The Joys and Benefits of Participating in an Ensemble
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The Joys and Benefits of Participating in an Ensemble

Suzuki OrchestraAccording to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word "ensemble" is defined as “a group of people or things that make up a complete unit (such as a musical group, a group of actors or dancers, or a set of clothes)." Our focus today is on musical ensembles: why we participate and how they benefit us.

Based on current research, ensembles are now known to have benefits beyond the obvious skill improvement, or talent showcasing. They partially fulfill our need as humans for social interaction. "Being socially connected is our brain's lifelong passion.  t's been baked into our operating system for tens of millions of years" said UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman, in his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.  He continues, “Becoming more socially connected is essential to our survival. In a sense, evolution has made bets at each step that the best way to make us more successful is to make us more social." [1]

StringendoMusical ensembles are one way that we as humans can experience that social connection and be part of something that is accomplished together. David Kramer, music director of The University of Hartford’s Hartt Community Division (HCD) Stringendo Orchestra (string orchestra for intermediate elementary and middle-school students), says that with a common goal comes many benefits. “In the ensemble, students learn to bring their individual accomplishments together to create something greater than themselves. Not only do the students work to play at the same speed, but to ebb and flow together, listening and watching for the slightest nuance of mood, tempo, or harmony," says Kramer. "They learn about their role in each part of a piece, whether to be bold and play loudly or to play quietly, gently adding to the texture. They learn to arrive on time, be prepared, and bring an all-important pencil so that they can make important markings in their music. Students who participate [in the HCD ensembles] are ready to sit down in any orchestra and be strong, competent members of the group.”

Harmony WindsAlan Francis, HCD faculty member and conductor of Philharmonia and Harmony Winds, uses a sports parallel to explain why ensembles are important. “In sports, practicing a positionlike a pitcher in baseball, for exampleis just one part of the equation. Understanding how that position works in the context of the entire team is important. In music, as in sports, sooner or later you have to play the game.” He continues, “Participating in an ensemble helps bring balance and control, learn style, volume, note lengths and rhythms, and helps work towards a common goal of a polished performance.”

For both Kramer and Francis, the true joy of leading ensembles is in seeing the growth of the participants, both as individuals and as part of their respective groups.  Kramer says, “The symphony orchestra is one of the most iconic music ensembles in the world. Orchestras perform everything from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to the soundtracks of the Star Wars and Harry Potter films. Orchestras are everywhere.  Berlin, London, Kinshasa, Cape Town, Tokyo, Beijing, Caracas, Rio, Montreal, San Franciscoall have symphony orchestras of their own to be proud of. In the Hartford area alone we have the Hartford, New Britain, West Hartford, Farmington Valley, Nutmeg, Connecticut Valley, and Manchester Symphony Orchestras, all with vibrant concert series and audiences. Having the chance to bring students into this musical world, and watching them grow as musicians, is exhilarating.” 

For his part, HCD’s Francis enjoys those “a-ha” moments where students “get it," like the young trombonist who went from typical to extraordinary, using an ensemble performance as the vehicle for that jump. “Developing muscle memory, improving gross motor skills, using different muscle groups, finding symphonecent controlthose are all things that participation helps with, but my biggest reward is in helping kids develop as individuals.”

Music ensembles help to satisfy our innate need as humans to be part of, and contribute to, a group endeavor, working towards a common goal. Ensembles, as teams, promote the personal growth of participants and offer significant benefits. At any level, being a member of a music ensemble can have many positive effects, but the greatest of these can be described in one word: joy!

[1] Wolpert, Stuart. "UCLA Neuroscientist's Book Explains Why Social Connection Is as Important as Food and Shelter." UCLA Newsroom. N.p., 2013. Web. 20 Sept. 2016.