Have you been wanting to start group lessons but need some pointers on where to start? Or are you making a big move and want to reinvent your studio format? Megan from Pianissimo: A Very Piano Blog has graciously shared her insights into how she made the move (literally) from private lessons to group lessons, grouping students of different levels, activities she uses to fill the hour, and much more! Read our interview with her below, and be sure to check out her website (linked above) for lots of unique ideas and inspiration!
Did you always do group lessons?
I used to live in a different city where I had about 30 private students. I taught out of my apartment, so there really wasn't enough of space for group instruction. I knew that students working together and learning from each other was really effective. I also found that we were always crunched for time in private lessons. We just didn't have enough time for theory, really getting into scales, music history, ensemble playing, games, sight reading. All of these things are really important aspects that really round out a piano lesson. I had considered making a switch to groups, but I was still thinking through how to make that transition when we found out we would be moving back to my hometown.
How did you make the transition from private to group lessons?
Completely starting over was the perfect way to transition to group teaching. I already had 2 Clavinovas and I invested in 2 more portable digital pianos. We bought a house that has a great space for group teaching.
Once we moved, I only offered lessons in my current group format. The first year was a little slow. I started out with 4 students, and unfortunately, it didn't work out for them to be scheduled on the same days or times, so I had them come at separate times, with the understanding that other students would be joining in. During that first year, as new students enrolled, I did my best to schedule them with my existing students. It took about a year a half to have enough students for several groups a few days a week.
One advantage to having a slow start was that it gave me an opportunity figure out the best way to plan my lessons. I use many of the same books and materials that I did when I taught private lessons, but with students staying a full hour, we have time for much more.
What does a typical group lesson look like for you?
I currently teach nearly all of my students in small groups of 3, each staying for one hour. I usually do not match up ages, levels or abilities, unless it just happens to work out that way.
During the course of the hour, each student has some 1-on-1 time with me, then they cycle through different activities, some individual, some collaborative. When I'm planning for my 3 students, I always think through what each student needs to accomplish or work on, how the different students can interact together and what would be the best use of our time. This looks different for every hour that I teach.
I find it really interesting that you don’t match levels – is there a reason why you decided to do things this way?
It would be nice to match up levels, but, for me, one of the hardest parts of teaching piano lessons is putting a schedule together. People are so busy, and I find it challenging just to find a time that everyone is happy with. It would add another layer of complication to try to coordinate different families to come at the same time. I also have lots of sibling sets that come together that are not at the same level. I would rather make it easy for the parents to bring their kids together, than to have everyone matched up.
It has worked out that a couple of my groups are right at the same level. When that is the case, we spend more time do things all together. Inevitably, some kids will progress faster than others, so there is usually a pretty small window when everyone is at exactly the same level.
And do you see benefits to this mixed-level format?
Yes - younger kids absolutely love being around the older kids. The benefits are endless: beginning students hear more challenging music and where they are headed, they are exposed to my conversations with older students and how we speak about music, they get inspiration for other songs that they want to learn, they get used to playing the piano for other people, they have a role-model for how to behave, focus, and communicate at piano lessons.
What are some of the activities they go through in a lesson?
Some examples of things that we do within the hour are:
- Sight Reading Apps - There are excellent apps for sight reading and to help students play more rhythmically. Not all students have access to an iPad at home, so they love working on it at their lesson.
- Online music games - My youngest students really love the games, and it really helps reinforce all of the basic theory concepts that they are learning at the piano.
- Sight-reading - For my students using method books, we work through the sight reading books at their lessons. As students advance, I find that handing them any book and having the read through it is beneficial. Students use a digital piano with headphones and work through the music on their own.
- Ensemble playing - If students are at the similar level, they can practice a duet together. Sometimes I'll have older students learn accompaniments to a younger student's music.
- Games - Sometimes we play a game all together, other times I'll pair up 2 students to work on a game at a digital piano or on the floor.
- Listening Assignments - Students love to draw while listening to great classical music. I try to find videos of unique pianists or interesting performances for students to watch.
- Improvisation - I teach students simple chord progressions and melodic scale patterns so that they can improvise together. This works really well with students at different levels, because anyone can do it.
- Recording - My students love to record themselves and we have plenty of time to complete recordings during their normal lessons.
Have you met any resistance from parents or students?
This format has been very successful in my studio. Students and parents like the longer lesson times, interaction between students and variety of activities. Every single day, I have students say they can't believe the hour is already over when it's time to go! It moves quickly, they stay engaged and they learn a lot. I've never had students not get along, probably because I place a big emphasis on creating community in my studio. I have found that students love getting to know other kids and like seeing so many familiar faces at recitals and other events. I have not met any resistance from parents of enrolled students, but occasionally a parent inquiring about lessons prefers a more traditional format. I keep a very full schedule, so if my teaching style does not work for someone, I'm happy to see them find a better fit.
A big thanks to Megan for sharing her insights into starting group lessons and how things have worked for her. We'd love to hear your experiences with groups - whether you've always done group lessons, recently made a switch, or what you've found works for you in your studio!