Curious, Collaborative, Creativity: Steps to Empower Your Ensemble

Curious, Collaborative, Creativity: Steps to Empower Your Ensemble

Does it seem possible to utilize the new National Standards of creating, performing, responding, and connecting all within a single ensemble rehearsal? Many of us find that we barely have enough time to properly prepare our students for their next performance, let alone set aside time in their rehearsals for students to compose, analyze, discuss, and share.  

As educators, we understand the importance of 21st-century skills, but we often fall short in helping our students to develop them within our bands, choirs, and orchestras. The Curious, Collaborative, Creativity (CCC) approach, studied in several K-12 schools and two universities, provides a way for student-centered learning within our ensembles while maintaining musical excellence and developing lifelong musicianship.

What is CCC and how does it work?

This approach encourages students to explore a wide variety of music, both traditional and new, through collaboration. Inspired by the Comprehensive Musicianship through Performance (CMP), Project-Based Learning, and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the CCC format shifts the control of the ensemble solely from the director to student-teacher teams. Together the students and teacher select and/or compose the music they wish to explore; develop their curiosity through shared ideas and individual contributions; investigate through collaboration; and then produce a creative performance with the audience.   


Step 1: Curiosity

The first step is to learn more about your students’ musical interests and to identify the music you wish to explore together. This can be easily accomplished through a student questionnaire to gather together information to help develop your semester’s curriculum.

  • Ask your students repertoire questions:
    • What ensemble music did you enjoy learning last semester?
    • What types of music would you be interested in learning this semester?What are your favorite musical styles and genres?
    • Who are your favorite artists?
  • Ask your students about how they interact with music:  
    • Do you sing, play, or perform on instruments outside of school?  
    • Do you prefer listening, dancing, sharing music on social media or responding in other ways?  
    • Do you enjoy creating new music, songwriting, or exploring on GarageBand and/or other music software?
  • Ask your students what ways they learn best:  
    • Do you prefer working alone or with others?  
    • Do you prefer someone to show or tell you what to do or do you prefer experimenting or figuring out solutions on your own?

Step 2: Collaboration

Next you need to compile the results from the questionnaire, select music, and assemble student groups.  Throughout the semester, students will work collaboratively or independently within the rehearsals through performing, responding, and creating activities on the music selected.

After you collect the questionnaires, examine the answers students provided. Based on their input, find appropriate music in your ensemble’s library, or purchase new arrangements that are similar to your students’ interests and preferences. I highly recommend BandQuest and ChoralQuest as excellent resources for band and choir music and related teaching materials.

During the first few rehearsals, sight-read or listen to recordings of the chosen music and introduce students to the possible literature that could be studied this semester. Next, select music that expands their musical experiences into other genres or styles that complement their choices.

Based on their questionnaire answers, you will likely choose to organize students into groups based upon their preferences for performing, responding, and creating music, as well as their preferred manner of learning. Students who prefer performing will help teach the music with the ensemble director. Students who prefer responding to music will help the ensemble develop a deeper aesthetic experience through movement, drawing, and discussion activities. Students who prefer creating music will compose or improvise new musical examples that can be shared with the ensemble.

Design the structure and procedures of your rehearsals to infuse student participation. Provide “time-out” segments in your rehearsals for the performance, responding, and creating teams to work on their ideas and contributions that they wish to develop. Schedule opportunities throughout the semester for the students to lead the ensemble or share their ideas.

Step 3: Creativity

This third step is the culmination of the musical journey: The “Informance.” Infused in the performance of the music, the students share what they have learned and involve the audience in a deeper understanding of the music. 

This can include:

  • Performance team presentations with a student conductor leading the ensemble on a selected piece, or students teaching the audience how to sing-along or play-along with a piece.
  • Creativity team presentations with a student composer performing his/her piece, or student improvisers providing a demonstration with the audience.
  • The Responding team’s musical enhancements of dance, movement, artwork, and videos while the ensemble performs their pieces.

How do I do this?

Sound difficult and time-consuming?  Actually, it does not require any more time than you currently devote to planning, directing, and teaching in your ensembles. In fact, as your students progress through the three-step process, the director’s responsibilities are reduced and student-ownership increases, which result in deepening the students’ musical understandings, increasing musical skills, and strengthening the ensemble.  

To get a better understand of how this could work for you, visit the Curious, Collaborative, Creativity website where you can see examples of this process, purchase an interactive ebook, or request workshops and materials.

Caron Collins, associate professor of music education at The Crane School of Music, State University of New York in Potsdam, has 25 years teaching experience in K-12 instrumental and general music, and 10 years at the college level. Currently, she teaches undergraduate courses in modern instrumental methods and graduate music courses in action research and learning styles. She is music director of the Campus-Community Band, a collaborative, inquiry-based ensemble. Dr. Collins has published articles and presented clinics at numerous state and national conferences. She earned her undergraduate degree from Indiana University and doctorate from The Ohio State University.


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