Infusing Performing Arts In Project Based Learning

After 12 months (and 15 years), I am done with my MA.

Distilled down to its essence the work deals with ways to facilitate a progressive and rigorous applied performing arts learning experience for secondary students that is relevant, meaningful and empowering to young artists in the global landscape of the 21st century.  In other words its time to move on from the traditional archaic mode of school band.

If this sparks your interest, you can check out the whole thesis here: Infusing Performing Arts in Project Based Learning to Transform Secondary Education.

Or you can just read a bit of the introduction:

“Given a chance – given space – band students may break out of roles that are defined for them, and create opportunities (that extend beyond the traditional band experience).”

Randall Everett Allsup 2003

“The study must be filled with the action of discovery.”

Lenore Pogonowski 1979


It has been over twenty years, but I still distinctly remember the moment in high school when several of my musician friends and I had our aspirations squashed by the school administration.  We were in our junior year and very interested in creating an independent study jazz combo that would meet each day for credit.  We were very serious about jazz and improving our fluency in the music.  It made complete sense to us that this would be a better use of our time in school than sitting in a study hall or the cafeteria during a “free period.”

We requested a meeting with the principal of the school and met with him in the band room during lunch.  We described our vision for an independent jazz combo:  we would listen to music, transcribe solos, compose and arrange music and work on improvisation and ensemble skills.  At the end of the meeting the principal said, “Sorry we can’t make this happen for you.”  I can’t remember if any reason was given or not.  Perhaps it was the confusion of arranging this anomaly into the schedule, or they didn’t like the idea of it being unsupervised.   Whatever the actual motivation was for the principal to dismiss our request, the message was certainly clear:  Students can’t be left to tend to their own learning.  What expertise or skills did we have to stay on track?   Incidentally, in the same year, my high school was identified as one of the top 10 public high schools in the nation.  Even at age 16, the irony wasn’t lost on us.

Luckily we were all motivated to pursue our study of jazz outside of school and had supportive parents interested in our musical development.  The following year, our  combo professionally recorded a CD of original jazz and was awarded the distinction of best high school jazz combo by DownBeat magazine.  Ironically, in order to enter the competition we had to get our band teacher’s signature saying that we were a school sponsored group!  Every detail of that accomplishment came from a group four high school kids.  Except for the fact that the bass player’s mom drove us to the recording studio in Philly (and the band teacher’s signature).

I am happy to say that three out of four of us have gone on to receive degrees in music and work as professional musicians still.   But what if this was someone else who didn’t have the same supports or self confidence necessary to persevere?

The recipe for our success was fairly simple and unfortunately had very little to do with school.  We were motivated by our musical passions and interests.  We were in love with the music and wanted to immerse ourselves in it.  We wanted to do everything possible to get better.   Because the music was extremely relevant to us, our study of the music was extremely rigorous.  Additionally, the nature of being four teenage musicians in a combo was also a very social experience for us.

All of these elements – relevance, rigor, social relationships – are the essential hallmarks of successful project based learning.  What we intuitively were seeking out for ourselves in the late 1980’s is just now being considered by traditional schools as a potentially better learning path.  Luckily, more progressive organizations such as San Diego’s High Tech High and the Expeditionary Learning Schools network have been paving the way for Project Based Learning for over a decade now.

In some respects, this thesis is an answer to the administrators and teachers that questioned our ability to learn and discover rigor through our motivation.   As I just mentioned, progressive institutions have been forging the way for Project Based Learning for some time now.  Unfortunately, most (if not all) of these schools seem to be missing the mark when it comes to the performing arts.  If applied music is an option in a school like High Tech High it tends to be an extra add-on.  Band is still band.  Jazz Band is still Jazz Band.  They are not holistically integrated into the curriculum.  Moreover, a motivated young musician would not have ample supports for performing arts education in a project based learning school.   If such a student had any choice of where she could attend (and honestly, most students do not have too much choice when it comes to where they go to school), she could choose a performing  arts school.  However, many of these performing arts schools utilize a traditional “liberal arts” track  for the “core academics.”  But what if she could choose to attend a project based learning school that fully embraced and integrated the performing arts into the high school?  What if the school was accessible to the advanced high school musician as well as the novice or even non-musician interested in learning more about music?

If my friends and I had been given the opportunity to pursue our musical interests I wonder what kind of opportunities  and growth I may have missed as a result? Had I had the chance to study jazz and improvise every day in school, rather than solely practicing to play-a-long records at home, would I have been a stronger jazz musician today?  And what if I could have done this in a project based learning school where the teachers supported this kind of interest and coached us to strive for even greater aspirations?  Perhaps it would mean that in addition to the daily combo work, we were also studying history and how it related to the African diaspora and African-American music.  Perhaps it would mean that we were using Algebra to develop business plans and market our CD.  Maybe we could have actually studied acoustical physics as it applies to the instruments we were playing day in and day out so that we could make concrete connections that were relevant and meaningful to us.

It is this kind of dream that this thesis attempts to realize.  In the following pages I begin by outlining what project based learning is and how that relates to the pressing needs of young people today and the world that they will be leading tomorrow.  I then move on to look at the disconnect  between standardized testing and 21st century learning.  From there the thesis begins to synthesize several pedagogical and curriculum development approaches (both non-arts-specific and arts-specific) as a means to developing a significant place for rigorous general and applied music learning in a progressive 21st century project based learning setting. Finally the thesis presents two such models, one which is a proposal  (Arabic Music Expedition) and one that has been developed and implemented over the past year in the Cabot Middle School, The Global Citizen Project.


About saturnpeoplesounds

As a trumpeter, composer, arranger and band leader, multi-instrumentalist Brian Boyes has worked in Vermont for the past 16 years. As a member of a variety of award wining ensembles including the national touring jazz-funk act, viperHouse, he has been recognized for his soulful and intense approach to his trumpet. Under his leadership the group TALA was recognized internationally for its hybrid blend of world music and jazz. Tala was a featured act of both the Flynn Space Vermont Artist Series and the Discover Jazz Festival. He also works with The 35th Parallel Mediterrasian Jazz Ensemble. As an educator Brian Boyes has twice received special recognition from the Vermont Arts Alliance for his unique and creative approach to music education at Cabot School. He has shared the stage with artists such as Lester Bowie, Trey Anastasio, John Sinclair, Jody Diamond, Josh Roseman, Michael Ray, and Marshall Allen. He currently co-leads and plays trumpet with Movement Of The People: The Fela Kuti Project.
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2 Responses to Infusing Performing Arts In Project Based Learning

  1. bill says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I was searching for something that would tie PBL to Band, and voila!
    Our school is pushing us to implement (or at least try) PBLs in our curricular areas. Band IS a PBL by nature; so, in order to comply, I’m attempting to put a new face on “tours” and “festivals”. I will read this thesis carefully and offer another post when I’ve absorbed it. 🙂

    • Cool! I am so pleased to hear that my work may be relevant and helpful for you. Although I don’t mention touring with a school band in the context of PBL, one of my most successful years in teaching high school was when I had a band of 11 (in a very small 60 kid high school). Of the 11, one student was a singer and another wasn’t even a musician – she wanted to study music business and so she ended up in the band class. As a result of this unusual setup, we started writing and arranging songs; the music business student became the band’s manager and started booking shows; we recorded three CDs and went on a 5 day tour of the northern east coast. The kids all learned the ropes of being on the road and setting up, mixing their own sound, leadership etc. Every day and show presented its own unique set of challenges that the students were forced to negotiate with and develop a solution. It was all very organic and we weren’t really following any prescribed pedagogy, yet it was highly relevant and somewhat rigorous for the students. Had I been able to implement PBL strategies within a scheduling framework conducive to effective PBL, the student’s experience would have been deeply rigorous and even more challenging.

      I hope that my thesis can support your needs and help your admin recognize the necessary school structure, climate and supports to successfully implement PBL. As a band instructor, I am sure you know that every second of rehearsal time matters and to have to spend time during band to engage in research and projects can be daunting particularly when you have concerts and performances, etc. Without that built in time and interdisciplinary teaching and learning environment, it can be difficult to truly engage students in a relevant and rigorous PBL experience. Best of luck and please stay in touch. I’d really like to hear how it all turns out for you!

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