Breathing life into group tuition as a teaching method

– Many people think that group tuition on principal instruments is a recent innovation. That is not the case. As far back as the 1880s, Lindeman’s organ school taught principal instruments in groups of two. Experimenting with group tuition is less about inventing something new and more about returning to practices of the past, says CEMPE director Jon Helge Sætre.

Illustrasjonsfoto: Narve Skarpmoen/Nasjonalbiblioteket

Illustration photo: Narve Skarpmoen/Nasjonalbiblioteket

One of CEMPE’s objectives is to investigate what impact a combination of one-to-one tuition and different forms of group tuition has on the students’ musical development. Several teachers at the Norwegian Academy of Music (NMH) have been involved in projects to that end. “Group tuition on principal instruments – possibilities and limitations” was the topic of the first instalment in the CEMPE Talks series in which both teachers and students participate.

A binary teaching role

Group tuition often involves handing over responsibility to the students to a greater or lesser extent. CEMPE is interested in the impact of group tuition on the role of the teacher. – Group tuition could be considered a softening of the master-apprentice tradition, but that view risks wiping out some of the positive qualities of a centuries old tradition by unconsciously preventing the teacher from fulfilling their role as a competent musician and an articulate teacher, Sætre says.

Morten Carlsen på CEMPE talksMorten Carlsen is a viola professor, and Sætre wonders how he sees the role of the teacher in a group setting: – You place a huge amount of trust in your students when you teach. You give them the opportunity to be proactive, involved and responsible, but yet you manage to retain your role as a skilled, knowledgeable and experienced musician and teacher. How do you manage to cope with this binary role?

– It is important to create a safe and secure framework for the students to work within, I think. So that they educate each other. By now I’ve developed experience that allows me to easily speak up if I once in a while find that someone is crossing the line, Carlsen responds.

The binary role of the students

Group tuition also alters the role of the students, not least because they have to act as teachers for each other. Ingeborg Elisabeth Moe is a clarinet master student, and she believes that these changes can create a number of positive ripple effects. – Group tuition is a very good supplement to one-to-one tuition because you both give and receive feedback. When you give feedback you have to go through a process where you convert your own experiences and knowledge – which are often tacit – into words. This makes you more aware of the tools available to you, Moe says.

Ingeborg Elisabeth Moe og Elise Båtnes

Ingeborg Elisabeth Moe og Elise Båtnes

“Group tuition is a very good supplement to one-to-one tuition because you both give and receive feedback” (Moe)

She also says that it is important and interesting to listen to the feedback given by the teacher when both the students and the teacher are commenting on the same performance and that it is good to hear three or four different opinions on how to solve a problem. – Working together to come up with different solutions has a positive effect on the class environment. You become colleagues instead of competitors, Moe says.

Exploring teaching methods together with the students

Associate professor Kristin Kjølberg is a singing teacher and has immersed herself in a method called the Critical Response Process (CRP). The method aims to equalise the status of the different participants in the process so that student and teacher are on the same level, irrespective of their different levels of experience. The singer must take ownership of his or her challenges. It is very much about asking questions, and CRP creates a framework to allow that to happen.

– I think it’s interesting to ask open questions whereby I explore something together with my students. Whenever I manage to ask good questions, I find that I can apply my knowledge in an even better way than when I just give them the answers, says Kjølberg.

“Whenever I manage to ask good questions, I find that I can apply my knowledge in an even better way than when I just give them the answers” (Kjølberg)

Mona Julsrud, also an associate professor and singing teacher, has explored improvisation with her classical voice students. She has found that improvisation is about being courageous and is therefore just as much about encouraging holistic development in the students. – It’s a personal journey, but most of all it’s about artistic expression. Another benefit is that this is something that can be transferred to all forms of ensemble performance and singing. In the future I hope to get involved in improvisation with other classical instruments, too, says Julsrud.

Becoming each other’s best resource

Although ensemble play is common in the jazz genre, teachers in the jazz department have benefited greatly from exploring new potential offered by group tuition. Atle Nymo, an associate professor and jazz saxophone teacher, recognises the CRP method’s idea of how the students serve as assets for each other.

Atle Nymo“We ignored mouthpieces, reeds and bass strings and talked about each other’s strengths and weaknesses” (Atle Nymo)

– We looked at the way we speak to each other. We ignored mouthpieces, reeds and bass strings and talked about each other’s strengths and weaknesses. As we often exercise strict self-censorship while also being good friends, we had to separate the personal from the music. We then tried to become each other’s best resources for developing further, says Nymo.

Principal instruments are often taught in homogeneous groups, as is the case with Carlsen, Kjølberg, Julsrud and Nymo. A harpsichord student in the room asks whether CEMPE has considered principal instrument tuition in mixed groups. The suggestion is met with support from others in the room. – It can’t be good to just live inside your own little bubble, and we have a lot to learn from each other, says harp professor Isabelle Perrin. Sætre says conversations in mixed groups often move to another level with less talk about technique and more discussion about music. – It’s clear that there is development potential in students and teachers’ co-operating across instruments, Sætre says.

Ownership of learning demands more of the students

Elise Båtnes is 1st Concertmaster with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and a violin professor at the NMH. She can see numerous benefits in group tuition, such as the students’ starting to listen more to their own playing. It may also be easier to get feedback from someone at the same level because it is easier to accept their view. – It’s fascinating that what the students say to each other is more easily remembered than what the teacher says. I’ve had to have a good think about that one, she says.

“Perhaps we should demand that the students assume even more responsibility” (Båtnes)

Båtnes also points to potential changes in the students’ role as a result of group tuition. – When the students become more active as co-teachers it becomes increasingly important to be conscious of how much the teacher should intervene in a group setting. But it also leaves the students with more responsibility. Perhaps we should demand that the students assume even more responsibility, Båtnes says.

Last updated: 16. February 2017