I taught with this individualized instruction mindset for about 10 years (and loved it). I actively learned about my students' worlds and carefully observed the ways each seemed to learn best. And then I adjusted my teaching accordingly, guiding each student along a customized path I made just for them.
Then, in the summer of 2018, I met Marilyn White Lowe, author of the audiation based piano method, Music Moves for Piano. It was a pleasure to hear her speak about teaching in small groups, and her flexible, open door policy, where students were welcome to stay late and make music with other students during the next scheduled lesson. She explained the benefits of children learning in groups: how the older and more experienced students naturally became leaders and the younger and less experienced students were inspired, challenged, and supported.
I started to wonder… was designing a unique learning path for each individual student really the best thing for them? Or were they missing out on an important social aspect of learning I’d never fully considered?
I was already a piano teacher who, like many others, organized periodic group piano classes for my private students. I also paired students for duet projects from time to time. But I was inspired to try something more like what Marilyn described and started to research small group piano teaching. She and others offered lots of great ideas about how to teach in groups and I became even more convinced that I wanted to give it a try. But I also knew I didn't want to lose the benefits that an individual focus can provide. After some consideration, I decided to offer 75 minute group lessons that were approximately 50% group activities and approximately 50% one-on-one time.
Now, when you talk about giving students one-on-one time in a group piano lesson, many people envision a keyboard lab model, with students practicing with headphones on and the teacher visiting each student. I knew without a doubt that was not for me. I strongly believe that piano learning should be done on acoustic pianos, and also wasn’t the whole point of a group lesson that the students be learning from each other? So I settled on "project time/one-on-one time." During the second half of the lesson, students would work on focused projects while taking turns having one-on-one time at the piano.
I offered this new lesson option to my students starting in August of 2018 and many students agreed to try it. I was so grateful to the families who trusted me enough to take the leap! Fast forward to July of 2019 and I've taught in this new way with four small groups for almost a year now. While certainly challenging, it has been immensely gratifying. Here are some of things I've learned this year:
There is nothing like the joy of making music with others. Having an off day? Students a bit tired or distracted? Watch their eyes light up as you start to sing with them in a circle. Or get them going in a rhythm train at the piano. Or get them improvising together. Can a teacher do these things with a student in a private lesson? Yes. Is it more fun and natural in a group of peers? YES.
I still provide individualized instruction. It just takes a lot more work. In fact, I was inspired to compose a lot of short pieces this year that were purposefully scalable: melodies that can be easily played with one finger or all 5 fingers… harmonies that can be played as single notes, 5ths, or triads… leading to students duetting (melody + harmony) or playing hands together in a variety of ways. I have also been teaching pieces that easily work in a variety of articulations and tempi, so that students can learn the ‘same piece’ in many different ways (thank you Forrest Kinney, Paula Dreyer, Marilyn White Lowe). And, of course, students get their very own pieces during their one-on-one time.
Students love to lead. One way I use one-on-one time is to teach a student a piece that they will later ‘teach’ the rest of the group. When the student is ready, they can help me teach the piece by demonstrating the piece and sharing their knowledge with the group. Students love knowing their next leadership opportunity is waiting for them as soon as they polish a piece!
Students rise to the challenge. Students are aware when another student is able to do something they haven't learned to do yet and are often inspired to rise to the unspoken challenges presented by their peers.
Students still progress at the same pace. I don’t spend much, if any, group time on review (unless it’s clear that the entire group needs a review). Students who need it get review and extra support during one-on-one time. Students who are ready for new challenges get new challenges!
I plan to write a lot more over the coming year about my ongoing experiences teaching piano in small groups. Stay tuned and please send me any questions you have about this shift in my teaching!