group classes

As much as I love teaching private piano lessons (and I do!), there is nothing like the fun of a successful group class.

I hold seven or eight group classes a year for my private students. These group classes are generally held on weeks with only make-up lessons or on weeks (like Thanksgiving week) that I don’t teach any private lessons at all. I use group classes as performance classes, for theory and ear training review, for history and listening, and for improvising and composition ideas. Mostly, I hold them because students respond so well to the camaraderie of their groups. They learn that performances don’t have to be scary. They laugh and create and enjoy. (And they get treats. So that’s a bonus.)

I love reading descriptions of other teachers’ group classes to figure out what works well for them, so I thought I’d share what we did in our October late beginner group class. Most of these students are Level 1 or 2A in the Faber series or 2A in the Music Tree series.

(Note reading) We started with a pumpkin note name worksheet, courtesy of Susan Paradis. (I hope you all are familiar with her wonderful website. She has many wonderful teaching resources available for studio use.)

(Ear Training) After all the students had arrived and finished their worksheet, we worked on recognizing the sounds of different instruments. I played a YouTube performance of Hall of the Mountain King and had the students write down the instruments they recognized by sound. After they finished, I had them watch an excerpt to see if they recognized more instruments by sight. We also talked a little about the story of Peer Gynt and this piece in particular.

I then played a brief portion of a second version of Hall of the Mountain King. This one is a little less (ahem) traditional. They listened and tried to decide how they thought the instrumentation differed from the traditional orchestration and again, which instruments they heard. (My students always love something unexpected and non-traditional.)

( Theory) I then pulled the main theme out of Hall of the Mountain King and played the first two measures, introducing 8th notes to them by using the rhythm words “pumpkin” for two eighth notes and “ghost” for quarter notes. I wrote out pumpkins and ghosts to represent the melody, then drew eighths and quarters underneath the shapes. We clapped and counted with both rhythm words and traditional number counting.

I then had them make their own rhythm strips, creating two measures of 4/4 time by drawing the key signature, a bar line, and a double bar line, then filling in four shapes (pumpkins and ghosts) per measure to reinforce their understanding of key signatures. After drawing their shapes, they wrote out their eighths and quarters underneath. We then laid their rhythm strips on the floor and clapped and counted each one in order.

(Ear Training) I then had them stand in a line behind the rhythms. I clapped one strip and the student had to identify which strip I had clapped.

After drawing their rhythms, I had them do eighth note and quarter note rhythmic notation; first one measure, then two, using pumpkins and ghosts first, then switching to traditional notation. Even my students who often struggle with eighth note counting in their pieces were able to do this very successfully.

(Ear Training) Next we moved to major and minor identification by again using the main theme of Hall of the Mountain King. I played those first two measures in either their minor form or their major form. If the students heard major, they were to stand up, or sit down if I played the minor form. They were so successful that I moved to triads, first broken, then blocked.

(Performance) The students then chose numbers to decide in which order they would play. We reviewed how to approach the piano, how to prepare for the performance, how to end a performance, and how to bow. Two students performed their own compositions, two performed from memory, and one performed with music. Each student chose two things to comment about for each performance. I admit, this is my favorite part of group classes. They are all so excited to give positive feedback that their hands shoot in the air as soon as each performance is done. I love it.

(Improvising) One of my newer students walked into group class today asking when we would “play together.” Our “playing together” time is probably my second favorite part of group class. I like to end each group by having the students line up behind the keyboard to improvise. Today we improvised in the key of A minor (I had them stay in an A minor five finger pattern). The first student chooses fast or slow, loud or soft, and then we play (usually) 16 bars (but sometimes more if we’ve really hit a groove.) That student goes to the end of the line, and the next plays. Each student had two chances through the line, and a couple were begging for more. They’re learning to begin and end on tonic and to find patterns to repeat. I will admit, I am not a comfortable improviser. It has taken time to feel brave enough to incorporate this into all of our group classes, especially when (musical) parents are there, but my students adore it and it is a fun way to finish our time together.

(Treat!!!) After the improvising, we ate kettle corn and they all headed for home.

Planning for group classes takes a little time, but it’s time well spent. I love to see my students’ excitement for music grow month by month as they share these musical experiences with each other.

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