Published: Dec. 4, 2018 By

middle school ensemble concert

The Middle School Ensembles performing their end of semester concert in 2016.

One of the most special and integral programs within the music education department at the College of Music is the Middle School Ensembles Program, better known as MSE among students, faculty and participants.

The Middle School Ensembles Program is part community outreach program and part lab experience for undergraduate music education majors. In part funded by a CU Boulder Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program grant and a CU Boulder Outreach Award, which connects faculty research, teaching and creative work with community needs, MSE provides the undergrads with an opportunity to instruct middle school students while simultaneously being mentored by graduate students and faculty. During the spring semester, CU students and middle school students in the area meet weekly on Wednesday or Thursday nights for full ensemble and instrument-specific small group sectionals.

In addition, high school students interested in a teaching career serve as sectional and ensemble assistant teachers through the Trying on Teaching component of the program. Through the support of the Hoover Fund for Music Education, this unique approach to music teacher recruitment has resulted in several participants choosing to major in music education in college.

“Each week, undergraduate students prepare lessons that they teach to the middle schoolers,” says program graduate coordinator Jocelyn Armes. “Likewise, the graduate students prepare weekly lessons for the undergraduates, providing them with a mentoring opportunity to prepare for their future careers as college-level or school-district teacher educators.”

“We’re very fortunate that we get in the classroom early on,” says senior music education and cello performance double major Nicholas Johnson. “It’s great working with real students instead of learning about things in a hypothetical scenario. We’re actually able to apply what we’ve learned in class and put our own spin on it.”

This spring will be the third year that Johnson has participated in the program, after spending his first year doing sectionals with the middle school students and then conducting a piece last year.

“Each year I’ve built upon knowledge in my school and teaching experiences, and this year I’m the orchestra area coordinator, where I get to coordinate administrative materials and conduct pieces,” says Johnson.

This year also brings a new level of excitement, as the orchestra has been planning on basing its repertoire around female composers, allowing the middle school, undergraduate and graduate students to explore what it’s like to be a female composer in the past and present. A benefit for the students is that most of these composers are accessible on social media, allowing them the opportunity to speak to the students in person or via Skype.

The collaboration between the various music students is beneficial, too, as they’re able to form unique relationships among the different age groups.

“Working with the graduate students is a really great resource,” says Johnson. “They’ve taught in public schools more recently and have a plethora of knowledge. They always provide good feedback that is tailored to each of our personal teaching styles.”

“It’s a great experience for the middle school students as well,” says Armes. “They recognize the undergrads as teachers, but because they’re closer in age and not officially teachers, they form a different type of relationship.”

These relationships have created lasting impacts, as some of the staff or MSE student teachers participated in the program when they were in middle school themselves, creating a long-term recruitment program for music education majors.

Under the helm of Associate Professor of Music Education David Rickels, the program has grown tremendously since it started 13 years ago, starting as one band, with a full orchestra and choir being added in subsequent years, as well as expanding to more schools. In fact, several graduate students have gone on to teach at universities where they’ve implemented a Middle School Ensembles Program.

“Last year we worked with the Boulder Children’s Chorale, and the program now includes Adams 12 and JeffCo school districts, in addition to Boulder Valley, St. Vrain Valley and independent schools,” says Armes.

For the faculty and students at the College of Music, the most rewarding part is seeing the children perform at the end of the program.

“It’s especially rewarding to see the students that participate in the program year to year not only show growth and improvement in their performance but also their love of music,” says Armes, adding, “We get to be part of that journey.”