Working with a group of students is a much different experience than private teaching. Students often will have a wide range of abilities and experience, and mentoring throughout the school year can have different challenges than section coaching that occurs less frequently. You probably already have your own method to address many issues that are outlined here, but below are a few guidelines and suggestions gathered from both educators and mentors on approaches you can take to have your sessions be more productive (and less frustrating).
Be In Command
It is important to create an environment that’s fun and inspiring to the kids where they have the freedom to ask questions and make observations, just be sure to keep things focused. By establishing your leadership role early in the sessions, students will be more responsive and attentive throughout your sessions. Different age groups may require different approaches, and there have been additional challenges introduced due to remote learning that took place during the COVID shutdown of in-person classrooms, where students are relearning how to behave in a group setting. Balancing fun and work can sometimes be a challenge, so remember the kids are there to both learn and gain enjoyment that comes from learning music.
Set the room up in a productive layout
Make sure student are set up in a way where their vision is focused on you and distractions are minimized, such as reducing direct lines of site through windows or doors that may be distracting. Try not to have students set up with too much spacing so they are connected musically, while being mindful of distancing based on current guidelines, and if necessary separate students that become easily distracted when sitting next to each other. If you notice this is an issue, you can move students during the session, or make it part of their set-up routine by directing where you’d like each student to sit at the beginning of the session.
Learn and use their names
Particularly in larger groups, addressing students by name will get their attention more quickly, and you can more easily make instruction to specific students, whether it’s for musical correction or to have them not be disruptive to the rest of the class. This also creates an environment where they feel included and recognized.
Demand their attention
This can be the most challenging, especially with younger students. It can be effective to work with students in the same way a conductor would work with an ensemble in a performance – instrument at rest position when speaking or demonstrating, at attention when preparing to have them play, and at ready when it’s time to play. Their music director may or may not enforce these practices during rehearsal, but you can use it as a mechanism to help them stay focused on the material you’re working on. You don’t have to be as methodical as this, but it helps to create a routine on how they and their instruments are situated during the different aspects of a mentoring session.
If students consistently talk, interrupt, or play when you’re speaking, demonstrating, or giving instruction to other students, it’s important to establish that this isn’t allowed, and they need to be respectful of you and the other students in the session. Creating a routine where students spend the first few minutes setting up, have time to warm up independently, then give you full attention when you being your instruction can be helpful. Patience is a good tool, but don’t let too much patience derail your sessions.
Dealing with disruptive students
If you do run into a situation where a student is continually disruptive or inattentive and it has an impact on your ability to conduct your sessions, it’s completely appropriate to have them not participate in your sessions. Talk to the band director about them, and see if they would consider not having them part of the session. Then let the student know that they don’t have to be part of this instruction, and if they continue to distract/disrupt that they won’t be able to continue to participate. It’s not your job to teach the kids how to behave or discipline them if they don’t, and it’s a privilege for them to be in your sessions. Often if there’s someone that’s disrupting the sessions, the other kids often are glad when they’re removed because they actually can get more out of them. This is a last resort, but it is an option, and work with the band director if this does come up and make sure they’re in alignment.
Above all, always be kind but firm when establishing and enforcing your rules.
Give Students Focused Instruction as Needed
If the ability level of the students in a session varies greatly, the most challenging aspect may be making sure the less experienced players get the basics they need while not having the more experienced players get bored.
Refer back to fundamentals
If you have one or two student who struggle, reiterate fundamentals when appropriate, and do so in a way that will reinforce them for all students. There may be times where you need to work one on one with a student on an aspect of their playing, and when you need to do this it can be effective to give the other students something to work on – either following along with what you’re covering without playing, or having them focus on another aspect of the music you’re working on quietly while you work with a single student. Regardless of what’s appropriate and works for your situation, make sure the other students understand the importance of being quiet and respectful during this time.
Make sure students can see you and your instrument
Learning music is like learning a language, and learners take visual cues from the person teaching them, whether it’s embouchure, fingerings, horn/hand position, or other aspects of the instrument you teach. Beginning students in particular will rely on looking at others to find the notes they’re learning, so as you set your room make sure that the line of sight between you and your instrument and the students is not blocked by music stands or other students when possible. When needed, demonstrate concepts in a way that you allow each student to observe exactly what you’re doing rather than by describing it.
Providing individual instruction
If you have students, whether they are more or less proficient than their peers, who would benefit from some one on one time, it’s recommended that first you approve this with their teacher, and rather than have a single student for an entire session, work with one student for the first 15-20 minutes of a session then have the other students join. If you choose to do this, make sure each student gets at least one session with this individual focus. In general our goal is to work with all students throughout the year, so try not to make this the general way your sessions are run unless there are circumstances that have this be more productive, and you’ve worked it out with the music teacher ahead of time.
Don’t let things slide
Don’t gloss over if one or two students aren’t getting things right, but don’t single them out on a regular basis. Kids can be embarrassed if they’re not catching on as quickly as their peers, and may try to hide out. It’s important to reinforce what they are getting right, and offer them correction as something beneficial for everyone in the group. It can be frustrating as a teacher to have to teach to the lowest ability level and we don’t want the kids who are doing better to get bored, but part of our craft is to make sure each student gets something positive out of each session. It’s a challenge to teach to varying levels, just be sure not to skip over too much for those who are struggling.
Make It Interactive
Asking questions of the students about different aspects of the music you’re working on with them is a great way to get them to the next level. It may be note names, fingerings, counting, notation, or any other area where students may be unsure of exactly what they’re expected to know and understand. If you’re introducing them with a new concept, start by asking what they already know about it, explain the concept, then ask if there are questions. During this type of interaction it can be helpful to let them know it’s okay if they don’t know the answers.
Teach How Their Instrument Works
Besides knowing how to put air through an instrument, proper bowing technique, or where their fingers go, there’s a lot you can teach students about their instrument that can help them understand why some things are easier than others, and also help them identify when their instrument isn’t working properly. You might share some historical perspective on the instrument, and even basic physics of how their instrument works. At the very least, make sure they know how to properly assemble and care for their instrument and all its accessories, how to clean, store, and maintain it, and if needed check their instrument if they seem to have struggles that might be related to it not working properly. School instruments usually have any necessary repairs done at the beginning of the year, so be sure to let their teacher know if there are any problems with their instrument that require attention or repair that they may not be aware of.
Share the experiences and challenges you had while learning your instrument. The students look up to you, and if they know that there were areas you struggled with or found challenging this will help give them confidence so they can overcome areas where they feel they’re not doing as well as they should be.
Also be mindful that each student may have their own challenges outside of music class whether it’s with family, social interactions, or other studies. Create a space where music can be a refuge for them, and they have the opportunity to use this as a way to expand their personal creativity and self expression.