Rehearsals: What is going on in there?

Santurtzi Music Band Final Rehearsal

One positive trend in band and orchestra classes is the increasing focus on authentic individual assessment. Band and orchestra teachers are doing a much better job at finding out what students know and can do in regards to individual technique, expression, and so on. Assessments, both formative and summative, are leading to refined instruction and grades that are more genuine. At the same time, this movement seems to have led to the unfortunate position that what the student demonstrates outside of rehearsal is the only measurable aspect of what students have learned. In fact, if we got into the nitty gritty of some ensemble syllabi we would find that students in many band and orchestra classes could skip all of the rehearsals and the concert, yet as long as they completed all of their individual performance assessments, they would pass...perhaps even with an A. Yet where do we spend most of our instructional minutes, and why? As we all know, what we value is borne out in our actions, so clearly music educators value the process of bringing printed music to life and sharing it with an audience. But if evidence of learning is required in order to justify how we spend our time (a fair expectation), and we have no evidence of ensemble learnings, then rehearsals (and performances) are by definition superfluous...right? How does that sit with you?

I find this trend disturbing on so many levels. I think most of us would agree that the processes and intricacies of students bringing ensemble music to fruition (and sharing it publicly) should comprise the core of any ensemble class. True, individual proficiency sets the stage (literally) for ensemble music rehearsing/performing, and is therefore essential. But once that stage is set, what are we teaching our students about ensemble musicianship, and how do we know they are learning it? I believe it is our inability to clearly address those questions that is leading to administrators telling teachers that they cannot require students to "participate" in concerts, or that a student who will not be a productive collaborator in rehearsal must be treated as a  "behavioral" matter. Yet if these same students do not turn in their assessments in their other classes, what happens? If a student is a member of a group project in social studies and does no work, what is the result, and why? Do you see the disconnect here? Now think about the importance that administrators place upon classroom observations in determining teacher effectiveness. They are typically observing our clearly they believe there must be some learning taking place in that setting, right? And if so, there will be assessment (whether formative or summative), and there will be credit given. there?

We have a lot of work to do on this issue. The fact is that we have been allowed to be mysterious about "what's going on in there" for too long, and now we are being told that rehearsals and performances have no place in our curricula. But we know that ensemble music is an authentic form of positive interdependence (perhaps the most authentic). We know that our students need concert performances (the presentation of the "group project") in order to complete their learning cycles and reap the most meaningful benefits of music performance. We need to articulate the aspects of being an ensemble musician, be more intentional about sharing the what/why/how of "ensemble technique" with our students, and devise authentic ways to measure it. Otherwise we might as well split our ensembles into "like" instruments, cancel the concerts, and treat our courses like class piano. If ensemble matters, it's time to articulate what we're really doing "in there."


Recently the Band Directors Group has been talking about what students should be doing in order to have productive rehearsals. This brainstorm list may be a starting point for creating lessons and other resources that will help students learn about the important aspects of becoming a great ensemble musician:

  • Eye Contact
  • Marking Parts
  • Correct Posture
  • Adjusting (Pitch) without being told
  • Asks clarifying/thoughtful questions
  • Helpful towards others (kindness)
  • Responsive to conducting gestures
  • Problem solver (musically and otherwise)
  • Productive with "downtime"
  • Initiates discussions about the music with others
  • Pleasant disposition
  • Does not give up
  • Has the pulse internalized
  • Takes creative interpretive/expressive risks with regularity
  • Holds peers accountable
  • Prepared musically (and equipment-wise) for rehearsals and performances
  • Interested in (and enjoys) the success of others, not just themselves, for the sake of the music being the best it can be
  • Takes instruction/criticism with a positive nature...understands its importance
  • Retains previous concepts and can apply them to new situations
  • Is thinking about solving musical problems rather than immediately asking for the answer
  • Can identify elements that are incorrect while they are happening (in themselves and across the ensemble)
  • Can provide effective evaluation of the piece at various points in the learning cycle
  • Is always on time and ready to collaborate
  • Can alter the shape of their sound to accomodate different blending situations and other requirements of the composition
Are these things that you specifically address/discuss, or do you hope they simply appear in your students?

Standardized Students, Silenced Teachers: The Un-American Education Agenda |

We should not be pursuing standardization since we have a century of evidence that it doesn’t work—and logic shows that standard doesn’t match our ideals as a free people—but we should be pursuing challenging opportunities for every child, which in no way stops us from creating a universal public education system that honors and embraces diverse paths to adulthood and autonomy for all children who enter the doorways of our schools.

Privileged adults of this world live diverse and autonomous lives outside of school. The current education reform movement appears more concerned with securing the diverse lives of those privileged than acknowledging the right to an autonomous and diverse life for all children in a society claiming to be free.

Standardization is dehumanizing–and ultimately un-American.

All music teachers should read this article by Paul Thomas and wake up to what is happening today in the continued march towards a federally-controlled education system. High stakes testing and "common-core" is (not so) slowly but surely stripping our schools of essential opportunities for students to flourish as individuals. Administrators will continue to be pressured to produce better test scores, and if you think those tests are ever going to include the arts...guess again.

Knowing What Students Know: A Free Executive Summary on Classroom (read "Ensemble") Assessment

This is a very intersting summary from:

Committee on the Foundations of Assessment, James W. Pellegrino, Naomi Chudowsky, and Robert Glaser, editors, Board on Testing and Assessment, Center for Education, National Research Council (2001)

A few very interesting excerpts:

With the movement over the past two decades toward setting challenging academic standards and measuring students’ progress in meeting those standards, educational assessment is playing a greater role in decision making than ever before. In turn, education stakeholders are questioning whether current large-scale assessment practices are yielding the most useful kinds of information for informing and improving education. Meanwhile, classroom assessments, which have the potential to enhance instruction and learning, are not being used to their fullest potential. 

Students will learn more if instruction and assessment are integrally related. In the classroom, providing students with information about particular qualities of their work and about what they can do to improve is crucial for maximizing learning. It is in the context of classroom assessment that theories of cognition and learning can be particularly helpful by providing a picture of intermediary states of student understanding on the pathway from novice to competent performer in a subject domain

For classroom or large-scale assessment to be effective, students must understand and share the goals for learning. Students learn more when they understand (and even participate in developing) the criteria by which their work will be evaluated, and when they engage in peer and self-assessment during which they apply those criteria. These practices develop students’ metacognitive abilities, which, as emphasized above, are necessary for effective learning. 

Note this particular recommendation:

Recommendation 11: The balance of mandates and resources should be shifted from an emphasis on external forms of assessment to an increased emphasis on classroom formative assessment designed to assist learning

See the associated book here. PDF version (380+ pages) can be downloaded free if you create an account there.

What Is Cooperative Learning? Ever Been In A Rehearsal Or Performance?

What is Cooperative Learning?

Cooperative learning involves more than students working together on a lab or field project. It requires teachers to structure cooperative interdependence among the students. These structures involve five key elements which can be implemented in a variety of ways. There are also different types of cooperative groups appropriate for different situations.

More than Just Working in Groups

Five key elements differentiate cooperative learning from simply putting students into groups to learn (Johnson et al., 2006).

  1. Positive Interdependence: You'll know when you've succeeded in structuring positive interdependence when students perceive that they "sink or swim together." This can be achieved through mutual goals, division of labor, dividing materials, roles, and by making part of each student's grade dependent on the performance of the rest of the group. Group members must believe that each person's efforts benefit not only him- or herself, but all group members as well.
GEO 110 students discuss their findings in the field


  • Individual Accountability: The essence of individual accountability in cooperative learning is "students learn together, but perform alone." This ensures that no one can "hitch-hike" on the work of others. A lesson's goals must be clear enough that students are able to measure whether (a) the group is successful in achieving them, and (b) individual members are successful in achieving them as well.

  • Face-to-Face (Promotive) Interaction: Important cognitive activities and interpersonal dynamics only occur when students promote each other's learning. This includes oral explanations of how to solve problems, discussing the nature of the concepts being learned, and connecting present learning with past knowledge. It is through face-to-face, promotive interaction that members become personally committed to each other as well as to their mutual goals.

  • Interpersonal and Small Group Social Skills: In cooperative learning groups, students learn academic subject matter (taskwork) and also interpersonal and small group skills (teamwork). Thus, a group must know how to provide effective leadership, decision-making, trust-building, communication, and conflict management. Given the complexity of these skills, teachers can encourage much higher performance by teaching cooperative skill components within cooperative lessons. As students develop these skills, later group projects will probably run more smoothly and efficiently than early ones.

  • Group Processing: After completing their task, students must be given time and procedures for analyzing how well their learning groups are functioning and how well social skills are being employed. Group processing involves both taskwork and teamwork, with an eye to improving it on the next project.
  • In this excerpt from the Carleton College (MN) Science Department music ensemble teachers should notice some descriptors that are eerily familiar, in fact these "new" ideas seem positively traditional to many of us. The advantage we have is that ensemble classes are cooperative structures that rely upon "positive interdependence." Our students don't get "put" into groups, our class is a group...every day, all year long. When our students are rehearsing, they are engaged in a non-verbal musical disscussion that is demonstrating... while at the same time... refining what students know about their own musicianship and the composition that is being brought to fruition. Sophisticated? You'd better believe it.

    Cooperative Learning (CL) is sometimes poorly implemented in other classes (ask your students sometimes about their "group projects") but for us it's the very essence of bringing ensemble music to fruition. Ensemble courses require the contribution of every individual in every moment of the period in order for everyone to learn. Our students present group projects throughout the year. These group performances are every bit as authentic (often more so) than Power Points and reports that are created by short-term groups in other types of courses.

    Now, before we all start bragging that we have CL "down pat" we are not off the hook by a long shot. For one thing I would wager a guess that most of our students (mine included) don't even realize that our ensemble is a cooperative learning vehicle. We simply never take the time to talk about it. And another of our major shortcomings as music teachers is the failure to guarantee that ensemble learning is measured and intentional. Keeping the goals and assessments of any group project a secret is a mistake no matter what course is implementing CL. Running a tune over and over while hoping the students will figure out how to magically make it better (or worse yet...dictating their every move) is not what this is all about. No, winning is not sufficient evidence that students understand the essence of a composition, nor is merely showing up for class every day with your instrument.

    Let's start rethinking how we explain, design, and yes assess within our music courses so we can take full advantage of (and our students can get full credit for) the power of authentic cooperative learning in music ensemble courses. We have a lot of work to do, both in improving the learning in our students and educating our colleagues and administrators. People who believe interdependent learning can't take place without words or a pencil and paper have a lot to learn about the way music works, and the true scope of cooperative learning. It's our job to teach them, and each other.

    P.S. College methods profs, we need your help in championing this reality...not falling prey to the outdated argument that "playing" in band, choir, or orchestra is simplistic participation which cannot be assessed, graded, or valued in any way. Help us start to reframe this misinterpretation and let's build a rigorous, relevant and meaningful ensemble curriculum together.

    Making the Shift to Digital Assessments

    Making Assessments More Manageable

    Today was a teacher workday for us. I had my grades under control by lunchtime, so after lunch I started tackling something I've been thinking about for years: webcam-based digital assessments.

    For many years we have been using video camcorders for assessments in our school. I prefer it to audio because it really helps to see the student in addition to be being able to hear them. But if you've ever dealt with setting up and taking down video cameras, you know it can be a hassle. Tapes, tripods, power adapters... over time it can become a deterrent. Assessment needs to be reasonable for the teacher as well as the student, right? I had been thinking about using one of our Macs for some time, but it just seemed it would take as much or more time to deal with the digital files. I decided to do a little research about automating the process.

    Of course the ability to record audio and/or video on a computer has been with us for a while now, so this is not some huge revelation I'm sharing with you. But what I was interested in was a process that could (a) be run by the students while rehearsal continued, (b) allow me to review the files remotely (can you say at home), and (c) be easy to implement. If it's not easy, I'm not going to do it regularly, and regularity is what students need.

    So basically the process I was after was this:

    1. Student clicks a button, and a new video file is created
    2. Record
    3. Stop
    4. File is saved to a folder
    5. Repeat for as many students as necessary
    6. Files are uploaded for viewing

    The Key: Automator

    A few years ago Apple released an application with OS X called Automator. Basically it is like "macros" that you may remember from other software applications like Microsoft Word. Automator allows you to "record" a number of steps that are then saved into a "workflow." This workflow can then be launched just like a stand alone application.

    Automator is not exactly the type of application you can easily figure out. Fortunately I found a great site called that has some helpful tips and some workflow files you can use or modify. After a few hours I had a workflow that would:

    1. Open a new video file in Quicktime
    2. Offer the student a button to press to begin recording, and tell them to begin
    3. When the student clicks the button to stop recording, tell the student "Thank You" and "Send in the next student"
    4. In the meantime, the file is exported to
    5. My iDisk (on which
    6. Allows me to view the file(s) from basically anywhere, including iPhone or iPod Touch
    So once I start the Automator workflow at the beginning of class, I don't have to interact with it at all, and the video files will be waiting for me when I get home. Pretty slick eh?

    Next week I'm going to look into modifying the workflow to utilize instead of iDisk. The advantage there is you do not need a account. is free and also has a nice player built into their site so you can easily view the video files in your web browser (and iPhone with the Droppler app). I'm also going to try to figure out how to have the student enter their name, which will then become the file name. Not a really big deal since the video thumbnails basically show you a picture of the student, but still would be nice. Hey maybe I'll even have the Mac speak their name at the end just for fun.

    If you happen to have a Mac and would like workflow file, just let me know. Here is a little Automator example in case you are interested in seeing what the interface looks like: