Group Piano Teaching: Strategies and Games

by Dr. Christopher Fisher

As a piano teacher, I find great joy in the process of creating and experimenting with new and exciting teaching strategies with my students. I love to consider each of my students – their learning styles, their strengths and weaknesses, their interests and personalities, group dynamics – and then craft learning activities that will meet each student (and the group as a whole) where they are in order to take them where they need to go. As part of this process, I am guided by a couple of core principles:

  1. How can I deliver curricula in a way that will have a profound impact on my students learning: their musicianship and artistry? In essence, how can I teach in order for my students to learn most effectively and efficiently?
  2. And how can I do this in a way that is fun, engaging, and relevant?

My love of this process has caused me to become somewhat of a collector of instructional strategies and activities that have and continue to get results in my teaching. Over the years, I’ve found it to be helpful to keep a journal or database of activities and games that have achieved results with my students. I also take note of how these can be modified for future use and with different student populations.

In this article, I’d like to share with you a couple of my favorite group instructional strategies. I must confess, however, that I have so many “favorites” that these merely scratch the surface. Both of these activities are discussed in detail in my book, Teaching Piano in Groups (Oxford University Press, 2010) in a chapter to which I devoted 60 pages to instructional strategies.

Technique Tournament

(Teaching Piano in Groups, pp. 63-67)

I think we can all probably agree that getting many of our students to practice technique with any sort of enthusiasm can an epic struggle. I’ve found the group environment to be highly motivational in this regard through the use of positively and healthily structured competitive events. The Technique Tournament is an instructional approach I developed as part of my doctoral research and is based on cooperative learning theory.

Here is how it works. Student groups are divided into teams consisting of both stronger and weaker students. I’ve found that all students really learn from this arrangement: the stronger students serve as coaches and motivators, strengthening their own learning in the process while the weaker students benefit from tutoring, encouragement and accountability of classmates.

At the outset of the term, I give students a complete list of technical skills they must master by the end of the term. These skills are divided into tournament rounds.

Following are sample requirements for an intermediate group:

  • Round One: All major scales and arpeggios, two octaves, hands together
  • Round Two: All harmonic minor scales and arpeggios, two octaves, hands together
  • Round Three: Hanon Exercises Nos. 1, 2, 5, and 6
  • Round Four: All Warm-Ups from Technical Skills Book 4, Jane Magrath

Students work together throughout the term both in a dedicated period during each group lesson as well as occasionally outside of the lesson. My savvy students often organize Skype practice sessions outside of class! Students realize that the team’s success is riding to a certain extent on their preparation and performance.

Accountability and positive interdependence are key!

At the tournament, teams create a “batting order”. Each team sends their next batter to the piano or pianos, the batters draw a scale or skill from a cup, and then must play the scale or skill that they draw. Depending on the quality of the performance, a point can be scored for the team. The adjudicator/teacher then cycles through all students from both teams so each student has an opportunity to play at least two scales or skills per tournament round. The team with the most points at the end wins glamorous prizes such as trips to Tahiti or, as is often the case, chocolate! To add another measure of challenge, I often invite a guest adjudicator to serve as the “umpire or referee” for this event. Students usually more fully invest themselves to solid preparation when they know an outside judge will be evaluating their performances.

Composer Talk-Show Interview

(Teaching Piano in Groups, p. 161)

I feel strongly that my students learn about the composers and the historical contexts of the repertoire they study. My students and I have great fun achieving this goal through the following activity. At the outset of the term, students are assigned a composer and a specific work by this composer. They are given the task of learning as much about the composer and piece as they possibly can, and must also prepare the piece for performance. I often give students mini-biographies that are appropriate for their specific age and level. In essence, students must “become” the composer. At the group lesson, students take turns interviewing the composer about their life, culture, etc.

The interview concludes with a performance by “the composer” of one their assigned composition. Often, students will even dress-up as the composer! They really get into this project, which is a great culminating activity for a term of study.

Again, these strategies merely scratch the surface of what is a long list of my absolute favorites. As a teacher, I’ve come to know that imaginative teaching serves to engage student interest while inspiring curiosity and commitment to the subject matter. I trust you will join me in this great quest to design learning situations for our students that are both creative and inspiring.**

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Dr. Christopher Fisher is Associate Professor of Piano at the Ohio University School of Music where he serves as Chair of the Keyboard Division. He is the author of Teaching Piano in Groups (Oxford University Press) He and his wife Katherine are co-authoring the revised and expanded edition of Piano Duet Repertoire (Indiana University Press). www.chrisfisherpiano.com  You may also visit his site devoted to Group Piano Teaching.

*Fisher, Christopher, Teaching Piano in Groups (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 7-11. **The material from this article is derived from Teaching Piano in Groups (Oxford University Press, 2010) and other writings and lectures by the author. All rights reserved.

**The material used in this article is derived from Teaching Piano in Groups (Oxford University Press, 2010) and other writings and lectures by the author. All rights reserved.