String Teaching in Groups

April 11th, 2015 by John Quaine

The teaching of stringed instruments in groups is both well established and widespread in Australian schools as in many other parts of the world. There are a number of reasons for choosing to teach strings in groups such as budgetary constraints, timetabling and staffing efficiency, integration into the school curriculum, as support and extension activities for individual tuition, ensemble experience and as broad based recruitment for orchestral programs to name but a few. However most compelling are the many benefits gained by the participants when group teaching is carried out efficiently by specialist staff. Instrumental music programs have burgeoned in recent years where string departments have developed alongside band programs; however their ongoing growth has been challenged at times by funding fluctuations and changes of educational policy.

String teaching in groups is not a recent phenomenon; it has a documented history of over one hundred years. Whilst group teaching as a supplement to individual instruction has been a well established tradition in conservatoria world wide, instrumental instruction in groups for beginners appears to have originated in England in the early 1800s as characterised in the so called Maidstone Movement; this later spread to the United States and other countries including Australia. Socio-political and economic reasons contributed to the development of educational systems that included choral and instrumental music in the mid 19th and early 20th century. This led to the establishment of group instrumental programs in schools and communities supported by educational authorities. (Schleuter 1997) An interesting parallel can be drawn today with the emergence of group instrumental programs growing from the needs of socially and economically disadvantaged groups in both the developed and developing worlds [e.g. Harlem Project, Tower Hamlets, El Sistemo, Buskaid, In Harmony and numerous professional orchestral outreach education projects]

Historically, string teaching pedagogy has been informed and influenced by the structured approaches to the training of the individual instrumentalist as characterised by various traditions or schools of playing. For violin playing this is evidenced in the publications of de Bériot, Spohr, Joachim, Auer, Flesch, Sevčik and later Ivan Galamian who presented systematic pedagogical approaches to the development of violin technique. Whilst not currently published in English, the work of the great Russian violin pedagogues, notably Yampolsky, Mostras and Yankelevitch, contributed to the establishment of the characteristically methodical and rigorous training towards technical and artistic heights known as the Soviet Violin School that continues to be highly regarded and internationally influential. Although Soviet training was primarily based upon individual instruction, it is interesting that accounts of the lessons of Stoliarski, the famous teacher of prodigies, reveal the importance he placed upon the training of beginning violin students in a group setting. (S. & G. Ronkin 2005) The great music educators Kodály, Orff and Dalcroze have had a major influence upon the development of sequential approaches to group music teaching, significantly influencing string class pedagogy in the 20th century. Furthermore, research into educational theory and the science of violin playing gave rise to important work by a number of string educators notably Paul Rolland, Shinichi Suzuki, Elizabeth Green, Samuel Applebaum, George Bornoff, Sheila Nelson and Robert Culver. These teachers incorporated learning theory and scientific research in their work to assist effective instruction of beginning strings students in groups. Subsequently numerous string method books have been published in the United States, Europe and Australia designed specifically for group instruction. Although a number of similarities and differences can be observed in these materials, one outstanding common denominator appears to be the considered sequencing of materials to achieve balance between the development of technical skills and musical concepts. This focus upon comprehensive musicianship where music serves to teach a curriculum of both knowledge and skills is perhaps one of the most distinct differences between individual and group string teaching. Subsequent string educators have continued to build upon the design and application of group teaching strategies with ongoing scientific and educational research and the advantages of 21st century technology and communication. A wealth of resource materials has been developed to cover a wide range of musical idioms and applications. Today string educators and their students reap the benefits of many years of educational practice and research in the field of group instruction for strings.

The class-method approach to instrumental music in public school has provided the profession with a vast laboratory for research on how children best learn to become proficient on musical instruments. (Green 1987)

Some questions remain as to the effectiveness of teaching strings in groups. A considerable variance of opinion has been expressed over the years despite the ongoing proliferation of string programs in schools and communities. These questions pose challenges for the string educator when designing a string program and weighing up the positives and negatives of group teaching. A combination of group and individual lessons has been the basis of many successful approaches to group string teaching such as those of Suzuki and Nelson.

Is it is better to be taught individually rather than in groups? What are the advantages of group instruction?

The few studies on this topic found no achievement differences between individual or group instruction for beginning students. (Schleuter 1997)

In 2000, Ofsted found that the quality of group instrumental lessons taught by music services was generally higher than that of individual lessons. (Mills 2007)

Despite the alleged superiority of private lessons, there are some aspects of performance which can often be taught more effectively in class situations, specific examples being intonation, rhythmic precision, balance and blend. But probably the most positive feature of class lessons is the fact that many students especially younger ones, actually prefer to study in a class with their peers rather than alone with a private instructor. (Kohut 1973)

Children are far more willing both to sing and to make flowing physical movements when they have company, and music reading skills are greatly helped and stimulated by being shared (Nelson 1987).Group lessons presented opportunities that individual lessons lacked. In a group lesson, students have more opportunity to learn from their peers, to have fun with their peers, and to learn in a range of ways. (Mills 2007)

Group teaching represents an efficient and economical alternative or adjunct to individual lessons. It has had a long history of development and application, with influences from many fields including specialist instrumental pedagogy, scientific research and contemporary educational theory. The consensus appears to be that structure and content of lessons, teacher personality and behaviours and the ability to provide motivation to learn are the most significant factors in determining the successful outcomes of group instruction. In order to achieve this it is necessary for the teacher to incorporate a range of instructional styles to best meet each student’s preferred learning style. Teachers who are considering involvement in or who are currently teaching strings in groups are encouraged to explore the wide range of research and rich resources available on the subject to enable the design and implementation of a successful programme.

References and recommended reading

  • Gillespie, B. and Phillips, B. (2006) String Clinics to Go: Getting Started [DVD] Shar Products
  • Green, E. (1987) Teaching Stringed Instruments in Classes. ASTA Publication Tichenor Publishing USA
  • Gumm, A. (2006) Music Teaching Style: Moving Beyond Tradition. Meredith Music Publications
  • Hallam, S. (1998) Instrumental Teaching: A Practical Guide to Better Teaching and Learning. Oxford: Heinemann
  • Harris, P. (2006) Improve Your Teaching! An Essential Handbook for Instrumental and Singing Teachers. Faber Music Ltd.
  • Jorgensen, E. (2008) The Art of Teaching Music. Indiana University Press
  • Kohut, D. (1973) Instrumental Music Pedagogy: Teaching Techniques for School Band and Orchestra Directors. Prentice Hall Inc.
  • Mills, J. (2007) Instrumental Teaching. Oxford University Press
  • May, J. et al (2008) The String Teacher’s Cookbook: Creative Recipes for a Successful Program. Meredith Music Publications
  • Nelson, S. (1987) Beginners Please. [Film & booklet] Thames Television PLC
  • Rolland, P. and Mutschler, M. (1974) The Teaching of Action in String Playing: Developmental and Remedial Techniques. [Film Series & book] Illinois String Research Associates, Urbana Illinois
  • Ronkin, S. and G. (2005) Technical Fundamentals of the Soviet Masters: A Violinist’s Handbook. GSG Publications New York
  • Schleuter, S.L. (1997) A Sound Approach to Teaching Instrumentalists: An Application of Content and Learning Sequences. Schirmer Books
  • Suzuki, S. (1983) Nurtured by Love. NY: Exposition Press

AUSTA National President John Quaine maintains a busy schedule as a performer and teacher. He is coordinator of string studies at Brighton Grammar School, Melbourne. With over 30 years experience teaching beginning to diploma levels, his pedagogical research encompasses both individual and group teaching. As an AMEB string examiner John has contributed significantly to the development of its string syllabus as an editorial consultant on Series 7 and 8 publications for violin. John performs widely on both modern and baroque violin and viola.

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