Modern Band and Beyond: Building Community in Your Ensemble-Based Classroom

Take yourself back to grade school for a moment. You’re navigating changing social relationships, growing awareness of your identity, a changing body, and increased academic pressures. Everything feels chaotic and unknown. Where do you find your community? The music room, of course! Cultivating this community is imperative to making music with our students. But it can be hard to create space for direct social emotional learning (SEL) activities when we have concerts to prepare for and a rigid rehearsal plan. My approach to this issue uses a combination of both direct SEL instruction and community-driven ideals embedded throughout my teaching. 

One way I create a brave, community-focused, musical environment in my classroom is through positively-worded classroom expectations (rules). 

My classroom rules are simple:

1. Care for the space.

2. Care for each other.

3. Care for yourselves.

4. Have fun!

I intentionally keep these statements open ended and worded in a way that centers community care. When asked what it means to “care for the space, each other, and ourselves,” my students always land on the same messages; take care of the instruments (don’t break them), one speaker at a time, follow the Golden Rule, and “speak kindly to ourselves even if we make mistakes.” That last one is my favorite. Speaking kindly to ourselves and allowing ourselves to make mistakes is a lesson most of us continue to navigate into adulthood! 

From day one of music class, my students know they can feel safe to make mistakes and are encouraged to be brave and bold in their mistakes and to learn from them. I always say, “if you’re going to make a mistake, make a big one so we know you meant it!” By saying this, I am constantly imparting the message that mistakes are encouraged and celebrated as important parts of the learning process. This message comes in handy particularly when you ask students to take the mic to sing or to perform a solo. When they lead with community care in mind, they know their musical skills will be celebrated even as they are evolving.

Another way I center community and bravery in the classroom is through the creation of musical affirmations. There is power in our words, and teaching students to speak words of support, success, and bravery into the musical space creates a joyful environment. At the start of the school year, after we go through the classroom expectations, we create musical affirmations. These affirmations build on the community care elements of my classroom rules and allow students to start thinking about how they will put our musical community first when they step into my classroom. 

I like to spend a full class period engaging in a musical affirmation lesson. While this does take away from rehearsal time, this is one of those moments when creating community can take precedent. To teach about affirmations, I follow a simple process: 

1. Define + Brainstorm: What are affirmations and what role can they play in our lives? What are some examples of affirmations?

2. Create: What would a music-focused affirmation sound like? Independently write a musical affirmation on an index card.

3. Share: Capture the responses on chart paper, slide show, or whiteboard.

4. Connect: Identify common themes and create a classroom set of music affirmations.

After this lesson, we practice speaking our affirmations out loud by sharing them with each other. For this activity, I ask my students to stand in a circle and present a talking piece. Students toss the talking piece to another member of the band and speaks an affirmation to them. For example: “you are an important member of the band” or “you are brave,” or “you can do anything you practice.” 

This activity is powerful. It’s one thing to say an affirmation to yourself. It’s quite another to hear your peer say it to you. In these moments, students are breaking down social barriers between each other, and affirming one another’s value to the musical community. After the day is over, I capture the musical affirmations and post them on the door inside my classroom. They are visible and central to the room, so students are always reminded of how to be kind to themselves and others during the learning process. 

Yes, rehearsal strategies are important. Getting the right notes and rhythms and building musical skills is important. But so is creating a musical community that is supportive, kind, and brave. We love to rock out in the modern band classroom, and the music always rocks 10X harder when it is built on a strong classroom community.

Laura Del Rosso is a middle school modern band teacher in New York City.  

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