The Power of the Ensemble

Mr Paul Holley OAM, Acting Director of Instrumental Music

I am reminded constantly via all media outlets that in these days of frantic pace and high stress, humans need to feel part of a community and to have a sense of belonging. Dr Dean Ornish writes, ‘the need for connection and community is primal, as fundamental as the need for air, water, and food’ (2013, para. 3).

It is so easy while pursuing personal success to become self-absorbed and isolated. This is true not only of my generation but it seems, to this close bystander, increasingly true of our current secondary school generation.

The Brisbane Girls Grammar School Strategic Design 2016-2019 states, under the Guiding Principle of Life Wide Learning, the desire to ‘foster a culture of inter-dependent participation, commitment and fair competition that inspires contribution to a greater purpose and creates a sense of otherness to unlock potential within the individual girl and within the collective.’ For many years, this principle has been enacted in the ensemble-based program offered by the Instrumental Music Department, which requires all girls who sing or learn an orchestral instrument to be members of School ensembles. We see the student’s core ensemble as the primary teaching space, with group or private lessons providing the chance to fine tune and more closely monitor the skills first learned in ensembles.

Why do we support this model?

It is our belief that in ensemble, girls learn more than simply how to perform music—they gain important skills that will support their development into Grammar Women who understand, among other things, collaboration, discipline, commitment and resilience. The ensemble also provides a social space where girls can become part of a like-minded community of learners and performers, who together can explore ways to express themselves through music and achieve more than they could alone. In order to explore how this belief is enacted for our students, we recently sought their answers to two questions:

  1. What do you enjoy about singing or playing in a School ensemble?
  2. What are the benefits for you of being in a music ensemble?


It takes collaboration across a community to develop better skills for better lives.’

            Jose Angel Gurria, Secretary-General, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

A willingness to contribute, critically assess progress, develop as a group and see processes through to a successful outcome are characteristics of a collaborative individual worker and a successful music ensemble. Ensembles provide an environment where girls can make their contribution, be part of a discussion about how aspects of the music are working and make necessary adjustments. All members of the ensemble learn their own part and discover how best to support each other’s parts in an effort to achieve an outcome as close to the composer’s intentions as possible. Learning these skills helps build the integrity of the ensemble and bring the music to life.


I love the feeling when we have been working on a piece for weeks and finally it comes together. We play it, and when we finish we all realise we’ve played it perfectly, which is a great feeling that everyone seems to feel together.  Zoe Neale (12W)



It takes many hours of practice to hone skills and improve your standard on an instrument so that the contribution made to the ensemble is acceptable (Oxford Royale Academy, 2014). This practice will not always be fun for the player or the family, but the self-discipline and self-motivation required to continue this journey is important for the ensemble as well as the individual. Similarly, the entire ensemble is required to dedicate itself and its time to develop the group’s sound and to learn how to follow the composer’s and conductor’s intentions.

Being in a music ensemble is very rewarding as I am able to practise my skills …  and learn the importance of teamwork.    Martina Marrama (11G)

The best part about being in an ensemble is performing and showcasing something of which we are proud. When we play at the Cathedral Concert or on stage at the Gala Concert, there is no better feeling than standing at the end of an incredible performance and looking out into the audience, knowing we did a good job.  Le Ming (Megan) Chen (12G)



In these days of instant gratification and busy timetables the traditional concept of prioritising a commitment to a particular activity is being eroded away. However, the success of the ensemble is dependent on each member committing to not just a thorough knowledge of the notes, which can be achieved away from the rehearsal, but improving the ensemble’s ability to work together to meet other musical demands. This can only come as a result of repeated, focused collaboration. As the old musical saying goes, ‘rehearsal is the chance not to learn your parts but to learn everyone else’s’.

I know that music can assist your memory and reduce stress. However, I find that being part of the Music program at Girls Grammar is a really great way to get to know different girls and improve how I manage commitments and my time.   Jillian Campbell  (9O)


I once heard a story about a band director who wanted to demonstrate to his band and audience the high demand for accuracy when playing a piece. The band prepared a very short piece and performed it accurately. During a second performance, he had each member purposely play one note in each bar incorrectly. The resultant performance reminded the students how much their preparedness and ability to meet the demands of the music impacted the overall success of the performance. This high level of audience expectation means students must develop their ability to cope under pressure. This process takes time, and requires an environment in which they are able to try, and occasionally fail. As students find more success, their self-esteem grows and they begin to reap the rewards of their diligence. As Pearl Shinn Wormhoudt states ‘self esteem grows from achievement, supportive praise, and belonging to a group’ (2001, p.90).

I really like that I’m able to be regularly within an environment that allows me to fully immerse myself in the music. One of my favourite things about being in my ensembles is when there’s a collective enjoyment/investment in a particular piece by the entire ensemble. When we put a lot of work into it, we end up with a pretty spectacular result and we are all really proud.  Tess Bakharia (12L)


The social benefits of a community of learners

While as conductors we might like to think that students are inspired only by the music and their mastery of the skills required, the reality is that one of the main drawcards of ensembles is the chance to make, and meet with, friends. The importance of members feeling part of a community can never be underestimated, and the pursuit of musical excellence together is as valid and rewarding as their pursuit of academic excellence.

The benefit of been in a musical group is that you get to meet new people that love and have the passion for the same thing you have, which makes making friends much easier.  Hana Phua (7O)

 I enjoy playing in ensembles at Girls Grammar because each group becomes an incredible community. Georgia Chapman (11M)

 The benefits of being in a music ensemble are that we can make new friends with people who share similar interests and we have a sense of belonging to a group. Emily Yu (11O) and Elisha Yin (11W)

 I believe playing in an ensemble at Girls Grammar has provided me with the opportunity to connect with all different age groups, and other girls with similar interests to me. It’s a very rewarding experience to be included in such a welcoming team environment.  Freya Davis (12R)

 Being a part of choir and orchestra allows me to break away from the craziness of the term and provides me with something I can enjoy  in addition to my academic pursuits  and sport. Mathilda Chapman (7R)

 I love being able to develop my musical skills in a real-life, group setting. I also have enjoyed making new friends and seeing them each week, and the camaraderie that forms between the members of a section.     Rebecca Haley (12M)


Finally, I am reminded that while these qualities are indeed worth pursuing, and while theories of learning are well-founded, sometimes it is also necessary to step back and see the simplicity behind students’ motivation to be involved in ensembles:

Making music is a fun and energetic way to start the day.  Swetha Gottumukkala (9H)


Agerholm, H. (2017, November 22). Girls are better than boys at solving problems in teams,

finds new global study. Independent. Retrieved from


Brisbane Girls Grammar School. (2016). Strategic Design 2016 – 2019. Retrieved from


Ornish, D. (2013). Can online communities be healing?. Retrieved from


Oxford Royale Academy. (2014). Why School Students Benefit Hugely from Playing in an Orchestra. Online.

Wormhoudt, P. (2001). With a Song in my Psyche – On the psychology of singing and teaching singing. USA.