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Teaching En Masse?

I would like to explore the stereotypical school music setting. From what I understand from talking to friends who teach in this type of environment, students are assigned or pick out an instrument to play in orchestra or band. The teacher then covers basic, basic technique for each instrument. Students are then highly encouraged, but not always required, to seek instruction from a private teacher outside of school.

Does this work? Granted, I do not have a ton of experience teaching orchestra in the school setting. But when I did, it kind of felt at times like I was babysitting with instruments. To me, this seems like a really frustrating learning experience for everyone involved. The teacher can't possibly give everyone the individual attention they need. The students are drowning in a sea of new material. And then the parents get frustrated when they think their kid is being ignored in class.

I kind of have to wonder that if this is the face of music in schools, would children be better off without it? I would almost rather kids be completely ignorant of the subject then go through life swearing off music because they had a bad experience trying to learn the trumpet for orchestra in grade school.

But I'm on a soapbox now. I really don't want to be too overly critical. And I have actually witnessed the results of a good school orchestra program. What I want to do is try and spark objective discussion on whether or not teaching music "en masse" actually works and/or is a worthwhile endeavor. Is it better to have a frustrating music experience than none at all? What does it take to achieve a thriving orchestra or band program? In general, would you say there are more good programs out there or bad? Is it possible to create a successful school orchestra when none of the students take private lessons?


  1. Speaking for myself as someone who participated and thrived in a public school musical education program, I would say WITHOUT A DOUBT that the current system is far better than nothing. That being said, yes, it could definitely be improved upon, but of course the underlying problem is money.

    Teaching "en masse" will never be as effective or productive as one-on-one instruction, but I myself have a love of music today that inspires me to play tuba in a community orchestra at 47 years of age, and I have many friends who are professional musicians today who started their musical educations at the elementary school level and developed them through the public school system here in Southern California. I'm certain you can find disaster stories if you look for them, but I believe that for every student who would've/could've flourished in a one-on-one setting who instead dropped-out due to the limitations of the "en masse" system, there are that many or more students who share an experiencwe similar to mine. And for those students who just weren't destined to become musicians on any level, I believe that either system would yield similar results.

    I may hold a minority opinion due to having what I consider to be an above-average high school music education experience, but I do think the "en masse" system is completely worthwhile, despite its shortcomings.

    1. I think you've hit on something there when you mentioned the social element. That is an aspect I did not consider. So even if the instrument learning itself is frustrating, you are still making friends and having an after school activity. Which, in the end, is what you will remember.

  2. I agree both that the traditional group teaching model makes it harder to gain momentum and that it is still better than not having any music in school.

    I have taught in two schools. One was a charter school in a low-income area, the other was a private Montessori school. Despite the differences one would expect in such different populations, the same strategy for time organization worked in both schools. I rotated between private (10 minute) lessons, group lessons (sectionals), and orchestra (whole group). If you are allowed to spend your time focusing on different students or groups rather than always the whole group (in my case, the students just sat quietly working) then I highly recommend it.

    1. It's interesting that you say that because that's exactly how I ran my in-school Montessori program. Only there was no orchestra. I was alternate between private and group though. Which seemed to work well!

      What I was referring more to were those programs where the teacher doesn't necessarily play all they instrument he/she is supposed to teach. Orchestra teachers usually know the basics of each instrument. But is that enough to help keep frustration to a minimum?

    2. A few of my middle school violin students play in their school band, because there is no orchestra. (They began playing several months before beginning private lessons with me.) What that teacher did, which is brilliant, was to connect them with a high school violinist who came in to run over the basics of how to play during the first week or so. Yes, there were plenty of bad habits to correct after just a few months, but better than either trying to teach themselves from scratch or not being allowed into band.

    3. That is a brilliant idea bringing in a teen. Easily bribed with money and food plus it gives them some teaching experience to boot! =)

      But I still do wonder about some programs. I've done string coaching for a few schools and even if they're getting a string coach to come in once a month or something they're still held back by the fact that they are lacking basics.

      Plus, coupled with that, most orchestra teachers will pick pieces that are beyond the ability level of the orchestra. And most of the time they don't even realize it is! They'll be a piano player or a singer and they may not even realize that the piece they picked, while easy on piano, is really hard on the violin.

      So that's the type of situation I was referring to. It's really no one's fault. Just a lot of factors that inadvertently add up to a frustrating experience for some students.


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