Group Instrumental Teaching & Mixed Abilities


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[1] 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.

Group Instrumental Teaching IV – Handling Mixed Abilities

[1] Emeritus Professor, Institute of Education, University of London.

2 thoughts on “Group Instrumental Teaching & Mixed Abilities”

  1. Hi

    I’ve just read your article. Very interesting.

    I am a primary school teacher (music specialist) and am just about to embark on setting up a project teaching the ukulele in a group setting. I’m talking 30 9-10 year olds. I am just wondering how you go about tuning. Shall I ask the school to buy in a bulk load of tuners, and teach them how to tune the ukulele themselves? Should we do that together at the beginning of every session or should I ask them to tune them at home before they come, or would they all go out of tune? Just thinking that this could be a bit of a nightmare, because they’ll end up turning the tuning pegs the wrong way, and they won’t be able to hear that they’re doing that etc. What do you think!?

    I look forward to your reply.


    1. The articles I’ve shared here are mostly to address issues that arise when dealing with small groups of instrumentalists and to make a case against the assumption that one to one teaching is naturally the best situation. I can imagine the sound of 30 ukuleles (in tune and otherwise) – I think it would be great!

      If you chose to tune them all together at the start of the lesson, you would face a daunting challenge and the time spent tuning 30 beginners of this age could well take up most of the lesson. Your own solution of each student having their own digital tuner might be the best, but I would try and find a time, not too long before the lesson, for them to do the tuning rather than at home.

      Whilst accurate tuning is important and should form part of the students’ musical education, I wouldn’t spend too much time on it right at the beginning. They want to make music and that’s what I’d let them do. Refinement of tuning together with intonation, rhythmic accuracy, ensemble, balance etc. can take place gradually as their learning progresses.

      Anyone else got any ideas?

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