Thursday, June 30, 2016

Helping Struggling Students in Group Settings

Teaching piano in a group setting is becoming more and more common. There are advantages to the set-up. We can teach more students with less time since much of the early instruction can be introduced in the same way for most students. For many teachers, however, the situation can be challenging and intimidating. Few of us were taught in a group, so transferring concepts from an individual delivery to one appropriate for a lecture hall can be tough. What's more troublesome is how to offer help to students that are struggling with a concept. Do we hold the rest of the class back or begin teaching a bunch of private lessons in a large room? Here are some of the ways that I have found to offer help to a struggling student while maintaining the structure and integrity of group instruction.

Repetition! Repetition! Repetition! Once a new concept has been introduced and the task has been successfully completed by the majority of the students, it is time to begin working on something new. However, mastery of the recently achieved skill also needs to occur. When you have students that are struggling with a skill, try to find a piece that refines the newly acquired skill while also introducing a new concept. This allows the struggling student to continue focusing on the problem area while offering practice for the rest of the class without making them feel as though they are stalling out. If you can't find an appropriate piece, consider composing one yourself or assigning composition projects to your students.

Move from the known to the unknown. Whenever possible, connect new skills to those that have already been mastered for easier understanding. For example, before introducing scales that involve the crossing of the thumb, I have students play a melody that requires the index finger to reach over the thumb. By experiencing the movement of the finger out of the 5-finger pattern, students are ready to begin exploring how the hand naturally moves with a finger cross.

Include instruction on how to practice. Students generally want to succeed. They understand that personal practice is necessary to succeed. What they are often missing is a full understanding of HOW to practice. Demonstrate how to pull out sections of the piece to focus on. Help students develop practice techniques that lead to mastery of that section. Encourage students to use similar approaches in their private rehearsal. As you introduce new practice techniques, students will become more capable of determining what technique is most helpful for each passage.

Offer mini-lessons. Before asking students to play for a grade, I try to offer a brief mini-lesson a few weeks in advance. These short 5 or 10 minute sessions pull students out of the group setting and allow them to get personalized attention. After a student plays the piece (or assigned segment) for me, we begin with an evaluation of the performance before identifying the next step needed to arrive at the desired outcome. If several steps are needed or the student seems overwhelmed, this is an opportunity to develop a road map or practice path that breaks the final goal into smaller, achievable goals. If a practice path is developed, it is advisable to include deadlines for each small goal in pursuit of the final outcome. With support and reassurance, the student will gradually become confident in creating their own road map to practice success.

What additional suggestions do you have for ensuring that all of your students succeed? Please share your ideas in the comments below.