For the typical American student, class time is spent doing things individually or in small groups. Students are used to activities such as watching and listening to a teacher’s presentation, reading aloud or silently, doing a writing assignment, math problems, or science experiments. Although everyone in the class is doing something, the class is not doing anything active together. The students are not reading aloud in unison, reciting math facts in unison, or doing the science experiment with whole-class collaboration. Students may all be doing the same or similar things, but they are each doing the thing independently of other students or small groups.
Contrast this to the typical music ensemble rehearsal. Students sing or play parts all at the same time. Each students activity is a part of what the whole class is doing in real-time. In a choir, small groups are made of sopranos, altos, and perhaps tenor and basses for older groups. The groups all sing at once, each group part of the real-time product of the activity, and each student within each group sings at once. There is no independent work. All are involved. Of course groups do sit through measures of rest and through periods of time when one group is singing and rehearsing while another is not, but the mere presence of music being made in the ensemble activates involvement of others as the students respond to their classmates efforts as they do to any music they are hearing. These periods of down time also afford opportunities for several other kinds of involvement that are more far-ranging than what is possible in, for example a reading group. For more on these opportunities, see my post from “What Idle Students in Music Ensembles Should Be Doing.”
With all of these differences between what students do in their other classes and what they do in their music ensembles, it should not be surprising that it is at times necessary to teach students how to rehearse, and how rehearsals work. Students who try to apply learning strategies that work in other classes, such as collaborating with other students and doing independent reading, may not be appropriate or even helpful in a full rehearsal. Because both student engagement and the teacher’s instruction are ongoing, creating an environment of constant and active give and take between students and teacher, students who veer off into independent work will often quickly miss important segments of instruction and learning. Small group and independent work is certainly a component of music study, but often special “sectional” rehearsals need to be planned, or individual practice needs to be carried out for these strategies to be effectively employed. More often, students need to realize that in music, they most effectively learn by doing, and the doing is the active involvement in music making, an activity that is instantly accessible by all in the room. Students don’t need to share what their thoughts are; when they play the music, the product of their work is already made known. When students respond to questioning, they are likely evaluating what they or others have performed, or proposing an interpretation that is informed by what they have learned about the music through performance. The focus is more on what they have done as an ensemble, and less on what they have achieved individually. Each student’s accomplishments are immediately needed and valued by the group in a way that they are not in other academic areas.
With all of this in mind, I will end with a few observations on what students need to know about rehearsing. First, students need to become accustomed having no down time. Active participation and engagement is demanded by the very nature of music and a rehearsal. Second, everything they do matters to everyone else in the room. Each student’s work is not just about his or her own grade or success; it is about everyone’s success and enjoyment of the music being made and all the benefits that come with music making. Third, the social aspect of music ensembles is important, but not in the sense of socializing. The social aspect of music ensembles is found in the close integration of what each member of the group is doing. Fourth, the greatest success and growth can be realized in an environment characterized by the greatest cooperation and unity of action and purpose. These points easily come down to not only musical training, but character development. Caring about others and the greater good while foregoing personal desire to disconnect with one or two friends, and finding greater reward and satisfaction in the greater achievements of the group, which are simply not possible on an individual basis. When these principles are front and center with music ensembles, the results are better music and better living.