Ensemble playing- music as language

DSC06240 copyMany years ago I instituted a policy in my studio about playing in outside ensembles. The policy states that beginning in 6th grade, every student must commit to a weekly ensemble experience outside of lessons and group classes (my core program includes a weekly private lesson and bi-weekly flute group classes). School band or orchestra, local area chamber music, youth symphony or wind ensemble, even a group of kids forming a rock band that agrees to meet regularly, all ensemble opportunities “count”.

Recently my ensemble policy has been questioned by some of my colleagues as well as a family within my studio. Isn’t it too much of a time commitment? Jr and Sr high school students are so busy. Can’t my child just keep taking lessons even if they don’t sign up for band in school? I have been tempted to make exceptions to my requirement.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I had one of my long-time students stop taking flute lessons. I was sad and disappointed but had seen it coming. I wondered if there was something I should have done differently. My student had been struggling all fall. She was coming to lessons unprepared, withdrawn, and disengaged. The change in our lessons was dramatic. I spoke with her family, we talked in lessons, I looked for music that was particularly fun and engaging. I was working hard to help her through what felt like a particularly difficult practice slump. (We all have them!) Just six months ago she was progressing through her repertoire, well-known and respected as the most advanced flutist in school music program, and she had just gotten a new flute. Then this past fall, for the first time in three years, she did not audition for the after school honors band. She didn’t want to join a chamber music class. She began to balk at playing in front of our group class. She decided not to take band in school. It was a slippery slope that ended in a wonderful, talented young girl feeling overwhelmed, unmotivated, and bad about herself.

The more I have thought about the situation, the more confident I am that my “ensemble requirement” is absolutely right on. Many of my students begin playing when they are very young (age 4-6). At that age a private lesson and group class is sufficient and they work with their parents daily at home. For my pre-teens, the parent relationship is changing. They are no longer as willing to have the parent actively working with them at home. Developmentally, it is appropriate that they are craving independence, peer interactions, and acceptance. In my experience, no matter how long they have studied their instrument, making music cannot be a solitary experience for this age group. They need to communicate, to feel like “one of the gang”, and to be surrounded by an environment of music. Sending a student to practice alone in their bedroom day after day is like a watching a beautiful plant slowly being starved of light and water. Music is a living language and it needs to be shared with others.

There is nothing more exciting than to see one of my teenage students thriving in school and in music. To know that their instrument has become their “rock” and it has helped them to weather one of the most volatile and difficult stages of growth. To see that they are well on their way to becoming what Dr Shinichi Suzuki calls “the good citizens of the world”.

What ensemble experiences do your students participate in? If you are a piano instructor, how to do manage to make playing the piano exciting and fulfilling at this every social time? Do you see a difference between those students who are engaged in music with their peers and those who are more solitary? What creative solutions have you found for your home-schooled students or those who do not fit into the typical programs? I look forward to your thoughts.

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