Yesterday, our local teacher’s association was lucky to have a presentation by two teachers from another town who have done something remarkable. One teaches strings, and the other piano, and every year they put on two joint programs in which their students collaborate. They gave us the run-down on how they do it and even brought several students to demonstrate. I was so impressed to watch children as young as 5 and 6 listening to each other, adjusting, balancing – there were so many more skills involved in what they were doing than if they had been playing a solo.
It just so happened that I had planned a group class for my students that afternoon with duets as the theme. Because this has been such a busy week, I had not yet prepared any activities other than having them play their prepared pieces. That turned out to be a good thing! After the morning's events, I was inspired to emphasize the idea of playing well with others in lots of contexts beyond duets – accompanying a choir, accompanying a soloist, or playing in an ensemble.
To start, we talked about the role of the piano player in all of those situations. We learned the word "accompanist" and how to pronounce it. Now they know that Mrs. Laura’s head will spin around if they say “ac-com-pa-nee-ist” instead of “ac-com-pan-ist!” We also learned the term "collaborative pianist," but "accompanist" is what they're going to hear at church and school, so they need to know it. We talked about the need to create balance between the parts, to listen and adjust as necessary. I also wanted to impress on them the importance of rhythmic accuracy when playing with others. For one fun activity, I had them sing along as I played Jingle Bells. First, I played it very well. Next, I told them to keep singing whatever I did. This time, I played with big, obnoxious handfuls of wrong notes, but perfectly accurate rhythm. They thought this was great fun, and we observed that they could still sing along. The third time, I played the notes with perfect accuracy but with some small pauses. They did their best to sing along, but of course, it all fell apart! the point was that while correct notes are certainly important, rhythmic accuracy is essential to keeping a group of musicians together. No hesitating or pausing allowed!
One student volunteered to sing a Christmas carol with another student accompanying so that they could demonstrate and practice collaboration with a soloist. I instructed the singer to do something that would make the pianist have to adjust to her, so she elongated her phrase endings. We all got to see that the pianist had to watch and listen. The fact that it was impromptu kept it from being a sterile presentation that they had perfected ahead of time. We got to see them actually rehearse.
After they played their prepared duets, I dug out some old Hal Leonard 4-part ensemble books I had in my library (and had forgotten about) and took a chance that they could sight-read them. I had 8 children, so it worked out perfectly to have two groups of 4. We ranged from early to late elementary levels, but the parts were easy enough that all but the earliest beginners could play them at sight. I gave those kids an easy ostinato pattern and taught it quickly by rote. This was something I took away from the morning's workshop - the idea that it's okay to use much easier music than you might assign the students otherwise. Ensemble playing isn't about learning harder music; it's about learning to play together. Had I planned my class earlier, I would have probably distributed parts ahead of time, but it turned out to be so much more instructive to have them sight-read on the spot. This really taught them the value of sight-reading ability, especially the ability to sight-read rhythm accurately. The first group was able to overcome some minor difficulties in short order, and had it down after about 3 repetitions. The second group, having learned from the first, put it together even more quickly. It was very gratifying! The kids loved it. The class turned out so well that I’m wondering if I should leave my planning to the last minute all the time! I’ll definitely be doing more ensembles in the future.