The Ultimate Group Piano Class Activity

Studying piano privately can be a lonely experience without social performance events.  That’s why I always looked forward to special music events such as festivals and recitals when I was younger.  Perhaps the most social of all piano events is the group piano class, which I’ll just refer to as “class” in this article.  I have a unique way of conducting classes that involves complete student interaction and almost no preparation time on the part of the teacher, although the latter benefit was never the reason I chose to conduct classes this way.  I designed my classes the way I would have most loved for them to go when I was a young student myself.  After years of tweaking it, I can only describe it as a purely musical game with no game board or props – just students and their music.

Just a little background information first:  these classes (which work for students middle school age and below) must be arranged primarily by level since they involve competition among students for points, and having around six kids per class is ideal (I wouldn’t recommend less than five or more than eight).  If a young student is advanced for their age, they don’t have the option of going into a “lower” class with kids closer to their age since they would dominate the class, and I’ve never heard any complaints about this since students like being in more advanced classes.  In the case of older beginners, if they prefer to be grouped with students their age, I allow it as long as they understand they will be at a disadvantage for getting points in the class.

Even with these groupings by level, there is typically as many as 3-4 years difference within any single class between the least advanced and most advanced students (or more if a teacher only has 10-20 students).  I account for this difference using a handicap:  a student who has won two classes in the past starts with two less points than a student who hasn’t won any.  When a teacher first begins putting on classes, the first few classes will probably be won by a large margin by a couple deserving students, but within a few months, handicaps will even out the odds pretty well.

Click on image to enlarge

I keep permanent student handicap records in the schedule that I print in newsletters I send out a couple weeks before each class is scheduled (click on image to the right).  Notice that student handicaps are color coded so that we can always tell which class their wins applied to.  That way, when a student moves up into a more advanced class, their effective handicap resets to zero, but I still keep their record intact in case they ever have to move into a lower class (e.g., a schedule conflict).  Also notice that I use Microsoft Word comments to keep track of students’ schedule parameters (if you do this in Word 2010, remember that you have to uncheck “Print Markup” in Word’s printing settings where it says “Print All Pages”, or these comments will print too).  I didn’t think to do this until long after I had thrown away students’ original scheduling sheets, so now I just make notations as soon as I become aware of them.

Here is how I conduct these classes:

  1. Write students’ names on a scoreboard (whiteboard, chalkboard, paper) in an order that corresponds to their seating arrangement.  Start students with points according to the handicaps of all students in the class.
  2. Student No. 1 plays one piece of music while other students view the sheet music in their laps (using other students’ books and the teacher’s books so that there is one book for every 2-3 students).  If the performer doesn’t have their music memorized and nobody else has a copy of the music, the other students are allowed to stand up and crowd around the performer to see the music while it is played.
  3. Student No. 1 earns a point for performing their piece (even if it was only 25% of a brand new piece they just started), unless the student had previously performed the piece in a recital (in that case, no point is earned).
  4. The teacher asks student No. 2, “Do you have any suggestions for Student No. 1?”  If the suggestion is a good suggestion, Student No. 2 earns a point.  If it is not a good suggestion, the teacher goes on to Student No. 3.
  5. Once all students have had a chance to offer a suggestion, the teacher might tell everyone, “Here are other issues that I would have awarded points for if someone had mentioned them…” (sometimes the performer will happily offer to criticize their own playing – I always welcome this).  In smaller classes, the teacher might ask each student for a second suggestion.  But keep in mind that some students will say, “Ummm….” and state a random sugguesstion, hoping it will turn into a lucky point.  In this case, the teacher can make a buzzing noise for students who take more than 3-5 seconds to start uttering their suggestion.
  6. If all other students were unable to make any good suggestions (i.e. nobody scored any points off of Student No. 1), then Student No. 1 receives an extra point for skunking the other students.
  7. Playing then proceeds to Student No. 2, and Student No. 1 takes the seat of Student No. 2 so that there aren’t seating gaps (making it easier for students to see sheet music).  Student No. 3 gets first chance to make a suggestion for Student No. 2, and Student No. 1 will get last chance.  By the time everyone has played, everyone will each have had one chance to go first in making a suggestion.

Regarding the fact that no points are awarded for playing pieces already performed in recitals (item #3 above), any piece performed in a recital (in my studio anyway) is considered completely done.  If students choose such pieces to perform in classes, this is almost cheating since it gives other students very little chance to score points.  However, if a student has “finished” the piece (sticker fastened to the music) but they haven’t yet performed it for a recital, this is still fair game since the piece hasn’t completed its full performance cycle.  This is a natural way to encourage students to work hard on goals for their current music each week, especially as classes approach.

What is a good suggestion (item #4 above)?  There are two basic parts of what make a good suggestion:

  1. A good suggestion is one that at least two people in the room (including the teacher and performer) agree with.  This ensures students are not rewarded for nit-picking.
  2. A good suggestion is one that addresses mistakes that cannot be attributed to human error/flukes.  This ensures students are not rewarded for pointing out mishit notes, stops, stumbles, etc.  However, the suggestion, “There were a whole bunch of stumbles throughout the piece, so it would really help if you slowed down your tempo” is a very good suggestion since it doesn’t address flukes but instead addresses a deliberate problem.

To expand a bit on #1, if a suggestion is made and the teacher simply does not remember one way or another, the teacher then asks if anyone else in the room agrees with the suggestion.  This relies upon students being very honest since corroborating another student’s suggestion works to the disadvantage of the corroborator.  Fortunately, I’ve found that students tend to be very honest.  I’ve even observed several times when the student sitting at the piano bench does the corroborating!  Without this corroborating rule in place, the teacher is faced with a huge number of impossible decisions to make during each class:  “Was that suggestion too nit-picky to merit a point?”  This corroborating rule is a perfect way to deal with this:  if it’s not important enough for two people to notice, it’s not important enough to merit a point.

After all students have played one piece, that concludes Round 1.  At that point, I break out the donuts/muffins/cookies and water, which has been spilled many times.  I wouldn’t even think of trying to do fruit punch or grape juice in my carpeted studio with so many kids in close proximity to each other, so I just use a handy Pur water pitcher.

Other rules and notes:

  1. Only one “dynamic point” is given, and it can be stolen.  If Student No. 2 gets a point for saying, “The forte in this section wasn’t loud enough,” then Student Nos. 3, 4, 5, etc. can steal the dynamic point from Student No. 2 if they can at least double the musical length of the suggestion, such as adding, “The mezzo-piano in this other section wasn’t soft enough.”  Dynamics are a) the easiest aspect of musicality for even the simplest audiences to hear, and b) the most common aspect of musicality that performers neglect.  What a deadly combination this is!  Without this rule, a performance with weak dynamics can easily rack up 5 or 8 points for other students if points are given for each individual instance of dynamic flaw, which is excessive penalty for the performer.
  2. Points gained from suggestions having to do with accents, balance, voicing, and dynamic phrasing are counted separately from dynamics.
  3. Any category of musicianship (rhythm, pedaling, voicing, dynamic phrasing, note accuracy) can be treated as a point-stealing category (see #1 above) at the teacher’s discretion, but this isn’t necessary most of the time, because when students go overboard with suggestions, it’s almost always in the dynamic category.
  4. The winner gets a prize, which in the past has been everything from giant $1 or $2 candy bars to musical items (notepads, pencils, pocket music dictionaries) from various music merchandise websites.
  5. I recommend giving prizes to the two top-scoring students in each class and giving them both a “win” for future handicaps.  Only one point every few months per class isn’t enough for the handicap system to be completely accurate (by the time a “star” student accumulates 3 or 4 handicap points, it could be time for them to move up to the next class anyway).
  6. I love to have fun with seating order.  I’ve had them sit in alphabetical order of middle name, shortest to tallest, darkest hair to lightest hair, darkest socks to lightest socks, birthdate (ignoring year), etc.
  7. I love to have fun with names.  On the scoreboard, I’ve written their first names backwards a few times (best one so far would be “Tcideneb”, which made everyone laugh every single time it was spoken).  I’ve had students use middle names and fictional characters too.  One time students chose their favorite candy as their name.  Next time?  In the style of various ancient cultures, I’m going to write, “Tod of Seventh” (where “Seventh” represents the name of the street Tod lives on).
  8. Classes are less formal than recitals, so students can use music when performing, and they can even play the first 25% of a piece if that’s all they have learned.  Obviously, points cannot be awarded for pointing out a tempo that is slow or an incomplete piece, but students are still held accountable to all other detail in the music (dynamics, articulation, pedaling, etc.).  Even so, students are well-aware of the fact that they have a better chance of “skunking” other students if they choose pieces that are as polished as possible, and that’s a good thing.

If there is a lot of time after the first round, we might decide to do a second round just like the first round.  If there is a decent amount of time left but not enough for another full-blown round, we’ll do a “for fun” round where students can play one or two pieces just for fun – a mini-recital.  Regardless, when there is a little time left (the last 15 minutes), I will play something myself and/or get out some sheet music to something interesting or inspiring and let them listen to a recording of it while they follow along in the music.  Music I’ve chosen in the past has included Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata (they loved this, especially the 6 and 7 year olds!), PDQ Bach’s Short-Tempered Clavier (even my 8-year-old students knew what subjects, answers, exposition and stretto were after that class!), Liszt’s Totentanz, music of Alkan, etc.  Some non-piano music I’ve introduced included John Adams’ Shaker Loops (1997 Grammy Award winning recording) and the opening of Bach’s St. John Passion.  I’ve also shown parts of the Evgeny Kissin video, Gift of Music.  These are just random ideas – ultimately, I think teachers should share the absolute best stuff they have to share.  If you have a passionate interest in some unique kind of music, a particular performer, orchestra, or composer, your students will love to know!

High Schoolers and Adults

The obvious difference between high schoolers/adults and K-8 students is that the former students are not nearly as motivated by points.  By this time, the intrinsic joy of music making (and extrinsic joy of sharing it with peers) has taken hold to the point where points and prizes can be done away with.  There are many ways to conduct these classes, but I always find myself going back to one simple truth:  performing and giving suggestions is the key to making every group experience not only fun but also valuable.  Points to consider:

  • Because adults have had the “opportunity” to develop excessive amounts of psychological baggage during their lifetime, adults are very hesitant to offer suggestions to each other for fear of someone getting their feelings hurt.  Most of the time, I just let conversation between adult performances take its natural course, and I try to offer my own suggestion(s) to adult performers.  If I know the adult appreciates extra feedback, I invite other adults to offer suggestions.  In other words, adult classes are a little more like master classes than the classes I describe above for kids.
  • High schoolers are typically our most advanced pianists, and they are on their way to adulthood, so while some high schoolers are reluctant to offer suggestions due to their developing emotions, others are perfectly happy to dig in because of how much their skill is blossoming.  High school classes can easily have a couple students who participate a lot, while others don’t say much.  If this is the case (and supposing there are 7 students in the class), sometimes I’ll make a list of 6 musical aspects (dynamics, balance, pedaling, articulation, etc.) and assign each audience member to give feedback on that particular aspect, rotating the musical issues each time a new performer sits on the bench.
  • There is great freedom in planning high school and adult classes.  If the teacher has something really interesting to present to them (especially after a big performance event is over and all the students are starting on brand new repertoire), the teacher could certainly devote one entire class to such a presentation.  For example, I will be giving my students a 90-minute Powerpoint presentation on the art of rubato in their classes next week (May 2011), and there will actually be no performing.  I feel this will benefit them far more than it would for them to perform the first 10 or 25 measures of their barely-learned pieces.
  • I still feed adults and high schoolers, although many adults tend to be worried about gaining weight, refusing any snacks unless they consist of nuts, twigs and diet water.

If teachers can possibly do classes on top of their private lessons once every four to eight weeks, this is ideal.  A former teacher of mine did this, and I did this for my own students when I taught five days per week (so I’d effectively teach six days a week whenever a group class week occurred).  But sometimes this isn’t possible, such as a situation where the teacher already teaches six days per week every week.  Having to do seven-day work weeks every month or two is quite a strain on the teacher.  Not only that, but anyone who teaches six days a week may have too many students to schedule in a single day of 90-minute classes.

That’s when I believe it’s understandable to have students forfeit lessons one week so that classes can be held that week.  Social and performance benefits of classes outweigh the drawback of the missed private lesson.  But I don’t believe this is the case if it is done more often than every two months.  I believe that missing one out of every four or five lessons is just too much, but missing one out of every eight or nine lessons is actually desirable if it is replaced by a valuable group experience.  In the case when forfeited lessons are necessary, I think the teacher should at least make the classes 90 minutes in length instead of the 60-minute length that is quite common among teachers.

(c) 2011 Cerebroom

About Chad

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.

6 responses to The Ultimate Group Piano Class Activity

  1. Great article, Chad! I love the element of “game” that you’ve incorporated into your performance classes. I am excited to give this a try once I have enough students to divide them into groups of similar-enough levels. Thanks for writing this all out!

  2. What a unique idea! Thanks for sharing!

  3. You’re both welcome!

    Readers will also want to be aware of the related article I wrote on listening goals to assign during these classes:

  4. Anonymous

    I like these ideas. Thank you for sharing. I will be incorporating these ideas into my new group piano class.

  5. Linda

    Great ideas. I was especially looking for ideas to use with older/teen students when I came upon your article. Thank you.

  6. Linda

    Just read this for the first time. I’ve been thinking about something like this for my teens and this sure gives me a clear outline to use! My biggest problem will be to get a time when enough of my teens can come together. All of them are so busy! Thank you for taking your time to write out all these details and anticipate questions we would all have!

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