Collaborative Learning in Music – Get With The Team

CapStrings1Welcome to the first post for 2015.  In this post, I would like to examine and explore the reasons that we play music in ensembles. This has in fact been a learning journey for me in my career as a music educator. I think that sometimes we lose sight of the untapped teaching and learning potential of ensemble playing and we forget the reason that we do all the work of establishing ensembles if it is only to have ‘representative’ ensembles to promote the music department or school.

Many years ago, (1987) my first position as a classroom music teacher was at a High School in the Central West of New South Wales. The only equipment was an ancient piano, a drum-kit, a small powered mixing desk and PA speakers, an early model Roland Juno synth, an electric guitar and amplifier and electric bass and amplifier.

BUT……in the storeroom was a collection of old but good brass instruments plus the previous teacher had formed a ‘band committee’ with students and parents and they had purchased additional woodwind, brass and percussion instruments. This was a coal-mining town and many of the boys would leave school at the end of year 10 but come up from the pits on Thursday afternoons to form our brass section. The school secretary played flute and her husband worked in the mines and played tuba.  As the new high school music teacher, I became the ‘custodian of the town band instruments’ and conductor of the school/community band.

There were no ‘private’ teachers in about a 100 km radius, so I would spend another afternoon a week training the primary school students in the beginner band program. Even though I was a string player, my learning curve on wind and brass instruments had to be a little bit ahead of the students but I believe this gave me a better perspective as an educator and conductor.

The purpose of telling that story is to relate how we form music learning communities. To form and maintain that school-community band, we had to hold raffles and bush dances to raise money for instruments. Older more experienced band members would help me with training the younger band members. Boys that would have normally still be in year 11 and 12 were still involved with the school-community band and their learning continued. We had a sense of pride whenever the band performed at civic or school functions that this was very much a learning community; we all ‘owned’ and contributed to the teaching and learning.

Likewise, I (and our team of 16 classroom and specialist teachers) am very proud of the teaching and learning in the String Things Program. (Click here to see the ‘How, What & Why of the String Things Program) We have built this classroom strings program up from just teaching strings in the classroom in 2 Catholic Primary Schools in the Blacktown area to 14 Catholic Primary Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta in 2015 – in the classroom teaching concepts of music, motivating and engaging students with music learning and connecting to other learning areas, then at the co-curricular level offering pathways of extended learning and then at the extra-curricular level with both our school based ensembles and our combined Captivate String Orchestra.

Recently, I was in a meeting with a principal. I explained that her students had been learning with our specialist teachers for about 12 months with their own instruments and it was about time that we formed a school ensemble. To my great surprise, the principal asked ‘why’? I had assumed that the purpose of forming an ensemble was obvious to anyone, especially an educational leader but it was in fact a very good question to ask and this is what prompted me to reflect and write this blog post. I found myself asking if we as music educators sometimes miss the point ourselves and just as this principal was doing, we should take time to reflect on the purpose of the teaching and learning in our music ensembles. The principal did in fact ‘get it’ and I am glad she asked the question to challenge me to reflect on the teaching and learning of ensembles.

 To this principal, I used the analogy of a soccer team.  I pointed out that having the classroom learning to motivate students to want to learn more, offering pathways to extended learning with our specialist teachers, we should then provide a collaborative learning environment with the end result being music performance. Using the analogy of the soccer team, I asked this principal to imagine a teacher forming a soccer team, asking interested students to meet at lunch time and then telling students that they would each be provided with a soccer ball to kick around in their respective backyards but they would not meet together to train or indeed play any matches. What would the point be?

Fortunately, I think that this analogy got my point across but then I stopped to think about a number of times when I might have taught music skills and knowledge to students but not realized the full potential of collaborative learning though a music ensemble or indeed with ensemble performance as a team activity in the classroom where we support each other in the learning.

My friend and leading Music Educator, Michael Griffin points out the great benefits of collaborative learning in music ensembles in his book, ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’:

“Formal music lessons seldom include free creative activities, so young people form groups and design their own. They learn musical skills by watching and imitating their peers in jam sessions that centre on play and enjoyment.” (p 112 Learning Strategies for Musical Success)

Michael goes further in the same chapter to say: “Music activities provide an authentic opportunity for group work, for ensemble work will not be productive without respect for one another’s skills. Under the guidance of an astute teacher, students learn to listen to one another with a sense of tolerance, politeness and respect, and make contributions in a safe and non-threatening environment. They develop leadership skills as well as the ability to form empathic relationships. Musicians work on the same project at the same time with the goal of making one another sound as polished as possible This is pure collaboration.” (p 112 Learning Strategies for Musical Success)

I would add that collaborative learning in an ensemble such as Michael Griffin describes, allows students to ‘Take Risks’ in their learning and I also point out in the orchestras that I conduct that we ‘support each other in our learning’. (empathy)

 So…..what can we do to best realize the benefits of collaborative learning through ensemble performance. First of all, I think that teachers/conductors need to realise that we live in a changing world, especially the notion of what a school is and the learning environment is undergoing great social and technological change. When students come to our ensembles we need to remember that they live and work in very different circumstances than we did at their age. Greg Whitby describes this change in our home and learning environments in his book, ‘Educating Gen Wifi: How we can make schools relevant for 21st century learners’

“At first glance, you might think that the world hasn’t really changed much since the 1990s – we had computers, we had the internet, we had mobile phones…… ” (p 91 ‘Educating Gen Wifi…’)

And goes further to describe a direct example:

“I like to talk about a couple of parents I know who have three grown up children and a teenager still at school…………….Their teenage daughter today has had a mobile phone since starting high school, texts friends and family every day, uses broadband internet to download …..This teenager hands her assignments in on a thumb-drive whereas their older children lugged assignments to school on sheets of cardboard. Our world, work and even students’ assignments are becoming increasingly collaborative.”  (pp 91-92 ‘Educating Gen Wifi…’)

When we consider these changes in technology and the impact they have on the way that students learn, we should look closely at how we organize and conduct our ensemble rehearsals; even go further to see how students practice and how we might use this new technology to engage the parents as ‘learning partners’. (Click here to read my previous blog post – Engaging Parents as Learning Partners)  

Last year, I had the idea of combining our 2 regional string orchestras for a Sunday afternoon ‘open rehearsal’. I invited the parents to the afternoon rehearsal in one of our local school halls. Around 40 students were playing in the orchestra and we had around 50 parents and friends sitting in ‘the audience’. What amazed me was that although this was not in fact a performance, how engaged and intensely interested the parents were. We were solidly rehearsing our pieces with a lot of repetition and ‘chunking’. Afterwards, the parents came to me with very astute observations on the learning and very perceptive questions: “What technique can my child practise to reinforce what they have learned today?”

Later in the year, I repeated a Sunday afternoon Open Rehearsal but this time, the parents offered to bring refreshments and we used the kitchen in the hall to serve afternoon tea. This prompted even more Learning Conversations following the rehearsal.

When parents asked me about how they might reinforce the passages we had concentrated on, I was able to point to the resources we already had in the shape of the ‘Flipped Orchestra’ (Click here to read my previous post on the ‘Flipped Orchestra – eLearning Resources to Promote Music Understanding and Motivation) The QR codes on the children’s music pointed them to the video score of ‘Themes from the Moldau”

and also the tuition videos for each part.

These additional online resources are intended to give access to extended learning both prior to and following the rehearsal.

Greg Whitby is telling us that through the use of technology and changing learning paradigms, that ‘even students’ assignments are becoming increasingly collaborative’.  Why don’t we look at learning paradigms such as Problem Based Learning and Discovery Learning as valid and useful tools to further motivate our students in the ensemble classroom/rehearsal? We need to be aware of this ever changing world of technology and also aware that no matter how we have organised and taught our ensembles in the past that our students are increasingly going to turn to Youtube and other online platforms to discover new ways of learning. Let’s look at these technologies and learning paradigms and find what works best to challenge our students in the ’zone of proximal development.’ (A term used by Psychologists to describe the learning that occurs when a task is challenging enough for us to pursue a higher level of skill but not too difficult to be beyond reach)

Lastly, I’d like to put forward the hypothesis that we are in fact rediscovering these ‘new’ learning paradigms such as Discovery Learning and Problem Based Learning. Look back to the introduction to this blog post and you can see that in 1987, we established a ‘Learning Community’ in that Central West High School (and town) We used peer mentoring, problem based learning etc and parents and even community were engaged with the learning. In fact we had ownership of the learning. What has changed is the increasingly swift growth of new learning technologies and the ways that our students are already embracing this new technology.

The biggest point of this blog is that we embrace new and creative ways of using the technology to better engage and motivate students whilst remembering that ‘what was old has become new again’; that we remember that playing music in ensembles has always been about collaborative learning and learning communities.

Summary – ideas and strategies:

·      Explore ways that we can use technology to deliver content and instruction to students in the home environment in the shape of the flipped orchestra.

·      Structure our rehearsals in the shape of the ‘Flipped Classroom’ and ‘Problem Based Learning’ (or discovery learning) to achieve greater learning gains.

·      Select our Repertoire keeping in mind both the idea of a musical exploration (Music from Classical, Romantic, Baroque but also Music of other cultures, Film & TV etc) But also with the concept of the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’; that students are challenged whilst feeling that performance goals are achievable – to get to the next level.

·      Utilize strategies such as ‘Peer Mentoring’ to achieve even more learning gains than just playing the music well; that students develop values of leadership, empathy and meta-cognitive awareness. (To be consciously aware of our learning and ‘that we best learn what we teach’)

·      Use the learning technologies and new learning paradigms to connect to and engage the parents with the learning – such as open rehearsals and ‘rehearsal summaries’. (I send an email to parents following a rehearsal to point out what we have specifically rehearsed, what needs to be reinforced and with links to our online learning resources to support the learning)


I have referenced two books in this blog post by 2 leading educators in their respective fields.

1. Whitby G. Educating Gen Wi Fi: How We Can Make Schools Relevant for 21st Century Learners. Published by ABC Books. Available in ABC shops – I bought my iBook copy through the iBook store and find it a fantastic reference for understanding and implementing new learning paradigms and new learning technologies. Better yet, it gives a great preview of the pre-history of technology in education; what came before – and an update on how new technologies are impacting in society and shaping the way that we teach and learn. Click here to find out more.

 2. Griffin M. Learning Strategies for Musical Success Published by Music Education World, Adelaide, Australia  In this book, Michael shares a lot of the strategies and ideas that he has researched and developed over 30 years of music teaching and leading music learning. He refers to the ‘Growth Mindset’ put forward by Psychologist Carol Dweck and dispels some of the myths of ‘natural talent’ vs hard work and ‘deliberate practice’. There are some exciting revelations in this publication for teachers, parents and students. Click here to find out more about Learning Strategies for Musical Success.

The Strings Things Teaching Program including original music,
musical arrangements and media are authored, composed,arranged
& produced by Phil Rooke and published by
Catholic Education, Diocese of Parramatta © 2009 All rights reserved

Captivate Screen Shot


About captivatestrings

Phil Rooke is a Teacher Educator, specializing in Music Education for the Catholic Education Office - Diocese of Parramatta, authoring & implementing teaching programs and leading music learning across a system of 78 schools in Western Sydney. "I am on a learning journey to find and invent better ways to motivate students and teachers in music making."
This entry was posted in Collaborative Learning, Intrinsic Motivation, Music Education, The Flipped Classroom. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Collaborative Learning in Music – Get With The Team

  1. mdgriffin63 says:

    Reblogged this on Learning Strategies for Musical Success and commented:
    I’ve worked with Phil Rooke a couple of years ago when he invited me to address his music staff in Sydney. Phil is doing a fabulous job inspiring numerous primary schools in Western Sydney to take up string immersion programs. The results and outcomes are exciting. I love hearing his ‘good news’ stories about student engagement

    • Thank you for your kind words Michael. I am still re-reading your excellent book and always discovering new and wonderful aspects of our teaching and learning. Am looking forward to when we can welcome you back here again.

  2. Dr. Prof. Edward Charles. says:

    Mr. Phil Rooke, Encouraging, appreciative, heartfelt CONGRATULATIONS!
    THANK YOU, Sir, for your continuing substantial efforts – which are so FAR beyond the ‘call of duty’! The immeasurable endless results of your (and Mr. Michael Griffin’s) input transcend imagination!

  3. Reblogged this on The Learning Renaissance and commented:
    This is the latest work of my Australian colleague, Phil Rooke, who has a way with words and music. I recommend it for its sound theoretical underpinning and practical panache…

    • Thanks David, I love to tell the learning stories of these students in Western Sydney that would not have the learning opportunities if not for this inclusive program across 14 Catholic Primary Schools and our fantastic team of classroom and specialist teachers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s