Gosh, do I struggle with group class. How do you teach a Suzuki group class of a dozen and a bit that includes children from 4 to 15, from early Book 1 to beyond Book 10? How do you ensure that the 6-year-old with the limited attention span feels included for most of his class time, and that the 14-year-old who is working at the same level as the 4-year-old (that's Fiona) doesn't feel self-conscious? What to do with the competitive 11-year-old in early Book 3 who isn't reading or playing well enough to join the more advanced cohort (mid-book-4-plus) for ensemble playing? What do you do with the lone violist (that's Noah) who can't play any of the post-book-3 repertoire with the violinists? And how in heaven's name do you give the two girls in Books 6 and 10+ (that's Erin) anything meaningful to do? (The photo I've uploaded is not actually our group class, though it includes four of our group's members and is in the same location. Our group is, as you'll no doubt now realize, much less homogeneous than the 2006 institute group class photographed.)
There are about 15 students (a couple of whom are "play-along parents") and they all clearly thrive on the sense of community that group class engenders. They pretty much all feel that the classes are worthwhile and "fun." So I continue to try to teach this motley crew, once every second Tuesday.
Every year, in fact more like every class, I try something a little different. I take consolation by reminding myself that anything is probably better than nothing, but sometimes I don't even quite believe that. This year, though, we've moved to a sort of "rolling group class" that spans about 100 minutes and includes different students at different times in different activities, depending on their ages and levels.
We start out all together. This is when we do the regular rituals. We start with an all-together bow to say hello, and a Twinkle or two. If there are any organizational announcements we deal with those, and then I go through the "Questions" (which I forgot last night, because Fiona was having a sad spell and I was a little distracted, but normally we do them). They're things like whether anyone has had a birthday, or got a new instrument, or had any notable musical experiences. There are a few silly questions ("Anyone get married? Divorced? Change their name?") that are just part of the routine.
And then we do some work on "basics." Maybe focusing on a posture point or technique point that more or less everyone can participate in working on. Or maybe rhythm or ear-training exercises. I try to include brief snippets of repertoire from Books 1 & 2, and maybe one snippet from Book 4 - 6, in order to apply or develop this skill or concept. I alternate early Book 1 with more advanced stuff so that the beginningest kid doesn't get antsy. Last night we worked on tapping and clapping and saying and stamping main beats and beat subdivisions, splitting the group into two halfs so that one would keep the beat and subdivisions and the other would play a piece. It kept everyone involved; the Book 1-2 students played an early piece while the Book 3+ students kept the beat. Then the Book 3+ students played a Book 3 piece while the less advanced ones kept the beat. And we did a little bit of an ear-training game, guessing intervals, mostly off-instrument. In this "all together" part of the class we'll often have a solo performance or two. Most children will do one or two solos during the year. Last night J. (late Book 5) played a beautiful rendition of the first piece in Book 3 with some impressive and hard-won musical expressiveness and technical clarity. After each solo, the audience of fellow students applaud, the performer bows, and then hands go up to contribute to a brief round of comments. I ask "what did you especially like about that performance?" Gradually the kids are getting more perceptive. Instead of saying "he had good posture" they'll now say "I really liked how it had a dance-like feeling and his body moved a bit to make the music come alive." Even Fiona is getting better. Last year she would say "I liked his bowhold." Last night she said "I liked the quiet parts, and his bowhold." :-) And she was right -- the dynamic contrasts were notable!
Then it's time for the two most advanced violinists to depart down the hallway to another room. The local non-Suzuki cello teacher coaches them for an hour in a string quartet with a local cellist and violist. The remaining group finishes up with another early Book 1 piece and then we have a bow to say goodbye to the students who don't play past early Book 2. These less advanced students have had 35 or 40 minutes and haven't been excluded from much.
Our next phase is ensemble work in mid-Book-2. We're currently working on a four-part arrangement of Handel Bourrée. The Book 2-3 students play the Suzuki melody. The remaining students (from mid-Book-4 to late Book-5) have harmony parts that they've been assigned. We work on ensemble and "fitting-togetherness". Because of the part-reading and harmony-playing, this is reasonably interesting work for the Book 4/5 kids. For the Book 2/3 kids, it's a great pre-orchestra experience, playing by rote but having to fit into a four-part ensemble. We spent 10 or 15 minutes on this.
Then we dismiss the four Book 2/3 kids with another goodbye bow. They've had almost an hour of class. The Book 4/5 kids pull out their parts for the non-Suzuki ensemble work. Right now we're focusing on an arrangement of two movements from Vivaldi's "Winter." In the recent past they've also worked up a four-part arrangement of "Danny Boy" and the original version of Pachelbel's "Canon in D." Last night we went for about half an hour and then hunkered down in front of the laptop to watch a BBC DVD recording of Julie Fischer and the Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields performing the same movements, and reading the poetry that Vivaldi based the suite on. We discussed some musical interpretation issues based on our observations.
By then the big girls were finished with their quartet (they're currently rehearsing Haydn's "Lark" quartet and Corelli's Christmas Concerto) and they sidled back in. They have been assigned the solo parts for the "Winter" movements. We ran through one of the movements with solo, and then had a final bow.
All told we ran for just over 100 minutes. I think that most of the crew are getting something interesting and with a bit of challenge. There's enough mixing and matching that the older less advanced students aren't left feeling like they haven't quite "made the cut." This feels like about the best arrangement we can hope for.
As ages and levels and interests shift, this particular set of solutions won't work as well. By next spring, or next fall, we'll have to come up with different solutions. But for now it feels like we're doing pretty okay, given the immense range in our group.