Piano students take a different path than most other instrumental students, and the reasons is simple: Piano is a solo instrument. True, guitar and organ can be solo instruments, too. But guitar is commonly played in a group, and few children study organ.
What this means is that other instrumentalists – violinists, flutists, trumpeters – often take group music lessons (at least at the beginning), where playing music takes place in a group context: Practice may be private, advanced instruction may be private, but the ultimate goal is to play with others.
But beginning piano students typically take private lessons right from the start, and these lessons rarely include participating in ensembles, playing in orchestras, or learning the essentials of group performance. Although the piano has a rich and varied library of ensemble and duet music, and although advanced pianists often accompany choruses, singers and instrumentalists, or play in bands or chamber ensembles, piano education is primarily a one-on-one activity leading to solo performance.
Group Music Instruction and Piano Education
Group lessons can be difficult for pianists: First, the instrument isn’t portable, which means that groups usually use keyboards, not pianos. The nature of the piano and its repertoire can make group lessons challenging, as well, because much of the traditional pedagogical material was written with the intent of being taught one-on-one with a private teacher. To be effectively used in a group class, material must often be modified, for instance, by breaking it into parts.
Finally, the complexity of the instrument comes into play. The piano is polyphonic (meaning that pianists play multiple parts at once). Pianists read two musical staves at once (bass and treble clefs), and must master both harmony and melody at the same time. These are skills that are difficult to teach in a group setting, and they are also the factors that make the piano satisfying to play as a solo instrument.
However, group piano lessons can make sense for many young beginners. When evaluating music lessons for a small child, here are some issues to consider.
Advantages of Group Piano Classes
- Longer class times. Most group classes run at least an hour, with plenty of time for varied activities.
- Price: Typically, n hour-long group lesson involving about four students will cost about the same as a private lesson that runs a half-hour.
- Fun Factor: Children enjoy learning in games and with their peers, and a well-run group lesson includes plenty of musical fun.
- Performance classes: Children learn to perform infront of their peers.
- Group activities: These are ideal for teaching musical concepts such as rhythm and counting. Marching around the room to a beat, dancing, and clapping are all more fun for children in groups, and these activities teach fundamental skills that will set the stage for a student’s later learning.
- Ensemble skills: A well run group will include music that can be played in parts. Students therefore learn the skills need to perform in a group. This is an element of music education that many private lessons fail to teach.
- Lower stress: The low-key recreational approach of many groups may be appropriate for younger children who don’t yet have the dexterity to develop finer instrumental skills.
Advantages of Private Piano Lessons
- Individual attention: Private lessons focus on the individual’s strengths and weaknesses. Piano is a multi-sensory, complex activity requiring learning by ear, eye, touch, and intellectual understanding. Each student combines these elements differently.
- Appropriate pace: A group class that involves mismatched students will deprive both slower and faster learners for the attention they need. Private lessons go at the student’s learning pace, stopping whenever necessary to review concepts, repeat material, or explore a topic the student shows an interest in.
- Skills development: For more advanced students, private attention is needed to work on micro issues such as fingering, as well as finer points of expression and interpretation. Issues such as technique and hand position are also better dealt with privately.
- Progress: Progress is almost always faster in a private lesson than in a group lesson.
- Stability: While the advantages of a group class often fall apart under the weight of an unruly or mismatched group, private lessons can follow a tailor made plan developed for each student, without being derailed by the needs of the group.
In music education, there isn’t any single right answer to the group versus private lessons conundrum Both group piano lessons and private piano lessons offer advantages. One option: Look for one of the many private piano teachers who incorporate some group instruction in the form of periodic group or performance classes.