Advanced Group Instruction: Some Implications for Teacher Training

October 1, 1982

During the past thirty years there has been an unprecedented growth of interest in group piano instruction throughout the United States. In college piano classes, preparatory departments, and many private studios, teachers are increasingly turning to group and class work as a more efficient way to use their time, and students are benefiting from the stimulation and the unique opportunities for learning which a group offers. Consequently an increasing number of college piano majors will probably be involved in group teaching at some point during their careers.

But in spite of this trend there are two areas in which the group teaching movement seems to have fallen short: (1) the extension of group instruction to college piano majors in the studio, and (2) specialized teacher training for group work. These areas are importantly related, since studying in a group can be one of the most effective ways of training teachers, particularly if they are to teach groups.

Given the present interest in group teaching, it seems an appropriate time for college faculty and administrators to reexamine the applied music curriculum as it exists today, and to consider the advantages of group lessons as a possible alternative to the traditional private lesson. With administrative support, faculty seeking new ways to improve their teaching effectiveness could find group experience tremendously rewarding, both for themselves and for their students.

It is true that a number of colleges and universities offer pedagogy programs. Many of these emphasize group and class techniques, with observation and practice teaching. But the first-hand experience of studying in a group gives a unique insight into the learning environment, and helps the prospective teacher relate to students in a group setting. Most college piano majors have never had this experience and many are reluctant to try group teaching. If they do try and are unsuccessful, many conclude that "group lessons do not work" and return to private teaching.

But there are other reasons for studying in a group besides learning to teach groups. Students can develop a deeper musical understanding—one which prepares them as performers and teachers in ways that a private lesson cannot. The educational implications of this kind of teaching are important for all who are involved in the training of teachers.

The traditional arguments for group teaching have focused on the early levels, where most people recognize its effectiveness. Yet many hold to the belief that students need private lessons upon reaching a certain level of proficiency. I personally challenge this belief on the basis of my own study in groups as a doctoral student, and on my teaching experience with college piano majors. Such experiences have indicated that students who learn in a group not only develop musically to a high degree but are more open to new ideas, more sensitive to others, more independent, and more enthusiastic about learning and teaching. Yet this kind of success depends largely on the teacher's effectiveness with groups, for which specialized training is essential.

In looking at group instruction at the college level, particularly for students who intend to become teachers, three fundamental question: arise: (1) What kinds of skills or qualities are important for teaching? (2) How are these fostered by studying in a group? (3) In what specific ways can group lessons help prepare students for group teaching?

The first question admittedly involves personal values and goals. Every teacher has his own answer to this question, but for me the most obvious requirement for a teacher is musicianship and a desire to develop it in others. Music educator Bennet Reimer bases musicianship on the cultivation of an aesthetic response to music, both as listener and performer. Many other writers have stressed aesthetic experience as the basis of musical meaning including John Dewey, Suzanne Langer, Leonard Meyer and James Mursell; all have emphasized the role of feelings as a necessary complement to cognitive understanding. For Dewey the awareness of feelings in an artistic experience is the factor which gives a work of art or performance its spontaneity, vitality, and organic wholeness.

The teacher must therefore be sensitive to the expressive content of a work or a performance, and able to relate his feelings about the music to his understanding of its structure. He must also be a competent performer and skilled listener, with a broad knowledge of repertoire, style and technique. He must be proficient in such practical skills as sight reading and must comprehend basic concepts as they function in music, such as rhythm, dynamics, and form. These skills and concepts are essential for dealing with unfamiliar music and for integrating different kinds of learning more efficiently.

Yet musicianship alone is not enough. The second requisite for a teacher is to understand how persons learn and to utilize that understanding for the effective presentation of ideas. Concepts and skills for example are generally learned best through experience and the chief problem in teaching is to translate musical ideas into experience. The pragmatic philosophy of William James and the discovery learning advocated by John Dewey both stress the interaction of doing and learning; the teacher must be able to provide a rich variety of experiences to help students grasp ideas.

Teachers must also understand the nature of intuitive thought, which has been given increasing attention by such contemporary educators and psychologists as Jerome Bruner, Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. Musicians have long been aware that intuition plays a vital role in the creative process and in artistic expression. Yet our educational system has all but ignored this function, focusing instead on the analytical, linear thought processes of verbal communication. In music instruction, creative activities such as improvisation or movement help to stimulate intuition, and allow students to assimilate the underlying structure rapidly before focusing on details.

The Gestalt psychologists have long emphasized intuition in the perception of relationships, and in the sudden "flash" of immediate insight that occurs during the creative process when events or objects are first perceived in new ways. Psychologist Max Wertheimer has argued that preoccupation with details during the early stages of learning can obscure the underlying structure and may prevent it from ever being perceived. If students are taught to read music by merely naming notes without recognizing harmonic or scalar patterns, they often have problems in reading, transposing or memorizing simply because they do not comprehend fundamental relationships. Teaching must sensitize students to these relationships and their expressive meaning if the learning is to have lasting value.

Beyond musicianship and an understanding of the learning process, good teaching also requires a third quality—sensitivity to persons. Teachers must be skilled in diagnosing problems, whether physiological, musical, or personal, and in devising solutions. They must recognize the needs and concerns of students and must seek new ways to stimulate learning. Examining each person's process—rather than merely the product—is essential for helping students find more effective and satisfying ways of accomplishing goals.

Communication skills are a fourth necessity for teachers. The teacher must be able not only to present ideas clearly, but to hear and respond to what students are saying both verbally and nonverbally. He must also help them find ways to express their ideas and to relate them to what others have said. In many instances the communication of feelings may be more important than the communication of facts or ideas, since strong negative feelings such as anxiety or frustration may prevent a student from thinking clearly or hearing others. If he can express those feelings and hear others' concern, he is able to become involved in the lesson and to direct his energy toward musical goals.

The fifth area includes the less tangible elements which a good teacher seems to radiate such as warmth, concern, spontaneity and enthusiasm. These qualities help make students comfortable and make the learning exciting and enjoyable. Carl Rogers sees the teacher as a "facilitator" of learning. He stresses the importance of certain qualities which a teacher communicates to his students, such as sincerity, trust, acceptance and empathy, which are vital in establishing a climate conducive to learning. A good teacher is generally comfortable with himself and finds personal stimulation and satisfaction in teaching. This requires not only reaching out to students in a very caring way but continually trying new ideas and taking risks. The teacher who approaches a lesson as a learning experience for himself is usually more interested and more interesting than one who is there merely to convey information.

Underlying all of these qualities is a fundamental respect for the student and a trust that each wants to learn and is capable of growth. Ultimately the teacher must be willing and able to help a student discover how to learn, and to experience the kind of satisfaction that will motivate him to continue. The development of independent thought and problem solving ability is probably the greatest and most important task of education in any field. To achieve this teachers must encourage students to trust their ideas and must provide opportunities for feedback and for the testing of ideas. Unless students are given responsibility for making decisions they cannot develop the independence and confidence to do this later.

If we accept the areas outlined above as basic requisites for teaching we must then address the second question: how are these fostered by studying in a group? The first quality, musicianship, seems to develop quite naturally in a group setting. As students play for each other, listen and respond, they gain performing experience and develop critical listening ability. Ensemble playing and other group activities improve rhythmic precision and sensitivity to dynamics, balance and phrasing. Different styles of playing provide rich resources for individuality in performance, when individual differences and expressive solutions are encouraged. Students hear many ways of playing a passage and become aware of the different aesthetic effects of each. They also learn a great deal of repertoire, and concepts and principles are clarified as they are transferred to different situations throughout the lesson. Each student sees the growth in the others' performances from the beginning stages to the final product. By helping to find solutions to another's problem they can apply the knowledge thus gained in learning the same composition later, or for solving similar problems in their own repertoire.

Musical skills develop rapidly in a group, not only because of the longer lesson time, but also because it is usually more enjoyable and absorbing to sight read or improvise with others than alone. Even technical exercises can be presented in interesting ways and the responsibility to others is a strong motivation to keep going. As students listen they also develop reading skills by following the score and mentally playing along. Conducting, singing or improvising are further means for experiencing the music, which not only help in listening but which also give the performer new ways of looking at his repertoire.

The second requisite for teachers, an understanding of the learning process, is acquired more easily in a group than in an individual lesson, since students see others utilizing abilities and ways of learning that are different from their own. A student who plays largely by ear may learn a great deal from one who is more fluent at reading and vice versa. Students discover that the same solution may not work for everyone but that all can learn from another's experience. Conceptual thinking and intuitive processes are stimulated by the comparison of similar and different materials and styles, and new ideas emerge from the creative synthesis of individual perceptions.

The third quality, sensitivity to others, is probably learned more readily in groups than anywhere else. Seeing others in a variety of contexts, students and teachers discover aspects of each other and of themselves that might not emerge in a one-to-one relationship. Awareness of individual differences and similarities helps students to deal with the problems they may encounter later in their own students. And the common concern and support for others which evolves in a group allows individuals to deal with areas in which they may feel vulnerable and helps them in overcoming limitations.

Communication skills, the fourth requisite, are exercised continually in a group lesson, as students share ideas and try to relate their experiences so that what they can learn can be used to help others learn. People learn to express their feelings and to help resolve conflicts that arise, and each participates in leadership during the lesson.

The personal qualities comprising the fifth area, such as warmth, spontaneity and trust, may be to some extent innate. Yet they are unquestionably nurtured in a stimulating and supportive environment where students find it rewarding to share and respond to each other's feelings and ideas. Those who learn in such an environment tend to carry it with them into their teaching.

Having examined some of the ways in which teaching abilities develop in a group, we can begin to explore the third question: In what specific ways can group lessons help prepare students for group teaching? Obviously, some of the areas outlined above become even more important in teaching groups. Communications skills for instance are essential in order for the teacher to spot confusion, clarify misunderstandings, and help students relate to one another. The teacher must also be able to organize materials conceptually, so that relationships and common experiences can emerge if students are to learn from one another's repertoire. He must be able to design experiences which allow for different abilities, and which encourage the sharing of ideas and the development of individual styles of expression. In short he must know how to use the group to further the goals of each individual.

Perhaps the most striking feature of a group lesson is the dynamics and this may be the area where the teacher needs the most specialized training. Although group dynamics operate in an individual lesson, they are more complex and powerful in a group, and the success of the lesson may depend largely on the teacher's ability to understand them and utilize them constructively.

In a group the total pattern of actions, thoughts, and feelings is more than the sum of all the patterns of all the individuals. Individual ideas are continually being modified and expanded through interaction with others and each person can select new ideas and ways of working from a variety of models, adapting them to suit his own needs. Individuals experience both their commonality and their uniqueness more fully in a group where they can share ideas in ways that help to clarify them.

A sensitive teacher recognizes tension or hostility that hinders communication within a group, and helps to resolve conflicts so that energy can be directed toward common goals. When individuals withdraw from the group or try to dominate it, he seeks ways to involve others so that all feel a part of the group and experience their own authority within the group. When competition threatens the morale of the group he is able to encourage cooperation for greater productivity. He also notices communication patterns within the group—for example whether individuals are talking and listening to each other or only to the teacher. He is able to ask questions that stimulate original thought, and encourages students to respond to each other's questions rather than always answering them himself. By utilizing students' ideas he provides a model for others, and fosters interaction and cohesion. As individuals in the group increasingly assume responsibility for leadership, he becomes less and less necessary, and students become more ready to initiate the process with others as teachers of groups.

All of these qualities can be acquired by studying in a group, and this experience provides an important foundation for the development of the teacher's ability and attitude as he prepares for his career. What remains to be done is to provide opportunities in colleges and universities for students to learn in a group so that they can emerge better equipped for teaching.

Teachers and students who have known the satisfaction of learning in a group must share their experiences with others and help make educators aware of the untapped potential for learning which exists in every music department. Faculty who wish to try group teaching and want to develop the necessary skills should be given the opportunity to attend workshops and training sessions in which they can participate as learners in a group, and resources should be allocated for consultation and other outside assistance in setting up such programs within a department. Once such a program is established and faculty and students have begun to experience the educational benefits of group lessons, they will want to continue and expand the program.

In bringing these ideas together it is important to remember that none of us as a teacher or as a student is totally separate from who we are as a person. The terms "teacher" and "student" simply denote particular aspects of ourselves which arise in response to different situations. To understand teaching we must therefore fully understand our experience of learning and how we respond to an environment. As persons come to understand themselves and one another more deeply, they begin to experience a common identity and an appreciation for the individual uniqueness which emerges out of that identity. This, I believe, is the foundation for teacher training and for group instruction.

3536 Last modified on October 25, 2018