The pitfalls of teaching musical instruments in a group, and how to solve them

Within school music education, it is common to teach the basics of an instrument, such as the recorder, in a group setting. Group teaching is a useful technique, however there are a number of problems that arise when teaching the early stages of playing instruments in this way. What are these problems, and how can they be addressed?

Students will have varying experience and interests

When teaching a group, it is inevitable that different individuals will have differing experience and interests. Some students will come from families with musical parents, while others won't. Students are naturally going to gravitate towards different genres of music, and different instruments as well. Forcing everyone to learn only one instrument, or some pre-chosen selection of music is going to interest some of the students in the group, and alienate others.

I think this is especially problematic when teaching music in a school environment, vs a group of adults, as the children did not choose to be there themselves. Some proportion of the students would much rather be doing something else with their time, and this harms the whole group, as it causes the teacher to waste their time. Playing an instrument with any skill is a lot of work. I feel that before someone would be willing to do this, they need to have developed an interest in learning to play music.

One can work around this issue by:

I feel that the purpose of a school should be to create exposure, to let children discover what works for them. Don't force music on children who aren't interested. If someone doesn't get along with music, there is almost certainly something else they do get along with.

One of the bigger issues that I see with how school education is structured is that it doesn't account for specialisation. In the real world, people have differing levels of experience in different things, and when you don't know something, you either ask someone else to help or look something up. School-level education is more based on the idea that everyone is equally good at everything. This creates a lot of problems as it stigmatises people for being bad at things that would have no impact on them in the real world.

Technique and a lack of individual focus

The task of playing an instrument is heavily dependent on technique, and there are numerous ways that this can go wrong even with simple instruments. In a group setting, it isn't possible for a teacher to give any student their full attention, and this can allow mistakes in technique to go unnoticed. To a child, this can be very frustrating as poor technique almost always makes the player’s job harder and, frequently, mistakes are not apparent unless they are pointed out.

While not directly related to music, I do have an example to give from my own school years. I have hitch-hikers thumbs and when I was taught how to write by hand, I naturally folded my thumb backwards. This subtle mistake caused me to avoid writing for years, as the last joint of my thumb quickly became extremely painful, and made it impossible to write more than a few sentences. It can be rectified simply by not folding the thumb back, yet I lacked the analytical skill to realise this as a child.

Problems of this nature are far more plentiful with musical instruments and, with the wind instruments that are often taught in schools, are often invisible as many techniques happen inside the body. Easy mistakes to make include:

This last point is especially troublesome. It's impossible to see, and would be difficult to hear in a situation where multiple children are playing at once.

To work around this issue:

But beware that highlighting a mistake once may not be enough; be prepared to point things out several times until it becomes automatic. Try to create self awareness so that the student can self-correct.

Different people learn differently

Another problem that arises from group teaching is the fact that everyone learns differently. Different teachers and teaching approaches will work better or worse for a given subset of individuals. Thus, a class of students will fall into the following groups:

Music can be approached from multiple directions, including:

Different students will prefer different approaches. With a group it is impossible to optimally cater to all of these learning styles, thus the lowest common denominator is often used. This is a problem as the approach used will not make sense to a subset of learners, making them feel bad, when in fact they could get it immediately with a different approach. For a single individual, the optimal approach may even vary between different aspects of music.

I suspect that today, it's pretty common to classify varied learning styles as 'learning disabilities', as some subset of students will be harder to teach. However lumping the minority together in this way is greatly oversimplifying the problem because even within the group that does 'get' a given methodology, there will be variations in how well it works for them. There will be a group who do understand, yet could do so more easily if something were explained differently. This is a multidimensional problem and not a simple one.

To work around this issue, I feel that it is absolutely essential that students be able to experience multiple teachers. People tend to teach using the methodology which makes sense to them, which may or may not make sense to the students. If someone obviously doesn't understand, it is important to offer different perspectives. I believe that this is easier to do today due to the common availability of video tutorials.

I also think it is important that students feel confidant to study things alone. In a school setting, some students will immediately grasp something and want to learn deeper or different aspects than the group is teaching. Within a rigid pre-planned structure, this is often impossible and can be frustrating. Such students should be encouraged to continue to study in a self-guided way, and teachers should be willing to answer questions.

A group is a poor environment for ear training

If a bunch of instruments with the same timbre are playing in unison but slightly out of tune, it is almost impossible for any single individual to hear how to correct their own pitch as everything they do sounds dissonant. This happens because a collection of out of tune notes do not represent a single 'note' but a compound note from the flattest to the sharpest player. Thus, there is no centre of pitch for the ear to latch onto.

The following tool demonstrates this issue. It plays numerous out of tune pitches centred around a note, and overlaid on this is an additional pitch, which you can control with the slider. Notice that nothing you do makes the result sound good.

Learning intonation is really important as without it, everything will sound bad, regardless of how good someone's finger skills are. For example, I watched a performance at the Budrio ocarina festival in 2017, where a large group of children performed a song with interludes on the ocarina. I found this interesting because the sung parts sounded great but, as soon as they switched to ocarina, they took a nosedive. They were wildly out of tune with each other, spoiling what was otherwise a good performance.

Personally, I find this sad because teaching intonation is not difficult, intonation is easy to hear when one student is playing with accompaniment. For example, an ocarina will warble when out of tune:

It's important to stress the importance of students being able to play individually, without everyone else, as the clash of multiple sounds makes it impossible for anyone to hear their pitch. If students are going to play together, it is critical to have reference to an instrument with different timbre, or at least in a different octave.

With regards to the children's performance I mentioned earlier, they obviously had a sense of pitch as they were singing in tune, but were unable to transfer that skill to the ocarina. I's guess this happened as the voice is more intuitive, and they were never instructed how to relate that skill to the ocarina.

A friend of mine who did a teaching degree corroborated my thoughts on this as he observed that students can easily play the kazoo in tune, even though its pitches are even less fixed than the ocarina's. The kazoo is played by 'singing' or humming into it, and the instrument modifies this sound with a membrane. Thus the instrument is essentially played as an extension of the body.

Some instruments are more difficult to teach in a group

It's worth noting that different instruments can be more or less difficult to teach in a group environment, due to the nature of their characteristics.

For example I think instruments like the keyboard and xylophone are easier to teach in a group, as all of the techniques used to play them are clearly visible, and they have stable pitch. Melodica also does, as pressure controls volume instead of pitch and articulation can be created with the keys.

Instruments like recorder, ocarina and other wind instruments are more difficult to teach in a group as some of the techniques used for playing them happen out of sight inside the body, and consequently mistakes are more likely to be missed in a chaotic group environment.

I also feel that electronic instruments offer a lot of untapped potential. The features they present can change. For instance, one could start with an instrument with no pitch or volume variance whatsoever, letting someone learn the fingerings, then introduce these capabilities as they get better.

To conclude this section, I'll just say that regardless of which instrument is being taught, it's essential that effort is made to teach the whole instrument. If an instrument has a 'difficult' aspect, like intonation, ignoring it is NOT OK. I also think that exposure to virtuosic performance is critical, to convey what makes an instrument 'cool'.

Inadequate time allocation

While slightly off topic from the article as a whole, the biggest issue I see with teaching instruments in schools is simply that they don't allocate anywhere near enough time to do a good job. As I've noted in the previous sections, playing instruments requires a lot of attention to detail, and in a group this means a lot of attention given to individual students.

If you have a class of 20 students and a class duration of 1 hour, in the best case the teacher only has 3 minutes to give to each student. In reality its going to be much less due to time wasted getting students in and out. In that environment, there is so much working against teachers that only the absolute best teachers stand a chance of achieving anything.

Additionally, a large part of what makes learning an instrument difficult is that the task requires use of the subconscious mind. Musicians interact with instruments much like you do with a computer keyboard if you type regularly; you think about what you want to write, not where the keys are.

Achieving this requires practicing frequently, and 1 hour a week really is not adequate. Expecting children to practise in their own time is also shortsighted, as they probably don't understand why. It would be better to directly show how regular practice results in improvement.

Plan timetabling to give students a lesson every day for a week. By doing so, the students are effectively guaranteed to see their subconscious start to kick in, resulting ability to play better. They don't have to work on faith, and I think this demonstration would make them more willing to practise alone in the future.


I think that group teaching is an optimisation to reduce teacher numbers, not to increase learning efficiency. Like everything, has pros and cons. These must be accounted for, or it may result in learner frustration. As I have shown here, the issues can be worked around with awareness.

However, I do think that the earliest stages of playing an instrument can be taught better one on one. In a school, that isn't necessarily impossible, as it may be possible to extract a student from another class. Once they have a basic level of experience group teaching would work better, as individuals may self correct.