Most music teachers recommend private lessons for beginner students.
Good or bad advice?
If you talk to just about any piano instructor that was traditionally trained, you will almost always discover a heavy bias towards the private format. Twenty years ago, there were very limited options if you wanted to study music with a few exceptions: Suzuki,Orff, Music for Young Children, and Yamaha Music System. As most teachers were trained in the private lesson format, few can relate to an alternate approach until they have had first-hand experience teaching it.
For instance, each year, 7 Notes receives around 300 qualified resumes from musicians across the country applying to our faculty. Most have either a bachelor of music or a post-graduate degree from a recognized university or college, and/or extensive professional experience; all have taken music lessons for ten plus years –most are privately trained. Each candidate undergoes an extensive screening process including numerous interviews, a full written and practical performance teaching audition, background reference checks, and finally hours of extensive training before becoming certified to teach at the school; this is by far the most rigorous hiring process in the industry which allows us to select from the best and brightest talent available. This is all in place to ensure a consistent and effective experience for each of our 300+ weekly students.
When one of our new faculty members is asked whether they would choose a private lesson format or group format to start their own child, almost all would choose private lessons without hesitation. Even given the information included in this article, and with a high degree of respect and regard for the integrity of the organization, few would change their opinion that private lessons are more effective and productive than group lessons. However, what is fascinating to me is that after teaching our group curriculum for only one year that opinions change in virtually every instance. So what is it about Yamaha Music Education System and this format of music education that changes the opinion of even the toughest critics of group lessons?
WHAT PRIVATE LESSONS OFFER
Regardless of the bias, no one can argue that private music lessons have one big benefit over group; the pacing of lesson material is completely tailored to the individual student. This of course is the reason that so many well-meaning and thoughtful parents opt for the traditional or private format to start their children in music lessons. It seems totally logical that with more personalized attention and the ability to pace the material to match the needs of their child, it would equate into better value, accelerated progression, and ultimately better results. Add to this the majority of independent music teachers recommending the private format for beginning students along with many “commercial” schools offering a very poor quality group alternative; it makes sense that most would feel convinced about the efficacy of private vs. group. However the practical reality paints an entirely different picture.
HOW GROUP OUTPERFORMS PRIVATE FOR BEGINNING STUDENTS
It is important to clarify that there is no “one size fits all” group lesson format. Each program has to be judged upon its own merits, and the quality varies dramatically from one program to another. However, for the purpose of this article, when I refer to a “group” program, I am talking only about professionally run ensemble based programs which incorporate an intelligently designed curriculum, trained professional teachers, competent classroom management and facilitation, and proper filters (age and skill set are appropriately matched)
There are numerous benefits to a professionally delivered group or ensemble format vs. private for beginning students that include social interaction, positive peer motivation, retention of content, enhanced attention span and more robust musical skill set at an earlier age.
That we live in a world with numerous ways for our children to socially interact and connect through new technologies and several options for academic, athletic and arts related extra-curricular activities is not in dispute. Children are used to learning, creating and playing in socially interactive environments and in some ways have come to expect it; socially dynamic settings that incorporate opportunities to connect with people make learning enjoyable and engaging. Given that reality, a well-run group music experience feels natural, pleasurable and relevant to most children. Even those parents who are concerned about shyness and integration with other kids usually find that when their children are placed in a group format with a trained coach, they “come out of their shell” when the enjoyment of making music with friends takes over their shyness. Most kids who start out with two to four years of group lessons before switching to a private format, associate learning music with enjoyment and pleasure; an absolutely critical foundation to establish during the formative years. When the first experiences with music are positive, socially dynamic, and emotionally satisfying, the groundwork has been laid to eventually incorporate highly disciplined and rigorous training with specialty one on one coaches.
Oftentimes, students who start in a private lesson experience feel music is an isolating and lonely experience which feeling lasts with them throughout their lives: the demons of stage fright, shyness and fear to play in front of friends or family are all too common for those who have learned to play exclusively in a private format throughout their formative years and adolescence years. When the time comes to engage in this type of rigorous training and the student is free from any negative baggage associated with an over-disciplined early experience, the private format doesn’t rob them of the joy of playing music that many skilled musicians struggle with throughout their lives. This is one of the most important reasons that I unhesitatingly recommend a group format for two to four years either in conjunction with a private lesson (which is ideal but seldom practical) or exclusively group before private coaching on its own is considered.
POSITIVE PEER MOTIVATION
A well-organized group format provides an incentive for each student to practice at home in order to keep the integrity and flow of the group. Well run group classes take advantage of the opportunity to have students play pieces in an ensemble as well as solo format in front of their peers. This not only gives a reason to practice, but it also allows students to see other student’s weakness and strengths, and identify the same pros and cons in their own playing; a very positive motivator and learning tool.
RETENTION OF CONTENT
I have observed over the years another huge benefit of the group dynamic; higher retention of information. It is extremely difficult to keep a 4-7 year old engaged in a private lesson. Few children can sit still on a bench for more than 20 min with one way information being directed at them from the teacher.
We have found that kids can easily handle a Yamaha Group Piano class for a full hour as the time is interspersed with physical activities (marching together to different rhythms) musical games (that teach rudiments) and ensemble playing and solo playing. The hour is rich with content and because the dynamic is constantly stimulating incorporating different activities, the attention span is dramatically increased.
The content that we can deliver to young children in a group format over a period of 3-4 years is almost 4x’s the amount of content we could deliver in the best private lesson with a top notch coach. Content such as ear training, basics of harmony, rhythmical styles, counting, form, dynamics, improvisation and the basics of composing are extremely difficult to teach in a private lesson format during the formative years at the same level of engagement. We have observed over and over again that students who have completed 3-4 years of Yamaha Group Piano lessons have triple or quadruple the skills of those who have studied during the same amount of time in private lessons with the very best coaches.
ENHANCED ATTENTION SPAN
The reason that Yamaha Group Piano students can absorb so much more musical knowledge in a shorter period of time is the enhanced level of engagement and attention span the student experiences. When we are learning even the most complex skills like language and math, when we are enjoying ourselves, having fun, and feeling the experience is relevant, our ability to process complex material dramatically increases. The sometimes boring and mundane experience of even the best private lessons cannot replicate the dynamic of a vibrant, exciting and stimulating class experience. When most children learn their first language, they don’t have a sense of how difficult it because they so desperately want to learn how to communicate and interact. When we try to replicate a need to learn the complex language of music by making it relevant (playing with others, interacting socially etc., utilizing technology etc.) the rate of learning increases dramatically.
INCREASE SKILL SET AT AN EARLIER AGE
This all equates to a significantly broader skill set that translates into deeper musicianship and a more entrenched understanding of musical principles. Because Yamaha students receive significantly more content over a 3-4 year period, enjoy a more stimulating and engaging dynamic, have less performance fear and enjoy the experience of making music with their friends, they are much more prepared to study from a private coach and get much more value from the experience. Those that learn in this order and move to a private lesson when appropriate, and continue some kind of specialty group option at the same time, end up becoming the most accomplished students and literate musicians. They are also far more likely to keep playing and having music stay part of their whole lives in meaningful and enjoyable ways.
*Note: Although there are very few examples of a child not being able to fit into a group format (approximately 5%) all the rest benefit from the experience. There are numerous advantages to group vs. private for the first years, but the most important benefit is that it develops better musicians and does it in a much faster and more enjoyable and humanistic way.
Observing so many students over almost two decades has convinced me and thousands of parents that this is the best way to teach music to young children, regardless of aptitude, intelligence or potential. As the proverbial saying goes, “the proof is in the pudding”.