As a 20+ year piano industry veteran, I have had the pleasure of working closely with piano teachers, manufacturers, professors, and print music publishers all over the United States. My work has also given me the opportunity to install hundreds of piano labs and provide the necessary training and long-term support for the teachers working with these piano labs. I have seen programs fade and die… and I have seen programs thrive beyond even the wildest expectations. …and – through it all – I have learned what works and what doesn’t. If you’re thinking about adding a piano class to your teaching menu, I hope you’ll find the suggestions below to be very helpful. There’s a lot of bad information on the internet related to group piano teaching, so don’t be surprised if the points I make here contradict what you have seen elsewhere. …and – as always – feel free to contact Riverton Piano Company directly if you need help setting your group piano program on the path to success. That is what we do and we do it very well. Let’s get started.
Define Your Goals
First and foremost, you need to know what you hope to accomplish with your piano lab. Are you looking to teach students to play the piano or are you just interested in teaching a music theory class with keyboards? How long do you want the equipment you purchase to last? Do you intend to utilize software, Smart Boards or music apps in your piano lab? Take a minute to list your program goals ahead of time so you will know what kinds of equipment you need to fit into the room. Keep in mind that there may be technologies you don’t yet know about that could change how you achieve these goals.
Meet with an Expert
If this is your first time setting up a piano lab, you’re going to need some help. Find a piano dealer that specializes in installing piano labs (many piano dealer’s don’t) and setup a meeting to discuss your program’s needs. This is a critical (and often skipped) opportunity to learn what technologies exist on the market, how they can help you accomplish your goals and what budget you’ll need to get the piano lab you really want.
Select the Right Instruments
Your piano lab expert should be able to make recommendations that will suit your piano needs, but there are a few guidelines you should follow when selecting your lab equipment. First of all, abandon any idea of using portable keyboards or acoustic pianos for your lab. Portable keyboards (especially the cheap 49 or 61-note ones) fall apart very quickly in a multi-use environment like this and can cause countless problems for you over time. The role of a piano lab piano is to “take a licking and keep on ticking” without costing you more money over time. It’s worth the money to buy a better set of instruments up front and avoid lost revenue or surprise expenses later. Acoustic pianos – though wonderful instruments – are also difficult to use in a group setting. Think of how hard you have to work to hold a single student’s interest for an hour. Now multiply that times the number of students you intend to teach in your piano lab and you’ll see the problem right away. It’s also nearly impossible (and quite expensive) to keep a room of acoustic pianos in tune with each other. This is why universities and private schools (who can afford a room full of acoustic pianos) still buy digital pianos for their piano labs. This is one application where good quality digital pianos are the preferred choice. Find the best digital piano you can afford and make it your teacher piano. Your student pianos can be less “fancy,” but they should still have an excellent piano sound and touch if you hope to develop your students into good piano players. At a minimum, make sure your student pianos follow your studio’s Minimum Acceptable Practice Instrument Policy.
Get a Lab Conferencing System
This is another mistake I see countless teachers (and even some universities) make. In an effort to save money, they forego the most important component of a group piano lab: the lab controller! With the right lab conferencing system, you can control every aspect of your students’ classroom experience. You can break the class down into workgroups and have the students practice piano ensembles. You can broadcast a single student’s performance to the entire class. You can even shut off all the audio except for your own – giving you complete control over what students can and can’t do with the pianos. The right lab conferencing system can also incorporate music apps, external audio sources and even group piano recording equipment! If your goal is to build skilled piano players, you need a lab conferencing system for your piano lab. Your students won’t go nearly as far without one.
Decide on a Budget
Now that you’ve reviewed your goals, met with an expert and decided on the types of equipment you need for your program, it’s time to determine your budget. By now, you should know what technology you need and how much it will cost. Keep in mind that the success of your program depends on the quality of the equipment you select ($500 keyboards don’t build skilled piano players), so you will want to make sure you make enough room in your budget for quality equipment. You can always start with fewer pianos and grow your lab capacity as you go. Your piano lab expert should be able to help you develop a budget based on your available space and program goals.
Purchase the Right Number of Pianos
Piano labs can vary in size from just four pianos and a teacher’s piano to dozens of pianos in total! The trick is to make sure you purchase the right number of instruments for your program needs. I recommend purchasing student pianos in factors of four. If you want a basic lab, you can start with four student pianos and a teacher’s piano. If you want a small lab, you can go up to 8 student pianos and a teacher’s piano. I’ve sold several labs with 12 or 16 student pianos and a teacher’s piano. …but purchasing student pianos in groups of four gives you the flexibility to break the lab into groups of two (duets) or four (quartets) and get unbelievable results from your “student ensembles.” It also doesn’t hurt that print music publishers offer an abundant library of duets and quartets! Putting the ideal number of pianos in your piano lab will give you (or your piano teachers) even more teaching tools.
Position the Pianos Strategically
Let’s face it. Group piano teachers are outnumbered. Unfortunately, this in conjunction with boring curriculum and insufficient equipment, is the reason many piano teachers think of group piano study as “less than” private piano lessons. In reality, group piano class can produce even better results than private piano lessons if done properly. For example: when you break your class into groups of four and have each student working on their specific part of the quartet, you have created a “positive peer pressure” learning environment. Each member of the quartet is accountable to their other members and motivated to learn their part quickly so they can “keep up” with the ensemble. This is especially effective if you place the digital pianos in your piano lab so the members of the quartet can face each other. I would argue that it’s less important for the students in a group class to face their teacher than it is for them to face each other. Keep these ideas in mind when setting up your piano lab configuration. Small ensembles build musicianship at the same time they build friendships… and both will push your students to succeed.
Choose the Proper Curriculum
One of the most painful things I see “in the field” is a piano teacher who thinks of group piano teaching like “multiple private lessons happening at the same time.” Imagine a band where every member plays the same note. How exciting would a choir be if they only sang in unison? One of the biggest advantages of group piano learning is using ensemble repertoire to enhance the learning experience. Even very beginner players learn quickly how important it is to count, listen and blend with the other members of their ensemble. Instantly, they learn to listen. They learn to keep an even, steady tempo. They learn all of this on top of basic note recognition and rhythm skills. Imagine how much further your students could go if they had the right group learning curriculum. Here are a couple of examples: For recreational music making, why not try the Way Cool Keyboarding or Musical Moments books? For more serious piano lessons, consider Alfred’s Basic Group Piano Course for kids and Hal-Leonard’s Group Piano: Proficiency in Theory and Performance for adults. You can even add some of Hal-Leonard’s piano duets and ensembles (with play along background files for added excitement)! Remember: Your goal is to build a piano BAND – not a piano BLAND experience. Give each student a simple score that – when played together – sounds amazing and you will have a SCHOOL of motivated piano students on your hands – regardless of age!
Use the Tools
Finally, remember that the digital pianos you purchased can do more than just play piano sounds. Incorporate silly sounds, use onboard tools and apps to make abstract concepts more concrete… and let the students decide what sounds they want from time to time! You won’t believe how focused your class will be when you offer them rewards like playing along with a MIDI file or choosing their own sounds!
Teaching a group piano class is very different from teaching a private piano lesson – and that’s a good thing! Plan your program out strategically and use the tools you select to create amazing experiences for your students and you will be stunned at how quickly (and happily) they progress! Who said piano lessons have to be solitary experiences? Open yourself to the possibilities and watch your program flourish!
Need advice? Contact Riverton Piano Company. We can help you find good curriculum, connect you with successful group piano teachers… and even help you figure out what you need for your own piano lab! Nobody knows more about piano labs than we do and we’re always happy to help!