Today’s post is by Inner Circle member and all-round superstar teacher, Marie Lee, who I had the pleasure of finally meeting at this year’s MTNA and who is kicking some serious goals in her piano teaching studio.
Marie has totally revolutionised her studio from private teaching to only group teaching and has seen a massive payoff in engagement, enrollments, excitement and community and so I was delighted to hear that she was keen to share some of her ideas with us.
Thanks for all your contributions to the blog and our members community, Marie! If you’d like to connect with Marie personally, join the crew of amazing teachers in my Inner Circle.
Over to you, Marie!
A complete revolution!
Thirteen years ago I did something completely radical and transitioned my 30-student private piano studio into a group piano class studio.
Since that time, it’s grown to over 100 students, ages three to adult.
Over the past years, prospective students’ parents and fellow piano teachers have asked me the same question many times, “What is a group piano class like?”
To answer, I use the senses of sight, sound and emotion, along with sharing a typical class outline and lesson planning tips.
What does a group piano class look like?
- Group classes typically have a combination of five to eight instruments (pianos or electronic keyboards) closely packed together with a student at each. I’ve found it more helpful to have several rows rather than one, long row. There are advantages and disadvantages to having each student face the same direction towards me or aligning them to face each other.
- I almost never use headphones. That totally takes away the benefits of group piano and turns it into seven mini-private lessons. Not fun for anyone.
- In addition to the teacher-student motions and interactions, there are additional dynamics between students like constructive feedback and friendly competition. These are energizing for both teacher and students!
- There’s on-going, positive peer pressure. Students usually practice well at home because they know they’ll be playing in front of each other. Also, students want to “out-do” each other by memorizing quicker or learning a new piece on their own to show off to the class.
What does a group piano class sound like?
This shouldn’t be an out-of-control noisy loud, but the combined effort of musicians coming together. Instead of a school classroom’s cacophony, think of a head-nodding jam session.
Students learn to listen to each other while playing, developing a better sense of rhythm and tempo. This ensemble playing in every class refines their ability to accompany others or play in a band. They also shout out in friendly competition through games and incentive programs.
What does a group piano class feel like?
Students are more relaxed because the spotlight isn’t directly on them. The teacher isn’t sitting right next to them — listening to and watching their every move. Students feel free to answer questions and share observations, participate better and can focus on the fun and joy of making music, still with a teacher close by.
Students feel a connection and loyalty to their “piano team.” They love making music with their friends. I currently have a class of high-schoolers that have been together since they were six years old. They’re busy and have very little time to practice, but don’t want to give up their “team.” They’ve become the best of friends!
My typical 45 minute class schedule (I don’t do everything each week):
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- Sight Reading on Piano Maestro
- Review last week’s songs with teacher duets
- Piano Pronto method books for ages 6+. Piano Safari for 4-5 year olds. Piano Made Fun for the Young for preschool piano.
- Supplementary music (pop, holiday, Jr Festival, Daniel McFarlane’s SupersonicsPiano.com is a favorite)
- Theory game (TeachPianoToday.com games or iPad games projected on a large screen TV)
- Improvisation activity. Forest Kinney’s Pattern Play books are used often.
- Scale work (Philip Johnston’s Scales Bootcamp, scales on Piano Maestro or improvise a melody out of scale notes and play with a backing track from the Musiclock app)
- Rote learning of familiar melodies. Last year we learned Happy Birthday, Jingle Bells, Star Wars and chords from Adele’s Hello.
- Arranging/Chording (LH accompanying patterns with a familiar RH melody or lead sheet. Chord progressions PDF by Tim Topham (available in the Inner Circle) and Bradley Sowash’s Creative Chords.)
- Introducing a composition focus this year. One class per month will be devoted to composition using Jennifer Eklund’s Write That Down composition workbook and Noteflight software.
- Some non-piano social interaction — this is a paid lesson, but I do allow them a little time to make a broad announcement, recap a family event or tell how they broke their arm (three this year!).
- I have a comprehensive ticket and prize program each lesson that targets positive behavior. I also take tickets away when a student misbehaves. At the end of each lesson, they quickly trade-in their tickets for non-food prizes from Oriental Trading.
Group Piano Class Lesson Planning
As you’d suspect, a successful group piano class doesn’t just happen. It requires significant preparation beforehand, ensuring the best use of class time. I find that I spend at least thirty minutes per class on lesson planning.
Here are some ideas I’ve found helpful:
- Mayron Cole Group Piano Method suggests dividing lesson time into these 4 parts, in any order: review last week’s songs, theory time, game time, learn new song(s).
- Lay out goals of what MUST be accomplished that day then fill in the rest.
- Always have extra activities in case you have time left over, or an activity isn’t going well and you need to change things up.
- I rarely do theory worksheets because students complain that they feel like schoolwork. I agree! Instead, we play theory games or analyze the pieces we’re learning to earn tickets. Yes, I know this sounds like a teacher’s cop-out, but in testing them later, I find they retain theory concepts better using this approach because it involves more senses.
- Mix up the order of activities each week to keep things lively and spontaneous. Scales don’t always have to be played at the beginning. Games don’t always have to be played at the end.
Are you liking what you see, hear and feel?
Perhaps it’s time to incorporate some group piano into your own studio — maybe a once-a-month group piano class for your private students or group workshops this summer?
Consider how many of us are more consistent in documenting our lives on Facebook than we are in our own personal journals. It’s the live interaction with others that motivates us. We want to see what others are doing, share what we’re personally experiencing, be enveloped in a sense of community, and find support through it all.
Similarly, both from formal studies and my personal experience, students that see, hear and feel a sense of community tend to stick with music instruction longer, giving teachers more time to turn students into life-long music makers. Group piano classes do that.
Are you ready to try group teaching?
What’s holding you back? What do you need to know?
Leave your questions for Marie below.