There are many ways to teach group piano and I have tried out quite a few different styles. I’m going to start by saying that there is no one right way to teach groups. Some teachers like to rotate students through stations. Some prefer to have everyone on the same content and to directly teach them all together. Some teachers prefer that everyone works on headphones and the teacher walks around. The teacher plugs in and listens/instructs. In this situation, each student works independently.
All of these group piano methods have their merits. Today, I’m going to explain the different types of group piano class situations. I will tell you my favorite way to teach, but I will also tell you how half of my classes are set-up in a one-room schoolhouse format because it is practical- if not 100% ideal. It is a genius option.
Let’s first talk about rotating students through stations. Rotating students through stations gives each student a chance to work independently at their level. It frees the teacher to have some one-on-one time with each student. This can be beneficial for introducing new practice apps or giving composition assignments.
Some teachers love this method of group teaching and call it 20-20-20. They essentially have three students, and they rotate them through three stations for 20 minutes each per hour. This is a nice situation for a teacher that wants fewer students coming at a time, and still prefers a private lesson for one station.
There are two drawbacks that I see with this method, one is that it’s not group piano teaching. Yes, three students are coming in an hour, but they aren’t interacting. They aren’t learning, together. The other problem is that only three students can be taught in an hour. It is financially limiting. This is why 20/20/20 is not being done in my studio. I want peer interaction and more income.
My favorite style of teaching is in a cohort. Having all the students work on the same material together at the same level is a very nice group piano situation.
It simplifies the instruction process for the teacher. The piano class is learning as a cohort. The teacher prepares a lesson plan and teaches the plan. It is fairly stress-free and allows the teacher to have their eyes on each student at all times.
This has been my preferred group piano situation. Having the students at the same level makes introducing new concepts easier. It also can make games and improvisation fair and fun for everyone. The kids get to know their classmates and become an ensemble and friends.
I love teaching this cohort way. However, it doesn’t quite work out all of the time for advancing students due to unavoidable scheduling conflicts. It also becomes less doable as students diverge in their skill levels. It’s perfect for brand-new beginners.
Another group piano teaching situation puts everyone on headphones for most if not all of the class. The teacher walks around and plugs in to listen and instruct each student on their keyboard.
This type of class can make scheduling easier as students can work at their level. Different ages and students can all work at the same time independently in a quiet classroom. Students are not held back by students moving at a different pace.
The drawback to this style of teaching is that it can be hard for the teacher to get around to everyone. They may even have to hire a teaching assistant losing their potential income. Students can get bored essentially practicing for 45 minutes to an hour with little interaction. They can start to drift off into slumberland. They may feel neglected.
I tried this method of group piano teaching for one semester. I hired a terrific teaching assistant. She did ease some of the pressure I felt trying to get around to all of the students. We had seven to eight students in a class. I had done the math and to make it economically feasible to have an assistant, I had to have at least five students in a class.
At the end of the semester of teaching with students on headphones, I lost a considerable amount of students. I have always had decent retention, and losing so many students at once was a wake-up call. My students didn’t want to stay in this scenario.
On reflection, it was truly boring for all of us. One of the benefits of group piano lessons is peer interaction, and they weren’t getting that. They were also getting less of me than they were used to. Sadly, I had to let my wonderful teaching assistant go because my student numbers were down. I couldn’t afford to keep her.
After this sad scenario, I still had classes of three to four students remaining. I felt confident that I could handle them all fine without an assistant. I had parents making the usual schedule change requests (mainly due to sports.) This is when I decided to start teaching a one-room schoolhouse style like Laura Ingalls Wilder.
These teachers of yester-year had to be extremely clever to teach all of those kids of varying ages and levels in one-room. I felt that if they could manage it for all the subjects all day, I could surely manage it for 45 minutes of only one subject. So, I set about implementing this style for most of my group piano classes past level one. I’ll get to that in a minute.
To save my group piano school after losing so many students, I had to do some quick but effective changes. It was important to me that the students have ample time to play together in improvisation and ensembles. I took stock of who was left in my studio. It was also important to me that they all feel valued. I wanted them to be growing in all the right ways- technique, repertoire,note-reading, ear-training, theory. I also wanted them to have fun playing their favorite pop songs in addition to tried and true traditional pieces. I would not settle for them not having all the things…
I still had some students playing well as a cohort. That situation as I mentioned above is for me the easiest to teach. So, I kept them together. That was a year and a half ago, and I still have that group working together as a cohort. They do very well together. They are level 4 now. In a perfect world, all of my classes would be that way. But, we don’t live in a perfect world.
I also kept all of my level one students together as a cohort. The youngest ones have a parent present. Since they have just started the scheduling problems and mixed skills aren’t yet present.
I thought about the situation of who I had left and realized that each mixed-level class was like a one-room schoolhouse. All that viewing of Little House on the Prairie as a kid was going to pay off. (Also the 5 years I had homeschooled my two sons.) All I had to ask myself was, “What would Laura Ingalls Wilder do?” What do all the homeschool moms with all the kids do?
It seemed that Ms. Wilder would teach those that are at the same level together while giving an assignment to the other students. (Everyone stays busy at all times.) She would directly teach the new subject matter to everyone at once. (This is not unlike how many parents of large families currently home school all of their kids.) These direct teaching moments would bring energy to the class. The students could engage in learning together and be social. They could play in ensembles with each kid playing the part that was at their level.
I would also have stations some weeks that they could rotate through. This would also keep it interesting. I would use headphone time to build practice time in the class and differentiate learning.
Students could also have time to work on individual solos and ensemble parts. This allowed me to create a keyboard orchestra. Each student could work on their part of the ensemble, and then we could put it all together. Each student could have headphone time in class to practice their parts and solo material.
Teaching mixed-level one-room schoolhouse classes like Laura Ingalls Wilder is a genius solution. I didn’t make it up. I borrowed it from others who have gone before me. It’s the best of all worlds for mixing ages and levels and still working on group activities together for part of the class.
The parents and kids are happy with this arrangement. It’s fun for me, as well. I am personally never bored. My classes are 45 minutes long and the time flies by.
If you want more specifics into the actual schedule flow of this one-room group piano schoolhouse model…stay tuned for part two on this matter…