Re-imagining the University Ensemble Experience

My article Re-imagining the Music Degree Recital explored ways that solo performances can serve as vehicles for developing critical career and problem solving skills.  But there are many other avenues with the potential to emphasize these aptitudes within music school curriculum. Consider, for example, the ensemble experience.

In Fall 2009, I began directing The Accidental Collective, Duquesne University’s premier contemporary music ensemble.  In addition to producing high quality concerts of compositions written in the last 10 years, I wanted the group to teach participants valuable skills about becoming a successful professional.  Please note: this is just one of many entrepreneurial methods for approaching an ensemble.  I do not recommend this format for every group or experience level. But it illustrates some of the potential available.


Success as a musician requires more than playing well. I wanted to stress that reality through even the audition process.  In addition to a traditional audition component, candidates were interviewed. This practice stressed that who you are is as important as how you play. Additionally, they filled out a form describing background, skills, and interests: secondary instruments, improvisation, composing/arranging, singing, public speaking, movement, additional competencies, reliability, willingness to take chances, etc. We also checked references.


Identifying the right members was also more important than the instruments they played.  Therefore, auditions were open to performers from all areas. If a bassoonist, electric guitarist, singer, or kazoo player had more to offer than a violinist, that’s who would be selected. The group wound up involving 7 players:

  • Flute(s)
  • Saxophone(s)
  • Jazz trumpet
  • Bass trombone
  • Violin
  • Cello
  • Percussion

Musically, the good news about this unique instrumentation was the incredible color palette available. The bad news was that no music had ever been written for this combination. Also, because I didn’t know the ensemble make-up until the school year began, it was impossible to plan ahead and choose repertoire. But, as with any challenge, this dilemma provided an opportunity (described below).


The syllabus, and thus structure of the course, is one of the riskiest things I’ve done as a teacher.  After declaring that “The purpose of this class is to provide participants with valuable experiences and skills that will help them better succeed as professionals,” the various syllabus sections—mission, goals, objectives, literature, grading—were left blank.  In other words, students were responsible for determining what they would learn/experience (a proposition that was both frightening and empowering for them).  We began with several meetings to discuss desirable outcomes, and have regularly revisited this topic throughout the year.


The group was run like a true democracy, rather than the traditional conductor-driven model.  For each major decision, all members had a vote.  I was just one voice out of eight.  Partially because of this process, the players took incredible ownership in the ensemble.


In the past, the group had performed 2 concerts per semester, comparable to many other university ensembles.  While this tradition allows participants to learn and perform a good deal of (extremely difficult) music each year, it leaves little time to investigate other issues. 

The students decided to present just one unique concert per semester, though each program would be presented multiple times in different communities.  This decision permitted me something I’ve never experienced before in my teaching career: time!  Time to explore, focus on process, take some chances, try new things, memorize music, plan, reflect.  And learn!


Because approximately zero pieces for this instrumentation existed, we were forced to think creatively about which music to perform. 

We began with a focus on non-jazz improvisation (few of the players had prior improv experience).  Talk about the ultimate ear training development!  The musicians grew so much from this new experience, they decided to do a completely improvised concert.  Not only did their understanding of musical structure, texture, gesture, harmony, melody, and rhythm expand exponentially, but they developed a deeper understanding of their role within a chamber ensemble, and grew together as a group. 

Though none of the participants had prior arranging experience, they decided to orchestrate piano pieces for the group.  We then used several rehearsals as a laboratory: “try this up two octaves,” “let’s double with trombone,” “how about another articulation,” “listen to how a pedal tone/dovetailing propels the passage forward,” etc.  This kind of real time experimentation is undoubtedly the best forum for mastering instrumentation and orchestration (much better than MIDI!). Ultimately none of this music was performed publically, but the process taught great lessons.

We obtained music in the following ways:

  1. Call for scores. The group crafted and submitted a call-for-scores to several organizations, such as American Composer’s Forum.  We ultimately received over 100 submissions, and chose several to perform that featured a subset of our ensemble. 
  2. Commissioned orchestrations. We asked friends and colleagues to orchestrate existing works for the entire group. 
  3. Transcription/re-composition. As an ensemble, we transcribed and modified several pieces piece for our instrumentation.  While I coached them, students determined many of the ultimate artistic decisions.


Each ensemble member was assigned specific non-performance responsibilities, reflecting the reality of most professional chamber groups.  Sample duties included:

  • Strategizing
  • Scheduling 
  • Budgeting
  • Writing up the call for scores
  • Documenting tech notes
  • Contracting/directing tech crew
  • Building the set
  • Diagramming stage setup
  • Incorporating multi-media elements
  • Typing up the program
  • Working with PR
  • Marketing


We concluded the year with a debriefing session, reflecting on lessons learned.  Here are just a few of the many takeaways made by participants:

  • Being a chamber musician is hard but fulfilling work, requiring much more than great playing. 
  • We took more ownership in the group’s successes because we were directly responsible for them!
  • Not everything worked out right away.  Some things bombed.  And each failure taught valuable lessons. If nothing fails, you’re playing it too safe.
  • It is essential to work with the right people and create a healthy environment. We had a great experience, even when challenges were presented, because we respected and liked our partners both musically and personally.

The following quote by one group member illustrates the kinds of deep bonds that can develop when the right collaborators work together to create a collective artistic vision:

“If I had to be stranded on a deserted island with just one other person, it could be any of the members of this ensemble.”

  • Developing something innovative and remarkable requires vision, time, planning, persistence, and the willingness to take chances. 
  • Responsibilities need to be clearly defined, and early on, or valuable time is wasted. 
  • In a democratic environment, even one person can stall progress. So make sure the battles you fight are important ones.
  • You don’t need a standard ensemble to play great music. In fact, the challenge of programming for a unique instrumentation opens up a world of possibility.
  • Our catalog of lessons is much longer and deeper.  For a complete list, try forming your own group with this kind of model.  There is no substitute for experiential learning.

This article provides but a glimpse of what is possible through an entrepreneurial ensemble experience.  Such an approach is feasible with both chamber and large groups. Re-imagining the ensemble experience is just one more way music schools can embrace a culture of entrepreneurship at their core.

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