Promoting Musical Independence in Ensemble Teaching (TMEA Preview)

Promoting Musical Independence in Ensemble Teaching

Secondary school music is dominated by the structure of the performing ensemble. This model has many positive attributes including the ability to engage a lot of students at once, to offer a very valued sociocultural environment, and to offer performances that are often superior to those of individuals at that level. At the center of this system is the ensemble conductor, the master musician who solves problems and shapes and molds these performers and performances into an impressive and cohesive whole.

Yet the traditional teacher-centered model of the ensemble appears to be in direct opposition to contemporary educational thought where a priority is placed on students constructing their own understanding of subject matter through authentic problem-solving experiences. Both the size and structure of the ensemble can make it a challenging environment for developing musical independence.

Strategies for promoting musical independence include areas such as repertoire choice, rehearsal skills, and performance evaluation.  Key to all of these strategies is autonomy and the opportunity to fail.


  • Provide all of the students in your ensemble with sheet music (parts & full score for instrumental) and a quality recording of a large-ensemble piece of your choosing.
  • Tell them they have two weeks to prepare for the first rehearsal and the goal is for the first read through to sound as much like the final performance as possible. This is a form of musical independence that many professional groups expect of their members.
  • Students can rehearse on their own, in sections, or in any configuration they wish outside of regular rehearsal.
  • At that first rehearsal, conduct through the piece at performance tempo or very close and record the attempt once or twice. Share the recording with the students (e.g. post online) and then give them one more week to prepare for the second recorded read through.
  • At that point you have several choices depending on how it’s going. You could
    a) engage the students in a discussion of where their preparation fell short (if it did), or
    b) offer to answer any questions they may have about how to better prepare and then send them off again or
    c) keep coming back to the piece perhaps at shorter intervals as long as improvement is evident.
  • You will know best how to scaffold for your own group, but I encourage you to get out of the way more than you are comfortable. Let them fail and try again and problem solve without rushing in to “fix” them.

This article was submitted by Dr. Steven M. Demorest from Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.  He is a professor of music education in the Bienen School of Music.  You may read more information about his research and achievements here.

Related Reading:
Have a Great Idea? Be a Guest Author!
Utilizing Sound Concepts When Teaching Brass
Setting Goals and Achieving Objectives (Practice Tips for the Modern Musician)

Learn. Share. Inspire.


Trackbacks & Pings