Part 3 of the Group Teaching series written by guest contributor Marissa Erekson
Each group lesson was 45 minutes plus a 5+ minute “parent time.” I scheduled group classes into 1 hour time slots to allow for extra parent time as needed and to allow time for the four kids (and parents and younger siblings who showed up for the parent time as well) to leave before the next set of students arrived.
Scheduling for group classes was difficult in regard to placing people at similar levels together. My very first year was difficult as I did not fully know all of the students. The second year was much easier to place students appropriately with compatible students. I also began teaching the summer “Beginner camps” after the first year. From then on, all beginner students attended a summer-intro camp in which I gained a basic idea of their potential for their learning style.
Because of the cooperative group setting, my students were diligent with their practicing (students and parents liked to shine in front of their musical peers). Thus they all typically progressed at the same general pace as each other, same as they do in academic settings.
At the beginning of each school year I would ask all parents for a list of times that worked for their schedules. I didn’t have set numbers of each group level so I couldn’t simply say that level 1 students were Tuesday at 3, Level 2 at 4, etc. Instead, once I had the list of times available to each parent I created a spreadsheet showing when each child was available. I then organized groups according to compatible age/levels/schedules. I also kept in mind trying to link up siblings in order (though often parents weren’t as concerned because with the longer lesson times they found it easier to have the 50 minute time slot for each child on different days). I also
had students who were friends prior to lessons or became friends in the previous year of lessons who wanted to stay together. It sounds complicated, but it always worked out somehow!
There is a lot of ensemble music for different sizes of ensembles, but I also needed music appropriate for lessons on a weekly basis.
I chose to use the “Celebrate Piano” lesson books (which I supplemented with a variety of books from other composers and publishers). The songs were interesting and we all enjoyed the accompaniments on the CD. There are many different approaches to teaching beginner students. CP taught by intervals using five-finger patterns and moved into all of the different keys in level 2. (The teacher who inspired me to proceed with the group lessons used the Faber Piano Adventures, so you can use any series for group lessons.) Last year I switched to actually teach from the first book in the Alfred Premier Piano Course and then switching to the 1b
Celebrate Piano book afterwards, as I liked having the students start with a stronger note reading approach and then switch to the intervals.
As the songs and technique exercises were short (5-finger patterns and chords), we would often play the song or exercise a few times if needed. Each time we would focus on a different aspect as needed (FERN practicing style) which further helped them to understand that practicing required playing multiple times and having a different (and specific) focus each time.
I encouraged the use of the accompaniment CD’s. I have met teachers who don’t like to have their students hear the music repeatedly because they feared the kids would learn the music by ear and neglect their reading. However, I feel as Suzuki that kids need to learn music by example (same as you would learn a language by hearing it and not simply be reading it – which is why I can read Spanish but can’t speak it). Plus we did so many theory and note reading activities in the group setting that I was confident in the kids reading level as well.
In regards to ensemble music, each of the online music order websites (Prima, FJH, etc) has lists of ensemble music listed by the type of ensemble (trio, 1 piano duet, 2 piano duet). The NFMC music handbook has ensemble categories with appropriate music listed.