At the core of my teaching philosophy is that children learning an instrument should be introduced to playing with others at the earliest possible opportunity. I am a violin teacher so my experience has more often than not been with violin groups. However this pretty much applies to any instrument.
The benefits of ensemble playing are huge, not just from a musical perspective, but also from a social one. Playing in a group also helps children who want to perform but are scared to do so. The group allows them to make music and enjoy the thrill of performing for others while taking away the pressure linked to performance anxiety as well as the fear of being judged and found lacking.
With the right guidance from the teacher running the group, any atmosphere of competition is removed from the equation and what is left is a purely positive and joyful experience. All members of the group want it to sound good and will work together to make that happen. It doesn’t even have to be a large group or a full blown orchestra. Starting small with simple duets can be an excellent way to introduce the concept of ensemble playing.
Any situation which allows children to play with others will stimulate and encourage them while helping them understand how music fits together and how one part can complement the other. It always reminds me of the Aristotelian principle; we are greater than the sum of our parts.
While it is more usual when teaching to form a homogeneous group of players roughly at the same level, a mixed level group of students can also be very rewarding and beneficial. My violin orchestra, which I founded and ran in Italy, was made up of all the violin pupils that I taught and they were a really mixed bunch. I called my group the Divertimento Academy. The word “divertimento” literally means “fun” in Italian, so the concept of the Divertimento Academy was learning while having fun.
As the years progressed it became even more diverse. There were some pupils who were quite advanced, others who were more of an intermediate level, some late beginners and then there were the absolute beginners who I introduced to the group as soon as possible. If I felt they had not yet mastered a straight bow, I would introduce them anyway and write a part for them that required pizzicato open strings.
When introducing a complete beginner to ensemble playing it is very important, I feel, to give them a part that is really very simple. This frees them up to take in what is happening around them, to listen, feel the flow of the music and understand how their part fits in to the greater whole. This is how they will develop their understanding of music without putting their technical development at risk. It also gives them a great sense of achievement when they hear how their simple part contributes to something that sounds so lovely (again reminding us of the Aristotelian principle).They will also learn a lot subliminally from playing with more advanced players.
The more advanced players can also learn a lot from playing with the beginners. They quickly become role models and mentors. They learn patience and how to help the little ones out, in this way understanding the learning process from a different perspective. In my experience it promotes a sense of camaraderie within the group and a non competitive atmosphere which is very beneficial to music making.
So, be it duets, trios or something far grander, let’s make music together from the very beginning, opening a door onto a world of music making that makes the solitary practise sessions seem so much more worthwhile.
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