Search This Blog

Thursday, March 1, 2012

How to Teach a Suzuki Group Class

When someone asks me how to teach a Suzuki group class, my short answer is to spend a lot of time working out the perfect lesson plan, then throw it in the trash can within the first five minutes of class.

I have spent a great deal of time developing lesson plans and group class themes over the years. Unfortunately, I seldom had opportunities to teach some of them, although I have taught bits and pieces. The mental exercise that lies behind lesson plan generation helps me to focus my ideas, and it builds up my arsenal of activities and possibilities.

I have to be light on my feet and mentally flexible for a variety of reasons:
  • Students forget to tell you they will be out of town (or playing in a sports tournament or fiddling contest)
  • Funerals and illnesses occur unexpectedly
  • Some folks do not know how to use a calendar well
  • Birthday parties and sleepovers are more fun
  • Families get too busy
  • Other siblings take precedence that day
All of these excuse possibilities make it difficult for me to come up with the definitive group class lesson plan that will apply on any given group class day. I might have been annoyed at one time, but not anymore. I have learned how to make up a group class lesson plan on the fly. I do not intend my idea to be a substitute for advance planning. Quite the contrary, I still generate lesson plans. I find, however, that I need to be good at making lesson plans so that I can make up a new one quickly to fit the particular situation as I find it on group class day. Here is how I do it.

I divide my group class into several parts:

Warm up and Tune up:
  • The students and I tune up our instruments. This gives me a moment or two with each child and possibly the parent and a sibling. We touch base with each if we have not seen each other in a few days, and it helps me to get my student relaxed and get a sense of my student's energy level for that day.
  • I begin the class with introductions. I make sure that everyone has met everyone else and remembers other student names.
  • We get ourselves organized in terms of space. Everyone chooses a place to stand and checks to make sure they have enough bowing room.
    • Sometimes we stand in a line and sometimes we stand in a circle.
    • One fun game during a group class is to spell out the letters of a particular word, such as "violin." First we group ourselves to form the letter "V." Then we will form the letter "I" and subsequently "O." This is a great game to help students gain spatial understanding as it relates to themselves and their surroundings. This is not an easy task for adults either!
  • If I have a group class theme going for the year, semester, or class, then I remind my students what we are working on. If we have a recital at the end of the semester or some other performance, then I remind students about this.
  • This opening time is also a great opportunity to make announcements or give reminders to parents and students.
Set up steps and bow:
  • We center ourselves. I ask students how I can tell if they are ready. My students answer that I know they are ready because they are looking at me. Then I go down the line and point to each student as they look at me: "You're looking at me. You're ready." This repetitive activity helps to settle everyone down and get their attention. Everyone knows that I will look at them, so they get themselves ready and look at me.
  • When everyone is ready, I do a deep inhale and then bow.
    • I have added the deep breath as a preparation to every bow I do with my students from the very first lesson.
    • I believe that it is important to teach instrumental students about musical "breathing" and phrasing. One day my students will play in an orchestra, so I want them to learn how to collectively breathe with a conductor so that they start playing together.
  • I go through the set up steps routine and take a few seconds to make adjustments to posture as needed. In the case of little ones or beginning students, I ask the parents to be part of the class and make these adjustments for me so that my class is not bogged down.
    • feet first, get them planted
    • thumb spot, scoop the hand under
    • Statue of Liberty
    • put up on "high" shoulder
    • check bow bold: strong bumpy thumb (young thumb), two sleepy best friends, curved pinkie, Captain Hook (as opposed to Captain Hog)
    • If my students seem a bit out of it, I might add some other copy cat games or warm up activity to muster the students’ attention onto me. Copy cats is a great way to get everyone paying attention.
  • We warm up with some "call and response" Mississippi Hotdogs (Taka taka stop stop, Pepperoni Pizza, Armadillo Cowboys, etc.) on E string, then A string.
  • We do some open string songs: Bunny Song, E string Concerto, A string Concerto, David Tasgal's "Blast Off" or "Duck Song," or a song I've written (Squeaky Mouse, Dirty Doggie Scrub Scrub).
  • For older students I will use long bow tone songs, such as Twinkle theme, Chorus from Judas Maccabeas, long tone scale, Dr. Suzuki's tonalization exercises, or 15-30-45-60 second bows.
    New Skill:
    • If we are working on a new skill, I introduce group activities that will teach or reinforce the skill. Group classes are great places to reach a larger number of students at one time for these topics:
      • vibrato
        • higher position fingering
          • longer bows
            • fancier bowing skills
              • string crossings
                • duet parts to earlier Suzuki volumes
                  • dynamics and accents
                    • articulation (bowings and sound production)
                      • music vocabulary: crescendo, decrescendo or diminuendo, fermato, ritard, tempo markings
                        • music history: composers, music analysis, historical music period
                        • Last fall I introduced a few segments of listening to different kinds of music.
                          • I played a Japanese film set to a different orchestral transcription of "Pictures at an Exhibition." The kids enjoyed watching the movie on my iPad while listening to the new music.
                            • We listened to a different composer at each group class, such as Tchaikovsky (1812) or Haydn ("Surprise" Symphony) and discussed some of the story behind the pieces.
                              • We listened to an introduction to the instruments of the orchestra, which was from a recording I loved listening to as a child. 
                            • This is the best part of a group class! We learn how to play together. I will leave the finer points of how to accomplish this for a later post. For now, let me just say that we find ways to work on whatever we need at the moment and build up our ensemble skills.
                              • If I have a student in book 3 and one in book 5, I might work on playing Gavotte in G Minor or Humoresque (book 3) and show the students by my leading how to make phrasing together as an ensemble.
                                • Then I would play something with my book 5 student to demonstrate this same principle while my book 3 student watches. For example, my student and I might play Country Dance together (book 5) because it is a tricky piece to play together.
                                • There is something about ensemble skills for every conceivable level of playing. My pre-twinkler students can learn ensemble with Mississippi Hot Dog or by reciting a jingle from William Starr's "I Know a Fox, With Dirty Socks" (which is a very popular book with my students 6 and under! Do not underestimate the appeal of rhymes and jingles!).
                                  • It is possible to teach "ensemble" playing by something as simple as setting a metronome to a reasonable speed and passing a stuffed toy around a circle of seated students in time with the beat.
                                    • Marching, clapping, and other physical movements (including speech) are also ways to teach ensemble skills. Have you ever seen the YouTube video "Synchronisation"? The person sets five different metronomes ticking at different speeds, and after a short while, all of the metronomes are ticking at the same time. Eerie! A roomful of marching children creates that same effect. [http://youtu.be/W1TMZASCR-I]
                                      • Nothing is funnier than doing the knee walk! This is a great way to curb "rushing." I ask the students to get on their knees and "walk" across the room while they play Perpetual Motion, for example. An entire room of knee walking students looks like penguins. Warning: adults do not enjoy doing this game! Too hard on the knees.
                                    Other Considerations:

                                    • It is helpful to follow the Muzak principle when structuring a group class. If you notice, Muzak plays peppier music earlier in the day and slower music later in the afternoon in an attempt to mimic most folks' energy levels and biorhythms.

                                    • I usually start my classes standing up and build energy and enthusiasm as I go.

                                    • I find opportunities to slow things down by having the children participate in a sitting activity. 

                                    • Group class activities do not have to involve the violin! There are some wonderful ways to introduce musical concepts, posture or habit reinforcements, or listening skills without the instrument or bow in hand. Get creative with this!
                                    And now the moment you have been waiting for! What was my personal experience with group class in the beginning?

                                    I taught for several years and did not teach group classes. When I embarked on the SAA Teacher Training program, the curriculum included discussions and observations of group classes. I learned quickly that there was a great value to a group class. Not only would I reach a larger number of students at one time, but I would also be able to use the classes to motivate students to want to learn. Older (or more experienced) students would learn how to be strong leaders and role models, and younger (or less experienced) students would learn by watching. I cannot put my finger on the exact moment when these roles would cross over the line for a student, and that is a fun part of teaching, as I watch a student grow from young beginner to a student who turns to a younger, less advanced student and offers help or advice with the voice of authority and experience. Very cool.

                                    So I finished up my summer teacher training courses determined to begin a group class program. I was a nervous wreck! Would students come? Would parents buy into the group class program idea? Where would I hold this class? What would I do? How would I structure the class? Yikes! Thank heavens for the group class book "Group Class Lessons for Violin and Viola" by Carolyn McCall! I spent several hours coming up with a great lesson plan for my first class. Looking back on this preparation, I have to laugh, because the class would have lasted five hours if I had completed every item on my list. I was younger then and had a lot to learn. Those parents of my students who remember that first class still laugh about how awful the kids sounded that first time.

                                    There were two things I did in that first class that were terrific and set the tone for me to remember what is important and useful in the future: clapping together and Twinkle/May Song duet:

                                    • I asked everyone to sit on the floor and close their eyes. Then I told them to clap together with me at the same time. I gave no signal. Of course the clapping was ridiculous, as everyone guessed when to do it; it was a mess! I asked everyone why we were not together. I got lots of answers and lots of suggestions of things to try to improve our ensemble, and we tried every single one. After five minutes, one of my youngest students called out that we were not playing together because we could not see each other. So we tried clapping together with our eyes open and looking at each other, and we were perfect! That lesson was learned!

                                    • I am an older and more experienced teacher now. I can get students to clap together with their eyes closed just by breathing. I have added this skill to my arsenal of teaching ideas.

                                    • Some of my students knew Twinkle Theme really well. Others knew May Song really well. Both songs when played together make a nice duet This was the very first ensemble piece that I taught my students. It was a mess! We got better at it.
                                    Like any other skill and ability, group class teaching gets easier with practice. I know several teachers who join forces together to do group classes. In this way, they can gain the benefit of group class instruction even though they have a small number of students in the studio. Every time you teach a group class, you will learn something new as a teacher. You will improve with practice.
                                    My favorite group class was the day that I had just two students show up: a pre-Twinkler (6 year old) and a student at the end of book 1 (12 year old). We had a great class, and I am still amazed to think about it. Both students taught each other something, and I was able to think of something to do with each student to challenge them and make the class interesting.

                                    But . . . I would still like to use one of those perfect lesson plans one day.

                                    Here is a blog post about the fun we had using a giant color spinning wheel in group class: The Wheel of Music.

                                    giant color spinning wheel Suzuki Method group class teaching resource
                                    The Wheel of Music

                                    Want to see something incredible like the metronome video? Check out: http://youtu.be/V87VXA6gPuE

                                    Until next time,

                                    Happy Practicing!



                                    1. Thank you for this post! I am always curious how other teachers run their groups. I have almost the exact same format down to my class, and had to laugh, because I do the same breathing-clapping exercise to introduce the concept of giving a cue. I have found that with my little ones, if I model breathing before the start of every piece, they begin to do it naturally, too.

                                      One thing I do with all of my classes (they are mostly small...between 5-8 kids), is to make sure that there is some interactive activity to show what they know, especially with the upper books. This week, I was working on off-beat entrances with my older kids as well as subdividing. I passed out cards with a short 4/4 time rhythm before we played our warm-up scale and had them label the counts (1 & 2 &, etc), and then had them flip the card over and write their own rhythm and label the counts. Then, we played our "compositions" for each other, and chose two to apply to our scale. I really like using their ideas in class.

                                      With the little ones, I like to have them "compose" with the small set of notes they do know. I teach pitches with hand signs, so they compose by showing me a set of hand signs and singing the pitches. They are SO proud of their "compositions." I have the other students perform the composition on Twinkle rhythms and the composer takes a special bow :-P

                                      I felt insecure about group when I first started teaching since I was not raised strictly Suzuki, but it really is a fun format for review, group interaction, and supplemental material.

                                      Thanks so much, I am "pinning" this post to my Pinterest account so that I don't lose it :)


                                    2. I also like to let my older or more advanced students show off a bit with something they are working on. I find that the younger less advanced students (as well as their parents) like to see what is coming in the future. Many times I am able to teach the younger students a small snippet of the song so that they can interact. E.g., I might teach the younger students how to play the two grace notes in Gossec Gavotte. Then we play along with the students who play the entire song. Another example is Handel's Bourree in Book 2. I teach younger students how to play the first three notes, including the slur, on the A string and also the same fingering on the E string. Then when those places show up in the song, we play along. There is generally at least one place like that in every song.

                                      We also like to make up songs. I will do this as part of an ear training activity. I will play one note and have the students pick out and play the note back to me. Then I'll play the note again and add another one, and so forth until we build a phrase and then an entire short song. The best part is when we work together to come up with a title. I make a quick recording of the new song on my iPhone, and I'll sketch out a piano part later at home.

                                      Just the other day we composed "Three-Fingered Giraffe," which used similar fingers as that found in Aunt Rhody. I was focusing on encouraging one young boy to feel more relaxed and uninhibited about picking out new songs. By doing this activity in a group setting, I believe we accomplished that purpose. The boy had a great time!

                                    3. Thank you for your posts. I really enjoy and benefit from reading them.

                                      1. Thanks, Heather, for visiting and leaving a comment. I always appreciate hearing from others. That's how I know that folks are reading the blog. I'd love to hear from you again along with any ideas you might have. -- Paula

                                    4. This is a really detailed and great post. Thank you, Paula!

                                      1. Thanks, Tim. I enjoy reading your blog posts too! Great stuff! Maybe we can do a joint article?

                                      2. That would be great, Paula. Best wishes in the new school year.

                                    5. I love this article! I resemble your teaching experiences and many of them made me laugh out loud. Thank you!

                                    6. I grew up in the traditional method and I am wondering how the Suzuki book 1 can be taught without reading music. I'd like to be able to teach this way to beginners. How do you actually teach them the songs. Do you play a portion of the piece and have them copy what you play or tell them which fingers to put down as they go? Please help -

                                      1. Hi, Lori! I grew up in the traditional method too, but my parents seemed to follow the Suzuki method without even knowing it. We had music playing in our house all the time and at meals. My mother could sing and play piano and played the autoharp for her kindergarten classes. My father is a jazz pianist as a hobby, but he's a terrific one! Music played all the time.

                                        This is a good question and deserves a lengthy answer, but not here. The short answer is that the students need to listen to their songs every day. To answer your question, I began writing a post about this. I hope to post it sometime this week, so stay tuned. The process is not as difficult as it sounds. For yourself, try this. Listen to the book 1 songs every day for 2 weeks without looking at the music. Set the volume at a background setting, which is loud enough to hear but not so loud that you need to raise your voice to be heard over the music. Allow the songs to repeat many times each day while you go about your normal business. After 2 weeks, take out your instrument and try to play one of the songs that you hear without referring to the music for a starting pitch or for boeings. See how far you can get. If you still have trouble, continue this process for another week and keep trying to play the songs.

                                        I myself tried this experiment when I was preparing for my book 5 teacher training. One night before a symphony concert, before warming up, I started fiddling around with Veracini's Gigue. I may have read the song one time previous to this experiment. To my astonishment, I played through 1.5 pages of the song before getting stuck. That is the power of listening. Put the music in the environment and stand back and watch the magic happen. Try it yourself first, Stay tuned for another article about this topic.

                                    7. Thanks so much for your valuable input! Today I am teaching my first group class, and I knew where I needed to come for some ideas and encouragement: your blog! I have been poring over this blog since I happened upon it last week, and it has given me some great ideas and inspiration for my teaching. Thanks so much!

                                    8. You're welcome, and I hope you stay in touch. I still make lesson plans and throw them away when I find out exactly which students show up for class. I find it helpful to keep "big" themes rolling around in my head each semester, like: review, posture, rhythm (my current theme), ensemble skills (current), and so forth. Do you have a copy of Carolyn McCall Meyer's book about group classes? I used that book quite a bit when I first started to keep my ideas flowing. It also helps to attend institute classes every year to get fresh thoughts. Let us know how your first group experience went. My first one was just awful (as my first class this past January was), but the classes improve quickly. Thanks for writing!

                                    9. Thanks so much for your post! I love your blog and reading through everything. I'm fairly young and still in my first years of teaching so reading all your experiences is such a comfort! I appreciate you sharing all your experiences and knowledge

                                      1. Thanks, Sharolee. I would love to hear about some of your experiences too. Feel free to write me about them.

                                    10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

                                    11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

                                    12. What is the right age to start violin lessons?
                                      ballet dubai

                                      1. I believe Dr. Suzuki thought that lessons should begin from birth, and many people believe that the mother could "begin lessons" while the child is still in the womb. I believe that it is never to early to start anything. Lessons could begin with a parent taking classes weekly to get started and learning how to enrich the environment so that the child would be motivated and encouraged to learn music and quickly. Some teachers prefer to wait until the child is "old enough" to already be focused, but there are many teachers who believe as I do that children need to be taught how to focus and be ready. I start them as early as 3 or even 2-2.5 if they are siblings. I can start the parent as early as they wish.

                                    13. Thank you for the helpful post. I found your blog with Google and I will start following. Hope to see new blogs soon.
                                      Hula Hoops

                                      1. Thank you. Have you checked out the "Teach Suzuki Podcast" too? It is a very helpful resource for parents and teachers: teachsuzuki.com

                                    14. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

                                    15. Paula thanks for this wonderful post and podcast episodes about group classes! I have been putting off group class at my studio due to everyone's insane travel/work schedules and we finally had our first of the year yesterday . I spent hours going through your posts/podcasts and Carolyn's book, made great lesson plans for my Book 1 and higher book classes and everything went smoothly. I felt so comforted by your stories of chaos at your first group classes, and was fully expecting mine to be horrific. My students surprised me and did a great job! The Book 1 group was even better than the later books, but that is a really mixed group. How would you handle a class with mostly Book 2, some Book 3 (transfer student who did not really learn Book 2 fully) and one young but excellent Book 4 student? Thanks again!

                                      1. Excellent idea for a future episode: the "mixed bag" in group classes! I'll get right on it. How did you resolve the issue?

                                      2. Luckily this student enjoys review quite a lot, so we played a lot from Book 2 with some duet games and she got to lead one of the groups. Next time I will expand repertoire a bit more but keep it lighthearted and fun with activities everyone can participate in somehow. Even though the ability levels are mixed quite a bit, the ages are all the same. So I think she enjoyed just getting to play with kids and didn't mind playing older pieces.

                                      3. I have to remind myself on occasion that there is nothing wrong with a mixed group such as this, and that students will not think there is something wrong unless I indicate that there is. That means, of course, that I have to watch how I think about it. I have managed a group class once with a 12 year old and a 5 year old (lot of sick kids that day!), and we had loads of fun!

                                    16. I'm enjoying this thread a lot. I have many years of experience teaching music in classes and groups but after moving to Germany, spent the last few years teaching mostly individuals. Today is the first group class (which I have advocated since before I started teaching privately) so I consider this a special win! This is a mixed class too in the range of advancing beginners.

                                      1. Hi, Bonny! My group classes are quite an experience, and I can never really predict what will happen. It's all good though, and we share so much fun together!

                                    17. I'm not a Suzuki teacher but I truly appreciate your blog and ideas! I have a violin group class that is interesting, some are Colourstrings students while others are traditionally taught, although I use Kodaly techniques with all the students, so at least we have one common language! The problem is keeping everyone together...I keep stopping those poor kids at all times and I feel bad. I will have to try your clapping exercise, because I've realised they probably don't understand the concept of listening to each other. I never did group classes as a child so I've been pretty much winging these past few years!! Thank you again and I will start following your blog.

                                      1. Thanks Etelka! Group classes are great fun. They allow students to develop social skills, and they can learn leadership and ensemble skills as well. -- Paula

                                    18. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

                                    19. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

                                    20. Thanks for share this kind of post.I really appreciate with your work.Please upload a post related to Violin Classes Frisco Tx

                                    21. I love this article! I especially appreciate the tips on centering the kids at the beginning of the lesson. I think it is so important and sometimes forgotten.

                                      Thank you for your wonderful articles,

                                      1. Thanks, Maria! I think group classes are really fun. I usually have a theme in my mind for each semester and then several ideas about class activities, and then I rotate through my list of ideas.

                                    22. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

                                    23. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.