Our Own Conductorless Orchestra

Jose VilsonEducation3 Comments

OrchestraFirst off, shout-outs to History is Elementary for the latest Carnival of Education, which I participated in. I need to get with the program and actually turn my blogs in on time and early.

Also, tomorrow, for those of you reading for my Penny Harvest escapades, I’ll have a whole blog or two on them in the next couple of days. That should be fun.

In any case, I went to Carnegie Hall last night with my girl and our friends. Yeah, that’s far from my favorite chill spot. I might have been the only dude of my demographic representing there.  The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, dubbed the most famous conducterless orchestra, had their opening night. The show itself was amazing; the sounds captivated me and really took me to another place, and that’s something music should do. I found myself tapping my feet trying to look for a drum or a dope bass line, but alas, I knew better in Carnegie.

It made me think about the purpose of having an inquiry-based class, where kids actually ask critical questions about what they’re being exposed to. The violinists and cello players come in when they need to. The flutes go off on time. The drums and horns come in time with everything else in the song. And it was all without someone telling them what to do. They just did it. When I thought about it, though, I said, “They’ve had this type of training for decades, and practice their rituals and routines almost every day. Even with a summer break, they’re ready to roll when they come in.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have a system in place where that can occur.

I’ve expounded on this before, but I think it’s worth noting: students in most urban schools are having a hard time with the workshop model, and it’s very simple. Studies have shown that student-centered models of education don’t work unless they’ve had a stable foundation of step-by-step direction and / or teacher-guided instruction, and that the latter tends to be more efficient through the primary years. In other words, many of them need to be shown what they’re supposed to be researching and how to do it before they go about it themselves.

Politically, this also means that, if indeed we have more teacher-guided instruction, that actually makes us more indispensable, and they can’t just treat teachers like cogs in the factory. I’m pretty sure people want the most effective and experienced teachers in there, but when we go to the other extreme of student-centered teaching, there’s a popular sentiment that you can put practically anyone up there and they’ll just moderate the kids’ work.

The most successful examples of the workshop model have been where the teacher incorporates a healthy dose of both. I agree that children should start learning concepts and abstractions at an early age, but if we think about the stage of their lives they’re in, it’s obvious that they often need direction. Why would it be any different in the classroom? They should at least be afforded the opportunity to know what are the more important questions, hence taking more and not less ownership over their own learning.

So I look at the orchestra again, and they’re kickin’ butt. All they do is look at each other and they’re off. Strings flying, horns blowing, and all sorts of other instruments playing their part, all without a conductor to let them know how loud or soft they’re supposed to be, or to remind them of when they’re supposed to join the music. They all just know.


Comments 3

  1. I’d have to fly 3,000+ miles for that Carnegie Hall opportunity. Of course, you’d have to fly the same distance to join my on the beautiful Lower Deschutes River. It’s all good, isn’t it? I envy you the evening.

    The training that gets students or musicians to the life-long learning stage is where we want to go, I think. And teachers are the indispensable people for that journey. (Theoretically, nobody’s indispensable, but I argue that’s not true.)

    Enjoy the feeling.

  2. Nice image, the teacher as a conductor. If only the students were as motivated as a the musicians in Carnegie Hall… ;-)
    There is an interesting discussion going on at my blog (last 2 posts) and I really wonder what your opinion is.

  3. We strive for our kids to become independent thinkers and capable of grasping and comprehending abstract concepts. That is the long-term goal. How is this learning attained? Practice, practice, practice, and more practice. By whom? Not just our kids but also us, the educators. It is rare to have children whom naturally possess said attributes. Others need these skills developed through time before it becomes innate or even unraveled.

    Along the way, bad habits are picked up and even developed by both students and teachers. Since they are modeled, there can be a tendency to blindly accept them as the “right” habits of mind to possess. Once this takes place, the flow of instruction and learning becomes bumpy, a little bit out of tune. While I read this post today, I immediately thought of my class this morning. I have a bunch of 8th graders whom have developed many “interesting” habits of mind while in the “Glass House” since 5th grade. Now, they have this “crazy” teacher for literacy who is overdramatic. I even got nominated for a teacher Oscar for my performance this morning. As we were discussing the effects that the main character’s decision had upon his life, all I could envision was an array of instruments playing different notes and making “noise.” As I let my “musicians” make their “music, I kept assessing the gaps and planning how to guide them to find their place so that our “symphony” could become somewhat structured. Instead of telling them how to do it all at once, I began with the different sections until they became a little bit more cohesive. Little by little, various members of the “symphony” began creating “music.” All of suddent there was a beat, a rythmn, something unexpected which made many of us in the classroom feel alive and willing to chime in. The hope is that the last few months of school, I can become an active audience member and not the conductor.

    De nuevo- gracias. Wonderful-glad you enjoyed it.

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