Silence is Not Golden: Amplifying Student Voices in JSYO

Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestras, Conducting Electricity

Grant O’Brien, JSYO Music Director and Assistant Conductor, Winston Family Endowed Chair

When I accepted the position to be Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestras (JSYO), I was determined to create rehearsal environments that differed from that which I had in high school band. This is not to say I had a negative experience. I have so much gratitude for my band program. However, like most music programs across the country, my directors worked off of what I call the “Empty Vessel Philosophy.” I describe this teaching philosophy as one in which the teacher views the student as lacking knowledge, and the teacher must fill that empty vessel with information. That was not going to be the experience of my students in the JSYO.

To change the environment, I needed to reject the convention of silence in orchestra rehearsals. Of course, order in a rehearsal room is needed to ensure that the learning environment is productive and efficient. But in a typical band class, students are rarely, if ever, encouraged to raise their hands and speak. For my students in the JSYO, I’ve found a lot of success in changing their relationship with learning by asking them thoughtful questions. I use questions that engage their imagination, explore their personal experiences and assess their comprehension of my instruction. I also encourage other students to play off what their colleagues say to stimulate short conversations. These opportunities for 15-30 second conversations can shape a positive atmosphere and offer many benefits to both the student and teacher.

Through these conversations, I can develop a positive relationship with students individually. It’s not often that orchestral musicians get one on one interactions with a director, and by offering these moments, I can help the students feel recognized. This positive relationship is vital for student commitment and motivation. Additionally, these moments of conversation can be helpful in creating a better sense of engagement. A director uninterested in what students have to contribute is rejecting the possibility to build students’ bank of positive social experiences in music. The friends you make in youth orchestras can last a lifetime! This is impossible to do if orchestra rehearsals are simply lectures.

I can also ask questions to assess what my students are thinking and feeling. It’s true that directors can usually address a problem from the podium for quick fixes. Directors might say things like, “you’re flat,” “you’re rushing” or my personal favorite, “look up.” I try to use these moments to teach students to self-assess. I ask them, “what are you hearing?” Maybe they need more guidance. “What note isn’t fitting just right to you?” Instead of simply telling students they’re sharp or rushing, give them a moment to consider it themselves! You’d be amazed how much faster they will begin to examine those problems instinctually while they play. I can’t be in every student’s practice room telling them they’re rushing, but by teaching the students to be more introspective with their playing, I can help them develop their ability to teach themselves. That is the goal of a teacher after all.

Lastly, I want to give the JSYO students opportunities to draw personal connections between themselves and the music. It’s been shown time and time again that helping guide students to find meaningful relationships with art, ones that draw from their personal experience, produce a stronger retention of information. I could lecture students on the year, historical context, geographical context and other basic facts about a piece of music. Instead, I ask them about moments in their life when they’ve had to tip toe to not wake someone or if they’ve ever tried to whisper something in an already quiet space. After they share a few examples, I ask that they project that idea from the stage. I can tell you from experience, they will remember that over the director shouting, “Softer!”

I understand why teachers revert to the empty vessel method. It’s “seemingly” more efficient. Why ask students what they think when you can just tell them the problem? I believe by depriving students of these opportunities to communicate their thoughts, you might be depriving your students and yourself from lasting growth. It was instilled in me early on that to be a teacher, you will need to be a lifelong learner. I have certainly learned a lot by being vulnerable with students and asking them plainly and frequently, “what would you like to say?”