A question came up recently about attrition, and digging a little deeper I realized this is something we all face unless we actively work to build enthusiasm and excitement into orchestra classes and rehearsals. The context here is in regards to teenagers, or tweens, when the social phase and brain development is underway.
As adults this time of our lives is easy to lose touch with but we all go through it. If you want the science on this, read up on it >>here or >>here, through respected academies and journals. For a very cursory explanation, this period of seemingly strange behavior during teen brain development is due to the fact that the frontal cortex, or where we learn the ability to reason and think before taking action, develops later, even into adulthood. (Although as with any theory, there are certainly scientific inquiries which would just as easily disagree.)
Off the top of my head I mentioned that it is important to make sure we are addressing the social needs of teenage participants, so what follows are things I and others have used to generate enthusiasm and retention beyond an intrinsic respect for excellence in music preparation and performance. These suggestions are not things you would use for every rehearsal, but should be built into a yearly plan so that over the course of a year there are things to look forward to.
Helping players take responsibility for their contributions in addition to concert preparation
- In-class performances where students are taught ho
w to evaluate each other fairly and accurately
- Letting students lead: scale leaders or conducting, breathing together and making eye contact before starting (as in a chamber ensemble)
- Letting pairs, small groups or sections video-record themselves to help them evaluate
- Theme concerts: story concerts, poetry and music concerts, all Baroque, etc.
- Concerts to benefit others such as for a cause (let THEM come up with which one), at senior centers or institutions for the disabled, etc.
- Combined concerts – team up with another teacher from another school to make a festival
- Featured Soloist: invite a professional to play a solo with your group, or invite them to a rehearsal where they can share an overview of their work and prepare the students to interview them beforehand (even better if it could be a composer whose work they can perform)
Help students get to concerts by giving them incentives to do so: free tickets as a reward, invitations to great performances or concerts that you perform in, or if you have the support of a school, actual trips away to great concerts in wonderful theaters. This is really high on my list because the journey of getting to places is where a lot of bonding takes place and is a chance for players to get to know the real you, and for them to be themselves too. Maybe I am old fashioned but I always forbid devices on trips unless it is to share music between two people listening to music, because I want them to interact and learn how to talk to each other. Let them be social, have fun and eat junk food without judgement. Don’t be a mean militant – trust them to follow your rules and you will win their respect and trust in return – but bring parents along to help with the business of chaperoning, for sure! I really cannot overemphasize how important it is to build a love of listening to concerts/ballet/chamber music because many people will have periods of their lives when they stop playing their instruments, and I hope we all want them to continue to support live music and the musicians who are performing. The people we teach are also the audiences of the future, unless we ignore this aspect of our duty.
Do you reward players for their effort? We really must find ways to show students that their progress is noted and appreciated! There are so many ways to show recognition, from verbally praising success in front of the group, to certificates of participation, coupons for something free, ribbons, medals, trophies, student of the month, best scales, greatest effort, most improved and so on. In my opinion this is not an option. If we continually fail to recognize our students’ progress, this will likely have a negative effect in the long run. At best, not recognizing the work our students do might allow a neutral zone but I would not want to chance this going into negative territory. It’s also rather important to make a ceremony of presenting the recognition, in front of as many people as possible.
I prefer to do it at the end of a recital, but it could be at any event where there are multiple people present. I gave a tuning fork to one young man who had to move, for having diligently studied for two and a half years and coming a very long way. I didn’t have the chance to give it during a recital, but I did make sure to give it at the end of his last class, when his peers and a few moms were there.
Do you already have a few games that you love to use with your group? If not, a few of the ones I enjoy are “Hide the Note” which is where one person leaves, and another person is chosen to be the “out of tune” note, and the whole orchestra plays one pitch together except for the one slightly off-pitch. The person who is “it” has to come back in and find the wrong note. Another fun game is letting a student conduct a piece that the group already knows well, but the student gets to play around with slower and faster tempos while the group has to practice following. This same game can be done instead with building a chord, and the student conductor gets to practice leading crescendos and decrescendos. I also have several music bingo games which I use for younger students to help reinforce rhythms and vocabulary which they love. And believe it or not, I have also found that all ages of students love to play musical chairs. Obviously we are not in the business of just playing games with our groups, but it certainly helps to have a few up our sleeves to break up the routine and build some fun in the midst of the great mental and physical effort needed to produce great music.
Challenges are also a way to help some individuals get more excited and participate more. I have done 21-day and 30-day practice challenges which were helpful this year.
Parent and Community Involvement
One of the ways to ensure the long life of your group is to get parents and community members involved right away from the outset of your year or semester. Get to know the parents and do not gloss over this. They are your lifeline to keep things going well over time. Parents of your students can be your greatest asset outside of the students or participants themselves. Reward them, invite them, give to them and do it over time. They need encouragement and appreciation too! Thank them often and thank them sincerely. Keep an open door of communication and keep the conversation rolling with them. Ask for their help, as we are definitely partners with them in the success of their kids’ musical development!
What do you do with your groups to ensure their growth and stability? Do you think this is important? Do you allow for creative expression from the participants? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!