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A better approach to group piano lessons

I started out teaching private one-on-one piano lessons, as was the prevalent style throughout the 20th century. But I could see that there were benefits to group instruction. Every time I lost a piano student to soccer, it was clear to me: people enjoy participating in activities with others. Students learn better by hearing each other’s questions and observing each other’s successes and failures in a safe setting. There are too many people hungry for piano instruction for a teacher to be able to reach them all with private lessons, anyway.

But switching to a group lesson format was not an endeavor I took lightly. I spent a decade looking for a way to do it that creates additional value for students. Once I found that, I spent additional years studying so that I could implement it effectively. For group lessons to be more effective than private lessons, students need to interact dynamically and in improvisation. They need to be presented with many opportunities to listen to one another, passively and actively. They even learn while they’re doing other things like drawing or moving while another student is playing. The deep learning that takes place in such an environment is magical.

When I finally started teaching groups, it was clear from the students’ faces that this was the right choice for them. Their engagement and energy level during lessons went through the roof. They retain ideas much better, and they learn so much about rhythm from creating duets to play with one another. Their interactions enrich their learning process in every way.

Imagine my frustration when I find that other teachers are teaching “group lessons” in ways that undermine all of the benefits. I’m seeing that the conventional way to teach groups is simply to have students wearing headphones seated at individual keyboards. Every student is playing the same music, and there is no opportunity for musical interaction, let alone improvisation or creativity.

These are not group lessons, they’re private lessons taught simultaneously! This might create value for the teacher and even for the parents, but it does not create value for students. There is such vital joy in playing music with others which is an important part of effective, serious learning. And it all goes out the window when students put the headphones on in these kinds of lessons.

If you’re comparing lessons and teachers, please do not think that all group lessons are created equal. Find out if students get a chance to improvise and create music with one another. Do they get to be spontaneous while still following a logically sequenced curriculum? Please choose a lesson situation that affords them these opportunities. The future of music depends on it, as well as students’ lesson enjoyment and learning.

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