Group Instrumental Teaching IV – Handling Mixed Abilities

If you were to take a group of four or five absolute beginners, they would be, especially as far the technique of their chosen instrument is concerned, of more or less commensurate ability. Within a very short space of time, possibly within the first lesson, variations would begin to appear, and the same group would have become a mixed ability group. How to deal with differences in ability or progress or, indeed, whether they can be satisfactorily dealt with is at all is probably the most emotive issue surrounding the subject of group tuition.

In addressing this, it is worthwhile to consider the example of a student or amateur band, group or orchestra. Such an ensemble will inevitably comprise players of varying – sometimes widely varying – ability. This is accepted. Its members will regularly learn and play together with no objections from music teachers, often producing highly creditable, sometimes even spectacular performances. Any parent who has been in the audience when their child has performed in their band, choir or orchestra will testify to the feeling of how worthwhile the whole exercise is, not just in terms of ‘music education’ but also in terms of artistic and social development and in terms of the all-important sense of achievement, with positive consequences for self-esteem, to be gained. It is a fact that players who experience ensemble playing from an early stage often develop more rapidly generally, and in a superior way with regard to aural awareness and, when the time comes, sight-reading. They are also more likely to persevere in times of difficulty and to continue in the activity when others give up.

There is no question regarding the standard of musicians turned out by amateur bands or orchestras. Let us take the British Brass Band movement as an example. Professional orchestral conductors who have worked with ensembles of the calibre of the famous Black Dyke Band, for instance, have been amazed at both the technical mastery and the superior musicianship of the (amateur) players. Looking back over the history of an ensemble such as this, one would encounter relatively few players who had received much formal musical instruction. It is equally true to say that some of the UK’s most highly regarded orchestral brass principals and soloists have received their early training in this way i.e. by sitting with others in a brass band and not, in the initial stages at least, with a private teacher. Of course, their progress and, the degree of eventual achievement, would be due in no small measure to exceptional innate talent, but as Professor Keith Swanwick observes concerning his own early experience in just such an ensemble;

“(the) most technical progress seemed to be achieved mainly when playing together. I suspect this pattern of learning is still prevalent today in church choirs, amateur orchestra, rock bands, folk groups, the Salvation Army, steel bands and many other variations of our rich musical culture.”

 The reasons that this works as education are numerous. Players in not only this type of band but also in amateur choirs, orchestras or rock bands, will be acquiring much of their musical awareness and knowledge in a social, communal and recreational context. They pick up a fantastic amount from hearing and emulating (either consciously or unconsciously) those around them who are more advanced than themselves. They are also obliged to concentrate and gain proficiency relatively quickly, or be left behind – a ‘sink or swim’ situation. Also, the opportunities that are presented to rehearse and make repeated attempts at executing a passage correctly serve just as well, if not better, than having one’s errors continually pointed out and ‘corrected’. It is what Swanwick refers to as “encounter-based music education”. He further observes that;

“This undoubted musical ability develops not through formal teaching processes but by encounter, one of the most effective ‘mixed ability’ teaching strategies that could be devised.”

So there is a case to be made for saying that, far from it being impossible for novice musicians to advance alongside others of different ability, it may prove a significantly more beneficial context for learning to take place and flourish. The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from this is that the group teacher has, at his or her disposal, a potent admixture of instruction-based and “encounter-based” educational approaches. It might reasonably be argued that many successful musicians who received their musical ‘upbringing’ in a largely encounter-based environment may well have benefited from a greater degree of formal instruction at some stage. Conversely, it could be argued that there are numerous musicians whose background could be said to be lacking in musical encounters, the resulting outlook being overly academic, theoretical, lacking in creativity, and musically somewhat sterile. If it were possible, therefore, to strike a balance between instructional and encounter-based experience and if it could be purposefully integrated into a carefully structured group teaching regime, it really could offer the ‘best of both worlds’. It is suggested that a group teaching, mixed ability regime can indeed provide this.

In general, the process of learning a skill might be represented as follows;

This is represented as an upward spiral rather than a simple cycle because each time the performance element is repeated it is at a higher level.

Firstly, there is performance: the students perform a particular task at the behest of their teacher. In the beginning, this may be crude or unsuccessful, but each of the performances undergoes evaluation analysis, and the next performance is adapted accordingly. This cycle will be repeated several times. Once the skill is acquired (we get the hang of it), then it needs to be repeated several times more in order to consolidate it. Too many players repeat a passage and interval or evening a fingering until they have got it right and then move on. Repetition is needed for the skill to be embedded or, in other words, for it to become automatic. Performance at this higher level leads to a sense of achievement which then motivates the player to repeat the process with a different skill or an extension of the same one. This is very much a simplification of course, but it serves to illustrate the process in general terms.

In a group teaching situation, there are two sources of input available to stimulate this process; the instructional led by the teacher and the encounter-based, which arises out of the student’s awareness of the activity going on around him or her. It is fair to say that in a one-to-one lesson, the emphasis will be on the teacher’s instruction, although many good teachers will use questioning to lead the student. In a situation such as playing in a band, the emphasis will be on the encounter-based since the conductor’s time will often be devoted to fixing problems of a more general nature – even if this involves fixing an individual part from time to time. In a well-handled group lesson, however, there is plenty of scope for an effective blend of the two.

In such a situation, the learning process is likely to be initiated by the teacher giving an explanation of a particular technique or musical concept allied to a demonstration. The students will attempt to follow the teacher’s instructions and/or imitate his/her demonstration. After this, the instructional input will depend on the teacher’s assessment of the students’ learning. For example, technical advice, or guidance regarding counting, or intonation may be given while it is taking place, and afterwards by way of assessment and feedback. The encounter-based input to the process is the result of what each student hears, observes or absorbs. A student may consciously imitate one of his/her fellows, but he or she will also unconsciously emulate. Therefore, a stronger player in a group will often do as much to improve the performance of a weaker one as will the teacher, albeit unwittingly and in a very different way. The degree to which this takes place is also dependent on the awareness or sensitivity of those less developed players, so it is an important part of the teacher’s input to stimulate encounter-based learning as well. For example, attention could be drawn to one of the players who is doing well, or the group might be encouraged to listen more acutely for ensemble, balance, intonation, etc. of the overall sound.

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 A lot of encounter-based learning, therefore, takes place as it were by osmosis – a process of absorbing rather than consciously striving to learn. As a result of what they hear observe, the group members may also improve their performance by adapting it to that of those around them. For example, if one student was to play an ‘E natural’ in a piece in C minor when everyone else plays E flat, there will, most of the time, be no need for the teacher to point this out. Most players, even relative novices, will hear and (possibly taking a quick look as well) adapt very quickly. The performance will have improved to this extent purely by way of encounter.

In group lessons, therefore, both instructional and encounter-based input have an important part to play in the learning process. It is worth repeating and stressing that the most effective group learning situation is one where the two are balanced, and where the teacher works not only to provide instruction but also to expand what might be termed the ‘encounter-awareness’ of each of the students.

For a group of students to gain maximum benefit from the opportunities for encounter-based learning, it is essential that the whole group plays together as a matter of course. Otherwise, this unique form of ‘osmosis’ would be prevented from taking place. To achieve the maximum involvement necessary, we have much to learn from turning once again to the amateur ensemble situation. In a brass band, military band or amateur orchestra, it is likely that the less experienced or less advanced players will be allocated parts such as 2nd or 3rd Cornet, 3rd Clarinet, ‘back desk’ 2nd Violin etc., since in much of the music played by such ensembles, these parts comprise music of a lesser level of difficulty, either in terms of dexterity or register. More often than not, they fulfil an accompanying or supporting role. The idea is, presumably, that newcomers to playing will start in the lower, easier parts and as they progress they may be ‘promoted’ to higher, more challenging parts.

 These principles are ripe for exploitation in a group teaching context also: just as the members of amateur bands or orchestras are assigned parts appropriate to their abilities so it can be with members of a tuition group. The essential difference, especially with beginners, is that these parts can be more or less tailor-made. When planning his or her work for a particular group, the teacher will be able to devise additional parts of varying levels of difficulty for the pieces, studies or exercises to be covered. In this way, no member of the group need be frustrated because they have progressed slower or quicker than others. In fact, it is not the faster or slower pace of progress that frustrates them; it is the feeling of being excluded either when the teacher needs to help the slower learners or when the slower learners are unable to ‘keep up’).

 The following music example shows a very simple excerpt in four parts. The third part is typical of the sort of exercise that might be found in the early pages of a tutor book, perhaps for trumpet or clarinet. The second part introduces some rhythmic variety and would probably come further on in such a tutor book. Similarly, the uppermost part represents music of increased difficulty traditionally to be found still later in a method that is linear in its approach. It may be that one of these parts is from a book, but that the teacher has composed the additional ones in readiness for the students’ displaying different levels of ability or willingness to practice. By the way, it is suggested that at this level of technical and musical difficulty, the parts don’t necessarily need to be notated.

Examples such as this open up possibilities for addressing the needs of players at different, though not too widely different, stages of progress. Instead of progressing in a linear fashion with all the students being expected (quite unrealistically it must be said) to ‘keep up’, music is provided which caters for the whole group and keeps them involved. This principle need not only to be applied to notated music. It may be adopted just as readily for activities that involve imitation and/or improvisation: It could be, for example, that each of the parts is learned by imitation, with the more advanced players being involved in the learning of the easier parts too. This way they have the opportunity to lead by example, while the whole situation brings about the benefits of encounter-based learning. Another permutation would be where one or two of the players read notated parts while the others improvise simple accompaniments, perhaps with guidance (not necessarily instruction) as to which notes will ‘fit’.

The question arises as to what could be done if the players on the easier parts start to ‘catch up’ during a lesson, and there is a danger of boredom setting in because of the lessening challenge. The options here would include moving them to another part, which they would have heard earlier in the lesson, and/or developing the existing material in some way. The following example shows a ‘swing’ version of the earlier one. The same basic music is ‘jazzed up’ a little providing variety and stylistic awareness, not to mention the enjoyment, with desirable consequences for motivation, of playing something in a more upbeat mode. Moreover, the advantages for learning of assimilating material in a variety of ways is well-known.

 This example, as played in the lesson, would not be notated. Rather, the teacher would give a demonstration of how it would sound in ‘swing’ time, perhaps playing along with different parts during successive plays-through. Further variety could be added with the aid of improvised parts for hand-held percussion or by the addition of an electronic keyboard set to an appropriate auto-rhythm setting. Later, the addition of chords (single finger if the teacher is not a pianist) and a bass line would provide substantial enhancement not just of the musicality of the exercise but also of the students’ enjoyment.

 As a rule of thumb then, whatever materials a group teacher selects will need to be supplemented by additional ‘part’ material to cater for these eventualities. Otherwise, the result is likely to be frustration followed rapidly by a loss of interest.

While it is well-known that group teaching is a highly emotive issue among many instrumental music teachers and that one of the most frequent objections is that it is ‘impossible’ to accommodate varying rates of progress, it is suggested that the ‘encounter-based learning’ opportunities presented in a mixed ability lesson can actually be beneficial. A few tried and tested ideas have been presented, to support this assertion, here. Many more will, of course, be forthcoming when colleagues bring some additional thought and imagination to bear in coming up with new ideas and/or developing those presented here further.

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Related Posts/Articles;

Benefits of Group Instrumental Teaching

Group Instrumental Teaching I – Why Not?

Group Instrumental Teaching II- Space & Time

Group Instrumental Teaching III – Keeping Everyone Involved