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How to plan fun multi-age group piano teaching activities that kids love

By Lynnette Barney | Group Teaching

Mar 23 2016

multi-age group piano

Do you find it hard to find activities that suit multi-age group piano classes? Do you need help with how to approach this style of teaching? 

If this sounds like you, then this essential guide will be a perfect resources for your studio.

You’ve seen her in action on Podcast Episode 35: Teaching outside the box with Lynnette Barney, now Lynnette goes into even more detail, sharing with us a whole heap of great activities for multi-age group piano classes. See photos of these activities in action and read step-by-step instructions of how to run them yourself.

group piano teaching resources

The thing I love most about these activities is that they are all based on resources that many of us already use: Rhythm Cups, Pattern Play, stickers, flashcards, etc. so it’s not about spending a whole lot of money on new books or digital pianos; instead it’s about thinking differently about how you can adapt many of the resources you already use.

If you’re looking for some great free ideas for your group classes, summer camps and events, this article is a must-read. Thanks Lynnette!

teaching conducting to piano students

Following a conductor in ensemble class

When you ask my students their favorite part of piano study, they will almost unanimously answer “ensemble class.”

Ninety percent of my students participate in a weekly group piano lesson we call the ensemble class.

“Ensemble class is something different. It is more fun, because we get to do awesome stuff! I like to do rhythm cups with the music (backing tracks). I like lead sheets because the music (Yamaha Clavinova style function) with it is fun.” – Lucy, age 10

“The other kids in ensemble help me become a better piano player.” Conor, age 11.

Benefits of group piano lessons:

  • They are SOCIAL – piano study can be a solitary activity, especially at beginning levels. Students enjoy spending time learning and playing music together and playing games.
  • They MOTIVATE – students hear music they want to play or take musical risks they might not take one-on-one with a teacher. According to Landon, age 11, “It shows and tells me what other kids do with music and it’s fun to see that and learn from it.”
  • They are EFFICIENT – you can teach the same thing to several students at the same time and review concepts more frequently.
  • They ENCOURAGE INDEPENDENT LEARNING – students take ownership of their own learning and often make connections you, the teacher, didn’t expect.
  • They STRETCH YOU – you’ll learn from your students.
  • They DEVELOP EAR and ENSEMBLE SKILLS as students play and respond to music together.

But how to do it?

There are many innovative ways to schedule group experiences into your studio.  Some teachers are lucky enough to see students twice a week – once for private lessons, once for group lessons.  Other studios have one group lesson or master class each month or semester, either in lieu of private lessons for the week or in addition to them.

In the past, I grouped my students by age and level, either weekly or monthly. This was great in many ways, but posed two significant challenges:

  • Regardless of studio size, it can be a scheduling nightmare to get all your students into groups by age and level.
  • When you teach siblings, currently comprising more than half my studio, parents prefer to make one trip to the studio, if possible, rather than several trips a week.

Over the past several years, I’ve been on a quest to find a way to see students in private AND group settings each week, scheduled so parents make only one trip a week.

These days, in addition to their weekly private lesson and piano lab time, students in my studio also attend weekly group lessons, their “ensemble class.”

Innovative scheduling, a separate blog post in and of itself, allows students to complete all three lesson components on one day AND allows siblings to attend together. As a result, most of my weekly studio group lessons are mixed-level and multi-aged.

Why mix everyone up? Benefits of mixed-level group piano lessons

At first I was apprehensive about teaching such eclectic groups of four to six students. But I’ve discovered there are unique benefits to teaching mixed-level and multi-age groups.

  • Mixed-level lessons allow younger, less experienced musicians to learn from their peers and to explore and be exposed to concepts they may not have touched on in private instruction.
  • They allow older, more experienced students to learn by teaching and modelling concepts they already know, reinforce concepts they’ve learned, and to act as mentors and role models for younger students.  According to Ben, age 12, “I get to help teach other people.” As Jill, age six, says, “In Ensemble class people help you.”
  • Students are exposed to concepts repeatedly over time, learning and re-learning concepts and making new connections between the things they’ve learned.

Teaching eclectic groups on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis requires creativity, advanced planning, and a spirit of in-the-moment innovation. It can be a challenge to keep older, more advanced students engaged and motivated while not overwhelming younger, less experienced students.

In need of some ideas for your mixed-level, multi-age group piano lessons? Try these four learning activities, specifically designed to engage, inspire, and motivate your eclectic groups.

Rhythm Cups with a Twist

teaching music rhythm

Rhythm Cups

Preparation:

  1. If you don’t own Wendy Steven’s Rhythm Cups, head over to composecreate.com and get your studio licensed copy for just $US 10.99 for Book 1 or Book 2, or buy the holiday edition for some seasonal fun.
  2. Pick up some Solo plastic cups or something similar.
  3. Be familiar with the Style feature of a Yamaha digital piano, Garage Band for Apple products, or something similar that allows students to play chords with a rhythm background.

Activity:

  1. Teach students one of the patterns – there are many to choose from. Once they’ve mastered the pattern, move to the second line and add the pass.
  2. Because I have so many left handed students in the studio we switch between holding the cup in our right or left hand.
  3. I have my students count out loud at first and if we aren’t staying together.
  4. Add a backing track. Wendy sells accompaniments for the cup patterns, or you can easily have students create their own using Garage Band, a digital piano, or something similar. Just have the students play a four measure sequence of chords.

Adapting to mixed levels and ages:

  1. Have younger students do a simpler pattern at first if the “pass” matches up. They will eagerly practice to master the harder patterns too! I sent the patterns home with younger students so they can do some extra practice. Students love mastering tricky rhythm patterns without worry about correct notes or fingerings.
  2. The Style feature on Yamaha (or similar) keyboards makes everyone sound like a pro! Have younger students play just the root note of the chord and they sound like a band. Older students can play the chords in root position or in inversions.
  3. Put cue cards up for younger students with the letter name of the chord they need to play. Use cue cards with chord function symbols such as I, ii, IV, etc. for older students.

Group Improvisation

teaching improvising on piano

Tango from Pattern Play – Labeling chord function (early intermediate), practicing the bass pattern after placing stickers for harmonic minor (early intermediate), and copying the scale pattern (elementary).  Note the bench placement allows for students to easily change places without stopping the music.

Preparation:

  1. Find an improvisation resource such as Forrest Kinney’s Pattern Play, a very popular collection here at Creative Keys. There are simple improvisation patterns in Music Tree and Piano Safari as well.
  2. Looking for something immediately accessible? You’ll have instant success improvising over the “Heart and Soul” chords (I, vi, IV, V).
  3. If you have young or inexperienced students, get some Avery removable stickers.

Activity:

  1. Initially, the teacher plays the bass pattern while students improvise treble melodies. Once students have heard and participated in the pattern, have an older student take over the bass pattern – they’ll have picked it up quickly and be eager to show what they know!
  2. Try the Pattern Play trios and quartets – those will keep everyone busy.
  3. Arrange the piano benches so that students can trade parts without the piece stopping. Students in my studio love teasing each other when they lose the beat while trading and the piece “dies.”  And they love it when I can’t even tell someone traded!
  4. Improvisation offers many opportunities to explore theory and composition concepts. For example, show students how to create a motive, then how to use that motive to create a variation, repetition, sequence, or retrograde.

Modifications:

  1. Simplify the bass pattern for young students.
  2. Place Avery stickers on the edges of the keys to mark the notes students should play or should not play if the scale or pattern is not part of their music vocabulary yet.
  3. Have students write their motive and variations on white boards or paper while they wait for their turn to improvise. Students may write letter names, or notation, or use their own creative notation system.

Writing scales and building chords

primary triads teaching

Primary triads in Gb major

Preparation:

  1. Purchase or make cards with the letters of the music alphabet on them. Some resources – Wendy Steven’s Monkeys, Susan Paradis’s alphabet cards, or Music Mind Games alphabet cards. Or just use plain index cards to make your own. Be sure you have some way of indicating sharps and flats. Each student will need two sets of cards in contrasting colors.
  2. Prepare small cards with the words major, minor, and diminished on them.
  3. Prepare small cards with scale degrees, Roman Numerals I, ii, iii, IV, V, etc. on them.
  4. Alternately, provide blank cards or sticky notes the students can write on to create their own labels.

Activity:

  1. Have students quickly build a scale with their cards on the floor. Place the first note of the scale by their left knee and build horizontally to the right. You can build five note scales, major or minor one octave scales, modes, etc.
  2. Have students label the various scale degrees of their scale under the scale.
  3. Build a triad on each scale degree and test each triad out on the piano to see if it’s major or minor or something else. Label the triad with the correct card.
  4. If teaching scale degrees, add Roman numerals beneath the scale degree card to indicate the chord function.

Modifications:

  1. Have students build a scale they understand – younger students might build a five note scale (Pentascale) and older students might be working on full scales, minor scales, or even modes.
  2. Have each student play the scale they created on the piano.
  3. Have older students, who might build their scales and chords very quickly, create and write a chord progression using the chords in their scale. Or have them add finger number cards to demonstrate the scale fingering.

Here’s an example of learning something together as teacher and students.

Recently, I was working with a group of students on primary and secondary triads. The students were building their primary triads and students discovered that you use exactly 6 of the 7 scale notes to build the three primary triads. If you do it correctly, you have one note left over.

Lucy, 10, discovered that the leftover card fits perfectly on the V triad, making it a dominant 7th. The students promptly named it “the Lucy chord” and haven’t forgotten its name or function. And I learned a new way to explore dominant sevenths with my students.

Playing from lead sheets

Preparation:

  1. Print a lead sheet or use a fake book. I print a lot of simple, public domain lead sheets from Music For Music Teachers.
  2. If you have young or inexperienced students, get some Avery removable stickers like these here.

Activity:

  1. Have one student play the chords in the “sweet spot” for chords, roughly between bass C and treble E (credit to Bradley Sowash for the phrase).
  2. Have another student play the melody line. Or have two play it, to create an octave.
  3. Assign a third student to create a rhythm ostinato with a rhythm instrument or drum.
  4. Play the melody as written, and then add an improvisation section for contrast, going back to the melody to wrap things up.
  5. Take the whole thing to a keyboard with a style feature.  Have one student play chords, one the melody, and switch places without losing the beat!

Modifications:

  1. Have a student create or play a backing track of the chords with the iReal Pro app, Garage Band, or on a Yamaha keyboard with the Style function. This can be simple or elaborate, depending on the student and the piece.
  2. Have a beginner be the “bass player,” playing just the root of the chord around Low C.
  3. Add an ostinato for a beginner to play above the melody. Or better, have them create an ostinato.
  4. Have a more advanced student be the guitar player in the “sweet spot for chords,” playing chords in root positions, common cadence patterns, inversions, or styles such as march, waltz, Alberti bass, arpeggiated, etc.

Now it’s your turn!

There you go – four activities that can provide hours of instruction, adventure, and exploration in mixed-age, multi-level group piano lessons.

What do you think?

Please comment below with activities you’ve found successful in eclectic group teaching. And try out one of these ideas in your studio and come back and comment on your experience.

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About the Author

Lynnette Barney has been a music educator in Tucson for over 20 years at her private piano studio, Creative Keys. She is a member of MTNA, ASMTA, and Tucson Music Teachers Association and has studied with Dr. Rex Woods, Dr. Jeffrey Shumway, and David Glen Hatch. Lynnette began performing with her sisters as a child and has always found her greatest joy in collaborative music. In addition to teaching musicians young and older, she especially enjoys performing duets and accompanying choirs, soloists, and ballet. Because of Lynnette’s love for collaborative music, students in Lynnette’s studio have weekly group lessons as well as private lessons. Each week they participate in a fun and interactive environment as they prepare keyboard ensemble music, improvise, develop rhythm skills, and learn theory concepts.

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