Group lessons for beginning violin have can be an affordable — and fun– alternative to private lessons. Certainly, individual attention is valuable. However, today’s children are accustomed from an early age to learning (not to mention behaving) in groups. From math class to the school baseball team, we have become a culture based on group learning. The days of apprenticeships are starting to seem far behind us. In fact, we tend to reserve one-to-one tutoring for students who have special needs, or who are so gifted as to need enrichment beyond the requirements of their peers. Having taught private violin lessons for over 10 years, I have recently introduced group learning for beginning violin with the aim of discovering: could such a teaching model work for an instrument that, literally for centuries, has been considered to require private instruction?
Over time, I have realized that group violin lessons actually offer certain potential benefits over private lessons — at least for the beginner. First, students are comfortable working and learning in teams and groups. Thus, they are familiar with the “code of conduct” for the classroom and tend to want to do their best in front of their peers. This often leads to more practicing and better behavior during lessons. In addition, students find it fun to learn alongside their peers, and to feel like they are part of “Team Violin.” I have noticed that the combination of private lessons and solo practice at home can be quite isolating for some students. Group students feel like they “belong.” I believe that Shinichi Suzuki, the founder of Suzuki Violin, understood the important of “belonging” when he made group lessons a vital, and, in his opinion, necessary component of his School. After all, music is meant to be shared, both with other musicians and with an audience. I was trained starting at age four in Suzuki Method, and while I am sure that my teachers were wonderful, it is the group instruction that I actually remember. Practicing was sometimes a chore, but playing with other students was actually fun.
In actually running group lessons, it helps greatly to have parents participating or at least attending the classes. I also believe that they can serve as “instructors” (or at least practice monitors) in the home. Also, I always make sure that each student has a violin that is in good repair and will not constantly go out of tune or need extra attention during class — both in groups and in private lessons. And, it is important that a group class have a “curriculum” that works most of the time for most students. For this purpose, I use my own method book, based on the Suzuki Method, which contains about 80 songs, fiddle tunes, and classical melodies that most of the students and parents are familiar with, arranged in increasing order of difficulty and in groupings that introduce new notes gradually. In addition, I cover subjects often omitted in private instruction, such as note-reading, rhythm, sight-singing, and basic theory. I use flash cards, charts, and short written tests on items such as the parts of the violin, where notes are located on the instrument, and key signatures. These basic concepts help students succeed when they eventually play in orchestra, and must rely on their ability to read notes and understand the written musical language.
To me, the danger of the group class is that proper technique might not get covered as well as in private lessons. The violin must be played properly — with good technique — to sound beautiful, and it has been long thought that technique cannot be easily taught in a group setting. I have been surprised to see, however, that in some cases students seem to catch on more quickly to technical concepts in groups than they do in private lessons. It has to be a given that the classroom instructor can model on the violin and also explain with words, pictures, analogies, or gestures how violin technique should work. And, when these concepts are clearly conveyed, students can watch and listen to both the instructor and each other, noticing what works and what needs improvement. They tend to emulate students who are drawing the best sound with solid technique. In teaching violin technique to groups, it is important to explain each new concepts several different ways, since students often have different learning styles, such as verbally, by demonstrating on the violin, and by asking students who are using good technique to demonstrate for their peers. Gestures, pictures, videos, and analogies are also useful.
In the end, I think group lessons, if taught effectively, can be a wonderful alternative to private violin lessons for students already accustomed to classroom learning. However, for students who are very young, or have already advanced beyond their peers, private instruction is still, in my opinion, the best way to maximize a student’s potential.