Don’t Forget the Pictures: A Lesson On Group Lessons

When I started this blog, I decided I didn’t want to be entirely teacher-y. I follow plenty of other overly-optimistic blogs for curriculum ideas, and am inspired and jealous by how fired up other teachers get about their junk. If I were a normal human being, I would be like them. Alas, I am not, but something deep inside of me still wants to share some operational nuts and bolts…without being all “buy this sheet music! It works!” Hint: define “works.” And…most sheet music works, in the purest sense of the word. Just my two cents.

So instead, I’m going to pull instructor rank and discuss an individual success story. Yesterday, I hosted my first group event of the studio semester. I’ve done a lot of these over the years, some of them brilliant, others not so much. Glean what you may.

We’re only about three weeks into the studio year, which is barely enough time to crack open the sight-reading books, let alone prepare a piece and have it performance-ready-ish. Worry not, though. I purposely timed the group event the way I did for a few reasons. I wanted to see how many students were committed enough to getting something even partially “performance-ready” after only three lessons, even though they knew well in advance that the whole ordeal was going to be very informal. This is also the first year I am requiring all my students to perform in the recital (first-years can watch if they want) and attend, at minimum, one of four group things I have planned. All this is the result of the evolution of my teaching philosophy. I didn’t used to require this, so we’ll see how this pans out in reality. Also, some of my high school students are auditioning for district choir next weekend (I’m actually hired to judge this year), so they need the practice.

About two hours before the event was to start, I had a minor freak-out. The following students were slated to attend:

1 beginning piano student
2 Early-intermediate pianists
1 late-intermediate / early advanced pianist
4 Beginning / intermediate vocalists
4 late-intermediate vocalists (high-schoolers)
2 College observers (vocalists)

It occurred to me that my wiggly-worm little pianist might have difficulty swallowing the foreign-language arias. Conversely, sitting through “The Swimming Ducks” piano solo may not be my high-schooler’s cup of tea. Even though I have a collective 35 students (between the private studio and the college), that’s still not really enough to warrant separate, age-specific group activities. I’d have to require them to attend specific dates and then assume they all wouldn’t cop out at the last minute, and that never really works out.

So I abandoned my wet hair to the air-drying gods and rushed to my computer to do some planning. It all ended up working out fine, with some creative finagling. Here’s what I did: I divided everyone up according to age, more or less (I let one girl who could have gone either way choose which activity she wanted to do). The younger kids chose two performers and wrote letters to them. I have a few student siblings, and they couldn’t write to their family – had to be a stranger. We talked about what to include (“good job on…/I like…etc, not “you look pretty”). For the real young’uns, I provided paper and colors so they could draw a picture of what was happening in the lesson. I severely overestimated who would actually want to do this, and it became a fast joke when all my “too cool for school” kids gave the scrap paper and crayons to the youngest pianist. She was thrilled, I dramatically apologized for offending them, and we all had a laugh.

The older students got a printout of an evaluation sheet that I stole directly from the state handbook for district choir auditions (thanks, google). Like I said, most of them are slated to use the pieces they prepared for group as audition pieces next week, so they got a sneak peak into what criterion the judges actually use. It looks like this:

"25" or bust! Just kidding. Sort of.
“25” or bust! Just kidding. Sort of.

The older students (including my college observers) filled these out and returned them to each singer at the end of the lesson. I made sure to touch on how everyone dies a little inside when we use these, and that it’s just one method of evaluating ourselves, and to please not cry themselves to sleep over any low numbers. The grand scheme of music-making is much bigger than a number.

Everyone had permission to use music and stop and start as needed. Since we had enough people performing, I did not do any workshopping or anything. In other low-number times, I take the opportunity to riff on technique in front of the other students, masterclass-style. But this was purely “get up and sing in front of your peers.” I was accompanying, which was… magical, and I reiterated to my pianists, especially those on the fast track to accompanying, the importance of continuing on through mistakes. I switched certain students in and out of the “page-turner” role, which was good for my pianists. Students shared positive comments after each performance so we could all feel good about ourselves. Everyone was actively engaged and had something to work on at all times. It was all very natural, a term I can say I did not feel when I first started teaching multi-age, cross-level group things. “Differentiated instruction” at its finest. Too bad I’m not working in public schools anymore. They would have jumped all over that buzz phrase.

Then, of course, we gorged on cookies and ginger ale. My secret weapon. Some grabbed their snack and shot out (it was a Friday afternoon, after all), others stayed and mingled, and I got the chance to chat with some parents. Everyone was in and out in an hour, and it was all a surprisingly organic process. Until I realized I forgot to take pictures. Then I got a little organically pissed at myself. Oh well. Next time.

Future post: I promise to make a list of Some Vague and General Group Lesson Success Tips. But I have surpassed a thousand words and it’s time to close up shop.

Happy group-lessoning!


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