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.

More on this and all aspects of instrumental teaching


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 or a skill might be represented as follows;

The Performance-Appraisal Cycle

More on this and all aspects of instrumental teaching

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

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