One of the biggest challenges we all face each year (or every 3 – 6 months really) is undoubtedly repertoire selection. There are a number of reasons why this is so important, and something that so many of us agonise over during our precious January break: this is going to be the music we live with for the next 3-6 months, and it needs to, in my opinion, be the vehicle for our students’ learning and by extension, can be a major pre-determinant in the success of our work. Compounded further by the unknown quantity of new students in our ensembles (these are students for whom we are missing the assessment stage of the teaching and learning cycle), and by concerns that some of us may have that the students won’t be engaged by the repertoire, and we have a recipe for many sleepless nights!
I’ve been asked about my repertoire choices quite a lot over the past few years; and my experience has certainly been that the right repertoire will give your group the ability to play more musically and with more creative engagement by sheer virtue of its quality and suitability to the students. Interestingly, the younger conductors I’ve spoken to seem to be more focused on the repertoire I’ve chosen, whilst more established conductors are keen to discuss the pedagogical tools used to get the group sounding the way they do. I believe these factors are inseparable and are at the very core of the difference between what we can teach students, and what they can learn when we create the right environment and couple it with high expectations and attainable goals. Quality repertoire creates this environment, and its suitability shapes the expectations we can set both in rehearsal, and in the performance.
I became very interested in a handful of well-known educational theories whilst completing a Masters in teaching a few years ago. These are all great things to read up on and have had a big impact on the repertoire I select. If I were to pick my top three, they would be: Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, Carol Ann Tomlinson’s Differentiated Instruction, and Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. In short, the suitability of repertoire for any group can be judged on:
- Differentiation – How can I rehearse it in a way that differentiates for the player standards, learning types (see also Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences) and interests of individual learners?
- Vygotsky – is this music attainable with my guidance in rehearsal but unattainable without guidance? This has a huge impact on how much the music is practiced at home (see also Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on Flow).
- Bloom – how quickly can I get the students to the higher order thinking area with this music? This is, after all, what we all sign up for when wanting to play music!
Repertoire that doesn’t meet these pedagogical criteria will see us teaching notes, not music. We’ve all heard performances of groups performing music that is beyond them (I certainly have heard a demoralising succession of them whilst adjudicating), and I’m never sure whether it’s worse hearing the students struggle to play the notes, or hearing them playing all the notes but making absolutely no music out of them. In my work with year 7 and 8 students, I have to place a large emphasis on sight-reading, ensemble listening and interpretation to counteract this phenomenon in primary school ensemble playing.
My philosophy is that our high expectations should be focused on the musicianship of the performance, not on the degree of difficulty of the repertoire. One of my mentors is always ready to abandon a work if a group can’t engage with the music in the first hour. If your response to this is that it’s normal for the music to be unrecognisable until you’ve ‘taught’ it to them, then I would urge you reflect seriously on this. What will the students learn from this process? All too often it seems that we teach students that hard music is good music; the joy of our great musical art form is in the struggle to overcome, either the music, or other ensembles in a competition, and most worryingly: that rehearsals are slow, boring experiences where you listen to others sounding bad, and get into trouble for everything.
I would prefer my students to have an authentic rehearsal experience every week – the same as a professional group would on a good day. We do what those groups do – talk about phrasing the same way; learn each other’s parts so that we have perspective on how to play ours, learn about the architecture of the music and consider why we should play this section in this way now and that way later. If we all wrote a list of the skills we wish our students had in their home practice time, I believe it should be these skills we model and develop in rehearsals. This is Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development at work. This is concentrating on Bloom’s high order thinking, with creating and evaluating at the top and remembering at the bottom.
To paraphrase Pablo Casals: everything that is important in music is that which is not on the page. My goal is to rehearse, model and develop everything that’s not on the page. I want to teach music. If the repertoire is too difficult, I can’t do this. And students sign up to learn music, not to overcome unbeatable odds and to beat the other school in a competition. My contention is that these are goals that only result from the ambitions of the school or the conductor, and should be secondary to the learning of our students.
Jason Isaac BMus(Perf) DipMus(Jazz) MTeach has been conducting for the past 15 years, working at a number of schools and organisations throughout Sydney. He divides his time between working with orchestras, wind bands, and jazz ensembles, and is currently Director of Bands at Ashbury Public, Newtown High School of the Performing Arts, Willoughby Girls, and Pennant Hills High Schools as well as Musical Director of the Ashfield Little Big Band.
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