Your #1 Group Piano Issues!

Updated: Jul 8, 2019

Last week, I emailed those teachers who are on my list, and asked them to reply with the number 1 issue they have with group piano lessons, whether they are already teaching them, or have yet to start. I got lots of wonderful replies and they all pointed to three main issues. So in my Facebook group, I ran lives on each one, outlining my take on them and how I have addressed them (to see the videos join here).

Here is what we discussed:

Issue #1 - Multi-level groups: The Problems and Possibilities

So many teachers ask about how to deliver multi-level group lessons. And I understand why. If we could make multi-level groups work, it would end scheduling issues and ensure that our classes are full before we add new ones.

But are these considerations really taking into account what is best for our students? Is this the optimum setting for them to thrive as we know they can in group piano? Or is simply for our own benefit as teachers?

Before I continue, I just want to point out that when I am talking of multi-level groups, I am not referring to the setting where students are learning independently with headphones. Essentially this is like having lots of mini private lessons without the benefits of collaborative group learning. I believe that a truly beneficial, and indeed superior, group piano program should always be collaborative. So I just want to make sure there is no misunderstanding - by multi-level, I am not referring to "headphone" or independent learning lessons.

I have seen that many teachers do ponder about multi-level groups, how they can work, and I have questioned the benefit to children for a while. Then I actually got the opportunity to do a bit of an experiment on this within my own classes. I had a girl whose parents wanted her to join her sister in a later class for logistical reasons. The class is my most advanced group class, and I was able to give her some complementary material so that she was still learning the overall aims but her pieces were easier than the rest of the class. Pedagogically, the situation was sound, she made progress. But she is now going to move back to a class with students that are at her own level. This comes down to emotional wellbeing and sense of confidence and self-esteem. She always felt behind the others and she stopped enjoying the classes as much as she had previously.

I also realised that I have been teaching multi-level classes for years. In my time as a classroom teacher in a Secondary/High School I had 30 children whose ability, knowledge and experience in music were at extreme ends of a spectrum. The same thing happened. We had students who were playing at Grade7/8 level on their instruments, and some who had never had any music lessons at all, and sometimes never even heard a live instrument before. So although I had planned for this, the self-esteem and levels of self-efficacy were very low in the students sat at that end of the spectrum. Therefore they were at risk of not even trying to progress. This is a constant problem within the school music classroom.

Then two things happened last Saturday.

It is around this time of the term that I start thinking about scheduling for the next term. I have two classes at the end of my teaching day that have been through all the foundation levels, and are now using Trinity exam syllabus Initial and Grade 1. For next term (I ask for half a term's notice so that I can plan) I have one going to a different class (as described above) and one leaving as she has dancing competitions on Saturdays. So now these classes are down to 5/6 children instead of 8. And yet in the beginner classes I am oversubscribed with a waiting list of 25. I somehow need to address this balance.

So I went into my Saturday lessons wondering what I was going to do, then I got to these two classes and, because I was ill the week before and cancelled the lesson, I decided I wanted to hear where everyone was at with the pieces.

It was quite enlightening. I do tasks that everyone can access and perform well in - separate hands (half the class playing one hand and the other playing the other hand, then swapping), piano relays etc. But the problem with using these more conventional books is that there is only one version of each piece and no opportunity for differentiation. And I was a little shocked at how differently they had all accessed the actual hands-together playing of each piece. Some were playing hands together, accurately and fluently, and some... not so much.

So with these two issues in mind, I have decided to add a whole new curriculum onto my program. This will be for children who have been through the foundation stages, are secure on reading, hands-together playing etc. and there will be three or four versions of each piece. This way they will be playing a hands-together piece (instead of the support part simply being to play the right hand or left hand), but at their own level. The other thing that has been missing in using a more conventional book are the wider musical learning opportunities that we have in our KeyNotes program through listening and composing tasks, and theory/aural games.

We are going to work towards a curriculum that has the best of both worlds, and you can too. Multi-levels within a collaborative curriculum.

Issue #2 - Convincing parents that groups work! Marketing and your message

Everything you do - through your website, social media, emails to parents, the content of your lessons - needs to get your message across.

Parents want to see that you are using an established, well-thought out, well-structured and well-planned curriculum. That you have a plan. You know where you are taking the students, you know what the aims are and how you (and your students) are going to achieve them.

This is not an experiment that you are having a go at. Nor is it just a bit of fun, just an experience as opposed to a learning opportunity (we know that it is both, but parents want to know that too!).

You need to convey that serious learning and progress take place in a group lesson and that in fact there are even more opportunities for wider and more interactive learning than there are in private lessons.

This is an incredible learning environment that enables children to thrive.

So your Facebook posts, your blog, your emails, even live videos, should be showing an overview of your curriculum, your teaching and learning philosophy, your aims and mission statement, your vision etc. I have a parent guide which outlines all of these things for our KeyNotes lessons.

Make sure you have an "elevator pitch" that reels off the benefits of group piano in just a few short sentences. Refer to them in all your messaging, posts on social media, blog posts and website copy.

Many parents can't visualise how group lessons would work, what they look like. So, once you have sought permission from parents, photos and videos of your lessons are going to help enormously in terms of helping new families to see just how effective groups can be. I also write "Saturday Snippets" where I show a few photos but give a long written description of all that we have been doing in our lessons that week, and posting this to our Facebook page, thereby giving parents a real insight.

Live videos onto your Facebook page or IGTV channel are a great way for parents to get to know you and get to trust that you are a great practitioner! Live videos about how children learn, tips about home practice, piano pedagogy or just some examples of brilliant progress in your lessons are all great ways to achieve this. I am not a huge fan of posting for posting's sake (e.g. What's your favourite sandwich filling) that has nothing to do with your lessons but may get a bit of engagement. I get why people do it but I myself try to have a page that is only about music education generally and my lessons more specifically.

You can and should continuously work on all these things but ultimately what will get your classes full, with people waiting and desperate to get in (I have some of these people right now!!), is word of mouth. Deliver really innovative, creative, excellent lessons and parents will tell all their friends about them (children will tell their friends too, who in turn will tell their parents that they want in!!). However be patient with this, it does take a little time before this really gains momentum. I've also found that no amount of referral scheme will work, parents don't want to be rewarded for telling people about your lessons, they want to do it off their own backs and based purely on their passion for them, not because they have been asked to.

Branding is key. With a logo, brand colours and font, and a consistent look to everything you post, parents will begin to recognise that branding - apparently they need to see it 27 times!! But if they can't recognise those times that they come across it as being YOU every time, they won't count!!

Issue #3 - Student Progression and movement through a group piano curriculum

If someone had written to me when I first started group piano, asking what my No. 1 issue was, this is what I would have said. I just couldn't get my head around it. This is the issue:

You've managed to fill your classes with as many children as you are comfortable with. You go through a term/semester with your nice full classes, only to find that someone can't commit to the following term, and someone else needs to move to a different class. So now all of a sudden you're two children down.

Then there's the problem of the different rates of progress.

I started with lower numbers than I eventually wanted because I had fewer keyboards and I was designing the curriculum week-by-week, responding and adjusting to what the students were doing. Even with those smaller numbers, students were going at different paces and I knew I would have to move some children around the following term.

So come the next term, when I lost a couple of students to Holy Communion lessons, how was I going to manage new students? Should I put them in the same group as those that have been learning for a term? How would that even work?

Well I can tell you, I didn't have the answers straight away.

But I do have them now!

After applying all my knowledge of curriculum design, my experience in a mainstream classroom, and a bit of trial and error, I now have a system that works. And I am going to share the key features with you. These are the things you need in place:

An overarching curriculum plan, which has a system of levels, and outlines objectives that are to be met securely, before moving to the next level.

Now for the clever part. A normal, conventional piano method book moves in a linear direction, getting progressively more difficult, meaning that in a group piano setting, everyone has to either move at the same pace, or learn independently from each other. Not very realistic right? The same method book can take one child 2 months and another 10!

However, within the system I have created, we have workbooks that each last a number of weeks, I usually fit them into 12 weeks, but they are flexible. There is one piece per lesson that is linked to the workbook theme or story.

The pieces do get gradually more difficult but with every piece there is an opportunity to simplify or to challenge.

Then by the end of the workbook I decide whether the children are secure on the level objectives and so can move to the next level (and the next set of objectives), or whether they should stay at the same level with the same set of objectives. All the pieces are new, the topic/story is new, but we are consolidating in order to get those objectives really secure.

This means that children can join half way through a book. There is always room to differentiate every piece so that they are playing an easier version of what everyone else is playing. Then they simply stay at the same level the next time we start a new book and they will get another opportunity to learn and consolidate.

They can even do three or four workbooks in the same level and still progress whilst consolidating. This is because every piece has a support level and a challenge level. So every student will play a version that's suitable to their skill and experience - every child is both supported and challenged, ensuring that they reach their own potential within the group.

I appreciate that it isn't easy for you to put a system like this in place overnight, but it is definitely a solution to this problem.

I have full classes and they remain full because I am able to replace anyone that moves up or leaves.

I hope that there are some little nuggets of useful information and advice here. However there is a way for you to get through these problems in an instant!

The KeyNotes Music program is an all-in-one site where you get training, marketing materials, admin hacks (with templates) and of course a whole curriculum (with over 20 workbooks) for you to run a thriving and extremely successful group piano program. This is suitable to those of you that have yet to start, as well as those of you who are already teaching groups, but want to upscale your group offering (I teach 136 students per week on only one and a half days).

Here is a video that takes you through the site and how the program addresses these problems; this was recorded from my Facebook live that I did into the group on Friday (just forward to 1:14 as there is a bit of an irrelevant intro!

As a summary, here is what you get:

- An established brand that will help in your marketing and recruitment (we work with a branding agency on this!)

- A curriculum that takes children from age 4 upwards, with workbooks based around stories and themes, a clear curriculum overview, learning objectives for every lesson, workbook and level, certificates, lesson plans and training videos for every lesson

- Marketing materials (even some personalised ones, such as leaflets and banners), social media posts, logos, stock photos (so difficult to find stock photos of group piano right?!)

- Games ideas, some generic and some specific to workbooks

- Core training - whether you are just getting started or want some CPD! There is training on everything from how to use learning objectives to how to manage behaviour!

- Listing on our KeyNotes website

- SOOOO much support! We have our very own teachers' community on our site which is categorised by topic! I remember feeling so isolated when I started my group piano lessons with no-one to chat through anything with! Our teachers are such a supportive bunch and I will personally support you whenever you need it!

We are looking for 10 Founding Members to join us in this next week! A founding member is someone who pays a a special lower rate (that won't ever increase) and understands that the site is in its early stages - however you will get everything you need for your lessons!

Your monthly fee won't go up even when we add the following:

- Backing tracks (not computer-generated ones, proper studio recorded ones!!)

- A professional promotional video for you to use in your marketing

- Practice videos for your parents to use at home

- Adult curriculum

- Multi-level curriculum (as mentioned above)

- Website update

Want to add the KeyNotes Music program to your studio and completely revolutionise your offering? Be one of our 10 to pay only £50.00/$65.00USD per month (other currencies are available).

Click here to find out more: KeyNotes Music Founders Launch

Once we have our 10 or get to Friday 12th July, we will be closing cart.

Missed out this time? Fill in this form to be told when we are launching again: Offering our Program

Hope to see you soon! Melanie 💜

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