I 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!