How I Revitalized My Studio with Group Piano Teaching

By Janna Carlson | Group Teaching

Sep 11

In today’s expert guest post, we hear from Inner Circle member and experienced piano teacher, Janna Carlson. 

Janna has transitioned her studio into a highly successful group piano teaching program in just under one year. In this post, she shows us exactly how she got started. Take it away, Janna! 

Career Crisis

Three years ago, I was elated to reach full-studio status.

I’d built my current studio from scratch in about five years, after moving to a new city, and the relief at reaching 40 students was huge. I was ready to take a deep breath and enjoy the ride.

And I enjoyed it very much – for about two weeks.

The mental drain of teaching 40 private lessons each week began to quickly wear on me. I had trouble staying focused toward the end of the week, and my mind began to rebel against the repetition of 40 private lessons.

While I’ve always loved teaching, I struggled to keep my motivation fresh and strong.

This worried me, because while two decades of teaching were behind me, I wasn’t yet halfway through my career. I was already tired.

How was I going to make it through several more decades, still love my work, and maintain an income that would allow me to one day retire?

How could I be more engaged and energized in my teaching?

I began to explore: what do other piano teachers do besides teach lesson after lesson?

Group Piano Teaching: Reimagining My Studio

There are tons of ideas out there.

David Cutler published his brilliant book, “The Savvy Music Teacher” around that time. Ironically, my studio story is the first that appears in the book – although I felt like anything but a savvy music teacher when it was published.

I was inspired by David’s research, and began to compile a list of ideas.

First, I invested in a preschool piano program. It offered me a change in pace and teaching style, and allowed me to build my skills in working with young children.

There were drawbacks, though: constant marketing was required to keep 6-week sessions full. There was also a lot of studio setup for each class, so a half hour class took an hour and a half of my schedule.

Next, I offered clubs to my existing students: Beethoven Club, Chamber Music Club, and Composing Club. But parents were reluctant to commit to something extra, and the planning was quite time-intensive.

Then I added a music lab to my studio. It fueled my creativity as I planned lab activities, and I was able to offer a more well-rounded experience to my students. It was a solid win, but I was still sitting through 35 lessons each week, wondering how I could motivate my students and myself more effectively.

Recommended: How to Build and Run a Successful Travelling Music Lab

The Big Win

Finally, I read articles from both Leila Viss and Tim Topham that featured Marie Lee. Marie is a pioneer in group piano teaching, and her experience with teaching in groups immediately intrigued me. I read everything I could find about teaching piano in groups.

Last fall, with a million questions in my head, I decided to try group teaching as an experiment. I formed two groups of beginner piano students.

There was a huge learning curve. Behavior management, pacing, teaching technique to multiple students at once, lesson planning; it was all brand new to me – and a little scary.

But the energy, the excitement in my students, and the skills they were gaining were all new and unique. It felt like I was growing a completely different kind of musician, and I was becoming a different kind of teacher. I was hooked.

I decided in February to convert my studio to group lessons.

My decision was motivated by several factors: I loved the creative, high-energy teaching style, my students were engaged and excited, and there was greater potential for a sustainable income. We all win!

This spring, I had about 35 students. 30 of those were in private lessons, and five were in groups.

This fall, I own a group-based studio of more than 50 students. Five of those are in private lessons.

It’s not quite as easy as that, of course. Reinventing myself as a teacher was very hard work, and the past six months have been a challenging journey.

I’ve been completely convinced that converting to group lessons was the right move for me, which has helped tremendously.

My teaching spark has returned. Group lessons demand a creativity that private lessons don’t, and teaching fewer hours means that my mental focus stays sharp. I am able to remain engaged and energetic for my students.

One more huge benefit: after years of trying to keep students hooked on piano through middle school – and often failing – I have 20 middle school students enrolled in group lessons. They are excited to learn to play by ear and improvise with their friends.

The journey is already so worth it.

Are you thinking about converting your studio to group lessons?

Here is what I wish I’d known to expect when I started:

Reading and Research

Group lessons require a very different style of teaching. I’m on my feet, I’m chanting, and I often get a little silly. There is a ton of energy in the room, and it’s up to me to channel that energy into what we’re learning.

I’m continually observing my students’ engagement in the lesson, and I make adjustments based on what I see. When they love the music they’re making as a group, I allow more space to enjoy that moment. If my approach to teaching a pattern is not effectively connecting with the group, I need to immediately switch to another approach.

group piano teaching resources

The more research you do, the better prepared you will be.

I may be a seasoned, confident teacher in a one-on-one lesson setting, but group teaching requires that I learn how to be a group teacher. It feels, and is, completely different.

There is a learning curve, and there are plenty of resources and experts to help you. Give yourself time to grow and room to be a beginner at this. Talk with other teachers who work with groups, and ask a ton of questions.

Expect group teaching to be different than what you know.

Forget The ‘R & R’

Group lessons are imperfect. You can’t always control what happens; they are fun, loud and sometimes messy. But as we all know, the best teaching moments can happen when things go off the rails.

And be warned: in the true sense of R & R (rest and relaxation), you will have less of it for a while. Moving to group lessons involves hard work and many extra hours while you learn, plan, and transition.

But a huge perk of group teaching is that you are able to teach fewer hours. You are able to make more time for yourself and for your family while also earning a more sustainable income.

Call in the Experts

Moving to group lessons is such a big change for most of us. One of the best pieces of advice I have to give is this:

Invest in yourself. Learn from the best.

There are a growing number of resources available for teachers who want to move to group teaching, and the experts in this field are very generous with what they’ve learned. Here are the resources that I’ve found to be the most helpful:

  • Marie Lee and Leila Viss have developed a fabulous new group teaching resource called ‘Group Piano: What it is and what it isn’t’. Any question you could possibly have is most likely answered in this post. I can’t recommend it highly enough!
  • Tim Topham’s Inner Circle is a wonderful place to connect with other teachers who have a wealth of experience with group teaching. While Facebook groups can offer an enormous range of opinions, the Inner Circle community offers valuable, efficient connections with expert teachers who are happy to share their experiences.
  • Leila Viss and Bradley Sowash hold the 88 Creative Keys Workshop in Colorado every summer, and it is packed full of creative inspiration. The content is highly applicable to group teaching, and, after attending this summer, I found myself with a super-sized collection of tools for growing strong, creative musicians in groups.
  • Christopher Fischer wrote a book titled Teaching Piano in Groups. It’s the encyclopedia of group teaching, and contains a wealth of information.
  • Daniel Patterson (Grow Your Music Studio) assists teachers in reaching their goals, and because he owns a group-based studio, he understands the business aspects of moving to that model.

I worked with Daniel in a one-on-one business coaching relationship for two months this spring, and it was one of the best investments I’ve made in my career.

Working with a business coach who understands music teaching as an insider has double the impact. I learned to be a much stronger businesswoman while also becoming a more savvy music teacher.

Daniel helped me set much larger goals for myself than I had set on my own, and then helped me build the mindset and tools needed to accomplish those goals.

I was able to convert my studio to group piano lessons within six months, rather than the two years I’d originally planned.

Changing direction in your studio is a great time to evaluate your abilities and motivation, sharpen your business skills, and increase the size of your studio toolbox. You won’t regret investing in your success.

Plan, Plan, and Plan

When teaching private lessons, most of my preparation was done the day of the lesson, in just a few minutes.

That does not work for group piano teaching.

Showing up without a clear, well-prepared plan will guarantee that you flounder through the lesson. I have found it absolutely essential to work from a lesson plan for every single group.

Lesson plans look different for everyone. Mine look quite brief on paper, I use mainly cue words, but they represent a lot of detailed activities and pieces in my head.

I use primarily Piano Safari in my beginning groups, so I study the teacher guides and build lesson plans around them. Sometimes I teach bits to my empty studio, just to be certain that I know how they will feel when I teach them.

group piano teaching

Planning is key to any successful group piano lesson.

An older group might be learning a new scale fingering. I will plan how to teach scale fingering efficiently to four students at once. I will also plan how to make that scale come alive for my students, using a backing track, group improvisation activity, or a team challenge.

I over-plan. I make sure to have one more activity than I think I’ll have time for. I will not run out of productive lesson material, and I have the flexibility of dropping something that’s not working to move to the next activity.

At the end of the day, I go back and update my lesson plan to reflect what we actually did in each group. Then I outline next week’s plan while that group is fresh in my mind. I’ll revisit it the day of the next lesson, filling in anything that’s missing and working through it thoroughly.

Family Talk

I have a wonderful group of studio families, and I was excited to talk with them about group lessons. I introduced the idea of group piano teaching, briefly explained the benefits, and then asked if they were interested in a group for their student.

You can guess what most of them said. Parents of students taking private lessons want private lessons. They feel that they are losing something valuable if their child is sharing your time and attention.

I began working with Daniel Patterson partway through these conversations, and by the time we were finished working together, my conversations with parents were totally different.

I learned how to explain to parents that group piano teaching would provide a far more fulfilling, engaging, and rewarding experience for their child. As I learned how to talk about group lessons, I saw a growing excitement in my studio families for group piano.

In the end, only two families left my studio over my move to group lessons. My current studio families are on board with group lessons and what this year holds. I am excited to work with families who trust where I’m going; I feel empowered to be the very best teacher I can be for them this year.

Watch Your Language

Parents hear the words ‘private lessons’ and immediately think that private means exclusive. Exclusive means special, and each child is special. Therefore parents want their child to have a private lesson.

I started using the term ‘individual lessons’ midway through my conversations with parents. I believe it is more accurate. One-on-one lessons aren’t meant to be particularly private (in fact, these days we guard against lessons being truly ‘private’).

Changing our language is one powerful way to effectively communicate with parents. It allows them to be open to possibilities they might not otherwise have considered.

Lighten Up

During a conversation with Marie Lee, we were discussing how to keep order in a group lesson. I have some wiggly five-year-olds and was concerned that their posture and technique weren’t developing properly because they weren’t sitting still.

Marie told me, as graciously as only Marie can do, that I needed to lighten up. My students want to play music in groups because it’s fun. I need to let them enjoy it and trust the process.

That is fantastic advice, and it’s working. There are days when our students have sloppy posture, or don’t keep fingers curved all the time, but if they are laughing and loving the music they are making, then we are winning.

Team Success

My studio is filled with enthusiastic students who are eager to play the piano together, and have the support of their caring, engaged parents.

Form a cooperative team with your students and their parents.

My work is to empower these strong, creative musicians to carry their music with them wherever they wish to take it. However I grow in the future, that is the guiding force behind my studio.

I can’t wait to see what the next twenty years of teaching bring.

Just Curious?

If you’re not sure about group piano teaching and want to learn more about the hows and whys, here are some resources that were insightful for me in the early stages:

Also, Tim will be releasing a brand new online course on group piano teaching in collaboration with Debra Perez later in the month. This will be available in the Inner Circle, so keep an eye out for more information on that.

Your Turn!

Are you considering moving your studio toward group lessons?

What is holding you back?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions!

Janna Carlson

About the Author

Janna Carlson began her teaching career at the age of 18, while pursuing a non-traditional education with music teachers on both sides of the United States. Twenty years, four states, and hundreds of students later, Janna is delighted to own and operate Hello Piano Studio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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