Printer-friendly version
Danielle Gomez

Teaching En Masse?

October 13, 2009 at 5:13 AM

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?

From Andrei Pricope
Posted on October 13, 2009 at 6:05 AM

What it takes is a solid and mutually supportive relationship between the school orchestra director and the local string teachers. Both must work toward a positive experience for beginning students and their parents, regardless of setting.

Ideally, the teachers involved must coordinate materials, methods, priorities, schedules, etc. Their expectations to students/parents should be equally consistent and clearly articulated, especially when dealing with students/parents without any previous instrumental music background.

In the school mass setting the teacher is oftentimes reduced to a glorified babysitter, constantly having to reinforce rehearsal logistics and technique fundamentals, catering to the lowest common denominator while "teaching to the concert", not least to validate one's own position and the program to the administration. Frustration for students with more cognitive (and musical) ability and potential is therefore built into the system.

Some school programs don't even have smaller group alternatives, let alone 1-on-1 offerings due to budgetary, building or scheduling shortcomings. In many programs, students of clearly different levels have to rehearse together, with the inherent and obvious social and pedagogical problems jeopardizing effective learning.

As in any activity, the more dedicated and resourceful students/parents will seek individual instruction earlier, parallel with or independent of existing school programs, with a professional and experienced teacher. Cream has its way of rising to the top. While maybe elitist for the crybabies, this is nonetheless true and natural, across disciplines.

The most common problems arise when there is, overtly or not, competition or jealousy over income or job security/benefits coupled with distrust over teaching methods and materials between the teachers involved. Some of it may be temporary, but in most cases, thanks to human nature, little cracks (dictated by preferential treatment or self-interest) in this relationship can trigger sometimes sudden and oftentimes permanent shifts in loyalty and support of each other's programs. Given these conditions, long-term healthy collaborations are the exception rather than the norm, I believe, not unlike any other "dance" between the public and private sector...

To answer specific questions:

- the "success" of a program when no students take private lessons depends on the definition of success, among others...

- any learning/teaching experience includes frustration, but exposure to arts/music/strings is better than exclusion

As to quality en masse, I am reminded of "If it's for everyone, it's not good; if it's good, it's not for everyone." (before flaming me, please consider the aforementioned tendency of cream...). Depends on what one is looking for: mass enrollment or soloists? There can never be a Juilliard in every neighborhood, whether one would want it or not. Communists tried "quality en mass", but there was still only one Oistrakh, one Gilels, one Rostropovich. Venezuela has tried it for 25 years, with only a few of the hundreds of thousands rising to the top. China has 30 million violin students and 50 million piano students, how many can one name? Again, what is the goal?

From Danielle Gomez
Posted on October 13, 2009 at 6:59 AM

 "In the school mass setting the teacher is oftentimes reduced to a glorified babysitter, constantly having to reinforce rehearsal logistics and technique fundamentals, catering to the lowest common denominator while "teaching to the concert", not least to validate one's position and the program to the administration. Frustration for students with more cognitive (and musical) ability is therefore built into the system."

I totally agree.  This type of situation is exactly what I was talking about.  Which still begs the question: is it really worth it?  I mean, yes, there are great programs out there that do put a lot of effort into their music productions.  But I would argue that the majority of them are similar to the scenario you described above.  

From Danielle Gomez
Posted on October 13, 2009 at 7:08 AM

 "any learning/teaching experience includes frustration, but exposure to arts/music/strings is better than exclusion"


Yes, but I believe it creates unreasonable amounts of frustration for all participating parties.  If 90% of the students are failing due to an insufficient learning environment and the teacher is just waiting for the cream the crop to rise to the top, I don't think that constitutes as exposure. Exposure requires a fair presentation of the material.  Teaching something as technically complicated as an instrument in that kind of environment is not a fair presentation of material because most of the students don't even stand a chance of learning it.

From Andrei Pricope
Posted on October 13, 2009 at 7:16 AM

Correct! Expectations must be coordinated to conditions. A fair representation of what it takes to excel on a string instrument is necessary, but most orchestra directors' hands are tied. Teachers must educate parents as much as students, as much as administrators. Yet again, "mass quality" is proven to be a contradiction that's as illusory as unattainable. 

Exposure does not equal achievement - it's only a necessary start. One must add motivation, resources, expert guidance, consistency, and opportunities for growth.

From Danielle Gomez
Posted on October 13, 2009 at 7:19 AM

 "China has 30 million violin students and 50 million piano students, how many can one name? Again, what is the goal?"

I think it would be fair to say that the goal of a school music program would be to have each student have a working knowledge of their instrument and music theory/reading.  When a student is playing the violin in a school orchestra for a whole year and still doesn't know how to correctly hold a bow, something's amiss.

"Yet again, "mass quality" is proven to be a contradiction that's as illusory as unattainable."

Not all of the students have to be the next Joshua Bell.  But, as I said, if they go into an orchestra program with the expectation of learning about music and by the end still can't read music or play, what's the point of the program?

From Andrei Pricope
Posted on October 13, 2009 at 7:27 AM

Well, yes, there must be clear guidelines and expectations (holding the bow, reading notes are worthy examples) in a curriculum, that have to be met, and the school teacher must deliver and be held accountable, or replaced. Otherwise it's all a waste of resources and kids' potential, but a great opportunity for administrators to wave their offerings in front of critics, etc. Therefore a sham and a shame.

Given the above scenario, students/parents that want clear and measurable return of their investment in instrumental music education are well advised to seek dedicated, private instruction. One could argue that it is in the financial interest of the machiavellian private teacher to operate in an area where school programs have big enrollment numbers and/but low quality teaching or measurable achievements...

As to one of your comments, I would argue that NONE of the students have to be either the next Joshua Bell or Hilary Hahn, but their own glorious selves, if indeed they have what it takes to make it to the top. But again, that is not the stated goal of mass exposure - there's not such thing as mass excellence in anything.

From Gene Wie
Posted on October 13, 2009 at 5:00 PM

> Is it possible to create a successful school orchestra when none of the
> students take private lessons?

Yes, but only if the instructor of that orchestra is a competent string player and teacher, and is able to spend a significant part (i.e. at least half) of the meeting time for the group working with players on developing technical skills.

With a group that meets 4-5 times a week, between 45-60 minutes each time, this is certainly a possibility. While the *pace* of instruction will not be anywhere near that of private lessons, if the students are taught how to practice correctly and have a daily regimen of exercises that cover the basics, they will have an enjoyable and rewarding ensemble experience.

Where private instruction is not available, either because of logistics or finances, small-group lessons (4-5 students), section coaching, and the often-overlooked older-to-younger student mentoring really can make a big difference.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on October 13, 2009 at 5:34 PM

My experience as a band member (brass and woods only and we were taught "en masse") when I was in public high school was terrible...   Pls it is just my experience and I'm sure it is not like this everywhere. (I hope)

Want to hear about it?   We passed 2 to 3 music teachers a year because they were going crazy or almost in burn out...   Many advised me to never never go in music because they said they found it terrible to be "caught" to teach in schools...   The teachers were all nice persons but it was impossible to control a whole group of naughty students! People (not me but 90%) took music to "fool around" since it was an "easy" course. We inherited of all the boys who didn't want to do craft arts. It was always a party in the drums and electric guitars.   Put these hyperactive guys who boost all the rest of the group and you have a BURST of terrible noise, lazy and stuburn class. Nothing worked. People didn't take lessons outside school and about 0 practiced seriously. It was more of a kindergarden with instruments instead of kids toys...   In the past, the high school I attended used to win some little band contests but this era was long forgotten when I passed there.  It made years they didn't win nothing.   

It's very sad and I HOPE IT,S NOT LIKE THIS EVERYWHERE. This is just my experience of teaching "en masse"  


From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on October 13, 2009 at 8:53 PM

Like Anne-Marie's elementary school, mine offered only brass and woodwinds.  It was purely optional, so the students were serious.  Noone suggested that we have private lessons, although some students did.  Others, like me, studied piano privately.  I played clarinet.  Not my first choice, but I was able to play it in marching band in High School and we all had a lot of fun.  Our marching band was pretty good, too.

Fastforward  40 years to Berkeley, California.  A unique school system.  All students are required to study an instrument in 4th and 5th grade and the school system puts a lot of money into the program.  All schools have a very good economic mix.  And all schools participate in a program with the Berkeley Symphony once a year.  The B.S. conductor for music in the schools is very engaging.  The kids have a blast performing with the B.S.  I attended a performance two years ago and was very impressed with the Strings.  The 4th graders played "Allegro" #8 in the first Suzuki book, very well.  The 5th graders played "Arkansas Traveler".  I spoke to one of the parents and she said very few of the string players take private lessons.  My own violin teacher is in the B.S. and she is very impressed with the Berkeley Unified string teacher.  So: it can be done, with the right attitude and some money.  My daughter is studying piano in second grade.  I can't wait to see what she does in 4th grade.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 13, 2009 at 11:00 PM

It is certainly possible to create a successful school music program, and the successful ones have a very different face than the unsuccessful ones.

The key lies in the teaching, and the funding. I started playing violin in the public schools, with a very dynamic teacher who had a great program. She was replaced a few years later, and the program went downhill -- same school, same funding level, but no leadership.

It's very important for the teacher to have not only a good background in pedagogy, but also good classroom management skills and a desire to work with children. Not to mention the ability to use the available resources (parents, instruments, local music stores, volunteers, etc.) It's not easy work.

Some of my private students are lucky enough to have an excellent school orchestra, where they can get the unique experience of playing with their peers. Others have such a poor program at their school, they are unwilling to participate. My husband learned to play viola at a rather high level, solely through his school, when he was a kid.

If you've never seen a great school program and only have experience with a bad one, it may be hard to understand the value of a good one. But the good ones are out there. You might want to seek out an excellent school music program, and observe.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on October 14, 2009 at 2:59 AM

Happy to see positive experiences!!!  I knew they were some elsewhere!  


From Tess Z
Posted on October 14, 2009 at 4:24 AM

Where I have seen the system fail the students is where the teacher is not qualified to teach as in a brass player teaching beginning strings and having no idea which end of the bow is what.  THAT is a situation that should never occur but unfortunately it does.  I recall a percussionist on this forum asking advice on how to play the violin because he had taken a job as a string teacher.   Shame on the people who hired him for the job.

Most kids are introduced to instruments in their school curriculum if they do not have a parent who is a musician.  They are given the opportunity to try different instruments and the teacher(s) decide what is the best fit for each kid who expresses an interest in learning to play.  Most public schools then have summer band/string camp where the beginning students have daily lessons, usually in small groups, for 2-4 weeks in the summer.  This gets them a good start for when they begin band in the fall. 

As to the kids who don't practice and hold back the kids who do, it's not quite like that.  The teacher will keep moving forward with each student individually.  So, if one kid practices an hour every day she is going to excel and be chosen for the honor band groups and be working on other repertoire besides the school concert pieces.  The kid who never practices will only be working on concert music during his lessons because that's all there is time for.

The kids/parent involvement determine how successful they will be at music, not just the teacher, providing the teacher is qualified and enthusiastic.  You will always have kids who never take their instruments home to practice.  If the parents aren't involved and making sure the kid practices, you can't expect the music teacher to perform miracles.

From Danielle Gomez
Posted on October 14, 2009 at 9:13 AM

"Where I have seen the system fail the students is where the teacher is not qualified to teach as in a brass player teaching beginning strings and having no idea which end of the bow is what."

 Haha!  I've seen this up close and personal.  I was hired to teach an after school violin program at this one school.  Some of the kids already had violins from the school orchestra which was actually a class offered in school.  These little tiny kids walked in with violins that could have been used as a cello.  I told them they needed smaller instruments.  I guess word got round and the orchestra teacher came crashing in one day, got in my face, and started yelling.  Basically, how dare I undermine his position of authority, he name dropped for awhile about all the famous musicians he knows and how he's been working in the field for over 20 years.  I asked him what instrument he played and he said guitar.  I told him that I may not have tons of teaching experience but I've been playing the violin for 18 years and I know how to size them.

From Bonny Buckley
Posted on October 14, 2009 at 9:39 AM

I think there is no stereotypical music classroom.  If you want to create a stereotype you'd better visit a thousand or so music classes first.  I would venture to guess most of us who are in the field of music education would not want to stereotype music classes.  They are really all different, depending on the teacher, the students and a hundred variables.  Maybe you could have a discussion with Bob Culver who is at the University of Michigan, or perhaps Bob Gillespie, or even Terry Shade who trains tons of teachers in the gargantuan Las Vegas school district area. 

My experience is that a well-trained educator can make a large ensemble learning experience much more enticing and effective than even some private lesson experiences.  Certainly this is the case with middle school students who are in the stage of socialization and need the interaction to maximize their normal learning.  I agree that this is entirely possible and it does exist.  You're welcome to visit my school's new beginning orchestra class if you can make it to Shanghai! 

Of course there are some positions where administrators are forced to hire teachers who are not specialized in all of the areas that they need to cover in a school; I think if that were your job to find these magician educator specialists in band, strings, choir, piano, mariachi, guitar, percussion, might also come to the conclusion that there are times when it's better to have someone who can cover at least some of the bases rather than leave a position unfilled and cover none of the bases. 

From Ann Miller
Posted on October 14, 2009 at 1:39 PM

I'll respond as a parent that had my oldest daughter in private piano lessons, and public school instrumental music first with the trumpet then with the cello.  My view is that the teacher did a wonderful job in terms of allowing unjudgemental exposure to instruments in a circumstance where little effort was put in by the student.

First, my daughter practiced the piano a little bit.  Didn't practice the trumpet or cello at all.  This was probably due to a combination of having a private teacher, and, just in my opinion, the relative ease of making a pleasant sound with the piano as a beginner than it is with the trumpet or cello.  However, I don't think she will ever be the kind of kid that practices for hours, but, who knows.

She had the same teacher at school with both the trumpet and the cello.  Nothing much happened the year she took the trumpet.  She went to both concerts, played well enough not to be more embarrassed than any other student, and decided not to play further.

The next year (5th grade) she was, if possible, more neglectful of learning the cello than she had been of the trumpet.  The night of the spring concert, we realized that she had: 1) No clue where her music was, 2) Not learned to play even one song, and 3) Not tuned the instrument in months (She had to leave her regular classroom instruction to go to instrumental music, and often chose not to.) 

I tuned her instrument for her, tried to teach her Twinkle really fast, and drove her to the concert early to ask the instrumental music teacher for help.  The instrumental music teacher was amazing.  She gave her the music, worked with her for enough time to learn the tunes well enough to play along with others, and my daughter made it through the evening.

My view is that this introduction to other instruments was good for my daughter.  She has chosen not to continue with instrumental music in middle school, but still plays piano and enjoys those lessons.  I give full marks to the teacher for patiently and kindly handling a student who was not devoted to her instrument, but really just trying something for fun.

If the point of the class was exposure, it satisfied that need, but only so far.  I am not sure it would mean the same without the supporting music instruction in the private piano lessons.

Just my view from the parent end.


From Royce Faina
Posted on October 14, 2009 at 2:30 PM

What Laurie Niles said.  I left Orchestra after my 1st Sophmore Semester to join Choir.  We had a dynamic teacher who was an excellent coach!  When he began as that High Schools Choir Director that choir won awards and the students, some were also band students (Orchestra was held at the period so no active Orch. Students), some piano or private lessons with another instrument, prove to be amoung the top in college whatever their instrument other than voice!  It just goes to show what one teacher can do, and that they are out there!  Mr. Jones could teach a musician! Period! 

From Julie Tebbs
Posted on October 19, 2009 at 1:42 AM

Your description of a music class doesn't vary much from any other class, math for instance.  All classes have too many students, are taught en masse and mostly ignore any student who doesn't fit the norm.  My daughter learned in 7th grade from her math teacher that she was terrible at math, she didn't "get" math, would never be able to do it etc.  Several other parents had this experience with this teacher as well.  By your description this means Math should not be taught in schools, only privately. (Frankly this would be fine with me, she is in college and is still haunted by her fear of math.) She is not bad at math, she tested into college math her freshman year with no troubles (but lots of tears because she was expecting the worst).

On the other hand, my son has been in band from 5th grade to 9th grade, with varying degrees of interest in practicing outside of class.  When we were employed (9 months ago!) he had private lessons.  This band teacher is legendary in our neighborhood, with people going to that school just to take band from him.  He makes the kids work hard while making them all feel important.  They learn music, they learn to be together as a group.  The teacher gathers community support to help with the individual instruments. My son's band friends are his best friends.

We don't want to take music out of the schools.  Instead my dream would be to be able to remove ALL inept teachers from the schools, whether they teach math or music.  We had another teacher who taught history who was wonderful with the kids, taught in a way that was interesting (in history no less!) etc.  But he left due to problems with the way the school was run. So we kick our good teachers out with low pay and poor support, and keep our rotten teachers with tenure and a blind eye.  It's not about the subject.  A good teacher can teach a full orchestra class and still teach the kids music. 

From Deborah McCann
Posted on October 19, 2009 at 2:12 AM

I am in my 30th year of teaching in the public schools-and every year I have taught orchestral string instruments.  Never, once, have I felt like I babysat.  I swore to myself the first year that if that was ever the case, I would leave.   I am tired, however, of my educational collegues saying, "If you taught a real subject" and of people both in and out of education telling me that public school teachers are babysitters.

I feel that what I teach is more critical than most people will ever know.  I teach, by the beauty of organized sound, physics, math, history, literature, reading, writing, creative thinking, critical thinking as well as how to play D,E and F sharp  with good hand position and bow motion.  I teach students that they can express themselves beyond words in a world that everyone will understand, even if they speak a native language different from their own.  I teach students to learn to evaluate beauty and what works for them may be different from what works for others.  I teach students how to present themselves in public, and that they are unique, special and have something to offer whether they are the best or just one of the people in the group.  And that there is value in this. 

From the time I can remember, I wanted to play an instrument.  We did not have the money.  I started in 5th grade on a school owned violin.  I could have chosen any instrument, but this is the one that called to me.  When I graduated from college, I could have gone into a professional symphony, but felt that there were others like me who deserved a teacher who could do it and loved making music as her first choice of life and they deserved the best I could give them.  I have since then had a few go on into the professional musical life.  And scores who have and still enjoy on an amature level creating music.  And even more who have said the lessons on thinking took them places they would never have gone.  Every year, I am now getting children and grandchildren of my former students.  I am grateful for the opportunity every family has given me to make the lives of their children better.  I am always brought to tears when I hear a student tell me that I did make a difference in their lives, and that the love of music they got from my class has ment something to them.  What a bleak place we will be leaving the future generations if the school music program is eliminated due to neglect, apathy or misunderstanding.

I teach because I must-to be who I am and what I was put here to do.  I am not a babysitter, and those who are have made that choice to do so.  We each must chose what we do and how we do it.  And as an asside, I have never taught in affluent schools-the average income of my students homes has always been under $20,000 a year. 

Deborah McCann

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine