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Nurturing students through group lessons.

Piano students have little opportunity to work with their peers, both in their isolated practice and at their private lessons. As a result, they may be deprived of an opportunity to develop social and emotional skills. As instrumental teachers, we mostly stress teaching the mastery of the instrument while providing musical skills and concepts. However, we must not neglect the importance of helping students develop the positive attitudes and skills needed for collaboration, leadership and peer acceptance. It all can help reduce prejudices and promote each student's sense of personal value. (1)

Teaching children how to handle their feelings of anger, shame, guilt, sadness, jealousy, envy, failure and success traditionally has been the parents' responsibility. The schools, on the other hand, have provided the knowledge and information required for the child's academic education. Teachers should consider both the IQ (intelligence quotient) and the EQ (emotional quotient) of the child's development. In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman argues for an increased awareness of the relationship between IQ and EQ: "In a sense we have two brains, two minds and two different kinds of intelligence: rational and emotional. How we do in life is determined by both--it is not just IQ, but emotional intelligence that also matters." (2)

Allan McClung states self-acceptance is an emotional intelligence skill that teaches you to define yourself in a positive light, identify personal strengths and weaknesses and laugh at yourself when appropriate. (3) Other social and emotional skills include:

* Managing feelings such as fear, anxiety, anger and sadness

* Handling stress with exercise and relaxation methods

* Building group dynamics by learning when and how to lead and follow

* Resolving conflicts

* Learning to compromise by using the win/win model, where both parties experience satisfactory results

* Taking personal responsibility for your actions and commitments

Yet, some children apparently have failed to develop these and other social skills needed to attain a sufficient level of EQ, or emotional literacy.

One can think of infinite possibilities for providing these positive experiences through the musical activities inherent in group lessons. From teaching good hand position, finger articulation, scales and exercises, sight reading, ear training, theory and improvisation to musical interpretation, history and style, it all can be done through collaborative learning.

We must always try to provide experiences that enhance desirable behaviors for the development of the best possible social and emotional skills. The more opportunities we give students to learn and practice emotional literacy skills, the better. Group piano lessons can be an ideal setting for such learning. The music discipline becomes the vehicle through which learning experiences can be designed to develop and enhance the students' EQs. According to Jack A. Taylor, Nancy H. Berry and Kimberly C. Walls, authors of Music and Students at Risk: Creative Solutions for a National Dilemma, "The music classroom constitutes a uniquely appropriate setting in which to teach extramusical skills." (4)

Group teaching strategies focusing on developing students' extramusical skills also helps them listen, concentrate, be responsible, exert self control, handle disappointments and generally care more about learning. Group lessons can, therefore, establish the instructional model that can enhance the emotional literacy of every piano student.

A number of master piano teachers have promoted cooperative learning for students in small group settings. One of the leading exponents of this well-developed system is Robert Pace, emeritus professor of music and music education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Countless numbers of students have profited from his knowledge and inspiration as he has led an ever-growing number of enlightened piano teachers in the quest to provide the most beneficial setting for piano lessons. I have had the privilege to attend his seminars and discuss his principles in private conversation.

CK: What are the benefits from taking group lessons?

RP: "Students can learn more repertoire from each other based on each student's assignment. Assign different periods and different styles of music." Example: Students develop technique and problem-solving skills through collaborative learning (peer involvement, learning from each other). They can change energy from emphasis on negative competition ("winning")--literally can destroy a person--to cooperative learning environment: competition in yourself; try the best you can so you do not let down your partner in group.

CK: Do preschool students need private lessons? Would you recommend them to take two group lessons per week instead?

RP: Preschool students (including ages 2-5 years) do best in small groups of four to eight children. However, teachers need special training to work with preschoolers since it is not uncommon for them to exhibit "unsocial behavior." They have not learned to share with others or take turns in what they do. Individual lessons would only handicap students and deprive them of benefits of interactive learning. It would be great if all students could receive at least two lessons per week, but, unfortunately, many parents are so involved in getting their children to and from other after-school activities that it is impossible to have more than one session.

CK: What is your ultimate goal of teaching group lessons?

RP: It could fill several volumes and still only scratch the surface. To give a very general answer, however, two basic goals are to develop both musical literacy and musical creativity in every student. In this way, students who aspire to be concert artists will have the necessary prerequisites and skills, while the vast majority of non-musicians will have developed sufficient insights and skills to have music as a viable part of their lives forever. We can elaborate on that in greater detail in the future.

Teaching students in small-group settings is an ideal system for cooperative learning. It encourages students to learn by working together. Jane Kita Cook and Mildred Haipt have stated, "In an age of interdependence, cooperation becomes a necessity rather than a mere option." (5) This type of learning experience is a precious opportunity for young piano students to profit from the benefits group learning provides. Each student influences all the others in the group. As David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson acknowledge, "Peers shape a wide variety of social behaviors, attitudes and perspectives." (6)

Each student has different abilities, and they should be distributed equally in each group so every student can contribute to the group. They should be in the same level of advancement but not necessarily the same strength in each area. For example, a good sight reader versus one who plays by ear, a technically proficient student versus a musical performer. When forming a group, maturity and intelligence should be more important than age'.

Cooperative learning can promote better student understanding, participation and enjoyment of music. It gives teachers the opportunity to stimulate students to think, resolve conflicts and improve their interpersonal relationships while nurturing their behavior. It takes advantage of the students' natural tendency to play and work together. It adds excitement to their learning. When working together with their peers, students are asked to demonstrate their understanding through a variety of responses. These can be discussion, explanation, interpretation, demonstration, generalization and comparison. (7)

Group discussion is particularly useful, as pointed out by David Johnson and his colleagues: it often results in conflicting ideas, opinions and conclusions that contribute to a greater understanding through cooperative learning. Under imaginative and experienced supervision, they inspire the participants to a fuller understanding and their best achievement.

Some students eventually will become teachers themselves due, in small part, to the early experiences in this class setting. Regardless of their future place in society, they will learn to communicate in a positive verbal and nonverbal manner, cooperate with peers, achieve success, be responsible in society, exert self-control and accept the consequences of their own behavior.

In her review of neuroscientific literature, Dona Brink Fox arrives at the conclusion that active engagement, and not passive listening, contributes to brain development. (8) Her examples corroborate the fact that we can work together to create a healthy, effective environment for young children's musical development. The neuromusical research literature and the findings of a recent study lead to the conclusion that music processing does not occur on just one side of the brain; instead, it takes place throughout the brain.

Music education should be for all, not just "talented," students. Each of us, regardless of age, stands to benefit from being musically literate. According to neurologist Frank Wilson, "All of us have a biological guarantee of musicianship."

Musical experience gives students the opportunity to become musical thinkers. Lenore Pogonowski refers to critical thinking as "a dynamic psychological process that involves the framing and solving of problems." (9) One must not accept the first or easiest solution to a musical problem; rather, one must think of the most appropriate. Creative thinkers seek to acquire knowledge and information. They are not afraid to take risks and challenge assumptions; they try to find ways to improve a situation without relying on commonly accepted solutions. As each problem is solved, new ones are revealed, presenting the opportunity to select among many strategies. In an ideal setting, students become problem solvers and critical thinkers. In the best scenario, a number of students will perceive the arts as an important expression of the human experience.

Children can learn to express their ideas and emotions creatively by combining music and literature. Teachers can present new ideas, art forms, sounds and cultures much more vividly by introducing them through these two art forms. (10) The children's world is expanded, and they are better able to understand their place in it. They can learn many things, including history, science, other cultures and moral issues in society. An example of this combination can be found in Don Quixote, by Richard Strauss, inspired in Cervantes's masterpiece.

Pace states, "Musical experience and learning thrive in a social setting, where communication and sharing are fundamental. To encourage the expression of music, both in private and in front of others, should be the goal of every good music teacher." (11)

The discovery of musical talent, whether intrinsic or the result of a musical environment, can be enhanced by providing rich learning situations for young children to develop a better understanding of all the elements needed to realize their utmost musical potential. Group lessons provide excitement and variety with the individual differences and personal uniqueness. It avoids unnecessary repetition, enabling instructors to teach music fundamentals and offer individualized treatment in private lessons. Group lessons complemented by private lessons can provide an effective and productive learning experience. Students learn to respect and appreciate each person's individuality and begin to understand more about their own creativity.

Good group teachers do not play up competition among students; they concentrate on developing a positive and constructive spirit of cooperation. Teachers need to help students understand that learning is not a matter of winning points, but improving. Teachers should encourage and motivate students to do a better job rather than feeling the external pressures of competition. (12)

Group learning can offer a productive setting for students to have a genuine concern for each other's learning and success, as well as a desire to help each other develop creative potential.


(1.) Kassner, Kirk, "Cooperative Learning Revised: A Way to Address the Standards," Music Educators Journal. (January 2002): 17-19.

(2.) Coleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence: Why It can Matter More than IQ. (Bantam Books, 1997).

(3.) McClung, Alan, "Extramusical Skills in the Music Classroom," Music Educators Journal. (March 2000): 37-39.

(4.) Taylor, Jack A., Nancy H. Berry and Kimberly C. Walls, Music and Students at Risk: Creative Solutions for a National Dilemma. (The National Association for Music Education, 1997).

(5.) Cook, Jane Kita and Mildred Haipt, Thinking With the Whole Brain: An Integrative Teaching/Learning Model (K-8). (Washington, D.C.: National Education Association, 1986).

(6.) Johnson, David W. and Roger T. Johnson, Learning Together and Alone: Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Learning. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1987).

(7.) Kassner, "Cooperative Learning Revised: A Way to Address the Standards," (2002) 17-19.

(8.) Fox, Donna Brink, "Music and the Baby's Brain," Music Educators Journal. (September 2000): 24-26.

(9.) Pogonowski, Lenore, "A Personal Retrospective on the MMCP," Music Educators Journal. (July 2001): 26.

(10.) Calogero, Joanna, "Integrating Music and Children's Literature," Music Educators Journal. (March 2002): 23-24.

(11.) Pace, Robert, "Piano Lesson: Private or Group," Keyboard Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2. (Fall 1978).

(12.) Ibid.


Demorest, Steven and Steven Morrison, "Does Music Make You Smarter?" Music Educators Journal. (September 2000): 39.

Hickey, Maud and Peter Webster, "Creative Thinking in Music," Music Educators Journal (July 2001): 19-21.

Hodges, Donald, "Implications of Music and Brain Research," Music Educators Journal (September 2000): 17-22.

Priest, Thomas, "Creative Thinking in Instrumental Classes," Music Educators Journal (January 2002): 51.

Turner, Mark, "Child-Centered Learning and Music Programs," Music Educators Journal. (July 1999): 31-32.

Wiggins, Robert, "Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Music Educators Concerns," Music Educators Journal (March 2001): 44.

Chungwon Kim, pianist, holds master of music and professional studies degrees from the Manhattan School of Music. She is a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University and a member of the piano faculty at the Music Conservatory of Westchester.
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Author:Kim, Chungwon
Publication:American Music Teacher
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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