Social Emotional Learning by Design: The Conservatory Model

Bows click wildly as 5th graders bustle hurriedly around chairs and stands. Students shuffle around one another, following winding paths that tend steadily towards their assigned seats. The first of the day's two music classes begins amidst math, science, and ELA classes in neighboring rooms.

An untrained passerby might describe the events of the next 3 to 4 minutes as disorderly and perhaps even as raucous, but the 11-year-old musicians tuning their cellos and basses by ear are, in fact, carefully siphoning order from chaos. As the buzz begrudgingly surrenders to a familiar "open strings" harmony (or the 5th grade equivalent of it, anyway), 16 scrunched up faces that were busily staring at their neighbor's strings ease one by one into "aha!" expressions of varying intensity.

6th graders in the Abbado string orchestra concentrate play "Ride of the Valkyries."

6th graders in the Abbado string orchestra concentrate play "Ride of the Valkyries."

What's happening here? And what's happening beneath the surface?

From Pre-Kindergarten through 8th Grade, every student at Conservatory Lab participates in high-quality, El Sistema-inspired music education, and so some version of the scene from the 5th grade class above plays out from bell to bell throughout the school. As 2nd graders filed into their first orchestra block on a recent Friday, eyes lit up as they entered to Ms. Shein “warming up” on her own cello. In reality, her “warm up” is an instructional technique designed to expose students to habits of musicianship and to a professional sound, leveraging her master-apprentice relationship with the students.

Immediately hooked by her virtuosic technique and joyful demeanor, one brown-haired boy’s face flashed a look of excitement; it seemed that whatever concerns he brought into the room suddenly fell away, and by the time the students were playing “Star Wars” 15 minutes later, he was beaming. On that Friday, as it turned out, the students were finally allowed to bring their instruments home to practice. Hearing this news, his visible elation struck me with the realization that along with his violin, he – and 40 classmates – would be taking home the same joy they saw emanating from Ms. Shein when they entered the classroom.

How many students around the country literally cheer when assigned homework or practice? How does this joyfulness affect students’ attitudes about their self-efficacy and learning?

Beneath the surface, this second grade boy is learning to connect to his classmates through music; at one point he was even picked to stand up in front of the orchestra and lead the class to start a song. Long before the emerging national conversation about social emotional learning (SEL) in our nation's schools, music educators touted the socioemotional benefits of formal music training and ensemble participation decades before the term "socioemotional" was elevated to a buzzword. The combined practices, principles, and motivations of the Conservatory Lab School could be termed the “Conservatory Model” - a school design that deliberately emphasizes social emotional learning, contextualized community outreach, and authentic artistry through deeply embedded orchestral ensembles from Pre K through 8th grade.

Most ensembles in most schools in the country (and perhaps around the world) are audition-based or at least opt-in, but the Conservatory Model takes up the challenge of addressing every student rather than some subset of its students. The Conservatory Model holds on the one hand improved SEL as a mission and on the other hand El Sistema-inspired pedagogy as a methodological basis; the program is animated by a unique core of instructional tenants that have been developed organically by the professional faculty of Conservatory Lab School.

Ms. Plotkin sings with her class during K1 El Sistema.

Ms. Plotkin sings with her class during K1 El Sistema.

Expected ensemble habits and behaviors are reframed as interpersonal skill development: students are reminded in orchestra and other classes that they are “crew” members - not mere “passengers” - who contribute to one another’s shared success. (Because the school also incorporates EL – formerly known as Expeditionary Learning –  some EL-sourced terms permeate even music classes.) The cumulative differences in the expectations and methodological decisions of the faculty are manifest in a student culture that is focused on personal and peer improvement rather than one-upmanship.

Inclusion is indeed another hallmark of the Conservatory Model - music for all truly means music for every student regardless of cognitive, social, or other special demands. The Model flexibly accommodates these students, but insists on their inclusion in actual orchestra rehearsals, not in separate ensembles or classes.

Ensembles, then, include students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and behavioral challenges, driving instructors and teachers to think carefully about the goals and needs of every student in each lesson. This commitment to full inclusion is a powerful, tangible marker of the authentic social and emotional learning aspirations of the Conservatory Model, and indeed, despite the inherent challenges, aspiring to less than full inclusion would be contrary to its design and purpose. This is not easy.

The Abbado String Ensemble performs "Ride of the Valkyries" in a mini-concert for their fellow students and school staff.

While it may seem idealistic at some level, a mission of music for every student actually becomes a design principle rather than a limitation, influencing the day’s schedule, the school’s culture, and the faculty’s enthusiasm. There is something disarming about the concrete differences between a competitive rehearsal space and a well-architected, inclusive one: as inclusion becomes part of the program’s “DNA,” so to speak, rehearsals become joyful, high-energy, and exciting. Pablo Picasso mused that “every child is an artist,” but a Conservatory Model orchestra rehearsal may very well convince you that every second grader is a budding musician.

5th grade brass students play with Andres Gonzalez, principal trumpet of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra.

5th grade brass students play with Andres Gonzalez, principal trumpet of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra.

Over the course of the years they spend at Conservatory Lab, our aforementioned bustling fifth graders are on a path that takes them beyond textbooks and multiple choice tests. A path that starts with papier-mâché violins and cellos but quickly moves into performances of classical orchestral literature. A path that develops deep scholarly, artistic, and social competencies centered around service, collaboration, and compassion.

School leaders and community members might reflect on these questions:  

  • What would a commitment to an authentic, high-quality performing arts program do for my students?
  • Are the arts for some students or all students in my community?
  • What does it mean to commit to full inclusion in the rehearsal room?
  • How can music education uniquely facilitate socioemotional growth in my school?



Christian BautistaComment