Group Lessons: Planning Curriculum

Earlier this month, I shared a post about the administrative side of my group lesson program that focused on how I structure and schedule groups.  In this follow-up post, I’d like to share a little more about the teaching side of groups – what a typical group lesson includes, and ideas for adapting group activities to accommodate students of varying levels.   


Photo courtesy of rok1966 on Flickr

Photo courtesy of rok1966 on Flickr

Group Lesson Content

Each of our group lessons includes 2 main elements – time for students to perform for each other, and time to work on musicianship skills (theory, rhythm & listening).   Depending on the month, I adjust how much time we spend on each. If the members of a group are preparing for an upcoming performance or festival, we’ll likely spend more time on the performance element.   When we’re preparing for spring theory exams, or not in a crunch to have repertoire ready, we focus more on musicianship activities.  

Student Performances

Inviting students to perform regularly for their peers at group lessons is a wonderful way to introduce them to the art of performance without the pressure that comes with public recitals.   It also gives them frequent deadlines that help motivate them to stay on top of practice and make sure their music is ready to share. 

Performance time is also a perfect time to teach listening skills.  Using age-appropriate activities, students can learn to analyze the musical aspects of the pieces their peers perform, or complete a critique of the performance.  Giving the students an activity to complete while they’re listening keeps the audience engaged (and under control :)), and helps remind performers that those little details in their piece really do get noticed!  

Here are some resources that we use in group lessons during our performance time:

Musical Analysis
Listening Challenge Worksheets (elementary and intermediate versions available)
Listening Cards (a great “active” option for elementary students)

Performance Critiques
Smile-O-Meter Cards (an easy, age-appropriate critique for elementary students)
You Be the Judge Cards (more appropriate for middle and high school students)

When my older students are preparing for festivals, I let them use copies of actual judge’s forms to critique each other.   They gain a new appreciation for how much the judge has to write in a small window of time!  

If time allows, I often like to plan to perform a piece myself, or share a recording as a warm-up before we hear our student repertoire.   It’s a good opportunity for students to focus and “wake up” their ears, and also allows them to become familiar with whatever listening sheet/card, etc. we’re using that day.  

Musicianship Activities

After student performances are complete, the remainder of our group time is spent on activities that drill musicianship concepts… which usually means it’s time for games!

I use the Kansas Music Teachers Association Music Progressions curriculum, which provides yearly objectives for theory, listening and rhythm.  At the beginning of each school year, I make a rough plan of what objectives I want to cover each month, then pick specific games and activities for each group when I do my monthly planning.   In general, I find that it’s easier for us to handle one or two musicianship concepts at a time, rather than try to include theory, listening AND rhythm activities each month.  (For example, at the beginning of the school year I spend a lot of time drilling note names and rhythm patterns with my elementary students, then focus more on listening skills later in the year.)

Accommodating Students of Varying Levels

In a perfect world, groups work best when they’re made up of students that are all at the same level in their musical progress.  In the real world, sometimes that’s not the case.  So what can you do when you have a 3rd-year 4th grader who needs to come to the same group as her 1st grade beginner sister?  

Performance time is easy to handle.  In many ways, I LIKE having mixed-level groups when it comes to performances.  It’s inspiring for the younger kids to hear their older peers play, and older students can offer some really good critiques and suggestions when younger students perform.    You’ll notice that many of the listening aids above come in different levels.  To accommodate different ages of listeners, I just mix and match the listening forms I use and ask each student to listen for things that are level-appropriate for them.  

Musicianship activities can be a little trickier.  Here are 3 ways I’ve dealt with varying ages/levels in groups:

1. Create “sub-groups” by pairing students of similar levels

If you find that you need to schedule a mixed group, try to include a couple of students at each level (i.e. 3 mid elementary students with 2 early intermediate students).   Students can divide into pairs or small groups and work on games or activities at their own level.

2. “Stack” game decks with level-appropriate cards or questions

With a little creativity, many games can be adapted for students of different levels by controlling the cards or questions each student receives.  Here are some examples:

  • Alphabet Trail can be played with the keyboard cards or pattern cards (not shown) that come with the game, or also with grand staff flashcards.  Beginning students can draw from the white card deck, while more advanced students choose their cards from the blue deck.  

Alphabet Trail


  • Need a quick game that you don’t have to print and assemble?  Try a game of Dots and Boxes or Tic Tac Toe.  Players answer a question from you, or draw from a card deck (you can drill ANYTHING with this game), then draw a line or place an X or O for every correct answer.  
  • Sorting games are simple, and always a hit for younger students who like to move.  You can set up different decks of cards and sorting stations to accommodate varying levels of students.  In the game set-up below, I have a deck of step and skip cards for my beginning students, and a deck of diatonic intervals for later elementary students.   Students take turns picking up a card from their deck and running to put it in an appropriate receptacle.  

Group Game2Group Game1







3. Plan Station Activities

One of the most effective ways to make sure that each student, whatever their level, really gets the most out of a group lesson is to set up stations, and have options at each station for each student’s level.   Stations can take a bit more prep work than whole-group games, but they pack a lot of educational punch into the group hour.  Here’s a list of ideas for stations:

  • Sorting Games (like the buckets above)
  • Listening worksheets or activities, set up with a CD player or iPod and headphones
  • Sightreading station (best if you have a digital piano and headphones)
  • Theory worksheets, or individual manipulatives (like these scale cards)
  • iPad or computer station with theory apps/software
  • Rhythm station – students may practice clapping and counting rhythm drills, or diagram them with legos or silly putty and beat boards


Do you have creative ideas and activities to use in a group lesson with mixed-age students? Feel free to add your ideas to our list by leaving a comment below!


Group Lessons: Planning Curriculum — 4 Comments

  1. Jenn – I love the count by measure cards. I do have one suggestion though. Kids so frequently ignore the quarter rests when they are playing. We need chairs with equivalent rests. For the people in the room analogy, one could say that that is the cat’s chair – cat’s are quiet but they are still there and nobody better sit on the cat!


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