Music Education Research

March 14, 2010

When to Begin Instrumental Music Instruction

Filed under: Band — Rick Dammers @ 2:44 pm

Hartley, L.A., &  Porter, A. M. (2009). The influence of beginning instructional grade on string student enrollment, retention, and music performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, (54)4, 370-384.

Linda Hartley and Ann Porter examined how the starting grade level (fourth, fifth, or sixth) in string programs in Ohio affected recruitment, retention, and performance. Recruitment and retention were addressed through a survey of string teachers in Ohio.  Thirty-one percent (172 teachers) responded to questions about starting grade and enrollment. The responses indicated that starting grade level made no difference in recruitment, and that retention improved for programs with a later start.

In order to examine the effect upon performance, the authors visited and recorded 22 middle school orchestras (at a median seventh grade level) toward the end of the school year.  The recordings were then evaluated by three judges utilizing a festival-style rating system. The starting grade level did not have a statistically significant impact upon the judges ratings. In other words, orchestras that began in instruction in sixth grade performed as well as those that began in fourth or fifth grade.

This study raises interesting questions, particularly for music teachers in my part of the world (New Jersey) where instrumental instruction typically follows an early grade, pull-out lesson approach with less frequent class meetings.  While the impact of frequency is not addressed directly in this study, one wonders if students would be better served by waiting to begin instruction when more frequent (optimally daily) instruction is possible.  Another aspect that needs to be explored is the trade-off between less-frequent small group instruction vs.  daily large group instruction.

Anecdotally, my sense is that we are not getting our ‘bang for our buck’ from the pull-out lesson approach.  This study is helpful in illustrating that alternative approaches to beginning instruction may be equivalent at worst, and an improvement at best.

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14 Comments »

  1. Good post, and a well done study. I agree with your comment about “bang for the buck”–especially if our only criterion measure is performance achievement. There are, however, other benefits to a child studying an instrument that are not specifically related to how well one plays technically. If we are all about product, then let’s wait to start them till 6th or 7th grade, which is what most of the research indicates works best.

    But if the “experience” of being in band and orchestra, learning with your friends, being part of a group, and learning more repertoire, songs, improvising, composing, etc. over the additional 1-3 years is considered at all valuable–if the process of music learning has any “juice”–then we should advocate for starting kids in 4th grade if possible.

    Just my 2 cents!

    Comment by Mitch — March 14, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

    • Good points Mitch! I agree the performance is part of the means to the end of ‘experience’, not the end itself. I think that retention is a key factor- which starting point will provide the most kids the longest and most positive experience?

      Comment by Rick Dammers — March 18, 2010 @ 7:46 am

  2. Good to see a new post, Rick.

    I’d second Mitch’s reply, and would add that I’d like to see this study extended to include other genres of music included, especially those that might be more prevalent in the larger society, as well as those that are perhaps supported by the student’s native culture (if it exists). The study makes me marvel at how difficult it is to accurately reproduce a style of music (say western art music as in this study), when one is rarely exposed to it outside school.

    Comment by Jonathan Harnum — March 15, 2010 @ 7:32 am

    • Good point Jonathan. A comparative study examining recruitment, retention, and achievement (although that would be tricky to quantify) in bands, orchestras, choir, and alternative performance ensembles (mariachi, celtic, etc…) would be very interesting.

      Comment by Rick Dammers — March 18, 2010 @ 7:48 am

  3. I agree that for 7th graders it shouldn’t all be about the performance. Seems a somewhat limited scope of study for me.
    But, if you want more bang for the buck? Make it all brass band. Bang! 🙂

    Cheers,
    B-

    P.S. Like the blog! Didn’t know you were doing this much research reading. I’m reading too much econ/energy stuff to keep up with my trumpet reading. But, I am just now doing a review on a great Gilmore book: P.S. Gilmore: The Authorized Biography of America’s First Superstar by Rusty Hammer. Really cool.

    Comment by rowantrumpetprof — March 17, 2010 @ 10:18 am

    • All brass! Don’t forget that we have a civic responsibility to develop good citizens too! On a serious note, we tend to see a male gender bias in brass instruments in the US. Is that the case in brass bands in the UK?

      Comment by Rick Dammers — March 18, 2010 @ 7:53 am

  4. […] When to Begin Instrumental Music Instruction: “Linda Hartley and Ann Porter examined how the starting grade level (fourth, fifth, or sixth) in string programs in Ohio affected recruitment, retention, and performance. Recruitment and retention were addressed through a survey of string teachers in Ohio.  Thirty-one percent (172 teachers) responded to questions about starting grade and enrollment. The responses indicated that starting grade level made no difference in recruitment, and that retention improved for programs with a later start.” […]

    Pingback by Monday Morning Music Mix -Music Education News Weekly ~3-22-10 | MusTech.Net: Music Education, Music Technology, & Education! — March 22, 2010 @ 9:31 am

  5. I think the study has interesting implications for districts if solid, quantitative data were ever readily available–could we prove a consistent standard of excellence with middle and upper level programs only? In so choosing such a route, the question posed becomes more relevant: would students benefit from small-group instruction more frequently?

    Battisti is adamant about this idea. He told me a few years back that when he was in Ithaca teaching early in his career, he didn’t want students in large ensembles until they had learned their instruments and about intonation and small ensemble playing. Who knows what we could achieve by the high school level if we spent two years focusing on chamber music…

    Comment by Vinnie Du Beau — March 26, 2010 @ 11:41 am

  6. […] When to Begin Instrumental Music Instruction: Dr. Rick Dammers summarizes research by Hartley, L.A., & Porter, A.M. (2009) – The influence of beginning instructional grade on string student enrollment, retention, and music performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, (54)4, 370-384.  […]

    Pingback by Monday Morning Music Mix -Music Education News Weekly ~3-29-10 | MusTech.Net: Music Education, Music Technology, & Education! — September 23, 2010 @ 11:08 pm

  7. […] die Schüler sind, ist die Studie meiner Meinung nach problemlos auf Bläserklassen übertragbar: https://musicedresearch.wordpress.com/2010/03/14/when-to-begin-instrumental-instruction/ […]

    Pingback by Was bringt Bläserklasse in der Grundschule? | blaeserklasse.eu — January 22, 2011 @ 9:27 am

  8. Some good thoughts above. My 2¢: I believe this has to do more with musical readiness, and small motor skills. The same percentage–or maybe a bit higher–are musically ready if they are receiving good instruction in how to audiate, notationally and otherwise. On the other hand, many more children have the fine motor skills necessary for instrumental instruction, especially string, when they are a grade or two older. That is my educated guess on what may be happening here. Don’t know about audiation? See my blogpost at typepad. Also search “teachmusictokids” on iTunes.

    Comment by Eric Rasmussen — January 27, 2011 @ 11:36 am

  9. Does anyone know where I can read about this study on-line? I found it very interesting as many schools are trying to decide what to do with regards to their budgets & when students should start getting instrumental lessons without having a major impact on their secondary music programs.

    Comment by Mike — March 8, 2011 @ 8:20 pm

  10. ages 4 to 7 seem to be the magic numbers for starting musical studies at our school. we have great results with teens and even retirees. we find that a lot really just depends on the readiness and eagerness of the student and/or parental support at home.

    Thanks for posting, and please keep us posted!
    ~friends at Allegro

    Comment by sarasota violin lessons — April 29, 2011 @ 4:06 pm


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