Group Instrumental Teaching I – Why Not?

11KLAS-tmagArticleI suspect that, in the first instance, the necessity for group instrumental teaching in schools probably arose out of considerations that were more economic than educational.  When Local Education Authorities (in the UK) started to make charges for Instrumental Music tuition in the early 1980s, the political consequences for the council(s) were a major consideration.  The very notion of charging parents for school-based activities which had, traditionally, been free of charge, was extremely unpopular and emotive. The chances of a Local Authority getting away with anything like an economic charge for individual lessons were, to say the least, remote.  However, where three, four or more students (or rather their parents) were able to share the cost of a twenty-minute or half-hour lesson, the cost to each parent could be reduced to a more acceptable level.

Now, more than thirty years on, group Instrumental Music lessons are a major part of the activities of music services, especially in the private and state maintained sectors.  But how many teachers are confident or positive, let alone enthusiastic, about the idea of group teaching, and how many believe that such a situation will be detrimental to the progress of gifted and less able students alike?  When instrumental teachers are asked their views on group teaching, a significant majority, perceiving a ‘no win’ situation, will give a response which many will find familiar:

“The more able students become frustrated because the teacher is busy helping the less able ones, or the less able ones are left behind because the teacher is busy developing the more able ones”

More on this and all aspects of instrumental teaching


How many of those currently teaching a group will deliver a single, coherent lesson to the whole group, and how many will give a series of very short lessons within the group along the lines of “You…., Now you…., Now you….”  Etc. The answer is far more of the latter.  Many teachers have been observed to treat a group lesson as a series of very short individual ones.  More teachers still have expressed negative feelings about group teaching. As Paul Harris and Richard Crozier[i] have pointed out;

“There is perhaps no other subject that arouses as much passion amongst instrumental teachers as the mention of the words ‘group teaching'”.

An important premise here is that the educational benefits of instrumental playing are crucial to a child’s education and personal development as a whole. Whilst many instrumental teachers are well aware of these aims and are dedicated to achieving them, many – probably most – continue to adopt what Harris and Crozier[ii] refer to as the traditional ‘conservatoire’ approach:

 “Much of our Music teaching is modelled on ideas developed in the late 18th century.  These were refined during the early part of the 19th Century through the ‘conservatoire’ (…one-to-one ‘master/apprentice’ approach); the same model now underpins most of the work in our conservatories.  In the United Kingdom, the growth of instrumental teaching, from the mid-20th Century onwards, was dominated by the pervasive influence of this one-to-one teaching style.  Now, at the beginning of the 21st Century, there is a growing awareness of the positive benefits that may be derived from a group teaching and learning situation.”

The ‘conservatoire model’ has its place in music teaching and at some stage, it may well become essential to the process of developing the full potential of certain instrumental or vocal students – in a few cases possibly, to ‘conservatoire’ standard.  But we would be well advised to remember that the vast majority of our students will not end up in a conservatoire, or on the concert platform!

More on this and all aspects of instrumental teaching

6 thoughts on “Group Instrumental Teaching I – Why Not?

    • Thanks for the comment (and compliment I think), Kathleen. Yes, I am planning to post two or three more articles about the practicalities, or if you like management, of group lessons: using the time efficiently, keeping everyone involved etc. I’m hoping to get round to posting the second one within the next few days.

      Thanks for reading and for your comment.


  1. You make many good points. I totally agree. In my 25 years teaching group instrumental lessons in Los Angeles, I found many of the same positives about group instruction – especially the enjoyment of the communal experience of producing music. I also agree that making music should definitely take precedence over reading music and learning music theory in the initial stages. I developed my own teaching materials to address the need for inspiring beginning students to make music and enjoy it from the beginning. Check out my website…


  2. Yes, I agree that group classes can be advantageous and that playing without notes at the initial stages works well. I use the VIP Strings method for group instruction. With this music I can teach violin, viola, cello and bass from the beginning simultaneously. The music also has advance parts and ensemble parts for the more advanced to play with the beginning students. Using improv with along with the music theory works well later on.


  3. Great article – I wrote about much of this in a masters thesis a few years back, working with adult violin learners in groups. I still run the group and it is lots of fun and I think they progress as well as my individual students in many ways. But the context is all important for all the reasons you discuss.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s