The Importance of Music Ensembles in Schools – A Rationale Examining the Educational Benefits

The educational role of the large ensemble in a school music program and whether it contributes to the development of students’ is a debate occurring in both education and wider community groups. The recent decision of the Queensland State Government to withdraw support and funding for the bi-annual “Fanfare” band festival due to budget cuts (Ironside 2012) could be suggested as an example of the current politically motivated trend in education to focus on and “reinforce a hierarchy where literacy and numeracy are considered to essential for life, and a prerequisite to long-term security, wealth, health and happiness.” (McPherson, Davidson, Faulkner, 2012, p. 3).


Like all art forms, music has the capacity to engage, inspire and enrich all students, exciting the imagination and encouraging students to reach their creative and expressive potential…Students’ active participation in music fosters learning for life-long well-being, developing understanding of other times, places, cultures and contexts. (ACARA, 2012, p. 91).


ClarinetThe rationale for the draft of the Australian National Curriculum states that music has the capacity for all students to reach their creative potential and expressive potential through the active participation in musical activities. McPherson, Davidson and Faulkner (2012) suggest that “music is fundamental to the human condition” (p. 190) and that the attraction to making and creating music is associated with it’s communicative socializing function, in other words, based on relationship and communicating with others. This relational transaction could perhaps be fostered and developed in schools through the use of large ensembles.


The large ensemble is a unique educative group inside the school community. Students who have the opportunity to participate as a member of one of these ensemble experience an environment where they need to learn and develop their skills in self-discipline in learning one’s part as well as attending and concentrating throughout rehearsals,  being able to work with others and in a team, problem solving and creative thinking all of which are “highly valued outcomes of schooling” in today’s modern society (McPherson, Davidson, Faulkner, 2012, p. 3). Allsup (2012) suggests that one of the powerful educative roles that the large ensemble can, and should, fulfill in the school community is in the development of the whole student and their moral and social compass as individuals, how to relate and interact with others and contribute to the well-being and success of the community in which they live.


Whilst McPherson, Davidson and Faulkner’s assertion into the function music  can contribute in developing these highly desired schooling outcomes is general, it is possible to extend this to an educative justification of the large ensemble.


When working with others, students develop and practice social skills that assist them to communicate effectively, work collaboratively, make considered group decisions and show leadership (ACARA, 2012, p. 15).


ClassroomThe draft of the National Curriculum (2012) highlights the importance for all curriculum areas to develop a number of general capabilities which “encompass the knowledge, skills, behaviors and dispositions that, together with curriculum content in each learning area…will assist students to live and work successfully in the twenty-first century” (p. 15). Student’s personal and social capabilities are referred to as one of these general capabilities as it “assists students to work to the best of their ability, both individually and collaboratively.” By developing a student’s personal and social capabilities they will be able to identify and assess personal strengths, interests, challenges, developing and applying personal skills and dispositions including self-discipline, goal setting, working independently, showing initiative, confidence, resilience and adaptability as well as be able to to empathize with the emotions and needs of others, appreciate other’s perspectives and be able to understand and negotiate different types of relationships.


Because of the high levels of task interdependence in music ensembles, even students with limited skills may find themselves making a contribution to a highly valued and complex conjunctive task that generates a sense of competency, and that regularly exposes them to modeling of more advanced techniques. Similarly such groups often generate high levels of social interdependence, positive reinforcement for values and beliefs about participation in the ensemble and music in general(McPherson, Davidson, Faulkner, 2012, p. 119).


McPherson, Davidson and Faulkner (2012) allude to the social interdependence of the large ensemble and the positive reinforcement being an effective motivator in engaging students. Their assertion that students being regularly exposed to the modeling of more advanced musical techniques and concepts from both their peers and the ensemble director can facilitate a growth in their musical perception and, with good pedagogical practices improvement in their musicianship. Coy (2012) suggests that “the art of sensitive, intense, ‘polyphonic’ listening and the ability to integrate with other parts takes years to develop” which aligns with the ACARA music rationale (2012) in highlighting that intentional listening in music “underpins all music activities” and that students engage this both through individual and collaborative experiences the the elements and concepts of music “through composing, performing and responding to create, communicate and evaluate music.” Possibly, one of the ways this can occur effectively in a collaborative setting is through the use of the large ensemble in an educative role.

Whilst large ensembles appear to provide an opportunity to develop student’s personal and social capabilities it could be suggested that the primary role of the ensemble is to help develop individual musicianship amongst the ensemble members. Coy (2012) suggests the role of a large ensemble in a school is primarily to “create better musicians.” He highlights the criteria addressed in good ensemble rehearsals include; teaching of a proper understanding and accuracy of rhythms,  development beyond basic pitch accuracy to develop better intonation and tone quality and an observation of stylistic features including dynamics and articulation. Coy’s identification in the necessity of students developing these skills to develop into better musicians is supported with the inclusion of a number of these elements in the draft of the National Curriculum (2012, p. 92) including duration, pitch, dynamics and expression, structure, texture and timbre.

Perhaps it could be suggested that by taking an educative approach to the large ensemble that these identified key elements can be established in students, developing better musicians individually and influencing their musical perspective and “contribute to the quality of their solo performance ability” (Coy, 2012).


The development and creation of better musicians through effective ensemble practices (Coy 2012) is supported by McPherson, Davidson and Faulkner’s research where they discovered that “the acquisition of fluency was most often through ensemble rehearsals and repertoire selection performed where directors…took the initiative in decoding phrases and giving directions about performance style to the students” (2012, p. 216). This research and Coy’s assertions help justify the role the large ensemble can fulfill to achieve the Aims of Music as outlined in the Australian Curriculum, specifically; “the confidence to be creative, innovative, thoughtful, skillful and informed musicians both individually and collaboratively; their knowledge, understanding and skills in music through developing skills in musicianship (fluency), composing, performing, improvising, responding and listening with intent and purpose; aesthetic knowledge and respect for music and music practices across global communities, cultures and musical traditions; understanding how to use knowledge and skills to build a future as a global music citizen with music for a lifetime” (2012, p. 91).

The role of the large ensemble must be considered in conjunction with an active classroom music and instrumental tuition music program. McPherson, Davidson and Faulkner suggest, “a balance of individual and ensemble learning from the outset of instrumental learning is more likely to generate levels of motivation and more effective support for learning than either if these options alone” (2012, p. 122). The national curriculum defining learning in music (p. 92) as occurring through students singing, playing instruments, composing, performing and listening to music suggests that students learn music through doing a variety of tasks one of which could, possibly be the large ensemble.

It is necessary to recognize that there are a number of criticisms of the use of large ensembles in school music programs as an educative tool. Some of the criticisms cited by music educators, participants, parents and observers include the heavy focus on the traditional authoritarian and controlling manner of the conductor, competitive nature and means to an end pragmatism (Allsup & Benedict, 2008).

concertResearch by McPherson, Davidson and Faulkner (2012, p. 119) indicate that some of the costs of large ensembles on musical development include a lack of motivation for practicing parts that make little musical sense when independent of the ensemble experience and “exercising little autonomy over repertoire during rehearsals or performance itself, or even, over the instrument given to the student to play,” in other words, the needs of the band to make a “balanced sound” was considered by the director to be more important than the needs and interests of the individual student. McPherson, Davidson and Faulkner continue that where the needs and interests of students, especially pertaining to the instrument initial selection of instrument, were not regarded as important that “not one of the students who was initially unhappy about the allocation of a specific instrument continued beyond the first year, and… none ever engaged with formal instrumental instruction again.”

The competitive nature and means to an ends pragmatic approach to band (Allsup & Benedict, 2008) is one of the largest criticisms of the large ensemble system. McPherson, Davidson and Faulkner’s (2012) assertions that music is a communicative transaction, being relationally and collaboratively based puts it in direct opposition to the competitive nature of sporting teams in which by their very nature their needs to be a winner and a loser.

The authoritarian / controlling nature of the conductor when coupled with the competitive nature that exist in some large ensembles tends to lead towards members experiencing fear (Allsup & Benedict, 2008). The increase in fear would also lead to an increase in anxiety in students, which “generally is considered to have a negative impact on children’s motivation and achievement” (Churchill, 2011, p. 123).

It appears that the majority of these criticisms of large ensembles could be interpreted as being not related directly to the value of the large ensemble in an educational role but rather a criticism of the manner in which these ensembles are run and directed. Allsup and Benedict (2008) suggest that conductors need to accept responsibility for the atmosphere of rehearsals and performances and that is something that they can change. They suggest that it is important for conductors and band directors to consider them selves primarily as educators who need to take an interest in exposing students to multicultural musics in conjunction with traditional repertoire and teaching students “how to move into the world as independent musicians with the skills to make music.”

Allsup (2012) and Coy (2012) both suggest that for the large ensemble to be successful their needs to be a greater focus needs to be placed on the relational connection between the director and the student participants. Coy (2012) asserts that directors need to know students’ capabilities and select a wide range of repertoire that both challenges and targets the developmental needs of the students. Allsup (2008) suggests that the large ensemble needs to provide for both the educational needs of students, through expanding and challenging their understanding and their student interests the resultant being a formation of “new meaning in the learner’s life.”

Two of the key components identified by McPherson, Davidson and Faulkner (2012, p. 215) to ongoing musical engagement are that of enjoyment and having fun and that “musical activities that aim to encourage musical development need to make provision for communication, expression, and affect” (p. 215). They suggest in an ensemble context that involving students in decision making including timing, phrasing, dynamics and overall mood of sections of works “would be an excellent lesson in…expressive education, as well as a good opportunity for peer collaboration.” Through the involvement of students in making these creative decision for the ensemble it would be possible for it to be used to help fulfill some of the requirements outlined in the band descriptors in the National Curriculum (2012, pp. 105 – 112, s.8.1- 8.5, 8.8, 8.9, 10.2 – 10.5, 10.7, 10.9).

euphonium-93872_640The large ensemble also “provides students the opportunity to study traditions that exist outside what they can access at home or in the hallway” (Allsup, 2012). There is an emphasis in the draft of the Australian Curriculum placed on students’ ability to listen to, appreciate and be influenced in their making of, and responding to music from a diverse range of traditions. The emergence of digital technology such as iPods and the exposure students have to especially the conventional contemporary rock band including the “garage band phenomena” (McPherson, Davidson, Faulkner, 2012) align with Allsup’s observations that the traditional Western Art Music (WAM) and Concert Band Music genres are not readily accessible to students in their every day life. Allsup (2012) argues that from an educational perspective “band educators have an obligation to afford students the opportunity to engage in traditional, classical, and unfamiliar music – as long as the end  is student growth. It could be suggested that the inclusion of large ensembles can be educative in exposing student’s to rehearsal, performance and listening experiences which they would not receive in their every day and in doing so create a deeper understanding and ability to perform, compose and listen to music (ACARA, 2012).

The educative role of the large ensemble in the school setting would appear to be an effective and justified means to assist in student growth and development both in general and musical capabilities as outlined in the draft of the Australian National Curriculum (2012). Research by McPherson, Davidson and Faulkner (2012) into the role music influences the lives of people, the motivational factors to encourage growth and development of musicianship including the importance of ensembles in facilitating facility, understanding of musical concepts and elements including duration, pitch, dynamics and expression, structure, texture and timbre (ACARA, 2012) can all be assisted through the large ensemble model. Allsup (2012) and Allsup and Benedict (2008) assert the importance in building meaningful relationships between the conductor and ensemble members, providing experiences that are student needs focused (McPherson, Davidson, Faulkner, 2012, p. 215). Through this relationship conductors can identify student capabilities and select repertoire that appeals to their interests and challenges them to become “better musicians” (Coy, 2012). It could be suggested that whilst there as a focus on the needs of the students the educative role of large ensembles in schools is the responsibility of the director (Allsup & Benedict, 2008) to consider them self primarily as an educator and provide the “opportunity to study traditions that exist outside what they can access at home or in the hallway” (Allsup, 2012). Possibly, a conclusion is that with effective educational outcomes and student centered goals from the director the large ensemble can be utilized as an educative function inside the Australian school system.


Reference List.

Allsup, R.A., & Benedict, C. (2008). The problems of a band: An inquiry into the future of instrumental music education. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 16(2), 156-171.

Allsup, R.A. (2012). The Moral Ends of Band. Theory into Practice, 51(3), 1-9.

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, [ACARA] (July 2012). Australian curriculum: The arts: Foundation to year 10 – draft for consultation. Retrieved from ACARA website:

Churchill, R., Ferguson, P., Godinho, S., Johnson, N., Keddie, A., Letts, W., Mackay, J., McGill, M., Moss, J., Nagel, C., Nicholson, P., Vick, M. (2011). Teaching: making a difference.: John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.

Coy, N. (2012, February). Why do we have ensembles, anyway? (Toward a rationale that justifies all our efforts…). SIM News. 

Crittenden, S. (2012, July 27). Please don’t stop the music Mr Newman. Global Mail. Retrieved from:

Ironside, R. (2012, July 19). Campbell Newman’s razor gang deals blow to school band competition. The Courier Mail. Retrieved from:

McPherson, G. E., Davidson, J. W., Faulkner, F. (2012). Music in our lives: Rethinking musical ability, development & Identity. New York: Oxford University Press.

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