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Pros/cons of individual Lessons

I sent out a query two weeks ago about high school choir and band lessons.
My compilation is a bit late, and for that I apologize. (However, we DID
have two days off last week due to icy roads. Is that an excuse or an
explanation? You make the call!)

Here is my original posting and a follow-up I made a couple of days later.
The compilation of responses (I received about 30!) follows my
"clarification." Thanks to all who replied. Please note that your responses
may have been trimmed in my attempt to make this compilation somewhat brief
(although I'm afraid I failed miserably at that task!). I hope I conveyed
your original intent. The basic message I got was that if you're in an area
that does have lessons (or "guided practices," as I called them), you can't
imagine a music program without them. If you're in an area that doesn't
have them, you see them as a luxury and can't believe anyone else gets
them. Quite interesting.

I have a small problem with which I'd appreciate some help. Our school
superintendent is suggesting our high school of 250 students NOT provide
lessons for kids in band and choir, thereby saving time (and, I assume,
allowing him to cut a teacher.)

Currently, our choir students each have a 20 minute lesson and the band
students each have a 15 minute lesson. Some of these are in groups of up to
four students, sometimes they are individual, depending on student
schedules (we try to do them during study halls).

I told the superintendent that the music program would suffer if we
eliminated lessons, but he replied, "I come from Colorado, and I never
heard of giving kids choir or band lessons in school until I moved here. I
know of five Western states that don't offer lessons in ANY schools." He
started to name Arizona and New Mexico before I stopped him. Is he right?

In my high school days (Minnesota) and during my teaching years
(Wisconsin), lessons were understood to be part of the program. I know in
some bigger schools, students take lessons outside of school from private
teachers, but that is not an option here. What's it like at your high
school? I'd like to get as many responses as possible before I tell my boss
that I'm right and he's wrong. ;-)

If you have time, I'd appreciate the following info (I'd especially like to
hear from directors at high schools around 250 kids 9-12 and from directors
in the Western US states):

Size of your school:

Number of choir students:

Number of band students:

The state you teach in:

Your lesson situation: (how many per week, how long each lesson is, groups
or individual, etc.)

How your choir lesson schedule compares with The band lesson schedule:
(ours is pretty much the same. Kids have one band and one choir lesson per

Any other information you deem pertinent would also be appreciated.

Please send any replies directly to me at nason(a) and I will
make a compilation of replies to post to the list next week. Thanks for
your time!

FOLLOW-UP (a couple of days later)
Thanks to everyone who already responded to my original posting.

I feel I may have been a bit vague. When I talked about lessons, I didn't
mean voice lessons like we got when I was in college. What we have is
one-on-one time (or one-on-four) to teach notes and rhythms and to work on
the large group songs. Believe it or not, some smaller schools like ours
have kids in choir who wouldn't make it through the auditions at some of
your bigger schools. They just enjoy singing, but they need help. So they
come in once a week for 20 minutes and we go over their music. The more
advanced kids get more advanced work, but still not at the level of
expertise they would get by going to a university voice teacher.

I wish ALL our kids could learn all their parts just by coming to rehearsal
two or three days a week. (We have choir on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the
band rehearses Mondays and Wednesdays, and we alternate Fridays.) However,
that just isn't the case. While walking around the choir during rehearsals,
I can pick out the kids who are singing the wrong notes. But I have no
desire to pick them out in the large group rehearsal and correct them in
front of all their peers. So we make corrections during their lesson times.

I apologize if I gave the wrong impression the first time. Again, our
"lessons" are more like "guided practice on the music."

I do appreciate the responses I've already gotten, and my compilation will
be sent out sometime next week. I'd like to get more responses, even if
you've already replied.


I firmly believe that the best thing I do for my program is to give private
or small group lessons. These lessons give a chance for one on one, which
is so difficult with a large choir. It enhances individual vocal
techniques. I have imbedded the grad standard (performance) package in two
of the quarters. I require all students to learn a solo that fits their
skill level to perform for others one quarter and the other quarter
everyone is required to be part of a small group for contests. We do have
lessons all year. Band also gives a 15-20 min. lesson per week. Kids are
not to come out of the same class two times.

Size: 1500
Choir Students: ~180
Band Students: ~180
String Students: ~125
1 'sectional' per week - 15-30 minutes; they consist of small groups --
usually similar instruments/voice. Though not a 'lesson' per se, technic is
emphasized in a smaller setting using repertoire of the

I'm afraid I can't add to your statistical sample, but remind your
superintendent that those Western states aren't particularly well-known for
musical excellence in the small schools, while the Upper Midwest has a long
tradition of musical excellence in rural communities. You aren't in
Colorado, thankfully enough. I came form a rural community in Oregon where
lessons weren't available. If I had them then, I would be twice the
musician I am now.

Size of your school: 500

Number of choir students: 180

Number of band students: 140

The state you teach in: Minnesota

Your lesson situation: vocal: one ten-minute lesson every six days in
groups of one or two
instrumental: one fifteen-minute lesson every six days in groups of one to four

Lessons come out of: 1. another music class, 2. a study hall, 3. a class of
the student's choosing (in that order) and students stay in class for
speakers, tests, etc. and lessons are made up another time.
I teach in Missouri. There are not any schools that I know of that give
private lessons during the school day. What a marvelous notion, however! I
come before and stay after school to give lessons and to work with small
ensembles. My wife is the middle school choral director and it is the same
story with her. Perhaps the burn-out rate for music teachers would not be
so high if we had a program such as yours?

Size of your school: 500 in HS

Number of choir students: 90

Number of band students: 30

The state you teach in: MO

I am not teaching at the HS level, but have a daughter there. (I am in St.
Louis.) We are in one of the top school districts in the area/state, and
there are no private lessons during choir. But I know that many of the
students take privately. (But as a collegiate voice teacher with no real
extra time and a NATS member, I will tell you good private teachers are
hard to find even here.) Having heard choirs from the greater Dallas/Ft.
Worth area at conventions & seen their programs, many of the HSs there have
a faculty of voice teachers! But I don't think they are the rule.

I teach music methods in our college and work with the curriculum design.
After much working, I got foreign language diction added to the Music Ed.
degree. After all, you folks do a lot of language pieces, right? But what
we have not yet fit into the overloaded, 5-yr. program is a vocal pedagogy
requirement. Yet how many high school directors are teaching, or at least
coaching, voice? Even with all my time teaching, I am constantly learning.
How can someone who does it "on the side" (NOT a criticism) have time to
become adept if they have no training? In truth, I have seen several HS age
girls with vocal problems that cannot be addressed in a choral rehearsal. I
have also done some choral conducting and there is not time for one-on-one
vocal help and choir rehearsal too! I guess what I'm asking is, who would
be teaching your lessons and what are their qualifications? Having a vocal
performance degree as well as vocal certification, I know I personally
would not feel qualified if I had not done undergraduate and graduate
work...and twenty-five years experience---in vocal pedagogy/teaching.

Here at Santa Monica High School, we don't offer lessons to the students.
BUT we have a solo competition that involves my coaching vocal students
that make the finals. Just because we don't offer them, doesn't mean we

Can you use the socioeconomic argument that removing private instruction
will lead to only those who could afford the lessons getting them?

It seems to me that the problem isn't really whether or not other people
are doing it, it's a philosophical issue. The principal doesn't believe
it's important enough. Get your parents organized and fight. You have
something many schools don't have and you shouldn't lose.

I have taught in Nebraska, Florida and now Texas, and hate to inform you
that none of my districts had a teacher designated to teach lessons. The
only difference is here in Texas, where pretty much everyone brings in
private teachers at a rate of $22 an hour that the kids "pledge" money for.

Size of your school: 600 (brand new high school with 9-10 grade only)

Number of choir students: 75

Number of band students: 28 (orch- 16)

The state you teach in: Texas

Your lesson situation: Half hour lessons by private instructor, three a
day, every other week (because of rotating block schedule) individuals only.

How your choir lesson schedule compares with the band lesson schedule:
Exactly the same.

Size of your school: 3800+

Number of choir students: 275

Number of band students: 300

The state you teach in: TX

Your lesson situation: We hire private voice teachers to come on campus 5
days a week. I would say that we have about 50 students taking voice at the
present time. I do not know about band or orchestra, but I know they also
hire outside instructors with the exception of percussion who is part-time.

The private lesson program is vital to our success! Every high school in
this area offers a similar program.

Size of your school: About 1200. (I don't teach there, but I've had 4 kids
graduate from it.)

Number of choir students: Around 80, in 4 different ensembles.

Number of band students: About 60 in Symphonic, 50 in Concert

The state you teach in: Virginia.

Your lesson situation: Absolutely none! Never has been, never will be. This
is a university town, and a higher percentage than average do study
privately outside school. But you can start beginning band or choir in 6th
grade and graduate from 12th grade without ever having had private

I teach in a performing arts magnet high school, and lessons are not taught
to students as part of the regular school day. The majority of our students
do study voice at our school, but it is with private teachers who come in
to work with the students after the regular school day at the students'

Number of choir students: 470

Number of band students: 350

The state you teach in: PA

Your lesson situation: no private lessons - but bi-weekly small group
sectionals (15-25 students)

How your choir lesson schedule compares with the band lesson schedule: All
academic groups are on an A/B rotation block schedule

He's correct about the Western states. HOWEVER, the quality of public
school music here (in Colorado) is very sad! The students cannot compete if
they choose to go on in music UNLESS their parents pay for private lessons.
Those students who do study privately cannot stand to be in the music

Music in the Colorado schools ranks as the poorest I've seen in the
continental United States.

When I was teaching in Oregon, the band students had lessons, but not the
choral. The band director had come from California and fought hard for
them. I believe they did away with them, or at least curtailed them
severely, when budgets didn't pass. Those lessons were taught largely
during band period by other band teachers from within the district. In
effect, they were team-teaching the band between the four of them.

When I was there, there were about 750-100 kids in the high school, fed by
two Jr. Highs. The marching band was about 180, which was made up of two
high school bands and supplemented by players from one JH Concert Choir was
108, and Vocal Jazz group was 16-20.

I choose to reply to just part of your email, as a former choral teacher in
Minnesota, and for one year in Arizona.

First, in Minnesota, private coaching/teaching was and IS STILL done all
over. I would seek feedback from teachers in the Minneapolis/ St. Paul area.

Second, I taught one year in Arizona. Your superintendant is in error about
there being no private lessons in this state; the city of Mesa (suburb of
Phoenix) has a great music program, and they DO give individual lessons in
that district. As for most of the rest of the state, the music in this
state IS horse pucky; principally because of no funding, overworked music
teachers with little extra time, and poor pay, which equals many poor to
mediocre teachers. You might ask your superintendant if that is the kind of
program he wants.


Bret Nason

(PART 2 of 2)

I am a Southern Californian transplanted to the state of Vermont, where I
have been for 2+ years. I never heard of lessons offered to music students
in school, free, given by the music teacher on staff until I moved here.
Of course, our Los Angeles county schools are all very large, regardless
of the school district. Here in Vermont, high schools are generally no
larger than 500 students. In most of the instrumental programs in the
state, students have lessons as you describe, at least from the very
beginning through grade 8 or 9. There is little or nothing done in that
respect for vocal students. However, in many high schools the choral
teacher does pull kids out of study halls individually or in small groups
to prepare them for All-state auditions or other similar things. It is
certainly the best way to train your kids. You might also want to find out
where your superintendent came from in Colorado. Denver? Big city, big
schools. It is clear that in a small community, there would be little
access for students to have private instruction outside of school. There
is also little opportunity for low income students in large urban schools,
but too many students to create the kind of program you describe.

I've lived in California most of my life as a student and as a teacher in
several school districts. Generally, elementary kids receive one 20-minute
lesson per week in groups of 2-12 on either violin, clarinet, or trumpet,
unless a kid owns another instrument. Other than that, we're just lucky
that we have bands, some orchestras and a few choirs.

I have taught in Connecticut and now in New York and both schools worked
band and chorus lessons into their schedules. Both schools are larger than
yours (650 and 850, 9-12). Currently I rotate pull-out lessons through five
periods. My lesson groups are considerably larger than yours. Band and
orchestra lessons are run the same way and attendance is part of grading
criterion, although allowances are made for days when there are tests etc.
In addition to being invaluable to the success of the program, the relative
informality of the lessons provides one of the few opportunities for many
students to spend 'quality' time with an adult, although I wouldn't use
that as an argument. It just happens to be true and important.

I grew up going to a public high school in suburban New York which offered
group instrumental lessons as well as band. We had a terrific program and
fantastic concerts.

My sons went through a system in rural Vermont which could not afford the
group lessons component after the 8th grade. The band's quality is way
below the quality of the band I used to play in. Most students don't even
bother taking their instruments home from day to day. The band music is
easy enough to learn at rehearsals and nothing else is asked of them.

There is a school about 50 miles away that solves the problem by welcoming
area professional instrumentalists to teach at the school. The instrumental
teachers charge a private lesson fee, and are allowed to use the school as
a free studio space. Some scholarship money is available for those who
can't afford to pay. That school has the best band program in the state.

We had lessons of sorts when I went to JH but not HS. I went to Long Beach
HS in NY (Long Island). In JH, in addition to band every day, we came to
the band room as a section once a week, and the period rotated each week,
so one week we came first period, the next week we came second period, etc.
That way we were only pulled out from a class once every month or so. As I
said, they were sectional lessons.

I am in Virginia. We DO NOT get lessons for our kids at any level. Some
booster organizations provide scholarships for kids to take them. THEY
WOULD BE SO VALUABLE but our system will not even think of funding it.

We just had this discussion in our vocal pedagogy class this morning, when
I told our students that Wisconsin teachers had the luxury of private
lesson teaching built into the schedule. I have taught in Ohio, Texas,
Colorado, and Virginia before coming to Wisconsin. My high school program
of 150 choir students (2200 in the school) in Texas did not have lessons
built into the teaching load. Those that could afford to study privately (a
few) did so with a local voice teacher. I spent a considerable amount of
time teaching vocal technique in the rehearsal. Most of us in smaller,
rural districts lamented the fact that the larger, suburban schools DID
offer private lessons, giving them a definite advantage in state-wide
competition. My experiences in VA, CO, and OH were that no schools offered
private lessons.

Size of your school: about 1400

Number of choir students: 125

Number of band students: about 120

The state you teach in: New York

Your lesson situation: group lessons, one every 7 school days, one period
long (43 minutes)

How your choir lesson schedule compares with the band lesson schedule: also
much the same, but he has two period to rotate through; I have only one

It's too bad that your superintendent has such a parochial view of the
right thing to do - why does he have to compare you to other states and
what they do or don't do? Here in NY, we have Regents exams - does that
make us better than you? Anyway, I have had choral lessons here since about
5 or 6 years ago, and they are great! We have a piano lab (16 Yamaha
Clavinovas) and I teach basic piano skills (enough to "plunk out your
part") and we work on solfege/sight-reading skills, I have barbershop
groups and women's choirs... we are having a great time! I rotate lessons
through three different periods of the day (I use my lunch and prep periods
- so do band and orchestra) and each lesson group meets every 7 days (I
have them named by the solfege syllables, do, re...) and the "Ti" lesson in
a make-up lessons, in case you've missed your regular one.

Although we're a much bigger school (1850 students), lessons have been an
issue bounced around here a number of times.

130 choir students
80 band/60 orchestra

We are on a 4 block schedule, and that makes lessons almost impossible, as
most kids do not have study hall. We finally got three 30-minute lessons
per 9 week term on a rotating pull-out basis. Obviously we have to
cooperate with tests, labs, and some classes that kids simply do not want
to be taken from. It varies as to whether it's individual or group -
sometimes it's even a sectional lesson.

Theoretically, instrumental and vocal lesson times are the same. However,
when you consider that I (vocal) meet 2 or 3 ninety minute classes a day,
while the instrumental people meet one, it's obvious I can't give lessons
as they do. I am proposing high school credit for private lessons (with an
approved instructor) to encourage more kids to study privately.

I taught in Iowa for seven years before moving to California in 1976, where
I've taught at Irvine High School ever since. We are a large school by your
standards--2800 two years ago, now 2000 since our district has opened a new
high school.

I was dismayed when I moved here that I was expected to teach five classes
a day (in a six-period day). The idea of teaching lessons to individuals
and small groups (as I had done in Iowa) was--and still is--unheard of in
California. Many of my students study privately and I arrange for one or
more private teachers to use our practice facilities each semester to teach
private lessons for the benefit of kids who do not drive. We are now on a
block schedule (four 90-minute periods each day, alternating A/B days), and
I teach three blocks each day: Two women's choirs, a men's choir, a large
mixed choir, a chamber choir, and AP Music Theory. No time for lessons.

I teach in California, in a very large district in which the music programs
are not well-supported by the school board or administration. Most of our
30+ middle schools have no choral or general music programs, for example,
and many have no instrumental programs. This is very different from where I
was raised, which, as in your case, was the Midwest (Iowa, to be specific).

Neither I nor the band director at our HS of approx. 2500 students teach
lessons to our kids. I teach five 52-minute classes a day, and simply
haven't found the time to work in regular lessons with groups of kids, let
alone individuals. I don't know whether any of my predecessors taught
lessons, but I do know that ever since our school was built in the late
50's, the choir director typically had a full load of 4-6 choirs. So time
for lessons was probably squeezed in when- and wherever possible, but I
suspect it was never built into the job description. I sure wish it were,
especially since my singers are true beginners (having had no MS training),
and because in our particular school none of them really have the financial
means to pursue private training.

For what it's worth, by the way, here's my snapshot impression of the
general state of music education in California compared to that of the
Midwest: POOR. I also recently lived in Arizona, and I would say the same
for that state. Of course there are many fine programs in both Arizona and
California, but in general I've found that kids in the Midwest are much,
much farther ahead of their counterparts from these two Western states. As
recently as three years ago I taught at a summer music camp in the Midwest
between my first and second years of grad school in Arizona. It struck me
during the first day of camp auditions that the Jr. high campers were MUCH
more competent readers and singers than most of the college kids who came
in to audition for the campus-wide mixed choir I conducted during the year.
So if your administrators would like to make poorly-prepared music students
their goal, then by all means I recommend that they make California and
Arizona schools their models.

Size of your school: Westridge School

Number of choir students: 250

Number of band students: Orchestra, not band: 140

The state you teach in: CA

Your lesson situation: Sectionals as needed, small groups or one-one,
depending on the student: each of the three faculty typically spend 45-90
minutes each week in these small sessions.

How your choir lesson schedule compares with the band lesson schedule: On
an adhoc basis: mutually free periods are primarily when they're scheduled.
Note: almost all our 9th-12th grade orchestra and advanced choral students
have had some outside private lessons.

Any other information you deem pertinent would also be appreciated: We are
a private school, grades 4 - 12, girls only; music is required in grades 4
- 7, and for one year in high school. About 40% of our high school are
enrolled as a continuing students (having already satisfied the

Size of your school: 164 students - grades 9-12

Number of choir students: 64

Number of band students: 38

The state you teach in: Minnesota

Your lesson situation: Each choir member receives one 15 minute lesson per
week, because of numbers, there are some that are in groups of two - most
are individual. We are on 12 week trimester grading periods - the choir
members must be at 10 of the 12 lessons. Their lessons are part of their
actual choir grade. (Lessons = 1/3 of their grade and choir rehearsal is
2/3 of their grade.

How your choir lesson schedule compares with the band lesson schedule: The
band and choir alike - all students receive a lesson per week.

Because of teaching in Minnesota and the States Grad Standards, many of my
students complete the standard with their lessons as well as in choir.

Size of your school: 890 students

Number of choir students: 150

Number of band students: 80

The state you teach in: Michigan

We are on what is called "Modified Eight Block." Students meet classes
for 85 minutes on M/W and T/Th., then they meet all eight classes on Friday
for 40 minutes each class. On T/Th we have what is referred to as
Seminar. We have sectionals during this time. Teachers must release
students to us during this time. At present, we have three choirs, one
band, and one orchestra. We also offer AP Music Theory. All performing
groups meet sectionals. This is 9:30 to 10:55 on T/Th. We divide the time
in half and thus we have four different sectional times per week. Friday's
seminar is closed, which means they stay in homeroom to work on school
improvement. In the rest of the school, students are allowed to go to
other teachers to get extra help or to make up tests.


We also have these "guided practices" in our small high school (Iowa). The
students must come to a weekly lesson as a requirement for the course.
Since I was not allowed enough time to do this in my previous two teaching
positions, I feel extremely fortunate. I know there are many who regard
this as a luxury. Having experienced directing choirs where the students
are not receiving regular guided practice, I can say that the opportunity
for weekly lessons is extremely high on my priority list of things I want
in a music education position. I don't know exactly what your situation is,
but we are in a small rural community where there are not enough piano and
voice teachers to go around, so most of my students do not have the
opportunity to take private music lessons outside of school, even if they
wanted to and could afford them. We also do not currently have a schedule
that allows for general music or music appreciation classes for those
students who want to participate but do not have any musical background.
The music education they are getting has to come from their performance

I treat these lessons as a type of "homework." Ideally all of my students
would be taking their choir folders home each night to practice on their
own, but the reality is most of them lack the music and/or piano skills to
rehearse on their own. I have students who can barely match pitch, much
less read music well enough to sing a song a cappella, or accompany
themselves. I have told them that in other classes they have written
homework; in mine it is aural. They are given a grade for each lesson and
at the end of each semester their progress is assessed by means of an aural
exam. Our program has been fairly successful, and I attribute a large
percentage of that success to the fact that I can meet with each of my
students outside of the larger ensemble. This probably isn't much help, but
I just wanted you to know that I understand your situation, and applaud you
in your desire to continue this practice.

Here is a thought or two:

Select section leaders that would be able to lead the mini-lessons instead.


Instead of having mini-lessons, make tapes with the students individual
voice parts on them. This way they can get individual practice on their own
time, it also makes them more accountable - it's almost like
homework.(imagine that - kids getting homework in school) The improvements
will be dramatic. There is a machine by Telex that will record 4 tapes at
once at blinding speed. It costs a bit but it is very helpful.

Sounds like your super has got some reality issues. I'd sure like to speak
with him one on one, (he's never heard of kids getting lessons - I can't
believe the intelligence level)

Size of your school: 300

Number of choir students: 25-30

Number of band students: 60-90

The state you teach in: Iowa

Your lesson situation: 1 or 2 per week, studying ensemble material

How your choir lesson schedule compares with the band lesson schedule: Same

I do not teach at the high school I described (I teach at a college), but
my son went through the music program there. I, too, came from a state
where lessons were NOT part of the school offering and was very surprised
to see them in our Iowa school systems. However, I have learned that,
especially in the smaller school systems, the ensembles would never make
much progress if there wasn't an opportunity for lessons.

We offer the kind of lessons you describe at Bridgewater-Raritan High
School in New Jersey, and that is a common phenomenon in the state. There
are four of us in the department, one choral (myself), two band, one
orchestra director. We require all of our ensemble students to take these
group lessons (they cannot, at least, earn an A without periodic attendance
-- they are pulled from other classes.) I cannot envisage running a
successful high school ensemble without the lessons. They are a means of
getting to the shy students who are afraid to try things in full rehearsal
until they have some individual reassurance; they are a means of rehearsing
difficult passages one voice section at a time; they are a means of giving
individual attention to sight reading, rhythm reading, voice production,
etc., none of which can be effectively taught to all students in a large
ensemble rehearsal.


Bret Nason

on May 23, 2004 10:00pm
In New York State we are accountable for mastery of skills and
objective criteria to determine a numerical grade for HS chorus. In the past, attendance, participation and
attending performances were used to determine a grade calculated in a students GPA.
How are other schools held accountable for a numerical grade in HS Chorus?
Reflection in written form is required to measure learning in lessons.
Are we returning to pass/fail criteria?
on July 29, 2005 10:00pm
A numerical grade for chorus has to be supported by some objective criteria, I agree. Otherwise, we are returning to Pass/Fail as many other states have now.