By John Phillips
Your ensemble has just concluded a highly successful performance either in concert, at a festival, or on the competition field. The students worked tirelessly to prepare and offered their very best effort. The hours of full rehearsal, sectionals, and individual preparation resulted in an exceptional presentation that met or exceeded expectations. For conductors, band directors, and music teachers alike, this is certainly what we hope our students will aspire to and can be justifiably proud of. After all is said and done, though, have you ever wondered what the students came away with from the entire endeavor? What exactly did they get out of the experience and more specifically, what did they learn? In essence, what is their takeaway? Beyond a top rating, trophy, first place honors, or countless accolades from friends and family, what is their intrinsic reward or musical benefit? Have you ever asked your students what they gleaned from the experience or how they felt about their performance? Or, as the popular Peggy Lee song from the 1960s implies, “Is that all there is?” In this article I will explore these questions and share a few simple strategies to enhance your students’ musical learning through the application of guided reflection. I further hope to entice you to consider reflection as a means to promote critical and creative thinking within your ensemble.
We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience. – John Dewey
Many teachers “relive” a performance with students by reviewing an audio or video recording. In the case of a concert festival or field competition, these listening and viewing experiences may also include the adjudicator/clinician commentary. At the most basic level, allowing students a chance to review their performance is a first step toward gauging the group’s sentiments about their accomplishments. Such informal reviews are certainly helpful and can provide important feedback for continued musical growth. Typically, however, when students are gathered together, they may either be hesitant to reveal an honest opinion or perhaps feel pressure to conform to a common sentiment among their peers. In some cases, directors try their best to encourage a response and even provide well intentioned guiding questions such as “Did we do our best?” or “Wasn’t that much better than our last performance?” The difficulty with this line of questioning is that students are given “an out” by simply indicating a yes or no response (head nod, hand raised, shout out.) Such experiences are analogous to an exit poll seeking consensus among participants. Their responses may no doubt be useful to the teacher in planning and programming going forward, but how significantly do such findings contribute to student achievement?
If one considers the performance as the “test” or the “product”, and the many stages of preparation as the “study” or the “process,” where would one surmise that most of the learning takes place? The obvious answer would be the lead up to the performance, the study portion. However, might we also consider the possibility of using the post-performance as a medium for further learning? Think of a post-performance reflection as an opportunity to “connect the dots” and aid students in understanding the importance of the process. Seize this opportunity to engage students in some critical analysis and critical thinking that synthesizes the process into long-lasting, more profound learning. I’d like to share a few very simple strategies to help you develop a community of learners within your ensemble who, over time, become less dependent, and more independent thinkers – a group of students who eventually demonstrate interdependent actions. Of course, time will have an impact on how much or how little teachers can engage in such activities if at all. Should you choose to consider something more structured than a general debrief, here are some ideas.
I frequently adjudicate concert festivals that employ a format with either an on-stage clinic or in a separate space immediately following the performance. Meeting a new group of students for the first time in this setting is unique and provides a dynamic learning environment. However, this scenario is also fraught with peril if the group is unresponsive, not open to new learning, or is hesitant to take risks. In most cases, students are loyal to their director, as they should be, and may be reluctant to stray very far from the norms that have been established in their rehearsal regimen. To help me to take the “pulse” of the group, and for them to relax a little with someone new at the podium, I employ a think-pair-share strategy. The strategy allows students to immediately reflect on how they have performed, to actively engage the thinking part of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex), and to respond to some basic prompts that will inform my next steps as the clinician. Suffice it to say, I already have a game plan founded on observations of the ensemble’s performance, though this could change based on the students’ ideas. In nearly every instance, though, I have found that the students arrive at many of the same conclusions as I do in terms of what went well and what could be improved.
I believe the think-pair-share strategy is important because it requires students to think initially. If you recall your basic educational psychology courses and Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy, the Cognitive domain was first on the list. The think-pair-share strategy can be used immediately following the performance or at the next rehearsal. Band directors who want to try this approach in lieu of a general group debrief should apply these four steps.
- First, ask the students to think about one musical goal that the ensemble had been focusing on in rehearsal and that was successful in their performance. It is important to stress that you are looking for something that the group demonstrated successfully, not the individual student.
- Next, ask them to hold the first idea that comes into their head for five seconds. This allows them to briefly analyze and sort through multiple responses that may immediately come to mind.
- Now they get to communicate with each other. Ask them to turn to their elbow partner, section mate, or someone in their near vicinity and share what they were thinking. Allow 10 seconds for this sharing to take place and stress that they need to be as clear and succinct as possible. Timing is everything. Even though some students will want to take more time, for the strategy not to become passé it is necessary to keep the communication on track. It also helps if the director is enthusiastic and energized.
- You now take over as moderator and solicit 3 observations randomly from the full group either by asking for volunteers or by arbitrarily picking students you know will be confident in responding. The key in this step is to ask students to share what their partner felt and not their own observation. Three responses are sufficient, though you could seek more. You could even create a list of replies as an anchor chart (word wall) for reference at a later time.
After giving consideration to the successful aspects of the performance a second phase of the reflection involves asking students to think critically about how their performance could be improved. From my experience, students are typically more critical than one might expect and often comment on minor details that the director may not have even considered. Interestingly, in almost every instance where I’ve used this strategy, some of the areas suggested for improvement are also those which were identified as successes in the first phase of reflection.
The Think-Pair-Share strategy serves several purposes.
- The students are challenged to actually think about what they have accomplished. We avoid parroting responses to what they’ve learned and ask them to contextualize their understanding of the process.
- The strategy provides students with a safe environment to share without intimidation for not having “a correct answer.” It is equally important to stress that there are no incorrect responses since this activity is based on personal opinion and feelings.
- Students are giving value to their performance and in particular, in the second phase of the exercise, are critically examining the aspects of the performance that require further attention.
By employing this activity with students in a debrief mode post-performance, teachers can assess what the students felt was accomplished and what still needs to be done. Unlike a general large-group debrief where there may be an “out” for students with a more casual attitude or those who are timid/hesitant (think third chair players/freshmen), there is a level of accountability for every member of the group since they must provide a response to a peer which in turn could be further shared with the full group. Eventually, you will find that members of the ensemble look forward to this opportunity to share how they feel the group is doing and not simply conform to a norm. At best, this strategy avoids the sound of crickets when a question such as “How do you think we did?” is posed. The first word out of the director’s mouth in the think-pair-share strategy is “think” ergo, they have to. Other prompts could be “imagine”, “what if ”, “how might”, the list is endless. A major benefit of this activity is that the students “own” their response. They share their ideas and become more aware of the similarities and differences in the way the entire group thinks and feels about the performance. This exercise takes only a few minutes to complete and you will discover a great deal about your group dynamic and individuals as a result.
A few years ago, I attended a clinic session at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic titled “The Secret Revealed: Japanese Ideas for Band Teaching and Their Practical Use for Your Classroom.” The workshop presenter was composer Yo Goto and the room was packed with North American band directors eager to learn the secrets of how young Japanese band students achieve at such a high standard. While I am paraphrasing and summarizing, the gist of Goto’s findings were not that these students rehearsed more often or even more intently than we do on this side of the Pacific. Rather his hypothesis was that band members were afforded time in every rehearsal to think about what they were doing, to converse with their stand partners about how their sound or interpretation was developing, and to synthesize this information into their performance. In each video demonstration, a band director would ask a question, then step down from the podium and the students would begin their communication. The director would ask a few follow-up questions and the rehearsal would continue. The obvious consequence for the Japanese bands was how acutely they listened to each other, both while performing and during their shared reflections. This variation of the think-pair-share strategy can be equally effective when applied prior to the performance.
The premise of this article is that students can learn by reflecting on their achievements. So too, can teachers learn more about their students through observation during these reflective practices. The general definition of learning is “the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught.” Taking time to reflect provides another facet of the learning experience and an opportunity for teachers to discover what students identify as unique to their learning. For directors who wish to delve deeper and explore what the students “feel” or “value” about their accomplishments try a Four Corners activity.
- Begin with a statement, issue or question such as “ We performed to the best of our ability,” or “We performed with great expression and musical artistry,” or “If we had more rehearsal time, we could have performed even more successfully.”
- On chart paper, label four corners around the band room/classroom: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, and Strongly Disagree.
- Students are given a specified period of quiet time (5-10 seconds) in which to decide how they feel about the statement. At this stage, dialogue is not allowed.
- Students move into the corner that best represents their point of view on the issue.
- In these smaller groups, they discuss why they moved to that corner. One member of the group records their combined reasons.
- Students then report on their reasons from each corner.
While some may question time away from playing, just 5-10 minutes can stimulate meaningful dialogue among your ensemble members and provide insights on how they feel about the state of their music making – think Bloom’s Affective domain. Of course depending on the size of your ensemble, such an activity may be prohibitive due to space. Still, one could try this in smaller segments or sections of the band.
Both the Think-Pair-Share and Four Corners activities require verbal sharing and statements about achievement. Both activities are adapted from a 2001 self-published textbook on instructional strategies titled “Beyond Monet” by Barrie Bennett and Carol Rolheiser. The text contains supplementary strategies, activities, and graphic organizers such as placemats, graffiti, mind mapping, concept mapping, fishbone, Venn diagrams, and more. For those interested in exploring additional ways and means to provide collaborative learning experiences, e-book versions of the text can be found online including worksheets and instructions.
So far I’ve suggested ways for students to reflect upon their collective performance. What about their response to other performers they observe at a festival or marching event? Have you ever considered giving your band members a chance to “be the judge?” At some concert festivals, band associations provide participating schools with a copy of the adjudicator forms so students can both self-assess and, if provided sufficient copies, can “evaluate” the performances of their peers from other schools. It would not require much effort to craft a worksheet or simple rubric for students to use. Having them describe thoughts and feelings in writing is another powerful way to reflect on learning and express a personal point of view. These reports could be submitted anonymously or as part of a festival/contest assignment. As with the Think-Pair-Share exercise, you will recognize that students can be more critical of themselves than we are. When assessing other groups, it is important to stress that positive characteristics should be identified first. Using this approach with my high school students, I would ask for three positives. They would then be further asked to make a suggestion for improvement for their peers from other schools. Interestingly, students often mention areas that had been developed in our fundamental approach to playing an instrument. For instance, they might suggest a band could ameliorate their performance with improved posture, holding, breathing, or stick/mallet technique. As personal validation, my students often identified many of the musical concepts we had addressed in our rehearsals. Occasionally they questioned the choice of repertoire and its appropriateness for inclusion on a festival/contest program. Many of their findings were confirmation that I had been successful in communicating skills, attitudes and behaviors that underpin musical growth.
Taking the time to listen to other performances can open your students’ eyes and ears to multiple ideas both musical and non-musical. My experience has been that young musicians will be empathetic with groups that are in their formative stages. Often, they can be inspired to perform at a level commensurate with the shining stars of the festival or pageantry event. The critical analysis of peer groups provides a means for students to process what has value, or limited value, with both their contemporaries’ efforts and their own. It may not be a surprise that students frequently react to other repertoire or show design choices they observe. Don’t band directors do the same? Why not steal from the best? Next year, maybe you can play that chart!
Perhaps you already have a method or system for self-assessing their performances. However, if the assessment is primarily teacher-centered, a potentially powerful learning opportunity may be excluded. Research informs us that student reflection can be a strategic and dynamic learning tool. A recent study of the effectiveness of university professors noted that when students in large lecture settings are given a chance to verbally share their understanding of the lecture content, and/or respond to a question or prompt approximately every 10-15 minutes, they demonstrated increased content retention and improved test scores are demonstrated.
Earlier in my career I was involved in the appraisal, revision, and implementation of the arts curriculum for a very large educational jurisdiction equivalent to a statewide review. The revised curriculum document included a Creative Process that paralleled a process employed by contemporary artists and arts educators. Teachers and students can apply various stages of the process to teaching and learning respectively. Of particular relevance to this article is the final stage – Reflecting and Evaluating. Whether we are creating or re-creating music, the opportunity to pause and reflect, assess what has been accomplished and then revisit other stages of the CP such as Producing Preliminary Work, Revising and Refining, or Presenting, Performing, and Sharing, can enhance learning and support student achievement.
Asking students for opinions of their work creates an environment where the director relinquishes a certain degree of autonomy. While we encourage honesty and openness, we certainly do not want mutiny. Therefore, it is important to frame this reflective practice with a caveat, that “we” are hoping to grow and learn from the performance experience and therefore we need to plan next steps based on what has been accomplished thus far. By making these connections between what they know and what they need to know, students and teachers can establish a collaborative community of continuous learning. This precept begs the question “What do the students actually take away from the entire experience?” The musical journey to the culminating performance involves intense preparation, focused learning in rehearsals, sharing common goals, positive collaboration, acquisition of new skills, application of transferable skills and much, much more. A skilled pedagogue – the band director, must guide the musical journey with thoughtful planning, extensive musical insight, and a positive, encouraging personality.
What has been discussed in this commentary is there may be a point at which the band director asks students what they valued from their efforts and achievement. What did they come away with from the entire enterprise? What did they think, feel, and do in their music making? Of course, there is no substitute for developing technique and expression. These are essential concepts that successful bands demonstrate at the highest level. If you already have a process for soliciting a point of view from your students, you are well on your way to enhancing their learning beyond simply playing correct notes and rhythms. If you do not, applying one or more of the strategies presented in this article may help you to assess your group, inform your instruction, and most importantly engage your students in thinking about what and how they have learned.