I was a little worried about Davis.
Davis is a sophomore saxophone player in my band, and he was not as engaged as he usually is. He is one of the better musicians in my group, and he was the section leader of the saxophone section. He regularly led the sectionals and handed out parts for new pieces. Now, he wasn’t coming to rehearsal with as much urgency and sometimes he was still putting his reed on the mouthpiece when the rest of the group was ready to play. My students usually come to band rehearsal each day where the routine has been pretty well established. And each day, we work on fundamentals and prepare our repertoire for the upcoming performance. In spite of the variety of performances on the schedule, it can become a stagnant routine where students can grow complacent in their leadership roles. It looked as if the more Davis performed his leadership role, the less he was challenged to improve his leadership and collaboration skills. Davis needed a spark, and I needed to find a way to engage everyone with a new method before our year-end assessments.
In our school district, all of the musicians in the performance ensembles are assessed each year for their musical skills and the 21st Century skills of collaboration and critical thinking. There are many good reasons to assess our musicians for these skills – I believe it gives students who participate in band, orchestra and choir an advantage in the job market in their future – yet there is a shortage of curriculum that directly supports the 21st Century skills that are assessed. If Davis is being evaluated for growth of these 21st Century skills over the year and he spends the year in an ensemble where these skills are more likely to stagnate, how can he experience growth?
The dilemma is pretty clear. Davis and his advanced peers were being called upon to lead others while these students were not really getting any opportunity to lead. Davis wasn’t being challenged as he fulfilled his leadership responsibilities. The same kids in my band were leading while the same kids were following. The cornerstone assessment I would use to show student growth was going to be upon us all before we knew it and I decided to solve this dilemma by the time everyone returned from winter break. Before our winter break, my supervisor came to band rehearsal for an observation (a part of our annual evaluation process) and, when we conferenced afterward, we acknowledged the band class is a very different set of circumstances from the typical core class (Language Arts, Social Studies, Math and Science). The answer to my dilemma seemed to lie in how instruction in the core classes is differentiated. The teachers in core classes would differentiate the students into groups depending on where they are assessed; advanced students would receive enriched instruction while underachieving students would get extra support. As we conferenced, my supervisor asked if I’d done a baseline assessment and if I’d differentiate the band into groups according to musical skills. I had done the assessment and differentiated the groups but had not found a way to use the results to support the 21st Century skills on the cornerstone assessment.
I found a solution: I would create small ensembles from the differentiated groups according to their skill level rather than by instrumentation. The problem was that if I create a group based on the musical skills scores of the baseline assessment, the advanced level group that Davis would perform with would consist of a clarinet, a trumpet, two alto saxophones, a tenor saxophone, and two trombones. Where was I going to find music to fit this instrumentation? The next group was equally disjointed and presented the same difficulty finding appropriate music. The third group consisted of a group of beginners, and I’d be using the bulk of my time scaffolding their musical skills. The approach was to find some small ensemble music and transcribe it for each of the groups. I had a collection of quartet music I’d previously arranged in a digital format so it could easily be arranged for the instrumentation of each group. I prepared this repertoire over winter break and came to rehearsal excited to try this new approach; I wanted to see if this would give Davis the spark he needed.
At first, some students were resistant, it was disturbing the status quo. Students were comfortable in their roles within the band. This was especially true of the middle group where I’d placed students who felt they should be in the advanced group. As the middle group started to rehearse, students who were not used to leading were stepping forward and leading. The students were listening more carefully and finding ways to figure out new passages, fix mistakes and play better as a group. The leaders of the middle group were starting discussions about music rather than passively listening. Each ensemble gradually transformed into a more functional, more independent band as the cornerstone assessment approached.
The approach took some work on my part as students brought their initial objections to my attention. It was necessary to offer patient explanations to assuage bruised egos. Initially, the resistance made me anxious, but I came to realize the approach was beneficial to the students involved as they started to transform. I learned I needed to be as patient with myself as I needed to be in explaining the approach to the students. Also, finding the right repertoire for all of the groups proved to be a bit problematic. The middle group didn’t really like one of the pieces I assigned and, in retrospect, I would have given them more choices. As musicians, we learn we don’t always get to play things we like all of the time but I’ve learned musicians at all levels will perform music they like much better. It is also essential to keep the size of the groups to eight or less; it would have been more successful if there were two middle groups.
When the day arrived, each of the groups performed well on the assessment, and I’d observed student growth during their rehearsals preparing for the evaluation. The growth they had experienced was apparent in the way they were talking to each other as they rehearsed their music. When I stepped in to see how Davis was doing with his ensemble, he was more engaged and talking about the finer points of the music with a group of musicians that more closely matched his own skills. In a sense, it was like putting a group of valedictorians in a room and asking them to solve a problem; each of them starts to realize they are not necessarily the smartest person in the room and they need to collaborate. The middle group was speaking more like leaders and were more actively solving problems. I’ve come to understand while observing students rehearse on their own, it’s as essential to listen to what the students say to each other after they’ve performed a passage as it is to hear the music as they played it. This experience made me aware of the fact it very important to listen to students and allow them to speak with each other.
Davis, in the end, showed incredible growth and continues to be more engaged in band rehearsal each day.