Group music lessons: do they really work?

I taught a beginners piano group course to children for 7 years. I was sceptical about teaching piano in groups, but it was part of the job I was hired to do. Many conversations with colleagues made clear that they did not believe it was an effective form of teaching. Even recently, I have been part of conversations where many experienced and advanced musicians state that it simply cannot and does not work. Yet, group lessons are taking place and are becoming more and more popular, the reasons for which are varied: more income in an hour than individual lessons, greater potential for students to enrol for one-to-one lessons after the group course, a cheaper option for parents, a taster programme, or as research indicates, it works. In this blog post, I explore my experience of group teaching and what might really be meant by those who believe it should be avoided at all costs.

In the beginning . . .

A group class is different to individual lessons. You don’t have the opportunity to sit down and discuss options and expectations notwithstanding that with more than one person in the class you will have many different requests. As the teacher you have to set the tone from the start. I thought about what it was I wanted students to have learned by the end of the course, what were the advantages of having 6 in a class, what was the best material to use, and what was the most effective way of teaching in this context.  A few weeks into the course, the benefits were becoming clear; it was less about teaching piano in groups and more about teaching musicianship while introducing the piano. At the same time though I started to understand and indeed experience the difficulties with teaching a group; these were mainly linked to perceptions about what parents felt the lessons entailed or should entail. Often times these perceptions tended to be based on widespread assumptions about music and music education rather than any desire to dictate and so I felt it was my job to work with parents who were evidently there for the right reasons and to open up greater lines of communication about the course and music education. So, what exactly did I encounter?

Group tuition: cheap, no effort, social event

It seemed that the group course was chosen by some parents because it was cheaper than one-to-one lessons. This of course is understandable and also your money seems to go further as the group course lasted an hour as opposed to the standard half hour for individual lessons. It was also clear that it was felt that little or no effort was required by some because it was in a group and it was a good form of socialising for children. Giving your child an opportunity to take part in music as well as meeting new children is a very attractive offer and although these are important components of learning music in a group, from a teaching perspective it is equally important that developing musically is also taken seriously.

In order to progress with the course, it was important to change the attitude that music was somewhat secondary, at which point I drew up a questionnaire based on the expectancy value theory and tailored it to the course. The responses confirmed my suspicions but also revealed another element: the disconnect between what parents hoped to achieve and the effort they felt was required to achieve it: if their child liked music they would practise, otherwise it wasn’t necessary, yet at the same time success was reaching concert pianist level. Moreover, some students didn’t have any way of practising outside of the lessons believing that if their child showed they liked it after a year they would invest in an instrument. While I understand this to a certain extent, it is unlikely a child will show enthusiasm if falling behind in a course due to not being able to practise. I wrote a detailed response to the questionnaire, taking into account everyone’s replies, writing clear examples and explanations about certain myths regarding practising and effort and what was expected at a group level – in fact, group tuition means more accountability as it’s a combined effort rather than less effort – and the level of musical engagement their child should have reached by the end of the course.

Communication and expectations

Communicating with parents was key to the programme running successfully and when parents felt that there were specific expectations, could understand the rationale behind the course, felt that their child was really achieving something musically, it was very rewarding to work with them and be able to report on their child’s progress. I designed a practise sheet that needed to be signed by parents every week with a comment box for parents to bring things to my attention. Having expectations and communicating them has been an important part of all my teaching and while it does not guarantee to work 100% of the time, it certainly does make a difference to those who want to rise to the challenge.

The benefits

When there are 6 people in the class it is easier to introduce games and variety more than in one-to-one tuition. You also have the benefits of peer influence where the teacher is considered by students as a presence in the class, albeit one of authority, as opposed to as important as their peers who they may be trying to impress, whose opinion they care about, or with whom they want to have the chats. And this could be used to great effect. For example, working on pulse and rhythm was important from day one and there were several ways of doing it. As time progressed, I could split the class in half: one half clapped the pulse of the piece, while the other half clap the rhythm, later switching around. In other instances, students took turns to conduct the class, becoming aware of pulse if their fellow classmates didn’t follow their lead. As each student had a chance to conduct, there seemed to be greater awareness of pulse but also an effort to pay attention to the conductor. When playing in a group, the importance of keeping together also emphasised the sense of pulse but also the need to listen; piano players are often on the back foot in this regard in comparison to instruments where accompaniment is required frequently such as the violin, flute, or voice.

Learning to reflect, critically think, and offer feedback were all integral to group learning and hugely beneficial in particular as each student was asked to give feedback to their peers where they played individually. This encouraged students to practise at home but also encouraged them to reflect on the feedback they gave, or at least how they articulated their feedback. Students were encouraged to say something nice and something that might be improved on. Knowing their turn would come around they were more likely to say: ‘you know all the notes, it will be even better when the pulse is steadier’ than ‘you can’t keep a pulse’. There were of course instances where students were blunt and this tended to be when they were confident in their own work but I was always on hand to remind them to say something positive too. Overall, this was a good exercise because they were learning how to take criticism and how to actively listen, which is an important part of music-making.

Working on sight-signing and sight-reading alongside pulse and rhythm was also important from day one and half-way through the first term, theory was verbally and indirectly worked on in an engaging manner. Students would shout out forte/loud and whisper piano/quiet, while taking turns to draw notes on the board. They also got the chance to test their classmates at the board; they love acting teacher. In the second term, we began to learn how to write clefs, draw notes and stems. They had internalised pulse and rhythm and letter names by this point, so the written theory was merely a way of consolidating their knowledge from another angle.

Also, in the second semester I introduced taking turns to listen to music that students themselves liked. This was highly effective as it gave everyone the opportunity to listen to different types of music for the first 10 minutes of the class, make observations regarding pulse, rhythm, dynamics, tempo, character. One student brought in a CD that he had fun making with his father including music from The Beach Boys and The Monkeys, while another student still brought in some current chart hits. The Beach Boys and The Monkeys went down a storm and even if some people might not have liked the hits in the charts, they realised it was music to experience and that there was common ground. Everyone had to listen and discuss the music in relation to tempo, dynamics, character, instruments, and whatever else their attention was drawn to. In return I requested them to listen to different types of classical music at home. For example, the 2nd movement of different symphonies or concertos, asking them for their observations; one week a student noted that ‘they are all slow’.

Aural work was also worked into lessons where students were encouraged to clap a pulse and rhythm of a piece I played, suggest if it were in 2, 3, or 4 time. They would sing back melodies, then discuss details about a piece. We had fun playing short melodies by ear on the piano where the starting note was given. This was introduced from the moment there were two notes learned. We always worked within their knowledge rather than introducing aural work much later. Developing aurally was habit I was keen to get them into from the start. Students had the opportunity to make up their own melody for me to play back too. They loved trying to catch me out, but most importantly, they were indirectly composing their own tune.

In the end . . . does it work?

It’s difficult to condense 7 years of teaching groups into a blog post of approximately 2000 words, but from what I have written above it’s clear that I really feel group teaching does work, or at least it worked for me. Students had a sense of pulse, rhythm, they could sing at sight, they could read music at sight, they were able to observe detail such as staccato and legato, they could discuss music in terms of character, they could hear the melody and shape by ear. Students were also learning to work with others musically which is important when performing music outside of the classroom. Some parents felt that what their child achieved exceeded their expectations. They were delighted their child had learned so much and enjoyed it. Although I didn’t follow a graded syllabus, I will refer to some to give an indication of the level reached: students were working on material equivalent to grade 4 ABRSM aural work, grade 1 RIAM theory, RIAM preliminary level for pieces, up to grade 1 sight-reading, and elementary to preliminary level for scale requirements. A number of times, students were successful in securing a place in a conservatoire. I did teach partner lessons that branched off from group teaching, which was not always as effective because by this point you had a smaller group and very different levels; there comes a time when it is better if you can work at the individual’s pace. From this perspective then group teaching works at an introductory level.

Why do my colleagues and my musician friends believe it does not work? When I challenged them on this they felt that certainly it could work if musicianship was the focus but not if you really wanted to learn the instrument. They are talking about really becoming proficient at it, learning technique, learning repertoire and developing at your own pace. So, I guess you need to ask yourself what it is you are really setting out to achieve? This often impacts on whether or not you feel it is an effective form of tuition for you. The parents who filled out the questionnaire and felt that their child did not have to practise is unlikely to be expecting their child to be entering competitions after a year, but rather hoping that before they commit to buying an instrument, their child might show some interest; on that note though, it is important to have some access to an instrument if you are committing to lessons.

The type of instrument is also worth considering. I write specifically about the piano, teachers of voice and string instruments felt that it was difficult to teach musicianship and make real progress on introducing their instrument. Although the piano requires coordination, judging distance, reading two staves, it does have the advantage of not having to consider pitching in the same way a stringed instrument does. If you are thinking of sending your child for group tuition, look at the content of the course, ask questions to the school running the course, and if you feel it will work for you, engage with the teacher throughout the course to get the most from it.