Recently, I wrote a post on lesson planning. In it I laid out a three-part method of teaching: the teacher does, the students do with the teacher, and the students do independently. The first two steps are part of the teaching cycle, the last step is an opportunity for the student to show what they can do and what improvement they have made. I want to discuss this third step, the student doing independently, as it relates to students performing.
People perform music in real time, in public, and often with others. When it is done with others, an individual student can rely on another to pull them along in moments of uncertainty. The phrase “there is strength in numbers” refers to this very thing. Everyone doesn’t have to be excellent all the time if there are enough people involved, because those who are getting on excellently will be numerous enough to hide the mistakes of the few at any given moment. Studnets can learn much in this environment. One student can hear another do something really well, and then imitate what was heard. But the imitator needs to grow so that s/he is the one being imitated. Ideally individuals in an ensemble continue to grow so that eventually there is no need for imitating, because all are performing on a high level nearly all the time. This is one reason why singing or playing alone is so important. At some point, every student needs to “fly” on his or her own, and they never will unless they practice soloing regularly.
There is another reason why singing or playing alone is important. Teachers cannot assess individual growth based on group performance as accurately as they can assess it based on solo performance. I have recorded individuals while singing in a group, and have received valuable data on how proficiently they are singing in the group, but I have no way of knowing how much of what they were singing was the result of imitating others compared to initiating excellently performed notes. Performing with others is an effective strategy for learning a piece and practicing intonation and other matters of ensemble, but it does not develop individual proficiency in music making as well as solo performance. Singing or playing with your students can be effective as a method of modeling, but it should be done sparingly; it is very difficult to hear and assess students when you are singing or playing.
There are several ways solo singing can be used for assessment in a non-intimidating way for the reluctant public singer or player. One popular method is to have individual students leave class and go into an adjacent practice room where a recording device is set up. The student records him or herself performing the assigned piece or excerpt, and then returns to the class. Students continue to record themselves in a pre-arranged order throughout the class. Alternately, and if your school policy allows, during class time allotted for practice and refinement, individual students can record themselves when they are ready on their own mobile device, and then e-mail you the sound file. You can then listen to and assess their performance later. If you use this method, be sure the e-mail contains the student’s name.
After three or four recordings have been made over a period of weeks, students will be pleased to hear their improvement, and realize they can sing for others with confidence and enjoyment. Once this happens, a third method becomes possible. Have individual students perform for the class. Once they have documented their improvement over time, many will gain enough confidence to be eager to sing or play for their peers. The performance is always the goal, and the process of preparing the performance is where the bulk of learning takes place. By the time the performance is given, the student has the benefit of what was learned during the process, and that should be celebrated as much if not more than the performance itself.