From Private to Group Piano - 7 factors to consider
There is a real buzz going around when it comes to group piano and I have spoken to so many teachers who currently only offer private piano lessons, but are thinking about starting their beginners in groups.
Why are they thinking about groups? I see two main reasons: time and opportunities.
Many want to consolidate the time they spend on teaching beginners, say 15 x 30 minutes = 7hrs30mins would move to 3 x 45 minutes = 2hrs15minutes. That is A LOT of time saved.
Some are being inundated with requests for new starters, since parents are looking for new opportunities for their children as we move (slowly) out of the pandemic.
Others still have come to believe that the social setting and musical opportunities that groups offer, are in fact going to be more impactful for their students. Kids need to be with other kids right now, after a long stretch of social isolation, plus there is no other educational setting in their lives, where they learn on their own.
The last trend that I am seeing is that teachers want a way to offer more formal piano instruction to their pre-school age students (ages 4-5). Their parents are asking for it, and they can see that many of their early years music kids are ready for it, but they just need the right approach.
So what are the factors that private piano teachers need to consider when thinking about groups?
This is a strictly pedagogical question (more practical advice around teaching space and equipment etc can be found here).
It definitely isn’t enough to take your current approach with your private beginners, and apply it to a group of students being taught together.
It doesn’t work.
Think about all of your private students… How different they are, both in terms of their learning styles, what they excel in, what they struggle with, and in terms of their different personalities, and their rate of progress.
Then try to imagine them all in the same group, learning together.
You can’t possibly expect them all to respond to one type of approach, one style of delivery, nor can you expect them to move through a private instruction book at the same pace (if you do expect that, you will not be meeting the learning needs of the individuals in your class – the rate that you move through the book will be too slow for some, too fast for others).
In order to deliver the best group classes possible, that will meet the needs of each learner, here are 7 factors you need to consider:
Structure is a super important factor when it comes to teaching groups of children. You need it and they need it! Consistency in structure from week to week ensures that your planning is in place and manageable, and ensures that your students become familiar with what is expected of them (this is important for behaviour).
Lesson structure should be based around your overarching plan for the class that your students are in, with aims and objectives that you are looking for them to achieve.
For more on lesson structure, we have a video here, but in summary, you will want to think about a three-part structure with a starter that introduces the concept for the lesson, the main activity which will include learning the song, and then a plenary which evidences that the learning objectives have been met and concepts are consolidated.
Learning Styles and Activities
Your group class will be full of children who learn very differently to each other. There are multiple factors to consider: learning styles, attention spans, learner characteristics and level of independence.
In order to make sure your classes are accessible for all these varying factors, you need a mix of activities, and a change of pace (often in response to what is happening in the lesson – need to abandon an activity because you have lost the attention of some, then do it!).
What kind of mix in activities? It is well documented that the three main types of learning styles are visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. So you need to deliver your learning objectives in a way that captures all three learning styles. If my objective is that everyone can find a C, for example, I will give them a catchy saying/song (“two black keys, here’s my C”), then I will show them on the piano or a laminate of a keyboard octave, and then I will get them to put pompoms on the C.
Or when we are learning a song, we will all sing the lyrics, the note names and the finger numbers (auditory) and I will point at the music as we sing to encourage visual learners to watch, and then I will have them clapping the rhythm as they sing, or tap with the correct finger numbers on the table (auditory – which singing is too, of course).
Singing, dancing, colouring, waving scarves, games, listening, improvising are all examples of activities you can include into your plans.
Wider Musical Learning
Groups offer a wonderful opportunity for wider musical learning, through your structure which can include opportunities for listening and games that you wouldn’t normally have in a private lesson.
We are able to develop all around musicians who have a real understanding of how music works and an exposure to many different styles and genres.
You can plan for improvisation and composition, for learning about harmonising a melody, make scales fun by playing them together, so many opportunities for enriching your students musically.
In our group program, we like to make everything topic-based and programmatic. For example in our Film Music workbook, our songs are based around different film genres, so we do a listening exercise for each one (Jurassic Park for Dinosaurs, Tom & Jerry for the cartoon etc), and use musical elements and instrumentation to describe the extracts.
Then all of our theory games are based around the learning points for each song – the dinosaur roar focuses on chromaticism, we have a technique song based around popcorn and a storyboard for our cartoon.
This cohesive topic-based approach, gives so many wonderful opportunities for students to learn how to apply what they are learning on the piano, to music more generally and in turn to the wider world around them (they learn a lot about minibeasts in our Minibeasts workbook!).
The Rhythm of Learning
You will need to adapt the pace at which you introduce new repertoire. It is impossible to stay on a piece for exactly the right amount of time for everyone in your class. Stay on it too long, and some will get bored, not long enough and some will not master it.
This is where a shift has to occur in our teacher mindset. In private lessons, you stay on a piece for as long as is needed, and you don’t move on to the next one until it is mastered.
For groups, you need a different plan.
In my classes, I do one of two things, depending on the level.
For my beginners, I make sure our pieces are short and only contain limited learning points. We work on one piece per week, and then after we have introduced them all we have a couple of review lessons where students can re-visit them and work on the ones that they need to. The mindset shift I was referring to? It can be the case that someone in my class hasn’t quite mastered the piece as I would like them to in the one lesson I have given them. We still move on. I make a note, and we re-visit in our review lessons OR this would serve as evidence that they need to stay in the level they are in for longer, in order to be mastering the pieces more quickly.
For my more advanced students, I am more flexible and will make a judgement of how long we spend on the piece. If someone has mastered it sooner than the rest, I need a plan to differentiate and give them a further challenge within the song. Have different challenge levels means that what they are mastering may be different to each other.
This brings us on nicely to our next factor…
Managing Individual Learner Needs
I understand that this is probably the Number 1 area of anxiety for private piano teachers who are considering groups. And for good reason. We mustn’t think about running groups if we don’t have a plan to cater for the needs of each individual, otherwise we are providing a service that is the lesser of the two options (and who is going to sign up to that!).
So we need to have a plan for ensuring that each individual in our group thrives – and thrives FOR THEM (because thriving means different things to different children).
The best way for me to show you how this can be done is to explain how we manage it in the KeyNotes program.
For every piece in each one of our workbooks, there are challenge levels. Students all start at the same level, but if they master the level quickly, they can move onto the next challenge. If they are struggling with the starting level (say if they have just joined the class), I can give them something easier, but still within the same piece and still with the same learning objectives.
This means that we can still play our pieces together as an ensemble and I may have several different versions of the piece going on at the same time.
Another area that a private teacher starting groups would have to consider, is ensemble playing. Not only would they need to make sure that ensemble playing is factored into every lesson, but they would need to consider what this looks like.
This could be everyone playing a solo piece together, with differentiated parts as described above.
Or it could be that there are true ensemble performances – with completely different parts going on.
In reality, it is best to have a mix of both. My beginners would play the pieces in their books together AND on their own (so that I can hear each individual every lesson). But as they advance, our workbooks begin to include piano duets and ensembles with three or four different parts (as well as solos). These ensembles would likely not make musical sense if they were played on their own (students wouldn’t go off and play it in school assembly or to their Grandma), but played together in their group makes for a wonderful impactful experience.
Monitoring and Feedback
The last factor that teachers need to consider is how they are going to monitor each individual, and provide feedback. Private instruction is almost a constant narrative of feedback and of course it is easy to monitor what one person is doing when you are only teaching them! But in a group, we need to make sure we have a plan. How are we going to know that each individual has met learning objectives/to what degree they have mastered a piece/what skills and concepts need further consolidation. And how are we going to give them individual feedback so that they know how to progress?
This is where headphones come into my classes. While they are practicing, I am circulating and giving some individual instruction. Without this session with headphones, it would be very difficult to individualise your approach, move students onto different challenge levels, and generally help them with skills and technique specific to them.
The other time that I would monitor and feedback is towards the end of the lesson, when everyone is playing out loud. I hear each individual perform (which they do in front of the class – great for their performance practice and for everyone else’s audience practice), and then I tell them something I really liked about their performance (starting with the positive!) and then one thing they need to work on (not overwhelming them!). Chances are, other students listening will take inspiration from both – they will try extra hard to do the thing that you told the performer you liked, and they will also try to respond immediately to the next step that you gave (the latter is reserved for the more diligent for sure!).
SO there they are, the seven factors you will need to consider when going from being a private teacher, to starting groups.
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Want to find out more about offering our innovative group piano classes in your studio? We have three programs, beginners age 4-5, beginners age 6+ and advancing age 6+. Click on the button to find out more.
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