Having taught whole classes of instrumentalists for many years, several patterns emerge that allow me to establish certain rules of engagement that might be useful for readers to know. Patterns of behaviour that make your lessons happier and more effective with no extra effort.
1. Groups of children react. Children respond differently as a group than as individuals. They are driven more by feeling and instinct than considered thought. It is important to be aware of this when adjusting your teaching style in a group class. It is not enough to deliver instructions verbally in a polite fashion. You have to project and use more non-verbal gesture to communicate. If you want children to stand tall, show them. If you want them to adjust dynamic, demonstrate in an obvious and charismatic way. Use humour wherever and whenever. The more theatrical you are, the more the children will react positively. It might not come naturally at first, but it is a style you can quickly adapt to when you notice the positive results, not least on your energy levels. Shouting for silence is extremely tiring. It emits a very negative energy and is a short step away from displaying anger and frustration, your worst enemy. You may get silence for a moment, but at the expense of good will. A teacher who is in command never need raise their voice in anger.
2. Maintain good humour.
Maintaining classroom discipline is perhaps the greatest challenge for any teacher, especially one with less experience. Whilst there are no rules that can adequately prepare you for the real thing, it is worth bearing in mind a few truths. If you are afraid, timid or shy you will struggle to gain the respect of your class. This does not mean you have to be a battle-axe however. All children really need from you is confident leadership. This can be achieved without aggression. Using humour is your greatest tool. If you can make children laugh or smile it disarms them and they will be more willing to respond constructively. From this vantage you can insist upon good posture/bow holds etc. It is also easier to maintain calm in the classroom and maybe even silence. It is worth remembering that talking is not necessarily the most effective way to communicate.
3. Give positive instruction.
Children respond most usefully to clear and positive instruction. It is pointless to ask a child not to do something. Instead, look for an alternative positive instruction. If you want them to observe a rest, give them something to do in the rest. It could be a gesture, or to shout ‘rest!’ in their head. If you want them to stop talking, you could instruct them to take a deep breath while you count to five. Alternatively, forgo the wish for silence and just start a familiar piece. Your role as a teacher is not necessarily to maintain silence, it is to maintain focus. Kids want to be occupied, give them something to do.
4. Pacing the lesson.
Always have a vague lesson plan in mind. Be ready, however, to take another path if you sense the mood desires it. Perhaps the classroom is very hot, or the children have just had an exam, or they have a supply teacher. Many things can affect the behaviour of the class, so be ready to modify your plan accordingly. Your plan should mix up the learning styles to avoid over-working one area that could lead to fatigue (e.g. note-reading.)
5. Ask questions.
Instead of imparting information, ask leading and obvious questions. It is important to get answers from children themselves. It helps with remembering details and is great for morale. Insist that nobody calls out, instead pick from a show of hands. Ask the rest of the class if they agree or disagree with the answer given, this helps to include all children. If you spot a child who does not have their hand up following an easy question, ask them for the answer to ensure they are included. If you have a very knowledgeable child in the group who knows all the answers, make them aware that you have noticed this and promise them a more difficult question another time.
6. Manage expectations.
Be ambitious, but realistic. The process is more important than the end result. Your primary objective as a teacher is to keep the children engaged and learning. You might not get to the end of the piece. So long as the class has focussed and been sufficiently challenged, that is enough for now.
7. Be unpredictable.
One way to lose the attention of your class is to become predictable. Mix up your approach to a new piece. Try not starting at the beginning. Use call-and-response, sight-reading, listening, improvisation and other physical gesturing to keep the learning process alive and varied. This will reach out to the whole class and keep their attention on you. It is important to reward good behaviour with genuine praise. With unruly attention-seeking individuals, try to ignore their disruptive efforts but use their moments of good behaviour as an example to the rest of the class. This compliment will ensure their compliance for longer and more work can get done.
8. Know your repertoire.
As part of your lesson plan, ensure you have a suitable mix of pieces that challenge your group in different ways. Children have differing types of ability and taste, you need to vary your repertoire accordingly. It is important to be mindful of the best approach to a new piece. If you place too much emphasis in one area (e.g. note-reading or call-and-response,) you might lose the attention of some class members.
9. Pairing up.
Sometimes I like to pair children up. This is particularly useful with note-learning. Give them a clear objective (e.g. learn the notes of the first line) and give them 2 minutes to discuss with each other. This has several advantages: a) Children often have a highly efficient way of communicating with each other. b) They are more likely to remember things they discover for themselves. c) It introduces a competitive element. d) It gives you a moment to observe individuals and their interaction. It also affords you some down-time.
10. Include bits of theory and music history into your lessons.
As part of your lesson plan, it is useful to have a few minutes of non-playing time. Perhaps when you have already done the body of work you were hoping to cover and the group is in need of a rest. I often use these minutes to back-up their learning with some recognition of the great composers. I do this in the form of a quiz. I play a few notes of a very famous work (Beethoven 5, Mozart ‘Eine Kleine’ as examples) and see how many children recognise the theme. I will then ask related questions like ‘what do you call a person who writes music?’, or ‘how would you describe the character of the piece?’ By the end of the year I want all the children to be able to pronounce and spell Beethoven and Mozart (at least!) Apart from this useful general knowledge, it also helps to give an idea of why musical instruments are played in a wider context, offering maybe even a little inspiration.
Have a plan but be flexible. Be confident and project your personality to the corners of the room. Keep the lesson flowing and mix up the learning styles. Only give positive instruction and genuine praise. Insist on compliance with regard to posture, bow hold etc. Ask leading questions that the children can answer themselves. Use non-verbal communication and maintain good humour.