Lessons in Inculturation of the String Orchestra Classroom

By Anna Hennessy

The highlight of my professional development efforts this year was attending the American String Teacher Association 2019 conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico. While there, I actively sought sessions concerning culture-building and socio-emotional learning in the orchestra classroom. As it happened, several sessions including the keynote, spoke to this theme. School culture is changing alongside general culture, learning styles, brain development and the technology our students so dearly love. As a result, teachers are deepening our view of the student as a whole but developing person in a complex world. Likewise, our ensembles are more than a class with rehearsals, they can be fully realized communities that share emotions, insights and decision-making responsibilities.

In Dr. Lisa Wong’s keynote address, she spoke of the power of music in fostering empathy in babies. According to a relevant study, babies in a test group (Group A) and a caregiver listened to the same music on individual headphones, and bounced together to the tempo of that music. In the control group (Group B), the babies listened to different music from their caregivers, and were bounced at a different tempo from the music in their headphones. After these musical/kinesthetic experiences, the Group A babies demonstrated empathic responses such as picking up the researcher’s dropped pens and maintaining eye contact, while the Group B babies did not do these things as frequently. The implication of this study, and others like it, is that a shared experience of music and movement creates an environment of trust between people.

When we are familiar with any material, be it letters of the alphabet or a complex melody, we think less about mechanics and more about details and nuance. Predictive thought and critical problem solving happen naturally, and we can start to be playful with those letters, those melodies, or those ideas. Many musicians will agree that there is a marked difference between listening to a lecture and listening to our instruments. Experiencing music changes our bodies as well as our minds. When we listen together with care and attention, and without distraction, we become more aware of our surroundings and the people in it. This sensitivity to our environment, along with our own subjective experience, increases with practice. An orchestra musician can tell when another member is slightly out of tune or enters late, even if they are across the stage. We are trained to notice and to make instant accommodations in the service of our art.

The Emotional World of the Adolescent

Music activates our emotional and communicative brain, and encourages receptivity to beauty. While magic certainly happens in any classroom of quality, the act of making music together creates a special bond. Sounds great, right? So, how do we arrive at these lofty sensations of togetherness? In Bob Gillespie’s session, Motivating the Adolescent: What Happened? They Used to Like Me and Want to Do What I Asked. Now They Frown, Groan, and Sigh. What Do I Do?, he details the characteristics of the adolescent. Well-intentioned, high energy, instantly impassioned and opinionated, adolescents can be hard to win and seemingly harder to keep engaged. Dr. Wong reminded us that contemporary medicine names anxiety and isolation as primary to today’s pediatric practices. Gillespie says that the cure for insecurity is security, and the cure for isolation is social incorporation.

In a middle school classroom, personalities are blossoming. As silently as snow and at other times with the abruptness of a volcano, our students in the Learning Village are painfully self-conscious while profoundly lacking in self-awareness. The adolescent tendency to blame others and escape shame leads to power struggles with the teacher and with classmates. Those struggles threaten cooperation in the classroom.

How can we prepare them do something so risky as to be sensitive and to identify and trust their emotions in a classroom setting?

Building Student Feelings of Security Through Cycle Form

STAB’s own Debbie Lyle is a master teacher and executive director of the Bornoff Foundation for the Advancement of String Education. The Bornoff Approach to string teaching and learning uses cycle form in each class as a platform for each new technique. Cycle form is the practice of learning stringed instruments by applying a skill to each string in order (lowest string to highest string), and repeating it in the opposite order (highest string to lowest string). Functional changes (number of notes, parts of the bow) and new technical challenges (spiccato stroke, harmonics, double stops) are incorporated into the format one at a time, and repeated with verbal instructions from the teacher. The verbal instructions between repetitions draw students’ awareness to refining bow hand, trajectory of the bow and quality of sound. Because the student knows what to expect, they feel secure that they will play the right thing. Cycle form equips the player with familiar territory, a sense of how much time they have to make an adjustment, and gives them multiple chances to improve.

By practicing with a constant (the cycle) and variable (small changes), with continual instruction on refinement, students engage in work that is at the same time familiar and challenging. This bolsters their sense of efficacy and comfort with string playing in every class.

Social Incorporation

The Gilbert Town Fiddlers are an auditioned group of high school musicians from Arizona. These incredible young musicians take learning a step further by making original arrangements with tunes that they learn as a group. Contrary to the procedures of most ensembles, the very first rehearsals are not spent learning tunes and techniques. Instead, the students learn about communication skills. After giving a dazzling performance at the ASTA conference, the students presented on their methods, spending a quarter of their time on the interpersonal skills they use to create a safe and collaborative environment. In their own words,  “Without these [communication] skills, none of this would be possible.” The students talked about Fault Assumption Error, a logical fallacy that involves immediate blaming when something goes wrong. If a student shows up late to rehearsal and throws off the group, the appropriate response is to forgive and move on with the work, asking “why” questions later. Not getting hung up on personal issues is key to moving forward with good collaboration and decision making. When the group moves toward the arranging process, many will have ideas to put forth for a vote. Each idea is played through, then a vote is taken. They each understand that their ideas may be voted down or up, and that the vote is not a personal reflection on their worth. Because of the variety of arranging choices, the Gilbert Town Fiddlers’ arrangements are dynamic and fresh, and the students derive great satisfaction from ownership of their music.

In sum, these sessions have armed me with a renewed sense of compassion for my middle school musicians and a redefinition of ensemble goals. In order to be productive members of any group, we must be aware of others and ready to sacrifice a bit of our own egos for the greater good. Furthermore, to be a great artist, one must be willing to be sensitive – even in front of peers! This can all seem daunting to the adolescent, during the throes of self-censorship and identity formation. My job, as I now see it, is to make my classroom a safe enough space for students to identify and trust their emotions, relate to one another with kindness and to be sensitive to joy. Joy is possible when we allow it, when we share it, when we want it.

1 Comment

  1. Mary Beth Harrison-Cunningham

    Anna..this is truly a masterful and insightful piece! You are an amazing teacher and mentor and your students and families are so lucky to have you in their lives!


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