Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Mixed Levels in Groups

Unless you are teaching a group class to play from scratch, every group you work with will consist of students who are at different levels from each other.  How do you work with a single group that has varied abilities?

Since all students at all levels have improvements to make in their playing, you can find ways to make sure that during your class everyone gets a chance to make some improvement at their own level.

Several ways to do this in a mixed-level class include: exploring musicality, giving students at different levels their own challenges, and combining a simplified with a more complex version of the same music.  Let’s explore a little about each of these.

Musicality is a never ending challenge for all levels.  Better players can do more with it, but less advanced students can always benefit from trying for a more musical feeling in their music, however brief or long the portion of music they are working on.

It is always instructive to have a group try a passage of music with several different musical interpretations.  Ideas can be suggested by the students or by the teacher.  It can be fun to explore different moods.  Anger, melancholy, anxiety, romance–all can turn the same notes into very different musical ideas.  Use current happenings or made-up stories to have some fun with these ideas.

Take a little time to help each level of student in the class.  Don’t be too worried about addressing some and not all the students at one time.  When you work with a portion of the class on a more basic problem, it can still be useful for more advanced players to identify and clarify that technical or musical problem.  Don’t spend so much time on it that others feel left out, and it’s nice to lead back into having the whole group play together, so that everyone stays alert and stays involved.  Take a little time with more advanced players as well; give them a challenge to work on in playing the same music.  Less advanced players generally appreciate listening in on what advanced players are working on.  As long as you take a bit of time for each level to have a challenge, no one begrudges the others the time you give them, especially if they can hear how all the work fits into better playing the piece.

Sometimes you can simplify a passage of music, which is not only useful for less advanced players but also helpful to clarify the essence of the music for more advanced players.  Encourage the more beginning players to play the simplified version, and not just consider it a learning exercise.  This can improve the group’s, as the essential notes can be emphasized by everyone, while the more complicated notes can be played by the better students, while everyone improves their understanding of the music.

Too often, students are desperate to get all the notes right, and will chase after notes that are getting away from them.  Playing a simpler version of a piece while some others are playing the finished version can give some students a chance to get a better feel for the ensemble, rather than obsess about notes they may be missing.  By playing the parts they can handle, students at various levels can play well together, and you can help them build on their skills at their own levels.

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

1 Comment

  1. Chris Brown

    Great posting with good ideas for groups. I am trying to get adult piano Recreational Music Making groups going in my area, but everyone seems to prefer individual lessons.

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