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;

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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


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.

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