About Group Instrumental Teaching…

11KLAS-tmagArticleDuring the 1990s, I was director of a music support service for schools in the UK. We provided mainly group lessons, so when interviewing prospective teachers,  I would ask them what they saw as the advantages or disadvantages of group tuition as opposed to one- to- one teaching. Their answers almost always (and I mean in more than 90% of cases), dwelt on the perceived disadvantages and very, very few advantages would be identified.  Some would say things like “Well, obviously, the best situation is individual tuition, but …”


I couldn’t see anything obvious about this at all! In fact, a great deal of reflection, research and experience had convinced me that if well handled, a series of group lessons actually had more educational potential than the traditional ‘conservatoire’ style one-to-one teaching that seems so highly valued.

Even more recent experience tells the same story: an online article from 2010 says;

“Only teach instrumental lessons one-to-one – it remains impossible to provide high quality instrumental teaching to groups of players of differing abilities”

My response to this will be clear as you read the remainder of this post and the ensuing articles. For now, it just serves to illustrate that plus ca change

Group teaching is a subject which frequently brings out the best and worst of attitudes among instrumental teachers who seem to fall into three broad categories in this regard;

  • The first consists of those who are comfortable with, and fully committed to, group teaching as the most effective way of achieving the broader aims of Instrumental Music. They prepare well and take pains to evaluate and fine-tune their performance.
  • The second category comprises those who possess the unfortunate and all too readily accepted mindset that is incapable or unwilling to see any potential advantage in teaching methods other than the traditional ‘conservatoire’ approach.  Their view seems to be that effective instruction in instrumental playing can only be accomplished by giving undivided attention to one student at a time, and that any other approach is bound to be inferior. It is doubtful however, whether anyone would claim that a class music teacher with a group of some thirty students could do a more competent job if each student in their class was taught individually!  Many would not see this comment as relevant because they consider that the class music teacher’s aims are different – they don’t have to produce competent instrumentalists who can pass grade exams. Actually, I don’t think this should be the goal of the instrumental teacher either!
  • The final, most ‘dangerous’ category consists of those who are apparently, more open-minded about group teaching, but who have a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to putting their ideas into practice.  In an interview situation, teachers from this category often speak convincingly about the many potential benefits of group teaching for students.  Typically, they have extremely plausible ideas as to the management of group lessons, but when it comes to observing them in action, it is often a different story: There is a common tendency to treat the group lesson as if it were a series of small-scale individual lessons; what I call the ‘you, now you’ approach.  This seems to be because the teachers in question operate on the mistaken assumptions that a) it is only possible to listen to one student at a time, and b) only one student can listen at a time.

So in the articles that will follow, I want to share some thoughts about the benefits of group tuition and in later articles, I’ll share my experience, reflections and research into how the situation can most effectively be exploited. It will be seen that, in the course of discussing these issues, I adopt an openly defiant stance with regard to those who dismiss it as no more than a compromise, and as such a second rate option.

There is absolutely no intention to denigrate the work of the many excellent teachers who, working on a one-to-one basis, have produced results which have had the most beneficial and far-reaching effects on the lives of their pupils. What I am keen to challenge however are some of the more common assumptions; notably that which holds that one-to-one teaching is the only method with any educational validity.

Since my own experience of instrumental music provision for schools was mostly in the UK, some of the references to ‘local authorities’, mean UK education authorities, called ‘districts’ in the USA I believe. I imagine the basic principles will be similar, but in any case, the educational arguments are universal.

Please click here to read Group Instrumental Teaching Part I – Why Not?

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