Connecting Standards with Orchestral Performances

In a section of the article "Making the School Orchestra a Treasure Teaching Musical Understanding through Performance," Robert Gillespie discusses and makes suggestions for integrating the Standards into rehearsals.

This is an exciting time to be an orchestra teacher in the schools. The Standards challenge us to create a new vision for string instruction: comprehensive music teaching through performance. This new purpose requires a change in focus. Rather than having our primary goal be that of producing a polished large-ensemble performance, we must focus on enhancing students' performance learning through singing, improvising, composing and arranging, listening, evaluating, and understanding music in relation to other disciplines and in relation to history and culture. These activities recommended by the Standards will give our students new insight into their performance. As a result, their orchestral experience will become an even greater treasure.

Implementing the Standards also gives us opportunities to re-think our roles as orchestra teachers, allowing us to broaden our students' learning beyond performance technique and repertoire. We can become orchestra generalists, rather than only orchestra specialists. The Standards do not dismiss what is central to an orchestral experience for children in the schools – learning how to play orchestral instruments and performing the many great masterworks for orchestra; instead, they better equip us to give our students a more profound arts experience by implementing the Standards through the unique repertoire of orchestra. Incorporating the Standards into our instruction will not become a burden. Rather, it will be an opportunity to help our students appreciate and value orchestral performance as an art form more than ever.

Incorporating the Standards into our rehearsals and concerts requires a new way of looking at our teaching. Teaching our students to perform with understanding, as described in the National Standards, will require work, but the fruit of our labor will be a deeper experience in the art of orchestral music and of all music. And, after all, school orchestra teachers are serious about seeking new ideas to make their teaching and their students' learning more effective. Data from a recent study indicate that four out of every five string teachers have attended an orchestra teacher workshop during the last five years.¹ The National Standards for Music Education have given those of us involved in teaching orchestra in the schools an opportunity to reexamine our teaching strategies.

Applying the Standards in Rehearsal through Repertoire

One of the best ways to apply the Standards to our teaching is to select repertoire that lends itself to teaching toward the Standards. The following are some guidelines for selecting such repertoire:
  1. Use only high-quality literature that is reasonably within the playing skills of students. If the music is too difficult to perform, it will become an obstacle to students' learning.
  2. Select only music that is expressive. Literature that does not lend itself to musical expression is not worth our time or that of our students.
  3. Select a wide range of repertoire, varied in genre, style, and culture.
  4. Select music written by a composer whose biography is available, so that you can make correlations with historical events and artistic developments.
  5. If you are considering an arrangement, be sure the score and parts of the original are available so that students can compare them to the arrangement.

Recommended Strategies for Integrating the Standards into Rehearsals

Evaluate how you are already teaching toward the National Standards, and use the achievement standards listed under each of the nine content standards to guide your teaching. Integrate them into your school orchestra rehearsals by using one or more of the following strategies in each rehearsal.
  1. Discuss the life and contributions of the composer.
  2. Provide the words to the melody if the work is based on a song. Have students sing the melody and discuss the difference they experience musically when they play it on their instruments as opposed to singing it.
  3. Play recordings of different performances of the work, and involve students in evaluations of the quality of the performances. Use one musical aspect at a time: tempo, dynamics, intonation, phrasing, style, expressiveness, balance, and so forth.
  4. Discuss important events that occurred during the life of the composer, and have students comment on whether there seem to be any relationships between these events and the composer's work.
  5. Discuss important developments that occurred in music during the life of the composer, and have students consider ways in which these developments may have influenced the composer's work, or the role the composer played in these developments.
  6. Discuss important developments that occurred in the arts during the life of the composer, and have students explore ways in which these developments may have influenced the composer's work.
  7. Discuss developments that occurred in fields other than the arts (e.g., mathematics or science) during the life of the composer, and have students identify ways in which these developments may have influenced the composer's work.
  8. Provide scores of the work so that you can effectively help students discern its form and structure, trace the development of melodies, and understand how their instrument's part compares to that of other instruments in the composition.
  9. Play and have students listen to and discuss other works by the composer to help them gain an understanding of the sound unique to that composer's music.
  10. Allow students to help determine appropriate tempi, styles, and phrasing for performance of the work.
  11. Have students compare arrangements to the original. Provide recordings and scores of the original for discussion.
  12. Teach composition by having students use parameters related to the work, such as meter, key, phrase lengths, characteristic rhythms and motives, and so forth, in composing a melody for their instrument. Have them improvise on a melody from the work, keeping the style consistent with it. Have students perform their solutions.

¹Robert Gillespie and Donald L. Hamann, "The Status of Orchestra Programs in the Public Schools," Journal of Research in Music Education 46, no. 1 (1998): 84.

Excerpted from Performing with Understanding: The Challenge of the National Standards for Music Education.

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