Private Lessons vs. Group Classes

If private lessons are the interstate highway, then group classes are the state road that winds through the small towns alongside it. Both roads are taking you to the same destination, but the journey is very different.

Decisions, decisions.Theoretically - theoretically - private music lessons are more effective than group classes. And theoretically, a child who starts piano lessons, say, at age four will be two years ahead of a child who starts at age six by the time they are both eight.

But in reality, we are dealing with human beings. In reality, a child can sit through four years of lessons and achieve less than what another child will do in six weeks. And (lest this discussion be reduced to talent versus lack thereof), that first child can decide to turn things around and make up for the wasted four years with six weeks of concerted effort.

The question that interests me is, Why?

Let's get back to my pet metaphor. The Eisenhower Interstate System is designed for efficiency. It is supposed to get you from Point A to Point B as quickly and safely as possible - no distractions, no fluff. Likewise, when you enroll in private music lessons, you get an effective, focused approach to music education with an expert teacher. Fun is incidental to both pursuits, although that's not to say that highway driving (or private lessons) can't be enjoyable.

My hometown of York, Maine is accessed via Route 95 north from New Hampshire. Unfortunately, there is a toll booth a quarter-mile north of the exit that can get backed up pretty badly in the summertime, and there are few escape routes. Plan ahead further south and take Route One instead if you want to stop and get the best fried seafood ever at Bob's Clam Hut in Kittery, and then you can enjoy so much outlet shopping that you'll forget where you were going in the first place. Even better: Take Route 103, which winds along through Kittery and Kittery Point before finishing in York. In May, the chestnut trees are gorgeously in bloom. At the height of tourist season you will not encounter any traffic, and there are no stoplights. You can stop in at Fort McClary or the Wiggly Bridge, or just enjoy the gorgeous views of Spruce Creek, the York River, and the Atlantic Ocean beyond as you wind along the lovely country road. Less than fifteen minutes and you're in York, where you can hop back on the interstate if you feel like it.

Theoretically the interstate is faster than the state road. Except when it's not. Except when there is rush hour, an accident, a ball game, tourist season, inclement weather, construction, or debris. Plus, you can't ride your bike, pick the wildflowers, or see much of anything.

Most of the time, you take the interstate. All things being equal, you do the private lessons because that's what everyone does.

But all things are not equal. For one thing, private lessons are two or three times the cost of group classes. They are much less flexible. It's difficult to hop in and out. If things aren't working, that's it - you're already at the top tier.

With group classes, you can dabble. You can try different things, change it up. You can experience different teachers. You can have fun, and even study music solely for the purpose of having fun without alienating your teacher. You can collaborate with others. It's inherently social, which can make all the difference.

Now, you can take Route One all the way from Kittery to Bar Harbor, but it will be a loooooooong trip and you'll never want to look at another fried clam stand. Once you have some momentum with group classes, private lessons become something special and valuable that can help you get to the next level. But it may take a child two or three years to get that momentum, and private lessons will not necessarily create it. May as well spend that time having fun and developing a love of playing, instead of stalling out.

Go with your gut: Do you want the scenic route, or the expressway? No matter what twists and turns lay along the journey, you will learn to play as long as you just keep going.

When you think you might maybe perhaps possibly want music lessons for your child

"I'm not sure if my kid is ready for lessons."

"I don't know anything about this - how do I know which instrument he'll like?"

I've written before that I don't think it matters that much which instrument you choose. Nor can I really be much help in that area - having never desired to play, say, the flute, I am utterly mystified at what would motivate someone to do that (and my mother is a flautist). Unfortunately, there is no personality test that will tell us which instrument will suit a particular person.

A satisfied customer.In an attempt to deal with some of this uncertainty, parents will request a trial lesson. However, the purpose of a trial lesson is not to see whether a child is ready for lessons or whether he will like the instrument. A one-time trial lesson is solely to determine whether you like the instructor. I guess some logistical aspects of the decision might be taken into account such as drive time, parking, noise level, and studio appearance, but these are secondary when there is a great connection with the teacher. Trial lessons don't provide much insight into readiness or interest.

What then, are you to do if you don't know whether your kid is ready for lessons? There are a few options.

When in doubt, wait. There is no harm in waiting. The critical period hypothesis for language and music, which suggests that children develop their aptitude before age six, does not mean that after age six learning language (and music) is hopeless. Rather, it implies that if children aren't exposed to language during the critical period, they're in trouble. Research is ongoing as to whether this applies equally to music, but chances are your kids have heard enough melody, harmony, and rhythm to have a lifetime of enjoyment ahead of them even if you wait until second or third grade or later to start them on formal lessons.

Group classes. Private lessons are not necessarily a big commitment - you pay a month or a semester at a time. However, it's a huge implied commitment: "We are going to spend the next seven years supporting our child as she develops mastery of the violin." There will be highs, lows, and plateaus. The relationship your child will have with her teacher is unusual - intense one-on-one time with an adult who's not a family member. In some cases, the teacher practically becomes a family member, which can present a challenge when it's time to move on.

If you're not quite ready for all that, I don't blame you. Group classes are a great alternative at any age: you can get a surprisingly in-depth experience at a fraction of the cost of private instruction. If you discover that the class isn't your cup of tea, you have fixed end points at which to bow out gracefully. Also, you can try a few different classes in order to explore different instruments and styles in a cost-effective way.

Short-term enrollment. If you're pretty sure that private lessons are what you want, you can do a trial for a specific amount of time. The important thing is that you decide ahead of time as a family what your commitment will be, rather than quitting when things get rough. This type of trial accommodates the student's needs, but not whims - it's a great way to hold a child accountable while still allowing for a change of direction.

Go all in. No matter what option you choose, do not hedge your bets. Fully expect your child to succeed, and you increase the chances of that happening. Assuming he'll quit after six months, likewise, will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. None of this, "we aren't renting a sax until he's sure he wants to do this!" The average ten-year-old is not equipped to weigh the implications of his decision. You make the call, and then give your child the support and encouragement he needs...and give yourself a little grace when it seems like the whole thing was a terrible idea.

The bottom line: You can't really go wrong, as long as you are being the grownup and owning the choice you make on behalf of your child.