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Group instrumental learning and its importance in the classroom

Learning musical instruments  in groups is the best way to start out, but it has to be done right.

I was recently involved in a round-table discussion about the merits of whole-class instrumental lessons, or Wider-Opps as they are also known as. There seemed to be mixed opinions as to whether these lessons were an effective way of learning. Indeed, there were people of the opinion that they were actually more harmful to the music teaching profession and children alike. The worry was that institutions were using them as an affordable compromise, ticking educational boxes with less concern for the quality of outcomes.

Having taught group lessons for two decades, I was a little disheartened. Whilst I can’t pretend that all my lessons have been models of excellence, there is no doubt in my mind that group lessons, when delivered well, can achieve outstanding results. Inevitably, it boils down to how the lessons are conducted, and how well they are supported, both at school and at home. Crucially, neither of these factors cost any more, so the potential to deliver effective instrumental lessons to more children doesn’t have to be a budgetary issue.

A successful group lesson requires excellent teachers with the right set of priorities and good instincts. Classes are incredibly demanding to deliver. They require a set of teaching skills unique to that of any other educational setting. The activity demands both mental and physical acrobatics with intense focus and analysis. They are physically and emotionally draining to deliver, which doesn’t seem to lessen, no matter how many years of experience you have. Support from parents at home is patchy at best, so ensuring that all children are getting the best out of it requires teachers to be both engaging and creative, finding ways to motivate children who have different personalities and needs.

Like any complex skill, learning how to teach effectively in groups can take time. An effective model is to shadow an experienced teacher, either as an assistant or an observer. Seeing how teachers deal with an ever-evolving situation; how they respond to unexpected instances; are able to steer the lesson according to the mood of the class, dealing with distractions whilst maintaining focus in the group. Having a good plan in mind helps of course, but being able to seamlessly diverge from that plan is equally necessary. Understanding that moments of controlled chaos are sometimes necessary when managing groups of children. Observing an experienced teacher provides the most comprehensive training, and eases the transition to the point where it’s possible to lead lessons with confidence.

Several other factors also play a role in determining the success of group-lessons. The amount of allocated time is central. Ideally children would have one large group lesson, say for one hour, with an additional shorter, smaller group-lesson. This gives the teacher the chance to address individual concerns. A good teacher will adjust their style accordingly to maximise the benefits of a smaller group, encouraging children to help each other and motivate themselves as a group.  

The attitude of the school staff can also have a profound impact. A supportive class teacher can make all the difference. Ideally they would join in as much as possible, playing the role of the supportive parent, which may not be guaranteed at home, encouraging their pupils to take their instruments home at the end of the day for example. A head teacher simply turning up to the odd class and sharing a compliment can have a huge impact. When children understand that their efforts are appreciated, it builds confidence and a sense of collective pride in their achievements. It makes a difference when music lessons are seen as part of the identity of the school. The efforts of the class can then be celebrated in regular concerts, affirming the role of music in the school and showing younger classes what they have to look forward to.

When children start out playing instruments in groups, the transition to orchestra or ensemble is a natural one. They will be used to forming part of a team. They will learn to read notes and improvise collectively, developing these crucial skills in tandem.

The objective is not necessarily to turn out generations of great instrumentalists. It is more simply to introduce children to the joys of making music. This can happen on any level and is especially crucial for beginners. Not all children will chose to pursue it further, but at least they will all have been introduced to the great subject in a loving way, building appreciation and hopefully audiences of the future. Modern popular music may be increasingly electronic, but that in no way replaces the fun of making music with your body, understanding the language of notation, and the thrill of working with your friends to create something beautiful.

To suggest that high standards can only be achieved with individual lessons shows a lack of creativity, not a practical reality. Musical instruments can be taught in a whole class setting without the need to compromise standards. Teachers just need the right kind of training and support.