Group Instrumental Teaching III – Keeping Everyone Involved

Mention has already been made of the distinctly disadvantageous practice of managing a group lesson as though it were a series of individual ones – the “You, now you” approach. Suppose you had a thirty-minute lesson with four students, how many minutes would each student receive? Consider the following ‘calculations’ of time per student in a 30 minutes lesson with 4 students;

Unfortunately, for the group teacher, this is the wrong answer. The correct calculation is;

Admittedly, this is a little flippant and mathematically it is pure nonsense. However, it does help to make an important point which we will come to in a moment. I have heard many teachers thirty-minute lesson of four students, each gets 7.5 minutes – more evidence of the ‘You, now you’ approach!

Frequently, a child who has been taught in this way will go home and report to his parents that he or she has received a five or ten-minute lesson. The parents, who may well have paid for a lesson lasting thirty minutes, will, understandably, feel ‘short-changed’. They will probably raise this with the teacher (directly or via the head of the host school), who feeling bemused, will protest “No I gave the group a thirty minute lesson!” The reason the situation arises is, of course, that the child only regards the parts of the lesson in which they are fully and actively engaged as being ‘theirs’. If they only experience five or ten minutes of meaningful activity before the teacher’s attention is redirected to another member of the group, they feel as though they have only received a five or ten-minute lesson. The fact is, they are right!

Hence the calculation in which thirty minutes is shared among four students (or five or six for that matter) equals thirty minutes per student! Yes, it is pure nonsense in mathematical terms, but it illustrates very clearly the principle that:

In a group lesson 100% of the students should be actively involved, in one way or another, for 100% of the time.

In many group lessons, particularly when learning a new piece, it is commonplace for teachers to ask each member of the group in turn to try the first few bars on their own. Perhaps this is because they feel that the student would be unable to concentrate if the others were playing, or that his or her undivided attention is required to help them. Neither is true, and it is feasible for just as much to be accomplished by having the students play together as by hearing them individually. Perhaps, in a good number of cases, the audition of the students one by one is really more for the teacher’s benefit? Might it be he or she who finds it less distracting and easier to assess their playing if the students are listened to in turn? Might a competent music teacher reasonably be required to be in possession of sufficiently advanced aural perception skills to be able to identify errors or problems in a group of people without recourse to isolating individuals? After all, this is what the conductor of an ensemble does. How many teachers would, during their own performing activities, tolerate a conductor who habitually rehearsed new works one player at a time? Since the key to success in a group teaching situation is undoubtedly involvement; there are very few occasions on which it is disadvantageous to have the whole group playing together. There are, surely, a number of questions to be addressed: For example, what happens when the progress rates start to vary and how we to maintain order? These points and others will be considered in detail in later articles.

If it should become unavoidably necessary to hear one of the students individually, then the others must be actively involved in the process. Listening and appraising, is a key element of many Music curricula internationally and it directly relates to one of the principal benefits of a group teaching situation. One way in which the students who are not taking part by actually performing at a given point may be actively involved, is by giving their own assessment of the performance of the one who is. The teacher might prepare tasks whereby the students will be required to make observations regarding the quality of tone, or the accuracy of rhythm, intonation etc.; they might be required to make constructive suggestions as to how the student playing might address the specific issue raised by the teacher (the reason that he or she is playing solo) in his or her daily practice. In like fashion, they might be asked to look carefully at, and to comment on, a technical aspect such as hand position, grasp of the bow or the embouchure. See the table below for more suggestions as to the type of work that might, very usefully, be done.

Peer Appraisal

Type of Task

Example

Listen, Assess, Comment Accuracy of pitch, rhythm, intonation. Effectiveness of phrasing & dynamics etc.
Observe & Comment Identify   technical strengths or weaknesses  –   embouchure, hand position, fingering, breathing etc.
Draw Conclusions Practice strategies, exercices, studies etc.
Suggest About others’ and  own efforts, points to emphasise,   things to avoid

By observing their fellows in this fashion, young performers have the opportunity to begin acquiring an understanding of the associations between technique and musical results. They also improve their own performance immeasurably and take valuable steps towards self-sufficiency. The more opportunities they have to see things from this analytical perspective, the more productive their own practice will be. At other times it could be the music itself that is the subject of their assessment. Identifying – and learning to appreciate – the elements of different musical styles, the features of different periods or ethnic origins of music, serves to broaden students’ understanding, and give depth and meaning to their practice.

Whatever the subject of discussion, it is undoubtedly more profitable for students to be given a specific task rather being asked merely to watch or listen. The teacher, therefore, has an obligation to give these situations some thought in advance of the lesson i.e. to anticipate them and be prepared. For example, when assessing the music itself, students could be given the task of suggesting words to describe the mood, or feel, of the piece, its tempo, its ethnic origin, etc. The table below gives a few more suggestions, but the list is really only limited by the resourcefulness of the teacher. An approach such as this provides opportunities to forge useful links between the work done in instrumental lessons and topics being studied in the rest of the school curriculum. Integration of the work in this way actually makes devising listening and assessment tasks much more straightforward for the teacher and the assessment tasks in question will prove more beneficial to the learner as a result.

Appraisal of Music

Type of Task

Examples

Words to describe Mood, feel, atmosphere
Identify Style Jazz, Pop, Classical, Folk
Identify ethnic origin Western, African, Indian, Caribbean   etc.
Awareness of function Religious, sea shanty, film music, entertainment etc.
Awareness of form Structure; repetition, contrast, variation
Awareness of period Modern, Baroque, Classical, Romantic
Knowledge of composer Period, Nationality, Other Works,   interesting facts e.g. Beethoven was deaf.

Assessment by way of listening and observation tasks are not, of course, the only ways of keeping the group involved when a single student plays. The most obvious activity is for the other group members to provide an accompaniment; clapping a simple pulse, or a rhythmic pattern. This may be extended to ostinato accompaniments played on classroom percussion and/or sustained notes (drones). Of course, the teacher needs to anticipate these eventualities by preparing a collection of such accompaniments at appropriate levels of difficulty so that he or she always has something suitable on ‘stand by’. Prepared items such as these might be notated, or they may be in the form of brief annotations or ideas which the students are required to improvise upon. Either way, they will be of little practical value in such situations unless they are extremely quick and easy for the other group members to assimilate and perform straight away. If not, the aim of hearing an individual and involving the others will disintegrate into just another interruption that wastes valuable lesson time.

The use of strategies such as these for maintaining involvement and interest, will not only avoid boredom but will also contribute towards promoting a sense of ensemble in terms of rhythmic accuracy, intonation, and balance much more effectively than an individual lesson ever can. To neglect these aspects of lesson management is to court disaster either from the point of view of interest (and by extension discipline) or motivation (and by extension student retention) or both. To merely tell the other group members to practise quietly on their own for a few minutes is not only to no avail, but is also an abrogation of pedagogical responsibility. Regrettably, this has been known to happen.

Finally (for now) there is the issue of contrast and variety in lessons. If contrast between kinds of activity and kinds of music are planned, it will help enormously in maintaining student involvement. For example, younger students might need a rest from the physical aspects of playing their instruments, so we can ‘kill two birds with one stone’ by having a few minutes with ‘instruments down’ and doing some rhythm work or by singing the pieces being learned or by listening to the teacher demonstrating how the music being studied should sound. Or, why not have two students accompanying on classroom percussion (they could improvise simple ostinato patterns) while two play, or why not introduce a ‘backing track’ via a CD or electronic keyboard to add variety to the musical texture? These are just a few examples among thousands of possibilities and many are such that they will develop musical awareness much more readily than in a one-to-one lesson.

Any student’s involvement, not just with the lesson in progress, but with the learning process itself, will suffer if too long (within a lesson or across a series of lessons) is spent working on a certain group of pieces or studies and it should go without saying that it is soul-destroying and of course, de-motivating for students if their teacher insists on getting one piece absolutely right before moving on: When a particular piece or study is chosen it is (or should be) with one or more particular musical (affective) and/or technical (psychomotor) and/or cognitive objectives in mind. There will be any number of pieces that can fulfil the same objectives, so instead of focussing on the minutiae of a particular piece, why not keep everything fresh and, when the right moment presents itself, work towards the same objectives with new material? By the way, this is not to condone imperfect performance. It is simply recognising that student motivation is paramount in the learning of an instrument, and that the development of correct technical practices as well as acquisition of musical proficiency may be (indeed it is preferable if they are) achieved through a variety of means.

Group instrumental teaching therefore, far from being the ‘poor relation’ of musical education provided myriad opportunities for the development of not only particular instrumental skills, but also of musicianship, musical awareness and the broader personal qualities that undoubtedly can accrue from regular musical activity. However, as with most things, planning and preparation are key and as a wise man from Yorkshire once said;

You only get out what you’re prepared to put in!

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