3 Years, 3 Aha Moments

In celebration of our 3-year anniversary, I decided to look back on three moments where I made a realisation, or made changes, the result of which meant big growth in my group offering. I did three live videos into my group that outlined these (to join my group click here: Group Piano Pioneers). However, we all have different learning styles (and my live videos do sometimes go off on a tangent!), so I thought I would summarise here in a blog post and hopefully give you a more structured medium through which to take on some of the points!

Moment 1 - Trials

I launched my group lessons on 30th April 2016. I had a few children coming for free trials for what was a soft launch of my lessons. Having not taught this age group before, and designing the curriculum from scratch, I decided to offer the lessons at a low cost for the first term. This essentially allowed me to gain experience and understanding of how this age-group could access piano learning and what their specific needs were (my experience at this point being with children ages 11-18).

As my classes became more established, I was able to raise the weekly fee, but I continued to offer free trials. There were all sorts of problems that I was stumbling across with these, particularly when I was running KeyNotes lessons for other teachers. I'm sure some of you have experienced these yourself! People were booking and not showing up, or showing up but doing a disappearing act afterwards; people coming but not being able to make the time of the class on a weekly basis and other such nonsense. This resulted in a lot of admin time wasted, spaces taken up by people who had no intention of signing up; the group dynamic being affected as different faces in the group each week! Just so many problems!

The advice from others in the industry (not just piano teaching, all sorts of kids' activities) was not to offer them! They even claimed that parents would simply go around trying different classes on a weekly basis just to entertain their kids! Even after hearing all of this, it still took me a while to take the plunge and ditch the free trials. This is all down to confidence. Confident that what you are offering is worth someone paying to try. Confident that, even though you are asking for payment for a trial, you will still get as many students through the doors wanting to try.

In fact, what I have found is that rather than bringing in fewer students for trials, you will bring in MORE if you charge! Plus you will bring in more of your ideal student (one who has supportive parents who are willing to invest in their music learning).

This is because of the mindset and how you are valuing your offering if you ask for payment.

Another way that losing the free trials helps with general growth is that if you have a registration period, or a bulk of lessons as a trial (I do three weeks), your students will have more time to find their place within the group, to get used to the lesson structure, the group dynamics and of course to get to know you as a teacher. After three weeks they are far more likely to sign up (I am on 100% sign-ups from three-week trials), so the trial is more successful all around!

So when I finally took the plunge (and it wasn't until I had been driven to distraction!) I decided to move to a three-week paid trial. I get paid for my time, I know they will turn up and I build a relationship with them and their parents.

How do I manage this logistically? For those using MMS (or similar) I put a booking form on my website, where I take payment. This means that the first time I have heard from a family, they have paid for the trial already. Before using MMS I used to send invoices once someone had contacted me.

In summary, how did this move to paid trials help to grow my group lessons? I got the type of family in that was going to be committed and that had considered their decision to join us for a trial. Simply by having more of those types of students, I had higher retention and growth through referrals.

Moment 2 - Messaging

This one is less of an aha moment and more of a movement, with a few aha moments within it!

When I first started, I had a few photos from my phone for a very basic website. I was calling my classes keyboard and musicianship classes. You may be amazed to hear that in fact I had never heard of group piano at this stage. I was simply delivering a version of my Key Stage Three (ages 11-14) music curriculum. I emailed my music department at the Institute of Education (where I had done my teacher training and Masters in Music Education), asking for teachers, and had a phone call back from one of the staff members where he claimed that he and his wife were so excited to hear about what I was doing. His wife is a Dr of group piano pedagogy in the US but had not heard of anyone doing group piano in the UK. He even called me a pioneer! Well my mind was blown! First of all, who doesn't like being told they are a pioneer! Secondly, this opened up a whole new world to me! This was my first aha moment within messaging.

So instead of calling my lessons keyboard and musicianship classes, I started calling them group piano lessons. This definitely helped my messaging to hone in on the types of families that would be suited to my lessons. At this stage, I also used the words affordable and accessible to describe my lessons (more on this later but I think this is a risky message because it only scratches the surface of the benefits of group piano, and you want the other benefits to be as clear as this obvious one!).

The next part of this movement towards getting my messaging clear was to establish my branding. In today's World, where branding is all around us and is key to portraying so many things, I knew that branding was going to be an important part of growing my lessons. So, having already had a logo designed, and having decided on my colours (!) and font, I got a hoodie and t-shirts made up and hired a professional photographer. The resultant photos were key in quickly illustrating what our lessons are about - not only the actual content of the photographs but also the fact that they were professional. The website was really coming together.

A good strap line really helps to quickly portray your philosophy or your offering. Once I was getting some amazing feedback from parents, I had the confidence to deliver the strap line: Piano Lessons Redefined. Parents were telling me that these lessons were completely unique, and so different to the way they learned piano. In fact, most parents tell me about how much they hated their piano lessons, how they wish they had learnt this way and maybe they would have stuck to it. This is deep-seated stuff - how much do we all want our children to love piano; to have such a positive experience that they keep going and grow their love of music-making?!

Ok so now we have my second aha moment within messaging. A local piano teacher wanted to come and watch my lessons and his reaction to them gave me even more clarity on my offering and my messaging.

Well he loved the lessons, all the games, the ensemble playing, the listening exercises and the fact that, from the very start, we are nurturing the whole musician. And he said, "wow you are doing me a huge favour! If all children started their piano learning in this group set-up, learning all the foundational elements of playing the piano, they could then come to me once they are secure in those elements." He also stated that his students don't need him on their own in those early stages. He pointed out that he doesn't even take children on before they are seven years old. So potentially he would take on students with so much already in place. He was so excited by this. This really helped with my messaging because it actually makes total sense! This is when I wrote my blog post about my lessons filling a gap in the market: read it here.

So when I talk about messaging - where does this messaging come through, where does it take place? Well, essentially everywhere and in everything you do! Your website copy needs to communicate your message, as do blog posts, Facebook posts and everything you do. People should understand your teaching and learning philosophy through your messaging. Even your actual lessons should align with your message. Once you have a really clear message that portrays your values, your aims and your philosophies, you will find that your classes are flooded with children that are a match!

Even when someone signs up for a trial, along with directions etc, I will send them some blurb about the lessons and our philosophy, just to get them excited and clear on what they have signed up for! When I contact them after the trial about sign-up, I will attach a very detailed parent guide that tells them all about our lessons.

The last part of my messaging that I had to get clear on was one that challenged the very common perception that children learn piano best in a one-to-one setting. So here are the benefits that I outline in the persuasion pursuit! (For the parent blog post click here).

"Children aren't expected to learn one-to-one in any other area of their education". Why in music? In fact some children can find the one-to-one experience very intimidating and intense.

"Peer motivation is hugely effective". Nothing gets students working harder, practicing more, and focusing, like some friendly competition and encouragement from peers!

"Groups allow for opportunities to play many musicianship games". This one is pretty self-explanatory. And it's not to say that one can't play games in one-to-one lessons, but just that you can play many more in a group!

Indeed musicianship generally is often more of a focus than in one-to-one lessons. Skills such as learning to harmonise a melody, lots of aural work, rhythm work etc. Singing is also something that is so much more successful in group lessons and this in turn will help with learning, internalisation and musicianship.

"There are many and constant opportunities for performance" - both solo and ensemble! students perform at the end of every lesson, to each other and with each other. Sharing the joy of music and showing what they have been working on!

"Creativity is worked into group lessons". Opportunities for improvising and composing should form part of what makes up the benefits of learning in groups.

"Group piano is FUN!!!" Enough said!

So through all of these changes, getting clear on my message and championing what I do, I was (am still!) relaying my passion, my knowledge, my experience and my conviction that group lessons really are the best way to begin to learn the piano. This all points to confidence... Confidence in my offering. And this takes time to build.

My messaging has led to my classes being completely full, with waiting lists, and even to people emailing me asking to set up locations near them!

Moment 3 - Progress rates and organising classes

When I first started my lessons, this is something I definitely didn't have worked out! So a group of students begin their lessons together... But then what if one of them falls way behind or moves way ahead in their progress. What if the next term a couple leave; does that mean you are stuck with a smaller group forever? I had so many questions around the logistics, but true to my personality, I just thought I would go for it and work out the details as I went! This is what I think most people worry about:

IDEAL - full classes, roughly same level as each other

REALITY - Scattering of students across lots of smaller classes

All of my teacher training and my MA in Music Education taught me that effective, or even outstanding, teaching requires a number of elements to be well-planned for and well executed.

You need a set of objectives - what are children going to learn in this lesson, in this unit, in this whole subject!!

Then you need the success criteria - how do you know that your learners have met those objectives. So this is the actual skill that you need to see to demonstrate the success, or evidence their learning.

How are you going to monitor and guide them to make sure they are on their way to meeting the objectives. We call this assessment for learning.

Finally how are you going to differentiate your approach for each learner, to make sure they are all challenged and supported at their own individual level.

So using my experience and knowledge in these areas I realised there was one very quick way of making sure that students were challenged and supported in EVERY lesson. And this was through differentiation. You can take ANY piece and adapt it for each learner. (By the way this is referring to the collaborative approach of group piano. Clearly independent learners within a group already have their own pieces).

The next thing I needed to focus on was the learning objectives. From the very start I had learning objectives for each lesson. This was ingrained into me from my school-teaching days but honestly they just make so much sense.

So I started to focus on whole level objectives. What did students need to be really secure on to reach the next level? Once I knew this, it became really clear to me who should move up at the end of a term and who needs to stay in the same level. The objectives make this objective (which is useful when communicating with parents on this!).

Then I based my curriculum workbooks around these levels so that if a child stayed in the same level they get a new workbook that has the same objectives in and they can consolidate their understanding/skills. Although there is a risk of little progress being made, as this is a side step, actually I find that in the first workbook, they may have played the first challenge, in the second workbook, even though the pieces are different, they will most likely be able to play the second or even the third challenge. They have accessed the same objectives with far more success because they have had that time to process them. And then they will likely move onto the next level for the following term.

This is quite the jigsaw puzzle and sometimes, with the aim in mind being that I want to ensure that my classes remain full, there may have to be a best-fit situation with one or two students. But as long as differentiation is still at forefront of each lesson, every child will still be supported and challenged as required.

This system is working so well and has helped me to solve this issue that, at first, I could not get my head around!

If you would like to see the video versions of this information (plus many other videos), do join our Facebook group: Group Piano Pioneers

I hope you found some useful little nuggets here!

Bye for now, Melanie x

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