Lessons On Group Lessons Part Deux: 4 Proven Success Tips

This must be the weekend for pedagogy. True to my word, I’m following up on yesterday’s happy fun-time post about group lessons. I did not employ marshal law, nor did I get everyone to drink “special” kool-aid, and yet somehow all of my private students waltzed out of Friday’s group lesson feeling great about life. It may have been the sugar from the post-shenanigans cookie pow-wow, but at least I provide.

So what made yesterday so successful?

Some General Yet Proven Group Lesson Success Tips

1. Have something for everyone
It’s hard to say what will work and what won’t, but I like to decide an intent for every student that plans on attending. That’s the real advantage to private teaching that I feel I never quite got to do in public schools. Instead of teaching to the lowest common denominator and hoping everyone gets one skill, I get to say he is going to get practice with reading music, and she is going to practice her active listening, and what about that college student? She’s going to observe and plan ahead so she knows what to practice for when she performs. Some might call these lesson objectives. I don’t write lesson plans anymore (unless you count a running list of sanskrit-esque google docs), but if I did, I’d say it’s important to decide in your head what everyone’s going to get out of your time with them. What are students going to walk out and remember five or ten years down the road? I still remember attending my first studio class and maybe being a little closer to understanding the principles of breathing when I saw someone else being used as an example. I also remember being much younger and attending piano theory sessions with a handful of other kids, and how we used to write out chords in C, F, and G. That stuff sticks with you, and we never really got to focus on that supplemental, yet crucial skill-building in lessons because there just doesn’t ever seem to be enough time. Make group lessons worth your students’ time by having something for everyone – the small environment is oh-so conducive to learning for everyone. 

2. Keep things simple
This doesn’t mean that you don’t prepare, or that you can’t go a little crazy with the icebreakers. In general, I’ve found myself over-planning a lot in recent years. Rarely do I have time leftover in rehearsals, lessons, and the like. Maybe I actually know what I’m doing now. Your guess is as good as mine. Either way, the flow of teaching, for me at least, occurs when I keep things simple and just go with it. After years of trial-and-error group activities, I’ve found the most successful ones are the ones for which I did very little actual planning, or at least the planning was significantly less meticulous. So this year, I’m capitalizing on that. I’m having four group lessons. The first and third are totally informal: they use their music, they can perform all or a portion of what they feel they have prepared, and they don’t have to dress up. The third is a step above a group lesson, and is what I call a “showcase.” They’ll be memorized and it’ll be open to parents and friends, yet still generally “in progress.” The fourth is something I haven’t done before, and it’s a holiday open house and sing-along, where I’ll have a portion of the studio open for informal solo and group singing, and food and mingling in another area of the house. We’ll perform in 20-minute shifts, I think. I’m still having a formal recital, but my overall goal is to get students performing more, and in lower-risk environments. That, to me, is a simple goal, and acts as the catalyst in all my planning. Don’t overcomplicate and deviate from the goal. My simple questions are: Are they performing? Will they perceive this to be low-risk? If the answer to both of those is yes, then I’m doing something right. That’s my simple.

3. Have fun and stay non-awkward
I used to be terrified of teaching high-schoolers at the same time as six-year-olds. I was sure someone would be bored out of their skull and wouldn’t want to come back. Now I throw caution to the wind and just be myself in inter-generational environments, and people latch onto that and tend to respond as such. My students see me act differently than how I do in lessons, which is mostly jovial yet hardworking (and slightly threatening if you haven’t practiced). I think the kids like that I joke around and lighten the atmosphere enough so they feel they can talk out loud, comment on things, and even speak directly to one another, which is something I can say I avoided like the plauge in unfamiliar situations as a kid.  Either way, I use group lessons to have fun. I play top-40 music as students are entering because otherwise it’s awkwardly quiet. It’s a built-in icebreaker because students inevitably sing a little, and I comment frankly about how good their warmups sound (har-dee-har). I have awkward conversation starters, like “on 3, shout out one thing you do to take care of yourself when you’re sick” (after the ol’ vocalist’s disclaimer “pardon my voice, I’ve been sick“). I take every opportunity to make things less awkward, because I think we can agree that we all need a little more comfort in our musical lives.

Pavlov knew his shit. I still remember when I was in high school and my voice teacher brought crock-pot white hot chocolate and stuffed mushrooms (two separate items, mind you) to a studio class. Some might call that overkill, but I felt so mature, and it kept me coming back. I probably wouldn’t bring crudités to studio class for anyone under sixteen, but the concept reigns true. Food brings people and families. In the grand scheme of things, I’ve only recently jumped on the whole “building a studio culture” bandwagon, and the trick is in the food. Just have food. Every time. Oh, and put it at the end of the lesson for obvious reasons – sugar highs, phlegm, the ol’ “I need to perform first and leave” switcharoo (food-diggers, they are). At my last group lesson, I mentioned that cookies were waiting for them, and in between every 3-4 performances, I had them guess what kind. Some weird suggestions started flying around. It became an odd game, but I went with it and by the end of the lesson, they were so pumped, which I like to think had less to do with the cookies themselves and more with the collective anticipation. It’s tried, it’s true, it’s food. Just do it.

What tried and true techniques do you use in group music-making? 

I’m excited for this week. My sanskrit google docs are growing exponentially and every post brings eight more ideas I want to talk about. If I dry up and shrivel into a shell of expunged blog ideas (technically, that wouldn’t leave a shell, I guess) by the end of the year, I bequeath my dachshunds to my parents. Let them clean up all the poop.

Happy music-making! And poop-cleaning. Sorry, mom.

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