Three New Alternatives to Ranked Instrumental Seating

The traditional practice of placing musicians into ranked seating positions has been passed down from professional orchestras and military bands into school bands and orchestras over the decades. 

The specifics of procedures surrounding seating– including page turning, solos, placement within the ensemble, etc.– are numerous and often unfairly generalized to all orchestras or bands, when each ensemble (and conductor) has their own preferences and beliefs. But that’s all these traditions are: preferences and beliefs. 

If you know me, you know I have certain *feelings* about ranked seating in schools. In fact, every time I speak at a conference or with a music faculty about seating auditions and practices, I challenge everyone to change my mind. No one has. 

I think ranked seating in school ensembles is nonsense. And here’s why. 

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

I’m going to take a page out of the corporate world’s book and take aim at forced ranking, which is essentially the same thing as seating procedures in bands and orchestras. In forced ranking, employees are ranked and compared against each other, rather than comparing employees to a separate standard. This Forbes article described the damage that forced ranking can do in corporations:

“Having a management process that forces leaders to compare and rate their teams does not encourage the sort of investment in people that is needed to help them perform at their best. Unfortunately, humans are not good at changing their minds and are very good at justifying their decisions. Once you have formed an opinion about an individual, chances are it will not change. This is even more true once you’ve articulated your opinion to others. The spiraling effect is predictable: the individuals deemed “stars” get the attention, support, and opportunities that continue to help them shine. Those deemed to be contributing “below expectations” see the opposite spiral until they exit the organization.” – Gaurav Gupta, Forbes (read the whole article here).

You can see how this happens in band and orchestra classrooms in a similar way: students feel trapped within the expectations that their teachers place on them, and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Once a 5th chair flute, always a 5th chair flute.” As Mr.Gupta says, it’s difficult for us as humans to change our opinions about people, including ourselves. Ranking students often does not provide the incentive to improve that we might think it does. Although your linear thinkers will love the concrete feedback of a ranking, it won’t necessarily move the needle on their motivation (or ability to) improve to the “next desk.”

Seating & Classroom Culture

Having ranked seating sets a power dynamic and hierarchy in your classroom that emphasizes competition over collaboration. Competition isn’t always a bad thing. But, when competition is reinforced day after day with where you are seated, it only solidifies what students naturally know: who plays “better” than others. Do you want your classroom to physically lay out who is “more talented” and who is “less talented”, which often actually translates to who has more resources and who has less? 

Even if you don’t believe that ranking does any harm… What good does it do?

Seating Alternatives & Modifications

  • Paired seating: If you’re “weaning” yourself off ranked auditions, this is a good start. Instead of placing all your students in a ranked order, top to bottom, pair your top students with a less advanced or newer student. This works well with larger sections, like violins and flutes. The advantage to this is giving your more advanced students a mentorship role while giving younger students a role model– and a shot at more difficult parts. Be forewarned: students aren’t stupid, and they know when they’ve been paired with a “mis-match”, especially if you’ve had a long-standing tradition of ranking top to bottom. Help nurture the mentor-mentee relationship with stand partner activities. Keep an eye out for power-hungry mentors who think the mentee is there to turn their pages and rosin their bow. 
  • Rotating seating: Another step away from ranked seating is to rotate seating. Switch who plays which part on different pieces (ex: 1st trumpet on the march, 3rd trumpet on the ballad, etc.). Or, rotate seating after each concert. This takes away the power dynamics of ranking, and gives everyone a shot at the high notes. 
  • Section Leaders: Designate a section leader or principal, be clear about their role and expectations, then leave the rest of the section unranked. Leadership within sections, especially for high school ensembles, can be an incredible addition to your classroom culture. But, if the responsibilities for a “section leader” or “principal” is merely to sit in a specific seat, there’s a good deal of missed opportunities. Often, those leaders are positioned in a seat that is physically and aurally inaccessible to the rest of the section. It’s pretty hard to lead anyone that you aren’t near at all. So, sit the section leader in the middle, give them an appropriate amount of power (collecting/passing out parts, help with tuning, answering fingering/bowing questions, etc.) and watch the collaboration happen!

I love hearing more ideas for seating alternatives– let me know if you have your own!

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