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Group Keyboard and the Adult Market

Originally published: American Music Teacher

(Pictured above: Logo used for several studio and class locations for a period of ten years)

My piano and organ studio, “Keynote Workshop,” is unusual in that I teach only adults, primarily in groups. The objective of Keynote Workshop is “to enable adult students to gain an understanding of the basic elements of music, and to play the keyboard creatively within a limited period of time.” I advertised my first class in 1976, and expected to attract high-school students, but got a larger response from adults. I decided to limit my first group to adults and have concentrated on the adult market ever since.

Adult Student Types

Keynote Workshop attracts students from the general public. The motivation of adults for taking keyboard lessons falls into three broad and somewhat overlapping categories. The first category is highly motivated. This group includes persons who have never had lessons but always wanted to play, and persons who have had training and wish to renew or advance their skills. Also in this category are students who play by ear, play other instruments or sing. My highly motivated students often have specific goals such as playing in a band or church, accompanying themselves, or developing improvisational, arranging, and writing skills. The second category of students is interested in a leisure activity that will be stimulating and enjoyable. These students have often made a spontaneous decision to take keyboard lessons. They may have dabbled in other pursuits such as photography or dancing, and will probably move on to new interests after their keyboard experience. Although their commitment is short-term, they are generally good students and attend class, practice, and pay their fees regularly. Students in the third category are more interested in changing their lives than in learning to play an instrument. These students are preoccupied with problems such as loneliness or frustrating jobs, and want a distraction. Also included in this category are persons who have unrealistic expectations as to what learning to play will do for their lives, such as the young man who dreams of becoming a rock star! Students in this category tend to be irregular participants and may drop out suddenly.

Far more adults, that is, persons past their early twenties, appear to be interested in keyboard instruments than any other type of instrument, and this interest seems to cut across every segment of the community. A half-dozen members of a keyboard class can represent an incredible diversity of men and women of various ages, economic circumstances, racial and ethnic backgrounds, musical tastes, and preferences for the piano, organ, or electronic keyboard. My older students relate to “piano or organ,” my younger students to “keyboard.” The diversity of my students’ motivations, backgrounds, and interests is further compounded by their various abilities to understand theory, read music, sense rhythm, hear pitch, and play the keyboard. Most of my adult students have not been in school for some time. Some are easily confused, forget, or experience difficulty in concentrating, reading texts, and using the alphabet or numbers. Other students have dexterity problems or learning patterns which create problems, such as a tendency to memorize rather than understand information. There are also students who are very rigid as to what they consider to be “proper” music, and some have specific ideas about how music should be taught.

Theory and Technique

My first point of focus in adult group instruction is to teach theory and technique as an integrated phenomenon. Despite their individual differences, adult beginning and intermediate piano and organ students share a common need to develop keyboard musicianship. Keyboard musicianship integrates fairly difficult skills with relatively complicated ideas. In the Keynote Workshop, adult students are excited by the progress they make when theory and technique are taught together in classes. My students’ success is more rapid and solid when I simultaneously develop their hands and their heads. I also find I am far more effective meeting the shared needs of adults in groups than in attempting to accommodate their individual differences in private lessons.

There is a tendency to divide keyboard musicianship instruction into two realms. One realm is concerned with technique and performance while the other realm involves theory and creativity. Music theory tends to be taught in classes that very few adults attend. Piano and organ technique tends to be taught in private lessons. The sheer size, considerable cost, and self-contained “orchestral qualities” of pianos and organs have led to their being treated as “solo” instrument that required private instruction. In contrast, the accordion has often been taught in classes, and the recently developed inexpensive electronic keyboards are accelerating group keyboard instruction. The basics of keyboard musicianship needed for either “traditional” piano and organ or “today’s” electronic keyboard music can be taught to adults in groups.

Much of music theory is defined and described in numeric terms such as note value, meter, interval, scale degree, etc. I am very careful about the point at which I introduce numeric and other nomenclatures in my curriculum of thirty lessons for beginning and intermediate adult students. I begin with note length and meter, but must constantly check to see that the relationship between the ratios and fractions involved in these concepts continues to be understood. Students can easily confuse finger numbers with the numbering systems for rhythm and pitch, therefore I identify the fingers by name in the earlier lessons. I use descriptive terms such as “step and skip” rather than the formal nomenclature to introduce the concept of diatonic interval. Many of my students find it difficult to understand the “arithmetic” of intervals, i.e., two 3rds C to E and E to G are equivalent to the 5th C to G, or that there are four half-steps in a Major 3rd. After the introduction of the formal chromatic intervals, I explain the relationship between scale degree and the primary and secondary chords in the later lessons of my curriculum. Sometimes I discover that an adult student may be baffled by the Roman numerals that are used to identify scale degrees and chords.

Many adults have difficulty using letter names. They feel humiliated by not being able to say the letter names in reverse order. Adults find it easier to learn the letter names of the keys because of the repetitive pattern of the octaves, but quite difficult to memorize the letter names of the lines and spaces on the staff, particularly in the bass clef. When they do become familiar with the letter names of the staff, they tend to memorize the sequence of letter names in the notes of a melody and the letter names of the notes in each chord. As a result, this is what they remember or “hear” when they play, rather than the pitch and rhythm patterns of the melody and accompaniment. They mechanically play note-by-note without any sense of the music.

I teach reading by pitch motion and chord shape, and place a greater emphasis on the recognition of intervals on the staff and keyboard than on the recognition of letter names. Letter name recognition develops over a period of time. I use an enlarged staff in my earlier lessons to help emphasize distance and direction between notes. This also helps any of my students who have vision problems. In their first lessons, students may have difficulty relating vertical pitch motion and the right-to-left sequencing of notes on the staff to horizontal motion on the keyboard particularly when pitches move downward. New students sometimes have a problem with the opposite symmetry of the fingers and parallel motion up-and-down with both hands; they want to play their thumbs together, etc. I try to get my students to feel in their fingers and to hear in their ears the pattern that they see on the staff. I also want my students to feel they are in control of the keyboard and that they can function independently of notation using improvisational and “playing by ear” techniques. I use a rote approach equally with notation for exercises and drills.

Adult Repertoire

Another point of focus for the successful teaching of adults is the careful selection and sequencing of repertoire. The pieces and excerpts I use are short, illustrate specific theory points, and contain repetitive pitch and rhythm patterns that are oriented in fingering and sound to the keyboard. Each successive piece utilizes the theory that has been introduced up to that point in the curriculum. In my earlier lessons, I introduce approximately one melody per lesson. In the later lessons, I provide two or more pieces of varying difficulty to illustrate major concepts. Throughout my program, all types of keyboard students are taught in the same classes. Separate piano and organ arrangements and pages of curriculum material are provided when appropriate. Most students enjoy this variety in instruments and some want to work on more than one type of instrument.

The beginning repertoire consists of five-note melodies and accompaniments that are limited to single right and left-hand positions. Extensions and hand shifts are introduced midway in the thirty-lesson curriculum. Generally, the pieces in the earlier lessons do not exceed 8 to 16 measures, but they are somewhat longer in the later lessons. Most adults do not want too much of a challenge at any given moment. They also like to feel successful when practicing in front of their families. I have found it best if a student can “master” each selection in one or two weeks. Short selections encourage students to review their repertoire when they practice. While memorization of repertoire is not emphasized, my students feel that they are “learning” new pieces each week. I find that adults are able to concentrate more effectively on several short pieces than on a lengthy piece that may become boring or take too long to play satisfactorily. Also, short pieces are necessary in order to introduce new theory concepts each week. In my curriculum, drills are limited to five-finger exercise, chords, and scales. I am a firm believer that well composed and arranged pieces provide a better source for the development of technique than arbitrary technical exercises; without doubt, adult students are far more willing to practice pieces than exercises.

I have chosen repertoire from a wide variety of sources and styles that appeal to adults. Adults want to play familiar music. There are thousands of folk and religious melodies, classical themes, and standard pop songs from which to select a diverse repertoire; this helps to accommodate the stylistic preferences of individual students, and to expose students to different types of music. Not only is it necessary to select the right pieces and excerpts, but it is also necessary and equally important to prepare arrangements for these pieces that are appropriate for their positioning in the curriculum and the various skill levels represented in a class.

In order to teach adults from the general public, a teacher must be open to all types of music and not condemn or categorize certain music as superior or inferior, serious or non-serious. For example, in the first lesson, I juxtapose the similar melodic structures of the Beatles’ “With A Little Help from My Friends” and Beethoven’s “Theme from the Ninth Symphony.” In a later lesson, my students find that they can accompany the “Theme from Liebestraum” and “Five-foot Two” with an almost identical chord progression. I point out the elementary aspects of composition, so my students may begin to appreciate well-written music, irrespective of style. One of my students was a composer of “salsa” music. This is a style of Puerto Rican/Cuban dance music. This music uses well-developed polyrhythm patterns in a contrapuntal texture, and yet, like “jazz,’” salsa has been looked down upon by the “better half.”

In the Keynote Workshop, the emphasis is on the learning experience rather than on a particular standard of performance. I try to motivate my adult students to make their own best effort, and to understand and enjoy the music they play. Adults expect, or at least hope for, early and easy success. They must feel they are making progress at whatever level they’re playing, or they quickly lose interest. I try to give my students a rich musical experience, develop their musicianship, and initiate in them a life-long interest in music and the keyboard.

Adult Curriculum

Over the years, I have reviewed a variety of course materials for the piano and organ. Many of the materials, particularly the more recent publications, are excellent in various respects, but I haven’t seen anything on the market that “gets it all together” and can be taught on three-octave instruments to adult groups. In order to teach effectively, it was necessary for me to develop, with the assistance of my husband, a practical curriculum that applies theory and allows students to advance rapidly. As I have gained experience since 1976 with the Keynote Workshop, I have constantly revised my materials. I have kept in mind two questions: “What is music?” and “How can music be taught?” My constant objective has been to teach groups of adults not only to read and play, but also to understand and create.

Teaching groups requires a carefully structured curriculum with goals that adult students can reasonably expect to accomplish in a specific period of time. My program of 30 lessons is organized into a sequence of five courses of 6-week duration. Classes meet one hour a week. Course I introduces the beginner to the keyboard and provides a review for the person “who has forgotten everything he/she ever learned.” Lessons 1 to 6 cover the fundamentals of playing five-finger exercises, reading and playing five-note melodies that emphasize pitch motion, and reading and playing simple chords in easy arrangements from notation or symbols in the key of C Major. Elementary melody writing and arrangement are also introduced in the first course. Course II, lessons 7-12, continue this process in the keys of F and G major, and adds eighth and sixteenth notes, scale and chord exercises, and recognition of the notational fingering patterns produced by the chord inversions in a “close position” progression. Course III, lessons 13-18, introduces dotted rhythmic values, the modes, minor scale, accidentals, basic principles of fingers, arranging accompaniments with “block and broken” chords, and continue the development of right and left-hand coordination. Course IV and V, lessons 19-30, introduce overtones, chromatic intervals, the structure and inversions of major, minor, 7th, augmented and diminished chords, and primary and secondary chords in relation to scale degree, and emphasizes full utilization of the organ or piano with chord and melodic improvisation, and alternating root-chord or arpeggio-type accompaniments.

My curriculum must accommodate two kinds of students: those who receive all or most of their training in my program as they move from course to course, and students who have had a fair amount of outside training and experience who join one of my more advanced courses. My average and better-than-average students have generally succeeded, regardless of the specific format or content of the curriculum. The real challenge, the acid test, has been in reaching the weaker student. I have tried to design my courses, particularly Courses I and II, so that formal education, intelligence, aptitude, and age are not barriers to participation and success. Within a group, students have ranged from the nearly illiterate to the postdoctoral candidate, but educational attainment and other aspects of an individual’s background are not necessarily prerequisites or indicators of success. My materials attempt to deal as simply and practically as possible with technique and theory, so that the weaker students will have a fair chance to succeed and the stronger students will remain stimulated and intrigued. I’ve also tried to make each six-week course self-contained, so that the student who leaves the program at the end of a course feels a sense of accomplishment and has developed specific skills.

The Group Process

My students learn from each other when they both succeed and fail. Stronger students motivate the class, and weaker students receive encouragement from the group. The group does not resent the time I take to help individuals, and this often reinforces the learning of other members of the group. Beyond the specific curriculum materials and my techniques of instruction, it is the excitement of mutual progress that leads to comradely and shared success in the Keynote Workshop. In my program, students are pulled along from lesson to lesson, and course to course, by their mutual curiosity and progress, instead of being pushed along by grades or credits.

Group instruction helps adult students overcome their initial problems and concerns. Adults are afraid of failure, and their initial anxiety can be very intense. Some adults like a challenge, while others can become easily discouraged. Students do what I ask them to do in class, and they will try because everyone else tries. They discover that they are able to play what the other members of the class play. It boosts their morale to know they can meet the class standard for technique and performance, and they’re not as frustrated by the teachers’ examples of playing or the flawless broadcasts and recordings they hear. Students discover that the difficulties they may be having with dexterity or in understanding a point of theory are not uncommon, and they’re encouraged by the progress they see in themselves and others in their class. The group helps my students feel relatively successful regardless of the absolute level of their individual attainment.

Ear training for a sense of rhythm and pitch is very effective in class. When practicing, the organ or piano is played as a solo instrument, and rhythm can be the slowest aspect of performance to develop. Students develop their sense of rhythm through ensemble playing in class. In fact, my adult students with experience in a band or choir excel at rhythm. Also, the group experience definitely heightens my students’ sense of pitch. Not only are they made aware of pitch motion in melodies, but they also become familiar with chord progression patterns. Most of my students are able to identify chord types by ear in the later courses.

The group process helps solve the problem of practicing. In a class, it is apparent whether each student has been working between lessons. In the beginning courses, I expect my students to practice in several short sessions which total at least 1½ hours per week, and at least 2½ hours a week in the later courses. While these expectations may seem modest, one must be realistic about the amount of time an adult can or will devote to practicing. I try to emphasize the regularity and quality of the practice period rather than the quantity. Adults often find it difficult to practice when other members of the family are present. Negative comments discourage them. They feel their initial efforts are childish. Group instruction provides periods of supervised practice, and students gain confidence in playing before the other members of the class each week. Many adults have difficulty establishing regular practice periods. Work, family, and other responsibilities or activities frequently interrupt practicing. In private instruction, when students don’t practice they feel they can make an excuse and skip lessons. In group instruction, uninterrupted week-to-week classes establish a pace for practicing, and the efforts and progress of others in the group encourages each student to keep up. The occasional student who won’t practice realizes that there is no point in continuing beyond his/her six weeks of lessons.

The high point of each session is the “musicale” that takes place in the sixth week of each course. All my group instruction and private-lesson students are invited to participate in this activity, and a majority do attend. The participants in each of the five courses, beginning with the first course, take turns playing one or two pieces from their course repertoire. We also play “musical games” such as picking out by ear the notes of songs such as “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” or “Jingle Bells,” and playing the chord changes which I call out to accompany a medley of songs. The evening closes with selections by my private students. In the spring, I substitute a “showcase” for a musicale. Family and friends are invited to the showcase. Specific preparations are made by the students for participation in this program. The evening includes demonstrations of ensemble playing by course groups, duets by teacher and student, solo performances of pieces which the students have most often arranged themselves, and specialty numbers such as a piano-guitar duet or a Latin band. The showcase is not a “recital.” Students usually read their music. This performance experience has a very stimulating effect on students at all levels as they progress from playing before other members of their class, to playing before students in other classes at the musicales, to performance in the annual showcase before family and friends. Everybody is very congratulatory of the “best efforts” of students in the earlier courses, and impressed with the accomplishments of students in the later courses and private lessons.

Studio Operation

A very important point of focus for success as a group instructor concerns the operation of the studio. One of the considerations which led me to group instruction was the possibility of teaching a larger number of students in a more compact schedule. Group instruction has certainly proved to be an economical, efficient, and enjoyable use of my time and energy. I have found that six weeks is a “perfect” length for an adult course. With six-week sessions, it is possible to schedule seven sessions a year amounting to 42 weeks which avoid the late summer vacation and end of the year holiday periods. A six-week session is long enough to present a definite unit curriculum, but short enough to hold the interest and present the attrition of students who are unable to make a long-term commitment to lessons. It also provides a relatively short review period for the occasional student who must repeat a course.

The five courses are scheduled three evenings a week, two mornings a week, and on Saturdays. In September and January, I schedule two sections of the first course to accommodate extra enrollment at this time of the year. Every six weeks the schedule is rotated so that, for example, students who began Course I on Tuesday at 7:15 can continue from course to course in the same time period over the next 30 weeks. This also has the effect of shifting the time and day that a particular course starts on, so that, for example, a student who couldn’t take the course on Tuesday could wait and take it on Thursday. Another important advantage of six-week sessions relates to the collection of fees. My Keynote Workshop fee payments cover three lessons and are collected at the beginning and middle of each course. This keeps the cost per payment threshold relatively low while committing a student to a definite period of lessons. Very few of my students drop out midway through a course or fail to make their fee payments in a timely manner.

I find that a one-hour once a week class works best for adult students from the general public. A twice or three times a week class encourages absenteeism and increases the cost per week of the course. More frequent classes create scheduling problems and reduce the total number of students who can be enrolled. A one-hour class allows adequate time to present theory concepts, answer questions, practice drills and repertoire, and give individual help. Prospective students are often impressed with the fact that they will be receiving a full hour lesson for the fee that is charged. Another aspect of the weekly lessons relates to materials. I distribute materials for each lesson at that lesson. The materials are kept in three-ring binders. This encourages attendance, reduces anxiety over upcoming lessons, prevents individuals from attempting to move ahead of the group, and keeps attention focused on the most recent material.

I require students to take each lesson in sequence because each lesson builds directly on the preceding lesson. Accelerated progress can be made if the overlap in content is kept to a minimum from lesson to lesson. Students who are unable to attend a class are asked to attend the same lesson with a different group at another time later in the week. If this arrangement cannot be made or the student needs additional assistance, arrangements are made for private make-up or review lesson within the week. Not many students skip a lesson without a legitimate reason, or fail to notify me in advance that they will be absent from class. Once the policy on attendance has been made clear, there are usually no problems. I have found that the best way to prevent attrition is to maintain the momentum or regular attendance from week to week and course to course without breaks, except at the end of the summer and end of the year.

The best size for an adult keyboard class that meets once a week appears to be four to seven students. While I will teach a class with only one, two, or three students, I have found that two or three students tend to be distracted by each other, and may have difficulty playing in ensemble. A single student misses the advantages of the group process. Classes of eight or more do not allow sufficient time for individual attention. My prospects are developed from advertisements, the “Yellow Pages,” and referrals. Advertising is a significant and absolutely essential overhead expense for recruiting keyboard class students from the public. Prospects contact me by phone, receive course information in the mail, and are checked for interest by phone within a few days before the classes begin. Old prospects are mailed new information if they still seem interested. I create as few impediments as possible to a prospective student trying his/her first lesson. No advance registration or fee is required. At least half of my prospects eventually try a first lesson, and nearly all of the persons who take a first lesson will enroll in a Keynote Workshop course. Most of my adult students enjoy learning in a group. Some prospects and an occasional student are resistant to group instruction, and I refer these individuals to other teachers or the local music school. Occasionally, it becomes evident in the first or second lesson that a student cannot be accommodated in a class setting, and I suggest to the student that he/she consider private instruction with another teacher.

Classroom Equipment

One of the principal problems I had to solve when I wanted to start group instruction was the need for multiple keyboards in the classroom. My morning classes are taught in a downtown location. My evening and Saturday classes are taught in a studio located on a major thoroughfare in a residential neighborhood which is accessible from the entire metropolitan area. Each of my studios is equipped with a full-size piano and organ. In addition, I provide a sufficient number of three-octave keyboards so that each student is seated at his/her own instrument. My repertoire and curriculum materials have been tailored to accommodate the limitations imposed by a three-octave instrument, particularly in the earlier courses. Students rotate between the three-octave and full-size instruments. Since 1976 I have been using a three-octave acoustical keyboard with full-width keys that cost less than $50 per unit when shipped directly from the manufacturer. These instruments have reeds that produce an acceptable organ tone, but lack the capacity to differentiate the volume level in the upper and lower octaves. Most of the less expensive electronic keyboards have the same deficiency, in that melodies and accompaniments cannot be played at different dynamic levels. Recently, however, electronic keyboards in the $600 range with dynamic control and five octaves have come onto the market. I am eagerly awaiting further reductions in the cost of this type of instrument.

Despite their deficiencies in range and dynamics, the acoustical keyboards I have used have had several advantages. I have been able to equip my classroom at minimum cost, and can provide a very inexpensive but adequate practice instrument for my beginning students who do not own or have access to a full-size instrument. I repurchase these practice keyboards from the students who do not go on, and from the students who acquire full-size instruments in order to participate in my later courses. These instruments are easy to store and transport, and have proved to be incredibly durable. They have passed through a number of hands and back and forth between classroom locations for years without tuning or repairs. A principal argument advanced for electronic keyboards is that they can be used with headphones for “silent practice” and “monitoring” by the teacher. This may be a useful feature in many homes or for the large institutional classroom or practice room. However, the headphones feature is not useful for my type of instruction. In particular, that feature does not contribute to ensemble playing both in unison and in parts, class exercises and drills, shared ear training, or to listening to solo playing. I find that it is not difficult to pick out the mistakes of individual students when they are playing in ensemble. My students are able to practice for short periods without headphones, and can concentrate on their own playing in the midst of their neighbors’ efforts.

Concluding Thoughts

There is a bias that favors private keyboard instruction over group instruction, and to some, the teaching of a leisure activity to adults seems frivolous. Yet, increasingly, higher education institutions are offering group keyboard in credit and non-credit courses. Community music schools are also offering group keyboard to the adult market. I hope that more independent instructors enter the field of adult group keyboard instruction in order to stimulate a greater interest in and acceptance of this type of instruction by the public.

Group instruction is a very effective means of accommodating the adult student who wants to dabble in piano, organ, or electronic keyboard, or who wishes to get back into playing, to understand theory, or to learn to improvise, etc. Private instruction is necessary for the adult student who is prepared to make a serious long-term commitment to developing his/her performance skill. However, group instruction can provide an excellent preparation for private instruction, and is in fact, an excellent means of motivating an adult student to make a long-term commitment to keyboard study. At Keynote Workshop, I accept students for private instruction who have successfully completed my group instruction.

(Pictured above: The Music Room operated for a year until 9/11 wiped out Fall enrollment interest.)

Originally published: American Music Teacher, September/October, 1984, Page 14

Authorship: Patricia M. Bissell

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