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  • Writer's pictureKimberly Catapano

A New Voyage: Creating a Student-Centered Ensemble



In September, I will launch into my eleventh year of service in the field of public education. During that time, I have found the tool of personal reflection as a guiding feature of my journey. Throughout these formative years, I have grown immensely through the privilege of guiding young musicians through their maiden voyage into the instrumental music program until the time in which they advance to the secondary level. This career has been incredibly rewarding, yet at times extremely frustrating. Through the support of family, the inspiration of friends, and the influence of colleagues, I have come to realize that I do not have to fit into the mold of "teacher" created for me by the public education system. As I round the corner into my second decade in the profession, I continue to hone my craft as a facilitator by breaking from the trappings of traditional pedagogical practices and celebrating the possibilities of putting the child at the center of learning.

As the summer comes to a close and a new school year is set to begin, I am preparing to embark on another educational journey with a new crew of young learners on board. For myself and fellow educators, this is a time of planning and preparing for the type of journey we want our learners to endure. What learning opportunities do we want them to have? What goals should they be working to achieve? What skills are necessary for their development? These are all essential questions that will ultimately paint the picture for success within their future learning environments. While pondering these fundamental questions, I began to ask myself the most important question; who should stand at the helm of this culture of learning? The climate of the current educational system pushes for this to be the role of the teacher and leaves the students to “crew” the ship as they obey and follow daily orders. Students should listen to lecture-type instructions, echo back responses, and pass state exams. While this allows the teacher to attempt total control over the room and gives the illusion of instilling knowledge, it couldn't be farther from the truth. During this period of reflection, I had to ask myself; if the expected model of teacher-centered learning does not resonate with me, then what does success within the learning environment look like? The answer I came up with is; true success is attained at the point in which the young musicians in my ensemble can take command of their own learning and work with me, rather than for me, to create collaborative music together.

The instrumental music classroom is no different from the academic classroom in the sense that there is an opportunity to empower learners to take on leadership roles and allow the educator to become a facilitator of the learning process. Although the conductor may stand on the podium and lead the ensemble in performance, they can not play dictator of what is right and wrong. It is essential that I create an environment in which a child gains the ability to develop the skills necessary to read, learn, self-evaluate, correct, and perfect music on their own. During the performance portion of our lessons, there are times at which a student will finish an excerpt and immediately look to me to see how they performed. While I appreciate their trust in me to give them my honest feedback and advice, it is in these moments that I realize that there has been a disconnect in the learning process. My job as facilitator is to offer the foundational strategies that guide their learning, not to deem each note as correct or incorrect. Encouraging young musicians to actively listen to themselves, evaluate and correct their own performance will allow them to become independent, lifelong enjoyers and participants of music.

Another way that I have taken the role of a facilitator of learning is by providing learners with opportunities to develop ensemble performance awareness. In this approach, the teacher can allow the students to perform together in full ensembles, small ensembles such as a quartet, or even in pairs without the direct instruction of the educator. The learners are given the opportunity to explore their music together, decide where the melody lies, how the harmony supports it, and how they can achieve this balance through the use of articulation as well as dynamic contrast. By giving learners the time and space to think these elements through on their own, I am allowing them to fully immerse themselves into the music, develop active listening skills, problem-solving skills, communication skills, and teamwork that otherwise would be lost if they were simply given the answer. Not only does this approach allow for the development of critical skills, it builds the intrinsic motivation that I strive to instill upon the ensemble.

Music education is truly so much more than a weekly lesson in which learners are pulled from their academic day to prepare for a bi-yearly concert performance for the pleasure of parents and administration. All too often, a music program is deemed successful if the yearly rendition of “Jingle Bells” is recognizable and if ensembles are earning high scores at festivals. Being immersed in the redundant routines, conflicts, and other administrative "non-teaching" stressors of education makes it easy to fall victim to mentality. There are times throughout the school year I find myself overwhelmed by this mentality, and I use this as a chance to reflect back on why I entered the profession over ten years ago.

At the end of the day, I've realized that my hope is to inspire young musicians to share in the joy of their ability to create something meaningful, emotional, and beautiful from within themselves. Music is not a concert. It is not winning a medal. It is not a club; music is passion. It is the ultimate expression of our emotional being because it requires the dedication of one's entire self to create. To truly perform, a musician needs to engage their minds to perceive the notes their eyes are reading. They need to engage their ears to listen, evaluate, and correct on the spot. They need to combine the elements of fine and gross motor skills as they create the music with their physical bodies, and above all, they need to recognize and radiate the emotion that the composer sought. At the point in which a musician is able to perform at this high, emotional level, either on their own or in a collaborative ensemble, they will have experienced one of the most empowering forces the learning environment is capable of providing.

As this adventure of navigating a new school year quickly approaches, it is my goal to continue supporting learners through my role as their music facilitator, guiding them in exploring, learning from mistakes, and eventually experiencing success. I believe if I follow this course, their musical journey will continue long after they leave my learning environment.

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