 6th grades introduce the performing ensembles as classes. But academically, are the kids ready to be held accountable for rigorous content in those courses and how does that relate/compare to simultaneous general music expectations? And more to the point, what is the student retention rate when academic expectations are placed on them at that level? My suspicion is that it drops. So then is that really the best way to service those kids? By 7th and 8th grade, how have academic expectations shifted for those ensembles? Or have they? By High School, have those academic standards been established for the students and how are they being met: with disdain? Apathy? Confusion over, “since when did this become academic?”

(And keep in mind, I’m talking about “academic” as individual student growth and accountability, not evaluation of the ensemble as a whole – it’s bunk to suggest that evaluating the ensemble is a valid evaluation of all the individual kids in it. A math teacher with 25 students in a class doesn’t make 1 copy of an assessment that all the kids do together and they all get the same score. The math teacher actually takes the time to make 25 copies of that assessment. There is a reason for that.)

The topic here is an interesting dance on two fronts. The first is around student retention in the ensemble. If I push the kids too hard, too soon, they might not “like” or enjoy the performing ensemble and they will drop the course. If this happens too often, I may even loose the course entirely, an administrator will notice that my numbers are down, and my position will be cut. Of COURSE I can’t push the kids too hard, I’ll loose my job! The other dance is around being an academic subject. Hypothetical conversation, scenario #1:

teacher: I just want my students in chorus to love singing.

me: are there any academic expectations for your kids?

teacher: yup, they have to sing on pitch with good tone and sight read.

me: and how do you know if each individual student is accomplishing those goals and to what degree they’re doing so?

teacher: other than listening to and evaluating the group as a whole?

me: yup.

teacher: I don’t… but I just really want them to love singing anyway.

administrator: sorry, I’ve been eavesdropping. Since you aren’t holding individual students accountable, let’s move chorus outside of the school day to make more room for subjects that do hold students accountable.


Scenario #2, teacher starts holding students academically accountable… and 47% of the kids drop the class.

Can we really even win? Is there a logical time for our performing ensembles to become academic in nature? If YES, then when do we make this transition, how do we make this transition, and how do we also transition the public mindset from, “…wow, weren’t those 2nd graders just adorable at that concert last night?” (concerts are “entertainment”) and how do we do so without driving kids away who just want to enjoy the experience of being in an ensemble? If NO, then how can we call what we do “academic”? I’ve said recently that not all that is essential in the arts can be assessed. But all that is academic can be. And if we occur during the school day for academic credit, all that is academic must be. But at the risk of loosing the very students who we’re trying to assess?

I wish Jen and I had recorded our conversations the last two days – or at least hired a stenographer to ride in the back seat with us. But as opinionated as I can get in these blog posts (I’m allowed to, it’s Jarika’s and my blog), I don’t have a strong feeling of direction on this topic. Other than having HS and MS ensembles as required courses (there’s a reason that Math, English and Social Studies teachers don’t have these same conversations), it’s a battle either way, and it’s a battle that could end in disaster either way. Perhaps this is why generations of music teachers have said out of one side of their mouths that they are academic and out the other side that they can’t hold their students academically accountable. If they have to sacrifice academic content OR the concert, I don’t know a single teacher who has ever sacrificed the concert. There are so many things wrong with that. And yet, there are also so many things right about that. I guess this blog post is not about my standing on a soap box for once. It’s just merely raising a topic that that Jen and I hit on while riding in the car, on which neither of us have a satisfactory answer. But it’s worth discussing.


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