James Mick is an associate professor of music education at Ithaca College in upstate New York. In February I heard Dr. Mick give an inspiring TMEA workshop on getting the most out of your orchestra rehearsals. His presentation was extremely informative and offered many really practical suggestions for improvement. We spoke more recently about just one aspect of his presentation, focusing on the importance of how a director delivers information.
You began by asking your audience at what grade level does teacher content becomes more important than teacher delivery. I believe they were surprised to learn that this doesn’t occur until graduate school.
I do not recall the article or research thread from which this was based, however, I remember discussing the topic in a class during my graduate studies at Florida State University. Essentially, the point is that the manner in which we present material is perhaps the most important aspect of teaching. I internalized this concept to mean that teachers must have “attractive” passion for the topic. If you’re passionate and excited about what you are presenting and it shows, students will often inherit or absorb that excitement. They will then begin to love the topic simply because you love the topic.
For me, when I’m in front of students, hopefully everything that they see from me is something I love – whether it is a true passion or a projected passion. I’m not putting music in front of them that I don’t love; if we’re going to play this, it is worthwhile to learn it and we’re going to play it to the best of our ability. Essentially, I try to bring a high energy to everything I do because of the concomitants that come with the high energy.
Reinforcing Desired Behavior
Can you talk about this contingency table you shared in your presentation?
I learned of this topic in a class with Dr. Clifford Madsen and from his work on behavior modification. In essence, we want to avoid giving our students mixed messages by approving desired behaviors and disapproving undesired behaviors. However, when we inadvertently disapprove a desired behavior or approve an undesired behavior, we create potential “negative” experiences for students. These negatives, or mixed messages, are not easily forgotten, and, as Dr. Madsen used to say: “Positives come and go; Negatives accumulate.”
As a simple example, we might be working with the first violins and say, “Basses! Stop talking,” when in actuality it wasn’t the basses who were talking. Perhaps it was the back of the cello section. Being falsely accused can really stand out in a student’s mind, and can become distracting to them. We all have memories of being wrongly accused, and they have stayed with us because “negatives accumulate.” So, for me, this is something that I’m always very conscientious of when I am teaching. I’m looking for certain desired behaviors; when I see them I will praise or reward them, but I am equally conscious to not make approval or disapproval errors.
Language: Choosing Better Over Great
You are very conscious of language and prefer using the term “better” instead of “great.”
This topic stems from conversations that I used to have with a former colleague of mine, Dr. Steve Peterson, who’s now director of bands at the University of Illinois. It also ties into our previous discussion point of creating a “negative” by giving approval-error when approving undesired behaviors.
It is common for many teachers to give superfluous praise when rehearsing an ensemble. We will often use words such as great, good, well done, excellent, and so forth. However, if we were to step back and objectively listen, the product may not actually be great, good, well done, or excellent. Rather the summative sound may be quite poor. The problem is that we want to encourage our students, yet we may be undercutting ourselves by using unwarranted terms that potentially set a false sense of success for our students. Perhaps another encouraging and more appropriate word to use in many situations is better.
So, it’s a matter of being extremely conscious of our feedback. Save “great” for when something is truly great. Instead, use the word better: “Violins, that sounded better,” or, “The intonation was better, cellos.”
Don’t get me wrong, I still use the term “great.” But for me, it is paired with specific contextual feedback or it is a showstopper moment. For instance, “Cellos, your bow placements were great that time.” In this way, you do not imply the overall product was great, rather that one aspect of the performance was great. And when something truly great happens, as in the entire product is great, I make a big deal of it: “Great! What just happened right there was exactly what we’ve been working on for weeks. We’ve been getting better at it, and that was fantastic. Let’s remember what that feeling is so we know where the bar is and we know that we can reach it.”
Beginning with a Bang
I really liked your idea of actually playing before you tune.
This is in reference to Dr. Robert Culver’s energy profile studies that he completed while at the University of Michigan. So often students come into the room and they’re excited, but we have this problem in string playing that we need to tune and it is difficult to capture energy while tuning. This was a struggle that I had when I was teaching, particularly with a high school orchestra class that met the last period of the day. Students would come down the hall excited and full of energy, but I was always battling them to quiet down, find their seats, and focus their energy so that we could tune. I always felt like I was swimming upstream and I tried everything to not squash their enthusiasm, but I largely failed.
Then I thought, is there another way to harness this energy? Rather than letting the situation continually frustrate me, and to have that frustration come out in my teaching, perhaps I might consider channeling the student energy. In other words, if you can’t beat them, join them. So the question then became how to do this. And, of course, the answer was right in front of me – play. Students join orchestra to play their instruments.
For the next few classes, regardless of who was in the room with their instrument out, we would just start playing. All of a sudden, students came running from every direction to get into their seats quickly, versus loitering or moseying into the room. Even if we played a 60-second song, at the end, students were in their seats, instruments out, and largely focused so we could tune.
Now, when I am guest conducting and students are slow to return from a break I do the same thing. It is simply amazing how fast students get back into their seats and focus their energies. Again, students are in music class because they want to make music. If you dangle that carrot in front of them, you can change the game – you can embrace their energy and quickly focus them on the task at hand through a short “detour” outside of your original plans. Once they’re all on the same page, now you have something with which to work.
Playing Time vs. Talking Time
I was interested in your discussion of on-task behavior and how much rehearsal time is often spent talking. You mentioned Scribe 4. If I understand correctly, this is software (from the University of Texas) you can use to track how much playing or talking occurs in class?
Yes, it’s a research tool. You can set up any number of buttons and label them however you wish. As you watch a video, you click on the different buttons (sometimes multiple buttons at one time) as different activities occur. When the video is over you’ll have quantitative data about the time spent on each activity that you identified and labeled.
For example, you might assign button for playing time according to various sections of the orchestra. You might have buttons for violin one, violin two, viola, violoncello, and double bass. And so with five buttons, there will be times when all of them are turned on, times when it’s just violin one or violin two, etc. At the end you’ll have data on what percentage of time each of the sections were playing.
Many directors would be surprised to learn how much rehearsal time they spend talking to students.
Correct. There’s a lot of research that our perception is not always reality. We may perceive that we’re doing something, but the reality can be eye-opening if you look at it objectively. So this is just a way to objectively assess yourself and to look for patterns in your teaching. Again, my personal belief is that when students are in music classes they want to be making music. Now, obviously you want to be teaching them other things such as history and theory and so forth, but if our goal is to be playing in that moment, Scribe 4 is a great tool to objectively determine how much we are actually playing versus how much we are talking.
I’ll take that even a little bit further. For my undergraduate students at Ithaca College, I talk to them about the body language of their players. For me, the behaviors I’m looking for are when students are on the front part of their chair, sitting tall, and engaged. When they start to slouch and the instruments come down, I tell my students, “You’ve lost your pacing.”
In other words, if students start to slouch then you’ve taken too long to speak, unless, of course, you have purposefully chosen to make it a longer teaching moment. So the point that I make to my pre-service teachers is that they need to choose when they want students to not be playing. However, if they want their students to be engaged and on-task, then they need to pick up their delivery – their pacing – so that students stay seated on the front of their chairs with their instruments up. I always say, “Keep a perky pace.”
Intention vs. Function
Can you talk about intention versus function?
This is another concept that I learned from Dr. Clifford Madsen. Many times we do something with a specific intention and we think that doing this activity will produce a certain outcome. However, sometimes the outcome is different than what we are anticipating, or it functions in another way, which may be a good thing or a bad thing.
As an example, I remember one time I was combining orchestras with another director, and the other director thought that we could really engage students if we played an arrangement of a pop song. So the other director selected the arrangement, but unfortunately, it wasn’t a great arrangement. To the director’s credit, the students loved the piece… for a few days. But then they just loathed it because it was poorly arranged and did not do the song justice.
In this situation, the intention was that students were going to love this piece and that they were going to want to practice it. The function ended up being that the students hated it and it became a burden to get the students to rehearse the piece. In this case the intention was good, but the function ended up being contrary to our goals. The moral of the story is that we need to be aware of and recognize when intention is at odds with function.
Using Student Names
You talked about the importance of using student’s names.
During my freshman year of college I stumbled upon Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. It had a deeply profound influence on me and I remember photocopying several pages of the book so that I could periodically remind myself of things that I could do to be a better socializer. One thing that I remembered was: “…a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound…”
As teachers, we should know our students’ names. Greet them by name at the door. Say their names when passing them in the hallway. Use their names as often as possible. I am the first to admit that I am not naturally great with names. However, even though I may have to put in more effort in learning names, I believe it is extremely important to do so.
To take this a little further I will often use names for positive comments, but when providing constructive feedback I will intentionally use section names. For example, I might say, “Bassoon, you’re sharp,” or, “Oboe II, play within the Oboe I sound.”
However, when things are going well it might be, “Susan, nice job maintaining pitch in that passage,” or, “Jimmy, good job on backing off and creating a balanced section sound.”
You offered some techniques to get students to repeat things several times before they’re aware they’ve done so: “Okay, let’s do that again but now I’d like the oboes to play louder. [Then later] This time let’s hear more from the clarinets…”
I feel that this is one of the most important topics that I cover with my college students. I teach seven string method classes a year, and when we’re playing in these string classes we’re focusing on two things: left-hand technique and right-hand technique, over and over and over again. I have a myriad of activities that we’ll work through keeping the class playing and focusing on the activities at hand.
Then, when I stop and I talk to the students about the pedagogy and concepts behind what have we been doing, I boil it down: “In the last two minutes you did the same thing eight times. You felt like it was different, but this is exactly what you did.” It’s always interesting to see the look on their faces as they recognize that disguised repetition works, and the reasoning behind it.
I think that it is easy for inexperienced teachers do a lot of talking and not enough playing. Instead, I’d suggest they have their performers repeat the challenging section as many times as possible in class. It is as easy as having very simple, small things to say after each repetition that provide a slightly different focus for the musicians. In two minutes, the musicians can potentially play through a passage eight times, and maybe not even be aware of the process.
Individuals vs. Ensemble
You mentioned the difference between working with different groups of individuals and then the ensemble, as opposed to going back and forth, back and forth between individuals and the ensemble.
This concept comes from master teacher techniques that I learned from Dr. Rebecca McCleod at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.
One item that I have to teach my college students is how to dissect and restack skills during an ensemble rehearsal. Some people call it big-small-big, while others call it individual–everyone. While I don’t think there’s a secret recipe, and we don’t want students to be sitting too long, I think it’s okay to do several small items in a row. So you might have basses do something, then you might have violins do something, and then you might have the inner voices, violin two and violas do something before you have everyone go back and play it. In other words, it doesn’t have to be basses, everyone, violins, everyone, etc…
I think that inexperienced teachers are prone to make the mistake of thinking that everyone needs to play after a 20-second break, when it’s okay to take several 20-second intervals working with different groups. You can still engage students mentally during this time, even if they don’t have their bow on the string.
More than Just Technique and Notation
Any final thoughts?
I think it’s important that we don’t simply teach technique and notation all the time. When the national standards were first being implemented in the mid-’90s some educators thought we were expected to spend a ninth of our time doing each of the nine standards. I think one thing that I learned over the years, though, was that we don’t have to spend a ninth of our time doing each activity. However, we need to find opportunities for students to do all of the activities listed in the standards, such as improvisation, at some point during the school year.
The other thing to keep in mind is that master teachers already did all the activities outlined in the national standards, so these weren’t just new ideas out of the blue, rather, they were modeled from master teachers’ classrooms. If you walked into a great orchestra program in the early ’90s just before the standards came out, those teachers were already teaching all of the items that became the standards.
For me, I think it’s important that we allow students to be creative, and we find moments where students can make connections to other school subjects, and we find moments where students can experience all of the standards outside of just technique and music notation reading. Dr. Chad West, a close friend and colleague of mine, has a beautiful article in Music Educators Journal entitled “The Big 5” where he discusses this very point in an eloquent manner that is definitely worth the read.
I’d like to thank Dr. Mick again for taking the time to share his perspectives with us all.
Photos: 1.) Sinfonetta, Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY. 04/16/2012 by Steve Hockstein/HarvardStudio.com, 2.) The Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (RPYO). 11/12/2017 by Erich Camping