Cooperative Learning in the Large Ensemble

Cooperative Learning in the Large Ensemble

The large performing ensemble is the dominant manifestation of music education in the middle and high schools of the United States (Birge, 2007; Mark, 1996; Mark & Gary, 2007). Bands, orchestras and choirs form the backbone of this tradition and in many cases, are the sole delivery vehicle for school based music education (especially at the secondary level). These contexts are typically conductor centered, repertoire driven and performance oriented. Additionally, there are often elements of intragroup (e.g. chair placements) and intergroup (e.g. band festival) competition governing both students’ and teachers’ perception of success (Cangro, 2004).

While this approach might result in high levels of mechanical proficiency, institutional recognition, community acclaim and director reputation, the ensuing musical education tends to be limited in scope, application and practice (Allsup, 2003; Mantie & Tucker, 2008).

In my early years teaching, I struggled with moving away from a conductor-centric approach, justifying my reticence by gesturing to our bands’ consistently high festival ratings. Eventually, I realized that this definition of success was too narrow, and arguably self-serving.

Rather than emerging as musically educated citizens, my students were graduating as ensemble trained technicians. Responding to this conviction, I realized that if I desired my students to be fully formed musicians who could thrive in diverse musical contexts long after graduation, it was necessary to provide them with opportunities for musical decision making and problem solving.

Cooperative learning contexts were the delivery system for these opportunities and I observed positive benefits in retention, musical achievement and independence.

The Benefits of Cooperative Learning

While my observations were anecdotal, a large body of research indicates that cooperative learning (as opposed to competitive or individual effort) results in a host of positive effects including knowledge retention, persistence, intrinsic motivation, critical thinking, learning transference and confidence (D. W. Johnson & R. Johnson, 1999; D. W. Johnson et al., 2007; R. T. Johnson & D. W. Johnson, 1984, 2002)

Whitener (2016), noted that as students interact in cooperative learning environments, a sense of esprit-de-corps emerges where individuals report higher levels of regard for, dedication towards and trust in their fellow group members (even when a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, social class and abilities is present). Given these many benefits, it is perhaps unsurprising that cooperative learning has been deemed “one of the greatest success stories of educational innovation” (Slavin, 1999, p. 74).

I suspect that for many of us, it is this sense of camaraderie and comradeship that we strive for, realizing that it creates ideal conditions for learning while assuring the long-term resilience and success of our music programs. While expanding the breadth and depth of our students’ music education, cooperative learning might also build their capacity to engage in lifelong musicianship.

Defining Cooperative Learning

Cooperative learning happens when students working together have an equal interest in their own success as well as that of their group members (Johnson & Johnson, 2002). It might be defined as a practice that empowers students to interact with one another to realize a common goal (Compton, 2015).

Is Cooperative Learning Inherent in Ensemble Settings?

It is easy to conclude that cooperative learning is a natural feature of our classrooms simply because ensemble members rehearse and perform as a group. In reality, true cooperative learning is rarely seen in large ensemble classes where the locus of power and pacing is centered around the conductor. This dynamic is so entrenched that even when occasions for cooperation arise, students might continue to fixate on meeting the director’s expectations, seeking to improve their personal performance skills with little attention to their group’s learning. More often than not, students vacillate between being alone together or competing against each other (Robinson, 2008; Teachout, 2007).

While some music educators might assume that cooperative learning is automatically present in ensemble settings, others who have attempted incorporating such practices might struggle with implementation, observe little to no difference in learning outcomes and thus revert to orthodox teaching styles. At least some of these frustrations and doubts happen when teachers do not understand, or only partially implement the conditions for cooperative learning (Compton, 2015).

Elements of Cooperative Learning

To create a productive cooperative learning environment, these five conditions must be present:

  • Positive Interdependence:  Individuals are united by a clearly defined goal and are mutually dependent on each other. Individual success promotes the success of others within the group in a ‘win-win’ scenario.
  • Individual Accountability: No one person can ‘tag-along’ on the efforts of others. Rather, the group’s success is dependent on the individual learning all its members. Ultimately, each group member should be able to perform individually, the same tasks that they perform with their group.
  • Promotive Interactions: Learning activities where group members “promote” each other’s learning via face-to-face conversations, dialogue, encouragement, feedback, and support.
  • Social Skills: Over time, students develop a deep trust and confidence in their fellow group members. They ‘assume the best’ and can intuit each other’s motivations, understand their fears, defuse tensions, bridge differences, switch between roles, and rally together for the common good.
  • Group Processing: Groups need to take time to critically reflect on their progress, trajectory, and efficiency from individual and collective standpoints. Without this processing, student learning and growth is impeded (D. W. Johnson & R. Johnson, 1999; D. W. Johnson et al., 2007; R. T. Johnson & D. W. Johnson, 1984, 2002).

Incorporating Cooperative Learning in the Large Ensemble

Perhaps the idea of small learning groups in band, orchestra and choir are a cognitive dissonance for you (as they used to be for me). Early in my career, teaching band in the Chicago Public Schools, I dismissed cooperative learning as obviously not being applicable to my classroom. As with many of my youthful assumptions, I was wrong.

As my eighth-year mark approached cooperative learning had found its way into my classroom, improving my student’s musicianship and forging a stronger sense of community.  

Nevertheless, given the typically large size, performance orientation and limited class time in most secondary music programs, the centrality of small groups to cooperative learning raises valid questions on feasibility and implementation. How might ensemble teachers effectively incorporate the small-group cooperative learning dynamic in their existing class structures? Here are some avenues:

– Chamber Ensembles

While large ensembles might dominate the landscape of secondary music education in the United States, the classical tradition from which they stem also has a rich tradition of smaller performance groups such as string quartets, brass quintets, and a multitude of chamber choral groups. Additionally, the availability of ‘solo and ensemble’ festivals and chamber music competitions provide ‘ready-made’ performance venues.

Music educators might find that the structure of chamber ensembles with its ethos of ‘one for all, all for one’ is the ideal setting to explore cooperative learning. Let us take a look at how the five elements of cooperative learning might be manifested and fostered in chamber music groups.

  1. Positive Interdependence: Within the ‘one on a part’ dynamic of a chamber group, the success of any one individual is predicated and inextricably linked to the success of his/her fellow musicians. Students should be guided to realize that while the group cannot succeed based on the prowess of one individual, it can indeed lose integrity when one student falls behind.Depending on the makeup of the group, there might be opportunities to shuffle the parts around, allowing each musician a chance to perform the melody, harmony, bass line, and rhythmic ostinatos. Redistributing parts creates a greater awareness of the components of music, an understanding of theoretical structures and an appreciation for the contribution of their peers. This deters a competitive mind set while spurring the growth of peer to peer coaching, mentoring and support.
  2. Individual Accountability: When students begin to realize how crucial the success of every musician is to the quality of the group, they feel responsible to prepare more diligently for each rehearsal. In the large ensemble setting, individual gaps in ability and understanding can be subsumed under the cover of more experienced musicians. In contrast, the chamber group creates transparency where students can accurately assess their personal progress and that of their peers. To maximize the value of these assessments, music educators should take time to model and practice the skills of critical listening and constructive critique.
  3. Promotive Interactions: From Barbershop quartets to Rock bands, promotive (face-to-face) interactions are a consistent and important part of the successful small group’s rehearsal process. To build students’ capacity to encourage each other’s success, they must be able to “speak the truth in love” – learning to humbly offer and receive feedback for the good of the group without hurt feelings or lost confidence. This ability does not emerge automatically (as the implosion of many a pop group will attest).Therefore, music educators should (a) consistently model this behavior from the podium, (b) build time into each rehearsal for students to practice their own promotive interaction skills, and (c) provide some form of scaffolding to help guide and center the process of dialogue, conversations, feedback, and encouragement.
  4. Social Skills: In music making (as in teaching), even the most astute artistic and professional abilities can be severely diminished by interpersonal friction and conflicts. These tensions will undoubtedly emerge in any small group setting if students have been habituated to the ensemble director intervening to solve such issues. While the goal in cooperative learning is for students to manage themselves, it is necessary to have a transitionary period where the director explains/models the appropriate social skills needed to facilitate effective rehearsals, reconcile differences, and nurture a positive learning climate.One technique to foster these (and other) cooperative learning skills is via a fishbowl approach where one chamber group sits in an inner circle (the fishbowl), while the rest of the full class sits around them in concentric circles (the observers). The director might have the fishbowl group run through some pre-planned scenarios to illustrate potential challenges and model possible solutions. The observers might also work to identify positive elements and suggest ideas for navigating conflicts.
  5. Group Processing: One of the positive outcomes of cooperative learning in music is that students learn the skills needed to take charge of their musical trajectories, potentially forming their own independent small ensembles during, and after their years of compulsory education. To foster the likelihood and excellence of these musical possibilities, students need to develop an ability to critically reflect on the quality of their individual and group conduct, collaborations and progress.This reflective process identifies instances of success, areas for improvement and an action plan for individual and collective improvement. The director should facilitate this process (at least initially) by providing scaffolded discussion prompts and guides. Once a week, student leaders might be requested to present a summary of their group’s processing discussion. This can act as a model to encourage more reticent students to participate, while normalizing the self/group critique procedure for all students.

– Sectional Rehearsals

One way to ‘roll-out’ cooperative learning is to situate it within the existing sections of the large ensemble (e.g. altos, trombones, cellos). It is likely that the ‘sectional’ is a dynamic that many directors (and students) are already familiar with, presenting a ready-made setting for cooperative learning. However, in contrast to the traditional director-led sectional, instituting cooperative learning means that over time (and with guidance) students will take ownership of the agenda – managing and monitoring their group’s progress towards common musical goals.

Student leadership might be fostered in these settings with section leaders choosing to align their goals with other sections, running combined ‘super-section’ rehearsals (e.g. combined low brass). Additionally, section leaders might be able to teach/model these facilitative skills in their respective chamber ensembles.

Complementary Project Groups

Earlier in this article, I noted that while the traditional large ensemble setting might be an excellent training ground (and showcase) for rehearsal and performance skills, it can result in in students acquiring narrowly defined ensemble training as opposed to comprehensive music education. As music educators, we need to equip our students with a wider range of musical abilities including music theory, analysis, arranging, composing, improvisation and historical/cultural literacy. The small group, cooperative learning framework can be an excellent context to explore this widened scope. Students might choose to research different elements of their concert music, using their findings to inform their understanding and interpretation of the piece(s).

The jigsaw approach is a long standing, and widely used cooperative learning technique that lends itself well to this type of investigation. In this approach, a piece of music might be divided into five to six components (e.g. composer, historical context/connections, melodic phrasing, harmonic structure, rhythmic elements, instrumentation). Next, each chamber group is assigned a different component to research. Following the research process, individual members are sent out as ‘ambassadors’ to other ensembles where they present their group’s findings. Once a complete rotation is done, each group now has access to the compiled research into all the components.

The jigsaw approach might be done at the macro level – using three to four full ensemble pieces as the ‘text,’ or at the micro level, where each chamber group researches its own repertoire. A short quiz can be administered after the presentations are done to assess individual student learning and encourage accountability.

Tying these research components to the actual performance pieces makes the learning more relevant, useful, and immediately applicable. As they gain an understanding of the structures underlying music, students will come away with a greater appreciation for the compositional process and the socio-historical context of their repertoire.


While the benefits claimed by cooperative learning are bolstered by five decades of empirical research, its implementation in the large ensemble setting poses several challenges including that of redefining roles, classroom management, time allocation and current performance commitments. These difficulties are real and should not be discounted.

Nevertheless, the musical, academic, psychological, and lifelong benefits for our students are so great that it is well worth the effort to incorporate its elements into our classrooms. Although the focus of cooperative learning is the small group, the independence and interdependence fostered within chamber groups may positively transfer to the larger ensemble creating a greater overall sense of ownership, commitment, and support.


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Currently a doctoral student and graduate student instructor in music education at the University of Michigan, Anand Raj Sukumaran is a Golden Apple awarded teacher who arrived in academia having taught for ten years in the Chicago Public Schools. During his tenure, he revitalized his school's music offerings; creating a division 1 – competitive band program, building a digital keyboard lab that empowered students to apply theoretical concepts through contemporary styles, and expanding offerings to include guitar and songwriting electives. Sukumaran’s research interests include creativity, lifespan engagement, performing arts technology and musical code-switching. He performs regularly in secular and sacred settings on horn, piano, and guitar.

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