Experimental Teaching Structure
So, I was thinking about this idea before the coronavirus hit, due to the limitations I had found in teaching beginners. Sadly, right around the time I was planning to implement it, Covid hit so it became impossible, and about 6 months later I quit teaching altogether.
Now, I'm spending a lot of my time inventing, but I do miss teaching. And since most adults I know have been fully vaccinated, I thought it might be a possibility to try this idea.
Here's the basis of the concept: Lessons are oriented around a 4-person group rather than individuals. 1-on-1 lessons would still happen once per week, but there would be another lesson where the same 4 people met for an hour-long "rehearsal" each week. I would probably use Samuel Applebaum's graded duet series "beautiful music for two string instruments", and would have 2 of the students play 1st violin and the other 2 would play 2nd violin (in this way, the weaker play can always follow the stronger player in either part, and there's a bit of redundancy).
Monday, each of the 4 players has a 30-minute private lesson where we go over their part in the duet, and other auxiliary things like scales, etudes, etc... But the real goal of this lesson is to make sure they have the tools to be able to fulfill their role in the "quartet".
Thursday, all 4 of the players show up at the same time and have a 1-hour group "rehearsal" where they attempt to play their respective parts in conjunction with each other. In this lesson, we focus more on the general concepts involved in effectively playing together. Things like rhythm, tempo, and listening are emphasized.
The big idea here is that a 4-person group has the social benefits that something like an orchestra or suzuki group has, but without the problems that tend to come along with larger groups of kids. Individual voices can still be heard and appropriate teacher input can be given to address issues. And the players can learn from each other. There's a sense of camaraderie because it will always be the same 4 players, effectively forming a "band" or "quartet" of their own. If one falls behind the others, they will be motivated to try harder in order to keep up with their peers. If one races ahead of the others, they may be motivated to help the weaker players and develop leadership.
Now, I don't want to bore you by going into too much detail right away about this idea, but I just wanted to pose it as a general concept and see what you guys thought. There will be tradeoffs in this approach, certainly. One of the biggest cons I see is that it might "hold back" the rare player who is very self-driven and wants to improve at a far faster rate than the others. However, I've found that amongst beginners, this is a rarity, plus I can deal with it appropriately when/if it happens (perhaps by moving them to a more advanced group).
Generally, I feel that orienting my teaching structure towards the majority of students makes more sense than orienting it towards the rare exception. And my belief is that the #1 issue that beginners have on the violin is the lack of a *reason* to continue trying once they've reached a basic level of playing. Sure, it's novel until they get towards the end of Suzuki book 1, for example, but then things do get harder and they start asking themselves "why am I doing this"? I believe this is where team sports have such a huge advantage. You can throw kids into a soccer team as soon as they can run. And a lot of them are motivated to keep going because they enjoy doing the sport with other kids. Competition and camaraderie are both immediately felt, so even after it starts getting hard they've already built this social system that can prop them up to take them through that next tier of challenge.
But with music, kids often need to play for years before they realistically have a chance of joining a beginner orchestra. Even when they do join, the group is too large for them to receive good input on how to play better with others. I've seen plenty of kids that have played in orchestras for years and are still totally hopeless when it comes to counting (god knows I was one of them). This can happen for many reasons, but I think one of the big ones that is if they don't know what they're doing, they can just "hide" by playing quieter and with more vague bowing motions, and it will just generally go unaddressed. So I believe the "quartet" structure (meaning duets with 2 players playing each part) could be optimal for getting newer players to start effectively playing music together.
As an adult perpetual beginner I think this way of learning would be fun and useful even for an oldster like me.
Good to hear that, Ann!
I can actually provide some insight here, based on what I have seen this past year. During virtual school, my daughter and some of her friends have been doing distance learning from our home. One of her friends plays the violin (3 years or so), and while she can play, she absolutely hates it, and would quit if she could. She plays because mom LOVES the instrument, and her older sister plays as well. As it turns out, having the two of them together was the school strings teacher’s dream, as it is pretty well impossible to do orchestra virtually, especially when most of the kids are absolute beginners.
I did a similar thing when restructuring my program as distance learning for the pandemic: organized my Suzuki book 1-3 kids into 2- to 4-person groups that met usually twice a week (online), scheduled them for monthly separate lessons, and made practice segment videos for them and reviewed their practice recordings. (Book 5+ kept regular individual lessons; I didn't have any 4's at the time.)
Sue, that's great to hear. I do believe that kids need each other for support more than they need adults, if that makes sense. It's just not the same when an adult does something with them. They need someone near their own age doing it to motivate them.
Sounds great. Sort of like Suzuki with harmony, the one thing I have always found lacking.
I do the same thing ,but in live lessons. I play the second violin'part of the duets and from 3 to 6 students play 1st violin..it is easier for students to control intonation and rhithm than in a large ensemble..for me 3 students is best than two for a voice: the intonations is easier..so,I agree with your idea
It sounds like a good idea and kids would enjoy it. You should go for it and keep us updated how it goes.
When you have 1 or 2 on a part, each player has to be more solid with their own part compared to in a larger section where it's possible for one to "hide" (that being a downside in that situation). A larger section that slightly disagrees on intonation sounds less horrible than two players on the part disagreeing (there is an acoustic explanation for this, I think). For these reasons, I think it's tough to put beginners in duet harmony too early. They have their hands and minds full keeping up with their own part and I just wouldn't also expect a whole lot of trying to mesh with another beginner, who may or may not be exact on their part either. It helps for them to play with a strong player (teacher) before playing with a peer or being the leader for a peer.
Maurizio, actually this idea is also for live lessons. I think getting beginners to even approximately play in unison over Zoom would be impossible.
I also like to do duets. It is more fun than using a metronome and tuner. I did some group sessions at the local college. My department added a required weekly group class in addition to the private lessons. I found that I was repeating myself so often in the private lessons that I used those classes for lecture-demonstrations on technical topics. Some classes were used for mock sectional rehearsals of standard orchestral excerpts. Then the dept. restricted lessons to only music majors, enrollment dropped a lot. When the virus hit it was an excuse to retire from the University.
Getting started will indeed be the hard part, Mengwei. To begin, I've already contacted my old adult beginners group and they're all interested. More than likely, that will end up being a group of 4-5 at any given time. They all know each other and play together, so they were really my original experiment with forming a small "loyalty group" (or w/e you wanna call them) and it was highly successful.
Erik this is an AMAZINGLY EXCITING idea and I wish I could have been doing that the past 6 years! It is just what I needed. My version is finally here though. I just started individual violin lessons over zoom every 2 weeks with a baroque-oriented teacher and (hopefully) in September will join a weekly adult baroque ensemble at the local music school. Ditto for my viola da gamba, except those lessons will be weekly at the school and by the same teacher who will lead the viol consort I'm joining there. Finally I'll be forced to count time and listen to and play with others. Your idea Erik is very excellent!
I like this idea, Erik.
I must admit, this thread has elicited some of the most positive responses I've ever gotten here. Thanks Will!
Re:“ In order to do this, I will probably have to produce my own "starting method", since even the simplest existing duets are too difficult for true beginners. I'd like to color-code the strings (Black, Green, Blue, Purple) and have this color code reflected in the music early on. As the music progresses, the color code will gradually go away because they'll be able to more easily identify notes by position. The notes/staff will also get physically smaller. Obviously, quarter notes only for quite some time, and maybe half notes, and then introduce 8th notes.“
Erik, I finally got the chance to listen to a few of the full duests from book one. They were beautiful! I can see how students would live playing these together and I'll start using them with students. I also like the fact that they are interchangeable with other string instruments.
Erik, you're really hitting my keywords! I had a chuckle at "experimental teaching structure" because it's all very similar to what I do already. I really wanted my early pandemic masterclasses to work but there was insufficient understanding and practical implementation among children and parents about:
Haha Mengwei, it sounds like you put tremendous effort into teaching, which is excellent. I wish I was that motivated. Your students are lucky to have you, I'm sure.
I must like the idea because about 20 years ago (roughly in the middle of the 10 years of violin lessons I gave my older granddaughter) she assembled a small group of her friends who played other string and wind instruments and we met weekly to play a variety of fairly simple musical compositions. I think we did this only for about one semester.
Erik, et al.,
Erik, this sounds SO cool...but I am at least 70 years older than the kids you will be working with, so I am crossing my fingers that your concept works out as well for the kids as it does with my string buddies! We do learn a lot from each other. The only thing I could add is that videos for the kids to watch and refer to from home might be a useful addition. I have been taking an online course from Nottingham England, Learn Piano Blues. The teacher has recorded a series of 69 lesson modules; each module contains a short video of the teacher explaining the lesson at a keyboard, and a PDF of music and text that can be downloaded. As a subscriber, I can access any lesson as many times as I like. This online material takes the place of a book, and works great on a tablet on my keyboard music stand. Just a thought for you... I wish you the best of luck at your enterprise!!
Thanks for the input guys! I'm looking forward to exploring this more, and will definitely keep you updated on how it ends up going.