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”

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!  Frequently, prospective students are assessed for ‘aptitude’ before being accepted by a teacher. It is easy to understand that where a local authority cannot afford to take all the children who want to learn, some kind of ‘selection’ may be required. But why would a private teacher, where tuition is being paid for, be similarly concerned?  The answer is frequently bound up with whether the prospective student is likely to be “any good” – believe me; I’ve heard it a thousand times! This approach together with the ‘conservatoire’ model of instrumental teaching, with the tendency to treat each student as though he or she were, or might be, destined for music college or the concert hall is totally irrelevant to the needs of the vast majority of students.

It is a commonly held view among educationalists that the real aim of musical activity is not to create great musicians or professional performers, but to enable students to develop a wide range of perceptual, affective, intellectual and personal skills and qualities. It is suggested that a well planned and effectively delivered group-teaching regime is actually more capable of achieving this than a series of one-to-one lessons.

Perhaps the first, and possibly most important, point to consider in this regard is that of the students’ motivation.  Children, it seems, have an inbuilt love of music and the prospect of playing an instrument is extremely attractive to many of them.  But when considering the numbers of children that soon opt of this activity it is important for our language to be exact:

A child takes up an instrument because he/she wants to play that instrument not learn it.

The process of acquiring the intellectual and motor skills required for playing an instrument, many of which may seem well-nigh impossible at first, is gradual, arduous and frequently disheartening.  Inevitably it involves a substantial shock for many of the hopeful young players who set out on this path.

On the whole, children are not known for their patience.  They will, naturally, be resistant to the idea of spending hours practising something that seems a world away from their previous experience of music.  If they are forced to or coerced by parents, they will soon become reluctant to play at all.  If on the other hand, they are able to derive from their activity the feeling that they are actually participating in a performance, the whole experience will be infinitely more meaningful and motivating. The teachers’ task also will be rendered more rewarding if no ingenuity is spared in making the students’ earliest experiences of their instruments truly musical ones.

The immediate sense of achievement this gives the students will go a long way towards overcoming some of the difficulties and feelings of inadequacy that will, almost certainly, arise during the early stages of playing.  Children whose learning takes place against the background feeling “I can’t do this” will be tempted to give up almost straight away. Therefore the biggest challenge confronting the teacher is simply that of making the student want to practice and return for his or her lessons week after week.  The impetus that students need to launch them from one lesson and across the seemingly vast expanse of time before they next meet their teacher, will come most easily from a strong and distinct sense of achievement.  This, in turn, may flow from the sense of performance engendered in the lesson, and it is in a group situation that this may most readily be accomplished, especially if the teacher brings plenty of imagination to bear.

We all know there is nothing new about music making in groups in early stages. It seems that music has, from time immemorial, been a communal activity – regardless of culture.  Anyone who has played in a band or sung in a choir (and I assume that most readers will fit this category!) will readily testify to the tremendous feeling of elation that will often follow a stimulating rehearsal or participation in a compelling performance.  Even those who consider themselves to be non-musicians will easily recall the peculiar satisfaction to be gained from singing as a member of a large congregation in church or even on the football terraces!  Group lessons give the music teacher a superb opportunity to exploit this kind of phenomenon. If exploited successfully, the resulting enjoyment and satisfaction will work wonders for motivation.

Not only can group lessons be enjoyable and more motivating but also, the enhanced aural awareness of ensemble, intonation, balance etc, together with opportunities to assess one’s own performance together with that of one’s peers, can have an enormous impact on musical learning.  As Keith Swanwick[1] has pointed out[iii]:

“Music-making in groups has infinite possibilities for broadening the range of experience, including critical assessment of the playing of others and a sense of performance.  Music is not only performed in a social context but it is understood in such a context.”

The power of the inter-personal dynamics present in a small group is of real consequence.  More extrovert or outgoing personalities may have a stimulating effect on the more introverted while the ‘steadier’ personalities may have a settling effect on the livelier characters!  Over a period of time, both will benefit if handled well by the teacher. Simply by virtue of the fact that there are several people present, the lesson will contain more variety: Variety of activity level, of sound intensity – and of personality. This has huge implications for maintaining interest, especially that of younger students with a naturally shorter attention span.  The more varied the goings on around a child, the more likely it is that his/her attention will be contained within the lesson as opposed to the other side, or outside of, the room. This is provided, of course, that the teacher is doing a competent job of channelling the attention of the group and staying focused on the task at hand. This way, there are opportunities for learning from students in the group as well as from the teacher. In other words, group learning provides a conducive environment in which to provide instruction alongside what Swanwick[iv] calls ‘encounter learning’ – where students’ acquisition of technique and musical knowledge is enhanced and reinforced by listening, adapting to, and emulating members of their own peer group both consciously and, probably to a greater extent, unconsciously.

In terms of personal and social development, each member of the group has the opportunity to begin gaining a perspective of his or her own role in relation to the whole experience.  We all know that children have a natural tendency to egocentricity.  Whilst in childhood this is no more than an indication of a person’s stage of psychological development, it is not, generally speaking, altogether helpful in adult life.  Maturity is widely held to involve a more appropriate sense of one’s own importance i.e. that other people are important too.  A great deal of any parent’s or teacher’s time is usually spent in developing an appreciation of the importance of being able to ‘fit in’ and cooperate.  In a group learning situation, students will more quickly begin to appreciate that others experience difficulties as well, although not necessarily the same as their own. Also, opportunities arise to appreciate and applaud the success of one’s peers.  Swanwick[v] again:

“Giving attention to someone else’s sound, posture, style of playing and technical achievement is all part of group motivation: so is the stimulation of other people’s triumphs and the consolation of recognising their difficulties.”

Indeed, the key areas of many Music curricula centre on the activities of Performing, Composing, Listening & Appraising. All stand to be addressed and developed effectively in group lessons. The implications of instrumental tuition for performing skills are obvious, but it also needs to be borne in mind that the group situation creates opportunities for listening and appraising as well as for composing. The quotation for Swanwick above touches on the idea of appraising or assessing; not only of one’s own performance and that of one’s fellows but also, by way of group involvement and discussion, of the music being studied.  Bound up with this, of course, are the listening skills which stand to be developed by the assessment activities, (for example developing awareness of intonation, ensemble and balance), and through listening tasks devised by the teacher. The links with composition are, seemingly, less obvious. Nevertheless, if we take a broad view of the concept of composition, we will see that it includes improvisation in its many forms. Indeed, if the lessons are conducted so as to develop fluency before notation reading, and if the early stages of exploring the range of sounds available on the instrument are handled in a structured way, the students will be composing before anything else!

So this method of Instrumental teaching is far from being the ‘poor relation’ in educational terms. Quite apart from the educational benefits outlined above, it stands to reason that many more people could be given the opportunity to experience and benefit from playing if they were able to share the teacher’s time. It is theoretical of course, but think of the impact – in terms of the possible proliferation of the undeniable educational benefits of music making – of a situation where the number of students taught by a single teacher is quadrupled!


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


[i] Paul Harris & Richard Crozier, The Music Teachers Companion, ABRSM, London 2000

[ii] Paul Harris & Richard Crozier, The Music Teachers Companion, ABRSM, London 2000.

[iii] Keith Swanwick – ‘Instrumental Teaching as Music Teaching’, Musical Knowledge – 1994

[iv] Keith Swanwick; Music Mind & Education, ‘Instruction & Encounter’. Routledge, London 1988.

[v] Ibid.

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.

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  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…

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  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.

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  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.

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