As we all know, group teaching is a controversial topic. One of the most frequent objections to it (in my experience) is that since no two students will progress at the same rate, or in the same way, the activity is doomed to failure because the less able students will hold the faster learners back and conversely, the faster learners will leave the slower ones behind. A ‘lose-lose’ situation, to coin a phrase.
However, I believe that these differences can indeed be accommodated
and moreover, can even be advantageous in terms of the musical experience and development afforded the students involved. One of the key concepts in my latest article is that which Keith Swanwick has called ‘encounter-based’ learning – the type of learning that takes place when you play or sing in an ensemble alongside others of differing ability. My perception of the inestimable value of this kind of learning comes from personal experience.
Let me tell you a story.
When I was a lad of about 11 or 12, I played in a local brass band. I was something of a novice which meant that ‘keeping up’ while sight reading was a real challenge – the notes just seemed to fly by! So, from the conductor’s and older players’ points of view, it was a case of; “sit there, play what you can, and if in doubt, leave it out”!
One summer’s Saturday or Sunday, our band was engaged to play at an open air event – a garden party, church fete or the like. Part of our task was to accompany a troupe of folk dancers; ‘Morris dancers’ for those who know about these things. For their dance, we played a short ‘jig’ style piece that I had never played before, but the thing was, we played it probably over a hundred times! By the end of the dance, I could play the piece note perfectly without anyone having told me or ‘taught’ me anything at all; I looked at the notes, I listened to those around me, imitated the more experienced player who sat next to me and played the bits I could. Gradually, I added more and more until I could do the whole thing. Once I had mastered the whole, I was able to consolidate what I had learned via the remaining repetitions. Without a doubt, encounter-based learning, albeit of a ‘fast-track’ variety, had taken place.
‘Nothing terribly remarkable about that’, you might say, but there was actually something quite remarkable, and I don’t pretend to be able to explain it fully: my sight-reading, in general, took a quantum leap forward. After the experience of accompanying the dancers, I had far less difficulty in sight reading new pieces and soon, quite complex rhythms and fast moving passages became clearer perhaps because I had learned to see and hear the patterns in them. I repeat that no one said a word to me during this experience – there wasn’t time. I had previously been taught the elements of reading notation (essential when learning any instrument – right? Well, not necessarily) and I had understood them, but nothing improved my reading like this experience did. Just for the sake of clarity, and without presuming to ‘blow my own trumpet’ for a moment, I should add that during my time as a player, I was regarded as a pretty good sight reader and was able to handle the ‘one rehearsal and on’ situations without difficulty.
But what I offer here about teaching groups of mixed ability, which comes partly from my studies and training as a musician and as a teacher, partly from my own research and reflections, but also from experience, suggests that finding a balance between teacher-centered instruction and student-centered encounter-based learning can give young players the benefits of both individual attention (provided we are willing to accept that they may, in fact, need less of it than we think) and from what they ‘absorb’ from playing alongside others: a ‘win-win’ situation in fact and a group lesson is a great context in which to achieve it! Please click the link below to read more about teaching groups of mixed ability.
 Emeritus Professor, Institute of Education, University of London.
- More on Group Instrumental Teaching (robertlennonmusic.wordpress.com)
- Yet More on Group Instrumental Teaching (robertlennonmusic.wordpress.com)