Look it's really simple: A course is not an activity

Recently I've been very disheartened by some stories I've been hearing about concert band courses being lumped in with clubs and sports teams when it comes to eligibility mandates, fees, and other policies. Granted, there are many school-sponsored music groups that are bonified clubs (instruction takes place soley before/after school and is not part of a course) but all it takes is a little time to study the structure of any particular music program to see that there is almost always a mixture of courses and clubs. Blanketing club policies over an entire department may be convenient and even appear consistent at some level, but the behavior is averse to learning outcomes when certain guaranteed essential learnings are rendered optional...namely by subjecting students who register for a music course to an eligibility policy designed for extra-curricular clubs and athletics.

Ensemble courses are built on the premise of interdependent learning. In fact in my opinion ensemble courses are the most authentic cooperative/social learning environment, even though those educational movements are presented as novel. Ensemble students literally rely upon each other second by second in the problem solving and creative processes of building and bringing music to fruition. No bench players here...every student is involved in simultaneously learning while shaping the music. Complicit in each learning cycle are culminating public performances, and typically these performances take place outside of the school day. These performances are "co-curricular" assignments meaning they are (a) required and (b) taking place outside of the scheduled meeting time for the daily course. Public performance opportunities are the only way for students to gain the authentic understanding of what it means to be a public ensemble performer...having your peers rely upon your contribution "live" as the music is presented to the listeners. Co-curricular assignments are not unique to music performance courses, but they are certainly more regular because they are germane to the music performance learning cycle.

It is this last factor that ends up becoming a point of confusion for school boards, administrators, and governing organizations who tend to think that anything happening outside of the traditional school day transforms a class into an extra-curricular club. It only takes a little logic to see how this is wholly wrong in the case of performance courses. Calling a course fee for musicians an "activity fee" or asking the band director to "bring the band to play for us on Friday" further blurs the understanding of co-curricular versus extra-curricular. Imposing eligibility requirements on music courses is clearly misplaced. In what other course offering do students get temporarily removed for doing poorly in another course? Think about that. Eligibility policies were instituted to make sure students prioritize their schoolwork. By making concert performances an optional part of the curriculum... an activity unto itself...we are saying that the learning does not continue there, that performances are not a capstone of a learning-and-teaching cycle. Music teachers know this is patently not the case and most folks within the educational community will realize it as well if they take the time to think it through.

It is incumbant upon every teacher and music organization to work towards educating all stakeholders about the interdependent nature of ensemble courses and the ways their co-curricluar components relate directly to curricular outcomes. In ensemble courses we are teaching music through performance. Preventing students from meeting course requirements not only impacts the individual but alters the learning outcome for all students in the course, and not for the better. A course is not an activity.


From one of my comments below regarding how to reverse this trend...

"For starters, authentic curriculum development that clearly demonstrates that both rehearsals and performances are essential components of the learning process, because ensembles are in fact vehicles of "positive interdependence." When we are of the unfortunate mindset that nothing can be measured in these situations (the misapplied stance that "you can't grade participation") then we have placed ourselves into a questionable situation whereby our rehearsals and concerts quite literally have no value. Cooperative learning research is clearly showing that you can... in fact, must... assess throughout the process. And remember that "assess" does not always mean "graded" (though at times it certainly can be). But do we? Where is our evidence?

We can say that rehearsals/performances can't provide individual assessment, and we can say it is too difficult or takes too much time, but the bottom line is that if the proof of learning lies in the assessments (and that is where the profession is clearly headed), and we only have assessments from individual playing tests and such, then we havelittle if any proof of learning when it comes to the students' role within the ensemble. The next logical question of course is, then why is it a class at all? What are they learning in there?

We know that many students and directors continually assess (especially formatively) but we have to get a lot better at intentionally describing and building it into our curricula so it is intentional and aimed squarely at the standard of students becoming a self-sufficent ensemble musician (playing alone and with others, a varied repertoire). Then it will become clear(er) that you cannot pick and choose parts of the curriculum and still achieve the standard.

We all have a lot of work to do, including myself. Competition applied to courses is definitely a problem, something I have always tried to avoid to best of my abilities while looking for the best performance opportunities for students."