Notes of Growth: CU Boulder Students Lead Middle School Musicians to Success

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By Jane Appel


On April 26, the participants of the Middle School Ensemble (MSE) program fine-tuned their pieces one last time. There was a nervous, yet exciting, energy running through the middle school, high school and college students as they prepared for their audience to arrive. When the doors opened and the lights dimmed, the middle schoolers giddily looked around for their families and waited for their turn to shine on stage.  

The MSE program at CU Boulder meets the desire young musicians have for more advanced ensemble experience, as well as the need for classroom experience among future music teachers.  

The program brings together middle school music students interested in a free after-school music activity, high school students interested in teaching music and CU Boulder students pursuing a Bachelor of Music Education degree.  

CU Boulder student volunteer Becky Donoho described the MSE program as a “no-pressure environment” where she can experiment with ideas and ways of teaching. She, and many others, plan on teaching middle school music in the future. By participating in this program, she can observe and practice what works.    

A grant recipient of the Office for Public and Community-Engaged Scholarship, the MSE program meets weekly for two hours from January through April. CU Boulder students and high school students prepare the middle schoolers for the end-of-session concert. Middle schoolers learn and grow immensely during the program. That growth is among the CU students’ favorite parts of volunteering. At the start, especially with the sixth graders, the middle schoolers do not have a lot of music experience.  By the end of the program, they improve so significantly that their teachers hear it in rehearsals and their parents hear it in concert.  

Sixth grader Stella Vissers said, “My favorite part is that I can be challenged a lot more here than in school. Since this is an after-school program everyone wants to be here.” 

There are three different roles that CU Boulder students can take within the program. The first is called a section coach. The students who assume this role are normally first- or second-year students who come to college knowing one instrument best. During the first hour of rehearsal, the section coach oversees a mixed group of instrumentalists to learn how to teach instruments they might not be completely comfortable with yet. In the second hour, section coaches are assigned a group of middle schoolers who play the same instrument as them.  

More advanced CU Boulder music education majors can also serve as conductors.    

Associate Professor of Music Education David Rickels has run the Middle School Ensembles (MSE) program for the last 12 years.  

“The roles are what we call downward inclusive,” he said. “Every conductor is also assigned one of the sections, but during full ensemble rehearsal the section coaches sit next to the kids while the conductor is up on the podium leading a class like a teacher in public school would.”  

The final role is the area director. Rickels describes it as “the conductor-plus,” meaning they have the same responsibilities as the conductors, but they also take on logistical and administrative responsibilities. Area directors get a feel for a teacher’s broader scope of responsibilities such as taking attendance, communicating with parents, passing out music and setting up chairs in the correct formations.  

Rickels has observed his students growing in real-time—from experiencing their first time in a position of authority and their first time being called Mr., Ms. or Mx. to having fun with the middle schoolers while gaining valuable teaching experience.  

Logan Indge, CU Boulder student and area director said, “You can learn all the theory. You can learn all the practice. But what’s really important is being in the classroom with the kiddos.” 

High school students get involved in the College of Music’s Trying on Teaching program. These students are normally juniors recommended by their teachers and interested in music-education careers. They are given roles like those of the first-year CU Boulder students, but only in their primary instrument.  

With the help of the high school and college volunteers, the middle schoolers receive individual attention, and their music skills develop quickly.  

Middle schooler KJ Tyler said, “At first, I was a little skeptical, because at my school we have after-school clubs, and one of them is basketball, which is one of my favorite sports. But eventually my mom convinced me to do this [MSE program], and it’s awesome. I am extremely glad that she did.”  

Tyler went on to say that his biggest struggle while playing percussion was timing, and that the MSE program has advanced his skills greatly.  

For some, like CU Boulder student Sofia Eyl, involvement in MSE continues over the years.  

“I was involved in this program when I was in middle school, and meeting some of the people who are in my position now really got me excited about music,” said Eyl.  

The quality of MES and the resulting longevity of participation is what stuck out on April 26 to CU Boulder staff member Arielle Wiedenbeck.  

“There were stories of students who stuck with the program from middle school through college, which really speaks to the lasting quality of a program that’s been around for so many years,” said Wiedenbeck.

For more information, visit the Middle School Ensemble program’s webpage