You are on page 1of 5

The large performing ensemble is the dominant manifestation of music education in the middle and high

schools of the United States (Birge, 2007; Mark, 1996; Mark & Gary, 2007). Bands, orchestras and choirs
form the backbone of this tradition and in many cases, are the sole delivery vehicle for school based music
education (especially at the secondary level). These contexts are typically conductor centered, repertoire
driven and performance oriented. Additionally, there are often elements of intragroup (e.g. chair
placements) and intergroup (e.g. band festival) competition governing both students’ and teachers’
perception of success (Cangro, 2004).

While this approach might result in high levels of mechanical proficiency, institutional recognition,
community acclaim and director reputation, the ensuing musical education tends to be limited in scope,
application and practice (Allsup, 2003; Mantie & Tucker, 2008).

In my early years teaching, I struggled with moving away from a conductor-centric approach, justifying my
reticence by gesturing to our bands’ consistently high festival ratings. Eventually, I realized that this
definition of success was too narrow, and arguably self-serving.

Rather than emerging as musically educated citizens, my students were graduating as ensemble trained
technicians. Responding to this conviction, I realized that if I desired my students to be fully formed
musicians who could thrive in diverse musical contexts long after graduation, it was necessary to provide
them with opportunities for musical decision making and problem solving.

Cooperative learning contexts were the delivery system for these opportunities and I observed positive
benefits in retention, musical achievement and independence.

The Benefits of Cooperative Learning

While my observations were anecdotal, a large body of research indicates that cooperative learning (as
opposed to competitive or individual effort) results in a host of positive effects including knowledge
retention, persistence, intrinsic motivation, critical thinking, learning transference and confidence (D. W.
Johnson & R. Johnson, 1999; D. W. Johnson et al., 2007; R. T. Johnson & D. W. Johnson, 1984, 2002)

Whitener (2016), noted that as students interact in cooperative learning environments, a sense of esprit-
de-corps emerges where individuals report higher levels of regard for, dedication towards and trust in their
fellow group members (even when a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, social class and abilities is present).
Given these many benefits, it is perhaps unsurprising that cooperative learning has been deemed “one of
the greatest success stories of educational innovation” (Slavin, 1999, p. 74).

I suspect that for many of us, it is this sense of camaraderie and comradeship that we strive for, realizing
that it creates ideal conditions for learning while assuring the long-term resilience and success of our music
programs. While expanding the breadth and depth of our students’ music education, cooperative learning
might also build their capacity to engage in lifelong musicianship.
Defining Cooperative Learning

Cooperative learning happens when students working together have an equal interest in their own success
as well as that of their group members (Johnson & Johnson, 2002). It might be defined as a practice that
empowers students to interact with one another to realize a common goal (Compton, 2015).

Is Cooperative Learning Inherent in Ensemble Settings?

It is easy to conclude that cooperative learning is a natural feature of our classrooms simply because
ensemble members rehearse and perform as a group. In reality, true cooperative learning is rarely seen in
large ensemble classes where the locus of power and pacing is centered around the conductor. This
dynamic is so entrenched that even when occasions for cooperation arise, students might continue to
fixate on meeting the director’s expectations, seeking to improve their personal performance skills with
little attention to their group’s learning. More often than not, students vacillate between being alone
together or competing against each other (Robinson, 2008; Teachout, 2007).

While some music educators might assume that cooperative learning is automatically present in ensemble
settings, others who have attempted incorporating such practices might struggle with implementation,
observe little to no difference in learning outcomes and thus revert to orthodox teaching styles. At least
some of these frustrations and doubts happen when teachers do not understand, or only partially
implement the conditions for cooperative learning (Compton, 2015).

Elements of Cooperative Learning

To create a productive cooperative learning environment, these five conditions must be present:

Positive Interdependence: Individuals are united by a clearly defined goal and are mutually dependent on
each other. Individual success promotes the success of others within the group in a ‘win-win’ scenario.

Individual Accountability: No one person can ‘tag-along’ on the efforts of others. Rather, the group’s
success is dependent on the individual learning all its members. Ultimately, each group member should be
able to perform individually, the same tasks that they perform with their group.

Promotive Interactions: Learning activities where group members “promote” each other’s learning via face-
to-face conversations, dialogue, encouragement, feedback, and support.

Social Skills: Over time, students develop a deep trust and confidence in their fellow group members. They
‘assume the best’ and can intuit each other’s motivations, understand their fears, defuse tensions, bridge
differences, switch between roles, and rally together for the common good.

Group Processing: Groups need to take time to critically reflect on their progress, trajectory, and efficiency
from individual and collective standpoints. Without this processing, student learning and growth is
impeded (D. W. Johnson & R. Johnson, 1999; D. W. Johnson et al., 2007; R. T. Johnson & D. W. Johnson,
1984, 2002).
Incorporating Cooperative Learning in the Large Ensemble

Perhaps the idea of small learning groups in band, orchestra and choir are a cognitive dissonance for you
(as they used to be for me). Early in my career, teaching band in the Chicago Public Schools, I dismissed
cooperative learning as obviously not being applicable to my classroom. As with many of my youthful
assumptions, I was wrong.

As my eighth-year mark approached cooperative learning had found its way into my classroom, improving
my student’s musicianship and forging a stronger sense of community.

Nevertheless, given the typically large size, performance orientation and limited class time in most
secondary music programs, the centrality of small groups to cooperative learning raises valid questions on
feasibility and implementation. How might ensemble teachers effectively incorporate the small-group
cooperative learning dynamic in their existing class structures? Here are some avenues:

– Chamber Ensembles

While large ensembles might dominate the landscape of secondary music education in the United States,
the classical tradition from which they stem also has a rich tradition of smaller performance groups such as
string quartets, brass quintets, and a multitude of chamber choral groups. Additionally, the availability of
‘solo and ensemble’ festivals and chamber music competitions provide ‘ready-made’ performance venues.

Music educators might find that the structure of chamber ensembles with its ethos of ‘one for all, all for
one’ is the ideal setting to explore cooperative learning. Let us take a look at how the five elements of
cooperative learning might be manifested and fostered in chamber music groups.

Positive Interdependence: Within the ‘one on a part’ dynamic of a chamber group, the success of any one
individual is predicated and inextricably linked to the success of his/her fellow musicians. Students should
be guided to realize that while the group cannot succeed based on the prowess of one individual, it can
indeed lose integrity when one student falls behind.Depending on the makeup of the group, there might be
opportunities to shuffle the parts around, allowing each musician a chance to perform the melody,
harmony, bass line, and rhythmic ostinatos. Redistributing parts creates a greater awareness of the
components of music, an understanding of theoretical structures and an appreciation for the contribution
of their peers. This deters a competitive mind set while spurring the growth of peer to peer coaching,
mentoring and support.

Individual Accountability: When students begin to realize how crucial the success of every musician is to the
quality of the group, they feel responsible to prepare more diligently for each rehearsal. In the large
ensemble setting, individual gaps in ability and understanding can be subsumed under the cover of more
experienced musicians. In contrast, the chamber group creates transparency where students can accurately
assess their personal progress and that of their peers. To maximize the value of these assessments, music
educators should take time to model and practice the skills of critical listening and constructive critique.
Promotive Interactions: From Barbershop quartets to Rock bands, promotive (face-to-face) interactions are
a consistent and important part of the successful small group’s rehearsal process. To build students’
capacity to encourage each other’s success, they must be able to “speak the truth in love” – learning to
humbly offer and receive feedback for the good of the group without hurt feelings or lost confidence. This
ability does not emerge automatically (as the implosion of many a pop group will attest).Therefore, music
educators should (a) consistently model this behavior from the podium, (b) build time into each rehearsal
for students to practice their own promotive interaction skills, and (c) provide some form of scaffolding to
help guide and center the process of dialogue, conversations, feedback, and encouragement.

Social Skills: In music making (as in teaching), even the most astute artistic and professional abilities can be
severely diminished by interpersonal friction and conflicts. These tensions will undoubtedly emerge in any
small group setting if students have been habituated to the ensemble director intervening to solve such
issues. While the goal in cooperative learning is for students to manage themselves, it is necessary to have
a transitionary period where the director explains/models the appropriate social skills needed to facilitate
effective rehearsals, reconcile differences, and nurture a positive learning climate.One technique to foster
these (and other) cooperative learning skills is via a fishbowl approach where one chamber group sits in an
inner circle (the fishbowl), while the rest of the full class sits around them in concentric circles (the
observers). The director might have the fishbowl group run through some pre-planned scenarios to
illustrate potential challenges and model possible solutions. The observers might also work to identify
positive elements and suggest ideas for navigating conflicts.

Group Processing: One of the positive outcomes of cooperative learning in music is that students learn the
skills needed to take charge of their musical trajectories, potentially forming their own independent small
ensembles during, and after their years of compulsory education. To foster the likelihood and excellence of
these musical possibilities, students need to develop an ability to critically reflect on the quality of their
individual and group conduct, collaborations and progress.This reflective process identifies instances of
success, areas for improvement and an action plan for individual and collective improvement. The director
should facilitate this process (at least initially) by providing scaffolded discussion prompts and guides. Once
a week, student leaders might be requested to present a summary of their group’s processing discussion.
This can act as a model to encourage more reticent students to participate, while normalizing the
self/group critique procedure for all students.

– Sectional Rehearsals

One way to ‘roll-out’ cooperative learning is to situate it within the existing sections of the large ensemble
(e.g. altos, trombones, cellos). It is likely that the ‘sectional’ is a dynamic that many directors (and students)
are already familiar with, presenting a ready-made setting for cooperative learning. However, in contrast to
the traditional director-led sectional, instituting cooperative learning means that over time (and with
guidance) students will take ownership of the agenda – managing and monitoring their group’s progress
towards common musical goals.

Student leadership might be fostered in these settings with section leaders choosing to align their goals
with other sections, running combined ‘super-section’ rehearsals (e.g. combined low brass). Additionally,
section leaders might be able to teach/model these facilitative skills in their respective chamber ensembles.

– Complementary Project Groups

Earlier in this article, I noted that while the traditional large ensemble setting might be an excellent training
ground (and showcase) for rehearsal and performance skills, it can result in in students acquiring narrowly
defined ensemble training as opposed to comprehensive music education. As music educators, we need to
equip our students with a wider range of musical abilities including music theory, analysis, arranging,
composing, improvisation and historical/cultural literacy. The small group, cooperative learning framework
can be an excellent context to explore this widened scope. Students might choose to research different
elements of their concert music, using their findings to inform their understanding and interpretation of the

The jigsaw approach is a long standing, and widely used cooperative learning technique that lends itself
well to this type of investigation. In this approach, a piece of music might be divided into five to six
components (e.g. composer, historical context/connections, melodic phrasing, harmonic structure,
rhythmic elements, instrumentation). Next, each chamber group is assigned a different component to
research. Following the research process, individual members are sent out as ‘ambassadors’ to other
ensembles where they present their group’s findings. Once a complete rotation is done, each group now
has access to the compiled research into all the components.

The jigsaw approach might be done at the macro level – using three to four full ensemble pieces as the
‘text,’ or at the micro level, where each chamber group researches its own repertoire. A short quiz can be
administered after the presentations are done to assess individual student learning and encourage

Tying these research components to the actual performance pieces makes the learning more relevant,
useful, and immediately applicable. As they gain an understanding of the structures underlying music,
students will come away with a greater appreciation for the compositional process and the socio-historical
context of their repertoire.


While the benefits claimed by cooperative learning are bolstered by five decades of empirical research, its
implementation in the large ensemble setting poses several challenges including that of redefining roles,
classroom management, time allocation and current performance commitments. These difficulties are real
and should not be discounted.

Nevertheless, the musical, academic, psychological, and lifelong benefits for our students are so great that
it is well worth the effort to incorporate its elements into our classrooms. Although the focus of
cooperative learning is the small group, the independence and interdependence fostered within chamber
groups may positively transfer to the larger ensemble creating a greater overall sense of ownership,
commitment, and support.