Beyond the Piano: How to Teach Group Ensemble Classes

By Andrew Bishko, Musical U | Group Teaching

Sep 13

Piano, with its polyphonic ability to be self-sufficient, tends to be taught as a solo instrument. Even in piano group classes, the typical set-up is a room full of soloists.

But a roomful of pianos does not reflect the music your students typically hear and listen to.

In all popular and folk styles, the piano or keyboard most often play together with other instruments in an accompanying role. Classical singers and instrumentalists are always searching for good accompanists. In jazz and blues bands, the piano alternates between accompaniment and solo playing.

Even in this world of loop pedals and Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), co-creating with other musicians remains one of the greatest joys of music-making.

Yet many young pianists are clueless when faced with the opportunity to be in a band or accompany their friend’s instrumental solo.

Creating Opportunity

We’re piano teachers. How do we arrange these opportunities for our students to learn and grow with other instrumentalists and/or singers?

If you’re already teaching keyboard classes, you can certainly include more ensemble arrangements, alternating chording with improvisation, etc. In fact, many of the ideas explored below can be applied to your multi-piano classes.

Later, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of running your ensemble:

  • The ensemble skills built by different genres
  • Teaching non-piano students
  • Teaching musicality skills
  • Managing your ensemble
  • Performance Opportunities

But first we’ll look at the advantages of multi-instrument ensembles:

  • Relationship-building advantages for both students and teachers
  • Economic advantages for both students and teachers
  • Student skill-building

The Real Advantages of Group Ensemble Classes

Beyond the keyboard class, there are many distinct advantages to reaching out beyond the piano world – for students and teachers.

Real Relationships – for Students

Typically, piano students rarely perform with others. Traditional lessons are one-on-one and recitals are often solo experiences.

In contrast, young players of wind and stringed instruments join school bands and orchestras. Guitar and bass players learn accompaniment skills right from the start, which enables them to join with others early on, and the ubiquitous cultural representation of the pop, country, and rock bands encourage this.

When our students learn how to make music with others, a whole world of relating with others through music is opened up to them. Music is one of the most building, supportive, substantial, and satisfying playgrounds there is!

So when we teach our students ensemble skills and go even further to support them through the ensemble experience, we are providing a great gift indeed.

Real Money

Many music teachers and music schools struggle to make ends meet with the old one-on-one teaching model. While this is still the best way to teach many piano skills, group piano lessons and multi-instrument ensembles have distinct economic advantages for teachers and students.

As piano teachers, we are selling our time. Performers do the same. Would a pop star give a concert for just one fan at a time? By reaching out to larger audiences, performers leverage their time and increase their income.

We as teachers can do the same, and not compromising the quality of instruction but actually enhancing it.

Savings for the Student

At the same time, the cost to the student is lowered compared to a private lesson. And once your private students see and hear the bands at your recitals, they will want to include ensembles in their training, in addition to private lessons.

The teacher makes more money for less time.  And the students pay less for more education. That’s what I call win-win.

Increase your Student Base

If you yourself teach multiple instruments, you can bring your different students together. But even if you don’t, multi-instrument ensembles will attract non-piano students to your studio, and they will pay you to teach them.

Real Relationships for Teachers

You don’t have to know how to play these other instruments. You certainly have enough of an idea of musicality to sell your instruction based on those aspects. (More on this below, when we get into the nitty-gritty of running your ensemble.)

Here also is your opportunity to reach out and connect with other teachers in your area. For example, you may bring a guitar teacher or a voice teacher into the mix, or coordinate with another teacher on the skills required as prerequisites to your ensemble. You can refer your students to their ensembles, if they have them, or welcome their referrals.

These connections can have far-reaching implications for your business and the satisfying success of your student ensembles.

Related: How to Plan and Run a Pop Piano Recital

The World is Your Studio

You can also offer ensemble opportunities to other piano teachers, who may not want to take it on themselves. It will give their students more motivation to continue learning piano by bringing their desires for skill development back to their teacher. For example, in my flute and saxophone teaching, the majority of my lessons are spent in support of the students’ various band and orchestra concerts and competitions.

Beyond recitals, breaking out of the piano-teacher box will lead to more performance opportunities at fairs, festivals, benefits, YouTube, and more.

Real-Life Ensemble Skills for Your Piano Students

Ensembles of different instruments are more like real-life musical circumstances. Even with the infinite timbral variety of today’s synthesizers, a live performing band consisting only of keyboardists is a very rare thing.

students on different instruments playing together in a band

Have you thought about teaching group ensemble classes?

In a multi-instrument ensemble, your piano students will experience hands-on learning in many important real-life musical skills that will serve them well in casual and serious music-making for the years to come. Not to mention the basic relationship skills that extend beyond music into all areas of life.

Accompanist Skills

I once heard a story about a musicologist who praised a Roma cimbalom player on his playing after a spectacular solo. The cimbalist humbly replied, “Why thank you, but I am just a soloist.” He was implying that his musical culture holds the accomplished accompanist in more high regard than the solo player.

Accompaniment skills are crucial for pianists but are rarely explored in traditional-style piano lessons. And accompaniment can be one of the most enjoyable and satisfying forms of musical experience.

Before the class even begins, your students will be more motivated to be prepared – they won’t want to let down their peers. Accompanying then requires listening, dynamics, interaction, and musical conversation.

Rhythm skills to stay ‘in the pocket’ (or to follow rubato), awareness, and flexibility in following the lead, to jump measures or sections if the lead instrument does so, for example. All these skills are vitally important for successful accompaniment.

Soloist Skills

Your students will also have the opportunity to learn how to take the lead but still stay connected with the supporting players. Apart from improvised or pre-composed piano solos, they can explore the various keyboard timbres and how they may be approached differently than piano.

Recommended: How to Get Your Beginner Students Composing Music

Chording

Popular, folk, blues, and jazz styles all rely on the piano to lay down the harmonic structure. Your students will have a wonderful opportunity to both learn chords, read chord charts, learn to recognize chord progressions by ear, compose and improvise with chords, and more.

This one skill alone will catch them up with their guitar- and bass-playing buddies and expand their musical horizons exponentially.

Have you checked out Tim’s 4 Chord Composing online course? Get started teaching chords and composition to your students by clicking here

Choosing a Genre

Which genre(s) you choose to teach depends on your interest, your students’ interest, and what particular skills you want to develop. While all ensembles have certain elements in common, different styles of music call for different skill-sets.

Depending on you, your goals, and your students, you can choose genre-specific ensembles, or mix and match to your liking.

Classical

The music in a classical ensemble will typically be predetermined and well-prepared. Since all the music is ‘taken care of’, ensemble members can really focus in on musicality, listening, and dynamic interaction.

Often ensemble newbies ride in parallel tracks without listening to each other and frequently play out-of-sync. Teach your students how and why their parts fit together, biting off small chunks, working on counting rests and entrances, sustaining notes in harmonized passages… you get the picture.

Pop/Country/Rock/Folk

These genres typically have predetermined parts, but with more room for embellishments and improvised sections. These embellishments can be genre specific as well, teaching your students a particular musical idiom, and/or the difference between these idioms.

Each of these genres has very specific forms. Students will gain much by recognizing, for example, the standard Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus form found in most pop, rock, country, and similar genres.

Chording will be the big focus for the piano student in these genres. Embrace the golden opportunities for everyone here in learning to identify and play chord progressions by ear.

young people playing rock music together

Help show your students how they can interact with other musicians.

 

Songwriting

Really bump up the stakes in your ensemble and teach them to collaborate on songwriting. This can be included along with any genre, or be the main focus of the group. You can start with fun songwriting games and move on to elements of form, lyrics, chord progressions, etc.

Your students will be more invested as they see their songs coming to life and sounding full with the whole group input.

Blues and Jazz

As well as everything mentioned for the genres above, blues and jazz include a healthy dose of improvisation within a set form and structure. Blues is easier to start with, of course, since you can teach all your students a simple minor pentatonic blues scale, and they’ll all be jamming by the end of the first class to your accompaniment.

Then it’s time to teach them accompaniment. Blues chord progressions are exciting, relatively simple and a good place to start – although there are several modal jazz standards, like John Coltrane’s Impressions or Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage that are also easy for beginners.

Online teaching course: 12 Bar Blues

‘Free’ Improvisation

Here we strip away all the conventional form and chord progressions and focus on pure interactivity and musical dialogue. Call and response exercises (also great with blues and jazz ensembles), one, two, and three note improvisations, time-limited improvisations and a host of other fun improvisation games rule here.

Another great game for this group is Conductor: you establish hand signals for loud, soft, fast, slow, long notes, short notes, play, don’t play, etc. Then each band member takes turns conducting the group, who respond according to the musical element being called for.

This game is fantastic and fun for younger or less skilled students, but has its place with the more developed ones, and can be integrated into any group.

Teaching Non-Pianists

Are you hit with a strange, sinking feeling at the prospect of all these odd shaped instrument cases marching into your studio?

First off, remember that you know a whole lot about music, and you have much to share with these other instrumentalists and singers. Just staying open to that reality will help you pull out knowledge and intuition you didn’t know you had.

Teaching Musicality

Ensembles present a fantastic opportunity for general musicality training. In addition to all the ensemble skills and games we mentioned above, ear training, theory, music history, ethnomusicology, and active listening are just a few of the topics that can spice up your ensemble class.

For example, I once had a group that loved – and I mean loved – rhythmic dictation. They couldn’t get enough of it! And their sight-reading skills skyrocketed.

Prerequisites

One way to handle it is to have a set of required skills before a student joins the group. For example, a guitarist must know this set of chords, or a classical violinist must be at a certain level of sight reading.

You can determine these through an application form, audition (recorded or in person) or by reaching out to the other students’ teachers beforehand.

With prerequisites, you can put together a group with reasonably matched skills, and that can take full advantage of the special ensemble skills you set out to teach.

In addition, you can work with the students’ teachers during the course of the ensemble – sending home assignments or individualized notes on what you want them to work on.

Integrating Different Ability Levels

Sometimes, especially when you’re first starting out, you are not going to be able to put together enough students of the same ability level.

This can actually turn to your advantage.

Younger children are thrilled when they can make meaningful musical contributions to the ‘big people’s’ bands. Use your imagination, and you can usually find a way for your less skilled members to fit in. For example, the seven-year old violinist can drone rhythmically on her first two open strings (G and D) during the G chord section of a folk tune.

Or if your guitarist can only play an Em chord, the pianist can change the bass notes to create a whole progression (Em/B, Em/G, Am9, Em/Bb, Em/B, Cmaj7 is a particularly spooky one they might enjoy).

I call this ‘creative ability management’ and it will enhance your marketability with family bands.

Managing your Student Bands and Ensembles

Integrating different abilities into your ensemble is not the only management skill you will be developing as a creative piano teacher.

Group Size

I’ve worked with anywhere from a small group to orchestras, though bands of three to six allow for more intensified learning. Marketing-wise, it may be helpful to offer your smaller groups as alternatives to the large bands and orchestras.

This band size also reflects what we are used to seeing in most pop, rock, country, worship, and folk ensembles.

Genres are a factor here. The ‘Free Improvisation’ ensemble I described above, for example, can integrate many ability levels and easily work with larger groups.

Family Bands

A family band both draws from existing deep relationships and builds these connections further. Having fun learning and making music together, plus the unparalleled availability to practice together, can inspire a truly exceptional ensemble.

If it fits in your schedule, families are often willing to pay extra for you to come to their homes. Either way, they will do your work for you in terms of gathering up the group.

Family Band with piano student

Family bands include siblings, and may or may not include the parents. Whether they are in the group or not, parents may be laissez-faire or intensely involved. A sensitivity to family dynamics, and your creative ability management are both crucial skills for you here.

But don’t shy away: family bands can be among your most committed and successful ensembles.

Peer Teaching

During the ensemble, you may want to zero in on one or two of the students. This is the opportunity for the others to learn to be more self-directed and help each other out. You can also set it up where certain students with more knowledge are in charge of certain aspects.

A guitar player can help the piano player with remembering her chord progressions, while the singer and violinist work on a harmonized line. The bass player and pianist can work out how not to step on each other, while the saxophone and guitar go over the solo section.

You can guide these interactions in more or less structured ways, depending on the maturity of the participants. Eventually, the goal is to kick back and watch them go, interjecting your guidance here and there. That is what will prepare them for creating their own self-directed bands, and develop invaluable relationship skills that reach far beyond the musical context.

Scheduling

These days of overscheduled students challenge our capacity to consistently bring together a group and maintain the level of commitment that will bring the many rewards of ensemble classes. Of course, you are experiencing this with your regular teaching, but the problem compounds exponentially with groups.

You can establish a set day and time for ensembles, let’s say Saturday mornings. You may opt for monthly meetings, which can give your students time to build up to and prepare for the reward of the band class.

Another option is a short term class – perhaps three weeks ending with a performance. Or even one-offs. This will whet your students’ appetites for longer-term commitments.

Performance

The key factor here is performance. Having this goal in mind will inspire more commitment and drive in your students.

At your recitals, your other students will be inspired by your multi-instrument ensembles. But the performance opportunities for student bands go way beyond your studio recitals. Other teachers’ recitals, festivals, folk festivals, benefits, assisted living centers, school programs, talent shows, concerts, YouTube, and even paid gigs are but a few of the many ways your students can gain this important experience – while you gain publicity for your program.

Taking it Home

There is so much to gain for both you and your students when you bring together a scattered group of various instrumentalists and singers and form them into a cohesive performing unit. As a creative piano teacher, it’s rewarding on so many levels, and just plain fun.

Your piano students will gain skills that will break them out of the cage of their 88 keys and allow them to interact musically with peers, and reach beyond into new musical contexts.

All your band students will gain experiences and knowledge that they will carry with them far beyond the walls of your studio, and even far beyond their musical lives.

So go ahead, reach out to your families, students, and make friends with other musicians and teachers. Bring together your first student band and enjoy!

Do you teach group ensemble classes already? Are you anxious about giving it a go? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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About the Author

As Content and Product Manager for Musical U, veteran piano teacher Andrew Bishko helps others unleash the true musicality they have inside with the development of educational content and learning modules. Andrew also plays the accordion and leads Mariachi Flor de Missouri.
www.musical-u.com

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