Individual or Group Music Lessons?

Almost every music teacher’s success is built on the value of in-person music lessons. There are some variations in format. Some teachers prefer to teach one student at a time, so that the teacher and student are the only participants. Others prefer to lead lessons in which there is a pair or group of students. In this post we will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of both of these lesson formats. If you are a parent, or a music student yourself, you should think carefully about your goals and consider which format will suit you best.

Individual and Group Lessons for Various Instruments

Once you’ve chosen an instrument, you have to set about finding a teacher. You still have another decision to make: what type of lesson to choose. This choice is not as obvious as you might think. Like every choice, this one involves advantages and disadvantages on both sides. Let’s consider the differences between individual and group tuition with regard to the piano and the violin.

Private Music Lessons for the Piano

The piano or keyboard tends to be a solitary instrument. This is because a piano is essentially a large piece of furniture and it is difficult to get more than one of them into a single room. Also, the versatility and range of the piano make it a kind of orchestra in itself. You can play dense chords and fluid runs all with the same instrument. So it’s not surprising that most people who learn the piano do so in a private, individual setting.

This approach has several obvious advantages. The teacher can move at the student’s pace. The student can focus on his or her particular needs. If a pupil is an examination candidate, then the private lesson allows the teacher to focus on his/her pieces and technical work. This also enables flexibility in choice of repertoire, and the teacher can respond to the pupil’s interests and goals.

Group Music Lessons for the Piano

Despite the logistical challenges involved, it is actually possible to teach the piano to groups. Standard upright pianos, or even electronic keyboards, can be grouped into one room to enable multiple learners to engage with the teacher. But you don’t even have to go to these lengths to set up a group lesson for the piano. There is an extensive repertoire of music written for four or even six hands. In this format, two or more people sit at the same piano and play together. Typically, the score will have a secondo (low) and primo (high) part. Lest you think this is “easy” or a lesser art form, here’s a video of two of the twentieth century’s greatest musicians playing one of Mozart’s works for four hands:

In fact, in my experience as a music teacher, I can attest to the many benefits of learning in this way. As we’ve discussed before, music involves the coordination of a variety of sub-skills or competencies. These usually receive their own attention in music training: melody, rhythm, harmony, etc. Rhythm is a skill that many people struggle to develop. There are complex psychological reasons for this, but the situation is not helped if the child only ever plays alone. Making music with another player forces you to become more aware of the pulse of the music and moderate your tempo to hold it all together. In addition, it teaches you to blend your sound into a cohesive whole. In terms of maximizing the value you get from your music lessons, these skills are extremely valuable, and unlike many things that you can teach yourself, they really do require an experienced teacher to develop.

Private Music Lessons for the Violin

Much of what we’ve already said about private lessons at the piano applies equally to the violin. If there is only one pupil, the teacher can customize everything to that particular student and address his/her specific needs, strengths and weaknesses. If the teacher has an authoritarian style, the private lesson format allows the teacher to put pressure on the student, which is useful, particularly if examinations are in view. A major drawback to this format, however, is the stagnation and tedium that can accompany it. The violin has a very high rate of attrition, perhaps the highest of all instruments. This is obviously due in part to the difficulty of the instrument, but I believe that the prevalence of the individual lesson format is also partly to blame.

Group Music Lessons for the Violin

Learning the violin is a challenge, intellectually, musically and physically. The playing position for this instrument is not the most natural thing in the world. Furthermore, the size of the violin makes intonation (playing in tune) difficult. It will take years of training to develop the requisite fine motor control to accurately pitch notes. The whole process has a well deserved reputation for being arduous, at times even discouraging. In light of this, it makes sense, especially in the early stages of learning, to involve the group dynamic. Learning in groups has several powerful advantages.

Benefits of Group Learning for Strings

Firstly, the violin is a communal instrument, and it always has been. If you’ve read much of my material, you will know that I emphasize the social aspect of music. Music is an act of social becoming, not a museum artifact or an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Children who learn in groups learn how to blend their sound into the collective, cooperate with peers and show greater sensitivity to rhythm. It’s easy to see how this lends itself to the cultivation of rare virtues like humility and empathy. The world of classical music in the modern era has an unfortunate but admittedly well deserved reputation for exclusivity, haughtiness and snobbery. I think this stems from an over-emphasis on music as a product, or a competitive enterprise. In contrast, the emphasis on group cooperation is part of the impetus behind methodologies like the Maidstone Movement. You can read a rather touching testimony to how people bond through playing music here.

Secondly, one of the most important elements in learning is imitation. I myself have always been an autopedagogue. However, true learning only began when I had the opportunity to watch and imitate more experienced players at close quarters. When it comes to group classes, children often find it much easier to imitate something modeled by their peers. If the teacher is modeling a difficult or complicated posture or concept, once of the pupils “gets it”, it tends to spread more readily to the others.

Joining the Team

Finally, the natural social dynamics that make team sports so engaging can be leveraged to enhance the experience of learning music. A healthy element of competition, as well as desire to avoid “letting the team down” are both better stimuli to practice, in my view, than authoritarianism or fear. Playing in an ensemble has a magic all of its own, and if you have chosen to send your child to violin lessons, ensemble playing – at whatever level, amateur or professional – should be the ultimate purpose.

Finally, the natural social dynamics that make team sports so engaging can be leveraged to enhance the experience of learning music. A healthy element of competition, as well as desire to avoid “letting the team down” are both better stimuli to practice, in my view, than authoritarianism or fear. Playing in an ensemble has a magic all of its own, and if you have chosen to send your child to violin lessons, ensemble playing – at whatever level, amateur or professional – should be the ultimate purpose. From the point of view of the client, this also increases accountability for the teacher. A teacher who is accountable to a group of parents/stakeholders is under more pressure to perform and deliver.

Individual or Group Music Lessons: Summary

As we’ve seen, this is a meaningful decision, comparable to choosing your music teacher. There are advantages to both individual and group lessons. In truth, neither of these is a “traditional” option. One might be more typical in your region or country, but this varies greatly across the world. In my experience as a teacher of both violin and piano, I’ve found that there is a “sweet spot” somewhere between the two. Pairs and groups of three tend to produce the optimal mix of individualized focus and group synergy. More than three can become chaotic (depending on age and temperament). In an age of easy transmission of audiovisual material, any issues identified during the lesson can be communicated to the relevant stakeholder for home use. Here’s a simple summary of what we’ve said about each of these formats:

Individual

  • easier for teacher
  • customization
  • exam preparation
  • expensive

Group

  • more teacher accountability
  • group dynamics
  • ensemble skills
  • lower rate of attrition
  • realistic preparation for musical production
  • more affordable

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