Ensemble Community: One and the same

Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra

Recently I was part of a discussion on Twitter that dealt with the idea of building a sense of community into your ensembles. As has been the case for me in some prior Twitter chats, I find the format and pace to be less than conducive for some of the more essential philosophical questions. (UPDATE: Discussion is now easy on the new Facebook groups format) Twitter chats are fine for brainstorming fundraising ideas and so forth, but I get a little concerned when we have topics of such major import flying down that page at 140 characters per second! Anyway, I thought I would say a few things here that might add some clarity to my feelings on the matter of community, because I really don't believe that community is something that is "added in" over the top of an ensemble.

As a starting point, here is an excerpt from my post 25 Things About Teaching Music and Education:

Music performance is one of the only authentically interdependent classes we offer in American education. What is interdependence? A situation where each person relies upon the other. Blue and yellow are interdependent in the endeavor to make green. Musical ensembles are inherently interdependent. Every contribution a student makes to the ensemble changes the the reality for every other student in the room, and reshapes their contributions moving forward. Music teachers need to help students, parents, and administrators to understand this important truth. It is one of the most important benefits of music education, but unfortunately we have not done a very good job of explaining it.

The fact is, performing ensembles are perhaps the most authentic community in the school system, by definition! We often hear the line "there are no bench players in a music ensemble" and this is true...but do we realize the import of that cliché? Everyone in an ensemble is charged with supporting/informing/adjusting constantly in an effort to create meaningful music. Coming together under a common purpose with a desire to do good...isn't that what communities do? As a quick aside (but it's very pertinent) have you been following the El Sistema movement in Venezuela? In places where there is almost no sense of community, hundreds of thousands of children are finding it in the ensemble.

Community isn't something that is added on top of an ensemble experience. It's not something that one "gets around to" after the music is sounding good, or when an administrator is coming for an observation. Community in ensembles is a given...their interdependent nature makes this so. Now, whether teachers keep this in the forefront of their minds, or whether the community is a healthy one, is another matter altogether. But it is a community. If you are feeling a need to "build community" in, then that may be your first sign that you have not been allowing the reality of community to pervade your own philosophy.

"Yeah I've heard the philosophical stuff" I hear some saying, "but if I could just get the students to"

  • Get to know one another
  • Respect one another
  • Help one another

...then we would sound great! We need a motivational speaker...or a trust fall!"

Yet, as teachers, if we put our daily focus upon making sure that:

  • We are getting to know each student, and showing them respect
  • Teaching them to become self-directed musicians, and expecting their best
  • Helping them to discover the music, not just their part within it

...then you will see the vibrant community within the ensemble, because all of those things require students to know, respect, and help each other on a musical level. And guess what? It's pervasive.

Then when you take those trips or do other non-musical activities that you can (and should!) do, the experiences will be all the more special because you're making an existing musical community even stronger. You then have the basis for the elusive upward spiral that teachers want and students deserve.


4 responses
Well said. As I said in my post on this topic today, the best way for music ensembles at any level to build community is to have meaningful, enjoyable, and sustained experiences performing music together. The by-product of great ensemble music making is a sense of community, as all ensemble members must function as a team, or parts of a whole.
Thanks Tom, I think you and I are in sync on this important aspect. I'd propose one perhaps subtle change to what you said above, in that I don't think we are looking for a "sense" of community as a by-product of music making, but rather it *is* the community that brings meaningful music forth.
As always, great post, Brian.

I agree with you that ensemble community should be the same.

My choir students are Middle School and younger. Because I see them so few times a week, I almost have to show them that their choir is a community. Interdependency, trusting, learning to listen to other people (music or words), making good music together are things that have to be learned.

I will point out that I've seen so many ensembles that seemed "together" (in appearance and sound), but were deathly afraid of their directors. These directors had their musical chops, but not the heart to make a safe community for the young people. Maybe they did, but didn't think much of making kid-connection over music. Are such ensembles communities, I wonder? Perhaps some teachers were asking what builds a community because of they had the same experience?

I'm glad that we have blogs & MPLN forums to carry on important conversations as these.

Fear-based ensembles are communities, but not healthy ones. These ensembles will obey but they will not thrive. The students will have a tight knit bond for the wrong reasons.