This past spring semester, I took a course on band rehearsal methods and instrumental teaching techniques. For part of the practicum, our class went to a middle school in the area with a very good music program, both to observe and try our hand at rehearsing the band. When talking with the director after class, one of my classmates posed the question, “What do you do if a student is having a really difficult time playing at the same level that the rest of the ensemble is at?” The director answered, “Well, the choir room is down the hall.”
When we got back to campus later that day for class, we discussed the director’s response as a group. Was he wrong to send a student away from his group, just because they were having more difficulty playing than the rest of their classmates? Isn’t band supposed to be a “no-cut” activity? Isn’t one of the things that makes music so great the fact that EVERYONE is welcome? For a lot of us, his reaction was a tough pill to swallow.
The more I thought about it though, the more I came to the conclusion that in certain instances, what the director did may be okay. Now I say this for several reasons. First of all, and most importantly, is the fact that the teacher did not simply hurl the hypothetical student out of the music program entirely. He saw that the student was not having success at playing an instrument, so he merely guided them down a musical path that was more suited to them. That is what our job is, as music educators. We are there to help our students have genuine musical experiences, to learn about music, and to be as successful as is humanly possible at making music in whatever manner is most appropriate for them.
Good of the Many, Good of the Few
Another aspect of this situation that is critical to think about is the welfare of the ensemble as a whole. Is it okay to sacrifice the quality of music that everyone else in the ensemble will play, just so that one student is not left out? That is a tough question. Personally, I think that that is something that must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Continuing this example (which is semi-hypothetical), I believe that what the director did was right. This was a group that performed at a high level, typically playing grade 3 to 4 pieces. To insert a student into the group who had problems with basic tone production would be a detriment to both the individual student and the group as a whole. The student would feel very discouraged at his inability to keep up with his classmates, and he would not be having a true musical experience. The ensemble would not be able to sound as good or play such difficult music, and everyone else would suffer. Because the school also has a choir of a comparable quality, the teacher was just offering the student an alternative route to be successful in, while not compromising the quality of the band or the quality of the one student’s musical education. It is, as much as is possible in this situation, a ‘win-win’.
A Slippery Slope
What do we do, however, when it is not a ‘win-win’ situation? What do we do when there is no comparable alternative for the student, or if they simply do not want to leave band? Furthermore, at what point do we draw the line between what is ‘good enough’ and what is ‘detrimental to the group’? It is a dangerous path to be on, for sure. I always felt that the greatest thing about band (and music in general) is that we take all comers. We aren’t supposed to turn people away. Maybe we put them in the beginner band instead of the wind ensemble, but we never turn them away. I guess that the only solution is that we need to be as truly and honestly objective as it is possible to be. We can’t send a student away just because they are not playing a particular piece as well as we would like. We need to, regardless of anything, put the student’s musical well-being and education first and foremost, ensuring that we are doing what is best for them. When it comes down to it, if you can find a suitable alternative in an extreme instance, fantastic. But if that is not possible, then I think our duty requires us to keep the student in our group while giving them as much guidance and extra help as possible.
Educator, NOT Dictator
When you come right down to it, it is our responsibility to do what is best for our students. There are times when we need to consider the needs of the group against the needs of the whole, but I do not think it is ever okay to completely sacrifice the needs of one student to suit the needs of a group of students. If one student is having extreme difficulty playing their instrument, then it may very well be a good idea to try to find an alternative means of a musical education for them. However, if a suitable alternative cannot be found, then we must surely redouble our efforts to help that particular student to try to succeed, regardless of the effect on the rest of the group. Besides, one very below-average player does not make a horrible group.