Group Teaching & Mixed Abilities

Let me start by telling you a story…

When I was a lad of about 11, I played in a local brass band. I was something of a novice which meant that, with relatively rudimentary sight-reading skills, ‘keeping up’ was a real challenge – the notes just seemed to fly past! The conductor’s and older players’ advice to me was; “sit there, play what you can, and if in doubt, leave it out!”

One summer’s Saturday or Sunday afternoon, the band was engaged to play at a garden party or the like. Part of our task was to accompany a troupe of folk dancers; ‘Morris dancers’ as they are known. To accompany their performance, we played a short ‘jig’ style piece that I had never played before. We must have played it over a hundred times! When the dance finally came to an end, I could play it note perfectly without anyone having  ‘taught’ me anything at all: I had looked at the notes, listened to those around me, imitated the more experienced player who sat next to me and played whatever parts I could. Gradually, I was able to add more and more until I could do the whole thing. Once I had mastered a particular part, I was able to consolidate what I had learned by way of seemingly endless repetition.

Something remarkable had taken place, and I don’t pretend to be able to explain it fully, but

after that, my sight-reading, in general, took a quantum leap forward.  I had far less difficulty in reading new pieces, and soon, quite complex rhythms and fast moving passages became easier, perhaps because I had learned to see and hear the patterns in them.  As a  beginner, I had been taught the elements of reading notation, and I had understood them, but nothing improved my reading as this experience did. The process that had taken place while accompanying the dancers was what Keith Swanwick[1] has called ‘encounter-based’ learning – albeit of a ‘fast-track’ variety.

We all know that group teaching is a controversial topic. One of the most frequent objections, in my experience, is that because no two students progress at the same rate, or in the same way, the activity is doomed to failure; the less able students will hold the quicker ones back and conversely, the faster learners will leave the slower ones behind.  A ‘lose-lose’ situation.

However, I believe that these differences can be accommodated and can even be advantageous in terms of the musical experience and educational benefits afforded the students involved. One of the key concepts in the article below is in fact ‘encounter-based’ learning – the type of learning that takes place when you play or sing in an ensemble alongside others of differing ability. As we have seen, my conviction regarding the value of such learning is derived from personal experience; first as a player, then as a teacher.

The methodology I propose here, in relation to teaching groups of mixed ability, consists of a balance between teacher-centered instruction and student-centered encounter-based learning. This means that young players can benefit from 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’ while playing alongside others: a ‘win-win’ situation!

Please click here to read: Group Instrumental Teaching IV – Handling Mixed Abilities


[1] Swanwick, Keith.  Music, Mind & Education. London: Routledge, 1988

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