How to teach guitar students in groups

Teaching guitar students in groups is very different to teaching privately. The big mistake I see many guitar teachers making is they apply private teaching techniques to group teaching. This is like comparing a serenade to a concert. In private tuition you are catering to the individual. This means you can afford to ask specific question on their guitar playing and cater the lesson to one specific student.

Groups are about working on the same skill at different levels

Students in a group situation will obviously vary in their ability. For example you may be learning a scale and each student is at a different level. Some may not even know the scale while other students can play at 200 bpm. So the question teachers ask me here is “What do I do?”. The answer is you need to find a common denominator. Something they can all do. You then need to give them different versions of the same song or skill depending on their level. Let’s take a classic favourite. Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple. For the beginner student you ask them to simply play the rhythm. The next level student can play the riff on one string while the more advanced student can play it as performed by Deep Purple. Now if you want to set the bar higher for the advance student get them to improvise between phrases or try getting to play harmonies or counterpoint or syncopated rhythms. The possibilities are endless. You just need to be creative enough to keep everyone challenged at their own level. Using this idea I could literally take a 5 year old beginner and put them in the same room as Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and John Williams and I could keep them all appropriately challenged.

Advice from Emma (school band teacher)

I think the key to working with groups of varying levels is to work with what you have, not what you would wish for! I have 25 kids in one of my school bands on about 7 different instruments. Some of them have been playing for a year, some for 3 or 4 so you can imagine the challenge I have at the beginning of the year when approaching it and deciding on what music to give the kids (also remembering that they range in age from years 3 to 6!).
There are a number of points I try to stick to. Some of these will apply to my situation a little more than groups of all one instrument but the same theories apply generally:
Choose music that suits the middle to top end of the skill level-you need to challenge everyone. If you chose music that suits the lowest level the others will become bored very is much easier to simplify parts than to write more difficult parts
Get those that are more skilled to play their parts exactly as written
Get those kids who are not as advanced to play what they know…for example, I try to make a point of stating the importance of knowing exactly where they are on the music at any given time, even if that means they don’t actually play for the first couple of times through. Then confirm the notes they definitely know the names of and how to play. Get them just to play those notes whenever they occur..even if there are only 2 or 3 different notes they are comfortable with. As they slowly learn new notes, get them to add these to the piece.
Get the more advanced kids to play while the others keep time for them, either by clapping or counting out loud..swap and get the more advanced kids to count while the others play what they can
Make a point of explaining to the kids that we are all good at and have different strengths ..a football team would not work if everyone played well in defense but no one could attack.
Reassure them – They need to feel comfortable and safe and that you are there to guide them, not to criticize. I would sometimes even illustrate by saying that “Johnny you have fantastic rhythm but we need to work on your reading” or “Jane, congratulations you know all of your notes well but are you counting all of the time?”
Avoid criticising children as it really serves no purpose. Praise the good skills and work on the rest…I try really hard never to use the word “bad”For those students who have trouble with different rhythms use some words to help them. I had a student who followed the Cronulla Sharks (local Rugby League team) obsessively and was struggling with crotchets, minims and quavers so a crotchet took on the word “go”, minims became “yeah” and quavers “sharkies”. It was not long before he was playing in time perfectly and no longer needed to substitute the values for words.
Try to think like a child (easy for some of us I know!!) It can be very easy to assume that we are explaining something perfectly and frustrating when they “don’t seem to get it”. Get the kids to explain it to each other and don’t always pick the one who wants to!! The quiet ones are often the ones who want to take a back seat and hide because they don’t quite understand.
Class Rules – David Hart (G4GUITARMETHOD) constantly speaks about the two rules…enforce them and be tough from the start. Groups can be hard work if you don’t have full control. Start by being fair but very very firm and as the kids understand that you really mean it you can ease up a bit. Believe me, 4 or 5 guitars is nothing compared to 5 saxophones, 3 clarinets, 6 flutes, 3 keyboards, 3 trumpets and 2 drummers all on the first day of getting their instruments and full of enthusiasm. My first words are always “you do not play your instrument or speak unless invited to do so, anyone breaking those rules will be asked to leave the class”…stick to your words though…if someone breaks the rule, send them out (only for a few minutes) and I can guarantee it will be a long time before anyone else does it!!
Watch other teachers in action and if possible ask them to watch you and get some feedback. When I first started with the band I had to get the Principal to come and speak to the kids..she scared them (and me) but it almost made it look like I couldn’t cope…kids will eat you alive if you let them…be the boss of that room and do not let them get the better of you. Some kids are obviously naughty or cheeky whereas others will tempt you into a conversation on something unrelated or ask a million pointless questions. They are very clever.
If a child keeps asking questions, always approach it by saying “is what you have to say really important to what we are learning at the moment, can you ask me at the end of the class?” (by which time they have usually forgotten what it was unless it was really important. Get them to decide how important it really is

Communicate with the parents..we can only do so much in half an hour. All of my band members have to sign a contract along with their parents which commits them to stay in the band for a full year and practice at least 3 x 20 minutes per week. It is of course flexible (which they don’t know) but does make them take responsibility for their practice and parents need to be aware that it is a commitment for the whole family not just the student

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