Piano Teaching Q&A: Group Classes

I have a small studio and would like to start doing group classes for my students. How many of these classes are good in a given 'semester'? One or two? Also, I would love to see some discussion or input on what good activities for group classes would be for beginning, intermediate, and advanced students. Thanks!

Thanks for the question! I thought since we have just spent a lot of time on group teaching this would be a perfect topic to discuss!

I think that having periodic group classes in your studio can be so invaluable to your students. There are so many things you can accomplish in a group class that you cannot in a private lesson. Having said this, I actually have personally never had regular studio classes in my own studio, but definitely plan on it as I am finally going to be staying put in one location for more than a year (hehe) and will have time to build up my studio more :) So please, readers, I'd love your comments and thoughts as well!

A few things that would be absolutely perfect to teach in a group setting:

  • Music Theory - every teacher knows that it is practically impossible to take as much time as you really need/want to during private lessons to really cover all of the necessary music theory concepts. Music theory is also perfect for teaching (or reviewing and reinforcing) in a group setting, as you can use so many fun games and activities to learn the concepts (hint hint readers....*discuss game ideas* ready go!)
  • Performance - this is the hugely important one for me that I really would like to have a group class devoted to. Performance is so important and cannot be learned unless the student has real opportunities to perform (go figure). Performing is so so different than practicing, or even just playing for your teacher. Having the opportunity to perform in front of your peers on a regular basis will work wonders for your students' performance skills and confidence. I loved going to studio class as a teenager and being able to perform for my peers. As we listened to each performance, my teacher had us each write "love notes" (yes that is what she called them - love it!) to each other, telling some things that we liked about their piece and maybe a suggestion or two. I think that really helped me learn how to listen to a performance and critique it, and in turn to be able to critique my own playing better. 
  • Music History & Music Appreciation - what a great opportunity to teach your studio about a specific composer and have them listen to some great music.
  • Duets! - group class is a perfect time to learn about and practice ensemble playing, accompanying, etc.

As far as how many classes to hold during a semester, I think it depends on your goals and the needs of your studio. I know some teachers who hold class monthly and some who hold class once or twice during the whole semester. As a teenager I went to group class about once or twice a semester, usually in the month or two before a recital. The main goal of that class was to practice performing our recital pieces. If your goal is to supplement the private lessons with a theory class, perhaps once a month might be better.

Something else not so important (but worth mentioning) is that treats are always appreciated at such events :) There was never a studio class that went by in my teenage years without receipt of a Creamie at the end.

So readers, now it is your turn! I'd love your input about specific game/activity ideas for group classes, and any other suggestions on this topic.

If you have a question about piano teaching that you'd like to ask us, please leave it in a comment or submit it here! Thanks!


Group Teaching: Recitals & Summer Classes

The final post of the Group Teaching series written by guest contributor Marissa Erekson


I held two recitals each year – one before Thanksgiving and one in the early Spring. My students also participated in the Piano Festival in March.

As I had several students, I would schedule several short recitals within the time frame at the recital hall. This gave them a larger performance audience in comparison to the group at the weekly lessons (which often included parents and siblings when I scheduled them to perform at the end of the lessons), but not so large that they were stressed or bored with playing in front of super large audiences or in long recitals.

In the fall recital, group students typically played songs from the lesson and supplemental books that they had been working on already in lessons. This included playing the songs as solos or as “monster” duets where they all simply played the same thing at the same time. In the Spring Recital the students had 2 solos and one ensemble with their group class in which there were 2 or 4 different parts (depending on if it was a 1-piano-duet on 2 pianos or an actual quartet). The Spring Recital allowed the students the opportunity to play two additional solos in front of a judge and others of compatible levels who studied with other teachers. They played one Classical piece and one buy a living American composer.

Summer Classes

Group Classes for Continuing Students
During the summer I offered group classes in specific musical areas (theory, composition, pop chords, history, jazz, ensemble, etc) in which students would come to class a few times the same week. This worked best in regard to working around vacation schedules. This created opportunities for students to expand their knowledge and skills in a specific area. I worked to include each of these areas in lessons during the school year, but time was always short and there were so many things to cover already. The students loved having the extra time to focus just on these specific skills.

I also had students who continued private lessons.

Group Camps for Beginner Students
I held beginner group piano camps during the summer. The camps lasted for 50 minutes a day for 5 days. I found that it greatly aided the students to have concentrated time with me for one week. We were able to cover many of the basics of piano education. There are many concepts that take a lot of lesson time, but don’t necessarily take a lot of practice time during the week in the beginning. Because of this, we were able to progress through the fundamentals quickly. We would typically cover in the one-week what would have been covered in the first couple of weeks of regular lessons. I used the lesson book that they would be using if they
continued during the school year.

This also gave both the parents and myself the opportunity to see if their kids were ready to begin lessons. I had a mix of over eager parents whose kids weren’t ready but typically came back a year later, and parents whose kids progressed more quickly then they imagined and enrolled for that school year. Parents liked to have the opportunity to expose their kids to music in a concentrated setting to see if their kids were interested and ready to sign up for regular lessons. Many of my students came from families where they did not have a lot of exposure to classical music or musical training on any instrument.

Marissa - thank you, thank you for sharing your thorough and organized approach to teaching group lessons! I am sure that many of us will benefit from your wonderful suggestions.


Group Lessons: Lesson Structure & The First Week of Lessons

Part 4 of the Group Teaching series written by guest contributor Marissa Erekson

Lesson Structure

As a classical musician with a firm background in piano pedagogy, I understood the need to include technique, theory, sight-reading, performing, etc. and I wanted to include all of these areas. The basic lesson structure included technique (5-finger patterns, Hanon Jr., chords, and then building to scales, etudes, etc), lesson books (ensemble style and performance style), and different games each week (theory, etc).

Since most of my students began the group lessons as their very first form of lessons, they were accustomed to how we would play together part of the time. The songs and technique exercises were short and allowed time for the kids to play together and separately as desired.

At the end of each lesson we had “parent time.” This was an opportunity for the students to review what they learned and I could demonstrate to the parents the new techniques or explain difficult concepts we learned in class. With group classes I also had papers printed with the week’s assignment. I carefully prepared the assignment sheet to include practice notes for the parents as well. There are different beliefs about parents attending lessons. In the case of group lessons I found that my kids performed better in the lesson without the parents, but that meant my time was limited for interaction and explanation with the parents. (I would have required parents to attend the whole lesson in the case of young private beginner students.) Between the parent time and the assignment papers the parents were able to understand what they were supposed to

do during the week. I was also very open towards allowing parents to contact me through email or phone calls for further explanation.

I had binders for each student. In the binder I had dividers for their lesson assignment sheet, technique (some of my technique did not come from books or I had different papers I had created explaining the activities) theory, sight-reading music, and other things I needed for lessons. The binders served as a reference for the weekly assignment as well as for me to include papers for my own personal teaching method as I didn’t directly follow any specific method books already published.

During the time in between lessons I made notes about the students’ progress during lessons and any insight about what was needed for the following week. Then at the end of my lessons for the evening I would prepare the lesson sheets for the following week and sketch out the time frame for the lesson the next week (ie – games to play, new music needed, how many minutes for each activity).

First Week of Lessons

The first week of school I held “Parent Nights” where I taught the parents about my teaching philosophy and style and also helped them to learn how they could help their child at home with practicing. I held classes for all group piano student parents, but had separate classes for new parents and for continuing parents. Information covered included the lesson binder layout, practicing tips, the basic lesson schedule for what would typically be included in a lesson, and the general syllabus for the school year.

During the first week all students attended large group classes (groups of around 8 students) to review concepts from the summer for the beginner students or review concepts from the previous year for continuing students. This provided a “teaser” for lessons without the full practicing assignment, and typically led to them reviewing a lot of other music before their regular lessons the following week.


Group Teaching: Scheduling & Music Selection

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!

Music Selection

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.


Group Teaching: Studio Set Up & Billing

Part 2 of the Group Teaching series written by guest contributor Marissa Erekson

Studio Set Up

I had learned about group piano lessons from workshops I had attended while in school. I had heard lectures detailing how the purchase of the digital pianos was a big expense upfront, but would then be made up for with the additional income. So, when I moved to set up my studio I purchased a grand piano and four digital pianos. It was a huge purchase, but with the additional students, I had the pianos all paid off seven months later (the bulk of that expense was for the grand piano, otherwise it would have been paid off much sooner).

I had the four pianos in a rectangle: two pianos side by side with the students facing in to each other. Then I could walk around the four pianos to help and correct them as needed. The students also were able to work well with counting, etc as they were looking at each other.

I had a large open area for the kids to sit on the floor for the games.


Students were charged the same rate for the 50-minute group class as more advanced students were billed for a 30-minute private lesson. If you charge less than this, then you have simply created an organized babysitting service. Also, if you charge less, then you are setting yourself up saying that group lessons aren’t as valuable as private lessons. I had an incredible amount of success with the group lessons, both in the development of the students’ skills and in the number of years that students remained in lessons. I never had a parent complain about tuition prices due to the time factor. You will need to find out what the general tuition rate for a 30-minute lesson in your area.

Books were included in the tuition for group class students. I created a “music book account” for private students and then deducted the amount of any music I purchased for them. I purchased the music online through various different websites where I received a discount and watched for sales for even higher discounts.

All students also paid a registration fee at the beginning of the semester for recital fees, etc.

Another note for billing – I strongly recommend using a billing service. I had a lot of students, but even if I only had 5-10 (like now) I would still use a billing service. I used MuBuS (Music Business Solutions) and was very happy with their service (very low user fees and very good service). I know of other teachers who said that they didn’t think it was necessary to hire somebody else to do what they could do for free. But then when I asked how much time they spent on billing issues I was appalled by the length of time spent sending email reminders and the number of times they had to bill late fees. I wanted lesson time to be spent strictly on teaching and all of the out-of-lesson work time to be spent on lesson planning – not on billing. It took minimal time to set each student/family up with a music account the beginning of their study time with me. Then if their credit card expired MuBuS would contact parents for the updated info. I only dealt with financial matters the beginning of the year when I set up new students and programmed the new rates.

I can’t even remember how many parents told me how much they loved that I used an automatic billing service and how many of them had even recommend MuBuS to the teachers who taught their other kids other musical instruments.


Why Group Lessons?

Part 1 of the Group Teaching series written by guest contributor Marissa Erekson

I moved to Virginia where most parents had never heard of group piano lessons before. In the beginning I spent a lot of time speaking with parents about all of the benefits of group piano lessons, but soon the benefits were apparent and were spread by word of mouth by happy parents. Initially I gave several reasons of why kids would benefit from a group setting including:

• Ensemble opportunities each week
• Performance opportunities each week
• A comfortable setting where they could practice rhythm games and counting (most parents who had studied piano as a kid remembered that they did not enjoy counting)
• A setting where they could play theory games that weren’t possible in a private setting (continuing to emphasize a child’s love of games and how so many more games are possible in the group setting)
• Longer lesson time each week
• Opportunities to learn to critique music in a comfortable setting
• All other activities are linked with a child’s innate love of making friends and being social (sports, etc) in which most kids would create memories and continue longer term.
• A cooperative learning environment.

In the end, one of the greatest reasons for group lessons related to the parents’ competitiveness. In a private lesson setting where parents see their child compared to other students only at the recitals, they would make excuses if their child wasn’t as good as others. But every single week parents would see their child compared to others who began lessons at the same time and would realize that every child could succeed in music. Parents began to see that all children could be successful in music if they put in the practice time (same as with academics). This promoted great parental assistance with the practicing and student adherence to practice schedules. Students were also very excited about lessons because they created “musical friendships,” many of which I learned expanded outside of lessons.

Most parents had never heard of group piano lessons, and if they had it was always cast in light of being second best and for students who weren’t as talented. (I only ever had one student who was “too talented” to be in group lessons. But that was because she began practicing 1 hour a day or more her first year of lessons. Most 6 year olds don’t practice 1-2 hours a day.) In the beginning I had to explain a lot about how great it was for students to be able to work in a cooperative atmosphere where they could work together to develop their skills. Once lessons began, parents did all of the advertising and I seldom had to explain to a new
parent the benefits of a group setting.

Guest Contributor: Marissa Erekson

We have an awesome guest contributor with us this week who is going to be discussing group teaching. We are so excited to welcome Marissa Erekson, a wonderful pianist and piano teacher with a lot of experience in teaching group lessons. Let's get to know her a little!

Marissa Erekson

she is from:
Bel Air, MD

she is:
a scheduler who is always looking for new adventures

she attended:
BYU: BM 2003 (studied with Jeff Shumway)
MM 2006 (studied with Scott Holden)

Pursuing a 2nd BSN in Nursing at Georgetown U

her studio:
Worked full time teaching group and private lessons to many hard working and fun loving
children and adults in group and private lessons! She began teaching in 1995, but has
temporarily cut back with teaching to pursue her nursing studies.

she loves:
Traveling, learning how to bake (especially if it involves chocolate), good movies, and a hard


Piano Teaching Q&A: Maternity Leave

I am due with my 3rd child in about a month and currently have 8 piano students ages 7-11. They are all in the Primer Bastien book, except 2, who are in level 1. As important as my piano students and their success is to me, my family comes first, so I have been thinking of taking a break for about a month to adjust to the new baby. I'm due January 26th, so I was going to just teach through January until the baby comes and then start up again in March. I would love to get your input and advice on how to make this break time not hinder the progress of my students and what kinds of things to give my students to work on while I’m out. I welcome any suggestions and thank you in advance for your help.
Haley Castillo

Hi, I just had my second baby a few months ago, so this is fresh on my mind. I'm exhausted! Good luck with your third! I hope I can answer this in a way that will apply to other teachers as well. There are a couple of different ways to handle a maternity leave. One is to find a substitute teacher to teach your students while you are gone, and the other is to just give your students a break for a while.


If at all possible, I recommend finding a substitute teacher to take your students while you are recovering and adjusting to life with a new baby. Brainstorm possibilities for someone who might be able to do this: do you have a younger sibling who would like to learn to teach? Do you have any nearby relatives or friends with teaching experience or a good piano background? What about piano teachers in your neighborhood? Maybe an older person who used to teach and might enjoy a short-term return to the trade? Consider that someone who is less experienced than you will appreciate the opportunity and training, but may not push your students as hard as you would. On the other hand, someone with more experience than you should be able to keep your students challenged, but might be more expensive, and honestly, you could lose some students who may decide to transfer to the substitute's studio permanently. There are bound to be drawbacks with anyone you choose, but it will usually still be better than losing the momentum by giving your students a month or two off of lessons entirely.

Once you have a list of a few possibilities, contact each one of them to gauge their interest and availability. Let them know how many weeks you are planning to take off, what your current teaching schedule is, and what tuition your students are currently paying. Ideally, it would be great to find someone who can maintain the same schedule and tuition your students are used to, but minor adjustments may have to be made.

Once you have arranged with someone to be your substitute, contact each of your students to let them know what you have set up. Tell them when and where their lessons will be, who they should make payment to (if you already have a good payment system in place, it might work best for them to continue to pay you, and you can just write one check to the substitute), and any other details you have worked out with the substitute. The smoother you can make this transition for your students, the less likely you are to lose any of them in the process.

Write some notes about each student for the substitute teacher. Let them know how long the student has been playing, what pieces they are working on, what skills they need to focus on, what your practice expectations are, what your reward systems are, etc. If your students will be ready to start any new literature during your absence, select that literature ahead of time and let the substitute know when to assign it. The more info you can give the substitute about your students and your systems, the smoother the transition will be for everyone involved. But keep in mind that every teacher does things differently, and the substitute will probably do some things with your students that you wouldn't have done. And that's okay; you might even learn something!

No substitute

If you can't find anyone that you feel good about teaching your students while you are gone, then it can work to give your students a break for a while. You run the risk of losing some who might decide not to come back once they get out of the habit of lessons, and you will absolutely have to do a little backtracking to re-teach lost skills, but there are a few things you can do to minimize the negative impact of this time off.
  • Let parents know exactly when lessons will start up again. If you give them a date to put on their calendars, they are more likely to view this as a break instead of a stopping point with an optional restart.
  • Give students weekly assignments to complete while you are gone. Maybe they can pass off a song to a parent each week, master a new technique exercise, or complete a theory game or coloring page during their regular lesson time.
  • Don't treat your time off like a break for the students. If they get out of the habit of practicing while you are on leave, they might not get back in. It's likely they won't practice as well as usual, but expect them to, and they might. Especially if they have weekly goals they know they need to complete.
  • It might help to make a calendar showing the weeks you will be gone, and to write assignments and goals directly on the calendar. Maybe younger students would enjoy crossing off the days on the calendar, or putting a sticker on each day that they practice.
  • Enlist the parents' help in keeping the practicing consistent and in meeting weekly goals.
  • See if you can think of a fun and different assignment for the students to do while you are gone—maybe have them write a composition, do a research project about a composer, or write a story about two music notes named Fred and Harry (yeah...I'm sure you can come up with something better than that...)
  • Depending on what you think you are up for, you might consider making a phone call to each family once or twice during your time off, just to check in and see how practicing and other assignments are going. This can help parents and students recommit if they have slacked a bit.
  • Send a birth announcement to each family so they will be thinking about you! (I'm mostly kidding about this one...who has time to send birth announcements after their 3rd child?)

I hope this helps a little. Obviously there are lots of details that could be handled differently, and you will need to think carefully about each of your students and what will be best for them. I hope other teachers will add their ideas in the comments!

If you have a question you'd like to ask us, submit it here!


Advertising for New Students

I just had to get that Merry Christmas post off of the top of the blog - onto a new year! :) I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas break and are on to great new semesters of piano study. We have a lot of great things coming up on The Teaching Studio. For now, I thought it would be a great time to re-visit the topic of Finding New Students.

I have made many-a-flyer in my years of teaching piano lessons. I decided it was time for a new, more professional-looking one. I wanted one that I could email out to people (I have had people give my name to people who are interested in lessons, and wanted something professional-looking that could be forwarded on to others). I used Microsoft Publisher to make this one and I love how it turned out! I have never used this program before, but I loved all of the professional-looking templates you can choose from and customize to your heart's content. What do you think?

Now, tell me - what kind of information do you like to put on your flyers? If you use flyers to advertise, how do you make them? Where/how do you like to distribute them?

Happy Monday!
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