Teaching experiments

Drawing inspiration from Eric Booth's two-day residency earlier in the semester, CMW resident musicians have undertaken teaching experiments of their own creation during March and April. At a recent staff meeting, Minna candidly shared her teaching experiment, including its frustrating results, and then very generously agreed to write up the details for the blog.

Minna's Experiment

Questions: Are students more engaged and excited if they get to be “in charge” of their learning? Will it impact their enthusiasm for a) coming to lessons, and b) practicing during the week?

Experiment: Each week in their lessons, let them help me create the lesson plan for the day, including something they want to do. Together, come up with the list of things that they are going to work on over the week for their practice charts.

Collecting evidence: Keep a log of what the lesson was like, whether the students were more or less engaged; ask and record how much practicing they did over the course of the week.


What I expected: I expected that students would have ideas about what they did or didn’t want to do in lessons, and by having the chance to be more in charge of their own learning, would feel more intrinsically motivated.

What happened: I ended up doing this primarily with my Phase I students, and only one of my Phase II students. Among my younger students, most of them didn’t really know what they wanted to do in the lesson; I think they weren’t used to being asked (or in some cases they didn’t care). Early on, my questions would be met with a shrug or “I don’t know.” So I would primarily shape the lesson, but then ask them questions to get their opinions (i.e. what kind of bow stroke should we try this scale? What tempo should we try the note reading? Where should we start in a piece? How many times should we repeat something?) Usually that succeeded in drawing the students out so that they felt more comfortable voicing their opinions and consequently felt more engaged in the lessons. In one particular student’s case, by the third week, he knew right away what he wanted to do.

However, this didn’t seem to affect how much practicing they did over the week. And even a fun lesson the week before didn’t seem to carry over to the following week’s lesson—they would come in for the lesson with blank, long faces,  and sometimes noncommittal shrugs when I asked them how they were. And I would have to start all over again. I gave up asking about their home practice, because it really didn’t seem to change at all. Some weeks, I found myself very frustrated with this aspect…

Mini-success story: "D" has been really unengaged the whole year, even if I try to engage him by letting him choose pieces, etc. He seems a little stuck by the note reading thing because it slows him down. He can learn a piece much faster by ear, but we’ve been persisting with the note reading. Every lesson, when I would ask what he wanted to start with, he would shrug. In conversation one day, I was asking him what he liked, and he told me about this TV show “Minute to Win It” where you have to do something in under a minute to win a prize. So we started doing that with his note reading flashcards (17 of them). His dad was the timekeeper. We started on April 14th and at first, he could only get about half of them in a minute. Then as we continued to do it week-to-week, he got more right. Finally, he got them all in a minute, and had the biggest smile on his face at the end of it! I had never seen him so animated.


Looking back, I realized my frustration came across in the way I was teaching and made the lesson not fun for both the student and myself. But it leaves me with the following question: How do you come in with an open mind and heart, and a smiling face when a student a) doesn’t seem to care at all, b) hasn’t touched his/her instrument since the last time you saw him/her, and c) you’re treading water and teaching the same thing over and over again?

What I learned: It takes a lot more to ignite kids’ intrinsic motivation, especially when there’s not a lot there to begin with. It’s not enough to let them choose the material (pieces) and help direct the lesson. And perhaps it’s something that builds over time—as they experience a sense of ownership in lessons and continue to have fun in their lessons, do they become more invested?

Overall, the experiment made me pay more attention to where each student was when they came into the lesson. And I made an effort to meet them where they were, and then build on that. Regardless of what intrinsic motivation they have, students always come in with something on the brain, maybe something bad happened at school, or they just got yelled at by their parents, or something else is going on for them…For pretty much everyone, it was the interpersonal connection that I made that helped us to make the material more interesting. It made me more alert as a teacher to try to really see the student—and not just focus on pushing my own agenda.

-Minna Choi, Fellowship Program Director/Resident Musician

July 7-10: Free Minds, Free People conference

Free minds  
CMW will be presenting at the Free Minds, Free People conference in Providence, July 7-10. This amazing bi-annual national convening brings together teachers, high school and college students, researchers, parents and community-based activists/educators from across the country to build a movement to develop and promote education as a tool for liberation.

FMFP seeks to "develop ways of teaching and learning both in and out of school that help us to build a more just society." The conference is a "space in which these groups can learn from and teach each other, sharing knowledge, experience and strategies."

Early bird registration rates through June 1. Learn more about the conference here.

Summa cum laude

Congratulations to Liz Cox, a member of this month's graduating class of the University of Rhode Island! Liz earned summa cum laude honors in psychology, picking up the President's Award (for having a perfect grade point average during her tenure at URI) along the way. Next stop: a graduate degree in social work at Rhode Island College.

RI arts organizations, including CMW, will receive NEA funding

WASHINGTON, DC – In an effort to support the arts and promote art education and community art programs throughout Rhode Island, the Congressional delegation announced on May 16 that five local arts organizations will receive $827,800 in federal funding through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
“At a time when budgetary pressures are causing cuts to many community arts programs, this federal funding will help support local non-profits and boost economic activity. Rhode Island’s creative industry enriches our cultural heritage and helps generate revenue for local communities and businesses,” said U.S. Senator Jack Reed, who, as Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the NEA, helped provide $154.7 million for the arts in the 2011 budget. “As we just saw with the recent budget battle in Congress, there are some who do not recognize the value of these programs. I was determined to beat back the draconian cuts being proposed and was happy that we were successful.”
“Our rich artistic tradition in Rhode Island not only contributes to our quality of life, but supports thousands of jobs.  This funding will help ensure our artistic community continues to thrive,” said U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who brought NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman to Rhode Island in February for a tour of the local arts community. Whitehouse also serves as an ex-officio member of the National Council on the Arts, the advisory body to the NEA.
“The arts industry is an important economic driver in Rhode Island,” said U.S. Representative David Cicilline. “These critical funds from the National Endowment for the Arts will support the work of the Rhode Island State Council, Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra & Music School, Community MusicWorks, FirstWorks and Everett Dance Theatre; five organizations that are helping to fuel our economic recovery, teach our children, and expand our civic discourse during these trying economic times. I know first-hand the benefits of arts in enriching our communities, and will continue to fight to protect the important progress we have made in the arts industry.”

[Source: Press release from the office of Senator Jack Reed.]

Institute for Musicianship and Public Service

This week, CMW prepares to host another Institute for Musicianship and Public Service. Musicians from around the country and Canada will be in Providence for five days exploring the ideas of musicianship, community engagement and service. Beginning on Wednesday, participants in this Institute include young musicians who are currently in, or have recently completed, degree programs in music and are envisioning careers that combine musicianship and service. Over the weekend, we will be joined by teaching artists and administrators of existing music programs from around the country who will share their ideas and programs. Among the organizations joining us include representatives from the Harmony Project (Los Angeles), the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall (New York City), Boston Children's Chorus (Boston), MusiConnects (Boston) and Music Haven (New Haven).

While our regular monthly Fellowship Program Seminar will not take place on Friday because of the Institute, you are welcome to come hear participants share their ideas and questions and to hear presentations by visiting organizations.

Friday, June 3, 1:30-3:45 pm
1:30-2:15 Discussion featuring IMPS participants
2:30-3:45 Presentations by Harmony Project, Boston Children's Chorus, Weill Institute, and MusiConnects
Knight Memorial Library
275 Elmwood Avenue

RSVP to me by email ( if you'd like to attend.

-Minna Choi, Fellowship Program Director

Jorge Gardos residency

Over the past three months, violinist Jorge Gardos has been engaged with CMW on a special residency of teaching, advising, and performing. We first became acquainted with Jorge several years ago, after he had heard a recording of the PSQ on a local television station, and introduced himself at a concert. Since then, we’ve had a growing friendship, and this spring we invited him to join us for several events as a special Artist in Residence. 

During this time, Jorge has offered a seminar to our faculty on teaching ear training to young people, has visited our various ensembles to guest conduct and our studio classes to give masterclasses, and has led singing workshops to introduce our young people to solfege in the manner he taught by none other than the Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist Zoltan Kodaly.

On June 12, Jorge will join the CMW Players for a concert on which he will be featured playing Bartok’s Roumanian Dances for solo violin with chamber orchestra accompaniment, as well as a performance of a Paganini Caprice for solo violin.

Check out this video in which Jorge is interviewed by Media Lab student August Packard about his life in music.

-Sebastian Ruth, Founder & Artistic Director