Group classes for adults?

September 6, 2017, 2:17 PM · An old orchestra friend of mine has been doing something that I consider to be an absolute mitzvah (and also a potentially genius idea).

The idea was inspired by a conversation with a woman who was a hot-shot violinist through childhood (like Lydia!) and hasn't touched her instrument in years because starting again is so daunting. Moved by this woman's plight, he started a group class for adults who want to restart the violin.

My sense, based on his description, is that it's part master class, part group therapy, part Suzuki-for-grown-ups: they start at a basic level: how do you play a scale? an open string? how is your basic set-up, and can you play without pain or tension? They play things together and separately, work up something for a final recital (albeit not super formally) and inspire and encourage and teach/learn from each other. He considers his job done if he manages to launch them into a community orchestra or chamber music group or private lessons--some kind of return to regular playing. He's doing it for an extraordinarily low price because he didn't want cost to be prohibitive.

He and I spent a long time brainstorming about what a similar course could look like for more regular players: those who are not taking lessons and maybe don't have an effective/regular practice routine or well-established goals, but who are still playing at some level (e.g. in a community orchestra, or at their church/synagogue) and hoping to improve. His original concept for this next version was to help people establish more efficient "adult" practice routines and work up enough new material for a short recital. I think he's still refining his ideas, though.

I was personally enchanted by the possibilities of such a class. There's something so appealing to me about the idea of helping and being helped by a group of people, each with a goal in mind. It's like a lesson in that you meet regularly and have an incentive to make progress and practice, but also social and collaborative like orchestra. We all have different struggles and can learn from each other. One participant might be keen to finally polish the last movement of a concerto they kinda-sorta learned in their youth. Another might want to work on bow control in a slow piece. Another might want to rework their vibrato, or try playing without a shoulder rest.

It occurred to me that it would have some similarities with the online community that you've built here.

What do you think?
Could it work?
Is it already working, somewhere?
Teachers, is this the kind of thing you could conceivably embrace?
Fellow adult violinists-without-teachers, would you sign up for it?
How much time would you commit to something of this nature, and how much might you pay?
What are the potential pitfalls? (assuming that the teacher knows his stuff, which he does)

Replies (16)

September 6, 2017, 6:51 PM · I don't have too much to say. This sounds like a cool idea, and could work with multiple seachers and no more than three in a private work group of students playing at a similar level with similar goals, strengths and weaknesses.
September 6, 2017, 8:15 PM · Yes, I think it's a great idea. However, in general, I'm a lot less worried about those who were childhood hotshots and want to pick it back up than I am about those who want to learn from the ground up in adulthood. There are vanishingly few resources for the latter group of people.
September 6, 2017, 8:53 PM · I think that community music schools in major metro areas often have group classes for true adult beginners, and that many returnees who have totally lost their skills would probably be comfortable in such classes.

The format you describe sounds very masterclass-y, though -- i.e., multiple people getting mini-lessons in front of each other -- and my experience is that adults aren't always comfortable being in the spotlight in that kind of situation. Regular exposure to the same group might help overcome shyness, though.

September 6, 2017, 9:54 PM · It sounds like a good idea, especially the supportive aspect of the group is definitely going to attract members. I'm thinking out loud here. There are a few things I don't know how this will work out.

The lesson aspect: I have some concern when it is assumed that the teacher knows what he is doing. I really think you need someone who is experienced professional player and teacher, especially among paying adults. They have their own experience and ideas, may and may not be relevant, but the teacher's credential and authority can be a key factor whether his instructions will be respected or followed.

The Masterclasses-aspect: Again, this type of classes are usually conducted by very experienced teacher, who are not only good players, but also have experiences in teaching, adjudicating, mentoring, etc. If you can't find someone has such reputation locally, then you might need to lower students' expectation or don't call it masterclass, but something like "mini-recitals for feedback in a supportive environment".

Aside what Lydia said about the benefit of overcome shyness among adult players, I would think such group will benefit greatly if the teacher can guide students through practice routines and work on technique stuff bit by bit by teaching new tricks as well as reviewing basics at each group lesson. It will also be great to come up with some group games to help students to think more creatively. Games involved with rhythms, ear training, etc.

Overall, this is very exciting project but will likely be a lot of work. Bravo for initiating this, Katie, and please keep us updated how it goes.

September 7, 2017, 4:14 AM · Adult restarters might differ greatly in terms of playing ability. Then there will be the rather tough reservation against adult beginners. Generally how would you define a restarter. Without factoring in resources and availibility of intetested people, i suggest a longish session, broken up into equaltime slots (45 mins, hour, 1.30...etc). Say, saturday 3-4 beginners, 4.15 to 5.15 intermediate (whether rebeginners or those who graduated from first sesion), 5.30 to 6.30 more advanced. Kind of like what happens in a salsa dance teaching situation.
September 7, 2017, 4:42 AM · I think there's nothing really wrong with it in principle, but in a lot of areas there won't be critical mass to do this. And I agree with Tammuz that playing ability -- even if everyone is a raw beginner -- will vary greatly after the third or fourth session. You could skim the cream for your private studio...
September 7, 2017, 7:13 AM · Probably truly major metropolitan centers have a lot more such resources, but even here in Indianapolis (which is obviously not Chicago, NYC, or LA, but it does have a population of 2 million and we also have IU a stone's throw away), it's not easy to find group settings for adult beginners. It's not that they don't exist at all, but just that there aren't that many.
Edited: September 7, 2017, 8:05 AM · Katie,

I think it's a great idea. I think you have covered all the bases well in your introductory description. Finding the right, understanding and adaptive teacher is critical.

It could be a decent money maker for the teacher = (low price per student) X (about 5 students). I think at $20/(student-hour) it would be a real bargain.

I have only been in one similar situation as an adult student in the group (over 40 years ago) and it was an incredible experience. For a thinking adult, observing the teaching and learning experience of and with others can be very instructive.

A really good (great!) teacher can spot each student's problems instantaneously and assign appropriate etudes for study. That was my experience, my teacher in a similar experience was Heifetz' USC Master Class assistant at the time, but I have seen similar perception and knowledge in community college music teachers and professionals in regional orchestras as well.

Edited: September 7, 2017, 8:39 AM · The concept sounds like the studio classes that some teachers already host for their students. It's not quite a masterclass (not open to the public). The format varies. Some are just performances with the teacher's feedback, and others are like workshops where participants critique each other.

I have pianist friends who do a similar thing, minus the fees and teachers (though some are also teachers). They take turns hosting these piano groups in their homes each month and have a meal together.

Is this going to be a substitute for private lessons, or a supplement? For beginners, it's a nice idea. For non-beginners, it might be harder to get a critical mass (as Paul mentioned above), depending on where you live. If it's a large city, you'd be competing with private lessons, chamber music, and orchestras. And people tend to prefer groups or instruction at or above their own level.

Edited: September 7, 2017, 9:00 AM · I see this more as a group rehearsal, which should be supplemented with private lessons if any significant progress is to be made. Face time with the teacher in a group learning is very limited, perhaps 10min per hour if not less. It may seem inexpensive but if you calculate cost per min with teacher's attention, I'd be surprised if it isn't more expensive actually. The group context on the other hand can be motivating for adults, especially those who seem to only thrive in a social context and have difficulty staying motivated on their own.
September 7, 2017, 9:24 AM · Thanks everyone.

Answering questions/comments backwards...

Frieda, you're right–it's a master class in the sense that there's a designated instructor but it wouldn't be open to the public and there wouldn't be the level of performance expectation that usually accompanies that venture. I think it's more similar to what your pianist friends do, but––again--with a leader/master teacher who would be paid.

Andrew, I think you've nailed it.

This would definitely not be for re-starters––it would be for people who are already capably playing at, say, a local community orchestra level. I agree that the re-starter thing can be all over the map but according to my friend, the diversity of levels in his re-starter class wasn't as much of a problem as he'd anticipated.

This would not be a supplement to private lessons. I'm having trouble explaining why I think a group class would be useful for people who "should" be in private lessons and am drawing a blank. I think in some ways it's as simple as this: there just aren't a lot of great teachers around here who have the room in their studios or energy for adult amateurs of a certain level.

I had this experience personally: I signed on with a highly regarded teacher who charged over $100/hour and specialized in intermediate-to-advanced high school kids. She always needed to squeeze me in at different times, usually in the middle of the day (evenings not an option). She didn't really know what to do with me. I wasn't going to be a protege. I wasn't a friend. I wasn't going to fit into her studio recitals. I was just...a middle-aged woman who wanted to learn some Bach. It felt in some ways as though I was going from zero to sixty, too: you don't have time to sort out exactly when you're going to practice and because we didn't have a regular lesson time I never really got into a rhythm, but always felt slightly nervous and off-kilter. At least once we miscommunicated or remembered differently exactly when the lesson would be. (I remember asking her if I could send her a Google calendar invite so that we could definitively be on the same page and she said "I don't want you to have access to my calendar!" *sigh*)

The nadir of this experience was the day I bailed out early from a friend's bridal shower in San Francisco, sped back down the Peninsula for a middle-of-the-afternoon-on-a-weekend lesson...and then waited outside the studio for 15-20 minutes because the lesson before went over. We had people coming over to our house for dinner that night and I'd counted on a lesson that started and ended on time so that I could get to the store and get home and cook. I had trouble focusing because I was so worried about the time and my husband was texting me about groceries and getting anxious. She was incredibly nonchalant–-the student before me needed more time, so she got it. The absurdity of trying to fit this into my adult life hit me like a ton of bricks.

Most adult amateurs I know don't take private lessons--haven't since college or grad school--and yet most of them also harbor a secret hope that they aren't actually on the decline. This feels like a less intense step in the direction of lessons: less expensive, scheduled at a time that works for grown-ups with jobs and kids and commutes and lives, collaborative and supportive and designed around adult learning styles and limitations, and benefiting not just from a teacher but also the informed observation of those around the room.

More later. Keep the thoughts coming!

September 7, 2017, 9:40 AM · Katie, it sounds like you were just dealing with a jerk. I don't think lesson cost necessarily correlates with quality of a lesson, but I can't imagine that someone that is okay with wasting your time to that extent would be conscientious enough to be able to effectively teach. In my case, my teacher and I keep a pretty flexible schedule, and a 5 minute or so adjustment on the start time isn't typically a big deal, although maybe my schedule is flexible enough to work for her, but she fits me in. I think a teacher making it seem like they are doing you a huge favor is a big red flag, and that other teachers will be much more respectful of your time.

With that said, I think one of the big advantages of certain systems like how Auer and some others taught (more of a master class system) was that this created many opportunities for performance, which young children often have more opportunities to do than adult amateurs, and that it offers the chance to better close the gap between the skills one has in the practice room and the skills one has in front of an audience. So basically, if the adult class you suggest offers a better form of feedback for performance, than it sounds promising, but there are other things (issues of technique) that I believe are really better served in a one on one setting.

September 7, 2017, 10:01 AM · Some teachers are just bad at keeping to schedules. Note that lessons that don't start on time wreak havoc with kids, too, who are often crazily over-scheduled and need to get to baseball practice or whatever on time.

I think that this group-class concept might work if there is a specific piece of repertoire to be studied, and it's straightforward enough to be played (perhaps as a challenge) by an intermediate student, but has opportunities for greater artistry and perfection by a more advanced player. For instance, it might be reasonable to study solo Bach in this way.

Having the class focus on a single piece of repertoire for several weeks means that practice techniques, music history and interpretation can be taught to the group as a whole, and then the teacher can also work with individual students during the group class in a way that will be interesting and useful to everyone watching.

That also allows it to be a short commitment. Many adults might make room in their schedule for, say, four classes spread out over an 8-week period, but that wouldn't commit year round. (Spreading out the classes a little bit allows players who don't have much practice time to prepare adequately.)

Edited: September 7, 2017, 10:57 AM · So - what I read above is full of valid ideas, I think! But if you are going to arrange something like this you need to have agreement among the student participants as to which approach will work for their desires (the teacher will determine their needs).

The group I participated in ranged from duffers like myself who played something like the Mendelssohn E minor or a Viotti concerto to the Heifetz students who played a concert-worthy Bruch concerto or the Sinding Suite worthy of Heifetz, etc.. Yet it all worked because the teacher could work at all levels and I think we all learned from everything that was done.

To be honest I only participated 2 days (about 4 hours each), played in the orchestra at night for the Herbert Blomstedt conducting master class and then drove headed home (150 miles) rather than participate for the full 2 weeks I had paid for Unfotrtunately! What drove me away were the 107°F ambient daytime temperatures (Redlands, CA) and un-airconditioned practice rooms where we were expected to spend the afternoons between the class and the orchestra sessions. TG - the class and orchestra rooms did have AC.

September 7, 2017, 11:21 AM · I am an adult returner. Played all through grade school (13 years), then stopped playing for 10 years (undergrad, law school, early career). I only began playing again a couple years ago once I had moved into a detached home, so I wouldn't bother the neighbors practicing. Now I play in a community orchestra every week.

I would be very interested in the type of classes you speak of, if it was available to me. Particularly in the summer, when my community orchestra takes a break from rehearsals. The type of format I'd like to see it is probably in blocks of a month or two of lesson plan, with each block covering a certain piece and helpful etudes. That way I could get an idea of whether it was a piece I was interested in, whether it was within my playing capability, etc. This could bring people from varying skill levels, and I think the idea that different people can sign up for different sets of courses could bring some variety to the lessons, both for the teacher and the students.

A two hour lesson every week (or every other week?) would probably be good. I'd opt for longer lessons for less frequency, since commute time is an issue for me, as I imagine it would be in any metropolitan area.

I wish this was offered where I live! (Austin area)

September 7, 2017, 3:51 PM · Of course it could work. As others have said, private lesson supplementation is an absolute must. One way to make things perhaps slightly easier from a scheduling standpoint is to simply have an all-ages beginner group class as an option. Space at community schools can be tight. That way you don't need to always worry about separate rehearsal spaces and times for classes taught for the same skill level, but different ages. Allow students to test out as needed on a rolling basis.

Yes, people on either side of the age of majority would feel weird at first, but as the weird feelings would mostly be because of unfamiliarity, these feelings of awkwardness would pass with time. I also think that a lot of the ways fundamentals are taught to younger beginners can be beneficial to adults as well.

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