One lesson, one idea

One lesson, one idea. I’m not sure this is a direct quote from Shinichi Suzuki but it was something I learned in my first longterm teacher training course. It definitely helped me organize lessons around a single concept. I found that it took the pressure off to make a 30 minute lesson more varied than it needed to be. I also found that it helped to maintain the same thread throughout the lesson, following the same concept through warm up exercises, tone production, repertoire and supplementary material. I felt that students benefited from the calm, methodical and organized approach to lessons. Creating lots of games and gimmicks that switch off frequently work better for a group situation in which you may have 45 minutes or more to fill. The individual lesson does not have to be a form of entertainment. I think it is safe to assume that the private lesson is meant to be a deep dive into violin playing without the need to actively sell your program to parents. Concerns about student level of interest can best be dealt with in phone calls or parent meetings.

The one concept per lesson approach can work in public school string lessons as well. In public school, there is a frequent if not constant need to promote the program. However, you will not want to abandon solid string instruction. For a 30 minute homogenous group string lesson at the elementary level, a typical format might be dividing the lesson into thirds. Begin with the warm up/tone production part of the lesson. You can have students play one octave scales with different fun and easy rhythms such as the Twinkle rhythms. You can play games in which students take turns playing a particular rhythm. You can split up the group according to shirt color or sneakers/no sneakers. I also like to include rhythmic improvisation or “jazzing up” their Twinkle rhythms. The middle third of the lesson could be their current and/or review repertoire. The last third could be note reading from books such as I Can Read Music, Essential Elements, Strictly Strings, All Four Strings. Choose the one or ones you like the best or mix and match them. You will want to get literacy started early so that students can comfortably participate in orchestra.

I start orchestra for my public school students right from the beginning. One lesson, one idea works here as well. Even before students can really play their instrument, I begin with the social aspect of playing in a group. Students need to get used to sharing a space with each other. They need to learn how musicians are seated within an ensemble. They need to learn routines and traditions surrounding performing in a concert. They need to learn patience while another section of the orchestra is tuning or learning their part of the score. It is important to not only state behavioral rules right from the beginning but also the corresponding consequences. Be clear about this! Check in with other music teachers and classroom teachers to find out what consequences they use. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel and your students will respond better when consequences are familiar and consistent with what they experience in their other classes.

Once again, you can divide up the orchestra lesson in a way similar to the group lesson. I like to emphasize note reading and ensemble playing in orchestra. It may seem like a no brainer but it is easy to get distracted by bad intonation in particular. With a beginning orchestra I will still begin with a warm up exercise that students can play by ear. This way you can focus students’ attention, getting them listening to each other. I use the middle third of the rehearsal to have the group play together on their review music, giving students the option of either playing from memory or using their sheet music. The final third of the lesson will usually be focused on note reading either from a method book or their orchestra music. Keep in mind that orchestra is very social. Even if your school administrator allows you 45 minutes for orchestra, most likely a third of that time will be tuning, unpacking/packing up, and answering questions. You will want to keep students pumped about upcoming concerts and special events.

The concept of focusing on one thing at a time is good advice for life. Multitasking doesn’t really work that well if at all. I used to think I was pretty good at multitasking until I realized how stressed out I was. It can be the fast track to burn out. Breathe and let go of the need to do everything.

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