January has always been my favorite time in the school year. By then, my students have given their winter concert and are playing and singing well enough to dig into more challenging repertoire than I typically do with them in the fall. This is the time of year I find most conducive to really work on musicianship and honing their executive skills. It is also the time of year when I back of off full ensemble rehearsals. Let me explain.
Band, orchestra, choir, and similar large ensembles are great. They are lots of fun, and they are what most of our students sign up for. They expect a large ensemble and look forward to playing or singing in one. That said, we know that musicians really hone their art in small ensembles, not large ones. Chamber music is a staple of a complete music performance education. We know this, but with restrictive schedules and limited rehearsal times, finding time to provide chamber music opportunities for our students can easily be illusive. But now, with the winter concert completed, and the spring concert months away, you have time to work chamber music into your schedule.
Valentine’s Day is a great opportunity to form chamber ensembles and get them out in the school community performing. I have used Valentine’s Day two ways, both providing great venues for performances. First, have a Valentine’s dessert social. Invite people to come to the cafeteria of your school for an evening. Decorate the room for Valentine’s Day, and have all manner of sweets, coffees and teas to serve them. Set it up with tables to sit at, and while people are enjoying their coffee or tea and dessert, entertain them with chamber performances of love songs. It can be small groups of singers, instrumentalists, or a combination, or it can be soloists. They roam as they perform, like Mariachi musicians in a Mexican restaurant. If you do this with elementary students, it so cute. If you do it with high school students, they will get a kick out of serenading their parents with a love song. Either way, it’s great fun, and all the while you prepare for this night, you are teaching chamber music, developing musicianship in ways that will pay dividends when you return to large ensembles and that spring concert repertoire.
Another use of Valentine’s Day is to deliver musical Valentines. This is really suited for vocal ensembles. Students fill out a card with their name, and the name of the person to whom they want to send the Valentine. If you have a homeroom in the morning, this can be a good time to do this. Have the sender include the recipient’s homeroom number, then you’ll know where to send your singers. Have quartets learn 2 or 3 love songs, then sing one or two of them to the recipient during homeroom. If you choose, you can make this a fundraiser by charging the sender. This is great fun for barbershop quartets or 4-part madrigal singers.
Another possibility is to do a cabaret or talent show around March. This has the advantage of involving students in your school that may not be members of any of your ensembles. As conservatory trained music teachers, we can forget that three kids singing a Taylor Swift or Adele song affords plenty of opportunity to develop musicianship too. They need to sing together, maybe work out harmonies, keep rhythms together, stay together with the performance track or, if other students are accompanying them on instruments, work out the band parts together with the vocals. Of course, students can also play classical chamber music. Encourage all of your ensemble students to participate, and encourage them to try performing a style of music they usually don’t play or sing. It might be a student’s first taste of jazz. It also might be a great opportunity for a student to play an instrument that he or she studies privately but doesn’t normally get an opportunity to play within the school music program. My daughter studied harp for several years and was afforded several opportunities to play at school activities where an appreciative audience was found.
The instrument or musical style really doesn’t matter. Don’t be restrictive. The value of chamber music is that musicians play one on a part. Everyone must take total responsibility for their part, and everyone collaborates to arrive at an interpretation. It is easy to hear yourself and all others in a chamber group, so intonation and rhythm accuracy also benefits. This is true no matter what instruments are being used and what kind of music is being played or sung.
This is also an excellent opportunity to give your more advanced students leadership experience. As my March talent show became more successful, I quickly realized I didn’t have time to work with every ensemble that wanted to perform, but the kids really wanted to have the show. The solution was to tell them that after they filled out my form on which they indicated the selection they were going to perform, who was in their ensemble, and gave me a copy of the lyrics if they were singing a song (so I could assess appropriateness), they were on their own to prepare the performance. They needed to have their performance ready by the dress rehearsal or risk being cut from the show.
The week before the show, I would hold the dress rehearsal. Acts that were far from being ready, or that were comprised of students that hadn’t begun to prepare were cut. Those that were close were given words of encouragement to practice office between then and the show, and those ensembles that had worked on their pieces but weren’t quite there got my help at that point; either at that rehearsal or by appointment in the next few days. Most of the acts were prepared well by the students, and I was left with only 3 or 4 ensembles to get ready. The students enjoyed getting together and working on their piece on their own. One word of caution is this: be mindful of groups with one over ambitious or bossy student. They may need to be reined in, and you may need to attend a practice or two to help them work effectively together, but that too is valuable education.
Finally, don’t neglect planning for chamber performances in your large ensemble concerts. Having a woodwind quartet or flute trio or what have you perform during the course of the concert provides variety in your program, and preparing those chamber music pieces adds more value to your music instruction. Chamber music is a great way to always have something ready when someone asks for a performance at a luncheon, or meeting too. It’s good to always have groups ready to go on short notice, and in the process of being prepared, your students’ musicianship will grow.