Saturday, June 18, 2016

Why Group Lessons?

Maybe you just attended a sample class of Let's Play Music and are trying to decide if you should enroll in our group lessons or head straight to private lessons.  Or maybe you are already loving Let's Play Music and wonder how your child's group experience compares to his friends who are in private lessons.  In this post, let me share with you why we love group lessons and dispel some common myths about group v. private lessons!

Serious Business, Right?
Way back when my first son was 4 years old, he attended Let's Play Music classes for two years before something shocking happened- we moved! We were in a new place with no LPM teachers so I decided to help him finish his LPM education myself.  I tried getting family members to join us for some of the games, and enthusiastically presented some new ear-training activities and theory, but everything seemed flat. The bulk of the charm and fun of LPM was missing.  My son's enthusiasm waned quickly because Let's Play Music classes are meant to be fun, and learning happens through play. We just couldn't be as playful without a group!

The story has a happy ending because I realized I should become a certified LPM teacher and teach group classes. My son re-joined classes with a group and everything was playful again. Way better!

Laugh, dance, and learn music!
So the first point is: learning happens when kids are having fun and groups offer an easy environment for playing fun games. It's natural to plan fun and playful games when you have friends there to play with!

So, I've had several parents let me know that they are aware of several group music classes for toddlers and preschoolers, but every piano teacher they know exclusively teaches private lessons.  Why is this? Are group classes by definition babyish?

I suspect the reason most teachers opt for private lessons is in large part because of tradition. We have a tradition of "playing" with music, in groups, with very young children, at an age when play is a widely accepted way to spend time.  As soon as a child turns five years old, though, and wants to learn to "really perform," it's common to expect that class should be serious. More focused. Less fun. More learning. Let's unravel that expectation; it's just fact that 'more serious' does NOT equal 'more learning'!

Work Now, Joy Later?
Plenty of children love the idea of being able to play an instrument, but judging from the numbers who drop out after a short stint of lessons, it's clear that children are interested in playing their instrument, not learning their instrument.

You adult readers, who may have attempted and stopped music lessons yourself, know that building the dexterity, muscle memory, ear, and knowledge to acquire a level of competency so you can happily play your instrument is a gradual and arduous process.  If we say to a child, "you're going to have to work really hard for five or six years and you probably won't like much of it, but eventually it will start to seem fun," he's not going to stick around to find out.

It's important that your child's first music experience is one of work now, joy now. I love the way we teach note reading and use chording in LPM, because it gives students an opportunity to experience immediate success. (I may only know ONE chord, but I can play a couple of rockin'and rich-sounding songs!) Working in a group is another way to deliver an immediate sense of achievement: students feel they are a successful part of the group 'performance' a dozen times during every class in each musical game or piano drill. These micro-performances are hugely meaningful and motivating. The student senses, "I'm not just practicing a random skill for future-use, I'm helping my team perform this challenging feat." The class format helps instil attitudes for musical success: "I practice because I see that I improve. I find joy in creating music. I contribute because I am a musician. In every class I see myself as an integral part of my musical community."

If students graduate with attitudes like these, they are set up well for lifelong musical pursuitsGroup music lessons help instill an attitude of joy and pleasure in music-making.

This is All Very Different 

Well maybe the old masters always taught private lessons because they thought it was the best way, right?  No. Several notable experts chose group piano lessons, Franz Liszt being one of those esteemed teachers. So, it can be done. Most of us have never experienced it, though, so we wouldn't be sure how to start teaching that way. Conceiving a way to set up a home studio with several pianos or keyboards is also daunting if you haven't seen it done before!

In the same vein, since 95% of piano teachers only teach private lessons, chances are that if you know a famous and successful pianist, s/he is probably a product of private lessons.  Does that mean private lessons are uniformly the best? No. It means they are available.  Don't forget that of all private students taught, 90% failed to actually learn to play piano and maintain the skill. (MANY of my LPM parents tell me that they are part of the illustrious 90% that gave it a try as a kid, but never "got it.")

Piano pedagogue, Dr. Robert Pace, explained that when he began teaching piano at Julliard, he taught only private lessons. Why? Simply because he had only ever taken private lessons.  How could he imagine teaching groups when he had never seen it? 

When his students' parents had a carpooling conflict and strong-armed Dr. Pace into teaching two and more students, he quickly realized several benefits of the group format.  After years devoting research to piano groups, he concluded:

"In general, higher levels of music accomplishment and understanding are being achieved today through group teaching than in the individual lesson, regardless of the level of advancement. Group instruction is proving to be a more effective and efficient  use of both students' and teacher's time."

We know that when you graduate from LPM, you'll either play another instrument, use the Connections Book and transition to a private piano teacher, or, if you are the rare 10%, find a teacher who offers a mixture of group/private lessons! A fantastic teacher can't be defined just by the type of lessons she teaches, but one who experiments with group activities demonstrates that she is open to new ideas and keeping abreast of current topics in piano teaching. Her studio might well be worth a visit.

Private Lesson Myths 

You might be thinking, "if so many teachers only offer private lessons, it must be because they are BETTER." Let's look at some of the myths behind that idea that Dr. Pace also had to debunk:

MYTH: Each student learns at his own pace, so it's impossible to keep a group together.
REALITY: Students do proceed at different rates, and this positive factor can be put to good use in a group setting! Each child brings his own skill so the children strengthen one another. One student may be a great sight-reader, another has a great ear for pitch, others compose easily, and another can identify chord progressions in a snap.  In Let's Play Music, the teacher uses students as success models for others to emulate. 
Each student has strengths to add.

I think of our theory lessons in a circle around my magnet staff.  I explain how to find the root of the chord, then we play a game to let each student try putting the knowledge into practice. It moves quickly and they stay super-focused on how their friends are answering. They glean ideas from their peers' attempts.  In the end, they all had more practice than if it had been one-on-one, and the experience cost me very little total teaching time!

Too often, students working alone settle for less than they could and should accomplish. In LPM, members of the class have a healthy influence on each other and provide role models within reach.  When I bought bicycles for my two sons, one was six and the other was only three.  My three-year-old was unimpressed by watching me ride a bicycle. (Of course mom can do it, she's a grown up!) But when he saw his brother, someone only slightly older and larger, ride without training wheels, he was empowered to rise to the challenge and master cycling himself.  

LPM students don't just pay tuition for attention from the teacher. They pay for a variety of learning experiences to help them become musically literate, and that includes taking cues from better musicians and encouraging weaker ones.  Critically listening to peers perform helps the student critically evaluate his own playing, a skill we hope he'll be using every time he practices!

MYTH: Students need individual attention, and only private lessons can give that.

REALITY: Each person in a group lesson receives ample attention accumulated from the teacher and peers. When we say the child "needs more attention from the teacher", we might mean he can't independently overcome the dozens of small challenges that arise during lesson time

Where do I put my hands for middle C position? How does this bug rhythm sound? Does this say sol-fa-mi-re-do or sol-la-ti-do? What page should I turn to? What am I supposed to be doing right now? When am I supposed to come in with my part?   

"Individual attention" can be a vicious cycle: if you spoon-feed the student too often, he may come to assume that he can't  figure out what to do without direct help. This is one reason I scold parents who sit by their child and repeat-whisper my instructions to their child during class: "She said turn to page six, here, I'll do it. She said look for the red chord and point to it, see it's right there." After five minutes, the child stops trying to listen to the class discussion or figure out what to do. He just expects Mom to help him with everything! Oh no!

With a little coaching, the same student is seen observing classmates trying, guessing, making mistakes, and eventually succeeding in class games and keyboard performance. It gives him courage to embrace the learning process and become an independent learner.  In Let's Play Music, we embrace mistakes and encourage experimenting as part of the learning process.
Individual help when needed!

I'm sometimes asked what a successful outcome looks like, or what skills I'm hoping my students gain.  One skill is definitely confidence for learning. In a conversation recently, my LPM-graduate son told me, "Mom, when I want to learn a new song, I know how to figure it out by ear, I know where to get and print the sheet music if I need it, and I know how to work through it. But if I get stuck, will you come help me?Will all the confidence, he also has confidence to ask for help when he recognizes he really needs it. I love any music program that pushes my kid to learn to be a self-starter, solve problems, and know just when to ask for help.

MYTH: Group instruction is good enough for average students, but really talented students will need private lessons.

REALITY: Hey parents, I have great news: musical talent can be taught! All of my students are either talented or pre-talented. :) After three years of Let's Play Music training, every student should possess the basic skill-set that musicians will identify as talent. Every student needs a rich and broad learning situation that educates the whole musician. This is what beginners need and this is what talented students need: the opportunity to expand into being a complete musician who can hear, understand, perform, and even create music.   

You can find a group class or a private teacher offering such an excellent education; talk to teachers to find out what they value. If your child is motivated, hard-working, and learns easily, he will soak up every drop of goodness from his group classes and his teacher may present him with extra challenges. Students can walk away from the same semester of LPM with different levels of mastery, after all. It would be a shame to take away all of the learning opportunities of a group class in fear that the child would learn it too quickly.

One more thing: music is a social art and a form of communication. Chances are good that a 'really talented' musician will want to interact with other musicians. Maybe he'll start a band, or a quartet, or join a symphony. Having ample opportunities to play in piano ensembles opens doors to a world of opportunity for 'really talented' musicians. Don't miss out by insisting on isolation. Actually, if you do have private lessons only, you might decide it's time to seek out opportunities to play in ensembles or ask your teacher to create some.
MYTH: Group lessons don't work for my child's personality.
REALITY: Okay, I'll concede that there are some real cases where it might be necessary to have a student take lessons privately, but most concerns arise because a child doesn't like competition or is too shy for group classes.

My child doesn't like competition: In quality group programs, like LPM, teacher's don't play up competition among students. Rather, we try to develop a spirit of constructive cooperation. Students derive pleasure from both helping others succeed and from their own musical growth.
Many of the games are cooperative skill-builders. Even games with a race element have a positive effect when the teacher emphasizes improvement in skills, individually and collectively, rather than assigning winner and loser labels. This student might be nervous at first, but positive conversations about what goes on in class can help him feel more comfortable. Your child doesn't have to change his nature to grow into a role as a group musician.

Group lessons may be a solution for helping shy children
My child is too shy: Shyness is real and can be painful, but the same person who says, "I just can't perform in front of people," is likely also thinking, "I wish I could perform in front of people."  I've had about three excessively shy students in all my years. To help them ease into participation, I tell students that if they are uncomfortable joining in activities, they may watch respectfully from the sidelines.  Only one student held firm for three entire years of watching!  His mom told me that he would sing at home, and his regular progress and final composition was a brilliant testament to the fact that he was definitely learning his stuff.  

If you notice your child is shy and are looking for a way to help him become more confident, group lessons may actually be a solution for you.  What better way to start to use your voice than to meld it with a roomful of singers? And for those nervous to perform on piano, ample experience in the class helps playing start to feel normal and less stressful.  Again, your performance is blended with six or seven other pianos: a brilliant way to give you increasing confidence in your playing while providing the safety of relative anonymity. My shy student would turn down the volume on his keyboard so it wouldn't stand out, but he eventually built up the confidence to perform beautifully on pass-off days and of course, recital day.  What an amazing achievement for someone who was nervous about being in the spotlight!

If you're a private piano teacher reading this, perhaps you'll occasionally invite your students to come to group 'theory party' classes or form small ensembles! It can be done, and your students (and you) will love it.

Or, if you are ready to jump in to some quality group classes, I invite you to find a LPM teacher near you now!

-Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music Teacher 

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