Ever since I started teaching piano full-time just over ten years ago, group classes have always been part of my studio offerings in one way or another.
While we’re not necessarily going to cover the variety of group class format options in this post (check out episode 3 of The Piano Pantry Podcast for that), I do want to share an overall group class lesson plan format that has consistently proven successful for all of my group classes no matter the level.
In this post, I’ll be referring to the style of a group class that is more of an occasional enrichment class, not a weekly “group piano lesson.”
Each class generally includes five key areas:
- Student gathering/entrance
- Performances (and directed active listening)
- Audiation Activities (ear-training)
- Ensemble Work (sightreading)
- Music Theory Games
In this post, we’ll discuss why each area is important and share some of my favorite go-to resources.
This first one is not exactly a major part of the class, but it’s an important element to have some plan for when running group classes – especially when they consist of more than just two or three students.
That is, what will students do as they arrive? Families aren’t all going to pull in at the exact same moment so you always need to have some kind of plan for what the kiddos will do while waiting for class to begin.
There a few good and easy options:
- You could spend quality time talking to those who arrive early.
- (If you are lucky like me to have multiple keyboards), you could direct students to head to a keyboard to play for a few minutes (or warm up if they are doing performances for each other).
- You could have a small activity prepared that takes no more than 5 minutes total to complete. This could be a dot-to-dot page for younger kids, a simple little game that maybe 1 or 2 students can play together, or a fun worksheet such as a musical crossword puzzle or word-find.
The important thing is that it’s easy to do and brief so you can move on to your lesson plan as quickly as possible.
We all know how important it is for students to get as many chances as possible to play for someone other than themselves (and us). Group classes are a wonderful, low-stress environment to do so.
This is your chance though to not only give students performance experience but to embrace the moment to teach active listening.
If you’re wondering why in the world they’re playing on a digital keyboard in this photo instead of the grand piano in the room, it’s because they were doing practice performances for our library Christmas performance where they had to play on a digital keyboard.
The important thing is that you direct students on what they should be listening for. Don’t just ask them to comment after each person’s performance. Help them focus on certain areas:
Here are a few ideas:
What do they hear? Ask students to listen for one element in the music such as meter (duple vs. triple), tonality (major or minor), dynamics, and so forth. You could assign one element for each student or focus on just one as a group.
For example, if you have a piece that you know used more than just 2 or 3 dynamic levels, you could ask students to listen for how many different levels they thought they heard.
How was the performance? Ask students to consider the overall performance and listen for things like a steady beat, whether they kept going through stumbles, double-checked their bench position, etc.
All of these instructions can be done verbally but can also be fun to use a tangible visual guide as well.
Ones I’ve used over the years include:
- Visual Listening Guide (mine! 🙂
- What Do You Hear? from ColorinMyPiano.com
- Performance Thermometers from Compose Create
- Performance Class Listening Worksheets from Compose Create
Teaching our students to hear music is sooo important. While I know many would agree, I know many would also say that they don’t know where to start because it’s something they’re not comfortable with themselves.
In this photo, students are dancing along to the Move It! DVD listed below.
Let me urge you that even if you’re not comfortable, go outside your comfort zone to find ways to incorporate active music listening in some way, shape, or form. It could be anything from Dalcroze-based movement, to immersion in classical music, to Music Learning Theory (MLT)-based audition activities.
For me, it’s the latter. The term “audiation” is often misinterpreted as simply “hearing music.” The portion of the definition that gets dropped but is key to its true meaning is that it means “hearing music with understanding.”
MLT-type activities may include singing short songs and rhythm chants, moving in various ways that use movement with flow, weight, space, and time; echoing short tonal and rhythm patterns; and supporting harmonic audition through the singing of chord root tones to short tunes.
In its most basic form? Can your students hear a piece and determine if it’s in duple or triple, major or minor (or something else)? That’s a start!
Resources I pull from include:
Music Moves for Piano by Marilyn Lowe
The Early Childhood Music Curriculum: Experimental Songs and Chants Without Words by Edwin E. Gordon, Beth M. Bolton, Wendy K. Hicks, Cynthia C. Taggart
Move It!: Expressive movements with classical music by Peggy Lyman & John M. Feierabend
Granted, this is one of those things that is much easier because I have four digital keyboards. If having multiple pianists is a challenge, you could consider having students play along to the ensemble using a variety of percussion instruments and then rotate taking turns at the piano.
Since we only spend 10-20 minutes doing ensemble work, it must be almost sight-readable for all students in the class.
Miss Dorla also has a lot of wonderful pyramid piano ensemble arrangements with multi-level scores available for each piece. I’ve only recently discovered Miss Dorla and haven’t had a chance to use them myself, but I can’t wait because they are a brilliant idea!
Other resources I’ve used extensively over the years include:
Four-part scores with a conductor score and optional accompaniment. These ensembles can be set up using two or four keyboards. Using the recommended MIDI sounds for each part can spice up the ensemble even more.
Similar to the Hal Leonard series, the Alfred ensemble book includes four-part scoring and electronic sound suggestions. Both correlate leveling to their corresponding publisher method books.
TCW Resources Rhythm Ensembles
These have been a hit this year and work great during a group class. We tack one or two ensembles each class; they sound really cool when put together.
A fun and unique way to explore rhythm. My students enjoy the rhythm cups series, but I found my students weren’t quite as excited about doing them every class (progressing through levels) as I expected. They seem to enjoy it more as a one-off activity a couple of times a year.
Music / Theory Games
Gamifying learning is a wonderful outlet for student learning.
While we can always play short little games in our one-on-lessons, play becomes even more fun when the student has a companion other than the teacher to play with. Plus, there are a lot of great games out there that are better with three or more players and take longer to complete than the small amount of time available in a lesson.
Game time is when students start loosening up and having a good time. Class always ends with game time because it’s a guaranteed endorphins boost, and there’s nothing better than students leaving your class full of energy, smiling, and having a good time.
That’s marketing there, baby. BOOM!
I won’t go through all the games out there because we all know there are a LOT, but I am going to direct you to another blog post I shared a few years ago where I try and keep a list of a lot of the games and resources that are out there.
Granted, it’s become a lot harder to keep up on it, especially as the internet continues to explode with content, but it’s a start! Check it out here:
What are some of your favorite activities to include regularly in your group classes? Share in the comments!