High school rock orchestra experience fosters long-term musical involvement, CWRU study finds

Former members of a suburban Cleveland high school rock orchestra report staying highly involved in music and that the experience prepared them to achieve in ways that came as a surprise.

Now ranging in age from 18 to 28, alumni of Lakewood (Ohio) High School’s rock orchestra, the Lakewood Project (TLP), reported gaining confidence to take intellectual and creative risks and other skills, according to a Case Western Reserve University music study.

Research exploring the long-term benefits of participating in the orchestra was published in the journal, Research Studies in Music Education.

Surveys were sent to 99 former members of the rock orchestra from 2002-11; 48 responded. Follow-up interviews were also conducted.

Lisa Huisman Koops
Lisa Huisman Koops

Lisa Huisman Koops, associate professor of music and corresponding author of the study, said the respondents reported several positive outcomes from their experience.

In addition to the rich musical benefits of participation and a willingness to take intellectual and creative risks in their lives, TLP alumni reported:

  • Learning how to communicate and work through group frustrations to resolve complex challenges.
  • And being comfortable in leadership positions—a skill developed when called on to manage the orchestra.

“These skills can apply to a number of areas in life and also are lifelong lessons learned from the music experience,” Koops said.

The researchers report music is still an important part of the former members’ lives, from teaching, performing professionally or for pleasure. Orchestra alumni are in various professions, such as non-profit arts organizations, movie production, teaching elementary and middle-school music and playing professionally. Several are undergraduate business majors.

As the orchestra’s director Elizabeth Hankins, also an author on the paper, said she was unaware of the impact that the learning environment would have on their development as young adults.

“Their ability to create, communicate and make decisions with a sense of confidence enables them to take advantage of opportunities that perhaps they might not have otherwise investigated,” Hankins said.

She reported that the informal learning experience contributed to their comfort in playing in most scenarios, whether a coffee shop, a friend’s house, a recording studio or in a professional setting.

“As a music educator, equipping students to continue to make music in adulthood is one of the ultimate goals,” Hankins said.

TLP rehearsals not only promoted learning music, but also sharing responsibilities of running the orchestra. The researchers said the former members felt the process was challenging and helpful.

One alumnus commented in his interview, “You felt like the group couldn’t survive without you.”

Another recalled having a strong voice in how the orchestra worked, increasing the students’ ability to communicate musically with each other.

The idea for the study arose during Koops’ music education class at Case Western Reserve.

Two of her students contributed to the study: Hankins and David Scalise, also a graduate music student and former director of Coventry High School’s funk band. Matthew Schatt, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Florida and a music educator with the Independence Local School District, also contributed.

Koops’ students shared an interest in knowing more about how experiencing music in an informal setting influenced the high school musicians later in life.

Hankins described the rock orchestra as a student-led informal music experience in which its 41 members rotate in and out as players for the 26-member group that fuses the music of a traditional orchestra and a rock band.

The researchers’ next step is to learn how the experiences of the rock orchestra members can be incorporated into other school music groups.