Voice and Choice: It Starts With the Little Things

I recently had a conversation with someone about what “voice and choice” looks like in an instrumental music classroom. I think their assumption was that incorporating student voice and choice was a massive change, something completely different. While a lot of the mindset behind voice and choice strays far from traditional models of teaching, I don’t think it needs to begin with monumental changes. As Joy Kirr talks about in her book, Shift This, it starts with a small shift. Something you can implement tomorrow.

One example of a small shift in my band and orchestra classes has to do with skills. Instead of focusing on what songs the beginners learn, focus on the skills. When you might typically require students to master a certain song in the lesson book, figure out the underlying skill that is important and make that skill the requirement. This gives students options in what to practice – and many times results in them playing more than they would have if only one song were assigned! For example, when I want my trumpet players to practice songs with the new note A, it doesn’t matter if they practice A in “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” or “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” so why not give them a choice in which to work on? When students have a choice their learning becomes more meaningful.

Another small, but effective shift, comes during warm-ups. In beginning orchestra, we do bow warm-ups at the start of every class. When it got to the point that the students were very familiar with the warm-ups, I started inviting 1-2 students to lead each day. They were instructed to pretend the class was learning for the first time. This accomplishes so many things! The student leaders get to share their voices and decide what warm-ups to do. I can hear the student leaders verbalize details of bowing technique (showing me how well they understand it) and the rest of the class suddenly starts to pay closer attention because their peers are standing in front of the room.

When looking for ways to increase student voice and choice, first look at the things you are already doing. Find ways to give students options within those things. Even better, ask students for their suggestions! The beginning steps in this process don’t have to be big; they have to be effective. I think you’ll find once you start incorporating small choices and giving students small opportunities to share their voices it will become easier. Eventually, you will feel more confident taking more significant risks. It’s from these significant risks that you gain the possibility of finding big reward.

Links for further reading:

The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student

Personalized Learning, Part 1

How I Increased Voice and Choice in My Music Classes, and Why I’ll Never Look Back

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