How to Plan a Multi-Level Group Lesson in Your Piano Studio

How To Plan a Multi-Level Group Lesson

Planning group lessons is a wonderful way to increase social engagement in your studio.  Holding a multi-level group lesson may seem like a nightmare in the making.  But, it doesn’t have to be.

With a little planning, multi-level group lessons throughout the year could be just the thing your students rave about.  And, if you teach online they may be the thing that keeps your families feeling connected.

Why Have Group Lessons?

Group lessons held throughout the year are a great option for a studio with private, partner or online lessons. 

The change in the schedule is often just the thing to keep students engaged and eager to learn. 

They can create a sense of community within your studio, which is especially challenging when you have a travel or online studio.

And, if you play your card right … you get a week of prep instead of a regular teaching week.  

If you cancel regularly scheduled lessons in lieu of group lessons, it also gives you more prep time during your normal teaching hours for that week!

Sounds pretty great, right?

What Are the Options?

Group lessons can feel overwhelming to many teachers.  And, it’s understandable.

I still remember the first time I stood in front of a class during my practicums.  Almost every single male student was taller than me, the girls mostly looked bored, and my cooperating teacher had just left the room after explaining I was a student-teacher … and yes my grades counted even after I was gone.

Being outnumbered can feel a bit like jumping out of a plane.  You’re quite sure the chute will open and everything will work out fine.  But, there’s that little niggling doubt in the back of your mind.

Single-Level Group Lesson

Some teachers prefer to have students attend pre-arranged group lessons. 

Parents get an email that lets them know when each of their children has a group lesson.  And, the teacher can plan activities specific to that level.  And if you have siblings that tend to distract each other (especially for online group lessons), this may be a good option.

The downside is many families may balk at bringing each child to a different group lesson.  Especially with their already overloaded schedule.

Multi-Level Group Lesson

The parents in my studio have made it clear.  They need a choice in when their children attend group lessons.  They are often scheduled to the gills and if there is no choice … chances are their children will not be at the group lessons.

Multi-level group lessons can seem overwhelming just from a logistical point of view.  How on earth do you meet the needs of different levels at the same time?  And, when online how do you organize things so siblings still feel as engaged as others that aren’t sharing a screen?

However, they also give a great opportunity for students of all ages to:

  • Have older students take a mentor role with younger/newer students
  • Have younger/newer students see what they can aspire to as they see and hear older/advanced students
  • Learn concepts at different levels

5-Step Plan

Planning multi-level group lessons doesn’t have to be hard.  But, it does require some planning ahead of time.

  1. Decide on a concept or theme.
  2. Look at how each level of student will learn about/practice this concept.
  3. Decide how students will work together … and individually.
  4. Find resources or create each activity.
  5. Get a backup activity just in case.

1.  Concept, Theme … Or Both?

Do you have a particular focus in your studio right now?  Or, maybe it’s a time of year that lends itself to a theme?

In my studio, we switch units every 2 months.  In each unit, we focus on particular concepts or skills.  This is where I pull activities for group lessons within my studio.

Mixing the Season and Music Concepts

Let’s say I want to have a Halloween themed group lesson that pulls elements from our Renaissance unit.  Students are already familiar with what music from the Renaissance sounds like and basic elements of it.

Now is the perfect time to apply those to more modern music.

We could:

  • Do imitation as a round either singing or at the piano
  • Play/listen to a prepared piece … then listen to it as the teacher plays with minor 3rds and 6ths added
  • Play a simple piece with each student taking on a part of the 4-voice texture
  • Figure out whether a song is in duple or triple meter
  • Make up new lyrics for a song … How is this like cantus firmus?  And, how is it the same?

2.  Level It Up

Not every student is at the same level.  And that can be a benefit.

All the students are playing different parts of a song?

  • Beginner: Keep a steady beat with one note
  • Elementary: Keep a steady beat with a few different notes
  • More advanced: Play a melody/accompaniment line with several different notes and contrasting rhythm.

For online group lessons, keep audio muted so students can play on their instrument without disrupting anyone else.  And, let siblings know where each will be playing on the piano so there are no arguments of “he’s in MY space!”.

Figuring out the meter?

  • Beginners: Patsch (tapping their lap) to the pulse
  • Elementary: Patsch with a heavy emphasis on the first beat of each measure or conducting
  • More advanced: Conducting or tap pulse and rhythm with each hand

3.  Work Solo or Together

One of the biggest reasons to have group lessons is so students can have a social experience. 

Playing piano can feel a little lonely from week to week.  But, getting together with other students to have fun learning?  Sign me up!

I’ve tried having beginners doing their own activities and everyone else doing other activities.  It’s exhausting.  What works even better is knowing when students should work independently … and when pairing up or the whole group is better.

For in-person group lessons, a worksheet while everyone is settling in can be a perfect choice.  You can greet students and check-in with everyone individually.  Students can get into a piano group lesson headspace.

For online group lessons, have a quick question students can answer as they wait for students to be admitted into the Zoom (or another platform) meeting room.  When online, students tend to arrive more on-time and tend to want more “together” vs. “individual” activities.

Games and active components of lessons bring everyone together.  And, with a little planning are easy enough to level up.

4. Plan It Out Ahead of Time

Make sure each level of activity has the best resources.

  • Music theory:
  • Games: Same concept but a different way of reviewing
    • In-person: gather different games for each level and have students play in pairs.
    • Online:
      • Modify your physical games:  Scan your game board and save as a PDF.  Students annotate the game board and you can hold game cards up to your webcam.
      • Use web-based games!  (HINT: Midnight Music has a list of great sites.)
  • Flashcards:
    • Same as “games” above.
  • Music:  Whether students will play or actively listening, this should be included within each group lesson!
    • In-person:  Have physical copies of music students will have coming up.  Get them to colour-code individually.
    • Online: Screenshare a song and ask students level-appropriate questions to colour code the score.  Keep it easy enough that beginner students feel they can participate.

Examples of Activities:

  • Note recognition:  Each student sees a flashcard at their level.  If the answer is correct … the other team has to do a Burpee.
  • Student Performances: Dramatically pull names out of a hat to determine who will play next.
    • Always switch between student performances and other activities so it doesn’t become a recital!
  • Listen to music and have students answer questions about the piece.
    • Be as active as you want!  (i.e. walking/swaying for tempo or meter) 
    • Fill in a worksheet together … or, send it ahead of time so parents can print before an online group lesson.

5.  Backup Plan

This is just part of good teaching.  While we plan so that things will go smoothly, it doesn’t always happen.

Sometimes …

  • Students go through activities much quicker than we thought.
  • Activity bombs because it was too hard, too ‘boring’, too [fill in the blank].
  • The internet gives out or students get kicked out of the group lesson for no reason.

Having a backup plan is essential.

Make sure you have 1 – 2 additional activities ‘just in case’.  And, when online always let parents and students know what to do if the session ends unexpectedly.

It’s better to be over-prepared and not use everything than scramble at the moment.  “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” didn’t work for the Wizard of Oz.  It won’t work for us either.

Group Lesson Ideas

Holding a multi-level group lesson is a wonderful way to create a community in your studio!  Especially if you are not together on a regular basis.  With an online studio, this is especially important since you are working at changing parent perspectives about screen time.

P.S. It’s also a great way to ‘trick’ students into learning.

But if you are feeling a little overwhelmed with the planning part, click here for multi-level group lesson activities.

NOTE: This article was originally published October 23, 2019.  It has since been updated to include online group lesson ideas!


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