I am unabashedly aware that I have a lot of steps in getting ready for my day. Specific shampoo for thicker hair, face scrub for shinier skin, shaving gel, toner, under eye cream, moisturizer…and we haven’t even gotten to styling products.

There is a routine we all follow, big or small, in maintaining a level of hygiene. It is the daily rhythm of how we stay clean and publicly presentable. Could there be a parallel to our ensembles?

As music educators we get a lot of instruction on the necessary components and routines of teaching. Conducting, methods classes, content delivery strategies, foundations of educational psychology, program management.

But in reflecting back I remember that I was left to wonder about how a band program functions on the day to day beyond the podium work. When, as a new teacher, I looked at programs I viewed as successful I didn’t fully recognize the steps that went into making not just great music, but great people. But I was curious and wanted to know the secret.

And so over many (many) years I began a long and messy process of getting clear on the creation of purposeful culture in my ensembles. And the first thing was acknowledging that it was in fact important.

Why is culture important?

My students are generally in my classes by choice as they are in an elective. So why do they keep coming back?

There are varied reasons but I do believe that the warmth, the security, the safety, the comfortable predictability, the stability of their daily class environment is a foundation on which momentum and excellence are built.

With quality instruction, sound pedagogy and excellent repertoire you have well trained and fine sounding ensembles. I do not discredit the absolute importance of these factors as an integral and central part of my job.

But with a clearly nurtured ensemble culture you have students who will do the work of becoming strong musicians and students who will take forward lessons in how to be good and decent people.

Building and maintaining a culture in your ensemble is something that will take time; it will evolve and change as a reflection of your values as an educator. It will also be a reflection of the evolution and growth of your students (they don’t stay the same either!)

It won’t always be evident that things are changing. As a wise friend and mentor often says to me, it’s the work of placing pennies in the penny jar. You may not have a sense of your accumulated investment until much further down the road.

What does good ensemble culture look like?

This will vary depending on what is important to you. I do believe that our classrooms are a reflection back to us of the strongest and weakest parts of our teaching. I have developed a personal response to problems in my classroom by first looking at my role in the situation. (Anyone care for a glass of humble juice?)

Like so many things in my teaching, ensemble culture came as a result of trial and error and not arriving at the idea until several years into my teaching. If I could go back and do anything differently it would be to be clearer and quicker with what was important to me about HOW we were in rehearsal, not just the WHY.

Here is what good ensemble culture looks like for me:

  • The physical space is laid out neatly and in an organized manner each rehearsal
  • Plans are posted for the week on the wall outside the band office; the agenda for each day is projected on the TV screen in the room
  • Students know how to move from one step to the next in each rehearsal because we have practiced those steps; they are an ingrained part of the process
  • Cell phones are away, the students are sitting with correct posture and practice maintaining eye contact as a concentration skill throughout rehearsal
  • Very little is accidental; the goal is everything with intention and purpose
  • Students feel respected and valued through the rehearsal process by the teacher and their peers (this is taught, reinforced, and guided)
  • Focusing on we/us statements from the podium instead of I/me statements
  • Create an environment where active risk taking is encouraged
    • It’s ok to make mistakes but work to limit the repetition of errors
    • If you miss it, mark it
    • Think/share/pair to create a 1-1 dialogue at first
    • Individual practice time
    • Small group and individual check ins (“down the line”) are not dreaded because the environment is a safe one
  • There is an active dialogue ongoing about the balance between being good ensemble members (quiet, non distracting, professional) and being engaged class participants
  • We practice and model good question asking skills as well as question answering skills
    • Using correct terminology
    • Speaking like a professional in rehearsal
  • Practice giving and receiving constructive criticism (it’s not personal, provide specific information to improve); students are guided through this process in an effort to teach them how to provide critique in a way that improves performance without becoming personal

How does ensemble culture happen?

This is the tie in back to hygiene. I realized at some point that if I wanted the environment in my ensembles to be long lasting things had to be tended to each day. Like brushing our teeth or putting on deodorant.

I think about it this way:

In our ensembles we warm up every day. We reinforce concepts of good tuning and tone every day. We make music every day. And without much additional effort there can and should be a place to make sure the environment in our classroom is intentional and as we want it. I do think this is beyond good classroom management technique (which will end up being stronger as a byproduct of good ensemble culture). 

So I made peace with the idea that I would need to reinforce, address and redirect towards good atmosphere in my ensembles regularly. And please know that not every day is great. But in the effort of continuously calibrating the energy in the ensemble, the students are able to expect a safe, sane, energized and engaging environment which affords a bad rehearsal now and again for both teacher and student.

The disclaimers.

  • I didn’t get clear about thins until maybe year 8
  • My ideas didn’t come into full fruition until maybe year 12
  • I am a linear Type-A kind of teacher (with a slight obsession to details)
  • There are days of unfocused and unpredictable teaching
  • This blog captures the hindsight of 20/20 vision reflecting back on MANY moments of frustration and failure in my teaching
  • I teach 5 high school ensembles, ranging in size from 52-84 students
  • What makes sense in my classroom may make no sense in yours

As with everything I share, it’s food for thought not a prescription to follow. If there are ideas here that resonate with you I’m glad. If you think it’s all a pile of affective nonsense, we would disagree and for that I’m glad, too. Just like no 2 students are alike, no 2 teachers are alike. But I do believe we are all in this together and the sharing of ideas can help to create bridges from the islands on which so many of us teach.

Wishing you a happy holiday and for the best in 2017.




2 thoughts on “The Cultural Hygiene In Your Ensemble

  1. As an ABC disciple like you, I completely see and agree with so much of this. Being able to see put in to words much of what I too want to see in my students, it begins to validate much of what the second half of my teaching years have been striving for.
    I wish you happy holidays and the very best for the coming new year.
    I hope to reconnect some time soon and “relive” our Ashland experiences. Maybe even have some of your wisdom at our So Calif band association conferences.
    For now, be well and prosper.

    Liked by 1 person

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