Group Instrumental Teaching II – Space & Time

11KLAS-tmagArticleSometimes it is possible for instrumental teachers to exert a degree of control over their teaching environment, but for many, such as those dashing from one school to another, the arrangements can often be somewhat makeshift. So how can we organise the available space – in the time available – for maximum efficacy? The undoubted benefits of group tuition can only be realised if careful consideration is given to issues such as this and those we shall consider in the rest of this article.

It almost goes without saying that as much as possible needs to be done as regards arranging seating and equipment, before the students arrive. This may well mean allowing some ‘lead time’ for situating chairs and music stands as required, while at the same time removing or ‘hiding’ items that might prove distracting: if potential distractions are not easily movable (school drum kits for example) set out the room so that the students are facing away from them if at all possible.

As far as seating (or standing) arrangements are concerned, different instrumental families will have differing requirements for the comfort and safety of the students concerned (stray violin bows near eyes come to mind!).  Whether the teacher is going to be mobile during the lesson is a matter of which instruments are being played and/or of personal preference.  However, whether the teacher is to be mobile or not, the ability to establish eye contact with each of the students as required is an important consideration.  Not only will this assist in maintaining good order and concentration, but it will also help enormously in securing the all-important involvement of all the students.

It is better still if the students can easily see each other: observing peers is a vital component of the encounter-learning discussed in the previous article and the peer appraisal that we shall discuss below, so we need to do what we can to facilitate this. Sitting or standing in straight lines or facing away from each other (yes, it does happen) are to be avoided, although the planning of configurations that allow eye contact needs to take account of the space required for guitar necks, trombone slides and in extremely tight spaces there might even be safety issues (violin bows coming close to eyes for example). The approach to the layout of group lessons with electronic keyboards will be similar, but with the slight difference that in order for the teacher to demonstrate frequently (this is vitally important as is discussed in another article), he or she may need to move around the group rather more than with other instruments.

In a school situation where one group follows another, keyboards need to be made secure by being placed on tables rather than stands. The all too common arrangement of keyboards next to each other with the students all facing the wall is really not conducive to effective teaching and learning. Better to spare no effort in securing a more suitable layout such as that suggested below, but of course, great care is called for in ensuring that electrical cables, extension leads etc., are situated in such a way as to eliminate the possibility of their being tripped over or meddled with. The illustration shows keyboards, but it would be equally suitable for other types of instruments, provided that enough space is available and the angles are adjusted accordingly.

Keyboard Layout CompA layout such as this allows for a line of sight between the players and the teacher who, in this configuration, can be anywhere and can easily move around to check and/or demonstrate to an individual. It has the same benefits for other instrumental families.

If the lesson has been planned so as to use notation, then each student will require access to a music stand, which has been unfolded and height-adjusted before the start of the lesson.  Some instrumentalists will require chairs, others will not. If chairs are required, these also are best set out before the lesson, so as to waste no time in getting started.  Younger children usually have very little idea when it comes to setting out chairs for a group, so in the name of efficiency, do it for them! Chairs should be of suitable shape and height, so as to encourage the students to sit straight yet relaxed and to adopt a comfortable posture appropriate to their instrument.  Teachers who, when visiting schools, are required to use staff rooms need to be aware that low ‘easy’ chairs are not suitable, and that upright chairs will need to be brought in, again, before the students arrive for their lesson.

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Young students, especially, often need to be reminded to leave their instrument cases by to one side of the room completely clear of the area in which the lesson will be conducted.  The less clutter there is in the teaching area, the fewer will be the opportunities for distractions, fidgeting or ‘accidents’.  A minor point perhaps, but the time wasted in attending to many such minor points soon adds up!

It is appreciated that peripatetic teachers often feel that pressures of time will prevent much of the above pre-lesson preparation from being put into practice. However, if time is able to be found, or made, or even if chair and music stand ‘monitors’ have to be appointed, this, along with a willingness to plan journeys carefully and arrive a few minutes early, will pay enormous dividends in terms of the efficient use of lesson time. In other words, the time given to this kind of preparation will be time invested, not spent.

Making the Best Use of the Time Available

When a group of students arrives for a lesson, certain routines have to be gone through:  Instruments have to be taken out of cases, assembled, cases put to one side and sheet music taken out etc before the students are even ready to go to their places and prepare to play.  This process has the potential, quite easily, to eat into the lesson time by 25% or more.  Add to this the time often taken to tune instruments and/or perform ‘warm-ups’ and it is not difficult to see how the lesson time (the time which the students see as for playing music on their instruments) rapidly disappears. On top of this there will, very likely, be interruptions; someone knocks over their music stand, drops their instrument, sneezes, someone isn’t ready etc.  It is hardly surprising then, that one of the most significant challenges facing the group teacher is simply that of achieving effective use of the time available.  As the number of students in the group increases so does the potential for time-wasting. The proportion of time wasted in a group lesson might exceed 50% quite effortlessly, so here is a subject that warrants attentiveness and mindfulness.

Tuning & Warming Up

Because they so often have the effect of robbing the lesson of time for more meaningful learning activity, musical and technical procedures of a preparatory nature such as tuning up and warming up would be better integrated into the lesson with each student being actively involved in the process. The importance of accurate tuning for example and the development of beneficial routines in relation to this are self-evident and therefore fully understood, but the effects on the students’ interest and motivation (of course the effects will vary according to age and to how long they have been playing) is to be weighed against them.  If a quarter to one-third of a group lesson is systematically devoted to tuning up, in many cases, the result will be boredom.  The result of too many boring lessons is that students give up. What is the use of a perfectly in tune instrument then?

Tuning takes two basic forms: tuning the strings of an instrument to each other and/or tuning the instruments in the group to each other.  Whilst this is an important aspect of instrumental playing, it is as well to keep things in proportion – especially with players in their early stages of learning.  The teacher might take up a considerable amount of time painstakingly tuning four flutes or four clarinets till they are ‘spot on’ in tune with each other. However, the benefits of this will almost certainly be lost because of the inaccurate intonation that is bound to follow! Accurate tuning and intonation[i] are, of course, essential components of musicianship but their maturation is a very gradual process. It is preferable to approach them as such, encouraging students’ awareness during lessons, but by regarding instruction with regard to tuning and intonation as topics for specific lessons.

When tuning instruments is to be a subject covered in one of your lessons, it goes without saying that the process will only be truly effective in terms of developing aural awareness if it is carried out with the emphasis on the students’ recognition of pitch discrepancies.  The sort of tuning which proceeds along the lines of; “Play me a G –  sharp – pull out a bit” does little for students’ musicianship. The following dialogue proposes a more useful approach.

Having established the pitch to tune to you could involve the students along the lines of the following:

“Play me G please Sophie”

“What do think John – is it flat, sharp or in tune?”

“What about you Ben – flat, sharp or in tune?”

“Janet, is Sophie’s clarinet flat, sharp or in tune?”

“Right – it’s a little bit sharp, so what can Sophie do? Hands up!”

“That’s right – pull out a tiny bit.”

The process could then be repeated with variations to the questions.

When dealing with four or possibly more players in a group this will, of course, be a fairly time-consuming process, so if it takes place during every lesson there will, inevitably, be a detrimental effect on interest and motivation.  Again, it is more beneficial if this was to serve a focal point or primary activity during a particular lesson now and then. The students’ progress and awareness in this area might, thereafter, be reviewed almost in passing, during the course of subsequent lessons.  A similar approach might be used when dealing with the tuning of the strings of violins or guitars. Part of a lesson would occasionally be devoted to the processes of accurately tuning by ear. At other times an electronic tuner would be useful so that the basic tuning of the instruments can be carried out quickly before the start of the lesson.

The process of ‘warming up’ also has consequences for the efficient conduct of lessons similar to those of tuning up. Again, there are two kinds: Warming up i.e. raising the temperature of the instrument, so that it will be easier to tune, and warming up i.e. ‘loosening’ the player or singer for optimum performance.  As far as the former is concerned the situation is similar to tuning.  A few basic techniques for raising the temperature of an instrument e.g. blowing air through a brass or woodwind instrument without producing the vibration may be employed quickly and without wasting any precious music-making time. As far as ‘warming up’ the player is concerned, the situation is a little more complex. An athlete or sportsman would not go straight into a competition or training session without stretching and loosening the muscles about to be put to work.  It is equally important for a musician’s technique that he or she evolves regular procedures for preparing the body for instrumental or vocal performance.  ‘Warm-ups’ therefore play an important role in the development of technique. Specialist teachers of all instrument families or voices will have at their disposal a wide range of exercises or routines designed specifically to ensure that the parts of the body engaged in playing the instrument in question are flexible.

As with tuning, the work will be more meaningful if the training in these procedures together with coaching in their use is given as an important constituent of an occasional lesson and not at the beginning of every lesson.

The execution of these routines would, naturally, benefit from being revisited periodically in order to check that they are being performed correctly and to extend them.  At other times students could be asked to warm up in a separate room before the commencement of the lesson, or if this not practicable, the ‘warm up’ process could be integrated into the lesson through a careful choice of material.  For example, brass players might start with a chorale or other piece which involves moderately quiet sustained playing, listening carefully to tone quality and intonation while paying attention to breathing and phrasing, before moving on to rhythmically more active pieces or those which make greater demands on the embouchure.

The foregoing suggestions with regard to tuning up and warming up might well seem sacrilegious to some. It is acknowledged that, as instrumentalists or vocalists expand their repertoire and technical limits, more time will be required for these procedures. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how, in the early stages (when in some situations group lessons are limited to thirty minutes or less), motivation will be preserved if students are required to spend the first third of each lesson unpacking, setting up and then going through warm-up and tuning routines.

A Note about Instrument Maintenance

Most instrumental teachers will be painfully aware of the inordinate amount of time that stands to be wasted when instruments are not working properly. Sticky valves, strings needing rosin, broken reeds are but a few examples of things that have the potential seriously to disrupt the flow of a lesson leading to restlessness among the students. Whilst the difficulty of what is to follow is acknowledged, teachers would, nevertheless, do well to ensure that routine elements of instrument maintenance form part of students’ planned work. In an ideal situation students would develop the habit of ensuring that valves are oiled, strings rosined, reeds checked and/or replaced in advance of each lesson. If it does become necessary to fix or adjust an instrument during a lesson, it is vital to make sure that the other members of the group have a worthwhile task to occupy them while this is taking place. Care and maintenance of instruments, particularly with regard to such matters as lubrication, cleaning, use of rosin etc, is something about which students and parents might usefully be provided with written guidelines.  Again, the time spent in preparing and printing these would be an investment and not an expense.

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