Achieving Artistry – what it takes

Mr Mark Sullivan, Director of Instrumental Music

The sense of anticipation was electric amongst the capacity audience that assembled for the final concert of the 2010 Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago. Drawing 15,000 delegates from forty countries, the Midwest Clinic is the world’s largest instrumental music educator’s conference, and I was fortunate to be able to attend in December last year.

The selection process for the forty ensembles to perform at the conference is rigorous and competitive, but to be included in this final concert carries with it international recognition and enormous prestige. As the fifty members of the Seika Girls High School Band took the stage with confidence and purpose, their intent was clear. They immediately dazzled the capacity audience of distinguished music educators with their individual technical perfection, incredible ensemble precision and a level of musicianship normally reserved for adult professional ensembles. With a standing ovation at the conclusion of each piece of music it was clear that true artistry had been achieved.

Along with every other audience member I was amazed and inspired by the performance. I wondered how such an impressive result could be achieved and what I could bring back to the programme at Brisbane Girls Grammar School.

The question was partially addressed at a clinic called ‘The Secret Revealed: Japanese Ideas for Band Teaching’, presented by prominent Japanese band director and composer Yo Goto who articulated the following points:

  • In Japan, although music education is compulsory as part of the curriculum, all instrumental and vocal ensembles meet outside the academic day. They usually rehearse every day including weekends for two to three hours.
  • Ensemble directors are hired as academic teachers and they are often so busy with duties that the students must rehearse themselves. Even when the director is present, students continue to rehearse without explicit direction.
  • Emphasis is placed on fundamental training, which involves exercises to reinforce a sense of intonation and sound quality that assists students to focus and prepare to make music together.
  • There is a strong focus on student-directed sectional rehearsals where individuals learn their parts as a small group. This encourages all members to refine their parts and share their individual musical ideas.
  • Although the ensemble meets every day, full rehearsals only occur once or twice a week.
  • A peer tutoring system operates where senior students are expected to have a strong understanding of the fundamentals of performance and pass this knowledge on to junior students. This is a cultural expectation where it is felt the senior students will improve their own abilities through the act of teaching.

Goto summarised by stating that the key principal is to maximise the individual responsibility each student has to the group which produces maturity and product responsibility.

For many of the clinic participants this approach was confronting and completely contrary to the master-servant model of teaching, the traditional approach of ensemble directors across the world. This teacher-centred model is characterised by a strictly disciplined environment with the teacher clearly in charge and the students working individually, passively listening and playing on command. Students are often detached from the music they learn and the learning process. While this is the standard professional approach to preparing for an ensemble performance, high school music programmes are part of the holistic education of each young student and therefore the music making experience ought to reflect current educational imperatives that affirm the importance of collaborative learning and problem solving.

This creates a real challenge for most ensemble directors whose performance experience and training is almost certain to have been completed in a teacher-centred environment.

The model outlined by Goto draws on the work of Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey known as constructivism, or a student-centred learning approach. This model of planning, instruction and assessment “revolves around the needs and abilities of the students. The teacher shares the control of the class room and students are allowed to explore, experiment, and discover on their own. Students are given choice and are included in the decision making process.” (Brown, 2008)

This model has long been a feature of successful academic classrooms but according to Scruggs (2009) “most instrumental music teachers continue to embrace teacher-centred classrooms”.  Brown goes on to say that in student-centred classrooms “students become self sufficient creative thinkers and people who appreciate and value the subject being taught. My goal is not to turn out professional performers but to instil in students a love of music and a quizzical mind that stays with each individual throughout life.”

Artistry is the highest level of performance possible and a truly artistic performance is exhilarating and rewarding for performer and audience alike. It can only be achieved by individual and group dedication to one hundred percent accuracy of the fundamentals and a unified dedication to the stylistic demands of the music.

To achieve artistry, educational innovator Erica McWilliam encourages students and teachers to acquire a risk-taking disposition with the capacity to tolerate error and not equate it with failure. She believes that artistry involves rigorous and demanding learning requiring a balance between learning goals and performance goals. There must be constant pruning and a disposition to keep trying while enjoying the rigour of the learning process. Such learning occurs in a “high challenge, high support” environment where sustained creative imagining and complex problem solving is encouraged.

Although ‘The Secrets Revealed’ clinic did not reveal all the secrets, a number of the important differentiating strategies Goto articulated about the Seika Girls High School are similar to those that have been implemented, developed, and refined by ensemble directors at Brisbane Girls Grammar School. Of course the extensive hours of weekly rehearsal and demanding concert schedule (approximately 100 per year) do not fit within our system but the pathway to excellence in performance or artistry is parallel.

The annual Gala Concert at Brisbane Girls Grammar School provides a tangible and challenging goal for participating ensembles to demonstrate the outcomes of a learning process that promotes high levels of student engagement and the ultimate achievement of artistry. While it is possible to achieve successful outcomes with a teacher-centred process, the student-centred model encourages a strong sense of collaboration, group participation, individual responsibility and a genuine sense of ownership of the process and outcomes. This not only guarantees a successful performance but also an authentic musical experience that promotes lifelong learning and ongoing engagement in the music programme.


Brown, J (2008). Student-centered instruction: Involving students in their own education. Music Educators Journal. 94(5), 30-35.

Scruggs, B (2009). Constructivist practices to increase student engagement in the orchestra classroom. Music Educators Journal. 95(6), 53-59

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