Nurturing Young Musicians: Finding Your Musical Voice at Shipley

Debra Finger
"It's not just a note. Every sound we make has a purpose, is taking us on a journey, and has meaning." ~Dr. Givler

At Shipley, this philosophy is instilled from the very beginning. Lower School students aren't just studying music; they're actively making it throughout their class time, using classroom instruments, their bodies, and their voices. As Mrs. Raab-Snyder says, "Our students aren’t just studying music, they’re making it." They develop the ability to hear beats, feel rhythm, and create music, fostering their identity as musicians and music-makers.

Process Matters
In Shipley’s Lower School, a weekly music class lays the foundation for technique and ensemble playing. Starting in fourth grade, every student learns an instrument. This confidence stems from the foundation built in Mrs. Raab-Snyder's class – they feel capable of making music and contributing to an ensemble. They see themselves as musicians, ready to find their connection.

Director of Strings, Jhonnatan Mata, explains: "As they improve with the instrument, they find they are not just making a connection with the instrument but also with their peers in the ensemble. Music making is the beginning of building a team within the ensemble and the orchestra." In Middle School, this team becomes established, and their technique continues to grow.

Choice and Opportunity
Just over a decade ago, Shipley’s music department received a gift that transformed the program. Since then, every fourth-grade student has been able to try every instrument before choosing one to learn. "At Shipley, our students have the opportunity to try each instrument and make a decision based on their own preference through trial and error, not just what looks shiny or may be popular among their peer group, or through being limited due to a lack of availability." They can find the instrument they can truly see themselves learning.

"Every person has a preference with respect to the sound they want to make or that they enjoy listening to, and they may not be aware of that before they try," says Dr. Givler. This unique opportunity allows students to create a more balanced ensemble and discover success with an instrument they might not have otherwise considered. The music department then counsels each student to help them solidify their choice. Students list their top three choices and discuss them with their families. If they're unsure, they go through the process again, making it a genuine learning experience and a thoughtful decision.

Dr. Givler believes in celebrating the moments when students produce sounds and create vibrations with intention – this is their voice. "You really figured that out!" Learning to play an instrument takes practice, commitment, and confidence. Every step, every achievement, builds their confidence. Students are also encouraged to find their own learning style and problem-solving strategies.

Mr. Mata adds, "You also build the style of the music, and you can begin sharing your love of musical styles with your audience… When you play a piece – whether it's Mozart or Imagine Dragons – every person is putting their feelings into it and feeling the music in a different way." The conductor's role is to unify these feelings into one voice. "A piece of music is incomplete if no one is hearing it, feeling it, and expressing that feeling with energy."

Voice and Choice
Dr. Givler's motto, "If they can sing it, they can hear it," and Mrs. Raab-Snyder's, "If they can chant it, they can feel it, they can play it," highlight how students learn to play sounds. By singing the pitch and tone before playing it on their instrument, students internalize the sound (audiate). This process is familiar to them from Lower School, where Mrs. Raab-Snyder has them chant rhythms, then clap and chant, then audiate while clapping, and finally apply the rhythm to an instrument.

As students develop their ability to express themselves, they build an improvisational voice. They work on call and response, and their ideas are affirmed when their peers repeat back their improvisations. Student voice is also reflected in the pieces they choose to perform. Each ensemble incorporates student choice as part of their performances.

Upper School: Taking it to the Next Level
In the Upper School, the connection between students is established, and they delve deeper into exploring styles. Their performance level reaches new heights, demanding the application of all the techniques they've learned throughout their journey. "When we play in the Upper School, we play the pieces as they were conceived by composers and improvisers; we are hitting a professional level." With all this experience, they can perform any piece as written and are prepared for any professional orchestra or college program. They have the opportunity to navigate the repertoire like any professional.

The program opens doors for students to consider continuing with music, with many choosing to play or pursue it in college. "The program is going to that level where students find they can be very successful in college as a major or a minor."


The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.