The Special Challenges of a Supersized Ensemble

By Adam Perlmutter

A music teacher in Virginia overcomes the many hurdles of directing large instrumental groups

PARTICIPATING in a very large instrumental or choral program can be a richly rewarding experience for a music student. However, leading such a group, with its many musical and logistical considerations, can be a formidable endeavor, to say the least. Caroline Nesbit, band director at H. H. Poole Middle School, in Stafford, Virginia, is a teacher who has figured out how to negotiate the challenges successfully.

Nesbit is in charge of three concert bands for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, as well as afterschool pep and jazz bands. She directs 260 students in all, with each ensemble ranging from 75 to 110students. Time constraints can prove troublesome: “I’m sure no matter how many kids you teach, you will always feel that there is not enough time,” she says. “But this could not be more true when you have 50-plus beginning band students in a class that meets for 39 minutes.”

To maximize that time, Nesbit has a highly structured approach: Students know exactly what they should be doing at all times. “From classroom rules and procedures to field trips and performances, everything needs clear instructions, expectations, and consequences. In my first year of teaching, I learned the most important lesson when dealing with middle schoolers: Plan everything and assume nothing.”

Music students benefit from individual help, but giving this kind of attention can be tricky with a large group. When a student or a section needs assistance, Nesbit involves the whole class in diagnosing problems and finding solutions. “When I work with percussion in beginner classes, I might get the winds to play along with us on their laps. I always try to get everyone to work together toward the same goals,” she says.

Nesbit also finds that a group most efficiently achieves goals if there is individual accountability, but with a large ensemble it can take three classroom sessions for her to hear each student play a quiz. So, she often steps off the podium to listen in on individual progress, and may even reconfigure a group for the purpose. “I have done mixed seating on a temporary basis, where all the sections are spread out around the room. This setup makes my students want to practice because it’s harder for them to hide, and it makes it easier for me to hear them individually,” she says.

But perhaps the biggest key to Nesbit’s success is her positive perspective. Instead of seeing these supersized groups as overcrowded and a chore to teach, she regards them as a boon. “It is definitely a luxury to have depth in all our sections,” she says. “It opens up your choices in literature as well. It’s challenging and energizing to be in front of all those students every day!”

Published in Teaching Music, November 2013