Why Learn Music In Small Group?

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The Advantages of Small Group Music Classes

" What is one common activity that all piano students do consider FUN? "

From the students' point of view, one thing we have learned from our experience as teachers is that there is one common activity that ALL piano students do consider FUN. What is it, you ask? GROUP CLASSES! It’s ok to let out a huge sigh of relief at this point. There IS something that all children will find automatically fun about the piano, and that is having group classes with their peers. This time bonding with their piano peers is a great way to keep them motivated and enjoying lessons.

The following are excerpts from the blogs of well-known music educationalists. The first, Dr Robert Pace is from the US and the second, Robert Lennon, is from the UK.

From Dr Robert Pace:

In general, there are indications that higher levels of musical accomplishment and understanding are being achieved today through group teaching than in the individual lesson. And it is for this reason that an increasing number of piano teachers prefer group over individual lessons, regardless of the level of advancement. These people have seen group instruction in actual practice as a more effective and efficient use of both teacher's and students' time.

In fact, there are some common misconceptions about both private and group teaching that need clarification:

  • MYTH: The private lesson was here first so it must be the logical way of teaching.
    * REALITY : Actually this is not accurate, since various piano pedagogues over the past 150 to 200 years have taught piano to more than one person at a time, Franz Liszt being one of them.

  • MYTH: Since students all learn at different rates of speed, it is difficult to maintain good groups.
    * REALITY : Actually, the fact that students proceed at different rates is a positive factor in group instruction. For example, some may be good sightreaders while others excel in creative work. Conversely, there will be those with a tendency to play by ear at the expense of developing reading skills. In group instruction, the teacher uses the student who spurts ahead as the success model for others to emulate.

  • MYTH: Students need individual attention, which can only be given in a private lesson.
    * REALITY : First of all, this is not an accurate statement. In group instruction, each person receives lots of individualized attention from both peers and the teacher. What this statement often implies is that students are encountering difficulties they can't solve. The "individual attention" syndrome is usually a vicious cycle-- the more "spoon-feeding" the student gets, the more he or she will require. On the other hand, observing others who are also involved in the same learning processes and similar problems helps one identify and solve his or her own problems.

  • MYTH: Group instruction may be good for average students but those with talent must have private lessons.
    * REALITY : We really know very little about what constitutes musical "talent". Personally, I believe there would be more "talented" students if we would provide richer learning situations for very young students so that they would get more insight into the processes of developing their own musical potential.

  • MYTH: Individual differences are more difficult to handle in the group than in a private lesson.
    * REALITY : Quite the contrary. In group learning, individual differences and personal uniqueness provide much excitement and richness. Students respect and cherish each other's individuality and begin to understand more about their own potential as creative human beings. Learning problems are analyzed and solved before they become insurmountable obstacles. In the private lesson, it is difficult to recognize and value this personal uniqueness, since there is no one of approximately the same level present at the moment for comparison.

  • MYTH: More good pianists have come from the private lesson approach than from group lessons, which must indicate the superiority of private lessons.
    * REALITY : Most lessons of the past century, 90 to 95% of all piano lessons offered in this country have been private lessons. 90 to 95% of these private students failed in their attempt to learn to play piano. Only a very small percentage of students taking private piano lessons ever get to the point that they can go on their own independently and continue to grow musically throughout their adult lives. What might this situation be if the tables were reversed and 95% of all students were taught fundamentals of music from the beginning in their group piano lessons?
    Dr. William Roger's research project showed group piano instruction produced superior results over private lessons at Dorothy Maynor's Harlem School of the Arts.

  • MYTH: The one-to-one relationship of the private lesson provides a more intimate setting for the development of musical talent.
    * REALITY : First of all, this is not true in good group teaching where there is never a lack of closeness between teacher and pupils. Anyway, why should the learning process be so secretive? Music is a social art and a means of communication. Students should learn how to express themselves musically with and in front of others. The group provides limitless opportunities for students to share their knowledge of music and the other arts with their friends.

    " Dr William Roger's research project showed group piano instruction produced superior results over private lessons at Dorothy Maynor's Harlem School of the Arts. "

  • MYTH:Students don't like to be criticized by other students since they are paying for the criticism of the teacher.
    * REALITY : Actually, no one is paying for the criticism of anyone as such. Rather, students are paying tuition for a variety of learning experiences which will help them become musically literate and independent. And learning the processes of good self-criticism is an important part of this. In effect, each student must also practice the art of self-criticism as he evaluates and criticizes his peers in the lesson.

  • MYTH: Some students do not flourish in the competition of the group.
    * REALITY : Unfortunately, there is probably more misunderstanding about competition than anything else in group instruction. Good group teachers do not play up competition among students. Rather, they concentrate on developing a positive and constructive spirit of cooperation from which students derive rewards both from helping others succeed and from feeling their own musical growth. If indeed this puts students in a friendly "give and take" of competition as they check each other to see what is being learned, then it has very positive effects. The teacher has helped students understand that it is not a matter of wining points by a split second--rather it is whether each shows some improvement over what was done previously. Students can succeed in the "learning process" without actually winning points in the drills. Teachers should help students experience an inner desire or motivation to do a better job rather than feel the external pressures of competition to win points.

  • MYTH: There are students who feel they cannot work well in a group therefore they obviously must have private lessons.
    * REALITY : There are too many examples of people who are "loners", who in reality would be happier if they could deal more effectively with their insecurities and the destructive forces within themselves. Members of the group can help the insecure person build on his strengths as a means of beginning to realize his potential in music.

  • MYTH: Group instruction is mass production, since it teaches several students at a time.
    * REALITY : Actually the factory assembly is the epitome of "mass production," where one product follows another in an endless succession. Since unnecessary repetition is avoided through group instruction, time is gained to teach students music fundamentals and to offer individualized treatment.

  • MYTH: Some students do not want to play in front of others; therefore, the group is a waste of time.
    * REALITY : Unfortunately, this person is probably saying to himself, "I'd give anything if I could play n front of someone, but I'm scared". No doubt music can provide deep satisfaction to those who wish to perform or listen only in the solitude of their own inner sanctum. However, most often this type of student can't even play well for himself. The real point here is to provide a type of instruction which will allow for both playing for yourself and also sharing music with others. To deal with these learning problems effectively there is an ongoing need to learn as much about musical structure as possible and to analyze appropriate study processes and problems of musical performance.

  • MYTH: Some students -- particularly teenagers -- need someone in whom they can confide. Only the private lesson can provide this atmosphere.
    * REALITY : This myth has serious implications. First of all, most piano teachers are not trained therapists, therefore they are not equipped professionally to do counseling. But even more important, the real reason that students want to chat and confide in teachers is that they are trying to avoid the embarrassment of their being unprepared. In group lessons, however, students understand what they are doing and are prepared for the lesson therefore they feel no need to talk their way out of a tight spot. They have a healthier attitude about themselves and their daily practice.

From the teacher's point of view why group teaching is preferable:

" It could be that group learning provides some of the best settings to help individuals develop their creative potential. "

  1. Fundamentals of music are basics to be taught to all. To get the most from their piano lessons, students all need harmonic analysis (to say nothing of eartraining and sight-reading) that is related to their repertoire. In groups, since teaches can present a point one time to a few students instead of multiple times to each individual student, there is less repetition and redundancy. Common points of pieces can be dealt with in less time.
  2. In group or peer interaction, teachers can observe students teaching each other. In that way, they get feedback on what students actually comprehend and how their learning might be applied during home practice the other 6 days. The emphasis is on helping them improve their own learning "processes."
  3. Students grow by helping others. They assume a greater responsibility in keeping their commitments and accomplishing their goals.

Teacher's role as "facilitator" or "expeditor" is challenging, exciting and very rewarding as he or she sees students becoming independent, intelligent young musicians. Helping students realize their own creative musical potential as part of a lifelong process of growth and development is tremendously exciting.

Our society could benefit from more people who have a genuine concern for each other's well-being, success and happiness and a desire to help individuals develop their creative potential. It could be that group learning provides some of the best settings in which this can happen.

From Robert Lennon, musician, educator & composer:

Children, it seems, have an in-built 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 out of this activity it is important to understand that a child takes up an instrument because he/she wants to play that instrument, not learn it.

" The immediate sense of achievement small group music classes gives the students will go a long way towards overcoming some of the difficulties and feelings of inadequacy ... "

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 [small group music classes] 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.

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.

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