Working in small groups seems to be the way to go in classroom instruction. Don’t get me wrong. I still think that there are times that large group instruction is necessary. But if I can get away with it, I go for small groups every time. The learning is more intimate, I can tell more easily who has it and who doesn’t, and I can “individualize” my instruction as opposed to “differentiate.”
In my previous position as a music teacher, learning how to use small-group instruction had some challenges. When it came to this type of teaching, music education seemed to be a little behind the other subject areas, especially language arts. Music education came from a different tradition that was at odds with spending a lot of time instructing a few students at a time.
In music education, working with large groups is the norm. Performing in an orchestras, band, or choir is often seen as the goal for music instruction. And although these traditional performance groups do utilize small-group instruction in the form of sectional rehearsals, the ultimate goal is to get back to the “real work” of performing in the large group. Music is a performance art, and the pinnacle of music performance is performing in a large group. This is the baggage you have to deal with as a music teacher and what led me to look for answers outside the music education camp.
Music Literacy = English Literacy
This can be a little tricky and you may eventually come across a fork and a few bumps in the road, but I’ve found that many of the approaches to literacy instruction work for music literacy instruction. (I also may be a little biased since my wife is a reading specialist.) This commonality between music instruction and reading instruction opened the door to a plethora of resources that is just not available in music education. When I broadened my search to areas outside of music education, I found a wealth of material on small-group instruction that could easily be adapted to work in the music classroom.
One of my favorite books on working with small groups is Donna Marriott’s What are the Other Kids Doing?. I have to admit, when my wife first handed me this book, it took me a while to get past the cover, but when I read the introduction, I was hooked. From the first page, Marriott sets the stage for the reasoning behind small-group instruction and presents it as a powerful alternative to traditional, large-group instruction. I could not directly apply the many wonderful literacy activities presented in the book, but I could adapt the management strategies and ideas for helping students become independent learners. Marriott’s book became my number one resource for creating small groups.
On the Fringe
When I brought up the possibility of teaching music in small groups, most of my fellow music educators would smile, nod their head, and say something like, “That is interesting.” Others would tell me that small group instruction goes against the nature of music education and takes away the “joy of performing in large groups.” (Back to the “performance-art” mentality I mentioned previously.) I did find some like-minded educators, most of which had previous experience outside the music room, that utilized small-groups in music instruction. I also eventually found an article here and there that featured small-group instruction. But these seemed like anomalies and were often presented as a fringe movement (similar to using computers in the music classroom).
I eventually embraced the fact that I was going to have to do this on my own. (This was pre-Twitter.) I looked at all the different objectives I wanted my students to achieve. I had many moments of self-reflection on what is music education. And I tried to see what would benefit all my students, including those who had no plans of being in band, orchestra, or choir.
“That’s not my bag.”
The realization that my students could successfully participate in music culture without having to be a part of the traditional performance groups is what, in my opinion, separated me from my music teacher colleagues. Did I want every single student to pick up the trombone and join the jazz band as I did in school? Yes. I presented jazz as the best thing since the invention of the wheel and force-fed trombone solos until even JJ Johnson would get sick. I even jumped for joy when the band directors from the intermediate school that my elementary fed into asked how I was getting so many students to join the band, orchestra, and choir. They specifically wanted to know why so many females were picking up the trombone. (I think it had something to do with my naming one of my computers after Melba Liston, a famous female jazz trombonist.)
But I knew that not all of my students would end up in choir, orchestra, or band. I knew that many of my students did not share my passion. I knew that to get them into music I had to tap into their passion, and to do that I had to individualize my approach for each student. I had to divide and engage.