The subject of group instruction is relatively new in the field of music education. Traditionally, music is being taught in private lessons, like the old model of the master and the apprentice. The student comes to the master to learn a set of skills and hopefully as a bonus, absorb some of the master's art as well.
Funny enough, most of the implementation of those acquired skills will happen in a group situation such as an orchestra or a smaller ensemble. Are all the students getting proper training so they would fit in and play well in an ensemble?
The financial situation in which less and less money goes to arts and less money goes to education, puts art education at the very bottom of the food chain. This forces many organizations to gravitate towards group instruction and there are several models of that. What happens to the individual in those settings?
Independently of the trend, we have witnessed some interesting developments that show the possible advantages of group instruction such as the Suzuki method which started in Japan and combines group and individual instruction and El Sistema in Venezuela.
I have been asked to teach a course on this subject for our Master of Music Education program. The course which I will teach next school year is trying to touch upon the most important issues concerning working with young groups and youth orchestras.
Is there a difference between a chamber music group and a group learning to play the violin? Is there a difference between the two activities focused on music and a regular classroom?
Let us take a closer look at some of the main issues and try to see what all group situations might have in common.
In the following video you can see highlights from a workshop. It was a joint project of two organizations: Internal Compass and Interfaith Encounters.
The only thing I knew about the group before I met the students was that some spoke Hebrew and some spoke Arabic.
Other questions I had in mind were:
1. Different levels - no matter how hard we try to build a group, even if theoretically all group members start at the same level of proficiency and understanding, or even, for the sake of argument, have exactly the same potential, as soon as the group starts working, we will see differences due to differences in learning skills and learning habits, in motivation and in attitude.
2. The Individual and the Group - What is the purpose of this activity? Is it to build a team or is the purpose of this activity to enhance the ability, the awareness and the perception of the individual ? In other words, is the group a goal, a tool, or both?
3. Diversity - how do we deal with different backgrounds, for example different languages, as in the video?
Here are some of the answers I offer, as can also be seen in the video:
The first and most important principle I call FCD - Furthest Common Denominator. Instead of trying to find the lowest common denominator, where everybody will feel comfortable, I am always looking for the furthest common denominator, where everybody is out of their comfort zone.
The other principle I often use is to assign Open Tasks - tasks where there are no right or wrong answers. This is easy to do when you have a class based on improvisation or a one time workshop. How do you do it when you have a group that has to perform a Schubert Quartet or a Beethoven Symphony?
Well, this is what my class is all about...
And for diversity, I can only repeat what I have said time and time again:
We are all just one group:
What people have in common is much more and much greater than what separates them. When we realize this, we can respect and enjoy the differences rather than fight over them.