The Gap

A silver lining? The case for small ensemble music making

The dark cloud of Covid-19 has cast long shadows across the cultural sector. Over the past weeks, our newsfeeds have been punctuated with articles considering the dire implications for organisations, workers, and students in this field. As regards music participation, a large question mark hangs over the short- to medium-term future for choirs and school band programs. Music education is faced with the possibility of having to reimagine large ensemble programs. But is this such a bad thing?

Professional orchestras have responded to the practical pressure to downsize. Many have shifted toward smaller ensembles that are better suited to performances delivered via online platforms with social distancing in place. The Australian Chamber Orchestra has launched ACO HomeCasts, and a collective of classical musicians has created the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall. Over in Prague, Collegium 1704 has produced some visually stunning videos of socially distanced performances. These initiatives, and others like them, share a common feature: they all celebrate small ensemble music making. Some ensembles are therefore trying to make a virtue of necessity. And audiences are flocking to these events, embracing the opportunity to watch small groups of musicians make music in their own homes or in silent concert halls.

There are, of course, reasons for concern in the case of music education. Large ensembles have been a mainstay for a long time, both in and out of schools. They have provided music educational opportunities to many young people, including those who might otherwise struggle to gain access. They deliver both educational and social benefits to participants. They can also make economic sense, as an efficient means to deliver music education to large numbers of young people. What’s more, young participants often enjoy the collective experience of music making. Anna Bull (2014) writes of the “powerful affective experience” of “being in sound” (p. 247). Any of us who have played or sung in a large ensemble will understand this, whatever music we are into. Collective music making can be an enormously exciting and life-affirming experience.

But is bigger actually better? Or might downsizing mean thriving?

When it comes to youth orchestras, some musicians argue that participation builds teamwork and a sense of belonging, fostering positive behaviours such as resilience, self-discipline, and positive self-esteem. They may have experienced this for themselves, or they may have heard young people say that their participation has been a “life-changing” or “transformative” experience.

Such claims often rely heavily on anecdotes as proof, however, and scratching below the surface reveals little in the way of research evidence. While there are many histories of these institutions and stories of high-profile alumni, critical probing of the practices of youth orchestra programs and the theories and philosophies that underpin them has been scarcer until recently. As ethnomusicologist Margaret Kartomi says:

Youth orchestras are central to the music education of tens of thousands of children and teenagers throughout the world, yet studies of their social function, cultural significance, and pedagogical value remain largely unexplored.

Kartomi, 2018, p. 317

Research does show some correlation between youth orchestra participation and musical skills development (Creech & Long, 2012; Kartomi, 2018; Power & Powell, 2016). A connection has also been found between orchestra participation and positive emotional experience of making music (Baker, Forbes & Earle, 2019) and lifelong arts and music participation (Pitts & Robinson, 2016). However, research also contains a caution against perpetuating “false logics” – assuming that such outcomes are given (Ilari et al., 2016).

The claimed correlation between youth orchestra participation and social outcomes has come under scrutiny in recent years. Researchers question the strength of the evidence base used to draw this claim (Crooke & McFerran, 2014; Jindal-Snape et al., 2018). Quantitative studies of El Sistema and an El Sistema-inspired program reveal no significant effect on prosociality (Alemán et al., 2016; Ilari, Fesjian & Habibi, 2018), joining a growing critical literature on this particular model.

What is missing is any research evidence that youth orchestra programs are any more effective than smaller music making programs. Could the opposite be true?

On the one hand, there are some within music education research who suggest that size doesn’t matter all that much. For example, practitioner-researchers like Jennie Henley (2018) and Karina Cobo Dorado (2015) argue that group pedagogy is the most important factor, implying that format and content are secondary. Others like Bernadette Scruggs (2009), Sharon Davis (2011) and Jonathan Govias (2014b) have chosen to focus on rethinking the how of large ensemble music education rather than worrying too much about the how big.

On the other hand, some music therapy research suggests that a smaller size is positively advantageous for music programs with social goals. Alexander Crooke and Katrina McFerran (2014) find that fostering psychosocial well-being through music making is best achieved when the group size is between four and nine. They argue that this size facilitates the key group processes that deliver social benefits, whilst also allowing each participant “to make a contribution and experience these benefits” (p. 23). Francesca Caló et al. (2020) find that the collaborative potential of small groups makes possible the “bespoke approaches” that “seem more likely to positively impact upon the engagement and well-being of disadvantaged young people” (p. 996). Drawing on research with young people experiencing marginalisation, Lucy Bolger (2015) asserts that small group collaboration—in this study, two groups of four and one of twelve—maximises positive growth and psychosocial well-being.

Psychosocial well-being is “the presence of higher levels of positive, and lower levels of adverse, psychological and social attributes and behaviours (e.g. social skills, physical aggression and attention problems” (Hinkley et al., 2014, p. 183).

Research in music psychology, meanwhile, reveals a correlation between the development of prosocial behaviours and joint music making with small numbers of young people (Buren, Degé, & Schwarzer, 2019; Kirschner & Tomasello, 2010). This research provides evidence of the particular role that music plays in fostering prosocial behaviours – the building blocks of cooperation, social cohesion and psychosocial well-being (Koelsch, 2013). It presents a strong case for small group music making as a better pathway toward supporting young people to develop and engage in prosocial behaviours (Ilari et al., 2018).

Prosocial behaviours are “voluntary actions that are intended to benefit others … and occupy a central role in the development and maintenance of harmonious relationships” (Ilari et al., 2018, p. 2).

So, how might this research help music educators as we reimagine not just the large music ensemble, but what the very experience of collective music making might look like for the foreseeable future?

First, it shows us that there is already a wealth of innovative ideas and diverse cultural knowledges available for us to draw upon. We do not need to reinvent the wheel.

For example, now might be the perfect moment to explore Shieh and Allsup’s (2016) reframing of the large ensemble as a collective: a flexible, hybrid paradigm in which “multiple projects exist simultaneously and are loosely connected in a community of support” (p. 33). Collectives may coalesce as large ensembles, but also as small groups, individual work, online and offline musicking, composing, making podcasts or radio shows, or any number of other music-related activities. A collective is not large or small but rather both/and; and with groupings and activities shifting according to circumstances, perhaps it is an ideal model for these uncertain times.

Second, as we explore alternative ensemble structures, pedagogies and approaches, we can do so in the knowledge that we and the young people with whom we work will make discoveries and have experiences that are no less valuable or important than those that have gone before, and perhaps more so. In other words, this research suggests that there will be positives associated with a move toward the smaller ensemble structures that Covid-19 looks likely to require.

Large ensembles will return, perhaps sooner, perhaps later. They will always have a place in music education. But perhaps that place will be different – less central, more one of an array of options. If we do this right, maybe that will be what we want and choose, having realized the benefits of other approaches, rather than something imposed on us by circumstances.

Whether we take inspiration from the research above, or Martin Urbach’s call to music educators to “freedom dream a new music education”, or Charlotte Higgins’s reminder that “inventing something undreamed of” is possible, or another source, if the cloud of Covid-19 encourages us to imagine and invent new ways forward, it will turn out to have a silver lining.

(Unsurprisingly, we’re not the only ones chewing over these issues at the moment. To adapt or preserve? Interesting conversations are only just starting.)

References (click to expand)

Alemán, X., Duryea, S., Guerra, N., McEwan, P., Muñoz, R., Stampini, M., & Williamson, A. (2016). The effects of musical training on child development: A randomized trial of El Sistema in Venezuela. Prevention Science, 18(7), 865-878. 

Baker, W., Forbes, A., & Earle, J. (2019). Youth orchestra participation and perceived benefit – A pilot study of the Tasmanian Youth Orchestra: Final Report. Launceston: University of Tasmania.

Bolger, L. (2015). Being a player: Understanding collaboration in participatory music projects with communities supporting marginalised young people. Qualitative Inquiries in Music Therapy, 10, 77-116.

Bull, A. (2015). The musical body: How gender and class are reproduced among young people playing classical music in England. (Doctoral dissertation), Goldsmiths, University of London. Retrieved from

Buren, V., Degé, F., & Schwarzer, G. (2019). Active music making facilitates prosocial behaviour in 18-month-old children. Musicae Scientiae, 1-16.

Caló, F., Steiner, A., Millar, S., & Teasdale, S. (2020). The impact of a community‐based music intervention on the health and well‐being of young people: A realist evaluation. Health & Social Care in the Community, 28, 988-997.

Cobo Dorado, K. (2015) La pédagogie de groupe dans les cours d’instruments de musique. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Creech, A., & Long, M. (2012). Self-directed and interdependent learning in musical contexts Proceedings of the 2012 ISME Research Commission Seminar (Thessaloniki, Greece, 8-13 July) (pp. 22-30). Melbourne: International Society for Music Education.

Crooke, A. H. D., & McFerran, K. S. (2014). Recommendations for the investigation and delivery of music programs aimed at achieving psychosocial well-being benefits in mainstream schools. Australian Journal of Music Education, 1, 15-37.

Crooke, A. H. D., & McFerran, K. S. (2015). Barriers and enablers for implementing music in Australian schools: The perspective of four principals. Journal of Education, Society and Behavioural Science, 7(1), 25-41. 

Crooke, A., Smyth, P., & McFerran, K. S. (2016). The psychosocial benefits of school music: Reviewing policy claims. Journal of Music Research Online, 2016, 1, 1-15.

Davis, S. G. (2011). Fostering a musical say. In L. Green (Ed.), Learning, Teaching, and Musical Identity: Voices Across Cultures (pp. 267-280). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Govias, J. (2014a). The challenges of Sistema. Canadian Music Educator, 56(1), 27-30.

Govias, J. (2014b). Cultivating Cohesion: Five rehearsal strategies for engaging ears and minds. American String Teacher, 64(4), 24-27.

Henley, J. (2018). A challenge to assumptions of the transformative power of music. Royal College of Music. Retrieved from

Hinkley, T., Teychenne, M., Downing, K. L., Ball, K., Salmon, J., & Hesketh, K. D. (2014). Early childhood physical activity, sedentary behaviours and psychosocial well-being: A systematic review. Preventive Medicine, 62, 182-192.

Ilari, B. S., Keller, P., Damasio, H., & Habibi, A. (2016). The development of musical skills of underprivileged children over the course of 1 year: A study in the context of an El Sistema-inspired program. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 62.

Ilari, B., Fesjian, C., & Habibi, A. (2018). Entrainment, theory of mind, and prosociality in child musicians. Music & Science, 1, 1-11.

Jindal-Snape, D., Davies, D., Scott, R., Robb, A., Murray, C., & Harkins, C. (2018). Impact of arts participation on children’s achievement: A systematic literature review. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 29, 59-70.

Kartomi, M. (2007). The Australian Youth Orchestra Inc.: Its identity as a National icon and expansion of its performance and educational Programs. Australasian Music Research (9), 27-53. 

Kartomi, M. (2018). Youth Orchestras. In G. E. McPherson & G. Welch (Eds.), Vocal, Instrumental, and Ensemble Learning and Teaching: An Oxford Handbook of Music Education (Vol. 3, pp. 317-334). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kirschner, S., & Tomasello, M. (2010). Joint music making promotes prosocial behaviour in 4-year-old children. Evolution and Human Behaviour, 31(5), 354-364.

Koelsch, S. (2013). From social contact to social cohesion—the 7 Cs. Music and Medicine, 5(4), 204-209.

McFerran, K. S., Garrido, S., & Saarikallio, S. (2016). A critical interpretive synthesis of the literature linking music and adolescent mental health. Youth & Society, 48(4), 521-538.

McFerran, K., & Hunt, M. (2008). Learning from experiences in action: Music in schools to promote healthy coping with grief and loss. Educational Action Research, 16(1), 43-54.

Morrison, S. J., & Demorest, S. M. (2018). Once from the top: Reframing the role of the conductor in ensemble teaching. In G. E. McPherson & G. Welch (Eds.), Vocal, Instrumental, and Ensemble Learning and Teaching: An Oxford Handbook of Music Education (Vol. 3, pp. 283-300). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pitts, S. E., & Robinson, K. (2016). Dropping in and dropping out: Experiences of sustaining and ceasing amateur participation in classical music. British Journal of Music Education, 33(3), 327-346.

Power, A. M., & Powell, S. J. (2016). Catching a glimpse of the future: One year on in a youth string project. Australian Journal of Music Education, 50(2), 15-23.

Scruggs, B. (2009). Constructivist practices to increase student engagement in the orchestra classroom. Music Educators Journal, 95(4), 53-59.

Shieh, E., & Allsup, R. E. (2016). Fostering musical independence. Music Educators Journal, 102(4), 30-35.

About Agrigento

Agrigento is an emergent organisation supporting fresh thinking and innovative practice in music as social action